hold a hand for cover 1/3 (harry styles/louis tomlinson)
word count: ~26k
disclaimer: own nothing/know nothing/obviously. completely fictionalised.
summary: they’ve still got all the money in the world, all the big nights and bigger houses, all the people at their doors with singles and album deals and promises of more, they still have all of that, and they will forever. the only thing they’ve burnt through is each other.
or, two years after the band, harry and louis bump into each other for the first time.
a/n: coming to you from a place of jetlag. this is for stella, who kickstarted this whole shit show (i love you), and thank you to greta for reading this over and plugging me with validation all along the way (i love you).
ok, haha, help, blue and yellow screaming emoji, bye.
part 2 | part 3
It is midnight, and Louis has been twenty for eleven seconds.
He stares up at the ceiling for a moment, away from the little red numbers of his digital clock before turning to his phone instead.
MAAAAAATE, the first text of the day reads, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! SEE YOU WHEN YOU GET BACK, WE’RE EXCITED TO HAVE YOU FOR CHRISTMAS!! LOVE YOU LOU
He taps out a reply to Stan quickly – there has been an unspoken rule since they were eleven that they will, under all and any circumstances, stay up till midnight on birthdays, and turns over with a smile. He’s excited to go home; it’s been so, so long. He’ll spend the morning with whoever pops over and leave at lunch, be back for Christmas Eve/birthday dinner and stay till New Year’s Eve. Then he and Harry are throwing their much-anticipated party, of course, and Louis’ just a little bit more excited for that. Possibly.
He has been twenty for thirty-eight seconds when his door creaks open slowly, and he doesn’t need to flick a light on, doesn’t need to look up, to know who it is.
His heart gives a little pull. Distant, dull, but still, somewhat overwhelmingly, ever-present.
“Happy birthday,” Harry giggles, shutting the door behind him. All Louis can hear is his breath and the soft pad of his feet as he comes over; it is completely dark. A horn beeps out on the street, a wolf whistle and a crash of glass follow, but all Louis can hear is this.
It’s the moment he’s been dreading – but really, waiting for – and his pulse shoots up higher than the crack on his ceiling.
“Thanks,” he whispers as Harry perches himself on the bed, knees tucked up to his chin. There is no need to whisper, no one else is here. But it’s night, Louis thinks, and more than that, it’s them, so it’s a whisper.
Harry’s smiling in the dark, Louis can feel it. There’s a buzz around him; always is really, but tonight it’s Louis’ buzz, and he likes that. Harry wriggles up till he’s sat next to him – Louis’ leant back on the headboard now, trying to make out Harry’s face in the dark, his body warm and his breath hot as he laughs into Louis’ neck.
“You want your present now or later?” he asks. Louis huffs out a laugh, closes his eyes for a minute as Harry nips at his ear, quick, feather light, but there.
“You’re gonna get me arrested, Jesus,” he says, “aren’t you about twelve?”
“Shut up,” Harry murmurs, lips ghosting over Louis’ jaw, “now or later?”
“You know it’s not even been my birthday for two minutes,” he points out, breath careful and even, hands itching to reach out and touch him, “you’re a little overeager, occasionally, has anyone ever told you that?”
Harry pulls back for a moment. Louis imagines he winks.
“Yeah, well, sue me,” he says, “I’m working with limited time.”
His lips brush over Louis’ at that, light and barely there, but then so much more. Louis stutters, his hand has found itself cupping Harry’s jaw, fingers looped in his hair.
“H,” he says, breathes, “we shouldn’t.”
“Don’t care,” Harry replies, quick and simple, like he’s been expecting it, “do you? It’s just once, Lou. Promise. It’s your birthday.”
Except it’s not just once, of course. It’s the first time in a long time, granted – April, Louis thinks, April or May – but it’s not once. It’s everything. It’ll leave him wrecked and distant and sad, just sad, for weeks. Always does. Always has, since he was eighteen.
But that’s okay, he thinks. Maybe that’s okay. He misses Harry so much. He’s never been his, but he still misses him. He’s never not around – they tour together, live together, experience all of this together – but he still misses him.
Harry darts back in, lips a little more insistent, and Louis turns for a moment.
“Harry,” he whispers, “Harry, we have—“
“Don’t care,” he says, “do you?”
And no, Louis supposes, he doesn’t. He never has. If he ever cared, in the slightest, if his head was ever screwed on tight enough to know that this is something that shouldn’t be happening, well, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.
So he kisses him back, and he’ll deal with the rest later.
Happy birthday, he thinks, and then there’s not much more in his head.
It is midnight, and Louis has been twenty-seven for sixteen seconds.
He smiles, sways a little on the spot and laughs as the shot courses down his throat, everyone cheering and downing their own, someone in his bathroom throwing up, glasses and bottles clinking at the toast. He rolls his eyes, blows a kiss up to Stan on the chair he’s just managing to stay standing on.
“So happy birthday, Louis fuckin’ Tomlinson,” Stan says grandly, with a laugh, “may your night be fun and your hangover unbearable.”
Louis laughs, lolls back against Zayn with a cheer and all the people here – friends, cousins, sisters, people he’s met along the way – join him, yell their messy congratulations again. They down another shot, and the collective wince goes up for the second time.
“You’re twenty-seven!” a voice yells from behind him, and Louis doesn’t need to turn around to know it’s Niall, cheeks a little pink, blood more alcohol than plasma at this point, and positively bouncing. “Twenty-fuckin’-seven! Hang on another three sixty five, man, don’t want you chucking a Cobain.”
Louis snorts, stands up and gratefully accepts the hand thrown over his shoulder, the little tap of Niall’s longneck against his glass.
“You’re dumb,” he says, “you my Courtney Love, then?”
“Oi!” Zayn says, staring at them both reproachfully from where he’s leant on the back of the couch. Out of the corner of his eye, Louis catches Stan chatting up one of the girls on their old management team, and he can’t help but snort, “who the fuck does that make me?”
