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tarnished but so grand

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It’s a rainy day in New York when Harry’s phone vibrates in his hands. 

The Rover he’s in the back seat of jostles him lightly as it runs over bumps in the road, and a woman in deep red running across the road to the nearest sidewalk, umbrella in hand and covering her head, out his window momentarily distracts him. 

Are you here yet?

Looking up through the windshield, Harry watches the rain become heavier as Jacques turns on a blinker and makes a turn at a red light. He pushes aside the edge of his long, black coat, and stuffs his phone in his jean pocket, then reaches for his matching black umbrella beside him, tightening his fingers around it. A familiar, brown pub comes into view — bright, red letters of its name sit above the front entrance, and with the exception of a woman opening the door and entering, it’s relatively quiet.

“Drop me off at the corner,” he tells Jacques.

Just as Jacques pulls up to the corner sidewalk, Harry pulls on the handle and shoves his door open, the heavy downpour and sound of cars’ tyres rushing through puddles and wet patches on the road. He sticks his umbrella out and hurriedly undoes it, jumping out and slamming the car door to make a dash for the pub several metres down the walkway.

A harsh breath falls from his mouth when he makes it inside. After shaking his umbrella, he closes it and runs a hand through his short hair.

He spots Louis at the bar.

He’s the only person sitting on a stool, his figure unmistakable in the dim lighting; and the woman Harry had seen is sitting with her friends at a far away table. They’re some of the only few people here on an early Wednesday evening. 

Wrapping his umbrella slowly, he makes his way to Louis.

“Hey,” he says when he’s close.

Louis’s gaze cuts to the side, eyes staring directly into his, unblinking. “What took you so long?” he asks, belatedly.

“I was in the studio,” Harry explains.

“You still sing?”

“You still drink at two in the afternoon?” Harry counters, sitting next to him.

Louis looks down at his fruity, pink cocktail, gripping a thin, white straw between his fingers. “It’s six o’clock,” he corrects, then returns his attention to Harry. “Are you still snorting coke at ten in the morning?”

Harry almost rises to the bait, but he sighs. “Did you just call me up to have petty arguments?” he asks.

Louis seems to think on it.

“No,” he says. A pause. “Did Jacques drive you?”

“Yes.”

“How is he?”

“Not good,” Harry answers honestly. “His only kid won’t talk to him anymore.”

Louis hums. After taking a sip of his drink, he monotonously replies, “Poor thing.”

Harry softly scoffs as he flags down the bartender. “Don’t have so much sympathy.” Louis doesn’t react to him, only stares down at his cocktail as he takes another sip. When the pretty bartender comes walking over, he orders a beer, and she opens it, sets it in front of him with a smile, and his eyes linger as she walks off to serve another customer. Turning his head back ‘round to Louis, he finds a crease between his thin brows. “Who are you tonight?” he asks a moment later, dropping a hand to Louis’s thigh.

“Wilson,” Louis replies.

Harry blinks. “Wilson? Louis Wilson?” he says. “Like Owen?”

“Like Brian,” Louis corrects.

Humming, Harry nods. “S’a bit weird, innit?” Louis looks at him in question. “I mean, it sounds weird because I could never picture you as a—I mean, you’re an amazing artist, but—” He sighs. “I don’t know what I’m saying. It’s fitting.”

A silent beat passes between them.

“Thank you for your approval,” Louis says, tone dipped in sarcasm.

Harry’s eyebrows knit together. 

“What’s your deal?”

“What deal?”

“You’re in a bloody mood,” Harry points out, removing his hand from Louis’s thigh to grip his beer to throw his head back with it. Louis isn’t looking at him anymore. He’s picking at his nails in a nervous manner, his bottom lip tucked under his top front teeth; and it’s not that he’s in a mood that’s abnormal, it’s that he’s acting out on it. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Louis instantly assures.

“Bullshit,” Harry says.

“Can you just—” Fleetingly shutting his eyes and lashes fluttering, Louis turns his whole body towards Harry with a serious expression. “Can we just drink and forget about the weather outside?”

Harry’s quiet.

“It’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?” he comments, eyes trained on Louis.

Louis looks at him another two seconds — not his exasperated expression, but his you should know better look. His we’ve done this a thousand times. We’re gonna keep doing this. We’re gonna keep doing this until I feel steady on my feet again—until I can see the world again in ways I haven’t in years. Harry’s gonna keep doing this for Louis until he doesn’t need him anymore, and that’s just the way it is.

Louis flags the bartender down.

 

 

 

Louis sits on top of the bar, legs swinging and face twisted brightly into a smile tied in laughter. Harry watches him with his own smile and a drink as he giggles at everything — at things the woman in red is saying to him. 

She joined over a drink Louis had given her in kind, and she’s stayed since.

But Harry’s vision centres around Louis. He watches him get progressively drunker, progressively louder, progressively touchy.

It’s a fight he has to constantly correct because if he lets Louis touch him without putting up any unspoken boundaries — if he lets Louis curl up against his side under his long coat and lay his head on his chest, if he lets Louis just cuddle him and express affection and cross those hungry boundaries, it’s a line he won’t be able to see anymore. And it’s a line he can’t allow that to happen to. But it’s rarely an issue. Louis’s touchy, but he picked up on that line ages ago.

But tonight is different.

It’s past one, and Harry warned Louis when the time was approaching.

“C’mon,” he urges gently while Louis’s still sitting on the top of the bar, but he has his legs crossed and he’s sipping delicately on a yellow cocktail he’s been savouring for the past hour, a matching miniature yellow umbrella tucked behind his ear. Harry hasn’t moved from his stool; he has a hand wrapped around the lower part of Louis’s soft and smooth calf. He’s shaved since the last time he’d seen him. “We’ve been here seven hours. Let’s go.”

“Then go,” Louis says patiently, looking ahead with his glass almost pressed to his bottom lip.

Harry walks his fingers up his calf.

“Come with me.”

It’s quiet between them in comparison to the rest of the pub that’s grown in numbers since Harry had first arrived.

“Are you gonna kiss me, at least?” Louis asks, voice so soft.

Harry takes his hand away. “Maybe next time,” he says.

Louis doesn’t take too kindly; his mouth falls into a gentle, sour scowl, and his drink lowers to his lap. Following no immediate response from him, Harry represses a sigh, turns his head away and retrieves his phone from his inner coat pocket, and pulls his messages up.

“You always say that,” Louis says. There’s a slight edge to his voice.

“I’ll probably say it next time, too, then,” Harry says flatly. 

He always says no.

“Why don’t you just be honest and say you don’t want to kiss me,” Louis points out, “instead of promising me another time? I’d never ask again.”

Harry doesn’t dignify it with an answer.

Pressing a call button, he lifts his phone to his ear and turns around to stand from his seat. He gets in front of Louis and, using his cheek and shoulder to keep the phone to his ear, he forcefully uncrosses Louis’s legs with both his hands. Louis gives him a displeased look, eyebrows narrowed and a harmless frown on his lips, and protests when Harry swiftly steals his cocktail from his hand. “Hey,” he says when Jacques finally picks up, “yeah, yes, please. Thank you.” After tucking his phone back in his coat, he bends to wrap an arm around Louis’s lower waist, one under his legs, and picks him up.

Louis yelps, a hand coming up to grip the collar of Harry’s shirt tightly. 

He uses the other to hold onto Harry’s shoulder, like he’s petrified he’s going to fall to the ground any moment as he’s carried out of the pub. The rain has reduced to a noticeable sprinkling, visible only in lighting, but Harry hides under an awning for Louis’s sake, then steps into it when Jacque pulls to the curb.

Throwing Louis into the backseat would be hyperbolic, but he’s certainly not gentle. Lying upwards at an angle in the seats across from Harry, a hand gripping the headrest and the other the bottom edge of the seats, he looks at Harry, whom sits in the opposite direction, facing Louis. “Fuck you,” Louis says. But his words aren’t angry. They’re the purification rain brings from a storm in its cleansed aftermath of the Earth’s ground. Louis uses a hand to touch his miniature umbrella behind his right ear, only to frown harder as he pulls it out and examines the new dents in it. “You ruined my fucking umbrella. Thanks.”

“I can buy you a new one,” Harry consoles, glancing out the wet window.

Louis’s frown stays.

“It’s not the same,” he whines.

Harry blinks at him. “You can buy the same thing at a shop, so, how is it not?”

“This was given to me,” Louis says.

Harry ignores him. 

He makes the stop at a ‘round the clock, and the employee surveys him with a strange, concentrated look through their exchange. Harry pays him zero mind and returns to Louis through the heavy rain with his umbrellas and his coat’s thin material soaking with varying areas of wetness. He reaches out to hand it to Louis in the darkened back of the Rover, only lighting being the street lamps they pass, then coughs into his other fist and runs his fingers through the front of his hair. 

Louis looks at Harry with hesitation. 

He takes the box from Harry’s grip and sits back, opens it and starts removing them. He eyes a hot pink one with interest, pulls a yellow and blue one out, but leaves the greens alone. He goes back and forth with his quiet interest until he returns all but a pink in the box. Harry watches him set it in his lap as he opens the pink umbrella and tucks it delicately behind his ear, just as gently fix the short strands of hair around his ear. 

“Do you not like the green?” Harry asks, low and innocent. 

It breaks into the solidity of the night air between them; Louis’s eyes cut to him, still shining brightly from his alcohol consumption. “I think they’re ugly,” Louis replies belatedly, and leans his head back.

His voice is quiet.

“I thought you liked that colour,” Harry comments.

Louis’s gaze finds the window opposite of himself. “For jumpers, forests, eyes,” he explains. “Not cocktail umbrellas.”

Harry hums, and listens to the rain pelting against the roof of the vehicle. For jumpers, forests, eyes. All the times Louis’s taken green jumpers from his drawers in his London home and New York home and wore them in sight to show Harry his inability to care whether Harry knew about it or not. And all those exact times he’d never returned anything. He still hasn’t returned anything. Harry’s finger twitches, and he reaches for his umbrella in the seat beside him, but pulls back instantly. His umbrella’s at the bar because Louis had broken it accidentally and there wasn’t anything to do to fix it, and some raccoon is going to get it.

The car pulls up to the front of the hotel building, parked under the luxurious awning protecting them from the storm, and all Louis does is stare at Harry openly; calmly, gently.

“No kiss?”

It’s just as soft as his eyes.

Harry looks at him only a moment before he says, surely, “No.”

But he lifts a hand and beckons with his fingers for Louis to come closer, and Louis complies easily. He sits up, moves his feet to the floor and scoots to the other end where Harry sits, to the edge of his seat as to lean forward with a slight eagerness to the colour of his eyes. Their feet are touching, whereas their legs almost do, and they’re so close Harry smells the strong, mixed scents on Louis.

He uses the same hand to grip Louis’s jaw, pinching it between his fingers to angle it as he pleases, tilting Louis’s head back. Then he presses a chaste kiss an inch away from the left corner of Louis’s mouth, to the soft, slightly sticky skin, but keeps his hand on his jaw when he pulls back.

Louis doesn’t divert his gaze from Harry’s. “I meant mouth to mouth,” he eventually says.

“I know,” Harry replies.

He drops his hand.

Louis’s head tilts back downwards, and they keep close for a while, staring, waiting.

“I’ll take what I can get, then,” Louis tells him. That’s his cue. Predictably, he moves away and leans to the side to pull the silver handle; the door opens, the sounds of the New York storm hitting the ground and the awning protecting them uncensored. Louis takes his box of cocktail umbrellas, the hot pink one behind his ear still sitting perfectly in place, and now stands just outside it, hand holding the edge of the door. “Not coming in?”

“You know I don’t,” Harry answers, and curls his fingers into his palm, swallowing. “Call me.”

“I will,” Louis says.

The door shuts.

Harry stays put as he watches Louis enter the automatic doors of the hotel and walk to the lift to disappear from the lobby entirely to get to his room. 

He inhales a shaky breath, and releases a steady one.

 

 

 

Harry finds out the next day.

He’s scrolling along news articles in search of something from National Geographic when he notices it at the bottom. His eyebrows narrow at the picture of Louis, a candid of him in the middle of an empty New York crosswalk at night, catching the eye of the camera the second it goes off, a displeased expression settled deeply on his face. To the left in bold letters: Louis Tomlinson Comes Out of Hiding For The First Time In 5 Months — And He’s Got Cat Food!

Harry takes a second to reread the headline.

Cat food?

Ex-boy bander—he knows Louis’s frowned and muttered about the title they’ve given him, if he’s read it. Chances are, he has; and the image comes together in Harry’s mind perfectly. Harry has his share of it, Niall and Liam do, but the only one it seems to bother is Louis. It mentions Louis’s departure from the spotlight a year ago, briefly recaps his sudden disappearance with his nonexistent explanation, then it digs into his sighting on a Tuesday night carrying cat food, joking about how the unhappy look on his face is because he got spotted and his cover is blown.

Harry would agree that’s why.

He finds Louis’s contact and holds his phone to his ear as it rings. It keeps ringing, and with each one, Harry’s fingers drum on the edge of his seat as he looks out the window pane faster.

“Hello?” Louis greets before the final ring, voice soft and polite.

Harry sighs. 

“Do you still not have my number saved?”

A beat passes, then Louis says, “You change it every week. Why should I?”

Harry rolls his eyes. 

“Did you see the article?”

“Yes.”

“That’s it?” Harry prompts after a few, quiet seconds. This is why Louis was in a bad mood last night. He still doesn't say anything, and the sudden thought that he could’ve put the phone down to only faintly listen to Harry’s voice occurs to him. But Harry still talks, whether Louis likes it or not. “Did you go a route where you knew they could be? And why were you carrying a bag of cat food in the middle of the street?”

“I have a cat now,” Louis answers immediately, casually and cool.

Harry blinks. “Since when?”

“Few months now,” he says. “She’s kind of mental, but I love her all the same. . . . Her name’s Pawdry Hepburn.”

Louis’s a lot.

“And you never told me about the cat—you know what, I don’t fucking care about the damn cat. That isn’t what I called you about,” Harry says, eyes still watching the gloomy dusk sky reflect every bit of New York in a dark blue colour, and the due rain that picks up for the first time today. His fingers keep drumming. “Did they purposely track you down?”

Louis’s never been the type of celebrity to call paparazzi for a picture.

“Yeah,” Louis quietly admits, a moment later.

Harry sighs through his nose. “Are you still in New York?” he asks.

“No.”

“Where are you?”

“Rome,” Louis answers. “But I want to go to Budapest tonight.”

Licking his bottom lip, Harry considers his chances as the rain gets heavier. “If I book a flight right now,” he starts, “and come to Rome, will you be there?”

There’s slight hesitation, and Harry’s about to call him out on a lie when he replies. 

“I don’t know. Come and find out. I only stay at one Hotel Ponte Sisto.”

The line ends.

Harry considers ringing him again, but stares out the window a few moments. 

He calls Jacques.

 

 

 

The weather isn’t better in Rome.

It’s fucking raining anywhere Harry goes; it’s raining when he arrives in Rome and lands, and it rains on the cab ride to the hotel. It’s just a wet, wet, grey cloudiness that’s come to be a constant, and it lightens up a little when he's dropped off. The familiar, yellow building is tall and homely; it towers over Harry in a returning embrace, welcoming him quietly in the autumn air with unspoken words. Wind picking up and blowing at his hair, he finds his way inside to the front desk, but the person only directs him down a hallway to the left and instructs him where to turn.

Harry thanks them and walks down them. But the farther he goes, the more the walls become elusive. The dimly lit, narrowedness of them have fewer and fewer doors, and it’s just quietness they offer.

Eventually, he comes near an end.

There’s a dark wood door at the end of the hall, situated at an angle and curving with the hall that continues somewhere else. The clerk described this exact room to him. Harry walks up with no hesitation, and knocks on it. As the seconds tick by with nothing, he curiously peeks down the curved hall, and blinks. It leads shortly to a terrace outside, furniture waiting to be used, and a detailed, black fence blocking all of the edges of the terrace.

The door in front of him abruptly opens, and Harry’s head snaps to attention.

Louis stands there in silk pyjamas and furry shoes, a soft but blank expression on his face as he stares Harry down. His hair is a mess, but he’s beautifully tired and quiet.

“De Luca?” Harry breaks after several moments, leaning against the door’s arch and crossing his arms. “That’s your name for the night?”

Louis turns around to walk away, and Harry simply watches. He grabs a small wine glass off a table in front of a settee that’s filled with a little bit of a dark red wine, then sits down, crossing a leg, and doesn’t look Harry’s way. “You’d be surprised by how many Italians don’t question how French my first name is,” he says. “Louis De Luca is easy and sounds good on the tongue, but they’re from two separate countries. I mean, we know the French think nicely of them—and it’s hard to get an approval from them for anything—but Italians don’t necessarily return the affection in full.” 

Louis makes a face, eyebrows narrowing in thought, index finger tapping the edge of his glass. “It’s fascinating how their social cultures are quite the opposite, yet France still likes them. Maybe it’s because they’re so similar in art and fashion and food, what they’re known for. Or that France still has an upperhand with Italy, and feels some superiority that Italy has jealousy issues—”

“I didn’t come all the way from New York to listen to the complex sibling relationship between Italy and France,” Harry intercepts, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him.

Louis turns his head, looking right at him, and says nothing.

“You’re right,” he speaks moments later, voice flatter, and gets up, glass in hand, “I’ll bore you with details later. You must be tired.”

Harry sighs. 

“That’s not what I meant,” he tries.

But Louis’s already walking off to another area of the suite, and Harry waits. He returns with a royal blue blanket and stops in front of Harry. “Take off your coat,” he says softly, and watches Harry’s fingers untuck buttons of his long coat from all the holes. Pressing the blanket gently to Harry’s chest, he gives it with a small, “Here,” and walks back to the settee and sets his wine back down.

Harry hugs the blanket to his chest, then moves a small step before approaching the sofa slowly.

He lowers himself next to Louis, staring at him carefully, and says, “Are you still going to Budapest tonight?”

It’s not the question he wants to ask. He wants to ask, Did you disappear as soon as the picture went public? And he’d want to ask it, despite knowing the answer to it, because he just wants to hear it from Louis’s mouth; to hear him say, I did, because that’s how he can comfort him and say, You made it five months. It’s better than the two or three months average you have now.  

Louis doesn’t look at him.

“I was,” he answers patiently, “if you weren’t going to show up by 8.”

“What would you have done there?”

“I’m thinking of never going back to America,” Louis says instead of acknowledging his question. “Everybody is too fucking nosy and there’s no privacy.”

That digs into Harry’s chest a little.

“But I have a home in New York and an empty one in Los Angeles,” Harry says. “I wouldn’t get to see you anymore.”

Louis’s eyes cut to the ceiling above them, no particular look in them, and it only makes Harry wish he knew what Louis what thinking. “You’re forgetting about your home in south London,” he comments. “Stay in it more often, and it won’t be an issue. Or! You could buy a home for us in Tennessee. It’s one of those states where people like us could lie low, isn’t it? Or Wy—what’s the name of the state by Washington? It starts with Wy. Or Maine. Discreet states could work.”

A home for us

People like us.

“You wouldn’t actually want to live with me,” Harry chooses to say. “I still snort coke in the morning.”

A stubborn smile makes it across Louis’s face at his attempt of being funny, and he watches Louis try to stifle it unsuccessfully, corners of his mouth turning down in nonchalance. “Hey, it’s your mess,” he reasons. “We’ve lived together before and I’ve snorted some off your dick, so, who am I to judge?”

Harry laughs. “That was a good night,” he admits. 

