Five Weeks to Christmas
"Ready?" Fincham asks, waggling his eyebrows in a particularly unsettling way as he grabs the handle to the conference room door.
"Absolutely not," Nick says firmly. "They're going to hate me."
"I hate you already," Matt says, laughing. "And I've been working with you at least a week. I think it's part of your charm."
"Right," Nick says. Charm. He's very charming and likeable. And it's not like he's never been to a production meeting before. He's been to hundreds, surely. He's been on nights forever now. He did telly with Alexa Chung. He's got Annie Mac, genuinely one of the greatest dj's in the world, saved in his phone contacts under 'Biggie Mac'. This is just the final meeting before he takes over the Radio One Breakfast Show, that's all. Only his childhood dream realized.
He takes a deep breath, watches Matt Fincham do an incredibly dorky double-thumbs-up at him, and lets the breath out in a whooshing laugh. Right.
"Okay then." Fincham opens the door.
There are three people seated around a large table in a very BBC conference room. The table is a little battered, the carpet a little worn, and nobody looks like they're about to decry Nick as a fraud and an immediate failure. The anti-climax is incredible.
"Hiya," Nick says.
"Right," Matt ushers him into the room, pointing out each person in turn. "Fiona and Ian, assistant producers." The girl with the curly hair waves happily. "Laura-May Coope, social media."
"LMC," the one with the lavender hair says, waving. "If you call me Laura-May I'll have to eviscerate you."
"Wait, your job is Twitter?" Nick says.
"Sort of," LMC says. "It's a bit more complicated than that."
"Your job is Twitter!" Nick says happily. "That's brilliant. I'm obsessed with my Instagram."
"We know," Fincham mutters, which Nick elects to ignore.
"How do you even get that job? Is that actually a job?"
"You talk for a living," LMC says, which is a gross oversimplification, but at its root, true. And awesome.
"Well, yes, that's a point," Nick says. He's smiling now, the wide, slightly manic one he gets when he's really excited, because this is going to be genuinely brilliant.
"We're supposed to have a work experience intern-y kid too," Fincham says. "But I didn't see him in the hall and--"
"Here, here, I'm here," the owner of a deep, gravelly, if slightly panicked voice collides heavily with Nick's back and Nick nearly topples into the conference table. He rights himself and turns around, only to find a scrabbling hand plucking at the front of the YSL printed button down he'd deemed suitable-yet-quirky enough for the first production meeting. There's another dragging at the waist of his trousers.
The owner of the voice has a mop of fetching curls, large green eyes, and a very, very red face. He seems to be having trouble keeping himself upright, looks humiliated enough to sink into the floor, and seems to be approximately the age of your average sixth-former. Otherwise, Nick would be wondering if Christmas had come a few weeks early.
"Oh god," the kid says, finally righting himself. "I am so sorry. I'm Harry." he clears his throat, pastes on a lovely smile and says in a very endearing self-deprecating tone, "I only used to watch you every day on the telly before school, and now I've nearly brained your head into the table. Sorry."
"Well, thanks for making me feel absolutely ancient, Harry," Nick says. Apparently he injects just the right amount of good humor into his voice, because Harry's wide smile turns up a bit more at the corners and his shoulders drop about four inches.
"Right, Harry Styles," Fincham says. "Office bitch. Sit quietly, Styles, and learn something, will you? I'd have you get coffee, but I'm not sure it's a good idea."
"Probably not," Harry laughs, shaking his curls out of his face. "I'll just take notes, shall I?"
"Strong start," Nick says, sitting himself down at a table just like every other he's ever sat at. Except those weren't meetings for the Radio One Breakfast Show.
"Right, let's get going," Fincham says authoritatively. "Chloe-From-Music is going to want our full attention when she gets here and honestly, she terrifies me."
"Nick, you have to play it at least twice this week."
Nick makes what he hopes is a truly horrible face at Chloe from music. "But why? Alex Fletcher is a washed up old has been. I thought we were supposed to appeal to the youth audience."
"Christmas is different," Chloe says, her patience clearly fraying.
"The song is rubbish," Nick says, not for the first time. "When Christmas Comes Knockin'? Besides being a terrible thing to do to a perfectly innocent Monkees song, it doesn't make any sense."
Chloe throws up her hands. "Nick, it's Christmas. An old paedophile in a red fur suit comes down your chimney. What do you want? Just play the damn track. And be. Nice."
"Ugh, fine," Nick says. "I hate Christmas."
Finchy laughs. "That's a lie, mate. You're just brimming with Christmas cheer and jingle bells and tinsel under that disaffected hipster facade." He pokes at Nick's chest. Nick may or may not be wearing a reindeer jumper, which probably isn't helping his case. His mum gave it to him. It would be impolite not to wear it.
