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Like we stood a chance

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Before

It’ll make a good story, she thinks, all the way in the very beginning, before they’re even properly introduced. And she knows that’s a bad basis on which to pursue someone, but their eyes catch for a second backstage and Selena lifts her eyebrows, and Taylor grins, giddy with the possibility. She’s done more for less than asking Ed to put her in touch with Harry Styles.

And then he’s sweet, is the thing. He’s sweet and he’s charming, and his texts are nearly always properly spelled. They send each other silly pictures and bad puns, and when he calls, they trade cat stories, and Taylor thinks she’d like to have him on the same continent some time and try kissing him. And when she admits that, he says he’d like that too, in his slow deep voice that makes him sound older.

And then he drops off the face of the earth for three months. Spring slips into summer, and she tracks his tour on twitter, and she realizes this is everything everyone warned her about, that he’s nice but flighty, generous with his time until he finds someone else to be generous with. She wants there to be another girl, or one last phone call, or something to make a nice clean break. But there isn’t. She dates a Kennedy, and that’ll be a good story too.

Summer

Taylor sits out on a dock and thinks about oceans and listens to someone else’s family stories. She thinks she’ll buy a house, to keep the feeling that she has on the windswept beach, even if the context of Connor is more compelling than Connor himself. He’s a nice boy, but he’s still a work in progress, figuring out what he even likes and cares about.

Taylor lies in a hammock in New England and texts Harry Styles a picture of the Atlantic with the message, “Sea you later.” It’s sort of a kiss-off, but he sends back a picture of a plate of roast beef with the words, “Until we meat again.” It’s the first message she’s gotten from him since May, and she thinks maybe that’s the end of it, a silly pun, but she’s wrong.

*

The first time Nick kisses him for real, it’s so late it’s early, and they’ve been watching hours of a Kardashians marathon. Harry would have thought he was finally over his jetlag if it weren’t for how it’s four in the morning and he’s still up giggling on Nick’s sofa, eyes blurry but not tired yet. Nick’s new flat feels lived in now, in a way it didn’t the last time Harry was in London, and it’s nice being here on his own, without Aimee or Gillian or anyone. Maybe it’s just the woozy late night thing, but it feels sort of inevitable when Nick leans over and presses his mouth to Harry’s, and Harry has a split second to decide it’s not a joke before he wraps his arms around Nick’s neck and clings. They’ve snogged in clubs before, in that drunken, laughing way you snog people in clubs, but there’s no one else here now, and Nick’s hands on Harry’s hips pull him in.

Harry wakes up the next day in Nick’s bed, fuzzy on the night before but still sort of giddy. He makes Nick go to the shop since there’s nothing in for breakfast, and he kisses him whilst cooking poached eggs, stirring so they don’t stick in the pan. Aimee comes in as they’re still eating, and Harry’s glad he’s wearing pants at least, although the love bite on his neck is telling a good enough story.

“Guess I should spend the night out more often, huh?” she says, stealing a sip of Nick’s coffee.

“Or get your own blooming flat and stop sleeping on my sofa.” He bats her away from his coffee cup.

“Isn’t getting laid supposed to make you less irritable? Aren’t there supposed to be endorphins or something?”

“You’re an endorphin,” Nick mutters, but he’s looking at Harry. They’d only kissed last night, tender and slow and then eager and full of teeth, and they haven’t talked about why that is, or what it means. Harry thinks maybe it’s the start of something, and it is, but not in the ways he wants.

August

Taylor’s heading home from a Starbucks run when her phone buzzes, and she digs one-handed in her purse, clinging to her latte with the other. It’s a text from a foreign number she doesn’t recognize, and it says, Hey, it’s Harry. This is my new number. xx She stares at it for a minute before she realises it’s probably a mass text, that Harry Styles is sending kisses to everyone in his address book. It’s basically a perfect metaphor, and she makes a note of it, in case it comes in handy later.

*

They don’t go on dates, which is fine with Harry because it means he doesn’t have to lie to anyone when they ask him who he’s dating. But they hang out just like always, and then at the end of the night, he goes back to Nick’s when no one else does, and they have slow, sleepy sex, and Harry always gets to be the little spoon after. He drives Nick to work in the evenings, and sometimes he hangs around the studio when he gets there because there’s nothing he’d rather do with his evening than try to balance biros on Nick’s quiff and make paper airplanes out of his notes. It’s good. It’s fun and easy, and that’s what Harry wants right now. He immerses himself in Nick’s company for a while, starts looking for a proper house in London because this feels like a life he could come home to.

September

For Taylor, the VMAs will probably always bring back the ringing in her ears and the coppery taste of panic at Kanye West interrupting her speech. She’s over it, but when you plan things and manage things and choose how to represent yourself all the time, the disruptions are always going to sting more than you want them to. But she’s glad to be wearing a fierce suit the next time she sees Harry Styles, glad that she’s coiffed and poised and trying to channel some kind of warrior queen as she passes him backstage to change for her performance. Later she hears that he sounded bashfully interested in her, and she doesn’t really know what to do with that. Harry had his chance and he let it slip away, but still, she spends all of the late-night sushi dinner with her band convincing Selena go home with her. Selena is a great friend, and Taylor rewards her leaving a fancy afterparty by making her watch a YouTube video of Harry being mocked by the rest of One Direction for saying she’s a great girl about a hundred times.

“This is the worst sleepover,” says Selena, burying her face in a throw pillow. “The worst. And I’m including that time in Aspen when you didn’t realize the mulled cider had whiskey in it and you spent an hour crying about Joni Mitchell having throat surgery.”

“That wasn’t a sleepover,” says Taylor.

“You were in my bed,” says Selena. “Anytime you’re in my bed it’s a sleepover.”

“Is that what you say when it’s Justin too?” She’s grown so bitter about Justin Bieber and his entire, like, way of life in the last few months. She would gladly stay in Selena’s bed every night if it would keep Justin out of it.

Selena gives her a long, hard look. Then she sighs. “Show me the video again. He looked more genuine last time. I think maybe he’s actually interested in you.”

But Harry doesn’t call her, or show up at her door, or do anything but walk past her at an awards show.

*

“What do you want for your tea?” says Nick, flipping through the Jamie Oliver he’s got balanced on Harry’s knee. It’s Saturday afternoon, and they’re still in pants on the sofa, toast crumbs strewn on the coffee table, lazy and domestic. They haven’t talked about anything but food and how hungover they are and what to watch on the telly all day.

“Dunno,” says Harry, jogging his knee until Nick takes the hint and turns the book so he can see too. “Are you going to cook?”

“The surprise in your voice is so disheartening, Harold.”

“No,” says Harry, elbowing weakly at Nick’s ribs and frowning. “I’ve just never seen you cook.”

“It’s 30-minute meals, innit? How hard can it possibly be?”

Harry doesn’t believe him at all. But he takes the book and flips gamely through it until he gets to a spinach and feta filo pie. “That looks nice,” he says, pointing to the picture.

“Mmm,” says Nick, running his finger down the list of ingredients. “I have none of these things. Perfect. That sounds ideal.”

“I can pick something else,” Harry protests.

Nick kisses him on the cheek and shoves Harry’s leg off his lap. “No, no, love. Spinach pie you want, and spinach pie you shall have. Jamie wouldn’t steer us wrong.”

Harry laughs. Everything Nick says just makes it sound more doomed to failure, but Harry will follow him anywhere today. There’s no place he’d rather be.

 

October

 

Arriving at the BBC Radio 1 Teen Awards feels a little like stepping into enemy territory, and Taylor moves like a spy, checking around corners and listening for the rumble of Harry’s voice. But inevitably, when she sees Harry, he’s not even looking at her. She’s looking for a bathroom backstage and he’s leaning in to whisper in Nick Grimshaw’s ear. There’s something so intimate in the way their heads tilt together, the little smile Nick gives Harry and the way Harry echoes it back. She watches Harry press a kiss to his cheek, and there are so many things that could mean (he sends kisses to everyone in his address book!), but Taylor turns away anyway, walks off into the bustle of backstage and doesn’t look back. She feels a little bit lost, and she deals with it the only way she knows how, by going out on stage and nailing it.

When she got to London, she’d thought maybe it would be a chance to reconnect with Harry, figure out where they stood. She’s still reluctantly sure they could be good together, and there’s something attractive about his flightiness, how completely and selfishly Harry he is about things. But instead she goes back to her hotel after the show, orders a chocolate tart from room service, and skypes Abigail, who understands when she doesn’t want to be a pop star for a while.

*

Harry never thought what he had with Nick was exclusive, and he never expected it to be, but when he shows up at Nick’s after a week of promo, he doesn’t expect to find a stranger in boxers drinking coffee with Nick in his lounge. He has never felt out of place in Nick’s flat, but he can’t walk up and kiss him with someone else in the room, so he just stands there making small talk, still holding his overnight bag, as if he hadn’t come straight from a hotel in Leeds prepared to leap into Nick’s arms.

Nick looks sympathetic, but he still lets the man stay to eat his toast, and when he’s gone, Harry feels just a bit hollow, waits in the lounge while Nick showers and gets dressed. He cuddles into Nick’s side on the sofa and stays there until Nick has to get ready for work, but it’s not as good as it sometimes is, not as easy as he wants. Harry starts to wonder if maybe you’re supposed to talk about your relationship, even when you’re not sure you’re in one.

*

Taylor is preparing for the whole publicity process to start again, playing her new songs until they come easily, practicing the answers to interview questions with Meredith, who doesn’t care. She paces her living room in LA while reviewing her schedule with her publicist, and she doesn’t even go out. She anticipates the guessing game about her songs and tells Meredith that maybe she’ll just be single for a while, live her life on her own terms and make Selena come for sleepovers when she’s lonely. Except that Selena’s wrapped up in the crumbling on-again part of her on-again, off-again romance, and Taylor doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. She doesn’t want to keep telling Selena she deserves better, and she can’t tell anyone else or it’ll be a “feud” she doesn’t need. It’s all a careful balance, and she knows it.

What that leaves her with though is an empty house and her journal and her thoughts. And an album that’s already starting to get her notice and buzz. She has to fly to New York tomorrow, and she’s got a suitcase sitting open on her bed just waiting for her, but she can’t concentrate on what to put in it. It’s always like this just before an album release, so many things to keep track of, so many moving parts. And New York always scares her a little, feels like it might try to swallow her whole if she lets it.

 

November

Congrats on the album! It’s great xx, the text says, and Taylor wonders if Harry Styles will ever stop taking her by surprise, if he’ll ever even keep in touch for the length of a normal conversation.

Thanks! Excited for yours! she texts back. And then she puts her phone on the nightstand and goes back to the search for the perfect red velvet cake recipe on her laptop. Harry hasn’t answered one of her texts since August, and she doesn’t expect that to change. But then her phone buzzes again.

I hear you’re coming to London, Harry says. Do you want to catch up? I didn’t mean to let things slide.

It’s not even an apology, but it acknowledges that he deserted her a little bit, left her to wonder. She’s torn because she’s in Nashville now, and she could just tell him that, cut him off before he tries anything, but she doesn’t. I get there Saturday, she texts back, not asking how he knew, or why he bothered to remember.

*

Harry books a private dining room at the restaurant in Taylor’s hotel, and he’s nervous in spite of himself. If Nick can sleep with strangers, then Harry can see what it’s like to go on a date with a girl he likes a lot in her texts. A girl who said she’d like to kiss him once. But he hasn’t been dating, hasn’t had to impress anyone in a while, and he keeps checking his hair in the car window on the way there. He’d asked Lou to do it properly in exchange for him watching Lux all afternoon, and he has to be careful not to touch it. He’s also wearing a jacket and a shirt instead of the tees he’s been lounging about in, and he reckons he’ll have to get used to that again when they leave for promo in America tomorrow. Already he’s had to accustom himself to a world where he doesn’t spend all day on Nick’s sofa in his pants, and nothing else will be as tough as that.

Taylor’s already there when he arrives, in red lipstick and a tight black dress that stretches across her thighs as she stands. She’s taller than he is in her heels, and Harry’s a bit scared of her in a way he never was when they were texting. But he thinks he likes it.

“Hey, stranger,” she says, kissing him on the cheek. “Long time no see.”

“Hiya,” says Harry. “I’m sorry that we didn’t catch up at the Teen Awards. I’m not really sure why that is, actually. You were great though.”

Taylor smiles and slips back into her chair. “Thanks,” she says. “You were great too. You’re huge here.”

“I’m huge everywhere,” says Harry cheekily, before he realises that’s got to be the worst thing to say on his first date with Taylor Swift. “By which I mean a huge idiot.”

She laughs. She looks so lovely and put together, and not like someone he’d texted puns to all of last spring. “I’m glad you asked me to hang out.”

“I’m glad you accepted. I know it’s not ideal, with you just arriving today and everything.”

“Well, you’re leaving tomorrow, right? Seems like we’re running in opposite directions a lot. Not just one.”

“May have to change the name of the band,” says Harry.

A silent waiter detaches himself from the wall and comes over to ask them still or sparkling, and Harry has a first look at the wine list. She asks him to choose something nice, and he turns to the waiter for recommendations, making thoughtful noises until he hears a name he likes. Every time he looks at Taylor she’s got this little knowing smile on her face, and he just wants to know what’s behind it. If he’s going to do this, he’s going to do it properly.

“Did you bring Meredith with you this time?” he asks.

Taylor shakes her head. “Not for just a couple of days. She’s really chill, but she’s still a cat. She’s hanging out with my mom in Nashville.”

“Does she mind that? Do you mind that?”

“It’s okay. It just means that if I hear someone knocking things over in the middle of the night, it’s actually a burglar and not just the cat.”

Harry laughs. He thinks about the times when Thurston is at Nick’s with Aimee, clattering around in the hallway in the mornings, whining to be let out. Harry’s tripped over him in the kitchen more than once. “My friend has a dog, like, part time, and it always takes a bit of getting used to when he’s there. He’s not very big, so you’d think it would be fine, but it’s different.”

“How does a part time dog work? Is that the kind of thing you can rent here? Because I heard London was getting a cat café, but that’s a step beyond.”

“The dog is his friend’s, but she’s just moving into a new flat so they’re there a lot. What’s a cat café?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a café where you can drink tea and pet cats. It’s basically the best idea.” Taylor uses her hands to talk when she’s excited, and he likes the fluttering energy of them, the way she doesn’t hide her excitement.

“It sounds pretty cool. Have they got them in America?”

“Maybe. They’re big in Japan though. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” agrees Harry. “We’re going to Tokyo in a bit. Maybe I’ll pet some cats.”

“A little pussy might do you good,” says Taylor, eyes sparkling with her own boldness. Harry can’t even formulate a comeback. Deep down he’d sort of worried she’d be boring, that she would be nice but bland in the way American pop stars often seem. It’s hard to tell much from text messages and waving hello at awards shows. But she’s like his friends, like the people he sees by choice.

“I’ve heard that, yeah,” he says finally, and looks back at his menu. He might be blushing, but he isn’t sure.

They compare their promo schedules over plates of upscale, subtly French food, and Taylor asks before stealing a bite of his fish. She’s doing so much, going so many places, and ultimately it’s just her. “I don’t think I’d be able to do this without the rest of the boys all the time.”

“Well, I’ve got my band. And my stylists. And my mom sometimes. I’ve travelled with the same people for a long time. So it’s not like I go to new places and I’m just alone. Not usually. And then even if I am, I’ve got friends all over the place. Like, I know this English guy in a boy band, so when I’m in London…”

“If he remembers to make plans…” Harry adds sheepishly.

“Maybe next time I’ll invite you somewhere,” Taylor says. “When you’re in LA, if that isn’t too soon.”

“It’s not too soon,” says Harry. “Have they got a cat café?”

“No, but I can make finger sandwiches and introduce you to Meredith.”

“That sounds better than a cat café, honestly. I’d love to come.”

“Good.” She smiles into her wineglass.

Taylor gives as good as she gets on funny tour stories, and she laughs with her entire body. Harry finds himself leaning over the table, bending in towards her like a moth to a flame. An hour goes past without him noticing.

“Split this chocolate mousse thing with me?” Taylor says, holding up the dessert menu. “I eat dessert by myself too much.”

“I could definitely help with that problem.” She orders coffee and he orders herbal tea, and every time their spoons touch Harry smiles.

Finally, Taylor sets her spoon down and says, “So, look, I don’t want to be every stereotype you’ve ever heard about me, but this is a date, right?”

“Yeah,” says Harry. “I reckon it is.”

“Good,” says Taylor. “That’s what me and my cute dress thought too. But if you want to do it again, there are some things you have to be ready for.”

She goes from casual to professional so fast Harry can’t even say exactly what changed. But he nods attentively.

“Everyone’s going to ask you about me. Everyone’s going to ask you how you feel about having songs written about you. And even if we only go out a couple of times, they’re going to ask you about that for years.”

She’s apologetic but firm, and Harry was prepared to blithely reassure her that he knows what he’s getting into, but he’s realising that he’s not the most famous one at the table this time. He nods anyway, slowly thinking it through. “There are worse things, yeah? Than all of that? I can write songs too.”

“If you need help, I have plenty of experience. And for what it’s worth, it’ll be great publicity for your album.”

“Taylor Swift, you are a ruthless businesswoman.” Harry grins and reaches for her hand. Her fingers feel delicate in his, but her grip is strong when she squeezes back.

“Think about it, okay? Everything. I’m not looking for something that goes badly. I’m trying to be a little more reasonable this time.”

“I could use some reasonable,” says Harry. He can’t help but think of Nick, how Harry thought they were doing fine not setting any boundaries or talking about it at all. And then suddenly that didn’t feel so good anymore. “I reckon I should tell you, I got my heart a bit bruised recently. I’d like to not do that again.”

She folds her other hand around his. “Do you want to talk about that? The bruising?”

“Bad first date etiquette, innit?” Harry says, ducking his head. “But sometime we can talk about it.” It’s not as though he and Nick aren’t friends anymore, but it’s already different, and it’s going to have to be more different if he wants to properly date Taylor. He doesn’t know what to say about that. And as casual as he’s been among Nick’s friends, he’s barely ever had to confront coming out. It feels strange to have to tell her something about his sexuality just to explain why he’s not sure he wants a friend with benefits.

“When you’re ready,” says Taylor.

The waiter slips the bill onto the table almost without Harry noticing, and he lets go of Taylor’s hand to get out his card.

“Do I walk you to your door now?” asks Harry, once he’s paid. “I’m not sure how this works in a hotel.”

Taylor bites her lip and flips her hair back over her shoulder. “You could come up for a little while, if you like,” she says.

Harry swallows his surprise. “I would.”

Walking behind her to the lift, he sees the low back of her dress for the first time, the long, pale line of her spine and the way her hair brushes her shoulder blades. She’s so effortlessly sexy, and he tucks his hands in his pockets because he’s not sure if he should touch her. To this point, it hasn’t been terribly awkward to have her security guy nearby, but with the three of them in the lift, Harry feels the need to make conversation instead of staring at Taylor’s bare shoulders.

When they get to Taylor’s door, the security guy slips discreetly into the room next door, and Taylor hesitates, key in hand. “Do you want to come in, or should I say goodnight here?”

Harry wonders if there’s something he’s supposed to say, a script he should recognise. “Do you want me to come in?”

Taylor slips the key card into the lock and opens the door, holding it for Harry. He follows her in.

*

Taylor has to admit, it’s been a long time since she kissed someone who knew what they were doing, but her first kiss with Harry Styles doesn’t disappoint. Harry pulls her in with one big hand against the small of her back, and his mouth is soft and lush, opening gently over hers. She feels all shivery and weak kneed, and it’s the sort of first kiss she can sink into. With her heels off, they’re about the same height, and she likes the greedy way he presses forward when she bites his lower lip.

They kiss standing up until Taylor tugs his lapels, pulling him down onto the bed so they can lie side by side. She feels reckless and pleased as he slides his hand up her back, strokes the fall of her hair.

“This is nice,” Harry says, sleepy eyed and warm. His mouth is gorgeous, and she can’t help but imagine things she won’t do on the first date.

Taylor nods and kisses him again, sliding one leg up over his hip and pulling him in tight. Harry cups her thigh, fingers smoothing over the fabric of her stockings, but every time she thinks he might push too far, his fingers spreading against the hem of her dress, he stops and moves back into safer territory. She never has to say the firm “no” she always has ready when she’s with boys, and it makes her want to let him take liberties, touch her in ways she hasn’t been touched in literal years. She hasn’t gone past second base with a guy since Jake, and even though she’s wearing a weird stick-on bra that makes her second bases hard to get to, she can easily imagine Harry’s hands on her skin. She’s tilting her hips in closer to his when Harry’s phone buzzes in his pocket.

