Nick’s cab jolts to a seasick stop by a big gnarled tree and, abruptly, Nick remembers why exactly his family never went to Great Auntie Mildred’s for holidays.
“I’m not going up that,” the cabbie says, raising his eyebrows. “Drop you off here, mate.”
The drive up to Mildred’s farmhouse arcs through green field with not a paving stone in sight: a hopeless sludge of rocky, muddy muck. Nick swallows, looking down at the crimson Ferragamo boots he had thought were quite rugged that morning when he got dressed in the dark. In London. Where there are roads.
“… Please?” he manages, honing his youngest of three wheedling voice. Nick’s a bit old to be doing big puppy eyes, at thirty, but goes for the pathetic wobble anyhow.
“No,” the cabbie says flatly, looking straight ahead at the one-lane road.
“I’ll pay you extra?”
Nick huffs, pulling himself gracelessly out of the back seat. In London they would have driven him, probably. Though, in London the road would be paved, and he wouldn’t be headed to his great aunt’s house in the middle of bloody nowhere to do some family errand because apparently, though Nick is thirty years old and quite a big deal, actually, in men’s fashion, he can’t stand up to his mother for more than seven minutes at a time. Nicholas, she’d snapped, We need you to do this. You’re the only one without family obligations of your own — a nice euphemistic way of saying we know you haven’t given us grandchildren, dear, and the only companionship in your life is a hyperactive Jack Russell with an anal gland problem — and Auntie Millie broke an arm and won’t last on her own. You check on her. You convince her. You convince people for a living!
Yes, Eileen, Nick thinks bitterly, paying the cabbie. I convince people to buy overpriced eye cream and pair a check suit with Chelsea boots. I don’t convince ancient posh ladies to get a nursemaid on account of she’s going to bloody disintegrate soon.
Nick stares down at his luggage. Never have a hard-cased orange faux-vintage trunk and a Louis Vuitton weekender given such effective side-eye. He feels himself wilt, slightly, like Pixie seated next to Anna Wintour at the Erdem show.
“Right then,” he tells them, clapping his hands together in his best impression of a primary school teacher. “We’re going to work together, and we will get through this. Alive. Okay?”
They stare back at him, shining and clean and unrepentant.
“Okay!” With a heave of his minimal muscle tone, Nick slings the weekender over his shoulder and hefts up the trunk, shifting from foot to foot to get used to the increased weight. His shoes sink in the wet earth. “This is fine! This will be fine.”
Ten steps later, it is not fine. Nick regrets everything. Did he really need to bring five pairs of boots? Did he really need seven blazers for three weeks in the middle of Arsefuck, Nowhereshire? He’s going to die. He’s going to die, horrifically, in some sort of field-related incident, and Ferragamo himself will spit on his grave in commemoration of Nick’s deceased boots, and Nick’s luggage will run off with some young upstart from Los Angeles and forget they were ever packed by some old, useless mud-encrusted idiot. The last time Nick had touched mud was when he dug up his garden a bit to rub dirt onto his brand-new Hunter wellies before Glastonbury this year. So unchic to show up with obviously new boots. Nick heartily regrets not wearing them today.
Squelch. Nick’s foot sinks into something suspiciously soft. And — warm. Oh, god. Warm. He looks down and feels his entire body droop even lower, if that were possible.
“Nooooo,” Nick whines, staring in incredulity at the sick pungent spread of feces from some godforsaken mammal seeping over the red leather of his boot. “Seriously? This is an actual thing that actually happens?” He feels like staging some sort of tantrum, perhaps, maybe running off and slamming a door somewhere, only he is in the middle of a field with nothing he can slam except maybe the fence, if he kicked it hard enough.
“You all right there, mate?”
Nick snaps up. A couple of young lads are peering at him over the rough wood fence, both sat on tall brown horses, one big and beefy (underwear model, Nick thinks reflexively, Deodorant. Shave gel) and the other smaller and blond (women’s mag, smiling pull-out). “Look a little overloaded there, like,” says the blond one, who is Irish and looks to be near to a hysterical laugh.
“No,” Nick says immediately, his voice rising inexorably to a nasal whinge, as if his nose cavity were also protesting the treatment by the glorious country setting. “These are Ferragamo.”
“Ferrawhato?” Blondie squints at Muscles. “What’s that mean, then? Heavy?”
Muscles shrugs. “Never heard that before.”
“Sounds like something Harry would say,” Blondie snorts. “What was it he was saying this morning about that hat thing he had on? San Laura?”
“Sandlor Aunt, I think,” Muscles says thoughtfully.
Nick fights the urge to stamp his foot. He’d probably just get it animal shittier. “You going to offer to help, then?”
“Nah,” says Blondie, shrugging. “We got roping to get to. Sorry.” Blondie does not look even remotely sorry.
With every power vested in him, Nick glares at their peeling noses, sending waves of vitriol through his irate eyeballs. He forcibly prevents himself from advising Blondie on sun cream brands for his red face, which is one of the rudest things Nick can think of doing. Neither lad appears remotely affected by Nick’s ire. They wave cheerfully like Nick wished them a good afternoon and ride off, possibly to a land with more horse shit waiting, or maybe one with a shower.
Fifteen horrific minutes later, Nick has planned the funeral service for his previously spotless boots, cursed nature and the countryside to a lifetime of Primark denim that disintegrates immediately upon wearing and somehow managed to sweat through his t-shirt, jumper and coat. Glamour.
“What are you wearing?”
Nick’s great-aunt Mildred stands arms akimbo — well, one arm akimbo, as the other is strapped to a navy blue sling — on the porch of her farmhouse, staring Nick down with an incredulous tilt of her worn face. Even her quilted Barbour jacket looks judgmental.
Nick looks down at his fur-trimmed Burberry coat and tartan McQueen trousers. “Clothes?”
“You look absurd.” Mildred shakes her head, turning to retreat into the house. “Well, come on, then. No use wittering on out there.”
The door bangs shut behind her. Known for her hospitality, is Great Auntie Mildred. Nick hauls his luggage up the front steps, wiping his forehead on his shoulder before finagling the door open one-handed. “So you wouldn’t know of a dry cleaner anywhere in the vicinity, would you?” he asks as he dumps his trunk on a worn rug in order to examine the damage wrought on his favourite coat. Well, one of his favourite coats. Nick loves a coat. He’s done about twelve features on best coats for autumn and twenty for winter.
“Scrape it off with your hands,” says Mildred. “Dry cleaned.”
Nick’s mouth forms an impossible vowel shape and he squints in Mildred’s direction, because what.
“None of that, young man. You look like a wilted aubergine.”
“Take that nonsense up to your room, Nicholas. I set you up in the blue room. Dinner’s at six. No need to dress.” Mildred’s mouth tilts in a vague approximation of a smile and she sets her shoulders, pointing at the staircase. “No gaping. You understand English, now, go on.”
Nick has been through far too much trauma to argue. He does as bidden, somehow managing to keep from dropping anything until he reaches the blue room, so called for the monotone decorations, all matching the same azure pattern. Nick imagines that Auntie Mildred’s house must have been very nice sometime in the late 1940s, but seeing as how she hasn’t updated the decor even remotely since, it’s become a bit worse for wear. The pattern of small birds, flowers and ribbons would probably be all right as an accent piece, maybe a throw pillow or border trim, but as it stands — emblazoned all over the wallpaper, curtains and bedspread — Nick feels a bit as though the Secret Garden is suffocating him.
Vodafone comes through for Nick with one sad bar of service, enough to see that Aimee has messaged him. You alive? she’s written, followed by fourteen skulls and a solitary high heel.
It is only the fear of a fortnight of solitude that keeps Nick from chucking his phone out the window in protest, because Aimee is home in London with her stupid boyfriend, not ruining her shoes, not dealing with cranky great aunts, not suffocating under the gaze of hundreds of tiny birds. barely, he types back. Nick does not punctuate his sentence, as he’s not quite cross enough for Aimee to deserve the terse cruelty of a full stop, but he is cross enough to deny her the balm of a mitigating exclamation point.
The ensuite shower runs balls cold, water jolting from the showerhead with the sort of loud, clanking protest Nick feels should be his purview. He bathes as quickly as physically possible, teeth creating an involuntary hip hop beat in his frigid skull.
Shivering and clutching a threadbare monogrammed towel to his goosepimpled chest, Nick stares down the small fireplace and wonders why they don’t all come with on and off switches. His phone buzzes on the bedside table and Nick tugs on the warmest jumper his fingers can reach whilst he gropes for it. Aimee again. Lololol have fun getting rugged. Nick scowls down at the screen and wishes, far from the first time, that there was a middle finger emoji.
Dinner is a stilted affair. Nick tries to charm Mildred a bit but she’s disconcertingly immune, all stoney eyebrow raises and pursed mouth. The chicken is dry. Nick feels about three feet tall by the end, worn down by Mildred’s clear disdain. He wonders what it is — he’s from a less fancy side of the family, maybe, or is it that she knows what he’s been sent here to do? Whatever the reason, Nick doesn’t love it.
As soon as physically possible Nick escapes to his bedroom, shutting the door against the planes of his back. The small birds remain, still frozen mid-flight.
“How are you?” Nick asks them. “Are you well?”
They continue their aborted wing-flaps, forever confined to a hopeless journey. Nick relates. He feels a bit mad. He’s speaking to wallpaper avians. He fishes his phone from his pocket and messages everyone he knows, realising too late that the message — what you up to? — sounds like the booty call of the hopelessly unskilled.
Pixie messages back immediately with a photo of Fabric, which is just nasty of her. You? she writes after, that slag.
Soooo healthy, Nick types, adding an emoji of a tomato to demonstrate his commitment to health. It’s like a spa out here I’m all glowy.
Pix’s message consists entirely of emoji of junk food. Nick huffs, tossing his mobile to the side. He’ll show her. He’ll be so glowy. He’ll be like one of them jellyfish that light up in the dark, only not in a creepy way.
Nick is in bed by half nine, face so moisturised it feels slippery to make expressions. He settles in to the lumpy bed, picturing glowing skin like a very masculine Gemma Arterton.
At half eleven, Nick considers throwing his lumpy mattress out the window. He’s been struggling for hours, trying every conceivable position and angle of the pillows but it’s just so quiet. And dark. Nick hadn’t realised how much light leaked in from the street into his flat until now. He struggles to see his hand in front of him. And no sirens. No car alarms. No drunk people shouting outside his window. It’s bloody unnatural, is what. Normally somebody’s snoring next to him, as well — Aimee or Collette, usually — and this bed is big and cold. He gropes for his mobile, flicking through his contacts by instinct as he can’t really read anything without his glasses.
“I thought you were on a country spa weekend,” Aimee says wryly, when she picks up. Nick can hear people talking around her, loud and rowdy with the clinking of glasses. His stomach twists even more. They better not be having fun without him, those traitors.
“I am,” Nick says, attempting a shirty bluster. “You just don’t respect my commitment to self-improvement.”
“Grim, your New Year’s resolution was to not eat crisps before noon.”
“Two in the afternoon,” Nick corrects sulkily.
“And you lasted a week and a half.”
“Details.” They fall quiet, noise leaking through Aimee’s end and silence through Nick’s. His breath sounds even louder, somehow.
“You okay, babe?” Aimee asks, finally. The noise recedes, a door closing against it.
“I hate the country.” Nick presses his nose into his pillow and speaks half into it. “I want to come home now.”
“Just a few weeks, love. You can suck it up.”
“I know I can,” Nick says, frowning. “Obviously. But I don’t want to.”
“Well,” Aimee drawls, clear as a bell, “Tough titties, darling.”
Aimee is nothing if not a beacon of honesty in a den of liars. Most people tell Nick that they love that pattern and that his draft is so great and then turn around and cut his word-count to twelve without so much as a word, but Aimee comes out and says, ‘you look like an undertaker and not in a good way’ or ‘your sentence structure is complete crap’. It’s a nice change normally, but Nick vaguely wishes he’d phoned someone who would lie to him.
“Tell me about Mildred,” Aimee says, and Nick latches onto the subject with vigour. He falls asleep still clutching his phone, Aimee’s low twang reverberating through his drowsy ear.
Nick has been woken up by cocks before. Big ones, medium ones, hard ones, soft ones, circumcised or uncircumcised: he’s quite accustomed to the phenomenon. Nick has never been woken by a cock like this. A literal, actual rooster, crowing outside of his literal, actual window. Nick groans, pressing the lumpy pillow over his head. Usually, when Nick thinks of the arsecrack of dawn he is thinking of actual arses, not this sickly morning light spilling over his floral bedspread from World War II and keeping him from dreams of central heating.
A sharp rap on the door startles Nick enough that he nearly ejects from the bed. “Breakfast in fifteen,” calls Mildred through the door. “If you’re not downstairs by then you can fend for yourself.”
Nick tugs on the first jumper he can get his hands around and spends a minute and a half deliberating whether it’s worth Mildred’s withering glance to wear tracksuit bottoms downstairs. No, he decides, finally, and wiggles into his jeans.
There’s a plate of scrambled eggs on the worn wood table, but no Auntie Mildreds in sight. Nick shrugs at the empty kitchen and tucks in, because he’s hungry, and also fuck it. If Mildred were anyone else’s Auntie Mildred Nick would probably be more charming right about now, but what is it about family that turns everyone into their fifteen-year-old selves?
“Helloooo,” calls a low, unfamiliar voice, drawing closer with dragging footsteps, “Millie, I brought — oh. You’re not Mildred.”
“Neither are you,” Nick says reflexively, because this boy is definitely not an eighty-five year old pensioner with more chips on her shoulder than the queen has corgis. This boy is all endless legs and red bitten mouth and check shirt unbuttoned nearly to the navel, looking more like an editorial with the tagline Country Boy than an actual, genuine country boy. He’s got all these tattoos, for one, and those jeans can’t possibly be practical.
Country boy grins at him and Nick nearly winces because it’s blinding, all dimples and green eyes. “I’m Harry Styles,” he says, and fumbles around with what he’s carrying until he’s got a hand free to shake. Nick takes it, Harry’s palm warm in his own.
“Nick,” Nick says. “Grimshaw. I’m —”
“Millie’s grand-nephew, I heard.” Harry blushes nearly the same colour red as his lips. “Up from London.”
Harry says London like Nick says sample sale, like it’s a dream and a promise all in one. Nick nods, shoving his hands in his pockets as he looks Harry up and down, as discreetly as he can manage when Harry looks like that. It’s like when model agencies send scouts out to Siberia, Nick thinks distractedly. Harry could be straight out of Models 1. He’d fit in easily with the swarm of pretty young things Nick has sent home in the morning in his scandalous past. That kind of face is incongruous here in Mildred’s homey kitchen, all cheekbones against the red check walls.
Mildred stomps in through the back door, shaking mud off of her wellies. She’s breathing a bit hard for a short walk. Nick wonders if she’s been out far, or if that’s what his mum had meant when she’d told him she’s getting on in years. “I see you two have met, then,” she says crisply, divesting herself of her Barbour with minimal strain, considering one of her arms is immobilised. Beneath, she’s in a shapeless knit behemoth of a jumper which offends Nick on principle. “What do you have for me today, young man?”
Harry opens his canvas bag to show her. Mildred reaches in and pulls out a dirty oblong thing by its grassy stem with her good arm. “Good,” she says, shortly, and Harry beams.
Nick shovels eggs into his mouth and hope no one asks his opinion. He’s got no bloody clue what that hell potato is.
“Right then.” Mildred takes the bag from Harry and dumps it onto the counter.
“Right,” Harry says hesitantly, looking back at Nick. Nick freezes, hoping his cheeks are not frozen mid-chew in a chipmunk style. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around, then. Nick.”
“Yeah, you too,” Nick says nonsensically, only it comes out garbled and eggy. Nick hasn’t had his coffee yet. It seems unfair of the universe to expect him to be witty and flirty on no coffee and a five o’clock cock arising. And not even in a fun way.
Which — okay. Now that’s what Nick is thinking about, as Harry brushes his way past him to leave through the open door, turning to wave before he sets off down the hill.
“Good visibility for the view this morning,” Mildred says, looking out at the stretch of garden and the green field beyond it.
“Uh-huh,” Nick says, eyes tracking Harry’s progress. His jeans, Nick can’t help but notice, are very tight.
Mildred’s Range Rover is ancient and encrusted with mud, which would be fine if it did not also make a rattling sound when Nick turns the engine over. He hasn’t driven a manual since he was seventeen and he finds himself repeating his dad’s instructions as the car eases down the muddy path. If Nick had brought his own car up from London, he’d be able to dictate his will for his oncoming death but as is, he’s forced to do it in his head and hope thoughts can be transmitted from the great beyond.
Nick’s adopted home has, incredibly, absolutely no internet. It’s like the late eighties in there. Not even a shitty wifi spread like Nick’s parents have, or a blue wire you’ve got to connect to your laptop like Nick’s gran — nothing. “I just don’t see the point,” Mildred had sniffed, as Nick did his best to suppress his coronary. “Might be something in town,” she continued, as if Nick were not about to lose what was left of his sad little mind.
The main road is shoddily named, as there is only space for one car across and on a few occasions the trees stick so far out they smack the windshield as he passes. Nick finds himself fighting down minor heart palpitations every time he catches a glimpse of a motor vehicle, as he has no idea how people pass one another on this nonsense lane.
“Half mile down Old Lane,” Nick murmurs to himself, fiddling with the dash until he gets Radio 1, the connection buzzing shoddily, “Left at the fork.”
He ducks his head down for a minute to try to adjust the dial and then looks up to — oh hell, fuck. Nick slams on the brakes, engine groaning in protest, and the Range Rover glides to a stop maybe a metre before a couple of fluffy white beasts.
“Sheep,” he mutters, and glares them down. They seem perfectly happy to idle in the middle of the lane, munching vaguely on the shards of grass that poke through the pressed ground of the road. “Move!” Nick waves his hands at them, flapping fingers to get their attention. “Move, you fluffy fuckers, c’mon!”
Nick slides out of the car and says a silent prayer to the Glasto gods who had protected his Loake Chelsea boots during a particularly wet 2011 festival. “Move, wool beasts!” he calls, flapping his hands at them closer up.
Nick turns to see Harry of the pretty mouth and the tight trousers clomp up behind the fluff monsters, a wide-brimmed felt hat clapped on his head and a warm smile beneath it.
“I thought ‘sheep’ would be too predictable,” Nick says, shrugging in what he hopes is a very cool and mysterious manner.
Harry laughs with his whole face and most of his body, even though Nick hadn’t even been being particularly funny. Nick likes it, more than a little. “I think they’re used to weird names, by now,” Harry says, when he’s finished guffawing.
“Why, what do you call them?”
“Their names, usually. This one is Yves,” Harry says, pointing to the baying thing by his right. “And this is Hugo, and Marc, and Alexander. In front of you is Donatella, Tom, Ralph and Coco. There’s more up ahead, too.”
