LEARNING TO BREATHE (AU): CHAPTER SIXTEEN

↳ University Football!AU. How does your past fit into your present? Louis is still figuring it out.

Chapter: 16/19

Chapter Word Count: 4,400

Notes: This is actually only half of what I planned for chapter 16. But the scene I wanted to end on is still a ways away and this is already pretty long, so to keep it from being like 8k, i’m splitting it and you guys will just be getting an extra chapter now. :) @ LJ

000

Harry’s not there when Louis wakes up the second time that morning. No one is. And Louis gets it, he does, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

000

His classes go by in a haze. It’s his first day back in a week so it’s hard to pay attention, especially while his mind is plagued with thoughts he can’t get rid of. He wishes his professor’s lecture on Sophocles was enough to make him stop thinking about Harry and how he wishes he knew where they stood right now; about Liam and Zayn and Niall and what they think about all this - this big huge secret that Louis finally let slip through his fingers.

It feels different than he thought it would, having it out there. Maybe it’s because he’s got something bigger to worry about now, but somehow his friends knowing that he’s involved with another boy doesn’t seem like such a huge deal anymore. And besides, he thinks (hopes) things can’t get much worse than they already are anyway.

The hall is crowded with people when he leaves World Lit, finally done with lectures for the day. His pocket burns where his phone would usually be, waiting for a text from Harry asking what their plans are since they’re both off until football practice later that afternoon. There’s no message though, and Louis doesn’t know if there would be even if his phone wasn’t lying in pieces on his night table at home.

He’s almost to the double doors at the end of the hall when he sees Harry round the corner slowly, eyes cast down until he spots Louis a few meters away. He stops walking, eyes softening the tiniest bit. He looks how Louis feels at the moment - exhausted, lost,  and maybe like he wants to push through the people around them and wrap himself around Louis. 

He’s hesitating though, fighting with himself, and Louis can only stand there, frozen, waiting for Harry to decide.

He watches him take a step forward before halting again, eyes focusing somewhere behind Louis before his mouth turns down into a severe frown, which Louis doesn’t understand until he feels a small hand on his shoulder.

He swings around to see what has Harry so upset, and finds Eleanor there, an unreadable look on her face.

"Can we talk?" she asks hopefully.

Louis looks back to Harry quickly but is met only with a sea of strangers filling the gap where he stood. He barely catches sight of Harry’s back as he practically runs out of the doors at the end of the hall. 

Louis’ eyes shut briefly before he turns back to Eleanor and gives a small, resigned nod.


000


Harry’s thoughts are still going haywire when he shows up at practice that day. Niall had come over as soon as Harry called him when he left the school earlier. The feeling in Harry’s chest when he saw Louis with Eleanor in the hall was a shock. He hadn’t expected it to hurt that much, or feel like such a giant weight had been dropped inside his ribcage. He’d felt so out of sorts that he’d called Niall without even thinking about it.

He had been so close, too. Close to going to Louis and dragging him back to the complex and just…being with him. Talking to him, telling him that he doesn’t care what Louis thinks is best for him, he’s not leaving.

Seeing Louis’ ex reminded him of just how naive he’s being.

Because that’s how it’s going to be, he realizes. No matter how sure he is that Louis is his, he knows a piece of him will now always belong to someone else, too. And he never wants to have to make Louis choose. Because he knows that no matter how much Louis cares about him, he’ll eventually have to. And Harry never wants to be the one that Louis doesn’t pick, doesn’t know if he could survive it again.

"You didn’t go home last night, did you? Dammit, Harry.”

Harry keeps his head bowed as Niall leads them onto the pitch. His friend doesn’t bother to hide the look of distress on his face. 

They’re the first ones there, early by about twenty minutes.

Harry almost laughs to keep from crying, feels like a fucking mess of a person. Niall had told him to go home last night, that staying in Louis’ room was a bad idea. But Harry was worried sick, and he could tell Niall was too, he was just putting a brave face on for Harry’s sake. It’s not like Harry had any way of knowing that Louis would come back that night. It’s not like he planned any of what ended up happening. The soreness of his body is a constant reminder, however; and as much as he wants to, he doesn’t regret a second of it.

"Are you disappointed?"

"Nah, mate," Niall answers sadly, "Just don’t want to see you keep torturing yourself."

