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* Core ngrato *

It’s blackest night and almost cold, the wind curling the curtains as it glides into the room through the open window, unyielding and curious, explorative. The moon sort of glows and there are a few stars that Harry can spot, just above orange blankets of pollution.

He’s gripping a cigarette between long, pale fingers, his nails bitten down.

He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t bite his nails.

But he brings the damp paper to his lips and sucks in the toxicity, breathes the grey-blue smoke and watches the ember alight as the curtains tickle his dry, bare knees. The old, wooden stool he sits atop creaks, maybe from his weight or maybe from age or maybe because everything creaks in this old, old flat—especially when the wind blows, especially at night.

“Harry,” Zayn’s sleep-scratched voice questions then, just as Harry flicks the cigarette butt out of the window, feels the lingering sting of foreign smoke and bitter cold encasing his throat.

He doesn’t turn around. “Yeah?”

“Go back to bed,” is all Zayn supplies. It’s not gentle or sympathetic or encouraging. It’s a simple command—a friend helping a friend out.

Or a lover. Or whatever Zayn is.

Harry’s not sure. Harry’s not sure he cares.

“Yeah,” Harry repeats, still staring out the window, his skin icy and tingling.

Zayn doesn’t say anything after that, just settles back down in the bed.

Harry just stares into the sky, finds himself resenting the moon and wishing it was the sun.

*

“Early today,” Nora smiles the minute Harry pads through the door of the empty bakery, the lights dimmed, the air warm and smelling of hot, sticky cinnamon buns. “You don’t start for another forty minutes, love.” It’s said so gentle and so unbothered. She’s folding croissants with soft, floured fingers, her apron smudged and tied snuggly around her waist. It’s ruffled and pink and it’s speckled with flowers. Nora’s beautiful. Harry adores her. Wishes he could fall in love with someone like her.

Wishes he could fall in love ever again.

Wishes he wasn’t in love already.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he smiles, he thinks he smiles, and he shrugs, tying up his own apron. It’s maroon and flat and stained with grease. Harry’s not beautiful. He hasn’t been beautiful in awhile.

Nora glances at the clock. “It’s not even five in the morning,” she muses. “You haven’t slept at all?”

He shakes his head and doesn’t meet her eye, just pokes at the pastries lining the parchment-papered trays. He gently sprinkles a bit of icing sugar over the tops of the scones and croissants and napoleons, dusts it over their glinting buttery surfaces, cooked brown on the edges. He supposes he loves icing sugar, loves the way it looks. Because it looks soft and sweet and a bit like snow. They used to love the snow.

When he sets down the bag, he finds Nora looking at him, calm and knowing. He thinks he attempts another smile.

“I have some orders,” she says, motioning to the string of clipped receipts, corners bumping into each other. There are so many. They’re all scribbled in Harry’s handwriting—letters hurried and unrushed at the same time. Chaotic, sort of. Maybe it reflects his state of mind.

Harry wonders if he’s become chaotic.

“You mind decorating them?” she asks, smiling already because she knows the answer. “This one requests as many flowers as possible. It’s for a little girl’s birthday. Lots of pink, it says.”

The skin near Harry’s mouth actually twitches at that, genuinely lightens into a smile.

“Perfect,” he says, his beanie scratching the back of his neck as he pushes his sleeves up to his elbows. Nora’s still watching him, watches when his smile fades again. “Perfect.”

* Half of Something Else *

Louis’s smile had been so stunning and brilliant when Harry first shyly questioned aloud whether or not he should go away for university. Louis’ smile had been everything.

“Of course!” he’d exclaimed happily, hands waking into life as they gestured the words, as they coaxed Harry’s limbs to loosen around him. “You absolutely fucking better go! Go as far as you can, Harry. Experience the world—all the best writers know about the world, don’t they? Right? I don’t know, I have no fucking clue.”

Harry laughed, bright and white and alive and he clutched Louis tighter to him as Louis shrugged.

“You’re right, yeah,” Harry laughed, a little breathless. There was a pause then, Harry regaining his bones and brushing fingers across the fabric of Louis’ t-shirt, his other arm safely secured around his waist as they lay on the ground of Harry’s room, records scratching along in the background. “But. You’re not... You’re not. Like. Worried?” he finally managed, biting into the cushion of his lip. He looked up, found the courage to stare up into Louis’ neverending eyes.

Louis’ smile had been everything.

“Of course not,” he said, as if it were the simplest, most obvious fact. As if it were so absurd to think otherwise. “We’ve been together forever, Curls. ‘S not gonna change, is it?”

“I don’t want it to change,” Harry said immediately and his voice conveyed it all—it always did whenever he was around Louis. Harry was open bones and exposed lava around Louis and he had no control over it. It was probably embarrassing and maybe terrifying for an onlooker, but he loved too fiercely to care all that much.  He loved Louis so fiercely.

He loves Louis so fiercely.

Harry fretted a bit and tugged Louis closer, sticking his face in the crook of his neck. “I want to be with you forever.” He could already feel Louis nodding at his hushed words, could feel the soft laughter reverberating in his chest as he slid a hand through Harry’s curls.

“Well. Good news, then,” Louis said, words teasing and grinning and impish. Harry waited. “We’re a ‘forever’ sort of thing.” He held Harry tighter and everything tight inside of Harry unraveled.

They were a forever sort of thing. Forever.

So Harry would go. And they would be fine.

Infinite. Forever.

**

He’s sitting at the café. The one with the oversized gilt mirrors on the walls and the patched up blue velvet chairs speckled with cigarette burns. He’s been sitting here for three hours, staring sightlessly, empty notebook in front of him, the blunt tips of his fingers tapping discordantly atop the dull surface of the wooden table. The varnish is chipping away.

Not once has he moved, save for his breathing. He thinks he’s breathing. Pretty sure, at least. He’s pretty sure that he’s still alive. Whatever.

The torn sleeves of his flannel are rolled up to his elbows. He might be wearing two flannels, actually. He’s wearing too many shirts. It’s easier that way, in case one of them begins to smell or something drastic spills, he can just remove it, wear the one beneath. It saves him time, he says. But really, he’s sort of just cold all of the time and the layers keep him warm. Warmer.

God.

He can’t write. Why is he even here?

His intentions were good.

He’d gotten up early (he always gets up early, never sleeps, never rests, not really, not anymore) and, since he was off from the bakery, he’d decided to get some early-morning writing done before his lectures. He hasn’t written in so long, spending most of his time trying to suppress words and forget images and ignore the sweeping swells of emotion that carry those empty, poetic nuances with them.

But he’s supposed to write. It’s why he came here, to this city, this school. It’s the reason for all of this, so he might as well write and write about something profound and original and inspiring, something that will send him into financial dominance and spiritual independence and he needs to write something right now because all he wants to write about is Louis.

And, funny that, because Louis is the only one—who wasn’t a teacher—who’s ever read his work. By force, mind you, but he read it all the same. He’d clomp up to Harry who would be scribbling away in his journal or puttering on his laptop, and he’d just…read.

“What are you writing?” he had laughed, that first time. The first time he noticed Harry writing.

Harry was sixteen.

“Nothing,” he mumbled sheepishly, immediately moving to shield his work, his words, himself, from Louis’ bright, curious eyes. Blue and electric and curious, sort of like magnets—pulling the world into their force field. Like Louis himself, in general. Louis the magnet.

So it was only natural that Harry was pulled in as well, was happy to be pulled in as he tentatively allowed Louis to read one of his stories just a few short days later. They were in Louis’ room. Harry brought his laptop.

“Here,” he’d said awkwardly the minute he walked through his bedroom door, thrusting the laptop in Louis’ arms before he could greet him with an embrace. “Just. Just read it. And don’t be nasty about it or anything. Just read it.”

Louis had look confused, that stunning, youthful face touched with alarm, but the pieces clicked and his expression smoothed as he nodded, settled himself on the bed and cracked open the screen. He patted the space beside him, smiled winningly.

“Sit with me?” he asked, sweet and loud. He didn’t look away from Harry, his smile so wide and sure, until Harry finally agreed, hesitantly bumbling over. He tripped a little bit, landed next to Louis with an “oof!” that made Louis chuckle as he absently tugged Harry’s limbs back into balance.

They settled down next to each other, Harry gripping Louis’ hand nervously and playing with his fingers, eyes cast downward, as Louis read. It took seventeen minutes for Louis to finish.

When he finally did, he set the laptop aside, folded up his legs and twisted his body to Harry’s, something, something, unrecognisable in his eye. Harry swallowed, eyes flickering from one of Louis’ blue blue eyes to the other. He was so nervous. Embarrassed. Felt very young.

“I heard J.K. Rowling is a nice lady,” Louis had said finally. His other hand reached for Harry’s empty one. Both of Harry’s hands were now in both of Louis’, tight and locked, knuckles pressed against each other. Harry swallowed. Nervous. “But—and I say this with all the respect of an eighteen-year old boy—“ The corner of Louis’ lips twitched. Harry’s stomach twitched. “Bitch better move over.”

It was the last thing Harry had expected and he burst out laughing. The tight, quivering bundle of nerves that encased him loosened. Just like that. Always just like that.

“Louis, stop,” Harry had giggled, flushed with pleasure and pride. When Louis told him things, he almost believed him. In that moment, he felt like, maybe, he might be good. “You’re just being nice.”

“No, honestly. Harry.” Louis’ face quieted, his expression earnest. There were traces of adoration near his mouth and the corners of his eyes and it was enough for Harry. Even if Louis hadn’t said another word, it would have been enough for Harry. “You think so wonderfully. You’re just, like…” He smiled, shaking his head. “I want to read all the things you write. Even just the little bits. I want to hear what you’re saying up here.” His finger tapped at Harry’s skull, tapped in time to the words. “I love your brain. I love you.”

It was so sappy, it was so supportive, it was so ridiculous. It was exactly what Harry needed to hear.

He turned happy crimson and wrapped his awkward limbs around Louis, held him chokingly close. “I love you,” he said immediately, red and beaming.

And so Harry kept bringing Louis stories and Louis kept reading them, rifling through the rough drafts atop Harry’s bed, letting the finished pages drift softly to the ground into a haphazard pile. So freely, he kept supporting him.

“How do you do it, Curls? How does your brain find these things? What’s going on inside of you, you mad genius? Tell me,” he’d demand, robust with pride, his words sparking. And it would spiral Harry into endless happiness, into endless worth. It spiralledHarry into writing more and more and more and always having something to say, always. Always feeling something and always falling in love with something and whenever there were unpromising moments, little gulps of nothingness inside of Harry, he’d look to Louis who’d grab his hands and bite his flesh and shove him back into life and he’d be inspired again. Louis inspired him.

So now.

Now, with a cold americano set beside him, bits of dust collecting atop its surface, a pen lying on its side, untouched, and an empty notebook page staring back…

Now Harry has nothing to inspire him.

Except…Louis. All he can think about, can write about, is still Louis.

But he can’t anymore.

He’s not his to be inspired by anymore, so instead he stares into space, willing words, any words, to form. None do.

So he leaves eventually, packs up his things and leaves his untouched drink on the table as he stares into space and walks into space. He’d written one thing. One little sentence on the bottom of the page. Maybe it’ll be the plot summary of his first novel. Or maybe it’s poetry. He’s not sure.

I am the bleeding remains of the mess you made.

It’s funny because it’s entirely true.

*

“How was your day?” Zayn asks from the living room as Harry walks through the door of his flat, hours later. Or their flat. Whichever. Zayn is standing, dripping in sweat and angst and black as he sweeps oil-based paint across a canvas in frustrated swirls with the pads of his fingers.

It looks like chaos. It looks like Harry.

“Long,” Harry says, dumping his bag and shrugging off his coat, letting it fall to the ground, forgotten. The dust seems to cling to it immediately. “Got an A on my short story, though. Professor said he was looking into getting it published.”

This is good news.

Neither Harry nor Zayn make any indication of it being so. Somehow, that’s better.

“Want dinner?” Zayn asks, wiping his fingers off on his trackies. He glances up at Harry, his damp hair falling into his black eyes, his beard overtaking his face. The sharp cut of his tattoos jut against his warm, leather-bound skin. He isn’t wearing a shirt—he rarely ever does. Artistic freedom and all that. 

“I think so. Sure,” Harry shrugs, filing through the mail on the counter. Nothing important. All throwaway. “Let’s go,” he says, picking up his jacket from the ground and re-shrugging it back on, dust on his shoulders, on his sides. He leaves the door open for Zayn but doesn’t wait for him, his steps echoing through the empty halls, his fingers cold.

* Awful Bliss *

It hadn’t felt right when he’d left home.

Louis had been so supportive through it all—he’d been at Harry’s side when he filed the applications online. He’d researched universities and stayed up all night with him, walking empty streets or lying in the quiet darkness, all wrapped up in him, and they’d talked endlessly of the doors that would open for them. Of Harry becoming a famous author, inspiring a nation with his effortless prose, and of Louis falling into international stardom, bumping elbows with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jude Law—“Though I probably want to just end up teaching, to be honest”—and they dreamed of the places they would go and the things they could buy and they dreamt of a future together, paved in platinum and velvet.

It was always together.

Because they’d grown up together. Went to the same school since primary school and always managed to be in each other’s lives—through every shift in scheduling, through every switch of buildings and uniforms. It had always been them—Harry trotting behind Louis like the sweetest lost pup—and it had always been simple; just them, side by side. Laughing as their voices changed, going through various humiliating phases—Louis wore girl’s jeans for at least a year, regardless of what he claims—and getting spots and suffering from awkward growth spurts (well. Sort of. Did Louis grow? Harry always teases him about it and Louis always punches him, bites his shoulder or his wrist) and they experienced every phase of their lives together and it was always just…more?

Somehow.

Unspoken, it was always more. An intense, thrumming connection that was never, ever weird. That was never questioned. It was Louis sliding a warm hand slowly down Harry’s cool, pale arm to clutch at his hand. It was Harry interlacing their fingers and bumping his nose against Louis’ shoulder. It was Louis leading Harry and Harry hiding smiles in Louis’ chest and back and Louis standing tall and only turning around to sweep up Harry’s curls in a fist and laugh.

“Curly boy!” he’d always say, laughing, giggling, or encompassing every good feeling in the world in a single sound—whatever you wanna call it.

It was always Louis and Harry.

So it somehow seemed inevitable that it would culminate to a sweet, tentative kiss on the swings. When Louis had a striped t-shirt on and it rucked up a bit, exposing that warm, warm skin that probably tasted like cooked sugar. When Louis had his glasses on and his fringe was loose and delicate and glowed beneath the sun that began to settle below the horizon. Louis was going to be sixteen in a week. It was summer—Louis was summer. He was warm and golden and he had his khakis on and his legs were slender and caramel and beautiful and his toes were buried beneath the pebbles of the swings and he kept singing “Summer Nights” in a trill and Harry just kept staring at him.

It seemed inevitable that Harry would edge his swing over to Louis’, pushing his body against the other boy and smiling up at him as the fading light glinted on Louis’ glasses.

But uh-oh, those summer nights,” Louis sang without faltering once, turning to look at Harry with a growing smile, amused.

And Harry smiled, too, so when he pressed his lips against Louis’, it was mostly taut lips and teeth, just grinning into each other’s mouths, but Harry pecked once at Louis’ lips, breathless and fuzzy-headed and bursting with adrenaline and elation and so much love because he loved Louis Tomlinson.

Louis tilted his head when Harry pulled back, titled his head and gazed fondly at Harry, hands gripping the chains of the swing. Then his hands moved, they danced to Harry’s swing and gripped his chains and it shook Harry’s body a bit as he gripped onto Louis’ and they tugged each other closer and kissed again and smiled a bit less and it was soft and exhilarating and it seemed inevitable.

Inevitable that they never stopped kissing after that day.

So when Harry was at the airport, carry-on slung over his shoulder in his brand-new shoes and Louis’ sweater, it was wrong when Louis never met his eyes. It was wrong when Louis gave him a brief, stiff hug with one arm and patted Harry’s shoulder with the other, pressing a short, wet kiss to Harry’s neck.

“I love you, Harry,” he said so quietly that it made Harry wince.

“I love you, too,” he said more fiercely, refusing to let Louis step away. He just gripped him, enclosed him in his longer limbs and held him close and breathed and held and closed his eyes. “I love you so much. Forever.” He felt Louis’ immediate, almost desperate nod, and it eased a bit of his tension. But it still hurt. So much. Somehow. “I’ll talk to you every day. You can visit me as much as you want. Every day!”

Louis laughed wetly.

“I love you,” he said again, before slipping out of Harry’s embrace.

“I love you,” Harry nodded, because there was nothing else he wanted to say right now. He just wanted to pelt the words at Louis, dig them into his marrow and his flesh and his joints and he wanted them to imbed into Louis’ eyelids so he’d see them before he went to sleep every night, see them when he awoke.

He made the final farewells to his family, sweet and sorrowful and playful and promising. And just a bit excited.

And he waved goodbye to Louis and Louis waved back, just once, small and clutched in on himself and so, so sad.

Harry almost stayed.

But instead he left.

**

“What time’s your class today?” Zayn asks as he munches on some stale toast, jam sticking to his lips.

“In an hour,” Harry says quietly, sipping black coffee. He hates coffee.

“I’ll walk with you.” Zayn sticks the last bit of toast into his mouth before dusting his fingers off on a napkin. He manages to make the motion look poetic, his movements smooth and the shadows beneath his eyes so deep. “Want to go to the campus early.”

“Okay,” Harry says, lifting his lips in a smile. “Thank you.” 

He knows Zayn understands. Zayn’s fucked up, too. Zayn’s heartbroken, too. He fell in love with a boy when he was engaged to a girl and it sent the world into madness—as he explains it. His father disowned him and his mother only sometimes calls, fearfully quiet and in a whisper. His sisters keep in touch regularly, often come to visit.

But the boy he fell in love with is mysteriously gone and Zayn won’t talk about it. Instead he paints him. All soft blonde hair and blue eyes and loudness. He paints beautifully. “I’m not in love with you,” he will sometimes say after he’s finished a portrait of The Boy, tears prickling the corners of his eyes, his body limp with sweat and exhaustion—emotional or physical or both or everything. He says it as he turns to Harry, who sits on the couch and watches him, eyes faraway.

“I know,” Harry says simply, hands tucked between his thighs. “I’m not in love with you, either.”

And Zayn nods.

It’s a silent agreement—broken companionship. They don’t have sex. Not really. Maybe a couple of fevered kisses and a desperate handjob once, only once, but it’s so lonely. It’s so lonely and so sad and so desolate.

Harry is so fucking pathetic. Harry wants to write a novel.

Its 3 AM and Im Fucked Up Inside. A novel by Harry Styles.

But it’d be a novel about Louis.

**

They’d promised to get tattoos.

“I hate tattoos!” Louis had always said, almost childishly stubborn, but Harry relentlessly texted him couples tattoo pictures, relentlessly tagged him on Facebook in wistful, hopeful, embarrassing statuses about it and tagged him on Instagram even more.

Sometimes though, after sex, when Louis was pliant and sweet and cuddly and calm, he’d let Harry draw tattoos on his arm in Sharpie.

“I’m going away, right?” Harry’d say, sleepy and pink-cheeked and bright. He’d gaze at Louis, at the soft hollows of his cheeks and his glimmering hair and his eyes, god, his eyes. He’d gaze and he’d speak, brushing fingers over Louis’ parted lips because he could. “So I figured we should get tattoos that are, like, symbolic of that. Of never truly being apart, you know? Like this—here’s mine.”

He tilted his shoulder a bit, displaying the sad excuse for a ship he’d hastily scribbled there. Louis chuckled, shaking his head.

“Because wherever I am,” Harry continued, undeterred, “I’ll still be sailing home. Back to you.”

Ship.

Louis gazed at him, patient and fond, a light stubble speckling the space between his lips and nose. His perfect lips—Harry loved Louis’ lips. Loves Louis’ lips.

“And here’s yours,” Harry then said, fingers gentle on Louis’ flesh. In amateur, sloppy writing, Harry’d scribbled the crude lines of a compass on Louis’ forearm.

E, N, W, S

Compass.

Louis watched as Harry lifted his arm, showing off his artwork masterfully, all hopeful and earnest and in endless love. Louis smiled then, smiled dazedly through slitted eyes. He nodded.

“Maybe,” he rasped softly with an almost imperceptible shrug.

“Wait,” Harry said, sitting up a bit more, heart picking up pace. “Seriously? You’ll consider it?”

Louis nodded. “I will.”

It was as if Louis was agreeing to marry Harry. It sort of felt like that. It felt like a promise—a real promise. One they couldn’t back out of or change their minds or run away from… It sort of felt like forever. It sort of was forever.

Permanent.

Louis,” was all he could simper, and he collapsed atop him, hugged him until Louis was choking, laughing near-hysterically.

“You sap,” he laughed, head thrown back as he struggled and Harry beamed as he closed his eyes.

*Love Is A Laserquest*

It’s been almost a year since Louis broke up with Harry.

It’s been almost a year and in that time, Harry hasn’t healed.

“You still smile so sad, love,” Nora says from afar as she watches him frost roses onto a white buttercream cake. They’re fuscia coloured, vibrant and crisp with crystallised sugar. Harry flicks his wrist as he finishes the last petal and Nora just watches, quiet, with a small fleck of chocolate on her arm as she stands there, hands spread on the battered wooden counter dusted with flour.

And, thing is, he knows his smile isn’t…right. How can it be?  He knows this and he feels a burning sort of shame for it. Because people look at him like he’s supposed to have gotten better. Like right now he’s just clinging, like he’s dwelling, but people have never been in love with Louis. Hell, maybe people have never truly been in love. Because you don’t recover—not just like that. You adjust to having part of your soul ripped away. You adjust to becoming less of who you were.

Harry hates it. He’s not sure if it’s wrong.

“But I smile,” he replies, winks half-heartedly. It’s enough to make Nora laugh, brush a hand to his arm for just a moment.

“There he is,” she teases, before sweeping past him, the oven buzzing—the bread’s done. 

See, Nora remembers Harry when he was…well. When he was Harry. The right one.

He’d gotten the job unexpectedly, from a newfound friend whose family owned the small, charming bakery. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to work while he was away at uni, he wanted to write. He wanted to experience the world and travel and fuck up and feel everything he could, and a job would take away from that, surely. Surely, it would disrupt his free time and strip his creativity.

He was happy to be wrong.

Harry had adjusted to his new life with a stunning ease, the pangs of missing Louis something he could sweep under the rug the minute he stepped onto campus, onto unfamiliar territory. He could forget the silence in his ribcage whenever he found a shiny new person, somebody who he wasn’t entirely attuned to, someone he had to ask questions in order to find out the answers. It was all so different and Harry spent most of his days laughing and most of his nights laughing more, barely managing to stop for sleep. He’d eventually collapse in his bed after a night of pub-hopping or drinking at his mates’ or smoking too much weed on a park bench with a handful of people he barely knew and he’d unlock his phone to a slew of texts from Louis. Words, words, words. 

Ill call you tomorrow he’d merely type in response as he yawned, eyes already shutting, unable to read the words Louis gave him. He’d fall asleep before he meant to, phone still clutched in his hand.

And the next day would be the same, and he’d jump back into it all. He’d bounce into the bakery with a smile, the necklace Louis had gotten for him for their third-year anniversary swinging from his neck like a promise, a pledge, a reassurance. He’d bounce inside and Nora would smile and they would laugh as they frosted cookies and cut shortbread and Nora always said he was such a charmer, such a sweet boy.

“No wonder your Louis loves you so much,” she’d say fondly as Harry glowed. Because she knew all about Louis because he always talked about Louis.

The problem was he never talked to Louis.

And so when they broke up, when Louis’ voice cut through Harry’s soul in a frail imitation of the real thing… When Louis broke up with Harry, Harry wasn’t okay.

“Take the week off,” Nora had said with overwhelming sympathy, rubbing circles into his quivering back after he’d broken down. Again. “Just rest, love. Heal.”

Harry nodded, sniffling, eyes burning and itchy, tears too hot.

He didn’t take the week off, though. It was somehow worse alone, in his flat. It was worse to be alone.

He supposes it was the distance that did them in.

It was Harry being too busy to text despite wanting to so, so badly.

It was Harry choosing to spend time with the new friends—the friends he needed to know, needed to experience—rather than spending the night inside, huddled up on the phone with Louis and mending all his sad bits, his homesick bits, his cracked bits. 

It was Harry repeating a mantra: “I’ll call you later, I’ll call you later, I’ll call you later.”

It was Harry never calling.

Well. Sometimes he would.

He’d stumble home, drunk and smelling of smoke and other people and thinking about Louis, about being in love with Louis. Missing Louis. His new friends were fun, okay, yeah, but they weren’t Louis.

“I miss you,” he’d slurred the minute Louis picked up, swallowing past his sticky throat and indigestion as the room spun around him. He lay like a starfish on his bed, his long limbs spilling over the edges.

“I miss you too,” Louis’ voice said. It sounded tinny and far away and Harry wanted to touch him.

“I had fun tonight. Went to a pub.” Pause. “But it wasn’t as fun without you.”

Light laughter, too delicate to be genuine. “I feel like that’s not true.”

“It’s true.”

Pause.

“Tell me about your life,” Harry had said. It was a strange sentence in his mouth. “Tell me things.”

“Uhhmm. Well. Lemme think.” Then a brief silence. The click of static over the line. “I’m taking a few courses at the school nearby. Joined Drama Club.”

Harry swallowed, fighting against a sudden, raging sadness because he didn’t know this. He didn’t know any of this. Harry and Louis are infinite and he didn’t know this.

“Oh,” he said into the static. “You did?”

When? How? What?

“Yeah.”

He began to chew on his lip, fumble at the exhaustion of his eyes with clumsy fingers and the room kept spinning. “Uhm. Do you like it?”

“Yeah.” Another pause, a breath of laughter. “’S a bit funny, though. The president fancies me.”

Funny.

Normally, Harry probably would find that funny. Harry might laugh. But Harry didn’t want to laugh in that moment. A jolt of irrational jealousy shot through his body instead as his hand dropped to the bed, thudding on the twisted blankets and lumpy mattress. Thudded and echoed in the silence of an empty, old, creaky flat with a dripping faucet and not enough food in the fridge and too much space in the bed.

“Okay,” he replied blankly, unable to offer up anything else. His insides were shifting, jutting at odd angles. The entire conversation felt wrong. Weird and distant and wrong. Unfamiliar.

“It’s a bit flattering, to be honest,” Louis continued to chuckle, unawares. “He asked me out yesterday. With flowers and everything. He’s a proper nerd.”

Another jolt. More jealousy. More shifting.

“Yeah, well. He can fuck right off,” Harry had said immediately before he could stop himself, no trace of humour in the words or the breaths or the spaces between them. He was suddenly angry, so angry, things splintering inside of him. He missed Louis so much. “Did you tell him you already belong to someone?” It didn’t sound like Harry’s voice. He wasn’t even sure if it was him speaking, could only just feel his mouth move, could barely feel the push of breath past his lips, his heavy vodka-tinged tongue forming the words.

A brief silence.

Then.

“I don’t belong to anybody, thanks,” Louis’ icy tone crept along.  It burned.

The world will end in fire and ice, Frost had said? Well, it did.

“Louis,” Harry had then just barely managed, almost in a plea, his anger seeping away just as quickly as it had come, startled at Louis’ tone. He was tired, so fucking tired, and he was clutching his dying, dirty phone to his sweaty ear as tightly as he could, pressing it hard against his flesh in hopes that Louis’ voice would grow louder, nearer, would somehow seep into his skin and meld into his pores and never leave him. Just become part of him so he could always be there, so Harry could always carry him around. He was drunk and exhausted and weak and he fucking missed Louis so much and he didn’t even know that he was in school, he didn’t know he was in fucking Drama Club and he didn’t know anything and he loved him, loves him, so fucking intensely. Surely Louis knew how much. Surely he understood, just understood everything. “You’re with me. You belong—“ He’d begun desperately, but Louis cut him off.

“Yeah—with. I don’t belong to anybody but myself.”

For some reason, hearing that made everything worse.

“But. But why didn’t you tell him about me? Do you like him? Do you fancy him? Is he fit?” Harry demanded to know, and some of the panicked anger ebbed back in, just like the tide. The bubbly, polluted, foamy tide. Anger and desperation and fear. Harry was carefully composed of anger and desperation and fear and he felt as if he’d been sinking into the mattress throughout the entire call, the conversation too present, too close, while Louis was so far, far away.

What?” So incredulous. Louis had sounded downright appalled.

He had every right to, is the thing. But Harry hadn’t seen it then. Could only feel the tide and see the distance and hear Louis’ voice that was so far, far away.

“Don’t you ever talk about me?” he continued, terrified. Hurt. “Doesn’t everybody know that you have me? That I exist? That I’m yours? Or do you flirt? Do you flirt with him, Lou?”

“Harry, what the fuck is wrong with—“

“Why didn’t you tell him about me?!”

He had shouted it.

There were panicked tears in his eyes, his heart was beating sharply and painfully and fiercely. He was suddenly so terrified, so inexplicably and inescapably terrified. The worst fear he’s ever felt. 

“You need to calm down.”

“I am calm. It’s a simple question, Louis.” Every word quivered.

Louis’ breathing was harsh, even through the distance, through the crackles of the line. “You’re being a dick right now.”

“I’m not. I’m not being that way. I just want to talk to you, Louis. I miss you. You—you should feel happy that I miss you. That I’m talking to you. I left early, I left my friends early so I could talk to you. They all wanted me to stay but I chose you. I chose you and you should be nicer. I miss you.”

“Oh, I feel so honoured,” Louis scoffed, and it was so strangely bitter and Harry’s insides were balancing, ready to fall.

“What? Louis—“

“You know. You clearly have other people to see and I have shit to do as well. I’ll let you go.”

“What?”

“Bye, Harry.”

There was silence, but no dial tone, and Harry swallowed, swallowed back the waves of sadness.

“If that’s what you want. Then. Goodnight. I’ll talk to you—“

Click.

Louis had hung up.

Harry cried until he fell asleep.

**

Harry’s sick of fruit.

His and Zayn’s fridge is stuffed with it. Bananas and blueberries and strawberries and kiwis and half-eaten melons and mouldy peaches. Zayn could give fuck all—Harry’s pretty sure he eats cigarettes and other people’s emotions—and Harry never thinks to buy anything else.

Part of him is probably holding out. Probably waiting to find Louis’ leftovers in the fridge or get a call from him, demanding they get milkshakes at 4 AM.

“That’s poison, you know,” Harry would say whenever Louis’d munch on some frosting-y, processed chemical chunk.

Louis’d smile through the frosting, flecks of cake on his lips and chin, his fingers shiny with grease. “What a brilliant way to die,” he’d say, completely unfazed, and Harry would shake his head so, so fondly. Later that night, when they were hauled up on a couch in Harry’s house and watching black and white movies (“Old Hollywood, Harry, Old Hollywood is where it’s at, that’s where I want to be”) Louis would wordlessly offer one of his cakes to Harry, knowing he’d take it, and Harry would. He’d wordlessly take it and they’d munch on them together, the taste too sweet in Harry’s mouth and weighing down his tongue as Louis licked his fingers clean beside him in the dark flickers of the TV and, somehow, it was perfect.