Nick blinks at Harry, his brain puzzling everything together like a page layout design until it all clicks, and the laugh startles out of Nick’s chest in a burst. “Designers. You named your sheep after fashion designers.”
Harry flushes a pretty red. “Maybe,” he says, and he might blush but Harry doesn’t seem to be the sort of boy to get too embarrassed. He doesn’t look away, just shrugging and smiling with one half of his mouth. “They’re all girls, but. I thought, there can be girls called Hugo.”
Something in Nick’s chest does a little tug, just behind his breast bone. “So these are your wool beasts, then.” Nick surveys the sheep. He’s forgotten completely which one is which, but knowing there’s a sheep named after Donatella Versace out in Cheshire tickles Nick in a way he doesn’t imagine will get old.
“Sort of,” Harry allows, kneeling to pat one of their sides. He sticks his tongue out at the sheep’s long, serious face and then kisses its forehead, as if in apology. “They’re my mum’s proper, but I’ve been looking after them since I was a kid.”
Nick does not want to know how long back Harry was a kid. One year? Two? He is a fetus. A gorgeous, muscular fetus. Which is a very gross descriptor, and Nick vows never to use it again. “They’re very… smelly,” Nick says, and then regrets it, because is it rude to insult the odour of someone’s mum’s sheep?
Harry just nods. “Yep,” he says cheerfully. He looks at Nick again, with that same little shy-knowing smile he’d used in the kitchen. It’s just as devastating in open air as it had been inside. Harry darts a look behind Nick and the expression drops completely, his big eyes going wide. “Oh — sorry, you were driving somewhere. I can move them along, sorry.”
“That’s all right,” Nick says, feeling weirdly disappointed although he had been going somewhere and he did need the sheep to move along across the road. “Yeah, I’ll — thanks, Harry. Have a good time with your sheep.”
Harry grins, big and dimply. “Will do, Nick. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
Nick nods and climbs reluctantly back into the driver’s seat, watching as Harry ushers the animals across the road, wide shoulders flexing under the cloth of his check shirt as he goes. The car starts again, as unpleasantly as before. Harry turns back to wave, holding his hat on against the breeze. Nick waves back, trying not to crash Mildred’s ancient vehicle because he’s too busy ogling the local talent to watch the road.
‘Town’ is a bit of a generous descriptor for what greets Nick when he reaches the target destination of Mildred’s vague directions. There’s a dilapidated village centre and an old church overgrown with moss, a Tudor-style pub and a grocer’s with green shutters. The car park next to the bank has two solitary occupants, and then three, as Nick joins them. It’s the sort of village travel pieces would call ‘quaint’.
Nick spends a dismal half hour in a cafe attempting to send emails with the weak connection, and then another twenty minutes roaming around the village searching in vain for phone signal. Normally Nick chats on the phone whilst he runs errands, or drives, or walks ten minutes to the shop on the corner for cereal and a Mars bar he will regret later. This whole being alone bit is shit, Nick decides.
He’s downright thrilled to see Mildred when he gets back to the house but she does not seem to share the sentiment. She just eats her dinner across the table from him in stoney, one-armed silence like a hungry Renaissance statue until Nick offers to do the washing up just to have something to look at. He goes to bed early.
Something clatters up against Nick’s window, disturbing the unnatural stillness of the room. Nick groans, tossing in the lumpy bed. His window clatters again, demanding.
“Fine,” Nick mutters, rolling out of bed in a tangle of patchwork blanket and floral duvet, taking the burrito contraption to the window with him. He grabs his glasses from the bedside table on the way, thinking perhaps vision would be a skill useful to his life experience. Pushing the thick frames up his nose, Nick peers through the mottled panes to the blackness beyond, startled all over again at how dark it gets out here. Something down below moves a bit, and Nick pushes the window open to crane his neck for a better view.
“Hiiii,” Harry says in a voice like a shout wearing an unconvincing whisper costume, waving his arms up to get Nick’s attention.
Nick can’t help but laugh, clutching the lip of the window. “What are you doing, you muppet? Is this a Taylor Swift song? Do you have a boom box with you?”
“Inviting you to a party!” Harry’s teeth flash in the moonlight. “Come downstairs!”
There’s no chance Nick is attending a party — even one held at near midnight in rural Cheshire — in worn tracksuit bottoms and a massive Dr Dre t-shirt. He just — no. Nick roots through his trunk until he comes up with the Topman jeans that make his legs look incredible and a grey hoodie he would have paired under a blazer had he been in the city. Nick goes for the leather jacket. He figures it’s more rugged — it’s got studs and everything. Studs make the lad, everyone knows that. There’s not much that can be done about his hair, though, or his face, but seeing as Harry has put a lot of effort into throwing rocks at his window like he’s starring in a teen musical, maybe Nick doesn’t have to worry so much about that.
“Hurry up!” Harry calls from outside, his voice shedding the whisper costume entirely.
Nick snorts and leans far enough that he can give Harry the finger out the window whilst he keeps rooting through his weekender for hair product. Harry cannot rush perfection. Or. He cannot rush an approximation of vaguely adequate, anyway.
Fifteen minutes later Nick is easing the back door shut behind him like a guilty teenager, quiet in his Hunter wellies.
“Hi,” Harry says, popping around the corner. He’s got some sort of scarf wrapped around his head, pushing his curls from his eyes, and is wearing nothing short of three check shirts in various levels of undress over his customary skintight jeans. Nick knows, intellectually, that this look is not a good one, but he kind of loves it anyway. “I like your glasses. You look good,” Harry continues, and Nick realises that they’ve been blatantly checking each other out for the last minute and a half. Very dignified.
“You too,” Nick says, moving away from the door in case Auntie Mildred decides to come downstairs for a nightcap.
“Really?” In the low light, Nick can faintly see Harry’s cheeks colour. “You think so?”
“Yeah.” Nick gives Harry the once over again, loving how clearly Harry basks in the attention. Nick and Harry have that in common. “Those are good boots.”
Harry beams. “I ordered them off ASOS,” he says, rolling on the balls of his feet as he checks them out, easing his ankles in and out like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
“So where is it you’re taking me then, stalker? Feel like I’m in sixth form again, sneaking out. Christ.”
“You’ll see,” Harry says. “Just follow me.”
Harry leads Nick down the hill behind the house and stops just beyond the old barn. “We’ll take this up,” he says, straddling one of them four-wheel motorbike type things that everyone out here seems to have.
“What is that?” Nick asks. It’s only polite to know the name of your murderer, Nick feels.
“It’s the quad,” Harry says, looking back over his shoulder at Nick. “It’s an ATV. All-terrain vehicle. Now c’mon, get on.” Harry wiggles his back, which also wiggles his arse where it’s straddled over the seat of the double motorbike death machine. Well played, Styles, Nick thinks wryly, and eases his leg over the back of the vehicle. The tilt of the leather slides their hips flush, leaving Nick pressed up against the expanse of Harry’s back. He’s warm and solid through the layers, a smell sweet and familiar. Nick fights the impulse to bury his face in the nape of Harry’s neck.
“Ready?” Harry asks, a little rough.
Nick hums an affirmative and rests his chin on Harry’s shoulder. He’s pretty sure where tonight’s going. There’s no need for a strained neck this early in the proceedings.
Harry starts the engine and they take off through the field, air biting at Nick’s nose. Nick’s never been one for motorbikes or fast cars but he sees, abruptly, why one might be. The night echoes empty and beautiful around the roar of the quad, cool moonlight blessing knots of trees with silvery crowns that wink as they hurtle past. Nick feels young. He feels eighteen again, flush with hope and possibility, a hint of fear tinging the wide-open field of his future. He finds himself hoping they’ll just drive forever, drive until the sun comes up, drive whilst Nick absorbs the warmth of Harry’s body and the smell of him, the soft skin that brushes Nick’s cheek when they take a turn too quickly.
The quad swoops over a crest and Nick can hear the roar of people, a low beat that sounds like Drake.
“That’s where we’re going!” Harry shouts over the whipping wind, pointing ahead towards a big wood barn strung up with lights like a tree at Christmas.
Harry pulls the quad to an ungainly stop by a cluster of trees and turns back to beam at Nick, cheeks beat red by wind and eyes spark-plug bright. Nick’s chest tightens. He’s known dozens upon dozens of pretty boys, boys with cut-glass cheekbones and jawlines like 1940s movie stars, boys on the cover of GQ, boys with Diesel contracts and six-page spreads in Vogue, but none of them have looked at Nick with this sort of wild, intent joy, like a firework in a bottle. It’s — it’s something else, is what it is. Nick tries to figure out what to do with his hands.
“I should have written my will before that expedition, Harry Styles,” Nick says, in part to save face. His hair is probably ruined at this point. He tries very hard to care.
Harry sticks his tongue out at him. “Fuck off.”
“Where have you taken me, then?” Nick reluctantly slides from the death machine, bracing himself unnecessarily on Harry’s shoulders. “As you’ve so ruthlessly staged a kidnapping.”
“My friend Alex’s parents are out of town,” Harry says, dismounting and shaking out his bedraggled quiff. “She always throws the best parties. You want to come in?”
“Well, you have stranded me here,” Nick says tartly, but he can’t help but sling an arm over Harry’s shoulders. “Go on, then. Let’s witness some rural debauchery.”
People spill from the open barn doors over half the field, a hoard of loose-fit denim tucked into boots, making Nick wish faintly for Pixie or someone else with good bitch face to validate his disgust. He’d text, only apparently his phone has lost all signal. Everyone seems well on their way to fucked, stumbling clutching plastic cups. The sweet stench of pot wafts through from a cluster of trees. It’s all very sixth form, although the people look firmly in their twenties, thankfully.
“What d’you like to drink?” Harry asks, still under Nick’s arm. “I mean… It’s probably nothing too fancy, here but there’s beer, and some liquor, and —”
“Anything fermented,” Nick says firmly. “Just take me to the alcohol, Harold. I’ve been far too healthy this week; it’s unnatural.”
Harry leads him up to a beat up blue four-door something, leaving the circle of Nick’s arm to give a baby-faced blond boy a quick hug. It’s Irish, from the field and the heartless abandonment of Nick’s boots. He’s not so tall on the ground, and his roots are dark, revealing a homemade bleach job up above. “Hiya, Niall,” Harry says. “What d’you have on offer?”
Irish — Niall, in an oversized blue hoodie and jeans with more rips than fabric — grins toothily and unhooks the boot. “Have a look,” he says.
“Niall’s been supplying the alcohol since he moved here,” Harry says, jostling Nick’s side. “Back when we were seventeen. Used to skim off the top of his parents’ everything and put it in Ribena bottles he kept in his car.”
“Still do,” Niall says, with an unrepentant shrug. “Though I do more’n all clear liquid together, these days. Bit too many gin-tequila-vodka disasters.”
Niall’s car features a wooden plank he hauls out and sets atop the boot, lining up plastic bottles with day-glo labels next to cans of fizzy drink and half-empty canisters of juice. Nick has to admire his ingenuity.
“Niall does custom drinks,” Harry explains. “If you want something specific you’d have to go inside.”
Nick tilts his head at Niall. He stares back, one eyebrow cocked like a challenge. “I never make the same thing twice,” Niall says. “’S too fucking boring that way.”
Harry requests “something blue” and Niall gets to work, slinging bottles like a born bartender, mixing a concoction that is both blue and delicately fragrant. He somehow unearths a lime from the depths of his car and peels a twist from the rind with a swipe of a pocket knife.
“Impressive,” Nick says, peering over Niall’s shoulder at his supplies. “It’s a proper spread, here! Get you in Shoreditch and this’d pull in fifty-pound tips for the novelty.”
“I like to bring booze to the people.”
“A worthy cause,” Nick says, bumping against Niall’s shoulder companionably. “Now, how does this work, usually? Do people always give colours?”
“Colours, adjectives, tastes…” Niall shrugs. “Throw an idea at me.”
“Pink,” Nick says immediately, and Niall is a flurry of mixing until he hands him a cup and says, “Enjoy.”
The drink is sweet and strong and the music loud. Harry knows everybody, which Nick supposes makes sense, seeing as if this is the entire youth population of the county it might be genuinely difficult to not know someone’s name. Harry’s a fun drunk, loud and tactile and growing ever closer to Nick with each of Niall’s mystery drinks, all smug like he’s very smooth. After the slick practised pulling of the city, Nick can’t say Harry’s clumsy charm isn’t refreshing.
“You treat him right, city boy,” boot-bar Niall says when Nick pays pilgrimage to his car bar with empty cups.
“And here I thought we had developed a bond, boot-bar Niall!” Nick does his most charming smile, and his most limpid of eyes. “How could you think ill of me, after all our bonding?”
Niall’s mouth twitches but he fights it valiantly, pouring liquor with steady hands. “You’re just like he is,” he says finally, pressing a finished cup into Nick’s hand and then starting on the other one. “But he’s ours first, mind. He’s been pulling charm offensives at us for years now; that’s got no contest to a few hours.”
“So you think I’m charming?” Nick asks, delighted. “Boot-bar Niall, you and I will have a beautiful future together.”
“Don’t go on about it.” Niall presses the next drink into his hand and then fixes his light eyes on him like he’d rather like to pin him to corkboard. “He’s sensitive, our Harry. You be nice to him.”
“I’m a nice person,” Nick protests, mouth tilting down at the thought of it. Nick hates it when people don’t like him. It feels all awful, all sinky and horrible in his chest. People on Twitter and that always think he’s not a nice person and Nick doesn’t take it too personally, but it feels weird and sad and different here, in front of boot-bar Niall and his old Ribena bottles of unnamed liquor.
“Good,” Niall says. He kicks Nick’s foot with his worn trainer. “Go on, he’ll be waiting.”
Niall smiles at him and Nick takes it in, hoping it’s genuine. He finds Harry in the barn, chatting enthusiastically with Muscles, who is apparently called Liam. Nick thinks Muscles is a far more creative moniker.
“Hi,” Harry says, taking his drink. He blinks at Nick, something working in his high forehead. “Y’all right?”
“Just fine, me,” Nick says airily, waving a hand aside. “Your friends are very protective, young Harold.”
Harry frowns. “They shouldn’t worry so much. I can take care of myself.”
Muscles pinches Harry’s cheek. “Yeah, all right, Haz. You nearly were sliced in half by a thresher this morning.”
Nick hasn’t the faintest what a thresher is. He imagines it must be violent.
Harry wrinkles his nose. “That was fine.”
“And Louis keeps you from getting hit by the sprayer about twice a week.”
“Coincidence,” Harry says.
“Not even getting started on the straw shredder.” Muscles shakes his head ruefully. “We all know how that worked out.”
Harry’s face is starting to darken around the temples, but Muscles doesn’t seem to notice the change in facial weather. He opens his mouth to add something else, probably a cheerful recounting of some form of gigantic dagger hacker or whatever they do out here, Nick doesn’t know.
“I’ve got no bloody clue what any of those things are,” Nick says, before he can get the chance. “But last week I popped a bit of toast in and the toaster went up on fire.”
“Bicarbonate of soda,” says Muscles immediately, his eyes latching onto Nick like Puppy does when she wants Nick to throw the ball again. “That’s always the best for an electrical fire, if you haven’t an extinguisher.”
“Were you okay?” asks Harry, looking a bit more anxious than he needs to, seeing as Nick is presently standing in front of him with all his hair and eyebrows intact.
“Oh, fine,” Nick says. “I had a little google on my phone — ‘help! Toaster on fire!’ — and learned about no water, which seems weird, and bicarbonate of soda but I didn’t have bicarbonate of soda, and I don’t bloody know what it is either — ‘some sort of Diet Coke for bread?’ I wondered, staring as my toaster went up in flame — so I unplugged it and went to bang on my neighbour’s door asking for fizzy drink you use in cakes and that. Got back in; no fire. Gone. Poof.”
Harry hiccups into laughter, bending over in half as he wheezes into his knees. Muscles shakes his head, looking at Nick in a way that Nick finds tremendously familiar: about two parts bemusement, one part exasperation and a pinch of incredulous indulgence. Nick grins, satisfied.
After a few hours of chat and one of extremely awkward line dancing, Harry tugs Nick away from the dance floor and out back. Nick follows, laughing and protesting like he doesn’t know exactly what game Harry’s playing because when Harry is determined he gets this scrunchy little face Nick would like to see more of. Harry pulls him around until they’re up against the tall wood of the barn, looking out into the stretch of field they’d ridden in on. Well, Nick assumes. All field still seems roughly the same, at this point. Bit of mud, a few scraggly trees. Occasional sheep. Incidental cow.
“So,” Harry says, leaning his head back to eye Nick, lips dark in the moonlight, far more interesting than any field could even hope to aspire to be.
“So,” Nick says, inching closer. He looks down at Harry’s mouth and then up at his eyes again, savouring the way Harry’s face flickers. Harry’s a good reactor. Nick likes that in a person. “Good party.”
“Yeah,” Harry murmurs, looking below Nick’s eyes. They’re close, now, shoulders pressed together and faces a handspan apart. Nick feels that pleasant electric tug of anticipation in his belly, pulling him inexorably towards Harry’s body. The moment stretches thin as silk. Nick wets his lips with his tongue and Harry darts forward, presses their lips together. Nick steadies him at the back of the neck and licks his mouth open, hot and demanding. Harry’s eager, hands tugging at Nick’s clothes as he nips at Nick’s lips. Nick wonders how many chances Harry has had to do this. Small town like this probably doesn’t have much by way of burgeoning gay scene, but Harry’s hands don’t hesitate to slide over Nick’s arse and squeeze.
“Please don’t tell me you live with your parents,” Nick says, pulling away from Harry’s mouth to pant into the cool air. “We cannot take this to Mildred’s; I would actually be murdered mid-orgasm. The little death, literally.”
Harry laughs, a little breathy, which soothes Nick’s sudden anxiety that he’d been presumptuous with his talk of orgasms and interior horizontal spaces. Harry hasn’t exactly been discreet with his seduction plan, but one never knows. “Sort of. I live out back. My sister and I have the old barn to ourselves.”
“And your sister has a startling assortment of earplugs, or a job which keeps her far away from home for extended periods?” Nick asks hopefully, eyes trained to the red of Harry’s swollen mouth.
“No,” Harry says, “But she is over there.” Harry turns to wave at a long-haired girl leaning against a big tractor-y thing chatting to somebody blond. She waves back with her tongue stuck out, the waggle of her eyebrows visible across the field. “So I think she’ll know to kip at a friend’s.”
Nick hopes Harry’s sister is not the protective type. Nick waves as well, hopefully communicating respectable sexual partner and not will fuck your brother in your bed and then eat the last of your leftover takeaway and put the box back in the fridge like I didn’t.
“You want to go?” Harry asks, looking back at Nick.
“Yes,” Nick says immediately, so fast that Harry laughs light as champagne bubbles and hauls him towards the cluster of mud-splattered ATVs that litter the space.
