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He spent his ninth birthday under an overgrown elm tree half a mile from home. It took less than an hour for his bum to grow numb and his feet to start to tingle from the cold seeping through his trainers, but if there was one thing he learned from having four baby sisters it was to be patient (and it probably doesn’t help that Louis is stubborn by design). It takes less than thirty minutes for Louis to realize he had forgotten to bring anything to do, a book or his Gameboy or even his mother’s book of crossword puzzles that she likes to play while Daisy and Phoebe and Fizz take their nap and he and Lottie do their homework. It takes him less than an hour to get bored.

That being said though, now is the time to remind you that for all he lacks in planning or survival skills he makes up in stubbornness, so still he sits there, picking at the grass around his hands and huddling himself in his oversized snow coat that his mother bought at the thrift store down the road (and at the time, Louis had been in love with the coat, in love with the orange and greens that it sported, perfectly happy to overlook the frayed sleeves and the hole in its side and the rather suspicious looking stain on the back. At first he didn’t care that it was two sizes too big for him, because like his mum said he would grow into it. At first he didn’t care, until everyone at school starting wearing black or grey coats from Burberry, the ones with the zippers instead of the buttons, and not long after that Louis started hiding his coat in his backpack when he walked to school; he would rather be cold than have everyone stare at him even more).

It’s snowing now, and in his little eight (nine) -year-old mind it’s fitting, because it’s just starting to get dark and it’s Christmas Eve and the church cathedral across the way has just started mass.

He wonders what his mother’s doing. He hopes she’s stopped crying by now.

The Christmas hymns are drifting across the street and they make Louis smile, because Christmas really is his favorite time of year, even if everyone always forgets his birthday. He can see the light streaming through the stained glass of the church windows, dotting the street below with light because the street lamps have all burned out except for the one Louis’s next to. He thinks the stain glass is odd, he wonders why all the people painted on them look so sad.

He’s tired, but then again he’s always tired lately, although he pretends he’s not because his mother always looks worried when he mentions it and his teacher always yells at him when he falls asleep in class, so instead Louis crawls out from beneath the tree and lays face down in the grass, feeling the snow fall on top of him and pepper his bare fingers with the white powder. He wishes he remembered his mittens.

Louis takes a moment to wish that there was enough snow to make a snow angel, but then he remembers that if there was more snow he would be even colder, and he doesn’t want that, so instead he just wishes he had an angel. An Angel like the one Michelle Donaldson has on her necklace, maybe, with wide wings and a white dress, the angel’s hands always folded in a prayer. That would be nice, he thinks, because the angel would be all his, and for once he wouldn’t have to share.

It’s maybe another hour, maybe two when he starts getting lonely, the feeling he only lets himself feel when his mum and stepfather are at work and the babysitter is only paying attention to the twins because they’re still young and cute. This is the loneliness he only lets himself feel when he calls up Jacob Tanner’s house to ask if he wants to go play footie and Mrs. Tanner says Jacob’s already out playing with his friends.

He mentioned this to his mother once, when they were watching TV after the twins and Fizz had gone to bed and Lottie was reading in the big chair, the comfy one next to the fake fire and the lamp. He told his mother he sometimes feels like everyone forgets about him, how he’s either too loud and everyone tells him he’s being annoying, or he’s too quiet and everyone tells him he needs to stop being so boring. His mother, for her part, told him that he’s surrounded by people all the time so he can’t be lonely (and then she hugged him to her side as they spent the rest of the night in silence, and only a few times did she wonder if she forgets about him a bit too much).

Louis doesn’t let himself think about the pickle dish for another hour, and by then the mass is just getting out, families leaving the church as they huddle together, bundled up in their coats and mittens and dressed in their Sunday best. Louis thinks he recognizes a few people as they walk to their car, but he doesn’t do anything about it.

The pickle dish though, he thinks with disdain, was ugly to begin with.

And Louis may be eight, but he’s still well old enough to know what stress is, still well old enough to know that his mum is up to her ears with it. He knows she’s tired; how she has to juggle with a full time job and five children. He knows she’s sad, because he always hears her shout it at night when his mum and step father think he’s asleep, think that he won’t hear them argue about things he doesn’t understand. It starts off in whispers every night, harsh breaths in their bedroom with the door closed, but their voices always inevitably rise and he likes to pretend that if he crawls under the covers he isn’t listening to his own parents, instead to somebody else’s. Lottie comes into his room sometimes, when it’s particularly bad and his mum starts to cry, or his step-father falls oddly silent and it’s like his mother is having a one way conversation. On nights like these Louis would make up a story to tell Lottie, something about castles and princesses and a fire breathing dragon. He always likes it when the court jester turns out to be the hero.

So yes, Louis understands that his mother probably didn’t mean to get as angry as she did, because it’s Christmas Eve and she had already spent the last week buying everyone’s presents even though she pretended like she had done it a month ago so she wouldn’t seem like she waited until the last minute. And Louis blames himself a little bit for her forgetting what today is because he hadn’t said anything about it this year, hadn’t dropped hints like expected about what he wants for his birthday, hadn’t spoken about it at all. So yes, he blames himself, because he had wanted to see if anyone would remember and he should have known no one would care if he didn’t remind them.

But he didn’t say anything the whole morning, because he’s eight (nine) and he was hoping his mother was just waiting until later to wish him happy birthday. He didn’t say anything because he’s eight (nine) and already lonely, and he wishes someone would shower him with attention because they wanted to, not because he asked for it.

He wishes he didn’t cry when he broke the pickle dish and his mother started to yell at him, but he’s eight (nine) and lonely and sometimes he’s allowed to cry.

Louis loves his mother, because she gives the world’s greatest hugs and cuts the crusts off his sandwiches and she held him when Jimmy Weller didn’t invite Louis to his birthday party last year. Louis loves his mother but sometimes he wishes he would remember what it was like when he was an only child, when people cooed over him and his mother would pay him more attention. Sometimes he wishes his father had stayed even though he doesn’t even remember the man, because that way his mother wouldn’t be married to his step-father, because his step-father never looks him in the eye and Louis one time over heard him tell his mother that Louis “wasn’t his problem”.

Louis wishes he was somebody’s problem.

He waits another hour and he sees a man dressed all in black except for a white collar lock up the front doors of the Church. Louis wondered why the man wasn’t wearing a coat. He wondered if the man is embarrassed about his coat like Louis is embarrassed about his own.

Louis decides that he better stop thinking of himself as eight, because he’s nine now. He wonders if his mother still thinks he’s eight.

When Louis stands up his feet are still numb and he can’t feel his finger-tips, so he waits a minute before he starts to walk home. He wonders if he should buy his mother a new pickle dish.
* * *
“For fuck’s sake Zayn, we’re on a time limit here, stop waddling like an old man.” Louis can tell Zayn’s about a flight of stairs below him, and really he shouldn’t be pushing the boy so hard because Zayn just had another round of chemo a few days ago and he’s not exactly ready to run a marathon yet, but Louis’s been waiting way too long for this and for god’s sake if he doesn’t get out of this hospital right now he’s going to implode. Not explode. Implode.

Zayn, for his part, just flips Louis offs and keeps walking at his grandfather’s pace, because damn it he feels like all his bones are twice as heavy (but at least he hasn’t thrown up for a whole day, so really he’s going to count today as a win). When Louis reaches the top he flings the door open hard enough for it to slam against the brick wall and he takes a fleeting moment to wonder if anyone heard that, but then he shakes his head and wonders when he got so stupid. He feels like he’s flying, then, as he slowly makes his way to the edge, and he thinks about how he likes the roof so much better at night, but this’ll do just fine.

“Scoot over, you’re in my spot.”

Louis jumps as he feels someone speak in his ear, and he quickly whips around to glare at Zayn, because really he shouldn’t surprise him when he’s standing so close to the edge, but he scoots over anyway (with a pout).

“How in the world do you know that this particular spot is yours?” Louis grumbles, but he flops down just the same, his feet dangling over the edge, and he wonders if he dropped one of his shoes if it would hit one of the people rushing below.

“It calls to me,” Zayn explains, and really if Louis didn’t know him better he would think Zayn was joking, but sadly he knows him all too well, knows he’s being serious, “this spot, we’ve had a lot of times together.” Louis rolls his eyes and Zayn snickers, because he’s always so proud of himself when he makes Louis roll his eyes.

“So you got it or what?” Louis asks, because really if he didn’t prompt him Zayn would probably just sit here and stare at the city for the few minutes they’ve got (and really, Louis wouldn’t mind doing so either, but today is special and they’ve gone through so much work to get the stuff, they’re going to go through with this).

“I said I got it, didn’t I?” Zayn mutters, a bit indignant, but he reaches one of his gloved hands into his pocket, pulls out a little plastic baggie and a lighter. Louis’s smile is bright, and it’s Zayn’s turn to roll his eyes.

“It isn’t as exciting as you’re making it out to be, Lou,” Zayn says, and Louis knows that, but for the love of god he’s really got to finish his list soon, and really everyone’s got to try it once in their life, right?

