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The Honeysuckle Arch

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Go, have some champers, say hello to a few people, get your picture taken, take everyone’s mind off —

 It was all well and good on the other end of the phone but now Niall’s staring reality down. He’s never been one for moving through a throng of unfamiliar familiar faces and the back of his neck, it’s like there’s a par can on it or one of those fake tan lamps they used to make him sit under for X-Factor. He scans between the shoulders and glossy blowouts for someone he knows from somewhere other than a magazine. Laura should be here and fuck; Tom swore he’d meet him out of the car. Before he can latch onto anyone, a photographer with a saggy jawline and a tan the colour of tree trunks waves him in front of a board covered in logos. 

“Not really sure I — ”

The flash goes off and Niall blinks, purple lights hovering like alien spacecraft over everything.

 “And big smile for me?”

Niall does his best to appease the gaping, taunting eye of the camera but the stretch of his mouth goes against the will of his cheeks. Tomorrow he’s going to get at least four calls about how if he’s going to do this kind of thing over the break, maybe he could practise looking more like he’s enjoying himself.

“Ah, perfect.” For a second Niall thinks the photographer means his smile — low standards — but instead he’s grinning at an approaching figure. “Grimmy, be a darling?”

Nick drops a kiss on the photographer’s crown and steps obligingly onto the strip of black sparkly carpet. “Anything for you,” he says, and in the whole of his life, Niall has never been gladder to see anyone. “Love this,” Nick says, tugging on the front of Niall’s cap.

Another flash and Nick repositions, one foot crossed over the other, leaning in, head tilted, smile easy and ready to go.

Niall shuffles so he’s at least facing in the right direction and whatever it looks like, the noises behind the camera are delighted with it.

“You get what you need?” Nick says and when the guy nods, moves down off the carpet and into the bar.

Tom finally appears only to bleat out apologies and tell Niall he’ll see him later for a proper catch up before he herds Niall out of the way of a couple of girls in teetering heels who are already four cocktails in.

The room he ends up in’s heaving, the perimeter lined by guys in all black with notebooks and expressions like they want to go to bed and sleep for two weeks — Niall can sympathise with that — and in the middle of the floor there are dresses fitting the ascribed colour scheme of black and gold moving to the beat of some kind of reggae.

“Oh Christ,” Nick — who’s apparently been waiting for him — says, fixing a smile as he waves at the egg-head behind the decks, “it’s Rodigan. Hope you brought your dancehall shoes.”

Niall rubs the back of his pulsating neck and nods as if he knows what that means. His gaze tracks across the gold satin walls, over the crowd, until he finds the lit up exit signs over two doors on the other side of the room, French windows which open onto a smoker’s terrace. He breathes in as if fresh air can clear a path through the clamour of perfumes and heat to his nose and conjures a picture of a sky littered by nothing but stars. It helps, barely, and when he comes back, Nick’s looking at him like he might’ve been speaking the whole time.

“How you been, then?” Nick says. He hooks a hand into the pocket of his black suit, tugging the material of his gold-fleck shirt to one side. His necklaces are tangled in his chest hair. “Full of the joys of touring?”

“Something like that.”

“Harry send you that picture of a mountain he thinks looks like a flaccid penis earlier?”

“He didn’t. Got one of his hiking blisters yesterday though.”

“Nice.” Nick pauses, looks around the room. “Well — hey do you know Daisy?”

With a smile he disappears into a flurry of air kisses and comes back with a tall woman with a fringe. “Daisy off of cooking and being hot, this is Niall off of One Direction. And being hot.”

Nick adds a smile at half cock and they stand there getting jostled by well-meaning publicists and the cast of TOWIE. Nick shows them all the mountain that debatably does look like a penis on his phone and tells a story about an actor who was on the show this morning and forgot the name of his own film in a haze of coke and jet lag. With his big gestures and voice that drowns out the music, he draws a cluster, and it’s nice and distracting enough listening to him but the photographer comes back for some informals. After the first flash, Niall edges away on the excuse of getting a drink.

This is Zayn’s worst nightmare, he thinks.

It’s not far from his own, either, but apparently he’s sucking it up for the good of the fifth album and showing how not bothered they all are or some bollocks like that.