Harry drives the quad through another field, holding Nick’s arms in place around his stomach. Nick’s fairly sure they’re breaking some form of law or another, given how many blue drinks are currently coursing through Harry’s rustic bloodstream, but who knows if they even have police here and Nick is far too old to sleep on a stranger’s sofa, let alone fuck some cute farmboy in a muddy field. Nick keeps his eyes shut and face pressed to Harry’s shoulder, making many promises to his stomach that he will allow puking to occur when he is in the privacy of the toilet, but not before.
Nick doesn’t know how long they drive, only opening his eyes when the rumble of paving stone starts to jostle his nose against Harry’s shirt. They pull up the drive to a red brick house with white shutters and pass it, coasting towards a squat building behind. It’s done in the same brick with an empty trellis propped up against the front, all windows dark.
“This is it,” Harry says, waiting for Nick to manoeuvre himself off before dismounting himself. “’S nothing special, but.” He shrugs, leaning down to pick a bit of mud off of his boot.
“It’s nice,” Nick says, leaning back to take it in. Beyond the little house he can make out moonlit roofs of other buildings, long columns of metal. “Rustic. Like a postcard! Or a Hunter advert, all roaring fires and distressed wellies.”
The front door — wider and lower than doors Nick is accustomed to, prompting him to duck unnecessarily like he’s boarding a helicopter — isn’t locked, and Harry just swings it open and pulls Nick through, pressing him up against the wall. Nick can see a galley kitchen behind Harry’s head, a little sitting room and a lofted overhang with two rough-hewn doors, which Nick assumes belong to Harry and his sister.
“Admiring my interior decoration?” Harry asks, wry.
“I take an interest,” Nick says staunchly, tugging the loop of Harry’s jeans in protest. “It’s a perfectly respectable pastime.”
Harry bites his lip, looking down past Nick to the wood floor. “Our grandparents were meant to take the barn but they like the big house better. It’s not much, really, but Gem and I did our best.”
Admittedly, Nick would have done quite a few things differently with the space — he’s in a perpetual war against overhead lighting, for one thing, and the posters aren’t framed — but something about the house sits just right in his solar plexus. “Ooh, I like your throw pillows,” Nick says, leaning over to get a better view of the sofa. “Nice patterns, them.”
A light flicks on behind Harry’s green eyes, bright as headlights and Nick wonders whether people ever get used to that face. Surely after a certain point one must become desensitised, right? Otherwise no one would get bloody anything done, forever losing the power of speech and the remembrance of legs. “Thanks,” Harry says, all life-ruin-y and gorgeous, “Made them meself!”
“Crafty.” Nick pulls Harry close again, the long line of his body coming easy. “Good with your hands, then?”
It’s so cheesy Nick could single-handedly cater a wine party, but the uninspired comment seems to work fine as Harry’s eyes go darker and he juts his hips so they knock bonily against Nick’s. Bit too much hipbone between them, Nick thinks, but Harry’s got some nice softness around the sides where Nick can dig his hands in and feel.
“Want to show me your bedroom?”
Harry doesn’t turn the light on when they stumble through the door so Nick is forced to map his body with hands and teeth and tongue, divesting him of those damnable check shirts as fast as his fingers can fly. Harry’s tattoos are dark smudges, blurry like Nick’s trying to read without his glasses. There are loads of them: a splotch of black on his belly, smaller ones up by his collarbone, a dusting over both arms. A veritable art project. Nick might not be able to see Harry clearly, but he can feel the divots of his muscular stomach, the softness of his skin resting over the tense flesh. Harry, Nick is pleased to note, runs loud, gasping out breaths every time Nick twists a nipple or bites hard at his plump lower lip. Nick loves to show off and he loves an appreciative audience, taking every choking moan as a personal compliment to his ability.
It doesn’t hurt that Harry appears to be giving him a standing ovation, as well.
“You done this before?” Nick asks, edging his fingers past the elasticated band of Harry’s pants.
“Done what?” Harry croaks, raspy like a two-pack-a-day smoker. “Snogged a bit?”
“Cheeky,” Nick says, then pushes Harry’s pants over his bum and hooks a foot in to lever them off completely. Harry’s starkers now, a body Nick can see faintly in moonlight against his own. Nick’s still got his shirt and pants on but Harry’s skin feels incredible against his, warm and lit-up from the way their legs twine together, skinny coarse limbs catching on each other as they search for friction. Nick leans down to bite at Harry’s neck, sucking the salty skin into his mouth and — oh. Harry’s cock finds purchase in the space between Nick’s hip and the jut of his belly, the hot wet tip pressing beneath Nick’s shirt against the skin of Nick’s stomach.
“A bit,” Harry says, breathy, and it takes Nick a good fifteen seconds to source out what he’s responding to. “Like, with girls, yeah, and a little bit with blokes.”
“A little bit?” Nick asks, teasing. He ghosts his fingertips from Harry’s back to his fleshy hip, palming the soft globe of his arse before circling around to stroke lightly at Harry’s cock. Nick can’t see it too well but he can tell it’s nice, thick and long and soft feeling. Good in his hand. Satisfying. It’s been weeks since Nick’s had a nice prick that wasn’t his in hand, or anyplace else for that matter.
Harry makes a little noise in the back of his throat like he’s choked on summat. “Yeah,” he agrees, hips arching up.
Fuck, but Nick likes this. He likes the slick full feeling of a cock in his grip, the warm smell of Harry’s skin and the taste of him, tart and alcoholic in his mouth. He presses them closer together, pumping his hand as he captures Harry’s mouth again. They kiss slow, in contrast to the helpless needy noises that escape Harry’s lips with every breath, but thorough. Nick’s lips feel sore but he keeps going, Harry’s hands twisting helplessly in Nick’s hair as they bite and nip and suck.
Ooh, suck. Now there’s a nice idea.
“Want me to suck you off?”
Harry chokes again, liquid and gurgley. “Yes, please.”
“Someone’s mother raised them right,” says Nick, sliding back onto his knees.
“Don’t talk about mums that close to my prick,” Harry whines, splayed out in front of Nick like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Fine, fine,” Nick sighs, settling between Harry’s thighs. “All business, Styles.” Nick slides his mouth over the heat of him, musky and thick on his tongue. Nothing about this trip has been natural for Nick, between all the kids with the cowboy boots to Mildred’s balls-cold house, but this — this is familiar. This is territory with which Nick is quite companionable. The breathy whine from Harry is highly gratifying; the buck of his hips isn’t as much. “Rude,” Nick tells him, coming up enough to get his breath. “Keep still.”
Harry’s okay turns into a groan as Nick goes back down again, showing off a bit because he likes the noises Harry makes. Normally Nick’s not the one on his knees during his hookups — not that either of them are, here — but something about the night makes him like this. He likes Harry’s devoted attention, for one. Some blokes go to so much trouble to keep quiet that Nick might as well not even be there. Harry sounds constantly at the edge of coming, whiny and begging with dazed green eyes that haven’t left Nick’s face for more than ten seconds since he took him into his mouth.
Why do they keep boys like this all the way out here? Nick wonders, Harry spurting a steady stream of bitter precome over his tongue.
“Nick,” Harry gasps, syllable strung out and hoarse. “Nick — Nick, I’m gonna—”
Nick squeezes Harry’s thighs and goes deeper, eyes fixed on Harry’s. This seems to be enough — Harry groans ridiculously, in a way that would be hysterical if it weren’t so desperately hot, and his head snaps back. He spills into Nick’s mouth, more than Nick can swallow efficiently and he’s forced to pull off, still stroking Harry through it.
“Holy shit,” Harry breathes, as Nick makes his way back up his body. “Holy shit.”
All the way out here, Nick thinks, pressing a kiss to the corner of Harry’s lax mouth. Where clearly no one knows how to do a blowjob correctly. Such a waste.
Nick’s ready to pull himself off but Harry knocks his hand away. It’s — oddly intense, for a handie. Their foreheads press together over the pillow, panting into each others’ mouths whilst Harry twists and moves over Nick’s cock. His eyes are wide and fixed, going smug and happy every time Nick’s breath catches in his throat. Harry speeds up and Nick groans, low, pressing closer to the sweaty warmth of Harry’s naked skin and he wonders if Harry’d let Nick fuck him later, or if he’d want to fuck Nick, pressing into him with that intent stare like he’s learning, like he wants an A*.
“’S it good?” Harry mumbles, lips grazing over Nick’s.
“Yeah,” Nick chokes, curling up into Harry again, capturing his mouth. “Yeah, yeah — just — keep — Oh.”He squeezes his eyes shut and lets the wave pull him under, bright and hot. Harry strokes him through it, kissing him until he’s pliant and sleepy.
They lie panting in the quiet room. Harry’s a cuddler, which suits Nick fine as so is he. Nick slides his glasses off and sits them atop a stack of books on Harry’s bedside table. Harry uses the opportunity to twine himself even more around Nick’s back, arms thick and solid over Nick’s ribcage.
“I like t’be big spoon,” Harry rumbles, face pressed to the back of Nick’s neck.
“Works for me,” Nick says, burrowing down into the bed. He feels good, bookended by breathing boy. Nick hadn’t realised how lonely he’d been the last few nights until now, all the tension seeping from his chest. Except —
“Mm-hm,” Harry hums, nuzzling deeper.
“Don’t —” Nick pauses, wondering how to explain hey so please don’t let me wake up alone or I will have an actual panic attack and possibly get snot all over your duvet without sounding like a psychopath.
“Don’t what?” Harry’s voice slurs all the words together into one vowel-y inquiry.
“I… If you go someplace, in the morning,” Nick says carefully, twisting the duvet over his fist, “Wake me up first and let me know, okay? Just. I need to know where you’ve gone. I, uh. I don’t like it if I wake up and someone’s not there.”
Harry’s arms tighten around him, his breath hot against Nick’s hairline. “Yeah, okay,” he says, and Nick waits for Harry to ask him why, or for the joke that inevitably follows that request, but it doesn’t come.
Nick expects the cock crowing the next morning, all cock-a-doodle-fuck you, ear-splitting and unrelenting like a sentient feathered car alarm. Still, Nick feels significantly less stroppy about it this go round. The indignity is undercut somewhat by the actual cock attached to an actual human next to him. Harry doesn’t even seem to hear the fowl battle-cry, only giving a little groan as he entwines himself further into the duvet, curling himself around Nick’s heat.
He looks young like this. Tan skin and red mouth half-open, snoring lightly like Puppy does in her sleep. His quiff curls soft over his forehead. What are you doing here, Nick wonders again, stroking hair back from his skin. Someone like Harry ought to be getting in trouble in the big city, meeting scads of people and getting looked at as much as possible. What is he doing in this muddy village, tramping around behind sheep like an editorial spread come to life?
The rooster quiets. It takes Nick a moment to realise what’s odd, then — instead of absolute, godawful silence but for the tweeting of cartoon birds, Harry’s window lets in the sound of distant metal, whirring and clanging not dissimilar to when one of the houses down the street from Nick put in an addition at the back and everyone hated them for six months. Well, Nick hated them for six months, as he’d woken every morning hungover to the sound of drills that could as well had been driving through the actual casing of his skull. He’s surprisingly not hungover this morning. Boot bar Niall deserves a fruit basket.
Nick squirms himself semi-upright and rubs his eyes, sliding his glasses up his nose. Harry’s bedroom comes into focus, the low ceiling and wood floors spread with colourful threadbare rugs. The space is small, bright and cluttered, with a mountain of shirts slung over Harry’s chair and scraps of fabric piled up on his desk alongside a sewing machine and a few pairs of scissors. Nick finds himself improbably charmed, and extracts himself from Harry’s octopus limbs to get a better look.
The sewing machine is a bad model, Nick can tell immediately. He may not be a designer, but living with Henry’s compulsions for so long taught him the difference between bobbins and loopers. Harry’s machine is battered with age and use, the presser missing a leg. Nick pokes at it for a second. His expertise stops at knowing the names, though, so there’s not much to be done. A stack of magazines topple into the wall, torn edges of scrap pages piled up in between each issue. He flips through an old Grazia, which must be from the mid-oughts, judging by the celebrities inside. Lauren Conrad? Is she still on? He replaces it, fishes out a stack of tear-outs to flip through. It’s mostly men in boots and fitted coats, a lot of Saint Laurent and Burberry, but near the back —
Nick can’t help but let the laugh escape his chest, wheezing through his lungs. He pieces through and, yep — about ten pages of Alexa. Alexa in denim; Alexa in leather shorts; Alexa and Pixie papped out on the street someplace. Nick frowns. He’d been there that day, but he’s cut out of the photograph entirely. Rude.
A choking cough behind him prompts Nick to turn, seeing Harry rise from the duvet like some sort of damnable mermaid, all chest and obscured legs. Tail. Whatever. He looks really good, anyway. Enough to make plenty of sailors sink their ships for want of that red mouth, at least.
“Fancy her a bit?” Nick asks, waving the Alexa collection at Harry, grinning. “Don’t much blame you; she’s a hell of a woman.”
“Uh, no. Not that she’s — I mean, she’s gorgeous, but.” Harry coughs again, face tinged pink. “I just like her clothes, ’s all.”
“She’d love that,” Nick says honestly, and keeps flipping through. “This is one of my favourite outfits of hers,” he continues, pointing to the page and realises — “Oh. That’s me.”
“Um,” Harry says. “Yep.”
“So you knew who I was, then?” Nick looks up at Harry, loving it a bit more than he possibly should. You know, morally. Not that Nick is particularly renowned for morals, but. Point remains.
“Maybe.” Harry’s mouth twitches into a wicked little smile.
“Hm,” Nick says, putting the pages back and returning to the bed, pressing Harry down onto the blankets. “You using me to get to young Alexa, then? Going to nick her number off me when I’m in the shower?”
Harry shakes his head. “I’ve got all your articles,” he admits, and every nerve in Nick’s body goes tingly because that’s the dream of every writer, isn’t it? Even some fake writer like him, who does a silly fashion programme for the telly and knocks out a few pages a month about A$AP Rocky’s trainers — that’s a bit the dream, innit? Some sweet boy with eyes like shards of an absinthe bottle, smiling and telling you he loves what you do. It’s a trip, anyway, the sort of thing that makes Nick look frantically for the catch. Maybe Harry keeps Nick’s articles for the horror of them. Or he really likes A$AP Rocky, or he’s a hoarder like off that show and has cupboards filled with scrap paper he can’t bear to part with.
“Oh?” Nick says, trying not to sound as pleased as he feels.
“Mm-hm.” Harry leans up to capture Nick’s mouth for a minute, lingering over the skin before pulling back. “I subscribe to your magazine and everything.”
“You and five of your closest mates,” Nick says reflexively, the joke about their dwindling print sales always close at hand.
“I watched your show, as well. That — the one on Channel 4. And the new one, as well.”
“You watched that? That was rubbish.” Nick rolls to his side to give his arms a break, twining his legs with Harry’s as he turns.
Harry shrugs. “I thought it was all right.”
Nick feels a bit like helium, sort of gassy and transparent and floating on the ceiling someplace. He shakes his head. “It wasn’t. It was rubbish. But it’s sweet of you to say so.”
“I don’t say things I don’t mean.” Harry’s face is perfectly still, eyes wide and guileless.
In London, saying things you don’t mean is basically a religion, and the fashion world is the bloody Vatican. Nick’s coworkers are all cardinals. Nick is on his way to a respectable high priesthood, but only because he’s practised a lot in the mirror.
“You are something else, Harry Styles,” Nick says, as honest as he can manage.
Harry slides a hand to the back of Nick’s neck and brings him down to kiss him, their lips moving soft over each other. It’s a sweet kiss, chaste, and enough to make Nick feel slightly overwhelmed and of the mind to run a marathon to someplace not here. Nick licks Harry’s mouth open, makes it as dirty as he can to shove those strange soft thoughts out of his whirring brain. Things are starting to get interesting — Harry is hard against Nick’s hip and making those breathy sounds Nick can’t get enough of — when the forbidding clomp of sensible outdoor footwear clatters through the house.
“Haz!” calls a woman’s voice, “Harry!”
Nick and Harry break apart with a wet sound. “My mum,” Harry says, smiling like that’s meant to be a relief but — in what world is that a relief? Nick loves meeting peoples’ parents and has nearly all of his mates’ mums’ numbers but there is a massive difference in tagging along for lunch at Momo or a bit of shopping and making pleasantries with Mummy whilst still covered in her dear son’s come.
Terror must be written plain over Nick’s face because Harry laughs, pushing at Nick’s chest until he rolls onto his back, head lolling against the pillows. “I’ll go see, you can stay here.”
Harry scrambles out of bed and Nick hopes his mum doesn’t have x-ray vision because the view is outstanding. Last night’s tactile exploration has nothing on the reality of Harry’s body, his wide shoulders and narrow little waist, the pert little bum disappearing into little black pants. He’s got no tattoos on his back, which looks almost naked compared to the full on art exhibition decorating his front. Harry shoots him a little smile over his shoulder, all pink and pleased with himself. Nick tries not to like it too much. Little shit.
The rumble of voices is too quiet to fully suss out, so Nick’s hopes of eavesdropping are for naught. Nick locates his mobile in the pocket of his jeans — no messages, nor signal — and fishes around for his clothes. He peers at himself in Harry’s full-length mirror, propped up against the wall with a sort of floral painting overlay covering part of it. I look like a potato, he thinks, poking at his too-large forehead. Or an aubergine. Some form of root vegetable. They’d harvest me. Nick has, at this point in his life, resigned himself to a life of potato-faced mediocrity, hoping that if he dresses well enough no one will notice. Maybe if his hair is good. This morning, after multiple coif-murdering quad rides, a party and some lovely sexual activity, Nick’s hair is not good.
Nick hunts through Harry’s dressing table for hair product, lingering over the tiny sample tubes of cologne with amusement. With a metallic squawk, the door sounds again.
“You’re very nosy,” Harry says, but he doesn’t sound even a little annoyed about it.
Nick shrugs. “I prefer to think of it as I am an excellent researcher.” He grabs a handful of perfume samples from a little silver tray and fiddles through them. “Quite the highbrow taste, here, Styles. Gucci. Dolce. YSL. Ooh, Versace, I love this one. How’d you get all this, anyhow?”
“Gem gives me her Sephora extras,” Harry says, and Nick’s face does that sort of collapse again, hopelessly endeared. This kid.
“So what did your mum want?” Nick asks, carefully putting all the perfume samples back in their tray.
“Farm stuff.” Harry comes up behind him, pressing his cold nose to Nick’s neck. “Want brekkie? Could do you some eggs.”
“Coffee?” Nick asks hopefully.
Harry hums an agreement, and leads Nick out of the bedroom. In the daylight, Harry’s little barn is small, a bit cramped but bright. The lounge can only fit a two-seater sofa and a wing-back armchair, all scattered with Harry’s homemade throw pillows which, Nick can see clearly, are as charming and nicely patterned as they were the night before. Thick wood posts brace the ceiling and on one is tacked a little whiteboard covered in notes — get eggs, says one, You are a carrot!!!, informs another — and the back of galley kitchen features two built-in benches with a narrow table between them. Nick turns to claim a seat there but Harry walks right past it, to the door where he slides on his boots.