Louis cocks his head so it rests against Niall’s for a little, eyes Zayn thoughtfully before the shots catch up to him and his brain goes nicely fuzzy for a minute.
“I dunno,” he declares, “this is too confusing. Get me a refill?” he asks with the nicest smile he can muster, and Zayn just rolls his eyes, snatches Louis’ glass off him and stalks off.
“It’s my birthday!” Louis calls after him, and Zayn just flips him off.
Niall laughs happily, finishes his beer and smacks a kiss to Louis’ cheek.
“I’m your Courtney Love,” he confirms, “blonde, and all.”
Louis smiles at that, eyes flicking up to Niall’s decidedly brunette hair. Niall’s not been blonde for years, but still likes to play the part now and again. He winks at Louis, hugs him in tight for a second and smiles, that big stupid grin that’s been a staple in Louis’ life for almost a decade now (and God, it’s the first time in his life he’s felt old, as that thought crosses his mind.)
“Hey,” he says all of a sudden, “where’s—“
Speak of the Devil, Louis thinks as Liam shouts over the noise of the room and walks over, unwinding his scarf and dumping it along with his coat on the couch, and he shall appear.
“You made it!” Louis yells, smiling as Liam comes over, grinning like a madman.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he says, Louis giving him a sloppy-at-best hug, “sorry, got caught up at Dani’s family Christmas thing. Bloody nightmare,” he mumbles, “anyway. You having a good night?”
Louis nods, smiles as Liam and Niall give each other a hug hello. It’s so incredibly odd still, that they even have to say hello, that it’s possible they’ve gone enough time without seeing each other to warrant a proper greeting. After so many years of it being nothing but each other, it still hits Louis in a funny sort of way that their circles have grown now, there isn’t just the one. Which is fine, Louis supposes, it’s not bad, just different.
“C’mon, you’re too sober,” Niall shouts in Liam’s face, “m’gonna make you a drink. Be back in a sec, Lou,” he says, and they melt away into the crowd, just as Zayn comes back over.
“Here,” he says, endeared disdain present as ever. Louis smirks as he takes his drink, and Zayn ignores it, just throws an arm round his shoulders.
Louis is tired, all of a sudden. He rests his head on Zayn, looks around at all the people gathered here. All these people, just for him. Stan and his other friends from school and his mum, somewhere; his sisters, who’re old enough to be here and drinking now, more or less. People he’s bumped into on the way, managers-come-friends, PR people who’ve actually proven to be great regular people, exes he’s on speaking terms with, kids who’ve grown up. And fuck, he thinks, fuck, Niall and Liam and Zayn, always Zayn, because Stan will always be his best mate but Zayn’s his best friend, and he thinks there’s a difference, now. The three of them who understand better than anyone all of this, the last ten-odd years, every bump and knot of it all.
They’re here, for him, because despite it all, every odd stacked against them, it’s never gone too long without a phone call or a coffee.
And Louis should be grateful for that. Louis is grateful for that, really, he is.
But. And there’s always a but, there’s been a but in Louis’ life since he was eighteen years old, and this far on, in the back of Louis’ brain, he’s still there.
Except he’s not, of course. He’s fucking absent, he’s been absent for two years, and Louis doesn’t let it hurt too often but tonight, tonight it hurts, because Louis is drunk and Louis is turning twenty-seven and he remembers lying in bed as the clock ticked over from 11:59 to 12:00 all those years ago and thinking, I don’t know where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing, but I know he’ll he there.
And he’s not. Louis is in his very nice North London apartment with everyone he loves in the world bar one. So suddenly, quite out of the blue, he feels so, so tired.
Zayn rests his head on Louis’ for a moment, watching the party carry on around them.
“I’m sorry he’s not here,” he says quietly, so quiet that over the rabble Louis almost misses it. His heart seems to clench at that, though, too big for his chest all of a sudden, and he almost laughs. Because hasn’t that always been the way, hasn’t that been the feeling that’s followed him around for all this time, and here it is again, a world away and still not far enough.
Because Harry is not here, and at the end of it all, when his guests have left and his place is messy, and Zayn is passed out on his couch with promises of cleaning up later, that will be what Louis remembers. It’s what he’ll remember when he wakes up and when he opens the table of gifts across the room and when he reads through the endless texts tomorrow will bring. It’s what he’ll remember when he finds out from a tabloid on his mum’s coffee table that Harry spent a wild Christmas Eve with a group of tall beautiful people that Louis doesn’t know, got trashed in a club streets away from Louis’ place and drove back to Cheshire the next day and didn’t so much as give him a call.
He doesn’t let it hurt often. He does let it sit, though, just below the surface, a little scratch on his heart.
“Me too,” he murmurs, eyes growing tired, body delivering the grand ultimatum of more alcohol or bed, “me too.”
They’ve still got all the money in the world, all the big nights and bigger houses, all the people at their doors with singles and album deals and promises of more, they still have all of that, and they will forever. The only thing they’ve burnt through is each other.
Harry and Liam sing, Niall and Zayn write and produce, Louis does TV, events, the big shiny shows that need him for what he’s good at, crowds, charm, laughs. They’re lacklustre at best, despite the protests, despite the but you’d be so good, full time, if only you just gave a little more, because they don’t care, not really. It’s filler, an appearance here and there to stop them going insane, and the funny part is that they’re happy, mostly. It’s comfortable and easy and fine, because it’s play more than work and that’s the way it’s always been, so they can deal with it, fall asleep a little drunk and a little content. There’s always a stranger willing to accompany them home, sometimes a girlfriend, a boyfriend; there’s always more of everything and not once have they felt that breaking up two and a half years ago, now, was a bad thing.
They still have everything they did before; more, even, because royalties flow thick and fast, just like the champagne and the late nights and the booked out clubs, hotels, parties, and the only thing they’ve burnt through is each other.
Or, really, more to the point, the only thing Louis has burnt through is Harry.
