rating: pg. ish.
word count: ~16,000
disclaimer: own nothing/know nothing/obviously. completely fictionalised.
summary: au; harry’s in the army, louis’ back home, and ninety days is a lifetime.
a/n: up top, this is somewhat researched but i’m sure contains countless impossibilities both militarily and medically, so if you do know anything about either of those things, i’m sorry. thank you to my favourite girl molly for reading this over for me and helping me with the hard bits. love you!
It is 5:28am, and Louis’ losing his boy today.
He feels sick. He’s curled up the balcony, chair creaking slightly as he tucks his legs up and rests his chin on his knees.
It’s that familiar nausea; days like today always bring it. He can’t quite sit still, always shifting or moving or fidgeting, because if he pauses he thinks he might freeze. Louis taps his fingers impatiently, wishes suddenly that Zayn were here so he could bum a smoke off him. He’ll see Zayn tonight, in any case, it’s sort of a ritual that when their boys board that plane they spend a few miserable days together, because company is always nice at the beginning, and the company of someone who understands is better.
It’s 5:28am, and in two minutes their alarm will go off, Harry will wake up. In three and a half hours he’ll be gone. Three more months. Three more months with Harry completing his last tour of duty. He’ll be home safe, after that, back at the base nine to five. But he has ninety-odd days to get through in Afghanistan, first, and an hour in that place is dangerous. Ninety days is a lifetime.
He tries to think about something that’ll calm him down, mundane nothings. His job, his big desk, Executive Assistant plaque that means more to his boss than him, the weather, the crack in the wall, anything.
It doesn’t work.
He swallows, takes a deep breath and rests his head back against the wall, shuts his eyes for a moment. He didn’t sleep all night, of course, and it’s catching up with him now.
He supposes he should take the opportunity to get used to the silence.
Of course, at that moment Louis hears the sliding door move just a fraction, and looks up. Harry’s poking his head through the door, watching him with this unbearably fond look on his face.
“Hey,” Harry says, smiling, “what’re you doing out here?”
I don’t want you to go.
It’s the first and only thing that will enter his head every time he looks at Harry today, he knows it. He’ll never say it out loud, of course, but those words are a constant stream in his mind; I don’t want you to go, I don’t want you to go, I don’t want you to go.
“Just wanted some air,” he says with a smile, Harry walking over and standing in front of him, hands lazily entwining with Louis’. He’s smiling, small and retrospective. Louis’ chest feels preemptively tight, but it’s not time for that yet.
“Yeah. Hey,” Harry says, face lighting up in a smile, “I love you.”
Louis rolls his eyes and laughs; they’re always so, so ridiculous on mornings like this. And this isn’t even the worst of it; Harry’s only been home for two weeks on his mid-tour respite. When he goes after six months, they’re more or less tripping over each other to see who can say it first.
“I love you too,” he says, standing up. He throws his arms around Harry’s neck and jumps up, wrapping his legs around his middle. Harry laughs, hands coming to hold Louis’ against him, and Louis loves that, the feeling of his fingertips pressing into his skin.
He kisses him gently, can feel the muscles in Harry’s shoulders and back flexing and tensing under his weight. There aren’t a lot of advantages to dating a boy in the army; this, however, is one of them.
Harry breaks off after a while, lazy kisses falling to a smile and their foreheads pressed together.
“M’gonna have a shower,” he murmurs, voice a little strained under Louis’ weight, and Louis loves that, “come with?”
“Sure,” Louis says, feet curling against the cool tiles as Harry puts him down again. It’d been quite a night last night – always is, when Harry’s about to go back. He can’t drink on those nights, but boy can he fuck. Nonetheless though, Louis’ happy to go for round two this morning. He dreads the day he won’t be able to; but for now he’s twenty-six and he’ll be damned if he turns down a shag.
He turns from Harry and goes to make his way inside, but hears Harry chuckling behind him.
“What?” he asks, turning back with narrowed eyes. Harry just bites his lip and smiles.
“You’re walking funny,” he says with a shit-eating little smirk on his face. Louis hates him. “You’re actually walking funny. Getting old, Lou.”
“Shut up,” Louis glares, darting away from Harry with a yelp as he goes to try and wrap him up in his arms from behind. What he really means to say, of course, is I don’t want you to go, but he won’t.
He lets Harry go into the shower first, wraps himself up in the duvet for a moment and tries to centre himself, calm the nausea in his stomach and the pounding in his head; I don’t want you to go I don’t want you to go I don’t want you to go. By the time he makes it to the bathroom and opens the shower door, the room is full of steam and the smell of soap; Harry grins as he slips in, curls an arm round Louis’ waist and kisses him properly, water running between them. He fucks Louis up against the bathroom wall relentlessly, hard, his breath hot and wet in Louis’ ear, moans drowned out by the sound of the shower. He rocks up into him, again and again and again, and Louis tries not to think of it as goodbye, as the last time, tries to enjoy it. He fists a hand in Harry’s hair, tugs on it with a stuttered groan, and when he comes, Louis tries to keep his eyes open, because these are the last few hours he’s going to see Harry’s face for a long, long time.
