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“Zayn, ‘ve you got any more o’ dat stuff?”

Louis stumbles down the narrow corridor between the bunks. He’s not sure whether the road they’re driving on is especially bumpy or if it’s just the two tonnes of snot swimming around in his skull that makes it feel like he’s walking on the deck of a ship. He stops and holds onto the nearest curtain until the dizziness fades and he counts two feet attached to him, not ten.

“The spray or the lozenges?” Zayn asks from behind one of the curtains. It takes Louis a minute to remember which bunk Zayn sleeps in.

“Nah, the lip stuff. Can’t go on another second, m’dying.” He takes two cautious steps to the other bunk and pulls back the curtain so that Zayn can see how miserably red, crusty, and swollen his chapped lips are. Zayn is very rude, though, so instead of witnessing and pitying Louis’s miserable condition, he’s lying on his back with his lanky arm draped over his eyes, breathing through his mouth and making a sticky sniffling sound every other second when he swallows.

“Think it’s the heater,” Louis explains. The heater has to be at fault. There’s nothing else really to blame for his misery. In the last twenty-four hours, their managers have given him more kinds of decongestants, pain relievers, stimulants, depressants, and “it’ll make you feel better, just trust me” pills than he even knew existed. So he should, logically, be feeling right as rain. He should not be still fucked up like this, still in danger of ruining their performance tonight, of making One Direction sound bad on their very first tour, of fucking up his harmonies like he did last night, of letting everyone down, of being ungrateful for all the support he’s been given in order to earn this incredible opportunity.

He is strong enough, he has to be strong enough to sing like a normal person tonight. Everybody has to go to work every day, but unlike everybody, he only has to work for a couple of hours, plus he has people buying him meds to make him feel better, plus he’s got four other lads to cover up the fact that he can’t sing, plus he gets to spend every day with his boyfriend who loves him back, even if they’re not allowed to kiss until Louis’s contagious stage is over.

Louis can’t stand the thought of kissing and contaminating the band’s brightest star, the love of his life, with the flu.

He can’t stand the thought that he’s still sick, and it’s his fault that he’s not better yet.

So it’s the heater, it has to be the heater. “It’s like a hairdryer on me face, s’tryna burn me lips off.”

Zayn drops his arm and peers up at him with narrowed eyes. It’s not fair that Zayn still looks gorgeous when he’s surrounded by a halo of used tissues. But he does look gorgeous; Louis smiles to himself as he thinks it. He loves thinking boys are gorgeous. He loves being gay. He’s so glad Harry came into his life and forced him to figure that out right quick.

Now Zayn is smiling at him, too. They’re smiling at each other. Louis thinks they both may have had too much cough syrup.

He turns his head to look back up the corridor, to where Harry is listening to his iPod, pretending not to be watching Louis’s every move. Harry is jealous of Zayn, which is ridiculous. Louis has told him a thousand times over. Just because Louis is gay and thinks that boys like Zayn are gorgeous, it doesn’t mean he wants to kiss them. He will always be too busy kissing Harry to even think of such a thing.

Louis giggles. The cough medicine tickles as it shifts in his stomach.

When he turns back to Zayn, there’s something white waving in his face. It takes a second for his eyes to focus and recognize the little tin of magical lip balm.

“Thanks, mate,” Louis says, bravely releasing his grip on the curtain to swipe at and grab the offering. He doesn’t catch it. He swipes again, assuming his compromised depth perception is at fault. But Zayn deliberately pulls it back out of his reach.

Zayn rests the little tin on top of his thick duvet somewhere in the vicinity of his chest and starts to unscrew it with one hand. “Liam’s always stealing it,” he mumbles. His voice is usually quiet and dark, but this sounds flat-out accusatory.

Louis’s jaw drops open in outrage as he watches Zayn gather some of the waxy yellow substance on his fingertip and start to paint it on his own lip. “I’m not Liam,” Louis nearly yells, less offended by the suggestion that he would steal than he is by the comparison to a prudish stick in the mud who says insensitive things like, “I’m not homophobic, but…”

“Nah, you’re not,” Zayn acknowledges, smearing balm over the peaks of his upper lip with entrancing, slow movements. The corner of his mouth twists upward as his finger brushes over it. “You’re even cuter, f’I’m honest.”

Louis’s heart sort of flutters the way it does whenever any pretty boy comments on his appearance. He’s licking across his upper lip incessantly, trying to wipe away the stinging pain but only making it worse each time. He feels like he could cry in frustration watching Zayn moisturize his lips, feels like he’s just crossed a desert and is now having to watch someone else drink from the only well.

But also, his heart. Still fluttering. “Course I’m cuter. Gimme some o’ that? Please?”

Zayn purses his lips together and swallows, an intense look of pain crossing his face at what likely feels like a knife stabbing his throat. Louis can relate all too well. When Zayn opens his eyes again, they fix—dark and bright, cool and hot at the same time—on Louis for an eon of a second before dropping again to the tin. “Would’ve turned you out, if Harry hadn’t got t’you first.”

Louis’s stomach drops out from under him before he even really has a basic understanding of why. Zayn’s words, the way Zayn says them, Zayn. Something about it all. Louis feels dizzy, the flutter in his heart gone haywire.

