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Speak a Little Louder

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"Oh, great," Louis says, with the rancor of a person who has spotted their greatest enemy.

"What is it?" Niall says. "Seen your outfit in a window reflection?"

Louis' clothes are particularly ragged this morning, as if he were trying to get fired. Holes in the knees of his jeans, holes in the collar and elbows of his jumper, holes in the bottom of his shoe. Niall tries to take looking professional more seriously, his suits pressed and clean, and his cardigans buttoned up properly. Nobody has noticed yet that it's the same suit and the same cardigan that he rotates every other day, because nobody cares about him. He's recently graduated uni and has a job working at the university he's just graduated. He spends his time sitting in a chair behind a desk being told to order desks and chairs, then being told to send the desks and chairs back and order new ones, or approving what students can post on bulletin boards. It's miserable and useless and he hates it, but it's all right until he can figure out what he really wants to do.

"This clown," Louis says with a disdainful shake of his head. He's a teaching assistant at the university. Niall has never seen him in action, but he'd like to sit in on a class with him as teacher, just to see how he's able to terrorize everyone.

The street is relatively crowded, so Louis could be talking about anyone. Then there's a break in the mass, and Niall spots him. A guy with a light smattering of paint on his face wearing all black and waving his arms about in vague but purposeful gestures. The people gathered round him applaud politely when he pauses for applause, like parents clapping for their child who does something unimpressive but they don't want to discourage him.

"What, you don't like street performers?" Niall says.

"Not this one," Louis says. "I've seen him before. He's not even good at it. You can hardly tell what he's miming."

Niall finds himself drifting towards the circle to watch the street mime more closely. He's got more than a few minutes before he has to be to work. Louis goes on without him, muttering that Niall is a sucker.

The crowd has thinned out significantly, people having moved on after giving up their few moments of spare time to him. His eyes lands on Niall almost at once and his face animates into a deranged, painted mask of excitement.

"Hi," Niall says.

The mime waves. He points at Niall's tie and messenger bag, then then puffs out his cheeks then rubs his thumb against the fingers on his other hands.

"No, I'm not important enough to make a lot of money," Niall says. He shouldn't have stopped. Louis was right; this mime isn't very good. He's not really entertaining or friendly or anything like that. He's just odd.

The mime releases his breath like he's spitting out a mouthful of water and does a double take. He smiles wide and seems genuinely surprised that Niall understood what he meant. His long hair sticks to his cheeks and smears some of the paint, revealing lines of skin. It makes him look even stranger, like he's got gills or something. He walks a circle around Niall, his arms folded over his chest, surveying him.

"I'm Niall," Niall says, fidgeting. "Have you got a name?"

The mime stops right in front of him and brings his face close to Niall's. He puts his hand over his armpit and pops his fingers out, wiggling them, then does the same over his chest and below his bellybutton.

"Hair?" Niall says.

The mime nods excitedly, clasping his hands together and widening his eyes.

"That's a weird name," Niall says.

The mime wilts and rolls his eyes. Niall doesn't know if he's taken in by his mime essence or if the guy just has really bad posture, but he really does look like he's deflated like a balloon not blown up all the way.

"Jesus, I feel like I'm in The Little Mermaid," Niall says. "Did a sea witch steal your voice?"

The mime rakes three of his fingers through his hair and flips it back.

"Hair? Hairy?" Niall says. "Harry? Is that it?"

The mime - Harry, apparently - throws his hands up in the air. He draws an invisible star with his finger and plucks it out of the air to give to Niall.

"Is it a gold star?" Niall says. He takes it and pins it to his lapel, then feels extremely foolish. It's not a real star, for God's sake. Harry nods and smiles at him, that same taken aback smile that gives the air of being surprised at being understood.

"I've gotta go," Niall says. He's definitely going to be late. Nobody cares but him, but he does care. "Nice talking - or not talking, but nice, you know, doing this with you."

Harry steps through an invisible door and closes it behind him. Niall gets to work and does nothing but think about Harry.

