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Louis will never admit it to anyone, but he begs.

He’s the first one to know, the fucking best friend or whatever, the one who knew when he left that he might not be coming back. He’s the one who called him, still reeling with El leaving and the photos in the paper and everything, and begged him to come back. Begged him, with the hand not on his phone clenched around his arm where the BUS 1 tattoo is, his nails digging in deep enough to hurt. To stay until the end of tour at least, that he could do his solo stuff, that he could hide in the hotel all day if he wanted to, that Louis would make sure no one ever saw him, if he would just come back.

But it didn’t work. But apparently the fact that Louis’s just lost his girlfriend and now his best friend’s leaving too doesn’t matter, the fact that it’s supposed to be the five of them against the world doesn’t fucking matter to him. So fine, Louis thinks, when the announcement comes. Fine. If he doesn’t need them, they don’t need him. Louis certainly doesn’t.

---

He doesn’t tell the other boys he knew first, because he doesn’t want to stand apart like that when they need to stand together. And he doesn’t want them to know how much he needed this not to happen, and how it didn’t matter. No one who matters needs to know he begged.

Instead he just stands there, dry-eyed, as the other boys hear. He looks at Harry instead of the screen, sees Harry’s eyes go big, then how he nods, like he accepts it. The other boys do that too, Liam saying shit about how he loves him and hopes he feels better and all that fucking shit, Niall saying he expects to see him at their shows.

“Lou?” Liam asks, turning to him, once the other three have said their part. “You okay?”

Louis finally, finally turns his gaze to the screen.  He doesn’t look any different than he did a week ago, still so stupidly pretty, still with the bags under his eyes and the slight slump of his shoulders he’s had for the past year. Lot of rest he’s gotten.

“I’m fine,” he says shortly, and he knows he’s not fooling anyone, least of all his best friend. “We’ll be fine without you.”

“I know,” he says, and Louis wants to scream. We might be, but I won’t! He wants to yell. But I need you now, I need you to be here to set everything right in my head, I need you to make me laugh and make things right. But things aren’t right, because everyone’s left. And Louis will be fucking fine.

That’s the decision he makes, right there, with everyone looking at him. He’ll be fine. He doesn’t need El and he doesn’t need anyone. He’s fine.

---

That carries him through the shows, through learning new solos and turning to an empty space to point out signs and smoking alone because none of the other boys want to. They’re all reeling in their own way too, Louis knows, but Liam has Sophia to call, and Niall and Harry are hanging out more than ever, off playing golf or what the fuck ever. Louis tags along sometimes, but watching them is—it hurts. It fucking hurts and Louis’s determined not to let it hurt, because he doesn’t need Louis Louis doesn’t need him.

The tweet’s the first thing to set him off. It’s stupid, he knows, and he doesn’t even know why he’s on Naughty Boy’s twitter in the first place, but he sees the video, and he can’t keep quiet. Can’t fucking keep quiet, when that’s out there, like they don’t matter, like this is a good thing.

It’s Harry who tumbles into the room after that first tweet, his eyes wide. “Louis, what’re you doing?” he demands, trying to take the phone away from Louis. Louis pulls it back easily. Harry’s never been able to catch him.

“Did you see the fucking thing?” he snaps, glaring at the screen. There hasn’t been a response for nearly an hour. Maybe he’s won. Maybe he’s beaten this fucking prick who thinks he’s so much better than Louis, who thinks he’s needed (who is needed more than Louis it seems, Louis thinks despite himself, under the anger. Who did win). “He’s just trying to get attention off of all this, like he’s important. Like he saved him from us.”

“This isn’t helping anything,” Harry replies, and grabs for the phone again, but Louis pushes him off, and Harry might be bigger than him but he goes. “We’re supposed to be on good terms with Zayn—we are on good terms with him—you can’t—”

“Shut up.” Louis blinks as he sees the tweet that’s come up. Sees the link to the demo, sees the title.

He doesn’t have to listen to it to know what it is. He heard it before, months ago, the two of them kicking back in Louis’s flat with Louis’s fingers in his hair like only he got to do, the demo playing off a phone and his bright, excited smile, wondering what Louis thought and if maybe this one could go on the album and wasn’t it sick? That’d been the first time Louis had wondered, maybe, had seen his grin and felt his soft hair and how his hands flailed as he talked, and felt a pang in his stomach that had nothing to do with hunger.

He throws the phone onto his bed, turns to Harry with a bright grin. “You’re right, it’s stupid.”

“What? I’m right?”

“Well, he’s stupid,” Louis corrects. He doesn’t need to hear that song again. Doesn’t need to hear his voice. Doesn’t need to know if Shahid put it up on his own or if he asked. Doesn’t need anything. “Not worth fighting with, not even like The Wanted. Drink?”

“You’re just leaving it?” Harry asks, staring at the phone. “Like that?”

“Do you want me to go off more?” Louis demands, raising his eyebrows. He won’t, Louis knows. Harry’s never known how to call his bluffs.

“No, drink sounds good,” Harry agrees. He shoots the phone another glance before he leaves, but Louis doesn’t even look at it. Good fucking riddance. He hopes he never hears that song again. He hopes everyone hates it and this whole fucking solo thing tanks. It won’t though, Louis knows. He’ll be fine on his own. Like Louis is.

---

He doesn’t need him, Louis repeats to himself, and eventually he almost convinces himself. It’s easier when he’s drunk—not high, high is worse—so that’s what he does, goes out and drinks and finds clubs, because no one’s there to stay in with him anymore anyway.  And he does Dubai on his own, does this place where every word he hears reminds him of what’s not there, where they’d plotted and planned, where his face had lit thinking about it.