“I thought it was supposed to be like, in a pipe or something? Isn’t it supposed to look like oregano? Why is it…”

“it’s a spliff, Lou, I got it so we can smoke it like this, it’s easier .” Zayn says, mumbling around the white…thing…he’s got hanging out of his mouth, and Louis watches in awe as his friend lights the end of it and inhales, taking the weed out of his mouth but keeping his lips sealed to keep the smoke int He doesn’t hand it over to Louis until he lets the smoke out again, letting a cool stream of white release through the slight part in his lips.

“Don’t take too much,” Zayn warns as he hands it over, “you’ll choke on it, and then I’ll laugh.”

“I’m not going to choke on it.” Louis pouts, and he pretends he doesn’t notice when Zayn rolls his eyes again, instead focusing on the little white stick he’s got in between his fingers, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger in the center where it’s fatter.

Once he’s got it in between his lips he inhales, and he realizes right away it’s different from when he tried one of Zayn’s cigarettes. This time the smoke burns his mouth more, fills up all his senses and he’s not sure if he feels like he’s on fire because of the spliff or because of the adrenalin rush, but either way his insides are burning. It’s sweeter, this smoke, and he’s actually rather surprised how much he likes it, how he likes the way the smell takes over his nose, how that’s all he can taste, all he smells.

He wants to cough, he feels like he needs to cough, but Zayn’s right there, leaning back on his elbows and staring up at the clouds, all mellow and long limbed and gorgeous. Zayn’s right there so he doesn’t cough, he instead just holds the smoke in until his lungs feel like they’re going to burst, and then he opens his mouth, letting out all the smoke in one go, so unlike the way Zayn did, so lacking the grace.

He passes the spliff back to Zayn. He leans back on his elbows and watches the clouds.

They stay there probably longer than they should, passing the weed lazily back and forth between themselves, staring up at the sky as it turns from blue to orange to grey. Their feet dangle off the edge of the building and at some point during the time Louis’s leg snuck up and looped around Zayn’s, resting over his thigh.

“This isn’t very strong, is it?” Louis asks after a while, breaking the beautiful build of silence that had grown around them. Zayn shrugs, nonchalant, and Louis kicks him lightly in the shin.

“Naw, I made sure not to get anything too exciting.” Zayn tells the sky, tells the birds flying to the left, tells the angry clouds above.

“Huh, didn’t think I could handle it?” Louis asks him, turning his head to the side and squinting at his friend.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to.” Zayn corrects.

Louis hums in acceptance.

“So you excited for your new roommate?” Zayn asks after another timeless pause, stretching out his legs so they hover parallel with the sidewalk many stories below. He feels like he’s flying.

“Yeah, what number is this?” Louis asks, humming a tuneless song up to the sky.

“Maybe this one will be cute.” Zayn muses, and Louis wants to say he hopes he’s not cute, he hopes he’s not nice or funny or sweet. Louis wants to say he doesn’t think he can handle another friend going before him, watching as they wither away before his eyes, (he wants to say a lot of things, but this isn’t the kind of things he and Zayn talk about, so he doesn’t).

“He’ll probably be straight though.” Louis says at last, because it’s true. Damn it.

“Maybe you’ll get lucky this time.” Zayn suggests, and Louis tries to hold back his laugh, because he doesn’t have any luck.

They go back down after that, because they were supposed to go to group therapy an hour ago and Annie is probably steaming with rage by now.

It’s harder walking down the stairs than it was going up, and it might be because of the high, or maybe because the adrenalin has worn off by now, or it might be because no matter how much he likes to ignore it, Louis’s sick and isn’t getting better. Zayn is still lagging behind, and Louis thinks that maybe he should have waited a few more days before dragging Zayn up there (but then he remembers in a few days he’ll be the one lagging behind, throwing up everything before it reaches his stomach, sleeping every available moment. He remembers this and it’s selfish, he knows, but he’s glad they went up today). Louis waits at the bottom of the stairs for Zayn, holding the door open while keeping a watch out for any wandering nurses who might tattle. He reaches up with one hand and pulls off his beanie for a moment to scratch at his scalp, and he can’t help but giggle to himself because he never noticed the small hole near the rim of it. It’s pink, his beanie, the knitted yarn fading from light pink to dark and back again, and it’s course and itchy and lumpy and actually rather ugly, but Lottie’s been teaching herself how to knit and this is her first attempt, and Louis would rather brave the constant itch and confused stares than not wear it.

Louis pats Zayn on the back a bit harder than he probably should when he finally reaches the end, and they start off down the hallway towards Louis’s room, because they figure they’ve already missed group therapy (such a pity, they know) (that was sarcasm, by the way) so they might as well go weather Annie’s wrath sooner rather than later.

“So look who finally decided to show up.” A voice calls down the hall, and Louis recognizes the voice long before they see the body sporting it, and this is the part of the plan they didn’t really think through.

“Hey love,” Louis smiles as they approach the nurse, “don’t you look smashing…”

“Shut up Louis, where have you two been this time?” Her eyes are slits now, looking oddly unsettling paired with her stout frame, her messy array of curls pulled up on the top of her head.

“We were just wandering, Annie,” Zayn shrugs, leaning against the wall so his legs won’t give out from under him, “lost track of time.”

“Oh really?” She raises one eyebrow, looking him up and down, but before she can say anything about his fatigue Louis’s got an arm wrapped around her shoulder, another bright smile covering his face.

“Oh Annie, you know we would never want to miss a chance to talk about our feelings, and we certainly wouldn’t want to ever miss a chance to spend time with you, why, every second in your presence is like having a choir of angels…”

“Okay, I get it,” she interrupts, shaking out from under Louis’s arm and turns around to open his door, “your roommate’s already here, so play nice, and…” she pauses for a second, trailing off and Louis stiffens and her eyes trail from his chest to his eyes.

“Louis, why do you smell like…”

“Hey Annie, I think I’m going to go take a nap, okay?” Zayn interrupts and Louis makes a mental note to remind himself to thank his friend later, because no sooner did Zayn say anything than Annie is flying over to Zayn. Louis misses whatever comes next, choosing to slip into his room to lay about for the remainder of his high, but as soon as he’s in he’s knocking into something, hitting his head against something bony.

“Oi, what the hell?” Louis screeches, and he would like to say his voice remained steady but really it rose about two octaves and cracked.

“Oh, sorry mate, didn’t see you there.” The inconvenient blockade says. Louis blinks a few times, his glasses gone askew, and when he looks up he realizes that oh, there’s somebody there.

“I’m Harry by the way, are you Louis? The, um, lady said that my roommate would be here in a second or two and she said his name was Louis so I just assumed you are my roommate so if you’re like uh not then sorry not-Louis and like…”

“I’m Louis,” Louis says (squeaks) and bloody crap on a cracker but Zayn must have jinxed it, because this kid is cute (he’s cute and fit and has a full head of perfectly colored curls and he’s got pink cheeks just holding onto its baby fat even though the rest of his body seems to have lost it and damn it but he’s healthy and looks absolutely perfect and in no way should be in a hospital).

Harry smiles and his cheeks dimple. Louis wants to take this moment to murder somebody.

“Oh good, it’s very nice to meet you Louis.” Harry’s voice is low but it cracks at the end, and it really hurts Louis to think about how adorable that is.

“What you’ve got then?” Louis asks, and Harry looks immediately taken aback, his eyebrows furrowing and Louis can tell this is probably the first time the boy’s been asked this, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.

“Well, erm, I’ve got some sort of tumor in my back, I don’t remember the name it was pretty long,”

“This is your first time then?” Louis asks, cutting him off and Harry’s eyebrows (he had eyebrows, Louis wonders how long he’ll get to keep them) furrow together, and Louis can tell he has no idea what he’s talking about, “you just found out about it?” Louis asks again, and Harry nods.

“Yeah uh, I was officially told like a few days ago really, and erm, still getting used to it and all.” Harry looks a bit upset, and why shouldn’t he be, and it’s like Louis can physically feel his heart cracking.

“What’re they going to do about it?” Louis asks instead, because it may seem a bit prying but Harry was acting as if he was going off to camp, and Louis wonders if Harry’s even mentioned all this out loud, if he’s even told anybody.

“I well,” Harry shrugs, turning to sit on Niall’s bed (Harry’s bed, Louis reminds himself, it’s Harry’s bed now) “they said they’re going to try chemotherapy first? And if it doesn’t work they’ll have to try surgery.”

“Okay then.” Louis says, going to his own side of the room to go through his bedside drawer, pull out the book Lottie says he just has got to read. He can feel Harry’s eyes burning into his side.