He opts for a cocktail with Guinness and Prosecco and a name that’s something to do with the brand they’re here for (watches? Is it watches? He could do with a new one), thumbs through his phone, pretending he’s used to these parties where you talk to whoever you end up standing with about nothing, where no one cares about anything but being seen with the right people in the background. He texts Laura to see if she’s coming after all, collects the empty glasses on the bar into a pyramid, accepting the smile of the bartender as he swaps them for the cocktails.

On his way back he gets stopped for selfies by two kids who were apparently on Britain’s Got Talent, tries to keep the glasses out of the way so he doesn’t look like he’s encouraging underage drinking — he can do without that lecture thank you very much — and the track that was faintly reggae is now full-on dragging bass line with lyrics so blatantly about sex everyone looks uncomfortable dancing to it. They might all be stuck in one of the lesser-known circles of hell but Daisy’s still at Nick’s side, giggling as she takes a picture of Nick with her phone.

Niall holds the triangle of glasses out to her and when she takes one, shoves the other drink into Nick’s hand. “What we talking about?” He slurps at the cocktail. It’s like some kind of alcoholic cappuccino. He can get with that, he supposes.

Nick lifts his glass and takes a sip. “We were just talking about my new TV show. Proper music thing it is with real artists and a moody theme tune. Daisy’s well impressed.” Nick touches Daisy on the arm. “Tell Niall what you were saying about me interviewing Frank Ocean.”

She rolls her eyes, sinks onto one foot with defeat. “You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Mean what like what?” Niall says.

“It’s just a change,” Daisy says, “from what Nick usually does. He’s so great at ephemera, it’s — ”

“What’s ephemera?”

“She means,” Nick says, “she thinks I can only talk to fickle people about superficial things.”

“Isn’t she supposed to be on your side?”

“That’s what I said.” Nick lifts his glass and smirks while Daisy blows air up to ruffle her own fringe. He meets Niall’s eye. “You free to come on?”

“Could be, mate. If you agree to keep it superficial, like. Be a while until we’re up for anything hard.”

The look says he’s definitely thought of a retort, but Nick’s expression falls as a man comes over to join them, lazy lip balm bleeding into the smoker lines around his mouth and his eyes sharp in the dark. He misses Nick entirely though and pins Niall to his drink with his gaze.

“Oh, Niall, how you holding up?” he says, and leans in for a kiss.

Niall goes with it, gets a waft of powder from his aftershave, goes through the racks of Bressie, Laura, and Rochelle’s mates, old faces from the X-Factor or from the label.

“I’m grand, how’re — ”

“It’s so terrible, I thought the five of you were forever. I’m still in shock,” he says, hand going to his heart. He waits for Niall to say something but the line Niall rehearsed — we’re fine, he’s fine, if he’s happy we’re happy — gets stuck in his teeth. The guy meets Nick’s eye. “Aren’t you?” 

“ ‘Bout what?”

The man frowns, incredulous, and Niall does the same because it’s totally fucking obvious what he means. The trend is barely cold. “And poor Harry all alone in LA.” 

Something about Nick’s shoulders changes and makes him seem a foot taller than he was. “Nice try, love.”

“You must miss him,” he says. Nick’s face remains impressively blank and after a beat the guy switches back to Niall. “Don’t you think he should be here? Show a united front for your incredible fans?”

Niall clears his throat to make space for the he’s happy, we’re happy words. “Look — ”  he starts, but Nick touches his back, the shake of his head only perceptible because Niall’s looking right up at him in surprise.

“Here’s your exclusive,” Nick says. “You know that Neil from Clean Bandit? Had him in to record a little trail for the show and he asked me exactly where I was when I heard, because he was getting his hair done and it did the rounds of the salon and everyone was so het up talking about it, nearly ruined his fringe. Kind of poetic, isn’t it, because Zayn’s hair is always on point but there he was, casually destroying everyone else’s pursuit of follicle perfection with one casual announcement.” Nick looks across the dance floor. “Wait, is that whatsherface from Geordie Shore? Who’d’ve thought her nipples were that big?”