Louis can do this place on his own, will do it on his own. He dances with girls, flirts and laughs and jokes, look how fucking well he’s doing. He fucks some of them, eats them out until they’re begging, running his hands over soft curves or round tits or the wet warmth of them, his fingers tangling in their hair. He’s good at it, he knows he is, or at least El always said so, and the girls don’t seem to complain, moaning out his name, and if it sounds all wrong that’s no one’s business but Louis’s.

Liam teases him for it, says he’s getting as bad as Harry; Niall high-fives him. Harry gives him a long, serious look that makes Louis wonder how much he’s seeing, but he doesn’t say anything. None of them do.

---

“You okay?” Liam asks, as Louis stumbles out of his hotel room, his last day in Dubai. He’s sitting on the couch in his suite, looking fresh as a daisy, and sometimes Louis just wants to hit him for it.

“Fucking hangover,” Louis moans, collapsing onto the couch next to him. “Get me some tea?”

“You know you’re only doing this to yourself,” Liam tells him, but he gets up, heads to the tea service. Louis groans in response. “You’ve been—you’ve been going out a lot.”

“Well, single again, yeah?” Louis points out. “Got to sow a lot of years’ worth of wild oats. And remember what you were like after Dani?”

“Fair,” Liam allows, and hands Louis the tea. “You gonna be okay tonight?”

“Always am.” He always is, isn’t he. He might not be the best singer, might not be the most popular, but at least he’s fucking here. He broke up with his girlfriend and he got papped actually snogging some other girl and he had to pay that stupid bond and he’s still here. (And he knows that’s not fair, he does, he knows it was other things, he knows he didn’t get it as bad because they’d talked about it, curled up together in one bed like Louis didn’t know where one of them stopped and the other began, but right now he doesn’t care.) “See? Tea.” He takes a sip, makes a big show of sighing in relief, and Liam laughs.

 “You and your magic—” he cuts off when his phone rings, and Louis doesn’t even have to wonder who it is, because Liam’s grinning, and he only grins like that for one person. “Zayn!” he says, into the phone, and Louis rolls to his feet. “Yeah, we’re good, just hanging with Lou…” Louis’s almost made it out the door before Liam looks up. “He says hi,” he tells Louis, all crinkled eyes and smiles and Louis doesn’t get it, he doesn’t.

“Tell him I hope he enjoys his fucking solo career,” Louis snaps back, and slams the door behind him. He doesn’t get it. He left. He left them, and they don’t need him. He knows the other boys still talk to him, that Niall and he text and Harry calls him late at night when he’s drunk still, and Liam and he are best bros for life or whatever. They say he asks about Louis, want him to call him. But Louis doesn’t need him, and he won’t. If he’s not needed, he won’t fucking pander. He’s done begging.

---

He stays away for break, as long as he can. London’s somehow marked off, a big NO, because last time he was in London they’d spent days together, fucking off in one of their houses. So he stays in South Africa, in Dubai, wherever he can that isn’t London, even if he isn’t there. It’s haunted by him, by the thought of him.

When he gets to London, he stays with the plan. He goes out with Stan, with Liam and the lads, takes pictures with fans and gets drunk and shags birds. He plays footie and fucking owns because it’s not like he ever came to cheer him on anyway, not like he ever cared about that part of Louis (not like he listened as Louis talked about the dreams that he couldn’t quite quash even yet, nodding seriously and telling Louis he could be whatever he wanted to be). He announces his own label, because he knows what he can do and how he can be brilliant on his own, without any of this solo shit. He throws himself into the new album. They’re going to be number one in the whole world, he’s determined, there going to shine so bright no one will ever notice what’s missing.

He doesn’t go home, barely sees his mum. When he does, he makes sure his sisters are all around, the babies there. She sees too much, is one of two people who ever did. He doesn’t need her worrying over him.

---

The thing is, there’s a hole in him, Louis sometimes thinks, when he’s high and alone in his room. There’s a hole in him, and he’s desperately afraid it’s not El. That—that’d been ending for a while, and he misses her, yes, but he doesn’t feel the lack of her like a constant pain in his side. When he’d fond a t-shirt of hers in his luggage, he mailed it back to her. He didn’t have the twisting urge to burn it, or wear it under all his clothes, like he did with the other t-shirt he found. Instead, he buried that one back in his luggage, deep enough it stays there when he repacks. 

He’d know how to fill El’s hole. He hasn’t been single for a while, but he knows how that works. But this other hole—it’s different. It’s deeper, and he’s terrified he knows why and Louis hates that he’s terrified, because he’s not worth it. He’s never felt a hole like this before, and he refuses, absolutely refuses, to let it be there. Not when he sees pictures of him in and out of the studio, when Harry plays tracks that Louis tries not to listen to but sound so good, when he can’t avoid the pictures of him standing on his own with his shaved head and nose ring and making speeches like he’s born to it, like he never needed Louis to fill in the holes when he didn’t want to talk, fucking thanking them like he didn’t leave. Not when Louis’s the only one with this hole.

---

The tour moves to America, and it’s even more there. Louis splashes water on Liam in concerts, jokes with Niall, and starts flirting with Harry again, just to see people scream. They need something after all, if there’s no one eating candy thongs off of Harry, no one for Liam to serenade, no one to poke at Niall’s chest. They can make up for all that. They don’t need high notes or riffs or the smokiness of his voice, because he can put all that on his own damn thing and he’s fine, he’s fucking great.

There are more girls, more alcohol. It’s exhausting, but so is tour, and the more exhausted Louis is the easier it is to sleep. The boy have started giving him concerned looks, and Lou tuts when she covers the circles under his eyes, but when Niall suggests Louis and he stay in and watch a film Louis rolls his eyes and claims that if they’re drinking they’re doing it out, and Niall’ll never say no to that.