~*~

The next morning Niall gets up earlier than Louis would possibly ever imagine getting up and makes his way to work alone. He stops at the cafe on the way and buys a muffin, thinks about it, and buys an extra.

Harry is sat alone on a bench on the same part of the street he was the day before. There's hardly anyone out yet, let alone people who are paying attention to him, yet he's still performing. He holds an invisible banana in his hand and meticulously peels it. When he notices Niall approaching, he offers it to him.

"No, thanks," Niall says. "I like solid foods. How about you? Have you already eaten anything that exists?"

Harry shakes his head. The paint on his face is slightly different from the day before, but Niall can't quite place how. It's a bit pinker, maybe, giving him the appearance of a real person. He gives Harry the other muffin he bought and sits beside him. They eat together in silence.

Suddenly Harry jerks up from his seat as if someone yanked him out of it. He leans forward, bent over almost in half, and squints. Then he begins walking backwards away from Niall in a way that suggests he's trying to walk towards him, like a strong current is carrying him away to a waterfall. There are more people on the street now, and some gather around to watch.

"What's wrong with him, Mummy?" Niall hears a little girl ask from the front of the crowd.

"Dunno," a woman says. "Malfunctioning robot, maybe?"

"Dying jellyfish," a man in the crowd mumbles to them.

Niall watches Harry closely. He doesn't know why he feels like he has to guess what Harry's doing. They're not in his parents' living room playing a game of charades or anything. It's not important. In fact, it's silly that he's wasting his time here at all. If Louis knew, Niall would never hear the end of it. But he liked seeing Harry light up when he guessed right, the dimples in his cheeks when he smiled.

"Caught in a gust of wind, I reckon," Niall says, loud enough for the people at the front to hear. Harry grins and lets the wind push him back further, grabs on to a lamp post and holds on for dear life. He tries to pick himself up off the ground using only his arms, but he's tall and skinny and obviously doesn't have the core strength, so it just looks like he's awkwardly wrestling the lamp post.

"Now he's picked a fight with an innocent lamp post," Niall says.

Harry immediately changes his story and goes along with what Niall's said. He pretends to roll up his sleeves, even though he has real sleeves he could really roll up, and holds up his fists as if getting ready to box. He ducks and dodges punches thrown at him by nothing, then acts like he's taken one of the chin, his head flying back grotesquely. People in the audience gasp in horror as he collapses on the ground, his legs sticking straight up in the air. Niall is impressed that he was able to pick up a new act so quickly and to act it out so fully. Nobody else seems to like it as much, though, as the crowd disperses quickly.

Niall helps Harry to his feet, then shuffles his feet awkwardly. He's got to get to back to real life.

Harry wiggles his body back and forth, undulating his hips like some sort of novice belly dancer who’s really bad at it. His mime isn’t cohesive at all. He does from one thing to the next and it’s all disjointed and doesn’t make any sense.

Harry puts his hands together and raises them above his head, his shirt rising up to reveal leafy tattoos on his pelvis. He sticks his tongue out to flick it and darts suddenly at Niall like he’s going to bite him. Niall is weirdly turned on by the entire display, then he feels like an idiot.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re a venomous snake,” Niall says. He pretends to play a flute to calm Harry down, which really puts in perspective for him how far gone he is. Harry lowers his arms and bows, then slowly rights himself up. He’s back to normal after Niall’s charming, his smile pleased and breathless.

"Good show. Maybe I'll see you again, yeah?" Niall says. "I come the same route pretty much every day. I work just up the street, at the uni."

Harry nods, his lips pursed in a frown. He kicks an invisible football away from him and in the direction Niall needs to go. Niall walks away a few steps, then turns around and kicks it back. Harry jumps from the left to the right, preparing to block it, then holds his crotch and crumples in mock pain. Niall just shrugs and keeps going.

~*~

Niall is at work playing air guitar along with the radio, some song he recognizes but doesn't know by heart. He realizes what he's doing is technically mime. All day, he keeps noticing mime stuff.