“Well, erm, he. He did,” Louis replies, trying to sound calmer than he is. It strikes him that he should have responded with something like, Why are you saying this? But the thing is, he sort of knows. Or at least he knows some of it. Like, he can sense, somehow, that Zayn isn’t really coming onto him, that he’s not trying to get Louis to cheat on Harry or anything. And he’s definitely not suggesting that Louis would leave Harry. After their numerous heart-to-hearts about love and queerness and stuff, Louis thinks Zayn understands the depth and permanence of his love for Harry more than anybody else in the entire world probably does—even Harry, who still, for example, gets jealous as if he’s worried that Louis’s going to leave him to be with Zayn.

The part that Louis’s stuck on, the one swimming around in his chest like a thousand butterflies, is that Zayn doesn’t want to steal him away from Harry, yet he’s still flirting with him. It’s confusing and insane, and it feels like—could Louis be madly devoted to the love of his life and still kiss another boy? He hugs boys who aren’t Harry. He cuddles and wrestles and sleeps beside boys who aren’t Harry—so where is the line drawn?

Zayn is now putting balm on his lower lip, the long nail of his slender fingertip digging into the little divot in the centre where it tucks in. Louis is definitely thinking about what it would be like to kiss him, to steal the lip balm he’s so desperate for right off of Zayn’s lips. It’s mad. His lips are tingling so intensely from the thought—or burning from the abuse of the heater.

Harry is glaring at him from over the top of his iPod, but Louis can’t even go kiss his boyfriend to make him realize how unnecessary his jealousy is. He’s not allowed to, or he’ll get Harry sick. Louis tries to smile at him to make him feel better, but Harry just looks dramatically down at his iPod as though he’s already decided that Louis is going to betray him, and it makes Louis feel so sad and confused. Strangest of all, it makes him feel perversely proud of having a boyfriend who wants him badly enough that he doesn’t even want to share. He feels like a coveted object. He feels thrilled by the prospect of proving his devotion to Harry over and over again by rejecting a thousand pretty boys’ kisses that would mean nothing to Louis, simply because they would mean something to Harry.

Suddenly there’s a touch at his lips, and for a brief, terrifying, thrilling second, Louis thinks Zayn has kissed him.

Relief surges through his body quicker than any pill he’s taken as he realizes it’s just Zayn’s finger on his lips. Louis shudders, and his eyes slide shut. He’s intoxicated with gratitude that Zayn is finally sharing his lip balm, and he’s also dizzy with guilt and confusion. The finger on his lip is the same finger that was on Zayn’s own lips just moments ago—a kiss once removed, a kiss with one degree of separation. He feels the feverish heat of Zayn’s lips on his fingertip. The balm that’s being spread carefully, so attentively, over the chapped peaks of his lip is mixed with the balm that rubbed over Zayn’s. Louis cuddles with boys who aren’t Harry, and chubs up in his pants when boys who aren’t Harry touch his lips—where is the line drawn?

Clearly, he needs to have a good talk with Harry. After he’s past the contagious stage.

He locks eyes with Zayn, who smiles up at him a little dopily, looking like a toddler focused intently on his finger-painting. At least the expression on his face helps quite a lot with the situation in Louis’s pants. “You could share it with Harry, you know,” Zayn says with as much care as he’s putting into Louis’s lips. Louis doesn’t know what he means, and Zayn must read that on his face because he adds, “The balm.”

Louis is shivering with how much better he feels. The minty tingle of the balm is the first thing he has been able to taste or smell in hours. He feels like he’ll never forget the blissful warm-cool touch of it sinking into the ruined flesh of his lips. “Can’t,” he says, half-muted by Zayn’s finger on his lower lip. “We’re contagious.” The words feel dark and heavy, sinking in his stomach like hard liquor. He hates them, doesn’t know why they feel like meaningful words, like words Liam would say, like words that mean they’re guilty of something, or that being gay is contagious. He doesn’t mean any of that, but he feels it in his gut.

When Louis gets sad, he likes to kiss Harry. Now that his lips aren’t on fire anymore, he badly wishes he could press them to Harry’s and taste his breath with his newly mint-cleared sinuses and lick reassurance from his mouth. The weight of Zayn’s finger disappears, and when Louis looks, Zayn is twisting the tin shut until the lid won’t budge any further. “Gotta do whatever makes you feel better, gets you through,” Zayn says, still trying to twist the lid tighter.

A rush of what feels dreadfully similar to tears washes through Louis’s body because Zayn is so right.

After he makes his way carefully, step by step, all the way back up the corridor to the little table where Harry is dropping silent tears onto the screen of his iPod, Louis holds his germ-ridden breath deep in his lungs, purses his quarantined mouth shut, and presses his soft, minty lips into the slot between Harry’s, where they fit more perfectly than any lips ever fit together in the history of the universe.

——

Louis doesn’t know if Zayn keeps buying replacement lip balm tins, or if it’s still the same one. The one that Zayn borrowed from his mum’s collection of posh beauty products for good luck. The one that his and Louis’s germs are stored in.

He does know that it works, that Zayn’s lips are smoother and softer than they look every time they press gently to his cheek or smooch his mouth mockingly loud. Even as he starts to develop a more tangible, sandpaper-rough five-o’clock shadow than the rest of the boys have done, his lips remain as cool and smooth as tumbled sea glass. Louis loves knowing how different they are from Harry’s, whose lips are soft like the leaf of a succulent plant, plush, dense with wetness, desert-warm.