Louis gets properly trashed, near out of his mind, but not enough that he can’t pull. He finds a dark-haired bird with light brown eyes and skin like burnt gold, and she trembles when he touches her, and he makes her come twice before he does. He kisses her after, before escorting her out, then flops back down on his bed. He’s still drunk, the room’s still spinning, and it was good but it wasn’t enough, didn’t fill anything up, didn’t put him to sleep.

He stumbles over to his bags, digs into the very bottom, where there’s a Misfits t-shirt, and balls it up. It still smells like him, smoky and Gucci and just—Zayn, and Louis breathes it in and in and in, and he’s so fucking drunk and his hand’s on his cock again, and if he closes his eyes it’s like he’s there and Louis’s got someone to hold onto someone who’ll see through him and there’s his eyes and his shoulders and his arms and the way he touched Louis and how he filled up every part of Louis in ways he didn’t know he needed.

Louis comes hard and fast, burying any name he wants to moan into the shirt.

He wakes up the next day with the shirt still in his fist and his stomach filthy with dried come. He throws the shirt across the room before getting in the shower, washing it from his skin.

When he gets out, Harry’s sitting on the bed, looking at the shirt that’s ended up on one of the chairs.

“What are you doing in my room?” Louis knows he’s been snappish lately, but he can’t care. Someone needs to be the moody one in the band, anyway.

“Wanted to check in on you.” Harry gives the shirt a skeptical look. “Is that Zayn’s?”

“I don’t know,” Louis retorts. “Just found it, thought I might wear it. I like the Misfits.”

“Louis—”

“I don’t think I will, though,” Louis goes on, before Harry can say anything else. What does Harry know? He leaves friends all across the world, he’s probably going to go solo soon too, leave Louis behind. “Kind of a shitty t-shirt, isn’t it? Now did you want to watch me get changed? I could put on a show…” he goes to drop his towel, but of course Harry doesn’t stumble, so Louis keeps it around his waist, as if Harry would know what happened last night if he saw his cock.

“Are you okay, Louis?” he asks, his voice dripping out, so slowly. “I know it’s been hard on all of us, Zayn’s leaving, and breaking up with El had to be bad.”

“No, breaking up with my girlfriend was a picnic, now I get to come out as fucking you.” Louis retorts. It’s not something they talk about often, not something Louis likes talking about. And never with Harry. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, he’d whispered things about himself, things he wondered, like if he and El ever broke up, if maybe he found a boy—but that’s gone too, that confidence. Gone with everything else. And with it the things he hadn’t figured out how to say, those last few weeks, as El and he burned out but before—everything—that maybe he might have found that someone. “Or no, you fuck me, right? I never can keep track.”

“I think it depends on the person,” Harry hums, but he’s drawn back, like he knows Louis’s claws are out. “But Lou, just because Zayn’s gone doesn’t mean we aren’t here. We’re going through the same things.”

“Good to know,” Louis drawls. He’s not sober enough for this, he decides, needs some hair of the dog. That’s what mini-fridges are for, though, so he crosses past Harry, still in his towel. “I’ll keep that in mind, for sure.”

“We have a flight in three hours,” Harry points out. Louis shrugs.

“I’m not going to be drunk. The fans won’t be able to tell.”

Harry gives him another one of those cow-eyed looks, but he doesn’t argue. He must know its pointless.

---

The fans can’t tell. Or he thinks they can’t. If anything, they’re all fucking ecstatic. They’re loving him like this, how he talks and laughs and takes pictures. They seem to agree, that Louis doesn’t need anyone. Some of them ask, sometimes—and he laughs and shrugs and toes the party line, “we’re still friends,” and “yeah excited to hear whatever he puts out” and “I can’t speak for him.” He can’t speak for him, even if he used to think he could, used to think he knew every thought behind quiet amber eyes, but clearly he was wrong. Clearly he never needed Louis to talk when he couldn’t.

So Louis does his job, puts on fucking brilliant shows and learns new formations for the What Makes You Beautiful triangle and throws around ideas for the new album with Liam and if he wakes up most nights with his mouth heavy with last night’s whiskey, that’s fine. He’s fine.

“Hey, Tommo.” Niall sticks his head into Louis’s room as he’s getting ready to go out. “You going out tonight?”

“Yeah.” Louis nods, and pulls the t-shirt over his head before he crosses the room towards the minibar. “Want to come with?”

Niall shrugs. “I got some—” He pinches his fingers together, brings them to his lips. “You want?”

Louis freezes. Niall’s smiling hopefully, all earnest affection, and Louis thinks he’s going to fall over. It shouldn’t mean anything. Louis’s smoked since, it’s not like it was his or anything, but—“No,” Louis snaps, “No. I’m fine.”

“You sure?” Niall asks, crossing his arms over his chest. “Never heard you turn down Zayn’s weed.”

“Well things have changed, haven’t they?” Louis’s voice is too sharp, he knows, and Niall didn’t mean anything by it but he knows. He knows and he can’t think about lazy nights in the Mystery Machine just the two of them, his head on Louis’s stomach as Louis lazily combed through his hair, the only one allowed to touch it, trading joints back and forth until the whole van was a hotbox and they were giggling over nothing at all and Louis felt like he could fly, like he could be anything, and there’d be someone next to him to keep him level. He can’t think about that, because he doesn’t need it.

“It’s just as good, Zayn said when I asked.”

“I don’t care what he said.”

“Have you talked to him?” Niall tilts his head.

“Why would I? He’s the fucker who left.” Louis slowly, slowly, unclenches his fingers from the counter, and grabs the bottle of whiskey on the minibar. He takes a swig right from the bottle. It almost burns away the memory of the Mystery Machine and a warm body curved casually into him.

“And we’re fine. And he’s still a brother, yeah? One of your screws.” Niall shakes his ankle, and Louis wants to scream again. He knows. He knows he’s imprinted onto Louis’s body, into Louis, doesn’t anyone get that’s the whole problem? “You need to talk to him. He asks about you.”  