“Kitchen?” Nick asks dumbly, motioning back towards it.
“No food,” Harry says. “Get your shoes on, c’mon.”
Nick does as asked and follows Harry out the door. Last night he didn’t get the full effect of the view. It’s something else in the clear morning: Harry’s farm sits on a slight rise, encircled by green fields punctuated with narrow metal-topped buildings that look a bit like warehouses. A few old-school stone barns with mossy roofs sit near them, fenced in from pastures scattered with cows. “I thought you did sheep,” Nick says, craning his neck to get a view of them. “Those are… probably not sheep. Unless they’re a new, particularly cow-like breed.”
“We’re mostly a dairy farm. We do milk and cheese, but we keep the sheep on the side, as well.” Harry tromps around a puddle, nearly tripping into it. “Most farms have to diversify, these days. It’s a tough market.”
Nick frowns. “Just dairy? I’m lactose intolerant. Can’t be lactose intolerant on a dairy farm, I don’t think. There’s got to be milk in the air, right? Bit of cheese on the leaves? Should I be worried?”
“Oh no.” Harry gapes at him, stopping short by a bale of hay. “Should probably just give up now, mate. You’ll be…” A grin overtakes Harry’s face like it’s conquering the hinterlands. “Lactoast.”
Nick bursts out laughing, holding a hand to his mouth. “Oh my god,” he groans. “That’s awful.”
Harry laughs, kicking out at Nick’s leg. “It’s a moot point!” he cries, and Nick shrieks and dodges the blow, shouting something about very high quality denim. They bat at each other like kids for a minute until Harry breaks away, laughing. “Anyway, we’ll eat at the big house,” he says, pushing his shoulder against Nick’s. He stumbles up to a back door and pushes through — unlocked, again, which continues to weird the fuck out of Nick — to a wide kitchen, green and yellow tiles and a big island in the middle.
The girl from last night sits at the centre island, eating cereal and paging through a book. “Hiya,” she says. She looks like Harry, dimples and smooth skin but her mouth has a distinctly wicked tilt. “Who’s this, then?”
“Nick, this is my sister, Gemma,” Harry mumbles, shifting from foot to foot. “Gem, this is Nick.”
“Is it now,” Gemma drawls, punctuating with another spoonful of cereal. “Nick, you say.”
“Shut up,” Harry says, the back of his neck all red. He flicks at Gemma’s head, dodging her retribution. “D’you want eggs? Or I could do you a bacon sandwich?”
“Trying to sell you his pork already?” asks Gemma tartly, which makes Nick snort as he nods agreement. He likes her already. He likes Harry too. It’s a whole lot of liking for the kitchen, really, and far too much for before he’s had any coffee. Downright unnatural.
“And here I thought you just had cows ’n wool beasts,” Nick sighs, hand to his heart. “There’s so much I’ve been misinformed on.” He pulls a stool up next to Gemma, peering over at her book. The Economics of Organic, it reads over the chapter text.
“We also have chickens,” Gemma tells him, turning a page.
“I’ll do you one too, Gem,” Harry says as he clatters around the kitchen, procuring pans and loaves and packets of things Nick didn’t think were necessary for a basic bacon butty. “Even though you don’t deserve it.”
“That looks intense,” Nick says, pointing at Gemma’s book. “Look at that tiny print. You know it’s serious when it’s got tiny print. None of this fourteen point, wide-spaced malarky. This book means business.”
Gemma laughs easy, like Harry does. “Well, literally. It’s an econ book. We’re trying to —”
“Has Mum come in yet?” Harry interrupts, lighting the hob and banging a frying pan over it.
Gemma shakes her head. “Out there with the lads getting the cows done.”
Most of the things Nick generally hears getting done are nails, hair and food. He doesn’t suppose his mental image of Harry’s mum painting the hooves of a large heifer are quite accurate.
“I’ll do her one too,” Harry decides, and the thick smell of bacon starts to fill the room.
Harry’s halfway through a long story about the time he tried to raise a piglet when he was fourteen when an older woman comes through the back door, stomping her Wellington boots on the mat to shake off some of the loose dirt. The woman could only be Harry’s mum, with her wide welcoming face. “Smells lovely in here,” she says, and then looks up to see Nick. Nick tenses, just on instinct.
“Who’s your guest?” Anne asks, beaming. She and Gemma are darting devious looks at each other.
“This is Nick,” Harry says, red as strawberries in summer. “Nick, this is my mum, Anne.”
Nick gets the very strong impression there is a joke here he is missing out on. “Hiya,” he says, and puts his hand out to shake.
“Lovely to meet you,” Anne says. “Wish I could stay and chat, but I actually came in here for my son — Haz, I think one of the ewes is about to lamb.”
“Oh — yeah, all right.” Harry wipes his hands and switches off the hob. “This’ll just be a bit, I mean — I’ll be back in a few.”
“It’s fine,” Nick says, holding up his hands because Harry’s playing attentive host like it’s a contest with a cash prize at the end. “I can fend for myself a bit. Though you probably shouldn’t leave me in charge of the food. The last thing I cooked was a frozen pizza.” He considers that for a moment, as “cook” is sort of a generous descriptor for what happened. “I may have burnt it,” he allows, and Harry barks a laugh.
“Don’t you touch the bacon, then. I’ll be right back.” Harry and his mother disappear through the door, talking about something sheep-y, probably, all words Nick does not find familiar.
“What’s it mean when summat lambs, then?” Nick asks Gemma, picturing — well, kabobs, if he’s honest.
“Means the sheep are all giving birth.” Gemma slides off her stool and goes to pour herself another cup of coffee. She offers the pot to Nick, and he nods. A moment later Gemma passes him a steaming mug, white with a cartoon on the side of a coffee bean with legs and a top-hat. How you bean? it says, in script. Nick snorts.
“That’s one of Harry’s,” Gemma says, indicating the mug. “Weirdo.” She smiles fondly. Nick grins back. He likes older sisters, as a rule. They’re a good addition to one’s life, he feels. Keep your head from getting too big, and that.
“I like your barn,” Nick tells her, blowing a bit on the liquid.
“Thanks, it’s good, isn’t it? My grand-dad built it when my mum was a kid. Mostly Harry did the decorations and all those bits and bobs. He loves that sort of thing.”
“He told me he made the throw pillows,” Nick remembers, and Gemma smiles.
“Yeah, he’s always doing stuff like that. Used some of my mum’s old dresses, I think. He thought they looked like a Liberty print.”
“Love Liberty, me,” Nick enthuses, and then nearly burns himself to death on caffeinated beverage.
Gemma snorts. “Graceful.”
“I’m a ballerina of hot liquids, Gemma,” Nick says with great and misguided dignity as he tries again more gingerly.
Gemma is easy to talk to, which is handy as Harry is not back in a few. Nick has two cups of coffee and learns that the big house is home to Anne and Harry’s grandparents, and that they do specialty organic milk and cheese, and supply wool for a few clothing manufacturers Nick thinks sound familiar. Gemma has a wicked sense of humour, merciless when she describes how hungover the farmhands had been when they got in this morning after the party the night before. She seems fresh as a daisy, but Nick supposes she’s still young yet. Plenty of time to acquire the alcohol tolerance of a small dog and the cranium of a squashed hedgehog.
Harry tumbles through the door as Nick starts on his third coffee, apologising with such frequency Nick is slightly worried for his health. “So sorry,” he repeats, again. “I — there were a few new ones this morning, and Coco escaped and I couldn’t get her back in —”
“It’s fine,” Nick assures him, leaning over to pat his shoulder. “I got the chance to chat to Gemma, didn’t I?” Harry’s coat is striped with mud and there’s a little brown smudge on his cheek. Nick wipes it off, carefully. The moment goes a little quiet, stretching on between them with Harry’s intent face and Nick’s fingers on his skin, until Gemma clears her throat.
“I can just elsewhere, then,” she says, and Nick hastily removes his hand.
Nick and Harry rush to assure her otherwise but Gemma just pats Harry’s head like he’s not considerably taller than she, tells them to have fun, and disappears into the rest of the house humming something Nick can’t quite place.
“I — sorry,” Harry says again. “Like, for the whole, family thing.”
“They’re brilliant,” Nick says. “Well, your sister is, I didn’t get much chance to chat to your mum so maybe she’s a psychotic axe murderer, I dunno.”
“I don’t think she is.” Harry swipes Nick’s coffee from his hand and drinks some, his lips wet as he swallows. “But you never really know, do you? Would explain all the mangled bodies.”
Nick swings his leg out to knock against Harry’s. “Stop slandering your mum and make me the bacon sarnie I was promised, Harold.”
“Aye-aye, mate,” says Harry, and turns round to do just that.
Who even are you, Nick thinks, watching Harry’s back as he cooks. Marry me immediately.
Nick feels disconcertingly like a naughty teenager yet again as Harry pulls up in front of Mildred’s in his muddy car, about to get reamed out by his dad for staying out all night. He’s sensing a theme.
“I think she’ll use an axe,” Nick decides, blinking up at the house, “To murder me, when she does it. Rustic, you know? No pretension. No mucking about with poison or firearms, Mildred. Reckon she’d do it proper.”
“She’s got a broken arm,” Harry reasons. “Might be hard to swing as well.”
“She could do it anyhow. She’s got commitment, Mildred.” Nick rubs his palms on his jeans. “You’ll need to plan my funeral service. I want Lil Kim and Beyoncé. No exceptions.”
“Noted,” Harry says, seemingly entirely unaffected by Nick’s revelation that he will presently be murdered by a woman whose taste in wallpaper makes him question the state of the world. “I’ve got to do the garden, just for a bit. Millie can’t right now, with her arm, so. We could — I mean, I could stick around after. If you wanted.”
“You’ll have to tend to my lethal neck wound.” Nick smirks at Harry, wanting with every fibre of his being to suck that hesitant, nervous expression from his face forever. “You know, when Mildred hacks my head off the minute I get inside.”
Harry snorts. “I have first aid training. I’m sure I could sew it all back up.”
“Make me look beautiful. I don’t want to have to wear a scarf for the rest of my disfigured life. Or you could just swap my head out for David Beckham’s. Or my body! Imagine, instant six pack.” Nick smiles dreamily. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“I’ll see if I can find him round back by the parsnips.”
“Excellent. All right, I’m going in. Remember: Beckham.”
Harry nods seriously, but his eyes are dancing. Nick makes a face, because he is not entirely kidding about the murder. It’s very possible. Mildred seems like the murdering type. If this was a film there would be menacing music playing about now. Nick takes his final stroll up the steps to the porch, imagining he is walking the plank and opening the door is where he jumps.
The entrance is empty. Nick heaves a sigh of relief, shutting the door behind him.
“Good morning,” says Mildred suddenly and Nick claps a hand to his suddenly expiring heart.
“Jesus,” Nick pants, blinking at the sudden apparition. “You should wear a bell. Like a cow! There are cows here, you could borrow one.” He pauses, considering. “Oh, it’s not cows who wear bells, is it? Is it goats? Sheep? Cats?”
“Out late, were you?” Mildred asks, her pursed mouth disappearing into her face with the force of her judgement.
“Uh —” Nick has done the whole naughty teenager bit before, but his dad was much easier to read than this. Mostly because by this point he’d be shouting at him, and then Nick could shout back, and it’d be very satisfying and Nick could have a good strop off and slam a door. Mildred just keeps looking at him, all even-keeled like she’s patiently waiting for him to dig his own grave. Which. Maybe she is. Nick would be a rubbish gravedigger, though. No upper arm strength. “Yes?”
“And I see you brought Harry back with you.”
“Well, technically, he brought me. His car, and all.”
Mildred’s eyes are the cool blue of icebergs, large and sightly hooded in her tanned face. They give absolutely nothing away. “Harry’s a nice boy,” she says finally. “He’s a nice boy and a good farmer, and he’s got his head screwed on right.”
“I — yes?” Nick blinks, shifting feet. “I — I agree with that assessment?”
“Don’t you lead him astray,” Mildred orders, her whole face squinted. “I know you London gadabouts care more about your bank accounts and designer labels than peoples’ livelihoods, but Harry’s a good boy. He doesn’t need that in his life.”
Nick really, really misses the strop off and slam a door method of his childhood home. “I think Harry can handle himself, actually. He’s an adult.” God, Nick hopes Harry’s an adult. He’s pretty sure. He’s fairly certain.
“He’s a special boy, and he’s sensitive. Don’t play games with him.”
“Not even Scrabble?” Nick tries, attempting a smile. Mildred seems unaffected.
“Keep it in mind,” she says, and then strides off towards the kitchen, leaving Nick in muddy boots on the welcome mat, feeling entirely unwelcome.
Nick takes a long shower, putting music on his phone in the sink so he’s not alone in his head, and emerges to find Harry sprawled over the bed, long limbs reaching out towards each corner.
“I think the wallpaper birds are judging me,” Harry says, eyes fixed on them. Nick snorts.
“In unison with the mood of the house, I think.” Nick shakes his hair out with one hand, wondering if there’s time for a blow-dry. He’d like a jumper or something first, though, it’s bloody freezing.
“Millie’s all bark,” Harry says, sitting up and watching Nick with intent eyes. Nick feels very aware of being half-naked, of the beads of water still clinging to his torso and his bare feet frigid on the wood floor. It’s not entirely unpleasant, really, although he still feels a little self-conscious of the softness around his middle.
“How old are you?” Nick asks, shimmying pants on underneath his towel before he gets terrible ideas about leading impressionable youths astray. “You’re not, like, seventeen, are you?” Harry does not have the muscles of a seventeen-year-old, but Nick doesn’t know what they do out in the country. They drink a lot of milk, and fresh air is supposed to be good for you, so maybe they just all grow broad and bicep-y.
“Twenty-one.” Harry slides off the bed and crouches over Nick’s trunk, picking through his shirts. “This is cool.” He holds up a Marni print t-shirt. “Can I borrow it?”
“Sure,” Nick says, and watches as Harry pulls his shirt off. His back is so good, is the thing, all smooth and tanned with the muscles rippling underneath. April is a bit chilly for nude sunbathing. Nick wonders how Harry manages to get his whole self that brown. Twenty-one. That’s not bad, really — nine years. Twenty-one is an adult. It’s fine.
Harry layers his shirts over Nick’s, leaving the top two open. He’s got another scarf wrapped round his head — green, this time — and the same skintight jeans and battered ASOS boots. Nick wouldn’t think the look would be any good, if someone just told him about it, but on Harry it’s arresting. Sort of endearing, really, a kind of grunge Keith Richards Saint Laurent sort of thing. Like that new designer they’re thinking of doing for September, Lou something. “Good?” asks Harry, holding his arms out.
“Yeah,” Nick agrees, and Harry’s grin is, again, blinding. Nick busies himself by getting dressed, fishing a jumper he considers quite rustic-y from the depths of his weekender and sticking to his trusty Topman jeans. Harry is still fishing through Nick’s things, holding bits and pieces up to himself with a magpie sort of wonder.
“How many white t-shirts did you bring?”
“Uh…” Nick counts in his head, and then gives up, because it’s boring, and also he doesn’t fully remember as he’d been a few vodkas in by the time he packed. “Not enough, probably.”
“There are seven here,” Harry says, sounding sort of fond. “They look mostly the same — like, this one has a v-neck, but — why?”
“I like to have options, Harold,” Nick says with dignity, twisting some hair product into his wet, dilapidated quiff. “We all can’t wear the same pair of jeans every day.”
Harry shrugs. “I only have the one pair.”
Nick blinks. “One? I — one pair of jeans. One.”
“I understand having one shearling jacket, or, one green printed scarf or, like, one pair of black snakeskin dress shoes but — one pair of jeans?” Nick blinks. He has, he’d guess, about twelve pairs of jeans that he doesn’t hate, and five more he abhors violently but keeps because one day he might not violently abhor them. Nick only has one pair of jeans that he likes, sure, but that doesn’t stop him from living in eternal hope that other denim will encase his arse in a more loving, flattering embrace tomorrow.
Harry shrugs. “I’d like more, but.”
That was not an explanation, but Nick proceeds on anyway. “Well, if you’d like to borrow something, go ahead. Can’t have you living a deprived, slightly smelly life. You spend all your time with animals! How d’you get that off one pair of trousers?”
“I have more than one pair of trousers. And I just, like, wash them a lot.”
Nick looks at the jeans in question, noticing the patches at the knee. They’re sort of a pleather material, again, that new grunge thing. He’d thought that was part of the style, but now, maybe not. “Well, borrow whatever you like. What are you doing today, Harold? Should I dress for inescapable muck?”
There’s this sort of — light, almost, when Harry is happy. Like now, when he’s excitedly pouring through Nick’s wardrobe and looking like he got a proper birthday present when he was expecting socks. It makes Nick feel sort of stupid. It makes Nick want to give him every white shirt he owns.
“I’ve got to check on the sheep,” Harry says, examining the sleeves on Nick’s big grey jumper. “It’s lambing time, or nearly, so they need a lot of attention right now. I mean — if you have work or something, you could — I have internet at mine, and our wallpaper isn’t made out of judgey birds. You could stay over.” Harry darts a look at him through the corner of his eyes.
Nick could, but he really shouldn’t. Nick should work somewhere the scenery is not quite so distracting. Nick should find a nice way to say, maybe another time, beautiful and charming person I have slept with once and feel a dangerous affection for already.
“Yeah, all right,” Nick says, instead. “I’ll pack a bag.”
Mildred, Nick feels fairly certain, will be going on a murder spree shortly. Maybe it would be worth it, though, if Harry keeps looking at him like that.
Somehow they fall into a sort of pattern. They sleep at Harry’s every night, going round to Mildred’s in the morning so Nick can make awkward conversation in the kitchen whilst Harry tends her garden, and then they pop back out again so Nick can tag along and try not to get in the way whilst Harry feeds an assortment of incomprehensible animals. They fuck a lot — trading blowjobs in the barn, jerking each other off in Harry’s little bedroom — but more than that they just hang out. Have a chat, mess up each other’s hair. Like mates. Nick doesn’t usually hang out with people he sleeps with; it tends to ruin the allure. Allure, with Harry, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Harry tells long, rambling stories about his friends and the sheep and his horse and Nick tries to make him laugh as much as possible with anecdotes about the magazine and Nick’s weird little DJ hobby and Nick’s parents, who can never remember anyone’s names, and it’s — odd, maybe. Comfortable, though. Harry is easy to be around, weird and interesting enough to never drop Nick’s interest but so familiar it seems indescribably strange that they’ve only just met.