He sighs and ducks his face into the side of her neck, kissing her there too.

“I’m guessing that’s not good,” Taylor says.

“I set an alarm for midnight because we’re flying out tomorrow morning, and I can’t stay late since I’ve still got to pack.” He lifts his head to nuzzle his nose against hers. “But I want to.”

It’s too much to admit that she wants that too, so she just leans back enough that she’s not cross-eyed and says, “So you should go?”

“Yeah,” says Harry reluctantly. “But we’ll hang out in LA, right? Finger sandwiches and a cat and everything?”

“Definitely.” She disentangles herself and lets him sit up. Her hair is knotted up in the back, badly enough that she can feel it, and she’s glad she can’t see the state of her supposedly smudgeproof lipstick. “Do you need me to call the concierge for a cab or anything?” she asks, smoothing down her dress.

Harry shakes his head. “Nah, I’ll be alright. See you soon, yeah?”

“I’ll call you when I’m back in LA, okay?”

She walks him to the door, and he kisses her on the cheek. “This was really nice. Thanks for giving me another chance.”

“Thanks for deserving it.”

As soon as Harry disappears down the hall, Taylor immediately switches to bedtime mode, teeth brushed, face scrubbed, pajamas on. Then she curls up in bed and Facetimes Selena.

“Hey, where are you?” Taylor says, because she’s not going to go into gory details if Selena’s in the studio with a bunch of dudes Taylor doesn’t know.

“Home,” says Selena. “Trying to decide if it’s too late to have lunch, or if it’s basically just dinner now.”

“Girl, isn’t it nearly five?”

“Well, I slept in.” Selena looks tousled and easy, and Taylor likes seeing her without the armor she seems to put on when they go out. There hasn’t been enough of that lately. People have given her so much crap about Justin, and whatever Taylor thinks, she hates to see her friends hurting. “What’s up? Aren’t you in London?”

“I am definitely in London. I had a date.”

“Oh my god, a real date? With an English gentlemen?” She does the accent so badly that Taylor has to laugh.

“It’s not quite a Mr. Darcy situation, but,” she brings the phone right up close to her face, “it was Harry Styles.”

Selena grins, and Taylor thinks she would probably be clapping her hands if she weren’t holding the phone. “That is as close to Mr. Darcy as you’re gonna get, Tay. How was it?”

Taylor bites her lip, but she can’t stop smiling. “It was really great. It was better than I expected. It’s like, I know better than to believe the hype, you know? But I still sort of thought he might be a jerk. He left me hanging for so long after we started talking last spring.”

“He wasn’t a jerk?”

“He was so sweet, and I started telling him about cat cafes and he was totally into it. He was just really easy to talk to. And he’s such a good kisser.”

“Ooh, how good a kisser?”

“We made out for at least half an hour. And he didn’t try anything.”

“With that mouth of his, I bet he could try a few things though. I bet he’s basically an expert in a few things.”

Taylor feels all tingly considering that. Of all the people in her life, Selena’s the one she talks to about sex. Selena doesn’t judge her, and she will always keep Taylor’s secrets. “Believe me, I know. I almost asked him to show off his skills.”

“On the first date? You did not!”

“Well, no, obviously I didn’t actually do it, but I thought about it. He had to go home.”

“You sent him away because you wanted him too much, huh?”

“No, he had an early flight. But if he hadn’t…” She shrugs. “Who knows?”

“Is there going to be a second date?”

“He’s going to be in LA for a while, so we’re going to hang out when I’m back. Maybe I’ll even see you while I’m there.”

“If you don’t decide to stay in bed with Harry Styles all weekend.” Selena cups a hand around her mouth to whisper. “I hear he’s got a really big dick.”

“Shut up. That’s the dumbest kind of rumor. How did you even hear that? And why would I even care?” She can hear her voice going a little high pitched and weird as she remembers the joke Harry made at dinner; huge everywhere, maybe not such a joke. Taylor has never in her life cared about the size of a boy’s equipment, and she’s not about to start now. But she can’t help thinking about it, about what that’ll mean if they do have sex.

“You totally care,” says Selena. “You are caring right now all over your face.”

“You’re so bad. Don’t get started on this. I may not even like him on the second date. Or Meredith may not like him.”

“You’re going to take him to your house and introduce him to your cat? That’s definitely not neutral second date territory.”

“When have I ever been neutral about anything? I already gave him the ‘you don’t want to date me because people will say nasty things about you’ talk, and that didn’t scare him off.” Taylor hesitates. “There is one thing he said though. At dinner, he said he’d just had his heart bruised. Not broken, just bruised. But I’m not sure it’s not some kind of rebound thing.”

“Did you know he was dating someone? Before?”

Taylor shakes her head. “I had no idea.”

“Did he say anything else? Do you know what happened?”

“I said he could talk about it when he’s ready. I was trying really hard to not be a jerk about it. But obviously I want to know.”

“You’re still going to introduce him to your cat though?”

“Yeah, I’m totally serious about making it work if Meredith is into it.”

She loves making Selena laugh, the way it warms her up inside. Suddenly she wishes she was in LA, having a movie marathon in Selena’s bed, Selena giggling helplessly into her shoulder, the smell of Selena’s perfume nearly as familiar as her own. Harry Styles has shaken her up, and however much she loves London, it’s an ocean away from anything like home.

“Promise me we’ll hang out before I leave LA next time,” Taylor says.

“Promise,” says Selena. “One hundred per cent.”

“Good.” Taylor lies down and pulls the comforter up to her chin.

“You should go to sleep, honey,” says Selena.

“Probably,” agrees Taylor. “Thanks for taking my calls.”

“Always. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Taylor ends the call and scrolls through Twitter until her eyes start to cross and she’s ready to sleep.

*

It’s very weird for Harry being at X Factor rehearsals and not having to actually do anything. Weirder because it’s not even the X Factor he’s used to, so he can’t catch up with people he knows while he waits for Taylor. Everyone who sees him is obviously wondering what he’s doing there, and Harry’s not used to this sort of awkwardness. But Taylor winks at him from the stage as she’s finishing her first run-through of her song, and that’s nice, makes him feel like he’s not just an alien who’s wound up on the wrong planet.

While Taylor’s up on stage discussing blocking for her performance, Harry’s phone buzzes. Are you back in London yet? says Nick’s text, and Harry feels a little swoop of excitement in spite of himself. He’s been trying to create distance the past few weeks, especially with how busy they’ve been on promo, but all it seems to have done is make Nick chase him. He’s never gotten so much as an ‘I miss you’ off Nick before.

He tells Nick he’ll be home tomorrow, but he does it by text. A month ago, he would have phoned, and it hurts that it’s different now. But he’s decided to make it different. Taylor Swift is going to take him home with her after this, and that has to be enough to make up for it. When they finally get to leave, he can’t hold her hand or touch her at all, but Harry’s impressed by their clean getaway from the car park. It’s nearly sunset when they reach Taylor’s house, certainly past teatime, but as they get out of the car, Taylor says, “I really hope the food’s okay. I put it in Tupperware and everything, but the sandwiches might be kind of soggy.

Harry can’t help the incredulous look that crosses his face. “You were serious about the tea.”

Taylor looks at him like he’s crazy. “Of course I was. I just figured I needed to prep in advance, since I knew we wouldn’t get back here in time to make anything.”

“That’s, like, well in advance though.”

Taylor pats his arm and says, “You’ll have to get used to me making plans, Harry. That’s one thing I’m very good at.”

He follows her into the house, which seems to be entirely full of photos and complicated floor lamps at first glance. It reminds him of Nick’s house, a bit, the accumulation of stuff that Taylor obviously just likes, even if it doesn’t match. Meredith is asleep in the curve of a sofa in the living room, curled into a ball like a throw pillow, and Taylor strokes her head to wake her, rubbing her fingers between the cat’s folded ears. Meredith blinks up and yawns. Harry knows this is an important moment.

“Meredith, this is Harry. Can you look after him while I make tea? Make sure he doesn’t steal anything.”

Harry sits tentatively down on the sofa beside the cat, puts out an open palm for her to sniff before he runs his fingers down under her chin. She closes her eyes and seems to accept this tribute, and Taylor takes a step away, like she’d been prepared to swoop in and remove Harry’s hand if necessary. “Hi, Meredith,” says Harry. “You’re awfully pretty, aren’t you?”

“Just give me, like, ten minutes,” says Taylor. “Take off your coat, hang out.”

Harry pets the cat, long strokes down her back, until she uncurls and rolls over to show her belly. He has no idea if she’ll maul him if he takes the hint, but he tickles her belly a bit, listening to Taylor moving around in the kitchen. She has one of those American kettles that whistles, and Meredith’s ears perk at the noise. “Yeah, you’re all right,” says Harry. “There might even be salmon sandwiches or something for you.”

Meredith stretches and rolls a bit more, and Harry feels calmer petting her, rubbing her velvety ears and the soft spot under her chin. After a few minutes, she starts to purr. “We’re getting along just fine, aren’t we, Meredith? We could be good friends, yeah?”

When Taylor comes out of the kitchen carrying a three-tiered tray of sandwiches and biscuits and two delicate china plates, Harry stares a bit. “Did you buy that so we could have tea? Or did you just have it lying around?”

“Oh, I definitely already had this. I have so many fancy dishes, like, you probably don’t even want to know. I will pounce on any opportunity for a tea party.” She sets down the sandwiches and the plates on the glass-topped coffee table, and Harry peers at them while Taylor slips back into the kitchen.

“That is definitely salmon salad,” he says to Meredith, pointing at the pink-filled ones on the bottom tier. “You are so in luck.” She lifts her paw, beckoning him back to petting her. Salmon salad is apparently not as high a priority.

The next thing Taylor appears with is a silver tea tray. Her tea set reminds him of the toy one Gemma got from their gran when she was seven or eight, which was covered in painted roses and trailing ribbons. It’s peculiarly old fashioned, and just looking at it makes him want to sit up straighter and enunciate properly.

“Too much?” says Taylor.

“No, it’s awesome,” says Harry, shaking his head. “Most of my friends don’t even have a matched set of dishes. I don’t even have a house at the moment.”

Taylor looks puzzled by that, but she recovers. “That’s a totally valid lifestyle choice. As long as you like it. But I like being at home. I need a home in the places I’m going to be a lot or I get a little sad. So does Meredith.” The cat’s ears flick at the sound of her name. Taylors sits down in a wingback chair and picks up the pot. “So, shall I serve you some tea?” she asks, in a tremulous accent that’s almost Welsh.

“That would be lovely,” says Harry. It feels like playacting, and Harry poshes up his accent for the sake of it, puts his little finger out straight as he sips his tea.

“The sandwiches are salmon on the bottom, and cucumber in the middle. And on the top tray are orange-lavender shortbread cookies.”

“Did you make them as well?”

“That’s the other good thing about having a house. You can just bake all the time. You can live in a place that just constantly smells like cookies.”

“I used to work in a bakery,” says Harry. “But it mostly smelled like bread.”

“Ooh, I haven’t gotten the hang of bread making yet. I have a bread machine, but it’s in Nashville, and I’m a little afraid of it.”

“I think the trickiest part of bread is just letting it rise properly. Like, waiting for it instead of trying to bake it whenever you want. I’m not very patient. So it’s probably good I mostly swept the floors and made change.”

“You should tell me more about making bread sometime. I can be very patient.”

“Maybe we’d be a good team then.”

Taylor smiles at him over the rim of her teacup, mysterious and thoughtful. Harry likes her so, so much. He only has a couple of hours before he has to head to the airport, but he’s happy to spend them here. Even if he feels a bit like he’s getting away with something, kissing her in front of the cat.

Taylor makes gorgeous noises with his mouth on her neck, and Harry would like to take her to bed and see what she sounds like with his mouth in other places. He’d consider going to his knees in the middle of the living room if he thought she’d let him eat her out like that. But she’s a lady and he’s a gentleman, and those are the roles they need to play right now, on this tentative thing that’s probably a second date. So the honest truth is, Meredith is the only pussy in the room getting any attention.

“What time is your flight?” Taylor asks against his lips after what feels like a very long time. She’s straddled over his lap, long legs folded, and he has to lean up to kiss her, his hands on her waist.

“Nine,” says Harry. His dick is straining in his jeans, and he shifts a bit under her, trying to angle it better along his thigh, hoping she doesn’t notice. Her cheeks are pink, but he can’t tell what she wants, whether she’s feeling the way he is at all.

“You can’t stay another day, right?”

“I have to be in London tomorrow. Or I would.” Her shirt is riding up a little in the back, and he rubs his thumb against her bare skin, just above the waist of her jeans.

She kisses him again, dives into it hungrily, her hands squeezing on his shoulders. Harry pulls her in closer, holds on tight. It’s fully dark outside by the time she pulls away and stands up, starts clearing away the tea stuff without a word. Harry wonders if that’s her response to being turned on and not wanting to do anything about it. In any case, he gets up to help.

*

Harry hasn’t seen Nick in two weeks, and it’s probably better that when he does, it’s in the middle of Children in Need, surrounded by people so any intense conversation is put off. Nick is fond and funny as always, but it stings a bit now. Harry hasn’t been able to say, It hurt seeing you with someone else, but it’s tough that Nick doesn’t know, hasn’t even guessed.

“Do you want to come back to mine after this?” Nick asks as they’re grazing at a catering table. “Are you staying?” He’s doing the late shift, until two, and Harry could be out of here by eleven if he wanted, on his way back to Ben’s and a night of sleep that doesn’t involve an airplane seat.

“Sure,” says Harry. “That’d be nice.”

Nick nods. “Good. We can have an ill-advised kebab and discuss what you got up to in LA. I was beginning to think you’d gone off me.”

Harry pauses in front of a fruit plate. “I hadn’t. I didn’t. You’re one of my best friends.”

“Alright,” says Nick, looking all serious for a moment before he slips back into his normal cheer. “Glad to hear it.”

It’s lucky Niall shows up at that moment to guide Harry out for their interview, and Harry doesn’t have to say anything more. He falls asleep on a sofa in someone else’s dressing room sometime after midnight and wakes up with Nick stroking his hair.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” says Nick. “Ready to get out of here?”

“Yeah,” says Harry. He drags on his coat, which he’s been using as a blanket, and follows Nick outside to a cab. He dozes off again on Nick’s shoulder, probably even before they’re off the studio lot.

The next thing Harry knows, he’s being bundled down the steps to Nick’s flat, strong arms holding him up as he stumbles bleary eyed through the door. Nick doesn’t even bother with conversation, just sits Harry down on the end of his bed and gently removes his boots. “Why don’t you get undressed before you fall asleep this time, love?” says Nick, and Harry nods, even though he’s not sure he can.

Harry can hear Nick cleaning his teeth as he struggles with his belt, and he almost gives his jeans up as a lost cause while Nick’s in the en-suite, but when he finally peels them off, along with his shirt, it’s so much easier to crawl under Nick’s covers and make himself at home among the familiar-smelling pillows. He stays awake long enough for Nick to come back in and spoon around him, holding tight to Harry’s waist. But when Nick presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth, Harry tenses and says, “Don’t.”

“Don’t?” says Nick. He nuzzles the side of Harry’s neck instead.

“I may have a girlfriend,” Harry tells him. He doesn’t know, they haven’t said, but he can’t imagine Taylor would like him kissing someone else.

“We’ll talk about that in the morning then,” says Nick.

Harry puts a hand over Nick’s on his belly and Nick weaves their fingers together. Harry doesn’t know anything else until morning.

 

Harry’s so used to waking up in Nick’s bed to kisses and roaming hands that waking up alone is disorienting, even though it’s what he asked for. It’s grey outside and he has no idea what time it is or where Nick’s put his phone. He wraps the duvet around himself and drags it out into the lounge with him.

Nick’s dressed in pyjama bottoms and a giant jumper, sat at the table with his glasses on and his laptop open. “Morning,” says Harry hoarsely. “Is it morning?”

“Morning for a couple of hours yet,” replies Nick. “Y’alright?”

Harry nods, sinking into the chair beside Nick’s. “Do you have stuff to do today?”

Nick reaches over to brush Harry’s hair out of his eyes. “I thought I might spend some time with my very busy friend, Harry. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to get in touch with him.”

“I was in America. And I did answer your text. I said I would be back, and now I am.” He doesn’t know why he feels guilty; there’s nothing he’s done wrong. But Nick looks disappointed in him, and then like he’s trying not to be, and that’s the worst thing.

“Who’s your girlfriend, Haz?” Nick asks, with a little flicker of a smile.

“I mean, maybe she’s not my girlfriend yet. We’ve been on two dates. It’s recent. Like, just the last week. But Taylor Swift.”

Nick grins. “Wow, old Swifty. That is quite an accomplishment. You thought you’d like having some songs written about you?”

“Don’t say that. It’s an old joke, and she doesn’t like it.”

“Sorry. Won’t happen again. What’s Swifty like in private then?”

“She’s funny and sweet and really, really smart. And she cooks a lot.”

“Opposite to me then,” says Nick.

“No,” says Harry meekly. “You made me a pie.” And then you had sex with someone else, he doesn’t add. It’s not Nick’s fault they didn’t discuss it. And Harry’s so often not around. He doesn’t want Nick to feel like he’s done something wrong, but it still hurts.

“When are you going to find out if she’s your girlfriend?” asks Nick.

“I’ll see her when we’re in New York in two weeks. I reckon we’ll talk about it then. Or before. I don’t know.”

“Well, tell me when you figure it out. I think congratulations will be in order.”

“I will,” says Harry. “Thanks.” Nick meets his eyes for just a second too long, and Harry feels as though he’s losing something, something he never quite had. “Have you eaten? Do you want me to make breakfast?”

“There’s nothing in,” says Nick. “Except wine and Diet Coke. But I could take you out.”

“Sure,” agrees Harry. He shuffles off back to the bedroom to get his clothes.

 

December 2

Taylor takes his hand in the car, holds it very gently so he has one last chance to pull away. And she would understand if he did. In spite of the fact that dating her is obviously a great business decision when his band’s in the middle of promo, it may not be a good personal one. Harry threads his fingers through hers. “Once we step outside like this, you’re going to be Taylor Swift’s boyfriend whether you like it or not.”

They’d had The Relationship Talk over breakfast at her hotel this morning, and Taylor wants to say it was the red-eye flight to New York that made her slightly teary about it, so she’d had to excuse herself to the bathroom after Harry had said all the right things (I understand. I know. I don’t mind. I want that.). She’d stared at her reflection in the mirror over the sink and realized that doing things sensibly didn’t make her feel less like she was falling too hard. At least not with Harry.

So now they’re headed for a carefully coordinated date to Central Park Zoo, a car full of security behind them that made Harry stare. “Is it always like this for you?” he asked.

“We’re making a statement today,” Taylor replied. “This is how it has to be, if I want people to know where I am, and I don’t want to get mobbed.”

Harry had looked kind of shocked by that, and that’s why she’s giving him one last chance to bail, a chance he’s not taking. “I’m ready to get started being Taylor Swift’s boyfriend,” says Harry, squeezing her hand. “You went to a lot of trouble for this.”

He’s great at keeping his cool in the face of photographers and fans, and Taylor likes watching him with other people, how similar they are in talking to fans. He’s kind and attentive, treats every single one like she could be a friend. And Taylor likes the way he looks at her when she kneels down to talk to a little girl, the way he watches her with a smile. She tucks herself in close to him as cameras snap to either side of the path, and she knows how good they look together to outsiders too.

Harry’s stylist brings her daughter to join them at the zoo, and it’s like a dress rehearsal for meeting his family, shaking Lou’s hand and promising they’ll take good care of Lux. Taylor holds Lux up to see the penguins through the smeared glass, and Harry makes up silly names for all of them.

“Your uncle Harry’s funny, isn’t he?” Taylor says, taking her hand as they step out into the sunshine again.

“She thinks I’m an idiot, actually,” says Harry, reaching for Lux’s other hand. Lux toddles along between them, and Taylor thinks what a good photo op this makes, what a tidy, pretty future they could have together. It’s not a good feeling, knowing she’s the kind of person who holds a little girl’s hand and considers her own image, but she can’t help it.

“There’s some kind of analogy to make here about people watching animals in cages,” Taylor says, leaning into Harry’s side by the sea lion pool later. There are so many people nearby, not talking to them, but taking up space in their vicinity while they pretend to do something else. Lux is apparently transfixed by the sea lions themselves.

“How are you at balancing a ball on your nose?” replies Harry.

“Hmm, not great. How about you?”

“Terrible. But I’d quite like being rewarded with fish.” He wags his eyebrows, and she shuts her eyes, blushing furiously.

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

Harry nudges her with his elbow. “Too far? I don’t actually know if I should apologize.”

She looks up and shakes her head. “Don’t. It’s good to know you like fish. I’ll keep that in mind later.”