“I don’t need him,” Louis says, a statement, and takes another swig of the whiskey. “Now are you going to come with me tonight or not?”

Niall narrows his eyes. “Louis—”

“Are you coming?” Louis repeats, “Because I hear the club claims they’ve got a better stout than Ireland.”

“Fuck that shit!” Niall concedes, and comes forward to throw an arm around Louis’s shoulder. “We’ll set them right, and you, yeah?”

It’s right, it is, it’s everything Louis’s been used to for four years and it’s everything he needs, but the arm is bulkier than it should be and doesn’t squeeze quite as firmly and Louis can’t stop.

He doesn’t remember much about that night, doesn’t remember getting back to the hotel, doesn’t remember the girl who he fucked, except that she had ink at the base of her neck and Louis had made her flip over so he could fuck her on her back, after he saw that.

He’s half hung over for sound check the next morning, but he gets through it, and it’s fine. The interview that afternoon is fine too, or Louis assumes it is. He spends most of his time poking at Liam’s foot like they’re seventeen again, trying to see how long he can do that before he snaps.

Eventually, Harry elbows Louis, and he looks up just in time for “So how many of you are single?”

It’s not the first time it’s been asked, or the first time Louis has to raise his hand. It doesn’t hurt that badly, not anymore.

“And of course, there would be four of your raising your hands, recently,” she goes on, and Louis sits up straight.

“What?” he demands, before Liam grabs his arm.

“Sorry, that was badly phrased,” she admits, and she’s not sorry at all, “But while we’re on the subject, do any of you have thoughts about Zayn’s break up with his fiancée?”

Louis swallows, hard. He hadn’t—how hadn’t he heard? When—why hadn’t—

“We’re very sorry to hear about it,” Liam says, of course. He knew. He must have known, must have been told, maybe they were even prepped about it. Or no, he probably got it right from the source. “We’re wishing Zayn all the best, of course, and giving him all the support he needs.”

“So you’re still in contact with him, then?”

Liam glances past her, to the publicist, but he nods. Apparently they’re talking about this now, great. Talking about how wonderful everything is and the band of brothers is still strong and him leaving didn’t matter. “Of course. Just because he needed time away doesn’t mean we won’t still always be friends.”

“It’s like, we’ll always have had what we had,” Harry adds, grinning at the interviewer. He’s not taken aback either. Did everyone know? Did he tell everyone? “And he’ll always be, like, a part of it, you know?”

“That’s lovely,” the interviewer smiles back at Harry, because Harry has that power, and Louis’s glad of it, he is, because it means no one’s looking at him and how his hand’s clenched over his forearm, tight enough it hurts.

---

“Did you know?” Louis demands, as soon as they get off stage. The other three boys glance at each other.

“Yeah?” Liam says, his brow furrowing. “He told me, before it hit the news.”

“Same,” Niall agrees, and Harry nods. “He didn’t say anything to you?”

“No,” Louis says, shortly. No, and he must really not need Louis at all, even though Louis’s been there through everything, through all the scandals and rumors and that thing she wanted that he wasn’t sure about and every time they were on the rocks and he would curl into the circle of Louis’s arms and tell Louis everything. And when he’d done, he’d look at Louis and smile, smile like Louis was the center of his world and really was the one thing he couldn’t live without, and that was all a lie too. Or maybe it just wasn’t true anymore. “No, he didn’t.”

He doesn’t ask if he’s doing okay. He doesn’t ask if he’s emerged from his house, if he’s doing the thing he does where he pushes everyone away unless you bully through it and make him talk. If fucking Shahid or all his other new best friends are taking care of him properly, like he needs after a heartbreak. He doesn’t care.

“He’s okay,” Harry says, anyway. Even though Louis didn’t ask.

“Good. So, show tonight? Shall we play a game?” Louis proposes, “I bet I can knock all of you over.”

He does manage it, if only because he actually tackles Liam during Strong, ironically. Or maybe ironically, he doesn’t even know, he’s not the one who’s good with words. Liam rolls over when he takes him down, pins him to the floor instead.

“Um, ow,” he says, low under the roar of the crowd and Harry talking.

“Don’t be a baby, Liam, you’re fine,” Louis retorts. “Gonna let me up?”

 “Yeah.” Liam stands, then reaches a hand down towards Louis. Louis takes it—then pulls, so Liam falls down again.

“Hah!”

“Low blow!” Liam protests, as he stands up again. Louis rolls his eyes. They used to do shit like this all the time, he doesn’t know why Liam’s being such a spoilsport. He just wants to have fun on stage again. Wants to fill up the empty space.

---

“Come on, love,” Louis coos, holding his hands out. Brooklyn looks skeptically at him, and the melon in his hand. He knows how she feels, but still, he’s been put on babysitting duty. “Don’t you want to eat?”

She gives him another skeptical look. Louis doesn’t get it, she’s usually good with him, he’s usually good with babies. He’s the only one Caroline properly trusts with Brooklyn now, the one who actually knows how to deal with them. But of course, now Brooklyn just won’t bloody eat.

“Want choo choo,” she says, firmly, her jaw set. Louis groans.

“What’s choo choo?”

Her eyes narrow suspiciously, like anyone who doesn’t know what choo choo is is not to be trusted. “Choo choo. To eat. It’s the best way to eat.”

“Okay, if you tell me how, maybe I can try?” he says, soft as he can. His head’s pounding with a hangover from last night, and he still needs to pull himself together for rehearsals later and he and Liam said they’d work on writing later and that’s the worst because he knows he’s been fucking useless lately.

“I want choo choo!”

“How about airplane?” Louis tries. Doris loves airplane. He stabs some melon on his fork, zooms it around, but she just glares. “No? What do you want?”

“Uncle Zayn does choo choo!”

“Well he’s not here!” Louis snaps, “So eat the damn food!”