There are too many clocks at the base, Louis decides. Always have been, since the first time he came here to see Harry off. That time, it’d only been a few weeks in Sudan, a small peacekeeping mission. Sometimes he wishes he could go back and tell that nearly catatonic version of himself to chill the fuck out, and to trust him, because things get a thousand times worse.
He glances round the holding room for a second, takes in the all too familiar sight. All the boys in uniform, kissing teary girlfriends goodbye, hugging small kids while their wives watch on, lips pressed into a tight smile and eyes worried. From eight till eight thirty, the place is generally chaos, everyone running around and saying hello and goodbye, last minute checks and packing. But at that half hour mark the shift always comes in; it gets quieter and a little more subdued and if they’re anything like Louis’, everyone’s hearts get a little heavier, it becomes a little harder to breathe and think straight and put one foot in front of the other.
He hates these mornings. Hates the way the nervous, dull fear sits in the air, hates even thinking about the other people here because Jesus, he doesn’t know how they do it. He can barely handle it, and he’s only got himself to worry about. There are women here with two or three kids, mortgages, cars and school fees and, like, lives.
Then again, Louis always ends up resenting them a little bit too. That they can walk in here and more or less kiss their boyfriends or husbands until they pass out, be picked up and spun round like something from 1918. And, like, Louis isn’t complaining, he knows they’ve got it pretty good in the UK. Harry can walk in here and say oh, hey, this is my boyfriend, and not be dishonourably discharged and strung up for the world to see. But still. It’s the army, and as tolerant as it is on paper, Harry knows better than to trust that completely.
Louis sees Zayn and Liam in the corner; Zayn leaned up on the wall rolling his eyes as Liam laughs and runs a hand down his cheek, but smiling a moment later, threading his fingers through the tags around Liam’s neck. He draws his gaze away after a moment; he and Zayn will commiserate later. It’s a tradition, of sorts, that on days like this they watch the plane leave, find the nearest bar, and drink themselves under the table. Besides, he has his own goodbye to focus on.
“Don’t let that fucking couple next door keep using the car space, okay, I mean it. They’re such arseholes about it, if they want it make them pay the fifty quid a week.”
Louis just blinks up at Harry a little disbelievingly.
“That’s it? You’re about to fly off for three more months and your parting words are about my parking space?”
Harry laughs, threads his fingers through Louis’ gently, between them, a little hidden. “No,” he says, “no, I just…you know. I’m bad at this. It’s the worst part.”
Louis nods, smiles down at his shoes. “Yeah, I know.”
“We board in three minutes,” Harry says, glancing at his watch. Louis always loves how he looks in uniform, all pressed and strong and proud, shoulders broad, jaw set. He likes the way he has his bag slung over his shoulder, the lazy walk in his boots, the metal flash of his tags. Today, though, it’s just making him want to burst into tears.
“This is a record,” Louis notes, “this is the longest I’ve gone on one of these mornings without crying.”
Harry laughs, surprised.
“Am I losing my touch, Lou?” he asks, pressing a kiss to Louis’ right cheek, then his left. Louis stops him from placing the third on his lips, though, smiles at him gently and brushes a thumb across his mouth instead. Harry always gets a little handsy on these mornings, and Louis doesn’t want him to do something he’s going to regret. His thumb catches on Harry’s bottom lip, drags a little. Harry just laughs again, but it’s quieter. Louis can tell he’s just looked at the clock behind him.
“Nah,” he replies, grinning, he knows that the fondness in his eyes can probably be seen from space but he doesn’t really care anymore, “course not.”
He runs a hand down the curve of Harry’s neck, wishes he could see his collarbones and the swallows and the star. “Just saving myself. I was considering breaking security and running out onto the tarmac this time. Too much?”
Harry hums a little and pulls Louis in by his belt loops. Louis doesn’t stop him this time, can’t, suddenly. Harry hugs him impossibly tight, breathing him in, his neck and his hair and his smell.
“Maybe,” he murmurs, like he’s trying to bury the words under Louis’ skin, “maybe a tad.”
Louis glances back up at the clock from where Harry’s got his head pressed into his shoulder. 0843. They’re running out of time now. He never knows how to do a long goodbye, the drawn out saga. He never knows how to do it until it’s a matter of seconds till Harry’s gone, and then it’s like his brain kicks into overdrive. He feels it now, the way his heart flips and tries to jump out of his chest, the way his arms involuntarily hold Harry tighter, the way his legs feel like they might give out, if he let them. The tears prick at his eyes, fall into Harry’s neck as he tries valiantly not to let them spill over.
“’M gonna miss you so much,” he says, voice small, lips pressed to Harry’s ear. He’s acutely aware of how shaky his own breath sounds, how shaky he feels, like he might topple over should there be a particularly strong gust of wind. Harry pulls back from the embrace that holds them like a vice, brushes his fingers tenderly through Louis’ hair.