The man turns to look and before Niall’s really clocked what’s happening, Nick’s tugging him back, turning him, getting between them.

Really, the nerve,” Daisy says, taking her place too in the barricade, and Niall doesn’t get it, because the indignation on her face isn’t even secondhand, it’s for him via Harry via Nick.

“Was… fine. I could’ve handled it.” Niall washes the words down with a swig of the cocktail, not sure who he’s trying to convince. The fizzes thrum at the bottom of his tongue.

Daisy softly frowns at him. “Of course but you shouldn’t have to. It’s a party,” she says.

A party I came to in order to get my face in the paper, Niall thinks, but he appreciates the sentiment.

Nick gets his phone out and starts scrolling. “He’s like the anti-Jesus, way he turns water into poison. God, already? Look at this.”

He turns the screen so Niall and Daisy can see.

Niall’s grown accustomed to it, tweets dangling the promise of One Direction stories that may or may not ever materialise, but still it takes him aback to see the same face he was just a hug away from next to a humble brag about himself and the party hashtagged drowning his sorrows. He glances over to where the guy was to tell him he doesn’t know shit, but he’s gone, of course. Niall pictures him in a car, lit up neon by his phone as he taps the story into it. The collar of his shirt shrinks. He points at the smoker’s terrace.

“I’m going to go and — ”

He makes his way through the maze of sweaty stranger shoulders to the French doors, pushing out into the cold. It settles on his face like raindrops, calmness, little patches of it that tickle when he wants it to pour. He breathes in and out and in again, slow and steady like he’s supposed to, and fixates on the lights other side of the river, the cars honking on the bridge, the trundle of a bus he imagines he can hear.

When he blinks and looks around, Nick’s joined him.

“Tell me to fuck off if you want,” Nick says. He sits on the edge of the wall that runs around the terrace anyway and extracts a packet of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his jacket. He offers it across and Niall takes one, even though he’s been trying to give up pretty much since he started and this time he promised himself he meant it.

He leans in so Nick can light it for him, pulling hot satisfaction into his lungs when it flares red.

Nick’s smile says he gets it and he cups his hand around his mouth to light his own, blows smoke out, fogging up his face. “So how are you really?”

Niall shrugs. “We’re fine. New album, move on. Worse things happen at sea.”

“Do they, though?” Nick crosses one arm over his chest, bangles dancing before they settle.

Niall uses his thumb to roll his cigarette just lightly back and forth between his fingers, thinking nothing specific about the way the ash clumps. “You talk to Harry?”

“Couple of times.” Nick takes a long drag and lets the smoke out slowly from one corner of his mouth. Maybe it’s the diffusion from that and the fairy lights strung above them, but he looks different to how Niall remembers.

Whenever he thinks of Nick, he’s backstage somewhere laughing up a storm with Harry tucked under his elbow. Sometimes he’s a passel of kids in tow, all of them clamouring for his attention, a Pied Piper who loves the affection of tiny hands tugging on his very fashionable clothes. Here he looks more like a glossy advert from a magazine at the dentist, kind of thing where you can’t tell what they’re selling, only that to buy it you probably have to fill out some kind of questionnaire to asses you’ve the requisite cool.

Or be a culturally relevant person who gets it for free.

Look at this man, it’s fucking insane what they just sent me.

Niall shoos away the image of Zayn laughing over tissue paper and combat boots and goes back to Nick, who can sit on a wall looking sad and expensive while a song about thighs pumps out from the door.

“He’s all right, like? Harry?” Niall says. He’s been meaning to call. Not meaning enough to put a reminder in his phone, just enough to think it every night when his head’s on the pillow: tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll call Harry and make sure he’s all right.

“Hard to tell in’t it?”

“How so?”

“Hasn’t really hit him yet. So he can say he’s fine, same way he can say he’s not tired the way he always does. He won’t realise that’s not the truth until it knocks him on his arse.”

A boat pootles down the river, chanting a warning at the bridge, and Niall wonders what it’s like to have someone who’ll make statements about you without hesitating. Comes from a person who’s been in your bones, certainty like that. All his mates would say if asked would be, “He’ll be good,” “Nothing keeps our Nialler down,” all these little lies he’s made them believe are who he really is.