He and Louis meet for lunch and one of the professors pukes in a trash can in the lunch room and looks generally like shit, and Louis mimes drinking from a bottle, indicating that the professor is hungover as hell. A student passing by asks if he'd like to give money to a fundraiser, and Niall mimes checking his pockets and shrugs, pretending he left his wallet at home. Everyone uses mime so much in their daily life, but as soon as somebody makes it their entire life, it becomes some crazy thing that's not a valid thing to do. Niall agrees with that line of thought, actually - can't exactly make a decent living flopping around on the street acting as though you have props - but he's not here to judge. He doesn't know Harry's life, and if mime makes him happy or keeps him sane, then all the best to him.

In fact, he’s a bit jealous of the way Harry lives. Niall would never be able to do that, perform on the street for scraps of food or spare change. He’s chained indoors to a desk and he’s grateful he’s getting a paycheck, but there’s something about the freedom of being roaming the streets and performing that makes Niall’s heart pang.

He’s seen buskers here and there, playing guitar with their guitar cases open, singing songs from their souls because they had to. He thinks, in another world, he’d like that. Being a roving troubadour, bringing song into people’s lives every day. It all sounds very romantic. Then he shakes his head to relieve himself of the fantasy. It’s not practical and he knows it. He can’t just leave his paying job for a life he’d prefer.

~*~

One morning Harry is crawling on the pavement on his belly. For a moment Niall is worried he’s been attacked and he’s hurt, so he rushes up to help him. Harry is actually fine and in the middle of performing for absolutely no one else.

“I thought you were dying,” Niall says.

Harry shakes his head. He draws a circle around himself, then puts his hand inside it, his fingers folding up as his hand is meant to disappear in the hole.

“You’re stuck in a hole?” Niall says.

Harry nods frantically. His entire face is strained and panicked, like he really is struggling to hold onto the rim of a deep, dark hole that’s threatening to swallow him up. He may not be good at miming, but he’s got a good face.

Niall reaches down and takes Harry’s hand. Harry’s palm is soft and sweaty, dirt from the pavement sticking to it. Niall wants to clean him up and take him home. He wants to see what Harry really looks like, without all the makeup. They haven’t been hands-on with their crowd participation until now, and their skin touching, palm to palm, sends a jolt through Niall’s entire body. He pulls Harry up off the ground, or rather, out of the hole. He doesn’t have to pretend to struggle, though because Harry isn’t helping at all and he’s very deceptively heavy for being so long and lanky.

He holds on to Harry’s hand for a few moments too long, and Harry seems confused about it, his face screwed up in thought.

“Sorry,” Niall says. “Are you all right now?”

Harry picks up the hem of an invisible skirt and curtsies, the clasps his hands to his chests and swoons, as if to say, my hero.

“My pleasure,” Niall says, bowing gracefully.

~*~

"You're in a good mood," Liam says as he rings up Niall's order. "And hungry, too. Why are you buying so many muffins?"

“I’m going to see someone,” Niall says. He winces. Is he really thinking of Harry that way now? They’re ‘seeing’ each other? That’s pathetic. He and Harry aren’t dating or anything. They see each other for a few minutes every day. “And the muffins are just - for eating.”

"I should hope so," Liam says. His eyes look past Niall and out the window behind him. "Oh, look, Zayn!"

Zayn, sitting at one of the tables surrounded by open sketchbooks that look suspiciously like they’re full of Liam, shakes his head out of his artistic daze.

"Oh, he's back," Zayn says.

Harry is out on the street knocking on the air. He knocks twice, then waits. Through the propped-open door of the cafe, Niall can hear the crowd answering, "who's there?" Harry mimes rowing a boat, moving the paddle from one side to the other. The crowd murmurs amongst themselves. "Boat?" Someone guesses. "Kayak?" Another person says. Niall rolls his eyes. It's obviously a canoe. Nobody gets it right, and the joke peters out, and the crowd moves on.

"I love that guy," Liam says.

"He posed for one of my figure drawing classes once," Zayn says.

"Is he mime all the way down or just from the waist up?" Niall says.