“Yeah, definitely do.” He winks at her, and she doesn’t even mind that the rest of the world will see it because she’s got all of Harry’s attention, every bit of his smug smile just for her.

Later, when Lux is back with her mom, they clutch hot coffees and walk through the park until Taylor’s not sure she remembers what warm felt like, and Harry says, “Do you want to go back indoors?”

“Yeah,” Taylor agrees, curling her arms around herself. “You could come to my hotel.”

Taylor rests her check on his shoulder in the car, nudging her cold nose into the hidden warmth of his collar. Harry kisses the top of her head. In the hotel elevator, she has a minute between floors to be clear with herself about what she’s doing, and what she’s doing is inviting him up to have sex. She’s had a couple of hours to consider it, and she wants him sharply, wants his hands and his mouth and maybe even his rumoured giant dick.

She slips into the bathroom when they get to her suite, leaves Harry by the window as she grabs a couple of condoms from the bottom of her makeup bag and slips them into the back pocket of her jeans. Her cheeks are flushed in the mirror, but that might be the cold.

“I think your view is better than ours,” Harry says, when she comes out into the suite’s little lounge. She wraps herself around him from behind and looks at what he’s seeing.

“I’ve been picking out hotels in New York longer than you have.” She kisses the sharp corner of his jaw, the side of his neck, and he turns to catch her mouth, his cold fingers grasping at the back of her sweater as he pulls her in tight.

Taylor slips her arms around his neck, hanging on as he sucks at her bottom lip and slides his hands down over her ass. When she feels him hesitate, she knows exactly why. Harry slips his hand into her back pocket, and even that feels intimate.

“Um,” he says. “I don’t mean to jump to conclusions. But.”

She tilts her head like she means to kiss him again. “You can jump to some conclusions. If you want. Only if you want.”

Harry grins against her mouth. “I do want.” He slides his hand down the backs of her thighs. “Bedroom’s through there, yeah? This’ll be less impressive if I go the wrong way.”

She nods, but before she can even say, “What will be less impressive?” he’s lifted her off her feet and is carrying her across the room, her legs swinging around his waist. Taylor yelps and hangs on tight, laughing against his hair, which still smells like the cold outside. Harry wavers in the doorway, but he gets her onto the bed just fine, drops her there and settles over her, looking so very pleased with himself.

“That was smooth,” Taylor says. “You’ve got style, Harry Styles.” Then she kisses him hard before he can even reply.

Taylor uses her teeth this time, tugging at his lip, her hands getting tangled up in his hair, making a mess of it. Harry fits so nicely between her thighs, his slim hips settled against hers. Even though he knows what he can have now, he kisses her for a long, long time, until her lips feel bruised and her whole body is buzzing. His mouth slides down over the racing pulse at her throat, and he lets his teeth settle there for a moment, makes her whimper out, “No marks,” even though she likes the feeling of it, the sharp possessive ache.

Harry kisses her collarbones and then gets tangled up trying to get her sweater up and off. “Not that much style, apparently,” he says, sitting up. He works open his shirt buttons while Taylor deals with her sweater and the cami beneath, and his eyes settle predictably on her breasts. She’s glad her bra is pretty red lace, that she’d put that much thought into this. Harry’s pale in the places his clothes normally cover, and his tattoos stand out darkly. She puts her hands up to touch the birds flowing across his chest, tracing the shape of their wings, and Harry watches her fingers move against his skin. “They’re nice,” she says, for something to say.

Harry smiles shyly. “Thanks.” He settles in to kiss her again, running his fingers over the curve of her breast, her nipple pebbling up as he circles gently around it.

Taylor’s breath hitches, and Harry follows his hand with his mouth, sucking at the hard tip of her nipple through the lace, tonguing at it so the fabric scratches at her. But that just makes it better, makes her shiver down deep and move against him. Harry shifts to the other side, and Taylor bites her lip, struggling against the sound she wants to make. Harry navigates the front clasp of her bra like an expert, and Taylor’s amazed. In her experience, a bra without a hook and eye is the best way to baffle a boy. But then Harry’s mouth is back on her, and that’s even more amazing. His teeth graze, and she can’t help moaning this time, making him bite a little too hard. She tenses and he pulls back, soothing with his tongue, leaving her feeling tender as he slides his mouth down her belly.

“Can I?” Harry asks, thumbing at the button of her jeans and licking his swollen lips.

“Yeah,” says Taylor, smoothing his hair as he unzips her fly and tugs her jeans down. It’s been so long since someone else touched her, and even the heat of his breath against the thin, damp fabric of her panties is nearly too much to take. Harry nuzzles right up between her legs, eyes closing as he breathes her in. He presses a kiss between her legs and slides her panties off her hips.

When he spreads her open, Taylor shuts her eyes, and the first swipe of his tongue is long and slow, slick where she’s already wet. He’s gentle at first, circling over her clit with the pointed tip of his tongue, testing how much she can take. But Taylor can take a lot.

“Harder,” she whispers, tightening her grip on his hair. Harry takes a deep breath and spreads her apart with his thumbs, tongue flicking directly over her clit and then sliding lower, dipping into her while Taylor squirms above him. He keeps varying his strokes, finding new rhythms that make her arch into him. She’s so close to coming, pleasure curling her toes and making her thighs fall open wider. But Harry can’t seem to focus, licking deep into her one second and lapping up the length of her slit the next. Finally she cups the back of his head and guides him back to her clit. “Right there,” she tells him. “Keep going.”

And that’s how she learns there’s just about nothing Harry likes more than following orders. He goes pliant beneath her guiding hand, sucking at her clit just like she asked. “Use your fingers,” she whispers, and he does that too, curling two into her and rocking them in deep, giving her something to clench down on when she starts to come. Harry licks her through it, mouthing at the base of his own fingers before she has to push him away.

Taylor feels weak and shaky, and when Harry looks up, the bottom half of his face in glazed with spit and her slick. She’s never been with anyone who made such a mess of it, and it’s so hot she loses her breath. “Come here,” she says, and Harry crawls up over her, still in his jeans, and leans down to kiss her, slow and wet. She can taste herself on his tongue, and that just makes it better. He’s trembling, and she feels so powerful, because she could push him away any time and she’s sure he would go. She just doesn’t want him to.

“Wanna take these off?” Taylor asks, tugging at one of his beltloops.

Harry nods. His hips rock forward a little, and she thinks he must be holding back, making himself wait. She doesn’t know what to do with a boy who isn’t his own highest priority. Harry backs off the bed to shimmy out of his jeans, and before he takes his underwear off, it’s more than obvious that the rumors are true. While Harry is grabbing a condom off the floor, Taylor slides her hand down between her legs, touching slick, swollen flesh and wondering if she’ll even know what to do with a dick that size.

“We can do something else,” Harry offers, following her eyes. “I’m not bothered. This has already been great.”

“No,” says Taylor, holding out her sticky hand to him. “Come on. We can try at least. Can you stop? If I’m not…”

“Yeah,” says Harry. “But I don’t think I’ll last anyway.” He doesn’t sound ashamed of it, just matter-of-fact, like eating her out was almost enough for him. He takes off his underwear, and his cock springs up hard and thick, long enough that it looks that it’s about to slap his bellybutton. He rolls the condom on and settles between her legs again, nudging the tip of his dick into her. It’s uncomfortable, but she shifts around it, lets Harry stretch her open and press slowly in. His eyes flutter closed, and he manages to stutter, “Alright?”

Just watching him try so hard to please her turns her on like nothing else. “Keep going,” she says. She’s so sensitive, and she can feel every inch of him pushing inside her like a small victory over the laws of physics. Harry looks down at her as he settles himself as deep as he can, and it probably isn’t as deep as he wants, but Taylor’s so full, stretched like she might come apart if he makes a sudden move.

“Can you come again?” Harry asks urgently. “If I touch you, can you come again?” He thumbs at her clit and pleasure blazes to the surface again. She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to, but it feels good enough that she’s willing to try. She nods and slides her hand down over his, guiding him as he starts to thrust. Her fingers loop around Harry’s, and she holds him against her clit as he moves inside her, shifting until they find the right angle for them both. Their fingers circle and slip and press, and when Taylor looks up, Harry is so intent, working into her, filling her up. “Is this okay?” says Harry.

“Yeah,” agrees Taylor, kissing him breathlessly.

Harry buries his face in the side of her neck as he comes a minute later, and she tilts her hips a little, bears down, and that’s what she needs too. It’s like something breaks open inside her, and she trembles around Harry as she comes again, crying out and grabbing his hips to keep him inside her just a moment longer.

When he pulls out, she’s sore in a way she’s not used to, and she closes her legs instinctively. Harry tosses the condom and settles himself at her side. He looks sleepy and soft, and she kisses him gently again. For the first time, they can take all night together if they want, and Taylor wants to ask him things, wants to fill up that space with all the stuff she doesn’t know yet. Harry yawns into the back of his hand though, and Taylor holds in all the hard questions, feeling suddenly sleepy. “Naptime?” she says instead.

“You flew all night to be here, didn’t you?” Harry asks.

“It wasn’t just for this,” she replies with a smile.

“I’m a perk though. I know I am.”

“You’re a pretty good perk.” She glances at the clock. It’s only four. There’s so much of the day left. “We could sleep.”

Harry brushes her hair back behind her ear and looks very serious. “You don’t mind cuddling, do you?”

Taylor shakes her head solemnly. “I love cuddling. I love it. And my cat is in LA, so I’m not going to get any unless it’s from you.”

“Good.”

Taylor goes to the bathroom, and by the time she comes back, Harry is buried under the comforter fast asleep. She tucks herself against his chest, and he slips a heavy arm around her waist.

*

It’s sunset when Harry wakes up in Taylor’s hotel room bed, and everything is washed in pink and gold. Taylor’s standing by window in knickers and a t-shirt, her long legs looking even longer. Harry feels like a creep for staring, but she’s gorgeous, still and thoughtful against the glow of the sky. He rolls out of bed, and she turns towards him. “Hey,” she says.

“Hey. New York still out there?” He touches her hip, settling in behind her. Taylor looks back out the window, traffic weaving along the crowded street below.

“Big as life,” she replies. “Probably bigger.”

“It is quite big,” Harry agrees.

“Sometimes New York feels like too much,” Taylor says, never looking away from the window. “There’s so much happening all the time, and everybody always seems to know what they’re doing here. They’re always on their way to someplace really cool and important.”

“You’re usually on your way to someplace cool and important too though.”

Taylor shakes her head. “I don’t know. It’s not the same. New York always makes me feel like I might get lost. I might not end up where I mean to at all.”

He kisses her shoulder. “It’s all right ending up different places though, isn’t it? Sometimes you find stuff you didn’t know you were looking for.”

“I really like getting what I’m looking for though. That’s why I make plans.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s been living day-to-day so long, constantly amazed by the stuff he gets to do, that the idea of getting lost in a city like New York sounds exciting. They’re quiet together for a long time, until it’s almost full dark and Taylor starts to shiver beside the cold glass.

Harry nuzzles at the nape of her neck. “Come back to bed. New York can stay out there.” He’s playing Madison Square Garden tomorrow, and honestly, that’s something he could do with not thinking about too.

Taylor lets herself be pulled away, and he bundles her under the duvet again and flicks on the bedside lamp. “Do you want to go out tonight though?” she asks. “There are so many great restaurants we could try.”

Harry slips a hand under her t-shirt and runs it up her side. “Do any of them deliver? I like the dress code here.”

Taylor smiles. “It’s a pretty strict dress code though. Rigorously enforced.” She presses her mouth to his.

Eventually they order room service, and Taylor puts on a fluffy robe to answer the door. Harry stays in the bedroom, although it’s got to be obvious one girl isn’t going to eat all that food.

They eat in the suite’s lounge, and Taylor looks up from delicately twirling pasta around her fork to say, “Are you freaking out about MSG yet?”

Harry feels his stomach wobble at the thought. “Enough that I probably shouldn’t talk about it over dinner.” They’ve been planning a massive arena tour, and that’s a scale he’s going to have to get used to, but Madison Square Garden is something else.

“Totally,” says Taylor. “Don’t even think about it.”

“Are you going to come to the party after? Assuming we make it through the show?”

“Of course,” says Taylor. “I can’t imagine anybody throwing better parties than you guys.”

“My mum’ll be there though. Everyone’s mum’ll be there.”

Taylor raises her eyebrows. “Have you met me? Partying with moms is definitely an art form I’ve got down.”

Harry laughs. “Maybe you can teach me then. I think my mum’s still a bit scared I’m going to fall on my face when I go out.” Harry knows his mum is the most proud of him, that no one could possibly care about him more. But he still feels as though he has things to prove, and also he’s not sure how much of his drunken karaoke stylings he wants her exposed to.

“You’ll be fine. I’m sorry I can’t come to the show.”

“Reckon you can’t cancel on the Kennedys,” Harry says with a shrug. “That’d be un-American.”

“Yeah. It’s a little weird though, you know? Like, that’s my ex-boyfriend’s family, but they just happen to be super important too. There’s definitely a part of me that would rather be rocking out to One Direction.”

He notices she doesn’t flat out say she’d rather be at the show. She’s got her own priorities, her own career, and she doesn’t apologize for it. He wouldn’t want her to. Harry hooks his foot around hers and says, “Thanks. You’ll have to come to the tour.”

“For sure,” says Taylor. “You’ll have to come to mine too.”

“That’s proper rock and roll, isn’t it? Visits on tour and everything.”

“We’re basically the most rock and roll.”

It’s late at night, and they’re curled up in each other’s arms talking about the things they left to come to New York when Taylor brushes Harry’s hair back from his face and says, “You said you got your heart bruised. When we were in London. Do you think you could talk about that now? Or is it still too soon?”

He’s spent twelve hours with her today, half of them with no pants on, and despite the fact that he doesn’t really want to think about it, he drags out, “I had a friend I was sort of involved with, back in London. And it wasn’t serious, but I didn’t realise how not serious it was until I came back from a week of promo prepared to snog their face off, and there was another guy there. And it made me think, like, that maybe something that casual wasn’t what I really wanted. So I decided to try something different.”

“Did you guys talk about it?”

Harry shrugs. “No. We’re really close friends still. We’ve just, like, cut the benefits.”

Taylor looks sympathetic but also like she doesn’t get it. “Does that work?”

“So far it’s alright,” Harry says. “I haven’t been home much, but when I have been, it’s been fine, yeah.” He doesn’t mention that he’d fallen asleep in Nick’s arms not that long ago; he doesn’t know how Taylor would feel about that.

“Good,” she says. “I’m glad you didn’t have to lose a friend or anything.” Her face says she has more questions, but he doesn’t answer them.

“I like to think I’m pretty good at hanging onto people I care about.”

“She’s lucky to have you. So am I.” She kisses him on the cheek.

Harry almost lets it stand, but nodding along feels like a bigger lie than scrambling his pronouns had. “He,” Harry says quietly. “My friend is a man.”

“Oh,” says Taylor. “Sorry. I didn’t know you were, well, I didn’t even think about that.”

“To be fair, I don’t really want most people thinking about it,” says Harry. Being with Nick was so easy in part because Nick understood. He understood being out and not being out and the consequences of both. Harry never had to explain or apologise, and he rarely had to outright lie.

Taylor looks at him for a minute, lips pursed like she wants to say something else. “Sorry if this is weird, but is it Nick Grimshaw?”

Harry blinks, doesn’t quite know what to do with his face. But he nods. “Yeah. Yeah, how did you know that?”

“I saw you kiss him at the Radio 1 Teen Awards. And I thought, like, maybe it was friend kissing, but maybe not.”

“Bit of both, really.” He doesn’t remember kissing Nick at the Teen Awards, but he remembers laughing giddily with him backstage, the effortless feeling he had with Nick not that long ago. “So, now you know about that. You dated a Kennedy and I slept with a radio DJ, and now neither of us are doing that anymore. Right?”

“Right,” agrees Taylor. She squeezes his hand beneath the duvet. “Thanks for telling me. I know sometimes I can come off a little nosy.”

Harry shakes his head. “You don’t though. You asked the question and I decided to answer. I’m getting over something, and you have a right to know about it. I am getting over it though. And this is good.” He just wishes it didn’t hurt so much still. Harry gathers Taylor in and kisses her. She kisses him back.

December 3

Taylor walks into One Direction’s post-show party and immediately feels out of place. It’s the same kind of raucous but intimate thing she has with her band and her tour team, but it’s all someone else’s friends. The first person she recognizes is Ed, and she makes a beeline for him. They haven’t seen each other in a couple of months, and he grins when he spots her and throws his arms open wide. He’s a little bit sweaty and obviously a little bit drunk too, but Taylor hugs him anyway. “I heard about you and Harry, mate. That’s brilliant. I can’t think of anyone nicer than the two of you.”

“Thanks,” says Taylor with a grin.

“Your boy’s over there,” Ed says, pointing to a table in the center of the room. “Do you want a drink?”

“Sure,” says Taylor. She’d had a glass of champagne at the Kennedy Foundation gala, but everyone here has a couple of drinks lead on her.

“What do you want?” Ed asks.

“Surprise me.” He heads for the bar, and Taylor takes a few steps towards the table where Harry’s talking to two people who are obviously his parents. But she can’t make herself interrupt. Luckily Niall finds her before she decides to just cling to Ed like a barnacle.

“Taylor, hey! So glad you came,” Niall says, making it super easy to just fall into a conversation, as though they’re already friends. She asks him about the show, and he bubbles over with excitement.

“It was wicked. All those people. You think MSG is big when it’s empty, but it looks even bigger when it’s full of people singing along with your songs. It’s fucking brilliant.”

“There’s no better feeling in the world,” agrees Taylor.

“So how was your event? Harry said you were getting an award or something?”

“Yeah,” says Taylor shyly. “It was fun. Definitely more subdued than this though.”

Ed reappears and pushes a tall glass into her hand. “Long Island iced tea,” he says. “Since you’re in New York.”

“Isn’t that a little much?”

“Mr. Styles will make sure you get home safe. Let your hair down, Tay.”

Taylor taps her glass against Ed’s and then Niall’s and takes a cautious sip. Long Island iced teas are the stuff of teenage legend for her, the kind of thing they probably drank at parties she wasn’t invited to. She’s never actually had one before, and she lets the sweetness of it settle on her tongue before she swallows. It doesn’t taste strong, but it probably is. She decides if she’s going to meet Harry’s parents, the start of this drink is probably a better moment than the end of it. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I need to find my boyfriend.”

Harry looks up as she approaches the table, grins, and nearly tips his chair over as he stands to hug her. “You got here!” he says. “How are the Kennedys?”

“Super! How’s the biggest boy band in the world?”

“Brilliant. So brilliant.” He goes glassy eyed for a moment, like he’s thinking back on the night, and Taylor feels a pang of loss that she didn’t get to see him. This is still so huge for them, and she remembers the rush of her first arena crowd, wants to relive it with Harry.

“I’m so glad,” she says, kissing him on the cheek.

Harry grabs both of her hands and squeezes. “So you should meet my parents. As they’re sat right here at this moment. Mum, Robin, this is Taylor.”

“Hello, Taylor,” says Harry’s mom, standing up to shake her hand. “I’m Anne. My son has said nothing but lovely things about you.”

“Well, I have nothing but lovely things to say about him too.” Anne is really pretty, and she looks at Taylor in that attentive way Harry does, like she really wants to know when she says “how are you”. After shaking hands with Harry’s stepdad, Taylor takes the seat next to Harry’s, scooting it over in little increments until their knees are touching under the table. Taylor asks Anne and Robin what they’ve seen in New York so far, how long they’re staying, all the normal things, and Harry seems content to sit by her side and nod along, right up until someone picks up a microphone and yells “Karaoke!” into it on the other side of the room. Then Harry’s dragging her away in the direction of a small stage with a karaoke machine blinking away beside it. Taylor calls “Nice to meet you!” over her shoulder to Harry’s parents as Harry rushes her away.

Everyone’s giddy and giggly and making fools of themselves, and Taylor feels like she’s exactly where she belongs for the first time all night as Harry’s hand curls around her hip, pulling her in for a closer look at the song listing. “We have to do a duet,” Harry insists. “Something really classic.”

“You are a true romantic, Styles,” says Liam, clapping him on the shoulder.

“I am, Liam, thank you. Do you know ‘Islands in the Stream’?”

Taylor doesn’t even have to pretend to be offended. She downs the rest of her drink in one gulp and sets the empty glass down deliberately. “Harry,” she says solemnly, “I’m an American citizen. I am a resident of Nashville. What do you take me for?”