Sometimes, when all five of them are curled up for a good cuddle, Louis will catch Harry leaning into the touch of Zayn’s lips on his neck or his arm, the way he usually only leans into Louis’s touch. It always makes Louis’s skin sizzle with dueling responses that he never quite sorts out: some smug kind of pride in the fact that his lips must be as soft as Zayn’s if Harry can’t tell them apart; content pleasure that his boyfriend is being treated with the absolute tenderness that he deserves; a curious excitement that Harry might actually know that it’s their friend’s kiss he’s sinking into.

He never quite decides why none of these possibilities fills him with jealousy. He does, however, always move to put himself in Harry’s line of sight, so that Harry can make an informed decision whether or not to continue tilting his head to give room for the face tucked so gently in the crook of his neck.

——

When they run out of weed to busy their hands with and the words start to flicker out, Zayn will get the lip balm to fiddle with and Louis will ask to use some. It’s easier for Zayn to talk about Liam if he doesn’t use his name much and if he has something visual to focus on, a talisman in his hand to pour his frustration into, a placeholder for Liam’s name to fill in the gaps of their quiet conversation. It’s easier for Louis to talk about Harry if his hands are busy and Zayn’s tired eyes are fixed on an inanimate object. That way, he doesn’t have to look into the sad wide blow of Zayn’s pupils. He can keep on pretending that their friendship makes them equals in their heartbreak. He can ignore the guilt of knowing that he’s so lucky to be with someone who wants to spend the rest of his life with him, of knowing that it makes their situations irrevocably different. He can put that distractingly minty salve on his lips, coat after nervous coat, until it seals over the dark twist of Zayn’s mouth when Louis says things like, “Why can’t he just let me love him, you know?”

——

Harry comes home to their hotel room smelling like Zayn’s lip balm.

Louis’s immediate gut reaction to Harry smelling like other people is a dreadful squelching feeling in his sinking stomach, as over the last few months, he’s been steadily training his body to associate Harry smelling like other people with heartbreak. So Louis’s gut drops and twists into that padded shape so perfectly suited to catching a broken heart—and yet this particular taste on Harry’s breath, Zayn’s taste, soothes his stomach at the same time.

He breaks the kiss, licks his lips curiously, and then asks, “Were you kissing Zayn?” His voice doesn’t even crack, and his weight stays evenly distributed on both feet, which is more than he can say for himself every other time he has asked Harry a question starting with, “Were you kissing…

Harry drops his forehead down onto Louis’s shoulder, rendering his expression impossible to read, though the slump of his shoulders spells out exhaustion.

The non-answer, Louis is almost surprised to notice, is actually sort of thrilling.

It’s just. It would almost be fitting. Zayn is the one who explained this all to them in the first place. Or rather, Zayn and Nick. Nick is the one who helped Harry figure out different ways of taking care of himself emotionally—which ironically means that not being the one to help Harry figure out that he needed to sleep with other men is on Louis’s list of biggest personal failures.

Zayn is the one who gave Louis a language for understanding the things that Louis was unable to come up with in the first place. It’s not infidelity, it’s polyamory. As long as you’re consenting and safe and you talk about it, then it’s not cheating, it’s an open relationship, if that’s what you want. It’s not that he doesn’t get what he needs from you, it’s that he can’t have you all the time. It’s not that he loves you less, it’s that he wants to take care of himself better so that he can love you more. You just have to figure out what works for both of you.

It’s not that you don’t do a good enough job taking care of him.

You should both have room to explore your identities, independent of each other.

And, It’s like how you talk to me about some things, instead of talking to him. Doesn’t replace or change your relationship with him. If he gets something out of, I’dunno, talking to some other blokes or fucking ‘em, where’s the line drawn?

With Harry slumped forward onto him, smelling like Zayn’s ever-present lip balm, Louis has never been more confused about where the line is drawn.

“There was just, this guy, we both liked him.” The way that Harry says it makes it sound like both the start and the end to a story, but Louis is left with a thousand muddled questions.

Bizarrely, he almost doesn’t want to ask them. He likes this buzzing sensation of not knowing and therefore being able to imagine any number of fuzzy, somehow safe-feeling scenarios. He never would have been able to articulate that the idea of Harry having a threesome with some stranger and Zayn would calm the heartbreak that usually accompanies the news of Harry sleeping with anybody else (despite Louis’s best efforts not to feel like Harry’s interest in other men is a direct consequence of Louis’s failure to sufficiently take care of him).

It doesn’t make sense, not quite. It’s not like Zayn is actually an expert at relationship anarchy or whatever the term is he likes to use when he’s high. Even though Zayn is great at talking to Louis about his problems, he does a shite job of communicating his relationship theories to his actual partners. And on top of that, he’s hung up on Liam but won’t admit that there’s any discrepancy there in terms of commitment. The idea of Zayn touching Harry should not be radiating safety and stability all the way down to Louis’s toes.

Then there’s the fact that Louis has fought with Harry numerous times over his own closeness to Zayn. Louis had to work so hard to convince Harry that just because Zayn was gorgeous and could talk to Louis about Yorkshire in ways that Harry would never be able to didn’t mean that he was a threat to their relationship. And god, all the times Harry broke them both down until Louis spelled it out on command—yes, I guess I probably would have slept with him if I hadn’t met you first, yes, I’m attracted to him, but that doesn’t mean I want to fuck him—and Harry still wasn’t satisfied? There have been times that he wishes he had recorded those fights so that he could play them back for Harry after he’s been gone for a week and slept with two men, just to point out his hypocrisy. But then again, each of those times Harry comes back and Louis’s heart breaks a little as he reminds himself that Harry does these things to take care of himself, that sleeping with two men makes him feel less dysphoric about having to spend a week publicly looking like a heterosexual man dating a heterosexual woman—something Louis mostly understands because Zayn is better at explaining Harry to Louis than he is at explaining himself to Liam, or Perrie, or whoever else is in his bed at any given time. The idea of Harry’s jealous resentment of Zayn being a thing of the past should not be making Louis feel at peace with every hypocrisy that ever stung him.

