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False Start

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It was remarkable, really. People spent so many years of their lives planning for the most minute things, and yet the really big moments - the life altering, make it or break it moments - those always came down to mere chance. Being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, made anything possible. Seven years ago he’d been an awkward teenager in a cardigan completely paralyzed inside a car, and unable to make himself get out. History apparently did have a way of repeating itself. The difference was this time his leg kept buzzing, because he was holding people up. He was expected. No longer an unknown face in a sea of hundreds, he was now one of five. Chance had brought him down here, chance had grouped him together with four other lads, and chance had them poised perfectly to take over the whole bloody world.

Maybe that was giving chance too much credit.

Chance was not what brought it all crashing down. No, that had a name. A name that had a face. And that face belonged to someone he had counted on never seeing again. But this wasn’t about him. This wasn’t about any of them. This show had given them everything they had; the good, the bad, the ugly and they owed it to everyone involved to give it a proper send-off. This reminder was enough to get him squaring his shoulders and fixing his fringe in a way that was very much not a nervous tic, thank you, before he finally pushed the door open and stepped out into familiar organised chaos. Other cars were parked before and after his, but none he recognised. His first instinct was still to check for Alberto and his instructions on where to go before he shook it off. He was twenty-five years old now, he could figure out how to get into a damn building, couldn’t he?

The phone call itself had been quite brief. Simon was simply informing him that The X-Factor was announcing its final series and they wanted to bring back the show’s biggest acts as both a nod to the fans, and a subtle reminder of the show’s impact on all their lives. Louis couldn’t disagree with that kind of logic and figured, a couple weeks mentoring, or maybe a pre-recorded performance was something he could white-knuckle out. Hell, maybe he’d even get some of that closure people were so fond of mentioning when they shook their heads and mumbled about what a shame it ended the way it did.

Deciding to do the adult thing and pull his phone out to check to see if anyone had texted him directions, he got as far as unlocking it before his name started to ring through the halls. Even when he didn’t intend to make a splashy appearance, apparently he couldn’t avoid it. The scary part was how easy it was to fall into his persona; to get the swagger, the grin, the forced cheer and politeness without even thinking about it. Within a few minutes he’d shaken more hands and posed for more pictures than he had done in the past year. Looking on the bright side, he did find someone who knew where he was supposed to be and now found himself facing a door.

Just a door.

All he had to do was put his hand on the little knobby thing, twist, and it would open. Or it could open by mere force of mind, apparently. Louis hadn’t even managed to raise a hand yet, but the door was opening revealing a broad chest, a beard, dark brown eyes, and …

“A buzz cut, Liam? Really? Haven’t we had this chat?” Louis didn’t even mean to say it. He certainly hadn’t planned for their first words face to face to be those, but Liam always had a way of bringing out his less charming sides.

“Louis! You came.” As usual, Liam seemed perfectly content to ignore him and grin anyway, which still drove Louis crazy. Good to know. “It’s good to see you!”

Oh, and now Louis had a Liam-shaped jacket strewn over him. “Yeah, you as well,” he mumbled back, awkwardly patting Liam’s back a few times before pulling away to step the side. “Were you on your way to something…?”

Liam’s eyes got big, as the memory seemed to come back before he started nodding, “Right! Yes. Go on in. The other boys’ll be so happy to see you. 1D reunion. I can’t believe it. I’ll be right back! Hi!”

Louis almost offered to accompany Liam in wherever he was going, but he’d already disappeared around the corner before Louis could work up the nerve to. They probably thought he was all crazy for standing out here as long as he had, clearly debating with himself. It was Niall’s laugh ringing through the stupid room like a beacon that got Louis’ feet to finally unstick and cross the threshold. The room was a lot emptier than he was used to, but it was early yet and just a meeting. No need for wardrobe, or hair and make-up, or sound guys. Still, he’d expected something a little more robust than an unfamiliar man with a clipboard and headset, and two of his former bandmates.

One of which then promptly noticed him, “Lou!” Niall was lounging predictably enough by the refreshment table, a mug grasped in his hands. That was all Louis could see as he crossed the room.

“Please, tell me that’s tea.”

“It’s not for you,” came the Irishman’s cheerful response as he curled protectively around the cup. He playfully glared up at Louis, leaving him to huff, even as he settled with his back to the buffet so he could keep an eye on the door and the room.

“There is one with your name on it.”

Eight words. That’s all it took to sap out nervous manic energy and replace it with loaded angst, in case anyone was wondering. Louis forced himself to look from his current best friend to his former and twitch his mouth into something he hoped resembled a smile.

“Cheers.”

He hadn’t seen Zayn in over a year and had no real desire to try to rekindle any remnants of friendship at all. He was here because he was hired. He’d be professional, polite, and then he’d disappear off the fucking planet again. So he didn’t ask any of the bullshit small talk questions, didn’t comment on his appearance, didn’t do anything but mumble a small ‘pardon me’ as he slipped around the man to get at the kettle and start making himself a cup of tea. Luckily, there were a few steps involved and it kept his attention for a couple of minutes. He felt Niall move closer until there was a hand resting on his back so he turned to face the younger man.

Niall had lost his smile now and was watching Louis in a way that felt too vulnerable for their current situation so Louis flicked both eyebrows up in a silent showing of sass, unsure how else to properly communicate that he was absolutely fine. It wasn’t very convincing apparently because Niall just leaned in closer, mumbling stupid unneeded words about speaking up if it’s too much, that he doesn’t have to do this, or just say the word and Niall would get him the hell out of there.

“I’ll be fine, Horan.”

‘Fine’ might have been a massive, massive lie on his part. Simon had come back before Liam and introduced the new faces that had followed him in, all with familiar jobs. There had been a couple of card tables shoved together to make one long table and Louis was too busy trying to work out the best place to sit to remember learning their names. Would near the door be best, in case of the need for a quick exit? By Simon? As far away from Simon as he could get? At the end? Next to the end? He was distracted enough by his thoughts not to notice Liam’s reappearance, but not enough to miss the dead silence falling across the room.

So Harry was here, then.

Despite all promises to himself, his eyes lifted from his cup to flick towards the door, suddenly desperate to see the sight he’d been avoiding for nearly a year and a half. There were still bits of his Harry there, in the glimpses of his bird tattoos, his oversized sweater, the bun on the back of his head, but that was it. The man walking towards them now was a stranger. Louis had fought very hard to avoid any and all mention of his name as he’d toed his way back into writing and producing, but Harry Styles was just as omnipresent as he’d been during the height of their fame. And now Louis knew that when face to face, Harry still looked at him like he was the only other person in the room.

Fuck.

Somehow Louis got from the counter to a chair and was able to look at a stack of papers in front of him and listen to Simon without blurting out any of the half formed thoughts going around his head. Louis was pretty sure that counted as progress, up to the point he deemed it  safe to take a sip of tea and promptly choked on hearing the word ‘tour’. There was no fucking way. None of them could even remotely be considering the possibility, so he started to laugh as he shook his head. “Real funny, Uncle Si.”

“I’m serious, Louis. We’ll have you guys on as mentors, have you perform the finale, and then when we announce our final X-Factor tour - headliners for one tour only - One Direction back and better than ever.”

“No.” The word popped out before Louis could even think about who he was talking to and what for, but just, no. “I’m not - you can’t ask us to do that. No. One time, one song, that I’m willing to do but — no.” His mind was quite literally a buzzing with sheer panic. Going on the road with these guys, getting on stage every night, doing interviews, signing bloody contracts — he had left that all behind him along with a rather large chunk of his sanity.

“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to agree with Louis.” Louis’ gaze immediately snapped to the former blond boy, his face surely a mess of open desperate gratitude, but Niall just gave him a little smile before refocusing on Simon. “I know it makes good business sense and would bring in the most profit, but in a personal sense, we couldn’t survive a tour with each other anymore. I’m sorry.”

For an incredibly awkward moment, it was silent across the table. Simon did that finger folding thing Louis hated before he rested his elbows on the table, looking at each of the five of them in turn.

“So is this how it is now? Louis and Niall versus you three? What are your opinions on tour, Liam? Zayn? Harry? Do you think it’s feasible? Could you find a way to mend enough bridges to do this for me?”

It’d almost be hilarious that an entire year of intensive therapy could be shaken down to its core by one man’s simple question, but just like that Louis was feeling young, unimportant, and - worst of all - entirely voiceless again. His opinion did not matter. His mental well-being did not matter. His refusal to comply did not matter as, once again, as his fate was being decided for him.

“I think it’d be quite cool, actually,” came Liam’s predictable bro-tastic reply. “I’d love to do another tour with these guys.” Louis fought the urge to turn and glare and at him, deciding that grabbing onto his tea cup and focusing his death stare on its contents was a far more diplomatic way to go. However, the cup nearly shattered when Zayn chirped his two cents in.

“It’s just two months, yeah? Around the UK? That doesn’t sound so bad.”

Doesn’t sound so bad? Were any of them remotely aware that tour came with buses and spending hours and hours with each other? Was he the only one actually fighting the urge to either crawl out of his skin or run out of the room screaming right now?

“I’d be interested in the tour so long as it doesn’t negatively impact Louis’ recovery.”

All heads whipped around to focus on him, and his internal struggle on whether or not dousing Harry Styles in hot tea would be as satisfying in reality as it was in his mind. It probably wouldn’t be.

“Go to hell,” he chirped instead, forcing a mockery of a smile on his face as he looked up, finally meeting those green eyes with his own before Simon gave him an excuse to look away.

“Louis, Harry has a point. We would never want to jeopardize your health in any way, but if you do want to save your career, this is the kind of publicity that could do that for you.”

“I’m actually doing quite well on me own, thanks. In fact, I’ve finally managed to stop being that guy from that band and have people calling me because they actually like my work. The last thing I need to do is to get on a stage and start singing songs that were popular a good five years ago.”

“Louis—“

“Think very carefully before you speak to me right now, Liam.”

Louis was so caught up in staring Liam down, he nearly startled when Zayn spoke up.

“Simon, will you give us some time to think about it? I think we need an hour or two to talk amongst ourselves. We’ll get the papers back to you after we’ve had our individual lawyers look over them and we’ve made our decision.”

“Fair enough. You know how to reach me if you need to. Make the right decision, boys. Good luck with this one.”

‘This one’ came with a gesture his way, and just for that Louis pushed away from the table, purposely leaving his stack of papers behind despite knowing that Niall would grab them for him. It was the thought that counted, after all. Several chairs being pushed out at once sounded, almost in echo of his. He found himself tempted to put bets on who would reach him first before he spun around to eye them all save one. “I’m not discussing this any further here. We’ll meet at Niall’s. But I need to get away before I say a load of things I might regret. So yeah, say in an hour or so. Peace.”

Wrenching the door open, he put his head down and weaved through the backstage chaos as quickly and unassumingly as he could, afraid that everything he was feeling was spilling out of his body in plain English. No, strike that. Plain English written in gigantic neon letters. His thoughts were only proven right when quickening steps sounded behind him. But he was so close, his car was waiting right there, all he had to do was reach out and … fuck. Niall slammed the door shut again, sliding in-between it and Louis while levelling him with a stare he’d got all too familiar with.

“Louis.”

“Niall. Are we playing the state the obvious game? Or have you actually forgotten who I am?”

“Look at me. You’re agitated. I’m not comfortable letting you go off on your own. Let me ride back with you.”

“What do you think I’m going to do? Stop off at a bar? Smoke a joint? Throw up? I just wanted to calm down, maybe shoot an email off to my shrink and bump up our session if this is a thing that’s going to happen and those arseholes are coming back into our lives.”

“Lemme ride with you.”

“Fine, whatever. Can we just go?”

Chapter Text

Niall moved, finally allowing Louis to slip into the first private place he could get to after everything. As Niall’s door shut he closed his eyes and folded his arms around his chest. It was silly to just deflate once away from prying eyes, but he couldn’t even find it in himself to fight when Niall slid closer to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. That’s not to say he didn’t try, he stubbornly remained upright for a whole minute, but who was he fooling?

Absolutely no one.

So he tipped over, pulling his legs up to rest against Niall’s lap while nosing over his shoulder, feeling a quiet sort of agitation he hadn’t felt in months. Niall knew better than he did when he got like this, what to do and say to make things feel well…better. He’d had loads of experience with it. Right now that mostly seemed to involve staying quiet and still, which were two things Louis Tomlinson from One Direction never was. Most of who he was now would have driven old him crazy. It seemed counterintuitive to curl up instead of exploding, but something about being tightly wound made it easier to feel like he was getting a grip on himself. Predictably, after a couple minutes his breathing did slow, his agitation seemed to sink all on its own, allowing him to dig his phone out and send the email before he thought better of it.

“Louis, I don’t care what they say,” Niall said finally, dropping a kiss to his head. “We don’t have to do this. If you’re uncomfortable, say the word and we’ll walk away. You’ve been through too much and you don’t owe any of them any more, alright? You’ve paid your dues.”

Had he though? Through it all Niall had been right there doing whatever he could to hold Louis together, to help him through the worst of it and celebrate the best of it. What did Louis owe him for that?

“You loved it more than any of us.”

“I did. But I love you more, you shit.”

Despite himself, Louis started to laugh as he sat up, brushing a hand through his hair and finally trying to figure out what really set him off. Was it the thought of being on stage? Was it being around people he couldn’t help but feel had turned their backs on him when he’d needed them most? Or worse, was it something in the painful knot in his chest he was doing all he could not to poke. Louis really didn’t want to think about him, or It, or anything that even remotely related to that. So he pulled up random games on his phone, allowing his brain a distraction-filled rest until they were finally turning into Niall’s garage and he could get out while Niall tipped the driver. Two dozen stairs later, he was subconsciously hanging his coat up, kicking off his shoes, and wandering into the spare room for a new jumper to replace the coat he’d just lost. Then they got down to work, cleaning up like their mothers were coming over instead of former mates. It kept him busy and distracted, though, so that he didn’t even notice time slipping by before the first of the buzzers went off.

“Shit.”

He wasn’t ready. Niall poked his head around the corner, but Louis was already shaking his head. He didn’t need to hide, he didn’t need to be coddled, and he certainly did not need to draw this out any longer. So he put a smile on, checked the peephole, then unlocked the door with a flourish.

“Mr. Payne, Mr. Malik - please, do come in. Refreshments are in the kitchen, big comfy couch is thataway. Don’t take my chair. Shoes off, coats over there, please and thank you.” It was strange how strange this felt. These were people he’d seen more of day-in, day-out than anyone else in the past five years and yet, it kind of felt like he was seeing them for the first time right now. Liam, tall and broad, who’d apparently kept up with the gym if the t-shirt under his jacket was anything to go by. Louis was secretly relieved the shirt fit and he’d given up trying to bring back grunge flannels tied around his waist over shirts that nearly reached his ankles. He stepped aside to allow them entry, his gaze moving to Zayn. Zayn still dressed like a theater tech hand, despite having finally filled out and grown into his height and frame. His eyes were skittering away again, unwilling to examine anyone else who might be lingering behind them.

Only the footsteps never came. Louis looked up to shut the door, and abruptly found himself face to face with the star of his nightmares, standing right where Louis had pictured him a hundred times right after everything. It was unfair how stupidly good he still looked with a long green coat, his curls long and free to frame and bounce around his face and shoulders, and stupid leggings on legs that went on forever.

“Styles,” he greeted finally, hoping his once-over had gone unnoticed. “You coming in or staying out there? I’m perfectly okay with the second, for the record,” he added, before really thinking about it. There was a chance it was a step past the coolly polite line to go there, but nobody had ever accused him of being too professional before, so why start now?

Harry, predictably, wasn’t fazed at all. “We need to talk. Just you and me before I come in there.”

“Is this the part where you tell me how sorry you are and I forgive you and then all is fine and dandy in your world? ‘Cause that’s not going to happen. I’ve got nothing to say to you and you’ve got nothing I’d be willing to hear. Come in or fuck off, I don’t care, but I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Squaring his shoulders, he turned his back on the boy and weaved through the apartment, stopping by the kitchen to claim his tea before curling up in his favorite overstuffed easy chair as he blew on the scalding liquid to avoid looking at the other bodies awkwardly positioned around the room. Niall was in a chair similar to his, while Liam and Zayn sat a carefully calculated distance apart on the couch. All three of them were looking towards the front door to see if Harry would grace them with his presence or not. Eventually, Harry seemed to make up his mind, crossing the threshold to drop onto the couch by Zayn’s right side, and wasn’t that hilarious?

“Welcome to the 1D union reunion meeting thing,” Louis said finally, still driven absolutely batty by silences of any kind. This was the longest, most awkward silence yet, and he’d come out to these people. “Items on the agenda are tea, a quick debate on the pros and cons of doing the X-Factor tour, possibly some more tea, and all of you getting the fuck out hopefully sooner rather than later.”

“Niall!”  

Louis’ eyes rolled at Liam’s scandalised tone as he leaned forward to put his mug down and rest his elbows on his knees before he looked across the table at the boy he used to so frequently clash with. “Niall’s not my keeper. You wanna talk to me, wanna be upset with my attitude, wanna tell me what I should and shouldn’t say, think, and feel? Then man up and do it. I’m right here.”

“Louis.” This time it was Zayn trying to wrestle some control back their way, but Louis had lost all composure.

“Who are you again? I seem to have forgotten. There’s a beard thing I sort of recognise, and I think I’ve seen that shirt before - “

“Stop.”

Amused, Louis smirked over at Harry, folding his hands and shaking his head a little. “No, I don’t think I will. Why are you three even here? I don’t buy for a second that any of you need the money. So what? Is it the publicity boost? Does one of you have a book, or record, or movie coming out, or something?”

Liam had the nerve to look surprised by the accusation, saying flimsily, “It’s the right thing to do.” Come on.

“On paper, yeah. So we mentor, we film interviews, tweet to drag viewers in, we perform once ourselves — that’s as much as we owe them.”

Movement caught his eye. Louis had really been doing his best not to look, but if Harry kept insisting on speaking, there was little chance Louis could keep pretending like he wasn’t there at all and that was just not on.

“So what is it, Lou? What is it really that keeps you from wanting to do this?”

“I believe I was asking the questions. ‘It’s the right thing’ isn’t an answer, but fine. Anger. I am so fucking angry with the lot of you. I can’t even sit here and look directly at any of you for more than a couple seconds and you wanna go out there? In front of millions of eyes, in front of cameras? In front of people who believed in us more than we believed in ourselves and fake it? Sing about the good ol’ times? Tell me, are you guys counting more on our acting skills having gotten better in the past two years, or that our fans just won’t care enough to notice that we are not friends anymore? Is that really how you want our swan song to go?”

“We aren’t not friends, Louis,” Liam sputtered suddenly. “We -“

“Yeah, how can you even say that?” Zayn added in. “We’re here because we’re friends and we -“

“Alright, enough.”

Louis jumped slightly at Niall’s unexpected voice, then looked to his right where Niall had shifted to perch on his chair arm, before reaching to rest a hand on the back of Louis’ neck. The move made Louis’ eyes narrow slightly as he tried to guess if the touch was in warning or apology. Both made his stomach twist up yet neither prepared him for what Niall actually spat out.

“Where the fuck were you?” Niall’s voice had come out stronger and angrier than Louis had ever heard it. He immediately wanted to hurt whoever had dared make his friend sound like that. Instinctively, he shifted closer, aware that Harry’s eyes were fixed on every point of contact between him and Niall. He hated the scrutiny almost as much as he hated the fact he cared enough to notice.

“You’re gonna have to be a bit more specific, mate,” Liam started, but he wisely shut up when Niall pushed to his feet, raking his hands through his hair as he paced, before turning back to face the three boys on the couch.

“Where were you, Liam, when someone pulled Louis aside and told him to take his personality down a notch for the first time? When he came and told us about them wanting to hire a girlfriend, what did you say? How ‘bout during Harry’s yearly winter girlfriend season? How ‘bout you, Zayn? Where were you when he started smoking more than he ate? During the body shaming from fans and journalists and everyone else? Harry, how could you. I’m almost appalled you’re sitting there as easily as you are. All of you looked at him like he was an exasperating fuck up. Like he was purposely and maliciously making these choices just to make your lives more difficult, but don’t you see? He didn’t fail you. You failed him a hundred times over and that’s what got him to where he was.” Briefly blue eyes flicked to Louis, but he was too frozen in shock to properly do anything but gape at his friend. So Niall just kept on, “Harry shattered his heart and neither of you were anywhere to be found.You were needed at home, busy with the girlfriends. You’d left your phone at home, couldn’t hear over the club noise, or slept through the phone ringing — you had every excuse in the book until I told you he was being hospitalised. And even then you’d show up for the drama then bail at the first sign of him needing you for something more than anger and shame. You don’t get to call yourselves friend. You don’t get to guilt us, or shame us, or threaten us. As far as we’re concerned the three of you turned your backs on us. So, no, we have no reason to get on that stage with you, Christ, no reason to ever speak to you again, but I think closure is important. For us, for our coworkers, for our fans, for X-Factor. I think it could be something beneficial for Louis’ recovery - crucial even - but not with you all acting like this. We are not doing this for you and it’s certainly not about you. If we do decide to go on tour, things are going to be different. All of our needs come first. We’re not being backed into corners, we’re not going to be threatened or bullied into backing down for standing up for ourselves, we’re not going to feel guilty for anything. Not from them and not from you all. Understood?”

Silently, the three men nodded while Louis tried to figure out out what the hell had just happened. Now it was his turn, apparently, as the Irish boy turned to duck in front of him, effectively blocking his view of everyone but Harry.

“I said I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but hear me out. I don’t want you to fear success, or the stage, or singing live. You are strong, Louis. You know what not to do now. You’ve got me and your therapist, and a hundred different resources at your fingertips. This won’t be a repeat of last time. And I know you know that but I think knowing and doing are two different things. I don’t think you’d let yourself go back on any stage just knowing what you know, but you can do this. And that can open up your entire future. You’re a brilliant song writer, you are. But I hate to see you hiding in studios and depriving the world of your voice and performance. I want you to do this for you.”

Stunned, Louis’ mouth opened and closed a few times as he looked at Niall, struggling to piece the words together before shifting his attention to look past him at the three other boys still sitting quiet and chided on the couch, weighing his options. Part of him did miss it. He couldn’t even pretend that he didn’t sometimes still write for five voices. He never could bring himself to delete or start those songs over. Instead he’d started saving them in a hidden folder on his laptop. Maybe … maybe he wasn’t as done with the band as he’d tried to pretend he was. Could they really tour together again though? Did Louis really want to let them back in? On the flip side, if he didn’t, was this the moment that would haunt him to the end of the days, the big ‘what if’ moment? And that — that cinched it for him. He was never one that did well with ‘what if’s and regrets were a waste of time. Gently, he reached out, tugging Niall to come sit on the chair with him as he pulled his legs back up, unable to resist the defensive body language as he took a deep breath.

“This doesn’t mean I forgive you. Or that I want anything outside of a professional working relationship with any of you. But fine. We can do the tour. On the condition that there are some songs I will flat out refuse to perform again.” His eyes flicked towards Harry just in time to catch the flash of pain there, before he was back to staring at the floor. “We can fill the gaps with covers of previous winners, as another salute to the X-Factor and give us a chance to show off a little as well. Deal?”

“Yeah, we can work with that.” Liam’s voice sounded odd, so Louis looked up, completely unprepared to see the tears in his eyes. “You and Niall had a point. It was easier to push it on you and blame you than, than to realise my own part in how everything went down. I’m sorry. I know that means shit all now, but I am really sorry.”

Shrugging a little, Louis curled his arms a little tighter around his legs, wishing this part would hurry up and be over already. It’s not like they were the only things that had been standing between him and a complete mental break, they couldn’t have necessarily prevented things from spiraling the way they did, but they could have helped.

“Lou, do you —“ Zayn shifted, digging a tattered packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and shaking them slightly. “Do you still smoke?”

Technically, he was supposed to be quitting. It was a nervous habit of his that did little to alleviate what was actually causing him anxiety and very much damaging to his health. But God, he wanted nothing more than a cigarette right now. He must have made a soft noise because Niall was starting to laugh next to him before nudging his shoulder slightly.

“Just this once,” Niall allowed. Louis immediately sprung into motion, limbs all unfolding at once as he rushed up to his feet to lead the way to the balcony. He didn’t even think to grab a jacket, just let himself out into the brisk autumn night and slid the door shut behind Zayn, blowing on his hands as he waited for a lit cigarette to be passed his way.

“Thank you,” he mumbled before bringing the rolled paper to his mouth and inhaling as deeply as he dared, trying to will the worst of his ragged nerves away with his eventual exhale.

“M’sorry, too, Zayn said finally. “I guess I didn’t want to admit you were struggling, not out loud, not to the boys and especially not to myself. I didn’t know if there was anything we could do to help but ignoring it wasn’t the answer either. I shouldn’t have … shouldn’t have let my own helplessness make me a coward. You needed help and I wasn’t there. Those are the facts and I wish I could change them or rewrite history but it’s out there. And I’m sorry. You deserved more than that.”

“You didn’t pick up,” Louis’ voice startled himself as he pulled the cigarette away from his mouth, aware of just how much he’d started to shake now that he was really going to do this and rip the scabs off all his wounds. “I was standing there alone in LA and you didn’t pick up. I texted you and you still … It felt like I’d lost both of you on the same night. I didn’t know how to deal with that.”

“Louis —“

“No. It’s … I get it. I was obnoxious and needy and that made all of you weary and I get that. I just don’t understand why you didn’t tell me to back off long before it got to that point. I mean, he cheated on me, and the worst part was that after, I started to believe I deserved it. I was too much for my best friend to deal with, so of course my boyfriend, who had to spend even more time alone with me, of course he’d need …” Louis slammed his eyes shut, breathing in through his nose and out of his mouth, the way he’d been taught because he’d be damned before he’d cry into Zayn’s shoulder again. “Doesn’t matter now. Forget I said anything. Thanks for the cigarette.”

Quickly, he stubbed out the other half, not even caring that it would probably be his last one before turning to go back inside, but Zayn had ridiculously strong fingers which were now clamped around his forearm, preventing his escape.

“I’m sorry. I am so sorry I made you feel like that. You weren’t too much for me, hell, you deserved better than us, Lou. I don’t know the right words to make this better, but I’ll find them. I’m just so sorry, bro.” Zayn’s voice was cracking, but it wasn’t making any of the painful knots in his own chest loosen. “Had you talked to him at all since…?”

“No.”

“Do you want to?”

Louis wanted to say no. He really really did, but he wasn’t going to lie anymore, so he finally looked up at Zayn and offered him a weak smile to go with his defeated shrug. “I don’t know.”

“I think you should. He didn’t --”

“I think I’ve just started to get over seeing him everywhere and in everything I do so maybe…maybe not yet,” Louis interrupted quietly. “A lot changes in a year, but not everything. I’m not sure either of us are truly ready to start over. It’s hard to let go and forgive, but it’s harder to realise the person you thought you knew so well for so long has changed. I’m still in recovery. I’m still changing. I don’t know if — I need to figure out who I am before I can handle anyone telling me how I should be. Does that make sense? I don’t think he’s ready to see who I am now, not when he’s still clinging to who I used to be.”

“You have changed.”

“I have. So please let me go. We agreed to the bloody tour so let’s just call it a night, yeah?”

“We’re gonna be okay, Lou.”

“Sure we are.”

Zayn’s fingers finally lifted off his skin, releasing him to enter back into the crackling tension that was Niall’s living room. His eyes moved between the three men but he kept putting one foot in front of the other until he could pat Niall’s head a few times.

“So while this has been great fun catching up and all, I’m knackered. Email Liam your requests for set lists and we’ll go from there tomorrow afternoon, or something.”

Liam and Harry both looked like they wanted to say something, but Louis just tightened his fingers in Niall’s hair, tugging slightly, “Niall’s gonna walk me to my car like the gentleman he is. “Night.”

Letting go of Niall’s hair, he got his shoes and jacket on as quickly as was safe to walk outside  before letting himself out and heading straight for the lift, not even waiting for Niall to do the same. He’d needed to get out and didn’t really care how bad or rude it looked. His hands slipped into his pockets as he bounced from leg to leg, suddenly filled with an energy he couldn’t explain and didn’t know how to properly channel. Niall’s door finally opened and shut again, and Louis had to double check that a bait and switch didn’t happen because he would run down the stairs, thank you very much. Thankfully, it was Niall, all by himself.

“How ya doing?” he asked finally, opening up his arms. Instantly Louis’ eyes went to the lift to see if it was making its way to them yet but he allowed himself to be tipped over into a tight hug all the same. Some of the buzzing seemed to quiet as he exhaled and hugged back, but it was right there again when he let go and stepped back.

“I don’t know. S’pretty much the last thing I expected to happen today. I don’t really know how to wrap my brain around it, but I don’t regret it. Yet.”

“Are you going to be okay? You could crash here tonight. Or I can come crash with you.”

“No. I’m … I’m okay. I’m more okay than I thought I’d be.” How could he put it? For a few moments he turned phrases over in his head before it clicked, “I was afraid of their reactions. I was expecting the worst case scenario. I was expecting them to hate me, or blame me, or worse tell me that it was all my fault and I got exactly what I deserved. I expected them to not care. To be in it just for the material reasons. I didn’t dare to hope that maybe … maybe it was just all of us, breaking in our own ways. The higher we were the further we had to fall, right? I have a lot more to work out, but I’m not … I’m not as angry as I was. None of us had been okay, we just had different ways of expressing that. Maybe I wasn’t exactly fair in my expectations of them.”

“Even with Harry?”

Eyes bright, Louis had to look up and blinked furiously a few times before he found his voice enough to reply. “I have spent weeks bracing myself to see him again, be it at a work event or a family thing, or even just a chance encounter somewhere — and each time I’d been training to accept his indifference. I expected him to have a new man on his arm, I expected him to be happy and in love and to not care anymore. He doesn’t look at me like he’s moved on, but maybe that’s just the way he looks at me. I don’t know. He’s never looked at me another way, how the fuck would I know the difference? I don’t know what I think or feel with Harry right now. I just know that — it’s too much on top of everything else. I need to sort myself out about the band and the tour and uprooting my whole fucking life again, before I even — consider anything like that. With anyone.”

“There hasn’t been anyone else,” Niall offered quietly. “I asked.”

“Shouldn’t matter. I’m sorry for bailing on you with a houseful, but I snagged an emergency appointment in an hour or so and I still need to eat and that’s — that’s not going to happen in there. So I’ll call you, tonight if I need to or tomorrow and we’ll go from there, alright? Have a good night. Good luck.” Laughing slightly, Louis hugged him again before slipping into the lift and jamming the button until the doors closed and finally gave him an actual moment to himself.

One Direction had just been resurrected. The band had been his livelihood — no, his dream come true — for so many years … so why was his only feeling dread?

 

Chapter Text

Forty five minutes later, all Louis’d managed to accomplish was cutting his dinner up into bite sized pieces without taking a single bite. What was he thinking? That thought kept playing on an increasingly hysterical loop in his head until he couldn’t focus on much else. Part of him even seriously considered calling and cancelling his emergency session, but the healthier part of his brain was stronger for the moment, so he packed up his dinner and made the short, familiar drive. His therapist was based in a corporate building, which had kind of surprised him at first. Then again, he had always wondered what high rise buildings were full of. It hadn’t been possible that that many people could all be in offices working for one company and now he knew. In this particular building floor number five contained head shrink and law offices while the ground floor was a bank. It never failed to amuse him to walk in with his tennis shoes, sweats and beanies and see the rich double take and glare as he passed. Did they know people with less than stable mental conditions were sharing their air and using the same bathrooms? Did it bother them? He was used to being looked down on, after all a boyband was pretty much the worst of the worst in the popular music world. Though how whiny girls going solo and crying about fake relationships were any better, or more respectable he had no idea, but that was neither here nor there. The point was, he had yet to go wander and see what the other floors contained, but he really would do it before he quit therapy.