Harry is mucking out the horse barn now, all muscly and gorgeous, sweating a little from beneath the rim of his massive felt hat. Everyone else in this town wears distressed denim and cowboy boots, sensible Barbours if they’re over fifty and hoodies for the twelve people who aren’t. Not so Harry. Nick sees him in the morning piecing through his little wardrobe, lingering over this jumper or that check shirt and holding necklaces up to his tanned skin to see which goes best. Sometimes, when Harry goes up to a group of people they smile a little, like at a child. Oh, Harry.
When Nick was sixteen, he turned up to his first day of college in shiny silver trousers and a knee-length silver puffer jacket, so. He knows a little bit about different.
“Did you do your A-levels?” Nick asks, looking up from where he’s been vaguely scribbling notes for a culture piece. He’s a bit blocked. Somehow London specialty gyms haven’t managed to capture his interest, what with Nick’s acclaimed physique and well-known love for running in place whilst staring himself down in a cruel wall-sized mirror. Maybe he can staff this out to Ian or somebody else who likes physical torture, if he can manage to get signal bloody anywhere.
Harry wipes his forehead. “Mm-hm.”
Nick cocks a head at him, considering. Harry’s bright, and university aged. Shouldn’t he be running around halls getting mash up by now and ill-advisedly shagging his roommate? “Were you some sort of child genius, then, do uni at twelve?”
Harry makes a face like he’s just eaten something unpleasant, though it could be the smell. “I had to put it off,” he says, hefting some horse shit into the wheelbarrow. “Farm stuff, you know.”
Farm stuff. An opaque euphemism if Nick has ever heard one. “Couldn’t your mum have found someone to clear this lovely space of horse excrement? Those muscular mates of yours, perhaps? That’s some very important recreational puking you are missing out on, Harold.”
The wide expanse of Harry’s back — and his round little arse, bent over — hide his face when he laughs a little. “’S a bit more complicated than that,” he says.
Nick adds complicated to the list of obfuscated terms Harry enjoys throwing out there like Nick knows what he’s talking about, when he’s got no bloody clue. “Did you want to go?”
“I’d like to,” Harry says, huffing as he hauls a bale of hay into the loosebox. “I thought — well, I like, sort of, fashion stuff.” The back of his neck goes pink. “Or interior decoration, kind of. So. Something like that.”
Something in Nick’s heart aches at that, at the hesitation in Harry’s low, rough voice.
“I know it’s stupid,” Harry continues. “I just — I’d like it, that’s all.”
“’S not stupid.” Nick frowns. “I mean — they let me tell the country about what shoes to wear. It’s not. It’s not stupid.”
The corner of Harry’s face indents with that left dimple, the one that seems to have a direct connection with Nick’s gut. Harry has a voice like he’s not too bothered, like he’d just as well toss his dreams into the wheelbarrow along with the horse crap but Nick can tell there’s a glowing seed in Harry’s body somewhere, ambition like a vine twining beneath his indolent limbs. Harry’s not letting it out, though, which confuses the fuck out of Nick. Why not even try?
Twelve years ago Nick was a uni student in Liverpool with a bad haircut and worse shoes and now he’s — well, he’s not entirely sure. Somebody, anyway. Some days it feels good, seeing his name in print under the GQ logo or chatting with ole Mossy at some dinner. Some days — well. Some days it all feels a bit silly, like, why should anyone care so much about a brogue? Is this really what Nick’s life has come to?
“Y’all right?” Harry asks, cutting through Nick’s self-pity easy like a knife through butter.
“Struck dumb by the glorious scent of this space,” Nick says gravely. “Such odours. I should take a sample for the perfumery.”
Harry throws a bit of straw at him, so Nick throws some back and soon they’re sticking hay in the back of each others’ shirts and giggling. Harry rubs some in Nick’s hair, which makes him shriek and bat at Harry’s torso and it’s all entirely dignified, really.
They topple over into a loose bale of hay, itchy against the parts of Nick’s skin where his clothes have ridden up. Harry laughs helplessly into Nick’s neck, his hands curled in the knit of Nick’s jumper. It’s a Rick Owens light knit cashmere, and he’s probably stretching it all of shape. Nick should be annoyed, probably. He isn’t.
Watching Harry cook has been a running theme of the past fortnight of Nick’s life. It’s a fascinating experience, really — he drops something every few minutes and the faint, petulant owww that follows the clatter never seems to get less hilarious. There’s a clang now, possibly a saucepan dislodged onto Harry’s unprotected foot, and his cry of disapproval sends Nick and Gemma into a spiral of gaiety, Nick having to tip sideways so he doesn’t dislodge his laptop.
Gemma sits on the floor by the coffee table, floor spread over with papers and books, and Nick dominates the sofa, legs slung over where Harry had been situated before he got it in his curly head to do their tea himself. Nick had wondered why they couldn’t just do takeaway, and learned the horrifying fact that the only takeaway even remotely near them is a pizza place well-known for causing food poisoning. He truly is amongst the wilderness.
“Gem?” Harry leans around the corner, a smear of what looks like flour obstructing his cheek. “Will you text Mum and see if she’s got any nutmeg? We’re out.”
“Yeah, alright,” Gemma says, looking under some notebooks for her mobile.
“What’s that?” Nick asks, looking up from his blinking cursor. “Nutmeg. Is that a dessert?”
Gemma halts mid-text to stare at him, which seems a bit much.
“Vegetable?” Nick tries, hopefully. “Is that right?”
“No,” Gemma says. “No, love, that’s not right.”
“What’s — Gem, is Nick saying he thinks nutmeg’s a vegetable?” Harry appears again around the corner. The flour has migrated to his hair and most of his shirt.
“Frozen fruit?” Nick attempts, smiling pretty.
Gemma and Harry stare at him with incredulity and also dawning hysteria.
Nick pouts. “’S not like I ever cook, anyhow. Takeaway is just fine for me. Don’t need nothing in my fridge but Diet Coke and them sticks of cheese in little packets.”
“I’m going to force feed you vitamins,” Harry grumbles, going back into the kitchen. “And salad!”
“Blech,” Nick says, turning back to his computer. “Hate a salad.”
“Same. Lettuce is the devil’s work. Salad ought to be about half avocado and the other half cheese. Or maybe just cheese.”
Gemma is a girl of strange taste, but Nick commends her ingenuity. “What’s another word for sleek?”
Nick shakes his head. “Not the texture, like the — the vibe.”
“Dapper?” suggests Anne, shutting the front door behind her. She stomps off her boots on the welcome mat. She’s got a red check coat on that reminds Nick of a Saint Laurent jacket from last season. He quite likes it.
“Thank you! I like your jacket,” Nick calls, hoisting himself back to a more seated position so he can see over the back of the sofa.
“Thanks, love,” Anne says warmly. “Haz, I’ve got your nutmeg for you. What are you making?”
“It’s a surprise,” Harry informs her, now almost fully encrusted in flour. He’s wearing an apron over his clothes — a jumper that is definitely Nick’s, and his omnipresent patched jeans — but that doesn’t seem to matter much. “Now if you’d excuse me!”
“Grumpy boy,” laughs Anne, shaking her head as he retreats. She peers at the whiteboard tacked to the centre beam and smiles at whatever’s written there. “What are you two working on, then?”
“The marketing thing for the cheese,” Gemma says, through the curtain of her hair. She’s bent over a book now, marking something with her lip caught in her teeth. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got the plan worked out, mostly.”
Nick feels very, very silly. “Raglan sleeve raincoats,” he admits. “I’m saving lives here, you know. Vital British work, I’m doing.”
“What’s a raglan sleeve?”
Nick winces. “It’s a different kind of shoulder tailoring.”
“It’s when the seam runs from your armpit to your neck,” calls Harry from the kitchen, “Like Gemma’s shirt has.”
Now that Harry mentions it, Nick notices that Gemma is indeed wearing a raglan sleeve shirt, the yellow of the sleeves running diagonal over the white of the torso.
“Like I said,” Nick continues sheepishly, “Very helpful to the world. We’ve all learned things today!”
“Oh, I think those things can be helpful,” Anne says reassuringly. She’s got a reassuring face, has Anne. Nick wants Anne to bring him soup when he’s ill. Well, and Harry, really. Harry can bring the evening soup, and Anne can bring the morning soup, and Gemma can sit at his bedside and take the piss out of reality shows with him whilst Harry pets his hair. He just has to import them all to London, like a fine wine. Or something.
Gemma has a wicked look on her face. “Well, certainly helpful to Haz.”
Anne snickers, more like a cheeky older sister than a mum of two. “You could say that.”
“Could you?” Nick looks between the two of them. “How could? Why could? What could?”
“Well,” Gemma says with great relish, “Hazza used to DVR your show every single week — that first one, you know, like five-ish years ago — and he’d go absolutely mental if I tried to erase one. Proper throw a strop about it.”
“Did he?” Nick’s face goes all warm.
“Mm-hm. Not just that, he also had —“
Harry pops out of the kitchen, frowning and floury. “Oh, god. What are they telling you?”
“Nothing, darling,” says Anne. “Just how you used to take photos of Nick with you when we’d go to Manchester for your school shopping.”
“Oh my god,” moans Harry, hand going to his face. “Please. Please stop.”
“‘Nick Grimshaw says this about trousers,’” Gemma parrots, in a high mimicking voice. “‘Grimmy’s got such good hair.’ ‘Grimmy wears a suit better than anybody.’ ‘D’you think this suit looks more like Nick Grimshaw or this one?’”
“He followed your tips for a good prom look to a T,” adds Anne, a little proudly. “He looked so handsome. Nice, fitted trousers and a little thin tie.”
“Mum,” Harry wails, back against the wall.
Nick could not be more delighted if he tried. “Did he, now? That’s good, as a wide-leg fit would be wasted on him. Not a good look for anyone, obviously, but he’s lucky he had my very expert guidance.”
“Shut up,” says Harry, loping a few steps to smear flour all over Nick’s quiff.
Nick cackles, batting him away. “Is that any way to treat your adolescent hero? No respect, Styles, your mum brought you up better than this.”
“I always did wonder about all the flannels I found in the rubbish bin after Grimmy’s show was on,” Gemma muses, and with a great howl Harry launches after her, too. Anne is wheezing with laughter behind him, shaking her head ruefully and Nick really, really should not love this as much as he does. Harry’s mum is right there, and Nick is thinking about fifteen-year-old Harry cutting pictures of him out of magazines and looking at them late at night in his little barn room, muffling his noises in the pillow.
Yeah, Nick definitely going to hell. Least all his friends will be there to keep him company.
“You are all awful,” Harry says finally, somewhere between bright red and laughing as he gets to his feet. “I’ve got to go add the pine nuts and you’re to stop it.”
“Uh-huh.” Gemma grins at him like butter wouldn’t melt anywhere near her face.
“Will do, love.” Anne turns an identical grin on her son, a bit toothier than Gemma’s, and Harry huffs, pushing past them and shaking his head.
“What’s a pine nut?” asks Nick, after a minute. “’S that like the tree?”
In the roar of piss-taking that follows, Nick nearly cries laughing and has flour rubbed into his laptop keyboard. It’s a sacrifice with which he is comfortable.
“Tell me about London,” Harry says as they catch their breath after a good mid-afternoon shag, sweaty and naked and somehow lying the wrong way on Harry’s bed, their feet up on the pillows, which is disgusting.
“What d’you want to know?” Nick shifts, wiping himself off on a flannel they have definitely already used. It’s a bit foul, but he can’t bring himself to care.
Harry chews on his lip, drawing lazy circles in Nick’s damp chest hair. Harry seems to really like it, that Nick’s hairy. The thought makes him chuckle because — hairy. Harry.
The boy in question snorts like Nick’s told the joke. “Like. I dunno,” Harry says. “I’ve never — like, I’ve never been. The biggest city I’ve been to is Manchester.”
“Noble urban centre,” agrees Nick, in a highfalutin tone that makes Harry smack him over the head with a pillow.
Falling quiet, but with that little indent between his eyebrows that means he’s thinking, Harry continues his private art project on Nick’s body. Nick wonders how he knows about that indent Harry’s got already. They’ve known each other for a fortnight, and Nick feels semi-fluent in the dips of Harry’s forehead.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Harry says finally, flopping over so he’s staring up at the ceiling. Nick stares up too. It’s white, with brown beams: the same as the rest of the town, really. “Like, my whole life. And I love it, it’s just — I know every Sunday Mrs. Wolman will have her vegetables at the market and that my mum will say, ‘hiya Sharon, what’s in season?’ And she’ll say back, ‘only the best, love!’ and on Fridays all my friends meet at the pub and Louis will win at darts and someone will puke in the decorative vase out back by the smoking tree. And that’s — like, in some ways that’s… Nice, kind of.” Harry shrugs. “Familiar. It hasn’t changed much. But like, in London, you’d never know who you’d meet. Or what could happen, or where you could go.”
Nick didn’t grow up in a village as small as Harry’s, but he remembers that — that stifling sameness, the torture of feeling trapped in a script someone else wrote for a character whom you might have resembled five years ago but no longer identify with at all. He presses a thumb to Harry’s birdcage tattoo, right where the little door is.
“I just — I don’t know what that’d be like,” Harry finishes. “I can imagine it, sort of. But not, like. Real.” He turns his eyes on Nick, big and terrifyingly honest. “Does that make any sense?”
“Yeah,” Nick says, taking Harry’s hand in his. Nick thinks about London. About the raucous parties and the grotty shops on the corner, the monotony of the Tube and how sometimes in a crowd you forget you’re a whole person. He doesn’t know the words to describe that to Harry, how it feels to live in a place that can make you feel like somebody and nobody in the space of the same noisy minute.
“It’s — I get that. I moved to London when I was 22 to do this internship with MTV, right before I did the Channel 4 bit. I’d been in uni before that. Liverpool, and that was a load of fun, but it was mostly getting drunk and experimenting and failing economics seven times. Then I came down to London and lived on people’s sofas and ate nothing but pot noodle and whatever free food was served at parties and it… Like, it was the first time I felt like I knew who I was, sort of.” And liked me, Nick considers adding, but doesn’t.
Harry is watching Nick with big, translucent eyes. “Yeah?”
“Why — why didn’t you, before?”
Nick swallows hard, fixing his gaze devotedly on the ceiling. He forces his mouth into a smirk. “I was a fat, awkward-looking gay kid in Oldham who liked to wear metallic trousers and preferred Britney Spears and Alexander Wang to footie. Bit of a no-brainer, that.”
“Oh,” Harry says, all quiet. He places a kiss to Nick’s cheek, soft as cashmere. Nick’s a little surprised he didn’t go for the wang joke. It could’ve been a good one.
“Anyway,” Nick adds hastily, “London has far more providers of alcoholic beverages, on the whole. I find it’s most easy to be yourself when plastered, don’t you?”
“Probably.” Harry smiles at him, dimple hooking one side of his mouth higher than the other. “That’s convenient, actually.”
“‘Cos. It’s Tuesday,” Harry says, with a shrug like, duh. “You’ll see.”
Harry abandons Nick heartlessly so he can do… gardening whatsit, and Nick ignores the buzzing of his phone to wander through Mildred’s house. He hasn’t spent that much time here, on this visit. He remembers coming round when he was small, maybe seven or eight, for a few weeks in the summers. He used to play with the little wooden ducks in the living room. There are eight of them in a row by the fireplace, and Nick runs a hand along their beaks.
“You always liked the ducks,” says Mildred, and Nick startles. “Tried to steal one at one point, actually. Your mother found it in your rucksack.”
Nick snorts. “Which one was it?”
“That there on the end, with the red.” Mildred comes up behind him, pointing. “You were a real handful.”
“I was spirited,” Nick says with dignity, examining the red duck of his childhood dreams.
“You were trouble.”
Nick shrugs. That’s hard to dispute. “I remember I liked coming here,” he admits. The duck looks back at him, all wide wood eyes. “My dad says I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure I did.”
“Your dad thought you weren’t getting enough exercise.” Mildred settles in the armchair by the fireplace, reaching reflexively for the Sudoku packet on the table next to it.
“My dad thought I spent too much time with my Tamagotchi and wearing women’s clothing,” says Nick.
Mildred, incredibly, laughs. It is a faint, slightly patronising laugh, but Nick feels reasonably certain that she is, indeed laughing. “I remember. You used to wear all my old jewellery at once and do little performances.”
Given that one of Nick’s favourite pastimes is doing karaoke in a six-inch heel after raiding the women’s fashion closet for miniskirts, his seven-year-old self was a fairly good rubric for his future. “Well I do love to give the people what they want.” Nick grins up at Mildred, feeling a bit like he has melted the ice queen.
“Hm,” sniffs Mildred, pencil to her Sudoku.
Maybe not, then.
Nick looks back at the ducks, and a sharp something digs into his upper arm. Mildred is passing him a book of crosswords, pencil included in the packet.
“Go on,” she says, prodding him again. “Do something useful.”
Nick is rubbish at crosswords, but he settles in anyway, chewing the rubber and trying to think of six-letter words for ‘nervous’.
Tuesday night, inexplicably, is when everyone goes to the pub. Really, most nights are when everyone goes to the pub, Harry says, but on Tuesdays people play nineties covers over the crackly speakers and everyone plays darts and drinks themselves into a cheerful oblivion, so on Tuesday night Harry drives them into town and they pay homage to local tradition. Nick loses at darts, Harry does a spectacular impromptu karaoke cover of Don’t Stop Believin’, and Nick feels roughly like the most glamorous and fascinating person ever to exist, possibly because most of the people in the room have known each other since they were in nappies and are unusually interested in his every comment.
Sometime after midnight Harry and Nick stumble out of the Lusty Lion in a mass of leg and giggles, Nick’s arm slung around Harry’s neck. The door shuts behind them, leaving them in the disconcerting quiet of the village, which makes Nick frown, suddenly.
“You don’t have cabs here, do you?” Nick cranes his head down the street like a hidden stash of cabbies would be queuing just round the old church.
“Uh, no,” Harry says, looping his arm through Nick’s and leading him down the empty street.
“Tube stop? Personal helicopter?” Harry leads Nick past his car, stumbling from the part of town with the shops to the part of the town with clusters of red-brick houses, tucked back from the street. “This is horrible. I’m going to die.” Nick pictures his death. He hopes the wake is rave-themed. Annie can DJ, and Aimee better not be in charge of selecting the photos for the slideshow because she cannot be trusted.
“It’s two miles,” Harry says, as though that thought were as commonplace as ‘water, bit wet’; or ‘sky, bit blue’. Nick must make a squawking sound because Harry rolls his eyes and shoves him a bit. “We’re wasted, love. We’re not taking the car back, I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“You’ll need it to transport my body,” Nick says nobly, which only makes Harry laugh and try to mess up his hair.
They keep walking until the houses disappear altogether and they’re bumping up against hedges, skirting the edges of wide grassy fields. Nick’s feet start to ache sometime around the fifteenth minute.
“I’m going to need my legs amputated,” Nick says nobly, following Harry around a muddy turn. “They’ll have to bury me in an extra-short coffin, you know, one of them for kids because I’ll have no legs and it’s just a waste of space.”