They must’ve been out here longer than Niall thought because Nick drops his cigarette and grinds what’s left of it out under the toe of his boot. He looks up with a smile that doesn’t quite convince, eyes raking Niall’s chest before they get to his face and carry on up. “Really do love that hat on you.” He pauses, like Niall might be about to take offence and shrugs one shoulder. “I can’t wear them on account of my head being the same size as Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Niall rolls his eyes, clasps his fag between his lips so he can slip the hat off and toss it over.

Nick makes a meal of catching it, laughing as shifting on the wall for balance lifts his feet off the ground. He centres the cap on his head, hands hovering in expectation of it falling immediately off, and he was right; it looks like it belongs to a toy. He keeps very still like he’s balancing books before bringing his fingers up under his chin to frame his grin.

“Pretty as a picture.”

Nick holds it long enough for Niall to slip his phone out, slide it open, and take one for real.

“If you tweet that to your fourteen billion followers I will fucking kill you,” he says, but in such a way as Niall thinks he’d like nothing better.

Still, he doesn’t do it — for a hundred reasons — instead, sends it to Harry for probably just as many.

“You want to go back in?”

Niall screws his fist up at the thought. “Not really my scene.”

“You want to do one, then?” Nick says. “I’ve got to get to bed — it’s a real good excuse sometimes. We can share a cab.”

Niall has only the vaguest idea where Nick lives and fuck all idea where it is relative to him, but he throws his cigarette over the wall, and nods anyway.

 

 

*

 

 

“So I said to him, ‘Who d’you think you’re fooling with that accent?’ only then his security comes over and starts threatening me. Turns out it was really him all along so chucking a bread roll at him was a definite professional misstep. And quite possibly treason.”

Niall laughs and he’s not sure how it happened, the loosening of his clothes without touching a button and the reduction in cheek-fever in the back of a cab with Nick.

“Just here’s fine, thanks,” Nick says.

Niall sees flashes of going home, back to his own head, and reaches for his wallet. He holds a handful of fivers through the partition.

Nick’s face goes through startled to perplexed to curious.

“You weren’t serious about bed, were you?” Niall says, giving him a shove toward the door. “It’s half eight, where’s your self respect, man?” 

He follows Nick out of the car and down the metal stairs to his door, and when it opens, there’s a scrabble of paws on wood and a flurry of white wagging tail. “Be good, Pig,” Nick says, and shoos the dog back so they can get in. “This is Niall. He’s a pal of Harry’s.”

Niall holds in a scoff and moves down the hall, checking out the prints on Nick’s wall while she nuts her head against the back of his legs in welcome or whatever it’s supposed to be. “Roger Daltry?” he says, fingering the edge of the frame which houses a signed photo of him emerging from a swimming pool like Jaws. “Cool. Who else you got?”

Nick mutters something about nosiness, but he edges around Niall and shows him his collection anyway: the Clash in the bathroom under the sink, Kate Moss and Lou Reed in his bedroom, Eminem and Mick Jagger and Madonna and Amy Winehouse peeking up over the flowers in his lounge.

“Like a gallery,” Niall says. They come to a stop by the sideboard where Nick has portraits shot with his own phone of Rita Ora and Harry and Mark Ronson, some printed out and framed, others just tucked in the edges of the mirror. Those ones seem more precious, somehow, like he wants to have them available to touch. “I’ve this one of Frank Sinatra in my TV room. Every time I look at it, it’s like… he’s the man, you know? Only it’s not the him everyone got to see, it’s this picture backstage. He’s dog-tired, you can tell, and he’s staring at his own name on the door of his dressing room like he doesn’t know what the words mean anymore, Frank and Sinatra. Like he’s trying to remember who that is, how to be that, and he’s losing it a bit that he’s forgotten.” He swallows as Nick looks at him like he’s seeing things far deeper than Niall intended in the words. Fucking Prosecco. “Bought it from the photographer the day the album went to number one. I’ve the only copy in the world.”

“Which album?”