But now all Harry has is a half-peeled orange sitting atop the counter, its skin curled up and tattered from where Harry ripped it away with dull fingers and, somehow, it’s not enough.

That night he runs to the shop across the street, buys a box of something with icing and sprinkles. He eats them as he and Zayn watch TV in the dark. He never offers him one, though. He keeps them to himself, keeps them between his pajama-clad legs as Zayn smokes endless cigarettes and rubs the bridge of his nose with nicotine-stained fingers.

A loud-faced man is laughing on the TV.

The cakes don’t taste the same.

*

“How’s your book?” Zayn asks, closing his eyes against the rays of sun and gentle breezes, eyelashes speared against the thin, bruised skin beneath his eyes. Zayn always looks tired. Harry suspects it’s because he spends his life in and out of sleep between cigarettes and lectures and paintings and he never seems to stop thinking. Even in sleep, his lips twitch with words he’ll never say, just think. Zayn is an insomniac who sleeps.

They’re sitting on the freshly budded grass of the school grounds, students filing past in their trendy sweaters and leather shoes, books and bags weighing them down, their buoyant laughter tumbling through the air and fading. Harry’s taken his shoes off, his feet tangled between grass blades and cool soil. It feels nice.

He unclicks his pen and writes one sentence on the blank page of the notebook.

It feels nice.

The next great novel.

“What book?” Harry asks, a quirk of amusement at his lips as he side-eyes Zayn who just chuckles dryly, the actual sound of smoke and sighs leaving lips.

“I thought you said you were inspired when you came here?” he asks, squinting at Harry through the sun. He’s golden, too. Like Louis. But his gold seems a bit more…tarnished, somehow. It’s not of the electric, vibrant caliber that Louis seemed to possess in armfuls, so effortlessly.

No, Zayn’s not gold like Louis.

“I was,” Harry shrugs, lets his fingers tug at some bits of grass. A fedora sits atop his head, big and black and pulling the curls away from his forehead. He’d bought it with Louis at a resale shop. He thought he looked ridiculous but Louis claimed he looked timeless and kissed him forcibly until Harry was laughing into his mouth, promising he’d buy it. He’d had the best sex of his life that night. “But it wasn’t anything I could work with. Just sort of, like, empty inspiration. A flash in the pan. Just a spurt of something…but it didn’t last. There’s nothing with substance here.”

“So you can’t think of anything to say? Writer’s block or summat?” Zayn has a bit of paint speckled on his underarm. Bright blue.

“I don’t know.” He wants to write about Louis. That’s all he has. Louis. That’s all he has to say.

But he can’t do that anymore. It’s been almost a year. He needs to move on, he needs to stop.

“Write about this,” Zayn smiles, tapping his finger against the skin of Harry’s upper arm.

A sick, dead, icy cold feeling grips Harry’s stomach as he glances down, his eyes connecting with the charcoal lines of the tattoo. It’s his only one. Just one tattoo. Etched proudly on his arm for all to see. Well. Proudly at the time. Now it just burns into his skin and laughs.

He’s such a fucking fool.

“Why a ship?” Zayn then asks.

Harry swallows. “Because I’m always sailing home.”

It must be his voice. It must be something in his voice because Zayn doesn’t say another word after that and his own eyes take a milky quality as the silence and echoed laugher of students settles around them and Harry stares at the blank page of the notebook in his lap and Zayn closes his eyes against the sun.

* Killing Lies *

Harry didn’t remember the last time he talked to Louis. It’d probably been at least a week—an unheard of time for them—and their last text exchange in his phone had been of Louis describing, in excessive and wistful detail, all the things he wished they were doing, all the things he planned for them to do. ‘Tonight, wed be going for a walk,’ it had said, and it made Harry’s franticly-excited-because-everything’s-still-so-new-here blood settle into something more sweet and solid and home-like. ‘Wed walk to our favorite bridge and wed laugh about how shitty today was and Id tell you everything and youd make it better. Then wed buy cheap wine and drink it by the water and wed probably fuck right there, lets be real.’ Harry had laughed, bright and warm and curled into his phone. ‘I miss you so much, H,’ it said. ‘I love you so much.’

The words were whispered into Harry’s skull and it was Louis’ voice. He fell asleep with his phone in his clutch, listening to those words, dreaming of a bridge and sliced blue eyes and lips that held the world together.

It only occurred to him, after days upon days of silence, that he’d never responded.

And he’d been shitty lately, is the thing. He’d been swept up in writing his short stories and bonding with professors and going out all the time with his new friends and spending too much money and never getting sleep and he never had any free time. He was always at the bakery or always at a lecture or always at some pub or diner and he felt bloated and a bit unhealthy and a bit off-kilter but he was experiencing life, wasn’t he? It’s what he came here to do, wasn’t it?

But along the way he brushed aside Louis and he missed him, is the thing. He missed him like a deep-settled ache in his bones and his breathing and he missed him every single moment of every single day.

It was a cloudy morning with sporadic drizzle.

He’d texted Louis the day before, promising to call him later that night. It was the first contact they’d had since Louis had sent that last message and it’d been about two weeks, give or take. The longest they’d ever gone. Harry just never had time. So it probably came as no surprise when Harry hadn’t actually ended up calling the night before.

He knew it was shitty, he knew.

He knew it but he wanted to make it up to him, make it right. Return everything to normal. Because Louis was always going to be his number one, his forever, and he wanted to reassure him because Louis’ voice had been so sad recently. Even sadder after Harry’d mentioned that, maybe, he could get a job here. Just at a small business for a local children’s magazine, but his counsellors had told him it was a great stepping stone.

“I could live here, right? I know plenty of affordable flats. And I could make my way up, Lou. Just stay here for a year or two to get some experience. And I could write on the side, you know? It’s brilliant. I think things are coming together.”

“Yeah,” Louis had said, his voice almost strangled. “You sound so excited, Harry. I’m so happy to hear you sound like that.” But why had it sounded like Louis was almost crying?

Harry hadn’t questioned it, just ploughed on excitedly and it never was addressed. That was the last time they’d talked on the phone, not just texted. A month and six days ago.

So when Harry left his flat that morning, the rain gently pattering onto his sweatshirt as he walked purposefully to the tattoo parlour near his friend’s flat, he had every intention of making it up to Louis. Every intention of reassuring him. Because couples need that every once in awhile, right?

The ship hurt a bit. The needle jabbed in and out of his skin and black ink was smudged away with a dirty rag but each sting made Harry smile and it made his eyes prickle the tiniest bit, the hairs on his neck stand, because he was inking Louis into his skin and he was making a promise.

Forever.

He’d beamed in the mirror for what felt like hours. He’d taken picture after picture after picture and in each and every one he was smiling so wide it looked painful. But of course he was smiling. It felt like he was with Louis again. He loved him so much, missed him so much, and it almost felt like he was at his side again—small and fluffy and bright.

He was going to wait until after his courses that night to Skype Louis. He wanted to show him, not tell.

But it was Louis who called, right before his last lecture.

“Hey, Lou, I’ll call you back, alright? I’m about to be late—“

“Oh my god, are you fucking kidding me,” a bitter voice laughed humorlessly.

It was harsh enough to stop Harry in his tracks.

“What? Lou, I’ll call you back, I’ve just got to go to my lecture and—“

“I can’t do this anymore,” a whisper said.

Harry wasn’t sure if he was meant to hear it or not. It was so quiet and so pained and so helpless. It sounded… It sounded like….

It didn’t sound right.

“Do what?” Harry questioned, breath hitching. Because. Surely. Surely Louis didn’t mean—

“This.”

Silence.

“Us.”

And everything froze.

“Us?” Harry repeated, swept away in shock. His entire body snapped into rigidity as he stood there, in the hall under too-bright lights, a cutting chill immediately replacing the warm, pumping blood in his veins. “What are you talking about? Lou—“

“Harry,” Louis interrupted, cut Harry off, and his voice broke on the word, broke Harry’s name and broke Harry. Then he continued. There was so much in his voice. “This isn’t going to work. It’s just not, okay? You know that. It hasn’t worked since you left. You’re always so fucking busy and silent and far and I can’t do this. I can’t wait for a text or a call or wonder if you’ll remember me and it’s been almost six months, six fucking months, since you’ve been gone and I’ve barely heard your voice and I don’t even know what you’re doing or who your friends are and this is too much. It’s too much for us. I don’t know anything about you right now and you don’t know anything about me and we don’t talk, Harry, we don’t talk. And now you’re going to fucking stay there, you’re not even coming back, you’re leaving me, and I can’t do it. I’m sorry Harry, but I can’t do this. Everything’s too much. It’s only getting worse and I can’t fucking do this.”

None of it made sense.

There were sirens splitting through the atmosphere. Harry’s heartbeat was in his ears. His skin was frozen, prickled, icy. Damp.

None of it made any sense.

But? Forever?

“Lou—“ was all he could plead, his entire body numb, fucking numb because he was so cold and freezing and maybe going through shock or something. Because this was…this was absurd. This was unreal. This didn’t make any fucking sense and the entire infrastructure of Harry’s life, of Harry’s light, of Harry, collapsed. It collapsed and Harry distantly felt it collapse and sort of saw it collapse and sort of heard it collapse but he was in shock or something so he didn’t really feel it, not really, because his fingers tingled too much and his head swam too suddenly and the pulse in his ears was too distracting, too loud.

It didn’t make any sense.

What about forever? What the actual fuck about forever?

“We’re forever,” he said pathetically, like a child. His voice breathless and rasping and quivering. He had no other words to offer. His pulse was too loud, he couldn’t think. Something vital might have just collapsed, too. But he wasn’t sure because he couldn’t think.

“I really—I really thought we were,” Louis managed after a moment. He sounded frail, breakable, uttering shivering breaths that carried across hundreds of miles.

Harry was crying. He didn’t know for how long—probably since he heard Louis’ voice.

We are,” Harry then insisted fiercely, grasping onto tendrils of reality, tasting his tears. They were catching on his upper lip, sliding into the creases of his mouth. This was what hopelessness must taste like: salty. “We are, though. I’m sorry I’ve been busy.”

“You’re more than busy. You’re gone. You’ve fucking disappeared.”

“I’m right here, Lou!”

“You fucking left me.” All but crying, Louis was all but crying. But he never cried.

How was Harry supposed to think or talk or feel?

“I’m right here! I’m not—I’m not that far!” Desperate. Tears. Dizzy. Pulse. He was stumbling through the hall, everything blurring together because everything was too bright. “And—and I’m just—like—you can’t be mad that I’m right here. You were the one—you told me to go. You can’t be angry at me for finding a new life—“

“I didn’t want you to get a new life! I wanted you to grow, not just get a new fucking life and ditch your old one—“

“I haven’t ditched you!”

“Yes you fucking have!” It was shouted. Louis was shouting and the pain was in his words and Harry was walking. Aimlessly, down the hall, looking for something—anything—he could sit on because he couldn’t stand right now, he was about to fall. He was panicked, searching through gushes of tears for somewhere to sit.

Because he couldn’t fucking stand.

He doesn’t remember the rest of the conversation. He only remembers hearing Louis’ whispered “Goodbye, Harry” and he remembers what it felt like when the world ended.

That’s what it felt like then and that’s what it feels like now. The world has ended.

Harry doesn’t know if that’s wrong.

He never said goodbye.

**

He’d met Zayn about a month or so after the world ended.

Harry was wandering the school grounds, students littered on the green grass and bathing in the rare glimmers of sunlight. Some swung hoola-hoops around their hips. Some were hastily jabbing plastic forks into crisp lettuce as they sat cross-legged on the ground, textbooks splayed before them, scarfing down their only meal of the day. Some napped. Some smoked. Most of them looked happy.

Amidst them was Zayn.

There was this guy—this breathtakingly beautiful dark angel—who was cloaked in black despite the warm breath of the sun. He stood amongst the hoards of youth and he scowled, clutching a pallet while slathering oily black paint onto an unbelievably large canvas—larger than him, no doubt. He was silent—determined and scowling—and he was alone.

So Harry had found himself drifting towards him, “A Rush of Blood to the Head” bleeding through his headphones, and he drifted towards something familiar—solitude. A solitary, darkened blemish amongst the bright, promising youth. It was so fucking poetic, now that Harry thinks about it. Here he’d just had his heart and soul utterly obliterated and then up comes a creature who silenced the world with the intensity of his glare.

So Harry sat down on the green, green grass directly behind this guy. He slid his headphones off and stared at the canvas.

“What are you painting?” he asked, voice quiet and scratched. Weak. Unused. He’d been wearing an orange threadbare jumper, worn at his shoulders where it hung limply. He’d slept in it, hadn’t bothered to change it from the day before. Or the day before that.

Zayn never looked up.

“Different shades of black,” he’d said, a little gruff and a little smooth and so unforgettable.

Harry stared at the painting silently, shades and shades of black chunked up on each other, scratched against each other, fading in and out of each other. It was the most depressing thing Harry’d ever seen.

“Are you just going to sit there and watch?” Zayn asked then, blunt and perhaps irritated. It didn’t faze Harry.

“Yeah,” he said, eyes unblinking as they just stared into the chunks of varied blacks. Harry hadn’t known there were so many shades. “I’ve nowhere else to go.” Which was true. He didn’t work at the bakery that day. And being home was terrifying.

Zayn merely shrugged his acquiescence.

And that was that.

Later, when the sun began to descend and students filed out slowly, chatter and laughter dwindling more and more and the air became crisper and bluer and cloaked, Harry had stood up.

“Come with me?” he’d asked. That was all. They hadn’t spoken, didn’t know each other’s names. All Harry had seen was a different shade of darkness and, somehow, that was all he needed. So he’d asked. Because he didn’t give a fuck.

“Where, though?” Zayn had shot back, brows pinching.

“To my flat. I don’t want to go there alone.”

“Why, though?”

But Harry didn’t say, just looked down and closed his eyes against the sudden wave of nausea.

Because Louis. But he can’t say that.

It must have been something in his face. He must have revealed a glimmer of what he felt because then Zayn had just said, “Okay,” and hauled up his painting. “Let me just drop this off at my room first.”

Harry followed Zayn to the student housing, waited outside his door until Zayn re-emerged.

“I’m Zayn,” he said, offering a cigarette.

“I’m Harry,” he said, taking it. He tucked it into his pocket, fist wrapped around it.

It wasn’t until they reached the door of Harry’s flat that Zayn stopped him.

“I don’t want to have sex with you,” is what he said. With the slowest, casual blink.

“I don’t want to have sex with you, either,” Harry had said, a little affronted. How could he? No. Never. He could never. That part of him had been ripped away.

There were a few bumpy moments of silence, Harry staring unseeingly at Zayn, Zayn observing Harry through the smoke of his cigarette he kept between his teeth, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Dark angel. Classic bad boy. Or maybe just something very real.

“I’m in love with someone else.” They were Zayn’s words.

“Me, too.” Those were Harry’s.

Then there was a mutual nod, tension ebbing and giving way to relief. They were on the same page. They were drawn towards each other by mutual dissatisfaction.

So Zayn padded inside of Harry’s flat and lay on the cold wooden floors and stared at the stained ceiling.

“You write?” he asked, hours later.

There was a typewriter at a wobbly desk by the window. Loose-leaf paper littered the space around it, littered the ground. Most of it was blank.

“I’m trying to. You paint?”

“I try not to,” Zayn murmured in response, before peeking an eye open and smirking.

That genuinely startled Harry. “Why?”

“Because it reminds me of too much,” was all Zayn had offered but it felt like a lot, almost too much.

They’ve been at each other’s side ever since.

* Warning Sign *

The thing is… It’s almost been a year now. A year. A year since Louis said goodbye. And Harry still hurts.

“Is that wrong, though?” he asks Nora. They’re on lunch break, sharing a greasy Panini and bowl of thick soup. Harry’s drinking coffee, Nora’s drinking lemonade. It’s nice outside, warm and reliably sunny, so they’re sitting at the little French tables on the patio, the metal chairs digging into the back of Harry’s thighs. “Is it wrong that I’m, like… Not the same? I mean, I’ve been thinking. I probably won’t be the same for awhile. If ever, you know? And I’m not sure if that’s…okay or not.”

“Why wouldn’t it be okay?” Nora asks, curious, bringing the glass of lemonade to her lips. The glass is foggy with icy perspiration, great dollops of water beads sliding down the surface.

“I dunno,” Harry shrugs, his gaze downward. He sits on his hands. “Does that make me…lesser? Like lesser of a person because I’m not as good on my own?”

Nora sets down her glass, the hints of a wind tickling the wisps of hair across her face. She stares at Harry, eyes thoughtful, lips pursed, brow twitching. The leaves rustled in the trees and Harry smells morning glories.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say you’re not as ‘good’ on your own, Harry. But I do think people are inherently made stronger by other people,” she says calmly, sweetly. She’s so stunning. The very portrait of elegance. Her honey brown hair is wrapped in a beautiful bun and the collar of her shirt is soft and relaxed and she stares at Harry with such familial softness, it makes him want to cry.

And her words make sense.

Harry nods, says nothing more.

“Let’s frost some cakes,” she says after the silence carries on. There’s a chime gently clanging somewhere, a bit farther away. It tinkles, embodies the sound of the tips of Harry’s growing hair tickling his cheeks in the breeze. “I’ll teach you to crosshatch.”

Harry beams, stands up immediately. He loves Nora so much.

Later that day, after Harry’s come home with two boxes stuffed with buttery pastries and day-olds that he sets atop his counter and lazily picks at every time he walks past them, he smokes cigarettes with Zayn out the window. Harry sits atop that old wooden stool and Zayn lies on the floor, hands on his stomach.

“Do you think it’s wrong that I’m like…entirely fucked up without Louis? And that I’m pathetically hung up on him and will probably never be over him?” Harry asks, straightforward and curious. The ash collects on the end of the cigarette—he’s only taken a few drags. The smoke is too sharp.

“It’s how you feel, though,” Zayn replies after just a brief pause, a brief pull of his cigarette. The words are released with the smoke. “You can’t feel wrong.”

Harry considers this, mulls the words around in his skull.

“Do you think what we’re doing is wrong?” he then asks, gesturing between himself and Zayn. “In the sense that neither of us love each other—like, in that way—and yet we’re just…sort of together? We share a flat, basically—“

“I hate my rooms,” Zayn reasons, but Harry brushes it aside.

“We share a bed, though and we…aren’t normal. We’re like using each other. Is that right? To just sort of be miserable together because we can’t have who we really want?”

It appears Zayn’s seriously considering the question, breathing his smoke and staring at the ceiling, a pair of large, chunky black glasses taking up most of his dark, angular face. The curtains billow, the moon glows soft. There’s an inexplicable tranquility about the moment, a serenity that lulls the words out of Harry and seeps them into Zayn who smokes and ponders and is made of different shades of black.

“I can’t say I give a fuck,” Zayn eventually responds. He tilts his head, looks over to Harry with a small, dry smirk. “We’re practically fucking drowning here, H. We’re both a fucking mess. If this works for us, if this helps… Who gives a fuck? I’m not out to be a role model.” Harry chuckles, nods and extinguishes his cigarette on the windowsill, ash scattering in the wind, staining the chipped paint. “Besides. I do love you. Just not….like that. You’re my best mate,” Zayn says.

It’s enough to ease the tension coiled in the back of Harry’s mind.

“Good. Yeah. You’re my best friend, too,” he smiles. They’re warm words, they’re genuine. They’re a drop of aloe on layers of burnt skin.

Zayn nods his acknowledgement before he closes his eyes, probably dreams about The Boy. The blonde one with the blue eyes.

Harry sees a different pair of blue eyes, sees them faded in the stars.

*

Each day gets a little bit better. Isn’t that what they always say? Each day gets better?

It’s true, though. Each day is more bearable—whether that’s because Harry’s becoming desensitised to the pain or just because he’s actually slowly mending though… He’s not sure.

But he does feel better. He feels better.

“I’m sorry I’ve not been myself for so long now,” he says to Nora that morning, before the sun’s risen, as they bake and bake and bake. The air is powdery and yeasty and almost too warm. Harry wipes the curls away from his forehead with the back of his buttery hand. “But I’m not ashamed about it. I’m not ashamed to love Louis so much. He’s wonderful, Nora. And he’s the reason I’m here, he’s the reason I met you and… He’s the reason I became who I am, I guess. He inspired me and helped me sort out my thoughts and, like, nurtured my passions and my quirks and things and—and he sort of gave me this, like, confidence and… He’s the reason I’m Harry, I guess. And I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not, like, embarrassed about the fact that I found someone who made me more of myself. I’ll always love him for it. I’ll always love him. It is what it is.”

Nora merely smiles as she rolls more dough.

“I’m glad, love. I’m glad.”

*

He’s getting better, but still, all Harry writes about is Louis. He’s writing a novel about the end of the world and he writes about a boy who suffers in the face of hopelessness, of destruction, of desolation. It’s probably not completely healthy. But it flows from his fingertips and his mind and so Harry just writes and he’s writing about Louis.

Odd though, isn’t it.

He left to experience all these new things, to live and to discover the world so he’d become inspired and write the story that’s been waiting to be written.

And yet, here he is. Far and away. And he’s writing about home.

*

It’s sunny outside, with clouds that stream across the sky and only occasionally cast the world in warm shadow. Harry peels off the layers he’s always wearing, shakes out of his countless flannels and faded fabrics and rolls up the sleeves of his t-shirt before he leaves the flat because he wants to see his tattoo, because he wants to feel the sun on his skin again.

“I’m going to go for a walk,” he says to Zayn as he zips up his boots. He rarely ever goes for walks during the day, always usually walks at night when he can’t sleep. He never sleeps.

Zayn shoots a thumbs-up from the couch. He might be doing homework. Or he might be drawing because he’s remembering too much.

“Have fun. Grab dinner, will you?” he half-yawns.

Harry shakes his head as he leaves, closing the door softly behind him.

He comes back later with Thai takeaway and a fistful of battered flowers.

“For inspiration,” he explains when Zayn eyes them distastefully. He plops them into a glass, fills it with too much water, and sets them atop the windowsill. The evening sun catches on the makeshift vase and throws prisms and slices of bright light throughout the old, old flat, against every surface.

They eat dinner and they sort-of laugh as they watch the TV and this is what it must feel like to be settled again. Because Harry half-smiles and Harry sort-of laughs and Zayn does the same.

Maybe they’re going to be okay.

*

The next morning is a bit less sunny. It’s mostly overcast.

Harry yawns, rubbing tingly hands over his puffy, sleepy face. Beside him, Zayn’s dead to the world, mouth hanging open, beard scraggly and tangled, his hair in an even worse state. It’s always a bit strange waking up next to Zayn. It comforts Harry while he’s falling asleep—feeling another body next to him—but waking up… Waking up next to eyes that aren’t cobalt and skin that isn’t licked in fire and precious metal…

It’s always difficult to wake up.

Exhaustion still clinging to his joints, Harry rolls out of bed slowly, his feet cold as soon as they hit the floor. He needs to invest in carpeting. Or a rug. Or socks. He trudges to the kitchen, sets on the kettle and makes tea so Zayn’s a little less terrifying when he finally wakes.

And eventually he does, croaks out a, “For me?” almost disbelievingly as he takes the cup Harry’s offering, rubbing his beard.

Harry nods, scratching the back of his calf with his bare toe.

They sip in silence, standing at the counter in their shitty t-shirts and grubby boxers, grey light just barely warming the room. They pick at the boxes of pastries on the counter, share bits of croissant and cold quiche.

Eventually Zayn disappears into the bathroom. Harry dumps the rest of his tea down the sink before sighing, resting against the counter. The petals of the wildflowers flutter in the breeze of the window.

He stares at his typewriter for about five minutes before walking over. He sits down and he types.

*

 “I haven’t got any lectures today,” Harry says, still sitting at his desk and staring at the blank page clipped to the bar of the machine. So intimidating, so white.

“Well, I do,” Zayn grumbles, picking up stray sketches from the floor and stuffing them into a folder. “Need to turn in my portfolio.”

Harry nods, probably mostly to himself. “Good luck?”

“Nah. I don’t need it.” Zayn briefly meets his eye and smirks. Then he tucks the folder under his arm, slides his feet into chunky, unlaced leather boots. They would look ridiculous on anybody else but Zayn. “See you later, mate.”

“See you.” Harry waves.

And he keeps typing.

*

It’s because the days have begun to glow a little warmer, feel a little bit more familiar and less muted and colourless, that Harry begins doing…little things. Just little things like texting back. Like reaching out to friends he hasn’t had the heart to reach out to—one of them being Liam, his and Louis’ best friend from home.

“I’m good, yeah,” Harry smiles over the phone as he walks along the sidewalk near the building of his next course, the ivy creeping up its fractured bricks, threatening to swallow up the dusty windows. A few blossoms are beginning to bloom, struggling to open sleepy eyes in wavering sunlight. “I’ve made a lot of friends. I work at a bakery, too. Am proper good at making roses out of frosting, Li, you should see it. You’d be impressed.”

Liam chuckles, soft and pleased. “I’m glad to hear it, mate. Glad to hear it.”

Harry nods even though Liam can’t see him, scuffs his boot against the pavement and kicks at a pebble. It bounces a bit before it lands far away, nestled amongst other pebbles. Amongst friends, Harry supposes. He did the pebble a favour.

“How’s the writing going?” Liam then asks and there’s this almost indefinable edge of tension in his voice.

Clearly a sore subject. Writing. The reason Harry left home. The reason that ‘forever’ stopped meaning something.No doubt Liam is still best mates with Louis. No doubt he’s heard… Well. Who knows what he’s heard from Louis.

Harry wouldn’t know.

He’d been under the impression that Louis loved him just as fiercely as he loved. He’d been under the impression that a bit of distance, a bit of time apart, a bit of a rocky patch wouldn’t, couldnt spiral them into stormy, irreparable waters. He didn’t foresee a shipwreck when he got a fucking boat tattooed onto his body. But that’s what he got.

So, no, Harry doesn’t know what Liam’s heard. Or what Louis thinks about everything… Because Louis never—

Louis just stopped. He just slipped out of Harry’s life. He just casually spliced Harry’s soul and collected the vital bits in his small, delicate, soft hands, gently deposited them in a bag that he slung over his shoulder. And then walked away, the bag bouncing with each step. Leaving Harry behind.

He’s not sure if he’s more bitter, sad, ashamed, or just…still in love.

But it is what it is.

“It’s not, really,” Harry answers after a pause, clearing his throat a bit too awkwardly. “I keep—“ Should he say? Yeah, probably. It’s the truth. Harry’s never been one to shield parts of himself. He’s always been the one to lay it all out. Or maybe that was just how he felt when he was with Louis—unafraid and bold and unapologetic. He misses how he felt with Louis. “I keep writing about Louis.”

A heavy pause. Liam doesn’t utter a peep.

“So, naturally, it’s all very depressing and pathetic.”

A release of air is heard on the other end—Liam’s unsure laughter, probably—and it eases that sudden formation of built-up, fragile tension.

“Yeah,” Liam begins hesitantly after a short chuckle. “Yeah, how is…all that?”

“Fucking horrible. Awful. Deplorable. Devastating.” Harry scrunches his nose, lifts his head up to the sun as it slides behind a wispy cloud that almost looks like a dragon. The breeze keeps flicking his hair into his eyes, tickling his eyelids. “What are some other words for it?”

Liam’s easier now, his voice more relaxed as he lightly laughs again and Harry can so easily picture his shrug as he rubs a hand over the back of his neck, his chin tucked into his chest. “I dunno, mate, you’re the writer.”

“I’m not a writer, I’m a sham, Liam!” he exclaims then in exaggerated devastation, laughing as he hears Liam laugh in response. Which is nice. It’s so nice to be able to laugh again, to feel that lightness. He’s going to be okay.

“Well, Harry. If you end up writing about Louis… There’s no harm in it. The guy would love to be immortalised,we all know it.”

And.

It’s there.

It’s there, at those words, that there’s that…incision again. That incision that’s always made the minute something too familiar is mentioned. Something too tangible and recent and real, and Harry knows all too well how delighted Louis would have been at the prospect of Harry writing a novel solely based upon him. “What? Little ol’ me??” he’d gasp, but he’d be grinning so wide that his eyes would all but disappear, crinkles and daylight bursting across his face. He’d grab Harry by both of his hands and he’d instinctually perch on his tippy-toes as he always does and he’d do something ridiculous like bite Harry’s chin or purr at the base of Harry’s throat and he’d quiet down as Harry would giggle, breathless, always breathless, and then he’d lift his head, those eyes, those fucking blue eyes cleared and calm, and he’d look up at Harry and say something. Something that Harry can’t even begin to formulate himself right now, not even in his imagination. He’d say one of those sentences that Harry has stashed away in his brain and heart and eyeballs, one of those sentences that made Harry fall just so hard, one of those sentences that inspired Harry to write, so that he could always remember what it felt like to feel every single thing Louis has ever made him feel. And—

Oh god.

Harry stops mid-step, closes his eyes. He brings a hand up to his face, just shields himself with it, the icy pads of his fingers trembling atop his thin, oily eyelids.

Too much.

“Harry?” Liam then asks, the worry and tension back. Shit.

He clears his throat automatically, drops his hand and opens too-watery eyes against the sun. It’s back out. “Hm? Yeah,” he manages, words just barely shivering in the air.

But Liam clearly doesn’t know what to say, just lets the silence suspend for a while longer as Harry gathers himself, breathes soothingly as he begins to walk again.

Maybe he’s not getting better. Or maybe he needs to just stop analysing himself.

“So, uh. I can come visit you soon, yeah?” Liam asks, tone noticeably light, and it warms the remaining tension inside of him.

Harry’s already nodding when he says, “That’d be brilliant. Honestly, that’d be great. I’d love to see you. I don’t really get out much anymore,” he laughs, a little sadly, “and my social life consists of the bakery, the friends I bump into during lecture, and Zayn. That’s literally it.”

“Zayn?” Liam questions.

A dull weight settles inside of Harry. Zayn.

Should he…? How would he even go about it? Zayn.

“Yeah, Zayn,” Harry says, beginning to gnaw on his lips. He plays with the padding of his bottom one with his index finger, tucks it between his teeth. It’s a nervous habit. Louis always used to tease him about it and pinch his elbow and gently guide his hand away, guide it into his own hand and entwine their fingers. So Harry began doing it on purpose, just to hold Louis’ hand. “Zayn’s, like. My. Well he sort of lives with me. He hates the student housing.”

It doesn’t explain anything. And it’s vague enough to be obvious.

But he’s not in love with Zayn. They’re not like that. How does one explain that, though? How does that not sound like a total crock of shit?

“Oh,” Liam replies then, clearly taken off guard. “Oh, okay. So. He’s like. Your mate?”