“I, uh…”

“You want to know what I got then?” Louis confirms, and Harry shrugs but Louis can see the curiosity in his eyes, watches him as he lifts a hand and runs it through his curls. Louis doesn’t think he can handle it.
* * *
The day after his ninth birthday Louis doesn’t wake up, which is a shocker in itself because it’s Christmas and Fizz and Lottie are making so much noise over their new presents and the twins are crying in their cribs and his step-father has the blender on. His mother is rushing around trying to get everything ready for when her parents come over for dinner later that day, and she doesn’t notice Louis’s not up until it’s eleven and his mother has just finished vacuuming.

His mother, for her part, notices something isn’t right by the way the house seems to stand on edge, the silence that hovers down in the floorboards and the way the walls creak. It’s too quiet, she can tell, and there’s still a small pile of presents still under the tree, half hidden under the wrapping paper the girls have yet to clean up.

She goes to check on her son, trying to be as silent as the house she’s inside, and even when the door creaks Louis doesn’t stir in his cocoon of blankets, his face half buried in his pillow. She sits on the edge of the bed, pulling his duvet down to his waist slowly, revealing his dinosaur pajama top. She rubs his shoulder, cooing for him to get up, because it’s Christmas and he can’t miss Christmas, and she wonders if he’s sick, if he caught a cold from yesterday.

Yesterday, for her, was probably one of the worst days she’s had so far, she thinks with a sinking feeling in her gut and she promises herself something like that will never happen again. She hadn’t noticed he was gone until he was stumbling through the front door four hours later, shivering and sporting a runny nose. She promises herself she’ll notice next time.

“Lou, baby,” she coos again, gently whispering into his ear and it’s odd, doing this, because he’s usually the first up in the mornings, the first to make a mess in his attempt to make breakfast, or the first to make a mess in his room with his eclectic assortment of half-broken toys, or the first to blast music in the front room and try to move like the ballerinas he’s seen in movies. Lately though he’s been more subdued, and she wonders if she should be worried.

“Louis, it’s time to get up.” She speaks a bit louder this time, and Louis acknowledges this with something akin to a groan, and his mother frowns. She trails her hand up and down the length of his spine to help wake him up, and it’s supposed to be a soothing gesture but instead all it does is make her son shrink down father into his sheets and whine, and when she reaches his lower back she can swear he whines.

“Lou, what’s wrong?” she asks, but he just turns so he’s facing the opposite way from her, curled up in a ball and in the process the back of his shirt rides up a bit, showing no more than a small sliver of skin, and her eyebrows furrow.

She reaches a hand out, running her fingertip over the suspicious coloring of his skin, and when he shivers she runs her hand up a bit farther, pulling up his shirt. Dotted along his spine, she can see, are clover-shaped bruises, angry blues and purples fading into sickly greens, and he shivers again.
* * *
“So how’s the new roomie then?” Zayn asks, his lips lost somewhere near Louis’s ear. They’re curled up in the Rec room, watching Project Runway because that’s Louis’s favorite show and Zayn’s eyes are too tired today to read anything. Louis’s legs are thrown over Zayn’s lap and their heads are pressed together and in this moment Louis misses Niall with an aching pain in his chest, because he was able to drape himself over Niall without having to worry about breaking him. With Niall he was able to hug him without worrying if he was going to hurt, and he was able to stay up all night with Niall, where Zayn falls asleep within moments. With Niall Louis felt like he wasn’t even sick, he felt like he was just a normal teenager sneaking food from the cafeteria and hiding out in the nurses’ laundry room so they wouldn’t get forced into doing those stupid arts and crafts projects. With Niall he stopped worrying for a moment whether today would be the last day he could get out of bed or if the bone marrow transplant worked this time.

Niall always acted like he was invincible, so Louis guesses it’s fitting that he was the first to break.

“Dude, you there?” Zayn pokes the back of Louis’s scalp, his finger fitting into a dip that in a normal life would be covered in hair, “I asked how your roommate is.”

Louis shrugs, “he seems pretty cool, I’ve only got to talk to him for a minute though, he isn’t completely moving in until tomorrow.”

“So he’s cute then.” Zayn says, like it’s inevitable, a cold fact. Louis sighs.

“Yeah, fucking hell.”

“Gay?” Zayn asks, neither of the boys taking their eyes off the TV.

“No idea.” Louis says, and he really has no clue, no matter how hard he pressed about any past relationships when they were talking the day before.

“Ask him.” Zayn suggests, and Louis doesn’t know if he should scoff at that or not.

“I’m not just going to ask him if he’s gay,” Louis says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, “that’s like rude or something, isn’t it?”

“Dude, you don’t really have the time to play coy.” Zayn says, and damn it he’s right, but that doesn’t mean it’s nice to hear.

“I guess.” Louis hums, and Zayn squeezes his side, pulling him in for a weak hug.

“You still have chemo tomorrow?” Zayn asks after a moment, stretching his legs out in front of him to get feeling back in them.

Louis nods.

“I’ll stop by.”

“Zayn I don’t think I’m going to do anymore after this.” Louis blurts out, and he can see in the corner of his eye the way Zayn frowns, can feel him stiffen beside him, and he knows what Louis’s talking about, understands what he’s saying.

“Lou, you…”

“It’s just getting worse, you know. I’ve gone through chemo, allogeneic stem cell transplants, dialysis, a kidney transplant, bone marrow transplant, fucking loads of drugs, I’ve relapsed twice, and like, it’s just,” Louis cuts himself off, sighs and drops his head a little too hard back, hitting the edge of the couch, “one thing gets fixed and another thing breaks, you know? Hell dude, I have a fucking tube in my chest,” Louis sighs again, tapping the portacath that’s causing a slight dent in his t-shirt, “I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t getting constantly stuck with needles and like, I’m just done, man. I really can’t take anything else.”

“Lou…”

“I’ve got a 15% chance to make it five more years, I’d rather not spend it throwing up in ugly pink cups.”

Louis turns his head, staring at his friend and Zayn keeps his eyes on the TV, now showing a commercial for some new make-up product. They sit like that for a few more minutes, neither one of the boys actually watching the show, instead staring straight ahead, lost in their own thoughts until Zayn breaks the silence.

“You’ve got to finish your list first, though.” He says, giving his friend the best smile he can muster up (and even though the smile is loose at the ends, turned down in something akin to a frown, Louis can tell he’s trying, and this is the part where Louis’s grateful that he has Zayn here, because Zayn at least is realistic, and he understands, where if this were Niall he wouldn’t be able to accept it).

Louis tries to smile back at him. He remembers how when he first met Zayn almost three years ago in the waiting room of Dr. Lo. He remembers going home afterwards, looking up ALL Leukemia on the internet. He remembers how relieved he was when he saw Zayn had an 85% chance of survival. He wondered at the time why he cared more about an almost-stranger’s chance of living more than his own.

“I’m about to pass out, I’m going to go take a nap, okay? I’ll catch you later.” Zayn stands up and stretches, his back cracks, Louis wonders if he’s going to break in half.
* * *
His mother doesn’t end up taking him to the doctor’s until three days after Christmas, deciding that everything he’s doing isn’t normal for an eight-year-old (and he would remind her that he’s nine now, mumbling this weakly into the pillow). Really though, the thing that tips her over the edge is the fact that her son isn’t eating, and when she tries to make him he starts to cry, even when she orders his favorite pizza. She wants to call her own mother, ask what she should do, but then she shakes her head, tells herself no because this is her own son, she should know what to do.

She asks for their neighbors to watch the girls and she tells Louis they’re going out for ice cream, just them two because she wants to spend the day with her favorite boy. His smile is blinding even though his eyes look like they’re shrinking into his head, black and blue bags hanging underneath him, and she doesn’t remember her son ever being that thin. He’s bouncing in the car even through his yawns, telling his mother three different stories at once and she doesn’t understand any of them, only catching onto threads of a few, and Louis isn’t suspicious even when they pull into a car park that doesn’t look anything like the ice cream parlor’s.

He cries, inside, and his mother isn’t sure if it’s because she lied to him or because he’s scared.

The waiting room is crowded and smells like hand sanitizer and there are babies crying left and right and they have to wait two and a half hours because she forgot to make an appointment.

He bawls even more when the nurse takes his blood, burying his face into his mother’s chest because his veins are small and it takes the nurse three times to get the needle into his vein and he doesn’t smile even when the nurse gives him a Scooby-Doo band aid. It turns out his temperature is above normal and the doctor isn’t sure what the bruises are from, but he promises to call her right away when the stats from the blood samples come back.

Louis doesn’t talk during the ride home.
* * *
This is the part he hates the most, if only because it just proves the fact that he’s weak.

Or it might just be because he hates needles.

“You know, Annie, you look so dashing today, did you do something new with your hair?” Louis hands her a beaming smile because he can and the nurse rolls her eyes but he just shrugs. She glares at him then, because she was right about to put the needle into the crook of his elbow until he jostled it, and he shrugs again. He’s going to miss Annie.

He hears the wheels creak against the tile floor outside right as she sticks him and no, this is probably the worst part right here, the waiting, listening to the sound of the cart outside his door bringing the poison to him. It’s like listening to the sound of church bells, only grimmer.