"Oh whatever," Nick says. "You're all terrible." He looks around. "Anyway, who do I have to blow around here to get a Hobnob?"
It is just horrible, horrible coincidence that dangerously adorable intern Harry Styles rolls a tea cart through the conference room door at that very moment. He's grinning and looks stupidly proud of himself for, well, doing his job. Nick feels his face heat up and tries to resist the urge to bang his forehead on the table in front of him.
"I didn't know we had a tea cart," Finchy says.
Harry shrugs. "Found it in storage. Thought it might be safer, you know."
"It might be at that." Finchy laughs, sounding reluctantly charmed. Harry has that effect on people. It's not just Nick. Everything is fine. Nick is not fucked at all.
Harry's eyes light on Nick. Nick tries very hard to dissolve into his chair but is clearly unsuccessful. "Nice jumper," Harry says with what seems to be complete sincerity. Chloe and Finchy don't even try to hide their laughter.
Nick's a little bit fucked.
"A little birdy mentioned these were your favorite," he says, dimpling at Nick in a truly distressing fashion.
Nick stares at him for a moment, actually at a loss for words in the face of those sparkling green eyes and dimples. Not a good thing in his line of work. "I, uh, yes. I--thank you, Harry. Much appreciated. Help me keep my energy up for this mountain of paperwork." He pats the two or three sheets of paper on his desk. "Which I should be getting back to."
Harry nods. "Of course. You're welcome." He turns to go, and Nick is this close to breathing a sigh of relief when he turns back around. "If you don't mind me saying--" he starts, then pauses, biting his lip and looking like he's waiting for Nick's permission to continue. Nick gives him what he hopes is an encouraging nod, but he suspects it's more of a spastic head wobble. "It's only, I'm really pleased that I'm working with you instead of Moyles. I mean, not that I wouldn't have done my best for him and everything. Except I maybe wouldn't have gone out of my way to bring him biscuits. Because, you know, that's not actually my job."
Nick stares again. This speechlessness problem is becoming really serious. He's definitely going to get sacked if this ever happens on air. "Well," he finally manages, "It's nice to be appreciated. Thanks."
Harry ducks his head, looking pleased by Nick's nonsensical mumbling. "All right then. Great. See ya around, Grimmy."
"Yeah, see ya."
This time no one's around to see so Nick gives in to the impulse to rest his forehead on his desk. He is so, so fucked.
Nobody makes Annie play this Fletcher record, he notices. But when she mixes Jay-Z into Breach and says it's in celebration of 'her old pal Grimmy's' first week on Breakfast, he maybe does an enthusiastic little shimmy and gets out of his extremely uncomfortable ergonomic office chair.
If he's dancing around the desks three minutes later, that's no one's business but his.
Except when he executes a perfectly-timed robot to the end of the track, because why the hell not, a gleeful snicker cuts through the sudden silence in the office before the advert.
"Excellent form," Harry says, and Nick whirls around to see him standing in the door.
"Oh, yeah," Nick says, a little out of breath but trying to play it off. Oh god, he hopes he doesn't need his inhaler. Than would really cap this humiliation off right. "I'm basically a dance impresario."
"You're Baryshnikov," Harry says, holding out a folder. "From Chloe. She said you still have to play Fletcher next week."
"Thanks," Nick says. "Twice?"
"Three times. Only three weeks to Christmas."
"Brilliant. Thanks, Harry."
"No problem," Harry says, smiling sweetly. "Maybe work on your twerk."
"My twerk is immaculate, I will have you know."
"Right," Harry says. "Keep telling yourself that. G'night, Grimmy."
"Night," Nick says, and as Harry leaves, he digs his inhaler out of his coat pocket and takes a deep puff. For fuck's sake.
Harry stops by Nick's desk again the following Tuesday after the show. Nick shouldn't be surprised. Harry is everywhere this week making Nick's life a living hell with his stupid curls and his stupidly long fingers and his charm that shouldn't really be charming at all. Nick's sure he's getting an ulcer from worrying about Harry popping into the studio and making him lose his train of thought in the middle of a link. Dead air is a cardinal sin in radio and Nick is not going to get sacked over a gawky intern who is not nearly as adorable as he thinks he is.
So it makes total sense that Nick calls Harry back as he's turning to go after handing off a folder of hideous paperwork.
"Young Harold," he says, "It is positively criminal that we've been working together for two whole weeks now and I hardly know a thing about you. Sit down. Tell me about yourself." He gestures at the empty chair at the next desk. Harry nods and rolls the chair over, sitting down entirely too close to Nick.