Harry shrugs, plays with his lips. “Erm. Sort of. I don’t know. We’re both really sad. We just…” His voice drifts away, leaves a lot of doors open. He doesn’t know what to say.

“Are you together?”

It’s just a direct question. It’s the same question everyone asks them. ‘Not really,’ Harry usually says and it’s usually left alone.

But. Harry’s not even sure if he should say that. This is Liam. Louis and Harry’s best mate Liam.

“We just need each other’s company right now,” Harry ends up saying, because that makes sense to him. That’s the truth. They’re not in love, they’re just best mates, but sometimes they need that phantom touch and sometimes they need the proximity that’s been ripped away from them so suddenly and they’re both weak probably. But it makes sense to them and it’s nothing more. It’s just sadness. “It’s just sadness,” he continues. “It’s helping.”

Again, Liam falls quiet. But there’s no judgment or malice in the silence… Just thoughtfulness.

“But you should come visit. You’d love Zayn. He’s an artist. He breathes more smoke than air, he’s gorgeous, and he’s self-depreciating so, like, obviously his paintings are fantastic. You know the first time we met he was painting an entire canvas in different shades of black? Like. He’s really interesting. If a bit…depressing.” Harry feels his lips quirk at the same time Liam laughs again. Good.

“He sounds like something else,” he says noncommittally but it’s enough and it’s nice. “I’d love to meet him. In a week—are you free in about a week? I’ve got some time off of uni.”

“Yeah,” Harry nods enthusiastically, overjoyed. His heart’s picked up pace, the prospect of familiarity so fucking desirable. It’s what he needs right now. He didn’t realise it but it’s what he needs. “Yeah, absolutely. Come whenever. We’ll have ablow out.”

He gives him his address before they hang up, smiles in both of their voices.

“Until next week, Harry?”

Harry can breathe again.

“Until next week, Liam.”

*

The entire week leading up to Liam’s arrival, Harry flutters around the flat like a moth.

“You’re going to love him, Zayn,” Harry shouts over the vacuum. He didn’t realise how disgusting the rugs have become—it’s been over an hour of vacuuming and he hasn’t even touched his room yet. “He’s the nicest guy alive. Sometimes he says the most ridiculous shit and you sort of just, like, smack yourself in the forehead but he’s so brilliant. He’s so fun to be around. He does the most unexpected hilarious things. He’s such a dark horse!” Harry blathers and blathers, picking up crumpled bits of paper from under the couch and piling up all the old, smelly socks he finds. “You’ll love him, Zayn!” 

Zayn smiles lazily through a torturous amount of smoke, perched atop the windowsill, the dying flowers at his feet. He pinches a few of the crisping petals between his fingers, paint dug into the creases of his nails.

“I’m sure I will,” he smiles as he watches Harry gather old bottles and stray cans and dirty glasses up in his arms.

Not only does Harry clean the entire house, though. He also goes grocery shopping. Proper grocery shopping. He shops and he buys fruits AND vegetables AND pasta AND cheese and all the other shit adults keep in their fridges—though Harry wouldn’t go so far as to claim he’s an adult. He’s not yet twenty-one and his mum and stepdad still pay for half his rent. But he looks like an adult, so… So he should probably start buying cheese regularly.

He also buys wine. And a wine rack—which Zayn eyed with distrust: “Why do they need to lie in that thing? Why can’t they just…stand there?” “I don’t know. My parents have one. Aren’t you supposed to store them like that?” “But why, though?” “Because, like, I dunno—it helps them…ferment…better?” Zayn merely stared in response.

But Harry assembles the flat, picks up his messes, and tidies up the chaos. He sweeps the dusty corners and buys towels for the bathroom and throws away rotten food that’s stuffed in soggy takeaway boxes and he changes all of the bins and sweeps a hand across the polished counters with all their little nicks and scratches.

“It looks nice in here,” Zayn comments as he uncaps a tube of bronze. It gushes a bit, glides down Zayn’s veiny hands. “Not so much like chaos.”

Harry smiles for the rest of the day.

And when they eat dinner that night, it’s outside, stretched out on a faded blanket on the school grounds near a small cluster of trees, and they drink the wine they plucked from the new wine rack—“It tastes better, doesn’t it?” “Not really, no.” “Oh.”—and it’s all so nice. The earth is blue, and they share cigarettes and it feels cool and soothing and spacious and Harry smiles as he places the fedora back atop his head.

“Homeward?” he suggests eventually, already walking ahead.

Zayn follows wordlessly and they patter along silently before they’re home, home and warm, and Zayn immediately holes himself away, settles into the corner and stares out the window for hours and Harry sits at his typewriter and types.

It s been a year since the world ended and Sol finally emerges from the apocalypse and the forgotten, forgetting what s behind him.

He deletes the last ten words.

It s been a year since the world ended and Sol finally emerges. It hasn t ended, though, he notices. The world has changed and he has assembled himself from destruction, giving light to everything broken, lying at his feet.

‘Sol’ for ‘soleil’. The French word for ‘sun’. He named Louis after the sun. Isn’t that fucking pathetic? It’s so pathetic.

It’s pathetic and he refuses to change it and so he sits at his typewriter and types, keys clicking harshly, and writes about his Sol as he smells the night and the smoke from Zayn’s cigarettes and feels the shift in the world.

*

Liam’s set to arrive in two days. So, the day after tomorrow.

Harry already knows what he’s going to make for dinner—spaghetti, Liam’s favourite. He leaves the ingredients on the counter next to a brand new pot and a worn spatula. It’s sort of like a reminder and a promise. It lifts a little bit of something inside of Harry every time he walks past it, in any case.

“Be back later,” Harry announces, bag slung over his shoulder.

He’s got a mini shift at the bakery and then a lecture at one. Just a short day, a brief bit of air before he finishes preparing the flat for Liam’s arrival. If he said that he wasn’t counting down the hours in his head, he’d be lying. He aches for the familiarity of home, aches for any sense of familiarity right now. Spending most of his days boxed in by his thoughts, the clicks of a typewriter, and the gentle glides of acrylic paint, he needs, more than anything, a warmth in his life. A bit of sun cast upon the shadows that seem to have set up residence, perhaps permanently.

“See you. I’ll be here,” Zayn’s voice drifts from the window. Still smoking, still sketching, a chipped mug set on the floor by his bare feet, half-filled with cold black coffee. He peers up at Harry from those black-rimmed glasses he only sometimes wears, slid down on the bridge of his nose, head bent. “Lemme know if you need me to pick anything up from the shop. I haven’t got lecture today.”

Harry nods, already halfway out the door, bag tugging on his shoulder. “Will do. Bye.”

“Bye.”

* Knife

Harry leaves his last lecture in a bit of a daze, his mates parting with their empathy-filled smiles and gentle claps on his back as he waves while he departs, sliding his fedora back atop his head.

The sunlight flickers betwixt wisps of salt-and-pepper clouds and Harry tracks the bits of gold on the pavement with his feet, watching the worn, peeling leather of his boots as they click along, trying to step on the shadows of clouds. It’s probably metaphorical but it mostly feels childish and it’s the kind of thing Louis would love—trying to capture the sky—shamelessly and unabashedly and encouragingly.

Which, really, is probably the best way to describe Louis in three words. Shameless and unabashed and encouraging.

He wonders if there will ever come a day when he performs mundane tasks and doesn’t think of Louis. But he sort of knows the answer.

He’s halfway home, sitting on the too-hot, too-smelly seats of the bus, when his phone buzzes against his thigh, tucked into the jeans that used to be tight but have since become loose, worn, and rumpled. He slides out the scraped iPhone, flicking it into life as the waves of “Half Light II” rush in through his headphones.

Liams here’ Zayn’s text says. Followed quickly by a typed smiley (never an emoji).

Which jolts Harry.

Because he said tomorrow, didn’t he? Liam had said he’d be arriving tomorrow?

Regardless.

Regardless, Liam’s here, he’s waiting in his flat right now, and a rush of something, something that’s been missing and aching inside begins to fill up Harry’s blood and he finds himself smiling when he catches his reflection in the dusty windows. Liam’s here and it’s sort of like going back home, isn’t it? Sort of.

When he hops off the steps of the bus, he knows he’s going to be okay.

*

Zayn greets Harry at the door when he arrives, an uncharacteristic smile upon his face.

It’s really quite jarring—when Zayn smiles, his entire face softens, sends forth tidal waves of joy. His eyes sort of glint like the surface of an ocean, his lips bright and smooth, and he’s transformed, really. Transformed from bleak, sightless, breathtaking night, with no space or time, into a sort of wide expanse of rippling ocean, lit beneath the sky. Still endless but no longer terrifying.

It’s sort of funny when Harry thinks about it like that.

“He’s in the other room,” Zayn smiles, and it’s almost as if he’s proud. Proud and excited for Harry because maybe he knows how much Harry needs this and how, maybe, this will mend the still-broken bits, the vital parts of his soul that refuse to click back into place, that have been warped beyond repair and recognition.

Harry grins, fluttery and oddly emotional as he deposits his bag on the ground, already moving to follow Zayn who’s mumbling things like, “He’s a bit odd,” and “Think he might feel sick or summat,” and Harry probably should be listening to these things but he’s overcome with the rush of joy inside because one of his best mates is here and he needs this so badly right now.

They round the corner and Zayn walks a few steps away to give them space as he watches with a smile and Harry looks over to the person tucked into the far end of the room and Harry’s grinning, proper, buzzing inside and all around and. And.

And the world ends.

It’s Louis.

It’s not Liam.

That’s Louis.

That’s not Liam fucking Payne, that’s Louis fucking Tomlinson and Louis Louis Louis is standing in Harry’s flat right now, standing in the far corner in a peach jumper that looks too big on him and he’s got those black trousers he always wears—the ones he rolls up his tiny, golden ankles—and he’s got his Vans on without any socks because he’s Louis and he’s skinnier than Harry remembers and his hair’s longer than Harry’s ever seen it, feathered and fluffy and swept over his forehead, and he’s got scruff and sharper cheekbones and he’s skinnier and smaller and sadder and—

And it’s Louis.

His blood thickens, stops flowing instantly.

He’s going to be sick. Something sharp is being rammed into his abdomen and he’s going to be sick.

Louis.

And Louis’ looking at him, at Harry, something stricken and horrified and terrified writ across his face, and his eyes are unblinking and rimmed in tension, screaming regret (because what the fuck is he doing?) and he’s not looking away from Harry.

He looks all wrong. He doesn’t look golden and vibrant and thrumming like Harry remembers.

Zayn’s smile falters as the silence grows, the thick, sludgy, pulsing silence, and his brow begins to pinch as his gaze flickers between the two.

“Did something happen?” he asks, calm. So calm because he doesn’t know. His gaze settles on Harry. “You alright, H?”

No.

Something desolate flits through Louis’ eyes, something soft and terrible and heavy. Like watching a thick, velvet curtain fall onstage. Something dark.

Louis.

“Liam?” Harry finally questions scratchily, incredulously, testing the word. He tries to connect the sound to the body in front of him and it’s wrong, jarring and wrong and Harry doesn’t know what the fuck is going on or if he’s hallucinating or—or what. He swallows past the dust coating his throat, the stone incasing his mouth, his stomach, his ribs, his blood. He might be turning into a gargoyle.

Louis keeps their gazes locked as Harry says it. He swallows visibly at the name before he nods, tentative and unsure and clearly, clearly beginning to rethink his course of action which Harry can’t even begin to fathom or comprehend.

What is he doing here?

Why did he tell Zayn’s he’s Liam? Why did he come? Where is Liam?

Harry doesn’t know what to do.

“Harry,” Louis’ voice says.

That voice.

That gentle, soft, lilting, tumbling voice that carried Harry through his entire fucking life. That voice that he knew better than his own and sounds like the morning and the light and the warmth and he’s just spoken in Harry’s new flat and he’s just said Harry’s name and that voice is right here.

Every single mended part inside of Harry unravels, completely splits at the seams.

Zayn is still watching, alert, attentive, and completely confused.

Harry swallows.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, his own voice barely holding on. He probably needs to sit down, things are shaky and wavering on the edges. “I thought—“ Swallows. “I thought you were coming tomorrow. Liam.” He says the name sharply. He might cry. He might already be crying.

The air might snap. Spring out of control and kill them all.

Silence.

“I guess I couldn’t wait,” is what Louis says, quiet and small and skinnier than Harry remembers him. And so, so present. Right fucking there. And altered—not meeting any of the images inside of Harry.

More silence.

This is wrong.

This is all wrong.

This is a name contrasting with an image and an image contrasting with Harry’s entire making.

Never has Harry known a world where, upon seeing Louis, he hasn’t completely swept him up. In some way. Harry’s never before been met with Louis, his Louis, and never poured words or touches or kisses or caresses or smiles or whatever it was that filled Harry’s skeleton upon him.

But here he is, his Louis, and he’s not allowed to touch or kiss or caress and he can’t say anything, he can’t even say his name.

It’s all wrong and Louis is here and a lifetime of habit and instinct fills Harry’s skull and feet and heart and hands, screaming at him to stride over to Louis and swallow him whole, wrap his much-smaller frame up inside of his too-long limbs and press his lips to any bit of flesh that he can find first. “I’ve missed you, you’re so small, are you okay, did you lose weight, is everything alright, where have you been, I’ve missed you, I love you, I love you, I love you, remember that time you broke up with me, don’t do that ever again, I love you I miss you I want to marry you and I’m hungry I want to buy you dinner and cook you dinner and your shirt doesn’t smell like me” is what he wants to say. That’s what he would say.

Harry’s never had to hold himself back from Louis. Louis’ always made Harry brighter, more confident, just more of himself. Harry’s never kept anything at bay and never locked anything away because with Louis he never hesitated to hold back everything that he possessed, everything that he seemed to always feel so much.

But he’s holding it back now, trying to ram the weight of his body against a door in his soul and keep the flood safely locked away. He’s shaking with the effort, water seeping through the cracks. But he’s got to hold it back.

“Aren’t you going to, like, hug or something?” Zayn asks then. He’s still staring, is still lost.

Louis looks terrified.

Harry can’t breathe.

“I can’t,” Harry says before he can stop himself, before Louis can even react. He’s balancing somewhere, balancing on something thin and precarious and he might be on the edge of something irreparable.

He can’t touch Louis. Not right now. Not when this Louis looks like a crumpled bit of paper, not when Harry knows he could smooth him out and wants to smooth him out, wants to carefully unfold the edges and gently, firmly, rub his thumbs along the deepest creases.

Louis just stares, caught, torn, small so small. So fluffy and ruffled and Harry’s never seen that jumper before. Which somehow hurts more than anything else.

“Er. Well, then.” Zayn has a quiet voice; he usually can’t be heard. Right now though it feels as if he’s shouting, Harry’s ears burning, his hands limp at his sides. “Shall we, uh. Grab dinner? Or did you want to make the spaghetti, Harry?”

Spaghetti. For Liam. This isn’t Liam.

Why did he say he was Liam?

“I don’t think I can cook right now.” Harry hasn’t blinked. Maybe hasn’t breathed, judging from his lightheadedness and the general weakness of his body.

“Maybe I should go,” Louis says, crumbled and small and…beautiful. He’s so effortlessly beautiful. Harry’s swept away in it, completely intoxicated by it because he’s even more beautiful than he remembered and he’s right fucking here and yet…

Yet it’s horrible. It’s horrible and uncomfortable and his beauty, in a small and piercing way, is too much for Harry. For the mere fact that Harry’s selfish and in love and completely ruined for his entire life because of that beautiful boy and that beauty isn’t his anymore and he is to only suffer at the hands of it.  Beautiful, beautiful pain.

“Don’t go,” Zayn immediately says, confused and looking to Harry when he’s the only one who protests. He continues anyway, giving Harry a look, a side-eyed ‘what the fuck’ through his black gaze. “You just got here. Harry’s been counting down the moments till you came. It’s the only time he’s, like, proper smiled since I met him. Maybe the only time he’s smiled at all, even. I dunno what’s…” Zayn walks cautiously over to Harry, waves a hand in front of his face with just a touch of genuine concern pinching the corners of his eyes, before turning back to Louis. “I dunno what’s wrong with him, but. He gets funny sometimes.” This is the most Harry has ever heard Zayn talk. He shrugs. “He’ll be alright, though. You should stay.”

Louis looks to Harry.

Harry doesn’t know what makes him say it. “You should stay.”

They’re both equally taken off guard by the statement, Louis paling, but Zayn half-smiles and nods.

“Good,” he says, picking a hoodie up from the couch, dusting a few crumbs off.  He slides it up his slender arms, the fabric worn and faded and pulled thin as he zips it up. “Now let’s take him to that Indian place down the street. I’m starving. Maybe some food will do you good, Harry,” Zayn says, so oblivious, so indifferent, and lightly smacks Harry’s stomach before striding ahead, hood-up, sliding out a cigarette from the back of his ear, leaving Louis and Harry alone, the door open and inviting.

They just stare at each other.

Harry thinks he might see apology in Louis’ eyes. Might see panic, too.

But Harry sees so much right now that he’s begun to mistake reality for mental collapse, so he merely turns on his heel, striding out the door. Eventually he hears Louis’ footsteps, tentatively following. Each step collides with the pump of Harry’s blood.

And Harry realises he’s not going to be okay.

*

Everything is surreal.

The air in the restaurant smells edible, packed with flavour and grease and spices, and it’s warm and heady and glowing. It’s a tight fit, tables pushed too close together and too many voices layering over each other, too many heads to count, and Zayn and Louis have been talking for the majority of the time as they sit there, backs rigid, waiting for their food to arrive.

Zayn’s sipping on some dark beer, the foam clinging to the rim of the glass. It’s smudged with his fingerprints.

Louis’ drinking Carlsberg because he always does. It’s barely touched and it’s light and sweet looking and glints marvellously in the dim light of the tiny, aged building and Harry’s trying not watch him, clasping his own glass of water between shaking fingers. He’s trying not to look because the longer he stares at Louis, the blinder he becomes, much like looking into the actual sun, and because Louis’ eyes are pulled a bit too tight, his smile forced. Discomfort is clearly written on his features, anxiety etched in the puffy slits of his eyes and maybe Zayn or the rest of the world wouldn’t be able to pick up on it, but Harry spots it immediately and it’s rigid and it makes Harry’s muscles tense and everything right now is entirely fucked up.

What is happening? And why must it happen to Harry?

Maybe he should just write about his life. A memoir.

He watches when Louis reaches for his pint. He watches his thin little fingers stretch out to grip the glass, watches the tiny bones of his wrist flicker and click and adjust beneath his delicate, warm skin. He’s paler than he usually is, not as honey coloured. Harry sort of wishes it mattered or made a difference.

Unfortunately, Louis’ still beautiful. Louis’ still mesmerising.

How easily he could grab his hand right now. Stretch his large, cold fingers and intercept Louis’ hand, wrap it up in his own.

If this were before, Harry would. Harry would just reach out and grab his hand and Louis would look over to him with that face. That face that was always impossibly fond and pleased but trying not to be. That sort-of suppressed smile. He would clasp Harry’s hand and he’d tease him a bit about his clinginess before pulling faces and communicating wordlessly with Harry through their little small smiles and gestures and Harry would beam lazily and adoringly before Louis’d finally look back to whoever he was talking to. He’d go, “Sorry, what were you saying, mate?” and jump back into the conversation, hand firmly wrapped in Harry’s and resting in his lap. That’s what it was like before.

But now, though.

Now Harry just watches and he’s going to be sick. This is too much.

“I’ll be right back,” he says suddenly, snapping back to reality, this fucked up reality, Zayn mid-sentence about something. He rips his sightless gaze away from the tablecloth, dropping his napkin onto his plate.

“Harry. You alright?” Zayn asks, clearly concerned now, and he reaches out a hand, lets it rest atop Harry’s.

Zayn’s not usually affectionate. Physically, at least. He keeps to himself mostly and sometimes shrugs away contact but he knows Harry’s a bit more tactile, a bit more needy, and so he supplies it to him. Just when he thinks Harry needs it. So now, apparently.

But all Harry can think about is Louis and so he looks up immediately, a quivering wave of anxiety rippling through his stomach and, yeah. Louis’ gaze is cemented to the contact, a purely stricken look soaking his features.

This is too much.

“I’ll be back,” Harry rushes out, snatching his hand away and standing up, walking out the door.

Cigarette. He needs a cigarette.

So he lights one, brings it to his lips pleadingly and he sucks in as much as he can but, fuck. It’s just…it’s awful, it’s making him feel worse and he doesn’t even smoke, Harry doesn’t smoke, but he wants to and he doesn’t know why.

Maybe because it tastes how he feels—dry and grey. Maybe it’s because he feels empty and wants to fill his body with something, just something, even if it’s just wisps of toxicity. Maybe it’s because he just wants to need something again, wants to be addicted.

In any case, it only makes him feel worse, the dryness, the bitterness, the sour, shitty taste and it burns at his lips and makes him thirsty, makes him angry. He doesn’t feel fucking poetic right now. He’s not the disillusioned writer who whispers smoky poetry and writes great novels while sipping absinthe. He’s not the creative genius that’s imprisoned by his addictions and mental precariousness.

He’s just a book without words because his words were inspired by someone else. He’s just the night because the sun was taken away and he’s listless and wordless and uninspired and weaker on his own and he doesn’t smoke fucking cigarettes. He’s just a heartbroken fucking mess and the person who broke him is sitting inside pretending to be someone else and sipping beer with his blurred-on-the-lines-best-mate.

So he stubs the fucking cigarette against the cool stone of the building, the ashes and embers tumbling softly to the pavement, and tosses the butt into the public bin before going back inside.

He smells strongly of smoke when he sits back down at the table, eyes stormy, body tense.

“You smoke?” Louis asks, taken aback. He’s looking at him. His eyes are wide. So pale. So small. So beautiful.

Louis.

“No,” Harry laughs humourlessly, not meeting his eye. His gaze falls back to the tablecloth. “No matter how much I try to.”

Zayn smirks a bit but Louis looks more thunderstruck, observing Harry closely before finally looking away sharply, almost as if burned.

The rest of the dinner is spent in silence and Louis never looks up from his plate.

Then again, neither does Harry.

*

It’s about eight when they arrive back at the flat.

Harry’s exhausted, completely drained. He hasn’t spoken since the restaurant, hasn’t even attempted eye contact with anyone and he’s just so fucking tired, his limbs still taut and pulled and weak. His heart still insists on beating too fast, but it’s a surrendered, weak sort of staccato.

“You’ll stay here, of course,” Zayn says into the silence after they’ve all removed their jackets. All except Louis. “Take our bed.”

Harry’s blood freezes. Our bed.

Louis visibly winces. He looks on the verge of tears.

And no no no.

There’s so much… Zayn doesn’t even realise what he’s saying and there’s so much that’s being misconstrued and Harry doesn’t know how to start. He can feel his own threat of emotion, his own eyes becoming foggy. Too much, too much.

“A hotel will be fine,” Louis manages, a bit strangled.

“No, I insist.”

“No, seriously, I insist. A hotel’s fine.”

“Seriously, mate, Liam. It’s not a big deal, just stay. Harry doesn’t sleep anyway. Do you, Harry?”

Harry startles, can barely comprehend what’s happening, still caught on Zayn’s wrong words and—and Louis staying here? Louis sleeping under the same roof as Harry? Somewhere else besides in his arms? Something is pounding viciously in his eardrums.

“I don’t sleep,” he finds himself agreeing tonelessly, distant and far. And then he finds Louis’ eyes, just a short, few steps away. They’re so, so brittle. So brittle and on the verge of tears and he cant leave right now. He can’t leave like this, he can’t leave and think Harry’s moved on, he can’t think he and Zayn are… Are that. “Please stay,” he says, almost in a whisper, and it’s the most emotion he’s poured into his voice in almost a year.

It’s about thirty seconds of Louis looking tortured and Harry looking exhausted.

And then Louis nods.

They shuffle about after that, Harry feeling distinctly underwater as warbled words are exchanged and arrangements casually discussed, before Zayn announces he’s going to take a shower. The room tenses a bit then, but then Zayn’s closed and locked the door, leaving Harry and Louis.

The windows are open, ushering in soft breezes that smell both dirty and sweet. Only a few lights are on, the flat dim and warm and ruffled in wind.

“You can take my bed,” Harry says. He hopes Louis hears what he’s said. What he’s really said.

Louis stands there, jacket still on, shoes still on, hands in his pockets. His eyes cut through Harry, worn and gaunt and ethereally blue.

“Is that true? You don’t sleep?”

They’re the first words Louis’ said to Harry alone, in person. In over a year. In almost two years, actually.

Fuck.

Harry shrugs, stares out the window. “Not well, at least.”

“What do you do then? At night?” he asks, tentative. Is there concern in his voice? What is that?

It’s been so long.

Everything is surreal.

But Harry still answers.

“I try to write. Sometimes I walk. Listen to music. Mostly I just stare out of windows.” His voice feels separate in some odd way. Like he’s listening to a recording of himself.

Louis nods, never breaking his gaze. “What about tonight?”

“What?”

“What about tonight? What will you do tonight?” His hands are still in his pockets and he still hasn’t moved. He looks softer than he did before, softer and fluffier and smaller. He looks less likely to cry. But still terrified. Still quiet.

Harry shrugs, empty. “Try to write some more, I guess.”

“Have you written anything? While you’ve been down here?” It’s an earnest question.

But Harry refuses to answer.

“I’ll get you set up,” he says instead, making to walk to his room, but Louis stops him, catches his arm.

He catches his fucking arm.

The touch, that touch, completely startles Harry, bolts through his bloodstream mercilessly and sinks him to the bottom of the ocean. Louis’ fingers are cold. Not warm like Harry remembers. He has to physically restrain himself from tucking them into his own, reignite their warmth.

“No. Please. Can I just stay—here? On the couch? Please?” His eyes plead the words. Those eyes.

So beautiful. Louis.

Harry observes them, allows himself just one moment to step back from everything. For just one single moment he allows himself to feel and see, to purely enjoy Louis’ touch and Louis’ eyes, before he nods, looking down at him in that oh-so-familiar way, in a way that he will allow himself for just this one moment.

“Of course, Lou. Whatever you want.”

A sharp intake of breath.

He said Louis’ name.

Then another wave of tension, then it’s gone, then Louis removes his hand and nods.

“Thank you,” he says, taking a step back.

For some reason, that’s what sets Harry off—Louis taking a step back.

So he turns before he feels his body relent, blood or agony or tears or whatever beginning to spill down his cheeks.

“I’ll set you up,” he calls back, voice cracked. He wipes his eyes as he snatches blindly at pillows and blankets, clomping back in the room as his face just pours and it’s humiliating, it’s weak.

So he just releases the armful onto the couch and walks away before Louis sees.

* The Price of Love

The next morning is filled with a steady silence and careful footsteps and eyes that never meet.

Zayn leaves early after mostly keeping to himself, probably sensing the tension between Harry and Louis. He doesn’t ask Harry about it though, doesn’t make any indication that something’s up or something’s really fucking off—that the world is altered on its axis and there’s enough tension in the flat to launch a catapult. He just keeps to himself before he leaves and Harry’s thankful. Because he doesn’t know what he would say, he doesn’t know anything at all right now. 

He needs to leave the flat. 

“I’ve got lecture,” he announces before he leaves, standing in the frame of the door without looking at Louis. He can’t right now.

He’d woken up this morning with swollen cheeks and burning eyes and, briefly, he’d wondered if it’d all been some fucked up dream. That Louis hadn’t actually shown up on his doorstep. That it’d all been just a dream and nothing at all had changed or spilled and the world was still fighting to spin.

But then he stepped out of his room and saw Louis’ small, lithe body curled up on his couch, swaddled in his blankets, skin cells against his dead skin cells, and everything pent up and fearful inside of him spilt. He actually had to bite his fist, stuff his own cold flesh into his mouth to stifle a wave of nauseating, overwhelming emotion as he retreated to the dimly lit bathroom with its flickering light and cracked floor tiles. He had to grip the sink and dry-sob as quietly as he could because he hadn’t seen Louis, in person, in the flesh, in a year and a half and he’d been ripped completely apart from him for almost a year now and, yet.

Yet here he was, shoved back into Harry’s life so abruptly and without warning and here he was on Harry’s couch and he was pretending to be Liam, fucking Liam, and Zayn was walking around, oblivious, and Harry had to hold it all in, everything in, and it’s the opposite of him and the opposite of what he knows and he almost fucking exploded this morning as he clutched the white porcelain of the sink and dry-sobbed and broke apart some more.

So now he needs to leave because it’s all too much.

“Oh,” Louis says from a distance. He’s still on the couch, wrapped in thick blankets, hair mussed from sleep. With creases on his cheeks that the morning sun imbeds in, nestles in. Beautiful. Pause. “Oh, okay...”

He feels Louis staring at him, burning more holes into his body.

He needs to leave. Now.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” he manages as he all but runs, shutting the door a bit too harshly, the slam of wood colliding with the weight of everything inside of him that spills some more.

He comes back twelve hours later, when the moon is slung into the sky and full and the streets are aglow and he’s empty of emotions and tears, feet aching. He’d spent most of the day in the bakery. Silently, he’d padded inside and just sat down, shoulders weak and slumped. And Nora knew he was lost inside, she just knew, so she greeted him with a warm mug of tea and tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear and rubbed those soothing circles of hers. She pressed lips briefly to the crown of his head before she went back to work, didn’t utter a sound as Harry watched, his body composed of broken glass. Occasionally, thin little streams of tears would spill down his cheeks. But they were silent and sporadic and they never said anything.

He’d finally left when she was about to close. They hugged, long and silently, before she released him and offered a tiny, encouraging smile. Her eyes were only slightly sad—they were mostly warm and hopeful. It made Harry feel better.

So he walked a bit, walked and let the world carry him to a small café where he bought the cheapest cup of coffee and drank it black, wincing, before stumbling out to the park across the street and scribbling nonsensical words into a book. And then, when the sun fell and the world was a starless night, he finally stood up, hollowed inside and raw and throbbing, and he let his tired, cold feet carry him back to his flat, back to where a dim light was nestled.

A dim warmth that Harry was still drawn to, that Harry still yearned for, that Harry still reached out to touch. So he’d come back and now he’s here, walking up the stairwell to the floor of his flat, dazed and exhausted, each step a struggle, each click of his boots echoing against the white, cement walls.

Echoing, echoing….. And…

Echoing with another pair? Descending footsteps?

He stops when he hears them halt, their slap against cement stilling. Blinking heavily through the exhaustion and mild confusion, he lifts his head at the silence, looks up and—

And he finds himself face to face with Louis.

Louis, who’s got his jacket on over that baggy peach jumper, his bag slung over his shoulder, his face a messy storm of indecision and shame and ruddy cheeks and red eyes. A beautiful mess.

Harry’s frozen, instantly feeling electricity spark up his spine, feeling his stomach twist. It’s still so surreal. It’s still so new. Louis. 