“Uh-huh,” says Harry.
“They will,” Nick insists. “And I’ll be remembered for all the wrong reasons. My legs are my best feature, Harold. You’re trying to take that away from me. Without these legs, I’m just a potato with arms.”
“And, lungs, like.”
“A potato with arms. And lungs. So sad. Remember Nick Grimshaw? No? Oh, he was some potato man, all torso and forehead.”
“It’s two damn miles,” Harry says, squinting at him. “It’s literally two miles.”
“These boots cost 600 quid,” Nick whines, peering down at them and wincing at the mud encrusting both sole.
“And whose fault is that?”
“Sergio Rossi’s. And, like, capitalism, probably.”
“Shouldn’t they hold up a bit better, if they’re that expensive?”
“You’d also think they wouldn’t murder my toes and ankles.”
Harry snorts. “You’ll be fine. We do this walk all the time.”
“This is the most exercise I've had since I gave up my Third Space membership, which was… Months ago, probably. February. Or December? It’s a wonder I’m not thirty-eight stone, at this point.”
Harry’s face is as blank as… a blank thing. A sheet of A4. A block of unshapen clay. Nicole Kidman’s forehead. “Third Space?”
“Well, I couldn’t get into SP Health, could I.” Nick huffs, trying to shake dirt off his heels.
“I have no idea what you’re on about.”
“I’m telling you I will have an asthma attack and die,” Nick whines, fully aware of his own ridiculousness but committed to it anyway, which is sort of his signature.
“You have asthma?” Harry frowns, stopping short to peer at Nick. “Do you have your inhaler? Are you okay? I could ring my mum, maybe if you’re —”
“Oh my god, I’m fine, Harry, calm down.” Nick pats at Harry’s chest, smoothing the edges of his jacket.
“But — like, you should have your inhaler.”
Nick sighs heavily, with the weight of a thousand adorable, earnest farmboys with over-developed safety instincts. Or just one, maybe. The prettiest one. Nick pats his pockets down — keys, which seeing as they’re for his flat in London are useless, mobile, wallet, and there — Nick fishes his inhaler from his coat pocket, triumphant. “Look at that! I actually have it. I lose this all the time. I once had a full-on asthma attack at a Zac Posen show because he used smoke machines and my puff-puff ruined the line of my trousers and — what?”
Harry is shaking his head, shoulders trembling. “Oh my god,” he gasps, laughing. “You’re going to actually die. Proper, like, with a funeral and that. Nick. You have to bring your inhaler with you when you go places!”
“Bleh,” says Nick, shrugging, which makes Harry sideways tackle him half into a hedge.
“Promise me you’ll do it,” Harry insists, grappling uselessly with Nick’s torso. For someone with so many muscles, Harry is not very good at tackling. He’s too floppy, like cooked spaghetti. “Promise, or I’ll rub mud all over your million-quid boots.”
“You wouldn’t,” Nick says, trying to get his feet away from the mud puddles, giggling a bit too much to retain physical control.
“I would.” Harry gets his hands inside Nick’s jacket and under his jumper, fingertips cold over Nick’s skin. “Promise, Nick, promise.”
“Okay! I promise!” Nick throws his hands up like surrender, which only makes Harry press closer to him. The tickle on his sides sets Nick off again, laughing into Harry’s shoulder. “But it’s your fault if the line of my trousers is terrible forever. You see me on the worst dressed list — Nick Grimshaw, all right top but his trousers are awkward innit — and that’s all on you, mate.”
Harry smiles up at him, moonlight glinting over his nose. “I’ll risk it,” he says, and kisses him.
Nick thinks that it was meant to be a short kiss, a press of the lips as a promise for later or a peck like between friends, but heat sparks in his belly and spreads through his limbs and then their tongues get involved and it’s hopeless to stop. Harry’s got busy hands, rough and calloused over Nick’s spine, sending his skin shivering. Nick gets his hand in the mess of Harry’s curls, sliding under that damnable hat, and tugs. Harry’s groan reverberates through Nick’s chest and they press closer, teeth and tongue and a tangle of limbs.
“My hat came off,” Harry mumbles against Nick’s mouth.
“Uh-huh,” Nick agrees, turning his attention to the sharp line of Harry’s jaw.
“I — oh — I think it fell in the mud.”
“Shame, that,” Nick says, taking Harry’s earlobe in his teeth and pulling the flesh through.
“’S your fault.”
“You owe me a hat.”
Nick makes a small hum of agreement, hand shaping to the base of Harry’s skull as he holds him in place.
Harry gets a leg between Nick’s, pressing up and they both exhale noisily. Nick wants him. He’s nothing but a mess of overpriced Chelsea boots and wanting, at this point, nerves buzzing with the taste of Harry’s mouth and the feel of his hair and how he smells, like the outdoors and like tiny cologne samples and like the pub, a bit. Nick is fully considering just getting Harry’s cock out in the middle of the road when high beam headlights blare into Nick’s vision.
“Fuck, car,” Harry says unnecessarily, tugging Nick with him half into the hedge to let the car pass.
They look back at each other. Harry is totally wrecked, mouth swollen and hair everywhere, all his clothes untucked. Nick has no doubt he paints a similar telling picture. He snorts, and Harry starts to snicker and then they’re wheezing with laughter in a hedge in the middle of nowhere, Cheshire, with Harry’s hat in the mud and Nick’s inhaler still clutched in his fist.
The thing is, Nick can’t remember the last time he was this happy.
A persistent voice cuts through the haze of Nick’s dreams, incessant whispering interrupting his trip to Monaco with Matt Fincham and Duncan from Blue. The warmth around him shifts and moves and Nick moans in vague protest, attempting to twine himself around the heat source and keep it from deserting him.
“Nick,” warmth creature says, a hand soft in Nick’s hair, “Nick, I’ve got to get up.”
“Mm,” Nick says, helpfully.
“Nick, c’mon, babe, let go.” Hands pry Nick’s arms from warm skin and Nick groans again, cracking his eyes to the dark room.
“I’m going to go check on them,” says another voice, “Come out soon, Haz.” Footsteps, and then a bright flash of a door opening and closing.
“Nick?” Hands stroke at his face, soft and careful. “Nick, I’ve got to go someplace.” Nick turns his head into the touch. It’s nice. He’d like it to continue on as he goes back to sleep and finishes his errands in Monaco. “You said to tell you if I had to go someplace in the morning, love.” The hands keep stroking, light at Nick’s temples. “I’ve got to go someplace.”
Nick forces his eyes back open. Harry leans over him, the light edging his curls like a halo, which is too much simile for whatever the hell hour this is. “Wha’s going on?” Nick slurs, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. Harry plants a kiss to his cheek and gets out of bed, leaving Nick in the frigid embrace of a lonely duvet.
“Donatella’s lambing but she’s having a bit of trouble,” Harry explains, hunting around the floor for his discarded clothing and tugging it over his long limbs.
It takes Nick a minute to get past the image of Donatella Versace surrounded by sheep, but once he does he shakes off the covers and follows Harry in layering up. “I’ll come,” Nick says, before really thinking about it. He’s not sure how lambing works but he knows he’s rubbish at sleeping alone. “What time is it?”
“Half five, I think,” Harry says distractedly, pulling a jumper over his head.
“Madness,” Nick mumbles, and follows Harry out past Gemma’s room and down the stairs, out the door into damp morning air. The light is tinged blue and cool, and the sun’s dim rays light the dew over the grass and shrubs and moss, all of it glistening like new jewellery.
Harry’s sheep are shacked up in the stone barn. Inside, Gemma crouches over one of them, stroking its black muzzle with a tense expression over her face. Harry rushes right over and Nick lingers, smelling the hay and the odd musty smell of wool on living creatures, feeling a bit like a bystander in a hospital waiting room.
Anne pops her head into the barn behind them and Nick jolts at the startle of it, nearly tripping on a loose bale of straw. “Gem, now that Harry’s in will you come help with the milking?” She notices Nick, then, her kind face splitting into a grin every bit as warm as her son’s. “Oh, hiya, Nick, how are you?”
“Well, thanks,” Nick says, hoping he doesn’t sound too much like an idiot. Anne beams and then disappears, followed shortly by Gemma and then it’s just Nick and Harry in the stone barn with a dozen sheep and probably all sorts of bodily fluids Nick never had any intention of interacting with at any point in his life. The sheep still scare Nick a bit, if he’s honest, all sort of hoofy and unfamiliar. He’s a little nervous to get too close to them lest they bite or try to murder him in a herbivorous kind of way.
“Ohh, that’s not good,” Harry is saying. He looks up and shows his wet hand to Nick, knuckles tinged red. Harry’s eyebrows pull down low over his eyes, mouth set in a distinct line.
Nick’s stomach twists. Nick has made friends with grannies and toddlers, builders and fashion designers and knows how to guide a conversation to make everyone involved feel good and comfortable. It’s a good skill; maybe his best. Nick prides himself on his adaptability, but here in this low stone building with Harry knelt over a bleating animal leaking blood Nick feels entirely useless. “Can I — is there something I can do?” he asks, empty-handed.
“Can you hold her?” Harry asks, voice tight with effort, and Nick strides over the hay to do as bidden, copying Harry’s movements exactly. Donatella squirms in his grip, muzzle bumping up against Nick’s ribs. Nick forces himself to stay put, and not shriek at the odd feel of it.
“I’ve got to pull out the lamb,” Harry tells him, and before Nick can ask what that means, Harry is elbow-deep into Donatella, face squinted like he’s groping for the light in the dark. Nick squawks, and there’s the sound of liquid sloshing and Harry moves back, pulling something dark and messy from Donatella’s body. Donatella bleats pathetically, and Harry’s arm goes on and on until Nick can see the shape of it: four legs and a head. It doesn’t look like much of anything, at the moment, but it looks more like a lamb than newborn babies look like humans, Nick reckons. Blood spills out after, dark dampening the yellow hay around them.
Harry cradles the slippery thing in his arms, peering down into its little face. Nick keeps hold of Donatella, as Harry never told him to stop. “No,” Harry whispers, fiddling with the lamb’s head. “No, no you’re not going to do that.”
Nick’s muscles all tense up because what isn’t it going to do? Harry opens the lamb’s mouth and sticks his fingers around inside it like he’s reaching into his pocket for something. He pulls some sloppy red goop out, wipes it off on the hay. Nick, nobly, does not vomit. Harry’s too busy to notice, making a little tunnel with his hand and blowing towards the lamb’s open, wet mouth. It looks so small, not even kicking. Nick wonders what Harry does when the lambs die. He supposes they must, sometimes.
After a minute the lamb starts to make noise, little bleats, and a smile rises up on Harry’s face like a sunrise someplace tropical, where the heat is overwhelming and the colours are good.
“Is it — is it okay?” Nick manages, arms tight over the rough wool of Donatella’s body.
“Not sure yet,” says Harry, still checking the lamb all over. “She’s weak, but… Well, she’s breathing now. Hopefully she’ll be all right.”
He puts the little creature in front of Donatella, then pries Nick’s arms one after the other from the ewe’s body. “You can let go now,” Harry tells him. Donatella bleats and licks at the lamb.
“That wasn’t there a minute ago,” Nick says dumbly.
“Nope,” Harry agrees.
“And now it’s there.”
Nick blinks at the little wet thing. Those knobbly legs were inside Donatella. They look too spindly to support anything.
“Want to name it?” Harry asks.
“Is it —” Nick coughs. “Is it going to survive? Don’t they say, you’re not supposed to name things you’ll kill, or summat?”
“I always name them.” Harry kneels down to adjust the lamb’s positioning. “Sometimes they don’t make it, though. That happens sometimes. My grand-dad always says, if you’ve got livestock you’ve also got deadstock.”
“Just got to do your best by them, that’s all.” Harry straightens up and bumps his shoulder against Nick’s. “People think it’s weird that I name them all, though.”
“It’s not weird,” Nick says immediately. “It’s — that’s not weird.”
“I don’t mind if it is,” Harry says, but he’s smiling at Nick with that sun-ray beam. “So, you wanna name it?”
Nick looks down at the little creature. “Vivienne. Do you have a Vivienne? I don’t think you have got. There was a Coco, but no Vivienne.”
“Like Vivienne Westwood?”
Harry pulls Nick until he’s got a Harry back attachment, like a lanky breathing rucksack with its own support system. Harry’s chin hooks over Nick’s neck and he tilts his mouth to kiss his cheek. “That’s a good name.”
They stand looking down at the bundle of Vivienne for another minute. Anne comes back in a moment later, hair a tangled mess as she wipes her hands on her old jeans. “What’s the prognosis, doc?” she asks, doing a scan of the room.
“So far so good,” Harry says, turning towards her. “It was a breech but I got it out okay. Both weak, though. We should keep them in today.”
Anne picks her way around the animals to reach his side, kneeling beside Vivienne and Donatella. She puts a hand in front of Vivienne’s mouth and smiles, wide. “Ah, that’s what I like to feel,” she says. “What’s the name, Haz?”
“Nick named her,” Harry says, elbowing Nick in the side. Nick jolts. “She’s called Vivienne.”
“Vivienne,” Anne echoes, bending closer to the lamb. “Vivienne. Hello, Vivienne.” Anne gets back up to her feet with a huff. “That’s a relief. We’ve had too many losses, this season.”
“I know,” Harry says, and there’s a shuttered expression Nick doesn’t recognise on his face. He looks five years older.
“Well, no need to go on about that.” Anne grins at the two of them. “Breakfast?”
“Please,” says Harry.
Nick stuffs his hands into his pockets and nods. He feels uncharacteristically quiet. Nick never feels quiet. He got his wisdom teeth out and managed to chat through the gauze. He talks in his sleep. Standing there in the musty, mucky barn, though, he can’t seem to find the words.
Harry drops Nick in front of Mildred’s at two, promising to be back before dinner to pick him back up. He says he’s going to cook him something. Nick thinks he should possibly discourage this seeing each other every night business, but every time he comes to that conclusion Harry looks at him with his whole… face, and Nick can’t manage it.
Nick can’t have been in Mildred’s house more than five minutes before his phone starts to buzz incessantly, incoming messages piling up. From his town wander before, Nick knows there are exactly two places in this village where he gets mobile signal: Mildred’s, and the cemetery. Bit awkward to hang about the latter waiting for incoming calls. Nick scrolls through, taking note of the urgent work ones and shooting off a few responses to some of his friends. He sends off a few prawn emoji to Aimee and doesn’t have time to thumb off his phone before she’s ringing him, that photo of her wasted in Ibiza emblazoning over the screen.
“You know, I don’t think we’ve gone that long without speaking to each other since… Ever. We haven’t. I thought you were dead.” Aimee’s flat American accent sounds sharper after so much time spent with Harry’s lazy drawl.
“Hello to you, too, darling,” Nick says, stumbling up the stairs to his room.
Aimee sighs noisily. “It’s been an entire two weeks and none of us have heard so much as a tweet from you, Nicholas. What is going on up there?”
“Shit signal.” Nick flops over the hard bed he hasn’t slept in since the first night and stares up at the ceiling. “Soz.”
“Well? Lord, Grim, I’ve seen you nearly short-circuit if you leave your phone in your bedroom for fifteen minutes.”
Nick turns back over, twining his hand in the bedcovers. “I’ve been, uh. Busy,” he says, hoping he’s better at lying than normal.
“Busy,” Aimee repeats, pulling the vowels out long. “Doing what? Looking at nature? Experiencing horse shit?”
“More like doing who, actually,” Nick corrects, unable to stop himself.
Aimee shrieks a little and Nick has to move the phone away from his ear to protect his hearing. “Oh my god. It’s like a romantic comedy. I could cry. Does he have a love of cowboy boots and big hats and roping cattle? Is it like Brokeback Mountain? Have you done naughty things in tents?”
“Well, he’s not from the telly, so, no,” Nick says, snorting. “He’s called Harry. He’s… He’s funny, ’s all.”
Aimee laughs and then falls quiet, which is never a good sign as that always means that she’s thinking. “A boy called Harry, who’s ‘funny’ and is also the reason you’ve apparently been surgically freed from your phone. For the past week.”
“Yes,” Nick says, realising all at once how that sounds. “So, tell me what I’ve missed in London. How was the Vogue thing? Did Pixie get sat next to Anna Wintour again and cause the high pope of fashion to regret her entire career trajectory?”
Aimee seems to take pity on him, or perhaps she has missed his sparkling wit. She gives in, and they fall into old gossipy habits. Apparently Gillian has broken up with Tall Jeremy and now is seeing someone called Mark who works for Marc Jacobs, Collette is on the vendetta getting people to join her netball team and Aimee got Ian to wear a Vera Wang dress for a laugh over the weekend. From the sound of Aimee’s wicked cackle, laughter was not her only target with that one. Nick feels at once like he should be back in the city going about his normal life, and inescapably far from it, like he’s stranded another country with no road signs back.
“I’ve got to run, babe,” Aimee says finally. “But — Grim, with this boy…”
“Yes?” Nick drawls, a little tersely.
“Be careful, okay?”
Nick huffs. “Everyone’s been on me like I’m going to rip his small dear heart out. Jesus Christ, I’m not a monster.”
Aimee is quiet for a minute, and when she speaks again it’s gentle. “Nick, I didn’t mean with him. I meant with you. Be careful with you.”
Nick burrows his face into the pillow and wonders whether he’d sinned or sainted in his past life to get friends who know him as well as his do. “Yeah,” he mumbles. “Love you.”
“You too.” There’s a click, and Aimee is gone.
The room feels unbearably empty, a quiet more pervasive than noise-cancelling headphones for a fraction of the price. Uneasiness rises in his stomach like a tide. Nick starts to run phrases though his mind like but I leave in a week, and, I don’t want to never see him again, and what am I even doing in my life anymore. Stupid thoughts. Reckless, awful things. Nick can pretend to himself as much as he likes that he’s been glued to Harry’s side because he’s stuck in the middle of bloody nowhere with nought but a grumpy pensioner who hates him for company, but he reckons it’d be much the same no matter what. If Harry had been some unwashed art student loafing about Regent’s Park with a frisbee, and maybe Puppy would have broken free from her lead and gone after the disk and Harry would have laughed they’d have got to talking and —
No. Fucking hell. Nick is not doing this. Half an hour alone and he’s gone entirely mental. He pockets his mobile and thumps downstairs, hoping maybe Mildred is feeling particularly charitable.
Nick finds her sorting papers at the kitchen table, back to the door.
“Hiya!” He makes his voice as intensely cheerful as he can manage. “Y’all right?”
Mildred raises her eyebrows at him.
“Okay,” Nick says, shoulders sinking. “I’ll just… sit here, then.”
Nick sinks into the seat opposite her. She raises an eyebrow, and then passes him the local paper. Nick learns all about the national pig competition, and when he can’t keep his commentary to himself, Mildred rejoinders with a sharp aside. It’s not entirely unpleasant, actually, and the coffee tastes good.