"Well, my name's not Harold for a start," he says with a cheeky grin.
Nick blinks. "What is it then?"
"Just Harry. Harry Edward Styles if you want to get technical."
"And where do you live, Harry Edward Styles?"
"Wandsworth. The dodgy end." Harry says.
Nick nods like he knows anything about Wandsworth, much less which is the dodgy end. "And you live with your--" Nick pauses. "Your girlfriend? Wife and three adorable stepchildren?"
Harry laughs a bit, then his face goes serious. "Actually I'm just back in with my flatmates. Tried moving in with my boyfriend for a bit, but, uh, we split up."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Nick says, and tries to make his face look like he means it.
Harry shrugs. "Well, turned out he wasn't a very nice person in the end, so I'm better off without him."
"Yeah. He didn't want me to take this job, actually. Said I wasn't talented enough for it to do me any good and I'd just be taking crap pay for nothing."
Nick goes tense, gripping the arms of his chair. "The fuck you say."
That startles a laugh out of Harry. He shrugs again. "Like I said, not very nice. Anyway, I should get back to work." He gets up and wheels the chair back to it's proper place.
"You know," Nick says, "I could have him killed."
"You could not," Harry says, his face a bit brighter.
Nick nods emphatically. "I could. Little known fact, but the Breakfast Show spot comes with three free murders a year. The BBC has secret trained assassins. Just say the word."
Harry shakes his head. "My flatmate already threatened to burn his flat down. Although I guess a hitman might be less mess than arson."
"Too right," Nick says, secretly glad there are people looking out for Harry. "Well, the offer stands."
"I'll think about it. Thanks, Grimmy."
Nick watches him walk away then turns back to his desk with a groan. He wonders if Sara Cox ever had problems like this.
"Thanks, mate," the twinky one says.
It's bad enough he can't remember which name goes with which one, except Max, who has a pretty smile and one of those intentionally firm, I'm-so-hetero handshakes.
Nick's just about to slip out, because the next link is supposed to be him introducing the band, when Harry comes in. He's somehow juggling two full Starbucks drinks carriers in his massive hands, and he starts handing the drinks out with a smile. He unloads three of the drinks successfully and moves across the lounge to hand off the last two. Harry Styles has managed not to dump coffee all over a chart topping boyband. It's a Christmas miracle.
"Backs to the wall, lads," Max stage-whispers, and two members of his band laugh unkindly. The others seem to be involved making polite conversation with Harry, who is engrossed in his disgustingly friendly way. Nick feels his spine snap to attention.
"Sorry?" he says. "What was that?"
"'He's bent, innit?" Max smirks. "Relax, mate, just a joke."
It is not Nick's most jovial interview ever.
Distress is radiating from every line of Harry's body. He's clearly trying to lean away, but there's no space to do so. Nick has never seriously considered violence against another human being before, but he would happily murder Max off the Wanted right now.
They both look up at Nick at the same time. Max sneers and pulls back. Harry makes a break for it, brushing past Nick none too gently on his way out.
"Pansy," Max mutters, under his breath but still audible.
Nick stares at him for a moment. He's actually shaking with rage and he doesn't trust himself right now. Finally, very careful to keep his voice steady and calm, he says, "I'm sure you can see yourself out." Then he turns around and goes back to the studio, tea forgotten.
"Oh god," Fincham says into his mic, but he's grinning.
"Shut it, I need to ask you a very important question, Matt Fincham, something that's been on my mind for days now."
"Impressive attention span for you," Matt laughs, getting into the groove of it. He's gotten far less strict and clipboard-y in the past two weeks, which Nick is both grateful for and somewhat smug about.
"Well, like I said, it's an important question, one that plagues the nation, and needs your wisdom applied to it," Nick says, setting it up good and proper.
"What is it, my son?" Matt asks, keeping an eye on the clock all the time. They've got three minutes to fill, plenty of time.
"Why aren't there any good boybands out there these days?" Nick asks with a tone of innocent wonder, propping his chin in his hand and gazing at Finchy guilelessly, even though the cameras are off. The smile on Matt's face drops off like Nick's just pulled the rug out from under him entirely. Which, to be fair, he has.
"What do you mean, Nick?" he asks.
"Oh you know," Nick sighs dramatically. "I've done my mourning for JLS, and it was no easy task, I'll tell you."
"RIP JLS," Ian jumps in.
"Indeed," Nick agrees. "I mean, I was inconsolable. You know how I love a boyband, and with JLS gone, there's just no one to really competently fill that gap in my heart."