He reminded himself of the silent promise as he walked into the lift again, jamming the button for five. His therapist, Sam, shared an office with his partner, and Louis had a routine. He’d leave exactly thirty minutes early, get there with fifteen minutes to spare, use the restroom and be sitting in the lobby with ten minutes to go. He didn’t like being late anymore, felt out of control and like he was letting several people down each time he was. Today though, his routine was broken. Sam’s door was already open and he was standing in the doorway when Louis walked in to the lobby.

“Louis! Hello. Come in, come in. Are you okay? What’s going on?”

Where should he start? Instead of speaking right away, he gave the middle aged man a weak smile as he walked into the now quite familiar room, eyeing the couch and the love seat before curling up in the overstuffed arm chair. Immediately, he reached for the polka dot pillow to hug as he toed his shoes off and pulled his legs up. He balanced his dinner leftovers on the arm of the chair very carefully, before the words bubbled up and spilled out in an undignified rush.

“We had our first meeting today. I saw them. I saw him. Simon wants us to headline the X-Factor farewell tour. I said no. No doesn’t mean shit in that room to those people. We ended up going back to Niall’s to discuss it more. I got snippy, Niall exploded. Liam and Zayn apologised, said they couldn’t admit I had problems too big or serious for them to fix even to themselves, and that it was easier to just wash their hands of me than stick by my side. Harry…I don’t really want to talk about Harry. Long story short, I said yes. So you heard it here first, One fucking Direction is reuniting for a slew of fucking tour dates and a guest spot on X-Factor.”

“Okay, that is a lot to take on in one night. You gave me general overviews on how you feel about everything except for Harry. Maybe we should start there?” the older man said as he took a seat at the couch across from him, with his clipboard and stupid manila folder. It never failed to taunt Louis and somehow he was going to get those and read all the notes he made.

One day.

“Why does everyone wanna talk about him? No.” Louis motioned miserably to his leftovers. “We should probably start here. I couldn’t do it. I just sat there for forty five minutes, trying to will myself to take a bite and I can’t. I’m not even a little hungry. I don’t wanna eat.”

“Yet you didn’t lie and say you already ate, you didn’t compromise or bargain your way into something else so — you did good, Lou. This is progress for you.”

“Well that’s just it, isn’t it? What is progress? What does that look like for me now? Forgiving? Forgetting? Moving on? Staying cautious? I don’t even know what it is I want besides this tour to be done and over with already.”

“Why’d you say yes?”

“Niall.”

“He’s one of the reasons you hold on to when you need to take another bite. What were the others?”

“Family. Charity. Music. Football.”

“So, five bites right there, then, yeah?”

Glowering, Louis pushed the lid off the container and tried to pick up the smallest five bites out, despite knowing the goal was to eat all of it.

“What else is making the fork heavy?”

His eyes rolled as soon as he heard the question, it having long been one of his least favorite therapeutic questions. Perhaps because it sounded like something someone would ask a toddler or maybe because it managed to both be condescending and illogical. There was nothing physically weighing his fork down, but it worked and that pissed him off even more.

“I’m angry. With myself. For having such a hard time with getting food to my mouth right now, for caving in so easily, for being … relieved that they still care despite not needing or, so I thought two hours ago, even wanting them to.”

“What does starving yourself get you?”

“A break,” he settled on finally. “Gives me something else to focus on so I don’t have to feel what I’m feeling, or start picking at the swirling chaos in my head right now. I can just … coast. I’d rather coast than be aware right now. Starving doesn’t hurt.”

“It hurts you physically.”

“Mmm. Technically.”

“So why are you here, with your food?”

“Because I don’t want to relapse.” His cheeks went pink, as he stared down at his food, pushing it around instead of elaborating on the thought.

“And what else? You’re trying not to say something, just say it.”

Uncomfortably, Louis lifted his shoulders in a shrug, and stalled by taking a bite up to his mouth before exhaling. “I don’t want them to…” Shifting again, he let his legs fall and relocated the plate to his lap, and his gaze as well, crossing his ankles and then uncrossing them a few times. “The first thing he said in the meeting was, ‘I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardise Louis’ recovery.’ And it pissed me off, but more than that, it … it made me feel vulnerable. Unstable. Like someone they had to handle with kid gloves and I’ll be damned before I prove them right about that. I’m not weak. I can handle this. A tour, a reunion, spending every waking moment in Harry Style’s shadow, I won’t break. I can’t break. Not again.”

It suddenly got easier to take bites again as those realizations sank in. He wouldn’t repeat past mistakes. There was a choice this time and if it took bringing his dinner to places where someone would hold him accountable for eating it, then fuck it. He’d swallow his pride a lot faster than he’d forsake his sanity again, it was just a matter of remembering he was in the driver’s seat. This wasn’t something that’d caught him off guard and unnoticed until he was strangling from its grip. This was a monster he’d defeated and now just had to keep imprisoned until it died, so to speak.

“I did stand up for myself. To Harry. To Liam. Even to Zayn. I was surprised at how easily the words came. I’ve been worried that I would just brush it all under the rug, for the sake of peacekeeping and harmony and all that, but I didn’t. I didn’t deny their opinions or their feelings, I didn’t try to argue, just set my boundaries.”

“Oh? What did you say to Harry?”

Louis’ eyes narrowed over his latest bite, and he took his time chewing it as he stalled on both trying to think or speak. Maybe he’d been jumping the gun a little, he got the distinct impression that Sam wouldn’t be appreciative or impressed by his avoidance skills. “That I wouldn’t go anywhere alone with him.”

As expected, both eyebrows flew way up and he sighed as he put his fork down, crossing his arms over his chest as he thought of a way to properly explain himself. “I may have also snapped about how he expected forgiveness would follow an apology and how Ididn’twanttohearanythingofitorgoanywherewithhim.”

“Sorry, what was that?”

Blowing out his shaky inhale all at once, he unfolded his arms enough to throw his hands up in a nonverbal expression of defeat and frustration. It’d made a lot of sense at the time. There was some kind of horrible magic in this room that washed out all the really good ideas and made them seem really stupid in hindsight. “He wanted to talk privately and I said no. Actually, I told him I didn’t want to hear it, that no matter what he had to say to me, that there was nothing that I would be interested in, and wasn’t going anywhere with him.”

“Hmm. And why’s that?”

Now it was Louis’ turn to raise his eyebrows in the haughty condescending kind of way, “Because I can’t trust anything he says. He could say all the right things and it wouldn’t change anything. They’re just words. Easy to throw out after the fact.”

“No, you see. I don’t think that’s really it. Try again.”

“What?” Louis’ eyes widened as he tried to half-heartedly think of some other explanation for what seemed pretty cut and dry to him. Unable to come up with anything, he just stayed silent, knowing that eventually Sam would speak up again and break the awkwardness.

“Louis, you aren’t trying. You know this. I know you know this. So come on. Why don’t you want to be alone with Harry?”

Even the name still made something smart inside Louis’ chest and he had to actively keep himself from flinching, aware that he’d always been much better at controlling his body than his face. That reaction was probably noted and recorded on that damn piece of paper, so he sighed and rose his eyes to the ceiling instead. He tried to peek around the corner rather than jump feet first into the big box of NOPE Sam was trying to guide him into. “Because I miss him.” Blinking hard, he forced another laugh out as he dropped his now bright gaze to meet Sam’s in bitter amusement. “I miss him. And it’d be too hard to have him right there — close enough to touch, to smell, to have all of his attention again and I don’t know if I could handle that. I don’t know if I could resist him. My track record is not very good with that. I’m afraid I’d get caught up in the moment, in him, and I’d say and do things I’m not quite ready for. Then regret it once I was alone again and just fall into this cycle of too much and not enough and hurt us both.”

“You’re jumping the gun a bit there, aren’t you? Or do you now have a crystal ball that I’m not aware of that tells you the future?”

“It’s just logic.”

“No. We’ve talked about this. You can’t decide how the future’s going to go, you can’t put words into his mouth or decide his feelings, or predict his actions. The future is possible, Louis and all you can do is control your choice to let it happen or block it out. But know this, you aren’t weak for having missed him. His choice to make some bad decisions doesn’t erase your entire history. You fell in love with him for reasons and those reasons aren’t erased from existence because he broke your heart. He’s still going to have positive traits and it’s not weak or troublesome for you to acknowledge and even like those parts of him again. Do you realise that?”

“Feels like it should be.”

“He’s going to make you smile, he’s going to make you laugh, he’s going to make you feel strong and handsome, supported, maybe even loved and that’s all okay.”

“Not if I avoid him. I’m not sure if you’re aware but we spent most of our career ignoring each other professionally, this time doesn’t have to be any different other than extending the mutual avoidance off stage as well.”

“Or this time could be entirely different. It’s up to you.”

Sighing, Louis pushed all thoughts of Harry away to finish up the last of his dinner before time was up and he was left to do it on his own again. Though, he probably should mention something about all that before he fell down a road he couldn’t easily come back from. “I don’t know why my mind snapped back to this. I’d been doing really well. I got off the meal plan cards and was starting to improvise and allow some flexibility into my meals and snacks. I haven’t cut corners in weeks and then I got the call and I just — it’s like everything I worked so hard for over the last year went out the window and I was back to skipping meals and avoiding situations where someone would be eating. I’m a little scared, quite honestly about how easy it was to slip back.”

“It’s been your go to reaction when faced with stress for years, Louis. I’ve been expecting this for awhile. It’s not enough to just learn new coping methods, you also have to put them into practice enough times that you know without a shadow of a doubt that they work. You called here, you brought dinner, despite that voice telling you it was a waste of time, that you were being a bother and skipping one more meal wouldn’t have hurt anyone. You disobeyed that voice and that’s a massive, massive step for you.”

“Have you met me? Disobeying is pretty much my middle name.”

“You’re deflecting with humor. Stop. This is important.”

“So I’m not relapsing. I’m responding to stress as I’ve conditioned myself to and need to catch and correct myself in order to recondition myself.”

“Exactly.”

Louis shot him an unimpressed look before glancing over to check their time. There was about ten minutes left. Was there anything else he needed to work out before he left again? Was everything making sense again to the point he could go to his flat and be okay?

“So what are the preferred coping methods. For, um, dealing with former bosses and um, and Harry.”

“You tell me.”

Thoroughly frustrated, Louis ran his hands through his hair and fussed with his clothes a moment before resettling and fixing his eyes on a spot on the floor. “I can tell you what they’re not.”

“Does that help you decide what to do though?”

“No.” Having exhausted all methods of stalling, now he had to actually rack his brain and think of the proper ways to respond to awkward, demoralising, and painful situations. “Call a friend, get away, deep breathing, relaxation, physical activity with moderation, calling you, going to a support group, journaling, calling my Mom, anything that processes emotions instead of numbing it - yelling, crying, hitting a pillow or something, breaking something safely, talking.”

“So which of those should you have used before dinner time?”

“Journaling, probably. My mind was too full, I couldn’t focus.”

“Excellent. So before breakfast you will…?”

“I will journal when I get home. Then again in the morning if more stuff comes up and I still feel like I can’t eat. If that feeling doesn’t go away, I’ll go to Niall’s and do the same thing I did tonight. Talk and eat until I can do both without too much effort.”

“Just remember that you and your recovery do come first. You’re not weak or fragile, you’ve fought damn hard to get to where you are and that was no small feat. But you are uniquely affected by things that your band members aren’t, and you need to be sensitive to that without shaming yourself for being ‘weak’. And for the record, I don’t think going on tour is bad decision, but I do think you will need to be more aware of yourself than you want to be. You have limits and it’s important to respect them, rather than try to bend them to fit the needs of others, understood?”

“Yeah, yeah. Thank you again, for the bump up. I’ll see you, normal time next week?”

“Check in with me Thursday night and we’ll see if you need to come in again on Friday, alright? No shame if you do, I’ll keep your spot open.”

“Thank you.”

Awkwardly he recollected himself and his things. He shuffled back out the door, making a noncommittal noise about attending group that week, before escaping out of the building that no longer felt as daring to be in. His hands were shaking by the time he got to the car, his mind yelling to go, go, go, but he forced himself to sit for a moment and figure out what was causing so much panic. Before his session, he’d felt like shaken up pop, too much too contained. Having spilt over everywhere, he somehow felt worse. It took him a few minutes of digging, but when it came, it literally stole the breath from his lungs.

It’d been 18 months and during every single one of them, he’d figured that when he saw Harry or any of the guys again, he’d have it all together. All of his struggles would be just a bad memory, despite the cautions of every professional he came across reminding him this was just the beginning. None of his daydreams had included him being anything less than perfectly whole, successful, and happy without them. He should have figured reality would be the opposite, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow.

Eventually, he started the car and didn’t even pretend to go back to his apartment, though he had a small moment of shame as he ducked into a stairwell to text Niall and make sure the boys were gone before he let himself in. Niall, bless his soul, didn’t say a word about it, just opened his arms and let Louis decompress for a few moments before going to get the popcorn and spending yet another long night on the couch with him.

Neither of them mentioned the boys or what tomorrow was going to bring, choosing instead to watch movies until they started to drift in and out of a restless sleep that ended all too early.

 

Chapter Text

Armed with a few hours a sleep, a pair of sweats, and a giant cup of tea, Louis was not impressed with the world at large as he climbed out of Niall’s car the next morning. It was not exactly the best mindset to be in when walking into a contract meeting, but at least the lawyers they’d been using were still in business. They’d had enough emergency meetings over the years that they could probably recite their former contracts verbatim in their sleep and Louis trusted them to make sure they didn’t make the same mistakes they did before. Not that it was likely, given that this time they were the ones with all the bargaining power and six years of experience under their belts, but still. It was easier to walk into familiar offices with known faces than place his future in strangers’ hands. Sleepily, he shook hands with the lawyers then collapsed in the first chair he came across, both surprised and bitterly amused that they were the first ones there. Whether that’d been Niall’s plan or not, he was grateful. Now it was just a matter of keeping himself awake. His phone helped for a bit, his tea after that, then it got a little dicey. He’d catch himself doing the nodding thing, so he got up to walk around the room a few times before the door opened and he found himself face to face with Harry again.

“Oh. Mornin’,” Louis offered awkwardly, quickly retreating to the far side of the table and reclaiming his chair so Harry would know to sit as far away as possible.

Of course Harry, being Harry, just took that as an invitation to drop into the seat to Louis’ left.

Gaping slightly, Louis swirled his chair to share his nonverbal outrage with the curly menace. “Excuse you. That’s Niall’s seat. I thought we talked about this.”

“Nope,” Harry exaggerated the pop, making Louis flinch before realising Harry was doing it on purpose. Like he was proving that he still knew what drove Louis crazy and wow, no. Okay, not going there. “We haven’t talked at all. But this is progress. I’m getting actual sentences from you this time.”

“Harry! Louis!” The head of the firm walked in then, beaming as he took the seat across from them. “How has my favorite couple been?”

“Broken up.” Louis drawled awkwardly as he rose both eyebrows, before he froze. “Wait, you — “ He didn’t know. His chair spun towards Harry again, “What have you been saying?”

“Don’t complain, don’t explain,” Harry said quietly, but that was not okay. “I told you we needed to talk, Lou.”

“I don’t believe this.”

“Louis-“

Ignoring the tone, Louis grabbed his phone and cup and headed towards the door. “If you follow me, I will shamelessly kick you in the balls, just so we’re clear,” he said over his shoulder, before ducking out the side entrance that emptied out into a sorry excuse for a courtyard. It’d been his retreat when talks got too harsh or personal to dip out here for a stress smoke or just to get away so no one would see him break. This time, he crossed directly over to the little bench, dropping down on it as he thumbed the correct passkey to get to his phone before he lost his nerve. There’d been a handful of terms that he’d specifically blocked on his flight back that he’d never gotten the nerve to undo, but he did so now. Starting with “Larry Stylinson” and working his way down to “gay”. Then hit refresh.

There were breakup rumours. A lot of them, mostly due to Louis’ complete falling off the face of the earth for several months. There were a lot of tabloid articles about his worrisome appearance and how broken hearted Harry must be to have a drug addict boyfriend. Most of the articles in fact, seemed to have taken the approach they always did, dragging him through the mud and raising Harry on a higher pedestal. But there were still articles being written - even as recent as the day before, rumoured sightings of them around X-Factor, spotted leaving a house together, dining there, it was amazing how many places he could be without being at any of them. It seemed people still cared and were rooting for them, despite their lowly opinions of him.

Eventually, the door opened behind him and it only took two footsteps to know who the feet belonged to. Instantly, his shoulders deflated as he quickly closed the browser out before dropping his head into his hands. He’d been back in One Direction for all of two days and everything was upside down and awful. How was that even possible? A large familiar hand hit his shoulder blades before a body dropped down next to him and Louis just shook his head miserably.

“This was the worst idea, Simon.”

“We’re not going to ask you —“

A helpless giggle broke out of Louis’ lips as he lifted his head to shoot him an incredulous glare, “How can we sell a fucking reunion tour off a break-up? Yes, please come see me and my ex awkwardly sing the songs we wrote for each other. That’ll sell loads.”

“I don’t want to make you feel exploited,” Simon said finally, but that just made Louis laugh harder.

“That ship has sailed, Si. I got told to stop acting like he was my boyfriend in public, then to act like we weren’t friends, then like we weren’t even in the same band for years and now…now I’ve quite literally come full circle and need to pretend that we’re happily together? How am I supposed to…I can’t even….”

“Nobody is asking you here, Louis. You don’t have to do this.”

“They don’t have to ask, do they? It’s all right there, plain as fucking day. Yeah, I do. We can’t announce our breakup now.”

Simon shifted closer, but Louis just tightened the fingers in his hair, trying to wrap his head around everything and figure out some desperate way around it. Introducing new love interests would be worse, but not addressing it all would be unbelievable. They had to — fuck.

“Louis, you’re not alone in this. We’ll help out however we can, okay? It’s not something you have to lock down and commit to, if it gets too hard or something changes, we’ll support what’s best for you, alright? I just happen to think doing this tour is what’s best for you. And keeping up appearances with Harry, that would really benefit everyone involved.”

Scowling, Louis sat back up, subconsciously wiping his hands on his thighs as a rush of nervous energy started to make him tic.

“Yeah, yeah. So I keep hearing. But thanks. That um, it helps to know there’s an out. Can you uh, can you send him out here? Tell ‘em I promise his balls are safe.”

Louis missed the warm pressure on his back once it was gone, but he stood up and pushed his hands into his pockets before turning to face the door and the baby giraffe trying not to fall out of it. Despite himself, a tiny smile tugged at his lips because wow, some things never changed, before it was gone as pleading green eyes focused on his own. Still, he found he couldn’t quite swallow back the biting tone, despite how much he tried. “You are something else, Styles, you know that?”

Harry’s body seemed to deflate in on itself and Louis still felt the gut punch reaction to destroy anyone who made him fold in like that. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I was such a mess without you, Louis. You have no idea. I couldn’t get the words to come out. I couldn’t write about it because I couldn’t accept it. You weren’t gone. You were just …sick. So obviously, you’d get better and come back. I held on to that for months.”

“Then what?”

Louis’ heart started to race as Harry took a few more careful steps towards him, lowering his voice as he looked around before shrugging, “Then I stopped singing, stopped giving interviews, stayed off social media for the most part. I moved back to London. I think part of me, was waiting. Either for you to come back or for me to finally move on. Then I got the call and here I am.”

What was he supposed to say to that? Should it feel good? It didn’t. Not really. There was no victory in causing someone else’s misery. Still, there was one question that no amount of therapy had made him stop asking over and over in his weakest moments.

“Why did you sleep with him?”

Judging by the shock on Harry’s face, the question had been bothering only Louis for the past year, but he’d just have to suck it up and deal. There was no way he was going to parade around on Harry’s arm without knowing why he’d given himself to someone else, physically at least.

“You weren’t there, Lou. You hadn’t been in weeks, months really — you can’t understand what it was like to live with you at your worst. You didn’t want me to see your body and that meant not touching you. No sex, no showering together, not even changing in the same room and I could have handled that but then that lead to no cuddling in bed, or while watching telly, right down to not even being able to hold your hand. You were this presence in my life hovering just out of a reach. I love you with everything I have but I couldn’t handle that. I just wanted something to hold onto. Just for a night. I was drunk and he was there and I made a mistake. I felt alone and unwanted. I just wanted to reach out and feel someone there. Anyone. I’m so sorry, Louis. I shouldn’t have even thought about it.”

“How many times did you fuck him?”

“Just the once.”

Louis’ arms came up without his permission to wrap around his chest as he tried to turn that around objectively in his head. How would he have felt if their positions had been reversed? If he’d felt shut out, would he have sought comfort in someone else’s body? It just didn’t compute. He wouldn’t have. He’d have fought for Harry’s attention until he got it, because he was a greedy bastard like that. Always had been. “Would you have done it again if I hadn’t caught you that first time?”

“No.” The reply almost came too quick, forcing him a step back but Harry’s hands were out, his head shaking furiously. “No. Listen — it was wrong. It was so wrong. From the moment I saw him, I think I knew it was but you aren’t the only one with self destructive tendencies. I hated it. I hated every moment of it but I felt like…I felt like I’d deserved to. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. For all of it.”

Louis took another step back, starting to feel like he was struggling to get enough oxygen in. Abruptly, he was reminded of his own words to Niall the night before about all of them having broken in unique and equally as damaging ways, and maybe … maybe this wasn’t a thing either of them had done. It wasn’t something that could have been easily prevented or adverted. Both their roads to ruin would have hit that bump eventually in a desperate stab at sabotaging the most worthwhile thing still in their lives, and that finally let something dark and jagged in his chest break loose and dissolve.

“Okay.”

His voice sounded as raw as his eyes felt and he hadn’t even really cried yet. It was going to be one hell of a night, but he just nodded a little, dropping his arms to clear his throat and say it a little louder. “Okay. I knew I wasn’t blameless in our getting to that point, but I also knew I was taking too much responsibility and I needed a way to see where you coming from. I can see how I pushed you to feel like that was your only choice.  I can understand missing you even though you’re right there. I’m sorry too, for um, for my part in everything. I should have spoken up instead of pushing deeper into my …issues. I- I- I don’t hate you for it. I tried, for awhile, you know? But you’re you and I just…it just made me miss you. And that was worse.”

“Louis.”

Swallowing hard as he shook his head, he took another step back at the rush of emotions packed into the one word. That step brought his back into contact with the wall from the opposite building, so he dropped his head back against it as he tried to sort out all the new feelings and emotions going on. This wasn’t what he was expecting to happen today. He hadn’t been remotely prepared to offer any kind of olive branch or explanation, but they had a deadline on putting a massive bandage on their relationship. Reminding himself of that got his gaze back down to Harry’s and put words on the tip of his tongue.

“I don’t want to lie again,” Louis started. “But since you never announced our breakup, we can’t be broken up. In the PR sense.”

Harry abruptly looked even more pale if that was possible, so he hurried to explain.

“Think about it. We’re the sappy love story from that one band. That one band that’s making its reappearance after a rough year or two. We can sell nostalgia, we can remind people about bloody Larry Stylinson, but we can’t sell out a tour admitting we’re a shattered band of ex-friends and former flames. And before you even start about how we’re not something to sell, we are. We all walked into that room and agreed to be not just an aid to help profit the X-Factor but the actual headlining act of their farewell tour. We’ve made a financial commitment with ourselves as the goddamn prize.”

Bitterly, Louis laughed slightly as he rose his hands to run through his too long hair.

“So I think we should be as close to honest as we can be. You and I went through a rough patch. I mean, my issues are well documented and easy to find out. We can’t pretend they didn’t happen and I don’t want to. I want to be able talk about them, to use my last fifteen minutes to raise awareness and prevention, but I also — I don’t know if I can hold your hand, or sit by you again or listen to you sing without bawling. I just don’t know so I’d rather it be out there. My issues and yours caused us some difficulties but we’re back and healthy and giving it another go. Hopefully, people will be rooting for us still and they’ll come out to support us.”

“Are we? Giving it another go?”

There was the possibly the most awful hopeful look Louis had ever seen on Harry’s face that was directly declaring war with the panic filling his chest.

“I don’t know. There’s a lot we still need to talk about. Not here. Not like this. But you should … um. You should come home.” There were tears on Harry’s cheeks now, trying to dismantle the little bit of self-restraint Louis still had. His hands literally curled into little fists to keep from reaching out so he dug them in more until he could feel the pinpricks of each nail in his palm. The sharp pain gave him enough to ground himself on that he could square his shoulders before pushing off the wall.

“It’d look bad if you were papped or sighted coming or going from someone else’s house.” It was probably a needless explanation, but he felt like he had to say it all the same. “I assume you still have your key and everything? We can um, talk more later, but we should probably get in there. I’ll uh, cover for you if you wanna go take a moment in the loo.”

Without warning, his senses were suddenly and completely engulfed in pure Harry. A soft gasp left his mouth as he felt strong arms wrapping around his waist, but he didn’t push him away or smack him, just let him hug out the worst of his tears. Even if Louis couldn’t quite bring himself to lift his arms and return the embrace, he also couldn’t seem to leave until he was certain Harry got enough of a grip on himself. It didn’t take long and he slipped away without looking back, unwilling to examine the weird oddly inflating sensation deep in his chest as he did.

“We’ll get through this, Louis,” were the whispered words banging around his skull as he walked back into the conference room, awkwardly meeting the worried stares of his bandmates and the openly confused ones of their law team.

“So upon further reflection, it’s not in One Direction’s best interest for Harry and I to have … broken up.” Louis announced mock-cheerfully as he dropped into one of the free chairs, like he didn’t send almost every jaw dropping along with him. “So we’re going to fake it. Obviously, we’ve been noted to be in two different countries with a dramatic decrease in our social media activity to each other, but we’ll just have to find a way to spin that. A trial separation that ended up with us getting back together or something. But me tweeting him or vice versa, that’ll get you the initial buzz and focus on us so that you can immediately start tying in the fan reports about us being rumored to be at the X-Factor studios and priming for the big announcement. You’re welcome.”

It took Harry almost thirty minutes (not that Louis had noticed or was counting) to come back to the meeting, his little red nose the only sign he’d been crying as he jumped back into professional waters, easily negotiating terms and challenging language and loopholes until another hour later they had a contract Louis honestly wasn’t even a little nervous to sign. They’d been burned so much and so often in the earlier years, that they knew now what to look for and what they weren’t willing to sign away. Control of their social media, for one remained a touchy subject and one that still had Louis changing his passwords nearly daily — just in case, so they agreed on a set number of tweets expected by the boys and during which times to drive the most traffic as a compromise. Sightings, signings, acoustic performances, interviews, there was a whole calendar worked out for them for the next nearly six months and uploaded to all their phones. They were forgoing a specific management company at the moment, choosing to manage themselves instead so Louis was careful to set several reminders to himself for very important things.

Eventually, the meeting came to an end but as soon as Simon and the lawyers began to stand up and exit, Liam cleared his throat.

“Do you lads mind if we borrow the conference room for a bit? There’s some things we need to discuss and since we’re all here…” Instantly, Louis crossed his fingers and toes, pleading for some kind of excuse, but the lawyer closest to them just grinned and shook his head.

“No, not at all. We had cleared out the afternoon, not sure how long this would take so it’s all yours. It was nice to see you all again, best of luck to you with everything. Try not to need to call us again, yeah?”

Ok, so that maybe deserved a little smile. Louis gave in, snorting softly as he spun his chair around in a slow circle, dreading whatever was about to happen. On both his sides, bodies were shifting until they were all crammed at one side of the table, though Louis didn’t stop spinning until someone reached out and forcibly stopped him.

“Louis. C’mon. Just another hour or two of focus, that’s all I’m asking for.”

Oh, so Liam then. Sighing as he shrugged, he kicked his legs out as he sank back against the backrest and fixed his gaze on the quote responsible one unquote. What was left to talk about? Their playlist? Their outfits? Did anything else really have to be decided today? As it was the tensions from earlier left him an annoying buzz of exhausted and wired that had him antsy in his skin again, unable to stay still for more than a couple minutes and frustrated with everything. “Out with it then. Go on. Give us your big speech so we can go.”

“What the hell are you thinking?”

Ah, there it is. Louis’ eyes rolled slow and obvious as he sat up to affect his best Simon Cowell impression, steepling his fingers and stroking his chin, “I was thinking, Mr. Payne, that we have a fucking tour to sell. This band exists because of us contouring and marketing ourselves in certain ways so why the sudden cold feet? Once I was the loved up twink and now I’m the loved up boyfriend, it’s not a big deal.”

“The fuck it’s not!” Liam exploded suddenly, hair growing wild from how often he ran a hand through it, inappropriately amusing Louis and reminding him of Eli at the same time. “You didn’t see —“

“Go ahead, say it, Li. I didn’t see Harry after our breakup. I don’t know what I did to him and how could I dare do this to him now, right? Is that what you were gonna say? First of all, fuck you. Second of all, we are and this is a business. A good percentage of the time, this job is absolute shite and you know that. I’m not thrilled about this. I hurt too, thanks for asking, but I’m going to man up and deal. Harry had his chance to speak up and put his two cents in and those are the only thoughts that matter. He’s fine with it. So as far as I’m concerned, this doesn’t really involve any of you.”

“Now who’s spewing bullshit?” Zayn spoke up suddenly, dragging another weary sigh from Louis, because honestly, just once, once would it kill his former best friend to be on his side? “Of course this affects all of us because we had to watch you both break the last time this went south. You really think faking it for the cameras isn’t going to fuck with both of you? For the record, this is what looking out for you and caring looks like, you can’t bitch us out for both not doing it and doing it, so maybe shut up, yeah?”

“No,” Louis chirped immediately, sending a painfully wide smile Zayn’s way as he sat back up. “Get out of our bubble. Honest, I’m not being a shit here. Mentally get the hell out of One Direction. Pretend you are a fan of a band, a band that fucked with you for years about are they, are they not? You were rooting for them despite everyone including the boys side-eyeing you and talking down to you and accusing you of conspiracy theories, and then the truth got revealed. You were right all along. How many of those fans would come back to see us shine? Then compare that to how many fans would be afraid to show their faces after news of our split aired and the other half of our fandom gets to come back and say, ‘told you so’ yet again. It’d be too much to ask and I-” That was an embarrassingly bad place for his voice to break, but he shrugged a little to cover it, “Call me sentimental or biased, but those fans stuck by us - stuck by me at my worst and I don’t want to let them down again.”

“But you’re lying to them,” Liam said quietly. “It’s not real.”

“I have almost always been lying to them in some way, shape, or form, but don’t you dare say it’s not real. I’ve had hundreds of people come up to me over the years, to tell me what they think, feel, their own struggles with sexuality, and that’s just as real as the times I went on Twitter meself for reassurances. It’s not always about what’s being said, sometimes what’s not said is more important. This is me trying to give back what they’ve given to me - to us - over the years.”