“Louis,” he blurts, voice scratchy, his nervous system kicking into life. He watches as Louis ducks his head instantly and cringes, fusses with his hair nervously and fumbles, feet fidgety. He’s so small. “What are you doing? Where are you going?” It’s all he can ask. There’s honestly so much to say, so much, but that’s all that he’s allotted to ask.

Louis’ licking his lips, looking anywhere but Harry. He’s paler than usual, eyes glassy.

“I’m leaving,” he says, the words catching in the air and snapping off on the ends. He looks as if he’s trying to play it nonchalant, his gaze refusing to collide with Harry’s own.

But Harry stares, unable to look away, to blink.

Yesterday Louis was the one who couldn’t look away and it was Harry who couldn’t meet his eyes—now it’s the other way ‘round. Funny, isn’t it.

“You’re leaving,” Harry repeats, testing the words. Something sharp and painful jabs into every vital part of his body. A scream, a panicked yelp inside of him utters a stream of sounds he can’t decipher, something akin to ‘no’ over and over and over.

Louis. Louis’ leaving. Already?

And Louis’ nodding, knuckles tight where he grips the strap of his bag. “Yeah.”

More dread soaks into Harry’s marrow. “What—for, like, good? Leaving leaving?”

“Yeah.” The word seems harder to say. Louis’ looking everywhere, fuck, just everywhere, refusing to look at Harry, who stands at the bottom step, looking up so intently and longingly and fearfully at Louis who stands at the top. Small and timid and fumbling and lost.

He can’t leave.

“No,” Harry finds himself saying, his voice harsh against the silent, bright fluorescence of the stairwell. “No, Louis. Come on. You can’t just go. You can’t just come here, without warning or anything, and you can’t just leave right away.”

Louis looks ashamed, his beautiful, arched brows pinching together, his thin, beautiful lips pursing. He’s shaking his head, dropping his head down, his beard-scratched chin bumping against his chest.

“I shouldn’t have come,” he says very quietly, clenching his other fist. He snaps his eyes shut, squeezes, then opens them again, chin still resting on his chest, eyes still down.

Harry still stares, listening to the echoes of his voice.

He can’t leave.

“Why did you come?” Harry asks then, takes just one step up, takes one step closer to Louis whose face flickers at the movement, just momentarily. “Why? And why are you pretending to be Liam? Was this, like, some sort of plan? Or—“

“No,” Louis rushes, the anxiety that had been racking his features quickly replaced with earnestness as he meets Harry’s eye. It sends bolts, more bolts, through Harry. Louis’ right there. Surreal. “No, Liam was going to come, he was. But then I—“ He stops. Looks away again, fist clenching and unclenching. “After he told me that he talked to you… I practically begged him for his ticket here. I just.” Pause. Harry’s thudding heart. Echoes of his voice against cement steps and concrete walls. “I just wanted to see you, Harry. I wanted to see you and it made sense to come here and see you. It was a whim, alright?”

His heart’s thudding still more now, his bloodstream enlivened by the words leaving Louis’ lips—I just wanted to see you—and it makes Harry take another step up, every fucking atom that composes him screaming and reaching for Louis despite the chasms between them.

He can’t leave.

“But why didn’t you just, like… Why are you pretending to be Liam? Why didn’t you just tell Zayn who you were? That’s not fucking fair to just show up at my flat and force me to pretend like you aren’t you, like you aren’t everything and—“

“Harry,” Louis’ voice all but pleads, only briefly glancing up into Harry’s eyes with enough raw emotion to swallow the lights, but Harry continues.

“No, it’s not fucking fair!” Harry all but shouts, taking another step, and his blood is coursing. His eyes blur, but he swallows past it all. “You could have fucking warned me! What were you thinking? Honestly, why? Why did you—“

“Because I wasn’t fucking expecting him to answer the door, was I?” Louis snaps back immediately, cheeks flushing. It’s enough to silence Harry. “Fuckin’ Casanova over there said you weren’t home and I didn’t know who the fuck he was and he said he was gonna text you and I assumed you probably wouldn’t wanna see me, would you? And he thought I was Liam so I just went with it, alright? I didn’t fucking plan it, Harry. I might’ve fucked up, but I didn’t plan it.”

The words are bouncing against the cold, smooth surfaces that surround them, bouncing back and pelting into Harry again and again. It should hurt, probably. But. Somehow it’s comforting. Louis’ voice surrounding him, making sense… It’s somehow comforting.

“But you could have warned me,” Harry continues after a moment, quieter and swallowing, pleading and frustrated, gesticulating the words with his hands. “You could have let me know. That wasn’t fair, Louis, that wasn’t fair.”

Louis’ features twist, they do, but a curled sneer forms at his mouth as well and it prickles Harry’s flesh because this is new. He doesn’t know what Louis’ feeling and this is so new for them. Fights and tension and silence.

“Yeah, well neither is you having a fucking boyfriend!” Louis shouts. He’s fully flushed now, red and bright and broken. “That wasn’t fucking fair either. And I—“ He stops, voice cutting off. He shakes his head, ripping his gaze away, a storm of anger and pain and defeat.

No no no no no.

“No. Louis, no. That’s not—that’s not what it is. He’s not my boyfriend. Zayn and I are just mates—“ Louis utters a short, sharp humourless laugh, but Harry’s voice gains strength as he barrels on, steeling himself, face cut into stone. “I’m serious, I’m being serious. It’s not like that.”

Silence. Louis’ looking at the ground, face largely unreadable.

More silence.

“Were you just going to leave, then? Now? Were you going to leave without even saying anything?” Harry asks after awhile, quiet now, sad. The words still manage to echo.

Louis sniffs, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, eyes still on the ground, the steps. “You just up and fucking left this morning. Never came back. Kinda got the message, didn’t I?”

Shame spreads through Harry at the words. He winces in apology, shakes his head lightly to himself as he breaks his gaze away from Louis and stares at the steps, too.

“I’m sorry,” is all he says, but he means it and he thinks it comes across. He thinks his voice carries the sincerity.

Louis at least looks at him. But he says nothing, the wheels turning behind his eyes, face quiet, shadowed.

“Why did you come?” Harry asks again, still quiet. His heartbeat’s slowed, his entire body probably shutting down, probably slowly giving up. He wouldn’t blame it if it did, to be honest.

Louis looks away again. It cuts.

“I wanted to see you,” he repeats, voice crackled. “And because I have things to tell you. I want to talk to you. I—“

Everything inside of Harry alights at those words.

“I want to talk to you, too,” he says in a rush, taking another, now impassioned, step up towards Louis. His hand clenches the railing, the metal grating into his grip. “I have things to say, too. I never got any closure, Lou, you just fucking called me and said goodbye and I never got to say anything—“

“You had plenty of time to say shit before,” Louis snaps in response, cutting him off, turning a fiery gaze to him. “But you never did.”

Harry matches the glare, advances another step. “You never let me explain. You just…you just gave up.”

Louis falls silent, looks away again.

“Please stay.”

His jaw clenches. “I can’t.”

“Please.”

“No.” He’s shaking his head, looks almost frantic. “No. No, not when that stranger is in your bed and not when you smoke cigarettes and not when you have a flat that I don’t belong in and not when I’m sitting around all day, alone, like an idiot, while you ditch me and ignore me and not while—“

“Zayn’s my best mate and that’s it. We’re not together,” Harry says firmly, feeling frustrated. He knows he shouldn’t, he doesn’t have a right, but this? This is so petty, this is such a petty reason to leave. Zayn isn’t—Zayn isnt.

He can’t leave.

“Honestly, do you think I’m an idiot?” Louis snaps, flushing again, but his eyes look a bit too bright for anger, look dangerously close to being hopeful. And that hurts. That hurts somehow.

So Harry continues, near desperate and crackly, hand spread over his heart in earnestness as he tries to convey everything, tries to hold Louis’ gaze and convey it all through his voice and eyes and motions. “I’m serious, Lou, I’m serious. I’m telling the truth. We’re not together. And we constantly remind each other of it—that we don’t love each other, not like that. He loves somebody else. So do—“ He stops, swallows. Louis’ too bright, too angry, too far away. “I know it’s not conventional and it looks a different way, but I’m not in love with him. He’s just…he’s there. He’s my best mate.”

Louis remains silent.

“Please stay. I’ll explain everything to you. I miss you. I haven’t seen you in a year and a half, Louis, a year and a half. And you haven’t spoken to me in almost a year and it hasn’t gotten any better, please. I just—“ He cuts off, sees that Louis’ face is twisting, grimaced and perhaps determined and he’s refusing to look at Harry, face turned away.

Still, though, Harry waits, watches Louis’ steely face and struggling eyes and Harry waits.

Then Louis’ mouth twitches.

“No,” is what he finally says, quiet and final and echoing.

And the world ends again.

Harry can only stand there, gripping the cold metal railing, white noise in his head, feeling himself fall off that precipice, feeling himself becoming irreparable.

Louis won’t look at him. Harry can’t make him look at him.

This is it.

He’s leaving.

“Okay,” is all he can whisper. In surrender. That’s it, that’s all. “Okay, fine.” He breathes the words, shaky and frail and trying desperately to hold all the pieces together. “But.” Pause. “Please. Before you go.”

Louis closes his eyes then, a sharp line forming between his brows. His chin is quivering.

“Before you go,” Harry continues, voice quivering and cracking as he advances yet another step and now they’re eye length, Louis on the step above his, and they’re too close, standing too close for the narrow steps. So Harry clutches the banister tighter and stares at Louis, struggles to maintain his composure as Louis’ eyes press tightly shut. He might be crying, Harry doesn’t know. “Before I let you go, just… Just let me look at you.”

A ringing silence.

It takes a moment.

But, eventually, Louis turns his head, opens his red-tinged, watery eyes and meets Harry’s gaze, letting Harry look at him.

And in that moment, that gaze, Harry takes it all in—takes in the angles and the glides and the slopes of Louis’ face. He collects the scruff that clings to Louis’ smooth cheeks and the sharp lines of his wildflower lips. His gaze swoops along the arches of Louis’ eyebrows, falls into the endless electricity of his eyes. He takes in every single hair and spot and freckle and molecule of Louis Tomlinson’s face because this is what it culminates to, this is where it ends.

He’s one thousand percent sure that he’s going to be hung up on this boy forever. He’s sure that he’s going to spend the rest of his life pulling inspiration from his memories, these memories, and the quiet whispers of these feelings. And he’s going to always, always come back to Louis Tomlinson because that’s where it starts and that’s where it ends for Harry.

And that’s… That’s okay.

That’s just how it is, isn’t it? And love isn’t love without being selfless, so… So if anything else, he’ll always know that he truly, truly loved Louis when he let him go. Loves Louis.

Harry knows that it isn’t wrong.

And it’s that, and only that, that lets him step to the side, nodding quietly to himself because it’s final and because it’s goodbye and because he’s letting Louis go. The very makings of his bones are splintering, his soul is being spliced and severed and ripped and it’s a cold sense of dread that drips down his spine because he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, but he knows this is him loving Louis because this is him stepping aside.

So he braces himself and he doesn’t look away.

But.

But Louis doesn’t move.

Harry keeps waiting.

Heavy, heavy moments pass, Louis still looking at Harry, something raging amidst the blue infinity.

And then.

Slowly, Louis slides his bag off of his shoulder. It hits the steps with a soft thud, the sound barely echoing in the stairwell. It makes Harry’s stomach constrict. Because. Surely. Surely….this doesn’t mean…

“This doesn’t make sense,” Louis rasps suddenly. Quiet, conclusive, sad. Tired. It makes Harry start. “There are things, Harry. There are things you deserve to know and me leaving… Right now? It doesn’t make sense.”

Hope. Blinding, bright hope suddenly bursts through Harry’s cells.

He’s not leaving.

“Then please don’t,” he says, desperate, so fucking desperate with hope, body seizing back into life. He can’t speak above an almost-whisper, his voice too raspy, too severed in all the vital places. “Stay, Louis. Stay and we can talk. I’ll tell Zayn who you are, straight away. I’ll ask him to stay at his place and then it’ll just be us—“

Louis’ nodding. “Yes, okay, yeah, but. Maybe. Not yet? Can you wait until later tomorrow to tell him? Just—I don’t want it to be a thing, you know? I just sort of need a moment before… Before—I don’t know. Just before, I guess?” 

Harry’s nodding, nodding so hard his neck hurts. “Absolutely, yeah, no problem,” he nods, ribcage relaxing, body filling with air again. He can breathe. “Let’s go back then, yeah?”

Louis’ nodding, making only slight protest when Harry shoulders his bag, before following behind him, body tense. They climb the steps, exhausted, sleepless nights pulling at their eyes and limbs as they walk in silence.

They finally reach the flat, though. With weakened, quivering hands, Harry unlocks his door and allows Louis to go first, which earns him a small, unsure, timid smile. Eye contact is brief and fleeting and unsure.

But it’s more than enough.These brief moments feel like home and it’s enough to spiral Harry’s DNA into helixes of hope.

They walk into the darkened flat, steps creaking the old, worn floorboards. They don’t turn on any lights, just let the moonlight guide them as the breeze tickles their flesh and stirs up the stagnancy in the air. Louis’ making his way quietly to the couch—Harry sees the blankets folded atop it, folded carefully because Louis had folded them there with the intention of leaving.

But he’s here. He’s not leaving and he’s here and Harry sort of wants to cry when he watches Louis unfold them.

“Going to sleep?” Harry asks, keeping the emotions at bay, just asking to ask. Because this thing, this talking to Louis? It’s nice. It’s still so fraught with tension but it’s nice.

“Yeah,” Louis responds quietly, shrugging off his jacket. “I think I need to.”

“I know the feeling,” Harry murmurs.

He thinks Louis smiles but it’s too dark to tell.

“You gonna, er, join your friend in there?” Louis asks, and it’s a bit awkward and tense as he folds himself into the couch, swallowed up in his big peach jumper and Harry’s blankets. Strips of moonlight glow across his face. “Going to bed as well?”

“Uhm. Probably not, actually,” he responds, unable to stop watching Louis. He should probably leave, should probably give Louis some space. After their incredibly heavy conversation in the stairwell he should probably allow Louis to breathe and think but… But somehow he finds it even harder to let him out of sight. It’s harder to look away now that his eyes have adjusted to Louis. Everything else is too dark—he can’t see.

“You going to go and walk or something?” Louis asks. He’s settling into the couch, peering up at Harry.

Harry shakes his head. “I think I’ll just write.”

Louis tilts his head towards the desk, towards the typewriter that sits atop it on the other side of the room. “What, over there?”

Harry nods. “If you don’t mind, that is. It is a bit loud.”

Louis shakes his head. “No, I don’t mind. ‘S a bit nice, innit? The sound of a typewriter at night.”

God.

Those words… God. He loves him, Harry loves him, will never stop loving him.

“Yeah. Yeah, it is,” is all he can respond with before he finally forces his feet to move, forces himself to walk to the other side of the room. He settles down upon the wooden chair. It groans with his weight but he ignores its protests, instead settles his hands atop the cold keys of the typewriter and pretends he doesn’t feel Louis’ stare on his back.

But his fingers don’t type. They don’t push down upon the letters, don’t move at all. Instead they hang suspended, frozen, his heart somewhere in his mouth and his mouth a phantom, somewhere along Louis’ neck over on the other side of the room, on that couch, and so he retracts his hands, turns around in the chair, lets it groan more fiercely with the movement. He turns around and he settles his hands in his lap, his flannel unbuttoned at the wrists, and he looks to Louis.

“Goodnight, Lou,” he says quietly, unsure if Louis’ still even awake.

A brief pause. Then.

“Goodnight, Harry.” It sounds like a sigh.

And it sounds like hope and it sounds like tomorrow so Harry lets himself stare a little longer, lets himself stare at Louis as he sleeps until he feels his own eyelids droop, until he feels his own body surrender as he falls asleep at home.

* For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her

When Harry blinks awake the next morning, the third day of Louis’ presence, he finds himself slumped over onto his desk, paper encrusted to his drooled cheeks, very bright sun swarming the darkness behind his lids. The air smells cool and a little wet, a little oily. But not dusty.

He assembles his stiff body slowly, straightens his hunched back—it’s aching, killing him—and it snaps painfully with every movement as he rolls his neck. His eyes find the couch before he even realises, before he’s even finished stretching, flexing his tired biceps and tight skin.

They find Louis. He’s still sleeping, his back facing Harry, his body curled into the back of the couch, hair sticking up at all ends and gentle puffs falling from his parted lips. He looks exhausted and a bit sad, his features pinched, and so entirely small and guarded. He looks like a Hemingway short story. 

How easy it would be to kneel on the ground, just over there, and wrap his arms around his back. To slide his hands between Louis’ warm, solid weight and the smooth fabric of the couch, to push his limbs past the resistance and swallow Louis up, tuck his chin in the crook of his neck, hooked over his shoulder, and rest his cheek upon his cheek. To hold him as he awakens, to press his closed eyes against his sharp, sharper than he remembers, cheekbones.

It would be so easy.

And yet Harry merely walks to the bathroom without swallowing or blinking, strips himself of the clothes that weigh him down, and turns on the shower, icy cold water spurting out onto the tiles. As he stands there, limp, pale fingers testing the temperature and waiting for it to warm—lukewarm would be nice—he catches sight of his tattoo in the mirror.

And. Oh yeah. The ship. The tattoo. He’d almost forgotten about it. 

A quiet tremor rolls through his body, like the first, silent flash of lightning in the distance before the storm unfurls; he’s got to hide it from Louis.

He’s got to hide the tattoo. Because Louis mustn’t know. He can’t.

He’s so fucking pathetic.

The shower doesn’t last long, his limbs too tired to do much more than slather a bit of uneven chunky bar soap over his skin. He steps out, dripping, wraps himself up in a scratchy grey towel and briefly considers darting to his room starkers, but. But his tattoo reflects back at him, cutting harshly against his ivory skin, and he can’t risk it.

Louis mustn’t know.

So instead he stuffs his dirtied flannel back over his shoulders before he emerges, hair dripping onto his feet, onto the tiles and the floorboards, face down.

Once in the sanctity of his bedroom—Zayn’s still asleep, soft snores pouring from his open mouth—he dresses in another large flannel and the same jeans he always wears, taking care to change his pants and socks and run fingers through his drippy hair, flicking off the excess water droplets. He takes one brief look in the mirror—the only mirror he has in his room, a cracked, floor-length mess that stands in the corner, scarves and discarded t-shirts flung over the top of it. He looks at his reflection and stares, hard, at his bruised eyes and palest skin and damp hair and clean, rumpled clothes. He’s not beautiful. Not beautiful like Louis.

But he doesn’t exactly care, does he? So he just shrugs at his own reflection and flips himself off before walking out of the room, shutting the door with a quiet snap behind him.

He finds Louis awake when he steps back into the living room.

“Good morning,” he says immediately, a little eagerly, before he can reign himself in, before his fear can settle into his throat and hold him back. He curses himself internally, mentally reprimands his warbled, contorted exuberance, and looks down at the floor as he walks into the kitchen, goes to set up the kettle and search his fridge for breakfast options. He doesn’t remember the last time he made breakfast.

Louis doesn’t seem to mind, though. He doesn’t seem put off or taken off guard, just yawns a little bit and offers up a small, barely-smile that swirls the dust particles in the air that much more.

“Morning,” he says back, and then another yawn.

There are a few pats of silence, Harry just slowly pulling eggs and bread and cheese from the fridge, one by one, his heart already beginning to pick up pace as the bizarre and all-too-present familiarity of Louis assaults him again, rips him from the last dregs of sleep.

And the palpable silence lengthens.

“Hungry?” he asks, clearing his throat. It feels awkward and restrained, these cold, isolated, one-word questions, but it’s all he can offer, his heart beginning to swell into his oesophagus.

He sees Louis’ shrug in his peripherals, sees him slowly unwrap the blankets from his limbs as he stands up from the couch.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Harry shuts the fridge, searches for a frying pan, pleased inside. Why pleased? Anything pleases him, he supposes. Everything pleases him. He’ll take it all, he’ll take everything, he’ll take one thing.

“I, er. Don’t suppose you’d mind if I took a quick shower, would you?” Louis asks, a little hesitant, a little awkward.

Wordlessly, Harry shakes his head, opens the carton of eggs. They’re hard to crack—stubborn and too cold from the fridge.

“Okay,” Louis continues after it’s clear Harry isn’t going to speak. It’s hard to speak sometimes. “I’ll just…?”

Harry swallows, sets down the empty egg shells that cling to his goopy fingers. The slime clings, pours stickily down his flesh. “Towels are in the closet right outside the bathroom. You can use anything you see. I don’t mind.” He tries to smile but he doesn’t look up, the morning light too harsh to look directly into. He hopes Louis sees it still, though.

Louis nods, in any case. Then he offers up another tentative smile before walking away and Harry just momentarily meets his eyes, meets the sky and the ocean. Cool, with soft crests of waves.

He makes breakfast, sizzling the eggs and slathering jam on slightly burnt toast as he listens to the water pour in the shower, listens to it plonk unevenly against the plastic curtain and porcelain, and tries not to remember what Louis looks like naked, what Louis looks like amidst swirls of steam with fresh hot water dripping down his back, morning eyes blinking sleepily, happily, up at him.

It makes Harry clench his fist and clench his jaw and it makes him almost burn the eggs as well, but he blinks past it all, blinks past his self-destructive mind and tender heart because he hasn’t even had a proper conversation with Louis in almost a year and everything still feels terrifying and as foreign as it feels familiar. So many words they’re not saying.

Eventually, Louis returns, damp and scrubbed clean, that same oversized peach jumper engulfing his frame. He looks marginally more awake and less peaked, eyes darting around the room with a bit more awareness, less hesitance. His cheeks are flushed pink. He trimmed his scruff.

“Feel better?” Harry asks, just to keep his throat working, his blood pumping. An excuse to swallow, to breathe. He forces himself to look away, back down at the two thick, white plates before him as he arranges bits of toast on each. His cheeks are probably flushed now as well.

“Much better,” Louis replies with a half-smile as he walks towards him, his voice still rumpled with sleep. He’s wearing soft black trousers that hug his hips—hips that fit so perfectly between Harry’s hands—and red and black striped socks cloaked over his narrow feet and he just looks soft like laundry and warm like blankets and…

And Harry still loves him.

He’s definitely not going to be okay.

“Tuck in,” is all Harry can manage after a few moments too long drag on, his own voice much scratchier with yet another wave of unbridled emotion.

“Thanks,” is Louis’ brief response, and it’s all very hesitant and silent, their gazes and glances always just missing the other’s, the girth of their footsteps wide, careful to avoid any proximity.

Still wrong, still wrought with tension.

As they eat in silence, sitting across from each other at Harry’s small, shitty table, and Harry chews his toast, he thinks about what Louis looked like as slept. About how beautiful he looked when his eyelashes laid across his delicate flesh, about how the moonlight elongated them in shadow, their clawed tips reaching to brush the thin lines of his lips, threatening to slice.

And yet here they are.

In silence, fearful of each other. Here they are, scared to lock eyes, when they’ve fucked each other until they’ve cried. Here they are, awkward and bumbling and distant, when they’ve wiped vomit from each other’s mouths and shared toothbrushes and licked each other’s sweaty bodies from head to toe and held each other’s pieces when they broke and whispered words they would never, ever fucking say to anybody else.

And here they are. Eating toast. Feet kept to themselves. Looking anywhere, anywhere, but at each other.

It’s not enough.

Not nearly.

So Harry speaks.

“I’m glad you stayed,” he says, honest and sincere, setting down the last bits of uneaten toast as he allows himself to hook his gaze into Louis.

Louis swallows at the words, maybe a bit too harshly, because he coughs into his fist a little bit, eyes looking the tiniest bit distressed. He doesn’t respond immediately though, so Harry lets his hands fall from the table and into his lap, lets his insides manifest into his outsides and just stares openly at Louis, feeling his eyes widen and pinch, feeling his lips tug into misshapes.

“I’m honestly so glad you’re here,” he continues then, when Louis doesn’t respond. It sounds loud in the bright silence, voice soft and too raspy and Louis stops eating, just listens, but never looks. “Thank you for being here. For coming. And for, obviously, not leaving last night. Thank you.”

It’s a bit too honest, too much, given how tentative they’ve been. Given that it’s been almost a year. He doesn’t care, though. Louis makes him want to spill everything, hold nothing back. Louis makes him reckless. Braver. Whatever you want to call it.

But Louis, Louis who sits at Harry’s table and eats his toast and looks so tragically immortal at ten o’clock in the morning, responds with, “I’m sorry.”

Startled, Harry blinks. “For what?”

“For coming.” The words clasp Harry’s heart. Dig their nails in. “And for not telling you that I was coming. For just showing up and pretending to be Liam. Like a fucking lunatic.” He’s not looking at Harry, lips twisted into a grimace. He’s on the verge of glaring, his fingers flicking buttery crumbs off his skin. Little flicks of energy.

It feels like little flicks at Harry. Little, purposeful flicks that are just enough to bruise.

Harry’s silent for a moment, utterly crushed, listening to the sound of dead-ends and mangled heartbeats. The sounds of silence. He should probably find that Simon and Garfunkel record of his. He should probably stay in bed the rest of his life and listen to it on repeat. “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” would be another good one to suffer with. Happy misery.

Louis’ still flicking his fingers.

Harry wants him to stop. It’s making him wince. So he says:

“I’m sorry for letting you think, even just for a moment, that Zayn was my boyfriend.” Louis stops flicking. “He’s not. Obviously.” Harry could never be in love with Zayn. It’s just loneliness.

Louis’ hand settles on the table, fingers spread wide. He sniffs. “Yeah, well.” He’s looking firmly at the table. “I’m sorry for attacking you because I thought he was. I’ve no right to.”

Yes you do.

Harry wants to cry. He speaks before he can think, too much air in his lungs, the words said in too many broken breaths as his eyes glisten. “I’m sorry that you feel that way. And I’m sorry that I’m not…myself. And I’m sorry. About everything.” Jumbled words falling out of jumbled lips. Jumbled, jumbled thoughts.

Louis’ lips jumble, too. “No, don’t. That’s—not—don’t—“ he protests weakly, flustered, but Harry’s spurred on and the words still jumble forth.

“I’m sorry I never talked to you enough. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there.”

He thinks he’s gone too far. But. Almost instantly:

“I’m sorry I gave up.”

They’re Louis’ words. Said just as quickly with stormy ocean eyes that shoot upwards and scratch Harry’s corneas.

They’re both staring at each other now, words hanging in the air between them. Neither moves. It wasn’t enough before. But now…

Now it’s too much.

They just stare at each other. Both eyes moist. Both a little breathless—Harry more so, always more so—and nothing in the entire universe moves or makes a sound as they just stare. Properly.

Louis is so beautiful. At ten in the morning or ten at night, he is so beautiful. By sun or moon or stars or clouds, he is beautiful and he’s Harry’s, he will always be Harry’s, and he is made of metal and diamonds and gemstones and everything rare and precious that one finds after digging past resistance, past unassuming stone, past layers of ordinary. Louis is made of the secrets of the earth and everything beautiful it has to offer and he’s staring at Harry with eyebrows that twitch faintly in the shadowy morning light of Harry’s kitchen in Harry’s old flat and he doesn’t look exactly the same as he did a year and a half ago, but he’s made of the same stuff.

Harry loves him. And he doesn’t give a fuck—he’s going to tell him as much.

“Lou—“ he starts, the name trembling on slackened lips and dust particles.

But then Zayn emerges from Harry’s bedroom, all puffy eyes and scratchy beard, half-asleep, and the harsh squeak of the floorboards sends the air crashing down.

“Lads,” he says gruffly, slouching straight towards the kettle, smooth planes of his chest sliced by sunlight. He barely acknowledges them with his eyes. He seems rainy this morning. Maybe had a bad dream. Maybe a lot of things.

But Harry can’t really grasp all that right now, can’t really grasp anything, especially not Louis, who’s receding before his very eyes, blinking past his shine of tears as he sits back, sits farther away from Harry and folds his slender arms over his chest. His jumper is so big, so entirely big. It covers his skin, it covers him from Harry.

Harry wants to cry.

“Did you end up getting to sleep alright, Liam?” Zayn then asks. Zayn never asks. Clearly, he’s forcing up any dregs of polite conversation that he might possess—all in the name of making Harry’s ‘friend’ comfortable.

It would warm Harry’s heart normally, this sweet, conscientious little act. But as it is, it seems more intrusive and in the way, and Harry hates himself for resenting the sound of Zayn’s voice right now, hates Louis for making him this way.

But it’s Zayn’s voice that snaps them out of their reverie, and so Louis blinks, blinks blue tumultuous eyes and slides them over to Zayn, leaving indents in Harry’s own stare, arms folded over his chest. 

“Yeah. Yeah, I did,” he says, soft and tries to add a smile. His eyes pinch, skin folding into tiny crinkles as the delicate line of his lips tilts upwards and Harry’s trying not to chart and map and memorise these details anymore, he’s trying not to immerse himself in the planes of Louis Tomlinson, but he’s weak, he’s fucking weak, so he lets his eyes swim and bask as Zayn merely nods his response as he makes coffee.

“Cool,” he says, still half-asleep, fishing for a mug in the cupboard. His paint-splattered black shorts hang low on his hips, exposing tattoos.

A prickling silence descends.

 Eventually, Zayn trudges wordlessly out of the uninterrupted silence of the room, freshly-brewed coffee in hand. He leaves bruises in his wake. It’s sort of this poetic thing that he just naturally does. Wherever Zayn goes, he seems to leave the air more tender, more raw and ponderous.

And the effects are felt even now. Harry sees it in the way Louis’ nervous energy wilts just a bit, the tight fold of his arms loosening. Harry sees it as an opportunity. He needs so much from Louis. There’s so much he wants to say, needs to know.

And he’s about to, but then Louis’ kicking out his chair, gathering their plates and making his way to the sink.

“Figured I’d just clean up right quick,” he says, his movements stiff and jerky. The glass clanks together, the silverware clangs against porcelain. Cacophony. Harry’s entire life right now is cacophony.

“Oh. You didn’t have to—“ Harry starts, immediately standing once he’s recovered his bones from disappointment, but Louis merely holds up a hand, turning around to him.

He’s smirking, just slightly, his eyebrows very gently raised with an echo of mockery. “It’s genuinely the least I can do. No worries, Harry.”

Every single fucking time he says Harry’s name, it sends a shiver down his back. God.

Harry needs more.

“Look,” he begins, emphatic, taking a step closer, feeling like he towers over Louis, feeling imposing and too emotional and unbalanced. “Louis—“

But again, Louis stops him, this time turns away. “Not right now.” It sounds harsh. Too harsh, probably. Harsh enough for Louis to sigh, tilt his head in Harry’s direction without looking at him. “When your mate leaves. Then we’ll talk.”

Sting.

Still though, Harry nods—he has no choice—and he swallows down the rush of words and courage and emotions that had just threatened to bubble over.

Right. Now right now.