"Those boys off the X Factor are quite cute," Fiona says. "The little ones."
"Union J," Ian says, peering at Fiona's computer. "Four's a good number for a boyband, I think." Ian hadn't much liked the Wanted boys either, after one of them had cut him in line at the canteen.
"Yes, I agree, those Union J boys are alright, but they're playing them over on Radio 2, and you know I'm cultivating a deep and abiding beef with Chris Evans, so I can't let them get their little hands into my heart." Nick sighs woefully. "I miss Hanson."
That gets the laugh he wants out of LMC and Fiona, although Fincham is frantically making a 'Jesus Christ, Nick' kind of a face and pointing at the clock.
"I mean, especially this time of year, you know." Nick carries on blithely. "Snowed In remains the only worthwhile boyband Christmas effort. Ever. In the world."
"Snowed In is a triumph," LMC says, and Nick laughs.
"It is!" he says. "Finchy, can I slip some Hanson into the Nixtape today? I promise it'll be Christmassy. I'll put it opposite the MJ Cole remix of All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth that I've brought from home. Please?"
"We'll see," Matt says in his best 'strict producer' voice. "Might be better next week, I'll make sure we get Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays in there too."
"*NSYNC!" Nick cries gleefully. "Now, there's a boyband. You all heard it, listeners, a Christmas Nixtape next week, courtesy of all of us here at Radio One. Speaking of, here's that Alex Fletcher record again. It's growing on me." Nick presses play on the track and shifts on his stool, avoiding both Finchy's disapproving glare and Ian's hearty cackles equally.
"We will talk about this later," Matt says. "Tabling this for now, but it is definitely 'to be discussed'. I need tea." He bolts, brushing past Harry in the doorway with barely his usual brusque "Styles," as a greeting.
"Hey," Harry says, his hands clasped behind his back and his cheeks dimpling with a massive, shiny grin.
"Oh," Nick adjusts his glasses, and deeply regrets not being arsed to put in his contacts at five-forty this morning. "Hey, Harold. Hi."
"What Christmas Means to Me is my favorite Christmas song that isn't Happy X-Mas War Is Over," Harry says slowly, chuckling over it a little. "And their version is the best. Hanson, I mean."
"Hanson," Nick says. Why the hell is Harry's face like that?
"I mean, name somebody else who wrote an immaculate, Motown-inspired pop record between the ages of eleven and sixteen, right?" It seems to take approximately eight million years for Harry to say this, but by the end of the sentence, Nick feels like his stomach has literally jumped out of his torso and into his throat to strangle his uvula. He might vomit affection and rainbows all over the sound board.
"Right," he says, and then he clears his throat, because Matt's pushing his way past Harry and Fletcher's finally getting to the last few repeats of "when Christmas comes knockin' at your door" at the end of the track, and Nick's going to have to say something witty and brilliant in about thirteen seconds.
That was close.
"Finchy," he says seriously, "I need a favor."
Finchy's eyebrows go up. "After that stunt you pulled today, I'm not in a particularly giving mood, Nicholas."
Nick puts his hand to his chest and makes a shocked face. "Stunt? Me?"
"Yes, Nick. And in future I would appreciate it if you wouldn't slag off our guests two days after they've been in the studio."
Nick clucks his tongue. "I did not mention the Wanted even once."
Finchy shakes his head. "No, you very carefully did not, but it was heavily implied. And the texts were full of, 'oh, but what about the Wanted?' I would prefer not to deal with that again, thanks."
Nick wants to protest that the Wanted are crap and also awful human beings, and any implied criticism was completely deserved. But, well, he is asking a favor. "All right, Finchy. I'll be good. Promise." Nick hopes he is the picture of contrition. He suspects he's missed the mark, but Finchy relaxes anyway, giving Nick an exasperated little head shake.
"See that you do," he says. "Now what was it you wanted?"
Oh, right. "Well, you know Harry?"
"Our intern, Harry Styles, who we see every morning? Yes, I'm familiar."
Nick nods. "Right, well--and don't read anything into this, but do you think maybe starting next week he could, uh, work with Scott's team instead?"
Finchy gives him a look that is entirely too perceptive. "I suppose," he says. "Don't think that's going to solve your problem, though."
"Thanks, Finchy. Brilliant. Much appreciated. Enjoy your weekend!" Nick simply refuses to respond to the rest of Finchy's comment. Of course this will solve his problem. He definitely won't get sacked because a curly cherub has rendered him speechless in the middle of his show. Problem one hundred percent solved.