Because he still sees the others, as often possible; they’ve been the only ones who’ve intuitively understood since they were all barely legal and sometimes all the company, all the lights, can’t ever make up for that, the feeling that there is someone else who feels intrinsically similar. So they will always be there, but in twos or threes now, because four is so distinctly not five, and five is off the table.
Has been, really, since so I’m kind of seeing this girl.
They’d caught up once. Clear day, both back in London after a few months at home for Louis, overseas for Harry. Clear day, small café, nervous heartbeat, because six years is a long, long time for something so big to be so ignored, and now, maybe, it doesn’t have to be.
But Harry had sat down and picked at a raspberry muffin and looked at him with so much guilt in his eyes, so much laced in his tone, and said it. So I’m kind of seeing this girl, and whatever Louis had definitely not thought or certainly not considered or absolutely not entertained the idea of had come to a clean-cut end; surgical precision, and then they had too.
Because fading is easier than watching on and reining in the angry jealousy, and radio silence is far less exhausting than all of the looks and all of the eyes-cast-downward sadness that had crept up on them in the last few years. Without the obligation to stand together, laugh together, be in each other’s presence, it was just easier, maybe more numb but far less tiring, to just fade out, slowly. Less painful, marginally, then dragging up everything between them after keeping it quiet for no reason other than self-inflicted loyalty, a belief in something bigger, a belief that if it happened, other, more important (quantatively), things could not. He suspects maybe it’s fear, avoidance, an inability to articulate all the things that had sat between them for so long, but then again he’s not sure. He’s not really been sure of much for a while.
Louis calls it inertia, because it’s nicer than saying it was a few too many years of hot breaths and quick guilty fucks in the dark for anything to really progress, it’s more palatable than saying it was too many boys and girls in their beds and quite genuinely, for a time, in their hearts, albeit never as strongly, never as fucking necessarily as each other, to suddenly hope things could change.
So inertia it is. It works for Louis, vaguely; on some level it’s enough. He spent many a night on the road jetlagged and awake thinking about Harry Styles, and if that has continued – if that will continue – way past the last sale of a single or concert ticket, well, that’s his to hold onto.
It is a Saturday night in mid-March and it’s hardly the shock of the new millennium but it’s fucking freezing. Even as he takes a much-begged-for drag of Zayn’s cigarette in the car (the window is down, sue him), heater going full blast, he’s shivering wildly.
He should’ve bought a fucking coat.
“I hate you,” he informs Niall, unadorned, “like, a lot. I hate you a lot.”
Niall just rolls his eyes.
“I mean it,” Louis protests blankly, “it’s about three degrees above zero Kelvin and I’m going to an art show.”
Niall takes no notice, kicks him in the shin and spits his gum out as the car pulls up.
“Yeah, right,” he says, totally unfazed by Louis’ histrionics as per usual, “because a gallery full of pretentious hipster boys that you can hatefuck in the bathroom is really something I’ve got to convince you to get off your arse for.”
Louis is halfway through contriving a thoroughly lacerating retort when the car unlocks, and before he can speak, Zayn puts a hand on his shoulder and slaps them both as he opens the door.
“S’enough,” he says dryly, and they step out onto the street.
There are no photographers tonight; this isn’t an event, as such. This is Niall’s girlfriend’s exhibition opening, and like the true heroes of the modern world that they are, Louis and Zayn have agreed to attend the first showing of the night. He assumes Liam, and Harry, will be here for the second. There is an unwritten rule, of sorts – and God, add it to the list of unwritten rules between the five of them – that should events require them both to show up, one will be invited early and the other late. They know when to clear out – or at least Louis assumes Harry does too, because they never bump into each other, not since that fleeting coffee two years ago – and, well. This is it. Louis and Zayn here for the first show, Liam and Harry for the second.
Add it to the list, he thinks vaguely, taking a glass of champagne off a circulating silver tray as they breeze in, things to feel vaguely and continuously guilty about.
“C’mon,” Zayn murmurs in his ear as Niall makes it through the crowd to be front and centre for the toast, “let’s get cultured.”
It’s a weird show. Louis’ never known much about art; he’d rather bury himself alive than spend hours buying paintings, but it’s nice. Alice’s always been talented, Louis remembers seeing her paint in Niall’s apartment once, and it’s sort of amazingly majestic in this room. It’s all big swooping brushstrokes and huge canvases and shapes, and he can feel the essence of art-wanker settling over his skin as he thinks it, but whatever. He’s here as moral support and to mop up as much of the open bar as he can, so he may as well play the part.
He’s halfway round the room, having bumped into a couple of people here and there, when he feels a presence a little too close; the sort of presence he prides himself on being able to pick out a mile away.
“Sorry,” the guy says, voice that cookie cutter pitch of hesitant and a little impressed, “are you Louis Tomlinson?”
Louis preens, a little, because while it was annoying and overwhelming before, it’s kind of nice now, a little further down the track. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, he kind of enjoys the attention. He turns with a smile, and God is he glad he did, because this guy is gorgeous.
He’s tanned and six feet tall, give or take, white shirt done up all the way and perfectly pressed blazer sitting on his broad shoulders and what Louis imagines to be truly lovely arms like he was born wearing it. Pretentious hipster boys that you can hatefuck in the bathroom, he thinks, and he remembers to get Niall a particularly good birthday present this year.
“Yeah,” he says, smile genuine as he runs a hand through his hair, “yeah, I am. How are you?”
He shakes the guy’s hand, charm cranked up to eleven, because if it’s literally the last thing he gets to do with his time on Earth he’s going to sleep with this annoyingly good looking creature. He’s younger than Louis, maybe a couple of years, eyes sparkly chocolate and raking over him unashamedly, and Louis feels like he’s just pulled a jackpot on a slot machine.
“Good,” the guy says, a little flustered, and Louis loves that, “I’m Logan, by the way.”
Louis really, seriously, has to fight to suppress an eye roll, because of fucking course he’s got a name like Logan, stood in an East London gallery on a Saturday night.