There’s a pause, then her eyes go huge and she starts to sob, and holy shit Louis’s the worst person in the world. “Oh, no, love, I’m sorry.” He grabs her, pulls her into his lap so he can hug her properly. “I’m sorry, don’t cry, don’t cry.”

He buries his head in her soft hair, feels her shake as she sobs. “I miss him too,” he mutters, just for her. “But he doesn’t miss us, so we have to make do, yeah?”

“No.” She pulls back, looks right into his eyes. “He misses me. He said.”

Of course she’s seen him. Of course he’s said he misses her. Of course he needs her. “Okay, Brook,” he agrees. “Okay. Can we try eating again, then?”

“You two okay?” Louis looks up, and Harry’s standing there. He looks ridiculous, in sweatpants and a mostly open linen shirt and his hair pulled back into a bun, but Louis doesn’t want to look at him at all.

“We’re fine,” Louis informs him, shortly. “Go take your baby lust elsewhere, Styles. We don’t need you. We don’t need anyone.”

---

“You’re going to have to talk about it sometime.”

Louis blinks, but Liam swims in and out of focus, and he’s probably prettier that way anyway. “I talk about everything, Payno, don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“About—how you’ve been, lately.” Liam looks like he’s going to take Louis’s whiskey away, so he grabs it and holds it close. He needs it. There’s a bloke over in the corner who’s got dark hair shaved on the sides and Louis needs more whiskey not to notice.

“And how is that, Liam?” Louis accuses. It’d be easier if Liam was a little less hazy, but it’s okay, he’s fine. There’s a girl looking over security’s shoulder who’s got great tits; he does his best smirk at her and her eyes widen before she smiles back.

“Like—you’re drinking too much, for one,” Liam says, and this time he really does make a move for Louis’s whiskey. Louis shoots the rest of it back, as the only way to protect it, then grabs Liam’s beer before he can.

“Well, I’m not going out on any rooftops am I, Payno?” He asks, and Liam rolls his eyes and flushes. “Some of us can hold our liquor. And your liquor too,” he points out, and chugs Liam’s drink as well, before he stands up. He sways a little, but he’s standing, it’s all cool, and that bloke’s still there and Louis turns his back on him to go tap on security’s shoulder to let him see if he can find that girl. Liam might call after him, but what does he know, and Louis pushes through.

---

“So,” the girl—Zoe? Maybe, Louis’s not sure, fuck he’s an asshole and he can’t even bring himself to care—asks, as she shakes her head at the cigarette Louis offers her, post-fuck. He can be a gentleman, sometimes. “We gonna talk about it”

“Talk about what?” Louis asks. He’s still in a good mood, for once, riding the high of his orgasm. It’s the one high he can get simply now, more or less. Or somewhat simply. Simply enough.

“That it wasn’t me you were fucking, just there,” she says, arching her back as she settles.

“What’s that?” Louis stammers. “I didn’t—I mean, I didn’t say—”

“No names.” She yawns, then rolls off the bed, looking for her clothes. She’s a good girl, not looking for more than a night. “But you don’t fuck a one night stand like that.”

“Like how?” Louis asks, watching as she moves around the room, his fingers tight on his cigarette.

She shrugs, shaking back long curls. “Like you never wanted to let go, I guess.” She glances down, at her bare hips. “Might have bruises.”

“Sorry.”

“Nah, it was hot.” She laughs, and pulls a shirt on over her bare tits. Louis licks his lips. It’s easier than thinking about what she’s saying. “Guess you took that break up hard, then?”

Sometimes, Louis gets it, gets why having everyone know his whole life is the worst thing in the world. “Yeah,” he admits, and he’s lying through his teeth and not at all. “Sorry.”

“It was good, don’t worry.” She leans down, kisses him briefly. “Hope I helped get her off your skin.”

“You could help more?” Louis suggests, wrapping a hand around her neck to keep her there. He likes her, the bluntness in her. He doesn’t think she’d mind him holding on, how he can’t—how he’s sober now and he hates it.

She pauses, then shrugs again, and climbs back onto the bed to kiss him properly. “For a little while longer, sure.”

---

He’s so fucking drunk. He’s so drunk he didn’t even pull like he has most nights this last week, didn’t want to deal with another girl giving him that look like they knew and looking at him like they fucking pitied him. So instead he’s just drunk and leaning his head on Alberto’s shoulder as he carried him up to his room, because at least Alberto will give him a piggy back ride when he’s drunk as fuck and just wants to go to sleep.

Alberto drops him off outside his room, gives him a comforting pat on his shoulder, then heads towards his room, so Louis opens the door alone.

His first clue is the smell. He’s so drunk though, he’s sure he’s making it up, that he just wants it there so badly. But then he stumbles in, toes off his shoes and heads towards the bedroom where he can pass out—and there’s someone in the living room, standing silhouetted against the windows.  

In the first second, Louis has a minor freak out, because he’s certain a fan got in and he’s so drunk he won’t be able to deal with this because where is Alberto—and in the second, he’s sure he’s hallucinating. He has to be hallucinating, maybe someone drugged his beer, because he knows those shoulders and that stance and the tilt of his head and the straight line of his nose and he isn’t here, he can’t be, he’s in London and Louis’s somewhere in the Midwest of the US.

But then he turns, and Louis knows not even his subconscious could be this cruel.

“Zayn?” he croaks, and he’s so drunk but the word still feels wrong in his mouth, the word he hasn’t even thought for months.

“Hey, Lou.” Louis closes his eyes as the sound of his voice sweeps over Louis, as he smiles a little, soft and fond. He’s too drunk for this. He doesn’t want this. He was fine.

“No.” It’s the only thing he can think. “No. You aren’t—you’re in London.”