“Second one. I was — ” His mouth’s arid all of a sudden and he’s not sure this is a memory he wants to share, after all. “We were waiting for the call from the numbers woman and we were all like top five — top ten, even — would be grand, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Especially Louis. He never wants to count his chickens even while they’re hatching, you know? But I had this feeling — not like optimism, I could just see it happening. I’d been looking at it, this picture, and when it was announced — number one — I thought fuck it.”

He leaves out the part where he was away when the print arrived, that it sat in a cardboard tube for a month, and Frank looked so much smaller than Niall ever imagined he could printed out. He stood in his flat holding it and thinking about himself, whether in ten, twenty, fifty years, anyone would be able to remember his name and unable to tell whether he wanted the answer to be yes or no. “You got anything to drink?”

Nick nods and waves Niall into the lounge proper, where a couple of squashy sofas overflowing with cushions face off around a coffee table. “Make yourself at home. But not, like, too much — I don’t want to come back and find you shirtless with your hand down your pants.”

“Sure about that?”

It’s reflexive, the kind of thing he’d say to Harry, and he winces soon as he’s said it, because maybe he doesn’t know Nick well enough for that.

With a roll of his eyes though Nick pirouettes towards the kitchen. He chucks his jacket onto the counter and opens the fridge, which is littered with the faces of his friends too. For some reason Niall had it in his head Nick would be a neat freak, but there are all these little mementoes of people left behind. He sits, sifts through an invite on the coffee table for Nick plus however many he wants to a party next weekend hand signed with about fourteen kisses, flowers and a card again marked with an x, and a note that apparently came with a painting. He looks on the wall for it — maybe it’s the one of a dog only a person who loved the painter would hang, displayed above the chewed up toys and ratty bed in the nook just off.  

“Oh, you’ve a guitar,” Niall says. He reaches for it and runs his fingers over the strings. It twangs, tremendously out of tune, but it’s a really good one — special edition Les Paul — so he pulls it onto his knees. The wood’s cold and he hugs it to him, turning the peg and plucking at the G string until it whines up to around where it’s supposed to be. “You play?”

“I can do half of Don’t Look Back In Anger.”

“Which half?"

“The easy one.” Nick places a beer on a mat in front of Niall and topples down onto the sofa opposite. He rests one foot up on the coffee table and watches as Niall strokes the strings until they clunkily harmonise under his fingers. “I learnt it to spite a guy I fancied who said I didn’t have the attention span. Thought if I could show up to college and sing it all properly, he’d realise what he was missing.”

“It work?”

Nick sighs and prods the neck of the bottle resting against his thigh. “Enough to let me give him a hand job in the toilets and then ignore me for the rest of the year. Story of my life, that, going out of the way to impress someone then finding out too late they just don’t give a shit.”

Niall’s stomach caves at how casually Nick says guy and fancied and hand job but Nick sighs. “Bloody cocktails, always make me emo and over-sharey.”

Niall strums a chord. “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall,” he says, and Nick laughs, short and bright.

He nods along with the tune and Niall wasn’t intending to play much more than that but Nick takes a big breath and launches into:

Todaaaaay is gonnna be the day that they’re gonna throw it back to youuuuu.” Even by Liam standards he’s croaky and hitting fewer than half the notes, but it doesn’t dent his gusto. “By now you shoulda found out realised what you gotta doooo. I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you nowwwoowww.”

Niall takes the next line, Nick the one after that, and when they hit the chorus it’s an awkward amalgam of eye contact, with Niall trying to meet Nick’s wrong notes and Nick grimacing in acknowledgement they’re iffy. The result is a caterwaul but they carry on, garbling the actual lyrics through the verse and the middle eight, and they end laughing it up at each other, Niall harshly going over and over the final chord like a fanfare. He stares down at the fret board until the notes stop ringing around the room and then looks up at the ceiling where someone appears to be stamping out a fire.

“It’s fine,” Nick says, “they already hate me.”

 Niall sets the guitar back on its stand, regrets it as soon as he does it, because now there’s no chords, he’s alone with Nick. Ten seconds of quiet and he’s wearing Nick’s gaze like an overcoat he’s just remembered he’s naked beneath.

Something Harry once said in a hotel room in New York floats in: the thing about Nick is he’s ninja hot. One minute he’s just Nick and being this total fucking idiot and the next he’s looking at you and you just want to take your clothes off and do whatever he wants, you know?