“Well nice to meet you, Logan,” he replies, let’s his smile linger for a moment, and he really does hope the blush taking over this guy’s face doesn’t kill him before he has the time to fuck Louis in what he assumes is a nice annex somewhere in the halls of this place.
“You too,” he says, seeming to regain some control, “I, umm. My sister was a huge fan, you know, I heard your fucking records day in day out.”
Original, Louis thinks, before he remembers he’s trying to be amicable here, so he gives a laugh like it’s the first time he’s ever heard it.
“Just your sister?” he asks, eyebrow raised, “no offence, mate, but the fact you knew my name without any prompting’s kind of a giveaway.”
There’s a flurry of some sort over at the door as Logan laughs, sort of stumbles his way around an endearing admittance of how he kind of had a poster or two and whatever else. Louis is the image of attentive interest, just distracted momentarily by the sudden movement at the front of the room.
“I mean, you know,” Logan says, smirk as lovely as Louis suspected it would be, “you were pretty hot shit in your day.”
Louis turns back to him with his full attention for a moment, ignores the rising sound of the room.
“Excuse you,” he says pointedly, mouth dropped in an accusing O, “are you insinuating I’m past my prime?”
Logan raises an eyebrow, gives a tilt of his head.
“Well, you know, up until five minutes ago I’d be inclined to say yes,” he says, “but it turns out you’re looking pretty good.”
The gallery is growing louder, people arriving in droves just in time for the toast, and Louis gives him a cocky sort of look right back, lips lingering on his glass for a moment as he takes a sip of his drink.
“Damn straight,” he says, “do you even know how long it takes to look this good without a stylist?”
He laughs at that, big and a little overwhelmed. “Not really,” he admits, “why don’t you tell me?”
And as Louis opens his mouth to reply, dragging his eyes away from the door and back to the guy in front of him, three things happen at once.
The first is that the lights of the gallery dim slightly, and in their place comes the illumination of the makeshift platform in front of them, where Alice and the owner of the gallery take the stage.
The second; a spoon chimes against a champagne flute, sending the whole room gradually silent, awaiting the toast and obligatory round of applause to follow.
And then there’s the third, just as the lights dim, just as the glass chimes. And that is Louis’ stomach hitting the floor, blood draining from his face, as out of the corner of his eye he glances back towards the glass entrance of the gallery, still rustling and loud with hushed, late voices.
Because, passing his coat off to one of the staff on the door, smile appreciative and achingly genuine and hand resting low on the back of a tall blonde girl by his side, is Harry.
Just like that.
Just the third of so many things happening in this room, just another guest and just another face, and yet. There he is.
And before Louis can take a breath, hide his face or slip out into the night or just disappear, will himself away, Harry looks up, eyes bright and excited and doing the rounds of the room, searching for someone he knows. The blonde whispers in his ear, making him smile and laugh quietly, and then his gaze is a matter of degrees away and before Louis can stop it, move, run, it’s too late.
They see each other, same moment, same room, same stare, and like the beat of Louis’ heart and the voice in his head saying get out, like the blink of his eyes and seemingly like this whole room, suburb, city; the smile freezes on Harry’s face. And then it drops.
And for a fraction of a second, it’s total, total calm. Transcendental, almost, hovering somewhere above them, because this is the first time in so long and for those moments where their brains are playing catch up it’s like they could exist here forever.
Like a crack of lighting, applause rips through the air, probably delicate and refined but wildfire to Louis. Because then it drops, all of it, Harry’s eyes on him as his girl whispers in his ear, lips ever so slightly parted, light dim and speech droning on in the background, two years, Louis thinks, and then he feels like he’s going to be sick.
He turns away, breath ragged, eyes trained towards the front.
“Is that Harry?” Logan whispers in his ear, bending down slightly, and Louis closes his eyes, bites his cheek and tries to count his heart back into regularity, “you know, you read all that stuff in the papers, about how the two of you never talk, but—“
“I have to go,” Louis says suddenly, voice a fraction too loud and garnering him three or four disparaging looks. He clears his throat, shuts his eyes for another moment.
“Sorry,” he smiles, forces himself to smile at this perplexed stranger in front of him, “have yourself a nice night, yeah?”
It’s as he turns to go and throw his drink on the nearest stable surface, that the lights go up again and the chatter returns. It’s as the lights go up, panic rising in his chest, propelling him towards the door, any door, as fast as he can, that he hears it.
“Oh my God! Haz, oh my God, is that Louis?”
And it’s when he flicks his head up, eyes just a little wild and drink not quite disposed of, that he sees the girl on Harry’s arm pulling him over, smile excited and flippantly outraged, so obviously unaware of what she’s about to do. Harry looks like something’s stuck in his throat; a protest, maybe, an excuse that he can’t get out.
Which is how, on a cold Saturday in mid-March, Louis finds himself face to face with Harry, and a stranger looking between them expectantly.
And Jesus, Jesus Christ, no, because he can’t do this.
It’s all Harry says. Seconds of utter silence, wide eyes and frozen expressions, then hi. Just hi, that’s all. Louis tugs his rolled sleeves down, fingers making such a concerted effort to keep hold of his glass that it nearly cracks under his grip.
“Hi,” he says, voice faint and absent and off, he can tell, because the blonde’s eyebrows furrow, like she knows something here is wrong.
“Hi,” Harry says again, almost breathy, before he shakes his head, “sorry. I. Hi. How…how are you?”
Fucked, Louis thinks. Because what a question, how insignificant and trite, but then again, what else is there. And hasn’t that always been the problem, for all those years and all those frantic nights and heavy, sad days, and this is so, so much.
“Okay,” he says, eyes still locked together, as though they’re furiously trying to read each other, figure out what’s at play here, “fine, you know.”
There’s a pause.
Then, finally, “How are you?”
Harry nods, swallows sharply. Maybe Louis imagines it, but his hands seem shaky. He’s here, Louis thinks, right here.