Louis chuckles, soft and brief, but his smile slips off his face too easily, back to staring at the ceiling with a tiredness and gentleness. 

“Are you really never gonna return?”

Louis shakes his head immediately and looks at Harry for the first time.

“I never mean it,” he assures, “you know that. Every time I get found out, I leave and make a pact with myself, but I always find myself returning. Probably ‘cause I can’t say no to you.”

Like the first time he disappeared a year ago and made it into three months of hibernation until paparazzi found him out, and he dropped everything and flew to a southern European country. When Harry found out, he respected Louis’s decision. But then he called Louis up weeks later, and he begged for him to come back, and the next day Louis was at his doorstep. And it continues like that: Louis disappears into the woods, Harry calls him up, and he returns.

Harry’s had an occasional thought where maybe he shouldn’t do that, but—it’s hard to stop himself. He’s too selfish of a person.

“I don’t think Tennessee is a discreet state,” Harry eventually comments.

“Maine, then,” Louis says. “I never hear anything about it.”

“I’ll look into it,” Harry responds.

They’ve had similar discussions: buying property and sharing a life together on it, even before things went downhill and they separated for good. They shouldn’t do it, especially now — especially since the break. They’re no longer obligated to stick by each other’s sides and continue this repetitive talk. But it’s just talk. There’s never a follow-through. Harry knows this time is no different, as Louis looks away and blinks sleepily. It’s just always been talk; like a queer inside joke he doesn’t know why would be funny at all.

There’s never any laughter about it, unless Harry brings up a dog and he starts suggesting ridiculous names that’ll make Louis laugh.

Sighing, Louis leans forward and stands from the settee, and he rubs an eye, wrapping an arm around himself. “C’mon,” he murmurs, “let’s sleep. We can travel to Budapest in the morning.” 

“I can just sleep here,” Harry suggests, like he always does.

Louis shakes his head.

“There’s a spare bed,” he always replies with.

Harry hesitates for half a second before standing and following Louis.

 

 

 

Harry returns to New York two days later.

As useless as it was, he couldn’t get Louis to return this time with him. Hide away in my flat, he’s told Louis countless times over the past year. He gave the same, old argument before he left, and Louis wasn’t having it; he told Harry he wasn’t gonna just sit around in his flat for however long he needs and be cooped up the entire time, that it’d drive him more fucking insane than he already is, and Harry disagreed.

“It’s not any different from what you do now,” Harry said to him.

Standing only a few feet away in the main room, Louis crossed his arms, a hard look on his face. 

“How so?”

“You fly to places just to fucking sit in a hotel suite and mope,” Harry told him rather bluntly, a little exasperated that he had to fight him on this. “At least if you packed your things and I made space for you, I wouldn’t have to constantly come to you and you wouldn’t have to be by yourself. I worry about you, Louis.”

“Don’t worry about me, then!” Louis said, gesticulating with his arms. “Don’t call me anymore, then, because it only sounds like it’s a burden on you.”

Harry sighs, putting his hands on his lower waist. “Don’t fucking be like this,” he chastises.

“I‘m serious,” Louis tells him.

“I am, too.”

“I’m tired of having this same argument with you and you never listening to me,” Louis said, then walked right up to Harry, closing the space between them. Harry didn’t move an inch as Louis looked up at him and straight into his eyes with a cold anger in them Harry hadn’t seen in a while. “I don’t fly to other countries just to be sad in them, and I’m fine with being alone. It’s what I want. It’s what I choose. If you aren’t okay with it, don’t call anymore.”

Harry stared back, clenching his jaw and trying to hold back, but some of it spilled out, anyway.

“Fine,” he said steely, “see if anyone else cares since I won’t anymore.”

That didn’t make Louis give him space or stomp away to another room, but it did make a change in his eyes. It softened them into a bright vulnerability, like what Harry had said struck a chord—and Harry knew it had; it was why he said it.

“Some days,” Louis begins, low and firm and blue eyes shining, “I’m glad we aren’t together anymore.”

Harry left without a word.

Now, he sits alone in a studio the same night he’s returned, the dim lighting accompanying him — guitars hanging on the walls, a keyboard beside him, his notebook in front of him, laying on the controls. They’re all with him, too. He’s in a place he’s had his worst and best struggles, where he’s had fights with Louis and fucked him, too. He doesn’t struggle in these environments. But he’s still thinking about their argument from two days before because it won’t leave his fucking head.

Their breakup is still a sore subject. 

It’s not that it went badly five years ago — it’s not that Louis hates him for it, it’s not that Harry regrets it; it’s not because they spent almost four years afterwards acting out on it and being weird and fighting and making it worse in the long run. Some days they are still weird with each other in a way that’s only loud to them. 

It’s just something that’s sore merely on its own account.

It’s one of those things that will always have some kind of mark, Harry thinks, even when they’re sixty and greying. 

Harry left immediately after Louis’s comment because it’s something ugly felt on both sides, so, Louis knows the exact things to say to get to Harry. He’ll push the worst button of them all when he wants to make a point, and sometimes Harry will let himself say something mean in retaliation because as much as he chooses to be good and kind, his ugly side exists just as brightly as anyone else’s, and sometimes, like this time, he’ll walk away before his impulsivity gets the best of him.

As small as his words were, they still held pettiness that was meant to cut, and he regrets them.

He closes his notebook and looks at his phone.

Have you talked to Louis lately?

It’s a text from Liam.

We’re no longer on speaking terms, Harry replies. Why do you ask?

??? why? Liam sends back.

We got into a fight the other night. Doesn’t matter.

Harry doesn’t realise he’s frowning, his brows furrowed, until Liam responds five minutes later.

Okay well I just ask because I haven’t heard from him in months. He’s been really absent from everything and doesn’t reply to my texts and today I saw this in the news and I just thought maybe you’d be the one to know about this

Liam’s attached a news article, and Harry hesitates just from reading the few words sat across the top of his message: Louis Tomlinson Steps Out With… But he taps the link, and it directs him to Safari. Harry’s staring at pictures of Louis with another man walking together down the street earlier in the day, late in the afternoon when the sun begins to set. And it’s not just any average man, but a tall man, with darker skin and a full head of black hair that’s well kept and he’s over all a very attractive man, and Harry knows the kind of body language Louis’s got on display while standing so close to him in a separate picture.

He’s got all the same traits of a man Louis’s only ever purely seen with when he’s dating — the height, the muscles, the nice, bright smile. 

He’s even got his fucking arm around Louis’s shoulders in a third picture.

He’ll dump him in a week, he sends Liam. In a separate text, he sends Louis:

Thought you didn’t wanna be seen.

It takes less than a minute.

I don’t, Louis replies.

Harry silently scoffs. It’s a fucking lie. He went out of his way to be seen this time — he chose to be seen with another man—in New York, Harry finds out as he skims over the paragraphs of the article he returns to. He’s back in New York just to spite Harry, and it’s fucking working because this is crawling under his skin and gnawing at him at a pace faster than it typically would.

It always gets under his skin, seeing Louis with another man, but it’s a slow, burning one.

This one’s harsher because Louis’s doing it on purpose.

I hurt your feelings and this is how you lash out? Harry sends.

Louis’s response is delayed.

Maybe what I do has nothing to do with you.

Harry sits in silence, staring at Louis’s words with nothing in his head, then opens his notebook again. His fingers tap against the control panel in a hard, anxious manner that’s out of his control, and he tries to ease them by scribbling along the bottom half page in his journal. They aren’t words, they’re just indented pen drawings that express nothing and rip a fucking hole in the page.

Liam wants to talk to you, Harry types, and sends as a final reply.

He goes back to ignoring his phone.

 

 

 

Harry stays in New York for the remaining months of autumn and into winter, writing and finishing recording his album. 

He doesn’t leave the state the entire time. He makes the occasional car ride to quiet, isolated places and brings his journal with him for inspiration, gazing at the dying trees and ones that are still fully intact with red and golden leaves, and he’ll walk the streets and eat dinner with friends that stop his way. But a lot of the time, Harry’s by himself and only has his thoughts. And he thinks about Louis far too often, wondering if he’s fine, and where he’s at each day. Sometimes he tries not to, because whatever’s in his head ends up traveling to his journal, and Louis makes his way into his poetry.

Even though there’s nothing explicit about him in them, he still exists within the lines.

The evening before Christmas Eve, Harry’s sat at his high kitchen counter in the dark with a single candle lit in front of his filled white dinner plate, and his attention is divided between the window above the sink that shows the snow falling from the cold, dark sky and his food, but the truth is, his mind is set on his phone. 

It’s five minutes until midnight in England, and in those five minutes, he stares at his opened messages with Louis, debating.

At the last second, he dials his number.

It rings and rings, and rings, and Harry’s heart settles more the longer it goes on because he knows it’s not gonna go through.

Your call has been forwarded—

Harry hangs up.

He leaves a simple Happy birthday., then when the silence gets too much, he calls his mum.

 

 

 

He’s high, and it’s a bad idea.

It’s the middle of the night, and he doesn’t know where Louis is — is he in London? Italy? Austria? Chicago? Netherlands? Greece? It could be the next day, or two hours behind. He’s sitting on the floor in the main room, television metres away and back leaning against his black leather settee, and he’s giggling a little to himself with little to no reason as he holds his phone to his ear, listening to it ring.

It rings for so long, but not for one split second does he think about hanging up.

It picks up. 

“Hello?” Louis’s soft voice comes through.

“Are you in London?” Harry asks first, instead of a hello or how are you. It’s been so many months that it’s a strange relief to hear his voice again.

A moment of silence passes.

“No,” Louis answers.

“Well, where are you? It’s”—Harry sniffs a couple times, still feeling something in the back of his nose and a little in his throat, and pulls his phone away to look at the time—“1.58 here.”

“I’m in Knoxville,” he says.

Harry’s brows narrow. “Why?” 

“A mate has family here, so, I came with him,” Louis explains.

“Is it the prick you’re fucking?” Harry crudely asks. “Or is he out of the picture now?”

Silence, again.

“You’re high,” Louis says, a little bit of realisation dripping into his dreamy voice.

Harry smiles.

“What makes you think that?” 

“You never call me first when we’re arguing. You have too much pride. And you’re talking a little weird,” he admits. “But, if I’m being honest, I like you better like this. Your personality is tolerable, and your creativity sky rockets. You should embrace your inner crackhead more often.”

They’re fucking insults, but Harry just laughs, hardly bothered. “Tell me, do I fuck better?”

“And you’re far more honest,” Louis adds.

Harry knows how he fucks when he’s high; he’s wild, erratic and straight to the point. He does the most he can with his energy and unyielding power that being under the influence can give him. He gives the other his very undivided attention — which has always been Louis — and that isn’t saying much because, sober, he gives the same kind of attention and devotion, but always in his head it’s far more feral. Some of Louis’s and his best sex has happened while Harry’s high. Harry’s just looking for something—a response, a reaction—just something to set whatever it is he’s craving inside off.

“Maybe I should,” Harry replies, agreeing with Louis’s previous statement. Then he repeats his earlier question, because he’s not going to allow Louis to ignore it. “Are you with that prick you’re fucking?”

“Why?” Louis asks, and Harry hears a bit of haughtiness. “Are you jealous?”

“You don’t want me to be jealous in this state,” Harry says. 

It’s true. 

His jealousy is hideous when he’s sober, but it’s heightened when he’s high. He’s too far off into another part of his head to allow its ugly claws to rip at his lungs at the moment. 

He’s purposely keeping it that way.

“I’m not fucking anyone,” Louis eventually answers, “and I haven’t fucked anyone. He’s just a friend. And he’s fucking straight, anyway.”

“Straight men want to fuck you sometimes,” Harry pushes.

“No, thanks,” Louis says on a soft breath, tone disinterested. “I don’t play around with any straight man. It’s not my thing to feed off of any man’s internalised, and externalised, homophobia and let them exercise their privilege.”

Harry hums.

He chews on his bottom lip as he feels an uncomfortable warmth begin to spread between his legs. He inhales a deep, silent breath to calm his inner demon down; he hasn’t had these kind of thoughts in a while — of Louis in bed, hands and knees, back, getting fucked, and while Harry knows that’s his fault for their reappearance because he brought it up, he needs to direct this conversation elsewhere before his nonexistent filter really fucks them over.

He cups himself and squeezes lightly.

“Big words for someone who forgets how to spell ‘receive’ most of the time,” Harry comments.

Louis hangs up.

Harry calls him back. “That wasn’t nice,” he says.

“I don’t care what you think isn’t nice,” Louis tells him, plain and simple. Then, gentler: “What are you really calling me for, Harry?”

Harry’s mouth parts, and it stays that way as he searches through his head. He doesn’t know. He thought it was a good idea to snort whatever was left of his hidden stash, and the rest of it just—he doesn’t know. Because he’s always thinking about Louis isn’t good enough, neither is because they’re just two people who can’t fucking get rid of each other no matter what; the kind of two people who, no matter how bad it gets, they always go back to it and end up together again down the line with forgiveness and warmth fixing any and all damage.

“I shouldn’t have said what I said,” Harry murmurs.

A moment of silence.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees finally, voice just above a whisper.

“It’s not true,” Harry continues. “There are other people who care about you. It’s not just me. And it was cruel of me to insinuate that. And I shouldn’t have brought up something you’ve said no to a thousand times just because it’s what I want.” He pauses to swallow. “I was being selfish. I’m really sorry for acting like that. I was out of line.” His jittery fingers drum against his thigh in the silence down the line. 

“I’m sorry for being spiteful,” Louis returns belatedly, sincere and tender. “And for bluffing.”

Harry blinks. “Bluffing?”

“When I said I didn’t want you to call anymore,” he says, “I was bluffing. I was frustrated, and I didn’t mean it, but in the moment, I didn’t actually care whether you took the bait or not, and I—I just didn’t think you’d go through with it.”

Harry’s glad he was bluffing.

“It’s okay,” Harry whispers, and releasing a soft and tired breath from his nose, he decides to divert the topic. “How was your birthday? Tell me all about it.”

They’re on the phone for an hour and a half.

 

 

 

Harry wakes up warm.

He’s lying on his back on the floor of his flat, right where he remembers talking to Louis on the phone. And when he slowly tries to crack his eyes open, it’s fucking impossible . His inner corners are so gritty, and he feels like he’s far from getting enough sleep, and he hisses lowly at an attempt to fix his shoulders, an ache rolling over him. He’s stiff as shit. This is probably what he gets for falling asleep on the floor, although he doesn’t remember doing it.

A miserable sniff from near Harry has him trying to pry his eyes open once more.

His eyes find the dark ceiling first, then he moves his eyes around to adjust them. Another sniffle comes, and it’s shaky; deeper. Familiar. Struggling to sit up, Harry puts all his force into it and digs his numb hands into the carpeting beneath him. He blinks his eyes repeatedly, turning his head to the left, and stares, puzzlement and tenderness twisting into one along the veins of his chest and stomach.

Louis sits just a few feet away, right up against the brown leather recliner, and his face is wet. Tears keep falling from his eyes, one right after another, and the tip of his nose is red with irritation and runny. He has his bottom lip tucked inside his mouth, biting it as he briefly squeezes his eyes.

“Baby,” Harry says.

He makes a slight face at his voice because it’s shot; it’s rough and hoarse, and the instinctive endearment cracks in the middle.

Louis doesn’t look at him, or make any movement that indicates he heard Harry.

Harry tries again.

“Baby.”

When he receives nothing, he moves instead, but pain shoots across different parts of his body, making him shut his eyes and groan softly. Christ, this is worse than any time he’s slept in places he shouldn’t have, and Harry doesn’t understand why. But he pushes through it and makes his way over to Louis, sitting on his legs in front of him and reaching out to touch him.

Louis looks up at him when he touches his face. His eyes are so blue and bright and they reflect an abundance of vulnerability and pain from all the crying, and it fucking breaks Harry’s heart.

“I’m sorry,” Louis apologises, brittle and strangled; choking on a sob. 

Harry’s eyebrows furrow.

“What are you apologising for, baby?” he asks, soft and a little desperate, and runs his thumbs over the edges of Louis’s jawline to wipe drying tears. “A—and what are you doing here? You were just in Knoxville.” It’s a two hour flight between New York and Knoxville, but it’s still so dark out. And he doesn’t understand how Louis could’ve gotten into his flat.

But he feels so real and solid in Harry’s hands.

Louis starts shaking his head, closing his eyes. “I can’t do it anymore,” he stutters and sobs out.

“Can’t do what?” Harry demands as a spot in his chest is caving in and caving in, right in the centre; it’s digging a black hole that makes it harder and harder for Harry to breathe as he watches Louis cry; and he wants to fix whatever’s wrong so badly. It’s a yearning swallowing and burning his lungs, almost like it’s paralysing all his bones and emotions; almost like he’s going to begin crying just as hard as Louis is.

“I’m sorry,” Louis whispers, again.

Harry’s back lying on the floor in the same spot he awakened in.

His closed eyes are feeling just as gritty, feeling as immovable, and when he tries to move, the same pains ache in all the exact places.

Harry blinks, and it takes him a few minutes to properly sit up because of his stiff and sore body. Turning his head to the brown recliner, there’s no one. No sniffing, no sobbing Louis; and Harry’s phone is on the floor next to him, still on and brightly lit. He picks it up, and gazes around what he can see of his flat and focuses on listening for anything. But nothing. It can’t have been a dream, though, because his stomach and face feel so sick , like he’s gone through a proper crying fit—and touching him felt too realistic. Harry could’ve fucking counted all the hairs he felt.

“Louis?” he tries calling out, but his voice is just as shot and cracked.

He clears it and tries again.

Nothing.

5:27 is in big, white letters on his phone as he makes the first call to Louis, but he picks up the second time.

“What do you want?” Louis grumbles. 

He sounds fine. Sleepy and disgruntled, but fine.

“Where are you?” Harry asks.

A sigh crackles down the line. “Didn’t we have this exact conversation earlier, or are you too high to remember? I’m in Knoxville.”

Harry’s not high. And he’s not fucking crazy, either. “I’m not high,” he tells Louis, pressing a hand to his face. “Anymore. I swear you were just here. Louis, I—” He gets to his knees, then feet, and looks around his flat again. Harry hurries over to check his front door, stumbling stiffly, because he’s not fucking crazy, but nothing’s been touched he finds when he just stares at the doormat and shoe rack. And the door is locked. Nothing’s been touched anywhere. “I’m not crazy.”

“There’s a first,” Louis drily replies.

“Louis.”

Louis sighs at his warning tone. 

“There’s no way I was there, okay?” he says. “I’ve been in this bed, and I’ve been asleep the entire time, Harry.” A momentary lull. “What was I even doing?”

Harry steps away from the door to make his way back to the main room’s oversized windows. 

“You were crying,” he says quietly, after several moments, focusing on the nightlife of Tribeca and the dream image of Louis. “Hysterically. Telling me you couldn’t do it anymore and apologising. And I was trying to get you to tell me why you were telling me sorry, but that’s when it stopped, and I was back on the floor, again, waking up the same way I woke up hearing you sniffling. You were just so real. I can still feel the way I touched you on my fingers.”

“Huh,” Louis replies belatedly, but Harry can’t tell if he believes him or not. “Well. I still think you were lucid dreaming.”