Louis lifts Harry’s head up and kisses him again, biting and sucking that waxy substance off Harry’s mouth. “Did you fuck?” he asks, his teeth still wrapped around Harry’s lower lip. Asking the question sends his stomach dropping in a way that is completely, astoundingly different from the other times they’ve had this talk. Harry and Zayn fucking—the idea has Louis frozen solid where he stands while his dick starts to fill irrationally, and he’s not even coming close to picturing it. Sometimes he gets hard when Harry reports back on his activities, but it feels like a masochistic response to the vivid images his mind supplies just to hurt himself with.

This isn’t that.

Harry perks up suddenly, coming to life as he usually does when he can tell something is upsetting Louis. Even if he’s the thing that upset Louis, he always tries to make him feel better. “I should have talked to you first, I’m sorry,” Harry whispers sincerely, placing his hands on either side of Louis’s face and attempting to pet him. He’s completely focused on Louis in this moment, eyes that attentive green-grey they get when he’s desperate to make Louis feel better.

Louis kisses him sharply, then pulls away to breathe Harry’s breath. He’s afraid to say what he’s about to say because it might go terribly wrong. All past evidence suggests that it would. Zayn proposed joining them for a threesome at least twice their first year together, and Harry had declared a hard no both times, claiming that it was hot in theory, but he wouldn’t actually be able to stomach seeing Louis touch Zayn that way without feeling abandoned. And then during their early discussions of what an open relationship would look like for them, Louis hadn’t even gotten the chance to ask if Zayn was on the table for him because Harry preemptively announced that Louis was obviously free to sleep with anyone he wanted to sleep with, but that Harry would be really hurt if he fucked someone who was actually a threat to their relationship, like Zayn.

And yet—“No, it’s fine. It’s—hot.”

Harry melts into him a little deeper, lets his arms slide around the back of Louis’s neck, and smiles coquettishly. His eyes are still that green-grey like his eagerness to make Louis feel better is overpowering his usual sense of betrayal at Louis involving Zayn and the word hot in the same sentence.

“Yeah?” Harry asks, drooping forward until his mouth is on Louis’s neck, the peppermint burning on the trail his lips leave along his throat. Louis breathes in deeply from Harry’s curls, smelling nothing but Harry and home. He’s suddenly holding back tears because he just loves Harry so much, and every single homecoming, whether they’re fighting or fucking against the closed front door or just sweating into each other’s pores after a show, fills each of Louis’s senses with certainty that there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing with his life than trying to love Harry Styles as best as he can. “He’s not as good at sucking cock as you are.”

Louis bites a thick strand of Harry’s curls and slides his hands down to squeeze his little arse. “Nobody’s as good at sucking your cock as I am.”

“Nobody,” Harry repeats, hot and sincere, moved like a church-going man praying at the altar of Louis’s pulse.

And this is why Louis never sees any other man as a threat to their relationship: because nobody will ever suck Harry’s cock better than he does; because nobody will ever love Harry better than he can; because there’s no chance that anybody will ever do a better job.

“Have you got his lipstick all over your cock?” Louis asks, not bothering to correct his word choice because something about it has Harry shivering and moaning in his arms instantaneously, Louis has never been so hard to smell another man on Harry’s body, and all of this is worthy of celebration. Louis drops to his knees. “Guess I’ll see for meself.”

——

Zayn doesn’t exactly drop everything and run into their bed when he hears that they want to give it a go. He has his own things going on, and it’s about a week before Harry and Louis make out the sound of a knock on their hotel room door in the middle of the night.

Harry gets up off the floor to go answer it as Louis climbs up the rest of the way into bed, his legs stiff from how he was half-straddled over the edge of the mattress to give the most room for Harry’s tongue in his arse. He barely slips his lower half under the duvet before he hears the door unlatch and click as it opens.

Zayn’s hair is deflated and his cheeks are sunken, but he’s looking so intensely into Harry’s eyes that Louis can see the black glow of it from across the room. Harry’s fingering his own puffy lips like he always does when he’s out of it. Zayn sniffs and then groans briefly before diving straight in to kiss Harry’s lips. They both moan, and Harry’s fingers drop from his face to clutch Zayn’s shoulder.

Harry tastes like him, Louis realizes, suddenly so hard that he has to reach under the duvet and make a tight fist around his cock to keep hold of his senses. Zayn is tasting his arse right now, and they’re both kissing messily around it.

Louis has to shut his eyes.

So the first time ends up being all about him. Lying between them on his side, with Zayn delicately holding his cheeks apart, burying his mouth as deeply as he can get into Louis’s arse, following Harry’s somewhat petulant instructions on how to do it the way that Louis likes it. Harry lies on his side, his body faced parallel to Zayn’s as he lets Louis wrap a leg around his shoulder and fuck his mouth as hard as he needs to. He taps Louis’s thigh when he needs a breath or to give Zayn some more advice. Louis just tries not to moan loudly enough to wake their neighbours. He buries his face under a pillow so that he can’t look down at where his boyfriend and his best friend have their hands wrapped around each other’s cocks.