Niall didn’t. He so didn’t he thought about it on and off for two weeks. And it’s not like he’s having some grand revelation sat here on Nick’s sofa, but maybe he can see it, how there’s some people who make you a peculiar kind of uncomfortable inside of yourself, so when they want in, you let them, in the hope they might be able to soothe the thing they’ve upset. He drowns the thought so quick with beer his throat burns.

“It’s a nice place you got here,” he says, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, just so there’s something else between them.

“I’m selling, you want it?”

“Maybes. Give me the estate agent waffle and I’ll see.”

Nick waves a circle around where they’re sitting. “This is the lounge. As you can see it’s open plan and great for entertaining although the decor is — I’m told — a little quirky. There’s a cellar downstairs — I mean obviously it’s downstairs there’s no such thing as an upstairs cellar is there — which would be ideal for storing anything you’d like to forget about and don’t mind getting a bit damp. Man like yourself might make use of it for storage for all his awards, for example.”

“Damp, though? That’s going to rot the one like a surfboard.”

“I’ve always wanted to know — how the bloody hell do you get that through customs?”

“Customs isn’t your problem,” Niall says, taking another sip of his beer. “First you gotta get it in the locker on the plane.”

“Hmmm.” Nick’s attention drifts off for a moment, fingers running down the bottle he’s cradling and back up. He thumbs at the opening. “Kitchen’s well-appointed — I think that just means I’ve got a juicer — and bedroom’s a little on the small side but honestly what do you need a load of room for? All you’re going to do in it is sleep and fuck.” He looks at Niall, one corner of his mouth lifting up. “So. You interested?”

Niall’s pulse goes crazy.

Take your clothes off do whatever he wants.

Nick’s dog barrels in, leaps up at Nick like they’re recreating The Notebook, and catches him in the balls with a paw.

Nick hisses — collapses all over her — groaning, patting her tummy and calling her a, “Wretched clumsy pesky creature,” with more affection than Niall’s ever had directed at him by anyone who did anything to his.

Niall lifts his bottle to his lips, relief swirling. “Hope that’s not going to put a dent in your weekend.”

“Chance’d be a fine thing,” Nick says, rearranging Pig so she’s sitting next to him, tongue out, heavy breathing, his hand on her head. “I’ve been single so long four entire dating apps have come into and gone out of fashion. Swipe right, swipe left, who cares, I’m just looking for someone worth the energy of swiping at all.”

“Right.” Niall smudges at the wet paper of the label on his bottle until it starts to crinkle. “So you and Harry, you’re not — “

“Not my type, love.”

“What’s your type?”

Nick’s lips pinch together before he meets Niall’s eye. “Here.”

And that’s the other thing Harry said about Nick in a hotel once, off his face on mini bar Petron: there’s not a shot he doesn’t call. And he’ll never call so you can give it a shot.

Unlike Harry apparently Niall can see the appeal in that. He can see it too distinctly to stay for another one, that’s a fact. He drains his beer.

“I best be off, let you get your beauty rest.”

Like an impeccable host Nick gets to his feet to see him out, hangs off the door while holding Pig back with his foot, offering to call Niall a cab because there’s not always one at the taxi rank on the corner.

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Well if you’re at a loose end,” Nick says, “you know where I am. That guitar’s not going to murder Oasis classics by itself.”

Niall’s already half way up the steps, but he turns back to say, “Why’ve you a guitar like that if you don’t really play?”

“So gorgeous boys in bands have a reason to stop by and entertain me.” Nick grins, catching his tongue between his teeth. “Have a good one, yeah?”

 

 

*

 

 

Day three in the studio. The walls aren’t beige but they seem it, like if Niall bites into them to mark the passage of time he’ll reveal the beigeness that was there all along. They’re carpeted in the fuzzy studio nylon but it’s not ribbed like the one in LA. He can get through it. He had braces. They must’ve gifted his enamel with super strength and what about that time Louis dared him to chomp a gobstopper and Niall went right through it like a crisp? 

The chorus starts again. It’s official; Julian’s laptop is fucking possessed by this song.