“Good,” he answer, eyes flicking round the room, and Louis does the same. Almost immediately, he sees Zayn, eyes wide and absolutely frozen as he watches on. He makes to come over, Louis thinks, but can’t get through the crowd, and then he’s pulled up by someone who wants a chat and he can’t escape. Louis can feel his eyes now, so smiles, makes an effort to not look like everything’s crashing around him. Around them, maybe. Whatever.
“Oh,” Harry says quickly, flustered, “sorry, this is Laura. Laura, this is Lou…” he cuts himself off for a moment, blinks, “Louis. This is Louis.”
“I know,” she says with a smile, shaking his hand, “it’s so nice to finally meet you. We see Zayn around so much, you know, and Niall, he’s around every other day and…”
Louis is sure she keeps talking, but he can’t hear it, can’t hear anything. He smiles in all the right places but his eyes are on Harry, and this is so terrifyingly familiar, the feeling in his head and his chest and his stomach, and he doesn’t know what to do.
“Do you want a drink?” she asks, turning to Harry. He blinks at her, like he’s just woken up from a nap, disoriented and confused.
“Hm?” he drops his head to hear her properly, like it’s going to help him focus, “sorry, s’loud.”
“Drink?” she asks, a little louder, “I’ll let you two catch up.”
He closes his eyes; Louis can see it despite the way his hair falls across his face, the little furrow of his brow like he’s trying to centre himself.
“No, I’m okay,” he says, “thanks, though. See you in a minute?”
“Yeah,” she says, wary, almost, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, “yeah, of course.”
She drifts off, throwing a cautionary look over her shoulder that hits Louis in that spot he’s not felt for so long, and like something a little too bright, he has no choice but to look back at Harry.
And fuck, but he’s not sticking around for that.
“I should get going,” he says, “I…I didn’t know, you know, that you—“
“Yeah,” Harry says quickly, “no, sure, I know, I was early because—“
“It’s okay,” Louis interjects, “really, don’t worry about it, I’m just. I should go.”
Harry nods, watches as Louis puts his glass on the tray of a passing waiter. It’s so quiet, so loud, so surface but running deeper, so panicky but so calm. Louis runs a hand through his hair, shoots him one last smile, and he’s not sure who it’s meant to reassure.
“I’ll see you,” he says, “have a good night, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Harry says, and he lets out the smallest of laughs, “it was great…” He stops, trails off for a moment, like every word is difficult. Finally, he looks up. “It was great seeing you,” he says softly.
Louis doesn’t know why he does it. Maybe because bye is too hard to say after so long, maybe it’s instinct, maybe something he doesn’t even know. But for the smallest of moments, he rests his right hand on Harry’s left arm, squeezes it, then lets go.
And God, does that weigh him down.
“You too,” he says quietly, and with that, he pushes past him, face a second from crumbling.
He stops, recentres himself, and wheels around at his name, jittery all over. Harry has turned to watch him go, word seeming to have slipped his lips before he could stop it.
Louis can hear his own breath escaping in ragged little pants, trying to keep up with his heart.
“You look good,” he says finally.
And Louis wants to reply, more than anything. He wants to drag Harry into a corner and he wants to sit there with a bottle of wine and top buttons lazily undone and he wants to say tell me everything, wants to hear about every forgettable single and show and trip, wants to hear how his family’s doing, his friends, what his new team’s like, if he misses the band, what he’s been up to for so long. Wants to know about every stupid car he’s bought, every house, every fucking latte. He wants nothing more than to sit down and know it all, because he’s always wanted it all from Harry and it’s almost frightening how after five minutes of nothing but bare civility that so obviously hasn’t changed.
But then Laura is combing back through the crowd with a cocktail; Zayn and Liam, who also apparently arrived early, are making distressed eyes at each other across the room, and it’s just. Too much, or something. Everything and everyone and all of this; that Louis hasn’t done for years.
So instead of that, instead of getting it all, he smiles, shakily, and pushes his way past coat check and into the bathroom.
Seven minutes later, Louis leaves. He’s not sure if Harry notices. He really tries to stay, doesn’t want to be the first one to crack, doesn’t want to let this get the better of him, because it shouldn’t, it has no earthly reason to. But he just can’t. Can’t deal with the looks and the wide, horror-filled eyes of those even vaguely in the loop at the idea this has happened, here, tonight. Can’t deal with his sheer presence in the room, the weight of it, the pounding in his head because he’s here he’s here he’s here, by something as simple as a mismanagement of schedules, he’s here.
Louis’ never known how to deal with Harry, not really, not at their closest and happiest and most secure has he ever been able to come to terms with the way Harry nestles into his life. Two years after the last exchange between them, and it grips Louis so tightly that he feels that cold, distant echo all over again.
So it takes seven minutes, in the end, citing a headache to anyone who asks and pushing past Zayn’s frantic, murmured pleas of wait, Lou, I’ll come with you, for Louis to find himself falling out onto the street with a gasp. He leans back against the display window of the shop next door for a minute, one, two, three, four, focuses on counting the cracks on the footpath or the breath in his lungs rather than him, there, before hailing down a cab, footsteps quiet in the damp street as he gets inside and slams the door shut.
It is a cold Saturday night in mid-March that Harry reenters his life, and more importantly, Louis will come to learn, it is a cold Saturday night in mid-March that he doesn’t just completely vanish again.
The thing is, of course, Louis is a great liar.
It doesn’t matter that he’s not fine, because he will tell everyone who dare ask that he is, and for the most part, they’ll believe him. He’ll tell them it’s not a big deal and that it was nice to see Harry and that he’s proud of him and whatever else he needs to say to convince them he’s doing okay. And either they’ll believe him or become too uncomfortable to press the point, and either of those two options works for Louis. He’s not really fazed by people whispering behind closed doors anymore; if anything, that’s an upside of growing up on the cover of every gossip rag in the country.