“And Clara! It’s been too long, I’ve missed you so.” Louis grins at her, the smile not reaching his eyes as another nurse walks in, this looking all the more younger than Annie except for her eyes, which look as if the belong to the dead. Louis doesn’t blame her.

“Oh my dear Lou, you always seem to brighten up my day, don’t you?” she smiles, wheeling the cart over to the side of his bed as Annie pulls some blood from the port in his chest.

“Well, I have been told I have a sparkling personality.” He counters, and he can hear Annie snort but her smile gives her away.

The duration of it usually isn’t the bad part, and although he doesn’t like to admit it ever since he got the catheter in his chest it’s been a lot less painful, able to have the line hooked up there instead of one more needle in his arm. It gets annoying after a while of course because there’s always a nurse there checking his blood pressure or his vitals, and he misses the time before he got sent here when he would go to the outpatient treatment, where he got to be with other people going through the same thing, where he got talk to the old man sitting next to him and hear old war stories, or he got to shamelessly joke with the older lady in the section across from him. He also rather misses being at home, because his mother would always come with him during his treatments and read funny articles out loud from whatever magazine she was reading, or tell him funny stories from her work. It helped that she was a nurse as well, also, because then he would be left relatively alone and people wouldn’t poke at him for the whole time.

He makes it a game for himself, now, to see how long he can go before he loses it, before he has to get his head over one of those pale pink basins, watching as the contents of his stomach come back up. He doesn’t last nearly as long as he usually does today, and he blames the fact that he hasn’t been feeling too good the last few days, but he knows that’s not the case.

He’s not going to miss this hospital room.

Afterwards, when he’s alone and Clara’s moved onto another room, the door opens again. He wants to fall asleep, his eyes burn with fatigue but his chest is burning even worse now, flaming where his port is and he hopes that he’s not going to get a rash again, because that was a bitch.

“Hey man, I didn’t wake you, did I?” Louis turns his half-lidded eyes towards the door, squinting through his haze at Harry, standing right inside the threshold looking awkward, unsure whether he can come in and this time Louis doesn’t feel hurt, he doesn’t frown and wish Harry wouldn’t have to go through all this. Instead he’s insanely jealous, to the point where the tips of his ears burn because this boy has had seventeen years to be normal, to live without worrying about accidentally getting an infection, without having to live on a special diet his whole life. Harry’s been able to live without planning his life around doctor appointments and constantly preparing for surgeries, Harry hasn’t had to watch as his sister recovers from surgery because she was the only match to give him bone marrow. Louis’s jealous because he looked it up, and Harry has a very common cancer, and he’s probably going to go through a few rounds of chemo and be done with it, it’s probably not even going to go as far as surgery since they caught it so early. He’s probably going to spend about a year here and walk out just as healthy, and everyone’s going to praise him for being a survivor, and he’s going to get married and have kids and probably be some successful doctor and tell people how he overcame cancer. Louis’s jealous of him in the worst kind of way, and maybe that’s what hurts most of all.

“You look like shit, mate.” Harry says, closing the door behind him when he realizes Louis’s not going to say anything back.

“This is how you’re going to look in a few days, so I wouldn’t take too much mick over it.” Louis whispers this, because his throat is dry but he doesn’t think he’s able to reach over to pick up the glass of water on the dresser, and his voice sounds scratchy. Harry frowns at that, probably realizing that yes that is true. He changes the subject.

“Why do you always wear that hat? No offense mate but it’s pretty ugly.” Harry says instead, sitting down on his own bed a few steps away from Louis, and he looks a bit awkward, sitting on edge with his back and legs ridged. Louis can tell he doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t want to just walk back out of the room and seem rude but at the same time doesn’t know how to act. Louis’s used to it; everyone’s awkward around the sick kid.

“My sister made it,” Louis croaks, “she’s teaching herself how to knit. She’s working on a new one for me that looks a bit better though.” Harry smiles at Louis and Louis feels a bit of his hate wash away, and it’s even worse now, Louis thinks, because someone with a smile like Harry’s shouldn’t be here.

“Is that one pink too?”

Louis gives a feeble laugh, “no, that one’s purple,” he says, and he can hear Harry holding in a laugh, “although she calls it lilac.”

“Smashing.”

“Right?” Louis smiles, and he can feel across the tiny room Harry start to relax.

“So you never told me what you’ve got.” Harry says, and Louis nods, because right, “I showed you mine, so you show me yours.” Harry smiles, trying to lighten the mood, but Louis can still see the curiosity shining in his eyes.

“Acute myelogenous leukemia,” Louis tells him, and it hurts to get the words out, his throat protesting, but he smiles anyway, because that’s what he does, he smiles, “although all the cool people call it AML.” He sees Harry frown in the corner of his eye, and Louis lets a weak laugh escape him.

“It pretty much means all my white blood cells leave to go to the adult world before they’re ready, and none of them get to grow up and actually do their job.” Louis says, and really that’s the easiest, most elementary way to describe it, Louis thinks, even though it doesn’t really cover any of it, “although I don’t really have a nice version of it.”

Harry nods, but he doesn’t look any more enlightened, “oh.”

Louis smiles again, because that’s always his default reaction, but then something’s churning in his chest and his stomach and…

Harry looks frozen in his spot as Louis leans over, panting into the basin he’s got rested in his lap, and he scrunches his face up as the familiar acid taste stays in his mouth.

“Oh my god are you okay? Should I call a nurse? I’m going to call a…”

“No, no I’m fine,” Louis waves his hand even as his throat protests, “really if every time I threw up we called a nurse they would never get anything done.”

Harry’s standing up, Louis notices, and he’s hovering in between their beds for another moment before he’s falling into the chair next to Louis’s bed, the same chair his mother usually sits in when she’s here. He wishes she was here.

“Is that going to happen to me?” Harry asks, his eyebrows knotted together and he looks scared, and so much younger than he is in that moment. Louis feels like he’s going to be sick again.

“Probably, unless you have an iron stomach or something. And even then most likely.” Louis shrugs and leans back against the pillows again, and his eyes still burn and he wishes he could sleep.

“Am I going to lose my hair too?” Harry asks, and if Louis knew better he would say Harry looked like he was about to cry.

“Probably, most people do.” Louis answers, and he watches Harry in amusement lift his fingers and trail them through his curls. Louis would be pretty sad to, if he had such nice hair. “It’ll probably grow back a bit different. At first my hair was brown and straight, and it came back blondish and wavy.” Louis can see the way the light goes from Harry’s eyes and he finds it rather funny, the way that Harry is most worried over his hair of all things.

“How long have you been doing this?” Harry asks then, and Louis can feel his eyes starting to close, but now he kind of doesn’t want to go to sleep just yet, and he wishes he had more time.

“Well, err, I was diagnosed when I was nine, and I had treatment until I was about ten and a half. I relapsed when I was twelve, and that lasted a bit longer until I was fourteen, and then during that time my kidneys started to give out so I had to have dialysis and everything and eventually my sister gave me one of hers, and then I was all good until I relapsed last year. And here I am.” Louis held up his hands to gesture to himself, but found they were a bit too heavy and dropped them back down at his sides. Harry’s looking at his hands, which are twisted up in his lap.

Louis thinks he hears Harry say something after a while, but he’s far too gone in sleep to notice.
* * *
When his mother got the call it was a Wednesday and raining outside. Fizz was playing with her new Barbie doll and Lottie was curled up in her usual chair reading one of her new books from Christmas. Louis had just woken up from napping on the couch.

His mother had the week off because of Christmas break and all her co-workers had made sure to make the schedule work so she would be able to spend the week with her family. Even they could tell that she was over-working herself. Her husband, for his part, had just left that day for Puerto Rico where he was over-seeing some construction job, and he was going to be gone for the next two weeks. She wished she was the one in Puerto Rico.

The phone-call came right after she had just put the twins down for a nap, and she thanked her lucky stars that they didn’t wake back up to the sound of the ringing.

Louis doesn’t really remember what happened, just that his mother was sitting at the kitchen table for a long time after she hung up, her head hanging with her hands on her forehead, and he thought she was crying but he wasn’t sure. He climbed up in her lap when he heard her sniffling, and he felt like the most important boy in the world when she hugged him tight and didn’t let him go.

The next years were filled with doctor’s offices and white rooms, big red chairs where he had to sit for hours at a time, tubes in his arms and nurses flittering around him. It was filled with sunken eyes and red angry lines on his neck, with absent eyebrows and people staring at him in the grocery store. His step-father left his mother in the first year, and he paid child support for his daughters but he didn’t fight for custody, and Louis always wonders if he would have stayed if he hadn’t gotten sick. When he was fourteen he remembers it got really bad, and his mother spent one day crying outside the door to his hospital room, and that night when she fell asleep in the chair next to his bed there was a paper hung loosely in her hand, and it was hard to make his eyes focus but when he did he realized she had written the eulogy for his funeral.