“Yeah,” he allows, just for Louis’s sake, because even though his gut is telling him the opposite, he doesn’t have any evidence to dispute that except his feelings. And that strengthens the chance he might be fucking crazy, like Louis always says. “Yeah—like. It makes sense.” Pauses. “Everything’s realistic, yeah?” Harry would, also, have known he was dreaming, had it been lucid, and he would’ve been able to manipulate the scene, both of which never occurred. But the longer he’s awake, the more he’s inclined to agree that Louis couldn’t have been here. It’s impossible. His own mind is manipulating his own memory and senses to absurdly believe otherwise.

“Or you had a drug-induced psychosis.” 

Harry rolls his eyes despite Louis’s teasing tone. “Goodbye, Louis,” he says.

He ends their call, tossing his phone onto the recliner a few feet behind him, and stays watching the city view. But his ears are still listening for something in the silence.

 

 

 

“Where are you?”

“Still in Tennessee,” Louis says.

It’s been weeks since the dream incident and since Louis was in Knoxville. They haven’t had a lot of communication in the last few weeks because Harry’s been holed up finalising his album, and Louis’s been fuck knows where. Even now, Harry’s sneaking in a call with him while he’s at a busy pub, waiting for others to arrive from his team for a pre-celebratory dinner about long-term plans that they have for him. He wants a lot of developed planning, but he wants to be the one to control it all, so, he’s dreading the negotiations he’s gonna be doing.

Harry furrows his brows. “Still?”

“Not Knoxville. Nashville. I was in Memphis last week. I’d like to stay as long as I can without going too far, because constantly traveling is tiring, you know. And I really enjoy all the mountains here. Tell me, do you think Roseberry is southern enough for a last name?”

“Is that what you’ve been going by this entire time?” Harry asks.

“Yeah,” Louis answers.

He hums. Louis Roseberry. “I think it’s cute,” Harry admits. “Did you not try Hunt, or Watts, or even Williams?”

“Yes,” Louis says. “I saw them all online, but I didn’t like them.” His voice becomes a little odd on those last words, like he has something he’s not saying. Harry stays silent as he waits. “I’m—um. I’m hiding. From my business managers. S’why I’m stalling on leaving. They keep bugging me about doing these different television shows, sending me scripts for characters—even reality competition shows. And I keep telling them no. I don’t want to act, and I certainly don’t want to be a judge, guest or not. . . . They don’t understand I want to be left alone.”

There it is. 

Harry presses his lips together, looking down at his glass of tequila. “Acting? Don’t they know you’re a singer?”

“They nagged me about another album for an entire year.” An exasperated sigh is tacked onto his words, like he’s irritated just at the reminder. “They stopped when I told them I would make one, but down the road. In, like. Another year. Just give me another year, I said. They were okay with it. But, now, they’re choosing other things to occupy me with in the meantime.”

“Fire them,” Harry suggests as he swirls his toothpick in his drink.

“Harry, I cannot do that.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not you,” Louis says. “I’m not going to fire people over silly reasons.”

Harry’s gaze cuts to the ceiling, and he makes a face. He was sort of joking. He doesn’t really want Louis to fire anybody, but if they’re not backing off and listening to what he needs, then by all means, absolutely. And Harry doesn’t fire people. Louis made it sound like he does when someone doesn’t agree with his idea, but Harry wouldn’t be afraid to if that’s what it came to, for whatever reason.

“You know what, you’re right,” he says, “you’re not me. You’re way too nice. That’s why you’re in the predicament that you are right now. You need to put your foot down and explicitly make your boundaries clear because you shouldn’t be a pushover on your own career.”

Louis never used to let others have a say in what he does. He used to always be the one who spoke out. 

Now, not so much anymore.

Louis’s silent down the line, and for some seconds, Harry thinks he’s gone too far — that he’s been unintentionally insensitive, too brash, picking at Louis’s flaws by accident — that this is going to start a fight somehow. But a soft release of breath comes through, and it’s not annoyed or defensive.

“Let me know when you’ve seen my backbone,” Louis says at last. It’s a joke, but Harry doesn’t laugh, and Louis seems to pick up on that. Just by the tone he takes on in his next words — the quieter, little bit more reserved tone — it makes Harry almost wish he had laughed. But he can’t find his worry over the disappearance of Louis’s spine humourous whatsoever. “I’ll let you go.”

“Yeah,” he murmurs.

“Don’t negotiate too hard.”

“I’ll call you later,” Harry promises, and the line dies in his ear.

Harry sighs softly to himself, stares at his screen a moment, then looks behind himself towards the front entrance for anybody he recognises, but it’s stranger after stranger coming through. He turns around, tries to listen to the rain pelting the roof above all the chattering voices, and takes his drink in his hand, throwing his head back to gulp a large amount.

It’ll be a long night.

 

 

 

Harry’s eyes open too abruptly.

A sense of urgency and panic is consuming his chest as he lies in his bed, like it’s been stewing while he was sleeping. He’s paralysed, it feels, and his ears are open, listening to the darkness through his flat like something’s gonna come at him at any moment; like its dark face is gonna get in his, its body climbing onto his bed and straddle him and breathe in all the fear in Harry’s chest to ear it. It takes him so long to sit up, but he grabs his phone from his nightstand and unlocks it to the call screen because there’s a nagging feeling that’s touching all his nerves and telling him there’s someone in his flat. And it’s so deep and persisting.

He grabs his lone boxing glove from the corner of his room on the way out and grips it tightly as he moves down halls and peeks into rooms.

Harry doesn’t hear anything until he gets close to the kitchen area, and inhaling a low, shaky breath, he presses his side to the end of the wall, and leans over. In front of the sink, behind the island, there’s a tall, blond woman, and he squints, a little confused and a little wary, and just watches. 

She turns around, a soft look on her face as she holds one of his mugs and stirs a spoon in it. Red lipstick paints her full lips, straight hair tied back into a perfect ponytail, even bangs covering her forehead, and she wears a blue blouse tucked into a white skater skirt. She lifts the mug to carefully blow the steaming liquid inside, then takes the spoon out to set it in the sink, and sips it gingerly, smiling slightly. Harry is so fucking confused because she doesn’t come off as dangerous, nor ready to stab him at any given second—in fact, she looks like she just broke into his home to use his fucking Keurig, and it makes him hesitate to call the police. 

“I know you’re around the corner,” she says, lifting her head to look his way.

Harry freezes.

Pulling away from the wall and stepping around the corner, he locks eyes with her. She stays still, unblinking, and Harry locks his phone. “What are you doing in my flat?” he demands firmly, clenching the boxing glove he has half hiding behind his bum.

“Get rid of the glove,” she says without looking elsewhere. “I’m not here to hurt you.” She says it with subtle incredulity, like it’s fucking ridiculous.

“First, who are you?” Harry asks.

“Taylor,” she answers, then takes a small sip of her drink. “I used your back door. Well—you don’t have a back door, so, I used my own back door. I do apologise for waking you up so rudely. You know, I just didn’t have the energy this time for doing it the normal way, so, again, I’m sorry for the paralysis. You’re fine, I promise.” Paralysis? “How was your boxing session today, by the way? Don’t your fists ever get tired?”

Harry blinks., and raises a hand, narrowing his eyebrows. “Are you telling me . . . you instilled those emotions in me? Just to wake me up?”

“Yes. Now, put down the glove.”

Harry drops it.

He’s dreaming—he’s either dreaming or finally having that psychotic break Louis tells him about constantly, because this woman in his kitchen is saying weird, impossible shit, and there’s no way she’d know about his boxing today. Briefly, he squeezes his eyes shut, but when he opens them, nothing’s changed. “I don’t believe you,” he finally says.

Taylor puts her spoon in the sink, and walks around the island, sliding her drink onto it. “That’s all right. I didn’t expect you to.”

“Why are you here?”

“I’m here to give you everything you want,” she confesses with a serious face. A smile cracks it after Harry doesn’t react, and she chuckles. “I’m joking.” Her smile settles, inch by inch, until it’s disappeared entirely. “Look, I want to first start this off by saying none of this is going to be easy, Harry. There are things I can tell you, and things I can’t. The things I can tell you are: 1.—”she holds up a hand, using her fingers to count—“I orchestrated the dream you had. 2. None of this is in your head. And 3. You have to trust me. All of this requires trust.”

Harry fishmouths, unsure what to address first. “Trust is earned,” is what comes out. “I can’t just—give it.”

“Well, you’re going to have to make an exception,” Taylor tells him.

“I can’t.”

“Put your trust issues aside,” she says, lowering her hand. “Giving and earning trust can happen in the same breath. You can give me whatever false sense of your security you have now and I can earn the real thing. You just need to trust yourself.”

Harry stays silent, staring at her.

“I like your lipstick,” he eventually comments, crossing his arms.

Taylor smiles.

“You like it simply because Louis once wore this exact shade and brand years ago and you couldn’t help yourself,” she reveals rather smugly.

Internally, Harry’s taken aback. That’s exactly what it’s been making him think of since he first noticed the colour on her lips; of years ago, one night, when they were together and Louis had taken it upon himself to buy lipstick—just for fun, he’d told Harry; just for an experiment. He had wanted to rile Harry up, is what his plan had been, and it worked. Just as he’d known it would’ve, because back then they pushed each other’s buttons when it came to sex and sex only. 

Blinking, he looks away. “Yeah,” he vaguely agrees.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I want to pretend this is all a dream and go back to sleep because I have a meeting early in the morning.”

She smiles. 

“You’ll be fine,” Taylor assures. “Now, tell me your biggest worry.”

Harry looks away.

“That I’m not gonna get the control on my career that I desperately need,” he confesses.

Taylor looks at him for a while, examining him. Her mouth puckers into a contemplative look, her head slightly tilting, and eventually she just sighs and takes her drink from the counter, holding it level to her stomach. “Here’s the thing about trust: it goes both ways. You can lose mine, too, and if you do, then I’m not going to take anything you say as valuable, and nothing about this will work. So, let’s try it again: what is your biggest worry?”

Harry doesn’t look away, this time, but he doesn’t answer, either.

“Okay,” she exhales. “It’s fine. We’ll try another day.”

“Why did you give me that dream?” he asks before he can’t, because he can’t keep it stamped down any longer. He tries not to make a face at the reality of his question, at the situation, and attempts pushing down those shameful feelings. Somewhere in his most rational self, he knows unseen forces can’t give him dreams of any sort; but it’s like what’s reality and what he believes to know are clashing. “I mean, not to be rude, but that was hell. That was probably the worst thing I’ve felt in years — like all of what Louis was feeling was being transferred into my body and like I was starting to lose air.”

She hums. “That was rough,” she empathises. 

“So?” Harry prompts.

“It’s one of those things I can’t tell you. It would ruin the whole purpose of this,” she tacks on at his indignant what?  

“The purpose of this?” Harry repeats, and scoffs. “I feel like I’m going a little bit insane, to be honest. Like I’m going to wake up and—am I even gonna remember this in the morning?”

Taylor nods.

Then she looks to her left, out his oversized windows into the city, and just as Harry opens his mouth to further speak, she looks back towards him and steps from the island and closer to him. He stays right where he is, but not out of choice—almost like he can’t find control of his heavy limbs—and doesn’t move as she stops right in front of him. “I wanted more time with you tonight,” she tells him, “but I’ve got to get going. Actually, I wasn’t supposed to introduce myself to you yet, but I couldn’t wait. Nevertheless, I’ll see you soon.”

She cups the left side of his face, and to him it almost looks like she’s going to lean in, but when Harry blinks, he’s staring at his bedroom ceiling. The sun is shining through his curtains, illuminating his room with the colour of them, and he lies there on his back, chest heaving with silent breaths. 

Harry turns his stiff neck to look at his clock with gritty eyes.

It’s 7.30, a whole half hour before he has to leave for his meeting. Rolling away onto his side, he shifts his head and exhales. He’s well rested, but his body feels the opposite. There’s no will power or desire to move from his bed, and if he closes his eyes even for the briefest moment in time, he knows he’ll fall asleep. And his head’s so fucking disoriented and clouded from his dreaming. 

Harry only remembers it in bits and pieces, but it’s like it took his body into a whole other world and sucked everything out of him.

He lies there until he has 5 minutes.

 

 

 

Some time after his meeting, Harry doesn’t go home despite the hurried flurry swirling the whole of Tribeca and covering everything in white. The wind is horrendous, and every time Harry steps into it, he feels like he had a hard time breathing, but once he makes it inside somewhere, he’s fine. Fingers are cold and numb, but predictably, and regrettably, since he forgot his gloves on his rush out to the car before his scheduled meeting.

Inside The Untitled Space, strangers take up space in circles, talking, or are viewing the art pieces and sculptures in silent appreciation with a singular other beside them in company. Only a few people look at him as he makes his way through, but they’re meaningless glances. Fishing his phone out of his coat pocket, Harry moves to the least populated spot by colourful sculptures in the back of the room and hits a number on his screen, bringing it to his ear. 

“How’d it go?” Louis asks when he picks up.

Harry pauses. 

“You finally saved my number?”

“No. You just call too much.”

Harry rolls his eyes, then glances around himself in quick cuts before gently clearing his throat. “It went all right,” he says, staring at a blue, purple and pink warped sculpture. “About as well as I expected.” Pause. “What about you? What are you doing?”

“Well, don’t go telling me everything at once,” Louis says, “you might overwhelm me.”

He smiles. 

“In short, I got nothing except more creative control,” he explains.

“Should I be happy or sad?”

“Neither.”

“Why?” Louis asks.

“I told you,” Harry sighs, “it’s what I expected.”

Louis’s silent.

“All right,” he says, quieter. In a far more normal tone, as Harry moves from the sculptures to an abstract photograph with a person painted blue, tongue out, their facial expression mimicking a crazed one, and stands behind two people: “Since you asked, I’m out of Dollywood, and I’m doing fine. I’ll miss her, but it’s for the best. I killed Louis Roseberry to become Louis Demopoulos.”

Harry narrows his eyebrows. “Demopoulos?” he murmurs.

“Guess.”

“You know I’m no good with last name origins. That could be Greek, for all I fucking know.” He keeps his voice to himself, but he still gets a look from the woman in front of him for his mouth. On a good day, he’d mouth, Sorry, but he’s not feeling apologetic.

“Oh, well, hey, give yourself a pat on the back,” Louis says, chuckling, “you got it right the first time.”

Harry blinks. “You’re in Greece?”

“It’s sweater weather here, and that’s how I like it,” Louis tells him. 

“Huh.” He pauses, contemplating something as he looks over a painting that has a white background and muted colours in its inspiration, then gently clears his throat. “Do you know those kind of dreams where it’s like there are several packed into one, and they happen in a sequence? I had that last night. But I can’t remember it all, just a few things. One had you and I in it, and I think maybe you were in another, but I’m not sure.” There’s one detail that’s so vivid — and that’s he and Louis in bed, Louis wearing red lipstick and singing about Nebraska in his lap, them naked. 

It happened in reality, too, and Harry’s not sure why he’s dreaming about it. But it’s been on his mind all morning, and he’s been seeing red in the snow. The memory is stitched seamlessly against the most vital part of his brain. Then there’s his fucking trust issues he recalls being the centre of one of them, but he knows nothing else aside from them being a problem.

And a woman.

Harry remembers vague details of her lipstick and blonde hair and her drinking something of his. She maybe had to do about his trust issues, but everything is incoherent and she reminds him a little of Louis whenever he thinks of her.

“What were we doing?” Louis asks before Harry can continue.

He licks his lips. 

“I don’t remember,” Harry lies. 

“This is an awful dream synopsis so far,” Louis teases. “Any connection to your psychotic break?”

Harry smiles. 

“Is that my reputation now?”

“More of a legacy than your actual career.”

“Ouch,” Harry says, failing to not smile, “if I didn’t already know your opinion, I’d take that to heart, to be honest.”

“You should, anyway,” Louis tells him. “What’s the rest of it?”

Harry doesn’t know. . . . He keeps thinking back to the image of that woman—well, it’s carved so deeply into his memory; it’s like a haunting lithograph of an oval face, full, red lips, straight, blonde hair—and blue eyes very similar to Louis’s. She’s vague, yet so distinct in the imprint the dream’s left, and there’s something about her that he believes Louis might appreciate. “I don’t know, I told you,” he answers. “But there was a woman, too, in my dream. Had no idea who she was, but I think she kept trying to steal things from my flat.”

“Ha,” Louis laughs lightly, drawn out, “love that. Do you know what she stole?”

“I think some kind of drink.”

“This isn’t personal,” he begins, “but how boring. No attacks? Nothing traumatising? What about that expensive gold watch you keep in a kitchen drawer? Your brain could be more creative during REM sleep.”

“You act like I have some say in it,” Harry says with a scoff.

“It’s your mind.” He points it out like it’s the most logical answer, and Harry simply sighs into the phone. “Come fly out here.”

“I—” Harry looks around himself, to strangers in cliché edgy looks, predictably early 20s, older women in appropriate, sophisticated tight dresses—some in deep discussions with groups—younger men of all appearances dispersed within separate categories and activities, and average persons wandering in and out. It feels only a little unsettling and strangely claustrophobic and lonely to be here by himself; like he’ll sink by himself. Maybe it’s the seasonal depression talking. “I can’t,” he admits quietly. “I have meetings tomorrow, as well. I can’t leave. Well—maybe. They all end by early afternoon, so, what if I get a flight by then? Is that okay?”

“Pack all your jumpers,” Louis says.

Dial tone.

Harry softly scoffs to himself. He wishes Louis would stop fucking hanging up on him.

 

 

 

Greece in January is chilly.

Not the England kind of winter cold, or the New York kind. It’s like the chill he experiences when the first days of fall begin to truly set in on London and pollute his city and he has to pull out his favourite jacket and boots, his long coats and scarves. It’s like when the annual days he’d stop by shops on the way home to buy Louis heavier and thicker jumpers because he’d use the thin ones that’d barely keep his skin warm, and he’d have his phone against his ear, listening to Louis reject most of the descriptions he’d give him for what those shops had. And Harry’d end up buying whatever the fuck he wanted because Louis’s picky and indecisive, so, he’d have to make the decisions himself and ignore Louis’s wait, nos and I change my mind, I want its.

Half of the time, however, truth be told, Louis would just wear Harry’s jumpers in their home and only wear what Harry had bought him when they were to be out doing things. He does that now, standing in front of Harry in one of Harry’s deep green jumpers that he’d bought years ago and never returned after they separated. 

He doesn’t think Louis’s returned anything, but he himself is no better. 

“We’re connected forever,” Louis told him out of spite during one of their many earlier fallouts, poking at Harry’s angry chest. “You can’t fucking erase that or me, try as you might. We made promises to everyone—to what we do—and I’ll see to it if I have drag you in kicking and screaming ‘til the very end, or not.”

Harry had been so cross, despite how right Louis had been. He just didn’t want to agree. 

He still wouldn’t.

Tilting his chin up to directly meet Harry’s eyes, Louis crosses his arms against his chest, coming off as even smaller. 

“The pool’s very nice,” he says as a greeting.

“Hello to you, too,” Harry responds, and shoulders past Louis to get into his room.

A small sigh comes from Louis, but Harry ignores it as he drops his belongings on the foot of the bed in the back of the suite. Louis has a terrace that leads to the view of other, high buildings that surround themselves in artificial lighting in the dying sun, sky mostly darkened and cloudy. The air smells different here—a good, refreshing way for his lungs—as it typically does everywhere he goes that isn’t home. But it’s an attention grabbing difference. 

Turning around, he finds Louis staring at him, still near the door but sat in an armchair, hunched over. Prepared to wait.

“Would you like to eat before a swim?” Louis asks.

Harry nods.

 

 

 

Harry’s floating.