There’s only one person, really, who knows him well enough to ignore every last word of reassurance he gives, and God is he grateful for that, because he’s not really together enough to say it otherwise.
After two days of silence, there’s a knock at his door, and Louis knows who it is. It’s the same hand that had knocked after Harry’s fleetingly rumoured engagement last year, it’s the same hand that had knocked on the first birthday Harry didn’t call, and it’s the hand that will continue to knock every time Louis’ feeling entirely overwhelmed and still acting like the paragon of calm he so desperately wishes he was.
And when he opens the door, in his pyjamas and an old sweatshirt at midday, he’s entirely unsurprised to see Zayn there, eyebrow raised suspiciously but face soft, and most importantly, understanding.
“Hey,” he says gently, “I’m gonna do that thing now where I barge in and pretend I’m here to play FIFA with you because your TV’s bigger than mine. That okay?”
Louis snorts, drops his head onto Zayn’s chest for a moment before standing up, closing the door behind him as he dumps his headphones and wallet on the sideboard.
“Yeah,” Louis says, “that’s fine.”
They get as far as the EA screen before Zayn switches the TV off.
“So,” he says evenly, prodding Louis’ knee with his foot. It’s all he says, face carefully expectant. Louis rolls his eyes and flops down on the couch so he’s looking up at the ceiling, almost calmly white.
“So,” he replies, “I can’t imagine what you’re here for, you know.”
Zayn prods him a little harder for that, and he chances half a smile, starts counting the flecks of grey in the paint to make himself breathe a little easier.
“So, how was he?” Zayn asks gently, and Louis can’t help but snort, because this is so, so ridiculous.
“Well you tell me,” he shoots back, coolly, “I saw him for all of five minutes. You see him like, once a week, don’t you? To play fucking backgammon or get high or whatever it is you—“
“—Louis,” Zayn interrupts quietly.
“—You know, for two pretty good looking people you get up to some weird shit. I’d know, the Mirror said it and everyth—“
“—I don’t get why everyone’s so hell bent on asking me how he was, you know, because literally every single other person on the planet sees him more often than—“
The room falls very, very quiet. Louis remains motionless, looks up at the ceiling, flash of annoyance at losing control quickly circling him before dispersing. Fuck, he thinks, not for the first time over the last few days, fuck.
“How was he, Lou?” Zayn asks again, just as measured as before, and Louis laughs, dry and sad.
“I dunno,” he says, begrudgingly, “tall.”
“Tall?” Zayn says, smile in his voice, “that’s all you got for me?”
Louis kicks out at him, connects with his leg, he assumes.
“Talk to me,” Zayn murmurs, “s’okay, or whatever.”
And Louis’ so, so tired. Zayn might not get it, but he’s better than everyone else. So fuck it, really, yeah. He’ll talk to him. He’ll try, anyway.
“You know,” Louis says carefully, nails digging into his palm, “this is gonna sound stupid, and whatever, but it’s your own fault, because you came over here.”
He pauses, sighs, tone dropping a little.
“It was…” he says quietly, “it was exactly the fucking same, you know. He was…it’s been two years. And he was just there. He’s exactly the same.”
It’s silent for a moment after that. Zayn rests back on the arm of the couch, feet kind of lazily tangled with Louis’, and he makes a small noise of agreement. Louis’ never understood why Zayn can make him say more with a couple of weighted utterances of his name than most people can after hours and hours, but he’s never thought too much about it.
“Yeah,” Zayn says, “I know.”
“I didn’t expect, like, a huge fucking change, or whatever,” Louis continues, words deliberately slow, “but it’s just. The hair and the girls and the fucking smile, you know. I just. I don’t know what to do with that. He’s the same.”
“S’it good or bad same?” he asks, and trust fucking Zayn, to know exactly what to ask to make him pause, think. Because is it good or bad same, that’s the question Louis’ been artfully avoiding for some time now. Good, maybe, that he’s always going to be somewhat of a constant, that the Harry Louis thinks about when he allows himself is the same Harry that exists now, but bad, because Louis doesn’t feel the same after all of this. Doesn’t feel, look, sound the same, he doesn’t think. And how is it possible that all of this has bypassed Harry, that nothing’s touched him enough to change him even a little bit when for Louis, it’s all felt momentous.
“I don’t know,” he murmurs, “it’s…just there.”
Zayn doesn’t push that point, just nods.
“So are you gonna see him again?”
Louis smiles, sadly, to himself, but he supposes Zayn sees it.
“No,” he murmurs, “no, I don’t think so.”
And that’s one that stumps Louis, for a moment. Because it’s never been something he’s known how to articulate; there’s only one person who really understands why and he doesn’t need it laid out in words. He just needs a look or a touch or a furrowed brow or a trite smile; or needed, Louis supposes, because it’s not like he really knows him anymore. But then he does, of course, and that’s when it all gets too much, too big, too overwhelming, so he closes his eyes and wills his brain to calm down, stop rushing him with thoughts all larger than the last.
Louis bites his lip, slowly, thoughtfully, coiling away from it all somehow.
“Because it hurts,” he says finally, quietly, “it just. It hurts, you know.”
And he knows it’s okay to say, that Zayn won’t pull him in for an unnecessary hug or coo at him with all the false pity in the world. He gets it better than most, he gets everything better than most. He just nods, reaches for Louis’ hand resting on the back of the couch and squeezes it for a second.
“Lou,” he says gently, “I’m just telling you this so you’re, like, in the loop or whatever. But he’s going to Cordo’s party on Saturday.”
Louis sits up at that, eyes wide like something from a comic book.
Zayn shrugs, carefully. “He said…he thought it’d be okay, you know. Because you saw each other the other night.”
Sat up, where Zayn can see him, where it’s not a holy silence between him and the ceiling, Louis’ measured, calmer. He swallows, smiles, runs a hand through his hair where it’s all stuck up at the back.
“Well,” he says slowly, “bit of a leading question then, wasn’t it, are you gonna see him again?”