Harry nods gently. Niall knows everything now, despite Harry’s attempts at trying to deny it to protect Louis. Niall had quickly put them to rest, though, admitting to Harry that Louis hadn’t done anything to try and disprove what he’d seen that night, that the only thing he’d been concerned with was making sure Harry was okay.

And that. That was probably the only thing that got Harry through that night, if he’s honest.

They kick the ball around a bit before the rest of the team starts trickling onto the field. There’s still no sign of Louis, but Harry’s head picks up when he sees Zayn and Liam walk on together, eyes finding him and Niall almost immediately. Niall tucks the football under his arm and walks closer to Harry.

"You know, you can-" Harry starts, "I mean, you don’t have to stay over here with me. I don’t want to keep you from your friends."

But Niall only shrugs, breaking his eye contact with Liam and Zayn, and turns back to Harry.

"You’re my friend too," he says firmly, to which Harry just nods, too grateful for the other boy’s presence to argue with him.

They go back to shuffling the ball around and Harry tries not to worry about where Louis is. He’s pretty sure he hasn’t run away. He wouldn’t do that again, at least not without telling someone first. But Harry’s eyes hardly leave the entrance of the field, even after Paul and coach Cowell show up and officially start practice.

000

Louis is already ten minutes late by the time he drops Eleanor back off at her dorm room. She’d asked him to take her to her first appointment that day, citing the fact that Louis had a car and she didn’t. Louis’ pretty sure it was about more than that though. He’s almost certain her roommate, Danielle, has a car, but he knows it was more about him staying involved than anything else. And that had been her subtle way of letting him know that.

After sitting in a waiting room for the past two hours, footie practice is actually a welcome alternative. Well, it would be under usual circumstances, anyway.

Louis feels the anxiety triple in his chest when he walks onto the Essex practice pitch twenty minutes late and the eyes of his teammates are suddenly on him. Through his haste to get there, he hadn’t exactly had time to worry about seeing his friends for the first time since that morning. But when Liam, Zayn and Niall lock eyes with him and he can’t read a single thing from their expressions, he wishes with everything in him that he’d bunked off practice completely.


The worst part is, he doesn’t think Harry looks at him once.


Coach Cowell doesn’t notice him step on, as he’s in the middle of dividing the team up for a scrimmage match. Paul sees him though, silent question in his eyes. Louis shuffles into the group as inconspicuously as he can and gets grouped onto the same team as Zayn and Niall.

Louis feels some of the tension in his body deflate when Niall gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before running over to the mouth of the goal net. He can see Zayn try to make eye contact with him from the corner of his eye, but he purposely avoids his efforts.

It’s weird, working with Brewer again as his forward instead of Harry. The dynamic isn’t easy to fall back into and Louis realizes that the almost psychic wavelength that he and Harry exist on when they play together isn’t so easy to access with just anyone. He hadn’t even really appreciated it until just now, when Brewer miscalculates several of his passes in a row. Somehow he knows it’s not just the other boy being rusty.

A part of him is thankful that Cowell hadn’t put him and Harry on the same team though. He doesn’t know how he would have been able to push everything out of his head long enough to focus on just being the other boy’s teammate, even just for an hour. And with the way Harry won’t even look at him if he can help it, Louis doesn’t imagine they would have played any better together than he and Brewer are.

Louis passes the ball to Sully in a quick slant down the pitch and his heart catches a little as Harry steps up to try and field the ball away from the other boy. Even though Harry isn’t playing up to his usual standards today, it doesn’t take long before he’s stolen the ball away rather impressively. Louis doesn’t notice Sully’s incensed expression at being bested, too busy focused on Harry bringing the ball back the opposite way on the field. He notices the second time though, when he passes to Sully again and watches him lose the ball to Harry just as he had before. When the ball is still tangled between their feet, Sully gives Harry a small, but deliberate shove to the shoulder. Harry seems to take it in stride, even if his expression hardens the slightest bit. Louis frowns but continues to play.

It’s not until Sully gets the ball and loses it for a third time that things fly apart. This time, he makes no effort to hide his frustration and pushes Harry to the ground hard.

"What the fuck, man?" Harry spits angrily.

"Don’t be such a bitch, Styles. I hardly touched you."

And Louis is running over then and isn’t even thinking about what he’s about to do next. He barely sees Zayn as his friend steps in front of him with a hand to his chest. And Louis would have pushed him off and kept going directly toward Sully had it not been for the fact that Zayn turns at that moment and punches the boy square in the face himself.