The drive back to Harry’s is slightly nerve-racking, as Harry barely looks at the road and spends a lot of time with his hands on Nick’s upper leg whilst Nick spends a lot of time torn between arousal and abject terror. When they finally get up to Harry’s room, Harry pushes Nick against the closed door, leaning forward to graze his sharp milkfed teeth on Nick’s jugular like a vampire.
“Gonna suck my blood?” Nick asks, in the worst Transylvanian accent he’s heard since his mum did her Dracula impression last Christmas.
“Really, if sucking is a thing that is on offer, I have a few alternatives in mind.” Harry digs his fingers into Nick’s ribs and he squawks. “Uncalled for, Styles, bad form.”
“I think you like my form just fine.”
Well. Yes. Nick can’t exactly contest that point, not with a shirtless Harry pressed against his front. He sweeps his hands down the long expanse of Harry’s back, cupping his arse and pulling him closer.
It’s not far to the bed and to the half-empty bottle of lube sitting plain as day on Harry’s bedside table, the roll of condoms draped over Harry’s books. It’s not far from there to Nick three fingers deep in Harry, pulling the gasps out of him until he’s cursing and pleading and Nick laughs, because he loves that way Harry’s face scrunches together when he’s trying to get something he wants.
Nick stares at the splay of his hands over Harry’s hips, how the muscles of his stomach buckle and flex as he wriggles back towards him. Harry’s tattoos should really be so stupid, all haphazard and patchwork collected, but Nick loves them a bit, if he’s honest. It all shouldn’t work about Harry — his dumb jokes and headscarves, his four check shirts and one pair of tattered jeans, his cut and paste tattoos — but it does. All the details Nick could use to describe Harry to someone but he’s got no words for that, or for Harry’s sweet face or his steady hands or the way he clings to Nick in the mornings, all sleep-rumpled and grumpy.
“Come on,” Harry whines, breathless. “Do it. Fuck me.”
“I’m savouring the moment, Styles,” Nick says, leaning forward to kiss him, forcing Harry into slow and measured when he’s straining for hard and dirty.
“You’re not,” Harry says when Nick pulls back, “You’re writing in your head. Stop that.”
Nick fucks in a bit too fast after that, so that Harry’s eyes will slide shut and he won’t see Nick’s expression. It seems to work for him, anyway, as Harry gives this gasping groan that Nick would like to record and set as his text alert. They go slow at first, a sweaty pulsing rhythm, until Harry’s hands start to claw at his back and they speed up then, gasping harsh into each others’ lungs.
When Nick was younger — Harry’s age, or thereabouts — he slept with every stranger who looked at him like he mattered. It was a fleeting feeling, Nick realised, and he mattered insomuch as he was sucking their cocks, but it felt like redemption all the same. A month ago Nick was somewhere in East London fucking a boy named Trevor who’d just walked for Emilio Pucci. They didn’t look each other in the eye once.
With Harry, he can’t look away. Harry’s eyes are wide, wild, desperate. It’s — it’s a lot. Nick hates bottoming with people he doesn’t know well. It feels too risky, really. Maybe because of the feverish way Nick always wants it; or because of how it makes him honestly believe, if just for a minute, that he loves the man who’s fucking him; or because after, when Nick is dressing and they say their goodbyes, he sometimes feels like he’s given something away he hadn’t meant to let slip.
Harry doesn’t look afraid. Harry’s eyes are open hands, offering. Harry’s eyes say, yes.
On Thursday Harry teaches Nick how to recognise the tops of vegetables in Mildred’s garden, pointing out tufts of green and hysterically laughing when Nick asks what a turnip is when it’s at home and wonders if it’s fruit or veg.
They’re still giggly when they pour into Mildred’s kitchen, arms filled with grown things. Mildred sits at the table, drinking coffee with her good arm and peering at the local paper through horn-rimmed glasses.
“Morning, Millie,” Harry sings. “We got some good things today. Nick, sit down, I’ll wash them.”
Nick does as bidden, collapsing into the seat opposite Mildred and examining his dirt-encrusted nails.
“Looks like you’ve actually had an honest day’s work,” Mildred tells him, nodding down at his browning skin.
“For the very first time in my long, vacuous life,” Nick agrees, picking under his fingernails. “I would be shunned from my career altogether.”
“Not the first time,” Harry says, over his shoulder and pitched to rise above the sound of the tap. “You do some honest work.”
“Well, it’s a bit useless, isn’t it?” Mildred’s tone is dry, eyebrows raised. “Nattering on about jumpers.”
Nick doesn’t really have a response for that. It is a bit useless. He gets paid to try eye serums and sit in fold-up chairs whilst people walk past him in clothes. What kind of job is that? What does that matter, really?
“It’s not useless.” Harry has shut off the tap and he turns towards them, genial mouth set in an unhappy furrow. “It’s not.”
Mildred shakes her head. “It’s got no practical application. Just a bunch of overpaid socialites spending hundreds of pounds on a scarf. Disgraceful.”
“It’s not.” Harry takes a breath, rubbing at his forehead. “It’s important, like. It is.”
Nick feels a bit lost, and also uncomfortable. He’d really rather just acquiesce the point and disappear upstairs so he didn’t have to have this conversation, but Harry lays a hand on his shoulder, anchoring him to the chair.
Harry takes a deep breath. “So, like, do you think art is important? I mean, do you think it has value?”
“Not something I think too much on, but yes, I suppose,” Mildred says thinly, leaning back in her uncomfortable kitchen chair.
“Well — why?” Harry blinks at her, those wide eyes fixed like he’s trying to transmit a message via eyelid morse code. “It’s got no practical application.”
The crepe-paper skin of Mildred’s high forehead twists. “I… I’m not sure. It’s, I suppose, an expression of our humanity. Good art, anyway.”
Nick wonders what Mildred thinks is good art. He has a feeling they have very different thoughts on this topic. He imagines she doesn’t take too kindly to anyone past the modernists.
“Fashion is art, too, Millie. Like, even more so, because it’s something you carry around with you everywhere.” Harry picks at the table, looking suddenly a bit nervous. “It can make you a different person. It can make you feel like anyone you want to be.”
Nick thinks about Harry at the pub the other night, that shadowed look he got when his mates teased him about something he did when he was seventeen. He wonders who Harry wants to be.
“And yeah, it’s sort of silly, sometimes,” Harry continues, shrugging, “And it’s too expensive and the industry has a lot of problems, but that doesn’t make it useless. It’s important to people. It’s important to me. It’s important.”
Mildred looks at Harry, those blue grey eyes serious over her pursed mouth. It’s strange, after spending so much time with Harry, to see someone whose face is a locked box.
“I love this village. I do, and I like being here, but… I’m a bit different, sort of.” Harry bites his lower lip, pulling it through his teeth. Nick knocks their feet together under the table. “And nobody gives me much guff about it, but I am. I know I am.”
“Harry,” Mildred says, her eyes going soft, and reaches a hand out.
“It’s okay,” Harry says, “I don’t mind. But it’s because of stuff like — stuff like that Nick does, his writing and his telly stuff and that — they make me feel less alone.”
Nick’s stomach caves in a bit, like acid reflux only with more headfuck.
Mildred nods, and straightens back up. That soft expression wipes entirely from her face but the lemon squeeze of her mouth isn’t as harsh as it had been. “I see,” she says, and stands up. “Would you like some tea?” Harry nods, and she looks at Nick. “Nicholas?”
“Uh — yeah,” Nick stutters. “Thanks.”
She nods, curt, and turns to put the kettle on.
If Mildred had been part of Harry’s family, Nick supposes they would have a big emotional moment, now, with embracing and tears and apologies, but she’s not. She’s part of Nick’s family, albeit a distant strain, and they have a row and storm off, usually, and then they put the kettle on. Nick is grateful. He’s not feeling particularly capable of a big emotional moment. He knocks his foot against Harry’s again, twining their feet together so their ankles lock.
The Saturday of Nick’s departure sneaks up on him until suddenly his train is in three hours and he hasn’t packed. Harry helps him collect all the bits and pieces he’s left at his, then drives him over to Mildred’s and watches as Nick tucks everything neatly into his trunk.
“Why do you do that?” Harry asks, squinting at Nick’s hands.
Nick looks down at the tidy array of belongings. “Do what?”
“Roll, ‘stead of fold,” Harry says, motioning with his hands.
“Things wrinkle less this way.” Nick pulls a white shirt from the tight press of fabric and unfurls it. “See, no creases. If I’d folded it, the fabric would crease at the stomach and shoulders. Not chic.”
Harry nods, humming. “Cool.”
“Want to help?”
Harry does, and they work in amiable silence, ignoring any long-trunked zoo animals that may be lurking in corners. Nick forces himself to worry about the state of his Ferragamo boots, whining to Harry about how encrusted with dirt they are instead of spending the entire time staring at Harry’s face and trying to commit every curl of his eyelashes to memory. When they’re done, Harry offers him a ride to the station. It’s all very civilised, really, Nick thinks.
They thump down the stairs with Nick’s luggage and Mildred opens the door to let Harry through to load the trunk into his car.
“Goodbye, Nicholas,” Mildred says, with an expression someone could mistake for kind, if they wanted.
“Bye, Auntie Millie,” Nick says, and, after a moment of hesitation, hugs her. She’s stiff at first, and then she wraps her good arm around him and strokes over the fabric of his blazer. “I’ll tell Mum you’re fit as a fiddle,” he tells her when they part.
Mildred’s expression is now, most definitely, a smile. Critics would all agree. “I would appreciate that,” she says, “But you’re welcome to come round and check again, if she needs further assurance.”
Nick beams, hefting his weekender onto his shoulder. He watches the house as Harry drives away, growing small until the roof disappears into sky and tree and field.
Nick spends the three-hour train journey back to London playing aggressive hip-hop through his oversized headphones and thinking about anything except Harry, stood there at the platform waving whilst the train groaned its way down the track. It takes some effort.
The train gets into Euston at ten past five. Nick intends to get a taxi but he finds himself walking out of the building and past the waiting cabbies, legs moving as if by instinct over the concrete.
The city isn’t too crowded here, but in the press of terraces Nick is never fully alone. The street holds them all: balding men at bus stops and young people on bicycles whizzing to pass older cyclists whose fluorescent gear marks them for safety, which is another word for slow; sensible four-door sedans and flash Mercedes; a man carrying his suit jacket over his shoulder and another in shorts with a Waitrose bag. Farm Fruits & Veg, proudly proclaims one shop. No one looks at him straight on, which Nick appreciates, because he finds himself pressing repeat on Miley Cyrus’s Adore You and his face can’t possibly be doing anything dignified.
There is no world in which Nick is not being a ridiculous idiot. He could phone Aimee, maybe, or Collette, and have a chat and they could yank him out of the quicksand sink of his thoughts, but then he might have to explain himself and Nick — Nick can’t, exactly. It’s stupid. Nick is thirty years old. He had a three week fling with a local kid, and now he’s having a sulk stroll through North London listening to Miley Cyrus on repeat like a thirteen-year-old with an unrequited crush on his best friend’s older brother. This is his life now. Or, maybe, this is his life again. He should get out the Alanis Morissette and have a weep.
About twenty minutes in, the leather strap on Nick’s trunk starts to dig into the flesh of his hand and he realises he has made a terrible mistake. By the time he stumbles down the steps to his front door every muscle in Nick’s weak, indoor body hates him about as much as he hates himself.
Some days, it’s best to just admit defeat. Nick washes his face in his shining silver sink and slathers his skin with one of the moisturisers people send him in the hope he’ll write it up, shucks his travel-worn clothes and goes to bed. He’ll get his dog from Collette’s tomorrow. Tonight is for self-pity.
Starfished on his empty sheets, Nick can only manage a groan when his phone buzzes. He gropes for it without looking, knocking over something that clatters to the ground. He hopes whatever it was isn’t too valuable. Nick swipes his phone on. There’s a message from Harry :) :). It’s an image: a familiar fuzzy lamb nestled in big, grey-jumper-ed arms. Vivienne hopes you had a good journey, the message says. Nick has to press his face into the pillow for a moment before he can reply, heart doing some cutting-edge aerobics in the cage of his ribs.
It really doesn’t help that Nick’s pretty sure Harry’s stolen his jumper.
Aimee swans into Nick’s den of moping and adolescent delusion with a blur of tangerine hair and vintage fur, setting Puppy to exciting yipping as soon as she appears.
“Holy hell,” she says, surveying the lounge with her thin eyebrows nearing her hairline. “You’ve gone savage. You’ve spent too much time in the north.”
Nick scowls from where he’s sat on the sofa surrounded by blankets, Puppy cuddled up to his chest. It’s fine. So what if he’s watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians in a ripped cashmere jumper and joggers he hasn’t taken off since Saturday? That’s not a crime. Neither are the three empty pints of ice cream on the coffee table. Completely fine, totally sane adult behaviour.
“I’m fine,” he tells her with as much dignity as he can muster. It is not very much. Nick is fairly sure there is pizza residue on his face.
“Darling,” Aimee drawls, “I have no fucking idea what is going on in here, but if there is one thing I can tell, it’s that you’re not fucking fine.”
Nick hides his face in Puppy’s fur. She wiggles, like she wants to jump to the floor and go bark at Aimee’s fur coat like it’s an intruding bear, but he doesn’t let go.
“Love, does this… whole thing have anything to do with that Brokeback Mountain babe?” Aimee sheds her coat, shoving aside a crumpled heap of blankets so she can sit next to Nick. “What’s it — Harry. Harry. Who’s ‘funny’.”
“No,” Nick says, and topples sideways so he can sigh expansively into Aimee’s jeans. “Let’s get drunk. Get drunk with me, Aimee. It’s drunk time.”
Aimee, bless her, pats his hair and doesn’t say another word about it. She sits on the toilet and chats to him whilst he showers and then they go down the pub and Nick doesn’t have to be alone for more than the thirty seconds it takes to piss, not even when everyone trickles home because he guilts Collette into sleeping over so her wheezy snores can fill half of his too-big bed.
“It’s just, he’s got really strong arms,” Nick tells Collette, prodding her so she’ll stay awake. “Like, proper — big arms. Arms that can pull little sheep out of big sheep. Like Russian nesting dolls. Only grosser.”
“That’s nice, Grim,” Collette mumbles, shifting her head on the pillow.
“And he dresses all grunge throwback, all these check shirts and 1960s headscarves, and that sounds terrible, but it works. It works and it makes me want to wear a headscarf, which is not something that should ever happen. Ever.”
“No,” Collette agrees, fluffing her pillow. “Sounds like a bad look for ya, love.”
“He makes his own throw pillows, too. He looks at pictures from Liberty on his laptop and then he makes them. That’s an actual thing he actually does. In his actual life. That’s a person in the world.”
“Mm,” hums Collette, distantly. Nick looks over at her. She snores in a hefty wheeze, face lax in sleep.
“Traitor,” Nick informs her. She snores again, and Nick settles back, staring up at the ceiling.
“I really liked him,” Nick admits, quiet in the dim room. “I really… I really did.”
Nick squints at the mirror in the lounge the next morning, prodding at his eye wrinkles. He’s due in the office in forty minutes and he looks slightly horrific, which is to be expected given his hangover, but does he look like he’s completely fine and doesn’t give a shit about what did or did not occur for the past three weeks?
“I’m fine,” he practises, rolling his eyes at his reflection. “It was okay, I guess, just a regular few weeks in the country, nothing special. Whatever, Finchy. This face says, I don’t give a shit.” Nick frowns, prods his forehead again. “Whatever!”
“What's that face you're making, Grim? You poorly? D'you need the doctor?" Collette is standing in the corridor, frowning at him. “I could phone one for you. Is it the hangover?”
Nick bristles. "It’s obviously my whatever face. God Collette, it’s like you don’t know me at all.” He brushes past her and slams the front door on his way out, which is sort of anticlimactic when he realises he’s standing in the stairwell outside his flat in a Dr Dre t-shirt and ratty tracksuit bottoms, and it’s bloody freezing.
A neighbour jogs past, which is offensive on several levels.
Nick turns round and knocks on his own door.
“I’m still stormed out,” Nick tells Collette as he passes her on the way to his bedroom. “In spirit. I just need a fucking jumper. And shoes.”
“And your wallet,” she notes, tossing it at him.
Nick takes the wallet. Nick is a fully functional human being. Nick is thirty years old and has a mortgage and like fourteen jobs. Nick is fine. He’s fine.
Fluorescent light competes with warehouse windows to illuminate the table in front of Nick, an assortment of samples for their upcoming issue. It’s June, and they’re pulling pieces for autumn fashion to feature in their August release, because that makes perfect sense. Gabriela from marketing examines an oversized jumper, nestled between a Polo Ralph Lauren quilted jacket and a Rag & Bone print shirt.
“It’s so great, isn’t it?” Gabriela turns the jumper over, running her manicured fingers over the thick knit. “Hand-knit, British-made, with locally-sourced wool. I thought it would be perfect for our all-English issue. Maybe a sort of country theme? Tweed and wool, traditional with a twist.”
Nick looks down at the jumper, tracing a cable. He wonders whose hands hand-knit it; where the local of locally-sourced could be.
‘Locally-sourced’ has always been just another adjective to Nick, like ‘fair trade’ or ‘grosgrain trim’, something to pad out a blurb and sell a blazer or a trouser sock to people who say things like ‘quinoa is such a diverse grain’. It didn’t mean Harry crouched in that stone barn holding his sheep still so he can shear their winter coats. It didn’t mean Anne waking up at half four every morning to oversee the farmhands bringing in the cows, checking all their legs for injuries. It didn’t mean Gemma turning down four job offers to put stickers on carefully-wrapped cheese for five hours a day.
“Yeah,” he says, voice softer than he meant it to be. “Yeah, that sounds great.”
Text messages shouldn’t be this endearing. It’s a warm July evening in London, and Nick is about to lose ten quid. He’s spent the last regrettable fifteen drunken minutes scrolling through his WhatsApp, lines of emoji and nonsense commentary about the coffee in the office kitchen, pictures of cows and chickens and Harry on a horse, blurry captures of Henry’s new line, rows of nonsensical emoji exchanges that feature prawns extensively. Nick honestly didn’t know they’d been texting this much, is the thing.
“So?” Aimee stares him down, severe eyebrows slanted. “What’s the result?”
“Shouldn’t have taken that bet, Grimmy,” says Pixie, swirling her drink around with a straw. “You’re glued to that thing.”
Nick’s supposed to be counting text messages and defending his honour or whatever, but he can’t seem to scroll past a picture Harry sent him a few weeks ago. He’s standing in a field surrounded by sheep, one of them wearing a distended approximation of a flower crown. He’s holding both thumbs up and grinning so hugely that he should look stupid, but he doesn’t. He just looks happy. Nick bets that Gemma took that picture. He wonders what Harry’s told her. Everything, probably.
Across the table, Pixie and Aimee have lost interest in Nick’s pathetic life experience. Nick’s stomach hurts. It’s not just the alcohol.