Water encapsulates the very back of him—from his short hair, to his shoulders and biceps and to every inch reaching his calves and toes—and he keeps his breaths steady and even; whole and at ease. The night breeze is cold to the top of him and his trunks, and if it were Louis, he’d complain, but Harry is untroubled. His fingertips gently circle the water to help keep him moving as he listens to the night’s bugs and the sound of water in the pool, the noise of a few strangers spread over the entire perimetre and the soft turning pages of the book Louis’s reading poolside.

“No stomach cramps yet?” Louis calls to him, calm and disinterested.

Eyes remaining closed, Harry says, “No. Waiting an hour is just a story to scare children into being patient. Why, were you hoping for some entertainment at my expense?”

“It’s real,” Louis argues. “I get them.”

“I don’t.”

“Well, good for you,” he retorts.

A page turns, and Harry opens his eyes, lifts his upper body to stand in the water, and turns around to face Louis, running both hands through his wet hair. Louis doesn’t tear his gaze from his book, and Harry sighs, shaking his head patiently. “What crawled up your ass and died?”

Louis looks up then.

“Nothing,” he answers.

Harry scoffs, gripping his hips. “Right.” Pause. “What are you reading?”

Scarlett Letter,” Louis says, as he places a finger between the pages and closes the book. “I love the theme of guilt and shaming and sins. . . . Before I ever read it years ago, I’d thought it was about an actual letter—drama and romance included, but that it happened to surround the letter. Maybe it was about the demise of someone; had the potential to ruin a life. I was close, though, I mean, it was a red A, not some handwritten piece of paper detailing destructive information. But my head was in the right direction.”

Harry stands in the water, silent as the air blows coldly against his wet skin. “Is it your favourite?”

“Yes,” Louis answered him years before, as Harry kissed very slowly up his clavicle to his neck, jaw, and he straddled Harry’s thighs. It’s an unsuspecting memory, passing through the forefront of Harry’s mind with a mere blink, but it’s because he knows the answer. He just doesn’t know why he’s asking as if he doesn’t.

“Yes,” Louis answers him in real time, looking at Harry strangely.

“Why do you enjoy dark things so much?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?” Louis counters.

“Why don’t you answer them?” Harry retorts.

His shoulders sag as he sighs heavily at Harry’s reply, and, opening his book, he returns to reading and ignoring Harry as easy as it is to exhale a simple breath. But the way Louis does it—like Harry’s just being asinine and his existence is the cherry on top—triggers Harry’s impulsivity, moving his feet to the ledge nearest Louis and hoisting himself out of the water to stand over him in his poolside chair.

“You’re dripping,” Louis comments in a dry tone, not looking from his book once.

Bending, Harry grips Louis’s knees from underneath and turns him towards himself, making Louis yelp and lose his reading place as he reaches out to grab onto the chair. 

He glares at Harry when Harry’s hands drop.

“Don’t fucking—”

“Can you just carry on a conversation with me without being difficult, please?”

“You want a conversation? Okay, fine,” Louis relents, tone a little hard. “Yes, you do fuck better when you’re high, but you can fuck just as good when you’re sober. In fact, I think the only difference is you’re just fucking crazy when you’re high, but, either way, I come just as hard.”

Harry blinks, lips parting.

“What?”

“You said you wanted to talk. I’m just answering what you’ve asked me.”

“I haven’t said anything about that,” Harry says.

There’s a sparkle of something hard and tangible in Louis’s eye; a challenge; paired with a mouth set in a defiant downturn and a chin slightly tilted upwards. “Well, you talk a lot of shite when you’re using, so, no surprise you forget half the shit you say. When you called me up while I was in Knoxville, remember? You started talking about the prick I’m fucking—in your exact words. Asked if I was with him. I told you no.”

Reluctantly, Harry admits that does sound like him. He only remembers the apologies and asking Louis where he was, and in between those two, it’s quite blurred. A tight rumbling of a monster vibrates in Harry’s chest, and he inhales a big, deep breath, trying to not let it control him.

“Are you shagging him?” Harry asks, anyway, in a quiet voice, because it’ll eat away at him if he doesn’t know.

Louis’s glittering eyes search his face, then he scoffs and stands up.

“You are always so hyperfixated on the men I’m seen with,” he says. Then, subtly popping one hip out, he brings a hand up to drag his fingertips against Harry’s wet chest, and puts on a soft voice with a matching, pretty face. “If you want to fuck me instead, all you have to do is ask.”

Jesus Christ.

His tone and the unnervingly tender sensations his soft fingers give Harry’s hard chest make him uncomfortably grow in his trunks. But Harry refuses to give anything away, even when he’s sure his soaking wet trunks clinging to his skin is making it as obvious as the sea in Louis’s eyes and the rumbling in his chest is pushing at his inchangible lack of impulse control.

He grips Louis’s wrist in his hand, only making Louis smile in return.

Harry opens his mouth to speak, but when his eyes fall on Louis’s mouth, he merely stares — observing the little details and the gentleness that settles in the thinness of his lips. Harry tears his gaze away when he notices Louis’s smile growing, but it dims after, his face shifting to an entirely different, vulnerable emotion; one Harry recognises too well.

“Kiss me,” Louis begs softly.

There aren’t any people left poolside, Harry watched them disperse out of the corner of his eye as he talked with Louis. But even if there were people, he doesn’t think he’d have cared—as reckless and naïve as it sounds. But sense be damned; he brings his lips against Louis’s in one move, and feeling Louis soften and accept it at once, he removes his hand from his wrist and uses both hands to cup Louis’s face.

It fuels the nagging waterfall in his veins and the heat in his groin, and the soft movements of Louis’s mouth against his, like he’s eager to do more but politely asking, are fairly reminiscent of times years ago when kissing was a given between them.

It’s the same way Louis always used to kiss whenever he wanted it bad enough—whenever he’s been desperate for a time, internal clock ticking until he imploded and used his tongue as an outlet for the debris inside him. Fucking knowing him, he’s most likely just been saying shit that’d purposely set Harry off to get what he wants—but Harry’s not mad about it. He can’t be when he knows exactly how Louis works and that sometimes it’s just better to play stupid than outright call him on it. And sometimes he still falls for it before he sees it, like tonight.

But he’s not mad. He’s too selfish to be mad about something he willingly participates in.

Harry closes what little distance they have between their bodies and presses his hardened cock to Louis’s, dropping both his hands from Louis’s face to his waist, feeling his soft, bare skin, then his bum, cupping all of it in full and squeezing. A whimper is released from the walls of Louis’s throat, and his kisses change from gentle pleading to desperation—like every kiss isn’t big enough, doesn’t encompass enough of what he needs —and, tightening his grip on his arse, a temporary smirk curves Harry’s mouth gently at the sound he elicited from Louis, but it falls off when he pulls away to meet Louis’s soft gaze, blue eyes shining brightly in the dark and filled with a raw yearning. 

This is too easy—to get eagerly lost in how this feels and mimic old actions—to feel it hit all his tender, cracked spots like four years and all their treacherous debris never happened, and to feel it consume him the way the sun on a summer afternoon acts.

This is why he always fucking tells Louis no. 

Harry doesn’t take the step back that he should, but he drops his hands from Louis’s body.

“That can’t happen again,” Harry reluctantly admits, tone quiet and soft—even deeper and a little rougher, because his boner is still in place and he wants more—not allowing his eyes to stray despite what his nerves are begging him to do.

He steps back now.

Louis looks at him—still raw, still vulnerable—and blinks softly.

“Why?” he asks. “Afraid you’ll want more?”

That’s the fucking issue right now.

“No,” Harry lies.

“That’s a first,” Louis comments a little drily, “you kissing me without wanting to put it in immediately.”

God, how Harry wishes.

But, no, he wants to.

Harry swallows. “I’m fine,” he lies again, and watches how Louis’s watching him. It’s a staring contest between them. Louis’s eyes then trail slowly down until they reach Harry’s crotch—and he pauses. Right there. Harry watches his face closer, knowing the outline of his cock is absurdly obvious in his wet swimming trunks, and maintains his composure when Louis reconnects their gazes. “I don’t want you.”

It’s the most blunt he’s been towards Louis in a while.

Louis shrugs, blasé.

“Okay,” he merely says, and walks past Harry without another look his way.

He listens to the door closing from the other side, and lets a heavy breath past his lips. But something still resides, different and familiar and wrong in the right place, in the centre of his chest, on top. It makes Harry’s eyebrows furrow in suspicion; in light wariness—because Louis’s hardly that easy. However, Harry shakes it off and dives back into the pool back first with a loud bang, water splashing everywhere in the air as it pulls him under.

He stays under for some time, attempting to figuratively drown out his vulgar and prohibited thoughts, and to let the issue fix itself. There’s never been a suggestive touch between them, he thinks as he keeps his eyes closed, let alone a kiss , in the past now five years—while most of that is because they were usually at each other’s throats until a year ago. 

But even so—even when Louis’s asked for countless kisses for the times Harry’s come to keep him company in various countries—nothing’s ever happened.

Harry comes up for air.

It’s a long, frigid, and drenched walk back to Louis’s suite—wrapped in complimentary towels don’t do very much; they aren’t mindful enough to protect him from the tight, hot grip on his chest when his knuckles rap against the wooden door—when Louis shows his perfectly familiar face, acting as if nothing out of place happened between them by sitting on an end of a settee reading his book in sweats and a fuzzy blanket in his lap unperturbed amd covering his feet.

He leaves it to Harry to shower, dress, and return in peace.

Louis’s lying partially down, on his side, when Harry comes back around in his own pyjamas and white v-neck, and his gaze cuts to Harry from the telly when Harry sits silently by his feet.

“I’m sorry if I pressured you,” Louis says, soft but loud in the quiet.

In his peripheral, he sees Louis keeping a steady gaze on the foreign television show, and shakes his head with arms on his spread legs and fingers intertwined.

“You didn’t,” is all Harry says.

Louis sits up, then, throw pooling into his lap as his body comes in closer towards Harry’s space, heaving a small and gentle sigh. “I want you to be honest with me”—he turns his gaze to Harry—“how was it?”

Harry blinks. “How was it?” he dumbly repeats.

“Yeah. I’m just curious. And it’s okay if you don’t remember—but did it feel the same? Or was kissing me tonight a different experience?”

It was the same.

It provoked the same response it always fucking did whenever a kiss occurred: holding Louis’s face, then grabbing his arse and never having the power to not want to make him whimper and squirm—or holding onto his arse first, then switching to his face if he’s feeling particularly romantic. But, Christ, he never failed to not feel the deep yearning in him to fuck Louis wherever they were whenever it happened, and after all these years, that response hasn’t changed. 

Clearing his throat, he sits back with a hand casually to his crotch for a façade of nonchalance to hide his returning issue.

They’ve always been direct with each other. Why should this be any different?

“The same,” Harry replies.

A quiet moment passes.

“That doesn’t tell me shit,” Louis says, but there’s no heat to his words. Despite Louis eyeing him, Harry still refuses to look back. “That could mean you want to fuck me, or that you were thinking about it as we kissed. Or it could mean you liked it just as much as you always told me you did— or you’re saying you—”

“Jesus Christ, Louis,” Harry interrupts, exasperated, “it’s both. It’s all three.”

Silence.

Harry’s fingers twitch.

“I wasn’t kidding when I offered you the chance to shag me.”

Harry looks this time.

The way Louis’s staring at him, unblinking and lines—smoothed out, and ones deeper, concentrated eyes running right through him—he’s serious. And fucking nuts. As much as those words falling from his mouth makes Harry’s cock twitch in remembrance of how tight and warm and intense Louis always felt around him, it’s not a good idea.

“And where would that leave us?” Harry asks, because he can be blunt in times of crises. “Are you going to go back to hating my guts? Is one time going to risk what we’ve only started rebuilding?”

“Why would shagging just once ruin anything?” Louis counters belatedly.

“I don’t know,” Harry says. “Having sex with someone you once loved disrupts a lot more than what people bargain for.”

That quiets Louis.

He doesn’t know if it’s his use of past tense, or stupidly arguing against something that he’d gladly do again in a heartbeat with Louis, that has Louis silent, but before he opens his mouth, Louis’s pulling his legs up onto the settee to get on his knees and crawl into Harry’s space and lap.

“We have nothing to lose,” Louis says as he sits his arse on Harry’s thighs, right there at his crotch, and gets in his face. “We’ve done more damage to us in the last four years than whatever tonight could do. Put me in my fucking place and make sure I don’t lose it, if it’ll make you feel better.” Louis’s practically offering himself up to be used, making Harry lick his lips.

“Ride me here, baby?” Harry murmurs, voice already octaves deeper.

His eyes drop to Louis’s mouth, and his hands curve their way around to Louis’s arse—and as foreign as it is to be doing this once more after so long apart, it’s like a biological reaction to start calling Louis baby and touch his bum—to spread his thighs so Louis can get the full feel of his erection and move his hands up to Louis’s small waist to push him closer.

As expected, Louis kisses him, but it’s so abrupt it’s a near surprise — his hands come up behind Harry’s head and grip the base and crown, entangling his fingers to match his desperate and starved kisses. 

Harry matches the pace with ease and allows Louis to pull at his scalp, all the while letting his hands slip from Louis’s waist to his bum then the back of his thighs, curling his fingers inward to his inner thighs and pulls them away to spread the lower area of his bum apart. Louis bites his lip for it, a feeble whine coming through. Harry takes it a step further by moving his hands up to pull Louis’s sweats down over his bum to reveal it. He kneads the skin, eliciting small sounds from Louis, then pauses when his fingers move inward at the feel of something soft and lacey lining all along Louis’s crack and around his hips.

Harry tears his mouth away, glancing down with heavy, albeit silent, breaths. 

It’s a burgundy lace thong that covers the front in an intricate design but leaves very little to the imagination in the back—and leaves Harry’s mouth dry amd his cock twitching and throbbing at the tip.

Harry looks up.

“You planned this,” he accuses, eyes being pulled back to his thong.

“I—”

“Take your trackies off, please,” Harry purposely interrupts Louis. His firm tone makes no room for a debate, his eyes glued to the mesmerising movements of Louis moving all over him to shove his trackie bottoms farther down his legs and off onto the floor—occasionally wandering to his face to see a small, self-satisfied tilt to his pretty mouth. “Face me with your hands on my thighs.”

All it leaves Louis with is a t-shirt on, the back of it bunched above in the dip of his back—above the curve of his bum. 

He listens to Harry and places his hands just below Harry’s hip bones, and looks at Harry with a steady, flirty gaze. “What are you going to do?” he asks, then adds, slightly taunting, “And what if I did plan it? Hm? Are you going to punish me for wanting what I want?”

Harry’s hands find their way to Louis’s arse. “You typically only want what you want when you’re pissed,” he counters.

“Well, I’m not this time, am I?”

No.

No, he’s not.

“With, or without?” Harry asks.

“You’re still the only man I’d do it bare with,” Louis admits.

“The pinnacle of romance in my book,” Harry says with a smile that has Louis smiling back and laughing a little. He remembers a time where Louis would get genuinely irritated with Harry and his inability to be someone romantic, how it was one of the few things that would cause an issue between them sometimes. Specifically during the timeframe their fame had been at its height. He won’t ever know what it was about that year that made them a little weird and off kilter at occasional times with one another, but, regardless, it caused a fight a time or two.

Louis’s outspokenness and his soft heart that would write love letters, poetry, create little things—be this holy romantic that’d go out of his way to showcase it all for Harry in all ways possible—would very much contrast Harry. Harry’s poor communication skills and his lousy ability to be as much of an romantic as Louis made him feel bad a lot. He’d try very hard, feeling awkward and still inefficient when attempting love letters to the best of himself—he decided not long after to just stick to giving gifts, writing songs, jealousy, and making Louis come as his form of romancing.

It’s all been water under the bridge for years, but the warm feeling from making Louis laugh about it remains.

Louis kisses him again, and it’s game over. 

From here, it’s easy: Harry squeezes his bum, then grabs the sides of Louis’s face and kisses back with a force to be reckoned with—kisses him until he pushes his own body up and lies Louis on his back on the settee and moves his mouth from Louis’s to his neck, taking his time to leave lovebites, to his clavicle—pushing the end of Louis’ shirt up and over his head—to suck on his sensitive nipples.

Louis’s body twitches at the first touch of Harry’s mouth, softly gasping.

“Fuck,” he murmurs.

Harry sucks on both nipples until Louis’s whimpering too much—until he’s crying out and telling Harry he’s so sensitive that it hurts—and pulls off. His attention immediately focuses on the knickers Louis’s in, and, bringing his hand close, he drags the tips of his fingers teasingly over Louis’s hipbone, along his pelvis—to which Louis twitches once more—down to the erection displayed. He teases his fingers over it, and watches Louis’s face twist into something needy and bite his bottom lip.

“You wanna come, baby?” Harry asks, not tearing his eyes from Louis’s face.

Louis looks at him with a deeper, intensely fragile vulnerability reflecting in the watery blue of his eyes.

“I want to, yes,” he begs. “Please.”

“Turn on your stomach,” Harry commands, gripping Louis’s waist to help him do as Harry told. “I’m gonna eat you out, baby, ‘til you do. Then I’m gonna fuck you, have you coming a second time.”

Louis only whines as he lies flat on his stomach. 

Harry sits on his knees, gazing at the smooth, bare backside of Louis. As soon it reaches past his shoulder blades, his sides begin to narrow, creating a thin, shapely waist that Harry’s had his mouth over a million and one times. He still remembers the way his baby smooth skin feels against every nerve in his hands—and when he touches it, when he moves back as far as he can to lean down and press his warm lips to it, it takes him back: familiar; sweeter in time, like an aging bottle of red wine. He savours every little kiss he molds into Louis’s warm skin because this might be the only time he’ll ever be given again to do just this.

Then he trails his lips down the indents of his spine, to the curve of his bum, and lifts his head to watch himself drag part of the thong out from between his cheeks and spread them a few times. Louis’s smooth and waxed, and his hole is such an enticing, pretty pink that drags Harry’s attention in every time he spreads him apart.

Harry playfully bites Louis’s bum, and pulls skin that dips into his crack into his mouth with the intention of leaving a heavy bruise there. 

After, he leans a few inches away.

Spreading Louis apart again, Harry sticks his tongue out as far as it’ll go and licks from his taint all the way to his hole, slow and steady and with pressure, and takes in the soft sounds Louis starts to make. He folds his tongue inward to make it as skinny as possible before sliding it in Louis, and flattens it to stretch his hole and wastes not a single second: he puts the pressure into the tip of his tongue and sides and works his way through and around and sucks the edges when he’s loosened it enough, all the while thriving internally from the highs and lows coming from Louis that translate into unintelligible words.

Harry pulls back, mouth feeling an excessive amount of wetness. He licks his lips. “You all right, baby?” he asks.

“Just—fucking continue,” Louis says.

Harry smirks.

This need to be the one to ever make Louis cry in the most memorable way and set his blood ablaze hasn’t eased, either—and, well, maybe he hadn’t thought that’d ever go away. He holds too much self-satisfaction from even the simplest things; from the smallest breath Louis takes in his presence. He’s too full of being rejuvenated every time he’s assured in some way he’s still got a sickening upper hand in things no other man has with Louis—in Louis whimpering, “Jesus Christ, still give it to me like no one else,” and biting part of the cushion he’s lying on top of. 

It fills him—God knows he gets this feeling from only a few things. 

Louis is the only person amongst them.

Harry moves a hand along his skin, all the way to his balls and begins massaging them as he moves his tongue along Louis’s walls with fast and purposeful precision whilst ignoring the slight ache in his jaw and straining muscles of his mouth as he sucks on the skin.