Sometimes he wishes he had died then, because at least his mother had been ready then, instead of now where everyone’s waiting in limbo.
* * *

Over the next few days Zayn spends more and more days in bed and Louis spends a lot of his time with Harry, and he realizes quickly that Harry doesn’t deserve this in the least.

Harry is everything Louis wishes he was, he’s happy and funny and irresistibly charming and knows how to juggle and laughs at everything Louis says.

That’s another thing, his laugh.

Harry laughs like he’s got nothing to hide, like he’s perfectly at home with his emotions, like they’re there to be apart of him instead of something he has to hide to make others feel at ease. Louis doesn’t understand it.

Louis finds out in the first few days that Harry lives with his mother in Cheshire, and that he got sent to the pediatric oncology center in London because his mother travels a lot for work and wouldn’t be able to take care of him all the time. Louis’s pretty sure that’s not the only reason; POCL is the best hospital in the country for children’s cancers, Louis can tell that Harry’s mother isn’t taking any chances.

Louis also finds out that Harry’s rich, although he figures it out by the little things Harry mentions. He wonders if Harry would help him with his list.

Louis also discovers that Harry wants to sing, although he thinks he’s going to become a lawyer, and that his favorite food is bananas and that he likes photography. Louis listens as Harry tells him about his friends from back home, about what six form was like, about his cat Misty and the bakery he used to work at. Harry tells him how he was thinking about trying out for the X-Factor but then he got sick, and how his sister used to dress him up in skirts and make-up when he was a toddler.

In just the first few days Louis feels like he’s falling in love, and it’s all new and it hurts a lot and he’s not sure he likes it. He figures he can now cross this off is list.

Louis has come to memorize the funny little crinkles around Harry’s eyes, and the way his lips are insanely beautiful, and how he sniffles before he tells a joke. Louis has come to love Harry’s idiotic puns and the way he pronounces everything wrong even when he has that stupid posh little accent, and how he has a special smile for Louis, different from the ones he gives to the nurses and the doctors and the other patients. It hurts.

Louis is still having trouble walking and he’s taking longer to recover from the chemo than he usually does, and this is it, he thinks. It’s just going to get worse from here. It’s harder to breath now and his lungs are starting hurt when he coughs and he figures he better hurry up if he’s going to finish his list because this is all he has left. He misses his mother.

Four days after Louis’s chemo Harry’s fidgeting in his bed, and he feels like his heart is about to beat right out of his chest and really if Louis wasn’t sitting right next to him he would probably start crying.

Louis for his part is chattering away about nothing and Harry would think he was perfectly healthy if it wasn’t for his appearance, the sunken face and the stretch marks leading up his neck and the way his left hand wouldn’t stop shaking. Harry wonders if that’s going to be him soon.

“What’re you wearing?” Harry says suddenly, his mouth scrunching up in a pout. Louis stops his story about the time he and his friends went pig tipping (long story) and looked down at his shirt.

“Oh yeah, my friend and I made these for when we went out.” Louis shrugs, like it’s perfectly normal for someone to wear a shirt that says “Kancer Kids’ Day Out” in big letters. Harry doesn’t know what to say.

“Why?” Harry finally asks, because really he doesn’t understand how he could make a joke out of all this, why he would want to advertise his illness on a T-Shirt.

“Because everyone stares anyway,” Louis shrugs, “we just wanted to give them something to stare at.”

“But…” Harry starts, but Louis cuts him off.

“Haz, I’ve grown up with this, it isn’t really a sensitive topic anymore.” Harry still doesn’t understand, but he drops it all the same as Clara wheels her basket in.

Harry doesn’t have a catheter like Louis does, so he’s hooked up to the line through a needle in his arm. Someone keeps taking his blood pressure every few minutes and the area around the needle feels hot and it’s surprisingly itchy, but in all Harry feels kind of alright. He wonders how long that’ll last. Louis’s been sitting next to him the whole time chatting away about nothing and Harry wonders why he’s doing this, why he isn’t doing something fun instead of spending the day with someone who’s probably going to be whining and throwing up his last three meals in the matter of minutes. Harry wonders if it’s because Louis overheard his conversation with his mother this morning. Harry wonders if it’s because Louis doesn’t want him to be alone.

“Who’s your friend?” Harry asks suddenly, cutting Louis’s story off again and Louis frowns, his forehead wrinkling in thought.

“What’re you talking about Haz?”

“Your friend,” Harry gestures with his free hand, “the one you made that shirt with. Can I meet him?”

Louis hums, “Oh, Niall. No, no I don’t think you’re going to meet him anytime soon.”

“Why not?” Harry asks as he feels his stomach turn.

“Well, he died about a month and a half ago, and darling you’re not going to die any time soon.” Louis explains, and he can see Harry’s face heat up but he just smiles a sad little grin, bouncing one of his knees and his left hand is still shaking.

“Oh, I’m…”

“Don’t say you’re sorry, Harry.” Louis warns, and neither one of them says anything else because just then Harry’s leaning over and his breakfast is returning to him. Louis reaches over and picks up the little pink tray and holds it closer to Harry’s chin and his other hand goes to his back, his hand trailing up and down his spine just like his mother used to do when he was little.

“Well look at that, you had pancakes this morning didn’t you?” Louis giggles and Harry plays the part, pretending to look scandalized until he cracks, giggling into his lap until he feels another wave of nausea wash over him and Louis’s holding the tray up a bit higher.

Harry falls asleep not too long after his first round of chemo is finished, and Louis waits another hour before he stands up, closing the door lightly behind him on his way out.

The route to Zayn’s room is achingly familiar, and Louis would be lying if he said he wasn’t worried about his friend and how he’s been sleeping so much lately, how he’s always so tired. That’s the first sign, fatigue, and it’s got Louis terrified.

Zayn’s roommate’s out, thankfully, and Zayn’s in his own bed, his eyes closed and the sheets tangled around him. Louis for some reason starts to think about when they first met and Zayn had a shock of black hair and eyelashes that make you want to write poems, and he sighs, because none of this is really fair. Louis accidentally knocks into the end table and Zayn’s eyelids flutter.

“Oh, sorry mate, didn’t mean to wake you.” Louis whispers, and Zayn smiles in a way Louis hasn’t seen in a really long time.

“It’s okay, I meant to go visit you today but I fell asleep. I’ve got some good news.” Zayn sings the last part and Louis can’t help but let out a silent laugh, because that just sounded pitiful.

“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

“I’m officially in remission.” Zayn grins and Louis would be lying if he said he wasn’t shocked, and it takes a moment to sink in but when it does he’s grinning from ear to ear. His left hand is still shaking.

“Oh my god Zayn like…oh my god that’s…” Louis can feel the corners of his eyes grow damp but damn it he’s not going to cry, “that’s great mate, that’s just great.”

“Yeah, I get to go back home next week and I’m just going to have some outpatient care from there.” Zayn’s smiling even though his eyes are lidded, and Louis can feel his heart going wild.

“I’m just, you’ve just,” Louis can feel his voice break a bit and he breaks, punching Zayn a bit too hard in his shoulder, “you’ve been sleeping so damn much lately, I thought you were getting worse, I thought…it’s just…that’s how it started with Niall and I…”

“Yeah, I got put on some new meds,” Zayn reaches a hand out, punches Louis weakly back, “they make me terribly drowsy, it’s so annoying.”

Louis tries not to sniffle, “yeah, yeah. I, this is great, Zayn. I’m so happy for you.”

“Yeah.” Zayn smiles, and Louis can tell he’s on the verge of going back to sleep even though he’s trying so hard not to.

“Love you, man.” Louis squeezes his arm, smiling again to himself, and Zayn makes a rather odd noise.

“Love you too.” He says, his eyes closing, but only a second passes before they’re flying back open, as if he has something important to say even through his haze, “you’re going to be okay too, yeah?”

And the thing is, Louis can’t do anything but nod, because his friend looks so hopeful, his eyes so wide. Zayn’s getting another chance to do something, and he wants the same for Louis.

“Yeah,” Louis lies, “I’m going to be fine.”
* * *
Louis’s mother visits the next week with Lottie and Fizz in tow, and they talk for the whole time. He introduces them to Harry who charms the pants off them immediately, and Louis can’t stop smiling because his mother looks happy for the first time in a while and it just feels so good. Lottie has finished the new beanie for him, and this time she used yarn that doesn’t make him feel like he has a bee-hive on his head, and there are a lot less holes in it. When she gives it to him he wants to cry.

They’re only able to stay for a few hours before they have to go back, because the twins are in their school play and it’s opening night and Louis wishes with all his heart he could be there.

He might just be being dramatic, but when he says goodbye it feels like it’s final.

He stays for one more week and during that time the area around his fingernails start to turn blue again, and for some reason it makes his heart feel like it’s starting to shrivel up as well. He hopes whoever does the make-up for his funeral is talented.

Louis’s pleasantly surprised to see that Harry’s faring better than a lot of people during their first rounds. He hopes it’s a good sign.