Zayn laughs, courteously more than anything, and looks him right in the eye.
“I can tell him, y’know, not to, I’m sure he won’t—“
“It’s fine,” Louis says, “it’s okay.”
Zayn pauses for a moment, as though he’s unsure if he should say the next part.
“You just said it hurts,” he says carefully, “are you sure?”
And that, more than anything, makes Louis want to laugh, uproariously, bitterly, exhaustedly. It hurt for years, he thinks, six hours won’t kill me.
“It’s fine,” he nods, with a hint of finality that they both recognise, “c’mon. My TV’s bigger than yours, remember, we have to play FIFA.”
With a split second pause, and a decision that clearly says that’s enough for today, Zayn shrugs, flicks the TV back on.
“You’re on, Tommo,” he says, and for the first time since he arrived, Louis takes a deep breath and refocuses himself.
He doesn’t go to the party to see Harry. He goes, in the end, because it’s Saturday night and he doesn’t want to be alone and he’s already said he’d go. He goes because not going would be such a sign, would make everyone worry, and he doesn’t want to do that to them again, least of all to Zayn. It’s a big party, anyway. He can make an appearance and leave and not even lay eyes on him, just like every other event they’ve managed to avoid each other at.
He doesn’t go to see Harry. If, somewhere in the back of his mind, he has a morbid sort of interest in running into him, that’s a different story. Fuck knows he’s in too deep already, after one fleeting and halted conversation, so he may as well just dig himself deeper.
James’ place is amazing, centre of the city, one of those apartments that Louis assumes you get given as a prize for figuring out adulthood, because he’s never understood how someone has themselves together enough to live in a place so coordinated and well-kept otherwise. He doesn’t even live here, unless he has to be in London, but it’s beautiful, and Louis remembers the handful of nights he’s spent here for no other reason than it’s one of the most beautiful views of the city he’s ever seen.
When Harry walks in, Louis’ been there about half an hour, talking with Niall and the seemingly never-ending group of people he attaches himself to with all the ease in the world. When Harry walks in, Louis’ holding a big ridiculous girly cocktail in one hand and talking to a girl who’s been living in Israel for the last six months. When Harry walks in, Louis can’t even pretend he didn’t situate himself in this position, with this group of people, just so his eyes could slide over to the door every few seconds, and when Harry walks in, he’s maybe starting to regret it – standing here, coming to this party in the first place, going to the gallery last week – because God.
It’s not even marginally easier to deal with the second time round, and Louis knew he was coming this time. But it’s just, it’s all of him. It’s the way he tries so sweetly to not be the biggest person in the room, the way he’s tried since he was a kid. He’s never understood that inexplicable pull that people have towards him and Louis sees it written over him so clearly, still; the way he shakes his hair out, hangs his own coat, blinks a little perplexedly at the constant buzz surrounding him. People notice as soon as he enters the room; and he always looks so happily overwhelmed at that idea; tonight is no different. He takes a drink with a thank you, locking eyes with the waiter and giving him a smile, and Louis just thinks, who else. Because Louis’ never known anyone like that, and fuck, he’s met a few people in his time.
He tries to listen, really, he does; tries to engage and laugh and tell the right jokes in the right places. But he’s stuck on the boy across the room, so frustratingly close and yet so impenetrably far away, and in the end, that drowns everything else out to background noise.
With a murmured excuse, promises of see you in five, I just need a fag, he slips out onto the balcony, air blissfully cool and quiet around him as he closes the door. He sees Niall’s eyes on him, warily, so he pulls his lighter out of his pocket and raises his eyebrows, I’m okay, he hopes they say, really, don’t worry.
Because he doesn’t want the high drama. Doesn’t want Niall slipping his hand into his pocket and texting Zayn balcony, doesn’t want Liam offering, sweetly and kind of reluctantly, to take him out and get him drunk, doesn’t want any of it, not this time. He’s done it to them before and he had resolved, then, not to do it again. He just needs some air.
It’s just as he realises with a muttered fuck that he doesn’t actually have a cigarette on him – he’s a half-hearted social smoker at best, and forward thinking isn’t his forte – that the door slides open again.
And when he turns, it is to a deer-in-the-headlights expression, wide and unblinking green eyes; it is, of course, to Harry.
“Shit,” Harry says, “sorry, I just. Needed some air, you know. I. I can go.”
Louis should nod curtly, let him close the door and go back inside. Louis should smile and say have a good night, and probably, Louis should leave. But Louis should do a lot of things; should call home more, see his friends outside the band and this whole world more often, should do his laundry. Louis should sleep more and work out and actually date more. And two years ago, Louis should’ve tried more, shouldn’t’ve let it get here.
So fuck it, he thinks, and opens his mouth.
“No,” he says gently, “no, it’s okay.”
He nods him over, and with a second’s hesitation, Harry steps outside, closing the door behind him. He shivers a little against the cold, before he sees the lighter in Louis’ hand and smirks.
“You smoke now?” he asks, face soft, and Louis just snorts.
“Not really,” he says, “I dunno. I don’t think I have the dedication to make it a habit.”
Harry laughs, so Louis does too, and after a moment it settles into silence. Louis’ head feels light, or something, up so high.
The door slides back open with a scrape, and they both jump, Harry breathing out a little shit.
“Can I offer you a drink?” the waiter asks, and Louis smiles, drops his head to where his arms are leant on the railing. There’s never a moment without interruption, not even now. Harry turns to the door, walks over, because he’s always been the patient one, the one who can swallow and smile and pull it together a little easier, and it’s almost terrifying how simply they slip back into old habits and old reliances. Louis closes his eyes for a moment to regain what control he can; looking out over the city he thinks, it should be so easy.
“Just a champagne and orange,” Harry says, “oh. No, two, actually.”
Louis hears him take them from the tray, thanks the guy again before the door closes. He comes back over, holds one out for Louis.