Louis reached out to fuss with his tea cup, but Harry’s hand was there first, to slide it closer to him. “Louis has a point, Liam. You can’t really understand, it wasn’t the same for you as it was for us. But it’s not fair to say that this isn’t real. Louis and I are going to be honest, as honest as we can be. We’ll talk about how we took a break while Louis got treatment, our struggles that led up to that, and how we’re working on changing that for the future. None of that is a lie.”

“Maybe we should take a night and think about this?” Niall said finally, and it was only then Louis realized how silent he’d been for this.

“What’s the point? There’s no changing their minds, is there?” Zayn asked quietly, drawing Louis’ gaze to him again, as he strained to keep a calm expression on his face.  

“Nope. If this is gonna work, this is how it’s gotta be. Should we talk setlist because if we’re going to- well, it seems our options got a lot larger. We might not need covers, after all.”

Harry lifted his gaze at that, though Louis tried very hard not to notice, except he was supposed to notice now, fuck.

“How ‘bout we get a studio for a couple of days? We’ll just - we’ll play through as many songs as we want and the ones that feel good, those are the ones we’ll play on tour. No other rhyme or reason, just what makes us happy to play again.”

“And the greatest hits,” Louis reminded, proud of the fact he sounded only half-bitter.

“And the greatest hits,” Harry agreed, glancing between everyone. “Does that work? We’ll all go home, listen to forgotten tracks and come back together with some kind of excitement to perform together again. Deal? Deal.”

Despite himself, Louis snorted slightly but nodded his agreement, Niall immediately nodded as well. Zayn just stared at them until Liam’s halting nod made it impossible for him to do anything but nod along as well.

“Fine.”

“Is that it, lads?” Louis pushed his chair back, Niall following his move, but the three others still seemed frozen, making him hesitate. “Lads?”

“It’s nothing. Go ahead, Lou. See you.” His eyes narrowed at Liam, not liking to be kept out of any circles, even ones he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in anymore, but he finally just shrugged and nodded.

“Right. Okay. Later, then.”

Standing up, he pitched his tea cup and grabbed Niall’s hand to drag him through the building, chirping goodbyes as they went until he was back down in the parking garage. He felt even more amped up as he literally bounced on his heels the entire way to Niall’s car.

“You wanna go grab brunch?” Niall offered casually as he put his key into the lock, completely missing the way his words made Louis’ body abruptly pause mid-jump.

“Uh, not really. No.” Louis at least tried to sound unaffected and nonchalant and thought he’d succeeded until Niall’s snort reached his years.

“Yeah, lemme rephrase that. Your house or mine?”

Louis’ mouth opened to retort, but there was no way he was going to go home and make something for himself, and he knew that’d only drive his anxiety up further. “Yeah, okay. Mine. I need to um, I need to clean up and shit.”

“Oh? Expecting company?”

“Something like that. Meet you there.”

 

Chapter Text

Quickly scuttling off in the direction of the car before Niall could reply, Louis tried to distract himself by organising a list for the afternoon. Drive home, shower, change, make lunch, clean, have a snack, call his Mum, do laundry, make dinner, check in with Sam, maybe hit up group, evening snack, and somewhere as the big gigantic wrench in all of it, Harry. He knew Niall would strongly disagree with them moving in together again, but Louis needed to find a way to be comfortable around Harry again. Not just on stage — their fans were far too observant for that —  he needed to get on with Harry like he used to. There was something to be said for exposure therapy, right?

Right.

It didn’t take long for them to pull into his driveway, though it was the first time in a long while that his stomach twisted in guilt as he punched in the new code for the security gate. Little matter. He could change it back after brunch. It didn’t hit him until he was in the kitchen, after Niall had excused himself to the loo, to realise that was an absolutely ridiculous thing to think. Why would Harry care if he changed a password or two? Or if new paint had covered old walls, or furniture rearranged, or some of his things shoved into a closet. Louis had to stay in these four walls without him, for months. He could suck up whatever discomfort he’d feel at the little changes.

The justification didn’t make him feel any less guilty, so he tried to make it through the house, rightening photographs, and spreading candles back out, trying to spread well, Harry through the building again before Niall caught him. Naturally, it didn’t work, nor did it take long for Niall to find him unfolding a blanket someone in Harry’s extended family had given them for Christmas one year. That particular blanket was the one that had taken up permanent residence on their couch. It’d also been one of the first things Niall had packed up for him in an effort to get Louis the fuck off the couch and out into the real world again. He hadn’t realised how much he’d missed it, even though it’d lost all traces of him or Harry when he stupidly raised it up to his nose to sniff it. It was still something that had been so very them, Louis always running cold and curling up with a blanket pretty much year round and Harry always finding a way to fit around him and the blanket. They’d had literal fights over which blankets could go to LA and which had to stay, and fuck, he was so very not okay.

“Lou.”

Clearing his throat awkwardly, Louis just spread the blanket over the couch and pointedly ignored Niall’s Very Concerned face as he walked past the young man to get into the kitchen. Making tea busied him for a good ten minutes and then he was left holding cupboards and the fridge open in some indecisive staring contest to find something worthy to eat. Niall’s inclosing footsteps made his shoulders hunch up, but he was being guided to a seat at the table with a firm, “Sit, I got this.” That was all the strength Louis had left. He crumpled at the table, fumbling for his phone to send his Mom some SOS texts while Niall hummed behind him. She didn’t reply — probably busy with the twins and he should make an effort to go out and see them soon — but it took another soft chorus for him to realise that Niall was waiting for him to crack.

“I really hate the awkward silence until I literally can’t take it anymore approach, for the record,” he bitched, but he sat up again, tossing his phone on the table before crossing and uncrossing his arms a few times, trying to find a way to comfort himself without, well, comforting himself. “It was easy to compartmentalise. Harry was part of my past that had no place in my future along with the rest of my bad habits..,but he also…” he trailed off, not wanting to voice it outlaid.

“Not a mindreader, Lou. Help a lad out.”

“He’s … Harry.” Louis’ eyes narrowed at Niall’s snort, automatically grabbing a fistful of paper napkins to scrunch into balls and lob his way. It felt surprisingly good so he kept it up, distracting himself until he ran out of napkins and had to go back to finish his thought. “I don’t know how else to explain it! It was strange talking to him today. I think because I feel more like myself now than I have in a long time, I could really see him again. Not food police him, not pushy boyfriend, not disappointed in me yet again Harry — all the stupid small things I’d got so resentful over were just gone. I can see now where he was just trying to care and I fucked it up. I blamed him for a long time, but he’s still the same person he was before I lost sight of that. His hugs feel the same, he looks at me the same, I know how to read him the same and yet I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not the same. He’s not right there by my side, he’s not watching my back, he’s not here like so much of me thinks he should be.” Louis laughed wetly, bringing a hand up to press against his eyes. “Fucking ten hours ago, I would have told you I wanted nothing to do with him and now I just want to forget all the bad and desperately grab for all the good we had.”

Niall interrupted his thoughts to put a plate in front of him, taking the seat to his left drawing another little hysterical giggle from him.

“See. You do it too. That’s Harry’s chair and you know it so you never sit there. Fucking unbelievable.” Aggressively he picked up his fork to stab at some of the defenseless things on his plate, trying to work up the nerve to bring them to his mouth. Once he took five bites, he put the fork down to take a long drink of his tea and casually eye Niall to make sure he wasn’t in the middle of swallowing before he spoke again.

“I asked Harry to move back in.”

Food still went spewing across his table, which send him into a fit of giggles again despite himself and the current topic of conversation.

“You .. I’m sorry… what now? So help me, Louis William Tomlinson if you said what I thought you —“

“I told him to move in. That we couldn’t risk him being papped coming and going from any house but ours.”

Niall’s mouth opened and then just hung there, because what other reply was there? They’d dealt with breakup rumors and nasty whispers every time Harry went out with some friends, now especially was not an environment their story would hold up through them. “Fuck.”

That was it in a nutshell, wasn’t it? Louis sighed, pushing his food around again as he tried to sort out the worst of his insistent feelings.

“D’you want me to stay over for awhile?” Niall offered quietly. “Or at least stop by at mealtimes and the like?”

Louis’ fork hovered for a moment before he shook his head a little. Instinctive embarrassment and lingering pride made the ‘no’ easy, but logic kicked in a few seconds later, forcing him to change the shake to a nod.

“Yeah, actually. You, uh - I don’t know how much Harry knows about all this now. It might help if you could explain what helps and what doesn’t. I’ll talk to him too. Try and explain what it’s like and why certain things help. If he wants to um, be a help.” Louis hesitated then, glancing back down at his food, once again feeling like a broken version of a once awesome toy. “He might not want anything to do with all this and I can’t blame him for that. It wore him out before.”

“Louis.”

Quickly, he shook his head. “Can we just um, shelf this chat until lunch is over? I can’t um — “

“Yeah, ‘course. How’s your Mum?”

Gratefully, Louis jumped into safer waters and chatted about nothing concerning Harry or One Direction until his plate was clear and his cup was empty. He carried both his and Niall’s to the sink, having taken to cleaning dishes right after a meal as a distraction method to keep from reaching for a cigarette or throwing up, though those urges were few and mild these days. It seemed to work okay and it cut down on the amount of dishes he did at a time which was always appreciated. Niall was making more tea and going to set the T.V. on for further distractions while the food settled, but the buzzer was going off. Frowning, Louis turned to Niall who had a similar confused expression on his face because nobody would come find him who didn’t know —

Oh shit.

“I thought he’d um…” Louis actually felt the blood drain from his face as he started glancing hysterically between the buzzer and Niall like he’d make this all go away. “It’d be a few hours at least. Maybe days. Before he um, this is, wow.”

“Smooth, Lou.” Niall leaned over to hit the buzzer, “Hiya Haz. Code’s 3119. Want some tea?”

“Oh. Niall? Is this um, is this a bad time? Is Louis home?”

“Aye, he’s here. Come on up.”

Louis couldn’t seem to move, stuck at the sink up to his elbows in sudsy water. This was actually happening, not a calculated business move like it’d seemed earlier, but Harry actually being here, in his kitchen, in person. Niall snorted as he passed, presumedly going to fill a cup for Harry too before pausing to wrap Louis up in a quick hug.

“You’ll be fine, Lou. Relax. You’re mending bridges, not marrying the guy.”

Something sharp and long ignored twisted deep in his stomach at the word marry, sparking him to turn away from Niall and blink down into the sink. “Right,” he agreed hollowly, “Just being cordial.”

Whatever that meant.

It didn’t take long for the sound of a lock turning and boots being toed off in the hallway, long forgotten sounds that still had something giddy and free inflate in his chest along with the desire to run until he found his returning boy. Stupid. Stupid feelings and memories. Miserably, he closed his eyes and counted to five before rinsing off the last plate, putting it to drain as he reached for a towel to dry his hands off.

“What’s this? Louis does dishes now?” Harry’s eyebrows were nearly raised up to the beanie he had shoved over his hair and a jolt of recognition made his blood go cold when he realized it’d been one of his, originally.

“Hello to you too,” he tried to keep the playful tone up. “Are you um —“ ‘What are you doing here?’ seemed far too harsh this early so he revised the question halfway through. “Me ’n Niall were about to play a spot of Fifa, you down to play winner?”

Whatever Harry’d expected, it was clear on his face that wasn’t it, but he nodded all the same. “Yeah, sure. I’ll um, thanks.” Nodding, he motioned towards the mug, “Is that for me?”

“Psh, you wish. Make your own.” Louis huffed dramatically, cradling his mug to his chest as he moved away from the tea station and closer to his living room where his entertainment was waiting. “Um - sorry ‘bout the gate. I was gonna change it back after we ate. You caught us a lil too soon.”

“No worries. But 3119? Really?”

Louis’ tongue slipped out all on its own. “It’s clever! People do month-day or month-year, but who does day and first half of the year? No one! It’s genius.”

A light almost unfamiliar laughter was ringing through his kitchen and Louis was starkly reminded that what’d he been living in was a house and this … this boy was the only thing that made it a home. Shaking the unwelcome thoughts off, he let Niall and Harry banter about tea as he walked out of earshot to get the game hooked up and calm his rising anxiety. Everything was a haze of contradictions, new and old, familiar and jarring, right and wrong. Echoes of Harry seemed to follow the real one through the house and for a moment Louis was almost confused when the spot next to him remained vacated as he watched Harry settle onto the floor instead. His mouth opened to express concern over his back but it shut just as fast. Harry was his own person and didn’t need Louis’ opinion on such things. Not anymore. Still, he “accidentally” knocked a pillow off the couch, landing it within Harry’s reach during his victory celebration, that he secretly suspected had more to do with Niall losing so they’d play each other and less with his skill but hey, a win was a win.

His nerves seemed to settle a little with each round, gentle remarks eventually relaxing into full-scale ribbing and Louis didn’t blink twice when Niall disappeared to make snacks, just reacted to his own hunger and took what he wanted. It took him more than a few minutes to notice the mood had changed again, caught up in trying to crush Niall again, but self-consciousness slammed hard into him when he realised he was being stared at. “What?”

“Nothing. No. I’m sorry. I was just — “ Harry’s eyes abruptly pulled off of him to plead at Niall for a life saver, which Niall decided to throw him apparently, since he paused the game and sat up with all former traces of relaxation and humor drained from his face.

“We should probably chat a bit, before I go, eh Lou?” Sweet Niall, giving Louis an out that he was sorely tempted to take for a moment, but that wouldn’t solve anything. He set his plate down, subconsciously drawing his legs up instead as he nodded slightly, giving Niall the permission he was waiting for.

“I did the same thing at first,” Niall admitted easily. “Still do sometimes.”

Oh. The pieces connected then for Louis, sparking his cheeks a bright pink.“I realise it’s bizarre,” Louis started quietly. “Especially for you because you’ve — gone straight from me not eating to this without having seen the trip between a and c. It’s okay to be overwhelmed, or confused, or surprised. I won’t lie and say it’s easy. It’s still uncomfortable as hell most of the time. I- panic. Especially if there’s unfamiliar people around or I feel I’m being watched. I start to question everything from the size of the bites I’m taking, to how long I’ve been eating, to how much I’m eating, am I chewing too loudly, or too many times,  the anxiety amps up in truly surprisingly creative ways sometimes.” Louis cut himself off, his arms folding over his legs as he finally glanced back at Harry. “Sorry. I forgot to — we weren’t sure if you wanted, if we should, um.”

“Do you want to know? Do you want to talk about it?” Niall finished for him. “We could understand why you wouldn’t.”

Harry’s eyes darted between the two of them and Louis tried not to read too much into this. It was a practical thing. To have someone under his roof who didn’t understand him would only lead to discomfort for everyone and had nothing to do with how badly he wanted Harry to understand.

“I — um. “ This time it was Harry’s cheeks that stained pink as he mimicked Louis’ body language, folding in on himself, and glancing over at them both over his kneecaps. “I did read some things. A lot of things. Pretty much all of the how to help a loved one books, and a few memoirs. I uh, there was a group that met in LA for friends and family. I went to that weekly. Both helped a lot in realising how little you or I could have changed things without outside assistance. We didn’t have the tools we needed to fight that battle and I’m sorry.”

“Can we… no more apologies today, okay?” Louis said softly. “It was shit for both of us. But I am doing better. A level of better I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get to during my first couple months in recovery. But this is um, this is the first big change that I’ve tried to go through. This is directly taking on a lot of things that well, that really fucked me up. I just want to know where you want to be. If you want to be just a part of the band, and we’re co-workers who live together, alright —“

“If there’s even the smallest way I can make this easier on you or help, of course I’m going to do that. You don’t even have to ask. I want to be here for you, hell, I’m not sure I know how to turn that part of me off and I don’t want to. I’m scared shitless of making it worse somehow, so if you can shine light on what would help and what would harm, please do. I’m all ears.”

A stronger wave of relief than he was expecting crashed into his chest, slamming his eyes shut against unexpected tears as his universe seemed to realign itself. The entire idea of tour and performing suddenly felt a lot more possible if he knew Harry was there in his corner. Because, yeah, the man had broken his heart and betrayed his trust, but before that, he’d been the first one to whisper ‘maybe you need more than me, Lou’, to talk to the boys, to look into healthier options, to try and find new outlets for Louis even if he’d been too far gone by that point. Harry had tried and watched him break apart a hundred thousand times. He deserved a place in helping him rebuild.

“So did your group tell you the infamous —“ Niall started, but Harry was already smiling wryly as he nodded.

“That eating disorders are not actually about food, weight, or size? Yeah. I got that memo. I’m um, it was unnerving, in a way, once I really started to research it, how perfectly it described everything that’d gone wrong. I had no idea that something that seems so obvious on the surface could spread into literally every area of our lives. Can I ask, what you’re working on currently, or what you’re most nervous about?”

Louis ran a hand through his hair, trying not to feel as flayed open and exposed as he did. It was annoying and a little insulting that all his bits and pieces were easily spread out among pages for others to consume, but why would he be unique? “I’m currently working on building trust in other coping methods. My first gut reaction is still to turn to anything that would numb it. So I guess in a way I’m also working on letting myself validate my own thoughts and feelings and give them the time and attention they deserve. That I deserve.” A shaky little exhale followed that as he narrowed down his anxieties. “I’m afraid I’m not stable enough in recovery to handle this. My treatment team and Niall, obviously, think differently, but the doubt is still there. I crashed and burned before, what’s really keeping me from doing it again, you know?”

“Knowledge. This isn’t an unknown battle anymore. You know what you’re doing and why. And us,” Harry said back just as quietly. “This time you have all of us, and this time all of us - and especially you - are on the same page. You’re not actively fighting against us, but with us, and I think that’ll make all the difference. You’re so strong, Lou. Stronger than you’ve ever really let yourself see and I have all the faith in the world you can do this, alright? But don’t mistake that belief as pressure to do it flawlessly. I have faith that you will speak up when it’s too much, that you’ll take care of yourself first and foremost, that you’ll fight for what you need and not what you think we think you need, that you’ll use everything at your fingertips to keep living the life you want. Deal?”

Louis couldn’t help the water trailing down his face but he just nodded, hoping the expression on his face said all the words that seemed to get crammed into his throat and refusing to budge.

“Deal.”

There was another awkward hour or two where they detailed out Louis’ meal plans, how much he really should be eating a day, when exercise was healthy and when it wasn’t, his never ending fight with insomnia and anxiety, and how much he’d internalised the idea that something was very wrong with him. Harry hadn’t needed that one explained much to him. He’d been in the same talks Louis was, had the same exasperated adults wishing they’d just be normal already, but Harry never let them wear him down. Louis’ already shit self esteem hadn’t done him any favors in that regard and just got worse the longer their bitter PR war dragged on. It was the first time that Louis really opened up to Harry about it, though. Before he’d been so afraid of making things worse, of letting them win by getting to affect their relationship so he’d tried so hard to pretend like it didn’t bother him and had no hold over him.

Joke was on him.

In a bizarre twist, Harry was trying to explain to him how watching Louis suffer with himself and their situation was actually the reason he pushed out harder and bolder. He’d wanted to shatter their closet and prove to both of them that the world and their careers wouldn’t end because of who they happened to be in love with. It just happened that Louis shattered first.

Still, having got all that off his chest had felt good. Louis honestly felt better than he had in months, despite the slightly incredulous part of his mind that keep trying to accept that Harry was sitting and breathing right there.

“Ok. Pause time. I massively need a box of bloody tissues. You boys want refills on tea or anything?”

Niall rolled up to his feet, stretching and popping his back. “Nawh, you sit. I’ll grab ‘em and order some sandwiches? I know what you want, Lou. You need a menu, Haz or are you still —“

“Yeah, the usual’s fine. Thanks, Niall.”

Harry finally climbed off the floor at that, reaching for the box Niall was tossing in from the kitchen and handing it off to Louis as he sat down on the edge of the couch. “Thank you for everything you’ve shared with me tonight. I’m just happy we’ve gotten to this point, now. Even if it took us this long. But I do have to ask — why tell me? Why are you letting me back in but freezing Zayn and Liam out?”

Louis tensed at that, fingers stumbling over the tissue, before using the time he needed to mop himself up to work out why. “Because you had a reason.” Reluctantly, he rose sore blue eyes up to Harry’s ridiculously earnest face. “You put the nail in our relationship. We were broken up. There was no place for you in my life after that. But Liam and Zayn? It’s not that I’m mad, per se. Not anymore. But it’s this — you and I saw each other for the first time in nearly 18 months what, 48 hours ago? Already you’ve defended me, apologised, ruined my shaky hold on my life, and made me so fucking glad that you did. Even before that you read books, you tried to understand, you didn’t give up on me. Even though some small part of you had to be scared I’d never talk to you again. Now you’re here and you’re trying and you care despite everything.” Sighing, he shifted a little awkwardly, trying to at least not look as small as he was about to sound. “It wasn’t me they held back to ask if I was sure, if this was your idea or if I felt pressured to say yes, if I was really okay about everything. That’s you. They picked their side and I’m not going to try and win them over. I shouldn’t have to.”

“Oh, fuck.” Harry cursed quietly, shifting more on the couch and probably just coincidentally a lot closer. “I thought — I just thought they were trying to be protective or something by not mentioning you to me. If I’d known Lou - I’m so sorry.”

Louis lifted a shoulder, not wanting to admit much out loud, but Harry’s arm was raising to rest along the back of the couch. Once upon a time that’d been an invite and he felt the instinctive pull but wasn’t sure if he was allowed to act on it now. Or if he should. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not. But I’ve got Niall and he’s been… I wouldn’t be here like I am now if it weren’t for him.”

“I’m here too.” Harry reminded quietly and Louis nodded a little. He was here. But for how long and under what conditions? If Louis started struggling again, would he bail? Was his personality going to drive Harry off? Or the little changes that Harry would no longer recognise in him?

“I don’t think they meant to make you feel … unwanted or unworthy of their time, attention, or friendship or anything. But I suppose intent doesn’t really do much to lessen the sting, does it?”

To his horror, Louis felt his eyes starting to well again, but this time Harry reached out to lightly touch his shoulder with a soft, “C’mere.” So he went. It was among the easiest couple of feet he’d ever bridged. He’d lost count years ago of just how many times he’d tucked himself into Harry’s side. The only difference was this time he was surprised at how much they still fit. Harry’s arm was a warm grounding weight along his shoulders, his shirt a familiar whiff of washing powder he’d stopped using out of spite ages ago, and under all that, a heart whose beat he still knew better than any lyric. It was a comfort he’d spent a lot of time searching for yet always came up short. In fact, he was finding it a bit hard to believe it was here and happening right now. Still, he buried his head into the little crook he’d claimed as his own and tried to stem the tears for a moment, before he just gave in. He’d had years of this weighing down on him and if they needed a little moisture to aid their way out, then good riddance. He’d cry buckets to never have to carry that much on again.

Harry shifted though, using his free hand to tug one of Louis’ to his chest, resting it palm flat against his chest, while his own folded around it. “Focus on my breath,” he murmured. “Try and match it, yeah?”

Unable to resist, Louis managed a small shake of his head, hiding his grin against Harry’s shirt even as he flicked his gaze up a moment to gauge his reaction. He didn’t seem upset or uncomfortable so Louis just held on until he was all cried out, more aware than he should have been about the water his hair was catching, but he let Harry cry too until he realised it’d been far too long for Niall to be ordering something.

That realisation didn’t make it any easier to pull himself up and away though, so Louis decided to give it another moment. He felt raw and exposed in a way that no amount of therapy or sex had ever made him feel. “I still feel it,” he mumbled quietly, aware of Harry’s quickening heartbeat and yeah, that too. But that was a talk for a much different day, much later. “Like there’s something wrong with me. Why else would you, would they, would everyone… I think it’s easier to accept that I’m bad and not put fault on anyone else.”

“Lou—“ Whatever Harry was going to say was interrupted by the gate buzzer ringing through the house, startling Louis out of his arms and halfway to his feet before he caught himself. “Uh, sandwiches, probably. Do you um, I’ll get you some water.”

Nodding to himself, he got the hell out of the living room and busied himself getting drinks and napkins and the like. Mostly it was just an excuse to distance himself from Harry and the … the whatever the fuck had just happened. He was an idiot. Seriously. What the hell had he been thinking? Niall found him staring down the cutlery drawer, but before he could reach Louis’ side, Harry was in the doorway, awkwardly swaying.

“I um, sorry. Just wanted to check on Lou. D’you want me to … I could go eat in ou- my room?” He seemed to falter there, as did Louis because where was he going to stay?

“Oh. Um. I sorta moved into the blue room, so uh, feel free to take your pick.” Louis said quietly, “But you don’t have to leave. You can eat with us, I’m just gonna take a minute.”

Not quite meeting Niall’s eyes, he reached into his pocket to show his newly bought pack of cigarettes and snuck out to the back porch to get some breathing room and work on putting himself back together enough for casual human contact again. Harry’s and Niall’s voices occasionally rose loud enough for him to catch bit and pieces, but for the most part, he just let their sounds soothe him as much as the cold air was. He knew both of them had his best interests at heart and would see eye to eye again fairly soon. But he also knew Niall was not going to forgive and forget as easily as Louis was.

So dinner was quiet, but manageable. He still felt incredibly awkward eating in front of Harry, but it was getting easier, and he needed the practice. Tour meant lots of people and everyone one with a story to sell and an angle to work. He needed to learn to at least fake comfort in front of others and Niall didn’t hover and Harry didn’t tear up, so he figured he did okay.

Niall caught him at the sink again, quietly asking if he should stay the night, but Louis just shook his head. He didn’t need the supervision. Things weren’t perfect, but he wasn’t in danger of screaming at or fucking Harry tonight so he could handle being left alone. He almost mumbled as much, but he just promised to call if he needed to later and walked the boy out.

Now it was just him and Harry in a space that used to be him and Harry.

“This is weird,” Louis said finally. “Might as well get that out there. But um, yeah. Feel free to take whatever room. I can move whatever stuff I have in it out tomorrow if you’d like.”

“It’s okay. Are you uh, you gonna crash?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna shower, play some Fifa, and try and crash early. Big day tomorrow and all.”

“Yeah, alright. Then um, sweet dreams, Lou.”

“Good night, Harold.”

Rolling his eyes slightly at the man, he made his way around him and up to the room he’d half-moved into after way too many sleepless nights in the other. Now it felt odd again, instead of comforting, more so when he saw the light flick on down the hall and knew Harry was finally in their bedroom. Still, he tried to ignore that and any other sounds that might happen as Harry adjusted to a house that had adjusted to his disappearance by turning Fifa up obnoxiously loud. It seemed to amp him up even more though, so he shut it off, trying a long hot bath after that, but sleep just wasn’t a thing that was going to happen for him tonight. Not when he knew he was crawling into cold sheets and miles of empty mattress, with the body he was looking for was just footsteps away.

 

Chapter Text

And he was right.

He couldn’t seem to get comfortable or shut his brain off enough to sleep, so unsurprisingly he was a zombie at the tea pot a full two hours before his alarm was set to go off for the first time.

“Oh. Good morning.”

A beat too late, Louis lifted his gaze to find a freshly showered Harry making his way into the kitchen, looking a bit like a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar.

“Mmmmmpf,” was all he had the energy to reply with, coupled with a defeated little pout. Harry seemed to hesitate and Louis let his eyes close a moment, thinking the younger man would grab what he’d come for and escape again, but there was a faint wave of coconut making his nose twitch before he realised his body was subconsciously swaying into it. Gentle fingers pressed to his temples and he couldn’t help but sigh and deflate into the touch. He got the worst headaches after a night of tossing and turning, and it seemed Harry still knew that. It made his eyes prick again but no, he wasn’t going to start today like this.

“It’s still early, Lou. You have time to go lay down for awhile longer if you like.”

Louis spent a moment wondering if opening his mouth would make the fingers stop because they felt really, really good, but the silence was getting awkward. “Can’t get my brain to stop. It’ll be better once we do this, I think. I’ll try and nap after.”

“How bad is your sleeping?”

“Hmmm?” Louis shrugged, “It’s manageable. I’ll grab a redbull and be fine. Don’t worry.”

“Did you take some —“

“Yeah. They should kick in soon, thanks.”

Gently, Louis pulled out of his touch, blinking his eyes open once he realised he was in vague danger of falling asleep right there. “Thank you. D’you want breakfast?”

“What were you gonna make?”

That was a really good question. He wasn’t hungry. Was he? His stomach mostly just felt like it was in knots, so he lifted a shoulder and motioned to a little plastic box on the counter.

“Pick a card. We’ll eat whatever’s on it.”

“Meal cards?”

“It helps. Takes some of the responsibility of making sure all the food groups are accounted for along with their correct portions off along with the pressure of making an actual decision between several choices. Don’t make fun.”

“I wasn’t going to. I was genuinely curious. Go sit down, I’ll bring you your tea and then get started.”

“Harry…” Louis meet his gaze head on for the first time that morning. “You don’t have to do this. I wanted you to know what you were getting into, not assuming you’d just jump in and start taking care of me, you know? You don’t - Just, you don’t have to.”

“I want to.”

Louis could have guessed the words before they came so he frowned slightly as he reached out to gently touch Harry’s shoulder, meaning it as a platonic pat, but it ended up more like a desperate grab of his shirt. “Do you? Or is just what you’re used to?”

Almost immediately his hand was engulfed by a much larger one that just held on and squeezed until he dragged his gaze from them to Harry’s face again. “I had a year without you, Lou. I know beyond a doubt that I don’t want a life without you in it. Even if it’s just as co-workers, or just friends. I missed you and I will always be here for whatever you need.”

“Then why didn’t you come back to me?” he whispered, clearly feeling more vulnerable and cracked open than he thought he was, but still unable to take his eyes away from Harry’s. He was so afraid of what he might see, but he couldn’t stop looking, just in case.

His eyes were clear though. Clear, and soft, and full of a familiar fond with that edge of something that’d always made Louis feel like they were forever. Unbreakable. Ha.

“Because it had to be on your terms. You needed time and space to work through everything and I could understand that. I had my own problems I needed to work through as well. And I needed to be sure that when you came back, it was because you wanted to, not because you felt guilty or obligated or just wanting to avoid conflict. I wanted to be certain it was real.”

“It just felt like you didn’t care anymore,” Louis confessed quietly, not being able to handle seeing his own pain reflected back at him as he looked away. “That you could do … what you did and then just disappear. I kept thinking, ‘but he loves me. I know he does’ … guess I still don’t understand.” Louis pulled his hand away, mood broken by the sour words still burning on his tongue. He turned to get his tea cup and flee Harry’s general personal space, and the reeling he’d caused. This was a stupid thing to get into on no sleep, a shitload of stress, and a mandatory 12-16 hour day probably ahead of them. In close quarters with high tensions. Yeah, he was a fucking genius at 5am. Now he found himself debating on taking a seat and eating or retreating back to his room until he absolutely had to leave.

“Louis.”

Harry’s feet were loud against the tile, but Louis didn’t run, just stood where he was until cool fingers were wrapping around his elbow trying to turn him. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I thought it was best I stay away.”

Louis barely hesitated, before whipping around into the touch, interrupting with a probably too loud, “That was a stupid fucking thought.”

“I know. I see that now. I thought you — I thought you needed away from me in order to get better.”

“When have we ever been better apart?”