000

Zayn gets suspended for two games but Louis doesn’t think he looks half as upset about it as he should. As he wraps a towel around a bag of frozen pizza rolls for Zayn’s hand, he recalls the shocked looks on everyone’s faces when Sully had hit the ground. He remembers the look on Harry’s face most of all - one of complete and pure disbelief that Zayn of all people would step in on his behalf like that. If Louis’ honest, it was a bit of a shock to him as well - a good shock, though, one that causes a sort of warm affection to settle inside him as he brings over the make-shift compress to his friend on the couch.

Zayn takes it gratefully and folds it over his knuckles.

"I can’t believe you did that," Louis murmurs.

Zayn laughs breathily, “I’m not gonna lie, Tommo. I’ve been wanting to do that for years now.”

"Yeah, but. You didn’t have to… I just-"

"He’s a twat," Zayn looks up to level him with a firm stare. "He deserved it."

And it’s an easy excuse that Zayn’s offering him, but the words mean so much more than that and they both know it.

Before Louis can say anything else, the front door swings open and Liam and Niall are stepping through, grocery bags hanging off their arms.

Liam ambles over after dropping his set on the bench, tearing at a stubborn packet before depositing two white pills in Zayn’s palm.

"Take those."

Zayn laughs, “Li, i’m fine, really.”

Liam doesn’t bother responding as he takes the frozen pizza out of Zayn’s compress and replaces it with a proper ice pack. Zayn rolls his eyes affectionately and swallows the pills dry.

Louis gets up to help put the food away, sidling up next to Niall, who gives him a half smile. Louis returns it, handing him items to stock in the cupboard because he’s always been a bit shit with organizing.

"Does this mean you’re not mad at me anymore?" Niall asks softly after a minute.

Louis stops, “What?”

"For the other day? Before you left."

"Oh," Louis breathes. He thinks about it, and no. He’s not mad anymore, doesn’t think he ever really was. He knew none of that was Niall’s fault, that he was only trying to help by keeping Louis away. And besides, he doesn’t know if he would have gone home if things hadn’t happened the way they did. At least his mum knows about him now.

"No, i’m not mad," Louis assures, and Niall nods after a second, seeming to accept the answer, and continues putting the last of the groceries away before following Louis to join Liam and Zayn in the living room. It’s when they’re all sat down that Louis really feels Harry’s absense.

"Niall, where’s? Is he…"

"He’s fine," Niall answers quietly, sending a curious glance to where Liam and Zayn are sitting, but there’s a small smile tugging on his lips and Louis feels his cheeks heat up. He didn’t bother to ask discreetly, so Niall’s confusion and Liam and Zayn’s searching looks from the opposite couch aren’t unwarranted. He can tell that they’re all just waiting on him to break the silence and say something now.

"Okay, well," he swallows, eyes cast downward, "I mean- You all know, I guess. So I don’t really see the point in-"

"Oh, no, mate. You’re not getting out of this one." It’s Zayn who says it, and his voice is light where Louis was expecting something else entirely.

He keeps going when he sees Louis’ slightly dazed look. “I mean, you can leave some parts out, like anything and everything to do with how good last night was for you.”

Liam blushes at that and Louis almost chokes. Zayn laughs.

"What are you on about?" Niall asks, laughter edging up in his tone.

Zayn turns to Niall, cocking his head toward Louis as he speaks, “Li and I only walked in on the two of them spooning this morning, didn’t we.”

"Oh, fuck, I knew I heard something last night! Holy shit, mate."

"Fucking hell." Louis drops his head into his hands, face on fire, completely and utterly mortified. But Zayn and Niall are laughing and Louis is so, so confused. Confused and embarrassed but also a little relieved. When he looks up, all of his friends are grinning, even Liam, their eyes filled with mirth.

However Louis imagined this conversation going, this was not even close to being it.

He has a hard time controlling the smile that eventually breaks across his own face. He can’t explain it, but he feels really safe right now, like nothing is really all that different from how it ever was between them. And maybe it’s not. If Louis hadn’t been sure before how his friends felt about him after this morning, he thinks he’s got a better idea now.

Eventually the playfulness dies down, and when it does, Liam speaks up.

"I just don’t understand, Lou," he starts and Louis’ chest tightens before Liam finishes. "I don’t get why you didn’t think you could tell us. Did you really think we would…?"

"No," Louis shakes his head, "Well, I mean, I guess I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to think. I was…terrified."

"Of what?"