“Figured you’d still be partial to one,” Harry says with a small smile, “sorry if, you know—“
“No,” Louis says quickly, “no, that’s good, thanks.”
Harry turns, arms rested like Louis’; glasses, hands, dangling over the edge.
“’S a nice night,” Harry says after a moment, just to fill the silence, Louis thinks, “I’ve always liked this place.”
“Best part of the James Corden monopoly on London real estate,” Louis says with a smile, and Harry laughs. Softly, gently, almost warily. It feels tired. Louis’ tired. He supposes Harry is, too, can see it, feel it instinctively, but he laughs nonetheless.
“Right,” he smiles, “I haven’t been here since—“
He cuts himself off; halting, unsure, and God, is it painful. Because Louis remembers when they were last here together too; when James had thrown them a party for their end-of-second-tour wrap, and Jesus. Louis remembers that night so well, beer slightly warm and eyes completely over-tired, Harry sleepy in the corner. He wonders if they went home together that night. Maybe, he supposes. They went home together on a lot of nights like that. Streets cold and hearts lonely and heads desperate; probably, he thinks, they did.
And they’re both thinking the exact same thing right now, he’s sure of it.
He comes to, Harry’s eyes trained on him. Louis doesn’t know what he’s going to say next. But he seems heavy with something, tied down, and when he speaks it’s like he can’t shut it down any longer.
“I fucking loved that band, you know.”
It comes out of the blue, as he looks up at the sky. Louis’ chest feels tight, and he leans his forearms on the wrought iron surrounding the balcony, looks down, closes his eyes for a moment. It’s never been a friendship of formality, not with the two of them. There’s room in his life for small talk with everyone else; with Harry, it’s never been necessary. Even now, apparently, almost strangers, and there’s no real need for a preamble.
“Yeah,” he says, “yeah. Me too.”
“I mean,” Harry continues, turning to look at him; Louis doesn’t look back but he can feel it, “I loved it. The fucking noise of it all, you know? I loved the shitty songs and the travel and the fucking people. The five of us, being, like, on the move all the time. I loved it. I loved—“
He cuts himself off there, and Louis snaps his head up, locks eyes with him for a second. His expression is full, brimming with something Louis knows but doesn’t, understands but can’t articulate, and as though he can sense that, Harry drops his head, huffs out a small laugh.
“Everything’s hard now,” he says softly, “it’s weird.”
“It was hard then, too,” Louis points out, taking a sip of his drink. Harry laughs again, not quite happy, elbow brushing Louis’.
“Yeah. I know,” he says, “but I was so excited, when it ended. To go and do something else for a while.”
Louis bites his lip at that; nods, small and bare.
“But everything got sort of fucked up,” Harry continues, and Louis freezes, “it…everything got so small.”
But so big, Louis thinks, so, so big.
“Do you ever…” Harry starts, and Louis closes his eyes for a second, to try and compose himself for whatever Harry’s going to throw at him here, so many years later. He smiles then, out over the city, distant lights illuminate him for a moment. “Do you ever wish we’d stayed?”
And Louis wonders what that means, briefly. Who does he mean, where does he mean, because they didn’t go anywhere, not really. They’ve been in the same city this whole time. And yet this is, somehow, the first time they’ve locked eyes with each other, had a conversation with each other, in two years; another first that seems to be a desperate attempt to counteract whatever last sits between them.
“I don’t know,” Louis says finally, “I don’t—“
Lou. Louis swallows.
“I missed you,” Harry says softly. And in an act of well, of what Louis doesn’t know, but in an act that is undeniably them, Harry brushes a cool finger over his cheek, turns his head slowly so their eyes lock, burn with whatever this is. “I missed you so much.”
Louis can feel his breath now, intermingled with the breeze and the bubbles in his head. He’s so close, hands and lips and those eyes that say, I’m sorry, just maybe that’s what he means, and Louis’ head is so blank and so full all at once.
“I,” Louis starts, words melting away as Harry drops his head with a smile for a moment, cheeks burning pink, “I missed you t—“
“Harry! Come and have a drink!”
The door to the balcony slides open all of a sudden, scrape against the frame sending them both jumping. Harry’s hand draws back, Louis’ heart skyrockets, and the music pulses out of the room like it’s been looking for an escape.
It’s Laura, of course, and Louis closes his eyes, turns back to look over the balcony and regain some control.
“Yeah, babe,” Harry says, and Louis can see the hand that was running down his cheek a moment ago shaking a little. He smiles, Louis imagines, the one that doesn’t quite reach his eyes but looks pretty enough that no one notices, “just be a sec, yeah?”
“Okay,” she says, “hurry, or the Moet’ll run out.”
The door closes again, and it’s silent, save for the sound of the street and the music pulsing dully out into the air.
“You should go,” Louis says suddenly, heart in his throat, “go have a drink with her.”
Harry looks at him, lips pressed together, like he’s trying to stop something spilling out. For a moment, fleeting, Louis wants to hit him; fucking say it, he wants to yell, just say it.
But he doesn’t, because this is what they do, and this is them, and this is how it is. This is why they stayed away for so long, because this is so, so much worse than the absence, this is a presence so tantalizingly close yet so far away and Louis needs him gone, because he can’t do this, the skirting around and the quiet words and eventual pull back.
“Haz,” he says quietly, name familiar and foreign on his tongue all at once. He smiles, forcefully, and in an act of finality squeezes his hand for a second. “It was nice to see you.”
And I missed you too, he thinks, for all of it.
Harry just drops his head, thumb brushing over Louis’ fingers before he pulls away, gently.
“Yeah,” he says, soft, “yeah, okay.”
And then he’s gone, back in the throng, pouring champagne into outstretched glasses and giving a victorious swig from the bottle before laughing and leading a drunken toast, and Louis, well, out in the dark and the cool air and wrapped up in the loneliness of it all, can’t help smiling. Retrospective, melancholy, but a smile nonetheless. And he thinks that probably says more than he’d like it to.