Nick's jeans and t-shirt are soaked and his quiff is utterly destroyed, hanging over his forehead and dripping water down his face. Nick curses the fact that he is a giving soul who helps out a colleague when their scheduled guest cancels on them. Which is to say he's been playing Innuendo Bingo.
He steps out into the hallway and runs straight into Harry Styles. Nearly literally. Of course. It would happen when he looks like a drowned rat. "Hiya, Harry!" he says, his voice overbright.
"Hi," Harry says, quietly. He looks subdued, not his usually cheery self at all.
"All right?" Nick asks.
Harry nods quickly. "Yeah, fine." He doesn't look fine.
"Right," Nick says, desperate to fill the awkward silence. "Well, I've just been playing Innuendo Bingo with Chris. Last minute substitution, you know. Oh, and Scott had such an awkward interview with Alex Fletcher earlier. I think he might have gone round the bend. It was funny, though. I hope he gets number one. I love a desperate money grab from a washed up popstar. It gives us all hope, and isn't that what Christmas is all about really?"
Nick knows he's babbling, and he finally manages to stop himself. He shoots Harry a hopeful look, but Harry still has the same wary, closed expression on his face.
"Right," Harry says after a moment. "Well, I have to go give this to Scott." He gestures at the stack of papers in his hand. "Now." He smiles, but it looks forced, then ducks around Nick and into the studio.
Nick's shoulders slump. He hates absolutely everything.
Nick stops by his desk on his way out, collecting things he needs and accidentally shoving a CD copy of that insipid Alex Fletcher song into his bag as he goes. It really is growing on him. Sitting in the center of his desk, where it absolutely could not possibly be missed, is a bright red envelope with "Grimmy" scrawled on the front in loopy capitals. Nick grins and props himself against the desk to open it.
It's an adorable card, with a Jack Russell wearing antlers on the front, and he coos stupidly over it. It doesn't look like Puppy, really, but Nick resolves to buy her a pair of antlers on post-Christmas clearance and hide them in hopes that she won't destroy them before next year. He opens the card, and to his surprise, there isn't one of those silly Merry Christmas messages inside with a really bad pun. Instead, it's a blank page filled with the same looping handwriting.
Happy Christmas. I couldn't find any cards that said anything I wanted to say to you. I guess they don't make "I really enjoyed working with you. I miss seeing your face every morning" cards. But I do. I suppose you probably don't feel the same way, but I wanted to say it, since it's Christmas. I really like you, and I think you're lovely. You deserve the happiest of Christmases.
Nick blinks. He can feel a ridiculous grin spreading over his face and he digs in his bag for his phone. It tumbles out onto the desk top with a clatter, and as he picks it up, he realizes that he doesn't actually have Harry's number, which is actually the dumbest thing that's ever happened to him. Instead, he checks the time. Quarter to four, and Harry had been in the building today, so even if he's planning to go to his mum's or something, he's probably leaving tomorrow. Or tonight. Tonight, probably. Shit.
"Happy Christmas, Nick," Ian says off hand as he walks by Nick's desk, coat on.
"Ian!" Nick says, turning quickly. "Wait! I have a Christmas favor to ask you."
"Does it involve helping you decorate anything?" Ian asks warily. "Anything at all?"
"No," Nick says. "But I need a ride. I took a cab today."
"What's this about?" Ian asks, still suspicious.
"Love, I'm pretty sure," Nick says. "Come on, I'll explain in the car."
"Well," Nick says, "This is quite a long street."
"What are you going to do? Just knock on every door?" Ian asks.
Nick shrugs. "Unless you've got a better idea." Ian rolls his eyes. "Come on, young Ian. Better get started."
The door at number 1 is opened by an elderly woman who blinks owlishly at them behind thick glasses.
"Hello," she says.
"Hello," Nick replies. "Um, does Harry Styles live here by any chance?"
"No." She stares at him for a moment. "Aren't you Grimmy off the radio?"
"Yes. Yes, I am," Nick says, a bit startled. "Do you listen to the show?"
She nods, smiling at him. "Oh, yes. My grandchildren put it on when they come to visit. They think you're very funny."
Nick only feels a little guilty for the surge of relief that he hasn't inadvertently been appealing to the nan demographic. "That's brilliant. And how old are they?"
"12, 13, and 16," she says. "Would you like to see a picture?"
What Nick would really like to do is continue on his search for Harry's house, but it would be rude to refuse. So he says, "Yes, please."
He and Ian coo over the pictures for a moment before making their excuses and wishing her Happy Christmas. As the door shuts behind them, he turns to Ian. "Well, see, now we can count this as work."
"How is that exactly?" Ian asks.
"Market research!" Nick says, grinning proudly. Ian rolls his eyes again. Nick suspects this might be a theme of the evening.