“And your lips…” Louis bounces the biro he’s been chewing off his chin instead of stabbing the keyboard with it like a normal person would.

“Around my dick?”

Louis rolls his eyes at Liam’s suggestion. “Maybe lips is steering us wrong. Relatable — attractive — relatable…”

It’s like they’ve been sucked into a game show where a woman’s staring at them with a blank smile of derision, waiting for one of them to stop being an eejit and say what the whole audience knows is on the back of the cube. They’ve been through hair and smiles and nibbleable necks, but all Niall can think about is Harry. If Harry was here, he’d be scribbling in his notebook, everyone ignoring him until he popped up with a bit that wasn’t what they thought they were looking for but fits just perfect all the same.

He has a habit of doing that, unexpectedly cracking things wide open. There was a party, once, for someone they didn’t know before they met them at the show. There was a bottle on the rug, Drake on the iPod, and an age-old game. Soon as the bottle started spinning, Niall knew it might happen, hoped it wouldn’t, hoped it would beneath the gossamer lie of that. When it did, all he could do was laugh at Harry’s joke about how look, bottle’s pointing in one direction, right at me kissing you.

Took some kind of forever for Harry to crawl across to him. When he arrived, nerves and excitement were in his eyes and a smile on his lips, his fingers soft, considerate, considering as he kissed Niall with all of his mouth. Like… Niall’s kissed a fair few, but not one of them felt as into it as Harry, like his gums wanted it. And then he was gone, backwards walking on his knees to his side of the circle, flopping down on his elbows. He left Niall alone all night with these thoughts like… if that was kissing him with people watching, what’d he be like on their own? Or was that the wrong way about? Was it being watched that made it, because even back then it was obvious: there’s nothing makes Harry commit to things like putting on a show.

Niall still thinks about it sometimes, not the kiss so much, but the crawl, the moment when he knew it was really going to happen, and the ones after it had, when he couldn’t disown it any longer, the thing he’d been steadfastly not thinking about since Harry Styles poked his head into Niall’s room just to say hi.

“Swing of your hips?” Niall says.

“Does that even make sense? Do you really lie awake all night thinking about hips?”

Niall shrugs and presses the corner of his notepad with his thumb until all the pages ruck up. He does and he has but he’s not going to say it because they’ve been trapped here in a clammy room that smells of vomit and pine airfreshner for almost six hours and all they’ve done is change four lines in a song none of them are even convinced is a winner anyway.

“Nips?”

“Liam — ” Louis sighs and closes his eyes as if Liam’s very existence is draining his life force. “I just can’t with you and your mindless need to rhyme today.”

“Well sor-rey.”

“We just need like a little personal detail and then the rest of this is going to fall into place, I can feel it.”

Niall’s phone buzzes on the table. Message from Rochelle:

u still cming 2night? Xoxoxoxox

He pushes it away.

“Ok let’s brainstorm,” Liam says. “Everybody write the last three things that really, like, got you going.”

Obligingly Niall takes a pen and stares at the notebook. Beyond the white, accusatory blankness all he can see is Nick’s chest, the hair on Nick’s chest, the curve of his top lip. Bedroom. Fuck. Interested? If they didn’t want to hear about hips they definitely don’t want to hear about that.

“Why do we always have to write about sex?” he says.

“You’re not getting any, then, I take it?” Louis says. “Why am I even asking. You’ve had a face on you like a constipated weasel all day.”

Liam’s still cackling when Julian comes back in, carrier bags full of Budweiser not stopping him doing double finger guns. “Guys guys guys, has the magic happened yet?”

“Buckle up, Niall’s about to write us a ballad called the lament of the underused cock.”

It’s a testament to what a craptacular waste of a day it’s been that Niall can’t even muster the energy to tell Louis to fuck off.

Not that he would, because as running jokes at his expense go, being unlucky in love ranks amongst the more useful. He had a few false starts in the early days but now he’s got it down: girl, hotel, aftershow, party, whatever. Go early, go desperate, go unsubtle. Put a foot across the line of too crude when he’s flirting. Make sure everyone who cares to look sees he’s up for it. Do enough to make them think there’s intent. Then drop out. Stop laughing at their jokes, stop carrying on the conversation he was just 100% into, stop looking at them, even. Check his phone, tweet, wander off into the kitchen, and don’t come back for ages or do but with some disgusting food that’ll make his breath reek for three days. Wait until they get bored enough or pissed off enough to cop off with someone else.