“’M gonna miss you more, babe,” he whispers, all husky and gravel and Louis isn’t going to hear that for so many, many weeks and he has to bite his thumb to stop himself letting out a choked little sob at that.
“Not possible,” he says, voice wavering, sniffing a little to try and regain some semblance of self-control. “And, you know, at the risk of sounding completely fucking redundant,” he says, swallowing hard, “please be safe. Please. Please come home.”
“I always come home, Lou,” he says, and before Louis can respond, Harry takes him by the wrist and drags him through the small terminal door, round the corner into a corridor.
Louis knows it well, it’s the Goodbye Corridor, has been countless times. But it’s 0844, if the clock in here is anything to go by. And suddenly he feels like he hasn’t said enough, like it’s come too quickly and he’s not done enough, not told him how much he loves him, how much fun this two weeks has been, how much more fun it’ll be when Harry’s home properly, where they’re going to go on holiday, that he knows his top five favourite shirts, bands, TV shows, that he makes Louis want to go and save the world or give all his money to Oxfam because he’s just so good that he makes Louis want to be good too, and Louis wonders if he’s ever told him that. Because what if I never get to tell him again, and he fucking hates himself for thinking that but he can’t help it, none of them can, no one in this whole terminal, it’s always there, niggling away, and Louis suddenly feels like there’s not enough air in this long dark corridor to fill his lungs up.
“Haz, babe,” he says, a little choked up, and then “Harry,” because maybe if he just keeps saying his name something will change, he’ll have more time, because he just needs more time, needs a few more minutes, just a few. Just to tell him everything once more.
“Oi,” Harry whispers, pressing him back into the wall, “it’s okay. I love you too. We’ll talk, we always do. They have this thing called the telephone now, you know, have you heard of it?”
Louis laughs, a little hysterically, fists a hand in Harry’s shirt before he can stop himself. It’s rough, khaki, he doesn’t like how it feels but it’s something; it’s attached to his boy and that’s the only thing it needs to be right now.
“I need to go, Louis,” he says quietly, “so you gonna kiss me or—“
And Louis doesn’t need Harry to finish that sentence, just surges up and catches his lips with his own with a little noise, a little stuttered breath. He can feel Harry smiling against his lips, his hands snaking around between Louis and the wall and holding his small waist and Louis wants to cry because Harry knows he loves that. Harry always says he thinks he could fold Louis up and keep him in his pocket; Louis wonders vaguely if they could try that now, just in case he’s right. Harry tilts his head up, tongue flicking into Louis’ mouth, hands roaming to his hips and his arse and fuck, it’s 0845, Louis can hear the commotion outside, and Harry’s pulling away and no, I don’t want you to go, he thinks desperately, and it’s so loud in his head that he wonders if Harry can hear it too.
Harry lays one last kiss on him, sweet and slow and tender, before pulling away. Louis can see it in his eyes, the way he’s getting himself into the right mindset now. He takes a deep breath, runs a hand through his hair.
“C’mon,” he says quietly, picking his bag up and brushing his fingers over Louis’ hand one last time, “come see me off.”
Louis does. He watches him walk out onto the tarmac, jogging to catch up with Liam and Niall, his best friends since they trained together at Harrogate, and Louis wipes roughly at the tears on his cheek.
He catches a small smile from one of the women across the room, she’s older than him, maybe in her late thirties. She has a look in her eye that says I know how you feel, and Louis wonders how long she’s been doing this. How long he’ll be doing this, how many others there’ll be after Afghanistan.
The boys pile into the C130 in single file, and Louis sees Harry disappear up the ramp after Liam.
Bye, he thinks, please come home.
“’Nd then,” Zayn says from where he’s sprawled out on Louis’ couch, waving emphatically and spilling beer onto the floorboards, “and then, I jus’ said, like, fuck you, ‘f I wanna go ‘s Alice Cooper t’ Halloween, I motherfuckin’ will.”
Louis has absolutely no idea what he’s going on about, then again, he’s fairly sure Zayn doesn’t either. Zayn laughs a little delightedly at that, buries his head in a cushion and groans loudly. They’ve been drinking since midday and it’s coming up on midnight now, so. It’s been a marathon, to say the least.
“I feel like shit,” Zayn slurs, “what day ‘s it?”
Louis sighs. “Still fuckin’ Monday.”
It feels like so long since this morning. He wonders what Harry’s doing, if he’s okay, if he’s on night patrol and up thinking about him, or is he’s sound asleep, dead tired from the plane. It’ll be getting on four thirty in the morning there, Louis’ so used to the conversion now that he can still do it when he’s downed about three hundred beers. Which is saying something, because he’s not even sure he can walk in this state.
“Eighty-seven,” Zayn murmurs to himself, and Louis snaps back into the real world, “eighty-fuckin’-seven.”
“Wassat?” Louis asks, finishing his drink with a smack of his lips.
“Eighty-seven days till Liam an’ Niall an’ Haz are home,” he says, “we counted last night.”