Miss you, Nick types. He looks at the words for a minute, stark against the illuminated white screen, and then deletes each letter. He sends a sheep emoji instead, not knowing if he hopes or fears that Harry can read between the lines.
The September issue is a big fucking deal in every fashion magazine, though Nick isn’t entirely sure why. Possibly it has something to do with how they’re all brainwashed from childhood to view September as a fresh start and associate it with frantic material acquisition. When you’re ten, that’s mostly pencils (unless you are Nick at ten, and then it’s a burning need for buckled brogues like some sort of John Galliano pirate), and when you’re no longer confined to a classroom, it’s probably sensible blazers, or summat. Least, that’s what Nick’s mag seems to encourage.
All August work takes over the entirety of Nick’s waking life and no small portion of his sleeping one, which is helpful as when Nick has a minute to breath he generally finds himself going through his photos and staring at the shots of Harry like a complete and utter wreck of a human being, which he probably is. Harry hasn’t been texting as often lately, which is fine. Completely. Obviously. Nick’s busy, anyhow. He has to scale back on telly, which means his selfies take a nosedive in quiff quality, and start in on the fourteen hours a day in an office.
For all he moans about it — constantly, and with tireless vigour — August has always been Nick’s favourite time at the magazine. It’s the chaos. Nick loves chaos. He wants it to be around him all the time, but he also wants to whinge about it and pretend like it’s a real nuisance, because he contains multitudes.
“I hate all reporters,” Matt says darkly in the corridor, carrying a stack of articles in his arms. “You understand nothing about sentence structure. Nothing.”
Nick sticks his tongue out at him, and makes a mental note to buy Matt a fruit basket or some form of alcohol. Nick’s not too great on spelling.
Ian catches his arm next, just as Nick is about to go into his blissfully empty office. “I’ve put the mock-ups for the boots thing on your desk,” he tells him, “I think the language is wrong.”
“I’ll take a look at it,” Nick says, making to move past him.
“Oh, and that — who’s that designer, the new one we’re doing that feature on? Cool hair, acid-wash everything?”
“That’s the one.” Ian grins, all pleased and buttoned-up. Nick rubs his temples. “Oh, yeah, her assistant is coming by with her sketches. I told him to leave them with you, but you should check first to make sure they’re the right ones.”
Nick nods absently and retreats into his office. It’s still slightly surreal that Nick has an office, let alone a spacious one with a nice view and a mint green sofa against one wall. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get over it. He’s squinting at the boots thing when someone knocks on the door, sort of lightly like they’re not fully committed to the motion.
“Open,” calls Nick, and pushes his glasses further up his nose so he can study the piece better. “Ian, I think it’s that —”
All air vacates Nick’s lungs like there’s been a fire drill in his respiratory system. He looks up. Harry stands in the doorway, tall and gorgeous and wearing a stupid hat, holding a hand up sheepishly in hello.
“I — what?” asks Nick, because he’s nothing if not coherent.
“I’m, uh.” Harry looks down, his pigeon-toes shifting. “I’m Lou Teasdale’s assistant.”
“Lou Teasdale, she, like. You’re doing a piece on her, for September.”
“I know. I wrote it,” Nick says dumbly, still staring stricken at Harry’s face, his deer legs in tight jeans that — “Are those new jeans? Did you finally buy new jeans?”
Harry snorts. “Is that what we’re fixating on, then?”
“Well. Yes.” Nick puts the boots thing down and walks to the other side of his desk. There’s a few feet between them, and the office buzzing outside the door. It’s summer now, but Harry’s paler than he’d been in April. Cleaner. “I thought you were — what are you doing in London?”
Harry pushes at his hair, disrupting the perch of his bowler. “Working. And classes, too, a bit. I got into town a fortnight ago.”
“A fortnight? Why didn’t you phone me?” Nick’s voice has gone high-pitched when he wasn’t noticing. He sounds insane. It’s a thing that’s happening. He can’t get his lungs under his control. Harry’s here. Harry is in his office. Harry is a real person and not a dream he made up once on holiday to the country who occasionally texts him photos of cows. “I know we weren’t texting as much but. Still!”
“I was going to — Nick, are you all right?” Harry frowns, moving closer to Nick which makes Nick’s lungs do even more exciting things. “You look —”
“Fine,” Nick says, waving his hands in front of him. Well, tries to say. It comes out all wheezy. Fuck. He’s — oh, fucking hell. Perfect, perfect timing. Nick puts his hands on his knees, lungs whistling like a boiling kettle.
“Are you — Nick, is this an asthma attack?” Harry’s hands are on Nick’s back, big and so warm through the thin cotton of his t-shirt. “Where’s your inhaler?” Hands pat Nick down, ghosting over his pockets. “You promised, you dickhead, where the fuck is it?” Harry sounds nervous, which Nick doesn’t like. Nick also doesn’t like the choking hold over his lungs, currently, as breathing tends to be a treasured pastime of his. He points blindly towards his desk. There’s a rustling and then Harry’s back, warm hands and pressing the plastic inhaler to Nick’s palm.
“See, told you I’d bring it,” Nick tells Harry proudly, once he’s sorted and upright, although he sounds a bit hoarse still.
“Oh my god,” Harry says, putting his fingers over his face. “I — Okay. It’s okay.”
“Hey,” Nick says, pressing a hand to Harry’s elbow, thumb sweeping over the boney jut there. “I — hi. I should have said that to start. Hi.”
“Hi,” Harry says, and suddenly their arms are around each other so tightly Nick wonders if he should keep hold of his inhaler, just in case. “Hi,” Harry says again into Nick’s shoulder. Nick presses his nose to the fragrant skin of Harry’s neck and wraps his arm so his fingers splay along Harry’s ribs, near where his heart should be.
Nick doesn’t know how long they stand there. He’d rather no one ever tell him, you know, in the interest of preserving the dregs of his dignity.
“I should have phoned right away, probably,” Harry says, still holding tight. “Sorry.”
“S’okay.” Nick fingers the fabric of Harry’s shirt. It’s August and he’s wearing long sleeves, which is some serious sartorial commitment. “Why didn’t you?”
“I thought — I mean, like.” Harry pulls back, scrubs over his face. “I was going to once I got everything together a bit more. Life-wise. I didn’t know if you’d want me to. Right away, I mean.”
“Harold. I had a fucking asthma attack when you walked into the fucking room,” Nick says, resigning the shreds of his dignity to the rubbish bin where they probably belong.
Harry grins, kicking out at his foot. “And, I didn’t, like. I didn’t want to be a project. You know?”
Nick looks at Harry in his new jeans and battered hat, the folders he’d been meant to ferry strewn forgotten on Nick’s sofa. “You’re not a project.”
Harry ducks his head again, takes his hat off and musses up his hair. “I feel stupid, now,” he admits, cheeks going pink. “I made myself put it off, a bit. Until things were sorted, but I kept — I kept wondering, like, ever since I got here. What if Nick’s on this street? Or, what if Nick’s in this shop? Or, what if Nick’s in this park with his dog — I kept looking, like. There was this one Jack Russell I saw who chased all these squirrels and I thought, maybe that one, but its owner was a really old lady named Su Lin — she was really nice — but, not you, anyway. Then Lou told me I was meant to run these drawings by your magazine and the receptionist said to take them to your office and — yeah. Here you are. You look —” Harry swallows, hard. “You look really good, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Nick watches Harry’s mouth twist, red and familiar. Later, sometime when Nick doesn’t have a vehement need to snog Harry’s face off, he intends to take the piss out of Ian for the rest of his life for Harry thinking he’s the receptionist. That’s what you get for being so nice, Chaloner, Nick thinks distantly, as he takes Harry’s face in his hands and strokes the line of his cheekbones. Something gives way in Harry’s eyes, some wall Nick hadn’t known was there. What’s left is naked and wanting.
“I was going to ring as soon as I got everything a bit more sorted,” Harry continues. He’s stupidly beautiful. He’s always stupidly beautiful. “I wanted you to think I. Um. I was a success, sort of. I thought it wouldn’t take more’n a week or so, but it’s taking a bit ‘cos my flat’s mostly water damage and boxes and my flatmate — he's called Zayn, he's cool — and I have to shower at a mate’s because we’ve got no hot water and I’m washing half in the sink in the mornings and I’ve got spots all over.”
Nick brushes bits of hair away from Harry’s forehead, which is indeed a little bumpy. “Could shower at mine.” Move into my flat, he thinks at Harry’s sweet face and his nervous toes. Don’t ever leave.
“I’d like that,” Harry says back. They smile at each other wide and stupid, and then Nick kisses him.
Faintly, so unimportant compared to the taste of Harry’s mouth and the feel of his fingers against his back, Nick hears the snap of a phone. He ignores it, far more interested in the baby hairs at the base of Harry’s skull, and then he recognises the familiar evil giggle of Matthew Fincham, who does not deserve that fruit basket at all.
“Fuck off,” Nick mumbles agains the skin of Harry’s lips, and Harry laughs, and Nick flips Matt off around his back.
“Speak to you later!” calls the cackling voice of Fiona, who also will not be receiving a fruit basket of any kind, and then the door closes, and Nick can focus on more important matters. Like whether it’s incredibly unprofessional to blow a fashion designer’s assistant in one’s office, say.
Harry is Nick’s date to the GQ end of London Fashion Week party in February. Nick’s never had an official date for these things; he’s usually just turned up with Alexa or Pix or someone and chatted up some pretty actor or model to fumble anticlimactically in the toilets with after a few drinks. Harry nearly talks him round to walking, but at the last minute he acquiesces to Nick’s pleas for a cab.
They’re in Burberry: the print of Nick’s dark blue suit nearly the inverse of Harry’s lighter blue button-down. Nick thought they made it fairly subtle, with Nick’s striped t-shirt beneath the patterned suit giving a different vibe than Harry’s skinny tie and brushed grey jacket, but it’s possible his friends will still give him hell. He’s decided he’s fine with it.
“Floral pocket square?” Nick asks, fiddling with the fabric, “Or do you like the plain coral better?” Harry’s face is tense, which is odd. It’s only pocket squares. There are no wrong answers with pocket squares, except no pocket square. “Fuck it, I’m going with floral. It’s all patterns all the time for me from here on, Harold. I hope you like argyle, because that one is next.”
“D’you think they just, like. Think I’m your plus one?” Harry’s eyes are trained on his knees, fingers tucked together neatly.
“Well. You are my plus one,” Nick says, which must be the wrong answer because Harry’s face does this awful swoop. “Not in a bad way! I mean, that’s just — you’ve got my plus one seat. That’s all.”
“I don’t want to do all this, just, like. On your coattails.” Harry worries his lower lip through his teeth.
“Not even if they’re made of finest silk?” Nick asks hopefully. Harry smiles with only half his mouth, which is unacceptable, really, and Nick will not have it. It’s full smiles or nothing. Dimples or bust. “Haz, we all use the connections we have. That’s how the world is, yeah? It doesn’t make you lesser.”
“Just, if they only want me around because I’m your — uh, boyfriend, I don’t. I don’t think that’s fair.”
Nick knows it is entirely inappropriate to beam at the word boyfriend at the present moment. He knows it, in his heart, and also his mind, but not in his face, because he’s beaming a bit. Harry looks up and rolls his eyes, knocking their shoulders together. “No one’s going to give you a job or wear your clothes because you’re my ‘uh, boyfriend’. That’s terrible qualifications.” Nick untangles Harry’s hands and entwines one with his, their long fingers overlapping. “Knowing people can get you in the door, yeah, but it won’t keep you at the party. Nowt wrong with any of that, anyhow.”
“So I’m not just some country kid you’ve shacked up with?” Harry’s smiling more now, but there’s a shadow in his eyes that says people make jokes about what they’re afraid of. Nick should know that line, after all.
“You are some country kid I’ve shacked up with,” Nick says staunchly, squeezing at Harry’s fingers. “And that’s not just fuck all. You know how to save baby sheep things, and the names for different kinds of cows. You also happen to be talented as hell at clothes and that. You’re both. That’s allowed.”
“Okay,” Harry says, and presses a kiss to Nick’s cheek.
Nick pays for the cab and they go into the dinner, past the initial flashes of cameras to the restaurant beyond, dimly lit and packed with everyone from Gordon Richardson off Topman to James Corden off… telly. He spots Alexa by the bar with a martini in hand, chatting to some tall bloke in a smart suit. Harry’s eyes are wide and a little hungry as he takes in the room, and Nick wants to give him everything he has ever wanted. Everything. He’d buy him a pony, but Harry’s got one already, and it’d just be superfluous.
“Wow,” Harry breathes. “Is that Harold Tillman?”
“Go,” Nick says, almost laughing. A whole room filled with actors and models and fashion types, and Harry gets starstruck over the seventy-year-old chairman of the British Fashion Council. Of course. Weirdo. “Go on. Charm the fuck out of the whole damn world.”
Harry kisses him hard and fast on the mouth and it’s all Nick can do not to beam as he proceeds to do just that.
Nick’s bedroom will never be properly dark. The lights are off and the curtains closed but streetlights leak through the cracks, letting long stripes of yellow cross the bed where he lies on his front, trying not to fuck back too obviously on the fingers Harry’s got in his arse.
“More, you dickhead,” Nick demands, and Harry’s breathy laugh follows.
“That would, like. Make rimming a bit different, if that were the case,” Harry says, snickering.
It’s a funny image, but Nick’s a bit preoccupied with Harry’s fingers stilling in him. He’s got goals, here, and Harry is not helping him achieve them. “Oh my god,” Nick huffs, reaching back blindly to clutch at any bit of Harry he can reach. “Hurry the fuck up or I’m going to flip this over and ride you into the bloody floor, Haz.”
“Yeah, hold on,” Harry breathes, all throaty like that doesn’t sound too bad. Nick agrees, but he’s feeling lazy and would rather Harry build up a sweat than him. Harry wears it so well, is the thing. It’s not entirely fair. There’s a click of a bottle opening and some rustled movement, and then Harry’s lining up and pushing in, blunt and hot and strange, pushing a groan from Nick’s mouth as he clutches at the sheets. Harry kisses the back of Nick’s neck, light, and runs his palm down Nick’s ribs.
“Yeah?” Harry asks, voice all shot and trembly.
“Yeah,” Nick gasps, and Harry starts up again, harder and deeper until Nick is shivering and sweating and pulling the sheets from the bed because it’s so fucking good, and he’s — he’s not afraid of it, of the raw gasps tearing from his mouth and he’s not worried Harry will leave in the morning and he’s not wondering if he’ll wake up alone. There’s nothing in his body but raw, red-hot want, and a hungry void in him that wants Harry to fuck into him forever, like he’ll fill those caverns in Nick’s chest if he just keeps going.
Harry stops, sliding out, and Nick recognises that pathetic whine as himself, although it bears considerable resemblance to Puppy when she’s being denied a walk. “It’s okay,” Harry says, pushing at Nick’s hips until he rolls over and the room opens up. “Just want to — want to see you.”
Nick wants to say something to that, make a joke out of it, maybe, or say I love you because all his cards are on the table and he might as well give Harry the pot, but Harry’s hitching his hips up and fucking him again and Nick’s mind goes blank but for the deep and electric buzz of want, and please and more.
“Fuck,” Harry whimpers, face pressed to Nick’s neck. He’s got a death grip on Nick’s leg, pushing it up so he can angle decently. “Fuck, Nick.”
It doesn’t take long for Nick to come, fingers frantic around his cock whilst Harry pleads yes, go on, please, in his ears, and not long after that for Harry to give his odd barnyard groan and spill into the condom, collapsing sweaty over Nick’s chest.
Nick gets his arms around Harry with some effort, palming the wide expanse of wet skin, an easy slide to twine in the nape of Harry’s neck.
“I love you,” Harry croaks into Nick’s collarbone. “Just, like. Thought you should know.”
If he hadn’t felt shaky before, Nick certainly does now. He grips more tightly to the reassuring firmness of Harry’s body, feeling a bit like he’s anchoring him to the bed so he doesn’t tremble right off the sheets onto the hardwood floor.
“I’m going to send Auntie Mildred a car,” Nick informs him, wondering if feeling will ever reappear in his fingertips. “A proper nice one. Maybe a Porsche. Or a private jet.”
“Shut up,” Harry laughs, ribs quaking under Nick’s fingertips.
“Eight million fruit baskets. A pony. A Carolina Herrera gown she can wear to the Sunday market. I’m serious, Harold. Don’t laugh at my generosity, here. I’m being very kind in my gratitude.”
“You’re such a wanker.” Harry digs his fingers into Nick’s ribs mercilessly and Nick bucks, squawking a bit and groping for his wrists to quell the assault.
“None of that,” Nick tells him once he’s been proper captured. “Rude. Ruining the moment, you are.”
Harry’s face is tilted down over Nick’s chest so he can only see the sweep of his eyelashes, but Nick would put a year’s wagers on his rolling his eyes right now.
“By which, I mean. I love you, too.” Nick coughs, that reflexive terror igniting in his chest for a minute. “Obviously. You — yeah. I love you.”
Harry looms up over him, his eyes the softest green. “Cool,” he says, and Nick is ready to mock him for his romantic eloquence but Harry kisses him, and Nick needs to devote his attention to that instead.
Nick’s Louis Vuitton trunk looks up at him with what Nick fancies is a sort of belligerent tilt of the hinges.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Nick tells it crossly, shoving his t-shirts in a tighter formation. “You can fit this. You can.”
Wheeze, says Nick’s trunk, as Nick attempts again to get the lid to close.
“Yeah, fuck you too,” Nick grumbles, and sets to rearranging his scarves, stuffing them inside the toes of his boots to conserve space.
“Grim?” Harry leans in the doorway, peering down at him with that bemused brontosaurus look of his.
“Haz, would you sit on the top of this for me? I can definitely get it to close, I think, I just need some —“
“Nick, how many boots are you taking with you?”
Nick stares down at the trunk, deliberating. “Seven,” he says, finally. “Oh — no. Six. No, seven. Seven counting the ones I’m wearing on the train.”
“Are any of them wellies?”
“You should bring some wellies.”
Nick sighs heavily. It is a great trial, being practical. “Fine,” he says.
“You’ll need to leave some shoes behind, love.”
Nick makes a grumpy sound, digging through his belongings. Maybe he can part with the second pair of Chelsea boots. Maybe.
“We’re only going up for the week,” Harry tells him, and arms come around Nick’s chest to pull him back into Harry’s orbit. “You can manage on four pairs. I’ve got faith in you, and that.”
Nick disagrees on that point, as one never knows when one might need a brogue over a lace-up, and he could very easily go into a shame spiral if he had to wear wellies with a dress pant. Harry’s mouth brushes the skin of Nick’s neck, teeth digging into the flesh of his shoulder, which is a very developed argument, actually. Harry’s got odd taste, and apparently he’ll still love Nick in naff desert boots, so. Swings and roundabouts.