Louis’s favourite part, though, the part that makes him feel best, is after they’ve all come and cleaned up, when Harry orders room service, and Zayn actually eats most of the food. Even Liam has a hard time bringing Zayn’s anxieties down low enough for him to be able to eat, so it means a lot to Louis that Zayn is comfortable enough around them to let Harry spoon-feed him soft-boiled eggs. In a particularly sleepy moment, Louis slides one hand into Harry’s hair and the other into Zayn’s, and says, “My pretty boys,” out of nowhere. Harry just sighs contentedly and leans into the pressure, always easy for a good compliment. Zayn smiles at Louis, and it almost feels private, it almost seems sad.

Harry’s mouth looks a little rough from how long Louis was using it, so Zayn fishes his trusty lip balm out from the pocket of the jeans that were thrown on the floor a long time ago. He paints it on Harry’s lips and tells Harry how pretty his mouth is. Louis feels incredibly proud that his boyfriend’s beauty is being complimented, and he feels so excited, relieved, and happy that the sight of another man taking care of Harry fills him with warmth instead of cold dread.

——

It turns out that Louis loves having two boys to boss around in his bed.

On nights when he has them both, he gets high on the thrill of making Harry and Zayn so hard and eager to follow his directions. Harry always makes a huge show of obedience; even if he weren’t naturally disposed to take the most spanks, to be the most quiet, to come the most times, and swallow the most come, he would probably make it happen out of sheer competitive determination to prove that he serves Louis best.

Zayn, however, quietly takes what’s given him, except for when he quietly refuses what he doesn’t want. He gives Harry his cock to suck on, right alongside Louis’s, and he kisses Louis open and wet with his soft lips as they both come in Harry’s eagerly moaning mouth. Louis loves giving Harry all the cock and all the come he needs, and he loves being able to kiss someone he loves—someone who understands how much he loves Harry—as he makes it happen.

Getting to rub come into Harry’s sloppy, swollen lips without knowing whose it is makes Louis feel faint.

Objectively speaking, Zayn is probably better at holding still while being tied up and spanked into oblivion than Harry is. Harry is tense and hot with wanting to prove how much he can take, the most beautiful thing Louis has ever seen, filled to the brim with feeling until he positively glows with it. Zayn is loose and unresponsive as he privately gets off on the pain, or whatever. Louis can’t really relate, not even through his understanding of what Harry has described over the years of their kink exploration. But he does think it’s hot, and the fact that Zayn lets himself melt so vulnerably into his pillow—and trusts Louis to do it right—doubles his investment in being the perfect dom for them both.

The time he comes hardest is in his own hand. He's got Harry’s cock in Zayn’s arse, and they’re on the other side of the room, but in general, few things go to his head faster than having Harry’s hips snap on Louis’s command and only on Louis’s command. Deepening that headrush is the knowledge that he’s filling Zayn up with firsthand evidence of how lucky Louis is to have a boyfriend with such a thick, beautiful cock, of how talented Louis is at taking cock to be able to get Harry inside him on the regular, of how good a daddy Louis is to be in such control of his baby’s cock that it might as well be a toy in his hand.

He makes Harry toss out his condom and clean up in the ensuite, then he takes Zayn’s whole cock in his mouth and sucks him gently, gratefully, a thank you, and it’s the most private moment they have, until Harry comes back and Louis makes him lick Zayn’s come right out of his mouth.

One night when they’re still backstage, Zayn is putting on some post-performance lip balm, and Louis gets inspired. “Kiss Harry’s nipples,” Louis tells him, and Zayn does, pulling the halves of Harry’s partially-buttoned shirt aside one at a time to press a chaste kiss to each. “Show me,” Louis tells him, and Zayn does, spreading the shirt open and taut over the curves of Harry’s heaving chest, displaying his pecs and the tightening buds of his little nipples, which grow hard and pink under the combination of peppermint and cool air. “Blow on them,” Louis tells him, and Niall and Liam awkwardly make an exit as they realize this is not the kind of play they’re invited to.

Louis’s dick hardens as Zayn delicately blows air like a kiss, as Harry’s nipples crinkle and pull and twitch like the pucker of his arse would. Louis wants to know what Zayn’s minty kiss would feel like over the slit of Harry’s cock.

As the door falls shut behind their bandmates and crew like the first tick of a timer, Louis thinks there’s probably something wrong with him for how much he enjoys the idea of Liam and Niall wanting to be invited into his and Harry’s sex life but not being included because that prize belongs solely to Zayn. Zayn, who would rather stay with them on nights like tonight than follow Liam out into the world of sanity, who gets more out of proximity to Harry and Louis’s intense love than he does from the confusing scraps he gets from the person he claims to be in love with.

It makes Louis feel like his love for Harry is a holy thing that can only be witnessed by the worthy.

It maybe fucks with his ego a bit, especially when Harry looks at him with the light of the moon and all the stars in his eyes as Zayn sucks him off, looks at him like Louis has finally figured out the secret to keeping Harry with him forever.

These are the nights when Louis has them both.

On the nights that he has Harry all to himself, Louis takes him apart piece by piece, touching him with a certainty that he could never convey through verbal instruction. It’s a delicate, supreme knowledge: a certain amount of pressure in one fingertip, slightly less pressure in the next fingertip, a light stroke from the fingertip beside that one—it’s science, it’s love, it’s the manifestation of Louis’s entire being. It’s riding Harry’s cock at the perfect angle to make himself come because every fibre of his body knows that making him come is the thing that will make Harry come. It’s perfect. He wishes it was enough.