The next door is opened by a trio of tiny children decked out in paper crowns and tinsel garlands. Nick is utterly delighted. He bends down to address them. "Hello. Does Harry Styles live here?"
"Who's that?" an extremely ginger little girl says.
"Are you carol singers?" a boy who must be her brother asks before Nick can reply.
"Um, no," Nick says. "Sorry."
"Oh, please," the boy says.
"Sing for us!" the third child says or, well, yells really.
All three of them start to shout for he and Ian to sing. Nick holds up a placating hand, looking at Ian pleadingly. Ian nods reluctantly. "All right, all right. If you insist."
They make it through half a verse of The First Noel before the first little girl reaches out a hand and pats him sympathetically on the arm. "That's all right. You don't have to," she says.
Nick wants to be offended, but he's mostly relieved. "Thanks," he says. "Happy Christmas."
The door slams with no further niceties and they move on to the next house.
The houses start to blend together after a while. A good number of people recognize him, which is flattering but time consuming. He has signed autographs, and he has posed for pictures. He can only imagine what Twitter is saying about his unexpected trek through Wandsworth.
One surly gentleman tells Nick he liked Moyles better. Nick is forgetting that house exists. Poof. Gone.
At a house where a party is obviously going on, a very drunk girl answers the door wearing a mistletoe headband. She demands kisses from both of them without appearing to care that they've never met. Nick gets away with a peck on the cheek, but Ian has lipstick smeared across his mouth. Nick does not laugh because Ian is a good friend who is doing him a favor. Okay, maybe he laughs a little bit.
Yes, this adventure is very interesting. Nick has met all sorts of fascinating people and experienced quite a bit of holiday cheer. However, he hasn't found Harry or even anyone who's heard of him. After three or four endless blocks, he's beginning to doubt the wisdom of his spontaneous romantic mission.
"You know," Ian says as they leave a house where a woman berated them for interrupting her family's Christmas dinner, "We probably could have looked up Harry's address at the office, seeing as how he works there and all."
Nick swears even his quiff droops dejectedly at that. He sighs heavily and drags his feet towards the next house.
"Can this be the last one?" Ian whines behind him. "I get that this is Christmas destiny and true love or whatever, but it's cold and dark, and I want to go home."
"Shut your stupid face, Chaloner," Nick says lightly. "If Harry Styles does not live here, we will continue until we find him."
"And after you've snogged his face off in the doorway, can we go to the pub?"
"Yes, we will go to the pub. I promise. I'll buy you something with rum in it."
Nick knocks. There's no answer. After a moment, he knocks again.
"For fuck's sake, Niall would you get the door?" he hears, very loudly and clearly from inside, as the door flies open.
"Oh!" Presumably this is Niall, and he grins widely, all bundled up and adorable. "Hiya, Grimmy!"
"Hi," Nick says slowly. "Have we met?"
"Nope. I'm Niall, nice to meet you," Niall says, sticking a hand out and pumping Nick's vigorously. "Oh, that's no good, come here." He tugs Nick into a hug, and Nick pats his back bemusedly as Ian snickers.
"Um," Nick says into Niall's shoulder. "Does Harry Styles live here?"
"Yeah, 'course he does. Nice of you to come by. Come on in." He waves them in, stopping Ian for a hug too. Odd boy. Very sweet. Odd.
"Who is it?"
"Who the hell is here at this hour?"
There's a small cacophony of voices ringing through the tiny front room as about eight lads, Harry's age but none of them Harry Styles, pile in from the kitchen.
"It's Grimmy!" Niall shouts back.
"And me," Ian says wryly, waving.
"And Ian," Niall says. "You want a drink?"
"We don't have time for drinks, Nialler," one of the boys says. He's standing with his arms crossed in the kitchen doorway, staring at Nick with his pretty blue eyes slitted dangerously. "But we have time for a little chat. I'm Louis," he says with the air of someone who feels you should already know who he is. "I'm Harry's best mate, and I need to talk to you."
"I'm Harry's best mate," Niall says.
"And I'm Louis' best mate," an affably smiling brunet pipes up from the kitchen. "Liam," he says, waving around Niall's shoulder as someone pushes past him.
"Doesn't matter, idiots. We're all best mates," the new boy says, big brown eyes blinking up at Nick under a truly marvelous quiff.
Holy shit, this house is full of the fittest boys in the entire world.
"We're all best mates, and if you mess Harry about, we'll rip your arms off."
"Zayn!" Louis says, affronted. "I wanted to threaten him! I have a list! Goddammit!"