It’s a Wednesday when he decides to bring his plan up to Harry. It’s not raining outside.

“So like, how’re you feeling?”

Harry hums from the other side of the couch and scratches at the bandage on the crook of his arm, “I feel pretty good considering. I don’t feel like I’m about to fall apart anymore.”

“You’re going in threes, right?” Louis asks, and Harry looks confused for a moment before he catches on.

“Oh yeah, three weeks on and three weeks off.”

“So you’ve got three weeks before your next appointment?” Louis clarifies, and Harry nods, not suspicious, his eyes trained on the footy game playing on the TV in front of him.

“So like,” Louis starts again after a moment, fidgeting with his fingers. His shoulders are aching, “you’re like loaded right?”

“What?” Harry snaps his head around to look at Louis now, confused.

“You’re rich?” Louis clarifies, and Harry still looks confused.

“Well, erm, I…”

“Do you want to take me to Paris?” Louis cuts his stammering off, crawling across the couch until they’re only a few breaths away from each other, and Harry doesn’t know what to say.

“But we can’t just leave.”

“Yeah we can.” Louis shrugs, “we won’t be gone too long. Probably a week at most, so you won’t miss anything important.”

“But what about you,” Harry frowns, as if he’s trying to put a puzzle together, “won’t you…”

“I’m done Harry,” Louis says, “I don’t have anything left.” Harry’s silent for a minute, he doesn’t understand, and Louis just stares at him until he notices a change, watches Harry’s eyes widen in realization, his mouth part, fall open.

“No, no,” he shakes his head, harder than particularly necessary, frowning, “I’m not helping you die, Lou, you’re already one of my best friends.” Harry continues to shake his head and Louis scoots forward on his knees until he’s flush against Harry, their foreheads rested together.

“You’re not helping me die, Haz,” Louis smiles, his lips pressing against Harry’s nose, his hands on each side of Harry’s head, his fingers digging into his curls, “you’re helping me live.”
* * *
Louis felt himself shutting down even before the doctor confirmed it, could feel himself start to become tired in a way that no sleep can quench until his last night. He felt it in the way his heart would sometimes stutter, in the way his breaths got shorter, heavier. He felt it in the way his limbs grew heavier and his stomach lighter, the way his fingernails were like paper and his lips perpetually chapped. Louis could feel himself slowly going long before Dr. Lo brought him and his mother in, explaining that his treatment isn’t going as planned.

The part Louis’s starting to hate the most though is the cold. Because it’s always cold, no matter how many layers he wears and how high the heaters on, it’s cold. He figures the cold is under his skin, building up in his blood, eating him from the inside out until there’s nothing left of him except the ever present cold. He wonders if that’s the way he’s going to go, he wonders if he’s going to still be cold after he’s gone.

And the thing is, he’s already had everything done to him that they can do, there really isn’t any treatment left for him. All that they can do is keep doing what they’re doing until he withers away, until something breaks and they can’t fix it. He figures he’s already broken.

Dr. Lo said with treatment he can probably last him until the end of the year, but he knows he’s not going to make it that long, knows he doesn’t want to. He’d rather go out with a bang that a simmer.

It was surprisingly easy to get Harry to agree to his plan, bugging him until he agreed. Harry made him promise that they would only take a long weekend, and that they would stay with a friend of his in Paris, and really that’s all Louis wants. He’s almost done with his list after all.

They decide to leave three days after their conversation so it’s a day before Louis’s scheduled to have another round of chemotherapy. They share Louis’s duffle for their clothes, and Harry’s already ordered a Taxi for them to meet them at the front of the hospital at eleven pm, right before the nurse’s shift change so that they had a chance to make it out without anyone seeing them. There’s a train that leaves at eleven thirty, so they’ll be cutting it close, but like Louis has always said, what’s life without a little excitement?

In the days leading up to their departure Louis can feel himself fading even more, and it’s like all the things he’s been feeling in the past year is crashing down on him and all the feelings he’s been hiding inside himself are breaking out. He’s shaking a bit more than normal and he knows it’s a side effect of the ATRA but it’s never been this bad before and he doesn’t like it. He’s never really been in control of his body, he realizes, but it’s never been this obvious before. Harry of course starts to worry when he realizes that Louis’s sleeping more than usual and he’s taking twice as long to walk half the ways and he can hardly finish a sentence without taking a breath and Harry keeps wondering if they should call their adventure off, but every time Louis shakes his head and frowns and tells Harry no, they’re doing this and they’re doing it as planned.

“Should we leave a note?” Harry asks from the other side of the room and he’s whispering but at the same time he’s loud enough that anyone could hear them if they were paying attention. Louis finds it endearing.

“A note about what?”

“That’s we’re leaving,” Harry says, as if it’s obvious, “we shouldn’t like, make them worry right?” Louis shrugs although Harry can’t see it, the lights turned out and the only glow coming from the digital clock on Harry’s side of the room. Harry moves like he’s getting up but Louis shushes him back down and gets up himself, pulling out his notebook he’s got in the top of the duffle bag. He scribbles out a note and tears the page out to put by his pillow and he knows it’s probably going to be hard to read due to the fact that he wrote it in the dark and his hands are shaking uncontrollably.

“What’d you say?”

Louis smiles, “just that we’re going on vacation and we’ll be back Monday.”

They wait another few minutes until it’s five until eleven, and when Louis stands up his legs are shaking and he’s scared for a moment his knees are going to buckle beneath him, but then Harry has a hand on his upper arm and he’s leading him out into the hallway. Harry’s got their duffle thrown over his shoulder and their footsteps echo as they make their way towards the back stairway that he and Niall would always use when they went on daytrips, and Louis is already out of breath by the time they get outside, his legs feel like they’re about to fall off. He lets out a shaky breath when they reach the front of the hospital building and there’s a taxi waiting there as planned and Louis feels like he’s going to die from the sheer relief. Then he remembers he still has a few things to do before he dies, so he just smiles instead.

“Ready?” Harry asks, and Louis wants to say he’s been ready for years, but he’s out of breath so he just nods instead as they side into the back seat. Harry tells the driver to head to the train station and Louis leans back and his body has stop shaking save his hands. He counts that as a win.

Louis’s practically asleep standing up as Harry leads him into the train station, and he would be lying if he said he remembered much of anything getting on the actual train. The carts weren’t packed much at all as expected, because it’s eleven thirty at night on a Wednesday and everyone’s at home resting up for school or work the next day. Louis wonders what his mother’s doing.

When the train leaves the station Harry’s looking out the window, watching as the stars pass them by and the moon shines through the fog of the clouds. Louis, for his part is watching Harry, and he wonders what Harry would be doing right now if he hadn’t gotten sick. Louis’s rather surprised how well Harry’s taking his first rounds of chemo, and at first glance he would say Harry didn’t look any different at all, but looking closer he knows that’s a lie. He can see the way the area around his eyes are growing darker, how his lips look painfully chapped, how his face is starting to look a bit swollen. Harry looks tired, Louis decides, and he hopes that won’t last long for him, because Louis can’t remember a time he wasn’t tired and he doesn’t want Harry to go through the same thing. He reaches a hand out to pat Harry’s knee or something, because for some reason he just needs to do something, to touch some part of Harry, to make sure he’s real, to make sure he’s still there. Louis’s hand hesitates before dropping lightly on Harry’s knee and he’s right about to pull it back when Harry’s own hand covers his. Louis stares at their hands for a moment before looking up, and Harry’s still looking out the window, his forehead pressed lightly against the glass as he watches the dark scenery pass them by. Louis glances down once more at their hands before leaning his head back and closing his eyes.
* * *
When Louis was ten and a half he had a light dusting of blond hair, only a fuzz covering his head, and his eyebrows were only just starting to grow back. His eyelashes had yet to make an appearance and his eyes still always looked a light pink, no matter how much uncomfortable eye-drops his mother would make him take. His face was swollen so it looked like the baby fat on his cheeks had never even left but it was proportional with his body, which was thin due to his lack of exercise and the fact that his diet had been missing solid foods for quite a while.

On his first day of school the other kids stared for a while, but by recess the next day they seemed to have forgotten the fact that he looked weird, maybe because at that age kids are more accepting or maybe because Louis had decided that he wasn’t going to let anyone forget him again. In less than a month everyone in the school knew Louis’s name; the teachers knew who to watch out for and the students knew just the person who could make them laugh, just the person who made a boring class into something exciting with just a joke, just the person who was up for anything, no matter what. His eleventh birthday party was two weeks before Christmas and his whole class showed up with a gift and a hug.

Louis was happy.

But then things started to change; by the time his hair grew out he was getting tired again more and more and he wasn’t eating and even the shortest run felt like the end of the world. It felt exactly like before, and after three trips to the doctor’s he wasn’t even surprised when his mother got the call.