Louis shrugs, huffs a little, like he wishes he could just make them understand that it wasn’t easy keeping this secret from them, how paralyzing it was to be that afraid. “I don’t know, of how you’d think of me? After you knew? I mean most people-“

"We’re not most people, Louis. You know that. Did you really think we wouldn’t want to be friends with you just because you’re with a bloke? And, well, if anyone does feel that way about it then screw them.”

Louis feels his heart twinge at the sharpness in Liam’s usually docile tone, doesn’t know if he’s ever seen a fire in the other boy quite like this before. There’s a familiar burn settling behind his eyes and he can’t believe this is really happening. He doesn’t think he even could have dreamed it this way if he’d tried to.

It’s silent for several minutes after that, Liam, Zayn and Niall seemingly content to let him be alone with his own thoughts for a moment.

"So, you really don’t think it’s…? I mean, that i’m…?"

"Of course not," Liam answers easily, Zayn nodding his agreement next to him.

He hears Niall’s voice next. “That just leaves more for us, yeah?”

Louis laughs, closing his eyes to stave off his tears as Niall continues, now speaking to everyone.

"You know Brewer’s older brother Jake? He’s gay."

Louis pauses as he lets the information sink in. His voice comes out a bit awed, “Really? I didn’t know that…”

Niall only shrugs, like it’s unimportant.

Liam speaks up after that. “My cousin. You know, the one from Coventry? He is too. I met his boyfriend over the summer. Good lad.”

Louis knows if he looks at his friends right now, he’ll start crying, overwhelmed with affection for them.

"One of my best friends is gay," Zayn says, and that’s when Louis’ eyes snap open. He finds Zayn staring warmly back at him.

"Yeah, mine too," Niall adds softly, "And…another one of my friends too. Just met him this year, actually."

Louis’ heart skips, eyes floating back to Zayn when he picks up again after Niall.

"Yeah, I think I know him. Actually, I’ve known them both since we were in secondary together and, as it turns out," Louis feels the first set of tears slip over his cheeks, "they’re kind of stupidly perfect for each other."

Louis folds a hand over his face and chokes out a sob.

He feels Niall’s hand on his shoulder, rubbing small circles there. And not long after, Zayn is squeezing in next to him on the couch, and when Louis looks up and wipes the remaining wetness from his eyes, Liam is there too.

He doesn’t know what he did to deserve friends like this, but for the first time in days, he really believes that everything might actually turn out okay.

000

Louis sleeps in the next morning, waking up only when Niall comes into his room and tosses an old mobile phone onto the mattress next to his head.

"It still works," he says, "and you should be able to put your sim in it."

Louis stares at it for a minute before nodding, sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, “Thank you.”

"I talked to Harry."

Louis perks up from where he’s trying to slot his sim card into the new phone. “You did? Is he alright? Did he, uh, say anything?”

Niall’s mouth quirks, “Not really. He’s at home right now, actually. Took the train up last night.”

Louis’ eyes fall from his. He nods gently, “Oh.”

"Asked me to check in on you, though," he continues, and Louis lets a breath go he didn’t realize he was holding.

"Probably shouldn’t have told you that," he laughs and Louis smiles.

"Thanks, Niall," he says before his friend leaves the room. The for everything goes unsaid.

000

Louis finds Zayn out on the porch a few hours later, rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers.

He’s been contemplating sending Harry a text for the better part of an hour, but nothing sounds right, and even though it kills him, it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that Harry obviously wants space right now, so Louis decides to join Zayn outside before he does something stupid.

Zayn almost drops the cigarette when he hears the door slide open. He offers Louis a small smile when he sees that it’s him.

"You stay over last night?" Louis asks.

"Hmm? Oh, no. Niall let me in when you were asleep."

Louis sighs, sidling up beside Zayn against the railing and looking out over the complex parking lot.

“‘Cause I need a babysitter, I suppose.”

Zayn shoots him a vaguely sympathetic look. “We’re just worried about you, mate.”

"So you’ve got me on twenty-four-hour surveillance. I suppose this is some sort of tracking device, then?" He holds up the old phone that Niall had given him earlier, "So I can’t wander off again.

Zayn laughs, pulling his lighter from his pocket. He drags his thumb over the flint wheel and winces once he realizes that he’s done it with his injured hand.

"Here. Let me," Louis offers, reaching for the plastic.

Zayn pulls it away, “No. I’m trying to quit.”