"Er," Nick just about gets out, looking back and forth between them with some alarm, but then the gangly clomp of roughly an entire herd of giraffes coming down the stairs interrupts him, followed by Harry's voice.
"What the hell is going on? We're going to be late for Ed's show!"
"Ed's a mate," Louis says, smiling sweetly now that the threatening seems to be concluded. "From uni. He's playing a Christmas Eve show at the pub around the corner. He's this lovely ginger weirdo I shagged during fresher's, and he just never went away, because we all--"
"Too much information, Lou," Harry mumbles.
"What?" Louis huffs. "Should I mention you shagged him too, Haz?"
Liam seems to be nearly choking on his own laughter, and Ian's snickering again, but Harry's standing there with a smile slowly spreading across his face, so Nick isn't paying much attention.
"Ed's really lovely, though," Louis continues. "And it wasn't as weird as it sounds, but I swear, I have never seen pubes that color before or since."
That one gets the entire room breaking up into laughter, Ian holding his stomach and Niall bent at the waist, nearly knocking his head against the opposite wall. Harry chuckles and steps down to the next step, shaking his head.
Nick smiles as Harry descends the stairs much more slowly now, his coat belted and scarf on.
"You're just going out, aren't you?" Nick manages. "I'm sorry. We've just dropped by like idiots."
"It's all right," Harry says. "I mean, yeah, we're going to hear Ed play. But, yeah, it's okay."
"I could--" Nick glances back at Ian, who shrugs. "I did promise you we'd go to the pub."
"You did promise," Ian says.
"We could give you lads a ride?" Nick offers hesitantly. There's absolutely no way these boys will all fit in Ian's car.
"It's just around the corner," Zayn says. "We can walk. But you should come."
"You promised," Liam says, pulling on a hat. "Lads, why don't we walk and meet Grimmy and Harry there?"
"I'm not walking if there's a car," Niall says. "It's freezing."
"I'll walk," Ian says. "Not sure I want to witness this anyway," he hisses in Nick's ear, still giggling stupidly. Nick hates him. Except that Ian just walked up and down both sides of this idiotically long high street with him in the dark and cold of Christmas Eve, and Nick loves him, really.
"Well, whatever we're doing, let's go." Louis says. "Shots."
It turns out the pub is just around the corner, but you can't go that way if you're driving, so it's really around several corners in baffling directions. Nick pulls out into the street unsure if he's going to a pub or through the looking glass.
An awkward silence settles over the car, and Nick is at a loss for how to break it.
After a few moments, though, Harry blurts out, "Nothing happened with me and Max."
"What?" Nick asks, turning to stare at Harry in shock.
"Eyes on the road," Harry says. Nick turns back to the task at hand just in time to avoid slamming into the car in front of him.
"Okay, but seriously, what?"
"I just--" Harry starts. "I know that looked bad in the kitchen. But he came on to me really unexpectedly, and then I didn't know what to do or how to get out of it without offending a popstar guest. It was just an awkward situation, and then you came in and--well."
"Harry, what--no. I didn't--not--" Nick splutters, his thoughts jostling over each other in their haste to make it out of his mouth. He takes a breath and tries to sort himself out. "Max off the Wanted is a tosser. That's why I ever so subtly slagged off his band on the radio. I didn't think you--he was obviously taking advantage."
There's another moment of silence before Harry speaks, sounding a bit lost. "Well, then why did you send me to work with Scott?"
Nick feels himself flush. Of all the questions for Harry to ask, but he supposes it's fair. "Finchy sent you to work with Scott," he tries.
"Oh, come on," Niall scoffs from the back seat. "We're here," he says before jumping out of the car, because they have, in fact, come to a stop in front of the pub.
Nick finally turns to look at Harry, who is watching him with accusing eyes.
"Um," Nick says.
Harry huffs. "Whatever," he says, and gets out of the car.
Nick may or may not panic. He jumps out of the car and goes after Harry, catching him by the sleeve of his jacket and pulling him to a stop on the pavement. "Wait, wait, wait. I'm an idiot."
Harry doesn't say anything, but he stops and turns, waiting for Nick to continue.
"I sent you to work with Scott because I didn't want to get sacked from my childhood dream job, which I have had for barely a month now."
Harry gives him a skeptical look, and Nick takes a deep breath and prepares to humiliate himself utterly. "You see, it's the radio, so talking is pretty much my whole job. And I don't know if you've noticed, but I sort of get all tongue tied when you're around. Like, I go all stupid and speechless when you smile, and, yeah."
"You do?" Harry asks, grinning wide.
"Um," Nick says, staring at Harry's sparkling green eyes and dimples. He shakes his head. "See?" he demands. "So I sent you over to Scott to solve my pathetic little speechlessness problem and keep my job, which I really enjoy and would prefer not to be sacked from."