“What was I supposed to think, Lou? I -“

This time Louis didn’t just think about, but actually, shoved Harry back a few steps, not caring to let him finish that sentence. “You were supposed to think that you’d hop on the first fucking plane out of LA and fix things. That you’d apologise and make it right, then get me the help I needed so that you’d be there as I fucking restarted my life. I didn’t want to do that without you. I didn’t want to build a shiny new life that didn’t include you. I didn’t want to drag myself through recovery alone. You should have been there. Maybe it was important for both of us to realise that I didn’t need you there — but I wanted you there. And I’m pissed you didn’t even try.”

Trembling, Louis reached out to set his tea on the table, having half spilt it all over himself at some point, but needing the distraction as he tried to recenter and refocus. “You should have tried. You should have wanted to try. Because you … you’re Harry Styles. Words come as easily as charm does to you. But you didn’t come back and that says it all, right there, doesn’t it?”

For a moment it all came rushing back, every jagged thought and feeling that goes along with the realisation that you’d been left. Then relief hit because that, that was how he was going to get through this. He’d smile, he’d hold hands, he’d roll his eyes and blush, but he would not make the same mistake twice. Harry had made his choice.

“I’ll see you at rehearsals.”

Shrugging off the younger man’s touch, he ignored any other calls of his name, bitterly amused that that was one of his talents these days. How would that look on a CV? He just kept his head down and walked until he reached his door and could slam and lock it behind him. This was yet another moment in his life where he felt slightly disoriented, like he was removed from the scene, watching himself react as he thought about how ridiculously like a bad movie his life was. He was tempted to slide down right there and complete the cliche, but he chose the ‘star fishing on his bed and then crawling under a mound of blankets’ route instead. He was really bad at self soothing so he often turned to soft and cuddly things, trying to find the sensation he couldn’t give himself and it seemed to help. It was at least easier to breathe with all noise and light blocked out until his rush of emotions came back to overwhelm him. Fumbling for his phone, he sent Niall a quick text to please come pick him up, set another alarm, then shoved his headphones into the jack and turned up his library on shuffle to drown out Harry as much as his own thoughts.

He stayed there until his alarm interrupted and had just enough time to for a wee, to change into sweats, t-shirt, hoodie, beanie, and a quick brush of his teeth before nearly running through the house to get to Niall’s car that was just turning into his driveway. He probably deserved the shocked, wide-eyed stare he got but he was a little distracted by the box that’d been preventing him from sitting down and making a clean getaway.

“What is this?” He lifted it so he could slid into the seat and fasten himself in before the smell hit and he had to fight back a wave of nausea. “Oh, Niall.”

“I texted you. You didn’t reply so I took that to meant you hadn’t eaten. So eat. Then tell me what the fuck happened between when I left and now. You guys were doing so good.”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“You look like shit. So it’s probably a thing we should talk about.”

“Wow, you are on a roll today. By all means, please keep going.”

“Eat. Then you can have tea, you grouch. At least answer - are you okay?”

Scowling, Louis chose to avoid answering as he opened the box, sighing lightly at the food crammed there. “Yeah, m’fine. How much of this do I need to -” Wow, bargaining? He was back there? His eyes shut in frustration for the second or third time already today as he started laughing helplessly to keep from crying. Shaking his head, he began to mechanically push food into his mouth for as long as he could stand. They got there well before he finished and though he knew Niall would drive around the block until he was done, he gave into the part of his brain that desperately wanted to soothe and numb his feelings and just climbed out of the car to dump the rest of his food and grab his tea. Niall’s eyes were sad and worried, he could feel that as clearly as the guiding hand on his back, but chose to ignore it. Immediately, he ducked his head as they turned the corner and found a small group of screaming people with cameras there waiting for them. Louis didn’t even try a smile, just kept his head down and walked as Niall chattered bright enough for the both of them until they were inside with “Where’s Harry?” questions still ringing in their ears.

“Louis!”

Sore eyes lifted from the ground to the voice as he struggled to remember a name, he knew this, he knew he did, but a quick cut to his left had Niall grinning and greeting him by name, so Louis could follow up with a handshake and a smile.

“‘Ello, Matt. Thank you for allowing us time again on such short notice. The place looks great as always.”

At least manners were something that didn’t require much thought or effort. Politely edging his way out of the conversation, he wandered until he found the main room with their mics and various instruments were all set up. There were some unfamiliar faces tuning guitars, so Louis offered them a tight smile as he moved to check his mic before settling at the piano bench. At first, he’d just sat there because it was the only seat in the room that wasn’t a table but as more unfamiliar faces began to come and go, it became an excellent excuse to duck out of the small talk under the guise of warming up. First his fingers, then his voice, just doing little scales and quiet little breathing exercises until most of the outsiders were gone and Niall came to join him on the bench.

“You ready to start?”

“Oh. Sorry, yeah.”

Taking his hands off the keys was hard, but not quite as hard as walking up to his mic and finding they’d be repositioned in a circle facing each other. Wonderful. No matter where he looked he was going to see someone he’d rather not. At least Niall was to his left and Liam to his right, so someone had done their homework. He managed another tight smile as he walked up to his spot and glanced to his left.

“Alright, how do we … where do you want to start?”

“Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”

Louis’ gaze snapped up without his permission to find Harry staring straight at him. Fuck no, they weren’t playing that game. “Maybe we should stick to our actual singles.” Louis tried to counter, but Zayn was already humming as Liam motioned for the band to begin. It was just one run through, it wasn’t adding anything to the official set list and he just, had to disconnect himself a little.

That ended up proving to be impossible, but not in the way he’d been braced for. It wasn’t just the lyrics that sunk in and ripped him apart, it was also how awful they sounded together. Missed entrances, blatantly wrong notes, forgotten words, they sounded like a drunk karaoke rip off band, rather than the band who’d had five albums debut at number one, worldwide. Horrified, Louis just stared in shock at all of them when the song fizzled out after the first failed chorus, unsure what just happened and what to do about it.

“Get yer phones out,” came Niall’s steady voice next to them, jarring them all out of it as they patted pockets and chased down jackets until they all had the lyrics pulled up on their phones, embarrassment flushing their cheeks as Niall pulled the iTunes track up and actually played it back for them a few times.

The second run went better, even if Louis couldn’t quite keep his face neutral during certain lines because ow. Still, it was almost worth it to watch Harry flinch as Louis shot back the line about being ten feet down, but locked there, trading off lines as they stared each other down. Louis couldn’t help but shiver because God, they sounded good together. They always had. Even if they’d been separated on stage, they’d never been able to separate their voices for a reason. So he let his eyes close and the tight control he had on his every move go a little as he gave into the song, just feeling it until it rang to a close.

“Well,” Liam said finally. “That wasn’t as a bad as it could have been.”

“Now Strong.”

That popped Louis’ eyes open with a sharp, “No.”

“You don’t think it’d raise every eyebrow of everyone who’d ever shipped us if that song out of all of them was one we skipped while we’re oh so happily together and just as in love as we’ve always been?”

There wasn’t a comeback to that, not a single goddamn logical thought or counter-argument, so Louis just spun and walked until he got to a set of doors and then kept walking until he found a window he could crack. Making sure no crowds were about, he slipped out a much needed cigarette.

He got three puffs in before footsteps made him tense, an apology already on his lips, but Zayn didn’t say anything as he lit his own up so Louis let himself relax a little. He didn’t think they were at a comfortable enough civility for Zayn to express any thoughts or feelings. Then again it seemed it was really not his day for thinking.

“This was your idea, Tommo. If it’s too hard, call it off. Announce the break up. So fucking what. We’re gonna do what we can for X-Factor and then we all split off and go our separate ways again. There’s no sense in suffering this much.”

“I’m not …”

“You’re still in love with him.”

“Fuck you. Why did you follow me if you’re just gonna disappear again, eh?”

“You were upset. And whether you believe or not, I do actually care about how you feel, regardless of what our future career plans are.”

It was stupid, but those were the words Louis needed to hear before he deflated, going easily when Zayn’s arm came around his shoulders to pull him in. Zayn still smelled the same — smoke and paint and comfort. For a moment, Louis lingered where he was, face tucked into Zayn’s shoulder, breathing quietly as he stalled.

“Maybe I am,” Louis admitted finally. “In love with him still, but look where that got me.”

Sighing himself now, he straightened up, but didn’t dislodge Zayn’s arm, comforted by the closeness without wanting to be.

“You’re different now, he’s different now, you guys are quite literally meant to be, Lou and you still believe it. Or these songs wouldn’t be hitting so hard.”

“It’s hitting me hard because it’s quite literally a slap in the face about what I thought I had compared to what I actually did. Strong is a goddamn fucking joke. Everything we sing feels like one big joke at my expense at the moment. I didn’t — he didn’t — you think I’m honestly foolish enough to think we’re meant to be?”

Annoyed now, he pulled out of Zayn’s touch to bring the cigarette back up to his mouth, inhaling and exhaling a bit too harshly.

“You have to find a way to let it go, Tommo. It may not have been the way or the time you wanted, but he is back. He’s here and his focus is all you. Like it always has been. Not much has changed on his end and if you try, you’ll see that too.”

“Not much has changed? It’s cute how you know him better than you know me now,” Louis commented bitterly. “And you would vote for the forgive and forget way. S’not gonna happen. He made his choices and I had to live with them, so fuck you very much for telling me how I’m doing that wrong and what I should do for Harry’s benefit. Awesome to see where your priorities lie.”

Mood entirely soured, he stomped the cigarette out and went back to the studio, not making eye contact with anyone before giving a small nod.

“Fine. Strong. Let’s go.”

Zayn said he had to find a way to let go and Louis was a goddamn master of not letting things outwardly affect him, so he shut it off. All that came out of his mouth were words and melodies; no meaning, no sense, no memories — absolutely nothing at all that would invoke an emotional response. One of his hands stayed clenched somewhere on his mic or micstand while the other alternatively swung to keep the beat or tucked behind his back as he kept his eyes closed or focused on the floor. He kept intensive concentration focused on being as close to technically perfect as possible, mostly to avoid any kind of direct criticism, but he realised a small part of him was seeking some kind of validation — that it wasn’t his voice, or his stage presence, or shoddy lyrics that’d driven everyone away. Luckily, that part was easy to ignore and he kept up for as long as he could, but he also hadn’t sung so much as ‘happy birthday’ in nearly a year and a half, so, unsurprisingly his voice was the first to crack, roughen, and ultimately give out.

Instead of leaving though, he grabbed a bottle of water and just sat crossed legged right in the middle of their mics and pretended to conduct them, pulling faces, and messing with the tempo until one by one the other boys sat as their voices joined Lou’s in protest against anymore until they were all just sitting and looking at each other.

Musically, things weren’t wrong, per se, but they weren’t right either. Unable to put a finger on it, Louis decided to write it off for now and instead managed to find pen and paper he scribbled song titles on before tossing them in the middle of the circle, letting the boys add and veto songs until they had an actual setlist thrown together.

“Vocal rest for everyone as soon as you leave,” Liam whispered once they’d all nodded their agreement and taken pictures with their phones. “We’ll take the weekend to ourselves, listen to and re-memorize the songs we’d decided on and come back on Monday to really polish ‘em up, yeah?”

Silently, Louis gave Liam a little nod with a thumbs up and turned to push to his feet and walk out before anyone else tried to talk to him. Both Niall and Harry jumped after him, each taking an arm and Louis almost laughed before shaking out of Harry’s grasp. “Oi, Lou,” Niall said quietly, “We came together, remember? Just hold on a minute, and I’ll take you home.”

Harry made a disgruntled sound, pulling his phone out and typing quickly before shoving his phone into Louis’ face.

Look, I hate to say it, but you showing up with Niall visibly upset and ignoring everyone on the way in has a lot of people talking and not in a good way. We don’t have to talk or anything, just hold my hand until we’re in the car and I’ll leave you alone as soon as we’re home. But we should nip this in the bud now if we want our story to —

Louis stopped reading, frustrated once again by logic and the lie he’d thrown them headfirst into and just gave a defeated nod, showing the phone to Niall. That’d been his mess and he should fix it. Forcing a smile onto his lips, he held a hand out to Harry and tried not to flinch away from the touch when it came. Quietly waving over his shoulder at everyone else, he let Harry pull him closer to the doors, surprised and a bit dismayed to hear the sounds of still many, many, people outside causing him to balk a little. It sounded like news had spread, deeper adult male voices blending in with a range of females. It didn’t help the whole day had left him feeling emotionally rubbed raw and he was so — not on the ground anymore.

Yelping slightly, his hands windmilled in thin air a moment before his back hit a wall, taking a moment to realise Harry was suddenly in-between his legs pinning him right where he was before there was a mouth crashing over his before he could get a single word out. That was probably intentional seeing as how any words he might have said were immediately erased by pure shock. A soft gasp did escape, so at least, his body hadn’t completely betrayed him but the outrage he was waiting for never came. Instead, his body seemed to relax, his mouth opening to kiss back as he rocked off the wall, trying to subconsciously drag Harry closer to him. Somewhere in all that his hands managed to find places around the back of his neck and into the curls he loved so much, and he had to admit he was a little impressed with himself for that.

Everything seemed to drip away then; where they were, why they were doing this, and most troubling - just why they’d stopped doing this — all of it was just blissfully gone. Everything seemed right in his world for once. Every single one of his senses were being flooded by Harry, from the mixture of sweat and faded Tom Ford and the fingers squeezing dark fingerprints into his hips, to the noises ringing in his ears and his taste burning into his mouth. All of it together had him quite literally shivering in pleasure, which only got worse once Harry managed to disconnect their mouths. A disgruntled sound had initially left Louis’ mouth, but he quickly took it back to replace with a moan when teeth started teasing the underside of his jaw. His head fell back with a soft thump, eyes sliding shut as he tilted to the side to allow the man more access to the sensitive areas on his neck. Harry knew them all, of course, had been the only one to ever map them all out with a finger, tongue, teeth, all of it. And he was taking full advantage of that knowledge until Louis caught himself literally rocking off the wall, trying desperately to get some more attention elsewhere on his body.

Then he heard the clink against the window, and just like that, the bubble was popped.

His eyes flew open, hands pulling down to form little fists and pushed at Harry’s chest until his own feet were under him again. Harry’s chest was heaving under his hands and Louis found he couldn’t quite take them off just yet. Getting seen was probably inevitable but a disgusted rage still burned deep in his gut because this shouldn’t be anyone’s but theirs. They weren’t an exhibit at the zoo and their lives shouldn’t be broadcast to the masses, not tiny stolen moments like this. No, fuck that. Not big moments, or lazy moments, or anything that wasn’t an actual official public outing, like red carpet premieres or interviews or things they chose to share on social media. It was a fight they’d had so many times in so many different ways because erasing it had been an entirely different kind of painful and there seemed to be no middle ground. There was either too much privacy or not enough and both damaged them.

There was no winning.

Harry seemed to recognise the look on his face, because his arms were coming around Louis trying to dragging him into his chest until the worst of the helpless rage had passed. Harry knew it didn’t take long these days. But today he reeled back, struggling to not smack the hands off of him given that he was now all too aware there were people watching their every move as it all came rushing back.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Louis breathed, hoping the anger only read in his tone and nowhere else on his body, because Harry just raised both of his arms, effectively bracing him against the wall.

“It was giving us an excuse to put our head down and bolt for the car without stopping for anyone without reports of being aloof, rude, or fighting to follow us home. Also proof that we’re still going strong.”

And that — well, shit. Logical Styles strikes again.

Of course it hadn’t meant…shaking the thought off, he rocked up to press another kiss to the corner of his mouth, fingers slipping almost automatically into his belt loops as his eyes flicked up to Harry’s.

“Well, then. Shall we take this show home?” he mock-purred. He might be out of practice, but once upon a time, he had game exclusive to Harry Styles and wasn’t shy about bringing it out. Definitely no reason to get shy now if they were going to play a one-upmanship about who could fluster the other more. Louis lived for challenges like this.

Harry just laughed, bright and loud, and that got the worst of Louis’ mood to shake off with an answering grin of his own. His laugh had been so open that Louis found he was was literally unable to do much more than grin stupidly up at him until Harry pulled back, his hand dropping to pull his fingers from his belt loop and entangling them with a gentle squeeze instead.

“Ready?”

He was as ready as he’d get so he shrugged and nodded his consent.

 

Chapter Text

Five steps out of the door and he immediately regretted it. He was very much not ready. He’d grown accustomed to being able to move freely through the city without a bodyguard or even being noticed anymore. In fact, none of them had even thought about how outings like this might attract fan and pap attention alike, and now he and Harry were paying for it. Almost instantly the wave of people seemed to descend on them; fans yelling, crying, grabbing, and leaning in for selfies, all while being bathed in a sharp bursts of light from the professionals. It was honestly mind-blowing that it was 2017 and there were still people who got paid to take their photos and scream slurs at them in the hope of provoking a reaction shot.

The shouting disoriented him almost more than the flashing bulbs did, coming from every direction, each new sound being overwhelmed by a new, louder sound, until his head felt like it was going to explode. He tried to put himself between them and Harry, but a few well placed bumps against their hands had Harry being ripped away from him. Louis couldn’t help the shout he let out at that, panic starting to curl in his stomach.

“Harry!”

Louis threw himself forward, trying to bridge the sudden gap between them, but the fans were faster, pushing between him and Harry, carrying them both several feet back. Louis kept his gaze on Harry, trying to ignore the hands grabbing at him, and the cameras being thrown in his face, focusing on just trying to nudge his way politely past bodies until he could catch up, but it was a losing battle. Louis hadn’t been so frustrated with his body in months. He’d gained muscle back over the year but it seemed like all of that was being taxed just trying to stay on his feet. He didn’t have the height or mass to make it through the crowd and get to where he needed to be. Harry seemed okay in the glimpses he managed to catch of him. They’d surrounded him to the point he couldn’t move anymore, so there was that, at least. Now he was falling into the perfect popstar role, signing what was handed to him, speaking calmly, and smiling his special strained smile that let his displeasure be known without being overly rude about it and God, he was so unfairly good at this. Louis wasn’t being received so favorably, most of what was being said cut deep, but he was careful to not engage. He knew he had a temper that often got the better of him and worse, one that’d been stifled for a very long time, but this was not the time or place.

So he kept his head down as much as he could, other than peeking up now and again to make sure he was heading the right way, until he found himself in a similar cut off circle of desperate, needy, angry fans.

“Where have you been? Why’d you break Harry’s heart? Was it really drugs? Louis! How could you do that? The band breaking up was all your fault! I fucking told my bestie you’d cheat!”

They were fans. They were fans. He found himself chanting it over and over in his head, trying desperately to keep himself in check. They were fans. They only knew what they’d been fed and he was not PR, management, or the label’s favorite person. This wasn’t their fault. He just didn’t understand, if they hated him so much, why were they here? Why were their cameras on his face? Why were sharpies being thrust at him? What did they want from him? Did they need something to hate?

“Louis!”

His name had ceased to make sense anymore. Louis, Lewis, Tommo, Tomlinson, fag, Boobear, druggie, racist, Lou, homophobe - they were coming from all directions and had stopped sounding like English. Trying to raise up on his tiptoes, he twisted, trying to spot Harry’s curls again, trying to yell for him, but his voice wasn’t going to carry anywhere over this crowd. Goddamnit.

He was supposed to be the protector.

Keeping Harry safe was quite literally almost his job. So why was he the one shaking and focused entirely on getting to Harry before he lost it? “Please let me through. Let me get to Harry and I’ll sign whatever, say whatever, just let me get there. Please,” he’d resorted to begging, barely keeping himself from tears as he pushed uselessly against the nearest bodies to him. “Please.”

Breathing was starting to get hard, he couldn’t curl up any smaller than he already was, but the crowd wasn’t letting up. So he put his head down and tried to charge. This time seemed to work better and he did finally manage to get a couple feet closer until he got mistaken for another fan trying to get through and elbowed sharply in the ribs, the pain startling him into jerking and setting him off balance. More rough shoving between fans suddenly had him overbalancing and hitting the asphalt. Screams went up around him almost immediately and desperate hands were grabbing to try and get him up before he was trampled. It took a few tries and a dozen more bruises before he did manage to get back on his feet, but the excitement amping up the crowd made being upright nearly useless, as he was still pushed, pulled, and generally knocked around in the chaos. His beanie was gone, his phone was probably smashed, his sweater was ruined, yet it still didn’t seem to be enough. Maybe it wouldn’t be until he was quite literally in pieces on the ground. Vaguely, he thought he heard sirens, but it was impossible to hear anything definitively over the screaming. His hands rose, to protect his face or his hearing, or maybe both — he didn’t know— but he couldn’t fake calm and collected anymore. Hands were all over his arms, scratching and bruising in their attempts to drag them down and away, but he tried to resist them as long as he could, eyes moving frantically trying to spot danger before it happened. Harry’s name was falling from his mouth like a goddamn prayer. Though when it was finally answered a few minutes later, it was not by the curly haired man.

It turned out he must have actually heard sirens after all because he started to get glimpses of dark uniforms starting to split and pull apart the crowd. The police entrance had the whole crowd pushing to get away from them but Louis tried desperately to not only hold his ground, but actually start to break through the thinning lines towards the approaching police. Eventually, he got close enough to one to be recognised, pulled out, and immediately surrounded by men much larger than he was. Five more minutes had him back in the building, bent over and barely aware of Niall’s voice in his ear until more strangers finally marched in with Harry sandwiched safely between them.

“Louis, oh my God.”

The older man’s head snapped up at the relieved gasp, though he wasn’t even sure which of them was moving until Harry had him off his feet again and crushed against his chest. Trembling violently, Louis silently dropped his head to his shoulder, focusing on his scent and breath while trying to block out everything but Harry.

“I’ve got you, pumpkin. You’re safe now. I’m safe now. It’s okay.” Harry’s words seemed to be said as much for Louis’ benefit as his own, but Louis couldn’t tease him yet. Instead he found himself pulling even closer, his fingers working their way into the curls at the base of his neck as Harry’s huskier than normal tone started to soothe his frayed nerves. They were moving, that much he was aware of, and the other boys were within 10 feet or so, but mostly he was just trying to build up the courage to close his eyes again. Each time he tried, they popped back open again, adrenaline kicking in anew, in fear of missing a threat, while his skin kept burning from the brush of dozens of bodies against his own.

“What was that?” someone was asking behind them. “What’s going on? Why can’t we leave?” then, “Holy shit! Louis, yer bleeding.”

Harry nearly dropped him but Louis was holding on like a koala and refused to let go, so Harry sat first, settling Louis on his lap and nodding once at Niall, probably to show he’d heard. Louis didn’t want to look up or let go, so he’d just settle for buying Harry a new shirt if he got blood on this one. Granted, he was aware he should probably mumble as much, but he wasn’t quite ready to talk yet. Instead, his fingers tightened in Harry’s hair, trying to hold on tighter like it was just his loose grip that was making him shake. Harry let him for awhile, before he felt gentle lips against his hair before trailing down to his ear.

“Lou? Can I see where you’re bleeding? I promise you don’t have to move, or let go, just sit up a little for me, baby. Please?”

One of Harry’s hand was resting on the back of his head, lightly playing with the hair there, the other was rubbing small circles up and down his spine, in a tempo he’d perfected over the years. All of this suddenly felt like the strangest deja vu, like this could be anywhere in the world during any point of their ridiculous career. It was actually probably a little pathetic that they had a routine for this. Everyone knew how to handle everyone when things got like this because getting mobbed and having panic attacks was a regular occurrence in their lives. Or had been. Once upon a time. That’s why Zayn and Liam were close but not too close, why Niall had the supplies, and why Harry had an lapful while they all waited out the initial fallout.

Harry gave him a few moments longer before realising Louis wasn’t going to move and started to pull back himself, “Look up at me, babe.”

Louis thought about resisting, but ultimately he gave in, lifting his head up though he was telling himself that he was just checking Harry out and making sure he was still in one piece and not following orders. He was, for the record, in one piece. It just happened to be a not very happy one.

“Shit. Louis.”

Niall was next to them in a hurry, cursing up a storm as he got set up on the couch. Louis managed a glance over there before flinching away from the flannel heading towards his cheek. Harry started humming, effectively distracting him for a moment with both sound and touch, as he reached out to gently turn Louis’ gaze back to his. It took him a few beats to realise Harry was purposefully holding him still so Niall could start to mop the blood off his face.

“You’re okay, Lou,” Harry whispered. “Looks like a bit of a nasty scrape, that’s all. How’d that happen?”

Louis blinked, wondering if he should be feeling pain before he shrugged a little. “I fell.”

Harry’s hand spasmed on his back, but Niall was speaking up before Harry could start to freak too much.

“Probably don’t need stitches,” Niall informed them cheerfully, before he moved to gently start coaxing Louis’ arms temporarily away from Harry’s body, while casually throwing over his shoulder,  “Ay, boys. Anyone see an extra hoodie lying around?” Louis’ eyes finally slipped from Harry’s then, even as he subconsciously leaned into the hand still cradling his cheek, curious to see what had Niall cursing over again. It was bizarrely one of those rare moments where Louis could see the size of his forearm compared to Niall’s and consciously recognise that he was small. Not that it mattered or was of any importance to notice now, but it kept his mind distracted as Niall started taking the remaining pieces of his hoodie off and cleaning out the worst of the scratches. Harry had fallen silent once Niall turned his attention to his arms, though it took Louis a few minutes to realise it.

The look in his eyes when he did look up again, though, was one Louis recognised.

“Not. Your. Fault,” Louis whispered finally, waiting for green eyes to flash up and lock onto his and wasn’t disappointed when it happened almost immediately.

Harry’s head was shaking furiously before he even got the third word out, “It was. I set us up at the window. I brought you out there. I let go.” His head started to shake more so Louis pulled his arms away to gently cradle it while trying to stop the movement but that just made the younger man’s eyes fill with tears instead. “I tweeted it. A thank you to the studio for having us. I didn’t even think to wait until we left. This is all on me and I’m so sorry.”

“Shh. No reason to apologise, love. I’ll be okay, Haz. So will you.” Gently, he started moving fingers through his curls, sorting out his hair into some semblance of order while scratching lightly at his scalp until the worst of the tension seemed to bleed from his face and shoulders. Once it had, he couldn’t resist tugging a lock a little with a small smirk playing on his lips before whispering.

“You’re calling Alberto, though.”

Trying for a small smile, he shifted on Harry’s lap, feeling stable enough to face the rest of the room, but not to the point of doing so while sitting on his own. Harry’s arms dropped long enough to help pull the new hoodie on before settling securely around his stomach managing to both reassure and unsettle him. He needed the extra security of being literally ground to something right now, but for the first time in so long, he’d needed Harry and Harry had been there. That was mind-blowing. Fake for the people around them or not, Harry was holding him the way he always had and it was everything Louis needed to finally start to calm down.

Zayn and Liam had been leaning against the wall behind them, from what he remembered but both seemed to take Louis’ move as permission to come closer and take seats on the coffee table in front of them. Both had pinched expressions and somehow were making Louis feel a lot like a child being sent to the teacher’s office. And this time, he genuinely couldn’t think of anything he’d done wrong, per se.

“So security is probably something we should talk about again,” Liam said finally, though Zayn casually reached a hand out to smack at him almost as soon as the words left his mouth.

“Don’t joke. You ok, Lou?”

Louis gave a little shrug and nod, gingerly pressing more into Harry’s chest as he cleared his sore throat to try and vocalize something above a whisper.  “Wanna go home.”

They all flinched at how much more damage his voice had taken now, but Liam started nodding. “I know, Tommo. The police are working on getting us a secure route out of here. It shouldn’t be much longer.”

For some reason that didn’t make his heart beat any slower, but he nodded anyway, shifting to reach out for Niall a few times, then fuss with his sweater, with Harry’s hair, with anything he could keep his attention on for more than a few minutes. Over and over he tried to tell himself he was safe now. Safe, safe, safe. Relax. He couldn’t seem to believe the thought anymore than he could keep himself still, he was either shifting, squirming, or bouncing. He couldn’t relax but nor could he make himself get up and off Harry’s lap either.

After about ten minutes of that, he shot a puppy dog look at Liam, who groaned, but got up anyway to see what, if any, progress had been made in getting them the hell out.

Zayn sat forward, gently resting his hands on Louis’ knees, drawing the older man’s attention from where it had been bouncing around the faces in the room.

“Lou? D’you want us to come back with you?”

“No,” Was his knee-jerk reaction to spit out and one that caused Zayn to snap back, pulling his hands off Louis like he’d been burned and that was not what he’d intended. “No, I’m sorry. Thanks for offering. But I’m okay. There’s no need to.”

His hands tightened subconsciously into little fists as he tried to sit up, but Harry’s arms didn’t budge until he twisted a little to look over his shoulder and raise his eyebrows.

“It’s not weak to not be okay,” Harry said quietly. “We won’t judge you or hold it against you. I’m not really okay and I had it a lot easier than you did. So let us in, babe. Let us be there for you.”

Louis stared at Harry a moment, his chest a flurry of emotions he didn’t even try to name, before switching his muddled gaze to Niall, hoping the younger lad would pick up on his uncertainty and know what to do.

“I think we all need a hot bath, a cold beer, and some good food,” Niall settled on finally. “We’ve got phones and we know how to use them, so go on home, Z. Take care of yourself. Harry’s got Lou.”

Did he? A violent lurch occurred in his stomach at that, something he was half-certain Harry would have felt it, but he kept his gaze calmly on Niall. Was this real? Or was Harry just playing the part of supportive boyfriend while they were in public? Would he ditch Louis the second they walked inside? Was yesterday…What was yesterday? What was today? What was any of this?

How was he constantly falling into these ridiculous holes he never saw coming?

All three of their heads snapped up when the door opened again, but it was just Liam giving them a sheepish look. “Sorry. Hey. They’re waiting for private cars to come pick us up, but said if we really need to go somewhere, there’s police cars available. Why don’t you guys take one and Zayn and I’ll wait for the car? We’ll meet back here Monday, incognito and with bodyguards.”

Louis glanced back at Harry, biting his lip as he thought about it. It’d been a scandal if they were seen being driven about in police cars and it wasn’t exactly less conspicuous to drive around London in, but he really wanted wanted to be home.

“Okay.”

Gently untangling Harry’s arms, Louis stood up on his own, though he waited for both Niall and Harry to get to their feet before he started to move. “I’ll see you guys Monday. Have a good weekend.”

“Vocal rest, Tommo!” Liam called after him, while Zayn just stared, with what was that? Hurt? Intrigued, he filed that away for later, focusing instead on sandwiching himself safely between Niall and Harry as they walked out of the back room and towards the doors again. As soon as the sounds of screams reached his ears, his body kicked into overdrive, sweaty palms, racing heart, short breath — the works. Harry was there, sliding an easy arm around his shoulders as a group of police officers fell in a loose circle around them to escort them but it still didn’t feel safe.

Louis tried to ignore it all, ducking his head in an attempt to block it out, but the screaming and taunts grew louder once they stepped out onto the sidewalk. Granted there was several feet between the fans and them, but Harry still pulled him closer so he had some sort of actual human shield to defend himself with. Louis would probably never admit it out loud, but it did help. None of them looked up, or smiled, or waved, but it didn’t seem to discourage anyone. It was also possibly the longest walk to a car ever, but eventually there was an open door and three eager boys climbing through it. Louis sat stiffly between both of them, unsure if it was okay to relax or not. He kept twisting, trying to keep an eye on the cars behind them to see if they were being tailed. After a few blocks, and a couple sharp turns, they were taken to an underground car park, shuffled into a less conspicuous car and finally headed towards home. This time, Louis let his head fall on Niall’s shoulder, despite his mind refusing to slow down. Niall slipped an easy arm around his shoulders, letting him snuggle closer as he quickly sent an email off to his shrink to cancel his usual appointment due to personal safety and vocal concerns. He’d make sure he was there next week. Probably.