He had three surgeries in that year and in less than three months he had trouble talking. He would still try to pretend like nothing was the matter, and his mum would call their mum but Louis couldn’t run around like before, he couldn’t play footy at the park and he could barely laugh without wheezing. When his friends would come over they would sit gingerly on the end of his bed and no matter how hard he would try they would still act like he was about to break, the would stare at him like he was a foreign object and looked as if they were living out their community service hours. They would watch the clock and count the seconds until their mothers came to pick them up, and when they got in the car they would feel better about themselves and thank their lucky stars that it wasn’t them who were sick.

Louis’s mum was the only one to show up to his twelfth birthday party.
* * *
“My friend Nick goes to Uni here, you’re going to love him he’s hilarious.” Harry was smiling like the sun was in him instead of firmly set in the sky, and Louis didn’t know what to say.

“We can only stop in for a minute; we have to have lunch somewhere near the Eiffel Tower.”

“Oh,” Harry frowns, “why…”

“We’re not here too long,” Louis keeps walking, watching his feet to make sure he doesn’t trip over himself, “technically we’re leaving tomorrow night, right? So we have to get everything done right away.”

“I…”

“Is this it?” Louis asks, looking up at the brick apartment building to their left and when Harry looks down at his phone he realizes that they are, in fact, here.

Nick opens the door and Harry’s already bouncing on him, and when they get inside they’re already chatting away, catching up with each other.

Eventually Louis takes a shower and changes, and when he comes back to the front room Harry and Nick are sitting right where he left them and his heart is constricting, and he’s feeling possessive even though he knows he doesn’t have a right to be. Louis pokes Harry in the back of his head when he doesn’t look up, and it takes Harry a second to remember.

“Oh right,” he’s smiling though, so Louis doesn’t feel too bad about interrupting them, “Nick, Lou and I are going sight-seeing.”

“Cheers,” Nick grins up at Louis, and Louis can’t decide if he likes the other man or not, but he tells himself to be nice anyway, “I have to get to class anyway.” They both stand up and Louis wraps his hand around Harry’s wrist and he doesn’t understand why he’s doing it, but he doesn’t pull back.

Nick glances down at their hands and he grins.

Outside Louis drags Harry into the nearest open market and picks out the most stereotypical French food he can find, and he ignores Harry’s obvious stares as he grabs them enough different types of cheeses to last them the month. He gets a bit too excited when he realizes the bread is still steaming.

Harry carries the bags and they end up at a park a little bit away from the Eiffel Tower so that they can still see the top through the trees surrounding them. The grass is a bit course but Louis looks like he’s in heaven and Harry wonders why, but he doesn’t say anything as they sit down and start picking at their food. Neither one of the boys are that hungry but Louis makes it seem like it’s one of the most important things in the world, to eat here, so Harry tries his hardest as Louis babbles on about something, and he doesn’t exactly understand because Louis lost him somewhere in the middle but he pretends like he totally gets everything.

“So what’s this list then?” Harry asks after they fall into a rather comfortable silence, the food still mostly there but moved to the side, forgotten. Louis looks like he doesn’t know what Harry’s talking about at first, but then it clicks and he’s smiling again, that 100 watt smile that makes Harry’s stomach constrict and his lungs protest.

“Oh, it’s my bucket list. I wrote it when I was thirteen.” Louis is laughing to himself like it’s an inside joke, and Harry figures it might as well be one.

“Well if I’m helping you finish it can I at least see what we have left to do?” Harry is picking at the grass near his knees and Louis hesitates for a moment, but then he’s nodding and digging into the pocket of his jeans.

“Yeah, sure, I need to cross this off anyway.” He pulls out a pen and crumpled paper that looks like it’s seen better days, and he flattens it out in the space between them, pressing it into the grass. There’s about twenty things written on it, with most of them crossed off, and even the first one makes Harry smile.

“Wear a skirt in public?”

“It was a tutu, but it still counts.”

Harry’s still laughing as he reads on, “make a guard at Buckingham Palace smile? How’d you do that?”

Louis giggles as he crosses off another line near the bottom, “I did the complete single ladies dance. Niall doesn’t think he smiled, but I swear the grin was there. It was in his eyes.” Louis looks up and Harry has to admit, Louis can make anyone smile.

“Learn a song on the piano?”

“I did it. Still can’t read sheet music though.”

“Get high?”

“I was high when I first met you, actually.” Louis says and Harry looks up, his eyebrows knotted together and Louis’s eyes are dancing.

“You were?” Harry squeaks out, and Louis’s nodding.

“Yup.” Harry stares at Louis for a bit longer, even after a blush rose on the other boy’s cheeks and Louis turned his head so that he’s staring at the Eiffel Tower ahead of them. Harry looks back down at the paper and skims it a bit before his eyes trail down to the bottom, passing where Louis has just crossed out eat lunch across from the Eiffel Tower, and he counts that there are three things left uncrossed.

“Suck someone off in a dirty washroom? Why…”

“Everyone’s going to get to go through their slutty, embarrassing-mornings-after Uni phase,” Louis shrugs, still looking across the way, “so I want to at least try it.” Louis says this like it’s obvious, and Harry frowns but he looks back down at the paper.

“Have your first kiss?” Harry’s mouth drops open, he makes a weird sound in the back of his throat, “You haven’t kissed anyone yet?” Louis shrugs, and Harry notes that Louis’s been shrugging a lot lately.

“It’s hard to find someone to kiss you when you’re always in the hospital.” Louis reasons, “and everyone always seems to die on me before I can ask if they want to make out.”

“Lou…”

“There’s one more thing on there, right?” Louis asks, cutting him off, and Harry wants to say more, but Louis looks adamant so he glances down once more at the paper.

“Take a picture with a mime?” Harry snorts, and really he shouldn’t be surprised.

“Oh yeah!” Louis’s grinning again, looking over Harry’s shoulder at the list, “I forgot about that. I want that to be the picture they put up at my funeral, instead of one of those phony Christmas card pictures that makes me look like a tool.”

“What?” Harry wonders how someone could actually think about that, actually plan for their funeral when it’s a looming possibility.

“Yeah, we better get started looking for one then.” Louis laughs, hopping up from the grass.

“Lou, I don’t think mimes are just scattered around, I don’t think that’s how it works…”

“Hey!” Louis cuts him off, reaching down to lightly pull at Harry’s bicep until he stands up as well, “there’s one there, come on!” Louis’s already walking away as Harry cleans up their trash, and of course, Harry thinks, of course there’s a mime right when Louis wants one.

“Harry, hurry your cute little butt up, you need to take the picture!”

“I’m coming, oh my god, don’t rush me.” By the time Harry gets over to them, Louis’s already laughing along as a fucking mime pretends to untangle himself from some invisible whatever and Harry doesn’t really understand, but he smiles at the right moments anyway and he’s scared his heart is about to burst when he takes a picture of the two as they pretend to shield themselves from some invisible hail.
* * *
“Hey boys, how was your scavenger?” Nick shouts from the kitchen, followed by a set of very colorful curses as he burns his finger on the kettle.

“It was awesome,” Louis smiles, dropping down on the couch and trying to not act as tired as he is, “I took a picture with a mime.”

“And then he had to stop at every fruit vendor we saw and talk to them about their day,” Harry supplies, dropping down next to Louis, “he doesn’t even know a lick of French!”

“Cool,” Nick comes through to the front room, dropping down a bit too close to Harry for Louis’s liking, “so what’s on the agenda for tonight then?” Harry opens his mouth to say something but Louis, like always, cuts him off.

“Can you take us to the nearest club?” Louis pipes up, attempting to give Nick his most award winning smile (although from the way Nick looks a bit put-off he’s guessing his smile isn’t what it used to be).

“I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Nick starts, but Louis’s shaking his head.

“I have to go though, and I don’t want to be by myself.” Nick opens his mouth to ask just why, exactly, he has to go to a club, but Harry’s shrugging and although his eyes look conflicted, he figures he promised Louis he would help him finish his list, and he doesn’t go back on promises.

Nick ends up living diagonal to a club, and the bass is vibrating the ground even outside and Louis wonders if this is what his life could have been, if he could have also lived in a different country, if he could have been the one to live walking distance away from a club and going to Uni and having friends who don’t forget about him when they get better.

He wonders.
* * *
Louis first met Niall by a dumpster when he was thirteen and trying to hide from the world. It was raining and Louis felt like it was fitting, the rain, because that’s what happens in the movies when people are sad so why shouldn’t it happen to him? He wonders if he should call someone in Hollywood; maybe they could make a movie about him when he’s dead.

He wonders if they could change the ending though, he wonders if they could at least make him live in fantasy.

Louis still isn’t sure if Niall was crying that day, or if it was just the rain that was making his face damp, but either way he sat down next to the stranger and threw an arm around his shoulders, because he understands what if feels like, to cry just because the world seems to hate you.