They stand in the kitchen, not facing each other and far apart, hands limp at their sides. They can hear Zayn tinkering about in the other room. They can hear the gentle breath of traffic filtering through the opened windows. They can hear faint voices and occasional beeps and ebbing music blaring from stereos and they can hear the tension of a lifetime of being together and almost two years apart and they can hear unsaid words and past conversations and Harry can hear, he swears on his life, that he can hear Louis’ fucking heartbeat, thumping beneath warm blood and a sturdy ribcage and skin that he knows slides so perfectly against his own.

“Well, I’m going to head out now.”

Once again Harry’s ripped from a dream as Zayn’s voice infuses the air.

“Harry. You should show Liam around uni. Get out a bit, yeah?” It sounds so logical from another perspective. “Then, uh. Maybe we’ll meet up for dinner? Go out or summat?” And, god, Zayn deserves a gold fucking medal right now with how he’s trying, just trying to make up for what Harry is lacking. Because Zayn thinks Harry’s just that fucked up in general, has no idea that he’s face to face with Louis, Louis, and is trying to make his best mate happy and comfortable, trying to ensure he’s having a good time and…

And Harry really wants to be emotional about that. But he can’t. Why can’t he? He must be numb. He’s weak.

“Yeah. That’d be great,” Louis says, offering another smile to Zayn and it spikes an unforeseen jolt of jealousy through Harry. Why won’t Louis smile at him like that? Why won’t Louis smile at him but he’ll smile at Zayn? The stranger? The boy who he’d thought was dating Harry? Why? Jolt jolt jolt. “Harry?”

God.

“Sure. Yeah. Of course,” Harry must say. His fingertips tingle. He feels the ship burning into his flesh, laughing and curling. Twisting. Mutilating his body. Ugh.

Louis nods, almost to himself, Harry only able to catch his flickering eyes momentarily before they’ve darted away again like fireflies.

Then Zayn nods, stuffing his feet into his boots. “Till later, then,” he says, glancing between the two as he picks up his folder from the counter. “I’ll text you when I’m done for the day. Or whatever.”

Harry nods. “Okay. Sounds good.”

Another nod from Louis.

And the door opens and Zayn’s just about to depart, when he pauses, body poking out from the doorway.

“Show him round, Harry,” is all he says, tone almost firm, and then the door clicks shut.

*

So Harry shows him.

Which is…probably the worst course of action he could have taken, given how fucking tense everything is. Given how him and Louis haven’t spoken in about a year and Harry’s heart is currently mutilated, his lips unable to form real sentences or remember what exactly a sense of humour even is.

“I really can show you. If you want,” Harry said after Zayn left. He was standing on the other side of the room, facing Louis. He had nothing to do with his hands. So he started biting his nails. It’s a new habit.

Louis charted the motion with his eyes and there was a bit of a quizzical edge to his frown, but he didn’t comment, instead just said, “Alright. Might as well.”

Might as well.

Harry didn’t know what it meant but it was enough, he supposed. Enough to put his shoes on.

They were stiff-bodied when they left the flat for the bus stop, sentences short and unsure.

And now, on the bus, Harry can’t bring himself to look too much at Louis as they ride to campus, sitting close enough to knock knees and spark tiny chemical reactions, but far enough for Harry to feel all the spaces where their bodies aren’t touching. His arms are pressed closely to his sides, his knuckles white where they grip each other on his lap.

Louis sits, profile outlined in the streaming sun from the windows, and he blinks feathery eyelashes and swan-like eyes as he just sits and stares, his own hands stuffed into the sleeves of that damn peach jumper he’s worn since he got here. There’s so much about him that Harry wants to unravel. So many tight cords and yards of prickly barbed wire and bound limbs that Harry wants to pick at and unknot in slow drags and fumble at with gentle fingers. Still. After all this time. Still wants touch, to soothe, to forget any sense of distance or tension.

He’s never going to be okay.

“This is our stop,” Harry eventually says, nearly blinded by the sun emblazoning Louis’ hair, casting him in fiery glows and sliced edges. So beautiful. So devastating.

Louis nods, just once, and attempts a stiff smile that pushes an obvious layer of discomfort into his eyes as he rises, gripping the seat in front of him to manoeuvre his body. His grip is strong, rippling the thin muscles beneath his skin. A splattering of fine hairs speckle the space on the back of his hands—near the knuckles. Soft, fine hairs that glow golden in sunbeams.

They descend upon the lit pavement and the bus chugs away, leaving billows of pollution and bleary-eyed students in its wake. Leaving Harry and Louis.

“Do you want to see anything in particular?” Harry asks him, chewing on his thumbnail. His heart rabbits a bit and his neck feels hot.

Louis’ shuffling a bit, unable to stand still. His feet kick at a few cracks in the pavement where blades of grass struggle to grow.

“Not really.”

A pause.

Harry’s just watching him fidget, watching the way his thinner-than-he-remembered calves shift beneath his trousers.

“Maybe your buildings? And, I dunno. Your main haunts?” He smirks a bit teasingly as he says the words, and it’s such an effortlessly Louis mannerism that it tugs at Harry’s intestines and kidneys and liver. It scatters his organs. Louis scatters his organs. Louis might kill him.

He’s nodding as he agrees, “Yeah, sure, of course,” in a tone too serious (how does one laugh again?) and he waits for Louis to start walking. He joins alongside, feeling the deep crease between his brows, feeling the rigidity in his shoulders as they fall into step and walk in synch, the soles of their shoes hitting the pavement simultaneously.

God. Even walking together is painful.

But they walk on and Louis blinks against the sun and the sporadic breeze and Harry blinks against Louis.

“So this is where you live,” he says eventually, and it startles Harry who had been so lost. Pathetic.

Harry nods, unable to offer much else. He’s become so boring.

“This is your uni,” Louis continues, gazing all around them, at the swarms of students in their ripped jeans and patterned jackets. “This is your life…” He sounds almost annoyed, almost judgmental, and it tugs Harry, tugs his brows down. But then he does another one of those half-smiles, slides his gaze to the side, to Harry and he gently pulls at the scarf in Harry’s hair, the scarf that sweeps away his greasy curls and the complete lack of fucks he gives. “And this is your new style.”

Something unfurls in Harry’s belly at the touch, at the half-smile. He can’t help the quirk of his lips, the instant, comforting warmth that spreads slowly across his skin as Louis’ blunt fingers fall from his hair, sweeping past stray, frizzy curls.

“I guess,” he shrugs, ducking his head, glancing intermittently at Louis who looks ahead, smile flickering. “I mean. It’s not really a style, is it? I just put a used handkerchief in my hair one day because I’d lost my fucking mind. And, turns out, it looked artistic. And bohemian. So they say, I dunno.”

Louis actually laughs at that. It’s a small, rusty chuckle, something that reaches his shoulders more than his lips, but it’s a laugh and it crackles some of the ice that’s encased over their bodies and breaths.

“I feel like that’s how your life works in general. You’re such a silly young boy and yet…” His smile fades, the warmth in his tone recedes as his gaze connects with Harry’s. “And yet here you are.”

They’ve stopped walking.

They’re just staring at each other, something far away settled in Louis’ eyes and Harry doesn’t know what it means.

But Louis just says, “Shall we keep going?” and Harry agrees as they fall back into step, his heart beating out of rhythm.

* The Sounds of Silence

The entire time they spend together, Harry has a thousand words on the tip of his tongue and Louis seems…somewhere else.

He’s closed off and maybe a bit nervous as he flits along, his strides too wide and his hands anxiously tugging at the ends of his sleeves, tugging until his jumper falls past his knuckles. He’s swiping his messy fringe, darting his cutting blue eyes, and he’s all pent-up, erratic energy, all of this erratic energy, but nothing is being fucking said and so nothing is being fucking relieved. Louis doesn’t say a word, Louis doesn’t talk—not like he said he would.

And here Harry is showing Louis around his fucking school—the school that broke them apart, ripped Harry apart—and they haven’t seen each other in almost two years and nothing is being said.

“This is the theatre building,” Harry says at one point, pulling Louis to a stop and pointing towards a large, glass construction.

“That’s sick,” Louis breathes approvingly, eyes wider. He’s himself right now, seems to be forgetting about the damaged bits as he takes in the structure before him, clearly impressed, unguarded. “Huge, innit? Very fragile. Hate to have a rock fight near this thing, eh?”

As if ‘rock fights’ were a thing. God.

Harry still loves him. Definitely. Definitely still loves him.

He nods amidst a surge of unwanted fondness, watching Louis sweep his eyes over the building appraisingly. “I knew you’d love it. Inside’s even better.” His lips twitch then. “If you saw it, you’d probably…” Lips twitch more as he says it. “Pee.” It sounds so ridiculous after all this time, after all that’s occurred. His lips press into a smile he tries to hold back. “Everywhere,” he adds.

It’s a reference to an old saying of Louis’—one of Harry’s lesser favourites. But he says the words now with a twisted smile, says them with nostalgia and a bit of unexpected reverence. Never saw that one coming, did he?

It comes as no big surprise when Louis looks absolutely delighted at the words, caution flung aside. Electric.

“I very much would pee everywhere,” he laughs, and in that moment he’s himself. Bright and sparking, fizzling on the ends. He shifts, tugging up his trousers and flicking hair out of his eyes and he’s got that grin on—the grin that pulls the sun higher into the sky. “And you’d have to clean up the mess.”

It’s teasing, it’s childish. It’s fucking wonderful.

“I always clean up your messes,” Harry says with a roll of the eyes and a begrudging smile. It’s instinct, this fond sort of exasperation. Feels like home. “It’s why we’re made for each other,” he says unthinkingly, high on the feeling.

And then, just like that, they both freeze.

They both fucking freeze, as if shocked by a rampant electric wire slapping them in the face, and Louis’ smile slides from his face with a sickening squelch that Harry swears he hears and his own heart prunes, positively prunes.

There are a few, terrible pings of silence, carried on by that gentle breeze and wavering sun.

“Let’s keep walking,” Harry says eventually, pained. He winces out the words.

He waits for Louis to move first, heart seeping out of his pores.

“Let’s,” Louis agrees, averting his eyes.

It hurts worse then.

*

Eventually they stop at the cafe—the small, dimly lit, musty one Harry frequents whenever he’s stuck on campus for the day, whenever he doesn’t want go back to his dusty, disheveled flat. The bell dings when they walk through the door that needs to be oiled, Harry holding it open for Louis, who ducks his head with a tight smile in acknowledgement.

Sting.

It feels odd enough bringing him in here, melding his past with his present; and that feels even worse to think—that Louis is his past.

But that’s a comical thought, actually. As if Louis could actually be his past. Maybe he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, after all.

Harry chuckles to himself, dryly. No, Louis will never be his past. He will be the very workings of time, the fabric of Harry’s fucking existence and even the moments that slip away unnoticed and absent from memory and time will have Louis Louis Louis imbedded into them.

“What’s so funny?” Louis asks, glancing at him as they approach a table in the corner, by the large window. The sun’s no longer out, instead replaced by graying clouds that have begun to cluster. It might storm. The air does feel a bit too humid, a bit too tense.

“Everything,” Harry mumbles but doesn’t explain, just slides into the chair and folds his hands together.

Louis slides into the chair opposite. He rests his arms upon the surface of the table, rocking it slightly—it must have one bad leg. There’s always one bad leg. Louis doesn’t notice though, just looks out the window instead and looks tired and contemplative. And far away.

And sort of timelessly mesmerising. Why does he always manage to look so timeless? So Renaissance? So ethereally beautiful and effortless and poetic? Harry wants to try writing sonnets for Louis, wants to rewrite Shakespeare for Louis, wants to spend his life scribbling pathetic letters and sending them to everybody he knows, all in the name of Louis, so that someday, when he’s dead and gone, they will collect all these letters and publish them in a book. It’ll be a pathetic love story and it’ll comfort every soul who’s suffered at the hands of unrequited love. It’ll be called “And Life Without Love is Vain” and it will include a portrait of a tired looking Harry, probably clutching a photo of Louis and a cat. Maybe a spatula. It will be sad and sorrowful and the sun will never shine.

Or, maybe, he should become an artist. Then he could chisel marble and unyielding stone and he could chisel Louis because he’s witness to the most beautiful thing in creation and he wants the rest of the world, forever, to remember Louis, to remember the most beautiful thing in creation.

Forever.

He can’t say this stuff, though. He can’t even think it. He can’t wax romantic or poetic anymore because it’s no longer acceptable, it’s no longer okay. It’s just creepy now, isn’t it? It’s wrong.

So Harry swallows the words down his thick, sludgy throat and perches stop his chair, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans.

Louis doesn’t say a word, never looks at Harry. Never moves. It’s enough to strangle.

What are the things he needs to say? Where are the words and why won’t they come?

“I’m not used to this,” Harry says eventually, frustrated, because he can’t stop himself around Louis.

Louis blinks, jumping slightly as he rips himself away from the window, turns to Harry with alarmingly sad eyes, hesitant eyes. A pursed mouth. And then it smoothes out into something more indecipherable, something more curious.

“Used to what?”

“This,” Harry says, dragging one hand out of his pocket to motion between them. “This weirdness between us. I’m not used to it being so quiet.” He probably looks petulant, he probably sounds petulant. But he doesn’t care.

Understanding blooms on Louis’ features before he nods, short. He looks uncomfortable. Uneasy.

“Yeah,” he agrees, voice altered. “It’s a bit…” He scrunches his nose, tries for lightness. “Awkward, innit?” But his voice is weak and whispery and nothing feels very light.

It sends spirals of frustration through Harry. He doesn’t know why but it does—he just feels tense, so fucking frustrated.

“Louis,” he says, scooting that much closer into the table, and Louis swallows, eyebrows raising ever so slightly. “I’m trying to talk to you. You said you have things to say? Well, say them. This isn’t right. This is difficult. I’m not good at this and we’re just, like, pretending that everything isn’t entirely fucked up and all I want to do, all I’m trying to do, is talk to you—“

“You aren’t trying to talk to me,” Louis counters immediately, brows scrunching. He looks peeved, almost disbelieving. “You haven’t said a word.”

“I’m trying. I’m talking right now,” Harry insists, using his hands to coax the words, scooting still closer.

Louis scoots further back, prickling, eyes flashing. “Just because you’re trying now, doesn’t mean it counts,” he snaps. “Stop trying to pin this on me.”

“But you’re the one who came here!” Harry protests, heating up immediately. Why, why is this so hard? “You’re the one who has something to say and you aren’t saying it. You came here to—what? To just sleep on my couch and slink around silently like a fucking shadow? Lou, I’m right here.” He grabs Louis’ hand angrily—and Louis actually recoils, actually winces and it fucking stabs into Harry, jabs into him and shoots pain through every fucking part of him—and he shoves Louis’ small, cold hand against his chest, shoves it over his heart. “I’m right here and if you came here to sort things out, to fix this, to fight for it, then—then do it, okay? Just—just start talking and I’ll listen and—“

“I didn’t—“ Louis peels his hand back, sits further back in his chair and won’t look at Harry. He’s pained in all his features, biting harshly at his lips and looking frustrated and fluffy and small and Harry almost grunts his own frustration, wants to rip his hair out like some primitive animal because Louis is behind glass and he can’t reach him. “I didn’t come here to…” he stops again, the smooth expanses of his face and bright skin constricting. He sets a determined eye on Harry, ploughs on. “I don’t want to get back together.”

The words twist into the air.

Harry has to look down.

He has to look the fuck down so Louis doesn’t see his entire universe crash apart once more. The remnants of hope that he once possessed combusting, twisting, and writhing and turning against his body.

He looks down and looks away and swallows bits of glass. The glass from Louis’ eyes.

“So why did you come?” he finally asks when he trusts his voice again, speaks past the cuts.

He refuses to look at Louis.

There’s a pause. Maybe Louis’ watching him. Maybe not. Then:

“Because…” A shaky sigh is released. “Because there are some things that I want to talk to you about. Just to sort the air. There are things you deserve to know, Harry. Things that I think we should talk about. I don’t want us to go on hating each other—“ I dont hate you. “—forever.”

Forever.

A gross misuse of the word. The word that has guided Harry and haunted Harry. And here it is. Being used like that. Harry wants to rip it out of Louis’ mouth, wants to grip his delicate jaw with his fingers and pry it from his lips and wants to throw it across the room and shatter the word against the wall.

There’s something so horrible about this moment. Something angry and sad and hopeless and Harry has to actually close his eyes because right now he’s teetering on shaking stilts and he’s going to fall and Louis can’t see this, can’t see any of it, Harry won’t let him because…

Because Louis doesn’t feel the same. And so Louis can’t see.

Thankfully, Harry’s phone buzzes against his thigh at that moment. Zayn.

“Do you want to go to dinner? Zayn’s texting,” Harry says, voice dead and hollow, without any attempt at transition. He doesn’t look at Louis, just stares at the too-bright words on his phone. He hates his phone. Maybe he’ll get rid of it—chuck it into a great expanse of water and walk off into the distance, maybe over a hill. Do something poetic like that.

“Yeah, sure,” Louis says after almost a full minute of silence.

Harry thinks he can feel his stare on him, intent and pressing. But Harry’s too tired to care. He’s not going to look up.

He keeps talking. “I figure we can tell him at dinner tonight. About the misunderstanding.” It sounds so formal. “And then afterwards we can talk. You can say whatever it is you wanted to say. And then…yeah.”

So final. So conclusive.

More silence.

“Alright,” Louis eventually says, and Harry still won’t look up.

Instead, he shoots out of his chair at Louis’ words and marches for the door. He holds it open for Louis, refusing to meet his gaze, physically turning his face and body away to block out the sun that burns him, to block Louis out right now because everything is raw.

Louis stands there for one moment. He doesn’t leave, doesn’t exit through the door that Harry’s holding open for him. Just stands there, staring hard at Harry and Harry doesn’t know his expression, doesn’t know what he’s thinking, but it brims tears in Harry’s eyes and they’re threatening to fall.

Thankfully, before they do, Louis walks ahead, leaving a cold distance in his wake.

So Harry finally closes his eyes, feels his face crumple and the tears spill. He takes just one moment to brush his sleeve over his eyes, soak up the streams, before following behind Louis and walking down the street in silence.

* Black Balloon

Zayn texts again—says he’s in the restaurant already, waiting patiently for them. Of course he is. Zayn is always patient. Always thinking about something else and inhaling tobacco and sitting patiently. Or maybe it’s not patience—maybe it’s indifference. Or numbness.

Harry thinks he might be getting to that point.

He and Louis reach the door to the little dimly lit building, nestled amongst other tall, sturdy structures that line the street, and Harry’s just about to pull the door open and send forth the rushes of warm air and sautéed meats, but then there’s a small, cold hand on his arm, pressing just-firmly into his flesh.

Harry stops, turns around.

Louis looks upset.

“Maybe not tonight,” Louis says. That’s all he says.

Brow furrowing, Harry takes a step back, lets a smiling couple reach the door before them.

Harry’s face doesn’t change, too exhausted, too worn. “What are you talking about?” he asks without any inflection, still so hollow, so carved out. He’s so tired, his limbs dragging him down. He feels trampled. Maybe like a trampled flower. Or a weed—probably a weed.

“Zayn. Maybe we shouldn’t—maybe we shouldn’t tell him who I am tonight. You know? It’s just a lot, you know?”

And, oh, of course. Of course.

Here Louis is, Louis, and he’s finally here, right? He’s finally here and Harry’s seeing him, in the flesh. And what does he want to do?

He wants to deny who he is. Deny who they are—or were, or whatever—and he’s pretending is all he’s doing. He can’t even fucking tell Harry’s best fucking mate that he’s the one that’s fucked Harry up so colossally and he’s saying it all with a twitchy expression and furrowed brows and a throat that works so gently when he swallows, fingers twisting into his jumper that swallows him whole. He’s barely meeting Harry’s eye.

Which comes as no surprise—he’s basically spelling it out for the world. Spelling in great, capital letters: ‘I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH HARRY STYLES.’

And below, in small, scratchy, chaotic print is Harry’s scrawl: ‘My life is monopolised by Louis Tomlinson. I am a prisoner to his existence. A prisoner by my own right, my own will.’ Or, in other words: ‘I am fucking pathetic.’

It twists Harry’s gut.

“Please?” Louis then adds, hopeful and sincere and near begging and, fuck, he’s begging? He’s begging for Harry to lie, to erase their history.

Harry’s going to be sick.

But he laughs instead, cold and dry and jaded. He looks down at Louis, looks him dead in the eye.

“When have I ever said no to you?” he questions bitterly, but his pain seeps through, his quiet, morose longing tinges the tips of the words. “Of course I won’t tell him. Not if you don’t want to.”

And with that Harry opens the door, walks inside without looking back.

*

The restaurant is loud and stuffy.

And Harry is numb.

“Have a good day?” Zayn asks, arms folded on the table. He’s got a ratty black Nirvana t-shirt on, the yellow letters peeled and fading, the torn fabric barely clinging to his bony shoulders and sharp collarbones. He’s clipped his beard it seems—it’s more scruffy than forestry and it softly peppers his caramelised cheeks and adamantium bones.

 Adamantium.

That’s a word that Harry would never have known without Louis and his endless knowledge about…comics, or whatever. He’s probably never used that word before, probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what the fuck that meant two years ago and here it is, springing up randomly into his thoughts and making sense.

What right does that word have? To do that?

God, he’s messed up. He’s angry at a word. A fake word.

He takes a harsh sip of his water.

Upon noting Harry’s silence, Louis nods instead. But he doesn’t say anything.

“It was great, actually,” Harry supplies, and he’s hollow enough now, numb enough that lying doesn’t make him feel quite so sick. No adamantium inside of him. “Showed him the school. Took him to the coffee shop. Liam’s not a big fan of coffee, though, are you, Liam?” Harry looks to Louis, looks at him smoothly and with empty eyes.

Louis looks sick as he shakes his head.

“We had a great day,” Harry fake smiles.

Zayn nods, slowly, eyes flickering between the two. “Good to know,” he says. He looks to Louis. “How long are you visiting for?”

Louis opens his mouth, but Harry gets there first.

“Not long,” Harry smiles, cheeks hurting. His mouth feels dry and like there’s too much space inside. “Until, what, tomorrow? The day after tomorrow? Liam?” He says the name with a silent bite as he looks at Louis, stares at him hard. He feels like he’s unraveling, he feels like he’s crumbling. It’s happening but he doesn’t actually, technically, feel it. Just numb. It’s like watching the television on mute.

Louis looks even sicker. He doesn’t respond. Just ducks his head and stares at his hands in his small lap.

Harry wants to cry. He probably couldn’t though, even if he tried.

The rest of the dinner consists of Harry’s insincere, empty smiles and tight words and wilted heart. It consists of a silent Louis who looks on the verge of vomiting, his fingers twitching against his thigh and flashes of frustration skirting across his features as he contains all his combusting atoms and fiery light. It consists of Zayn smoothly drinking from his pint glass while he gazes off into the sea of heads around the restaurant, arms folded atop the counter, beautiful and stunning and sad and distant. He’s got a cigarette behind his ear and Harry often catches him staring at Louis, eyes searching his face calmly.

Harry briefly wonders if Zayn finds Louis attractive. Of course he does, though. It’s Louis.

The thought sends spikes of heat and anger and envy through his bloodstream. So unhealthy. That’s not healthy. It’s not healthy but every time Harry wonders it, the spikes blaze inside of him and he’s weak, isn’t he, so he just sips his water and gets lost in the hum of layered chatter that fills the dense air of the packed restaurant in hopes to cool the blaze.

They leave after about an hour, plates empty, napkins used, and drinks finished, sitting in clusters atop the thickly varnished table, sauces and crumbs smudged everywhere.

At least they were able to eat. 

They exit out the front door, holding the door for more people who file inside—all laughing all smiling, all unaware of the end of the world. Harry isn’t sure if he envies them or mocks them.

The sun’s all but down. The sky is fresh and milky and Outer Space Blue and Prince’s Robe Purple and there’s some crimson and just one streak of Brazen Gold on the horizon over the rooftops, behind the towering gothic churches. The air is cool and still and alit by street lights and laughter and the sound of cars creeping along the streets. An occasional honk peppers the air.

Louis stands against the horizon, against the sky. It swirls around him, the light bending to his body. If he were an X-Men, he’d be some fiery, dangerous, beautiful mess. Would probably have the power to manipulate light and fire and the elements, could twist the molecules in the air and wield the atmosphere. His name would probably be something majestic and timeless like Atlas. He’d probably kick Magneto’s ass.

Harry feels sick.

“We should take Liam on that walk around the lake by the school. ‘S nice out,” Zayn says into the silence. Harry looks away from Louis, stares at his feet. “And to that gelato shop nearby.” It’s one of the only foods Zayn eats. Isn’t that funny? Gelato? It’s a bit uncharacteristic, Harry thinks. And whether he consumes it by choice or convenience or just because Harry doesn’t know all that much about Zayn, he’s not sure. But it’s still funny. “Want to? Before we go back?” Zayn asks the question to Louis but he’s really asking it to Harry.

Louis nods, a little jerky. “That sounds great, actually.”

Sick. Feels sick.

“I’m actually, uh, I’m actually just going to head back. I’m a bit tired,” Harry says, turning before they can protest. “I’ll see you guys when you get back.”

“You sure?” Zayn calls after a pause.

Harry’s nodding, doesn’t turn around as he walks down the street.

“I’m sure.”

And no more is said.

He needs this. He deserves this. After the chaos of the last two days, he absolutely deserves some respite, some sanctity and relief from the barrage of everything that’s been assaulting him. Just a few hours to clear his head and gather himself back together. To dig inside of himself and find bits that are still there, that haven’t been taken away.

Still, though.

Each step he takes, each step away from Louis, feels like regret. Because, still, his body reaches for Louis. Still, his instincts scream for him to be close. To be near him as much as possible.

But he needs the break. Because things are changed now. It’s not about mending anymore—it’s about cutting. Severing.

So he just goes back to his flat.

* A Rush of Blood to the Head

He’s at his typewriter.

One light is on. It’s dim and occasionally the light bulb flickers. The window’s open wide. The shriveled flower petals fall to the ground.

He’s typing. He has nothing else to do. His hands are restless, his brain is racing, and the white pages before him fill unsteadily, the snicks of the keys thumping letter after letter onto the paper, thumping along with Harry’s pulse. He’s filled to the brim, ready to spill over, and so he’s letting his fingers speak for him, release some of the everything that’s too much inside.

The Universe is Made of Five Thingsis how it starts. He thinks it’s probably the title, but his fingers don’t stop long enough to let him question it any more than that.

He rubs his eyes, keeps typing with shaky, jerking fingers.

The Universe is made of hands;

Hands that twist fabric and sizzle in the air.

Hands that grasp curls and flick words away

Small, smooth fingers pouring gold over gaping wounds

Before slicing into soft tissue,

Blood mixing with gold.

Hands that make it beautiful.

 

The Universe is made of bones;

Bones that cut against yards of skin,

Warm and yielding and moulded around the wings that splay across his back.

Bones that cage the heart and dig into the hollows.

Bones that break,

Tear the warm, yielding skin.

Bones that shred and brush his chin.

 

The Universe is made of lips;

Lips that breathe and stutter warm sighs,

Caressing the cracks in his broken body, the body that he broke.

Lips that carve paths into stone,

That leave trails upon gooseflesh,

Lips that make incisions,

Too delicate to mend.

 

The Universe is made of blood;

Blood that runs warm and hot and steady and crimson,

Pumping beneath the stone and the gold.

Blood that burns with every jerk of limbs.

Blood that spills on open palms,

Staining the fabric,

Filling up his throat.

 

The Universe is made of eyes;

Eyes that breach and eyes that splice and eyes that never leave.

Eyes that ripple oceans.

Eyes that whisper in the dark.

Eyes that rip open the seams.

Eyes that create wounds, create chaos, create broken shards of blue.

Eyes that alight and

won t

 let

 go.

 

The Universe was built.

The Universe fell.

You took it apart,

Dragged the chaos from my soul with your hands,

Your bones,

Your lips,

Your blood,

Your eyes.

 

And now you re back.

And so is the Universe.

And so, I suppose, am I.

The Universe is made of five things.

The Universe is made of you.

The keys stop. His fingers stop. The pages scatter the surface of the table.

He lets his head fall into his hands. But he doesn’t cry. He was right—there’s nothing left.

*

When Zayn and Louis return, Harry’s still at the desk, still at his typewriter. The sun has disappeared, leaving the moon in its wake, and the world is dark and vibrant and glowing. The stars are suspended in the sky, as if held by strings. Harry wants to cut them, watch the stars fall.

They’re mid-conversation when the door opens.

“…Best gelato I’ve ever had, to be quite honest,” Louis’ voice says, in that way he has. That lightly mischievous way that always manages to sound a bit insincere and a bit lilting. It’s an addicting sound—one that leaves the listener chasing after it. Harry knows.

“It’s pretty much all I eat,” Zayn purrs, mumbled and low as he closes the door.

Harry doesn’t turn around, just listens, fists clenched atop the desk. He doesn’t know what he’s feeling.

“I didn’t know artists eat,” Louis teases. Harry can hear the smile in the words.

And that…

That unravels that thing inside of him. That ugly and exposed thing. Louis can barely meet Harry’s eye, Harry, and yet he’s always joking with Zayn? He’s always just…laughing? Effortlessly?

Harry’s fists clench tighter.

There are a few light chuckles after that, a few creaks of the floorboards. Then nothing.

“Hey, Harry?” Zayn calls.

Harry merely grunts his acknowledgement.

“I think I’m going to head out. Stay at my room for the night. I’ve got a project that’s due this week—figure I should at least try to work on it.” There’s a shrug in his voice, his hand probably already on the doorknob.

It sounds a lot like a miracle.

Nodding, Harry inclines his head in Zayn’s direction, tries to school his features into a calm.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll text you.”

“Cool.” Pause. Creak. “Good to see you again, Liam. If I don’t catch you before you go, it’s been good. Thanks for the gelato.”

“Thanks for the hospitality, mate,” Louis says easily in response.

Hospitality. Zayn. The world is a funny place.

One last farewell is exchanged before the door shuts. And then it’s just Harry and Louis. Louis and Harry. Them. Forever. Them.

Harry doesn’t turn around.

Instead, he continues to sit at his desk, closing his eyes against the waves of unease and nausea and anxiety and trepidation and panic that assault him. He needs to calm himself, needs to prepare himself for a conversation he’s not ready for, a goodbye he’s not ready for. He clasps his hands tightly as he focuses, focuses, the pages of his poem, of whatever the fuck it was that he just wrote, littered around his elbows.

He hears the creaks of the floorboards again. Hears them creak towards him, getting louder with each step.

His eyes never open, he never raises his head, hands clasped into a fist against his forehead. Unconsciously, he bites at his lips, nibbles at the soft cushion of skin.

The floorboards squeal louder.

There’s a presence at his shoulder, a dim shadow cast over the desktop. A hand that reaches out, that brushes fingers across the surface of the freshly typed page and—

Harry’s blood stops flowing.