“Oh,” Louis says, glancing at his watch. It’s 12:02. “Well. Eighty-six, now.”
Zayn hums thoughtfully, and Louis feels himself drift off to sleep.
The first week is always utter wank.
By the time he’s got rid of the crick in his neck from sleeping in the armchair that night, not to mention his two-day hangover, he’s fairly sure he’s going to die.
But that’s okay. Because it’s Thursday, which means tomorrow is Friday.
Tomorrow is Friday. Friday, Friday, Friday, Friday, and Louis’ not heard such good news in what feels like years because today’s Thursday which means tomorrow is Friday and when Harry’s away Louis basically lives Friday to Friday. Friday’s the day Harry calls home, and in the absence of his father and the death of his mother and the undisclosed location of his very fucked up sister, home is Louis. (Louis kind of hopes he’d be home for Harry anyway, though.) He gets a half hour of call time along with a quarter of his company. Liam’s day is Wednesday – Zayn’d not let go of his phone the whole day yesterday, nearly drove Louis insane with all his nervous finger tapping and chain smoking, but Louis knows how it gets.
Tomorrow’s Friday, and Louis holds onto the thought of that like it’s the breath in his lungs.
Louis opens his eyes, adjusts to the light in his room. It’s Friday.
It’s Friday and Camp Bastion is four and a half hours ahead of Louis’ flat in Mornington Crescent (well, their flat, really, this is where Harry stays when he’s on leave and most weekends when he’s at the barracks, so theirs, his, whatever, it’s all semantics), so if he’s right it’s just past midday over there. So sue him, he’s up early.
He gets out of bed and has a cuppa and reads the paper halfheartedly, doesn’t shower because if he misses this call he’s quite seriously not getting out of bed until Harry comes home.
So he waits. And waits and waits and waits and considers going for a run or doing his laundry but strikes both those things down because they’ll probably be too time consuming and he’d go to the pub but what if it’s too loud and he doesn’t hear his phone, and he kind of wants to call his Mum but can’t be on the phone because it’s Friday and Harry’s calling today, Jesus, Louis, pull it together, and he just about considers cutting his week long leave from work short, but thre’d be a temp there anyway, and now that he’s looking at it the curtain rod is kind of crooked and he should probably fix it but he’s not got a ladder and it’s not like he’d know how to fix it anyway and—
Louis starts and claps a hand over his mouth to stop a surprised and entirely undignified squeal escaping him.
That’d be the phone. He should answer it.
He picks it up and slides his finger shakily across the screen, puts it on loudspeaker.
“You are receiving a call from,” the prim automated voice cuts out, replaced with another, “Royal Army Base Camp Bastion.” The first voice chimes back in. “To reject this call, please hang up now. To accept, press—“
“Christ,” Louis hisses to himself, pressing 1 before it tells him to. He’s done this what feels like a few thousand times, he knows the drill.
The phone rings twice, then connects. It’s a crackly line, satellite phones inevitably have that affect, but he really doesn’t fucking care, because it’s Harry.
“Lou?” His voice comes down the line, Louis can hear the smile in it and practically see the dimples and he has to rest his head on his knee for a moment, steady himself. He takes a deep breath, like if he takes in enough air he’ll be able to smell the green tea extract in Harry’s shampoo.
“Lou, you there?”
“Yeah,” he croaks, a little louder than probably necessary, but yes, he’s here, “hi, darling. How…” he takes another breath, and he hears Harry laugh down the line, a little strung out and all nervous energy and Louis wants to die, because it’s his boy and he’s not spoken to him for what feels like a small lifetime and he’s here, now.
“How are you?”
He hears a rustling, expects that’s Harry falling down on his bed or something. He’s so far away. Louis feels it right in his chest, that distance.
“M’good,” he says, and he sounds tired but Louis thinks he’s telling the truth, “hot. So fucking hot here, Jesus.”
“Yeah,” Louis says, “well. Few thousand cute boys packing the place out, Haz, I expect it is.”
Harry just snorts, and Louis has to bite his lip because he can see the look on his face, the delightfully bewildered furrowed brow. Except, of course, he can’t, and it sits on him a bit like a deadweight.
“You’re so dumb,” he says fondly, “tell me about London.”
So Louis does. He tells him what he’s eaten for dinner and about his ASOS jeans that came yesterday that are sinfully too small for him. He tells him about Zayn and the new Gosling film and that pop star who got caught getting too handsy with her model best friend by the Mirror. Louis’ gotten good at this, is the thing. When they’d first started doing this – and Louis will never forget that, Harry all bright and shiny and new and so tantalizingly out of his reach – Louis had never known what to say when Harry said that; tell me about London. But now, now he catalogues everything. Reads an article and thinks Harry’ll like that, hears a song on 4Music or 1Xtra and writes down the name of it if he thinks it sounds like that stupid indie stuff Harry likes, buys him a t-shirt if he sees something that makes him think Harry. That sort of thing.