Harry grins. “You’re perfect.” He kisses her, and she’s not sure why it flusters her so much, but she kisses him back, blushing as the rest of One Direction cheers. Harry leads her onto the stage, and if there’s anything Taylor prides herself on, it’s her ability to emote the hell out of a good karaoke song. She loses track of everyone else in the room, watching Harry laugh through his verse, and she thinks she might be a little drunk, reaching out for his hand on the chorus, grinning so hard she can barely sing. The whole room applauds as they finish, and Taylor laughs into Harry’s hair as he lifts her off her feet and spins her around.

She’s sure she’s introduced to everyone in the room over the next couple of hours, but what she remembers is the warmth of Harry’s hand at her waist, the way he always seems to find new ways to touch her, new places she’s sensitive. It’s intimate in a way she doesn’t expect, undeniably sexy, Harry tapping out the beat of a song against her hip, skating his thumb up the nape of her neck as he talks. At one point he drops an ice cube down the back of her dress, looking away innocently as she yelps.

“What was that for?” Taylor asks.

“You’re just too hot,” Harry replies. “Reckon you could light this whole room on fire.” He runs his cold, wet fingers along the back of her collar, and Taylor shivers and wonders if she could be the kind of girl who goes for a quick fuck in a public bathroom. She decides she isn’t, but they do leave not long after that, kissing in the car back to her hotel, her lipstick starting to smudge in the pap pictures she sees the next morning.

Harry goes to his knees almost as soon as they’re inside the door of her suite, rips her tights and buries his face between her legs, and makes her come on his tongue before she’s even taken off her coat. Harry kisses her after, and Taylor is still tipsy enough to feel wild, leaving a trail of their clothes across the floor of the suite, tripping into the bedroom with Harry’s mouth still on hers. She decides to ride him this time, and she forgets it’s going to ache until the moment it does, Harry’s cock sinking thickly into her until he can’t get any deeper.

She’s stretched tight around him, breathing deeply as she adjusts to the weight of him inside, but the painful fullness is tempered by flickering heat. Harry’s hands settle on her hips, trace down into the creases of her thighs and then slip between. He feels out the place their bodies meet and slides his fingers along her slick skin, making her tremble and bear down tighter on him. Everything slows down, and she rolls her hips against his, Harry watching her wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She feels powerful, and Harry lets her move however she wants, gasping and moaning under her. When he comes, he whispers her name, hips hitching upward so hard he nearly unseats her. Taylor slips off him and settles at his side, dizzy and still turned on, greedy to come again.

Harry nuzzles at the side of her neck, slides his hand down her belly. “Do you want me to do something?” he asks sleepily.

Taylor dips her fingers in between her legs, rubs at her swollen clit. “I can do it.” Harry settles his head under her chin to watch, and she slips her slick fingers into his mouth after, lets him suck them clean. She’s never been with someone who liked the taste of her so much, and she tells him so.

Harry shrugs. “They don’t know what they’re missing then.”

“Have you always been like this?”

“Into eating people out? Nah, but I learned pretty quick. It’s just nice, you know? Making someone else feel good, and just sticking your face in it, basically. It’s great, messy but great. I gather you’ve never given it a go?”

Taylor wrinkles her nose. “I don’t even like giving oral to boys, no offense. But I’m definitely not doing it to girls. I don’t, you know, swing that way even.” She feels weirdly defensive about it, talking to Harry, who’s so flexible and open to trying new things with all different kinds of people.

“Everyone’s got stuff they don’t like though. That’s just normal.”

Taylor had had this brief but intense moment when she and Abigail first became friends, where she wondered if she was in love with her because she’d never felt something so strong for another person. But she’s never felt like she was missing out while dating boys. It’s so much less complicated for her to have some boundaries, some things she just doesn’t consider. “Did you always know you were, like, bi? Is that the word you use?”

“Sometimes. I don’t know. I don’t really like calling it anything.” He shakes his head. “It’s just, you know, I like people. And it’s always been like that, where it didn’t matter as much who they were, or their gender or age or anything. I got a lot of shit for dating someone fifteen years older than me, but it’s like, why shouldn’t I?”

“I get a lot of shit no matter who I date, so you definitely haven’t escaped that.”

“I can handle it now though. You can’t scare me off that easily.” She still has a hard time believing that, but she’s letting him prove it. “You don’t mind, do you? That I’m not straight.”

“Why would I mind?” asks Taylor. It’s weird, knowing there are things he may want that she can’t offer him, but that’s not his fault. “As long as you’re with me, you’re with me, right?”

“Yeah,” says Harry. “One hundred per cent.” He strokes a hand down her back, pulling her into him.

“Did you ever, like, think maybe you should choose easier people to be with? If you have so many people to choose from, why choose people who make it harder?”

“Do you mean Nick? Or Caroline? Or you?”

“All of us. You’re just making things more complicated, when you could choose someone out of the public eye, someone your own age, a nice girl.” It’s the sort of thing Taylor thinks about all the time, every time she starts to picture herself with someone. Harry’s just widened the minefield further.

“You’re a nice girl,” Harry says. He makes it sound like an endearment, trailing his fingers through her hair.

“But I’m complicated.”

“Everything worth having is at least a little bit complicated.”

Taylor closes her eyes and kisses his cheek, settling in for the night. Of all the people in the world who might tell her that, she believes it from Harry Styles.

December 11

Taking Taylor home with him feels like the sort of commitment Harry’s not sure he’s ready for. She’s met his mum, but only in a huge room full of everyone else’s mums too, and walking into his childhood home with her is different. Taylor goes shy and quiet when they arrive, and Harry lets his mum do most of the talking.

“Harry’s bed is a single,” Anne says, leading Taylor to the spare room. “I wouldn’t mind you in there with him, but I don’t think both of you would fit in the bed. It’s a problem our Harry’s had before.”

“Is it?” says Taylor interestedly.

“I can manage to fall out of bed all by myself, thank you,” Harry puts in, cutting her off. He doesn’t need his mum telling his girlfriend embarrassing sex stories about him.

“Of course you can, love.”

By that night, Taylor’s telling endless stories about growing up on a Christmas tree farm, being effortlessly charming and funny. “You’ll be home for Christmas, won’t you?” asks Anne.

Taylor nods. “Absolutely. It’s a time for family above anything else.”

“Good. I’m glad. I always worry that one of these years, Harry won’t come back to us for Christmas. We’ll have to send his gifts through the post like some distant relative.”

Harry looks down at his empty tea mug. “I like being home for Christmas though.”

“I know you do, darling. I know. You spent half the holiday with Nick last year though. I know you like seeing your friends too.”

Harry knows the way that must sound to Taylor, as though he and Nick were together then, that it was some romantic holiday thing. And he can’t tell her it wasn’t like that at all, that it took six months more for Nick to even kiss him, because his mum doesn’t know it ever happened. Not as though it was a secret. Not even as though his mum hadn’t known he fancied Nick, back before they were friends. But everything had been so poorly defined between him and Nick that there was never a moment to speak to her about it. You can’t just tell your mum you’re screwing one of your mates. “I’ll always come home for Christmas,” he says meekly. “Always.”

Taylor reaches out for his hand and squeezes. Later, when he’s in bed by himself listening to the sound of the house settling, he realises his mum was probably asking Taylor about Christmas because Taylor’s been at this longer than he has, like she might be a prototype for Harry’s future. He puts on pyjamas and makes his way back downstairs, finds his mum on the sofa with a book.

“Hello, darling,” she says, laying aside the book. “I thought you’d gone up to bed. Do you want to sit and talk with me for a bit?”

Harry nods. His mum’s always been a night owl, and sometimes midnight is the best time to get her attention. He lies down on the sofa with his head in her lap, and she strokes his hair.

“Is something wrong?” Anne asks. “Your forehead’s all wiggly.” She taps her finger against the furrow between his eyebrows.

“Dunno,” mutters Harry. “Do you really think I wouldn’t come home for Christmas?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to upset you about that. But I know you’ve got more and more things to do, and more opportunities, and I never want to hold you back from taking them because you think you need to be home with your old mum.”

“I like my old mum though. She’s, like, well good at mum things.”

“Thank you, Harry.” She pinches the tip of his ear. “I just want to know what it’s going to be like for you. Everything changes so fast, and Taylor’s been through all of that.”

“Yeah,” says Harry. He doesn’t often notice how much older many of his friends are, but everything he’s nervous about in the coming year is stuff she’s already done, and for every tour story he’s got, she’s got three of her own. “Do you like her?”

“She’s really lovely, isn’t she? Very grounded, very sweet. But it doesn’t matter if I like her as long as you do.”

“I do,” says Harry. “I like her a lot. But it’s a bit, like, intimidating because she’s quite serious about things, and thinks about stuff that could go wrong. And I’ve never really done that.”

“Well, it couldn’t hurt you to look before you leap a bit. But she isn’t just worrying about things all the time, is she?”

“No. We’ve been having a lot of fun too.”

“That’s good. That’s what I want for you. You’ve got so much happening around you, and I like to see you relaxed. I like to know you’re having fun.”

“I am,” says Harry. He falls asleep in her lap without meaning to, wakes up with her patting his shoulder, urging him up to bed.

December 13

“What do you want to do, birthday girl?” Harry asks. “All of the Lake District awaits. There’s, like, old stuff and scenic stuff and sheep.”

“I would love to see some old scenic sheep,” says Taylor. “That’s, like, my dream.” In fact, she’s got a long list of activities and links in the notes on her phone.

But Harry laughs and tackles her to the bed, and that’s nice too. Her itinerary can wait another half hour. Their B&B is like the platonic ideal of a B&B, frilly little rooms in a brick house that’s amazingly old by American standards. The bed smells like lavender, and the innkeepers have two grey cats who wound around their ankles and sniffed their suitcases when they checked in last night. Taylor’s not sure if Harry actually likes it, or if he’s just putting up with it for her sake, but if she’s not going to be home for her birthday, this is what she wants. She kisses Harry until he’s not laughing anymore, and then for just a little bit longer, tangling their legs together on top of the fluffy comforter.

“If we keep this up, we’ll miss breakfast,” says Taylor. She can feel her hair puffing up in the back as she turns her head on the pillow, and she’s glad she hasn’t put on makeup yet.

“Fuck breakfast,” sighs Harry, but he sits up anyway, holds out his hand to her. “Are you ready to go down now?”

Taylor hasn’t gone out bare faced in probably years, knowing the things people will say about her if she does. But she can’t explain that to Harry, who rolls out of bed and tousles his hair and goes. “Why don’t you go down and order, and I’ll be there in, like, three minutes.”

“Will do.”

She goes into the bathroom and stares at herself in the vanity mirror. At twenty-three she’s running around the north of England with an eighteen-year-old boy who smiles every time he looks at her, her album is still riding high in the charts, and her hair is really good. There’s not a lot she could ask for. Although her phone is quieter than she expects for the morning of her birthday, even given the time difference. She’s eating poached eggs and reviewing a list of local antique markets with Harry when her phone lights up with a call. It’s Selena, and Taylor excuses herself to take it.

“Happy birthday!” Selena yells when Taylor answers, and there’s cheering in the background.

“Thanks, lady,” laughs Taylor. “Where are you?”

“At Justin’s. There are a few of us here. I’ve just been waiting for midnight to call you. How’s twenty-three? How’s England? How’s Harry?”

Taylor laughs, savouring the idea of Selena hanging out with Justin and counting down the minutes to call her. “England’s pretty. Harry’s pretty. I’m pretty.”

“Duh. What are you doing right now?”

“Eating breakfast. Planning out lots of dorky stuff I’m going to make Harry do with me today.”

“It’s going to be great,” Selena says. “I hope this is the start to the best year ever. You deserve it.”

Taylor ducks her head, nearly tearing up. “Thanks, Sel. I love you.”

“I love you too.” Not even Justin yelling “Happy Birthday, Taylor!” in the background can wipe out the warmth in her chest.

When she gets back to the table, Harry asks, “Midnight in LA?”

“Yeah,” says Taylor. “Selena wanted to get in early on the birthday greetings.”

“I got in first though,” says Harry playfully.

Taylor shrugs. “It’s not a contest.” It shouldn’t make her bristle, but it does. Whatever Harry is right now, Selena’s been one of her best friends for years. She takes a sip of her coffee, but it’s awful, as all English coffee is. She’s every American stereotype right now, but she would kill for a Starbucks in this village.

“Where do you want to go first today?” Harry asks, trying to smooth things over.

“There’s an antique market ten miles away that’s calling my name.”

“Perfect.”

December 19

Harry can’t remember the last time he spent so long at a stretch with one person, and by the time they arrive at the ski resort, he feels a bit as though he’s run out of things to say. When he’s with the boys, any one of them can have an off day, and there are four of them to cover. But when he’s out with Taylor, he has to be an attentive boyfriend all the time, and any time they’re in public, he has to smile for the cameras people seem to think he doesn’t see. It feels like playacting while they’re traveling, even more than their tea party in LA had, like they have to pretend that these clean, cheerful versions of themselves are all there is. He’s pretty sure Taylor never relaxes except when there’s a closed, locked door between her and everybody else.

As soon as they arrive, Taylor disappears with Selena, and Harry’s left to chat to Justin, which is perfectly fine, but Harry feels his laddiness being tested at every turn. Eventually Justin says, “Do you want to go jump in the hot tub?” and Harry’s always up for being in the warmest place in the middle of winter.

“So how are you getting along with Taylor?” Justin asks, offering Harry a beer as he settles on the other side of the tub.

“Brilliant,” says Harry. “She’s a great girl. We’ve been having a lot of fun.”

“Good,” says Justin. “Just keep it that way.”

“Sorry, what does that mean?”

“Taylor hates me,” says Justin. “She won’t tell you that, and she’d definitely never say it to my face, but me and Selena, we fight. And she’s never going to forgive me for upsetting her friend, so every time we do, Selena goes running to Taylor, and Taylor puts another entry in her journal about what a dick I am. Just stay on her good side, and be nice to Selena.”

Harry stares at him blankly for a moment. “Right. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.”

“I’m not saying she’s a bad person or anything,” Justin points out. “She’s just got strong opinions.”

Harry sinks into the water up to his chin, lets the hand he’s got on his beer hang over the side of the tub. “I like her opinions,” he says quietly, even though he’s not sure what that means. In the greater scheme of things, he hasn’t known Taylor that long, and the things he knows about her are the things that have come up in that time. She’s never talked to him about people she doesn’t like. He’s not sure she’s even mentioned Justin, although she talks about Selena a lot.

“Then you’ll be okay.”

Thankfully it’s not too long before Taylor and Selena reappear. They’re laughing and holding glasses of wine, and Taylor barely glances at Harry as she slips into the hot tub, although she runs a hand down his arm to let him know he’s not totally off her radar.

“Have you skied before, Harry?” Selena asks, tucking herself under Justin’s arm.

“A few times,” says Harry, “but I was rubbish at it. I may just stay in by the fire. That’ll test my coordination less.”

“We could go snowmobiling instead,” says Taylor. “That’s basically just driving, and I’ve seen you do that without killing anyone.”

Harry shrugs. “Maybe. Reckon I don’t have to worry about staying on the right side of the road.”

“Yeah, it’s more about not hitting any trees.”

“I can make that a priority,” says Harry, taking a sip of his beer and sliding his arm around Taylor’s shoulders. “But I think that’s for tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” says Selena. “Tonight is just for sitting right here doing this. And maybe a round of truth or dare, if we can talk Taylor into it.”

Taylor’s shoulders tighten uncomfortably, and Harry leans into her a little. “Do you not like truth or dare?” he asks, and she really looks at him this time.

“I don’t mind truth, but dares are always kissing someone, and when it’s just me and my boyfriend and my BFF and her boyfriend, there’s no way that’s gonna end well.”

“Oh, won’t it?” Harry lifts his eyebrows at Justin, who gives a startled laugh.

Taylor pinches his side. “Behave. Anyway, I just don’t like the whole awkward kissing thing. I’d rather do something else.”

Selena kicks at the water, splashing her. “We could play truth or dare with no awkward kissing. Who knows? We might all learn something.”

Taylor grabs for Selena’s foot. “Fine. Okay. Selena, truth or dare?”

“Dare.”

Taylor gulps the rest of her wine and holds out her glass. “I dare you to get me another drink.”

Selena rolls her eyes but stands up anyway. “Lame.” Justin and Taylor’s eyes follow her as she steps out of the tub, shivering in the cold almost immediately. Selena comes back with a new bottle of wine and slips back into the tub. “Harry,” Selena says, “truth or dare?”

“Um, truth,” says Harry. There’s very little that would be worth getting out of the hot tub for right now.

“What’s your favourite part of Taylor’s body?” Selena asks.

Harry bites his lip, glances at Taylor for approval. She looks interested in the answer. “Her legs, I think. She’s got the best legs. They just go on forever.” He drops a hand to her thigh and squeezes gently. Taylor smiles at him, quick and dirty before she looks away again.

“Justin,” says Harry, “truth or dare.”

“Dare,” says Justin, “always dare.”

Harry peers out into the darkness off the balcony. “How far is that drop, do you think?”

“Too far,” says Selena. “There’s another balcony below us.”

“I have no idea then,” Harry says, scratching his head. “I may be worse at this than skiing.”

“Don’t they play this game in England?” asks Selena.

“Yeah,” says Harry. “But we only do awkward kissing dares.” He finishes his beer and steals a sip of Taylor’s wine to chase it.

“You two were really made for each other, weren’t you?” says Selena. “The two worst darers in the world. Justin, I dare you to make some kind of dirty snow sculpture on the railing over there and then lick it.”

Justin goes along with it, scooping out what’s either a bum or a pair of tits in the shallow snow and motorboating it. “Fuck, that’s cold,” he says as he comes back laughing.

Over the course of the next half hour Harry learns that Taylor’s got no embarrassing drunk stories that don’t involve her crying in Selena’s bed, that she tenses every time Justin speaks to her, and that Justin tries to avoid speaking to her as much as possible.

It’s late when they all trail through the house dripping and tipsy, and Taylor hands Harry a bottle of water and watches him drink it, sipping her own slowly. When she slips into the bathroom, she leaves the door open, and Harry peers around it, trying to decide if it’s an invitation. He’s cold and damp and the shower starts to steam as soon as she turns it on. “It’s way creepier with you halfway in the bathroom, just FYI,” says Taylor, and Harry steps the rest of the way in and shuts the door behind him.

The shower has about a dozen heads, and Harry’s glad Taylor’s chosen which ones she wants by the time he gets in with her. Harry’s hands go instinctively to her breasts, and Taylor laughs and grabs his bum in return. She kisses him as the water spills over them, rinsing away the chemical smell of the hot tub. Harry squeezes out a handful of flowery shampoo and rubs it into her hair, and Taylor practically purrs under the attention, leaning into him.

“Want me to do yours too?” Taylor asks, when he’s rinsed her hair clean and she’s just swaying in his arms.

“Nah,” says Harry. “Mine’s better when I let it be for a few days.”

“Suit yourself,” says Taylor, yawning into his shoulder.

“Bedtime?”

Taylor nods. Harry bundles her into a robe and curls up in bed beside her. “Good night?” Taylor asks him sleepily. “Did you have fun?”

“Yeah,” says Harry. “Did you? Once kissing dares were outlawed.”

She finds his mouth with hers, kisses him gently. “I get enough kissing on my own. I like it better when I can choose who it’s with.”

“There must be a traumatic childhood story or something behind that,” Harry says, smoothing her fringe off her forehead. “Dared to kiss a frog in primary school or something.”

Taylor shakes her head. “I didn’t even have any friends until I was fourteen. I didn’t really do the whole sleepover party game thing until later. And then I just. I didn’t like kissing my friends. It didn’t feel right, and there were always boys who made gross comments, and they were always drunker than I was.”

Harry’s never had any qualms about kissing his friends, and he’s done a lot of it over the years, at parties, in clubs, even experimental late-night hotel snogs with the boys. None of it ever bothered him. “But it’s just a laugh, isn’t it?”

Taylor frowns and shrugs uncomfortably. “I don’t know. That’s not how it feels for me. It feels like it matters, when I kiss someone.” She brings her hand up and touches his lips. “I like it to matter.” She looks wide awake again, almost pleading.

Harry thinks about the way she’d looked at Selena tonight, as though Harry was a second thought. “Did you ever kiss Selena on a dare?” Harry asks.

“God, don’t start, Harry.” She rolls her eyes and turns away from him. “I thought you were different.”

“No, sorry, not like that. I just wondered. You guys are so close. Is that better or worse than someone you don’t know well?”

“Can we just not talk about it?” says Taylor tightly. “It’s late.”

“Of course,” says Harry. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We can talk tomorrow.” He kisses her on the cheek, and eventually she works her way back to his side of the bed, tucking her head under his chin. But Harry can’t fall asleep immediately, wondering if he’s unsettled something that will turn into an avalanche.