“Ah—shit,” Louis swears, high and voice cracking, “I’m gonna come.”

Harry pulls away, sticking a finger in, then a second at Louis’s choked cry, and lets his hand work over his balls and what he can reach of his  brutally hard cock.

“Come, baby,” he coaxes sweetly.

He sees Louis’s mouth fall open, long lashes fluttering and brushing along the skin under his eye; and he’s so silent, but Harry feels under and in his palms the way he comes undone: gracefully; beautifully, holy, with a relieving pressure that’s used to create a diamond. The look overcoming his vision is nothing but pure tranquility, crystallising his bright blue. He can still come on command, and that’s something maybe Harry hadn’t thought about until now.

But he’s pleased.

Louis ought to still have something from it, now that it’s making Harry think. He spent their six years making Louis come on demand. 

“Up for me, angel,” he murmurs as he helps Louis sit up in his soiled knickers. He pulls on Louis’s legs to set them across his thighs after he sits his bum on the settee, feet on the floor and legs spread, and moves Louis closer until he’s in Harry’s lap. He’s so malleable—so soft and quiet and reeling from his orgasm, but he helps move himself, as well.

Louis blinks as he straddles Harry’s thighs, then runs his hands over his face into his hair.

“Christ,” he breathes, looking Harry in the eye.

Harry smirks.

“You good enough for a second?” Harry asks, patting his bum.

Louis laughs softly, then nods his head and grabs Harry’s face to plant a kiss on his mouth. “Yeah,” he exhales, looks down and reaches a hand up under Harry’s v-neck to pull on the band of his pyjama shorts. 

Lifting his hips, Harry pulls his shorts down for Louis, cold air grazing his hard prick. Louis’s watching it intently, glittering eyes stuck to it like glue. And as much as Harry has to resist to touch himself—no. No, he doesn’t have to resist. He can touch himself—tease right in front of Louis, until he has Louis begging to put it in, and he doesn’t hesitate to wrap a hand around it and stroke himself—watch Louis suck his bottom lip into his mouth and gnaw as Harry dips his finger into his slit and grunts lowly, exhales quiet groans, each fucking time, just to see him shift and become bothered.

“I am this close to dropping onto my hands and knees for you,” Louis confesses, still not tearing his eyes away, and Harry laughs, low and sultry.

“Can’t I enjoy myself a little?” Harry drawls, then hisses.

“Not when I know it’s to get on my nerves,” he points out.

Harry can’t help smiling, mouth lopsided. He shrugs halfheartedly. “Maybe so.” That only provokes Louis into kissing him again. Harry uses his tongue as much as his lips, and groans when Louis places his smaller hand on top of the hand Harry’s using and just takes over, pushing Harry’s away. But that hardly lasts because Louis moves off his lap and kneels on the floor to take Harry into his mouth in one swift movement.

He hollows his sweet, warm cheeks and sucks fervently, giving Harry not a second to breathe or adjust; he swallows Harry with pride, with a set goal to take it all, but, realistically, he uses a hand to touch what he can’t because Harry’s tip and a few inches already encompass the back of his throat, then however much fills his mouth, and now he’s left to cover what’s not in it with his fingers. Harry leans his head against the settee cushion, fluttering his eyes closed as he exhales a soft groan, digging his fingertips into his thighs and letting Louis do his thing.

Lifting his head back up, he looks down at Louis. God, the sight of his bloody gorgeous face and the fucking brilliant way he knows how to use his mouth gives Harry’s impulse control a run for its money, just like it always did. He wants to fuck into his throat so badly—to ease the sensation that’s testing his patience and grating on his sensitive nerves.

And it doesn’t help that with each tight pull, Harry feels that much closer to coming.

“Stop, baby, come up here,” Harry rasps, taking his hands from his thighs and extending them out for Louis to take. Louis gives him one last, long and steady suck, tongue pressed against the right nerve as he pulls off and tongues Harry’s slit the last time. Fuck. He’s a little rough with pulling Louis to him when he takes his proffered hands, but he’s too hard to care. “Ride me like this, or wanna get fucked lying down here?”

Louis smiles. “Ride,” he answers.

Harry lightly smacks his arse. “All right, get to it,” he says.

Louis scoffs. “Get to it by,” he mocks.

“What?”

“Are we going to do this without lubricant?” he asks as he reaches behind himself to dig his thong out of his bum and rearranges himself a little to properly align himself with Harry’s cock, kneeling above it. “What if I don’t like that as much as I used to?”

“Then there’s some spare in my bag I like to carry around,” Harry tells him, running a comforting hand over Louis’s shoulder, down his arm. “I’m just—too lazy and too hard to get it.”

Louis rolls his eyes, but he starts chuckling, shaking his head slowly.

“Of course,” he murmurs. “You expect me to do all the work, then, huh?”

Harry shrugs. “Well, yeah.” As soon as Louis’s face turns from soft to exasperated, it breaks the thin threads holding together Harry’s poker face. “Baby, I’m kidding,” he assures, smiling, and holds Louis’s face in his hands, kisses him. “I will bend you over this sofa in a heartbeat and do all the work. You know very well I’m not like that.”

Louis still huffs, but he doesn’t look annoyed anymore.

“I was about to say,” he says, “you became a really lousy lover since we were last together.”

“Never.”

Louis leans forward and moulds their mouths together. Gripping Harry’s wet cock in his hand, he brushes his tip against his hole a few times before just sinking down on it and stopping when the head’s fully in. He plays around a little, rocking against it and swiveling his hips—and it all makes Harry want to grab Louis’s hips, stop him and command the situation because he wants this now , but he doesn’t; he communicates his needs through giving Louis dirtier, rougher kisses and tightly gripping the back of his neck.

It seems to weaken Louis a little, as he calms and starts to sink farther.

Christ, he’s hot and tight and there’s some resistance from his walls, but Louis eases them by being careful and moving hips in a circle—which helps, but, also, makes Harry want to fuck into him.

Louis pulls his lips away from Harry’s and very slowly, steadily, rises.

Harry sucks his bottom lip into his mouth as he keeps his eyes trained on Louis. He’s working himself on his cock so diligently—like nothing but this matters—and focused on finding the pace that lets him move the way he needs, lets him have flexibility. He sighs softly when Harry spreads his legs farther apart, inevitably making Louis spread his own and have his buried cock find itself in a deeper area.

Louis blinks, shoulders sagging and expression softening into familiar vulnerability and tenderness. 

Harry recognises that look: he’s found his spot.

“Angel,” Harry murmurs.

Louis meets his eye.

“Yeah?” 

He’s got a sweet pink colour to his cheeks Harry wants to kiss and touch. He’s so focused on observing every detail of Louis he doesn’t even fucking remember what he was going to say. So, instead, he switches route. “Are you all right? You want me to fuck you while you sit in my lap? Or you’ve got this?”

Louis takes a deep breath in, using his whole chest. “I’ve got it,” he assures quietly.

He rocks his hips, rotates them in figure eights and starts to bounce in between. Harry drums his fingers against his thighs, fighting the urge to just grab Louis wherever and figuring out where he might be allowed. But gliding his fingers from his thighs onto Louis’s has no effect on Louis; he doesn’t acknowledge Harry or the way he tests his hands on his hips and waist—like Louis doesn’t care if he touches him. So, he gives in to his impulse by not giving a single shit and placing his hands anywhere he wants. 

Famously, right on Louis’s arse cheeks.

Harry digs his nails into the thick skin and pulls them apart.

Immediately, Louis whines.

“Fuck,” he breathes out, hanging his head briefly as he continues to bounce.

“Did that make it deeper, baby?” Harry asks, staring at Louis so intensely, half to get to his attention, half because he can’t look away. “Look at me.” Louis lifts his head and returns his stare, eyes shining like they’re a little watery. “Did that make it feel deeper, baby? Like it’s fit right in the spot it belongs comfortably? Or am I in so deep already it’s just giving you the illusion of that because you still struggle to take me and you want to feel like you didn’t for once? Huh? I’m too big for you, aren’t I, angel?”

Louis squeezes his eyes shut, whimpering as he bounces on Harry’s cock faster. It’s a desperate, pleading whimper.

“Y—yeah,” he stutters out in a breathy voice. “You’re huge, but I love it.”

Harry smiles.

“Is that why you still don’t want to use lubricant, baby? Wanna remember how that much more difficult it is to take all of me without it? Almost impossible, innit?”

Louis stubbornly shakes his head.

“S’not,” he says.

Harry’s smile tilts into a smirk. “I admire your usual determination,” he says. “One of your many qualities that turns me on.”

Louis stops, and looks at Harry with a sigh. “I used to always just breathe in your direction, doing absolutely nothing, and you’d pop one.”

Well, it still happens. Harry’s just better at hiding it these days.

He shrugs, lips pressing together. “What can I say? You’re a beautiful man.” He saw the opening as soon as Louis stopped, and he seizes his opportunity by firmly gripping Louis’s waist in his hands and, sitting up, carefully but quickly pushing Louis to the side and down onto his back, watching his surprised face. Harry’s kneeling on the cushions now, body hovering above Louis’s. Louis blinks at him. “Good, baby? Wasn’t too rough, was I?”

“Jerk,” Louis sighs, no meaning in it.

“Don’t be mean,” Harry gently faux scolds, and drags a finger down his sternum.

Louis smiles, chuckling softly. “I’m not,” he disputes matter-of-factly, tilting his chin defiantly with a sparkle in his eye. 

“You are.”

“You’re a big boy. Toughen up, darling, and fuck me,” Louis demands with a gentle pat to Harry’s face.

Harry does just that.

He grabs himself and pushes back into Louis, watches Louis breathe in—deeply, silently—long eyelashes fluttering as his pretty mouth parts. Harry doesn’t waste a second: he fits all of himself in with a long, drawn out, high whimper from Louis, and moves his hips in the smoothest motions and rhythms he can in their positions. It’s not that hard, and he even forgets about it when he gets wrapped up and consumed in listening to the desperate moans leaving Louis’s open mouth and his fast paced fucking.

There’s a heat in his lower body that’s tied into a proper knot—and it keeps pulling, and pulling, and pulling, the harder he goes.

It’s provoked by Louis’s noises .

Christ, how did he somehow forget—in a split moment of time—how noisy Louis is when he’s got Harry’s cock in him. He becomes some kind of chime. He’s quiet, at first, typically, then it’s like he never closes his mouth. And it only makes Harry fuck him even harder, faster, Christ, as difficult as it is because he’s already driving into him to the point he knows Louis will feel weird and uncomfortable for more than a day—where he feels his endeavour pulling apart at its muscled seams. 

Perspiration’s collected at his temples and all of his high sweat points in his body. 

Louis’s looking no better than how he feels: flushed in his cheeks, eyes glistening everywhere he looks, short fringe messy, breathing choppy. But in between it all, he’s the most beautiful thing above all; the tenderness of his skin melts into the soft, raw emotion encompassing his entire eye. Almost to the point it’s gone deeper than what’s behind the surface.

Maybe whatever’s going through Louis’s mind is that deep.

He squeezes his eyes shut, then.

“I’m not—” he pants, a loud cry ripping from the back of his throat as Harry sharply hits a delicate spot. “I’m gonna come.”

Harry fucks into the spot, over and over, until it makes tears drip from the corners of Louis’s eyes, until his mouth suddenly takes the shape of an O and he’s coming, squirting; over himself, onto Harry, maybe some on the settee. It’s hard to know for sure when him coming untouched spurs Harry on, but—

“Baby, can I come inside?” Harry asks. “Yes, or no?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

He sounds not all there, like in a distant dream from coming so much. But he’s barely finishing his answer before Harry’s coming inside him as his hips grow just a bit sloppy from the sudden intensity it gives him. He fucks both of them through the aftershocks, milking the sensitivity of his slowing orgasm, then stops, carefully pulls out when he knows it’s over and grunts softly as he does.

Louis turns onto his side immediately, but keeps his side and face twisted towards Harry.

He looks so tranquil, blinking as much.

Harry, however, notices him flexing the muscles of his arsehole, and gently taps a cheek with the knuckles of his right hand.

“You’re gonna get come on the sofa, Louis,” he warns, “knock it off.”

Louis’s brows rise.

“I’m Louis now, huh?” 

Harry’s come starts spilling out of his arse and onto the settee.

Harry sighs.

He meets Louis’s eye. 

“It’s the name you were given at birth,” he points out.

“I’ve been baby the last hour,” Louis counters.

“And?”

Louis rolls his eyes, looking away. “Nothing,” he eventually mutters, turns his waist and face in the same direction as his curled knees. His tone becomes softer. “Get a flannel, then lie here with me?”

Harry does that.

 

 

 

The way Harry’s eyes move behind his dark, closed lids is unhurried. Louis’s warm, small and curled body is pressed to the front of himself, face buried in Harry’s chest. Every inch of Harry’s body is heated, from head to toe, and he’s nearly eager to pull himself back into a slumber he has no memory of falling into until there’s this silent voice in his head telling him to open his eyes. When he opens his eyes, he finds Taylor standing before them, dressed in black shorts with ends rolled and a white t-shirt and white Vans, straight hair falling past her shoulders and red lipstick painted perfectly even on her lips.

He’s startled, moving to sit up without thinking, then promptly freezes and panics, looking down at Louis. Shit, if he wakes him—

“You won’t wake him,” she says, and smiles.

Harry hesitates.

He looks between her and Louis until his gaze settles on Louis, watching his face close for anything that could indicate a disturbance, or for any kind of general change. But Louis keeps soundly breathing, and Harry lifts a hand to gently cradle his crown a brief second. 

He looks back up. 

“What are you doing here?” he asks, tone low. His voice is raspy and a little crackly from sleep.

“It’s been a while, I know,” Taylor says as she sits down. Right beside Louis’s bum, of all places. Turning her head to her left to look at Harry, she relaxes against Louis. Harry can’t help glancing at him, even though she said they won’t bother him. “Well, I saw you the other night, so, not really ‘a while.’ How have you been doing? After last night, I’d assume you’re feeling really good about yourself.” She pauses to sigh. “You didn’t expect me to come back, did you? I told you I’m here to help. I wasn’t completely clear, I realise, but I ran out of time previously. This time, however, we don’t have to worry about that.”

She mentions his sex with the wholly familiarity of a best friend, and it’s—it’s weird . They don’t even know each other. 

“Can you—not—okay,” Harry finally sighs, blinking. And, now, suddenly, he remembers her promise he’d keep their interaction perfectly intact when he’d waken, but it hadn’t happened. But he recalls it all now that she’s returned and they’re staring at each other. He remembers every bit of it like he never forgot.

Harry blinks again.

“May I not what?” she parrots before he can continue.

An ache is forming at his temples already. Squeezing his eyes, he breathes heavily and moves from Louis and does his absolute best to touch him the least amount as possible as he gets off the settee to stand on the ground in his boxers in front of her. Thank Christ he has those on. “Okay,” he says, holding up his hands and watching Taylor watch him with a patient face, “I’ve seen the movies, and I hate when the protagonist is, like, all hyper and emotional with questions, so, we are doing this the rational way.”

“Harry, honey,” she begins, standing, as well, “rationality is not in your nature.”

“Yes, it is,” Harry argues, but it feels like a lie. He’s too impulsive, he knows that. 

“It’s in Louis’s nature,” Taylor informs him. “He’s probably the most rational spirit I’ve seen. And it’s rooted so deeply in him that through this unique intimacy you share it’s been bled into you and influences and deludes a prominent part of your brain into believing you could be just as so. And while I love this positive thinking! This good influence he has over you. . . . It, also, affects your self-awareness. It hinders your ability to acknowledge your impulsivity, which in turn makes you far more impulsive.”

Harry swallows, something thick stuck in the back of his throat. “I’m aware I’m impulsive—of the differences between Louis and myself.” Taylor just shakes her head, and when he gets nothing else, he continues. “I remember. Well, I remember now that you’re standing in front of me again. I couldn’t before. You said I would, but when I tried recalling it to Louis, I could hardly think of a thing. What’s up with that?”

“I said you’d remember,” Taylor points out, “but I didn’t tell you how . It’s in your head the way it’s meant to be, don’t worry about it. Ask me something else.”

“I—” Harry starts, and pauses.

What the hell could he ask? Whatever he wants to know the most are the ones she can’t give any answers to.

Taylor seems to get this, judging by the softer look on her face.

“Come on,” she urges, “let’s go for a walk.”

“I’d like to put on clothes, first.”

“Be my guest.”

 

 

 

The walk they take is by the ocean.

It’s very much still as dark as it had been when he and Louis had been out for a swim. But it’s far more silent and daunting by the ocean, sounds of water crashing tenderly into the shore and shaking out in the far distance. He and Taylor haven’t spoken a word, and the silence has just been giving him too much time for his thoughts to roam; for his observations of her to become the only thing to distract him fruitfully. She’s a few inches shorter than him, and she’s wearing Louis’s favourite colour Vans. Her smell is distinct, but what it could be is vague; maybe it’s a little floral; maybe it’s a little warm — such as cinnamon or vanilla beans or apples on a Christmas evening. 

Her perfume is too vague to place, but in Harry’s heart she seems like the kind of person to smell of apples on a Christmas evening.

Taylor turns her head. “Tell me about your relationship with Louis,” she says.

Harry opens his mouth, but he laughs right away, smiling.

God, there’s so much.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he confesses quietly.

“Well, start with what’s funny.”

Harry shakes his head.

“It’s not,” he says, swallowing. “Nothing is. It’s just—the very thought of retelling you every detail exhausts me completely. My mouth is already tired.” He finds himself chuckling once more—he can’t stop it. “That should tell you it all right there.”

She’s silent on his answer.

“Tell me why you chose to sleep with him, then, even though you once swore you never would again,” she challenges.

Harry’s steps pause, and he looks at her. 

“How do you know that?”

She stops, turns around and looks him right in the eye. “How did I know your name without you telling me?” she counters.

“What else do you know?”

“Everything and nothing,” Taylor tells him. “Giving you specifics would break rules; we’ve been through this. But there are . . . loopholes. I try to use those on occasion, if it’s dire.” She looks to say more, then tilts her head to his left—just enough. And the look she gives him with her deep, blue eyes gnaws on a sensitive nerve because it’s just something Louis would do. The way she gives back makes him feel like he’s arguing with Louis. “You don’t wanna talk about your relationship. That’s fine. I don’t care, anyway. Let’s talk about Louis, the star of the show. Tell me qualities you can’t stand most.”

Harry’s silent, hesitant.

“Say it,” she urges. “We’re in a universe where no word is judged.”

It’s like moving mountains to make the words crawl to his tongue. And even then he still can’t say it. He can’t look Taylor in the eye. He grows uncomfortable and guilty in his skin, shaking his head. 

“I’ll feel bad,” he admits, looking back.

“You shouldn’t,” Taylor insists. “This isn’t you talking negatively of him to start trouble, Harry. This is simply you stating your feelings and conflictions. Go on.” Just as Harry’s swallowed his nerves and about to spit out the words, she stretches her arm out, offering her hand to him. “Take my hand.” He takes it without hesitation, relaxing into the feeling of her hand being smaller, warmer, thinner, than his. “Don’t let go under any circumstances, okay?”

Harry nods.

In an instant, his head starts to ache; it’s an overload to an unbearable measure that affects his cognitivity and his cerebral cortex. One second they’re at a beach in Greece, and the next—when it eases suddenly and he can comprehend his surroundings—he’s stood in a familiar living room. His and Louis’ signature lavender velvet couch is right there in front of the little, brief two-stair step under an arch that introduces and connects a separate room. 