Harry shakes his head, still grinning. "You're an idiot."
"That's what I said!" Nick protests.
Harry leans forward and kisses him, his lips warm and soft against Nick's. At first, Nick is too stunned to move. He's just frozen in place while Harry kisses him. After a moment, he gathers enough brain function to think that he should probably kiss back. But the sky chooses that moment to open up and dump freezing sleet on them. Harry pulls away laughing and grabs Nick's hand.
"Come on," he says. "Let's get inside."
The lovely, ginger Ed climbs onto the tiny stage in one corner of the pub, which is festooned with lights and tinsel, and smiles bashfully at the crowd.
"Hi," he says into the mic, and their little huddle at the bar erupts with cheers. "Happy Christmas," Ed laughs. "I do this every year, although it's usually not on Christmas Eve. Sorry, Lou." Louis buries his face in Liam's neck and sighs dramatically. This whole performance makes very little sense to Nick, but Ed's still talking, and he really is very compelling. "I'm Ed Sheeran, and I love Christmas. So tonight we're going to sing a few songs, have a few drinks, and we're going to get some love in this room, all right?"
It's a lovely little set. Ed opens with Blue Christmas, and then does several original songs interspersed with many of the less saccharine Christmas classics that Nick actually loves. Most of the time when Nick goes to gigs, it tends to be more of the floor thumping, lights flashing, Disclosure or Rudimental variety. But the dark wood in the pub makes everything feel very cozy, and people are singing along, and Harry's mates keep giving him little nudges of the elbow. Harry's arm doesn't leave Nick's waist.
"He's so good," Nick whispers into Harry's ear. Harry turns his head, grins, and leaves a soft brushing kiss on Nick's cheek, high up by his ear. Nick's whole face goes warm, and he's pretty sure it's not the rum making him flush. God.
As Ed wraps up the encore, Nick looks around the little group and realizes something.
"Wait a minute," he says, squeezing Harry in closer with an arm around his shoulder. "Hang on. I object."
"What's wrong with you, Grimmy?" Niall says, knocking back the last of an Irish coffee Louis had ordered him.
"I'm the oldest here, aren't I?" Nick says. "You're all children! Only one of you is older than about twenty, and I brought him with me!"
"Excuse me," Louis says pointedly, "I am twenty. As of today, actually, and I don't feel that enough has been made of this point. It's lovely that you've found someone who seems to tolerate you, Harold but, really, it is my birthday."
"You got presents this morning, Lou," Liam says. "And there will be yet more presents tomorrow."
"Hang on a minute," Nick interrupts. "It's your birthday?"
"Yes," Louis says a little witheringly. "Keep up, Grimmy."
"Oi," Nick says loudly, motioning for the bartender. "Shots. Shots for the birthday boy!" Louis watches him consideringly for a moment, takes his shot, and nods.
"Right, you can stay," he says, before knocking it back like a pro.
Liam lifts his head from the bar to take the birthday shot, then stops and points to the television above the bar.
"Hang on," he says. "Isn't that Alex Fletcher off of Pop?"
The whole group turns their heads up to look, and Ian breaks into hiccupping giggles immediately. It absolutely is Alex Fletcher, middle-aged and maybe a little washed up, shaking his hips with all he has and grinning as he strips his shirt off.
"He said on Scott's show if he got number one, he'd strip on the telly on Christmas Eve!" Harry crows. "Man of his word."
"Guess he got it," Nick says, sort of equally fascinated and happily disgusted as Fletcher unbuttons his trousers. "Good for him."
"Better him than those twats off the Wanted." Louis says darkly.
"Damn right." Nick agrees. He looks over at Louis, who nods sharply at him. Nick suddenly knows who offered to burn down Harry's ex-boyfriend's flat.
"Hey," Harry says into Nick's ear, sliding his arms around Nick's waist fully. "I was thinking, after Christmas, I mean, I'm going up to my mum's in the morning, but maybe next week we could--"
"I'm having a New Year's Eve party," Nick interrupts. "Do you want to come? I mean, as my date."
"Your date," Harry says, trying it out. "On New Year's."
"Yeah. I mean, you know what they say. What you're doing on New Year's is what you'll be doing all year."
"Or who you're doing," Harry says, a grin quirking his lips up at the corners.
"Harold," Nick says. "That was awful."
"I'd like that," Harry says simply, and the lads all cheer around them as they completely miss the big finale of Alex Fletcher's nationally televised striptease. Because they are too busy snogging. Nick's rather smug about that, actually.