And for a second, sometimes, if he talks enough, if Harry laughs or gasps or makes an impressed little noise in the right place, it’s almost as though he’s sitting right next to him. Just for a second.
“You still there?” he asks suddenly, because Harry’s not said anything in a while.
“’Course,” Harry says, “just like hearing you talk.”
Harry hangs up twenty-seven minutes later, and Louis’ heart doesn’t quite stop aching. Because that’s it, he’s got a whole week to wait to hear him again, now. It’s been five days. Eighty-two to go, he thinks, and fuck, he always forgets how hard this is.
The next Friday, he and Harry only get to speak for a few minutes because they’re doing a training exercise over a three-day weekend, and well. Fuck. He’s had a shit day, and now this article is sitting in front of him like a big fuck you.
414 British servicemen have died in Afghanistan so far, and Louis feels sick.
He shuts the paper, tosses it out and goes to bed. His feet are cold, and his electric blanket is a million miles away.
“Yes, precisely. We plan to halve our troop numbers in Helmand province by the end of 2013, and moving into 2014 only have the minimum number of soldiers necessary, so that there can be a smooth transition and handover to the Afghan forces come the end of Operation Herrick.”
“And that’s something you can guarantee, Prime Minister?” the journalist presses, glancing at her notes.
He nods, assured. “Of course, absolutely.”
Louis flicks the TV off and goes to call his Mum. He better be right.
The snow thaws for the last time this season. Harry isn’t here to see it. Harry loves winter; he’s not a creature of heat. (Louis ignores the fact he spends half his time in a bona fide desert.)
The ache in Louis’ chest grows, and although he tries to brush it off as something else, he knows it’s because it’s nearly April 2.
April 2 appears kind of out of the blue, funnily enough. Louis’ been trying to keep busy, going to work, going to the gym once or twice; it’s important to get back into everything, his own life, after the first couple of weeks. He’s had a not-awful fortnight, which is about all he can hope for when Harry’s overseas.
But it’s April 2, now, and it’s been a month.
More importantly, though, it’s been three years.
Louis’ stayed up till midnight even though he has work at 8am, because it’s important to him. Even if Harry’s not here, it’s important. He wants to celebrate it properly.
He distinctly remembers the fourth day of Harry’s mid-tour break, when they’d realised their anniversary would be while Harry was away.
“No,” Harry had pouted, pulling Louis closer so he was sat in between his legs on the couch. Louis’d just leant back into him, pressed a kiss to his cheek. “No, no, no, we’re not allowed to go three years without me here.”
Louis’d smiled at that, hooked Harry’s legs round his own. “’S’nothing we can do, babe. It’s okay. We’ll have the next one.”
Harry had sighed, unsatisfied with that. “You know the present for three years is, like, leather,” Harry’d grumbled, “the sexiest one, and I don’t get to be here for it.”
“I think those guidelines are for wedding anniversaries,” Louis had noted dryly, “but still. You better not’ve bought me a whip that I can’t use, or I’ll end you.”
Harry laughed into his hair, chest pressed to his back, silence taking over for a moment.
Then, “write me a letter,” he’d said suddenly, “write me a letter and I’ll write you one and we’ll swap and we won’t open them till the day. It’ll be nice.”
So they had. And Louis’ rifling through his bedside drawer now, memory playing like an old record in his head, until he pulls the card out, big loopy Louis on the front with a little heart on the i.
He thinks his heart might break in two. He tears the envelope open, though, pulls out the goofy card with two little ducks nuzzling each other on the front. Trust, he thinks. He opens it, gingerly, wills the lump in his throat away.
I’m going to be a couple of oceans away from you when you read this, unless you’ve opened it early in which case, fuck you. But I hope you haven’t. I hope it’s April 2 and you’re sitting on your bed and doing that thing where you bite your lip so you don’t get too teary, like when we watch Love Actually.
Louis lets out a surprised laugh, bites his lip harder and sniffles a little.
I’m so sorry I’m not there, babe. You know this stuff means the world to me, and you do too, and I’m just so sorry. I don’t mind missing Christmas, or my birthday, or Valentine’s. But I’m sad I’m missing this.
I don’t even know what to write, really, because I’m not that good with words. But you’re sitting opposite me right now and I think you’re reading the TV Guide even though you’re holding up Business Day. You look lovely in your glasses, Lou, you don’t wear them enough, which I’m sure your optometrist will tell you too. But anyway. You’re sitting opposite me and every time I look over at you I keep smiling like an idiot. And I smile like an idiot every time I think of you when I’m away, too, when it’s too hot over there and I can’t sleep or when we’re out in the desert for eight hours or whatever. Even when I’m just at the base back home, and I’m cold or tired or angry; you always make me smile. I don’t have a lot of people in my life who I know are gonna be there, which is why I joined the Army in the first place, I guess, and I’ve met some great people who I know’ve got my back. But no one’s ever been there like you’re there, Lou. So thank you, for all of it. For the key to your flat so I can always walk in, for the low fat milk you have in the fridge just for me, for buying me concert tickets you’ll know I’ll want even though you think the band’s dumb.