December 20

The lesson, Taylor thinks afterwards, is not to have a fight with your boyfriend and then get on a snowmobile with him still mad. One of the best relationship lessons her mom ever taught her was don’t go to bed angry, and as Taylor picks at a loose thread in the seat of the hospital chair, she thinks this is probably in the same category. Harry won’t stop apologizing, even though he’s the one bleeding, and the whole thread of everything else they talked about today is lost. She has a bruise on her leg that she can practically feel darkening the longer she sits here, and she rubs her thumb across it as the doctor starts on Harry’s stitches. She doesn’t want to look, but she’d said she’d stay, and she will.

Harry is sitting very still, but whimpering uncomfortably as the doctor sews him up. They gave him a local anaesthetic and Taylor can only imagine how weird that feels. “Sorry,” he says again as the doctor ties off the stitches, and Taylor doesn’t even know who he’s apologizing to now.

“I’ll write you up a script for an anti-inflammatory, and then you’re free to go as long as you don’t drive,” says the doctor. “You kids have someone to pick you up?”

“Yes, sir,” says Taylor. She feels like saying, Don’t you know who we are? but only because she’s irritable and more than ready to be somewhere else. It’s better if he won’t spread this around.

She passes the prescription to Lex, who’s one of Justin’s security but probably trustworthy, and by the time she and Harry make it outside there’s a car waiting for them. Selena’s texted her asking when they’ll be back, and Taylor replies quickly, shoving her hands in her pockets when she realizes they’re still shaking.

“Reckon I would have been better off staying in by the fire,” says Harry quietly. “Reckon you would have too.” He’s still red-eyed from crying, but at least there’s no blood on his face anymore. That was maybe the scariest part in the moments after they crashed, all the red scattered across the snow and no idea where it had come from, her ears still ringing with shock.

“We’ll do that tomorrow,” says Taylor. She strokes his hair. The doctor had taken a look under the bloody towel pressed to Harry’s chin and said, “Faces sure do bleed a lot, don’t they?” Harry had barely even smiled.

“I’m really sorry,” he says again. “I’m a fucking idiot.”

“We let you drive, even though you hadn’t before. It could have gone better, but everyone survived.” She doesn’t usually feel like Harry’s younger than she is, but right now he looks really, really young.

“I don’t just mean the snowmobile.”

Taylor’s stomach twists. “Don’t worry about that right now.”

“I sprung a bunch of stuff on you all at once, and it wasn’t fair.”

Taylor’s too tired to feel angry again, too close to bed and blissful unconsciousness. “I’m glad you want to talk about it, but can we sleep first?”

“Okay,” says Harry softly. He folds his hand over hers on the seat, and she links their fingers together. When they get back to the house, she puts Harry to bed with some painkillers and stays up for a while longer reading one of the musty detective novels that seem to be in every vacation house ever. Selena and Justin’s room is silent and Taylor turns the fire up and warms her feet on the hearth. She hadn’t wanted to hear that Justin knew exactly how much Taylor didn’t like him, but hearing Harry’s theory about why was worse. She’d stormed out of the room and gotten her snow pants and boots on while Selena and Justin were still drinking on the deck, left Harry to follow her and play along like nothing had happened. If Selena knew they’d fought, she’d ask why, and Taylor can’t tell her.

December 21

In the morning, Selena and Justin head out with their snowboards and Taylor stays behind with Harry, curled up in front of the fire. She makes giant mugs of hot chocolate and wishes there was anything to bake with in the small kitchen, but she decides not to send anyone out to buy her flour and baking powder when she’s comfortably folded into Harry’s side. He’s got a Band-Aid over his chin this morning, but he doesn’t seem to mind it. She strokes her thumb along the hinge of his jaw, turning him to kiss her and smiling gently. “Do you want to do anything besides this today?” Harry asks.

“We don’t have to,” says Taylor.

“Should we talk about anything? I mean, we sort of cut things short yesterday. And I think maybe I said some things I shouldn’t have.”

Taylor shrugs. “Did you mean them? I guess if you meant them, it’s probably good that you said them.”

“I don’t know,” says Harry. “I’m not sure I meant them the way I said them. I was trying to help. Or I thought I was trying to help. I thought we could talk about it.”

“You told me you thought I didn’t like my best friend’s boyfriend because I’m in love with my best friend. You told me I was jealous of Justin. I think that’s pretty straightforward.” She feels anger balling up in her stomach again, and she doesn’t want to cry or yell or fall apart, but it’s just hitting her all over again.

“I don’t know,” says Harry. “I’m not sure it is.”

“Justin says he thinks you hate him,” he had said last night, and Taylor felt that shivery vertiginous thing like when she knows a stranger in a restaurant has caught her being catty.

“I don’t hate him,” she told him, because she figures you should reserve hate for more worthy targets.

“But you don’t like him.”

“Why should I have to like him? He’s just not a person I would choose to spend time with on my own. I’m sure he feels the same way about me.”

Harry got this look on his face then, solemn and concerned, that made Taylor want to back away. “Are you sure you’re not a little bit jealous? That Selena’s been with him so much lately, and you’ve been off with me?”

She looks at him now and she wants to get up and walk away again, but there’s no place far enough to shake off his assumptions, the vague air of pity underlying them, like she doesn’t know her own heart. Justin is a selfish little jerk, and Selena deserves better, which is the sort of thing Harry would know if he’d been the one to pick up the pieces after every one of their stupid fights. But he’s only seen Justin being a fun guy who makes Selena laugh, and that must look pretty good from where he’s sitting.

“Don’t worry about it,” says Taylor. “You were trying to help.”

“I thought maybe, like, when you asked me about being bi, it was because you thought maybe you were too. But I reckon I was off the mark.”

“You were off the mark,” says Taylor. “You were off the mark, and it doesn’t even matter, right? Even if it were true, I’m with you. I picked you, out of everyone in the world, and I don’t get why you’d ask me if I wanted to pick someone else.”

“It’s different though, isn’t it? If there are people you don’t think you can pick. Believe me, I understand.”

It’s exactly what she doesn’t want to hear. She has done such a good job of not thinking about Nick Grimshaw, of not wondering every single second if Harry would rather be with him, and it’s been an effort. “Do you think there are people you can’t pick?” she asks, tensed so tight under his arm around her shoulder. “What happened to liking people even if it’s complicated?”

Harry looks really solemn for someone with a Band-Aid on his chin. “I do it, and that’s why I know it’s not always easy.”

“It’s not easy liking you right now,” she says, sad instead of biting.

“I’m sorry,” Harry tells her. “Just, if you ever think about it, I would understand.”

“I know,” replies Taylor, but she’s thinking, How dare you? In the span of her life, he’s known her for about half a second. If she’s going to confide to someone, it’s not going to be Harry. Especially not like this. They sit in the quiet by the crackling fire and there’s no romance in it. She’s just glad she’s going home tomorrow. Maybe the time away will help.

December 25

“I didn’t do anything to him, alright?” says Harry. “I wasn’t dating him and I’m still not dating him, and all he ever says is how happy he is.”

“Is that all?” asks Aimee.

Harry hesitates. “And sometimes that he misses me. And I miss him too. I’d like to be here more, but I can’t.”

She looks skeptical. Any second now, Nick’s going to reappear from the loo, and they have to stop having whatever this conversation is by then. “You just have to be clear with him, okay? He’ll go to his knees for you in his parents’ kitchen tonight if you want, but you have to be clear with him that you don’t know when you’ll be back again. And that you’re with someone else.”

Harry’s face heats with bruised pride. “I am with someone else. I’m not going to… It’s not. I’m not going to cheat on Taylor.”

“Good. Then you know where you stand. Make sure Nick does too.”

Nick reappears a moment later. “Sudden silence means you were talking about me, doesn’t it?”

Aimee hands him a sandwich. “What more interesting subject could there possibly be?”

“That’s not reassuring,” says Nick. He catches Harry’s eye and smiles. Harry doesn’t want to lead him on, but he can’t help smiling back.

They eat their sandwiches in the kitchen, and Harry watches Nick lick butter off his thumb and feels guilty. He doesn’t owe Nick anything, but all his mixed up feelings haven’t gone away. There’s no closure now; they’re not ever going to talk about it.

“Do you want to come in with me, or would you rather have the sofa?” Nick asks Harry, when they’ve cleared away all the leftovers and Harry keeps yawning into his sleeve.

Harry hesitates. Any other time he would have gone with Nick, let Nick spoon around him and keep him up even later giggling into the pillow, but Aimee gives him a quick sidelong look and he says, “If Aimee doesn’t mind, I think I’ll take the sofa.”

“I don’t mind,” says Aimee. “I’ve got a lot of practice sleeping through Nick’s mumbling.”

“Mean,” says Nick. He’s still looking at Harry.

“But true,” says Aimee.

“You wouldn’t have had so much practice if you’d got your bloody flat sooner and stopped sleeping at mine.”

Aimee sticks her tongue out. Harry laughs.

He texts Taylor from the sofa in Nick’s parents’ darkened lounge later: Miss you. She sends back a picture of herself in a pair of antlers with the text Rein(deer) it in, Styles.

January 1

Is he even going to make it back to Times Square? Taylor wonders. She’s had this fantasy, this New York fantasy, and she doesn’t care if it’s clichéd, she wants it fiercely. That’s what this city is best for, a backdrop to moments you plan just right. When he finally appears through the crowd, she checks for cameras, finds a couple already rolling at three minutes till midnight and doesn’t do anything but smile at him, say, “I’m glad you made it.”

“Told you I would,” says Harry. He’s flushed and grinning, loose limbed as he slides an arm around her waist and kisses her on the cheek, then on the mouth, cold lips and warm breath.

“How was Coldplay?”

“Brilliant. Chris Martin is a legend.”

Taylor tucks a strand of hair behind his ear. “You were taking notes, right? Ready to be a big rock star on an arena tour?”

“Reckon I should take notes from you.” There’s a collective scream as the clock ticks over to 11:59 and they both turn to watch the countdown. Taylor keeps hold of his hand, pulling him in at midnight and kissing him hard. Harry dips her back so far that she nearly tips them both onto the street, and Taylor laughs against his mouth, feels Harry’s grin with her eyes shut.

Neither of them can sleep back at the hotel, peering out the window at the glowing rush of people in the streets, and Taylor thinks she should stay up until three, until the new year hits LA. When it’s too cold by the window, Harry takes her to bed, starting the year off with his mouth all over her body.

When her phone rings at three, they’re whispering together in the dark under the comforter, and Taylor might ignore it if it were anyone other than Selena. But Selena left Justin in Mexico yesterday and swore she was never going back to him this time, and she needs friends right now. Taylor sees Harry’s thoughtful look as she paces into the other room with her phone, and she hates that she knows exactly what’s going through his mind.

“Am I really the person you need to be with right now?” he asks, when she comes back to bed.

“Can we not do this again?” Taylor says tiredly. “My best friend just broke up with her jerk boyfriend for the 87th time, and I’m not going to apologize that that’s something I care about.” She couldn’t even be properly cheerful for Selena, and her assurances that this year will be their best ever sounded a little bit pleading, even to her own ears. She shouldn’t have had to steel herself for this interrogation, tensed up and ready for a fight, just because she chose to answer her phone. She’s picked apart her feelings for Selena, and she didn’t like doing it, and she doesn’t want to do it anymore. Harry came back from home looking happy and talking about Nick, and she lashes out in the worst way she knows. “Just because you’re in love with someone else doesn’t mean I am. Some of us can just love our friends and not fuck them.” She doesn’t like swearing, but it cracks off her tongue nicely now, and it makes Harry freeze, obviously catches him off guard.

“That’s not fair,” says Harry quietly. “That’s not even what I meant. And we talked about it. I was totally honest with you.”

“Then maybe you’re not being totally honest with yourself.” She suddenly wants to cry. She doesn’t want it to be true, doesn’t even believe it except in a bitter, mean little part of herself that has doubted Harry from the start. Right now that’s the only part she can hear, and Harry’s sad, searching look is just making it worse.

“Maybe you’re not being honest with yourself either,” he says. Then he takes a deep breath and says something that hits her like a slap. “You made me kiss you in Times Square at midnight because you had this idea about it. It wasn’t even an idea about me. I was just, I don’t know. I reckon I was just the one who’d look prettiest in the pictures.”

Taylor presses her hand over her mouth, but she can’t cover the sob that breaks out of her throat. She let him in far enough that he can cut her to the bone now that he wants to. She told him she had imagined kissing someone at midnight in Times Square, that she had this pretty picture in her head, and he had smiled and sworn he’d be back from the concert in time. And when he showed up, she’d felt like maybe this was something that could last. Like they could be what each other needed. There have been a lot of times she’d felt like that in the last couple of months, and now it’s just hollow inside her. She manages to cry quietly, but she can’t stop, looking at Harry four feet and ten miles away.

“I’m sorry,” he says, but now it just sounds like he’s sorry she’s crying.

“You’re not,” Taylor tells him. “You’re just finally, finally telling me what you really think. And that’s probably good.” She takes a deep breath and stands up straighter. “It’s better if we’re honest with each other.”

“I’ve been honest with you all along. I’ve never lied to you, and I wouldn’t.” He gets out of bed and takes a step towards her, and it’s basically hilarious that he’s naked, that he’s snipping out her heart when she can still feel him inside her.

“But you think I just want you to make a pretty picture.”

“I think you want a pretty picture. And I think there are things that don’t fit into your pretty picture as well as I do. And there’s a lot you’ll give up to have your life look the way you think it should.”

Taylor feels lightheaded. He’s not even wrong. She’s so careful, and she’s always been so careful. She’s made a lot of choices to ensure people thought well of her, and managed her image every single day. “Just because I make plans and keep them doesn’t mean my feelings aren’t real. It doesn’t mean I’m lying to you. And it definitely doesn’t mean I don’t know my own sexuality.”

“I don’t think you’re lying. I don’t.” Up close she can see that his eyes are sheened over with tears, his voice thick and pleading. “I just wanted you to know you could tell me if you had feelings for a girl.”

“God, Harry, that doesn’t help. You think I’d keep some huge secret from you. If I were… like you, I would tell you. You wouldn’t need to accuse me of being in love with one of my best friends to get me to do it.”

Harry ducks his head. “You think I’m in love with one of my best friends too, and that I wouldn’t tell you. So I’d say we’re about even there.”

They look at each other, and Taylor isn’t even sure what she’s feeling anymore. It’s too much, and it doesn’t fit anywhere. He’s questioning her on so many fronts, asking her to justify some of the most fundamental things she knows about herself: that she’s faithful, and that she doesn’t want to date girls. Taylor has always said she wanted a boy who would be completely honest with her, but this doesn’t feel like a new beginning. It feels more like the beginning of the end.

January 8

Harry walks into Yo! Sushi and slides into a booth where Nick is already sat playing with his phone. “I’m a free man!” he exclaims, throwing his hands in the air. He feels weird, hardly rejoicing in his freedom, but he’s faking it alright. Nick looks up and grins.

“Decided not to join Richard Branson’s harem then?” Nick asks.

Harry shakes his head. “Wasn’t invited. Could have used a few more days to tan though. Private islands are great for naked sunbathing.”

“Noted.” Nick puts his arm up against Harry’s, paler and hairier. “You’re quite brown enough for me to be well jealous though. You’re, like, proper Strictly tan. I should have stayed longer on my hols.”

“Great Britain needed you back though. Why would anyone want to wake up without you?”

Nick gives him a considering look and doesn’t rise to the bait. Harry’s not sure whose feelings he’s being careful of, and he thinks maybe he’s been too forward. He never worried he was flirting too hard with Nick before, but things are different now. With Taylor. With what Aimee said at Christmas.

“Freedom treating you all right?” Nick asks gently.

Harry looks at the conveyor belt humming past beside their table and nods. “It’s okay.” He doesn’t like that they fought in the end, and there’s a voice in the back of his head saying he just pushed her too hard for no one’s benefit. He doesn’t want to think about some of the things she yelled at him, but ultimately, it’s better like this. Probably for both of them.

“Anything you want to talk about?” Nick asks awkwardly.

He shakes his head. Talking about it will just stir things up, and right now, he’s just glad to be home. “I missed you,” he tells Nick, grabbing for a plate of tuna sashimi as it goes past and trying to seem nonchalant.

“You too,” agrees Nick. “It’s never the same doing radio when you’re not throwing things at my head.”

“Reckon Finchy missed me too.”

“Finchy may kill you if he sees you in the new building at all. But I’m sure he loves you as much as ever.”

“Well, I love him too,” says Harry decisively. “How are things otherwise?”

“Thinking of getting a dog of my own,” says Nick. “No Aimee and Thurston hanging round. No you. It’s lonely at mine these days.”

Harry winks at him. “I’m sure that’s not true.”

“You’re overestimating the appeal of loudmouthed radio DJs who haven’t got rid of their Christmas flab yet.”

“I don’t think so,” says Harry quietly, and Nick lets the plate of dumplings he’d been reaching for roll on, hesitates before grabbing the tempura that comes by a second later.

“Will you be here for your birthday?” Nick asks.

Harry hasn’t thought that far ahead, honestly. He’d wanted to get away and come back to someplace familiar, and London is that. But he hasn’t seen his mum yet, had only let her know about Taylor in a quick phone call so she wouldn’t hear it in the papers. “Maybe,” he tells Nick. “I want to talk to my mum.”

“Of course,” says Nick. “Mums are great for birthdays. But if you wanted to do something here, I could help plan. It’s good to have you back.”

Harry feels all soft and helpless at that. He wants Nick to throw him a birthday party, and he wants to go home with him after, and he wants to kiss him for hours. It hits him suddenly, how much he wants the kind of nights out they had last summer. He’d been hard on Taylor about it, as though admitting how much you fancy one of your best mates should be easy. “That’d be brilliant,” he tells Nick. “Thanks.”

“Anything for a friend,” says Nick. “Or a party.”

 

It’s the easiest thing to accidentally spend three days with Nick, to spending nights at his and only leaving to pack an overnight bag, to texting him every day, even when he’s on the radio. Harry feels as though he fits in London best with Nick, like there’s a place for him even when his “home” is Ben and Meri’s attic.

Harry probably drinks too much at the GQ dinner, drinks until everything's funny and Nick most of all, Nick right at the centre of Harry's world lighting everything up. Nick bundles him into a cab at the end of the night, hugs Harry tight against the rest of the world, and doesn't even mock him for falling asleep almost as soon as he sits down. Harry doesn't remember much of the rest of the journey, but he wakes up in the depths of the night to Nick spooned around him, one hand resting on his bare belly. He wonders if they kissed, because he knows he wanted to, but he hopes he would remember that.

Nick's looking at his phone when Harry wakes up next, scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, puffy eyed and still half asleep. He’s got the lamp on, and he seems miles away on the other side of the bed. Harry rolls into his side, flinging one arm across Nick's chest. Nick strokes Harry's drooping hair back from his forehead. "Morning, popstar. How are you feeling?"

Harry nuzzles into Nick's hand. "Better than I deserve," he says. He licks his dry lips, sees Nick watching that small movement, and meets Nick's eyes as he looks up again.

"I'm single now," says Harry softly. This morning he wants Nick in a comfortable sort of way, like coming home to his own bed after a long time away.

“You were single before too,” Nick tells him, slightly ominously. But before Harry can fight back, Nick kisses him, quickly enough that it could be a joke if either of them wanted to pull away and make it one. But instead Harry kisses him back, fitting their mouths together more fully and starting to slip in some tongue. He notices Nick’s morning breath, wonders about his own, but it doesn’t matter while they’re kissing. Everything is just warm and slow and sweet, and Harry’s whole body is responding to it. Nick settles a hand at Harry’s waist, then skims it up his side, and Harry squirms.

“Nick,” he says, and he isn’t sure what he’s asking, but he wants so much. He’s missed the feel of Nick’s body against his, the easy way they fit.

Nick blinks at him, heavy lidded and slow like coming out of a dream. “I need a shower,” he says, leaning up on one elbow. “Cab’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”

“That’s long enough,” Harry tells him plaintively.

“For what, Harold?”

“All sorts of stuff.” He nuzzles in for another kiss, but Nick just smiles and pulls away. Harry can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“Do you want to stay here until I get back?” Nick asks.

Harry flops back against the pillow. “I have a meeting at one.”

“For Ghana?”

“Yeah. I’m a bit, like, nervous.”

“I’ll be back by eleven, and you can tell me why you’re nervous.” Nick’s a good friend before anything else, so Harry nods into the pillow and shuts his eyes again. By the time Nick comes back, Harry’s too focused on work to follow through on anything he said at 5:30 this morning, but that’s all right too. Nick plays with his hair while Harry goes through his email and explains his itinerary for the next week.