Louis picks up the page.

Louis picks up the page. And he reads. He’s there, standing at Harry’s shoulder and he’s reading the words Harry’s just ripped from his body and slashed onto the page about him, about Louis, and he’s reading them so quietly, so noiselessly and all Harry can do, all Harry has the fucking energy to do at this point… Is close his eyes tightly, the situation sinking in. His eyes clasp shut and he waits and he breathes. Shaky, little breaths.

And Louis reads.

A few minutes pass by. Not a word is uttered.

Then suddenly, Louis’ voice.

“Are you writing about me?” it asks, above Harry’s shoulder. The emotions in it are too hard to decipher. They’re brittle though, almost disappearing in the dimly lit flat as they flicker like candlelight, barely disturbing the dust bunnies.

There’s a static, crackling moment of silence, Harry’s eyes shutting even tighter, brows bending together. His body is wracked with that tension that’s been consuming him since Louis arrived, wracked with everything he’s tried to lock away so tightly.

He can only do so much, though.

So instead of locking it away, he nods. Just once, he nods, sinking his teeth deeper into his lip, painfully. He wishes his teeth could draw blood—they never do.

Silence.

And then Louis’ picking up more pages.

The only sound in the room is the ruffling of the papers against each other, broken by the occasional sighs that Louis emits as he breathes some of the words—some of Harry’s words. Somehow, it’s soothing.

And yet, somehow, it hurts even more. Everything just keeps hurting more and more and more and it’s almost comical how much everything is just cutting into Harry. He’s a mutilated carcass.

At long last, Louis finishes, gently setting the pages down atop the wooden desk, their corners just barely curling upwards.

Everything is silent.

Harry is silent. Silent and rigid and teetering and cold, on the verge of fresh tears because he’s so terrified and exposed and he’s biting those tears back so hard that his body is almost shaking with it…

When, all of a sudden, he feels warmth.

A hand. A small, warm, delicate hand.

Stroking through his curls, fingertips bluntly gliding across his scalp and swirling gentle, soothing patterns.

It breaks every single thing left inside of Harry.

A fresh surge of tears arises as he leans unabashedly into the touch, leans until he blindly finds Louis’ warmth, thick, heavy drops of salt pouring from beneath closed eyelids. He’s not sure if he’s silent or whimpering pathetically or what, but his head butts into Louis’ side, digging for shelter, digging for a permanent place to stay, and he leans into him while his hands lie in his lap and he presses his face into the fabric of Louis’ jumper and closes his eyes so tight that the darkness flashes bright. 

And Louis continues to card fingers through his hair, so gentle, gentle, gentle, so soothing and unyielding and strong.

“I’m going to stay, alright?” his voice says gently, beautifully. Caressingly. It sounds how Harry remembers. “And we can talk tomorrow. Or the next night. Or whenever. I’ll stay as long as it takes to do this properly, alright?” Tips of fingers catch on his earlobe, gently brush the base of his neck.

It’s somewhat relieving to hear that Louis’ going to stay a bit longer… It’s also a bit horrible. All it is is just postponing the inevitable.

But Harry nods anyway. He nods and Louis’ hand slides away and so Harry stands up, his body creaking and groaning with the chair as he avoids Louis’ eyes and brushes past his shoulder, making his way to his room, cheeks raw with embarrassment.

“Hey.”Louis’ voice again.

Harry stops.

“You should stay out here again. Sleep out here.” Harry sniffles, listens. “It’s lonely. Sleeping here. By myself.”

Lonely.

Yeah.

Harry nods before he realises it. “Yeah. Yeah, okay,” he rasps.

A smile, an actual smile, escapes Louis’ lips. It feels like gold, it feels like summer. It feels so good that Harry smiles back somehow, though it’s warbled by his tears and very, very twisted.

He trudges to his room, fetches his pillow, his blanket, and when he returns to the living room, Louis’ already wrapped up on the couch, swaddled in blankets and darkness, hair falling into his eyes as he blinks upwards at the ceiling. Harry lies on the floor, alongside the couch. It’s probably too close. But it feels nice, it feels familiar and comforting, so Harry just exhales when his back hits the ground, lets his head sink into the pillow and his entire being relaxes, aligned beside Louis.

Louis’ hand falls out from under the blanket, falls gently to the floor. The backs of his fingers scrape the scratched wood.

Harry wants to interlock their fingers, glide skin against skin.

Instead, he listens to Louis exhale, each breath stealing one of Harry’s own.

The last thing he hears before he falls asleep is Louis sighing, half-asleep, voice muffled by blankets and squished cheeks:

“You write so beautifully, Harry. So beautifully.”

*

It’s the fourth day of Louis’ presence and Harry wakes up early, too early.

He awakes to the tips of the sun that stream in through the moth-eaten curtains as they tumble in nipping, gentle gusts. It’s a bit cold but it feels nice—a refreshing sort of cold that tingles Harry’s iced-over skin and fills his lungs with air.

He lies there a bit, on the ground, next to Louis atop his couch, his makeshift throne, listening to the snap of the curtains and watching the shadows dancing across the walls of the flat. Listening to Louis breathe steadily as he tries to reassemble his dreams, but he can’t remember much.  Just that they were made of ships at sea and storms and all of that other unfair bullshit that he’s had to suffer at the hands of since he’d gotten that fucking tattoo. That goddamned ship. It burns this morning, burns tauntingly into his arm, but Harry ignores it as he gracelessly rises, wiping the drool off of his face and smoothing his mess of frizz back.

He makes tea—one for himself, one for Louis. He takes his plain. Louis takes his with a bit of milk, but only in the morning. Otherwise black, always black.

The chair creaks beneath him as he sits down at the kitchen table, setting Louis’ boiling mug to the side and bringing his own to his lips. It sears his skin, burns him maliciously. He doesn’t really care though, doesn’t mind much when it scorches his frail lips and swollen tongue. It’s just a bit of feeling, isn’t it? So he sips past the feeling and feels the steam dig into the pores of his cheeks as the sun rises slowly and his thoughts untangle and Louis sleeps, so sound.

It’s about eight in the morning when Louis finally stirs, his soft sighs and sniffles wavering Harry out of his despair. It doesn’t take him long to roll off the couch, rubbing at his eyes, thin wrists rolling, the sleeves of his oversized jumper bunched up in his fists. Sweater paws. Or something like that.

“Hey,” he yawns, quietly, as he pads into the kitchen and immediately eyes up the stray cup of tea, now suitably warm. “Er, is that—“

“Yours,” Harry says with a half-smile, nudging it his way.

Louis smiles, soft and simple, before clutching it between grateful hands, bringing it to grateful lips. “Thanks, Harry.”

Harry nods, calmed when Louis takes the seat opposite him, sipping at his tea.

“How long have you been awake?” Louis asks eventually, voice scraping over the words. He has the most wonderful morning voice. Fragile and soft, like little torn bits of cotton. It’s something very perfect.

“For a couple hours, maybe. Not too long,” Harry shrugs. “I don’t sleep anymore, remember?” It’s supposed to be humorous but it falls flat.

With just a touch of discomfort, Louis nods, though he doesn’t respond. “You remember how I take my tea, I see,” he says after a bit. He seems to want to talk. “Good lad.” His smile is small, his eyes nervous.

“That’s something I can’t forget,” Harry replies, wishing he felt just a bit lighter, just a fraction more capable of handling all of this. His fingers trace the mug, eyes tracking the movement. “Given the amount of times I’ve had to suffer your screeched demands,” he adds after a moment. He quirks his lips, glances up.

Louis laughs immediately, the loudest noise he’s made since he’s come.

“I don’t screech, thank you.”

“Would you prefer shriek?”

“I’d prefer ‘intoned delicately’.” His smile reaches his eyes now, sending hurricanes and whirlpools through the air. It’s immediately exhilarating, immediately relieving.

“The only delicate thing about you is your bones,” Harry smiles in response, and if his voice is just a bit too gentle, neither make any indication of it being so.

“Me? Delicate bones? I’m a manly man.”

“Indeed, Boo Bear.”

“Oi!” Laughing genuinely now, shoulders eased.

Harry almost feels happy. Almost. The impending sense of doom strips away from it, though. But. Still. Almost. It’s nice.

“I missed you,” he says, because he has no hope and no longer anything to hide. A defeated confession. Brute honestly. He’s free to give it all, no risk.

Louis quiets at that, his eyes sliding to the surface of the table as he sips at his tea. Instantly guarded. Already lost. He says nothing.

So Harry just keeps brushing the pads of his fingers along the rim of his mug.

“How’s the family?” he asks, still not looking up, voice barely able to form the words that fight past barriers of homesickness, of aching distance. They’re practically his own family, practically his own girls.

Instantly, Louis’ face steels. “Better,” is what he says and his tone is strangled and so very unlike him. He swallows, Harry sees it in his neck.

“Better?” Harry enquires, brows coming together in confusions. “Is everything alright?”

But Louis doesn’t respond, instead softens his gaze and leans closer to Harry from across the table, resting his elbows on the edge.

“How’s your family? Anne? Robin? Gem still at home and wreaking hipster havoc?” The question is teasing and familiar and one Harry would have barked laughter at before. But now it aches, everything aches, and Harry hesitates to even respond, his own concerns lying in Louis’ vagueness, his distance, and the obvious truths he withholds.

But they’ll talk later. They promised to talk later.

So he clears his throat. “Uhm, yeah. She’s still home. Got herself a boyfriend—some wannabe-rocker in a band. Plays the drums. Three years younger than her, actually.” Louis clucks his tongue, quirks an eyebrow. It makes Harry laugh, warming his entire body because it’s so familiar, so easy to fall back into. “I know. But yeah, she’s good. So are mum and Robin. Everything’s good.” He pauses, clears his throat again and studies the porcelain of his mug. “They miss you.”

“I miss them, too.” It’s an automatic response.

Pause.

“You know, just because we—“ Harry stops. He can’t say it. He swallows the word on the tip of his tongue, instead settles his gaze out the window, past Louis, and tries again. “You can still chat with them. Keep in touch. I want you to.” Gaze focuses back on Louis—just a gentle glide of the eyes, just a little to the right. “They want you to.”

And Louis nods, looks down, nods more. But says nothing.

Nothing. He never says anything lately though, does he? Always nothing.

God. It’s just… It’s just fucking infuriating.

Harry almost whimpers his frustration as he glares into Louis, whose head is bowed as he fusses with his mug, movements constant and short and self-contained. He wants Louis to look at him, to acknowledge him properly, to help break down all these barriers Harry hadn’t even realised had been built.

But Louis doesn’t look up.

And Harry can’t take it anymore.

He stands, backs of his knees bumping the chair back, dragging its legs across the linoleum. Louis starts, eyes wide as he watches Harry move around the table and approach him, tilts his head back to stare up at him as Harry stands before him, a helpless, angry pout soaking his features.

“Lou,” he says, upset, childlike. He tugs at the arm of Louis’ jumper. But Louis doesn’t move. “Lou, get up,” he says, so childishly, and it’s weird how close to tears he feels, but he doesn’t back down, doesn’t break his stare. Just blinks and breathes and clutches the fabric of Louis’ jumper.

And then Louis stands. Slowly, shakily, hesitantly.

“Come here, Lou,” Harry mumbles, sadly, as he wraps the boy in his arms without any awkwardness, without any trepidation. Because this is familiar, this is home. This is what Harry has been craving, been missing, and he closes his eyes against everything because he’s so overwhelmed. He shuts the threatening tears away and hugs Louis, squeezes Louis, digging his nose into the hair behind his ear which feels so fucking normal. So alarmingly and heartbreakingly familiar.

Louis is slow to respond, his body mostly rigid at first. It’s only when Harry smudges a frustrated, angry, “You miserable little brat, Tomlinson,” into his hair that Louis responds, arms shooting up to grip tightly around Harry and pulling him even closer.

“You miserable little brat,” Harry says again, words muffled and he shuts his eyes so tight, feels Louis’ hands dig into the fabric of his clothes. “I miss you so fucking much, you complete and utter brat.”

He feels Louis’ smile in his neck. It sends cascades of warm, pooling lava down his back, down his limbs.

And, somehow, just like that…

The tension feels lifted.

The heavy, impending fear that had previously filled their air, had rammed itself down their throats, is now absent, instead leaving a quiet relief in its wake, leaving uncoiled sighs and shoulders that slump in relief as their bodies press against each other and hold on and Harry feels Louis’ smile press against the warmed skin of his neck.

When they finally break apart, Louis is smiling. It’s soft and a touch melancholy, but he’s smiling, looking up at Harry without flinching. It feels so fucking incredible that Harry doesn’t even hesitate to brush the hair out of his eyes. Louis’ smile never falters.

“You’re a brat too, you know,” he says quietly, but he’s still smiling. He flicks Harry in the side. “Writing poetry about me behind my back.”

Harry’s nerves snap but he doesn’t step away, doesn’t let his smile fall. “I’m writing a book about you,” he admits. Just sets the sentence between them.

Louis blinks then, surprise clear across his face. “A book? You’re writing a book, then?” His face softens. “About me?”

Harry nods, eyes stuck on Louis.

He looks to be at a loss for words, ducking his head as he rubs a hand down Harry’s arm, leaving a trail of buzzing skin. A few moments of silence flit along, Harry never looks away.

“Hey. Harry,” Louis says after awhile, rubs another hand over Harry’s arm, almost unthinkingly. He looks up, meets Harry’s eye. The stare is clear, open. It’s pure and Harry’s falling into it completely. “I’ve been thinking. I’m gonna rent a room, yeah? There’s that inn down the street—“

Harry’s shaking his head firmly, cutting him off. “No. No way. Lou—“

Harry,” Louis continues more firmly, and rubs both hands down Harry’s arms to soothe, to touch, to appease. It works, Harry stopping his protests to listen, to shuffle infinitesimally closer. “I’ve thought it out. It’ll be good for us, yeah? I should’ve done it from the start—“

“There’s no sense in you paying for rooms when I want you here—“

“I want to be here too, okay? But it’s not good for us. It’s too much, yeah?” Harry silences. “You’re constantly crying, mate—“

“Shut up.”

Louis smiles, gentle. “I’m not being an arse. It’s true. And it’s not fair on you. You deserve some air, some space to breathe. I’ve just ploughed you over and imposed and you don’t have a moment to yourself… This’ll be better for us. Easier.”

Harry’s jaw locks.

“And,” Louis continues, sensing his hesitance, his determination, “If it’s not better, if it’s not easier… Then I’ll come back.” He swallows. “You just say the word and I’ll come back.” An odd look overcomes his features as he says the words. Something wistful and a bit dark. But it’s just out of Harry’s grasp and Harry’s too focused on right now, on Louis’ hands on his arms and his stare that no longer slices but soothes, and so Harry doesn’t waste any thought on it, just finds himself swallowing past the lumps of protest and nodding.

“I guess that makes sense,” he admits eventually, unable to step away just yet.

Louis nods, seemingly relieved.

“But. We’ll still see each other? You’re not going to, like, just hide away, are you? You’re not going to leave?” He knows he sounds small but he asks it anyway.

Before the sentence is even out, Louis is shaking his head, another small smile forming at his lips. “I won’t,” he says. “You know I won’t.”

Harry nods, looks down and stares at the collar of Louis’ jumper. A bit frayed and worn and soft. Like Louis.

“Are you going to go now, then?” he asks into the silence. Still staring at the collar.

“Yeah, I think so. Settle in a bit.”

“Okay.” Harry looks up then, meets tired eyes to Louis’. He doesn’t know what he feels. “Text me when you’re ready? To…talk, or whatever?”

But Louis grimaces in response, wincing and dropping his hands, leaving Harry’s arms cold.

“What?” Harry questions, trying to catch his eye, brow furrowing. “Why are you…?”

“I…” Louis’ looking at the ground, a thin frown cut into his lips. He looks as if he’s made of ice. An ice sculpture. A fiery ice sculpture. “Actually… I—I don’t have your number. Anymore.” He swallows, chews on the inside of his lip. His fingers fiddle with the sleeves of his jumper.

Harry stares.

Slice slice slice. Jab jab jab. Cut. Burn. Slap.

He’s so fucking pathetic.

Feeling sick, completely fucking sick and foolish and stupid, he nods, taking a step back as well as he tries to remain neutral, unbothered. It’s no big deal.

“Yeah. Oh yeah, okay. That makes sense. Here, I’ll just…” He swallows, sliding out his phone and unlocking it, ignoring the unanswered texts. “I’ll just text it to you.” His voice is empty, too barren to be embarrassed.

Maybe it is a good idea if Harry has some time for himself. He feels on the verge of combusting. Or fading away—he’s not sure which yet.

Louis looks contrite, looks even more so when his phone buzzes with Harry’s message and Harry won’t meet his eye.

“I’ll text you,” he says, firm.

Harry nods, eyes lost in the floorboards. But he lifts his stare back to Louis—it’s more effort than he anticipated.

“I’ll be waiting,” he says.

They gather his things silently, their empty mugs left on the table, side by side. Harry folds the blankets and Louis slings his bag over his shoulder, shuffling around the room. Harry can see him in his peripherals but he tries not to, tries just to focus on the soft cotton folds in his hands as he tries to align the corners right. A few moments pass in complete silence, save for the whispers of traffic from the open windows. The blankets are all officially folded now, so Harry turns around—

And stops short.

Louis’ at his desk. He’s standing beside it, hand skimming gently along the keys of the typewriter before it comes to rest atop…the poem. Or whatever it is. His hand stills then, just rests atop the ink and the shuffled pages that lie so quietly. He stares down at them, expression silent.

Yet another wave of emotion crashes into Harry. It’s not even midday and he’s already almost cried three times. Yeah, Louis definitely needs to go.

He watches the scene, watches as Louis looks down at the papers with a slightly cocked head, hair falling into his eyes, bits of barely-beard speckling his sharp, smooth cheeks that warm to the colour of honey. He watches the blue of his eyes blink softly, eyelashes kissing his skin with every movement. He watches his soft, small hand brush reverently across crisp, white paper. He stands across the room and watches.

“So beautiful, Harry,” Louis sighs, Louis might sigh—it’s so hard to hear the exhaled words, swept up in Harry’s thrumming pulse and the static of traffic. But then he looks up, quizzical, hair tufting at odd angles and Harry’s heart constricts at the very sight. “Can I…?” he questions lightly.

Harry just swallows, can’t answer, body ripping apart.

“Can I please have this?” His fingertips rest atop the first page, unsure, questioning.

God. He loves him. They’re going to say goodbye tonight and Harry loves him.

He nods. “Yeah,” he rasps when he finally finds his voice. “It’s yours, after all.”

The responding smile is breathtaking, almost too much.

“Thanks, Curls,” Louis says and now it is too much.

But Harry holds it together, just nods and waits as Louis gathers the papers in his small hands and tucks them under his arm, ambling over to Harry in that enormous jumper, in those same black trousers, in those dirty Vans. Louis.

“Text me,” Harry says, almost desperately, as he opens the door for Louis.

“I will,” he answers, stepping across the threshold. He turns around before he leaves. “Till later, yeah?”

Harry nods, swallows, braces himself against the open door. He offers up one last smile, feeling inexplicably defeated.

But Louis doesn’t turn and leave yet. Not yet. Instead, he motions to the papers in his arm, releasing a tiny, sweet smile that pushes his cheeks up. “Thank you for this,” he says.

Once again, Harry nods. He doesn’t want Louis to leave.

He’s about to say so, about to voice his protests once more, reason be damned, but then Louis’ moving forward, free arm outstretched, and before Harry understands what’s happening, he’s being tugged downward, Louis’ slender arm hooking around his neck. Hugging. Louis’ hugging him.

“I miss you, too,” he breathes quietly in Harry’s hair.

His solids become liquids.

“I miss you so much,” Harry says again, just because it falls out of his lips, because it’s so fucking true. He wraps tight arms around Louis and squeezes, feeling an instant thrill at Louis’ sharp intake of breath and the way he needs to rock onto the balls of his feet when Harry pulls him up.

They let go.

“I’ll see you soon,” Louis promises, turning to leave.

Harry’s nodding. “Soon,” he promises, maybe pleads, and, oh. Great. He’s fucking waving. Waving haplessly as Louis smiles and ambles down the corridor, bag slung over his back, papers tucked under his arm—taking Harry’s words with him.

* Where Is My Mind?

It’s not as bad as Harry anticipated—the alone time.

Sure, for the first hour or so, he’d spent his time pacing around the brick-laden, paint-peeled flat with its dusty nooks and spiderweb crannies and squeaky floors, nearly paced himself through the thin wood. But the sun still shone and the traffic still hummed and his phone still hadn’t rung, and so Harry decided, adorning a fresh shirt and taking care to assure that the sleeves wouldn’t roll up to show any part of his tattoo, not one part, he probably needed to get out.

So he tucked his un-messaged phone into the back pocket of fresh, worn jeans, where it slid into place easily, fitting into the holes that had begun to sprout in the fabric. He zipped up his cracked leather boots and grabbed his keys and shut the door of his flat behind him.

He’d been abandoning his lectures for the past couple of days. Luckily, they’ve been mostly review and all of his assignments are posted online, so it’s not been a struggle, nor has it been detrimental to his academic career. But he wonders if he should go today, just to get his mind off things, just to fall back into a bit of routine.

He goes to the bakery instead.

“How’ve you been, love?” Nora asks, sweeping a stray lock of honey hair away from her face. Her apron is pink today—ruffled and frivolous. Harry loves it. “You don’t have a shift for another couple of days. What brings you here?”

Harry shrugs, watching as she ices lilac flowers atop small, chocolate cupcakes.

“I’ll make the leaves?” he offers, already picking up a green tube of frosting, already searching for the right tip.

Nora smiles and nods, never breaking the stride of her elegant flicks. “Of course.” She glances up at Harry with a smile. “Thank you.”

He nods, screwing on the tip, listening to the bustle of customers beyond the closed door of the kitchen.

“He’s here,” he says after awhile. He’s already frosted three leaves onto three flowers. They look a little shaky. He swallows, readjusts his grip. He can see Nora pause in the corner of his eye.

“He?” she questions. She’s staring at him softly. All sweet angles and gentleness.

Another nod, another leaf. “Louis. He came to visit.” Another leaf. “Sort of surprised me. Well. Completely surprised me.” He exhales, grips the tube tighter. “Didn’t warn me or anything. Just showed up.” He doesn’t mention Liam, doesn’t mention the complexities. They don’t matter after all, do they? Not really.

This time, she nods. “Wow,” is all she manages, finishing the last flower. There’s frosting smeared on her fingers.

“Yeah.” He’s got about four more cupcakes to go.

“Is everything alright?” comes her gentle, questioning voice after a moment’s silence.

And weary tears begin to film over Harry’s eyes—they film but never fall.

“Not really.” He sniffs, makes the last leaf. It looks nice. Smooth and natural and curled upwards a bit. He sets down the tube. “He doesn’t want me back.” The words are tinged with a bitter laugh as he sniffs again, doesn’t meet her eye. “Just wants to, like, tell me some things before he fucks off for good.”

“Oh, darling…”

“Yeah.”

There’s more silence. More silence, then Nora’s arms wrapping around him. He falls into it, falls into the comfort and the care and brings his hands up to clutch at her. A tear or two falls—no more than that.

“He’s probably just as terrified,” she soothes into his hair, and Harry doesn’t remember telling her he’s terrified. “You’re strong, pup. Whatever happens, you’re strong.”

He finds himself shaking his head without meaning to, finds himself saying, “He makes me strong,” without meaning to.

God.

“That may be so, on some levels,” Nora eventually says, thoughtful. “But it’s well to remember that all of those things he encourages within you, all of those bits of you he coaxes out—“ She steps back then, holds Harry by his shoulders as she searches his eyes. “Come from within you. He doesn’t just create them from thin air. Everything’s already inside you, love. You just have to learn how to tap into it yourself.” A single kiss is pecked to his forehead before she steps away fully, beginning to collect the cupcakes into boxes, lining them with paper and thin cardboard structures that keep them in place.

Harry wordlessly assembles more boxes, her words tumbling around inside of him.

*

After the bakery, he stops at Zayn’s rooms.

“You know he’s not Liam, right?” he says after silently entering the room, finding Zayn stabbing cobalt into a canvas and smearing golds along the edges.

Zayn stops, turns around, his hair wilted and sticking to his eyelashes, matted over his forehead. Bruised eyes blink at him.

“Louis, innit?”

All Harry can do is nod.

Zayn turns back to the canvas. “Thought it was a bit weird. Tense, like.”

Harry’s silent, sits on the edge of his bed. Clothes are piled high atop it, stray folders and art supplies and shoes mixed in the fray. It smells like dried paint in here. Everything paint, everything bleeding, every dark. Like Zayn.

“So did you know he was coming?”

“No clue,” Harry says quietly. He wishes the window wasn’t covered by blinds. He could use some sunlight.

The wet slather of paint carries on, the light twitch of Zayn’s movements. Harry merely watches.

“You know,” Zayn says eventually, wiping his hands off on a nearby rag to fetch a cigarette and a small, smashed pack of matches. He slides out a single stick, guides it between his immaculate lips. That movement alone would have been enough to inspire a Rochester poem. He strikes a match, lets the flame absorb the end of the cigarette… Harry merely watches. “I never really got the full story. Of what happened with you and him.” Zayn’s words are smoke, wisped and curling away, disappearing somewhere above.

The smell stings Harry’s nostrils, makes the room feel darker. He shifts on the bed. His phone still hasn’t rung.

“I never got the story about what happened with you, either,” Harry counters, feeling oddly protective of his and Louis’ history.

Zayn breathes smoke, observes Harry as he inhales, eyes narrowed in contemplation. When he exhales in great plumes, he turns around, begins digging around his brushes, the wet streaks of paint slowly drying on the canvas.

“His name’s Niall,” is how he starts, and it’s so blunt and forthright that Harry actually jerks at the words. He blinks, not daring to move or speak.

Zayn never talks about him. Never. Zayn never talks about his past in general, save for the vague, essential details.

“Met him at the pub I bartended at,” he continues. “Right after I got engaged to Perrie. She was the girl I was with all through school. Sweet thing. Beautiful. Fun, too.” Zayn’s voice is a bit odd,  a bit choked. He’s still facing away from Harry, back muscles working as he sorts through piles of mess, smoke billowing from him. “Niall bartended, too. Got along straight away with him. Introduced him to Perrie soon after. We all got on famously—were the best of mates, we were.”

He clears his throat and steps away, finally having selected a brush. He dips it in cream coloured paint before continuing.

“We lived a bit…loudly.” He smiles slightly as he says the word. “Always partying. Always spending too much money. Eventually, Niall moved in with us. Us three in the flat.”

A brief pause ensues, filled only by the crush of the cigarette butt into a stray plate, already clustered with thick ash. He continues to paint.

“Perrie worked in the day at some doctor’s office. Niall and I bartended at night—our shifts were opposite, see. I never saw her. It was always Niall and I, you know? And we always got obliterated, too. Smoked a lot of weed and drank all the time. Between the both of us, we nicked so much booze, we could’ve started our own pub.” His smile is faint, far away. Harry listens. “So one night… I dunno. We were both off work. Which, like, never happened. Perrie’d been out of town with the girls. Of fucking course, you know? Of course it happened like that. And so it was just Niall and I.

“We decided just to stay in, just us. Didn’t do anything special. Played video games. Smoke. Drank. Ate. Nothing out of the ordinary…” He trails off, swirls the tip of his brush in the paint of his palette over and over, seeming to get lost in the motion. He swallows before he continues, veins prominent in his neck. “It was just, like, sex. Just wanked each other off, you know? It really wasn’t that weird at the time. Just… We were out of our minds. Bored. Horny. I don’t know.”

Harry bites his lip, waits.

“It kept happening, though.” Zayn stops swirling the paint. His eyes are far away now, his voice softer, rougher. He’s completely still. “We fooled around more and more. It just… Always ended up happening. At home, in the toilet at the pub, in the alley after we got off work…”

“Fuck,” Harry breathes.

Zayn nods. “I know. It was…” He purses his lips, pinches his brows. The sentence is never finished. “We never really talked about it at first… It just seemed so simple, you know? And harmless? Perrie never knew. Never even suspected. Obviously.” He sets down the palette with a low thud, sliding his hands into the pockets of his sweats instead. “We weren’t even intoxicated anymore—when we fucked? We were dead sober. We’d talk afterwards. It wasn’t weird. Sometimes he’d kiss me before I left the flat. He’d fucking kiss me goodbye.” He laughs, harsh, his voice strained.

It tightens Harry’s throat.

“I’d come home and he’d be there, waiting. He never made it weird, either. He was just always so fucking happy. Happy to see me and just… He was fun. Laughed all the time. Had the best view on life. I was never sad around him, Harry. He was so fucking good to me and held my hand, proper like, and made me fucking dinner and just…” He’s laughing harder now, pinpricks of tears catching in the dim light as he throws his head back. “God, it was so fucking ridiculous, wasn’t it? We were like a proper married couple. I was dead in love with him and I was engaged to someone else—living with her, even. Living with them both and engaged to one and in love with the other.”

“How did you…do that?” Harry questions, strangled, grappling for words.

Zayn dropped his head.

“I don’t know. Pez and I… We never slept together. We were always too busy. Never saw each other. And I didn’t…want to anymore.”

“So. What happened?” Harry questions tentatively.

Zayn swallows. “I told her.” Harry inhales sharply. “I told her and, yeah, she kicked me out. Obviously. Then I told my mum. She told my father. He wanted nowt to do with me. So I left.”

“And Niall?”

Zayn’s jaw tenses. “So I left,” he repeats, and there’s just one pulse of a second. Just one.

And then his face crumples.

“Zayn—“ Harry starts, startled, rushing forward and reaching out, but Zayn holds up a hand, covers his face with the other. Harry stops.

“I fucked everything up because I was a fucking idiot. And a fucking coward,” he says, and the sound of Zayn crying breaks Harry’s heart, makes him feel so sad and so sick. “And I regret it every fucking day. So just—“ He stops, exhales a shuddering breath and tenses his shoulders, never looking at Harry. “Just don’t regret anything with Louis, okay? Don’t ever let yourself regret.”

Don’t let yourself regret.

*

He’s back at his flat now. Alone.

He’s back at the flat, phone lying on the desk patiently as he sits at his typewriter, watching the sun fall from the sky. It’s saturated in orange now, setting the skyline on fire.

Louis still hasn’t called. Hasn’t texted.

And Harry’s feeling fragile and poetic enough right now—with the blank page before him, mocking, bereft of any words or punctuation—that he has to concentrate to restrain himself from throwing his phone at the wall or destroying all of his possessions. Or sucking down one of those bottles of wine in the wine rack. Or all of them.

God. He needs to calm down. Why is he like this?

He knows the answer, though. Louis.

Luckily, before he can seriously weigh the pros and cons of actually plunging his phone into a body of water, it buzzes.

A text. From Louis.