Clothes are strewn all around the rooms.

It’s not in a suggestive manner whatsoever. It’s an aggressive manner. A sombre manner. And Harry is quiet, a part of him trying to recall this.

But he doesn’t remember this happening.

He looks at Taylor, eyebrows furrowed, and starts to let go.

She tightens her grip.

“Not yet,” she says.

He takes another look around, and pauses at one shirt he recognises. It’s an old shirt of his he has stored away in a separate walk-in wardrobe at his London flat, specific for clothes he has an attachment to that no longer fit or that don’t fit who he is now. They’re all his clothes, as he eyes the fabrics of the rest. Just as he’s parted his lips to ask Taylor what’s happened, his ears pick up on someone who isn’t them walking from a distant room to where they stand.

A younger Louis comes into view, and all of Harry’s insides stop shortly at the sight of his face: his nose is red and he’s snuffling; when he stumbles down the two-stair, his whole face is showcased to them, including his eyes that shine with tears, and his tear-stained cheeks with drying trails that new tears follow; and hands that tremble horrendously as he lifts them to his messy hair.

He looks fucking miserable, and it makes Harry’s stomach drop.

Especially when Louis looks at him—through him—for two seconds, then elsewhere, like Harry doesn’t fucking exist at all.

He swallows.

“He can’t see us, can he?” Harry asks, despite knowing the answer.

He has to pull in a few deep breaths to stop his own tears gathering in the backs of his eyes. Seeing Louis cry is probably the only way to trigger his tear ducts, as he naturally doesn’t cry all that easily, unlike Louis, whom cries far too much at everything. But that has never been a bad thing to Harry. He’s always and forever adored Louis’s sensitivities.

“No,” Taylor answers.

He lets go of her hand, and this time she doesn’t refuse it.

Harry watches Louis hiccup dry sobs and sit on the steps in his denim jacket with spots of wetness from most likely his crying. He goes to sit next to him, to be near him, and he feels stunningly real: he smells like the perfume he had a few year obsession with back in the day, and it almost brings a smile to Harry’s face, remembering that; how much Louis loved its soft, kind musk that was on the sweeter side for a men’s cologne. He has to either be 21 or 22 here, because that had been during the period when he’d worn it. 

And his skin is soft, smooth; jaw and cheeks and upper lip free of any facial hair. 

Harry reaches out to rub his knuckles ever tenderly against the skin.

“Don’t,” Taylor commands firmly. 

He drops his hand, sharply turning his head back to look at her. “Will it disrupt something?” he questions.

“Yes. So, please, keep your hands to yourself.”

It’s hard to.

Harry returns his eyes to Louis. 

Louis sits beside him, tears still dripping from his reddened eyes. He tries wiping every bit of it—frustratingly ridding evidence of his crying, and rubbing at his eyes, blinking repeatedly at a rapid speed, but there are still tears that escape and don’t vanish, and he wipes them away all the same. And Harry can’t do jack shit about this.

“Where was I?” he asks Taylor without tearing his eyes away. “Where the hell was I that was so much more important than this?”

Just when Louis might be calmer, his face crumbles all over again, and he buries his face in his hands. And his breathing gets worse, as does the trembling in his whole body; in the rapid shaking of his leg.

Harry’s trying not to jump to the worst conclusions of his past self, but at the same time, he doesn’t remember ever coming home and having his clothes thrown around their home, of Louis ever throwing his things in the midst of a fight because he was mad. And he’s never left Louis to be so distressed by himself. It’s never fucking happened. 

He loved Louis too much.

“You didn’t know,” Taylor assures him quietly, but it makes Harry frown deeper. “You had a fight half an hour prior to this, and you left because you didn’t want to make it worse.”

Harry thinks he remembers this now.

“I don’t remember him crying, though,” he whispers.

Louis must’ve never told him.

Their fight had been something so small he can barely recall because it was so many, many years ago, and he hadn’t wanted it to progress to something bigger than it should be. They never fought a lot when they had been together—such a stark contrast to after—but they fought often enough to know when to step away or to hold his ground. And Louis wasn’t ashamed to let Harry know if he hurt his feelings, or if the topic was upsetting, and to cry in front of him about it, or to let him know after he wasn’t there to witness it.

Taylor says nothing.

Harry looks at her. “Why are my clothes everywhere?”

“He was mad at you for a moment,” she explains. “But he puts them back.”

Taylor’s right—after they both watch Louis’s sobs increase to hideous heights, Harry’s concern growing along with it, Louis abruptly stops, takes his hands from his face to wipe them on his jeans, rubs his red, wet face, and struggles standing from the steps with his unstable legs to begin picking Harry’s shirts and various articles up in his hands and organising it into piles.

Slowly, Harry stands.

“I don’t get it,” he says, watching Louis. “Why did you bring me back to this?”

She comes up beside him.

“Tell me what you can’t stand most,” she urges gently.

Harry turns on her, scoffing. “I’ve just watched him cry his heart out,” he says. “I don’t really fucking feel like answering that right now. And do you just answer everyone’s questions with a question of your own, or is it just me?”

“My God, you’re more stubborn than I had originally seen,” Taylor sighs.

“Hi, I’m Harry Styles,” he mocks drily, holding out his hand for her to shake. “Talents include: being narcissistic, impulsive, and never being up front about my feelings. Nice to meet me.”

“You do this to yourself,” Taylor says, giving him a look.

Harry shrugs.

“Can we go back now?” he requests after a few, quiet moments of watching Louis still pick up his discarded clothing and stifle dry sobs, snuffling. “I’m uncomfortable.”

Taylor takes his hand in hers without another word, and that same unbearable weight on his brain comes back, messing with his vision. He wants desperately to clutch his head and sit down, but he can’t move; and Taylor wouldn’t allow him to let go, anyway. Then it’s gone. Instead of returning to the beach, they’re back in Louis’ suite, right in front of him. He’s lying on his stomach with the blanket wrapped warmly around his shoulders, sound asleep.

Taylor drops her hand from his, and looks at him with a serious expression.

“There are a few things we need to make clear, Harry,” she begins. “I’ve told you that this won’t work if you don’t trust me; while that remains true, it is, also, vital for you to cooperate. It’s just as important. You don’t know how to be vulnerable if it’s not with Louis, which is a small part of why I showed you what I did. I wanted it to touch you, so, that it could allow you to be open. So, if you still can’t because I’m not him, then I need you to want to be vulnerable for Louis. 

“So, I’m going to ask you this one last time: what are the things about Louis you can’t stand?”

Harry swallows, looking away.

“I . . . ,” he trails off, attempting to buy himself a moment to think this through. He keeps his voice quiet. “You know, I’ve loved his every flaw: the ones that clashed with mine, and the ones that are just like mine. I’ve loved the ones I’ve not liked—and not for the sake of anything.”

“But there is something?” Taylor prompts.

He casts a brief glance to her, then rests his eyes on Louis.

“There is,” Harry says. “I just worry about sounding hypocritical.”

“Try.”

He heaves a soft, heavy breath through his nose, focusing on the infinitely softness of Louis’s sleeping face. “I guess how he fights with me. He knows too much about me. He knows how I work. He knows how to push my buttons, and he knows what’s too far and what’s not. But sometimes, when it’s bad enough, he doesn’t care about that line—and I’m not—I’m not condemning that, because I get the same way when I get angry, too. I don’t care about what I say, either, until it’s over and the damage is done.

“He fights dirty. And it’s very easy to anger me when my buttons are pushed. I hate it.”

Taylor doesn’t speak right away.

“Is that all?” she asks.

Harry nods, then hesitates. “He’s too good at keeping things from me.”

“What do you mean?”

He looks at her, this time. “If he doesn’t want me to know about something, I won’t. Whenever something’s wrong, he doesn’t put himself on his own priority list and confide in someone—in me. He acts like he has it all together. I probably loathe that more than how he fights with me. I do, actually.”

Taylor, again, is silent.

“Did I make him cry?”

“I can’t speak on that,” she answers.

Harry sighs, rolling his eyes. “Of course not,” he mutters. “For someone who’s here to help, you don’t do much.”

“I’d watch it if I were you,” she warns kindly. “That attitude's gonna have you asking for things you don’t want to see.”

“Try me,” Harry sneers.

Taylor takes ahold his hand quickly and tightly, and the excruciating pain blinding his senses is like she’s set his nerves on fire. He’s burning in high altitudes he can’t see or touch, and there’s no way to put out the fire. He feels himself crumble to the floor, but he doesn’t feel himself make contact as he kneels in pain, trying to hold his head to stupidly lessen the pain. 

There are memories of him and Louis floating through his mind slowly and all too fast—too many to digest at a healthy pace. He sees them kiss—Harry grabbing the sides of Louis’s face in the middle of a room and pressing their mouths together in a heated moment—he sees them fight—blowing up at each other—he sees them fucking—Louis on his knees, weakly crying out as Harry comes in him—he sees them sleeping together—Louis on his stomach and down the bed with his head off their pillows, and Harry’s arm slung over his back as he lies strangely on his back—he sees them on tour buses and planes and backstages and in recording studios and hosting family dinners while laughing and smiling and on dates and every single fallout and silent treatment and purposeful distance and coldness they’ve had and created post-split. 

Every sound and word exchanged between them over the last eleven years: from the sweetest to the most vile. 

Then it’s gone in a flash.

It’s replaced with the foresight of Harry himself, alone, in his place.

There’s something about the image of it—of the snow falling around New York City on the other side of the window, of no lit kitchen and surrounded in total darkness that’s reflected externally and internally—that expresses a certain dreariness. 

It’s so real.

And Harry’s face is empty; tired; long.

He doesn’t know what it is, but it fills his chest with a pang of lonesomeness. It’s a deep ache that stretches beyond the size of his ribcage, reverberating deep at his core and shaking up his nerves. It cuts him, hurting him so, in a way that physically pains him, and it makes him want to cry. 

The image and pain is ripped from him in an instant.

Harry’s senses clear like a sky opening up and fresh water rushing into him and his hands fall from his head. He tilts his chin up to look at Taylor with what he knows is a miserable look on his face. She isn’t touching him any longer, but that devastating lonely feeling still lingers in the back of him despite how oddly it registers in his brain as a distant memory.

“What the fuck was that?” Harry rasps.

“I warned you,” Taylor says.

Harry staggers to his feet, and he throws her a look, but she meets his eye with a defiant chin tilt and determined eyes of her own.

“I’m serious.”

“That’s you,” Taylor informs him. “That’s going to be you, if you don’t cooperate. That feeling of despair? How much it’s still sickly lingering in you just from the mere taste I put in your head? That’s all you’re going to feel without Louis in your life, at a much, much larger scale . . . because that’s all there’s going to be. I hate to tell you this, Harry, but there is a real chance you can lose him. So, you can cut the bullshit and follow along, or you can let Louis lose his mind. Your choice.”

Lose his mind?

Harry swallows, unsure. There’s something wavering unsteadily inside him at the prospect of living without some part of Louis in his life, and it’s never been a chance he’s ever been willing to risk.

“Okay,” he murmurs. 

“Okay, you’ll listen?”

Harry nods.

A genuine smile lights up Taylor’s hard face, softening it immediately. 

“Good,” she breathes happily. “I knew you would. Unfortunately, I must get going. My time is up. I’ll see you soon.” 

She grabs the sides of his face, raising herself onto her tippy toes, and Harry slowly cracks his eyes open, lying on his side and holding Louis. Everything feels on the syrupy side: the languidness in his bones and chest; the sickly feeling penetrating his chest area, like his body’s been crying for hours on end. He feels pleasantly and ultimately like he shouldn’t leave this settee, as cramped as they are on it.

And there are already memories of his dream stuck in his head, there for him to think of as soon as he wakes up. Some are so vague, he has no idea what they are, but they leave a certain feeling in him that fuels the sickness. And there’s that same woman again. Thinking of her, however—of her soft face—only triggers the memory of an involved Louis. 

But he can’t place anything.

So, he lies there, trying not to think of it at all as warmth pulls his spirit under.

At the feeling of Louis moving around and touching him, Harry opens his eyes. “What are you doing?” he asks, low and muffled, but he already spies Louis crawling back into Harry’s chest, resting his head and hand against it.

“Nothing,” Louis responds tenderly. His voice is a little high and soft, which lets Harry know right away he’s just waking up.

“Sure,” Harry breathes quietly, closing his eyes as he rests his nose in Louis’s messy hair.

It’s quiet again.

“I’d’ve thought you’d left by now,” Louis confesses, softer.

Harry lazily lifts his lids.

“Why?” There’s something about the way Louis shrugs against him that isn’t honest. There’s a reason he thinks that. Maybe Harry could guess it, but he just closes his eyes for good this time, and breathes heavily, sleepily. “No,” he answers quietly, “I feel like shit. I don’t want to do anything else.”

Louis says nothing.

They sleep more.

 

 

 

They do what they do best: ignore it.

There’s nothing for Harry to say. He got what he wanted: to put his wet dick in Louis and fuck him like he knows how. It’s a very vulgar way to say it, but it’s the most honest. He doesn’t stay long in Rome; he leaves later that same night to get back to New York before his manager has a right fucking fit, and Louis doesn’t protest. Well, he’s been abnormally quiet for most of the day, just softly hanging on to Harry. And if it weren’t for the way Harry knows him—for the way this is easily just Louis post-good sex—it’d tighten the knot of anxiety swollen in his stomach.

As it is, Louis isn’t typically so quiet. He’ll talk, but his voice will be very tender and he will smile delicately at Harry all the while.

That was absent.

Harry could be overthinking it because he’s on edge worrying about this mucking them up further. He could be over-analysing every breath Louis blows in his direction. He is. He only knows a Louis that was once in love with him and how he interacted with Harry after sex. He doesn’t know what Louis’s like with men he’s not emotionally attached to after sex—or with men he once loved, whom, in this case, happens to be him.

It’s so strange.

Maybe he’s not so talkative or smiley in these instances.

But he’s still cuddly.

So, Harry’s returned to New York. He’s booked with meetings about discussions concerning touring later this year—when will it start, how long will it be, how many legs are there, what songs will he be performing, what special things he’ll do, et cetera—and it gives him excuses for not reaching out during this silent period he’s got going on with Louis. All he can do during meetings is feel incomplete and uncertain about his music and what’s the right thing to say to Louis. And there are no dreams! Nothing.

But there’s this same lingering sick feeling in his body that’s refused to leave.

He doesn’t know how to get rid of it.

 

 

 

Harry wakes up.

It’s the middle of the night, and his body’s probably woken him up for no fucking reason. But he feels strangely wide awake; alert. Opening his eyes up to total darkness, he’s pulled to his surroundings with a serene heart, and looks to the end of his bed—and recognises Taylor’s darkened figure sitting on the edge. He doesn’t start nor jump at her unexpected presence. Maybe it’s because he’s too calm—or accustomed already to her showing her face when she chooses without so much as a warning.

“Why do you always come around when I’m sleeping?” Harry rasps sleepily.

Taylor looks at him.

“It’s a person’s most vulnerable state,” she answers. “I can get to you most easily this way. That’s why.”

Harry sighs silently, then pulls himself up into a sitting position. He reaches out to turn the lamp that’s set on his bedside table on, lightening the room and illuminating Taylor. She’s wearing simple skinny jeans and a plain black t-shirt today, and Vans, but her signature red lipstick is there. Images of him and Louis that night surface immediately, but Harry blinks. 

“What do you want?” he asks, bringing a hand to his hair to run through it.

“You’re not very friendly tonight, are you?”

“The last time I saw you,” he says, “I felt physically ill for days. So, no. Not particularly.”

“Well, you could’ve conjured me. I would’ve fixed it.”

“How?”

“Think of me and mean it,” Taylor tells him.

Think of her, and mean it. As if that could be so easy. Harry doesn’t remember her when she’s not here—her face and specific details of her linger, but her name is a mystery and there’s no whole individuality. He won’t even recall this insignificant detail in the morning. How could he create a song for someone that won’t exist in the next world?

“I won’t remember to,” he says. “Make me remember.”

She meets his eye. 

“Done.”

“That’s it?” he questions skeptically. “A look, and it’s promised?”

“Are you doubting me?” Taylor challenges.

“No,” Harry admits reluctantly. It’s like pulling teeth to say this—to rip these words from the depths of darkness in his throat. “I trust you.”

That causes a smile to erupt across her face like a newly lit candle wick in the midst of winter. He wishes, three quarters of the way—because a little something inside doesn’t regret holding it back—he didn’t say that. “Really?” she says with gentle surprise colouring her tone. “And it took you seeing losing Louis to open that part of yourself?” As Harry keeps his mouth shut, she comes to understand something; a tender flicker in her blues. “Ah. . . . Well, as much as I’d seen this coming, it still touches me.”

Can you see things?” Harry asks. “Do you know everything before it happens?”

Taylor tilts her head, a small movement.

“Yes,” she answers.

“So, you know,” Harry states.

“Know what?” she counters. “I need specifics, darling. You’re always so . . . vague. I understand why Louis hangs up on you.”

“He doesn’t disconnect for that reason,” he corrects. But you must know that. “What I mean is: you know our ending. You probably know the entire storyline of Louis and me—right up to our last breaths together. Do you?” Taylor’s soft yes makes his chest rock back and forth. “You can’t tell me, can you?” Her head shake piles a heavy hand to his heart; he curls the fingers of his left hand gently into his palm, casting his gaze away. “I’d like to know. Sometimes I sit and wonder—I even wait when I believe it to be nearing. But there’s a continuous bounce back. But you know. I know you can’t tell me, but I still wish you could.”

She looks at him with a contemplative expression. “What’s brought this on?”

Harry returns his gaze to hers.

“Nothing special,” he admits. “Pent up wonderings. Vague what-ifs.”

Taylor searches his face. She lays her hand down near his feet, towards his thigh. “Take it,” she urges kindly.

Harry drops his eyes, and, after a silent moment, he reaches for it, their hands clasping together. He’s not scared, but he is apprehensive; and perhaps Taylor recognises that by the soothing way she caresses her delicate and skinny thumb across his discoloured knuckles. A couple are a little skinned from his recent boxing session; but it’s healing fairly.

A shooting pain jumps in the back of his head, his senses erasing themselves into nothingness.

Then, the next thing he recognises, as it all comes back to him, is their study. His and Louis’s old, old study they had in the place they lived together in for almost seven years. It was a room lined wall to wall with ceiling high dark wood bookshelves—filled with books equally shared and loved by the both of them. They had their own spots on the shelves, but they still shared. And this picture before Harry is no different from the memory in his mind, although realer. 

Louis is sitting on a brown leather settee, legs up and laying across the cushions. His back leans against the arm rest, facing away from the light he would always read under.

Harry himself—a younger reflection, in an unfitted white striped dress shirt, a hat upon his head covering his too short hair—sits behind his matching dark wood desk, antique banker’s lamp illuminating his own readings he has laid across in front of himself. A pang shoots Harry in the centre as he watches from the doorway with Taylor beside him; it’s so fucking nostalgic and deeply sad simultaneously that he can’t touch or interact or fix or do anything except watch this go on.

“I don’t want to be here,” he chokes out to Taylor.

“Why?” she asks so casually.

“Because I know what he’s going to say,” Harry explains.

Then: 

Louis makes a movement, and he turns his head around to look at an unaware Harry. “There’s a wedding happening today,” he announces sweetly.

Harry’s eyes rise from his reading to look at Louis.

“What wedding?”