But mostly, I guess, thank you for being there every time I come home. Thank you for being the person I think of when I’m on the other side of the world and I think of home.
Three years is 1095.726 days, did you know that? I didn’t. I googled it. But the point is, I’ve been yours for one thousand and ninety
I love you, and I hope you make me smile like an idiot for a million more years. I hope I sometimes make you smile like that too.
Lots of Love,
(PS: your present’s in the cornflakes, you twat, bet you didn’t think to look there. Xxxx)
Louis reads it again, the whole way through, then his favourite parts, then just one line: Thank you for being there every time I come home.
He wipes at his eyes, pushes his hair off his face and stands up, pads out to the kitchen and opens the pantry, smiling in spite of everything. The letter’s still held fast in his hand, he doesn’t expect he’s going to let go any time soon.
He fishes the cornflakes out from the back of the pantry, Harry’s right, he didn’t check the box, mostly because cornflakes are disgusting. But he sticks his hand in, comes up with a box and a note.
Give you the whip when I get home! Happy leatherversary. H x
He lets out another little laugh that kind of threads in with his tears, and with his goddamned shaky fingers he opens the box.
It’s a book, or something. Louis furrows his brow, not quite sure what it is. He sets the letter down, box too, and pulls the book out. Then he opens it.
And it turns out that it’s not a book, it’s a leatherbound photo album.
He flicks through it slowly, biting his lip the whole time. He and Harry in Paris, freezing their arses off two Christmases ago, Harry’s 21st, his Mum’s wedding night. Reels and reels of photobooths from clubs and bars and parties, Louis drunk in Harry’s uniform one night; he, Harry, Zayn, Niall and Liam dicking around on photobooth, the two of them shirtless and clutching cocktails in Barcelona, that day they went to Manchester for no apparent reason and eaten at that endearingly shitty Italian restaurant they love. The grainy iPhone photo taken by Niall of the time Harry had first come back from Afghanistan and an embrace so tight Louis’ not sure how he survived it.
And then it’s small things, like Louis’ coffee mug on the bench and photos Louis didn’t even know Harry had, the two of them around the flat, Louis sprawled across the couch and reading, wearing nothing but one of Harry’s white shirts and his briefs, Louis in his aviators looking thoroughly unimpressed at Harry’s barracks, a photo Harry’s obviously taken himself of him making the album.
And then on the very last page is Louis’ favourite picture in the whole world, that his sister had taken when they’d gone to Italy with Louis’ family last year. The two of them asleep on each other in an airport, maybe it was Venice, Louis thinks, the world moving impossibly fast around them, a blur, but the two of them sleeping softly, solidly, amidst it.
Harry and Louis and all the little bits and pieces that make up their world, and yeah, Louis’ not bothering to bite his lip now, he just smiles and cries quietly all at once.
For the first time in thirty-one days, it doesn’t feel like a million miles when Louis falls asleep.
Harry calls two days later, Friday. Louis punches 1 into his keypad so quickly he thinks he might’ve broken the phone, but the line connects soon enough.
“Harry!” he all but shouts, “good morning, babe, or wait, is it afternoon there? I’m shit at maths,” he laments.
There’s a small silence.
His voice is quiet, guarded. Louis closes his mouth, bites back his slightly hyperactive word vomit. He swallows.
“Okay,” he says gently, “how you going? Miss you.”
Harry sighs, lies down Louis thinks, from what he can hear. “I’m just tired. Really tired, you know.”
I miss you too; Louis thinks, please. It doesn’t come.
So he waits for what always comes next; tell me about London. But it’s just silence. He’s not sure they’ve ever had one of these conversations without that question
“Yeah, babe, I can imagine,” he says, let’s the sentiment in his voice hold for a moment, “hey, I read your card, though. Proper catch, you are.”
He expects Harry to laugh, even just to smile. To say, I got yours too. Happy anniversary and two days.
He doesn’t, however, expect that. His heart rate quickens, or maybe falls, he can’t tell.
Your card you card your card, the one you wrote me, and please don’t say you’ve forgotten it, the best card I’ve ever been given, the card I’m considering sleeping with every night you’re not here.
“Your card,” he says again, carefully, trying to keep the edge out of his tone but failing.
Harry sighs. And if Louis’ not mistaken, he sounds irritable. “Louis, what? My card for what?”
Louis traps his breath in his lungs, closes his eyes for a long moment. He shouldn’t be disappointed. Harry’s on the front fucking line of a goddamned war, for Christ’s sake. It’s not a felony if he’s forgotten an arbitrary date in their calendar. He’s got one or two things going on.
It doesn’t stop the sinking feeling that runs through Louis’ whole body, drags him down.
“Anniversary, babe,” he says quietly, “it was Wednesday.” And I stayed up till midnight, he thinks, and I slept with that card in my hand.