“Louis?”

Holding down a small sigh, he lifted his head enough to see over Niall’s arms and looked to the concerned face focused on him. “Tsk. We’re supposed to be on vocal rest, Mister Styles. Lucky Horan here won’t grass you up.” The joke — as awful as it was — seemed to allow both men to breathe again nearly simultaneously, which was a little weird. Louis glanced between them, faintly amused, before pulling up a group text for the three of them. “There. Will that make you two feel better?” he teased slightly. “Dodgy old men, the both of ya.”

Unfortunately, Harry had several years of ignoring him when he got ridiculous and remained incredibly straight-faced. “You doing okay?”

“Much better,” Louis dismissed. “But thank you.”

The stares boring into both side of his face ignited a flame of irritation deep in his stomach he was trying to ignore, but it promptly burst into flames at the casual, “Hey, Lou? You wanna stop somewhere for dinner?” from his right.

“No, Horan. I want to be safely in my house. That’s all.” He snapped quickly, before immediately wishing he hadn’t. He’d felt Niall flinch and just sighed heavily as he dropped his head back down to nuzzle in an apology. “I’m sorry. How ‘bout you guys drop me off and you ’n’ Harry can get something to eat? Bring me back something good.”

“Is this you asking for some time alone?”

“Yes, please. Is that okay?”

“‘Course.” Louis could actually feel Niall’s look over his head prompting Harry’s, “Yeah, of course,” to follow quickly after.

“Thanks.”

The rest of the ride was in a tense awkward silence that Louis was all too eager to climb out of when they got to his gate. Smiling lightly, he waved goodbye at the two of them and got safely behind his gate before they took off again. As soon as the car was out of sight, he broke into a run, skidding into the house and heading straight for the blue room. Once there he frantically grabbed what he could remember of essentials in his hurry - phone charger, laptop, socks, underwear, hoodies, beanies, joggers, t-shirts and shoved it all into a large duffel bag. There wasn’t time to grab a shower, so he just changed clothes, swallowed some pain relievers, turned his T.V. on low, closed his bedroom door, and then legged it to his car. If he was lucky, he could get maybe a two hour head start before they realised he wasn’t actually in his room.

 

Chapter Text

Turning off his phone, Louis tossed it into the seat next to him, secured his bag behind him and then threw the car into reverse. His hands fumbled to quickly shut his playlist off, needing the silence of just him and the road for once. His eyes took in his empty house for a moment, before pressing down on the accelerator intending to squeal tires and haul arse out of there. Only there was a car rather inconveniently blocking his driveway. Nondescript, nicer than would normally belong to a fan, but hell, some of the people that stalked them regularly were loaded so it wouldn’t be entirely outside of the realm of possibility. The thought of a repeat performance from earlier, but this time at the foot of his house, moistened his palms and sped his heart up. It wasn’t that he hated or avoided their fans, he was just ill-equipped to deal with the judgement, the need, and the disappointment. Ultimately, even if he stayed until every last person had gotten a picture, his name scrawled on something, and a chance to say everything they’d ever wanted to say to his face, they’d still leave feeling unfulfilled. He was human. Even at his most charming, he would always fall short of what they’d built him up to be and that was devastating to a natural people-pleaser.

Knocking on his window pulled him out of such thoughts, while also sending his body several inches into the air. Louis twisted, half to make sure there wasn’t a mob coming down the corner to swallow his car, and maybe send one desperate look around for Alberto chilling somewhere close, before finally making eye contact with the intruder. Who, at second glance, actually rather resembled his former best friend. Sighing, Louis deflated, dropping his head to his steering wheel and refusing to unlock the car, though he did put the car into neutral. Zayn, of course, didn’t give up, he continued to knock and held up a sharpie’d sign simply stating, “Unlock the fucking door, you prick.”

Louis lifted a finger to that and then closed his eyes, humming to himself as he made silent bets on how many minutes it’d take Zayn to get frustrated and give up. His most optimistic was five minutes, but he was fairly convinced another thirty seconds would do it. If Zayn managed just three, he’d pretty much destroy Louis’ window of opportunity of escape and that would not do, so he sat up and cracked the window.

“The fuck do you want?”

“Unlock the door.”

“No.”

“Unlock the fucking door, Lou. We can drive. But I’m coming with you.”

“I don’t need a babysitter!”

“The hell you don’t.”

For a long moment the two locked eyes, both growing ever more furious, until headlights made Louis twist, panic exploding deep in his stomach. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He whispered, mind whirling trying to find a way out. The car wouldn’t work. Zayn had him blocked in and maybe they could afford it if he rammed backwards anyway, but Louis hated car shopping. He could attempt to dart out the passenger side and make it on foot, there was a good chance he was in far better shape than his friend, but who was driving him? Did they have height and speed on Louis? They really didn’t need the headlines, “Louis Tomlinson tackled by unknown assailant in front of his house.” Zayn’s car wasn’t the only unfamiliar one hanging around lately. There was nothing left to do but admit defeat. That didn’t mean he had to do it gracefully, though, so he slammed his hand on the wheel while narrowing his eyes at Zayn.

“Move back.”

‘Louis runs over bandmate’s foot’ was probably another headline that should be avoided, though it took a moment for Zayn to understand what Louis was asking. Eventually, the other man took a few steps back so Louis could pull back in and get out of his car.

“Niall and Harry are out getting food, so tell your friend to move before they wonder why they can’t get in.”

Without sparring another glance towards Zayn, and careful of not breaking into a run, he grabbed his bag and headed back to the house. For a horrible moment, he considered slamming and locking the door behind himself, but what good would that do when Harry would just be happy to see Zayn and let him right in? Offer him fucking dinner? Eyes rolling, he toed his shoes off, childishly kicking them to fly anywhere in the entrance hall before breaking into a run up the stairs and towards the safety of his bedroom. There was a small part of his brain that was digging its heels in, trying to get him to stop and ask why he was flipping out, but he didn’t spare the time to think about it. Just shut off the T.V., threw his bag on the bed, and decided now he had time for a shower after all. Not to mention it was a second locked door between them and him and that was a bigger comfort than it should’ve been as the lock clicked softly under his shaking fingers. Backing away, he leant against the sink, letting his eyes close and his head drop into his hands. Just audible over the ragged sounds of his own breathing, he could hear his phone going off. Generic tones twice, then Niall’s customised one. Louis bet it was Zayn, Harry, then Niall, but what did it matter? All it did was irritate him over to the shower, hoping the rushing water would drown out the sounds. Which it might have, if they hadn’t progressed from calling to banging on his door.

“I’m not fucking dead,” He called out. “Please just leave me alone for awhile. I’m not going to do anything.”

What could he even get up to in here that had them flipping out so badly? He’d made his escape before dinner so he wasn’t on his knees, throwing up, and there wasn’t any alcohol in the house to steal. Hell, the thought hadn’t even occurred to him until now, he just wanted to breathe for a couple minutes. Why was that so concerning?

A cloud of innovative curse words slipped out when Niall’s voice rang through his bathroom. “Louis, hey,”

“Horan. I swear to God if you guys don’t back off, I will go down your list of things you’re terrified of and do them all in one night.”

“Louis.”

“What?! What do you want me to say? I’m not okay. There. I said it. I am not o-fucking-kay. Can you please give me an hour to be that way before you try to swoop in and save me? Just let me be. I can calm myself down, but you guys have to let me.”

“Lou, we just - “

“I know. You care. But seriously, Niall. We’ll talk in a bit. Please go away.”

Louis’ eyes were filling and his voice probably betrayed that, growing all thick and wavering without his permission, but it worked. There was a soft pat on the door before a soft ‘Come on, guys’ and three sets of footsteps leaving his room and finally, his door shutting with a purposeful snap. The sound seemed to snap all of his wires and he crumpled right where he was, curling tight into his knees and finally cracking under the whirlwind of a day he’d had. Fifteen minutes. That’s how long he’d give himself to have a proper cry, then he’d get in the shower, and then he’d go down and convince everyone he was fine. The tears came fast and hard, then disappeared as quickly as they’d come, his mind frantically flicking through his options on how to feel better. Most of them got dismissed the second they crossed his brain, but the cold handle of the cabinet behind him drew his thoughts in another direction. Niall had been strict just after he got out about making sure his house was scale-free and that Louis wasn’t stashing any in his room, but by the time he’d moved back into his own place, they’d both forgotten about it. He’d been in such a strong place, they’d forgotten to be wary, and now, now Louis knew what was just behind that door.

It took two breaths for him to break, twisting and reaching for the smooth glass tucked safely in the back, hidden by rolls of toilet paper. A strange mix of comfort and fear swirled in his stomach, when his fingers finally made contact, this stupid piece of glass had been both his cheerleader and worst nightmare all wrapped up in one. There had never been a real grey area with it, each step on was either a success or failure, until even the successes began to feel like failures. And why - why would he go back to that? He’d been miserable. He’d lost everything. There was no reason to undress and get on that. It was a number. Just a number. Something about mass versus gravity or something. A pointless number. Not at all related to his worth, self-esteem, or sanity.

Fuck it.

Louis undressed hurriedly, vaguely worried the steam was getting absorbed into his skin and hair, making him heavier than he really was, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. He’d just reweigh himself in the morning and see if there was a difference. Quickly, he used the toilet, to negate any weight that accumulated waste might bring before standing in front of the tiny glass square. Exhaling slowly, he raised a foot and pushed down, half-convinced the batteries would be dead and nothing would happen. To his great shock, three flashing 0’s came up and then disappeared, giving him his cue. Shutting his eyes, he stepped on, clenched his fists at his sides, then let them go.

Don’t look. Get off.

Muscle was heavier than fat. The number was going to be bigger than he’d got used to.

Why did logic never work when it was needed?

His eyes opened and then dropped immediately to the numbers. Oh, thank fuck. Relief left him in a startled giggle, as he stepped off to quickly hide the evidence. The number was a safe distance away from his panic weight, and yes, higher than had been his ideal for so long, but not as much so as he’d been fearing. Stress had been good for his waistline apparently. Buoyed by the discovery, he started humming as he tucked the glass away and got in the shower. The hot water seemed to strip away the rest of his previous dark mood, helped no doubt, by the distraction that had taken over control of his mind.

No longer was he thinking about the band, Harry, lyrics. No, now it was schemes, plans, old habits circling him like dear friends he was only too happy to greet and bring back into the fold. His eating disorder had been a shield between him and a world that sought to destroy him. It’d felt like armor and God, Louis had missed that feeling. This was the kind of dangerous thinking that was supposed to send him scrambling for a phone, but what would one day do? Other than the food Niall had brought him that morning, he hadn’t eaten all day. There was food waiting for him downstairs, but he could probably distract them with just the right amount of shaky and snuggly to get them to forget about it until tomorrow. Hell, he could probably even get away with going out on the pitch tomorrow, running laps before they got up, and then just kicking balls as a “stress-relieving” exercise. Niall would get suspicious, but Louis would be on his best behavior and convince the lad he was fine and Harry could handle anything.

He couldn’t, of course. Louis was counting on that.

For now, he towelled off, slipped into old soft sweats, seriously considered blow drying his hair before going down to face the music, then ultimately just combed it back, tucked a beanie over it and figured he’d stalled about as much as he could. The scrape on his face was already staining his cheek a rich purple, but it didn’t really hurt yet and it wasn’t like he had makeup here to cover it up. So he gathered the last of his resolve, straightened his shoulders, and unlocked the door. It took another moment of silent coaxing to reach out, switch the light off and cross the threshold back into his bedroom, but he did it. Once he did that, it was like motivation had been set rolling. His feet found slippers, his arms dropping damp laundry somewhere he’d regret later, before deliberately ignoring his phone on his bed, and heading down the stairs.

He’d thought the sound of water cutting off, or at the very least his feet against the stairs would have alerted the others to his presence, but he promptly froze halfway down the stairs when he caught his name floating up.

“Louis hates me, Niall! You should have heard him this morning. He’s furious with me, but goddamn he has gotten to be a bloody fine actor, these days, hasn’t he?”

“He has every reason to be furious with ya.”

“I know! I know that! I’m not fighting him on it. I just want to help him.”

“Well, maybe you should start by not jerking him around.” Niall sounded so cold all of a sudden, causing Louis to swallow a hysterical giggle, thinking maybe he wasn’t the only fine actor-to-be in their little group. “You’re here for the band, Harry. You’re in this house as a PR stunt — nothing more. So stop cuddling him, stop inching your way into his good graces, stop trying to bloody seduce him because that is not happening again. You shattered him. You don’t get a second chance at his heart.”

“That is not your call to make.”

“You wanna bet, lad? I will drag you out of ‘ere meself, if things go any more south. He’s walking on real thin ice right now, tryin’ to head towards solid ground. It wouldn’t take much to knock him off the path of recovery, but I’ll be damned if I let you be the one to ruin all this for him. He’s overcome too much for that, means too much to me to let you and your whims fuck it all up. So stop. Be civil, but back off.”

“Or what?”

“Wouldn’t recommend risking it. I am in this for Lou and the second this stops being good for him, we’re out. You hear me?”

Gradually, Louis became aware of the sinking feeling one gets when being watched, and finally looked down the stairs to see Zayn at the foot, staring silently up at him. No doubt, the other man was also listening in, but was he hearing the same things Louis was? What would it be like standing on that side? Did Zayn root for Harry or sympathise with Niall? Once upon a time, Louis would know without even having to look at him, but now he was just staring down at Zayn while vaguely wondering if he should feel guilty or something for eavesdropping. He didn’t. His mind was distracted and too busy trying to figure out how to placate Niall’s concerns enough to throw him off the scent, while simultaneously plotting how best to throw himself down the rabbit hole again.

Harry’s voice interrupted their staring, but it was too low to make out the actual words. Though not too low to keep from sparking Zayn into action. The younger man pulled out a box of cigarettes before holding it up as a silent question to Louis. Did he dare? His eyes snapped back to where he thought Niall and Harry were arguing, but gave in with a little shrug. There wasn’t much more he’d learn standing here and the strained awkward tension waiting for him in the kitchen wasn’t exactly appealing. So he moved the rest of the way down the stairs, following Zayn through the living room to the back yard. It was dark now, but there was a cold comfort in the moon and stars, the familiar orange glow of the cigarettes and gentle wisps of smoke. Casually, he leaned forward and let Zayn light his cigarette before going to take a seat on the top stair of his porch. Zayn didn’t hesitate to follow, boldly taking the seat next to Louis, both uninvited and much closer than their current friendship or the cold would really excuse, but Louis let it go, focusing on the slow inhale and exhale and ;what if’s going around his head instead. At least he’d intended to, but Zayn had other ideas.

“So much for Captain Niall, eh?” Zayn said finally.

“Don’t,” Louis whispered. “What were you doing here?”

“You weren’t okay. I knew you’d bolt.”

Louis drew the smoke in too sharply, scalding his already irritated throat. Annoyed, he promptly dropped the cigarette to stomp out his frustration. “No. You don’t get to do this now."

“I can’t, but Harry can?”

In a flash, Louis saw himself turning, forming a fist and smacking it against those stupidly perfect cheekbones. But what were more bruises, really? It’d feel good for a minute, but ultimately just cause more problems.

“It’s complicated,” Louis said finally, just beginning to piece it together himself. “If you’d been in my shoes…if you were at the mercy of a literal mob of unstable humans, who would you be thinking about? What thought would keep you on your feet and pushing? Perrie? Your sisters? Your parents? Niall, Liam, me, Harry? It’s different for you guys. Who you love and your bandmates are two entirely different things.” He twisted a little to glance over his shoulder and double checked that there weren’t any dark shadows lingering just inside earshot, before turning back to Zayn. “He’s not wrong. On one hand, I’m furious with the lot of you — Harry included — as my bandmates, as my best friends, as my brothers but on the other… he was the love of my ridiculous life and that doesn’t just go away, no matter how much I wish it would sometimes. It was him I was fighting to get back to. Not because he was the only one of you out there, but because he was Harry. I’m not blameless and I know that. I made my choices and I chose to smile and say things were okay when they weren’t, I lied, I hid, and I probably shouldn’t hold it against you all that you guys fell for it, but there’s the small voice that says you should have seen through it. Especially you.”

Zayn’s eyes were wide, and yeah, well. He probably deserved that. He’d said he wasn’t going to do this, but then, when did he ever do the things he said he was going to?

“Harry and I wouldn’t have lasted as long as we did if it weren’t for you, you know that? During the separate plane rides, the extended vacations apart, movie nights at my house to keep me off the internet and from seeing who they were parading him around town with, you - I relied on you so much. Maybe too much and for that, I’m sorry. I’d grown dependent on you being there when he wasn’t. I should have realised that if he’d slipped away without my noticing, you’d have done the same. I’m sorry it got to that point.”

“Louis, holy shit, shut up.” Warmth surrounded him, which was always one of the things that’d always puzzled Louis. Zayn was an excellent snuggler against all logic. Deciding now was not the time to muse on that, he just leaned into Zayn’s body, thoroughly regretting not stopping for a jacket. “I know there’s nothing I can do now to change what happened. But I do regret it, and I am sorry for it. And that means that I’m going to do things differently now. I’m not going to assume Harry has it, or that Niall can take care of you, I’ll be here for whatever you need. I’ll speak up and follow you home when I’m worried about you. I’ll show you I care instead of assuming you know how much I love you, alright?”

“Alright.”

“So what’s going on? Where were you gonna go?”

Louis sighed, what use was it now to talk about it? But he knew Zayn too well to think he’d let it go. “My Mum’s. I just … wanted to get away from him for awhile. Things were getting, are getting, confusing. He’s there but he’s not. I don’t know what’s real and what’s for show and I shouldn’t want anything for real and it just got a bit much.”

“Could you forgive him? In time?”

“He’s Harry. Who could resist that face?”

“Louis.”

“Could he forgive me? He did what he did, but I drove him to that point. The resentment doesn’t run one-sided and I’m not sure he’s realised that yet.”

“He doesn’t hate you.”

“Mmm. We’ll see.”

Reluctantly, Louis slid away from Zayn’s body heat when he heard approaching footsteps and sliding glass, completely unsurprised to see blond hair peeking out.

“Lou? You out here? Dinner’s ready. Hey, Malik.”

Louis debated a moment, if he’d get away with curling back up and being able to distract them from dinner with cuddles, but Zayn was already up, stubbing out his cigarette and offering a hand down to Louis. Aw, fuck. Sighing, he reached up and let the younger man help him to his feet, following him until Niall reached out, wrapping light fingers around his arm and stilling him a moment as he nodded for Zayn to go on.

“You okay?”

“Fine.”

“Maybe you should email Sam. Talk to him about today anyway, even if he just prints it out and you guys talk about it next week - I don’t think you should hold it in.”

“Not that big of a deal, Nialler. We got mobbed a lot. I’m fine, really.” It barely even tasted like a lie, as he pushed his lips up in a smile and patted Niall’s cheek. “Let’s go eat.”

At least that’d been the plan before he walked into his kitchen and saw there was more food than he was expecting set out on his table. Definitely much more than his table had seen in a long time, but he also knew there were three sets of worried eyes on him, cataloging his every reaction. If he played this smart, he’d sit down and distract them while putting them all at ease. But this on top of everything else that’d happened today? Fuck. He couldn’t. Panic was filling his stomach and spreading through his limbs with each frantic beat of his heart. He couldn’t afford to fuck this up.  But he couldn’t eat all that. Niall’s hand was on his arm again, saying something about indecisive and choices, but Louis tuned him out for the most part. His eyes quickly sorted the table out by numbers, trying to find something safe and comfortable in the spread, before he took another small step back.

Niall.”

The blond boy’s face fell at presumedly Louis’ distressed tone, before he nodded slightly. “Fine. I’ll bring you a plate in the living room but so help me, Louis. This is exactly why I need you to talk to someone. Email, call, I don’t care - get a hold of Sam. Or his co-worker. Or find out when and where groups are meeting tonight or tomorrow your choice, but I’m not leaving until you have something set up.”

Louis had no come back for that, so he just nodded tightly, spinning on his heel as he retreated to a room with a door and nothing more threatening than a candy dish. 

 

Chapter Text

It was Niall’s threat that had Louis out of bed at a ridiculous time for a has-been popstar the next morning, following his GPS to an unfamiliar location. The night before hadn’t got any better after the failed attempt at dinner. Zayn had left first and it had been awkward enough that Louis would bet on the man having felt like an unwanted third wheel. Not that Louis could blame him, really. There’d been a weird tension between Harry and Niall all night, and while Louis knew Niall was just looking out for him, he couldn’t help but feel a little bad for Harry. Both of them had the same end goal - to help Louis - and what was he doing with that? He was shoving both of them away to do exactly what they were trying so hard to prevent. And for what? Maybe it wasn’t anger anymore. Maybe it wasn’t that Louis felt like he didn’t matter to the people he called friends, but truly that he didn’t matter to himself. He didn’t feel worthy of Niall’s protection, or Harry’s perseverance, so he didn’t want them to waste their time and energy on him.

But that wasn’t his call to make.

And that’s exactly why he got in the car and headed off to the first support group he could find. For a long time, he’d been wary of group therapy. He was bound by several contracts making him increasingly terrified of saying something he shouldn’t to someone he shouldn’t. It’d taken him weeks in therapy to really put his trust in patient-doctor confidentiality, but sitting in a sharing circle and doing the same thing for an audience, especially a young audience that had more social media accounts than he could probably recognise, it was just not something he could make himself do. It’d taken him two months in treatment before he even admitted out loud that he was gay and how much of an impact that had on his eating disorder, and he’d only spoken up then because someone else was struggling and nobody seemed to be offering anything actually useful to help her with. That was when it clicked. That group therapy wasn’t about collecting secrets, or something to fear, or hide, or feel ashamed about. It was genuinely connecting with other people, to share problems and solutions, to look around a room and know you weren’t alone in your struggles. That kind of strength, Louis thought he’d known it before, standing on a stage in front of thousands of nameless faces, but it was a pale imitation. The sessions were probably something he should have been attending a lot more regularly if the jittery relief spreading through his body as he walked into the therapy room was any indication.

It was empty for now, of course. He always showed up to new groups earlier than his normal early, to try and catch the moderator before anyone else was there. It was a bit of a necessary evil to introduce himself and press on how important confidentiality was, and make sure that his celebrity status wouldn’t harm the group or vice versa. He didn’t enjoy threatening people with his status, but there were some things that just weren’t meant to be shared on Twitter or Tumblr. He wasn’t doing this as Louis Tomlinson of One Direction. He was doing this as a young man who’d been through some shit and might have something useful to say to other people going through it.

The moderator this morning was named Martha and she’d offered to grab him some tea while he made himself comfortable. She hadn’t seemed overly starstruck, though once he removed his glasses, she’d clearly recognised him. Louis was never sure if that was flattering or worrying that the mums seemed to prefer him over his bandmates, but it worked out in his favour today. She reassured him there’d be no problem with his dropping in, and that she’d do her best to keep his presence and what he said out of public knowledge. Louis couldn’t really ask for anything more. He expected more people to start trickling in as it got towards the twenty minute mark but it was just Martha with her hands full. Louis jumped up but she waved him back down, passing off a to-go cup and settling at the desk chair.

This was the part Louis hated most. The awkward silences and the uncertainty of whether or not he should speak up or if every time he did that it’d be picked apart and examined. But he’d be a liar if he said he could stand to sit anywhere in silence especially when attention could be on him, so he shifted and blew on his cup for a moment, before offering a small smile of his own.

“So is this a big group, typically? How long has it be going on? Are there a lot of regulars?”

“We’ve been going for about five years now. There are some regulars. I’ve never had a week where no one’s showed up, but there’s been a couple times only two have, a memorable time we had to move out into the lobby because more people came than could fit in my office. But that only happened once. The friends and family meetings we do every other week tend to pull bodies, but it’s a steady group. They’re not always eager to share, but they’re eager to help. Have you been going to a lot of groups? Do you find them helpful?”

Louis smiled a little around the lid of his cup as he took a sip before shrugging. “I went to them steadily after treatment, for about six months. And then I started to think I was okay again.” Laughing slightly, he shrugged, bringing his cup back down to cradle in-between his hands. “I was wrong.”

“Well, good thing membership never expires. We’re happy you’re here. Is there another name you’d like to go by, or … “

“No. I’m not gonna lie. Makes the advice I give and take fall flat. I apologise in advance for whatever disturbance my presence does bring though. I hope it’s nothing lasting.”

“You deserve treatment too, regardless of how popular you might be.”

Did he? Unsure of what to say to that, he just pushed another small smile onto his face and settled in to wait for new arrivals. With fifteen minutes to go, he finally started to hear footsteps and slipped his glasses back on then, after a moment, flipped his hood up as well. He’d picked the armchair to claim as his own, surrounded by couches and loveseats on both sides. It felt more like a living room than a therapist’s office, but Louis was willing to bet that was the point. It didn’t take long for the room to fill, for 9:00am to come and go, though it stayed mysteriously silent for another three minutes until the last minute stragglers walked in.

Finally, Martha sat up and smiled as she looked around the group. “Good morning. There’s a lot of new faces today, which is great. Welcome. This group is run by you and for you for the most part. I’m just here to keep things on track and recovery-oriented. In order to do that, I must insist on some guidelines. No numbers, no details - you can say you used behaviors but don’t tell us what you did or how you did it - we’re not here to help each other get worse, so all I ask is that you think about the impact of your words before you say them. And stress that what’s said in this room must stay in this room. I want this to be a safe place for anyone who walks through that door. Usually, we go around the circle and you say your name, and something good that’s happened to you this week. Whether its progress you made in recovery or therapy or just something that made you smile. Then we’ll open up to whoever wants to start and take turns from there. Sound good? My name’s Martha. I’ve been recovered for over a decade now, and have been working in this area to help other people with eating disorders for about six years.”

They went around the circle, though Louis was barely keeping track of names as he struggled to think of something good to share with the class. Had anything good happened this week? At the moment, it certainly didn’t feel like it. But time was up. Reluctantly, he slid his hood off, readjusting his beanie and patting down his fringe before pulling his glasses off and finally meeting people eye to eye.

“Hi. I’m Louis. Some of you may recognise me, and I’m asking that you please forget about what I did for a living for an hour and a half. In here, I’m just another one of you and I’d asked to be treated in the same way with the same confidentiality. I’ve been in recovery for about six months now. And a good thing that happened this week … I was reminded that I have a best friend who won’t give up on me. That’s why I’m here.”

The rest of the introductions went by quick after that, and all too soon they were at the awkward, stare at each other and shuffle their feet, mentally begging someone - anyone - to speak up first. Another few minutes of silence ticked by, and more and more glances were being shot his way, so Louis squared his shoulders and sat forward in his chair, nervously clasping his hands together and forcing a slight laugh.

“Well, alright. I guess I’ll start. When I entered treatment, I left behind a certain life and that life held certain people and certain jobs that I thought I’d never honestly see again. This week those people and those obligations have come back. And I’m not dealing with it very well. So I guess, my question to you all is how did you cope with things pre-treatment, pre-recovery, coming back after you’ve … changed.”

A girl to his left sat up too, making shy eye contact with him before dropping her gaze to her shoes. “It’s always been funny to me, how eagerly people will see the cracks, see the flaws, but fight so hard to not see change or progress. It’s difficult. And its not really something you can change or affect. All you can do is keep your head up and keep your eyes on your own recovery and the people who are meant to be there on the other side - they will be.”

“Thank you,” Louis said softly, even though the words were essentially going in one ear and out the other. How was that even remotely helpful?

“Are you currently in therapy, Louis?” Martha spoke up then, sparking Louis to flush guiltily before nodding.

“I am. I’ve not been the best at actually attending my sessions lately, but yeah.”

“And why do you think that is?”

“Work.”

“Really? Your therapist wasn’t willing to work around your schedule?”

“I didn’t want to reschedule.”

“And why’s that?”

Louis was silent for a moment, his gaze fixed on his hands, trying not to think what she wanted him too. “Because I knew what he’d say and I wasn’t ready to hear it. I’m still not.”

“Do you mind sharing with us, what it is you’re so afraid of hearing?”

“That I’ve um, been in relapse for longer than I want to admit. And that I have to make a decision between my career and my health.”

“Seems to me like you can’t have a career without your health, love. Something to think about. Does anyone else have anything they want to add for Louis, here?”

“Don’t let them shape you,” another voice spoke up, drawing Louis’ attention to the other side of the circle. “When I’m around people I knew pre-recovery, I feel pressured to act the way I did then. They expected me to say certain things, react in certain ways, and I’d do it. But it only hurt me, in the end. So stay true to yourself. If things bother you, speak up. If you’re struggling, reach out. You don’t have to make their lives easier or more suitable for their tastes, you’re who you are now and that needs to be ok, or those aren’t people worth having in your life.”

“Thank you.” Louis wasn’t sure what else to say to that. That was the second problem with group therapy. Often times advice came down that possible and downright logical for most people, but not for him. He couldn’t just say fuck off to Simon Cowell and the entertainment industry. He couldn’t walk away from Harry again. He didn’t get those kinds of options. He fell quiet, obligatorily piping up here and there when things got too quiet or he felt the advice that was given was poor, but mostly keeping to himself. It was a lot easier to tell people what they should do then do it himself, but that was neither here nor there at the moment.

By the time 10:35 rolled around, Louis wasn’t feeling much better. He was talked out, emotionally burnt out, and still just as confused as he was when he walked in. What were his options? Did he have any other than to come up with a detailed get-back-on-track plan with his shrink? Did he even want to get back on track? Martha had stopped him before he left, thanking him for his attendance and insight, before offering her card in case his therapist couldn’t work around Louis’ schedule. Funny, she’d probably end up regretting that if he did call. He was an awful patient. But he dutifully tucked it into his pocket, figuring it’d be more proof for Niall that he actually went out of the house to do something productive. Speaking of the devil, if he was going to insist on Louis getting up this early, he was going to get a wake up call as well.

~

It took about twenty minutes to get to Niall’s apartment complex, Louis slowing down just enough to give a brief hello nod to the doorman and then Niall’s security team before letting himself in and beelining for the master bedroom. Cautiously, he peeked around the corner, hoping that a) Niall was still blissfully asleep and b) that he didn’t have company. He was in luck on both counts, so he took a running leap onto the bed, bursting into song just in time to watch Niall jerk upright, flail, and promptly fall directly onto the floor. Louis’ sides actually hurt by the time he was done laughing, but he did roll over a few times and extend a hand to the grumpy Irishman.

“Oh, I needed that. C’mere. I’ll make it up to you.”

“You’re a menace, Tomlinson.”

“You love me.”

“Aye, I do.”

Niall got up then, sliding back under the covers with a long stretch and a yawn before settling on his side to look at Louis. “Okay, you had your fun. Now you wanna tell me what I owe this lovely wake up to?”