“I won’t really be here much. Before my birthday. We’re just, like, traveling, and we won’t even spend that long anywhere.” Harry likes travel, he likes going places and meeting people and seeing stuff, but the more he thinks about his schedule for the year, the more he feels like his throat might close up with nerves. They’re not going to be anywhere for more than a day or two, and there’s a part of Harry that just wants to stay in London.

“Send me pictures,” says Nick. “So I can be jealous, sitting in rainy old London.”

Harry nods, tucking his head into the curve of Nick’s shoulder and shutting his eyes. “You should send me pictures too. So I don’t forgot how things are. In rainy old London.” There’s so much he’s not saying, and it’s weird, how sure he’d been that this would be easy. He doesn’t know if he was lying to Taylor, but being friends with Nick doesn’t feel like enough right now.

January 14

Taylor’s holed up in her bedroom writing, trying to pretend that the entire world outside isn’t talking about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler mocking her at the Golden Globes last night. Every time she starts thinking about it, her throat goes tight, and she’s glad she locked her phone in a drawer so she won’t look at gossip sites cheering that someone’s taken her down a peg. She’s been taken down enough pegs in the last week. So far 2013 has basically been like falling down an entire wall of pegs.

Taylor has carefully arranged her life so that no one can show up at her door unannounced, but her security team all know Selena and wave her on up the driveway while Taylor’s tucked away upstairs. It means she has to shake herself out of a daze of minor chords and rhymes for “your jokes aren’t that funny” and “I’m not even gay” to answer the door, and when she does, Selena tumbles in with running mascara and hugs her tight.

“Why can’t he just leave me alone?” she says against Taylor’s shoulder. “Why can’t I just live my life?” She’s said that before, and Taylor knows the reason he keeps calling is because Selena keeps taking him back. However bad it gets, Selena lets it heal over and she tries again. But Taylor holds her up anyway, cursing Justin’s name.

“We should have a party,” says Taylor, after Selena’s cried on her couch for two hours, and Taylor’s cried a little too, for her own reasons. Selena eventually explained that Justin had called her this morning, probably high, begging her forgiveness. And Taylor told her how awful it feels knowing strangers are still laughing at her for doing something as simple as dating. They’ve shared wine and lingering hugs and half a box of tissues. She’s already called Justin all the bad words she can think of, and she hasn’t exactly left Harry out either.

“What kind of party?” asks Selena. It’s unfair how pretty she is after crying on Taylor’s couch all afternoon. Her cheeks are flushed, and her eyes are shiny, and Taylor doesn’t understand how anyone could want to make her sad.

“A Fuck Boys party.” Taylor rethinks this as soon as she sees Selena’s raised eyebrows. “An All Men Must Die party?”

“I’m in,” says Selena. “When and where?”

“Um, tonight? Here? Call every girl you know in LA and tell her if she shows up with a boy you’re never speaking to her again.” It’s Monday, but who cares? No one in LA has anything like a regular schedule.

In the end there are only six of them, and most of them aren’t even people Taylor knows well. If she had thrown an all-girls party in Nashville, half her tour family would have been at her door, but it’s different in LA. She’s never made friends like that here, and more than usual, LA feels like a place she doesn’t belong right now. Still, it’s good, and Selena’s laughing again, which is the whole point. Taylor even smiles through her drunkenly insisting they play Truth or Dare.

She hits a line when someone dares Selena to kiss her, and Selena does it without even thinking, pressing her full, slightly parted lips to Taylor’s for one endless moment. Taylor closes her eyes, knowing she shouldn’t, that makes it too serious, but if Harry Styles thought she was in love with her best friend, Taylor figures she can at least try it out. She’s a little bit drunk, and she probably holds on for a second too long as Selena starts to pull away, laughing into Taylor’s mouth. They both go on as though nothing’s happened, but Taylor can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not even the first time, is the thing. Taylor doesn’t like kissing her friends; she doesn’t like this unsettled feeling in her stomach. But she likes it even less now that Harry’s put it in her head that it might be gay.

“Are you ever gonna tell me what you and Harry fought about?” Selena asks, tucked into Taylor’s bed late that night, bolder with the lights out than she has been any of the last week. And it’s fair, because normally Taylor would have given her a complete play-by-play.

“It was just everything,” Taylor says, which is what she’s said every time any of her friends asked her. It’s even what she told her mom. “It’s like, we hit that point where every single thing we did in the last two months was just ammunition. It was ugly. It was ugly on my side too.” She felt so trapped the last few days with Harry, like there was no time to stop and think and maybe fix things, like the stakes had gotten too high for the fragile understanding they’d built. But then the stakes had always been too high. She’d warned him about that from the beginning.

Selena curls an arm around Taylor’s waist and kisses her temple. “You try so hard to make things work. You try harder than anyone. And you thought he would be different.”

“He was different. He was different from everybody else.” She feels tears stinging behind her eyes again. She’s had boys make her doubt herself before, but none quite like Harry. He was good for her in so many ways she didn’t expect, gave her so much of what she needed. But he got under her skin too, in ways she’s never learned to defend against. “I think he thought I was like him in ways I’m not. I think he thought he understood things about me. And I couldn’t be what he wanted, in the end.”

“That’s every guy ever though, isn’t it? They all think they get you when they’re not actually listening to a word you say.”

Taylor bites her lip. She’s still mad, but she has this urge to defend him. “Harry was different. But maybe not different enough. I don’t know.”

“All men must die,” Selena tells her solemnly.

Taylor laughs and hugs her tight.

“Do you ever think about what life would be like if you were actually gay?” asks Taylor, when she can tell Selena’s still awake a few minutes later.

“I’m considering it,” says Selena. “That was way more fun than a party with Justin and his bros. And if you’re gay, you can share clothes. You can really believe a girl when she tells you that color looks good on you.”

“It would be hard though. Like, it wouldn’t be all parties and borrowing each other’s stuff. That’s what friends are for anyway. We already have that.” She’s probably not sober enough to think about this without panicking.

“Tay?” says Selena.

Taylor kisses her, just to try it, just once for real with no one else watching. Selena opens her mouth, kisses Taylor back, and Taylor shivers in closer, touching the tip of her tongue to Selena’s lower lip. It feels like not enough, suddenly, this delicate, tentative kiss. Taylor wants to bite her, suck at her tongue, make her heart beat faster. She pulls away instead.

Selena laughs. “I think you’d make a pretty good lesbian.”

Taylor laughs too, wonders if it sounds tinny besides in her own ears. “If I ever want to go on Ellen and confess something, I’m so ready.”

She thinks she might cry, and she lies there until Selena’s asleep, trying not to. There’s no one she can talk to about this, and she hates Harry for leaving her with all of it, in his quest to do well by her.

 

February

Nick buys him a stripper. A girl stripper. Harry is mortified and not at all turned on, and he tries to make polite small talk even though Niall is laughing at him on the other side of the room. Nick looks delighted by his discomfort, and the stripper says in his ear, “I’ll wager Taylor Swift never did it quite like this, eh, love?”

Harry doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel about that, and he wants to explain something to her about him and Taylor, but he’s not sure where to start. And he’s drunk enough to trip over his own thoughts but sober enough to know he can’t say anything at all. He lets the girl gyrate over his lap for a bit, since that’s what she’s come for, and when she’s done he shakes her hand and checks that she’s got a way home. Someone buys him another drink for being a good sport, and Harry keeps checking where Nick is, even though Nick hasn’t left his side all night. He’s laughing every time Harry looks at him, surrounded by the rest of Harry’s friends and looking like family, and it’s hard to act like that’s nothing.

Nick takes him home at the end of the night, and Harry is drunk and giddy, riding a thin line of energy that he knows is about to run out. “Good birthday?” asks Nick, watching Harry struggle with the buttons on his jeans.

It hits Harry all over again, a wave of want that swamps his best defences. “Almost perfect,” he says softly, lowering his eyes and hoping it’s seductive rather than silly.

“Almost?” says Nick. He starts to undress, stripping his jumper over his head and accidentally peeling off the t-shirt beneath as well.

“No birthday sex,” Harry tells him.

Nick takes a step closer to him where he’s half-sprawled on the bed, and Harry blinks guilelessly up at him. He thinks that Nick could ravish him awfully nicely like this, although he’s not sure Nick will want to. “You’re drunk, sweetheart,” says Nick gently. He puts a hand on Harry’s flushed cheek and Harry leans into it. “No birthday sex until you’ve dried out a bit, but I hear it’s just as nice the next day.”

“We can do it tomorrow then?”

Nick hesitates for long enough that Harry’s about to laugh it off, claim drunkenness and pretend to fall asleep until he dozes off for real. But then Nick’s face opens up in a smile. “As much of it as you’d like tomorrow, Hazza.”

Harry takes Nick’s hand off his cheek and folds their fingers together, squeezing tight. “I’m not sure where the top of the bed is now,” he admits, and the loveliness of Nick’s laugh nearly makes him cry.

 

He wakes up with Nick spooned around him, a hand on Harry’s belly pulling him back against the fat shape of Nick’s cock. He knows Nick can’t have slept like that all night, since his patience with cuddling whilst he’s asleep is limited at best. But that just means at some point he woke up and settled like this, their bodies tucked together like they could wake up like this every morning. Harry’s not supposed to have thoughts like that, but he feels warm and safe and happy like this, and he can’t help it. He considers grinding back against Nick to wake him up, since his dick feels at least half hard nudged into the dip of his spine. It’s nice like this though, quiet and calm after the rush of the party.

Harry dozes for a while, but he can’t stop lazily circling his hips, teasing himself with the weight of Nick’s cock. Nick’s breath hitches, and that’s when Harry knows Nick’s awake too, before Nick says, “Morning,” low and hoarse in his ear.

“Morning,” says Harry, and he doesn’t bother with chit-chat before dragging Nick’s hand down to the bulge of his dick in his pants.

Nick gives a contented little hum, trailing his fingertips over Harry’s sensitive cockhead, teasing it through the fabric. “How’d you want your birthday sex to go, pet?” Nick asks lazily.

Harry’s hips stutter into his hand. “I want everything,” Harry tells him, shutting his eyes and grinding back with more focus, working Nick’s dick against the cleft of his arse.

“Greedy,” says Nick. He presses a kiss to the side of Harry’s neck and Harry tilts his head for it, letting Nick mouth at his skin. He knows Nick hates proper kissing before he’s brushed his teeth, but Harry’s so close from casual fondling that anything that happens right now will be brief. And then they can clean up and snog all morning if Harry wants.

Nick gets in some quality groping before Harry gives up and tugs his pants down, reaching back to scrabble at Nick’s waistband. He doesn’t know quite he’ll do next, but he wants some skin. While Nick’s bare cock settles back against the crack of his arse, Nick hooks his chin over Harry’s shoulder and says, “Condoms on your side of the bed, love. If you like.”

Harry rolls his hips back, but he doesn’t want to waste time fumbling through Nick’s bedside drawers. He reaches back to spread himself open, Nick’s cock slipping deeper into the crack of his arse, the crown nudging against his hole. “Can you do it like this?” Harry asks. “Not inside, just.”

“Yeah.” Nick spits into his palm, rubs himself slicker before he starts to work into Harry’s crack, dragging against Harry’s sensitive skin. “Like that?” He kisses the nape of Harry’s neck, cups a hand around his dick.

Harry gives a frantic little nod and shuts his eyes. He’s more than ready for this, Nick surrounding him, moving against him, long fingers gripping tight on the length of his cock. Nick strokes him slowly at first, until Harry whines out his name, shivers back into him and makes him move faster. Harry’s dripping already, and Nick thumbs at his slit, smears the wetness there as his hips jolt against Harry’s. Harry’s so sensitive, and Nick knows every inch of him in a way no one else does, a way maybe no one else ever has. Later Nick’s going to fuck him just like this, stay in him and tease until Harry’s desperate to come. But for now this is enough, the jostling rhythm of Nick rutting into him, the fat head of his cock nudging right up against Harry’s hole.

“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” Nick says, digging his teeth into Harry’s shoulder as Harry gasps and comes. Nick pulls his hand off Harry’s spurting cock, uses it to spread Harry wider, angling himself into the next thrust as he spills all over Harry’s flexing hole. It’s messy and hot and Harry turns his head for a kiss, breathing into Nick’s open mouth as the calm after orgasm sets in. He can’t stop smiling.

 

March

Taylor goes to Massachusetts alone, which is to say with a full security team but no family, friends, or tip offs to the media. She walks into a house she’s owned for less than eight months, all its carefully furnished rooms still and silent, and the Taylor who bought this house feels so very far away. She remembers being caught up in the rush of last summer, the way it felt to imagine herself as part of something classic and deeply American. She’d picked out tasteful Early American furniture and had it all delivered and set up before it started to feel more like a movie set than real life. She could have stuck with Conor then, waited for him to grow into someone who could be the other half of a really good story. But that wouldn’t have been fair to either of them.

She remembers Harry saying he made the other half of a really good picture in Times Square. He wasn’t wrong, but he could have been half of even prettier pictures here, both their summer tour schedules notwithstanding. They could have had a lot of fun in this house, made a lot of memories with the Atlantic crashing behind them.

Taylor knows she could still spend summers here, in the shadow of the Kennedys, but it doesn’t feel like something she wants anymore. This is just a house. She never got to show Harry any of the places she lives except the one in LA, any of the little fragments of herself she’s put in each to make it home. Taylor hangs her coat in the hall and walks through the plush formal living room, running her fingers along the top of a wingback chair. She hasn’t even spent enough time here to put up any pictures, thinking that there would be time later, a moment when she wasn’t so caught up in something else. There might have been a time when this could have been home, but the furniture still looks something out of a catalog, and now she thinks she’ll leave it that way for the realtor.

There’s a piano in the sunroom, not even a really good one, just an old spinet that reminded Taylor of summer camp movies, rough around the edges but with good enough tone to play on. She’ll need a new summer house for it to go in, she guesses, the one piece of this vacation dream she wants to hang onto.

Taylor sits down at the piano and plunks out a few notes, realizes someone must have tuned it for her before she arrived, since it couldn’t have sat ready all winter. She runs her fingers over the keys until she finds a series of notes she likes, a plink-plunk rhythm like falling rain that she can play through one-handed until she stops thinking for a little while.

It’s now been longer since she and Harry broke up than they were ever together, but she’s still in scattered pieces, like driftwood after a storm. She’s getting things done, going places and seeing people and planning her tour just like she’s supposed to, and maybe she even looks happy, but she doesn’t feel sure of herself anymore, the seed of doubt Harry sowed taking root, growing. It feels like she might still drown under the weight of feelings she can’t discuss with anyone, not even Harry.

Sometimes she looks at Selena, or at Abigail, or at any of her friends—sometimes she even looks at strangers—and she wonders how different things would be if she just tried it. She remembers kissing Selena in her bed the night after the Golden Globes, and it’s not all bad. Taylor tries to tell herself maybe it wouldn’t have to be such a big deal, just going out with a girl sometime and calling it a date, kissing her at the end of the night just because they both wanted to.

But that’s a lie. It was apparently easy for Harry, just having a friend he sleeps with who happens to be a man, but it’s impossible for Taylor to imagine. There are already people scrutinizing her every move, rumors she can’t seem to shake off, and she’s not even trying to hide anything now. How much harder would it be if she really had a secret like that?

The wind picks up outside, rushing past the windows, and Taylor watches the clouds scudding along in the greying sky. It’s bleak but pretty, waiting for spring, and Taylor is just waiting too.

She wonders if Harry and Nick fell back together as soon as Harry got to London, if he even had the decency to mourn the end of their relationship for a few weeks before realizing he’d had exactly what he wanted all along. In the saddest, angriest part of her heart, Taylor’s sure she was just a brief interruption of Harry’s friendship with benefits. Like the rest of the world, she’s seen the pictures from his birthday, and although they’d carefully avoided each other at the Brits, nothing could stop her from looking him up the next day, seeing picture after picture of him laughing with Nick Grimshaw. Taylor’s not sure she ever made him laugh like that, although it’s harder to remember the good stuff than the bad.

“Everybody warned me,” she’d said to him that last day, when all the safeties were off. “They all said you were flighty. Harry will find a way out as soon as he gets bored, they said. Harry doesn’t know how to have a real relationship. And I didn’t believe it. I thought you were so much better than that. But maybe you should just go back to your no strings attached friends.”

And that’s exactly what he did.

 

April

They have a night off, and the only thing Harry wants to do is spend time with Nick. He hasn’t been able to convince him to come to any of the shows, and there’s so much time spent in rehearsals and filming and so many interviews in between that Harry’s starting to feel as though he lives at the O2. It hasn’t really felt like being home. Even the nights he’s managed to spend at Nick’s have been brief. And in two weeks, they’re leaving for Europe and then America, and Harry won’t even have that.

He spends the day napping in Nick’s bed while Nick has meetings, and even when Nick returns in the afternoon, he just collapses half on top of Harry and falls asleep too. Harry nuzzles into the crook of Nick’s neck and breathes in the scent of his cologne. The next thing he knows, his alarm is going off, and Nick is groaning into the pillow. “What is that?”

“I have that art show thing,” Harry says, rolling out of bed and beginning to search through his overnight bag for clothes. “Do you want to come with me?”

Nick yawns. “And give the bloody rumour mill more ammunition? No thanks.”

Harry pauses. “It’s just an art show.”

“Everything’s ‘just’ something,” grumbles Nick.

“Okay, well, I’ll come back after. We can have dinner, maybe?”

Nick’s expression softens. “Yeah. I’ll get something in. Summat healthy, maybe. Keep your strength up for all that prancing about on stage.”

“Thanks.” Harry shrugs on a shirt and the same jeans he’s been wearing all week. He goes into the bathroom to brush his hair. When he comes out, Nick has sat up in bed.

He yawns into the back of his hand. “Hate naps. Always wake up worse than before. Come here and give us a kiss before you go.”

 

Harry comes back to find Nick sautéing spinach, the whole flat smelling deliciously of garlic. “Check the salmon in the oven, would you, pet?” Nick says instead of hello. He’s got two salmon steaks broiling, and he’s obviously pleased with his own competence.

Harry grins. “I’d give them one more minute. Anything else, chef?”

“That’ll be all for now… sous chef. Is that the word?”

“Dunno,” says Harry. “Might be. Sous means ‘under’, right? I like being under you.”

“Save that filth for after tea, Harold,” Nick replies. He keeps Harry busy setting the table since the two of them barely fit in the kitchen at once, and when he comes out, he’s got the salmon artfully arranged on two of the nice plates he only uses for Sunday roasts.

“This is amazing,” says Harry, swallowing his first bite.

“Thanks. Collette’s been forcing me to cook because she’s actually worse at it than I am.”

“Well, you’re, like, quite good at it now.”

Nick smiles at him over the rim of his wine glass. “How’s the popstarring going then? I feel as though I haven’t seen you awake in days.”

“It’s alright,” says Harry. “There was this horrible interviewer who came round yesterday though. He just, like, wanted to get us each alone so we’d tell him how we secretly hated each other, but since we don’t, I’m not sure he got much from it. He asked about you as well.”

Nick rolls his eyes and stabs at his salmon with his fork. “Can’t have been worse than bloody Keith Lemon the other night.”

“When you did Celebrity Juice?”

“Yeah, it was horrible. They wouldn’t shut up about you. Asked if I’d snogged you at parties, stopped just short of calling me a paedophile. I think I sweated off all my flattering makeup for the telly.”

“I’m sorry,” says Harry.

Nick shrugs sharply. “Bit much sometimes is all. What’d your interviewer do?”

“Asked loads of personal stuff. About my personal life.” Harry looks at his plate because he can’t quite meet Nick’s eyes. “If I was bisexual. If I was dating you. I said we were just good friends. That’s right, isn’t it? That’s not even a lie?”

“Obviously,” says Nick, as though that doesn’t hurt a bit, just being friends. “I just wish they’d stop asking. It’s absolutely constant the last few months. And sometimes people hang round outside my door just hoping to catch sight of you. It’s like I’m a bloody tourist attraction.”

“Because of me? How do they know where you live?”

“Dunno, do I? Internet, I assume. Awkward though. Can’t take the rubbish out in my pants anymore.” Nick’s tone is flippant, but his shoulders are tense, and he’s mashing fish and spinach together on his plate instead of eating.

“I’m sorry,” says Harry again. “I could, like, see if someone from our security team could stay here sometimes, if it’s bothering you.”

“Oh god, that would just make it worse. At least I can tell them you’re not here when they ask now. If a 1D bodyguard were loitering on my street, they’d never believe me again.”

“Is it… is it better if I don’t come round then? If we, like, don’t see each other?” Harry thinks he might cry just suggesting it. He wants so much for Nick to reassure him, tell him it’s fine and worth it.