"All the way," Zayn says.

Niall shudders, though not entirely unpleasantly.

"He's a riot," Liam says. "Here, give him this from me."

Liam hands Niall a real, yellow banana. Niall goes across the street to Harry and gives him the muffin he bought and the banana, then continues Harry's joke without him even asking.

"Who's there?" Niall says.

Harry - breaking the ancient tradition of no-props mime, Niall is sure - uses his banana to paddle.

"Canoe who?" Niall says.

Harry hands Niall an invisible paddle and keeps rowing his own, waving over his shoulder for Niall to come along.

"Canoe help me paddle?" Niall says.

Harry gets so excited that he grabs his face and pretends to kiss him all over, his lips stopping far enough away from Niall's flushed, wanting skin that he can't begin to imagine what it would really feel like.

~*~

Niall goes home after work. He eats, he watches telly for a bit, then he climbs into bed and tries to sleep. His mind can't help but wander to Harry. He's always gone by the time Niall gets off work. He wonders where Harry goes after they see each other in the morning, where Harry lives - if he lives anywhere, if he lives in an invisible house with an invisible family that he pretends are really there, if he's an eccentric millionaire who lost the plot a long time ago and chooses a life on the street rather than people going after him for his fortune. He hopes Harry has a nice, warm bed to sleep in. Niall pictures a long, wide bed full of mimes who all look identical to Harry because their makeup is all the same, some sort of House for Wayward Mimes. He pictures Harry sleeping under a newspaper on the street. Then he just thinks that Harry seems fed, and taken care of, and happy. Harry's sweet, smiling face, his dimples coming out. That's what Niall falls asleep to.

 

~*~

Harry is trapped in a box. Niall can't believe he's doing this old bit. He wonders if there's some sort of mime school where all the mimes go to learn Mime 101. First lesson: trapped in an invisible box.

Harry flattens his hands in the space in front of him. His fingers are long and the tips of them curve back slightly, so it actually looks like he's stuck inside a sphere. Maybe one of them hamster balls, Niall imagines. He says this to Harry and Harry instantly pushes the giant hamster ball and starts running away down the street. He circles around a small crowd of teenagers waiting for the bus, who shout something at him, then rolls back in front of Niall. He points at a spot on the ball and mimes a key going in a lock.

"You're locked in there?" Niall says.

Harry nods.

"Maybe it's for your own good," Niall says. "You seem the accident-prone type."

Harry frowns, but it's hard to tell because his makeup is a painted on smile around the corners of his lips. Niall's just really looking hard at his mouth is all.

Harry reaches out with both arms and pretends to yank Niall in by his collar. He hovers his hands just over Niall's real collar and takes hold of an invisible collar that doesn't excist and pulls on it. Niall pretends that his body is attached to the invisible collar, than Harry has yanked him in.

"What's this hamster ball made out of? Platform 9 and 3/4? I can just walk through like like I'm a ghost?" Niall says.

Harry smiles proudly and waves his hands around, as if to say anything is possible. Niall realizes he's never heard what Harry's voice sounds like. He doesn't know if Harry has a voice.

"Harry, can you talk?" Niall blurts.

Harry stares at him for a few long moments.

"You don't have to," Niall says sheepishly, feeling like an idiot for asking. "I just wanted to know if you can."

Harry nods after a brief pause. Niall mentally breathes a sigh of relief. He's glad that Harry has the option to speak to him. Maybe one day they'll meet when Harry isn't performing, and Harry will say hello, and Niall will say hello back, and they'll have a nice chat. Niall would like that.

Niall is suddenly very close to Harry. Their bodies are pressed tight together, like they're in an enclosed space and can't move.

"Are we in the box again?" Niall says. His breath ricochets on Harry's cheek and back against his own lips.

Harry turns his face slightly, his nose brushing the tip of Niall's nose. He places both of his hands on the air behind Niall. Niall doesn't know if there's a crowd, or where they are anymore at all. He just wants Harry to kiss him. For real, though, not pretend.