And just like that, Louis’ mood crashed. The smile slipped off his face, his body folding back in on itself, even as Niall reached out to pull him closer. Where did Louis start? How much did he want to give up to Niall? Leaving group, he’d been full of optimistic determination, but now he couldn’t seem to recall any of that. “I went to a new group this morning,” He started finally, curling into Niall’s shoulder with a soft sigh. “They weren’t very helpful.”

“Louis.”

There was nothing worse than the patient, you’re-being-an-idiot-and-we-both-know-it tone. Disgruntled, Louis felt himself bristle and pulled away from it to level Niall with an even glare of his own. “They weren’t. I mean, how could they be? We’re notoriously black and white thinkers. Things need to be one way or the other. Career or health. Can’t have both in our world. But unfortunately for them, the real world is a shade of gray and has lots of permanent ties between career and health that aren’t exactly breakable. So what am I supposed to do?”

Niall pulled away from him abruptly, steely blue eyes searching him from head to toe, like he’d be able to see right through Louis’ skin.“When you say health, is something going on? Are your heart palpitation back? Fainting? Talk to me.”

“No, I’m fine. I mean, I’m not fine, but physically I’m not broken. Yet. Again. Whichever. I’d tell you that.” Not that Louis’ word had much to it these days considering how much he hadn’t said. “Look, I’ll just come out and say it. I’m struggling. You see it, you know. But maybe it’s just a transition thing. I mean, last week we were writing songs for other people and relaxing and this week, it’s studios, and old songs, and old friends, and mobs, and articles - even a healthy minded person who would be struggling a little to readjust. I think I should get some leeway.”

Louis could feel Niall’s eyes still trying to pierce through him and looked up finally so he could look Louis in the eye. “You’ve got leeway. I didn’t call Sam, did I? Didn’t put you in the car and drive you there myself or anything. I’m trusting you can navigate this, but I’m here if you need me, Lou. You’ve got to keep this toe-stub from becoming a full on face-plant, you know what I’m saying? You can. I know you can. But you need to know that.”

“Okay,” Louis nodded. That was fair enough. He couldn’t always expect someone to reach out, steady him, and set him on the right course. He was an adult. He could do it himself. Right? “That probably means I should admit I have a scale. And that I threw up after you left.” Flinching slightly, he peeked to check Niall’s reaction, but his face still patient.

“And?”

“And I ran laps around the pitch before Harry got up.”

“Thank you for telling me. Did you eat today?”

“No.”

“Are you going to?”

Cursing lightly, he went back to hiding in Niall’s shoulder, “I don’t know. Yes.”

It didn’t take long for Niall’s arms to wrap around him, and now Louis could feel the disappointment in his friend. “Is Harry being there making it worse? You can stay here, or he can. You come first. Just say the word.”

“It’s not Harry.” Well. “Okay, it’s a little Harry. But not, not like you’re thinking. It’s bittersweet to have him around again. In a way, it feels like things have finally righted themselves before I remember he doesn’t actually live there and it’s all not real. But it’s more the fact I’m letting it happen again. Someone’s yanking my strings and that means manipulating my life right down to the most intimate parts of it. Nothing’s sacred. Mine and Harry’s past relationship is being exploited for current PR and that’s infuriating. I have an email that actually lists out the places they want us to be seen, ‘suggestions’ for us to tweet, picture ideas for Harry’s instagram, gentle reminders to include each other’s extended family in on this and I’m so sick of a world where this is our only option.”

“Louis - Hey, nobody said - “

“Just like nobody said you couldn’t dye your hair, right? It was just strongly suggested that you stay blonde, as to not confuse our fans who’ve grown to love the blonde-haired lad, right? Do you remember how much ‘We’re not going to force you but…” feels like a goddamn box? I just feel like the entire last year was for nothing.”

Niall did finally shove him away for that, sitting up to run distressed hands through his hair, before reaching out to smack Louis on the chest. “Fuck you, mate. How dare you. The last year gave you your life back, quite literally, I’ll reluctantly remind you. I know you weren’t exactly with it for that, but you do remember this was all kicked off with an actual medical hospital stay, right? You’re alive, Lou. And I’m damn sure going to keep you that way, but you gotta tell me how to help you.”

Another defeated sigh slipped past Louis’ lips as he settled back against Niall’s pillows, spreading out on his back. “What can you do? It’s how this game is played, Nialler. I’ll be fine. It’s just a couple more weeks. I’ll try harder, okay? I’ll go see Sam as often as he’ll let me, go to his weepy group and let you nag me.”

“Who are you trying to convince here, Tommo? Me or you?”

“Both.” Louis laughed humorlessly, bringing his hands up to his face, groaning loudly. “What do I do?”

“You stop throwing up. We need your vocal chords. Not to mention all the complications that could -“

“Alright, alright.”

“You call Sam. Let him help you figure out how to get this back on track, and you do it. You can do this, Louis. I have nothing but faith in you.”

“Dunno why. But alright, go shower, I’ll make us breakfast. And get some of the lyrics we need to be working on. Thanks for the pep talk.” Pushing a smile on his face, he darted to press a sloppy kiss to Niall’s cheek, before pushing himself off the bed and retreating to his last favourite room in the flat.

~~

Louis found all the staples to recreate the first breakfast Niall made for him post-treatment and since he was essentially starting over, it felt fitting. If not just as daunting as it had the first time. Still, he didn’t have another option, so he squared his shoulders and got to work. Once everything was set, he dug his phone out to put on the charger before he realised he had a new text from an unsaved number.

Knock knock.

There was really only person that could be from this early and Louis couldn’t help the slight smile on his lips. The text had been sent an hour ago, so he wasn’t entirely sure he’d get a reply now, but he still sent the obligatory:

Who’s there?

There was just enough time to grab the kettle and pour two cups before his phone chimed to let him know he had another response. Willing himself to stay calm, he walked slowly over towards his chair and settled in before picking the phone back up.

Urine.

Which, what? Louis had to double check that twice and tried to figure out how Harry would make a penis joke out of this, but ultimately had to admit defeat.

Urine who?

Urine-secure don’t know what for. You’re turning heads when you walk through the do-or-or.

Shocked, Louis just stared at his phone for a moment before he started to laugh, furiously shaking his head as his fingers flew over the keyboard.

That was awful, Styles. Even for you. And now I’m going to be singing that all day.

I could think of worse ways to spend a day.

Revenge will be sweet.

Hahaha. Shakin’ in my boots, Tommo. I got another?

No.

Louis meant to add more, but footsteps made his fingers freeze and his cheeks colour like he’d just been caught doing something terribly wrong. For a moment, he just stared at Niall as Niall stared at him before he felt his usual grin pull on his mouth. “Hey, hey Niall? Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Urine.”

“Urine, who?”

“You’re insecure, don’t know what for. You’re turning heads when you walk through the do-or-or.” Louis continued serenading Niall even as he ran around the kitchen with his hands over his ears trying to la-la-la his way through Louis’ chorus. But hey, he had amazing projection, okay. Fully giggling by the time he reached the end of the song, he picked his phone back up and snapped a quick picture of a grumpy red-faced Irishman and sent it off to Harry.

Not a big fan of my serenading :(

Niall quickly settled into his seat, eyeing the spread Louis had put out, before flicking cautious eyes up at him. “You done? Or did Harry have more gems to share? I’d rather not choke today.”

Sticking his tongue out in a blatant show of his current mental age, he eyed his phone nervously for a reply, while putting together a balanced plate. First grain, dairy, fat, fruit, second grain, protein, mentally he checked them off as he tried to recall proper portion sizes before finally his phone buzzed. He snatched it, eager for the distraction, as he tuned out Niall’s grumbles.

Can’t have anyone stealing my #1 spot! You coming home later?

Yeah. I’ll be there after breakfast. Fifa?

Practice.

You’re no fun.

Quite the opposite. You’ll see.

Intrigued now, Louis set the phone down, ignoring Niall’s pointed look. There wasn’t anything wrong with spending some time with a bandmate. Bonding was important and all that. And maybe, in a way, Louis felt more himself in Harry’s presence than anywhere else. He needed that right now. At any rate, going back to do something fun with Harry was precisely the motivation he needed to power through his plate and the obligatory supervision after, before Niall was sending him off with a pat on the head and a lot of stern words that went in one ear and out the other.

Nobody ever claimed Louis was a master of responsibility.

 

Chapter Text

There weren’t many times Louis could recall actual butterflies filling his stomach on the walk to his own front door. Mostly, it’d just been the first time he walked into a new place, and never somewhere he’d called home for years. Then again, his recent grasp on ‘normal’ and ‘manageable’ had taken a rather large hit recently, so maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised. Then again, how many people walk up to their front door and find a piece of paper hastily taped to it?

“Louis Tomlinson,

You are hereby cordially invited to one special scavenger search!! If you’d like to participate, please ring the bell and proceed directly to the room to the right. Then follow the signs. If you don’t - just walk in? 

- H” 

The disadvantages of someone knowing you too well was that Harry knew perfectly well that there was virtually no mood that would distract Louis from a challenge like this. Grinning, he jammed his finger against the bell before opening the door and eagerly stepping in. The fact the hallway was virtually unchanged took him off guard for a moment, but he did as the directions dictated and headed to the first room to the right to the foyer. If they were actual adults, it would have been their office. It had a desk, and big metal things that they shoved all the papers that people said were important and do not lose, and a phone. It’s also where Louis usually stashed their plaques, never quite managing to feel anything but egotistically when they were hung on the walls. Niall was the type of person who could display that and just radiate pride, but for him, it just felt arrogant. Still, that was on a normal day. Today was not that. There were large sheets covering everything. 

“This is your idea of hide and seek, Styles?” he called out through a giggle, but obediently started lifting sheets. It took him four sheets to realise that when he pulled one off hidden scraps of paper were being sent spiraling through the air and had to crawl around for an unfortunate amount of time trying to find them all again and then settling in the middle of the floor to arrange the pieces. 

Good job! Now, I fancy something to read.

- H.

Something to read? Wasn’t this bloody well something to read? Huffing, Louis pushed himself up, headed to other side of the hall, then immediately felt his feet root to the floor. There were pictures. Everywhere. Some canvas sized, some spread around the floor, some stuck between books, articles, newspaper clippings, but one thing caught his eye more than the rest. It was a picture of them on the stairs. He’s pulling an actual ridiculous face while Harry’s looking at him like he’s the goddamn sun. Right next to it was another one, this time it’s Harry looking at the camera with Louis actually - god, he’d actually bit Harry’s shoulder - what was he thinking? Laughing slightly, he reached out, gently pulling the print out before eyeing the room again. Apparently, it was an ode to their time at X-factor. A laptop had a post-it that said ‘play’ but Louis could guess the content of that and no thank you. He’d had to live as 18 year old him, no reason to relive those performances now. There was a picture of him on a chair, pouting with his foot as the main focus, and hm. He was beginning to get an idea of what the game was. So he wandered until he found it. The picture of them rushing Louis after his grand return and sure enough, there was a key taped to the back of that one.

Louis didn’t even know there were keys to thing in this house he couldn’t recognise, but he wandered through the second floor trying to find the thing the key unlocked until he finally got to one of the mostly unused guest rooms. Swinging the door open, with a fairly confident air - he was pretty sure he knew what he was walking into, he just didn’t realise how much Harry would find, or somehow replicate. Louis had been positive he’d burned every single neon colored pant in the UK, but there they were. With a cheeky sign that said ‘feel free to try me on’. No. Louis was very much not doing that. Similarly to the library, the space was jammed with photos, an iPad that had the same ‘press play!’ note, posters, plaques, maps, charts, and anything that marked the beginning to the unexpected level of success they’d smashed up to. Unsure why, he found himself collecting pictures here and there again, mostly of him and Harry, but also the five of them, before stopping to consider what the next clue would be. So far he’d had a paper message, and then a key, so a map. Maybe. Tour map. Tour map that’d lead him to the Take Me Home tour because presumedly, that’s where he was headed. It seemed Harry was really determined to make him watch the videos, because only after he tore the room apart, he discovered said map taped to the bottom of the damn IPad. Still, he ignored the video, and just headed to the next floor. 

This room felt different. The others had been in your face, chaotic, and colorful. This one mostly featured boxes. And Louis did not have the patience to sort through all of them. Though, he’s not proud to admit it, but when he found the box that featured press from that year and the infamous stunt that he’d never name outloud, he promptly ripped up every article and picture and put it all back in the box like he never saw it to begin with. Desperately, he wished he could say the same about that chapter of their lives. This whole chapter, actually, he’d quite like a redo on. They were on the top of the world, hell, they’d smashed the top of the world, and made their own top. It should have felt like every one of their dreams had come true and nothing could bring them down, but Louis couldn’t look at any of it and not feel pain. Sure, there was some highlights, but overall, that year taught them they were puppets. It’s the year he started to turn to anything but healthy coping mechanisms. Still, he grabbed the pictures of their new tattoos, and the ones from early in the year, private ones that Harry must have found, before finding his next directions in a mock up contract agreement laying on a box. 

This one was up in the attic, which took Louis off his game slightly, he’d thought the endgame would be there, but once he walked in, he immediately understood. Harry had Story of My Life’d the attic. Clotheslines and pictures were everywhere. Where We Are. What a confusing ride. The whole year had been a power struggle and one that ended with no clear winner. Harry and him had both taken huge steps forward, and then a dozen back. Still, there were pictures that existed outside of their private collection with the two of them in the same space again, so he grabbed those, adding them to the growing collection in his hand, then realised Harry was rapidly running out of creative places to hide the next clue. He might have to chance it and wander through the house until he found the next tour. Then he spotted the poster of Sir Ian McKellen and found himself laughing out loud again. “Only you, Styles.” True enough, he found the next set of directions taped to the back, and wandered back down to the basement. Accurate, really. 

On the Road Again, should have been them at their best. They had written more than ever, the leashes were loosened, their fanbase had grown up considerably, but if anything it’d been a bittersweet swan song they hadn’t even realised was happening at the time. Louis had been so far gone by then, he found that he now had little recollection of majority of the memories strewn around the room. Clearly, he had physically been there to be photographed, but mentally he’d must have checked out. Their popularity had waned and it was for that reason only, Harry had been allowed to come out in lieu of their fifth album’s release. And well, Harry wasn’t going to come out and hide his boyfriend, so he’d outed Louis as well, as move that’d gotten them more threats and emergency meetings than anything they’d done before, which had shocked Louis. Their coming out had always been inevitable. So why it’d taken the powers that be by such panic and surprise had been entirely beyond him. Maybe it was because Harry and Louis’d resisted the idea of parading Louis around as another one of Harry’s girls. He wasn’t interested in being papped in LA, or out to dinner at promotion-wanting establishments, they had never been about that. Flying under the radar had worked for them and now he got to stand next to Harry in interviews, curl under his arm during the red carpet, sass out anyone who crossed a line with Harry that made either of them uncomfortable, so things were good. Or at least, they should have been. Both of them had struggled with shrugging off five years of repression and consequences, but Louis was significantly worse at it. He’d flinch whenever Harry’s touch would enter his vision in public, tense at the first indication PDA was coming, struggle between his macho persona he’d crafted so carefully, and the flamboyant queer everyone was expecting him to be now. There had never been a future that optimistic Harry and Louis had looked forward -clung to - that featured coming out publicly as actually almost ruining them. Joke was on them. 

Louis slammed the door behind him a little harder than he meant to when he left that room, but he didn’t need anymore clues. He knew where Harry would be, and now he was angry, emotions building and exploding in his chest, until his tears pricked and he was pushing their - Harry’s - bedroom door open and throwing the photos at his feet. That hadn’t been his original plan for them, but it was the only logical one now. 

“What the fuck was that?!”  Louis’ chest was heaving, but he took a few wary steps back as Harry made a move to come closer. Louis didn’t want comforted, or held, or pacified. This had been a time bomb perfectly set up for him to explode and so he was damn well going to “How dare you. I let you come back as a way to cover our asses. To spare us extra drama and so your idea of thank you is to just stir up all this shit that I - what the fuck was the point of this?” Louis’ hands ran up to tug desperately at his hair, and distract himself slightly before he said something he’d regret. “Harry-" 

The man in question seemed to get smaller with each word, but he never reached out to try and get Louis to stop, just patiently waited until Louis gave him an opening. Then he was all earnest puppy dog eyes and a cautious hand reaching out. “I know I messed up, Lou. You and Niall and the boys have every reason to be angry and cautious this time around. I don’t fault you for that. I just - wanted you to remember all of this too. I am the guy that fucked up, but I’m also the guy that’s been the other half to the dream time for over five years. I can’t sit on the sidelines pretending I don’t care or that I’m not still in love with you. Don’t get me wrong. I get that’s somewhere we can’t go right now, but god, Louis. I don’t want there to be a moment in your head that you believe I look at you and think of you as my past. You aren’t. You’re my past, present, and future, and this is our life. What we’re doing? It’s not for Simon. It’s not for X-Factor. It’s not for the fans. It’s us. This is us. Our highs, our lows, and our future - right there, ready for us to mold it into any way we want. I just wanted you to see there’s another option besides locking the door and throwing away the key.” 

“Harry.” Louis held up a hand to try and stop the flood of words, but it stayed there as he tried and failed to get his thoughts into some kind of coherent order. “You really are on an entirely different level, love. What did you intend for me to see? Start with the first one and work your way up.” 

“The band’s beginning, our growth, our stumbles as the training wheel came off, and ultimately our untimely ‘pause’ button. Our career shouldn’t be over, and sure, our fanbase is smaller, but they’ll be there if we wanna return for real. We can do it right this time. Our way, our songs, our pr, we know how to succeed. We belong together, Lou. Me and you, with Z and Nialler and Liam - that’s how it should be.” 

Bright green eyes were actually shining at him, but Louis had to shut his own for a moment, before bending to scoop up the scattered pictures. Wordlessly, he started to hand them over in order as he found them, until he was actually throwing the last few years worth, crumpling to rest against the bed as the tears finally hit.

“I saw two boys. Happy, obvious and oblivious. I saw us settling into our friendships, into our band, into us. God, Harry if we’d known our peak would be when we were 16 and 18, would we have still done this? If you knew before that first tour where you and I would end up, would you have still put all your faith in me? Would you have loved me anyway?” That was a dumb question. 16 year old Harry would have, without a doubt, he would have believed their love could take anything, and 18 year old Louis would have wanted so hard to make it happen for him. “I walked through each of those rooms and relived our relationship falling apart a little more in each one. Those were the pictures I saw. Those are the ones I looked for.” Huffing, he threw the one that kicked off their South America tour. “We’re next to each other, but our faces are rarely seen. And that says it all doesn’t it? It’s us, but it’s not us at all. That’s been our life for years and that’s what you want back? I love music, I love performing, but that was nothing compared to the love I had for our band - for you - and we still crashed and burned.”

“Lou-" The taller boy knelt down, a hesitant hand coming to rest on his knee, but Louis barely felt it. 

“No, don’t Lou me. I heard you and Niall. And Niall had a point, Harry. Maybe you can compartmentalize this. Maybe you can look at this and remember the good, maybe you can see a future where the positives of fame and success outweigh the negatives, but I can’t. Every room just made me think of you. And it hurt. I was never in this for the money, or fame, or any other reason besides you guys were my best friends and it made you all happy. It gave me a way to provide for my family, to help out my hometown, and a lot of deserving people, but at the end of the day, it was never about me.” Louis shrugged weakly, wiping his cheeks, “I never understood why you all thought I was so indispensable to this, so if you four wanna continue after my obligations with X-Factor end, then you have my blessing, but I’m going to ask you to leave me out of it. I can’t.”

“We would never. You are so vital to who we are. Not just our sound, but us as people, we need you to make it work as a band, as friends, you are the backbone for all of us. And maybe that’s - maybe that’s where we all went so wrong. You made it seem effortless, supporting us all, but who did you have to turn to when you needed someone to rest on? Shit. Louis.”

“I miss you,” Louis burst out suddenly, reaching to shove Harry’s hand off his knee. “That’s what got worse with every fucking room I went in. Each one you got a little further away from me and I’m - I’m not over it. I’m not over you. I can’t just be in this band, Harry. I don’t know how to be. And I’m not in a place where I’m able to learn. I need time before we try this band thing for real. For fuck’s sake — I’m still putting myself back together. I haven’t even gotten to working through all the shit that went wrong with me and you and me and Zayn and me and and Liam and everything. It’s been, what? A goddamn week? And all I’ve done is take a dozen steps back. I can’t do this.” 

“Hey. Hey, hey, hey.” Large warm hands cupped his cheeks, tilting his gaze up even as soft brushes over his skin wiped the moisture away. “Louis, I’m here. Right here. Okay? I just wanted you to remember how it was. How lost the boys and I get when you’re not there. I wanted you to remember how off it felt when any one of us were missing. Zayn, Liam, and I - we’re back, Lou. Not for a paycheck, not a one time gig, not for a tour, but back - in your life for however you want to have us for however long you’ll let us. I wanted you to remember that I’m not a stranger. That I’ve spent the best years of my life at your side and that I love you. If you need me, I’m here. Even if we quit it all right now, I’m still, right here.”

For a moment, Louis entertained the thought of leaning forward and catching Harry in a magical emotional kiss. To pull back just enough to ask him to promise, but he’s been down that road before. So instead, he reached up, gently squeezing Harry’s wrists before pulling his touch away.

“I believed that.” Louis started quietly. “It didn’t get me very far last time” 

Louis expected the words to provoke anger, a quick defense, maybe even pleading, but all he got was a sigh coupled with a heavy sound as Harry shifted from a crouch to full on sitting across from him. A silent moment passed with them just eyeing each other, but apparently Harry saw what he needed to see, because he gave a little nod, clearing his throat. 

“Okay. That’s fair. But that goes two ways. You had me believing we were partners. Equal. That I could come to you and you could come to me and we’d talk through everything together. You had me believing I was your boyfriend, and not the nanny slash bodyguard that cleaned you up, got you to bed, kept you hydrated, begged you to eat so you could get up and do it all again the next day. Difference is, I’m giving you another chance, Lou. I’m not holding what you chose to do and think and say a year ago against you now. Because you’ve changed. You aren’t that guy anymore. And when you’ve realised that the rest of us didn’t freeze in place when you fell off the deep end, maybe you can pay us the same courtesy. We’re your bandmates. We’re your brothers. It’s on you whether you decide to embrace that or stay alone. The door’s open on our end.”

What was he supposed to say to that? Thank you? Fuck you? “And deciding to believe that you’re different now will make that door stay open?” 

“It makes us believe you aren’t going to slam it shut behind you.”

“Right. Okay.” Louis was done with that conversation, thank you very much. He pushed himself up to his feet, absently running his hands behind himself and clearing his throat, “If I go out to kick a ball around, you gonna tattle on me to Niall?”

“No?”

“Sweet. Thanks.”

~

Pretending the scavenger hunt never happened was clearly the way to go here, so Louis did exactly that on the way to his room to change into his cleats and grab a jacket. Technically, he was on a limited-exercise contract with his therapist, but between breaking that rule or pouring a drink, Louis figured football was the lesser of the two evils. He’d take it easy and he’d eaten today so there was no real risk in getting his heart rate up a little. It just felt good to jog around, to feel the sunshine on his skin, to keep moving so he wouldn’t start shivering. If he pictured Harry’s face on a couple of the balls he sent soaring over the bar, well, oops. It didn’t take long to work up an extensive sweat, but Louis paid no mind to it. Run, shoot, chase, run back, set up, shoot. The rhythm of the game was almost as soothing as the crack that sounded when his foot connected with the leather. Louis lost track of time and his own body as he just kept trying to vent his frustrations into the ball or the run until there were arms on his shoulders preventing him from chasing the ball that was bouncing away from him. Releasing a resigned sigh, he looked from the ball to the man restraining him fully expecting to be met with curls and a puppy dog look, but well, only got one of those.

“Nialler. Did we have a lunch appointment I forgot about?” Louis tried to play it off as light and teasing, but he couldn’t help glancing at the deck like Harry would be there with the guilt of having tattled all over his face.

“Nope. Took it upon meself and it looks like it’s a good thing I did,” Niall said, gently squeezing his shoulders. “You go shower and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

“M’not hungry.”

“I wasn’t asking.”

Louis’ eyes closed, knowing the first wave of anger was the harshest and also the one he was most likely to spit out things he’d regret within minutes. They both startled at the sound of the screen sliding, Louis’ eyes blinking open and ah, there was the guilty face.

“Maybe not right now, Niall,” Harry started gently, but Niall’s arms were ripping off Louis’ shoulders as he stalked towards the deck. 

“What did you do?!”

“Niall!” Louis broke out of his shock, jogging to put himself bodily in-between the two of the them, placing his hands on Niall’s chest and glancing between them with wide eyes. “Fuck. C’mon. It’s me, ok? Harry didn’t do anything.” 

“Bullshit. Stop trying to protect him, Lou. You weren’t this rattled when you left.”

“Wasn’t I? I’d just confessed my relapse laundry list to you and was facing starting all over again. Obviously, I’m having some trouble with that.”

“That’s not what this is. Don’t try and play me, Tommo. I’ve been through this with you before. If it was that, you’d be in the kitchen with your meal cards and paralyzed trying to make a choice. This is a reaction. This is what you do when you wanna stop feeling before you give up and do something worse.”

Louis’ mouth opened and closed a moment before he heard Harry’s heavy sigh behind him, and cautious boots moving over the wood of his deck. No. He tried to send the thought mentally, but Harry’s hand was on his shoulder, gently dismissing him as a bodily shield.

“I set up a scavenger hunt for him. I thought maybe if he remembered some of the good of the past couple years, it’d help with dealing with it now, but I uh, underestimated how many bad ones there’d be for him. It’s still mostly set up if you wanna see.”

 Niall’s eyes were searching, but Louis just held his hands up, and took a few steps towards the house. “I’ll go shower. Don’t mind me. Maybe you can … maybe you’ll see what I couldn’t.” 

He shot a quick glance at Harry, but slipped around him as well, heading straight to the blueroom and a scalding shower to get some feeling back into his limbs. 

Once he was clean, he figured Niall was probably lost for at least an hour going through the rooms and reliving memories. It’d been in his blood in some stronger way right from the beginning in a way it had never been for the rest of them. For a moment, his healthy mind paused near the kitchen, and debated about doing what Niall said. Getting his meal cards out, making some kind of actual balanced lunch, but instead he turned, kept going down the hall to the place he’d spent most of his time lately.

His in-home studio wasn’t the fanciest that he could afford, he’d never intended really, to make it his post-1D career. It’d just happened by accident really. He’d wanted his keyboard, and then wanted a way to playback his musings, then words got involved, and now he had a functional studio steps away from his kitchen. Settling on the piano stool, he ran through some finger warmups before adding his voice to it. He stalled for as long as he could before he reluctantly got up to dig through his abandoned cd stack and find copies of cds not touched in years. Sure, he could have used his phone or google to look up the lyrics again, but maybe Harry’s stupid hunt had made him kind of nostalgic after all. 

It was sad in a way, now that he had all five cds spread out in front of him, just how drastic a change happened between each. They’d thought they were growing up, getting more mature, but that wasn’t it. Not really. They were getting disillusioned, jaded, broken, distant, and it was all right there. From the bright colors and the climbing the phone booth right down to the black and white “art” of the last one. Their decline was literally put on their album covers. Louis started to laugh, because it was laugh or cry and he’d shed enough tears for the day. 

Settling down with the second album, he pulled the album book out, trying not to get distracted by pictures and just ran through the words of a couple songs they’d talked about putting on the set list. Then repeated it with the third and fourth albums before there were finally footsteps coming down the hall. Louis didn’t look up, just set his fingers back on the keys and started to hum along to half the song before he finally broke into words, “I have loved you since we were 18. Long before we both thought the same thing, to be loved and to be in love and all I can do is say that these arms are made for holding you, oh, and I wanna love like you made me feel when we were 18. When we were 18, oh lord.”

Louis’ eyes shut with Harry’s soft, “Kiss me where I lay down my hand pressed to your cheeks. A long way from the playground…” But opened along with his mouth, “I have loved you since we were 18. Long before we both thought the same thing.”

Then finally rose to meet Harry’s at the combined, “To be loved and to be in love…”

His hands fell abruptly off the keyboard, ending the song and leaving them staring at each other. He was barely aware of anything other than the way Harry was looking at him, and the gentle way he was kneeling in front of Louis. 

“Do you think I stopped loving you?” 

Harry’s words were loud suddenly, harsh enough to make him flinch, but was that really what was eating at Louis? What was making it so impossibly difficult to pull himself together and threw himself into a reunion? His mouth opened before he froze, his own words coming back to him, but he loves me. I know he does - until a year of silence had passed. 

“Yeah,” Louis said finally, body deflating. “Yeah, I do.”

 

Chapter Text

A horrible silence filled the room following Louis’ words but he made no move to soften them or take them back. Harry looked actually winded but this was it. This was thing Louis couldn’t put his finger on, the thing that had felt so horribly off since they’d laid eyes on each other again, he needed to say this. Feeling rather calm for the moment, Louis stayed quiet, giving Harry a moment to stumble backwards, eyes filling with equal parts disbelief and water before he sat down heavily on the couch across from Louis. 

“How could you think that?” Ah, there it was. Rage. Betrayal. Hurt. Pain. Guilt. All the emotions Louis had carried for nearly 19 months now, playing out on Harry’s face, and well, better late than never. 

“I didn’t want to,” Louis admitted quietly. “I made a lot of excuses, was willing to forgive so much, but then I woke up and found myself in a hospital. I was absolutely convinced yours would be the first face I saw. But you weren’t there. You never called, no texts, no messages passed through any of the boys, you just - you were gone. I thought at first maybe you didn’t know, that nobody had contact info on you but I went online and your social media accounts were active. So even if you’d changed your number, deleted your email, screened your calls - you would had to have seen the UK news in your twitter feed. Had to have thousands of messages asking if I was okay, if you knew what had happened, if you were okay. You ignored them too. And I just?” Louis trailed off, still so baffled by what happened. “If I’d heard you’d been hospitalized - rain, snow, fucking brimstone - I’d have been there.” Humourlessly, Louis had to laugh at that, blinking hard. “That was when I had to realise and accept you were really done. I’d finally driven out completely out of love with me.

I didn’t think you wanted me there. The boys —” Harry said meekly, but Louis just shook his head harder. 

“If you were still in love with me - that shouldn’t have mattered. All of our petty shit should have fallen away and nothing should have kept you from coming to be at my side. My heart was broken, in fact, I was pretty sure I hated you, and yet as I laid there being lectured about heart problems and the dangers of what I was doing to myself - you were all I wanted. I just wanted to see you. I wanted to hold your hand, I wanted to apologise, I wanted to hear you say I could beat this thing, I wanted - I wanted you back. And all I got was radio silence. It was like being left all over again. And now you wanna tell me you’re still in love me? No, Harry. That’s not love.” 

Tears were flowing down Harry’s cheeks, but he still sat up a little straighter, eyes fixed on Louis’ own despite everything. “My entire world shattered when I got that call, Louis. Don’t you dare act like it was some cake walk that I just ignored out of convenience. I wanted to be there, but the boy I loved more than anything had spent the last two years - that I knew of -  actively trying to destroy himself. Nothing I said, promised, or did was enough. My love for you wasn’t enough to make you want to live another day, to take another bite, to spend one more hour sober, and you’re upset that I wasn’t there when you finally crashed? For fuck’s sake, Lou - I felt responsible. Like I’d helped drive you to that point. What right did I have to be there?”