“Remember what I told you the other week?” Louis says. “A stranger came up to me and invited me to his wedding?” At Harry’s nod, he pauses briefly. “I changed my mind. I think we should go.” Harry tilts his head to give Louis a look, eyebrows raised, and Louis gives him a look back. “I’m not going to let you talk me out of it. We’re going.”

“Hasn’t it already started?” Harry asks.

Louis glances at his phone. 

“In half an hour.”

Harry shakes his head. “We won’t make it. You take too damn long to get ready for anything. Do you remember where it is?”

Louis scoffs. 

“First of all,” he starts, and if Harry weren’t feeling so guilty, he’d smile and maybe chuckle at him, “it’s important to be presentable. You can be just as bad, so, don’t fucking act like you aren’t. Second, of course I do.” Harry watches himself mumble something in response, then he carries his gaze from himself to Louis, watches him turn his head back around and touch and stare at the ring finger of his left hand. Harry’s chest pools with claustrophobic warmth that rushes through the veins connected to his heart, making it beat erratically. “Where’s my ring?”

His voice has softened incredibly.

It echoes in Harry’s head, mimicking this time years ago. He’s hearing the same moment in his head times two, and he has to briefly turn his head away.

He watches himself make a comical face to himself.

“It’s—somewhere,” he answers.

Louis’s eyes roll.

Harry remembers that panicked feeling—that caught emotion paralysing him for a brief moment. That did he find it? paranoia wanting to creep in at its own accord. He had been lucky Louis hadn’t been looking at him when he’d asked it, because he would have either assumed: a) Harry had the ring, and he had a poor poker face, or b) taken Harry’s expression as an insult and that he hadn’t thought of Louis wanting something on paper—or more likely the other way around: Harry hadn't anticipated on ever proposing. It would have definitely been that, and it would’ve started a fight because it would’ve hurt Louis’s feelings.

And it would’ve hurt Harry’s feelings, too, because he’d had the ring for years.

“You reek of bullocks,” Louis says flatly.

“I do not!” Harry denies vehemently. He feels a tinge of sympathy for his past self, as well as a wall of foolishness. He was so fucking foolish. “If I have the ring and say so, it would ruin all surprise. If I don’t have the ring, it would hurt your feelings. I lose either way.”

Louis turns his head around. “Yeah, but I would win in one of these scenarios.”

Taylor laughs beside Harry.

Harry, at the desk, sighs, as Harry, next to Taylor, glares at her.

He goes to say something to her, but stops when he hears the chair at his desk scratch against the floor, Louis’s light scoldings of what have I told you a million times before? You’re going to ruin the hardwood and his past self not giving a single shite as he walks over and makes room for himself on the edge of the leather settee beside Louis, ignoring what Louis’s saying.

Harry watches himself grab ahold of Louis’s face in his hands, cupping his jaw, and Louis’s whole face changes, softening, melting, captivated. “You,” he begins, voice taking a raspy, tender tone, “are eternal in me. You are everlasting. To think you could measure what’s so immeasurable with a ring is beside me. I’ll love you and adore you and admire you and cherish you and treasure you and worship you and beg for you and spoil you and respect you and value you and do the unthinkable for you as intensely in thirty years as I would have five years ago and as I will now. Ring, or no ring. Together, apart. You are eternal, darling.”

Louis’s eyes are filled to the brim with tears pleading to be shed. “That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me. Have you been practicing poetry?” he asks, voice brittle.

Harry remembers smiling gently, and he watches it happen again before his eyes. “A little,” he answers gently. He had been turning those words over for weeks.

Louis huffs a little, smiling as so.

“For you,” Harry adds quietly.

Harry turns his head away to avoid watching Louis and himself kiss—to avoid hearing the Does that mean you’re going to propose to me? from Louis mumbled against Harry’s mouth and Harry’s mysterious I’ll keep you on your toes and the following vigourous pecks of kisses he gives Louis’s face.

“Where’s the ring?” Taylor asks.

Harry swallows.

“My bedside drawer,” he responds.

“After all these years?” As he says nothing, he feels her avert her gaze from the settee to Harry. “You never did it, did you?”

Harry swallows again at the answer in her voice. “Why does it matter?” he challenges steadily.

“Why wouldn’t it?” she counters.

After a moment to himself, Harry looks, again, at his past self and Louis. He watches them exist in a world he can’t fucking comprehend because it feels like a cruel illusion; it’s a reality he has no physical recollection of. He doesn’t remember the feeling—of living it, of breathing this in and imprinting it onto his rushing blood. Inhaling a deep breath, he admits this in a fragile voice, “I wanted to. I really wanted to.”

Taylor’s quiet.

“What happened?”

Harry turns his head towards her.

Words scramble in and out of his throat, indecisively climbing up and down the ladder of his tongue. “I just never did,” he settles on, and looks away, ready to crawl out of this fucking grave.

“That’s a bunch of bullshit,” she states flatly.

Harry’s eyebrows rise.

“Who said I cared about what you think?” he retorts without looking Taylor’s way. “You don’t have to believe it.”

There’s a small moment.

“I won’t,” she decides.

“Good,” he replies with a petty tone. “Now, can we, please, leave? I’m tired of looking at myself.”

Never thought I’d hear you say that, a voice, eerily mimicking Louis’s in his head, says. It’s so in place Harry hardly blinks, though he recognises the impossibility of the chance. However, instead of acknowledging it, he takes the hand Taylor proffers and allows for the first time his senses to be evaporated. His eyes open to his darkened room, his bum sat on the side edge of his bed, with Taylor standing near him. He blinks a few times — slowly, evenly. 

“Are you all right?” she asks, looking Harry in the eye with genuinity. 

“Why would you put me through that?”

It’s what comes out of Harry’s mouth because it’s banging on every nerve in his head. It’s the thought of Louis’s facial expressions and the painfully nostalgic feeling wrapped around his ribs during and now after. He’s trying to breathe through it, but it strangely feels like his heart is breaking all over again; piling onto his recently existing anxiety that has been accumulating strongly since the night he had sex with Louis.

He’d rather be consumed with hatred towards Louis than deal with this a second time.

She sits down beside him, keeping eye contact.

“What’s going through your head?”

Who cares — his head’s in pieces; nothing can go to and fro in a malfunctioning universe. Shouldn’t she know this? “Shouldn’t you know?” he chooses to repeat aloud. “You know every God damn thing, so, I’m assuming you can read my mind, as well.”

Taylor looks at him.

Harry shakes his head, looking away. “Forget it,” he continues, with a brief sniff.

He feels Taylor move to sit beside him.

“It’s okay,” she murmurs.

The assurance triggers an abrupt snap of anger beneath his bones and stomach.

“No, it’s not,” Harry argues hastily, then turns his head towards her. “You don’t know what it’s like losing someone. You brought me back somewhere it hurts my very soul to be here; a place I cannot stand to remember, because it is the direct origin of my pain. When Louis and I gave up on each other—yes, it was an equal parting—we gave up on every part. Love turned to loathe. Yet I still love him most days. It’s torture to sit and allow you to bring me back to these memories because I have never healed from them, and I don’t think I ever will, and I am tired of feeling this excruciating pain in my chest. Sometimes I don’t think I will be able to breathe. But I do. And that’s not good enough. No, it is not okay, Taylor.”

Taylor simply looks at him. “Are you done?” she asks.

Harry scoffs.

“That’s such a fucking condescending thing to say,” he points out. “I’m choosing to be honest, and that’s all you have to say?”

“I don’t say it in a condescending tone, Harry,” she replies. “Look past the defensive behaviour your strong feelings fuel in you and understand that I am asking if there’s any more you’d like to get off your chest. I am never here to dismiss any part of you.”

Her words irrationally piss off a different part of him.

“Yes,” he answers curtly.

“What is it?”

She’s infuriatingly calm, but he knows he’s unjustly taking his pain out on her. He attempts to unsuccessfully breathe it off him like dust molecules. “I know your purpose with me is to—help me. . . . But . . . I don’t want help if all it will do is make me relive and reinforce all that I’ve been through. I don't want any of it.”

Gazing at Harry, Taylor remains silent. Then a gentle hand presses against his lower back.

He wants to push it off, but can’t.

“I do know what it’s like losing a person,” she says, tone quiet. “To grieve someone, or something, while they still exist. I have lived for eons, Harry, and you are far from the first I have helped.” She turns her lingering, knowing gaze onto him, and he can’t help but return it. “I’ve gotten attached to some, I won’t lie. Despite my difference, I still carry that human trait in myself to grow love for others and connections, and a couple were very deep that it scarred me to let that go. I’ve had to pull myself back and hold things in—to remind myself consistently that I can’t keep contact.

“I may still look over them without their knowledge, but it’s not the same. Even now, with you, I’ve grown this . . . concern. I’m alone on the other side, Harry. It’s just me. And sometimes it drives me crazy. 

“I understand you better than you let me.”

The silence is tangible — Harry could take it from his skin, if he chose to; to mold the clear gel with orange undertones in his palms and fingers. So, he looks away — like the coward he can hear Louis calling him in his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologises quietly.

It’s a moment before Taylor responds.

“Your apologies are starting to have some meaning,” she tells him, then stands.

Harry’s eyebrows furrow.

“My apologies have always meant something—”

The tense look she turns her head to give him shuts him up. It is neither annoyed nor angry; but it is firm in its silent disbelief, triggering a wave of discomfort overwhelming him. 

“How can you bear to sit there and lie through your teeth about one of your most debilitating flaws?”

Debilitating flaws?”

“Yes. The flaws that weaken your resolve to change and impair your overall character,” Taylor explains. “The ones that give you the hardest time about change and prevent you from it.” Harry says nothing, and that’s enough. “Rare is the time you feel remorse for any guilty action you’ve committed. All the fights you have had with Louis and no apology came out of it. You say what you say and never take a thing back because you have an ego the size of your birth land. You’re a secretive narcissist.”

It’s like she just fucking yanked on Harry’s ear and scolded him.

He wants to get angry about this—raise his voice and snap at her so self-assured accusations. But he’s hearing Louis’s voice in his head: You never want to admit you’re wrong. You get even when you’re wrong. You play petty games, and it’s so fucking childish. Fix your fucking ego, or I’ll fix it for you.

Door slamming.

It wasn’t a threat. It was a promise to leave Harry.

“Okay, Louis,” he sighs in compliance, but there’s no heart in him to make it condescending or snotty, like he perhaps would. 

“I’m not Louis.”

“I’m not convinced you aren’t.”

“Then so be it,” Taylor merely replies before turning away. Then, after moments of stiff silence: “Tell me one more thing before I must leave.”

“Depends,” Harry stubbornly murmurs.

She ignores it.

“If you were granted the choice to redo everything, what would you say?”

“I’d say yes.”

There’s always going to be honesty in the tangibility of his and Louis’s past — tangibility in going through memories and remembering every feeling; it hooks itself in the heart of himself and deposits letters containing Dear Harry, you had him here—the image of a foggy New York night years back with the two of them wandering; dear Harry, the sunset in the horizon whilst it rained could have been the moment—it was raining in Cheshire, and Louis didn’t want to come inside from the garden Harry had spent his life growing up in—the dying orange sun reflecting onto sharp angles of him like an angelic hue—nobody else was home, and Harry had never been so in love while standing at the opening of the sliding glass door, begging him to return inside; dear Harry, I’ve been dreaming of the milky way lately. What do you think it means? Also, do you picture our lives spent apart one day? — Louis had woken Harry from his sleep one day in their bed, and he had asked these questions word for word. Being disoriented, Harry had mumbled in a gravelly voice, I don’t know what it means. And, no, I’ve never imagined that.

Harry blinks once, twice, thrice—his throat starts to become thick.

He turns quiet.

“I’d like to be alone, please,” he requests.

Taylor stands, warm hand leaving an imprint on him, and cups his cheeks, leans into him—he blinks. The sun shines lightly through his bedroom windows, duvet covering him with a warmth it captured overnight. But a lethargic hollowness fills his blood and swallows any solidity. 

He stays in bed a while.

 

 

 

Thunder crackles beyond the high window on the other side of Harry’s bedroom.

He’s sitting on the edge of his plush bed, rummaging through a box he had stored away in his walk-in closet. It’s a bunch of belongings—some old, some new he had never worn, and— . . . he pauses, eyes lingering on a red, velvet cardigan. An overwhelming wave of sorrow washes over his bones, drowning him in a memory that’s as hazy as a polaroid—there’s an unintelligible background, and just the thought of Louis. The image of Louis. It’s draping over him, he’s draping all over Harry, the night draping on all of them. He thinks of Louis in the world—is he in Turkey? Are the Romanians treating him respectfully? Did he jet to London? Or did he come back to Harry? To New York? He sees Louis’s mouth telling him once upon a time that London and New York are the same to him. And Harry feels like he’s asking these same questions over and over again, but in different ways; always wondering, but never carrying out the courage to do more.

He removes his gaze from the cardigan to the window behind him.

He stares longingly at his phone.

He yearns for Louis’s voice to come through the line and confide in him where he’s at. I’m in France. Call me Louis Babineaux now, please. Harry misses that—the ridiculous name changes he’d claim were his characters. Sometimes Harry would wonder if he was gonna stay that character for the rest of his days, because Harry believes that Louis really doesn’t like being Louis Tomlinson—himself.

That triggers a sudden, intense need for Harry to apologise.

He can’t pinpoint the exact reason—for, maybe, that night in New York in November, them out at midnight at an ice cream parlour, and he had been insulting, resulting in a fight between themselves? Or for the times he knowingly pushed Louis away because there was something he couldn’t stand about himself? Could it be for the relationship between them post-split? All the resentment, built up anger towards themselves, their predicaments, their jobs, the selfishness of their needs they just expected the other to understand and know without telling each other? They couldn’t read each other's minds, and they both knew that, in the very backs of their minds that were cluttered underneath all their feelings. 

Or could it be Harry needs to apologise for just being an arsehole? 

That’s never happened before, he can hear Louis say to him. Harry wouldn’t have a rebuttal for it, for once—he’d say, I know

But there’s something in Harry’s mind he can’t shake—why does he feel like he’s apologised for this before? Recently? He sees himself—he understands a figure—he understands the atmosphere—he feels them next to him. But he can’t see their face. He has the most sure intuition, though, that it’s Louis, even if he can’t see his face. But he hasn’t spoken to him in months, so, what vision is this he’s receiving? What intuitive knowledge given to him could be faceless? There are quite a few missing pieces like this specific one in his memory, in his gut feelings, and he wakes up sick —physically and emotionally.

However, winter turned into spring, and, now, Harry’s stuck here with an angry god outside his window, cursing his home.

Exhaling a heavy breath deep from within his chest, he gives energy to his knees, gets up from his bed, moving away from his box of lost belongings and picking his phone up from the dresser he has to pass by on his way to stand in front of his window.

He can barely see past a few floors underneath him with the heavy rain. 

Harry opens his cellphone.

Straight to voicemail within seconds.

At the dial tone, Harry says, tone tamed and a hand on his waist, “. . . I feel like the last time I had seen you wasn’t something I should’ve repeated. If you choose to see me again—and I hope you do—there’re some things I’ve been holding in that I feel I need to say to you. I’m at my New York address if you want to fly by. . . . Please.”

Fucking weak.

He sighs roughly and throws his phone in the white, plush chair against the wall.

Leaving his old belongings in the box, he sits down on his bed and throws himself down, hands covering his eyes. 

Then there’s his phone ringing.

A knock from his very front door sounds down the hall at the same time, and though he wants to answer his phone, he’s much more urgent to get to his front door—so much that he hops up from the bed, bones in his back cracking painlessly, and makes a quick jog and unlocks it with quietly clumsy fingers. Pulling on the stainless steel knob, a wave of refreshing cologne hits his nostrils as he stares at Louis’s figure standing in front of him.

He’s got his hair short and soft, laying perfectly. A lightwash jean jacket drapes him in one size too big, a plain, black t-shirt underneath tucked into skinny high waisted jeans that match his jacket.

He looks rested.

“That was fast,” Harry says first.

Louis looks at him a single moment.

“I was already on my way.”

Taking a step back, moving the door farther back with him, he gestures for Louis to step inside.

Louis doesn’t hesitate, but he does give Harry’s penthouse a short but thorough glance before turning to face Harry once more. His eyes have a cool, neutral, disconnected look, and it nearly terrifies Harry—he hates this look. Hands lodged in the pockets of his jean jacket, Louis gestures. “Well, I’m here. I don’t have much time before my flight. What did you want to tell me?”

Harry blinks. 

“Where are you going?” he asks. “Didn’t you just arrive in New York?”

“I’ve been here a few weeks.”

“You didn’t bother to come by?”

Louis does another sweep of his penthouse, briefly connecting eyes. “I’m here now. So, tell me.”

Harry opens his mouth, ready to say something in reply, but freezes. “Come live with me,” he blurts the first sentence in his head. He sees Louis ready to reject him, and his voice softens, genuine, his heart’s guts bleeding into him and his thoughts and words—and it feels completely out of his control. And so strange—foreign on his tongue. “I need you. I know I’m selfish. I know I keep doing things you continually tell me to stop doing. I’m just stubborn about the things I want, and, unfortunately, a little disrespectful about it, and I’m sorry. About our past, my insensitivity, our strains on each other, my ego —I’m sorry. I feel like I've been constantly grieving us for months, and I’m not sure why. I keep seeing you, and feeling you, and our memories we created; they’re, like, haunting me, or something. I can’t explain to you why.” The mere mention of it causes a bone-deep itch under his skin he can’t climb out of. “We could reinvent ourselves. All those days we spent dreaming about establishing a life in Maine . . . or Tennessee . . . or Virginia, we can actually do something about right now. Or any time soon. Why can’t I reinvent myself for us?”

Pausing, Harry feels water coming up from under his eyes.

“I really am sorry I gave up on you. I’m sorry you gave up on me. I’m sorry for the things I missed; for the moments I never comforted you.”

At that, Louis’s interest peaks a little. Harry sees that it’s hit a nerve—the icing on the cake—the way he attempts to mask his emotions, to return them to the disconnected look he had when he first walked in. His gaze moves back and forth between Harry and everything else in his way.

He then makes a tiny scoff.

“That’s what I’m here for?”

It’s not the so, you’re really apologising this time? he was expecting from Louis. 

This doesn’t feel like his Louis, because it’s the guard that goes up in response—it’s the sparked interest that dissipates into faint his permanent frown lines at the corners of his mouth; it’s the full, hard look in his eyes that are probably imaginatively spewing barbwire feelings at Harry at one hundred miles per hour. It’s probably the hatred that’s been brewing the past hundred years.

“Yes,” Harry states.

“What do you expect me to do?” Louis asks. He looks affronted, brows pinching together, lips slightly parting. “Am I supposed to just—say: I forgive you, Harry, let’s frolic in Maine until we reach the edges of the world? I’m not that anymore—I’m not—you don’t understand. I regret having sex with you those months ago”—Harry’s chest shatters in glass pieces, strings like a guitar snipped in halves—“I did it because a little part of me still needed you after all these years, but I’ve had time to realise that . . .”

The hard fight dims in Louis noticeably, but not entirely. 

“What?” Harry asks.

He feels it in his chest, the moment he’s had bad dreams about coming alive right in front himself—the moment where everything they’ve spent doing to each other—time spent together, time spent apart, loving each other, arguing with passion over all aspects of everything, spiteful and petty occurrences to get back at one another, the successes they’ve had in their careers, and the god awful hard times they didn’t think they would make it out of—coming back to bite them in the ass. His chest is squeezing and squeezing and squeezing and—

Louis meets his gaze.

That’s it.