There sit there for a long time, in perfectly comfortable silence, and it could have been over an hour before either of them said anything, but when Niall opened his mouth he talked and didn’t stop, didn’t hold back as he poured his heart to a stranger. He told Louis, that day, about how none of his friends would talk to him anymore, how they all said he was a freak and said he looked like an alien. Louis didn’t say anything as Niall told him how he would always overhear his father talking to his mother behind closed doors, saying things about his son and how they shouldn’t invest anything else into him, how he’s just going to die. Louis watches as Niall cries and he’s not sure if he was being wise or just paraphrasing from someone else, he’s not sure if what he says was helpful or if he was just letting out hot air that one cold day in May, but either way as Niall pressed his damp face against his shoulder Louis opened his mouth and said something he would never forget,

“If only people with closed minds and closed hearts came with closed mouths as well.”
* * *
Louis wasn’t drunk, but he was giggling anyway as he followed the man into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him a bit too forceful than strictly needed. His arms were around the man’s neck and he’s sucking kisses into his upper back right next to the man’s collar, and then he’s pushing him into the counter with as much force as he can muster.

Louis’s still tired even though the music is blaring through the bathroom doors and he’s probably riding on a second-hand high, and he has a fleeting hope that he doesn’t make it out of Paris; it would be such a beautiful place to die.

With Louis lost in his own head the man is now the one sucking on Louis’s neck, and when his eyes focus again he’s looking in the mirror and he doesn’t know why but he’s suddenly scared.

The mirror is a bit grimy and the dirt is practically caked on there, but Louis can see his reflection well enough to wonder if that’s really him, because he doesn’t remember the last time he actually looked in a mirror. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t surprised, because he doesn’t remember his cheeks being so hollow, and he doesn’t remember ever looking so pale, or the red rimming his eyes ever being so obvious, and he’s positive that he always puts on chapstick, so he wonders how his lips could look so abused, so cut up. Even in the dark of the bathroom he can see the angry lines of his neck; he wonders if the man can feel through their clothes the port in Louis’s chest.

And Louis wonders how this man can be attracted to him enough that he’s got a hard-on; Louis wonders how he could get aroused at all over his appearance, how he can look around the hairless face, the sunken cheeks, the reedy veins poking through the paper thin skin. Louis wonders if the man is thinking about someone else, because there’s certainly no way he can be thinking about Louis. He wonders if it’s an ex-boyfriend, a high school crush.

He can feel his heart beating abnormally fast through his chest and he thinks how this is it, and his left hand is still shaking (has it ever stopped?) when he unbuckles the man’s jeans and reaches gingerly in. it’s warm and the man is fully hard, and Louis thinks that this is so very different from when he does this to himself, how it feels odd and kind of wrong and he’s not sure he likes it. The man by this time is fully hard although Louis’s not doing much more than stroking him with a light hand, and his fingers are already sticky and he contemplates going back outside to Harry but then the man is leaning over to kiss him and Louis has to act fast to jerk away so the lips land on his chin instead, and then Louis is falling to his knees and pulling down on the zipper.

The music is vibrating through the walls and Harry can feel it in his chest where he’s leaning against the bar, and although he doesn’t see Nick slide in next to him he seems to know anyway. They stand there watching the bodies move in beat on the dance floor and Harry can tell Nick wants to ask him something, but to hell with it if he’s going to ask what’s wrong.

“So,” Nick finally decides on, “how are you. Really?”

Harry shrugs, “Oh you know, been better. Hospital food is a lot better than people give it credit for though, I’ll give them that.”

“Harry,” Nick frowns, turning now so he’s completely facing his friend, “I…”

“Nick I’m actually kinda okay,” Harry reaches and arm out and pulls Nick in to one of the most awkward hugs he’s had in a while and he giggles into Nick’s ridiculous hair, “I’ll tell you once I start losing my hair.”

“I’d rather you not,” Nick says into his ear, his lips ghosting against the shell, “I think that when that day comes I’m going to cry.”

“I think everyone’s going to cry,” Harry smiles, “my hair might have well been weaved by the gods.” Their soft laughs are eaten by the music, and they stand there silent again for a while.

“You’re going to be okay though?” Nick asks, and Harry nods.

“I’ll tell you when I’m not.”

“You’d better,” Nick huffs, standing back up straight and he adjusts his shirt, “because the second you do I’m running straight down to that fancy posh place you’re hold up at and I’m going to be standing over your doctor’s shoulders making sure they’re doing everything right.”

“Aren’t you like, a political science major?”

“Undecided.” Nick corrects, but before Harry can say anything else Louis’s suddenly next to him, silently fiddling with the pockets of his jeans. Nick doesn’t say anything, figures it’s not his place, and Harry stays silent as well as Louis asks the bartender to borrow a pen. Harry watches through the corner of his eyes as Louis pulls out his list and crosses something off, and he can see that there’s only one thing left for Louis to do.

That night Louis sleeps on the couch and Harry is in a cocoon of blankets next to it and he thinks he hears Louis cry during the night but he’s not sure, and when he wakes up he realizes they’re holding hands.
* * *
Louis doesn’t wake up until eleven the next day and he can tell Harry’s worried but neither one says anything, instead just spend the day outside at the park that they went to before because Louis can tell that today’s going to be one of his bad days and he’s not sure he’s going to be able to walk that much.

“Do you believe in heaven?” Harry asks, looking up at the sky and he wonders if clouds ever get angry.

“Not really,” Louis answers, looking at the sky as well and he’s on his back and he can’t really feel his toes, and he wonders if he’s going to be able to stand up when they need to, “I kind of lost hope of that after a while.”

“Why?” Harry asks, and Louis can tell he sounds distraught, but he doesn’t care enough to ask (or maybe he’s just too scared to think about the reason Harry would be upset).

“I’m not really sure, I guess it just seems like a fantasy, you know? Going someplace after we die,” Louis places both his hands on his stomach and he can feel his ribs, “but like, it just seems a bit farfetched, doesn’t it.”

“But like, what’s the point then? Why do we live if we’re just going to die?” Harry seems anxious and in turn that makes Louis a bit scared, because this is Harry, he shouldn’t ever have to worry about anything. Louis takes a moment to think about what to say, and he wonders why Harry wanted to talk about this now.

“It’s the journey.” Louis decides to say, and he’s not sure if Harry accepts that or not, but either way they fall back into silence.

Nick waves them off as they get onto the train, and Louis can see that Harry looks considerably worse than before and he wonders for a moment if he shouldn’t have asked Harry to come with him, but then he decided that he couldn’t have done this without him and he figures he’s selfish, but he’s glad Harry came. He notices they’re holding hands again and he wonders why but he doesn’t say anything, because this is Harry and he’s pretty sure in another world, a perfect world, Harry is his soul mate.

“We should come back again one day when we’re better.” Harry mentions about halfway through their trip, and Louis thinks about Zayn, he wonders if he’ll come to his funeral.

“I don’t think I’ll ever make it back.” Louis says, and he can feel Harry stiffen next to him but he’s not going lie; not yet.

“You…you shouldn’t give up so easily, Lou.” Harry whispers, and Louis wonders why; he thinks maybe Harry is trying to make it so Death won’t overhear.

“I’ve never given up,” Louis shrugs, “I think I’m just ready, now.”

“But you haven’t finished your list yet.” Harry’s frowning again, and Louis wants to make him stop but he doesn’t know how. Instead he just leans forward and rests their foreheads together and smiles, a sad little smile that Niall used to always hate.

“Yeah, well I don’t think I’ll ever get that one, but nineteen out of twenty is pretty good, right?” Louis tries to smile a bit brighter but he’s too tired to put in much effort, and he wonders if he’ll get to see his mother again; he’s not sure why, but he wants to apologize. Harry’s eyes are shimmering and Louis’s not sure if they’re tears but he hopes they’re not because he’s not sure if he can handle seeing Harry cry, but then someone’s moving and Harry’s leaning forward and their lips are pressed against each other’s and the only thing Louis can thing is “oh.”

It’s different than Louis expects it to be, but then again he’s not sure what he suspected and it’s not like he has much to compare it to. Both of their mouths stay closed for the post part, and they’re not really moving but Louis doesn’t really want to change that, doesn’t want anything different except for Harry’s lips against his. A bit later he feels Harry’s tongue run against his bottom lip but he doesn’t press any further, just presses one last kiss against the corner of his mouth before leaning back so that they’re sharing the same breath and their foreheads are still touching, the tips of their noses still kissing even though their lips aren’t. Louis can feel the train pulling into the station just as Harry reaches both of his hands up to hold onto either side of Louis’s head, and he can see a tear sneak out of the corner of Harry’s eye but he pretends he doesn’t, doesn’t think he can handle it. There’s a voice speaking over the sound system but neither boy listens, instead counting each other’s breath until Harry speaks again and it’s so soft Louis’s not sure at first if he heard right, but then he figures he did as Harry’s voice cracks.

“You’re going to be okay, right? Please promise me you’re going to be okay, Lou, please promise me.” Louis figures he should tell him the truth, but then he realizes Harry’s voice sounds wet and he wonders how that can be, and before he registers it he’s nodding, rubbing their noses together in the oddest sensation.

“Yeah,” he lies, “I’m going to be alright.”