But Nick shakes his head. “I don’t know, love.” He looks sad and tired, and when they finish dinner, Harry decides to go out to Groucho instead of cuddling up on Nick’s sofa like he had planned. He talks to people who are Nick’s friends more than his, but that just makes it worse, and when he leaves, he asks the driver to take him to Ben’s. Quietly he books tickets to LA for their next break.

 

Summer

In June, Taylor gets a message from Harry that’s just a picture of a photo of her on a venue wall some place. There’s no text, and the only reason she even knows it’s from Harry is because she’d gotten another of his mass texts last month, saying he’d switched numbers. She’d considered deleting him from her contacts altogether then, but she hadn’t done it, she’s not even sure why. She stares at the picture for a moment, like it’s a puzzle for her to unlock, but just as she’s tucking her phone back into her purse, it dings with another text.

I feel like I’m following you, Harry says. Everywhere we go you’ve just been.

Taylor gives up on leaving the house for another minute and sinks into an armchair. She has no idea what he wants her to say.

I’m sorry, Harry adds. And at least that one is easier.

For following me?

For before I was following you.

She almost laughs. OK, she texts back. It would be stupid to get drawn in again, but she has no intention of letting him off the hook. She stands to leave, but of course Harry can’t let her have the last word.

Can I call you sometime? I understand if you’re still mad.

Taylor lets that one sit for a few hours as though she’s too terribly busy to even have seen it, before she says, You have my number. I have a show tonight. She doesn’t expect him to call.

*

Harry calls Taylor for the first time in six months from a hotel in Louisville. He’s a bit afraid to do it, but every person they’ve met in the venues seems to have a story about how sweet Taylor Swift is, how devoted her fans are, and Harry misses her. He’s never really considered not being friends with someone he dated. He hasn’t even stopped talking to Nick, painful as it is to pretend everything’s normal all the time.

“Hi,” Taylor says, sounding surprised.

“Hey,” says Harry. “Sorry, have I interrupted something?”

“Sound check’s in an hour. Meet and greets after that. You haven’t got anything to say that’s going to take longer than an hour, right?”

“I just wanted to apologize properly,” Harry tells her. “I’ve never, like, cut contact with someone before, or had it cut, I guess. I’m not sure of the etiquette.”

“I’ve never not cut ties before,” Taylor says after a moment. “So I guess I don’t know how this works either.”

Harry picks at a laminated corner of the room service menu. “Then I should just start, yeah? I’m sorry that I was such a dick to you about the, you know, gay thing. I hadn’t thought I was accusing you of anything, or of, like, having feelings for someone else. But I was, and I didn’t mean to. I shouldn’t have pushed.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But I shouldn’t have told you you weren’t qualified to have a real relationship either.”

Harry remembers crying himself to sleep in Ben’s attic and laughs bitterly. “Can’t say you were wrong about that.”

Taylor sighs, and Harry can picture her face so clearly, slightly pinched in annoyance. “I kind of want to ask what happened, because I’m pretty curious. But I’m also pretty sure I’m not ready to care yet.”

Harry nods, even though she can’t see it. She’s so straightforward about her feelings, expresses them with a clarity that makes him feel bumbling and inarticulate. “That’s alright. But are you good? The tour and everything?”

“Yeah, it’s great. It’s really great. How’s yours?”

“Same. It’s just really big, you know? It still feels big.”

“I don’t think it’s going to stop feeling big. At least it hasn’t for me. We’re doing a bunch of stadium shows on this tour too though, and that’s just a whole nother level of big.”

“I can only imagine,” says Harry.

“I bet you’ll get there. You’re good.”

“You haven’t come to see us.”

“Well, there’s this boy in the group I’m still kind of mad at. But you’re a talented bunch.” She doesn’t even sound mad, just teasing the way she used to when they first got together.

“I hope maybe in the future you and he could patch things up and be friends again. And then you could see the show.”

“I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”

“I really am sorry. You should, like, be whatever you are and date whoever you want.”

“Right now I don’t want to date anyone.”

“Then that’s good too.” Harry tips his head back against the headboard. “Can I text you sometimes? Is that alright?”

Taylor hesitates for a long moment. “Yeah. That might be good. Low stakes.”

“The lowest,” Harry agrees. “It’ll be like last summer.”

“You could text me more than you did last summer. As long as it’s mostly cheesy jokes.”

*

Taylor gets a text from Harry while she’s getting her hair done before the MuchMusic Awards. Her belly flutters with nerves, but all it says is, What did the cheese say when he looked in the mirror?

I don’t know. What did he say?

Halloumi !!

Okay, maybe not quite that cheesy. But she can’t help smiling. The next thing Harry sends her is a picture of himself in a Wisconsin cheesehead looking repentant, and Taylor thinks this might be the kind of status quo she can handle.

 

August 13

Taylor invites Harry over because there’s nowhere they can go without a storm of publicity, and she doesn’t need that right now, to fire up more rumors and invite questions she doesn’t want to answer. It’s not neutral ground, nothing like it, but Harry doesn’t object, doesn’t even hesitate before he says, “Yeah, that’s absolutely fine. Just set a time.” It’s so refreshing that there’s no game he’s playing, nothing he seems to be trying to get for himself. She’d spent half the year casting him as a super villain in her own fantasies, and even after two months of awful puns, it’s a little hard to believe that all he wants is to be her friend.

He shows up looking tan but tired, and he wavers nervously on her front step. “Hey, stranger,” she says. “Come on in.” She’s wearing a flowered sundress and she’s got her hair up in a bun that hopefully looks effortless.

Harry leans in to kiss her on the cheek, and she shuts her eyes as the familiar scent of his shampoo washes over her. “Thanks for inviting me,” he says. “It’s really nice to see you. Honestly.”

“I figured it was worth a shot,” she tells him, leading him through to the living room. Everything just reminds her of the last time he was here, when she served him tea and kissed him until she couldn’t breathe. She’s so far from that place now. But she serves him lemonade and cookies, and Meredith lies down tentatively at his side.

“You’re going back out on tour soon, right?” Harry asks. “You haven’t got a proper break?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a show in San Diego on Thursday. But it’s nice to be in my own house until then. What about you?”

“We go to Australia in six weeks. But I’m mostly free until then.”

“Will you go home?”

Harry doesn’t exactly frown, but his mouth tightens a bit. “Dunno yet. I might stay in LA. I’ve been thinking of getting a place of my own out here. Weather’s nicer than London.”

“Sounds like maybe you’re running away from something,” Taylor says.

Harry looks down into his lemonade, turning the glass between his hands. “I think it’s safe to say you weren’t really wrong about me. About me and Nick. And I thought I could go back to being casual, but people started watching more when we were together, and asking questions, and I didn’t want that for him. All that speculation.”

It’s everything she’s been afraid of for herself, every time she thinks of going on a date with a girl. She can’t even be mad now. “I’m sorry.”

“My fault. You made it clear from the start what I was getting into. Because you knew how hard it would be. I never asked Nick to agree to any of that. I should have known it wouldn’t keep working.”

“For what it’s worth, you weren’t all wrong about me either.”

“Yeah? You and Selena?” He’s ready to be excited for her, pleased and supportive all the way through.

Taylor shakes her head, her mouth firming into a little frown. “I’m still not gonna go there. But I realized that just because I’m not going to do that doesn’t mean I don’t feel things for girls. And I guess it’s like, it’s an identity thing, right? Whatever you do about it, or don’t do, you’re not straight.”

“Yeah,” agrees Harry. He’s never felt the kind of fear he sees in her face right now; it’s never been that hard for him. He leans into her shoulder for a second, just making contact.

“So I can’t quite imagine doing anything about it,” says Taylor. “But I’m getting to a place where it’s there, as a thing about me, and maybe I won’t die. You know?”

“Honestly you probably won’t die. Regardless of anything else, it’s unlikely to kill you. But it’s good that you can, like, talk about it.”

“Just to you. I’m not ready to talk to anyone else about it.”

“Then you can talk to me. You can talk to me anytime.”

“Thanks, Harry. That’s pretty rare, among ex-boyfriends. It’ll take some getting used to.”

“I’m trying to do better by you.”

“You can talk to me too, you know.”

Harry swallows hard. He doesn’t really talk to anyone about Nick, because it’s casual, because it shouldn’t matter, even though it does. Harry feels sick when he remembers they’ll have to see him in a week. “Maybe I will.”

 

November

They go for breakfast with Harry’s parents the morning before Alexa’s party, and Nick tells stories Harry hasn’t heard yet, and his mum mentions things from the radio Harry doesn’t know about, and all he can think is that the gaps are getting bigger. He was gone all summer, off to LA on every break unless he had to come back to London. There’s loads of Nick’s life that he missed, just trying to stay away. And it’s not as though he’s even stayed away completely: he came back for fashion week and got used to the smell of Nick’s shampoo and the sound of his laugh up close all over again. There was a part of him that wanted to just fall back into it, return to the same pattern that made him sick inside because it wasn’t enough. He managed not to, but it feels even harder this time.

“You really should come to ours over Christmas, Nick,” Harry’s mum says. “With Harry always at yours I feel as though we owe you.”

“Seeing our Harry’s never an imposition,” Nick says cheerfully. “But I could make time for a excursion to old Holmes Chapel, I’m sure.”

“Good lad,” says Robin, and Harry can’t stop looking at Nick with this goofy smile on his face, even though the women at the next table have started to whisper and sneak glances at them. Nick charmed his parents so easily, and now he’s like part of the family, no matter what Harry has to say about it. Harry’s not sure they could ever love someone he was actually dating the way they’ve loved Nick.

When Nick and Harry leave to go shopping for Alexa’s present, Harry’s mum kisses Nick on the cheek and says, “Don’t be a stranger, love. It’s not the same just hearing you on the radio.”

“I’ll see you at Christmas,” Nick replies. “Promise.”

“You keep him to that, darling,” Harry’s mum says, drawing Harry into a tight hug. “And you take care of yourself until the holidays. I’ll have Nick look after you if I have to.”

“Nick can’t even make toast,” says Harry petulantly. “How is he supposed to look after me?”

“Excuse me, Harold. I have a dog I take absolutely wonderful care of. And you don’t even wee on the rug.”

“Not yet,” says Harry with an ominous lift of his eyebrows.

Harry’s mum laughs. “Nick, if my child does any damage to your rugs, just send him a bill, alright? He can afford it.”

They all laugh, and Harry laughs too, in spite of himself. Nick’s smile is contagious, and he wonders what his mum thinks of all this, if she has the slightest inkling how utterly destroyed Harry’s been by his feelings for Nick.

“I don’t like this,” says Harry suddenly. They’re in a cab, which makes it probably a bad moment for dramatic confessions, and on their way to a birthday party, which makes it worse.

“It’s too late for second thoughts, love. A teapot shaped like a toilet has been bought and a teapot shaped like a toilet Alexa shall have.” Nick is using his phone camera to check his hair, not looking at Harry.

“Not that,” says Harry. “Just this, like, not knowing thing. With us.”

Nick drops his phone into his coat pocket and gives Harry a long look, almost like he’s angry. “What don’t you know?” he asks quietly.

Harry doesn’t quite know where to start. “Is it okay to kiss you anymore?” asks Harry.

“Not in a cab,” replies Nick.

“But what about in other places? I feel as though maybe I ruined it.”

Nick is so calm it has to be an act of some kind, but he nudges Harry’s elbow and says, “Nothing’s ruined.” It’s been nearly eight months since the last time they slept together, but Harry wants to believe that so much that he lets it drop. For now.

Later on, Harry drinks near-boiling water from Alexa’s teapot while Nick sucks noisily at an ice cube, and when they kiss, their mouths really do make steam. The cold of Nick’s tongue is strange, and Harry wants to keep on kissing him until they’re the same temperature again, but that’s not how truth or dare is played. Everyone is cheering as Nick breaks away and they both breathe out, and Harry remembers how Taylor hates these dares, thinks maybe he understands why. It’s different when you want to kiss someone properly and you can’t. He holds the teapot for a long, awkward moment since there’s nowhere safe to set it down, and when Alexa takes it gently from his hand, Harry still feels a bit lost.

“You need another drink, my love,” she says, and Harry gives her a grateful smile.

It’s tough to tell anymore if all these people are Nick’s Friends or if they’re his. If he forces Nick into talking about this thing between them that he can’t seem to shake, he could smash whatever delicate balance they’d made in the autumn, and maybe everyone in this room would stop speaking to him. Maybe Harry is asking too much by asking anything at all. He watches Nick dancing wildly with Florence and sips the drink Alexa’s brought him, which is strong and has a sprig of rosemary in it he keeps mistaking for a straw.

After a minute, Alexa elbows him in the ribs. “You are not having enough fun for this party, Styles. Honestly, anyone who looked at your glum little face would think you’re the one turning thirty.”

“Sorry,” says Harry, ducking his head. The rosemary goes partway up his nose this time, and he rubs at it sheepishly.

“Don’t be sorry. I’m glad you’re here. But that one is even gladder than I am.” Nick glances over at them as Alexa speaks, gives Harry a wink and goes back to twirling with Florence.

“Is he?”

“Oh, stop. He’s at least halfway in love with you, and if he were ever more than halfway in love with you he wouldn’t say. I haven’t lived in this country for years, and I know that.”

Harry shuffles sideways until he finds a chair to flop into, beckons Alexa with him so Nick’s out of sight. “But what if I can’t be what he wants?” He remembers Aimee warning him off last Christmas. “I’m going to leave again.”

“Oh, kiddo, we all leave him. Poor Grimmy’s got a job that keeps him in one place, and he loves it. And the rest of us run off for tours and TV gigs and fashion shows and all that. But that means he understands. He won’t follow you, but he won’t give you up. Just like he hasn’t given up Kelly or Flo or me.”

Harry knows that part. “I don’t just want to be his friend though,” he says. “I don’t think it’s working.” He’s felt so torn up the last couple of months, always waiting for Nick to phone, and somehow it’s been worse than when they barely talked at all.

Alexa pats his knee. “You’ll have to speak to him about that then. He doesn’t know how to be a boyfriend, and if you want my opinion, he may be awful at it. But I can’t have you being sad about it at my party.”

“Was that advice?” asks Harry.

She gives him a hard look. “It was a royal birthday girl proclamation. Go let him grope your bum in the name of dancing and smile a bit. There’s a lad.”

Harry laughs in spite of himself. He sets his drink down before stumbling into Nick, who catches him in one sweaty arm, pulling Harry in tight. The song playing is a rush of grating guitar with a heavy beat behind it, the kind of thing it’s hard to dance to, and Harry licks the corner of Nick’s jaw, salty with heat. Nick’s hand settles at the small of his back as they sway into each other, and Harry feels the growling bass line vibrating in the space between their bodies.

Florence kisses Nick on the cheek and then is gone on a waft of perfume, and Harry shuts his eyes to breathe Nick in. Several more songs Harry doesn’t recognize pass, and Nick’s hands wander, a couple of fingers tucking into the back of Harry’s jeans, down nearly to the cleft of his arse. He would probably let Nick finger him right here if Nick wanted, in this room full of their friends. But Nick stays just there, fingertips stroking over Harry’s tailbone, making him shiver.

When the party finally starts to clear out, Nick leads Harry out by his belt loops and shoves him into a cab without a word. It’s oddly hot and precludes any sort of conversation, but Harry always knew he would find himself back at Nick’s one way or another. He wants to stop and ask the questions that have been plaguing him all day, finally get some information about what Nick’s looking for, but he doesn’t want to not like the answer. He feels a bit as though whatever happens right now, it will mean the end of their friendship as it has been, and that’s a hard thing to contemplate.

They clatter down the steps together, and Harry’s heart is beating too fast because he has to say something. He has to. He doesn’t feel drunk anymore, but he’s shaky and tense. No one in his life has ever made him feel the way Nick does. As soon as Nick closes the door, he takes one look at Harry’s face and says, “Are you going to be sick?”

Harry shakes his head. He takes a step forward and presses his mouth to Nick’s. Nick tilts his head, and the cold tip of his nose brushes Harry’s cheek as he deepens the kiss. They’re still in their coats, stood in the hall, and Nick is gentle with him, one arm looped casually around Harry’s waist. Harry just kisses him for a while, because everything besides kissing seems so much harder than this, than the simple pleasure of Nick’s mouth on his. But eventually Nick pulls away.

“You asked if you could kiss me,” Nick says, rubbing their noses together before he lets Harry go to shrug off his coat. “I think you’ve got your answer.”

Harry takes his coat off too, gets tangled up in the sleeves for a moment. His hands are shaking and he can’t seem to stop them, but if he takes off his coat, it’s a sign that he’s planning to stay. He’ll sleep on the sofa if he has to, but he’s not leaving here tonight. “I didn’t just mean could I kiss you,” Harry points out. “I reckon you know there’s, like, other stuff too. But I don’t know what you want. I’m not sure I’ve ever known what you want.”

“What’s that mean then?” asks Nick, prickling. “If anyone’s not been clear on what they want, I think it’s the one of us who keeps disappearing off to other bloody countries and not answering my texts for weeks.”

Harry doesn’t want to fight. “I think I’m falling in love with you,” he says quietly, folding his arms across his chest and tucking his head down so he doesn’t have to see Nick’s face.

“You think you’re what?” says Nick incredulously.

“I don’t know when it happened. But it’s like, every time I see you, I just want more. And that’s really hard.”

“You never said though. You just vanished, over and over. One time you came back dating Taylor Swift.” He looks so helpless.

“Because when I left there was a naked stranger in your kitchen.”

“Why shouldn’t there have been a naked stranger in my kitchen?”

Harry shakes his head. “No reason. There was no reason, but I didn’t like it. And it wasn’t fair for me to not like it. So I left.”

“I’m really awful at dating,” Nick tells him. “Impossibly awful. I tried having a boyfriend a couple of months ago, and it was so much fucking work all the time.”

Harry stomach twists. He’d been vaguely aware of that, that Nick had seen someone a few times earlier in the fall. He’d never asked for details. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t keep on not telling you. And if we can just go on being friends, I’ll try to feel alright about that.”

Nick shakes his head. “I don’t know what to do. I hate it when you leave and don’t tell me. But I don’t know how to be anyone’s boyfriend, Haz.”

Harry bites his lip, trying not to cry. “I understand.”

“I can try though. I would try.” Nick steps forward and hugs him, and Harry buries his face in Nick’s shoulder.

“I’ll still be away all the time. You won’t have to get sick of me.”

“Sweetheart, if I was going to get sick of you, it would have been when you were here every night.”

“Okay,” says Harry. “Good. Thanks.”

“Thanks for not being sick of you?”

Harry shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m trying to keep my expectations low.”

Nick laughs. He taps a finger under Harry’s chin, tilting his face up for a kiss. “Just don’t leave without telling me why, all right?”

“Is it okay if I don’t like naked strangers in your kitchen? Or your bed?”

“Collette’s there half the time anyway, but I don’t think she’s anything to worry about. It’s a lot like having a chainsmoking Northern chastity belt.”

Harry laughs. “Okay.”

Nick strokes his hair, kisses the corner of his mouth. “I might be a bit in love with you too,” he says quietly, like it might be a secret.

“Oh,” says Harry. He leans up to kiss Nick more deeply again, lets Nick’s hands wander down over his arse. He’s shaky with emotion, arousal rushing in behind it. “Can we go to bed?”

“Abso-bloody-lutely.”

Nick undresses him eagerly, kissing him like he’s got something to prove. Harry falls right into it, sprawls out in the centre of Nick’s bed as Nick takes him apart, running a teasing hand over the rise of his cock in his pants. “You should fuck me,” Harry says suddenly. It’s been most of a year since he had Nick inside him, and it’s all he can think about now.

He opens up to Nick’s fingers, bearing down on the weight of them inside him, and Nick kisses him all the way through, working him up even more. It feels so good Harry loses his breath, gasping into Nick’s mouth as Nick’s fingertips stroke him just right. He can’t help the noise he makes as Nick’s cock sinks into him for the first time, the denser, deeper weight of it filling him up.

“I missed you,” he whispers, wrapping his legs around Nick’s waist.

“I missed you too,” Nick tells him. “I miss you a lot, popstar.” He strokes Harry’s hips, fucking him slow and deep, and it’s everything Harry could have asked for, more than he could have asked for. By the time he comes, he’s nearly crying, overwhelmed with tenderness. Nick doesn’t stop kissing him for ages.

*

“Where are you going after this?” Karlie asks, as two women flit around her, unlacing and detaching and cataloguing every piece of her outfit. Taylor’s been backstage a lot tonight, and the casual nudity is something she’s accepted, but it’s hard not to look at Karlie’s breasts when they’re right there in front of her face. Everything Karlie’s said to her all night has felt like flirting, notching up and up until Taylor’s almost sure she’s not just reading into things.