“I think I’ll get going,” he gently announces.

Harry attempts to swallow the stubborn lump in the bottom back of his throat. “You’re not gonna finish that sentence?” he asks.

Louis shakes his head.

“I think you know what I was going to say,” he replies, staring at Harry with a sparkle in his eyes reminiscent of a dismal look. This is not fucking happening. Then—he parts his lips with: “Besides . . . I think we need to stop owing each other. It only makes things worse, in the end. It drags our ending on.”

“I don’t think you owe me anything,” Harry counters quickly.

“But you do.”

“How?”

“It’s in our actions,” Louis explains, hands coming up to express how obvious it is, “it’s why you think you always have to save me—it’s why you offer up a spot for me in your homes; why I call you in hopes you’re going to come find me. It’s why we’re still stuck together the way we are, Harry. . . . I don’t need saving. I’m not helpless; I’m a grown man. My problem is that I still have the mentality I did when we were in a relationship.”

“But,” Harry begins to argue, “I don’t do what I do ‘cause I believe you need saving. I do it because I still love you.”

That confession creates a thick blanket of heavy air surrounding them. Louis stares with a look Harry has a hard time deciphering, and Harry gives the same stare in return in hopes of concealing some of his vulnerability he just lended out on a fork to be taken into Louis’s mouth and crushed by his teeth and tongue. That’s been on his chest a while—been through a few dozen layers of skin in its years of obtaining the throne in his blood. It’s had its share of switching between layers through the years as it grew, but it’s never left once. He’s never taken it away, no matter what they’ve gone through. 

“Well, I don’t,” Louis replies.

It’s the detached look in his eyes, the overwhelming front of their disguises being taken off and torn down. It’s the way he turns his back and begins walking to the door, Harry’s bones freezing in intense belief, as if he had foolishly anticipated him returning those same deep feelings, then unthaw and jump into action to prevent him from leaving.

But as soon as his hand lands on the doorknob, his eyes are being opened. 

He’s lying on the bed still, vision met with his ceiling, and there’s nothing but silence in his bedroom. A heavy breath releases from his chest like he had been holding it in his dreams, and he sits up to examine his surroundings. In a hazy afterthought, it felt real for him and this sick, gut-wrenching emotion still lingers in his chest like it had happened. It’s weak, ghostly, like the fingertips of his skeleton; standing from his bed, he walks over to his phone, but just like his skeleton, there’s no response. 

Harry’s eyes move to the window by his side, watching the rain. 

There’s a sudden knock.

Turning around, Harry listens for another knock to hear it coming from the front door. He attempts to control his movements along his way by not rushing to the door to open it, but his palm is clammy as can be—making him make a fool of himself. 

A calming rush sweeps in as he meets Louis’s gaze.

He has a very comfortable wardrobe on: matching soft grey joggers and hoodie, Nike shoes. He’s looking gentle in nature, causing Harry’s heartbeat to jumpstart to twice the speed from hia leftover feelings from his dream. The anxiety crawls up hia throat so much he has a very hard time lending a hand to the words in his throat he’s supposed to say.

“You going to invite me in?” comes from Louis’s mouth.

“Yeah,” replies Harry. 

He’s stiff in further widening the door and stepping aside.

Louis waltzes in comfortably, like sand pouring downwards in an hourglass. Harry’s palms are clammy in heat, thoughts on his words he had told Louis in his dream. But when he attempts to form them on his tongue, they are never the same. He doesn’t understand what to do, doesn’t remember what he had left a message specifically about. He had thought it would be an apology in person about . . . whatever it is. But he’s blanking severely. And Louis eventually turns around on his heels, fixed in a single spot in Harry’s foyer, waiting.

“How are you?” Louis asks, looking tensely into Harry’s eyes.

“I’m all right,” drawls Harry.

“I really don’t have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, to be honest,” Louis confesses. “I have a flight booked for New Zealand.”

Deja vu in the groggiest sense.

“I—“ Harry stops.

Louis’s just staring, expectant.

“I’m sorry,” he continues, then stops once again with nothing more on his tongue.

The air feels stiff.

Louis’s eyebrows rise, eyes widening with them, in clear anticipation of more. 

“Okay?” He erases the look on his face immediately, channeling a less patient gaze. “I need more information than that. It’s so fucking vague—like, are you apologising for your mistakes, or for having sex with me, or for your personality, or—something! I hate getting messages from you that are vague in nature, and it’s worse when I entertain it because I then regret it.”

Ouch.

Maybe Harry deserves that hostility.

But it takes a village’s strength to suppress an equally hostile remark; so, Harry swallows it, suppressing his easily angered ego. 

Crossing his arms, he clears his throat.

“Truthfully, I don’t remember what I was going to say to you,” Harry admits. There’s a stiff, cold chip on his shoulder. He’s thinking of it: I want to change things about us. We’re living in a past that’s constantly repeating itself, and the game is tiring itself out. I want us both to choose to heal from it all and let it all go. I want that ranch in Virginia with you; I want a vacation cabin in Tennessee with you. But to have all of that, we need to stop all this. You need to stop disappearing. I need to stop entertaining it and acting like I own you. I’m sorry for all my mistakes and mishaps and misdirected anger; and I’m sure you’re sorry, too.

Louis rolls his eyes listlessly.

“I feel like I just wasted a trip here, then,” Louis mumbles.

“No,” Harry argues.

“Yeah, I did,” Louis counters. “I come to you in hopes that we can have a mature conversation, but whenever I say something that doesn’t sit right with you—even just the slightest —you block yourself off from me.” Taking an even, deep breath he releases, he adjusts his aura into a softer setting. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be . . . hostile.”

“It’s okay,” immediately says Harry.

Silence comes up heavy.

“Look,” Louis begins, to break it—face relaxing into something resembling tiredness—“I’m tired. You don’t just call me for nothing. Say what you have to.”

Harry starts blanking.

His mind starts to form a buzzing sound, and it becomes increasingly louder by each second, setting Harry’s heart off into a high rate. His eyes widen, Louis’s reflection in front of him suddenly frozen in time; Harry’s bones still, paralysis overcoming his limbs, breath stopping with it. If his thoughts were able to convey his background emotions, he’d be cussing—panicking—anxiety overtaking him at his loss of mobility. Then . . . he’s blinking his eyes open slowly, fixated on his ceiling once more. With molasses-like anxiety running over his bones and organs like a bath, he sits up to be met with his bedroom.

Taylor!” he’s abruptly bellowing.

His roar runs so deep in his veins, he feels like his voice could shake his whole penthouse. But he doesn’t know where this name comes from, and a wash of uncertainty—of mixed anxiety, shame—fills him at the call of her name as the hairs on his arms rise high, chills shooting up his spine. He just wants this to fucking stop . He’s starting to feel his reality is something to question, like he’s going mad. 

He spins his head towards his door when he feels a presence, though no one is there.

“I get it,” Harry admits, standing and shouting at nothing. “My emotions control me; I keep responding in ways I shouldn’t. I’m not tactful, or respectful, or selfless, or”—It hits him like a tonne of bricks, abrupt and stupidly . . . it’s not even fucking about him. It’s not only about him. He doesn’t know what it is in his head that makes it click all together, but he sees the moments in his memories he’s lately been forced to revisit in dreams, and the present time he lives in—“ . . . considerate.” He stares at the doorway more intensely. His voice returns to normal; slow; he feels foolish to say what he will, but regardless: “I can’t see you. . . . I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why you’ve been bugging me—I feel like I know you—distantly. . . . I’m saying that I’m this and I’m that, and that I understand the way I am, but . . . I’m still the exact same self; I’m just repeating everything, in denial.” His words settle into the silence, and a heaviness lifts off his chest. But a hollow spot remains in the middle.

Something’s wrong.

Harry’s doorbell goes off.

He stands, frozen, hesitant to walk through the very space he’s talking to, but he gets his feet moving, goosebumps remaining on his cold skin as he passes through and down the hall. Impulsively, momentarily, he chances a glance back, and he continues to feel it until it fades, suddenly, no longer a lingering presence. His palms aren’t sweating when he turns his front door knob; however, something about these actions feel real , despite having done them three times now; those other two are a faint, fuzzy dream. But there’s a terribly sick feeling twisting the guts in his stomach. 

Pulling open the door, Louis is stood there in a baggy, long sleeve burnt orange colour jumper with matching joggers, hair down, short, shiny, soft. 

They stare each other down.

“Hi,” Harry eventually breaks, softly.

“I got your voicemail,” responds Louis, voice even to Harry’s; delicate, yet sturdy. Harry’s ears are so focused on the tone of his voice, hyper aware of any change of inflection or miniscule shift in his unrevealing face. “Obviously, I’m nosy, and you know I have to hear what you have to say.”

Harry freezes.

What does he say? 

His last two attempts felt like rehearsal, like practice tests. This interaction feels third dimensional, unlike those.

Moving his arm up the edge of the door to hook his fingers over the top of the door, Harry relaxes his posture just slightly. “You don’t have a flight to catch, do you?” At Louis’s head shake, he continues. “Do you remember, in our relationship—years ago—when in our arguments I’d leave and you’d be by yourself?” Louis nods, but there’s a slight hesitancy to it. They haven’t talked about their relationship in depth since they were together. “I’d come home, and I wouldn’t ask—but I could tell. . . . Can you explain that to me?”

Louis folds his arms against his chest; it’s a defensive stance, but it doesn’t come off as such. 

His eyes shift around Harry.

Then meets Harry’s gaze, again. 

“I can’t tell you every detail,” Louis begins, “not because I don’t want to, but because I hardly remember every moment myself. . . . I’d be so angry when you’d leave, that I’d tear apart your closet and our bedroom and everything I’d thought would justify—whatever would justify my feelings. I—” As soon as he begins to laugh without humour, he lifts a hand to cover his eyes, shaking his head. Dragging it away, looking to his left, Louis briefly presses his lips together, a twinkle still in his deep eyes. “I don’t know, Harry. Why does it matter?”

A silent moment.

“It matters,” lamely replies he.

“What did you want to talk about? That question has nothing to do with why I’m here.”

Harry takes a silent, deep breath.

“Can we stop traveling to each other’s destination spots all the time?” he starts. “I don’t want to keep chasing you continent to continent.”

“You don’t have to follow me,” replies Louis, eyes not leaving Harry; his face transforms into something softly indecipherable. There goes the first supporting wall of his guard. “You have the power to say no; there’s no reason to continuously tie yourself to me if you’re not happy with how I'm living my life right now.”

Harry presses his lips together, briefly.

“It’s not that I’m unhappy,” he corrects. “I want us to face this.”

Louis looks hesitant.

But he nods once.

“Face what?” he asks, tone quieter.

“Why do you do it?” But the silence lingers far too long for Harry’s comfort, and he takes the plunge. “Louis, I’ve been having dreams that have made me take another look at our relationship. . . . I don’t really understand us. I don’t understand why we do what we do. What do we benefit from it? In my dreams, you’re next to me as I see our past, but I don’t think it’s quite you. But it feels like you. It’s the kind of feeling like I’m floating through time with your presence in me. I feel sad most of the time, when I wake up after these occurrences—and frustrated. Mad that I’ve realised I’ve taken advantage of you during your lows, and was impossibly stupid to not have seen what I see now. . . . But more stupid that there’s been something happening in front of my eyes that was hidden so cleverly in plain sight, and I neglected to see anybody else but me.”

Wetness begins to gather in Louis’s eyes, and he looks away from Harry’s gaze.

“Louis, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have walked out the door every time; I would’ve stayed to resolve our issues right away. I wouldn’t have let you have the chance to build resentment towards me. I would’ve been less selfish . . . possibly my most debilitating flaw”—oh, how that sounds like an echo from his dreams—“because I realise I've been stubborn, and self-centred—and it’s like I knew, but I didn’t know. But I see it a lot now, and I want to fix the rest of it.”

Tears trickle slowly down Louis’s face, uncontrollably, but he never lofts a hand to wipe them.

“So . . . ,” Louis begins, his gaze remaining to the side, “are you asking me why I always change my name?” Harry doesn’t think Louis initially notices his head nod, but he must, as he continues, voice tame and fragile: “I can’t handle it sometimes; I haven’t been able to handle this for years. The weight of what we did in our careers took a huge toll on me. And for that, I developed an apprehension so bad I shake uncontrollably when it relates to anything we did. Being on stage, I’m fine, but don’t ask me to do interviews—don’t ask me to do photoshoots, meet and greets, videos—it’s like my brain malfunctions and I power off. . . . I become overwhelmingly sad a lot when it happens. I felt so alone. I’ve always felt so alone.”

Harry’s mouth parts.

He stands in icy silence, trying to fathom the saddened words that have fallen from Louis’s tongue.

Louis’s blue, crestfallen eyes move to meet Harry’s, not quite shame filling them, but instead a timidness. And a shrug accompanies his following words: “My therapist says it’s CPTSD.”

“What’s the C mean?” Harry asks.

“Complex,” he answers. “It’s a little different than normal PTSD.”

Harry’s not sure how to conjure thoughts in his head—he’s trying to apprehend full sentences into his head, but how does he approach this? He’s never had to deal with someone with this kind of sickness—or is calling it a sickness crude, and insensitive? Should he be saying something else?

“What do I say?” Harry speaks honestly.

Louis hesitates.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” he starts, “I don’t want to come off as rude. And I definitely don’t want to label it the wrong way. What . . .”—Harry’s genuinely trying here by sounding out the words in his head—“can I do, to make it easier for you?”

Louis stares him in the eye, eyebrows lifted slightly.

“You’re serious.”

Harry takes one step closer, thankful Louis doesn’t move to back away from him.

“I told you that I want to fix all my wrongs, and I meant that. It starts now, and with you. I recognise my wrongdoings, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to make up for them.” He glances at Louis’s cheek by accident, and starts thinking of cupping it with gentle fingers to caress his face, but he makes no move. “And you don’t have to worry about me asking you to move in anymore. I’ll fully respect your boundaries from now on.”

All while staring at Harry, Louis swiftly wipes his eyes and releases a heavy, breathy sigh.

“Thanks,” is all he says.

Harry swallows.

“I have to ask, though”—he lowers his voice to become soft and quiet—“did I . . . at any point, did I contribute to what you’ve gone through?”

This is where Louis’s breath gets caught in his throat, eyes opening more and staring at Harry with true sincerity and honesty. 

Harry’s heart drops.

“I mean, I’m not going to lie ,” Louis starts it with, and Harry’s arms weaken with goosebumps trailing right beside his feelings. “Did the stress towards the end of our relationship contribute? Not entirely. But it did make me feel like absolute shit—like, of course I couldn’t do this right, either. Like I was hard to love. And it fucking sucked that I had no reassurance or support from you. But then our relationship posthumous—yes, I have labeled it a death, because that’s what it was for me; a grievance that took years to console—did more damage than good. I’ve been trying so hard to heal, but it's my fault at this point because here I would be, calling you to come to me, pouring salt on my wounds, trying to entice you, trying to get you to cave, so, that you could drown in it all with me. I’m sorry for that. That wasn’t right. And I’ll change that starting now, too.”

All Harry can find the strength to say is, quietly, “It’s okay.”

“Is it?” Louis challenges, tilting his head. “Because I would’ve been hurt, had you done the same thing to me. Truth be told, I’m not ready, yet, to talk about a lot of what I’ve been through that I’m doing my best to work through, but that isn’t one of my proudest moments. So, I am genuinely remorseful about all of my antics.”

Harry shakes his head.

“It’s okay,” he repeats, a little surer. 

It is okay, Harry believes. To say Harry didn’t have a single ounce of blame in their tumultuous relationship, specifically the aftermath of their split, would be a damn lie. He didn’t have to go to Louis every time, but that was something he chose to do. He had a choice, and he never said no. And he is, also, to put to blame for being obnoxiously obtuse all these months, all these years. 

“Are you sure?”

A tiny chuckle is released from Harry’s mouth in a puff of breath, a smile gracing his lips momentarily.

“I’m being honest,” he assures.

“Okay.”

Silence fills up between them with intensity.

Eyes looking into each other, rawly, vulnerability caressing the cracks between them and the thin air delicacy. Heavy on Harry’s shoulders is where they go from here, heavy in the air and his mind. A picture of their small Tennessee cabin he's talked about enters his vision too vividly: a wilderness of trees surrounding their property, a thin layer of snow atop the roof, smoke drifting through the chimney opening. The porch light is alight, casting its glowing shadow against their cabin and onto the dusting of snow laying on the ground everywhere. Harry wants to one day build that specific cabin for them—from his own two, bleeding hands, with a little professional help on the side. Or maybe a lot. But mostly him. 

“Where does this leave us?” he asks.

Louis blinks softly.

“I’m not sure, to be honest.” Pause—eyes flickering to the side and back to Harry. His tone softens. “Is it bad if I want to kiss you?”

Harry has to give it thought.

It’s not inherently bad, but—Christ, he needs that, too. But if he were to ask God, would he tell him no? No, you couldn’t handle it? No, I can’t trust you wouldn’t stop? No; not because either of the above statements are true, but, no, because you know it will do more harm than good? These are the countless ramblings in Harry’s mind that keep him from lunging forward and gripping both sides of Louis’s face between his face and bringing him forth in a fiercely passionate kiss—a kiss of damned contempt and vulnerable innocence.

But he does look down, to gently lay Louis’s hand against his open palm, raising it to cover the back of Louis’s hand with his other. It’s sandwiched perfectly tender, and he gives a subtle squeeze to ensure it.

Then meets Louis’s gaze.

“It kills a part of me to say this,” comes out in a whisper, “but I can’t say yes.”

“Haven’t changed one bit,” feebly jokes Louis, “still denying me.” There’s a small smile gracing Louis’s face, but it doesn’t quite fill his eyes all the way up. But that’ll have to do, because to give in to that urge would pose greater risks, and would further prolong the healing process they both have to go through, especially Louis. Harry barely returns that same, timid smile, just pursed lips. “You know . . . it’s okay. I’m kind of glad you’re saying no. It wouldn’t be a smart thing to do.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” agrees Harry.

This time, Louis puts on a genuine smile.

He pulls his hand from between Harry’s, then interlocks their hands together. It’s reassuring in its most comfortable form for the state of their relationship.

“What’s for dinner?”

 

 

 

Later that evening, they’ve fallen asleep separately on the settee in the living room.

Blankets are covering each of them, Crazy, Rich Asians playing on the television, the floor to ceiling windows in Harry’s sky high penthouse uncovered by the pulled back curtains; however, Harry’s viewing all this vividly in his lucid dream—as lucid as it can get. It’s like he’s outside of his body, watching them, but he’s, also, back in his body. It feels like reality.

A gust of air comes from somewhere, breezing over his body.

Then he feels a presence.

He’s sucked right back into his body; he’s awake despite his closed eyes and sleeping body. And the brush of soft lips against his right ear triggers his startle reflex, though he does not move. This presence carries a warm glow that travels over his body, like a comforting touch. A memory of red lips, coffee, and dark hallways enter his vision, but these memories don’t feel like they belong to anybody; memories of floating, holding hands, crying, wretched sadness fill his head with pangs of soreness, but they’re withdrawn from him in an instant, drowning him with an empty ache for a temporary moment, then it’s covered with a knit blanket, heavy with relief and peace.

His eyes fly open, searching, but finds nothing but Louis lying next to him, asleep.

He chances a glance behind him, at the kitchen, but it looks as what he left it as before joining Louis to watch television. The peaceful heaviness still lies against the top of his body, and with it, he leans back against the setter and closes his eyes.

He can finally rest in something resembling happiness.