A wave of anticipation washes over him as he gingerly picks up his phone, reads the alight screen.

I dont spose youd wanna go for a run ? it reads.

Harry blinks.

A run? Like jogging?

Seconds pass. Then:

Yea

Harry blinks again, stares at the words in his hands.

Uhm. Yeah, ok

He sends the message, bites his lip, keeps tapping at the screen.

Meet here?

How bout that bridge ? by your school

A brief rush of paranoia flits through his body (is Louis trying to avoid his flat?) before it’s replaced by anticipation and anxiety.

This is it, then. Their goodbye. They’re going to go jogging and say goodbye.

Which… It could be stranger, he supposes. They used to go running all the time together. Usually ended up snogging against a tree or in a shop window and they always showered together afterwards, giggling under hot sprays of water as they rubbed the salt off of their bodies and sucked on slick lips, hands flitting about…

Harry swallows down the memories, types out an Okay and sets off for his room, in search for proper shoes, proper clothes. He doesn’t remember the last time he exercised.

So he opens his closet and he searches, ignoring the terrified swells of his chest.

* Welcome Home

By the time he makes it to the bridge, the sky is bleeding blue and purple, the last whispers of daylight clinging to the horizon. Stars are speckling the darker bits, the moon has ascended, and light, tickling breezes carry Harry along.

It’s hotter than he anticipated, a dank, muggy texture clinging to the air around him, clinging to his limbs and lungs. He should’ve dressed lighter; he’s got a zip-up hoodie on—this baggy grey thing he swears he’s never seen before—and a loose-fitting pair of black sweats. He’d found them in the very back of his closet, conveniently sitting next to his obnoxiously neon yellow running shoes that he hasn’t used since he moved here.

The frail breeze prickles the hairs on his arms but leaves a sticky sheen on his skin, weighing down the thick cotton of his clothes, weighing him down entirely; it all feels even heavier when he sees Louis, standing small and sweet and alone beneath the streetlamp, staring off into the distance. He looks like one of Kerouac’s blazing-comet fallen angels. Or a Ginsberg poem. Maybe an Emily Dickenson one. With a body that Ovid would have devoured and eyes that would have imprisoned Oscar Wilde, far more than any jail cell could.

A nervous heat begins to pulse his blood.

Louis looks beautiful. So unfairly breathtaking.

Like Harry, he’s merely bedecked in washed out colours and loose fabrics, his body lost in the folds of his black jumper—and it’s the first time Harry’s seen him without his peach one, though this one seems even larger, the tips of his fingers barely poking out of the sleeves—and his sweatpants are bunched beneath his pulled-up striped socks. It’s a messy look, a wrinkled look, one that suggests little care to appearances. And yet…

He’s so alarmingly resplendent that Harry actually slows his pace, slows down the world just for a moment so he can observe the quiet, beautiful boy bathed in street lights and fading sun and the glow of the night that sparks his skin alive and casts beautiful, sharp shadows on his cheekbones.

He’ll write about this moment forever. He knows he will. So he stows the words away, the images, and the rhythm of his heart as he pads up to Louis who abruptly turns around.

He smiles, a little nervous. Blinks a few too many times and flicks his hair unnecessarily.

“Harry,” he greets calmly, taking a step forward.

“Lou,” Harry greets hopelessly, body slack. So beautiful.

The moon rises a bit higher and the silence stretches on.

“Well,” Louis says after awhile, lips quirked. The water beneath the bridge slaps at rocks. He motions forward. “Shall we?”

Harry nods, heartbeat in his ears. “Let’s.”

He immediately follows Louis—who doesn’t jog, just walks—and is just wondering how they’re going to strike up any conversation (how do they begin? How?) when Louis suddenly makes a beeline for the side of the bridge. The bank. It’s a bit grassy there and there’s a walkway at the foot of it, for dog-walking and cycling and, well. Jogging.

They walk down, walk down the gentle slope of grass, and Harry assumes they’re heading for the track—But then Louis stops short. And plomps down on the grass without another word.

Harry mirrors the action unquestioningly, heart shivering in trepidation. They’re going to talk. Louis’ going to talk. This is the epilogue to their story.

It hurts so much.

They sit in silence for awhile, watching the moon rise and rise and rise. The tension is palpable, gritty like pulp in your teeth.

“Good workout,” Harry jokes lightly, clenching his fists as he drags his knees up to his chest. The humour scrapes against the tension, makes him feel even worse, somehow.

But Louis chuckles—and it warms him, releases his clenched fists a bit.

“I don’t actually want to jog, you know,” he says after awhile. He doesn’t look over, just clasps his hands over his bent knees, hair falling in his eyes. Slivered eyes that project the moonlight, holding the last remnants of the sun.

Harry turns to him, raises his brows. “Then why did you suggest it?” His throat is dry.

He shrugs, drops his head and pulls at blades of grass. “I dunno. Just to like… Make it less…weird?”

Another silence falls at that.

“I don’t feel weird with you, Louis,” Harry says quietly, eventually, his own fingers beginning to play with the grass blades. His gaze falls; things are becoming darker, harder to see. Except Louis.

“That’s not what I meant.” His voice is quiet. “It’s just… It’s difficult, yeah? What I’m going to say is difficult. It’s weird.” He’s chewing on his lip.

Dread fills Harry. Anxiety and irrational fears and anxiety. And dread.

He’s afraid. He’s afraid he knows what’s going to be said. He doesn’t want Louis to say it.

“Did you—“ He cuts off, swallows, tries again. “Are you trying to tell me that you, like…cheated on me, or something?” It physically hurts to ask it, feels wrong and assuming and traitorous somehow, and his reluctance is only intensified by Louis immediately turning to him, body snapping with the force. It’s too scary to look up right now though, so Harry only sees the movement in his peripherals.

Regardless. He can see him perfectly.

And Louis looks positively aghast.

“Fuck’s sake,” he exclaims, eyes flashing with genuine offence. “No! Of course I didn’t fucking cheat on you.” He pauses, stares hard at Harry who exhales shakily, feels the blood flow again and the shame wash through him once more. “Why… Did—“ Stutter. “Did you?”

Harry feels his own glare form, the vehemence flush his cheeks at the mere thought.

“What do you think?” he spits, then looks away, too warm and sticky and heated. Too much emotion, too fast.

They fall silent again, Louis playing with the sleeves of his jumper, tugged over his hands, shielding him away from the world. He misses Louis’ skin. He wishes he wasn’t always so covered up, so blanketed away from the rest of the world—he wants to see his slender limbs again, wants to see the smooth expanses of skin and soft hair. Louis always being wrapped up… It makes him feel farther away. It’s odd. But it’s how it feels.

“I shouldn’t have stopped talking to you,” Louis then says, and Harry snaps out of his reverie. “After…” He glances at Harry, then glances ahead, into the river before them, rippling with moonbeams. “After we broke up, I shouldn’t have just shut you out like that.”

No. He shouldn’t have.

It feels good to hear, but it also feels…oddly painful. Like opening wounds that are trying so hard to scab, to heal. Louis’ just picking at scabs.

“I shouldn’t have taken you for granted,” Harry says simply in response. He’s staring ahead, can’t quite bring himself to look over again. “I shouldn’t have assumed that we were untouchable.” He swallows, shivers against the hot, humid breeze and clenches his hands tighter. “That we were unbreakable.”

Louis doesn’t say anything to that.

A few crickets chirp. The water ripples.

Then he finally speaks.

“You had a life to live,” is what he eventually responds with. Harry tilts his head infinitesimally closer, angles his ear towards Louis’ softly spoken words. “You’ve got all these new friends here and a job and a life and—“

“I don’t have that many friends,” Harry corrects, glancing at him before pulling his eyes away again. “Like. I mean, I do. But… I don’t see them much. Not since—“ He chews on his lip. “Anymore, I basically just talk to Zayn.”

“Oh. Really?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods, furrowing his brow.

“Oh.”

They’re both fidgeting, both sweaty. Louis is all but glistening. Glistening gold.

The air smells strongly of grass and nighttime and a little bit like algae and pollution. Romantic. Harry finds himself almost missing the smell of cigarettes.

They continue to sit, watching as the world fades, side by side. Neither speaks and it should feel peaceful, Harry thinks, the way the water that shivers beneath the moon’s gaze and the grass blades sway and the world becomes blue and blurry and melds with the sky. It should be beautiful and peaceful to watch the world turn with Louis, but all he can think about is the end and how Louis is here to finish their story, wrap up the messy endings nicely, and he’s a tornadic mess of indecision.

He doesn’t want to have this fucking conversation, he never wants to even touch it, doesn’t want to look at it.

And yet.

Yet he can’t sit in this silence, he can’t pretend everything’s calm because he just needs Louis to speak, fucking speak, because he can’t fucking take the silence anymore.

“I just don’t get it,” he breaks eventually, and his voice is overflowing, spilling over the brim with frustration and too many unnamed emotions. His throat quivers, trying to swallow past lumps and unformed thoughts, and he pushes past it all, spilling and spilling because he’s a fucking mess and Louis won’t speak.

But Louis does listen. And Harry will take it.

“I just don’t get why you came here—after almost a year, Lou, a year since you broke up with me—and can’t even tell me, can’t warn me or anything, and then tell me you need to talk and then… Just… Not talk?” A frustrated noise escapes the back of his throat and he grips his fist tighter but he doesn’t look over at Louis. He can’t, cannot, can’t. “You could’ve written a fucking letter if you wanted to explain things. You could’ve sent me an e-mail or a text or… Fuck, I don’t know. But you didn’t have to come here. You didn’t have to come here if you don’t even want to fix things—“

“I do want to fix things,” Louis corrects quietly, but he stops after that, doesn’t continue, and it’s not enough. Harry can see him fiddling nervously out of the corner of his eye—he’s shuffling about, jiggling his knee, playing with his messy fringe. Tugging on his sleeves and sliding snapping the tops of his socks. So much energy, all bottled up.

 “You don’t want to get back together,” Harry reminds him dully, conclusively. His tone is devoid of emotion.

Louis doesn’t contest it.

It inflames Harry, propels him to demand an “Am I wrong?” Just so he can get Louis to answer him, just to get him to react and deny and speak. He glances at him then, sees Louis looking…absolutely torn up. He wishes it didn’t cut him so much. He wishes, sickly, that seeing Louis in pain made him feel better.

But of course it fucking doesn’t.

“It’s true,” Louis says after a moment, and his voice holds a controlled sort of calm and the sweat has begun to drip down Harry’s back. Louis’ forehead is shiny, his lips are shiny. The hollow of his throat is shiny, where his thick, black jumper hangs low. He swallows. “That’s not why I came here.”

“You came here to talk.”

“Yes.”

“Yet you never talk.”

He glances at Louis again, then glances away. Louis is biting his lip, looking frustrated, wiping the hair off of his forehead.

Another silence falls upon them. Long enough that, slowly, Harry feels the frustration ebb away, feels a defeated calm settle instead.

Louis is still fidgeting, but less now.

It’s so hot.

Harry pushes up his sleeves. The warm air hits his moist arms and it’s instantly refreshing, instantly cooling even though it’s heat on heat. Is probably just making him hotter and stickier. But it’s air.

“I’m sorry I’m so shit at this,” Louis says. It’s apologetic and blunt. It cools the air a bit, his voice slapping against the rocks right alongside the licks of the river water. Swims with the little fishes. Ambles down the track. Louis.

Harry shakes his head at the words, lowers it and bumps his chin against his chest. “I’m sorry I’m so emotional.” He feels himself smile—at himself—despite everything. He thinks he feels Louis smile, too. Feels his lips quirk up as he pushes up his own sleeves, as Harry watches the movement from the edges of his vision.

It sort of feels like the end.

It’s not as horrible as Harry thought it would be. It’s sort of… Feelingless. Quiet. Morosely accepting, maybe. Or maybe it’s just numb.

Maybe Harry’s died.

In any case, he feels the world settle into broken pieces and finally looks over at Louis, looks at him proper because he wants to look at him when he talks, and he wants to listen.

Louis seems to be assembling his thoughts maybe. His expression is almost pleasant—he really was smiling, and it soothes Harry even further. He’s profiled in the night and the gloom and the dim light and he’s sighing as he looks up into the sky and lets the stars shine back in his eyes and Harry takes every bit of him in, his slight-smile and fizzing energy and hair that’s a bit damp with humidity and his skin that shines like wet pearls and his petite shoulders beneath the too-big jumper and his smooth hands and—

And his sleeves are pushed up. Just enough to reveal…something.

Something on his arm. Something that might be a bruise or a cut—

Unease begins to unfurl inside of him. What is that?

“What is that?” he voices immediately, interrupting the momentary calm. He feels his face scrunch a bit as he tries to keep his less rational fears at bay, keep the whispers of panic as just whispers and he points his finger accusingly at Louis’ arm.

A current of sickness sweeps over the world when he sees Louis pale, sees Louis immediately tug his sleeve down as if burned.

“Nothing,” he dismisses quickly, too quickly, far too quickly, and it makes Harry suddenly feel very, very sick.

“Lou,” he says again, and his voice sounds odd, feels odd. It’s dry and too serious for the uncertainty of the moment—is he overreacting?—but he reaches forward and Louis snaps his arm away, never meeting Harry’s eye. Something is wrong. Something is actually wrong.  “Lou,” he says again, and there’s enough pleading in his tone now for Louis to look visibly shaken, uncomfortable and cornered.

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck.

Surely. Surely this isn’t… Surely Louis isn’t…

But he hasn’t seen his arms this entire time, has he? He hasn’t seen his skin and he hasn’t seen Louis and he’s been so small and distant and sad and off and—

Harry swallows the bile that rises up in his throat.

“Show me your arm,” he pleads quietly after moments of nothing pass.

Louis looks terrified, blinking and nervous. He shakes his head, so quick. Eyes darting around the world.

“Please,” Harry adds, scooting slowly closer.

And closer.

And closer. Always closer.

Reaching out his hand, tentative, slow, hesitant, enquiring.

Louis isn’t moving away. Isn’t looking at Harry but he isn’t moving away.

So Harry comes closer still, his hand slowly, slowly reaching forward, fingers outstretched. Until, finally…

Finally, he settles his sweaty palm atop the damp cotton of Louis’ jumper, atop his arm. He looks up, terrified and sick and enquiring and trying to catch Louis’ eye—but Louis just won’t look. Instead looks lost and ashamed and so entirely small.

He wants to cry. He does, he can feel the muscles around his eyes tightening and stinging, and his throat is itchy and closed up. But he doesn’t cry. Rather, he slowly pulls up the sleeve of the jumper, cradling Louis’ arm between his own in gentle, so gentle, hands. He peels the clinging cotton up slowly, a sense of terror clinging to his entire body; he doesn’t know what he’s going to find, doesn’t know what he’s going to encounter and doesn’t know what obstacles he’s about to face but it’s all very real and potentially horrible, potentially awful. He doesn’t know what he’s going to find.

So he keeps pulling up the fabric, so slow, and breathing, and the crickets chirp and the moisture clings to his eyelashes.

He doesn’t really know what to expect.

But what he doesnt expect are thin, black lines.

What he doesn’t expect is soft shading, soft shapes.

He doesn’t expect to peel back the sleeve of Louis’ jumper and reveal….

That.

The entire world falls away. Harry might have died.

“What is that,” he demands again, but now his voice is entirely strangled, the words barely managing to escape.

All he can do is stare down at it.

He’s panicking, drowning; he’s been dumped in the middle of a fucking ocean with nothing to grasp, nothing to even reach for.

“What is that, Louis?” he says again, louder, rougher, more terrified and on the very edge of crumbling and scattering, like spilt marbles. He grips Louis’ flesh, hot beneath his hands, and stares down at the compass.

The compass inked into his skin.

Compass.

Louis finally talks. “You know what it is,” he says weakly, somewhere near Harry. Harry can’t tell. Harry’s in the ocean.

“Is it real?” Water’s in Harry’s throat, bubbling out his nose. He’s drowning.

“Of course it’s real,” Louis scoffs sadly and it makes Harry’s hand clench tighter around his arm, bitten nails creating crescent moons.

So much. There’s so much.

“When did you get it?”

He’s trying to be calm. He’s trying to ask the questions that are being screamed at him and he’s trying to handle this and he’s trying to be calm.

He hears Louis swallow. Feels his pained eyes. “About two months ago.”

Vision swims.

“Two months?” It’s an incredulous whisper. He can’t let go of his arm, the ink burning his fingertips. “Why? Why? Why did you—We were already—“ He can’t voice it. God. It’s all too much.

“Because…” Louis sounds frail and far away. He sounds like the sun that’s hiding beneath the earth. And he sounds like the night, blurry and blue and hot and expanding. Harry hears him and feels him and even though he’s barely graspable, he burns. His eyes are burning and his hands are burning and the compass is burning into his own flesh the longer he grips Louis’ arm. “I knew it was time to let go of you.” Burns. “And I chose not to.”

Silence.

And what the fuck does that mean? Louis chose not to let him go? Louis chose not to let him go. Louis chose that.

Louis.

Harry’s almost dizzy with the impact.

“What does that mean?” he asks, still strangled, still distant, still whispered and filled with everything. He looks up because he has to and he meets Louis’ eyes that slice through the dimness of the night and change the spectrum of blue. He finds them immediately.

Louis’ eyes are wide. He looks terrified, out of breath. And Harry feels him slipping away, feels him receding into the night despite his tight grip on his arm and despite that—that compass, that tattoo, that fucking… That fucking symbol…. God.

It’s just…

It’s just that Harry practically begged him to get it, didn’t he? He practically begged him to commit to it, to them, a year and six months ago, before Harry left for this fucking school, before all of it. He practically begged Louis for that reassurance despite the distance…

So I figured we should get tattoos that are, like, symbolic of that. Of never truly being apart, you know?

Harry begged him to do it. Begged him. And Louis had said ‘maybe’, just maybe. And then Harry left and then Louis left him and…

And here it is. Here it is.

He did it.

He fucking got it done.

And in the exact same fucking spot that Harry had drawn it, all that time ago. When they were still wrapped up in bed sheets and giggling into each other’s necks. When their futures seemed a stone’s throw away and were always twisted up in each other. When the world was theirs, was an open book of endless pages between them. When everything was fucking poetic and overdone and beautiful and unabashed and Harry fucking begged him to get this fucking tattoo, and Louis said maybe and that was the end and now Louis’ here, at Harry’s school, in Harry’s life, with that fucking tattoo and he’d been hiding this from him, hiding it.

Overwhelming.

Everything is so incredibly overwhelming.

And then Louis slips away.

“Wait, Lou—“ Harry calls, alarmed, as Louis retreats from his grasp like a wisp of smoke. Forcibly ripping himself away from his thoughts, he follows Louis because none of his thoughts matter as much as the boy that’s walking away from him now, that’s carrying the world with him and wielding the night as he hastens up the bank, moonlight on his back.

“Louis,” he calls again, climbing faster, his strides wider. He reaches him quickly enough, reaches out and grips his arm, that arm, and the ink still burns but Harry wants it, wants it to leave a mark.

Louis allows the touch, allows Harry to pull him back, his shoulders taut beneath the rumpled jumper. His head’s cast down, rooted in the grass, hair falling into his eyes and cutting the points of his cheekbones. His body is stiff, unyielding; but it allows Harry’s touch.

“Please don’t go,” Harry whispers, near frantic, breathless, pleading, alight. Everything is raw and potent and electric. Everything is Louis. His mind is racing, buzzing. He grips him, gently manoeuvres him around so that he’s facing him, but he still won’t look up. Harry doesn’t force him though, doesn’t want to force him. Instead, he finds himself brushing his fingers against the compass, ever so slightly. Can’t stay away. “Please don’t leave. Not after this.” He brushes it purposefully now, pads of his fingers leaving trails on Louis’ skin. He hears him inhale sharply.

“You weren’t supposed to see it,” Louis all but whispers, down to the grass, down to the earth. His body sways. Sways closer and closer to Harry as Harry steps closer.

Everything’s tingling—vision, mind, body, breath. The air even wavers unsteadily on its feet.

“I want to see it, though,” Harry replies automatically, strong and crackling like fire. Louis shudders another breath, shivering beneath Harry’s clutch, but sways closer. The larger tufts of his hair brush against Harry’s chin and quiver beneath heavy exhales as he breathes the words: “I’m so happy to see it. Louis, I’m so glad—“ He cuts off, his throat closing.

Drowning again. No air. No voice.

Without his voice, he only has touch. So.

So he squeezes his eyes shut, swallows, and steps just a tiny bit closer, until the crown of Louis’ head nudges Harry’s collarbones. He feels the hesitance in Louis at the contact, the fear prickled within him, pimpling his skin. Can feel him hold his breath as Harry brings his other hand up, brings it up to Louis’ neck. Gentle fingers resting against taut, smooth, moist skin and veins. Veins that ripple and flow.

Harry can feel the tremors in Louis’ body. They match up to his own.

But Louis never moves away so Harry’s fingers skim up to his jaw. Brushing, gliding, sweeping the stubble that’s dusted there. Louis never moves, so Harry’s fingers dance to his cheek, sweet and careful and stroking, until they fit into their places, fit into their home, cradling Louis’ cheek. His fingers breathe a sigh of relief.

Home.

His breath is shaky now. Almost comically jagged and sharp. It should be embarrassing, really. But…

But Louis feels it too. Harry knows it. His hands are limp at his sides and his head is down, but he’s barely being held together; his entire body is made of fiery atoms and comets, shooting and twisting around beneath the cage of his skin and colliding, combusting, lighting fires and creating chaos. He’s quivering with the force, hunched in on himself as he maintains composure and holds it all inside but every brush of Harry’s flesh against his own sends another, combusting shiver and some of the atoms spill into Harry’s atoms. And he never moves away.

That is. Until he does.

“I just need—“ he says brokenly, stepping out of Harry’s touch, out of Harry’s fingers that constrict at the memory of skin, at the loss. “I’ve got to—just—“

But he never explains himself.

He just turns around and flees. Like a heroine in any nineteenth century romance novel. Louis flees.

And Harry stands there and gets swallowed by the night.

* Big Long Now

It’s been about two hours.

Two hours of Harry standing in that same spot on the bank, waiting for Louis to come back. The street lightsglow orange. The moon is crowning the sky. And Louis isn’t coming back.

 So Harry walks home.

It’s hard, though. It’s hard to just…go home. After that. After Louis. He got a fucking compass tattooed, he got it tattooed on his body forever and he’s had it this whole fucking time.

It’s hard but he walks home anyways and he doesn’t remember a thing about the trip except that his brain was scattered in seven different places, all of them pointing home.

He climbs the steps of the stairwell one by one. He feels fried, mostly. He can’t really think. Just climbs the steps until he reaches his floor and pulls open the heavy door, the metal warm beneath his hand, almost sticky. It closes with a snick and he begins walking down his corridor, step by step, and the fluorescents flicker against the stained carpet and the chipped doorways and the peeled paint. He walks, step by step, staring sightlessly ahead until his feet find his door and—

And there’s Louis.

There he is.

Sitting on the floor, back against the door, legs folded up and cradling his twisting hands. A small, beautiful angel waiting on his doorstep, watchful and weary, with his sleeves pulled up freely, revealing all that warm skin and…

And that compass. That glares at Harry and greets Harry, marked so harshly against flesh… So beautiful.

His head snaps up when Harry approaches. His eyes soften as they lock gazes. Harry’s eyes are probably hollow and tear-stained (aren’t they always?) and he’s probably sweaty and frizzy and pale and awful. But Louis doesn’t look at him like he’s awful. Louis looks at him as if he’s comforting, as if Harry provides relief, and Louis’ eyes melt from ice to water as he watches Harry quietly.

Harry’s throat is still raw from drowning. “You came back,” he says, scratchy, quiet.

Hope. He feels hope. And relief.

“I never left,” Louis responds quietly, but it echoes in the corridor, flickers the fluorescents and peels the paint.

It’s enough.

Harry exhales, long and slow and shaky, the air returning to his lungs as he fumbles with his keys, hands jerking with a sudden influx of adrenaline and light.

He stayed. He’s here.

He fumbles too long though, the keys clanging harshly against each other, and he drops them three times—three times—as he tries to assemble his thoughts, assemble his keys, and he doesn’t even notice that Louis’ stood up, that he’s walked over, until his hands gently reach out to still Harry’s own. He freezes at the contact, sucks in a breath and just watches as Louis’ sweet, sweet fingers pry the keys gently out of Harry’s white grip before clutching them in his own, marginally calmer, hands. Though they shiver a bit, quake with lightning. But they work, they fit the key in the lock, and they open the door.

He lets Harry step inside first, eyes watchful and quiet, almost protective. It feels wonderful.

They assemble inside the darkened flat. The window’s still wide open, though there’s no breeze. Harry hears Louis set the keys on the counter, hears him shuffle around and flick on one solo light. Harry merely stands in the middle of the room. Just stands.

“I should have told you.”

His skin jumps a bit at Louis’ words. He turns around, turns to face Louis who stands across the room, a pained expression on his face, hands at his sides. He’s in a t-shirt now, discarded his jumper. It’s got some album cover on it—Harry isn’t sure which. Or what band, even. That stings him a bit, but only slightly, because that’s Louis, there’s Louis. That’s him, stood in Harry’s flat and he feels more familiar than he has the entire time he’s been here, with his exposed skin and empty hands and naked, honest stare. He’s real and this is Harry’s Louis, standing in his socked feet with messy hair and patchy scruff. The compass looks so beautiful on him. A small, curved piece of art lain on art.

“Told me what?” Harry asks, swallowing. He doesn’t sit, doesn’t move.

Neither does Louis. “Everything. I should have told you I was coming. I should have told you about the tattoo. I should have told you that I was unhappy after you’d left. I should’ve told you what was wrong when you did. I should have told you that I wanted you to stay.” The words are rushed, bright, flashing in the small, dusty space of the room.

It’s too dark to see if he’s crying. Harry wonders if Louis’ crying. He wonders if he could survive that.

“You wanted me to stay?” Harry questions, surprised. He furrows his brow, stares hard at Louis who makes no response. “But you were the one who wanted me to come here. I don’t get it. I don’t get—“

“I did want you to come here,” Louis says, louder, firmer. Yet somehow frailer. He looks a little lost, his eyes beginning to sheen. “It’s all I wanted for you. I wasn’t worried about us, Harry. I really wasn’t. I wanted you to go away and experience shit and… And all of that. But.” He stops, swallows before he continues. “That was before everything happened.”

A fresh bout of nerves prickles through Harry’s blood. Little icy droplets. “What happened?”

Louis falters.

More ice, more ice. “Lou? Are you alright? Is everything—“ he rushes, moving forward, but Louis raises both hands, shakes his head, and Harry stops mid-step.

“It’s okay now. Mostly okay, yeah.”

It doesn’t appease Harry.

“What happened?” he repeats.

A few moments pass, moments of Louis plucking words from the air as he begins to pace the outskirts of the room, hands skimming along the furniture. He averts his gaze from Harry and when he speaks, his tone is delicate. Tired.

“It was only about two weeks before you left,” he begins and Harry’s heart picks up pace. “About two weeks, give or take. That’s when my mum found out my dad was cheating on her.”

He sucks in a sharp breath. Too sharp. His lungs pinch.

“Which was…devastating, really. In itself.” He says it calmly. “Because the girls, you know? And everything. He fucked right off, too. Came back to the house at intervals to collect his stuff, but… But basically rid his hands of us the moment mum found out. Like he was relieved or summat.” The words are dry. Bitter. Taste heavy on Harry’s tongue. He can only imagine what they taste like to Louis. “And that was hard enough, Harry, it was. Because the girls didn’t understand, you know? And mum was trying her best to explain it without…you know. Really explaining it. And so was I. We were just picking up the pieces, I suppose. And it was shitty, yeah, but it’s just what you do. It’s just life.” He shrugs, stops at the window and looks out. “And I didn’t want to tell you because…” He bites his lip. Harry feels sick. “Because you were so excited. So happy. I didn’t want to ruin it. Take away from your moment, you know?” He slides his hands in his pockets now, keeps staring out the window. “But also… More than that… I also didn’t want to tell you because what I found out was…”

Harry’s heart picks up again as he strains to hear Louis’ delicate voice, cutting through the dark and the dust.

“It was too much, almost. And I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want to talk about it. Not yet. And I didn’t want to ruin everything for you. God, Harry… You were so happy. So happy.” He says the words as he turns to him, his face fond and nostalgic, sadness lingering on the edges. “I couldn’t ruin that for you.”

“What did you find out?” Harry prods, nervous, voice cracking. He waits, skin sticky. A barely-there breeze struggles its way in through the window.

“My dad was abusing my mum.”

Oh god.

“For years, apparently.”

Oh god oh god. Harry actually cringes, feels his entire being deflate.

Louis’ eyes flit back and forth from Harry nervously, assuming a forced calm as he begins to pace again, hands twitching in the pockets of his sweats.

“And, I guess… I dunno. I guess he used to be a bit rough with me when I was younger. I don’t know—I don’t remember, honestly.” Sick, sick burning in Harry. Burning. “My mum told me. A couple of days after he left. She just confided in me, I guess… I’m the oldest, obviously, so it was just like…we were in it together, almost? She needed someone by her side and that was me. And she just broke down one night and told me everything and—“ He swallows, licks his lips, makes his way around the room, orbits around Harry who just stands helplessly and listens. “And it was a lot. It was a lot, Harry. And I was so fucking mad. And so fucking frustrated… But how could I tell you? You were leaving in two weeks. Two bloody weeks and you were so excited and you were so fucking young and happy and lovely and… I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t even ready to. But…” He stops pacing again. He’s by the desk. With a sigh, he drops his gaze, looks down at the typewriter. “But I also wasn’t ready for you to leave after that.” He lifts his gaze to Harry. It stings. “It was like it just changed everything—I didn’t want you to leave anymore.”

And oh god. Harry feels so incredibly sick.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to leave. I would never have left—“ Harry says immediately, sick, tone muffled beneath layers of nausea and shock. Oh god.

“I know and that’s the thing too, isn’t it? It would’ve been selfish—“

“Don’t you dare say that, Louis,” Harry says lowly, brows pinching together as his heart stutters painfully. Things are unraveling in his stomach. He’s clenching his fists, voice wavering with unfurled emotion. “Don’t say that because that’s—that’s fucking outrageous. You know that’s not—“

“No, I don’t know,” Louis protests, cutting, eyes sharp. “I don’t know the fucking rule book. And regardless, like I said, I wasn’t even ready to tell you. So it just fucking sucked collectively, okay? There wasn’t really a solution. It was just a shit situation.”

A few moments pass. Moments of everything clicking into place for Harry. Of Harry re-evaluating everything. Of memories making sense, of conversations making sense, of….

God. Of everything clicking into place.

Harry is a piece of shit. He was such a piece of shit.