A snort of disbelief slipped out before Louis could stop it, his arms folding protectively around his chest, “So by not being part of the solution, you think that makes up for being part of the problem?”

“I - no, not when you put it like that, but I felt like I’d just make things worse by showing up. I’d hurt you and walking back into your life felt like asking for forgiveness and I had no right to ask that of you at that time in your life.” Harry paused, running his hands over his cheeks and through his curls. “I’m not sure I have that right now. As much as I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise — this wasn’t your choice. You were backed into a corner where the only option was to let me back into every aspect of your life. That’s the last thing I wanted for us.” 

Louis didn’t have an immediate reply to that. He was right. Louis’ moods were constantly unstable precisely because of the ongoing war between what he wanted/was comfortable with and what he had to do for their careers/image. So much of himself he’d had to shove away and push down because if he was being brutally honest — they wasn’t ready for this. 

“Karma though, innit?” Louis mumbled, with a resigned sigh. “I’m trying here, Harry. But I can’t just - you can’t - we - “ Frustrated, he let out a long exhale, unsure where his words went. “There’s no picking up where we left off. There’s no magic words, or enough time or apologies, or gestures that make all the hurt on both sides just go away and send us back.”

“I know that,” Harry started, but Louis unwound one of his arms to hold up a hand.

“No, you don’t. If you did, you would have realised how much a trip down memory lane would hurt because it’s never going to be like that again.”

“It’ll be better,” Harry said simply and god, if that wasn’t such a Harry thing to say.

“Har-"

“No.” He interrupted firmly. “No. Don’t listen to that voice in the back of your head. Don’t think about the ways we can crash and burn, think about that song you were singing when I walked down here, think about Strong and Happily, Little Things, Fireproof, No Control … everything that drove you to write those beautiful words and hold on, remember that. And please, please, don’t give up on us. You and me and whatever happens is on your time, and by your choice, I’m not gonna badger you, or pressure you, or guilt you, just please, darling. Please don’t give up.”

“You’re doing it again,” Louis sighed wearily, using his raised hand to push his hair out of his face. “This isn’t about me. You’re lecturing me like you’re standing where I should be, patiently encouraging me to get to your level, but that’s not what this is. You are three years in the past, babe. Before my mental health went to shit, before you were driven into someone else’s arms, before we stopped talking for an entire year. This isn’t - if you and I are going to ever be anything again, it’s not going to be getting back to something. It’s not remembering. It’s starting over.” Hesitating for a moment, he let his hand fall into a little shrug. “Are you really ready for that?”

Louis’ words seemed to have finally struck the right chord in Harry, even though it meant watching the other man curl up and break. Giving Harry a moment to his own feelings, Louis turned, slowly putting the cds back then powering the keyboard off before standing to move over to where Harry was, gently kneeling in front of him. For a moment, he stayed quiet, just being close, before finally reaching out to stroke through his hair. “I think…you hit pause. Which wasn’t a bad thing, it kept you going, but it’s not helping either of us now. And that might be somewhat my fault too. We never really did this part.” Gathering the last bit of strength he had, he gently moved his hands to tug Harry’s away from his face. “Harry.”

“Don’t,” Harry gasped out, grasping onto Louis’s hands and squeezing. “Please don’t say it. I get it. I do.”

“Would it be easier if I took the blame? If I say I ruined us before you ever got on that fucking plane?”

Silently, tears still streaming down his cheeks, Harry shook his head, pain and regret spelled out all too clearly on those angelic features. “No. No. You chased after me. I left knowing you would. I left thinking - temporary - I never - I - shit, Louis. I was just so frustrated.”

“You need to face it, Haz.” Louis said quietly. “You have to find a way to let go. ‘Cause for the first time in five years, I’m not your boyfriend anymore.” 

“Louis.” It was no longer his name, but a plea. One that nearly shattered Louis to hear.  Swallowing hard, Louis curled his fingers around Harry’s a little tighter before releasing them all together, “D’you want me to call someone for you? I can stay at Niall’s for awhile if you - if you want some time.”

Panic blew Harry’s eyes wide open, his hands automatically reaching for Louis, but he pulled just out of reach, lightly shaking his head. “I know you came back, I know you were hoping that since I was better, I’d be me again - the me I was before the eating disorder, the drugs, the alcohol. I know you. You had it all worked out, didn’t you? Probably thinkin’ you’d see me and I’d see you and fate would work itself out.” God, he’d made it so far into this speech. He couldn’t break now. Raising his eyes to the ceiling, he breathed in a couple times before looking back down at Harry. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. This was all my stupid idea - keeping up pretenses with me and you but - we’ll call it off, ok? You can go to your Mum’s or your flat or do whatever you have to do. You don’t have to stay here. You just-"

“I’ll wait.”

Louis froze, mind still tripping over itself to apologise, and unable to connect the words to what he’d been saying. “What?”

Harry was wiping his own face now, panic gone as fast as it was there, and now he was settled and calm in a way that Louis has never been able to achieve. “I’ll wait,” he repeated. “You’re right. I was expecting things to work themselves out, for us to go back to being us, I did think it’d be easy. And I get what you’re saying about needing to let go. I know you need time. But I’m not giving up on us. There’s a difference, Lou, and I want you to hear this part, okay? I’m not waiting for you to go back to the Louis you were before, I’m gonna wait for you to be ready to show me the Louis you are now, because there’s not a version of you that I wouldn’t want to meet. And we’ll go from there, okay?”

How did this boy always have a way of turning his world upside down? Blinking furiously, he managed a little nod. “Yeah, yeah, okay.” 

“We did sign the papers though, Lou. So outside that door, we’re still boyfriends, but we’ll keep it low key as possible, okay? Use it as a way to become friends again.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’m still gonna uh - stay somewhere else tonight. So feel free to call anyone over.” And that was it, wasn’t it? Five years of a relationship just slammed behind a flimsy verbal door. Ironically, that flimsy door seemed to make it very difficult to get to his feet, his body feeling like he’d run it through a marathon or something. “I’ll see uh, I’ll see you at rehearsal.”  

Nodding once, he turned to bolt out of the studio, but a hurried, “Lou, wait,” made him freeze and turn even though he knew he knew better. For the longest moment of his life, they just stared at each other, until Harry must have seen something permissive in his look because the next large hands were cupping his face drawing their mouths into a collision he really couldn’t bring himself to regret. The kiss was salty and chaste at first, but then it kicked in, this might be the last time. It seemed the thought occurred to both of them at the same time. Louis reached out, fisting the back of Harry’s shirt, drawing him closer even as Harry’s mouth skillfully set out to work his open. Louis let him. His mind was working overtime trying to catalogue and cling to every noise, scent, feeling, and emotion so much so that he didn’t even notice they were moving until he found himself chasing Harry’s mouth down to the couch.

“Oh,” he whispered, moving to draw back, but Harry made this awful sad noise, and who could blame Louis for stretching back down to chase it away with his tongue? 

The kiss tasted like apologies, like reassurances, like regret. Louis couldn’t get enough. Harry’s hands rose, gently wrapping around Louis’ hips and after another moment of hesitation, Louis let himself be guided down. It was easy to settle between Harry’s legs, to stretch out over his stupidly expansive chest, and bury the hand not anchoring him against the couch in his curls. It was easy to forget that this wasn’t his anymore, especially because it still felt so much like home.

A shiver brought him out of it slightly, Harry’s hands had left a cool patch on his hips when they left and now were just ghosting over his sides, so he stretched up, reacting before he got chance to overthink, to lightly brush kisses over his jaw up to his ear. “Go ahead,” Louis whispered, “You can touch.”

Touch. That was what Harry’d said had driven him away, right? His distorted mind had been so afraid of Harry’s hands finding and seeking out every fatty part of his body, he’d ended up preemptively fearing the day he got turned off by Louis’ body so much he’d withdrawn from contact altogether. So it’d figure now that Harry’s hands were on him again, it was the opposite. Louis was better than he was, but he wasn’t back to the weight he’d been the last time Harry had touched him and called him beautiful. Now he feared Harry’s fingers finding bone where he expected soft, of feeling disappointment, or worse - relief, knowing that Louis was walking out of his heart after this.

The hands were innocent at first, sweeping up and down his sides, with Harry’s mouth quick to soothe when Louis flinched away from the touch on his ribcage, “You’re gorgeous, Lou. So gorgeous. Let me show you.”

“Harry - “

Grinning, Harry just pressed his lips to Louis’ own cheek now, “I would. I’d start at your toes, and talk about your lil - “

“Oi! That’s quite enough of that,” Louis scrambled to kiss the words away, accidentally encouraging Harry’s hands to go lower. They rested on the part of his body he found the most uncomfortable, but if he just focused on making those noises come back, maybe he’d forget about it. Or you know, maybe Harry would ruck his shirt up, lightly trailing his fingers over his soft belly and sides, drawing both their attention there. 

“I - you - “ Harry’s eyes were wide, but Louis could almost see him repeating the mantra to not talk about the size of his body, reminding himself that anything he’d say could and would be misconstrued and weaponized in Louis’ darker moments. “Missed you.” He settled on finally, but that was worse. 

“Don’t, Haz.”

Eager to skip this part, Louis shimmied up a little so his hips were being braced by those hands instead, sprinkling kisses over Harry’s face until he was laughing again and finally going for the cheeky grope Louis’d been expecting since their mouths met. That’d been one of the more annoying parts of it all for him, honestly. Even at his lowest - his backside retained its bubble despite the slight size decrease. Nothing Louis had done seemed to strip weight from his hips and ass, but the second he started eating again, it’d went straight to those areas. To say he’d been pissed would be putting it lightly. They’d promised him the weight would relocate once his body stabilized, that it’d become a more even distribution and well, Louis was still waiting for that. Harry didn’t seem to mind though, if his hands squeezing in time with his groans and the rigid heat against Louis’ thigh was any indication. 

Opening his mouth to say something - permission, caution, goodbye- Louis found himself wordless again. What did he say? More than anything he just wanted to hit pause and stop them right here forever. Harry had other plans, hands moving to wrap around his back, gently supporting him as Harry flipped them so now Louis was the one on his back. A soft moan slipped out once Louis realised their hips and mouth could meet simultaneously now, without Harry half sitting up. Fucking giant, he thought fondly, before the echo of that thought smacked him across the face. Fond had no place here. Everything Louis was feeling watching Harry curl over him and stare down with those stupid clear green eyes - he had to bury it. Lock it, stick in a box, and detach. That’s how he’d survive.

With trembling fingers, he ignored the thought so he could reach between them to start unbuttoning the remaining buttons of Harry’s shirt and trail his fingers along the sparrows, the moth, the ferns. 

Large hands wrapped his up though, squeezing them gently as they were guided up until that soft pink mouth was pressing light kisses on his knuckles, “Hey. We don’t have to do this. We can stop.”

Why was? Oh. Startled, Louis pulled one of his hands back to wipe off the moisture on his cheeks, shaking his head. “No. Wanna say goodbye.” 

Harry’s body went tense for a moment, like he’d forgotten what this was, but his mouth was quick to latch on to Louis’, not the slow and sad he was expecting, but fierce and desperate. Hurrying to catch up, Louis let go of his hands to try and tug the shirt off so he’d have miles of skin to reclaim. No. Say goodbye too. Fuck. Harry was no help, keeping the kisses steady and overwhelming until Louis went pliant and just focused on kissing back as intensely as he was being kissed. 

It was a battle he ultimately lost, and he couldn’t help but laugh softly into Harry’s mouth, reaching his hands around to cheekily grope at his bum. “Alright, enough of that. You win.” Louis mumbled, stretching back to roll his hips in a slow drag against Harry’s. “You gonna fuck me, or what?” For a moment, Louis’d forgotten. Everything had felt so familiar, so comfortable, that he’d … he’d just forgot. Now he went rigid under Harry, hands raising to brace against his chest as his mind struggled between lust and irrational anger.

“Did you fuck him? Or did he fuck you?” The question forced itself out, but at least it sounded a hell of a lot calmer than Louis felt. Not that it mattered since there was no way Harry could miss just how fast his heart was racing under his fingers. His eyes still went wide though, his mouth dropping open, and everything coming to a horrific halt that Louis was certain was for the best. This was the moment to get up, to walk away, to stop this before it became something else that went sour between them. 

He didn’t move.

Harry did though, stretching out over him, resting temple to temple so Louis was forced to close his eyes to avoid crossing them. For a moment, they just breathed together, before Harry pressed a light kiss to where his head had just been, raising a hand to lightly stroke over Louis’ cheek. “I love you.” Louis’ mouth opened but Harry was quick to place a finger over it, shaking his head. “No. Hear me out. I’m not going to say loved because contrary to what you think, I never stopped. And neither did you. You can feel it, even now, so I’m not going to answer that, Louis. It doesn’t matter. It was a mistake that never should have happened, but it’s always been you. You that I want, you that I love, you that I need in any and every way you’re willing to give me. So the right question to ask is - what would you like, Lou? What would be best for you?”

If that was Harry’s attempt to stop Louis from crying anymore, it failed miserably. Because in that moment, when he opened his eyes, and saw the way Harry was looking at him, the gentle hand on his face, his body always instinctively shielding him, he couldn’t help but believe it. That look was one Louis had seen every day for four years. And maybe that last year - maybe it was less it wasn’t there and more like Louis stopped looking for it. 

“Upstairs.”

He’d be lying if he didn’t admit in the back of his head, he’d been hoping the walk from the studio to their - Harry’s - bedroom would snap him out of it. Maybe Harry knew that because his hands and mouth didn’t leave much room for any thought despite the distance they covered. Once they made it up the stairs, Harry was bending forward, scooping Louis up in his arms, and rushing to their bedroom. A sharp laugh got buried in Harry’s chest, but once his back hit the mattress and he pulled himself up the familiar duvet, he got why Harry did it. If Louis had to step over the threshold himself, he probably wouldn’t have. Even now, he felt punched in the chest as he looked around and saw Harry’s things finally back where they belonged. He remembered going furniture shopping for adult dressers and nightstands, he remembered getting kicked out of more than one mattress store for rough housing on the displays, he remembered the passionate argument about cotton vs silk, and most of all, he suddenly remembered why he stopped sleeping in here.

“Hey, Louis. Come back.”

Harry was standing at the foot of the bed, hands on his belt, so Louis pushed a smile on his mouth despite the burning in his eyes. “M’here. You’re the one whose all the way over there.” 

“Lou?”

Scoffing slightly, he let his gaze sweep around the room again, “I really thought you were it for me. We built a home together, fuck - Harry. Get on the goddamn bed and kiss me before I lose it.”

Alright, so maybe that hadn’t been the sexiest of things he’d ever said, but it was honest. And it was enough to get annoyingly tight denim peeled off long legs, and a warm body finally stretching out over his own. Easily, Louis tilted his chin up, inviting Harry’s mouth back to his, desperate to drown out the thoughts that he couldn’t shake. Harry seemed to get it, kissing him deeper and harsher than he had downstairs until his mind was mostly quieted and his prick was firmly interested again, mostly thanks to the sneaky hand that’d slipped between them being an insistent tease.

“Why’m I still wearing pants?” he huffed out finally, pushing Harry back enough to shimmy them down his hips, pointedly ignoring Harry’s face. He didn’t want to see if he was turned on or disappointed by Louis’ body, just kept pushing at fabric until they were both naked. There was an awkward moment once all the distractions were quite literally stripped away and they were both forced to recognise what they were about to do, but Harry just reached into his one of his bags, coming up with lube and a condom. Louis had a slightly hysterical giggle over that once he realised his own abandoned box in the nightstand was probably expired, but with Harry was pressing kisses along his shoulder and Louis’ hand combing through his hair, well, who could have measured up to this? Gently, Harry nipped at his collarbone before pushing the bottle of lube into his free hand, a silent question, how did he want this to go?

Instantly, the dark question was back, his mind plagued by images of Harry both giving and taking from this random stranger, awakening Louis’ stupid desire to reclaim what was his, but that wasn’t his right anymore. And more importantly this wasn’t about that. So he gently pushed it back, felt Harry’s quick intake of breath, and just tried to find some measure of relaxation in himself to cling to. “Yeah?” Harry breathed, “How d’you want it?”

This time, Louis’ laugh was bright and real, his smirk a reassuring comfort, as he pulled Harry’s head up to meet his gaze head on. “Everything. I want everything.”

Shamelessly, he turned onto his belly, dislodging Harry so he could press up to hands and knees, taking on one of Harry’s favorite position, though he’d never cop to it. He’d always been afraid the position would make Louis feel used, cheap, exploited among other things, but Louis never minded it. Even now it was kind of a temptation to stay like this, it’d be so easy to hide with his face pressed to the mattress, but once Harry’s hands started running over his arse, he had to face there was no hiding. His fingers felt like fire spreading over his skin, making him hurt and burn at the same time. 

“Gorgeous, so bloody gorgeous, do you know that?” Harry could be talking about bananas and car crashes for all Louis cared, it was the way he said the words that got him all breathless already. It was this hushed, heated, awe that Louis never understood until he heard it echoed back in his own voice when he got overwhelmed by just how fucking sexy Harry could be. 

“Gonna stare all day?” Louis teased, expecting the light slap when it came. It made him laugh, relaxing into the position, and letting his head hang forward a little. “I can do it myself if you’d rather?”

“Shut up Tomlinson. I’ll take care of you, don’t you worry ‘bout that.”

It was strange how easy their banter came compared to how easily their touches stumbled. Harry’s hand was touching everywhere but where Louis really wanted it and he was growing restless, shifting about on his knees, before finally reaching back himself to guide Harry's hand exactly where he wanted it. “Such a tease,” Louis groaned grumpily, earning Harry’s laugh and finally a lube-slick finger working into him. 

Louis’ sex-drive had taken a hit, admittedly even before they broke up, sex was usually more work than he had energy for, and that’d lasted for quite a while into recovery. Sam’d asked him once, if he thought it was still a physical thing, or if it could be a Harry thing, and Louis had shut that down quick. Now though? Clearly a Harry thing.

“C’mon, I’m not gonna break,” he grumbled impatiently, pressing back against Harry’s hand. 

He’d expected another playful spank, but instead he got teeth, making him yelp, and turn around to eye his - not his boyfriend - Harry incredulously. “Did you really just-? Harold.”

Said boy was grinning, looking rather smug with himself and amused with the situation despite his angry looking bobbing erection. Louis eyed it, shifting to balance himself with one hand and reach out with the other, but that got smacked away as Harry huffed mock-annoyed.

“I see you haven’t learned patience.” 

“I haven’t had sex in over a year. Please just fuck me already.”

Louis hadn’t meant to blurt it out, his mind and mouth were operating on two different levels now, and he froze, clenching around the fingers already in him, and making Harry moan. Or maybe his words did. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? The air suddenly felt a lot more charged between them, but he glanced back over his shoulder anyway. Harry was staring down at him in something like awe as he added more lube and opened him up for a third finger, giving him something to rock back against, something to fill an empty feeling he hadn’t even realised he’d had. 

“Just me?” Harry breathed out finally, but Louis stubbornly bit down on his lips. He wasn’t going to admit to that, if Harry’d gone around fucking out his broken heart. “Loooooouuuu.” Harry’s fingers twisted expertly, and goddamn his memory. Louis’ hips jerked, a moan punching out of him, before he gave in, knowing Harry would just keep going and purposefully avoid the spot if he didn’t. 

“Yeah, just you.”

Harry’s fingers twisted again, but Louis was tired of being at a disadvantage and feeling like the only one falling apart here so he sat up, twisting slightly, to pull Harry in for another rough kiss. “On your back, love.”

It was almost comical how fast Harry pulled his fingers out and scrambled to spread out over the bed. Now it was Louis’ turn to admire, to try to avoid thinking about who else had gotten to see, and who’d gotten to touch, and couldn’t help but drape himself over Harry, fingers and mouth roaming over his skin, leaving small possessive marks. Harry’s clean hand was in his hair, not guiding him, just connecting them as Louis’ roamed until he got to sensitive areas, ones he’d known would cause Harry to lose focus, and his hand to clench, tugging his hair in a deliciously painful way.

“Lou-" 

Louis nipped again, having made his way down to the ferns, and could feel the sticky trail Harry’d left on his skin each time he’d brushed over his arousal. “Hmmm?” he hummed before mouthing over his v-line, raising his eyes to meet Harry’s in a show of mock-innocence. 

“Hasn’t been anyone else since for me either.” 

The words were hesitant, like he didn’t want to admit to his mistake, but it let something unwind in Louis’ chest. “Yeah? Good.” Louis didn’t even care he wasn’t allowed that smug pleasure anymore. He’d never claimed sainthood. But he did take pity on Harry finally, sinking in between his gangly legs, and then purposefully paying attention to his hips and thighs, just to get Harry to groan and thrash like he always did. Now that the dark thoughts about strangers hands running over him had been let go, he was bombarded by memories. The first time, the wildest time, the kinks they’d tried exploring, he knew Harry’s body better than he knew his own and it was so hard to wrap his head around the possibility that was it. 

The last time he could nip the spot on his left thigh that’d make his whole leg jerk, the last time he could nuzzle in and let himself be surrounded by something uniquely Harry, the last time he could wrap his hand around Harry’s shaft, letting them both huff over how annoying tiny his hand was, the last time he’d have that familiar weight against his tongue and Harry’s muffled curses in his ears.

He was tempted to get Harry off just like this, make him wait for round two, before he remembered there wasn’t going to be a round two. Blinking tears out of his eyes for the first time that had nothing to do with lack of air, he pulled off, smiling faintly at Harry’s hips raising to chase his mouth before pushing them back down so he could get a condom and the lube. Almost mechanically now, he covered Harry and got him ready before swinging his leg over and carefully sliding a few of his own fingers back in, making sure his muscles were still loose enough to take Harry in, before guiding him to his entrance.

Harry’s hands flew up, gripping onto his hips, and making Louis’ eyes flick up and lock onto his own. This was Harry. His Harry. Back in his life, back in his bed, and not to stay. A soft sob slipped out, but he shook off the concern, immediately shutting his eyes as he pushed himself down, letting the burn of the fill distract him. Recklessly, he sank a couple inches, before raising up again, and then used a slow roll of his hips to coax Harry deeper each time until he was as full as he could get. Louis tried to stay focused on the physical, to consciously experience the burn, and the bruises Harry was leaving against his skin, the nosies the other was making, but he couldn’t fully ignore how this felt like a long-missing piece of himself locking back into place. 

“Lou, Lou, Louiiiiis, look at me.”

He didn’t want to. He was barely holding it together as it was, hands braced on Harry’s chest as he bounced, certain his thighs and stomach were jiggling along with him, and fuck, why had he thought this was a great idea? 

“Louis.”

Huffing out his displeasure, Louis finally let his eyes open again, promptly finding Harry’s. They were hard to look at too long. There was love there, yes, but also regret, pain, apologies. Gently, Louis slid a hand up to lightly wipe at the moisture trails on his cheeks, but Harry rose his hand to catch Louis’ and hold it there. Like he needed the touch. 

Louis’ hips slowed to a stop at the realisation, and Harry didn’t waste any time sitting up and dragging their mouths back together. The more Louis was touched, the more control he lost over his mind and body, and now Harry wasn’t the only one crying into their kisses. He didn’t realise Harry was moving until he felt fabric under his hips and then his back, as he was carefully lowered back down to the bed, hips propped up so Harry could still slide in easily.

This was worse though. Harry was everywhere and it wasn’t enough. 

“I hate you a little,” Louis said finally, raking his nails down Harry’s back in a petty show of frustration, but Harry’s hips just snapped harder into Louis, his arms pinning him to bed so he didn’t fuck him right off of it.

“I hate you a little too,” Harry admitted. “Hate myself more, though.”

“Me too.” Louis’ breaths were coming in pants now, his body bouncing between the bed and Harry, but he didn’t even care about the low burning fire in his hips. He just didn’t want this to stop. His legs wrapped tighter around Harry’s waist, his hands back in Harry’s hair to drag him down in an attempt to press some kisses to his mouth.

“I love you a lot too.” Louis whispered. “Always will.”

“Lou.” Harry’s eyes were bright before his head was tucking against Louis’ shoulder and he could feel the sobs all through his body despite the way Harry’s hips had slowed. 

“Hey,” Louis said, “I know you’re a better lay than this, you giant koala of a man.” He didn’t mean the words, but he knew the taunt would spark Harry back into action. Their relationship had featured a mutual love of teasing, challenging, and encouraging. Maybe they wouldn’t be here now if they hadn’t lost sight of that.

“I’ll show you a fucking amazing lay.” Harry grumbled, before he did.

Louis could honestly say he’d never came while crying before, but it was a testament to them that even now they could create firsts in lasts. They’d shifted once after they’d gone boneless, Louis fighting to breathe under the heavy wet blanket of a sexed out Harry Styles, so now the smaller man was curled against his chest, trying to find the will to get up and leave. How could he though? When here was warm, and safe, and he could hear the steady beat of Harry’s heart which was the lullaby he’d been missing in this bed? Harry’s hands didn’t stop, rubbing his back, his arm, his hair, his bum, seeming to map him out like he’d remember this moment better if he could recreate it with his touch.

Three words. Come on. Just say them. “I should go.” Louis mumbled finally, though the way he turned to bury himself deeper in Harry’s shoulder probably sent the opposite message. 

“No, you really shouldn’t,” Harry countered immediately, wrapping arms and legs around him. “Stay.”

“Harry.” The cage around him didn’t slacken, so Louis gave them a few more minutes, before he gently started to shift and raise up. “Harold.”

“Shower with me.”

“We shouldn’t make this harder than this is.”

“I’m not. I’m just saying, do you wanna go out to Niall smelling like spunk?”

And that was a good point. Guiltily, Louis started to laugh again, shaking his head and sitting up. Harry came easily this time, probably because he’d bought himself more time. And really, Louis should have seen the trap for what it was. Goodbye sex apparently did come with a round two. One that left his body and soul bruised, aching, and weirdly sated. Though the echo of Harry’s ‘gonna love you forever,’ was probably going to haunt his dreams for weeks.

It’d also been impossible to leave until the toll of heavy emotions and ridiculously amazing sex had driven Harry to sleep. It didn’t take Louis long to discover there was no graceful way to stumble out of the bedroom. He was wrecked in every way possible and there was no hiding it. Still, he went calmly into the blue room, exchanged his now dirty clothes for softer loose jeans, a baggy t-shirt, hoodie, and jacket, before filling up a small duffle with the basics. Carefully, he avoided the mirror or anything that might remind him of the boy he’d just left, choosing instead to jam a beanie over his head, stuff his feet into vans, and call it a day. He was halfway to the front door before he saw the shoes by the welcome mat and remembered they’d had company. Shit. Luckily, said blond stuck his head out of the kitchen, before his face went pale. 

“Lou? Where you - what’s going on?”

A dozen defensive barbs sat on his tongue, begging to be launched, itching to fight, scream, and fight until he felt better, but Louis swallowed them. Slowly, he took a few steps towards the kitchen, then a few more until he was in Niall’s arms and curling against his shoulder. “Closure sucks,” he mumbled miserably, nuzzling the fabric there, feeling Niall’s knowing sigh and welcoming the arms wrapping around him. For a bit, he let himself be held, knowing there wasn’t much to be said anymore, before pulling back. “Imma head to group, then my Mum’s for a bit. See the girls. I’ll Skype in rehearsal if you want, be back Tuesday or Wednesday.” Louis was almost proud of how professional and calm he sounded, but knew the next words would shoot all his credibility to hell again. “Go check on him, please? Keep an eye on him. Call the other boys if you need. I um, we never said it. The actual break up part. So uh, I did.” 

“Shit, Louis. Now?” It was hard not to bristle against the judgement, however light and well-intended it was meant. 

“Yeah. Before tour, before interviews, before he got his hopes up about how this was going to play out. He needed to hear it. Needed to face it. But um. I need to go, Nialler. I’m going to be late. I love you. I’ll check in. Be careful, all that jazz.” Pressing a quick kiss to his cheek, he stepped back, offering a weak smile, then moving as quickly as he dared out of the house, without a spare look back. 

This was running away and he knew it.

He just didn’t care. 

Chapter Text

Everything was brighter: noises, people, colors. It’d made the drive feel surreal and kept Louis distracted enough that he couldn’t spare a thought for anything other than keeping his car on the road and a safe distance from other cars and pedestrians. It turned out that was the easy part. Now that he was parked, he found it impossible to coax himself out of his car and up the stairs. Sam’s office held vulnerabilities, judgement, solutions; none of which were anything Louis wanted any part of right now. He didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to feel. He’d slept with Harry. And now that his mind was firmly in charge again, it was turning against him, cursing his body for being weak, labeling him weak and shameful. What argument did he have against that? Goodbye sex. Who the fuck has goodbye sex? It’d been a foolish desperate grab at holding on, and now he was left feeling ripped in half all over again.

His phone had buzzed nearly constantly as soon as he’d turned off his street, presumedly directly after Niall went to check on Harry and found him naked in a room that smelled like sex, but Louis’d shut it off instead of answering. No doubt Zayn and Liam had joined in the phone tree by now, and probably his Mum too, knowing Niall. Eventually if he wanted a couch to crash on, he’d have to face one of them, but right now he just couldn’t. 

A quick glance at the dashboard clock reminded him he had exactly 5 minutes to get upstairs, if he was to keep to his regular schedule. So he pushed his car door open, and drug himself over to the smoker’s hut. Most of the business people had left by now, so it was almost always empty. Louis’d always liked the quick moment to gather and steel himself before heading up. This time though, there was already someone in his little sanctuary.

The redhead looked up, apparently having no similar qualms about company, because he was beaming up at Louis. It took him a moment to place the face, but once he did, his jaw literally dropped.

“Holy shit, Victor?”

“Louis!”

The male was up then, stumbling into a loose hug, and whoa. “You’ve gotten small, mate.” 

“You really don’t have room to talk, Tomlinson.”

“Where’ve you been?” 

Louis’d met Victor in treatment, they’d formed a necessary bond being the only 20-something males in the program, and it’d been an us against them kind of thing when they started going to support groups. Then Victor started showing up less and less frequently, and now Louis had gone two or three months without seeing him at all. 

“Here and there. You know how it is.” Came the breezy reply, making Louis’ eyes narrow, trying to see the words he wasn’t saying.

“You relapsed.”

“Yeah. You wanna know the real kicker of it? Ain’t as bad as it sounds, mate. I don’t know. I don’t think this whole recovery thing is for me. I mean, c’mon. If we were wired to deal the way they think we should - wouldn’t we have done that instinctively? Maybe that shit just doesn’t work on some people and that’s why booze and drugs were created.” 

“Maybe.” Louis admitted. “The list of things I wouldn’t do for a drink or spliff right now is embarrassingly small.” 

“Yeah? Rough day? C’mere. Have a seat. Let’s chat.” Louis shifted, flicking his gaze towards the doors, and then back to Victor, who was just shrugging innocently at him as he light up another cigarette. “What? That’s what you were going in there to do, wasn’t it? Oh. No. I’m sorry. You were going in there to listen and not chat, but hey, man. Have it your way. I’m pretty sure mine is much more helpful though.”