“I’m not sure yet,” says Taylor. “Did you have a suggestion?”

Karlie looks her up and down and Taylor’s breath catches. She feels as though the world is getting narrower, whittled down to this little bubble of her and Karlie and the proposition in Karlie’s eyes. “We could go back to my hotel,” Karlie says.

“I bet mine’s bigger,” Taylor replies.

“Okay,” says Karlie. “Yours it is then.”

She’s known this girl for one night, and she feels reckless and breathless with possibility. Karlie slips on a pair of lace panties that definitely belong in a fashion show and shrugs into a wrap dress that’s little more than a robe. Taylor has to work even harder not to stare at her breasts, the subtle movement of them beneath the dress. She never goes out without a bra because headlines about her nipples would be even more appalling than ones about her legs or her accessories or her hair, but Karlie doesn’t even seem to think about it.

Karlie folds her hand around Taylor’s in the car, taps her fingers against Taylor’s knuckles. Taylor makes the best kind of small talk, asking questions that get Karlie laughing and talking about where she comes from, and by the time they get to Taylor’s hotel, it’s like they’re just girlfriends having a chat. But then Taylor has to introduce Karlie to her security, and she falters. “Do you want to spend the night?” she asks, too quietly and not at all suave, and Karlie grins.

“I’d love to.”

Taylor tries to keep her smile normal, like it’s just a sleepover, like she plans to make popcorn and watch movies with this gorgeous girl just like she always has with Selena or Abigail. She doesn’t know if the guys understand that this is different. She doesn’t even understand how different it is until she shuts the door to her suite and Karlie kisses her, her mouth lush and hot. Taylor hasn’t been kissed in so long, and she’s missed it. Being single has been good for her in all sorts of ways, but there’s no substitute for kissing.

Karlie towers over Taylor in her heels, and it’s a feeling Taylor’s unused to, even with boys, tilting her face up as Karlie brushes a hand across her cheek. It’s not the kind of kissing you do as a joke, or to prove something, and there’s no one here to see it anyway. This is just between the two of them, and Taylor’s heart is racing as Karlie pulls her in. The kiss goes on for a long time, Karlie leading her through the steps.

Taylor is too hot in her coat, but taking it off would feel like undressing, and that’s a line she’s not ready to cross yet. One of Karlie’s hands is hooked into the belt at her waist, holding onto her like she might flee. And she might still, is the honest truth. This is every scary thing she hasn’t ever let herself want, and she can’t imagine doing this with a boy she doesn’t know, asking him up to her room and letting him expect things from her. But she’s not pulling away.

After a while, Karlie tilts Taylor back against the wall, pressing into her and kissing her harder, and Taylor folds her hands around Karlie’s shoulders and hangs on. “Is this good?” Karlie asks, pulling away to catch her breath, and her mouth is dark with Taylor’s lipstick.

Taylor manages to nod, and then she dives in for another kiss, lets Karlie fumble for her coat buttons, fingers scrabbling until they come open, drenching Taylor in cool air as the coat drops to the floor behind her. She’ll never go outside in anything that could show off her nipples to a lecherous public, and she’s glad of it now, that Karlie can’t see how her nipples have hardened into tense little points beneath her smooth bra. She feels reckless and easy, her body trying to give everything away as Karlie kisses the side of her neck.

Taylor gasps as Karlie’s teeth tug at the lobe of her ear, hot breath loud against her sensitive skin. “How about we take this out of the doorway?” Karlie says, and Taylor takes a deep breath and reaches for Karlie’s hand, leading her into the bedroom.

Karlie’s dress comes off with a tug of a sash, and Taylor doesn’t know which part of her to touch first. She folds herself into Karlie’s arms and kisses her again, running her hands up Karlie’s sides and cupping her breasts. Karlie’s nipples press into her palms. She’s trying so hard to pretend she knows what she’s doing, but when Karlie gets her out of her clothes, Taylor can’t help but go shy. She lets Karlie lay her out on the bed, mouth moving from her throat to her breasts and then lower.

When Karlie opens her up and licks into her for the first time, Taylor gasps and arches into her mouth, grasping at the sheet beneath her. Karlie’s hands grip her thighs, holding her down, and Taylor comes before she expects, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes.

She’s hesitant about reciprocating, but when she gets there, she finds that she wants to, breathing in the musky scent of Karlie’s sex. Taylor has never shaved herself smooth, and she cups a hand between Karlie’s legs, spreading her fingers over soft, hot skin. Karlie is wet for her, and Taylor bites her lip, circling a fingertip against Karlie’s clit and then licking tentatively there. She’s tasted herself on other people’s tongues, but that was nothing like this, being right up close to the center of another girl, tangy and yeasty and slick against her lips. As she shuts her eyes and licks more deeply in, she thinks she understands something about Harry, something she couldn’t possibly have known before. Karlie moans and strokes her hair, and Taylor nuzzles into her, spreading her open with both hands, eager for more. She feels like a different person than she’s ever been during sex, greedy and insistent, shocked and proud when she feels Karlie coming against her.

 

Taylor folds herself into the deep, plush corner of the sofa in the suite’s lounge afterwards and calls Harry. She’s shaky and she can smell Karlie all over her, and her lips feel bruised from kissing. She has no idea what timezone Harry’s in until he picks up the phone.

“Hey,” he says warmly.

“Where are you right now?”

“Home. My mum’s. Why? Are you alright?”

He jumps to concern so fast Taylor has to bury her face in the arm of the couch and grin. She’s so glad she got to keep him, in the end. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m weird, but I’m okay.”

“Weird how?”

“I just had sex with a Victoria’s Secret model.” It seems unfair to not even mention Karlie’s name, but it’s probably not fair that she’s calling her ex-boyfriend about this at all.

Harry’s quiet for half a beat, but he recovers. “Yeah? Weird sex?”

“Probably, like, pretty normal sex for people who have sex with girls. But that’s not me. Not usually. Not ever before.” It’s monumental. It’s a moment in her life that changes things, and she’s going to have a lot to say to her journal in the morning.

“But you wanted to, right? You’re not in trouble?”

“No,” says Taylor. “It was. It was what I wanted. I just didn’t think it would happen like this. Before tonight, I didn’t think it would happen tonight. And I’m just having trouble processing.” She keeps thinking about Karlie’s mouth, feeling it all over her skin.

“So you called me?”

“No one else knows I’m even...” She realizes she doesn’t know what word to use. “You’re the person I can talk to about this. You’re the person who even made me think about it.”

“But it was good, right? You feel good?”

“It certainly felt good at the time.”

Harry laughs. “That’s great then. You’re doing fantastic.”

Taylor takes a deep breath. “Thanks. This is weird, right? It’s weird that I called you.”

“You may have left a Victoria’s Secret model naked in your bed,” says Harry. “That’s a bit weird. But I’m glad you called.”

Taylor smiles. “You’re a good friend, Harry.”

“You’re a good friend, too, Taylor.”

 

“I’m flying out to stay with my boyfriend’s family for a few days,” Karlie says when they’re discussing holiday plans over room service breakfast. “They’re really big on Thanksgiving. Like, twenty people, two turkeys, every side dish known to man.”

Taylor nods and tries to make her face do something normal. “Cool,” she says faintly, working up a smile. “My family’s super intense about Christmas, so Thanksgiving is sort of like second fiddle.”

Karlie laughs, and Taylor thinks she’s pulling it off, playing it normal and not crying. “Your family has a Christmas tree farm, right?” Karlie asks, and it saves Taylor having to make polite conversation about Karlie’s boyfriend.

“Had, but yeah. The Christmas tree farm, like, followed from the Christmas obsession though, not the other way around.”

“This is telling me so much about you. So much insight.”

Taylor ducks her head because Karlie’s smile is still making her all fluttery and warm, and she can’t give into that. Karlie’s off-limits now, in Taylor’s world, and if they’re going to be friends, she can’t feel like this. “If you have any time around Christmas, you should definitely come to Nashville. My Christmas cookies are the best.”

“I might take you up on that. I still think we should bake together.”

Taylor stabs at a piece of watermelon in her fruit salad, watches it bleed pink across the plate. “I bet we’d make a great team.”

Karlie runs her toes up Taylor’s calf, and Taylor goes still to keep from flinching away. “We would be a super team.”

 

"She has a boyfriend," Taylor tells Harry, and she's not crying, but it's close. Her face is hot and her eyes ache and she’s interrupting him for the second time today while he’s trying to spend time with his family. She'd stared at Abigail's name in her phone for a long time before deciding not to call. At fifteen she would have been able to run to Abigail with this kind of crisis, but things are trickier now. Abigail would be well within her rights to wonder why Taylor hadn’t figured out her sexuality earlier. But Harry doesn’t need any backstory.

“Hi,” says Harry, sounding sleepy and slightly hoarse, like he’d been napping. “Your Victoria’s Secret model?”

“Karlie,” clarifies Taylor, since saying her name can’t hurt anyway.

“Does he, like, know? Do they have an arrangement?”

Harry doesn’t seem even a little bit fazed, and it just makes Taylor feel tenser and sadder. “I have no idea,” says Taylor. “But if they do, if she’d told me…” Taylor trails off, tries again. “If she’d told me, even if they have some kind of arrangement or whatever, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have put myself in that position.”

“What position?”

“The other woman. Even if people tell you it’s fine, you don’t know. And I hadn’t… I hadn’t ever done it before. I was trying this whole new thing, and I should’ve been able to know that’s what I was getting into. I thought that it might have been, like, the start of something. Something for the two of us. Because I didn’t know. I didn’t know it was just sex to her.” Her voice catches and she opens her eyes really wide because her eyes are wet and if she blinks she’ll cry.

“Did you, like, ask her?” Harry says. “It may not have been just sex. If she’s your friend, or if she wants to be.”

There are so many ways she and Harry are so alike, but every once in a while, Taylor smacks right up against a way they’re different. Harry has sex with his friends and loves them as friends, and that probably doesn’t even strike him as odd. Whatever his thing is with Nick, it’s probably still “just friends”. But Taylor can’t do that. “I think she wants to be my friend. I know I want to be hers. But I don’t think I can sleep with her again. I don’t think that can be something I do.” It’s hard to say that, knowing Harry wouldn’t have this conflict, that he would have asked Karlie if her boyfriend minded, and if she said no, he would have believed her.

“Okay,” Harry says. “Do you need to, like, process some more?” It’s her word more than his, and it makes her smile and curl a little tighter around her phone.

“No,” she tells him. “I think I have what I need. But thanks.”

“Anytime,” says Harry.

“How are you?” she asks to keep him on the line, unready to be alone in her hotel room again. “How’s home?”

“Good,” says Harry. “It’s good. Gemma’s graduation was yesterday, so we’ve had loads of champagne and cake and she’s told me how much smarter she is about a hundred times.”

“That’s what big sisters are for,” says Taylor, smiling. “And congratulations to her. I’m glad you got to be there for it.”

“Yeah, me too. It’s good to just, like, wind down a bit.”

“Have you been wound up?”

“I dunno. I spent the weekend with Nick, and I think we might be, like, properly going out now. Or we’ve said we will. And that’s good. I think, like, we might be able do it. But it’s a lot”

Taylor’s heart does something in her chest, breaking, breaking open. She’s had so many feelings about Harry and Nick, anger and jealousy tempered with the knowledge that Harry had tried for her, that he’d never meant to hurt her. And she can hear it now, that he’s scared but happy, that he believes in this in a way he couldn’t believe in anything last fall. Ultimately, Harry couldn’t sustain friends with benefits either. “Congratulations on that too,” she says, a moment too late maybe.

“I imagine that’s not exactly what you wanted to hear when you’re having a rough time.”

Taylor closes her eyes. Maybe she’d be happier living vicariously through someone else’s love story for a while. “No, it’s good to hear some good news. Tell me everything.”

“Everything?” asks Harry doubtfully.

“You can leave out any, you know, anatomical detail. But you sound happy. It’s nice to hear today.”

“Okay,” says Harry. And Taylor smiles as he starts to ramble, mixing up the order of things and going back, spilling out the whole story.

 

Winter

Sometimes Harry misses winter, and proper seasons in general, but not when he’s sitting by a pool in LA in the middle of January, stretched out on a lounger beside Alexa, who’s already talked him into three fruity drinks and doesn’t show signs of stopping.

“Thanks for inviting me here,” Harry says, when yet another couple of fans have come and gone and Pixie, Remi, and Alexa are giggling at him. “I know I’m not, like, inconspicuous.”

“Babe, nothing could be better for my image than being papped with a teen heartthrob,” says Pixie. “I could be your new squeeze.”

“Is George a crier?” asks Remi. “I don’t know if I’d want to see him heartbroken.”

“I’m sure he’d understand,” says Pixie. “I’ll let him keep the dog.” She blows Harry a kiss and he mimes catching it and putting it in his pocket.

“Hate to break it to you,” says Alexa, “but I’ve got the seat next to him, so clearly I’m the new girlfriend. Soz, Pix.”

“You bitch,” says Pixie, flinging herself back in her chair dramatically.

“Is no one going to ask my opinion?” Harry says.

“We all know your opinion, love,” Pixie tells him. “You picked that quiffy, loudmouthed one back in London.”

Harry can’t help smiling. “Yeah.” It’s so weird, having people know, even just the little group of Nick’s close friends. It makes it real somehow, in a way that calling Nick his boyfriend in his own head doesn’t.

“Oh, wipe that lovey-dovey look off your face,” says Alexa, flicking a towel at him. “We’re in public for god’s sake.”

“Sorry,” says Harry, but he’s not sorry at all. He’s not hurting or waiting or scared to ask Nick for things. He’s finally getting everything he wanted.

*

“Okay, so I have this idea,” Taylor tells Jack, cupping her phone in one hand as she paces her living room in Rhode Island. “About, like, being in love and how it’s not all big declarations and drama. And sometimes you just look at that person, and you feel like, Yes. Yes, I’ve done good. And that track you sent me last night, I think that’s what it sounds like. Real love, true love.”

“I assume you’re not just telling me this,” says Jack. “I assume you’ve written an entire song about it.”

Taylor laughs. “Well, not an entire song.” She’d sat in bed for a long time last night, scribbling lyrics, crossing things off and starting again, thinking about the way Lena talks about Jack, and then about the way Harry talks about Nick. It’s different from anything she’s ever felt, any relationship she’s ever had, the kind of trust that makes it feel like something could last. She sings Jack the chorus and part of a verse she’s still piecing together:

Morning, his place
Lazy Sunday
You keep his shirt
He keeps his word
And for once you let go
Of your fears and your ghosts
One step, not much, but it said enough

You can hear it in the silence
You can feel it on the way home
You can see it with the lights out, lights out
You're in love, true love

“I like it,” says Jack, and she can hear the smile in his voice. “Tell me more. Or get back to New York and let’s get it on tape.”

“Soon,” she says, looking out at the waves licking the beach, snow sifting down light and soft into the grey sand.

Spring

Karlie meets Taylor and her realtor outside the latest building in Tribeca that might become her home. She’s flushed from walking fast to get there, and Taylor glosses over that and takes her hand.

“I’m so sorry,” says Karlie, even though she’s right on time. “If I kept you guys waiting.”

“You didn’t even,” says Taylor.

Carmella the realtor shakes her head and smiles at them both. “No trouble at all.” The thing Taylor’s found about house hunting with Carmella is that she gives nothing away. She’s knowledgeable and not pushy, but Taylor has no idea what she really thinks about anything. She glances at Taylor and Karlie’s joined hands, but her smile doesn’t even flicker, and Taylor wonders what Carmella really thinks is going on here. Does she look at Taylor and Karlie and think “what a nice young couple”? Is she going to sell a tabloid story about Taylor holding hands with a girl no one knows she slept with?

Taylor hasn’t had a problem touring apartments on her own or with her brother, but it’s different from doing it with Karlie. And she thinks this might be the one, just from the pictures, a whole floor to herself basically, two apartments so her security can always be nearby but not on top of her.

They walk through all the bedrooms, and Karlie’s full of decorating ideas, and she already has a strong opinion about which room should be hers when she visits. Taylor can picture it so clearly, the two of them sprawled out in the living room watching movies, baking in the big kitchen. It hasn’t been as hard as she expected, being friends with Karlie and not crossing that line again. There’s a part of Taylor that wants to kiss her every time they meet, but there are bigger things in Taylor’s life right now. She’s writing a pop album and buying an apartment in a city she used to think would swallow her whole. In a lot of ways, she’s finding her footing on her own, and that’s everything.

“I want to put in an offer,” she tells Carmella.

“Absolutely. I’ll make the call right now. Welcome to New York, Ms. Swift.”

*

“This is the guest house,” says Harry, turning in a circle with his phone so Nick can see every corner of the empty bedroom.

“That’s where I’ll stay when I visit then,” says Nick. “I’ll need some furniture.”

“Don’t be stupid,” says Harry. “You’re my boyfriend. You don’t go anywhere but in my bed.”

“Kinky,” replies Nick. “What’s next on the tour then?”

“I can show you the bit of the house I’ve been using. It’s got a bed and everything. It’s just a bit daunting, trying to furnish all this.”

“And you’d rather find surrogate families to take you in instead. I remember how this works. Although you know, crazy idea, some really rich people just hire decorators and leave it at that.”

“There’s plenty of time.” Harry lets himself out into the courtyard. “I’d like it if you visited.”

“Yeah,” says Nick. “I’d like that too. Turn your camera around, love. Let me see your pretty face.”

Harry does. He smiles at Nick on the screen. “Hi.”

“Hiya.”

Nick’s smile warms Harry up inside like nothing else. It doesn’t matter that he’s eight thousand miles away, there’s a part of him that’s always with Nick. That’s been the most important thing in the last few months, understanding that it’s okay not to be in London. And Harry thinks maybe he’s getting better at it. “I could, like, show you the master bedroom if you wanted.”

“Sounds great,” says Nick.

After

Taylor doesn’t know Nick, which is weird, because she knows so much about Nick. And more than likely, Nick knows plenty about her too. She likes hearing that Harry’s happy, likes hearing that that part of his life is still going well. Somehow he and Nick have built something stable, the kind of long-term relationship Taylor can’t imagine right now; she remembers telling Harry he didn’t know how to have a real relationship, and it’s amazing how wrong she was.

She and Ed go on Nick’s show the morning before the Brits, and Harry is like a palpable presence in the room, but it’s the good kind of secret, the fun kind.

She hugs Nick in the studio before she has to go. “I’ll see you tonight, right?”

“Absolutely.” Nick grins. “I’m DJing the Universal party, and I need all the beautiful women I can get.”

“I didn’t really think beautiful women were your thing,” says Taylor.

“I appreciate them aesthetically. I assume you can understand that.”

“Obviously,” says Taylor.

“Nicholas, please come do your job and stop flirting with the talent,” Ed says primly, doing a spot-on impression of Nick’s producer.

“Tonight, yeah?” says Nick, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek.

“See you there.”

 

The next time Taylor sees Nick, she’s a little bit drunk on afterparty champagne, and Ellie is pushing her into the DJ booth. Nick has his headphones pressed to one ear and a complex set of decks in front of him. Sober Taylor probably wouldn’t interrupt, but Nick just queues up a couple of songs and throws his arms around her. “Hi, pals,” he says. “Did you come to help me press buttons?” He waves a hand at his DJ rig.

“You have really long fingers,” Taylor blurts out, thinking a whole lot of things she probably shouldn’t about her ex-boyfriend’s sex life.

Nick raises his eyebrows at her. “And you have really short fingernails.”

Taylor blushes and folds her hands behind her. “I play guitar.”

Nick gives her a dirty smile. “I’m sure that’s all you do.”

And it is. She’s keeping all parts of her body strictly to herself right now. But there’s something so cool about Nick, who’s so open about his sexuality, teasing her like a member of his club. She leans into his side, and Nick settles a hand on her hip, keeping her there as he starts up his next song. “You alright?” he says in her ear.

“Awesome,” says Taylor. “Really great.” She closes her eyes and sways with Nick for a moment, following the beat of the song with her whole body. She doesn’t know if they’ll ever be real friends, but it’s nice to think that after everything, they might be allies. Everyone’s going to see her tonight, dancing with Harry’s boyfriend, and they’re not even going to know that’s what they’re looking at. “Is this weird?” she asks.

“Is it what?” Nick says loudly, and she shakes her head. It doesn’t matter.

She pulls away and snaps a picture of him, types out a message to Harry, wherever he is. He’s good at this DJ thing huh?

She doesn’t expect a response, but it’s almost immediate. He’s brilliant, it says. Not even a pun. She shows it to Nick and his smile goes soft and fond. Taylor’s pretty sure they’ve all ended up where they need to be.