“You needed me to stay. And I left,” Harry whispers, mostly to himself, as the pieces link and connect. “And then when I left… I just… I was a selfish fucking bastard and I never even called you”—and oh god, he’s crying, he can’t stop it, the tears are already falling and it’s painful—“I never even texted you back because I was a selfish bastard and I just—“ He cuts off, brings his hands up to bury his face.

Shame. So much fucking shame.

“You needed me and I fucking abandoned you.” He’s full-on crying. He doesn’t care.

“No you didn’t,” Louis says gently, crackly. “You had no way of knowing. Because I never told you anything. And I should have. But I kept everything away from you, even after you left, and you had no clue, Harry. And I just… I got so mad at you. I needed you so much, I felt like I was drowning”—oh god—“and you were just…gone. And I thought that if you could forget me that easily… If you knew how much I was trying to contact you and yet you still didn’t even try to talk to me… The fact that you were spending your time with strangers and just brushing me aside, when I needed you—“ He stops, shakes his head, passes a hand over his eyes. “I was so mad, Harry. But I was so focused on being mad at you that I didn’t even realise you were just living. Fuck, you came here to experience life, didn’t you? That’s what we always said you should do, wasn’t it? And you didn’t know, Harry, you didn’t know anything and I was being such a prick.”

Harry’s shaking his head, shaking it vehemently, but he can’t talk, the tears coming too fast and Louis’ words too much.

He’s a deplorable human being. This is… God, he’s such a selfish little fuck.

Louis had seemed so distant when he left. He had. And Harry never even asked.

God.

“I broke up with you after I hadn’t heard from you in two weeks because I thought you’d forgotten me,” Louis continues, and it cuts even deeper. Shame. “And it hurt too much, Harry. Coupled with everything else, with everything shitty and intense that was happening, it hurt too much. You were making me miserable, Harry.”

He’s crying. Harry can hear that he’s crying now. He’s not going to survive Louis crying; it’s breaking him apart.

“You were all I was clinging to—and it was unfair and unhealthy and foolish, I know—but it was because of that that I cut you out. I called you and said goodbye without an explanation and I ignored your texts and your calls and then I blocked your number like a fucking coward and I’m so sorry.”

“You hate me,” Harry says into his hands before he can stop himself, words smushed against his wet, salty palms. He’s breaking apart. “This is all my fault. I didn’t even realise and this is all my fucking fault.”

“I don’t hate you,” Louis’ saying, words thick with tears and Louis never cries. It’s fucking terrifying and Harry’s afraid to look. “I’m just telling you why I did it. I was so stupid and I see it now, I see how horribly I dealt with all of it—it was both of our faults, Harry.”

“How could you not hate me after that? I made you miserable—“

“You didn’t, though. It’s like… It’s like if you stub your toe on a chair. It hurts, it hurts a fuck ton, but it’s not the chair’s fault—it’s your own bloody fault. But at the time, you might blame it on the chair because you’re just consumed with the pain it gave you in that moment. But then you smarten up and calm down and realise the chair didn’t do a thing, did it? The chair didn’t know. It didn’t purposely jam itself into you.”

“I’m not a chair, Louis,” Harry sobs, actually sobs, and the whole situation is so… God, it’s so entirely tense and oddly relieving—knowing the truth and finally talking—and real and horrible and chaotic that Harry actually laughs. He lowers his hands then, looks up at Louis with eyes that swim as he chuckles sadly, tears caught in his smile.

“I should’ve told you,” Louis says again, and he’s got a sad smile as well, eyes red and glossy. There aren’t any visible tears—he must’ve wiped them away—but he looks the very portrait of tragic beauty and Harry wants to meld his body to his forever, pass his blood and his warmth to him. He wants to give him everything. He wants to spend the rest of his life giving Louis everything because he feels like he’s taken too much from him and he wants to give it all back.

God, he fucked up. He fucked up so much.

It was him this whole time. He thought it was Louis and it was him.

“I should’ve listened,” Harry says back.

But Louis shakes his head. “I gave you nothing to listen to.” Harry’s about to protest again, but Louis interrupts. “It was both of our faults,” he says again.

Which. Is probably true. But still. Harry feels like he’s destroyed his own universe.

“This whole time I thought it was you who gave up…” Harry whispers, shaking his head to himself. “But it was me. I took us for granted and never stopped to see…”

“It was both of our faults,” Louis says a third time. A third and final time.

Harry nods, swallowing salt and snot and shame.

“Yeah,” he assents weakly after awhile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He sniffs, wipes at his hot cheeks and the tears that stain his skin. He feels raw. Fucking selfish and stupid and relieved and raw. And hopeful. And overwhelmed. “I’m so sorry, Lou,” he says, still wiping at his cheeks.

Louis stands across the room, stands and ducks his head at the apology.

“I’m so, so sorry for abandoning you. Even if I didn’t know, I shouldn’t have acted that way.” A fresh batch of tears threatens, but Harry keeps them at bay, focusing on steadying his voice, on swallowing the thickness of his throat, on watching Louis with earnest eyes. His head is still ducked and he’s half painted in shadow, feet small and toeing at the ground. “I was so caught up in being somewhere new. And just…doing things, you know? Like, I just wanted to do stuff. And it was never even that fun, it was never important or significant or worthwhile… I just thought—I just thought that the more experience I had…” He drifts off, unsure of the words. Louis glances up. Blue. Bluest blue and beautiful. It spurs Harry on, inspires him to try. “I missed you every single moment of every single day. But I tried to focus on the new experiences because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. And even though I wasn’t all that happy, I just assumed that was normal. That was good, almost. And I missed you so much. And I just…I was always so tired and distracted and… I had fun, yeah. But, like, it was all just distractions, you know? I missed you so much, I thought about you so much. And I didn’t want to be sad or hung up on you when we both agreed I needed to do this. I thought we’d agreed.”

Something flickers across Louis’ face at the words—it might be shame. And, no. Louis shouldn’t feel ashamed, Harry never wants Louis to feel ashamed.

“But that was still so incredibly stupid of me,” Harry continues, taking a single step forward and guiding the words with his hands. Emphatic. “I put you on the backburner thoughtlessly because I just assumed, like a total shit, that we were going to be together forever. I never questioned it even, Louis. I just assumed we were forever and nothing could contest that. So I, like, almost used that as an excuse. To just treat you like shit. To treat you in a way you didn’t deserve and I didn’t realise it then because… Because I thought you’d just given up. But—but now I see that you needed me and—“ He cuts off, his voice cracking fatally, and his vision is beginning to swim again, hot tears balancing on the rim of his eyeballs.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers, throat closed and aching. The first tear falls. Louis’ staring at him, forlorn and broken. “I’m sorry every day, Louis. I wish I could—“ What? He doesn’t know. There’s just too much to say.

But Louis seems to understand.

He nods, his own gaze watery, and he nods with a sort of finality, almost to himself.

“I forgive you,” he says, and Harry’s heart expands as he chokes on a relieved smile, on hope. It makes Louis smile, too. “And I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course I forgive you,” Harry simpers.

They smile at each other. And it feels…incredible, really. It feels amazing. The air feels cleaner, brighter, calmer, and the world is slowly beginning to take shape around Harry. It’s beginning to make sense again.

But then he catches sight of the compass, that beautiful fucking compass, that promise on Louis’ arm and Harry’s mind falters. Falters and stops and whirs and settles on…

It.

It’s on his mind. It is. It.

Louis’ sniffling, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. So soft and stunning, smile brushing against his fingers. And there’s still so much to mend, to discuss, to share…

But now it is all he can think about.

Another surge of adrenaline arrives.

“I’m sorry I made you think I’d forgotten you,” Harry says, a little distractedly, trying to focus, focus, as his heart picks up pace. It begins to burn. “I never forgot you. I wouldn’t know how to.” It’s beginning to itch. The fabric of his hoodie weighs him down, clings to it uncomfortably.

He needs to show it to him.

“And I’m sorry I was never honest with you,” Louis says quietly, staring hard. He looks fearful still. Almost unsure.

Harry’s becoming so distracted. It burns, it itches, and the compass on Louis’ arm is blaring, glaring, staring. The compass makes it burn more, itch more. God.

“Is everything okay with your family now?” he asks, voice wavering and plummeting. Heart pounding, pounding. “How’s Jo? The girls?”

“We’re good, yeah. They’re good. Strong little things.” Louis smiles small. He still looks unsure, though. He nibbles once on his thumbnail as Harry stands there and feels it burn more and more and more. And he knows that right now’s not the time but it won’t leave him be.

He can barely think straight.

“I feel like you’re mad,” Louis says after Harry fails to respond. He brings his thumbnail back up to his lips, nervous eyes flickering over Harry’s face.

Harry shakes his head faintly, still thinking about it. It. It it it. “Why would you think I’m mad?” he asks in a whisper. Burns.

“’Cause of the tattoo.”

Of course. Of course he said that.

It twists, coils at the words.

Louis continues after a pause, unsure. Fidgeting. “Ever since you’ve seen it, you’ve been acting all…wonky.” Nibbles on his thumbnail. “I know you wanted us to get them and we never did. And I always said no. I know it upset you whenever I said no.”

Harry’s breath is picking up. He wants to show it to him. He needs to show him. But is now the right time? Should he? Is now good?

“But… But it was almost a year since we ended it and I still—“ He cuts off and Harry’s breath is too large for his body. “I just… I felt like… When I’m not with you… I’m weaker? A bit? When I’m not with you, I’m weaker. And maybe it was shitty or pathetic of me to have gotten it done after we broke up. Especially after we sort of agreed to get them done, but never did. And I’m sorry if it offends you. Or if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I didn’t want you to see it. I didn’t want to upset you or make you feel obligated or weird or anything like that. I just…” He drops his hand, drops his head. He’s still across the room. “It felt like the right thing to do—to get it. Somehow.” The words are quick and bright, snapping in the air and snapping Harry’s synapses and snapping against his heart that beats too loud, too hard.

Offend him? Make him uncomfortable? It’s almost funny, Harry thinks, as he feels it burn and twist and scream against his skin.

He needs to do it now. He’s going to show him.

He doesn’t fucking care if they need to talk more or there are other important matters to sort through… He needs to show him. Right now.

“Oh, Louis,” Harry sighs sadly, fondly, voice breaking, as he shakes his head. He doesn’t even know—he’s apologising to Harry because he doesn’t even know. Harry watches him intently, watches as Louis glances up at him, while he slowly unzips his jacket. His heart is rabbiting. Ready to beat clean out of his chest and fall to the floor. Crawl its way to Louis before it dies. “Lou,” he whispers again, still shaking his head. He doesn’t even know.

Harry doesn’t speak after that. There really aren’t any words, are there? What’s he to say?

Nothing.

He can only show right now.

So he just finishes unzipping his jacket.

Confusion mars the unsure clouds of Louis’ face as he follows the movement with his eyes. Bright blue eyes. ‘Linger on, pale blue eyes,’ Lou Reed once sang. ‘Linger’ is probably the perfect word for Louis.

He remains silent as Harry slowly slides the jacket off of his shoulder—his right one. Harry watches him watching him, his heart beating so, so loud. Louis must hear it. If he does though, he makes no indication, instead just stands and stares and looks confused and small.

The jacket falls halfway off Harry’s body once his right arm is free, the sleeve brushing the worn floorboards. His other arm is still completely sheathed. It is still completely sheathed.

Now.

He’s going to show him now.

It’s practically on fire, tingling his skin with screams; almost as if it’s demanding to be seen, reaching out for Louis, reaching for its compass. But of course it is. Of course his skin screams for Louis’.

Bizarre. This is all so fucking bizarre.

His pulse is in his ears as Louis watches him slide the sleeve off his arm, the jacket falling to the floor.

His heart pelts against his ribs, crumbles them, as Louis’ eyes flicker over him, confusion still colouring the blue, eternal blue.

Everything’s beating and thrumming and thumping, his vision flashing in time to each pump of blood, as he slowly, carefully, lifts his hand to his left arm and folds back the fabric of his t-shirt, taking care to tuck the white cotton up and up and up…

And his heart completely stops when Louis’ inquisitive gaze freezes.

His body completely stops when Louis’ sees it.

Everything stops.

He drops his hand. He stares at Louis unflinchingly.

Louis isn’t moving. Louis might not be breathing.

Harry isn’t, either.

Louis hasn’t blinked. Shock is written across his features. Quiet, frozen shock. Disbelief as well.

Not a single fucking thing moves. Even the air particles still. The breeze stops. Their breath stops. Just Louis’ eyes glued to Harry’s arm and the world falling away.

And then Harry walks to him.

Slowly, step by step. He walks to him slowly and Louis’ eyes still stick to his arm and he never even flinches, not even as Harry stops in front of him, almost toe to toe. Louis’ eyes still stare at the ship, wide and unblinking; Harry’s eyes stare at Louis.

Louis’ just staring, blue eyes staring, and another wet sheen coats them.

Neither of them speak. Silence drags, but it’s a powerful silence, a beautiful silence. Harry doesn’t mind it; he thinks he can hear bits of the world clicking into place. He hears the final click when Louis’ eyes finally drag up to meet his own. There’s a question in there, but Louis never voices it aloud.

“The morning of the day you broke up with me,” Harry answers, feeling an odd sense of calm coat his limbs, calm his heart, and clear his vision. “That’s when I got it.” The words are gentle.

Louis opens his mouth as if to speak, but nothing falls forth; he closes it again, his eyes glassy and dazed and wide, just breathing, before returning his gaze to the tattoo, staring at it as though it were fragile. As though it were sitting precariously on a tall shelf and Louis doesn’t dare move for fear of shattering it to the ground, sending the jagged, irreparable shards flying. Just stares.

But then.

Then, tentatively, he raises a hand, brushes feather-light fingers to its surface.

The skin sizzles briefly beneath the touch before quieting. It stops burning. Stops screaming, stops reaching; it’s found its target. Harry breathes again, Harry’s heart beats again.

“Harry,” Louis whispers, voice crumbling away, and when he looks up again, his face crumbles, too.

And so does Harry.

They embrace simultaneously—Harry isn’t sure who moves first—and they cling to each other, breathing and breathing as eyes burn and skin heals. As Louis slides his arm around Harry’s shoulder, wraps it around his back. Their tattoos slide against each other, just briefly, and it feels monumental, feels poetic and important again, and Harry buries himself in Louis completely and entirely.

For endless seconds, minutes, moments, they remain that way, just clutching at each other and swaying unsteadily on their feet, shifting their balance onto each other, supporting each other, keeping each other upright because neither is strong enough to stand alone right now, neither can do it alone. And so Harry keeps unyielding arms around Louis’ lithe frame and shudders his breaths and blinks against the soft, glossy, messy tufts of Louis’ hair and presses him closer, closer.

Louis’ breathing harshly through his nose, eyes screwed tightly shut, and he grips Harry with clenched hands and bared teeth and it feels like the most honest fucking thing in the world.

Eventually though, as the warm air whispers around them and the wood creaks, they separate. But slowly—with care, with lingering hands. Neither lets the other go, not entirely. Harry doesn’t think he could ever let Louis go ever again. Never again.

“Stay,” he says with the last of his energy. Exhausted. He feels exhausted. His arms grip Louis’ arms. “Please stay. Don’t go back to that room, just stay.”

And Louis’ nodding, nodding before Harry’s even finished speaking, and he almost wants to laugh a sob because of relief, because of hope, because of Louis. Because of how much more wonderful everything is because of a person, this person, his person. How amazing hands and bones and lips and blood and eyes have made his world, have made his universe.

“I’ll pay for the room tomorrow,” Louis says softly, gentle fingers upon Harry. “Then I’ll come back.” His eyelashes are moist, clumping together in delicate bouquets. Harry wants to kiss them.

A breeze carries through the window, ruffles their hair, dances along their moist skin and wet lips and mingles their sighs.

Louis yawns, wide and against his will, as he brings an apologetic hand up to his mouth, eyes fuzzy and red and bright, bruised with exhaustion. He looks drained; he looks how Harry feels.

“Tired?” Harry mumbles in question, swiping his thumb along the thin, cool skin beneath Louis’ eyes.  It’s tinted lilac. Harry’s favourite flower.

Louis nods sleepily, ruefully, smile shimmering at Harry’s caress. “Yeah,” he whispers. Hands warm on Harry’s skin.

“Bed?” Harry asks. And he knows he might be asking too much. He knows that their intimacy needs time to rebuild, reconnect, and so he rushes forth a, “Just to sleep, yeah?” before Louis slips away again, before Louis’ eyes cloud.

But Louis merely chuckles, tired and sweet and warm, his hair sticking up at all angles, his eyes slit and glittery. “Yes please. You sweet, silly boy,” he adds when Harry lights up remarkably, his body and soul lifting up into the air with a weightlessness he hasn’t felt in months, a year, almost two years. It feels so good. Louis’ smiling.

“Let’s go, then,” Harry says, trying to bite back his grins, but Louis catches them, always catches them, and their bodies are tired and their guards are down and the moon is high, and Louis laces their hands together, allows Harry to walk them to his room. Their room. He wants it to be their room.

Harry putters around, nervous, thrilled, exhausted, and Louis immediately goes to the bed.

“Do you need any clothes? To sleep in? Can I get you anything? Are you thirsty? Do you need—Are you cold? Do you need a jumper?”

And Louis laughs, light and tinkling, tumbling down a hill. “I’m fine, mum. Now ged ‘ere.”

They’re a bit punch-drunk, all their words spilled and emotions bared and nothing left to hide, the exhaustion fraying the ends of their minds and sharpening their laughter. Louis falls into the bed without any hesitation, crawls to the left side where he always sleeps.

Harry just watches him for a moment. He stands at the foot of the bed and watches Louis’ hair fall into his face as he punches the pillows and fluffs them, his sweatpants bunching around his thin ankles, his socked feet resting quietly amongst the swirled sheets. He watches as Louis lies back, sinking into the folds of blankets and pillows and sighs sleepily before uttering another wide, stuttered yawn, like a lion cub, and rubs at his eyes. He’s slivered in moonlight and wrapped in warmth and he waits for Harry, blinking his eyes slowly as he waits.

“Well?” he teases, a half-smile playing at his lips. “You plan on sleeping anytime soon? Or do you sleep standing up now?”

“I don’t sleep, remember?” Harry teases, but smiles, and, god, it just feels so good. Everything feels good. He climbs into bed after Louis, lies his body down beside him as Louis watches, hands folded on his stomach. The minute Harry settles, he looks over, opens his arms. “Well?” he mocks, and Louis’ eyes soften. “You plan on sleeping anytime soon? Or do you sleep alone now?”

It’s silly and inconsequential and they’re just borrowed words, but Louis’ smile grows into sunbeams before he shuffles closer, fitting seamlessly into Harry’s side. Harry folds his body into Louis’, folds them together, and it feels…

It feels indescribable, really.

Maybe Harry’s not such a great writer after all. Or maybe there are just no words for Louis. Maybe Harry’s mission is to try and find the words, make new words.

They lie there, Louis tucked into Harry’s limbs while Harry breathes him in, feeling his body relax in a way he’d almost forgotten it could.

“Lull me to sleep with your lovely words, Curls,” Louis mutters sleepily into Harry’s shoulder.

Harry squeezes his hand, pulls him that much closer as he feels Louis’ hair sticking to his lips.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” is all he says, all he offers up.

But it must be enough. Because Louis sighs and drifts to sleep, taking Harry with him.

* Marble Halls

When Harry wakes up to Louis’ body pressed closely to his own, skin bright in morning light and speckled in swirling dusty beams, Harry watches the universe reassemble as Louis breathes.

He watches the rise and fall of his chest with every breath that bleeds into Harry’s lungs and heals the broken bits. He stares at the tattoo and charts how it looks in the morning, in Harry’s room, when the sun rises.

It sort of feels like a dream. The day before, the night before… It feels ethereal and unreal and entirely too wonderful. But Harry will take it. He won’t question it or over-think it—he’ll take it.

And so he watches Louis sleep, the moth-eaten curtains ruffling in the breeze.

Eventually the sun cuts across Louis’ face, cuts across his eyelashes and engulfs him in gold and Harry’s breath is all but gone, carried away in morning breeze; but then Louis slowly blinks awake, eyelids fluttering and lips twisting and body slowly uncurling. Harry lies there, beside him, head resting atop the pillow, and watches as Louis yawns, disoriented eyes searching the room before they land on Harry.

Warmth pools in them. Warmth pools in Harry.

Thank god.

“’Morning,” Louis smiles as he stretches, sleepy and quiet and lost in the sheets.

“Morning,” Harry whispers, tilting his body closer.

They lie like that, staring at each other, breathing quietly as their chests rise and fall and the sun ripples with the curtains.

“I’m glad you stayed,” Harry says again, probably for the thousandth time.

Louis doesn’t mind. “Me, too,” he says, lifts the words with his quirked lips.

They’re both puffy and tired, dazed and wrapped in blankets, feet locked together, ankles knocking. And it all feels like home, it all feels natural and familiar, so Harry feels it’s only natural when he shifts closer to Louis, skin scraping against cotton, and gazes down at him, framing Louis’ head with his arm. His hand lies on the pillow, palm up, fingers curled, bits of Louis’ hair brushing them. And Louis gazes up, soft and blue and wonderful, little sparks of life resting in quiet curiosity, beneath the curtains of endless lashes and soft brows.

“I missed you,” Harry says again, probably for the thousandth time. He says it with a smile.

Louis doesn’t mind. “Me, too,” he says, smiles even wider. “I missed me, too.” When Harry quirks an eyebrow, his lips twitch further. The collar of his t-shirt is tugged down, his collarbones exposed and smooth. “Not sure about you, though. Barely noticed you were gone.”

He doesn’t know why, but that—that’s what does it for Harry.

That’s the thing that eases the last bit of tension out of his body, leaving only room for a surprised laugh and his curls tumbling into his face as Louis watches him, grins still wider, and begins to chuckle as well.

It’s easy to fall into Louis then, press his forehead against his.

“You utter brat,” he smiles, closing his eyes.

He feels lips in response.

They kiss. Simple as that, they kiss. They kiss again, maybe for the thousandth time—the billionth, probably—and the universe is back, the universe is right here, and  they kiss, breathless and exhilarated, with sunlight filling the room, their bodies pressed together, bare legs pressed together beneath the wrinkled sheets.

Louis’ lips are as Harry remembers—first soft and barely-there, soft flesh resting against soft flesh. A brief, remembering caress. Familiar. Home. And then suddenly nothing hesitant, nothing tentative, nothing short of bolting electricity, sizzled into Harry’s flesh. Louis kisses Harry like he’s always kissed him, since the beginning, and it’s…

It’s everything.

And Harry could probably cry right now, of course he could, as he smiles into the wet, slow drags of Louis’ lips and the nips of teeth and the soft slides, as Louis presses and alights his skin with dancing hands and soft sounds and fingers that twist in Harry’s hair. But he doesn’t want to cry, he doesn’t, not anymore, so instead he presses “I missed you”s into every part of Louis’ body because he can, because he’ll never hold anything back from him. He wraps him up and chuckles against white linen and sighs with the creaks of the old, old flat.

Louis smiles up at him, tired and puffy and relieved and whole, and swipes gentle hands across his face. Gentle fingers over Harry’s eyelids which make them flutter, his curls disheveled and matted. Gentle fingers over his nose which makes Harry snort and giggle. Gentle fingers over Harry’s lips which make him nip at them, soft and light and teasing, eyes caught on Louis’ eyes. And they clasp at each other and apologise and make promises and Louis imbeds the words into Harry’s entire being.

“I’ll never keep anything from you ever again,” he intones into his collarbones. “I’ll never hold back,” he promises into the crook of his elbows. “I’ll always be here,” he declares into his navel. “I’m yours forever,” he vows into the small of his back.

Forever.

Forever as Harry preens, as Harry arches, as Harry breathes and clings fists into bedsheets and sighs Louis’ name and never, ever lets go. Forever, forever, forever.

*

When Harry makes them breakfast, Louis’ lips find his over the screeching kettle. Louis locks their fingers after the toast is buttered and as the eggs pop and cackle in the iron of the pan.

Louis, Louis, Louis.

“I’ve got to go and pay for my room,” he says, after breakfast is made and he’s sitting, perched on the windowsill, toast in hand. He’s bathed in morning, one leg pulled up against his chest, arm resting atop it, the other leg dangling, bare foot brushing the scratched wooden floor. Everything about him is alight. So bright.

Harry stares up at him, steaming mug of tea in hand. He rests his back against the wall beneath the window, reaches out a hand to enclose around Louis’ calf. Louis starts at the act before blinking into a smile when he observes Harry’s soft, clenched hand. He nudges his side with his toe, finishes the last bit of toast. A few crumbs stick to his stubble, a few crumbs fall to the ground.

“You wasted your money,” Harry says with a contented smile, brushing fingers along Louis’ skin. Just because he can. Just because touching Louis is the most beautiful privilege he’s ever obtained.

But Louis merely shrugs, wiping his buttery hands off on his boxers. “Was worth it, though. I think you needed that bit of time to yourself.”

And, god.

It’s just the little things like that—the little sweet thoughts Louis sends forth to Harry, still, the subtle, imperceptible acts of kindness he gives to him… It’s those little things that Harry missed so much. So, so much. That Harry needs and needs only from Louis.

“Thank you,” he says quietly, looking up and squinting against the light, hand still wrapped around Louis’ calf.

Louis smiles warmly, warm like the sun and blue like the ocean, and safe and close and sweet. His eyes drift down, settle on the Harry’s arm. The ship.

“It’s so fucking bizarre,” he mutters softly, tucking the words into a soft chuckle. He reaches down, strokes fingers against the image softly. Harry falls to pieces and nearly purrs, feels his smile press his cheeks and stretch his lips impossibly. “We got matching fucking tattoos,” he chuckles again, shaking his head as he retrieves his hand and straightens, and his eyes look dazed. Dazed and far away. But then they refocus, come back to Harry, and he smiles warm. “Without even meaning to, we got matching tattoos.” Smile smile smile. Warmth sun light. Home. “Funny, that.”

“I knew we’d get them,” Harry says, still smiling, and it’s a lie, a blatant lie, but he doesn’t care because maybe it isn’t a lie? Maybe he did know. “We’re forever, Lou. I keep telling you that.” Teasing, soft words that float up to Louis, who catches them before they drift out of the window. He strokes his hand along Louis’ calf, blunt tips of his fingers pulling up the fine hairs speckled there. “You never listen, but I keep saying it.”

“I listen,” Louis insists, smiling down at him. His hand falls atop Harry’s head, settles in his hair. “I’m here, aren’t I?

Here. 

Harry beams.

Fuck that novel he was writing--the one about the end of the world? Yeah, fuck that. Harry’s only ever going to write about this. About right now. About the fragility of openness and the feel of Louis’ fingers carving their places into his skull, about the way the sun emblazons his skin cells and wavers in his presence. He’s going to write about the soft look in Louis’ eyes—the soft look that’s reserved for Harry, only Harry, and is still there after all this time, after everything. He’s going to write about the dust and the creaky floorboards and warm skin against warm skin and he’s going to write from his soul because Louis is his soul and he’s not afraid and he’s not ashamed and he knows it isn’t wrong.

Louis is part of him, Louis is connected with him. Interwoven and beautiful.

“Hey, Lou?” he asks, quiet and calm as they stare.

Louis hums, looks down with patient eyebrows, fingers scattering across Harry’s scalp. Little bits of friction.

“So. Are we… Can we…” He doesn’t know how to ask it. He doesn’t know if he’s rushing it, and he’s a tiny bit afraid… But Louis makes him braver. “Did you still not want to get back together?” he asks quietly, smile fading into seriousness, and if there’s pleading in his voice, he doesn’t shy away from it.

It’s not weak. It’s honest, it’s human.

Louis’ hand falls from Harry’s hair, drifts to cup his chin, tilt it up to him. Harry waits, listens quietly, eyes wide and feeling careful and trepid, but there’s hope. More hope than anything else. 

“We never weren’t together, Harry,” he responds quietly, earnestly, catching Harry’s eyes and holding them fiercely, fiery, beautifully. “Not really. You never left me. There wasn’t a day that you weren’t with me.”

The words sting Harry’s entire body, his cavities filling with surges of colour and energy and something alive and tingling.

Never left. Not really.

“You never left me, either,” Harry says, bends his knees and turns to face Louis completely, cupping his hand over his hand. My hands, your hands. “I’m writing a bloody book about you, after all,” he chuckles lightly. “You definitely never left.”

Soft breathless chuckles.

 “I still love you so much,” Harry says, after a moment, after the silence settles.

No apologies. It’s the truth, isn’t it?

“I still love you, too,” Louis responds, smiles blindingly as he finds Harry’s hand, grips it from atop his perch, atop the windowsill. Harry smiles forever, squeezing Louis’ hand as he stares up at him, legs crossed and housing Louis’ foot.  “Never stopped.”

He’ll write about this moment forever.

*

Eventually, they get dressed, readying themselves for the day. Zayn texts Harry, asks if everything’s okay.

“Maybe we could get dinner later? With Zayn? He’d like to meet you, I think. Like, properly,” Harry adds, smiling sheepishly.

Louis laughs, pulls on his Vans with quick hands. “I’d like to meet him properly, as well. I don’t work very well as a Liam. Me hair’s too long.” He smiles, sends a flicker of a wink Harry’s way, easy as breathing. Harry loves that. He loves Louis’ energy, his effortless energy that sends rolls and waves of…of life, really.

“And I could take you to the bakery. You can meet Nora!” Harry grins, pulling Louis up off the floor. Their hands remain linked, Louis smiling up, Harry smiling down. “You’ll love her.”

“Nora, eh?” Louis says, playing with Harry’s fingers. “Alright, then. After we pay off the room. Then we’ll go to the bakery, eat all the things’”—Harry giggles, actually giggles, and he doesn’t feel embarrassed, just doesn’t fucking care—“and then we’ll find your fun friend Zayn.”

“I don’t know if I’d describe him as ‘fun’, but…”

“How is he not fun?”

“He doesn’t talk much.”

“He talks to me.”

“Yeah, about that…”

But Harry’s smiling and Louis’ dragging him forward, rolling his eyes, and the flat is warm on their skin, flesh exposed and vibrant.

Hand in hand. Harry and Louis. Ship and compass.

And when they leave the old, old flat to pay for Louis’ room, their feet stirring up the dust bunnies and creaking the floorboards that Harry likes to think smile beneath them, they leave with their palms pressed against each other, their knuckles locked into place.

Harry turns back to Louis, casts a look over his shoulder.

“Ready?” he asks, and he asks it with lips that smile, never stop smiling, he knows he’s smiling.

It’s an important question.

“Ready,” Louis answers seamlessly, smiling back.

And it’s that simple.

They shut the door and they leave, hand in hand, and their shoulders bump and their steps are the same and it’s that simple. Harry’s going to university, Louis’ still at home, but they’ll be okay. It’s that simple. They don’t live together physically, but they sort of do, and it’s that simple. Harry’s never going to give up, and neither is Louis, and it’s that simple.

Harry’s in this forever.

And so is Louis.

Forever.

And Harry knows they’re going to be okay.