Louis huffed, but dug into his pockets anyway, shaking out a cigarette of his own as he sat down next to Victor. Where did he even start? Victor wasn’t a stranger to the complications of Louis’ life. He’d opened up eventually in treatment, had to, but he’d kept it as close to his chest as he could. He’d mostly focused on how to stop comparing himself to the guy Harry’d taken to bed, and how to move on without that lingering doubt that he wasn’t good enough. The thought that Harry would ever be in his life again had been laughable at the time; so now Louis was regretting letting the bitterness take over.

“I slept with Harry.”

Predictably, Victor started to choke on the smoke in his lungs, and maybe Louis could have timed that better, but he was a little satisfied as he leaned back against the wall, exhaling his own smoke. “What, you, when, how, Louis, you cannot just spring that on a man!” Victor sputtered out and Louis started to laugh. It was another laugh or cry moment, and he was so done with tears.

And well, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? “He’s been living with me. Which I would have told you, if you hadn’t fallen off the face of the bloody planet.” Louis turned to give the male a mock-cold stare, but immediately forgot about any attempts to keep this light-hearted at the look on Victor’s face. 

“Is that why you’re slipping?” He asked finally, extending an arm around Louis’ shoulders to tug him into something resembling a hug. 

“M’not.” Louis exhaled another mouthful of smoke, but went easily enough. 

“Sure, kid.” The arm around his tightened before letting go so he sat back up, wincing as he realised they were probably proper late now. Victor apparently noticed the expression but brightened as he stubbed out his cigarette butt. “Forget about group. Let’s go do something fun, yeah? Take your mind off of things for awhile.”

Louis didn’t even need a therapist to know that was something he should absolutely not do. Problem was, he had always been wired to do exactly as he was instructed not to. Don’t press 9. Press fucking 9. Don’t get involved with Harry. Fall in love. Don’t fuck up. Ruin the goddamn band. Shaking the thoughts off, Louis followed suit, grinding his cigarette out and pushing himself to his feet. “Yeah, okay,” he gave in. “Where do you have in mind?”

Feeling a sweeping glance on his body, he huffed slightly, as he turned to raise an eyebrow at Victor, but he realised a beat late, he was assessing Louis’ clothes, not his size. 

“Yeah, you can’t wear that. My place first. We’ll call a taxi, you can crash for the night if you want to, where are you parked?”

Sealing his own fate, Louis pointed in the direction of his car and let Victor walk him to it before following the redhead back to his car, and ultimately his house. The drive wasn’t long enough for doubts or second thoughts to creep in, and he found himself almost excited as he bounced up the stairs after Victor. His flat was pretty much exactly what Louis would expect it to be. Small, cramped, and absolutely disgusting. Victor didn’t seem to notice the cups, bottles, and food laying around as they breezed through the kitchen, but Louis wasn’t so unaffected. Still, it wasn’t his place, so he just followed Victor into his bedroom, taking a careful seat on the edge of his bed as the man disappeared into his closet.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t own anything that can fit over my arse," Louis pointed out, awkwardly looking around the room in case Victor turned around to glare. There was definitely a used condom on the floor. And a bottle of vodka on his nightstand. Not even half empty. 

“Louis!”

His gaze snapped back to find Victor standing in front of him with his hands full and face impatient. “Strip.”

Startled, Louis giggled, eyebrows waggling as he stood back up. “Does that normally work for you?”

Cracking into a smile himself, Victor nodded, “Aye, it does. Straight and direct is my motto. Say what you want and take it. But we both know you’d never sleep with me, so I must admire from afar. Now c’mon. Give me wank material for the next year.”

“You’re disgusting. And straight isn’t anywhere near your motto.” Louis pointed out dryly, but reached for the clothes anyway. He wasn’t a stranger to stripping down in front of people, and if anyone would respectfully not comment on his body, it’d be Victor. To his shock, the pants slid easily over his thighs and buttoned without cutting off circulation once it got to his waist. To his complete lack of surprise, they also pooled around his feet. “How in the world?” he mused curiously, turning in a slight circle as he eyed himself in Vic’s mirror before pulling the shiny black undershirt on and mostly buttoning the collared shirt he was handed. Frowning as he took in his appearance, he pulled the shirt off and handed it back to Victor. “I look like I’m playing dress up in Harry’s closet - what about a jumper? Oversized ones are kinda my thing.” And it’s not like he was out looking to pull, he just wanted to be warm and comfortable.

Victor disappeared in his closet, coming back with a steel grey soft monster of a thing and Louis made a happy noise as he grabbed for it. “Yes, please.” The sharp gasp when he got the material over his head and falling in the right places further boosted his mood as he turned, striking a mocking pose. “You like?”

“I honestly don’t think you’re human,” Victor mumbled grumpily. “Nobody should make a sweater look indecent.”

Louis started to laugh at that, bending to roll the legs of his jeans up and laughing harder at the curses that move had brought out. Caroline used to tell him that how he dressed would affect how he felt. Comfortable clothes would ease his anxiety, sharp clothes would give him a boost of confidence in situations he felt uncertain in, uncomfortable outfits would show as much on his face as his movements, and he’d never really bought it. But changing from his panic comfort clothes to this - he did feel better. It was a false boost and he knew it, but he was still going to grab on to it with both hands.

Turning to tease Victor some more, the words died immediately on his tongue, as he watched the other take a shot straight from the bottle. Right. They were going clubbing. There’d be lots of alcohol. And people not Louis partaking in it. He could be okay with that. He was fine with Niall having a beer or his Mum a glass of wine with dinner. He’d be - Victor held the bottle out to him, and something about the offer instantly silenced all the common sense in his head. 

Instead, the little voice that lived in the shadows piped up that he’d thought about Harry about a dozen times since he’d walked in, and actually voiced a few of them out loud. He was doing a shit job of forgetting and what was in that bottle would help. In fact, not only would it help - it was the only thing that could erase everything for a couple of hours - wasn’t that what Louis wanted? A temporary break from it all? It was just a night out. He could go back to not drinking tomorrow.

“Cheers,” Louis wrapped his fingers around the neck of the bottle, raising it to his mouth for a brief moment of hesitation, then crashed through the last barrier between him and complete relapse. It burned far more than he remembered, and he coughed slightly when he was done swallowing, but he also took another mouthful before handing it back. 

“Let’s do this.”

~

An hour and something that was decisively not tea later, Louis was feeling good. So good. The first half hour had been rough. He wasn’t a big fan of closed spaces and lots of people, and had been running his finger over Alberto’s speed dial number but tea had been his attempt at calming his nerves. In hindsight, he should have been suspicious of Victor’s “Sorry, mate, they only have iced tea”, excuse, but it was hard to complain now when he felt warm, and giggly, and so much like himself again. 

It was easy now to entertain the group of people that’d been slowly collecting around them. He could crack jokes, flirt someone into a blush, dance without a care of how he looked, and just let go. At some point after his second tea, he’d gotten recognised and he vaguely remembered doing the awkward photo op thing, and rambling into a couple phones pointed at his face, before grabbing Victor and bolting to the dance floor. Everything was warm and funny and slightly blurred. Louis’d missed this feeling so much. 

He lost track of how long he was on the dance floor, and who he was dancing with, but eventually his body tired. Grumpily, he paid an overdue visit to the loo, before stumbling through the club, trying to find Victor. His mood immediately brightened once he spotted the man at the bar and didn’t think twice about ducking under his arm and curling up into his side. “I want chips.” He announced happily, “C’mon.” Nodding politely towards the people Victor’d been talking to, he tugged the man away and towards the door. He should have expected it, but the bright flashes that started two steps out of the club caught him completely by surprise. He froze, uncertain if he should run back into the club, or just keep walking, why didn’t they have a car ready? This was not good. Victor’s arm slipped around his waist, forcibly putting himself between Louis and the photographers as much as he could, shielding the smaller boy with his height as he guided Louis down the street. 

“What do I do here, Lou?” he asked as quietly as he could but still be heard over the things being shouted at them as they got followed down the sidewalk. Louis was quickly getting nauseous but he still hadn’t lived down the last time he’d puked on camera. 

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Louis mumbled, shaking his head. “Want ‘em to stop. So fucking dizzy, shit.”

Victor made a hard left and pulled him into another building. The dark made him stumble, but his eyes adjusted once they got to the bar area and he realised it was an actual pub. Several disgruntled heads turned towards them, but he managed to walk up to the bar mostly on his own steam, and motion for the bartender.

“Do you have a back door we could use, by chance? There’s a bunch of assholes out front and I - I just wanna go home. Please.”

It was foolish to presume that everyone knew his face, but well, everyone should know his face. He was 1/5 of fucking One Direction and even if you claimed to hate them, like probably everyone in this bar did, you had to know of them to hate them. And Louis was hated more than most. The guy behind the bar’s eyebrows went up, and his mouth opened, in what was sure to be a telling off of epic proportions, but then some poor soul tried to walk out front and the flashing lights seemed almost like strobe lights through the pub before it stopped. Stunned, the pub fell quiet, before turning to look at him, and he winced slightly. 

“Sorry. They’ll disperse soon.” He tried to reassure them, but shot another pleading look at the bartender.  

“Yeah, sure. Follow me.” 

Blindly, Louis reached out for Victor, making sure he was close and oh. OH. “Alberto.”  Ignoring the bartender all together, he stopped walking in the middle of the hallway, patting around his pants trying to locate his phone, and hoping it wasn’t dead. He didn’t remember what percentage it’d been when he shut it off and the amount of stress it was about to go through was probably going to cause a serious strain. That was a lot of s words, Harry’d be so amused, he should - he should remember they weren’t friends anymore. 

Disgruntled, Louis pressed power, ignoring the incoming texts, missed calls, and just stabbed the speed dial button until it finally went through and started ringing. The bartender went to move but Louis reached out, squinting, trying to make sense of the letters on his shirt. “Where are we?” Making note of the name, he perked up at the familiar gruff hello in his ear.

“Alllllllllllll,” Louis sing-songed. “Best buddy ol pal ol friend.”

“Louis? Where are you? Are you okay? Niall’s been lookin’ for you.”

“I love Niall. Funny chap. But Niall’s not here. Wait, why are we - I have a funny story, Al. Wanna hear it? I’m in a pub and it’s currently surrounded by wankers with cameras who think me walking down a street is newsworthy. So come rescue me, please?”

“Christ, Louis.” 

“No, just Louis.” Giggling at his own wit, he gave the name of the pub and hung up, and patted the bar tender on the shoulder. “We’ll be out of your hair in 10-15 minutes. After we’re gone, wait like ten more minutes then just yell out there that I’ve long gone and they’re welcome to come and check. They’ll mostly leave.” Louis tilted his head, considering. “I think. Never really stuck around to make sure, but that’d defeat the whole purpose, so you know.”

Victor was rolling his eyes and pulling Louis back, thanking the bar tender, before guiding Louis away from the kitchen staff and out of the way, to set him up near the back door. “How ya feeling? You want me to knick something for ya?”

Louis shook his head, humming lightly to himself, as he tried very hard to hold on the good feelings. He was about to crash but he didn’t want to. It was just hard to find reasons to keep smiling, crouched on a dirty floor in a shitty pub, waiting for your bodyguard to take you home. 

“I hate being famous,” he admitted quietly, staring down at his hands. It was the first time he’d ever said it out loud, and immediately felt huge waves of shame and regret for even daring to think it. “I mean, the good outweighs the bad most of the time. But tonight is bad. I just wanted to be an anonymous drunk face in the crowd you know? Just an average mid-20’s fuck up.”

“Oh, babe. You - you didn’t ask for this part. It’s okay to hate it.” Victor sat down next to him, and Louis shifted enough to feel his presence from knee to shoulder. 

“They’re gonna write about you, you know? Tomorrow? I’m sorry.” To his surprise, the words just made Victor laugh and huh, maybe Victor was drunker than he’d thought.

“What? As the guy you cheated on Harry Styles with? I am so down to wear that title with poise and rationality.” 

Louis paused, caught off guard by the strange words, before his jaw dropped in mock-horror. “You did not just quote vintage Panic! at me. Are you fucking for real, right now? I’m spilling my heart out to you and you’re … you… gah. I hate you.”

Laughing now, Victor leaned over to press a kiss against Louis’ hair, “Stop stressing, Tomlinson. You’re in one piece, you’re a lil drunk, and you are most definitely a mid-20’s fuck up.”

“You’re the worst,” Louis announced firmly, but he leaned against Victor all the same. “Thank you. For being there tonight.”

“Welcome. Think your bodyguard’ll mind dropping me off at my place or near by?”

“Isn’t that where we were headed?” Louis turned to glance over his shoulder. “Night’s still young. I could kick your arse at video games or we could watch something or - oh. Did you wanna go-"

“If you ask me one more time if I’d rather be fucking someone than spending time with you, I am going to … do something really bad.”

“Awh, you're so cute.” 

A loud gruff noise pulled Louis’ gaze from Victor to the tall burly man standing over them. It took Louis’ drunk mind a moment to place the face, but he jumped up, happily throwing himself bodily onto his guard and clinging. “Haaiii Al!”

“You are drunk.”

“Moderately.” Louis admitted with a nod before pulling back to eye him seriously. “Are you going to tattle on me?” Wait, a minute. “Did you already tattle on me? Did you tell Niall I called you?”

“Why are you avoiding Niall?” 

“Because I’m drunk. Keep up.”

“Why are you drunk?”

“I’ll tell you in the car. C’mon. This is Victor. Victor, this is Alberto. Do as he says.”

Louis fell back another step as his body guard eyed him warily, before sighing and giving in, going to sweep the area and motioning when it was safe for them to make the dash for the SUV. Louis headed for the back, easily slipping in-between the seats to hide on the floor and let Vic sprawl out on the backseats. Alberto took another moment before jamming a baseball cap on his head and pulling away from the pub. Louis waited until they were far enough from the pub to cautiously peek out and take note of where they were. 

“M’not going home,” Louis said quietly. “Victor lives about three miles from Sam’s so head that way and he’ll give you directions. But hello. Thank you for the lift. Sorry for ruining your night.” 

“Louis.” It was just ridiculous how many words people could pack into his name. It was five measly letters, but they could be sounded in such a way, it felt like a verbal slap and a concerned lecture all at once. 

Huffing petulantly and wishing like hell for another drink to magically appear in his hand, he rolled his eyes up to the moonroof instead so he could try to avoid the spins. “I was supposed to pretend that me and Harry were still together. He moved in. We slept together. And I broke up with him. Again. Or well, officially this time, I guess.” 

His eyes burned, but at least nobody could really see that where he was, so he just folded a little more into his fluffy sweater. 

“And your way of dealing with that was to get drunk?”

“Isn’t that how every movie goes? You grab your mates, you hit up the clubs, the bars, you flirt with strangers, you drink free drinks, and you move on. It’s not like we were sitting in a dark room shooting vodka in our veins. I didn’t do anything to deserve that level of judgement from you. I actually tried for once to be fucking normal. So sue me.”

Victor’s hand found his hair, patting it in a blatant calm-the-fuck-down move that thad him bristling, but he fell silent anyway. Why did everyone have these high expectations of him to deal the way they thought he should? Why couldn’t he just be who he was? He wasn’t perfect. He was never going to be perfect and he was so tired of trying.

“I didn’t mean anything by it, Lou.” Came the belated reply, but he just rolled his eyes and pushed Victor’s hand off his head. “Scoot before we get pulled over,” he mumbled darkly, pulling himself onto the seat and buckling in. He could feel Victor’s worried stare on his face and Alberto’s gaze flicking to his in the review every so often, but he ignored them both, contenting himself with watching the city lights go by. And when they slowed or stopped for lights, he picked a person and started wondering what their life was like. What was their job, were they happy, what about a family, marriage, were they struggling to make things work? He gave each one a happy ending.

The car came to a stop eventually and he thanked Alberto again, but didn’t say anything else until he was being guided back into Victor’s flat and offered some water or food. “No, thank you. I just want a blanket and a pillow, I think.” 

“Lou - “

“Night, Victor.”

Granted, Louis’ body had other plans. As soon as he got horizontal in a dark room, his stomach lurched, and for the first time in years found himself kneeling on bathroom tile because his body - not his mind - said so. It was strange, because it was an act that had gotten associated with relief, and comfort, so despite this not being something Louis had intended - he still reaped the same benefits. For awhile, he could pretend he was expelling more than just alcohol, but all the pain, and sadness, and anxiety too. His fingers slipped into his mouth before he fully planned it, bringing up everything, until he was just sputtering and dry-heaving. 

For a couple minutes, Louis felt calm, triumphant even, he’d gotten it all out. He flushed the toilet, washed his hands, rinsed out his mouth, and then made the mistake of looking at himself in the mirror. He was alone, in a unfamiliar flat, patting himself on the back not for Brits, or Grammy nominations, or platinum selling albums, or even a sold out tour, but for remembering that puking made him feel better. 

Pathetic.

No wonder Harry had let him go. Just like that, his legs gave out as he sank to the floor in a soggy miserable pile. He didn’t hear Victor come in, but he did register the temperature difference between tile and a human body until the combination of alcohol and crying finally took pity on him and sent him off to dreamland. 

Chapter Text

It’s strange how only a hangover headache can really alert you to its presence and inflict its misery before you’ve even fully woken up. Gradually, consciousness slipped in as well, but that just turned up the throbbing in his head, and his stomach, before he even got to the realisation that he didn’t know where he was or how he got there. Deciding it didn’t really matter because he was warm and moving was unlikely to have any positive benefits, he just kept his eyes closed and laid very very still. A slight wince followed heavy footsteps and a creaky door, but the smell that wafted in made both his eyes shoot open even though he immediately flinched and shut them again. 

“Awh, Lou.”

Louis made a muffled miserable sound, but didn’t dare open his eyes or sit up. Ok, sometimes he fully met all preconceived notions of him being a drama queen, so what.  Another round of nausea rocked him as he felt the bed dip, but the smell got stronger, and something was nudging at his lips. 

“C’mon. You’ll feel better.”

Even the healthy part of Louis’ mind knew that, so he parted his lips, let the joint slide in and inhaled. Nodding slightly when he was done, he let Victor take it away, as he held the smoke before a long moment before releasing it again. They shared a few more hits before a furious banging on Victor’s door made him whimper and hide in his pillows again. 

“Make it stop,” he demanded weakly, ignoring the way his hair was patted like he was a disgruntled kitten and not the terrifying man he was, but accepting the rest of the joint anyway. He’d just brought it to his lips and inhaled when he heard steps heading right for him, and shit, was he in someone’s room? He couldn’t remember Victor talking about a roommate, just a spare room that he kept meaning to rent out but liked the extra mattress when a one night stand fell asleep too much to do so, though three months was enough time for that to change. Still, he wasn’t in a position to go anywhere in a hurry, and he was counting on his charm to - holy shit. He started to cough, reaching out to the night stand to quickly stub the joint out, but the damage was done. 

“You’re such a bloody idiot,” came the clipped words. Louis just barely opened his eyes in time to catch sight of a paper being thrown on the bed, before he was being tackled in a hug, then smacked upside the head. 

“Ow, ow. Really. Hurts enough, thank you.” The weed had started to kick in though, calming his nausea, at least, but making it very hard to make sense of what he was supposed to be looking at. It was a paper. Who knew they still made papers? Then he spotted his name and oh.

“Hey, Vic.” Louis called as loudly as he dared, unsure where his friend had gone. “You’re in the paper. Called it.”

“Keep it! That’s so going on my fridge.” The quick reply came just before he heard a shower start up and bastard. Niall was not the type to hate, but he did dislike, strongly and obviously, and something about Victor had rubbed him wrong since Louis first mentioned him on a phone call in treatment. Then again, Louis did have an uncanny ability of finding questionable people. And maybe starting a conversation with ‘hey, so, rehabs give out demerits, who knew’ wasn’t his brightest decision. 

Then again, maybe that one paled in comparison to this one. Niall was nearly purple.

“I’m sorry, Nialler. I didn’t know they were there. I would have -“

“Gotten even more drunk? Smoked more?”

If Louis wasn’t lying down, he’d be reeling. What the fuck. “I - “ 

Niall didn’t give a chance to get an apology or an excuse out, interrupting with a cold,“Get up. Simon wants a meeting. Shower. I’ll find you clean clothes.”

“Niall-” 

Huffing, the blond got up and made it halfway to the door before he turned to meet Louis’ eyes. “I’m really pissed off right now, Lou. You have literally every resource at your fingertips, you have everything you need to make the right decisions, everyone ready and willing to help you, and yet - you’re still stumbling out of bars like you’re bloody Courtney Love or something. I can only help you so much. The rest you gotta do. So get up, shower. We gotta go.”

It’d figure not even a hangover morning was sacred to these people. But Louis got up, picking up the rest of the joint to take with him to the bathroom, knowing that he’d need it to get through the next hour or so of his life. Before Harry and him had been banned from being in the same vehicle, they’d shotgun on the way to their emergency gay panic councils. After Harry was taken away, he’d share with Zayn instead. He hadn’t turned up at Sony or Modest HQ’s sober in years.

Why start now?

Somehow within twenty minutes, he managed to shower, change, brush his teeth, avoid toast, and find himself in a car with a spiked mug of tea, and a very angry best friend. This literally felt like heading to another intervention, but for once, Louis managed to keep his mouth shut and not make a bad situation worse. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Niall so rigid or feel so far away. And really, he couldn’t say the night out had been worth that. But what night out ever looked like a good idea the next morning?

Louis couldn’t say he was surprised when the car stopped a few blocks from the Sony offices, but he decided to not fight the muffin Niall pressed into his hands. A few hundred calories was not the biggest fight he was going to have today, so he’d gladly eat whatever Niall handed him if got his best friend to relax a little more each time. 

“You’re an idiot and I’m mad, but I still love ya.” Niall mumbled. “Forgot to say the first part earlier, but I didn’t want you to … I’m still on your side, ok?”

“Love you too, Horan. Thanks.”

They fell silent again, but this time Niall was almost close enough to touch once they were out of the car and heading towards the lobby. Louis didn’t feel quite so alone anymore, though he carefully avoided everyone’s stares as he sat down. Simon was noticeably absent, but he couldn’t help but feel like they’ve gone full circle into some bizarre deja vu. They’d all taken the same seats they had the last time they’d met with Simon. Him and Niall on one side, the other three across from them and Harry as far away from Louis as he could get. Alright then.

Louis just sipped at his tea, kicking his feet, and itching for a cigarette until the lights in the room went off sparking the projector to start circling through presumedly the morning’s headlines: 

Infidelity Scandal! 1D’s Louis Tomlinson Breaks Harry Styles’ Heart. 

Gloves off, Girls. Harry’s Back on the Market.

Is Louis Cheating?! Scandalous details inside.

And what? He was literally walking out of a club. He hadn’t kissed anyone, or gone home with anyone, or blew anyone in a bathroom. Nothing he’d done could give them proof enough for headlines that direct. A sharp curse and metal hitting the glass table made Louis jerk and look away from the screen to see Harry, Liam, and Zayn hurriedly mopping up spilled tea. 

“You alright?” Louis asked softly, but immediately got twin glares from Liam and Zayn. “Wait, you guys don’t actually think I went out and slept with someone last night, do you?” 

Harry coughed once, and oh. They didn’t know. Well, of course they didn’t. Why would Harry tell them? They were only his best friends. Niall was shifting uncomfortably next to him, so Louis just rolled his eyes, and held his hands up in mock-surrender. “Yes, I went out. Yes, I drank. But I didn’t hook up with anyone in that club. And I’m not going to apologise for a friend trying to look out for me.”

“There’s Vines, Lou.” Liam pointed out carefully but Louis started to laugh. 

“Of what? Me being a happy cuddly drunk? Liam. I know we haven’t toured together in a year, but I was all over all of you all of the time. That’s just how I am, even sober, and drinking makes that even more obnoxious. You know that.” Swallowing hard, Louis shot a desperate look at Niall, struggling to keep his cool. “Besides, we’re not even actually together, you guys realise that, right? Even if I had done anything last night, I would be fully allowed to, so long as it didn’t compromise our work obligations. And I’d hope you wouldn’t think I would be so stupid to parade a hook up around town to be photographed.”

His headache came rushing back with a vengeance, so he folded his arms, and dropped his head into them with a little defeated sigh. Niall’s hand on his back rubbing comforting little circles, surprised him but he didn’t dare show it. 

“That’s Victor,” Niall said finally. “Lou met him in treatment. He’s King of bad decision making, but he wouldn’t have wanted this kind of fallout for Louis. So maybe we should stop discussing what Louis is and isn’t allowed to do and try focusing on figuring out how and why this story is being circulated.”

Niall had a point there. Why had the story picked up speed and confidence from a couple of guiding him through the street photos and some dancing? This wasn’t making any sense. Louis’ head picked up at the sound of the door opening, though finding an-all-too-familiar disgruntled look on Simon’s face made him drop it right back down.

“So we have a problem here, boys.” Simon said calmly, and judging by the flickering happening on the other side of his eyelids, he’d guess Simon was going through the headlines again, like he hadn’t already been debriefed on them. 

“I got photographed coming out of a bar,” Louis mumbled. “Hardly what I’d classify as a problem.” His stint in rehab hadn’t yet hit common knowledge, so there wasn’t even whispers of his falling off the wagon. Niall’s hand rose, yanking the back of his hair slightly, and Louis did petulantly think about resisting for awhile longer, but obediently sat up, wincing slightly at the throbbing that encouraged. That muffin was feeling like a worse and worse idea, but he swallowed the nausea down to refocus on Simon.

“The problem isn’t so much that you were photographed with another man,” Simon said carefully. “But with the perception that the general public is more willing to believe you’d cheated over you and Harry still being happily together.”

“Well of course,” Louis huffed. “Every time Harry was pictured with someone, it was assumed he was fucking them. Young, old, related, nearly everyone had been connected to him in the media until we started actively fighting back. That’s not news.”

Simon did nod slightly, giving the point to Louis, but he didn’t have a good feeling about what was about to come out of his mouth. “But we are a customer service industry,” Simon started slowly. “We gave you a chance to do it your way. We let you test the market and see if nostalgia could bring the numbers in, but what this stunt has done is prove you wrong. If we want the world to sit up and take notice, to bring them from all over the globe to the UK to see you guys, a scandal would work much better.” 

The screen changed, showing hits from the sites that’d speculated about Harry and Louis being seen together somewhere vs the traffic this morning’s headlights had generated. 

“It’s a number’s game, Louis. Harry’s got the most brand recognition and the biggest dedicated following. You weren’t wrong in thinking people will show up for nostalgia’s sake, but twice as many would come out as a show of support to him. We’ll shop him around the morning radio shows, do a few online exclusives, post sad images and songs on social media - really stir up people’s sympathies - and open their wallets.”

The numbers were right there, backing up everything Simon was saying, but it didn’t make Louis feel any less nauseous. Actually, he felt more so because he could see the logic in the words and he hated himself for it. 

“In a way, isn’t this the best case scenario? You guys couldn’t have been comfortable playing house together when you’ve been broken up for so long, so now you get a chance to go your separate ways.” Simon added gently, glancing between the two of them. “Harry can get his own place, you could sell the house if you want, move to somewhere new, it’ll be a strained few months, but in the long run, this will benefit you both.”

Hadn’t Louis just said those words? Bristled a defense on how they weren’t even together? So why coming from Simon did it feel like Louis’ heart was breaking all over again? Why wasn’t he ready to let Harry go? Swallowing hard, Louis blinked rapidly a few times before looking up to gauge Harry’s reactions. 

The man looked pale, exhausted, but had a weird sense of calm about him, that Louis was both envious and wary of. “It should be me,” Harry said firmly. “Lou said it himself, public perception is that I can’t keep it in my pants for five minutes, but I’m the media’s darling anyway. So let’s spin it that I cheated, Louis found out and is staying with some friends while I move out, and they took him out on the town to take his mind off of it.”

Simon’s mouth drew into a frown, but Niall spoke up for the first time before Simon got a chance to argue. “For the record, I think this is bullshit. But if you want us to go along with it, it’s got to be Harry.” 

“Yeah, I’m with Niall,” Zayn said suddenly, tossing his two cents in. “If this has to happen at all - it’s unfair to ask that of Louis.”

Somewhat bemused, Simon looked over them again, before settling his gaze on Liam. “Is your vote for Harry as well, Mr. Payne?”

Sighing, Liam gave a small nod. “Yeah. If you want to exploit them, at least give them the chance to mostly tell the truth. It wouldn’t be right to condemn Louis for something he didn’t do, even if we all know it’s fake.”

“Okay then.” Simon said lightly. “It’ll be Harry. We can work with that. I’ll send some photographers your way this afternoon to catch Harry moving some boxes out, alright? Feel free to hit back on Twitter, Louis, and for you, Harry, to start posting cryptic things.” 

“Wait,” Louis said softly, gaze firmly fixed on his own hands. “If we’re doing this, I want you to frame it in a way that doesn’t make it impossible or unlikely for Harry and I to work it out. Eventually. Please.”

There was a ringing silence in the room, but Harry echoed his request, so Simon ultimately gave in. They’d have emails shortly detailing their story, along with an itinerary of media obligations. The other boys could play Switzerland as they chose, as long as they didn’t outcast Harry, or come off as condoning his mistake. 

And just like that, it was over.

~

Louis couldn’t find it in him to get up and leave when Simon did though, and the other boys were apparently waiting for his cue. In a bizarre way, this had worked out the best way possible. Louis could still go to therapy, could do the questionably therapeutic things that Sam wanted him to do; try yoga, eat lunch with a friend publicly, involve himself in the community and it’d just add to their story. To his own intense shame, Louis actually felt a little relieved that there was some kind of consequence or backlash for Harry, but he wasn’t looking at that part of himself too closely. 

“Did you come with Niall?” Harry asked quietly, pulling Louis out of his thoughts as he nodded slightly. “Alright, I’ll follow you guys then?” 

“Where are you gonna go?” Louis couldn’t help but ask. “You can um, call me and stuff, you know. You don’t have to do this alone.”

“I think I’ll go home for a bit. Hang out with my Mum and Gem, and get out of London for awhile?” 

Louis nodded, unable to push the tears back at all this time. “Okay. That um, that sounds like a good idea. Tell ‘em I said hey.”

“Yeah, I will. Maybe we’ll Skype you or something. It’s been too long.”

Another nod was all Louis could manage around the frog in his throat, so Niall got up, gently reaching to pull Louis to his feet as well. “It’ll be okay, lads.” Niall said firmly, “This isn’t the end. This isn’t goodbye. We’ve got a tour, remember?” 

It did feel like a goodbye though. It was putting a period at the end of this sentence of their lives. So Louis slipped out of Niall’s arms as Harry stood up to dart around the table and crash into his chest. The younger man laughed, but it was wet and pained, as his arms closed protectively around Louis. 

“Keep an eye on him, Nialler,” Harry said firmly, dropping a kiss on Louis’ hair. “And you too, Lou. No more drinking. Get back on track. You can do it. I’ve got all the faith in the world in you, you know? And like you said, I’m only a phone call away if you need.”

Sniffling, Louis nodded, but didn’t trust himself to speak. He could hear sniffles behind him, and shuffling around, but the boys gave them as long as they needed until they managed to let go and step back. 

Laughing slightly at himself, Louis wiped the tears off his cheeks, and rocked back a little, looking for Niall. “Alright, then. Shall we?”

Niall darted forward to give Harry a hug of his own, before slinging an arm around Louis’ shoulder. “We shall. Love you boys, see you soon.”

“What he said,” Louis managed, before letting Niall guide him out of the building and onto the next chapter of their lives and career.