Louis quirks an eyebrow at the cigarette between Zayn’s fingers, to which the other boy only smirks.

"Well, I’m thinking about it at least."

"What for?" Louis asks, mostly just to keep the conversation going.

Zayn shrugs, “It’s expensive. And Liam’s always going on about it.”

Louis’ brows pinch but he doesn’t ask. He notices Zayn’s good hand squeeze the plastic and then tap it on the railing once before popping the cigarette between his lips and lighting it.

Louis doesn’t say anything. The mood has suddenly shifted a little without him realizing. Louis ponders how when they’re around other people, Zayn is possibly the most garish person he knows, but when it’s just them, they always seem to fall into these comfortable silences, though Louis notices that they’ve gotten more intense as of late, too many secrets let loose inside them.

"When?" Zayn asks on an exhale.

Louis tilts his head to the side, “Huh?”

"When did it start?"

Louis sighs, laughs a little through his nose, “Do you want the simple or the complicated answer?”

Zayn huffs, takes another drag.

"In Leeds," Louis answers after a beat, though he’s pretty sure Zayn figured that one out already. "But, before that too," he adds softly, "Once. A few months before graduation."

Zayn nods, looks eerily accepting of the news, which Louis wishes he had the energy to analyze.

"I suppose it all makes sense now," he states.

Louis nods after a minute. He doesn’t really think before the words start spilling out, but if anyone’s ever going to really know the truth, he thinks he doesn’t mind it being Zayn.

"I’ve always… I mean, I didn’t realize it for a long time, you know? Or I didn’t want to. I kind of ruined it, at Priestly. I don’t really know what I would have done if he hadn’t shown up here, given me another chance, and-"

"And you’re in love with him."

Louis pauses, words catching in his throat. Zayn mistakes his hesitation for something else.

"It’s okay if you can’t say it-"

"I am," Louis clips, "I’m in love with him." Because it’s true and he’s not embarrassed to say it. Zayn doesn’t look surprised by the declaration, like he already knew and was only waiting for Louis to say it out loud.

"Good. If you didn’t I don’t see how you’re gonna make this work."

Louis sighs miserably, “I don’t- I don’t know if I can though, Zayn,” he runs a hand through his hair, vexed, “I mean, I ruined things before, but - this is completely different. I don’t know how to fix this.”

They both stay silent for a few minutes. Zayn doesn’t offer him any false optimism or placations, no promises that things will somehow magically work out. What he says instead shocks Louis to the bone.

"I kissed Liam."

Louis’ mouth sputters open, “What?”

"I kissed Liam," he repeats, eyes still facing straight ahead, hand tightening over the railing until his knuckles go white.

"Heard that part," Louis murmurs. "Just…what?”

Zayn flicks the butt of his cigarette over the balcony and lights another one quickly.

"It was about…four months ago. During summer hols."

Louis feels like someone has dunked his head beneath water, and he has to pinch himself a little to be sure this is a real conversation that’s happening and not just his imagination playing tricks on him.

"It was while you were holed up at home. After your accident," Zayn continues, taking a long drag. "We were at a party. Pissed out of our heads."

"Oh. Well, hey, that’s. That’s not that big a deal. What’s a drunken snog between mates, right?" Not that Louis has any idea what he’s really talking about, but he wants to make Zayn feel less awkward about this. "You laugh it off, yeah?"

"We never talked about it."

And that’s when the light goes off, when Louis really gets it.

"Oh. Oh.”

Zayn mouth twitches, still avoiding Louis’ eyes.

"But you want to," Louis declares, voicing his realization aloud.

Zayn goes really still then, exhaling slowly. “I don’t think he wants to.”

"How do you know?"

Zayn shrugs, ashing his cigarette, and it’s clear Louis won’t get a real answer.

"So, when are you going to tell him, then?"

Zayn releases a deep breath and rubs at his eyes, “It’s not that simple, Lou…”

Louis suddenly feels a wave of frustration overcome him. Because he sees a bit of himself in Zayn in this instance, or at least the boy he used to be. And Zayn sees Louis now, sees his situation and what it’s done to his relationship. He sees that and yet he’s still decided to give up before he’s even tried and Louis can’t just stand there and watch it.

He reaches forward to pull the cigarette from Zayn’s lips and toss it to the ground. Zayn turns to look at him then with widening eyes as Louis crushes it underneath his foot and turns to walk inside.

"It really fucking is, mate."


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