The air behind him apparently opens, because Harry ducks down under Niall's arm and steps out of whatever tiny box they were locked in. He holds his hand out and helps Niall exit the box as well. This is stupid. Niall can't believe he's disappointed that a guy he's never talked to and whom he's only known for a few days didn't kiss him. He doesn't even know Harry, not really. He's just a weirdo on the street who happens to be cute and do fun stuff with him for a few minutes. Niall doesn't know him any better than anyone else on the street does.

Most of all, he feels fooled. Harry pretends all day. Of course he's been pretending to like Niall more than anyone else. Of course he doesn't want to kiss a stranger. He doesn't even want to talk.

~*~

Niall avoids Harry's side of the street the next day. He can't help but look for him, but he's not going over there. Not anymore. Harry, who isn't busy with a crowd yet, spots him. He casts an invisible fish hook out across the street and pretends to be pulled along by Niall. He cranks the reel, obviously hoping Niall will be caught by him, but Niall isn't playing along today. He keeps moving, past Harry, past the cafe, until he's at his desk and feeling worse than he's ever felt before about anything.

~*~

Harry is on the opposite side of the street he's normally on. When Niall approaches, he practically sprints up to him, holding up one finger. Niall sighs.

"It's okay," Niall says. "I'm not angry at you or anything. I just didn't want to pretend. Just for a little while."

Harry bends down and plucks imaginary things out of the pavement carefully gathering them in the crook of his arm. It's not until he ties an imaginary ribbon around them and hands it to Niall that Niall realizes it's meant to be a bouquet of flowers.

"For me?" Niall says, taking the invisible flowers. There’s a crowd now as well, children telling their parents they hope they fall in love with a mime someday and old women cooing at them. Harry gestures for Niall to open an invisible card that seems to be attached to the flowers.

“Open the card?” Niall says.

“It says ‘I’m an insufferable twat and I’m a fucking mime and there is no card or flowers,’” Louis, who’s making his way to work, shouts from the front of the crowd.

Harry scowls, his white face paint making him look like an angry child ghost. Then he closes his eyes. On one eyelid he's written "I'M" and on the other "SORRY". He opens them again, pleading and sad.

"It's fine," Niall says. "I just thought, I don't know. I thought we had something. But that's not, you know, what you do. You're a street performer, right? I can't fall for a street performer who fakes everything."

Harry shakes his head hard, denying what Niall has said. He traces a shape over his chest, his two fingers drawing a heart, and breaks it off from his body. He gives that to Niall as well.

"Oh," Niall says. "Really?"

Harry nods.

"Ugh," Niall says. "This is really stupid. Like, what am I doing? You're a mime. I'm a human being."

Harry backs up so he's standing a couple yards apart from Niall. He mimes spinning a lasso by his hip, switching it from hand to hand, getting crazy with it.

"Just throw it already," Niall says.

Harry tosses his invisible lasso. Niall gets caught in it and he puts his arms down by his sides and shuffles closer and closer to Harry as Harry pulls him in close. Harry puts his arms around Harry, his hand at the small of Niall's back, at the nape of his neck. It all feels very romantic, except for the fact that Harry is a mime. All the way, from head to toe, inside and out, he’s a damn mime, and Niall really likes it.

"Do you want me to kiss you?" Harry says.

Niall is shocked into silence. Harry's voice is deep and slow, like a lazy river, and his lips just barely graze Niall's own. He doesn't speak, can only nod yes.

Harry dips him back slightly and kisses him. Niall feels stuck inside the kiss and doesn't want to get out. They kiss until the crowd that's gathered around them claps delightedly. Niall opens his eyes and sees face after face smiling delightedly at their display, Louis among them appearing happy yet disgusted. Liam and Zayn are peeking out the window of the cafe at them and applauding as well.

"You're a terrible mime," Niall says as Harry rights them up.

"I'm not a mime," Harry says, his voice washing over Niall like a pleasant rain. "I'm a performance artist."

"Shut up and kiss me again," Niall says.

"For real?" Harry says.

"For real," Niall says.