“Really? Didn’t know I could be in two places at once,” Zayn jokes, and suddenly all the months of anger, of loneliness and confusion and need and everything crystalize. He’s making jokes. He’s making jokes and Louis’s been—Louis’s been fine. Louis’s been great. Louis’s figured out how to be okay and he doesn’t get to joke.

“Well you can get right back to London. I don’t even know what you’re doing here,” he bites back, and turns to go towards the door. He only remembers to open his eyes after a few steps, but he doesn’t stumble, and he doesn’t look back.

He doesn’t need to look back to know Zayn’s following, the familiar clomp of his boots on hotel rugs right behind Louis.

“The boys called me. They’re worried about you.”

“I don’t know why. I’m fine.” The bedroom’s not safer, because now there’s a bed and that’s not safe, not with Zayn. Not with all the knot of feelings Louis has in the center of him, with Zayn at all the ends. Why the fuck is Zayn here, Louis needs him to leave, needs him to never leave.

“They said you were drinking more. That you yelled at Brooklyn.” Zayn’s relentless, he always was, ruthless fucker, that low rolling voice pushing forward and all around Louis and he can’t, he just can’t, Zayn’s here and he’s not supposed to be he doesn’t need Louis Louis doesn’t need him. “That you’ve been getting out of control. They were worried enough to ask me to come, Louis. What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

“What’s happened? You left!” All of Louis’s control explodes out of him, all the long months of pushing it back, because Zayn always knew how to poke a hole in Louis. Louis spins and sits down on the edge of the bed, so he can properly face Zayn, who’s leaning against the wall with his arms crossed like he doesn’t have a fucking care in the world. He’s gained weight, his cheeks rounder than they have been in years, and his piercing glints at his nose, and Louis tries not to notice any of that. “You left the band high and dry and just fucked off and we could have crashed!”

“But you didn’t,” Zayn replies evenly, even if Louis knows he hit him well, because if Zayn knows all his weaknesses he knows Zayn’s too, knows how his lips pressed together and his shoulders twitched. “You guys are doing fine. Breaking records still. So what happened?”

“You left!” Louis repeats. He doesn’t know why Zayn’s doing this, why the boys brought him back, why they made him come. Why he has to be here, the one person who’s always been able to push at Louis. The one person Louis’s been trying to build his walls against. “You left us. Do you know how much that hurt? It was supposed to be the five of us and then you just gave up and it’s not the same.”

“I know.” Louis glances up. Zayn’s looking at him, a sad look from under his eyelashes, and he’s always been too pretty for anyone’s good but his own. Louis wants—god, he wants to bite at him, to kiss and claw and rip at him until he breaks just like Louis. “I know. And I’m sorry for that, I am, you know that. But the other boys have forgiven me, and you all are fine. So what’s wrong, Louis?”

“That’s not enough? I think it’s plenty to be getting on with. Betrayal, money, all very soap opera. Bet the fans are eating it up. Maybe it even helped.” Louis knows he’s just talking now, but it works, it’s worked for years and months, and it works to get him up, get him to head back towards the window. He doesn’t want to be sitting, it’s too vulnerable. “Probably’ll help sell your albums, for sure. ‘Specially with us all on your side, apparently.”

“Louis.” Zayn’s voice is sharp, firm, and Louis hates it, hates how he can’t help but turn towards him. No one’s ever managed him like Zayn and he hates it, hates that that’s true and he still can’t change it. “Louis. What’s wrong?”

Louis blinks. He has to know. Zayn knew him inside and out, knew every little crevasse of him (except for a few, those certain few that Louis knows are the real problem, but they’re deep at the bottom and they don’t really matter). Why is he still asking?

“Don’t,” he warns, dangerous as he can be. “Don’t, Zayn.”

Any of the other boys might be scared off, might have backed off. But Zayn never has, Zayn’s never backed away from Louis, and his eyes glint in the lights as he meets Louis’s gaze squarely. “Louis. What’s wrong?”

“You left me.”

And there it is. There’s the hole, the gaping wound, the pain that he hasn’t been able to escape. It feels good to say it aloud, to see Zayn’s eyes widen for a beat before he closes off again. Except he doesn’t close off, not really, because he’s always worn his heart on his sleeve to Louis and god Louis wants to hurt him, wants him to know how much he hurt Louis.

“You left me,” he repeats, louder. “Eleanor and I had just broken up and you knew what that meant and then you just fucking left me.”

Zayn’s curling inwards, and good, Louis wants him to hurt. Wants him to hurt like Louis did, like Louis is. Wants him to feel this hole too. “You knew I was thinking about it.”

“But not for real!” Louis yells. “Not actually going to do it! Not now! Not that you were actually going to abandon me when I needed you! Not that you would fucking know about that, but I needed my best friend and you weren’t here.”

For a second, the only sounds are Louis’s harsh breaths, the cars outside. If Zayn’s breathing, Louis can’t hear it, and he doesn’t want to look to see it.

“What do you mean, I don’t know?” Zayn asks, suddenly breaking the silence, his voice the whiplash he gets when he’s properly pissed. “What the hell does that mean?”

Louis snorts. He’s not sure if he’s drunk anymore, or if he just hurts, but at least anger keeps him upright. “Nothing. It means nothing. Just that apparently me needing you means fuck all to you.”

“Because I chose me for once?” Zayn demands, and when Louis does look at him his face is set. “Because I chose to get out before I broke? I’m sorry for how it happened Louis, I am, but if I’d stayed a day longer I’d have started hating everything, and you know that, you know how I was then. I did what was right for me.”

“We could have been what was right!” Louis insists, and shit, fuck, he’d sworn he wouldn’t beg, not anymore, that he was done, but Zayn’s here and he can’t not, “We could have made it work! I’d have done anything, Zayn!”

“Is that what you’re mad at? That I didn’t let you convince me to stay? Even though it was good for me? Some fucking friend you are.”