“Oh,” Harry says after a long moment, and for a second he thinks it might be okay, that Harry will apologise and rifle through his bag till he finds Louis’ card, read it as they’re on the phone and maybe, maybe, maybe it’ll be okay.
Instead, Harry says “shit,” like he’s forgotten to put the towels in the drier or record The Voice, and Louis wants to cry.
Louis swallows, takes a deep breath.
He forgot. 1095.726.
“Yeah,” he says, out into the silence, “shit. A bit.”
“What’s that s’posed to mean?” Harry snaps.
Louis blinks. Thinks he might need to check he’s got the right number, because this whole conversation has been stilted and odd, but that tone, harsh as though he’s looking for a fight, that’s not his boy.
“Look, Lou, I’m sorry I forgot, but no need to get all fucking melodramatic on me,” Harry says, in there before Louis can even wrap his head around what’s happening, “do you think you could just say, oh, hey Harry, you’re in the middle of fucking Afghanistan, it’s okay if you forgot our anniversary and not treat it like a federal fucking case?”
Louis opens his mouth, closes it again.
“I said, like, four words.”
Harry snorts. “Yeah, with about a thousand fucking words worth of passive aggression embedded in there, so cheers for that.”
“Jesus, Harry, what the fuck?” Louis’ reeling, voice a little high, panicky. He doesn’t know how to do this, doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to spend the thirty minutes he has fighting.
Harry’s silent for a long moment, and Louis thinks he might’ve hung up. His stomach lurches when he speaks again.
“I’m trying, Louis. I call every week and shit, I try. I’m sorry I’ve got a little more on my plate than worrying what my hair’s gonna look like if I don’t blow dry it, but—“
“What the fuck does that mean?” Louis asks quietly, and he’s so fucking humiliated, feels so childish and stupid, at once for giving a fuck about three years when Harry’s sitting in a demountable in Helmand province, on the other hand for rising to his bait. It doesn’t stop him.
“I have a job too, you know, and bills, and friends and my family. Not to mention my fucking boyfriend who’s roaming around Af-fucking-ghanistan for a living. So don’t go acting like it’s all fucking dandy for me, Harry, everyone’s got shit.”
Harry snorts, and it’s derisive and mean. “Yeah, well, I’m sure it’s a struggle,” he bites back, deathly quiet, “why don’t you tell me all about it.”
The silence hangs in the air between them; Mornington Crescent, Northern line transfer at King’s Cross to the Piccadilly line to Heathrow Terminal 3, Gate 113, arrive in Kabul, go south to Helmand. All the air along that route from this flat to Camp Bastion, Louis thinks, thick with whatever this is, with whatever Harry’s mind is doing right now.
Louis doesn’t rise to his challenge again. It’s not that he couldn’t, there’s no one who knows how to fight dirtier than Louis when he needs to. It’s, quite simply, that he’s too terrified to, too afraid of what’s happening here.
“You don’t have to call if you don’t want to,” he says quietly, “if. You know. If it’s gonna upset you this much.”
No, he thinks, no, no, no, you absolutely have to call, please, please know me well enough to know I don’t mean that.
“I’m not upset,” Harry says roughly, “I’m fine.”
Louis wonders just what in God’s fucking name Harry’s seen today – heaven forbid, what he’s done – because this isn’t his boy.
Happy anniversary, he thinks.
The line goes dead.
Five days later – three years and a week, but he doesn’t think about that – he thinks he should probably tell someone, because he’s not been able to relax ever since that day.
Zayn comes over after work, Chinese food in one hand, bottle of wine in the other.
“You look like shit,” he says when Louis opens the door, but he’s not joking. There’s a softness in his eyes, because he knows, is the thing, he’s the only person in Louis’ whole life who knows, and Louis just sort of falls into him, let’s Zayn hold him up for a minute, because it’s been five long days of doing it himself and he’s so tired.
He lifts his head from Zayn’s chest slowly. “Hi,” he says miserably, “sorry. Come in, and all that.”
Zayn does, closes the door and puts a hand on Louis’ shoulder, steers him to the couch and starts unpacking the food. Louis’ barely slept since Friday, he likes that someone else’s taking control for the time being.
He passes Louis a spring roll. “Bad week?” he asks, “you kinda fell of the radar, Lou.”
“I know,” he murmurs, “sorry. But Z, shit. Harry…” He trails off, listless.
“What is it, babe?” Zayn asks gently, “you look so sad.”
And Louis is sad, right to his bones, because Harry feels so far away. Harry is so far away, and Louis’ is used to that, as used to it as he can ever be. He’s not used to this, though. He’s not used to it being a question, whether Harry’ll ring him.
So he tells him. He tells Zayn everything, the letter and the album and the call, and Zayn winces in all the right places and by the end has pulled Louis in for a hug, rubbing small circles into his back.
“Oh, Lou,” he says, “I would’ve been here in a fucking nanosecond if I knew, mate. I’m so sorry.”
“Me too,” Louis says, quirking a small smile. He feels washed out, now, all the buzzing, anxious energy replaced with a kind of numbness.