On the nights that he doesn’t have Harry at all, he usually has Zayn, and they watch sad movies that Harry won’t watch because they’re sad, get sky-high to talk about politics and the end of the world, kiss the top of each other’s heads. They don’t do more than kiss and snuggle and sleep together because, for some reason, doing more than that would upset literally every other member of the band. It doesn’t seem fair or logical, but Louis is a peacekeeper at heart.

His and Zayn’s nights together only become awkward when Zayn is very obviously in pain from something he had Liam do to him. And Louis never doubts that it’s anything but just that: Zayn making Liam do things to him. Liam doesn’t have enough conviction in his whole body to hurt a fly unless he’s been told that he’s meant to. Louis knows this because it’s a complete and utter turn-off, knows this from the time or two that he and Harry have gotten pulled into a scene with Liam and Zayn (which Louis can truly only do when he’s well wasted, and Liam fades into just a vaguely man-shaped man).

Generally, he doesn’t like having anything to do with Zayn and Liam’s sex life, so when he’s squeezing Zayn’s arse through his skinny jeans, Zayn flinches too hard, and Louis pulls down the waistband of his boxers to find welts from an actual honest-to-god whip or something, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the way that Zayn uses loving Liam to flagellate himself, but he doesn’t judge him for it. Gotta do whatever makes you feel better, gets you through.

At its core, Louis’s aversion boils down to guilt. When Zayn looks up at him with hollow, ironic, jet-black eyes, and Louis pulls away from Zayn’s shoulder like he’s been burnt, he feels guilt. Because if Louis hadn’t found his soulmate, he would probably be pouring all the energy of his attentive, obsessive love into Zayn. Maybe. And if he were pouring all the energy of his attentive, obsessive love into Zayn, then Zayn wouldn’t be seeking that from a man who has almost as little sense of self as he does conviction. And if Zayn weren’t seeking love from Liam, then he probably wouldn’t have to fuck himself up just to fill in the gaps.

If Louis was the only one hurting Zayn, he would be doing it right—he would be doing it how Zayn needed, not how Zayn asked for.

One time, Louis sucks it up and holds Zayn’s limp hands in his lap, tenderly washes the cover-up from his wrists with a warm flannel, and tends to his deep rope wounds with a salve that he has always kept handy since the first time he broke the skin on Harry’s arse cheeks.

He speaks to Liam about it, more pitying than mad or disappointed. Liam is a compulsive people-pleaser, which is not the worst thing to be, unless you can’t actually follow through on your promises. It takes a few awkward conversations, and he tries to explain the difference between what Zayn asks for and what Zayn needs, but it requires a certainty he could never convey through verbal instruction: a delicate, supreme knowledge.

On the nights that he has neither Zayn nor Harry, Louis talks to his mum, if she’s awake in her time zone, and he feels sorry for himself that he’s got nothing but blood relatives to rely on while the love of his life is out somewhere with any of a huge array of professional and personal acquaintances. If she’s not awake, he drinks himself into a stupor and feels sorry for himself for being dependent on anyone’s care at all, convinces himself that it’s his job to give care but not to receive it.

But then Harry always comes back, mouth soft and desperate to give Louis everything that he’s ever dreamed of. Most times, it doesn’t even feel like a post-anger reconciliation; it’s just a reunion, a bone-deep reminder that Louis gets to hold the entire world in his arms sometimes. Everything else, including their upset, dissolves around them as they kiss and come together.

——

Harry’s the one to cut the night short.

One minute everything’s going brilliantly—Harry’s braced against the wall with Louis’s cock driving into him just as hard as it should, and Zayn’s curled on his knees and pinned to the wall by Harry’s cock in his mouth, which shoves in deep whenever Louis shoves in deep, and maybe Zayn’s having trouble breathing, and it’s making Harry tense up uncomfortably, but there’s nothing Harry loves more than being pushed past discomfort, so what could be wrong?

The next minute, Harry’s thrashing away dramatically, crying about how Louis and Zayn aren’t aware of their own actions, working himself into some absurd self-righteous strop. As if Harry hadn’t snorted any coke that night. As if Harry hadn’t fucked strangers while practically unconscious. Louis kneels down to pick up Zayn, who’s coughing and as red-faced as he ever gets while his drool flows down to stain the rough carpet. Zayn smiles up at him, as happy as he ever gets.

Louis tells Harry that he’s being ridiculous. His mind is racing a mile a minute, so it’s only in this moment that he realizes he’s been annoyed with Harry all night. Annoyed that Harry was taking shots with some friends and had the gall to look left out when he walked in on Zayn sniffing cocaine off Louis’s stomach for a laugh. Annoyed that even high and manic, Louis felt responsible for making sure Harry didn’t fall on his face on the way to the hotel. Annoyed that Louis and Zayn were the same, in love with people who, for some fucking reason, needed more. Annoyed that Harry was acting like Louis and Zayn were the ones without self-control, just because they’re slightly more coked up, and maybe it’s been a few days since they were sober, but at least neither of them ever lost their shit bad enough to actually fuck one-on-one like they wanted to.

A little too late, Louis realizes that he’s said most of this out loud.

Harry is veritably bawling, and for some reason, Louis’s brain is moving fast enough that he can breeze right past it, strip off his condom, pull up his pyjamas, and drag Zayn out of the room and into the hallway. Louis asks for his keycard so they can curl up in Zayn’s bed together and not be judged, but Zayn just sort of collapses against the wall, giggling without humour. The laughter almost sounds like an asthma attack. Louis would know because he’s coaxed Harry through dozens of those. But Zayn doesn’t have asthma. He’s just leaning there against the pale brown wall with his eyes flickering beneath their lids, barely conscious. It’s not until this moment that Louis realizes he’s in a similar state. He’s in so far over his head.