“I needed you to stay!” It bursts out of Louis, that thing at the heart of him, below everything else, at the center of the knot. “I needed you, Zayn. And you just fucked off, and you were fine without me, and so I was going to be to. There. Are you happy now? That’s what’s wrong.”  

“You think I was fine?” Zayn snaps back.

“Well you certainly seemed it!”

“Well I wasn’t!”

“Sure, yeah, your life looks so hard. You said, it was the right thing for you to do.”

“It was,” Zayn agrees, and the anger in his voice has boiled down to something tight and furious. “It was the right thing, and then the media attacked me and I was alone and my engagement fell apart and my best friend decided I didn’t exist.”

“Oh, sorry, is Shahid mad at you?”

“Don’t be an asshole, Louis.” Zayn glares for a second, then, all of a sudden, he sags, and that’s the worst, that’s the one thing Louis’s never been able to stand up to. Zayn softening, the way he blinks so his eyelashes brush his cheeks. Louis’d forgotten how big his eyes were, with his hair short like this. “I needed you too.”

Louis reels. It’s like ‘you’ all over again, that moment on stage when one word had taken Louis out at the knees, except now it’s so much worse. “No you don’t,” he says, frantic suddenly. “No. You left. You left, and you didn’t—you didn’t even tell me you and Perrie split!”

“How was I supposed to? You wouldn’t talk to me.” Zayn retorts. Then he takes a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “I wanted to, Lou. But—you were mad, and you had a right to be, and I thought you were doing okay. You looked okay, in the videos. Bit manic, I mean, but okay. But god. I wanted to talk to you, Lou. About Pez, and the new stuff I’m doing, and just—everything.”

“You could have called. Or texted. Or tweeted. Or fucking sent up smoke signals.”

“When you wouldn’t even say my name?” When Louis makes a questioning noise, Zayn shrugs. “The boys told me.”

“No.” No, Louis can’t have Zayn being soft like this, soft and needing him too. Needing and gentle and so Zayn-like, slowly knitting together the edges of the hole because then they’ll be ripped apart again. “No, you don’t—you left! You left me.”

“I know. But you were supposed to be fine!” Zayn looks beseechingly at Louis, pleading almost, like he’s the one who’s begging. “You were—you were supposed to be fine.”

“How the fuck was I supposed to be fine?” Louis demands, and he steps forward, until he’s leaning into Zayn’s space. The space that there hasn’t been between them, no thought of it, and now there is or maybe there isn’t Louis doesn’t know, he just knows Zayn’s being stupid and he smells good and up close Louis can see the cracks in his façade, the dark circles and the tense muscles and the way he’s not fine, no matter if he’s still the most beautiful person Louis knows. “You weren’t there!”

He’s still in Zayn’s space, and he’s so close and it’s so familiar and easy and Zayn’s hands on his waist, pulling him in, and Louis knows he should resist, that he’s still mad, but it’s Zayn, and god he’s missed him so fucking much. “You weren’t there,” He says again, into Zayn’s neck, and his arms are wrapped around Zayn’s shoulder, clinging like he said he never would again. “You fucker, you left,” he mouths into Zayn’s skin, and he can feel Zayn’s shaky laughter, and he knows Zayn might feel the wetness on his skin but he doesn’t say anything.

There’s a pressure on Louis’s temple, and he knows it’s Zayn’s lip. He shivers, can’t help it, because it’s been so long, and it feels different than any of the birds he’s shagged since then. Then those lips are on his cheeks, gentle still, soft and Louis knows it’s just Zayn being Zayn, Zayn being touchy and affectionate and all those things, but he’s wrapped in the scent of Zayn and it’s so much better than that old t-shirt and it’s Zayn. So he lifts his head, and the next time Zayn’s lips brush against him it’s against his lips.

Zayn freezes, draws back for a second—but fuck it, if Louis’s doing this he’s doing it, so he tightens his hold and kisses him for real. He tastes like cigarettes and the bubble gum Harry likes, and he kisses like Louis always thought he’d kiss, sure and steady and intent. Louis digs in his nails, pushes back against him, until he’s got Zayn crowded against the wall.

“Louis?” he asks, and Louis’s been waiting months to hear him say that, to hear that voice, the one he really wants, so he kisses him again to shut him up.

It’s too fast and too slow and all of it together, in the end; Louis clinging, biting and sucking and licking at every bit of Zayn’s skin he can get at as he strips him down, Zayn’s fingers running over all of Louis as he does the same, soft like he can’t believe Louis exists. Zayn spread out beneath him, smiling soft and fond, like he only does at Louis, here here here, and Louis mouthing at his skin. The sounds Zayn makes when Louis wraps his mouth around his cock, how he moans and whines and begs, begs for Louis and just him, how he gasps out Louis’s name as he comes. His hand, that hand Louis knows so well, wrapped around Louis with Zayn pliant and loose beneath him, like he’s just smoked the best weed in the world, kissing Louis deep and lazy until he comes with a muttered, “Fuck, Zayn!” buried in Zayn’s mouth.

---

They push at each other for who gets up to get a washcloth, and eventually Louis huffs out a breath and grabs the closest thing he has at hand, which happens to be Zayn’s vest, and wipes Zayn off with fingers more tender than he’ll admit, before he flops back down onto the bed next to Zayn.

“Liked that shirt,” Zayn says idly. He arches his back, stretching like a cat, like he always did when he was particularly pleased. Louis sympathizes. He thinks he could purr, could just curl into Zayn’s side and never leave. He hasn’t felt like this since—fuck, since El. Since El, or the last time he and Zayn smoked, right before everything went down, the two of them with their legs tangled and their arms pressed so close Louis could feel every time he moved.  

“You’ll live.” Louis shrugs. He could get closer, but he doesn’t. He’s got that much sense left, at least. “So. Perrie?”