His fucking boyfriend is in Afghanistan and for all he knows, isn’t going to call on Friday. He doesn’t care about much else, not really. It’s all background.
“Liam did that once, you know,” Zayn says suddenly, and it makes Louis sit up. “Like. Few years ago. Just before we met you guys. We were talking and I brought something up, I dunno. Something about how I had to go to some party all alone, I was obviously kidding. And he just…fuck,” Zayn says, shaking his had like he still can’t believe it, “lost it at me.”
“What happened?” Louis asks.
“He just, like, really dug into me. Kinda like Harry, you know, you’ve got nothing going on in your life, I’m trying my best, all that.”
“Yeah,” Louis murmurs, “s’what he was like.”
Zayn grabs a box of noodles, hands one to Louis.
“Didn’t sleep until he called the next Wednesday,” Zayn says, rolling his eyes fondly, “all but tripped over himself trying to apologize.”
Louis just laughs, a little, he loves Zayn so much, for being here, for getting it, for knowing what to say. For bringing him noodles and wine, too.
“I think they feel guilty, sometimes, when they’re out there,” Zayn says suddenly, “Liam told me that once.”
“Why guilty?” Louis asks. Harry loves prawns in his noodles, he remembers out of the blue, so he leaves one aside automatically, before remembering that Harry’s not actually here. He feels a pang of vague queasiness at that; and he doesn’t eat the prawn.
“I guess because we’re back here, waiting for them, and they don’t know how to deal with that,” Zayn says slowly, “I only ever said it once to him, y’know. Imagine if it was me going over there, how would you feel, all of that bullshit when you have those fights. His eyes just about popped out his face. I don’t think they like thinking of it like that.”
Louis nods, considers him for a moment. “I know he didn’t mean it,” he settles on saying, “I just. You know. Wish I could hear from him, or something.” Wish I could see the dumb way he sulks when he’s angry, wish I could hear the angry music coming from his iPod.
“I know,” Zayn says, smiling sympathetically, “but hey. Five weeks down, right?”
And seven to go, Louis thinks, but he doesn’t say it.
Zayn stays for a few hours. They kick back and watch Match of the Day and Louis doesn’t care in the slightest about the fucking Scottish Premier League, but he feels better, lighter, than he has in days.
“Talk about England, God, I hate this,” Zayn yells at the TV, voice getting slightly louder as he goes, “I can’t watch this anymore, sorry. Mind if I flick around?”
“Go ahead,” Louis says, tossing him the remote, “you know it’s only Scotland though, yeah, it’s not like, Lucifer’s Cup, or anything.”
Zayn flicks him a look that just makes him laugh. “Shut up,” Zayn says, before the TV grabs his attention again, “oh, look. Kardashians.”
“Nope,” Louis declares, “vetoed. We’re not watching this.”
“Are so,” Zayn retorts, topping up both their wine glasses, “don’t pretend you’re too good for it, Louis, don’t chuck a bloody Harry Styles-esque snobbery episode at me.”
“Oi!” Louis cries, tossing a cushion at him, “he’s not a snob. And I am too good for this, thank you very much.”
Zayn just rolls his eyes, points at the screen one of them is crying, dabbing at suspiciously waterproof eyeliner with the corner of a tissue.
“Oh please,” Louis says, “that’s fucking—“
The doorbell rings, and Louis stands up, wanders over to the intercom, wine catching up with him a little. He buzzes whoever it is up without saying anything, it’s just the pizza they ordered, because two boxes of noodles are never enough.
“That’s so ridiculous,” Louis says, “I guarantee you her make up’d be a mess by now.”
“How would you know? Got a secret career in drag you’ve not told me about?” Zayn teases, and Louis just laughs over his shoulder as he hears footsteps stop outside his door.
“Yeah, mate, you know me. First pet and street isn’t it?” He opens the door a little, still not turning round to see who’s there. “So what, I’m like, shit, what was that cat’s name, Mittens—“
Zayn’s face has gone very, very pale. Louis stops talking. Zayn’s looking over his shoulder, craning his neck to see who’s at the door.
Louis pulls it open wider, and finally turns to see who’s there.
“Sir, are you Louis Tomlinson, designated proxy of Lieutenant Harry Styles?”
He doesn’t even remember it, not really. All he sees is the camouflage green, the decorated left breast pocket of the two men at his door, the grave eyes staring back at him. The way the one on the left opens his mouth and starts speaking, but all Louis can hear is Harry Harry Harry Harry Harry Harry, over and over, like someone’s shouting it right into the back of his brain.
The crash of red as he drops his glass, hands shaking furiously, shards flying and settling like dust over his feet and the boots of the men at his door, the sharp little cry that escapes his mouth as he takes a step back, eyes wide and full of terror, the same terror that’s turning his blood cold in his veins.
And the last thing he remembers before he throws up, before Zayn’s arms somehow appear around him, holding him up, is the last thing Harry said to him.