He spends the next hour or five hours or something in Niall’s room, trying to figure out what Zayn needs. Louis runs through a dozen ideas per minute, and Niall tries to just soothe Zayn into alertness. But whenever Zayn’s eyes open, they glimmer bleakly over the room as if it’s a dream world, and he giggles himself back to his comfort zone, with his eyes shut and his fist in Niall’s shirt.

Eventually, Louis realizes that he’s doing more harm than good here, pacing around the room while Zayn and Niall cuddle silently, pacing around the room while Harry’s probably pacing around theirs.

Harry.

Unless Harry has made his way to some other person’s room.

Maybe it’s the release of his anticipation of this loathsome prospect, but when Louis walks into their room and sees Harry pacing from the bath to the bed, he bursts into tears. Ugly tears. The kind that should never be seen by anyone but the person who has vowed to love you for the rest of your lives.

They do nothing but cry and whisper and squeeze that night. Harry promises to be more present, under the condition that Louis promises to be more present. Harry refuses to apologize for doing what feels natural, so Louis does, too, but they commit to doing better. Zayn’s name doesn’t come up once, and it’s only when Harry hugs him tightly and possessively from behind—the big spoon for a change—that Louis realizes Harry thinks he actually made it to Zayn’s room and did something more than drag Zayn’s dead weight down the corridor.

In the morning, Harry’s still pretty stretched open from last night, so Louis takes him, calls him pretty while pressing his face down into the mattress, and sends him to the shower with come dripping down his thighs and a coy, yet smug smile dancing on his cheeks.

In the morning, Louis knocks on Niall’s door to see how Zayn is doing, and when Zayn looks at him with black eyes across the suite’s table and over a spoonful of Cheerios, Louis realizes that they both know it’s over, that last night was the last of what they had going. Zayn has his drugs, and Louis has Harry. They both have their vices. They both know where they stand, and it feels almost equal. Louis would feel guilty, if it weren’t for the pitying look Zayn gives him.

Louis does feel guilty. But he tries not to let it interfere with him spoon-feeding Harry soft-boiled eggs in bed.

——

He tries to be a good friend to Zayn. Harry spares what energy he can to do the same. It’s not enough. They all know he’s slipping away.

There’s a difference between a coping mechanism that gets you through to stability and a coping mechanism that drags you down into obsession. Usually, Louis believes that Harry is the former, that they’ll arrive on the other side ready to live life together. On some days—days when Harry doesn’t seem to need him—he worries that Harry is the latter, the obsession that’s keeping him from living a full life and being a real person.

Those days often happen to be the days that he believes he might be the former for Zayn, if he tried, the focal point that renders all other coping mechanisms into blurry edges instead of vortexes.

The day that Louis and Zayn fuck isn’t one of those days.

It’s not even that good. Louis’s lips are sunburnt, and he licks them as he watches Zayn smear balm over his own. Zayn tells him, “Your lips are sunburnt.” He tells Louis that he can have some, that it’s his for the taking. Louis sucks the mint right off Zayn’s mouth because it’s what Zayn wants.

When he slides his hand up Zayn’s side, he’s not sure if he’s moving from natural desire or if he’s moving in tandem with how he imagines Harry would resentfully imagine him moving. His mind is trilling along so fast, it’s as if he’s floating above them both. Observing himself being only as turned on by the body against his as he is by the taboo of writhing around naked with the only person Harry ever asked him not to fuck. Observing Zayn using him like just another drug.

And yet, it’s somehow tender and oddly quiet. There’s no holding down, no begging, no grunting. They’re just—sharing lip balm, mouths mashing together, soft and sustained, rough only around the edges. Louis fingers Zayn’s arse and sucks his cock, drowning himself for the first time in the scents of someone who isn’t Harry. It’s completely disorienting. He feels like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but then, he feels like he knows exactly what he’s doing, and the ability to make Zayn feel this good away from Harry fills Louis’s head with power, makes Louis feel, for an instant, as though he’s a good friend.

Once he has smeared Zayn’s load into the sheets, he comes in Zayn’s mouth with his eyes closed, trying to convince himself that he’s not imagining Harry looking on.

There’s a moment afterward when Louis bursts into laughter because this, this is what Harry was so absurdly worried about happening for all these years. Passable orgasms, bone-deep camaraderie, and Louis thinking about Harry while Zayn rolls a cigarette.

“Harry’s not going to talk to me ever again, is he?” Zayn asks, lazy and almost amused sounding. It’s a nice change to hear him sound amused.

“Harry’s stupid,” Louis agrees, with all the confidence of someone who will love Harry with every fibre of his being for the rest of eternity. “You deserve better.”

Louis’s lungs burn in hunger as Zayn sucks in a deep drag of tobacco before speaking. “I deserve better,” Zayn murmurs thoughtfully. “Than what?”

Louis doesn’t know the answer to that. Harry’s pettiness? Liam’s pitiful attempts at care? Niall’s misplaced devotion? One Direction? The spotlight? His drug problem? Every card in the hand he’s been dealt?