Zayn shrugs. “It was just…like, do you know we’d never lived together? Not for more than a few weeks. But then I was home all the time and we really were planning the wedding and…dunno. Wasn’t right.” He rolls onto his side, so he can properly look at Louis. “I did want to talk to you about it. Fucking hell, you were the only one I wanted to talk to about it.”

“Good.” Louis nods. That’s right, that’s even. “’Cause I really fucking wanted you here.”

“I’d have stayed if I could.” Zayn’s voice is soft, and he lifts his hand to rest it on Louis’s waist. “You know. It wasn’t, like—it wasn’t you.”

Louis swallows, but he has to ask. Has to know. “Could I have done anything, to make you stay?”

“Oh, Lou.” Suddenly, Zayn’s hand’s on his chin, and he’s closer, his eyes huge and almost sparkling and sad. “No. No, there wasn’t anything you could change.”

“But—”

“Louis.” Zayn’s stern, and it shouldn’t be as hot as it is. “Stop it. It’s done.”

“You’re not here, though,” Louis insists. “It’s like—there’s a hole,” he explains, and it’s not enough but he has to say it. “I can’t—I can’t stop, without you there.”

“Sure you can.” Zayn burrows closer, resting his head on Louis’s shoulder, like he has so many times. It’s different now, though, even as Louis can feel his breath even out with Zayn’s. Different with both of their skin bare, with how he can feel all of Zayn, so close like they could just sink into each other. “You can do anything.”

There’s silence, the sort of silence Louis can only get around Zayn, can only get when Zayn’s there to keep him breathing easy. But he can’t stay quiet for long, not when that last question’s beating in his heart. “Could I get you to come back?” Louis asks.

He can feel Zayn tense again. “Don’t, Lou. Please.”

“Could I?” Louis repeats. “If this was a thing, would that help?”

It’s the wrong thing to say, and Zayn’s always so touchy, so he pulls away from Louis, sits up. “This,” he gestures to the bed, “’s got nothing to do with me leaving.”

“So, no,” Louis retorts. He’s lost that languor too, and now they’re back to fighting, of course. Of course Louis’s not enough for Zayn, not even like this. “No, you still don’t need me—”

“Of course I need you!” Zayn snaps back. “It’s been torture without you, without being able to talk to you, and it’s your bloody fault for cutting me off. But we can have that—we can have this—without me in the band, Lou! We weren’t mates because we were in the band, we were mates and in the band.”

“Mates?” Louis spits back. “That what this was, mates? Just a helping hand, like you and Haz used to do or whatever?”

“Was it?” Zayn’s eyes glint dangerously. “Was that what it was?”

“Seems like it was to you.”

“You started it.” Louis’s going to comment on the childishness of that, but something in Zayn’s gaze stops him, pins him. “You kissed me, Louis. Was it just you being a mate?”

Louis swallows. He’d—somehow he’d forgotten, how no one strips him bare like Zayn, even worse than them actually being naked. How he can’t escape an answer by throwing it back at Zayn.

But it’s also Zayn. And he’s mad, he’s furious, but—it’s Zayn. “No,” Louis admits, quietly. “No, it wasn’t.”

“Me neither.” Zayn’s smile is soft and shy, the one he gets when it seems like he’s forgotten he’s actually sex on legs. The one he only gets when he doesn’t mind letting you see he’s vulnerable. “Like, dunno how long, but—wanted it.”

“Same.” Louis can’t help his grin. “Yeah, like. For a while.”

Zayn nods, but then the smile fades, and he bites at his lip. “But Lou—I can’t come back. I can’t. It—everyone looking, picking me apart, always going, I—” he shivers. “It was eating me, babe. You know that. I can’t.”

“You—”

“But,” Zayn goes on, interrupting Louis. Louis glares, but Zayn rolls his eyes at him. “Doesn’t mean we can’t, like, dunno. Still be—us? We’ve got, like, phones and shit.”

“Doesn’t work if you don’t answer,” Louis mutters.

“And not like I’m hurting for cash, I can come visit. Or you can come to London.” Zayn gives him another look, hopeful this time. “If you want?”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Louis retorts, crossing his arms. He wants, god, he wants. He wants Zayn with him all the time. He wants Zayn there, to fill up this hole in him, to be the wall on which he breaks and his partner in crime and to hug him so gently Louis could cry from it, then to beat him in all their playfights. He wants to smoke up with Zayn in the Mystery Machine, wants to wrap his hand around Zayn’s wrist and feel himself center. He wants to lay Zayn back down on the bed and see if he can finally break him like that. But he can’t—but Zayn left. Zayn left him. Zayn didn’t want him. “You would be the one flying. Because I’m busy, remember.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Zayn look down, see his brow furrow like it does when he’s unsure. When he needs Louis to tell him to speak up, needs Louis to stand there beside him and dare the world to try to challenge them. When he thinks he’s wrong, and doesn’t know how to back away gracefully. “Fine.” He’s trying for hard, but Louis knows him too well for that. “Fine, I’ll go kip with Liam then, I don’t—”

He’s actually getting out of bed, throwing his legs over the edge, and—no. “Don’t be stupid,” Louis snaps, and grabs at Zayn’s wrist to stop him. Zayn stops, looks back at Louis, through those stupidly pretty eyes. “Do you—do you want to be—us?”

Zayn, because he’s Zayn, seems to get what he’s not saying, what he can’t get himself to say. What he can’t get himself to ask for. “Yeah. I do.” He’s got that smile on, the one it feels like he saves just for Louis, and fuck, Louis hadn’t known how much he missed that. “Missed you.”

“Missed you too, you fucker,” Louis retorts, and yanks. Zayn more comes back to bed than falls back, but it doesn’t really matter, because it ends with them curled together on the bed, and Louis knows he might be holding onto Zayn too tight, but he finds he doesn’t care, because Zayn’s holding on just as tight back.