“Than me,” is the quiet answer that tumbles out of Louis eventually. He lifts his head from Zayn’s chest to steal a smoke. Zayn deserves a better best friend than Louis could ever be. The sorrow of that knowledge fills his lungs, but he forces down enough smoke to make it feel like carbon monoxide is the thing that’s weighing them down.

“Love you, Lou,” Zayn says, somewhere between protesting and forgiving. His hand makes a fist in Louis’s overgrown hair. It’s more forceful than he’s been with any part of Louis’s body since they were idiot children who laughed and threw things at each other and thought that having the world’s attention meant freedom.

“Love you, too,” Louis exhales in grey smoke across the slats of Zayn’s ribcage.

He passes back the cigarette, but in a single trading motion, Zayn slips something else into Louis’s hand. Louis blinks and turns his palm up to see the tin of lip balm. “Your lips are seriously burnt, mate,” Zayn says. “Hold on to it.”

——

Harry does talk to Zayn again. In fact, he’s flat-out nice to him, even though he knows everything that happened. It’s simple stuff, the things that don’t require actual investment—like pulling Zayn off Liam’s shoulder and into his lap to pet Zayn’s silky black hair without speaking. Harry always makes eye contact with Louis when he does these things, which makes Louis think about how he couldn’t even come in Zayn’s mouth without imagining Harry noticing. Sometimes, he wonders if that reminder is precisely what Harry is trying to accomplish with these gestures.

He’s not naive enough to think that Harry has grown out of his jealousy. He knows what the two driving forces behind Harry’s displays of kindness to Zayn are. The first is that Harry has promised to stop “pushing Louis away,” and he’s clever enough at this point to recognize that caring about Zayn’s wellbeing keeps Louis close, keeps their hearts in synch. The second is that not even Harry’s possessive streak can blind him to the fact that Zayn is in no state to be a threat to anyone.

——

When Zayn leaves, Louis’s not sure if he’s avoiding talking about Zayn for Harry’s sake, or if Harry’s avoiding talking about Zayn for his sake. Every time the subject comes up when they’re alone, he can sense Harry fritzing like an electrical outlet splashed with water, about to explode. Whatever Harry feels, it’s a lot. Maybe he’s defensive and angry that Louis was abandoned by his best friend. Maybe Harry’s seething about his own suffering being insulted by Zayn escaping their shared prison before anyone else. Maybe Harry’s just annoyed with Liam for being what Harry perceives to be the reason Zayn felt so misunderstood. Or maybe Harry’s just hurt, hurting for Louis, hurting for Zayn all at the same time. Louis can’t tell which of these feelings is the thing that makes Harry’s jaw go tight and his voice choke to silence whenever Zayn comes up, but the fact that Harry usually ends up trying to hug Louis close when it happens suggests that his feelings have something to do with his perceptions of Louis’s feelings.

The problem is that Louis doesn’t know what his own feelings are.

Pretty much all he knows is that he doesn’t like to see Harry’s jaw twitch, and he doesn’t like to feel like Harry's holding him tight out of some kind of guilt or obligation. So he tries not to bring up Zayn’s departure. He tries not to think about it when Harry’s around.

And Harry’s around most of the time, now. It’s everything Louis wanted. Zayn got his drugs and his grand escape, and Louis got Harry all to himself. Louis wants to feel more excited by the prospect of either Skyping or sleeping with Harry every night instead of wondering when he’s coming back, but as it is, he feels like the sick relative whose every demand is met out of pity. Harry’s impassioned vow to not sleep around seems like the kind of thing you promise when something suddenly seems bigger than your own pain. Louis wonders if Harry’s intentions will be as clear once they’ve recovered from the blow of Zayn’s departure—once Louis’s pain is yet again less than Harry’s.

Or maybe it’s nothing like that. Maybe they’re on their way out together, just as Zayn was, alone. Louis’s not sure. He doesn’t know what his own feelings are.

One night, he’s digging through his toiletries bag at three in the morning, trying to find the lube that he knows is in there, when he comes across an unfamiliar shape. He pulls out the little disc, looks at it, and realizes what it is a little too late to be psychologically normal. So maybe he’s repressing a few emotions and memories. Sue him.

It’s Zayn’s lip balm, the tin he told Louis to hold onto. He never specified how long to hold onto it. At three in the morning, surrounded by white tile and fluorescent lights, the tin feels like a message that Louis never received before this moment. A warning. A goodbye.

Louis opens it and slips some onto his finger before he can think better of it.

Harry walks in as he’s still smearing it on. Louis wonders how long Harry waited for him to come back from the ensuite. He wonders if Harry will be upset that instead of lube for fucking Harry into the mattress like he asked, Louis found some old lip balm that smells incriminatingly strongly of peppermint and Zayn.

He doesn’t realize he’s crying until his lips are wobbling against Harry’s soft, steady kiss. Harry’s there, wrapped tightly around him, kissing him even though he tastes like the man who represents their biggest mutual failure, kissing him because he tastes like the man they both loved, in their own ways, separately and together.

Harry hones in on Louis’s tears like he’s just struck groundwater in a desert, delving into Louis’s mouth with something like glee that’s also mournful. Louis cries hard and kisses back harder, stunned by how loved and lucky he is. When he’s broken down like this, there’s no way to pretend to himself that Zayn, wherever he is, is remotely as happy or lucky. He tries to drown out the swell of guilt with Harry’s kisses, tries to honor the love that saved him more than he probably deserved to be saved.

As Harry falls back to breathe, Louis wipes the last of Zayn’s lip balm off the corner of his mouth, smearing it up onto a teary cheek with the back of his hand.