And if he’s done it right, one of the lads or their crew’ll clap him on the back and say, “Aww mate, unlucky.”

Unlucky. Yeah right.

Julian props his feet up on the desk and says, “Settle in for the night, then.”

Great. They’re going to crack open the beers and talk about their exes and all Niall has to contribute is a list that reads:

Tits, arse, fanny  idk

“Can we put on some, like, Pharrell to get in the mood?” Liam says.

“That is the smartest thing you’ve said all day.” Louis drags the laptop over and opens iTunes. “We going new or classic?”

Liam says, “New,” the same time as Julian and they high five.

“Should we not be listening more to stuff we want to sound like?” Niall says. “I heard this one by the Eagles — ”

“Oh here we go.” Louis leans back on his chair, arms crossed. “You and Harry aren’t going to be happy until we sound like a covers band for Fleetwood Mac, are you?”

His eyes narrow, like there’s a hundred more barbs he’s been storing in his throat.

“Ok well… see what you can do. I got a dinner thing.” Niall gets to his feet, leaves the notebook where it is. “See yous tomorrow I guess.”

 

 

*

 

 

Niall thought he was accepting an invite to a shitty movie and a takeaway for three, but when he gets to Rochelle’s, there’s two extra cars in the drive and another parked awkwardly on the pavement right outside. He considers doing one but all he’s got in to eat is a packet of quinoa he got to make a Jamie Oliver he now can’t find the recipe for and he has fuck all idea what quinoa even is.

Marvin answers the door with a grin and drags Niall straight into the conservatory and a conversation with Oritse and his wife (or girlfriend? Did they get married? And what the fuck is her name?) about his handicap. Leads naturally enough into them asking what Rory McIlroy is really like and Niall tells them he’s sound because he is and really what else is there to say about it? They joke about Niall’s ball drop and Marvin gets him a beer and introduces him to Emma Willis’ husband by showing him the gifs of Niall falling over.

“What happened there, then?” Matt says.

Or was it Mark? Mark from Busted? Matt from Busted. Niall had a poster of them, he’s sure, but he needs to start writing this shit on name badges.

“Slippy leaves.”

Everyone laughs as if that’s not literally what happened and Niall smiles, prods himself to join in, and stop being such a miserable twat. When the golf chat dies off he excuses himself to go and say hi to Rochelle. There are new pictures of the kid in the hall — ones of Rochelle and Marvin too wrapped around each other at a party — and he makes a note to tell her later how much he likes that red dress. The kitchen’s changed colour since the last time he was here — maybe it’s entirely new, actually.

Rochelle’s got her back to him, fussing over a tray of sushi. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted Frankie about this caterer mate of hers. Do these California rolls look ok to you?”

“Ok how?” Emma says.

“Like should they be that big? Shouldn’t there be like seeds on them or am I thinking of something else?”

“They look fine to me, babe,” Niall says.

“Oh you came!”

Rochelle’s across the kitchen and squashing Niall into her neck with unreasonable velocity for someone in those shoes. He hugs her, pats her back, and she’s beaming when she lets go.

“Hi, how’re you?” he says to Emma and they shake hands, exchange the usual pleasantries of people who’re aware they have friends in common but aren’t actually mates. He tells them about the studio and puts a positive spin on the new songs, leaves out the beige, and the urge to chew the walls. There are sympathetic noises about Zayn, but by and large he can tell they both accept it when he says he thinks it’ll be for the best, in the end.

He’s not sure why he wants so much for someone to argue with him about it.

“Right,” Rochelle says, to the tray, still considering it, “I need to put Alaia to bed and then let’s crack the effing rosé open, yeah?” She turns her attention on Niall. “She’ll want to say hi to you before she goes.”

Rochelle guides Niall out the kitchen and through the lounge to the stairs, and there’s Nick with Rochelle’s kid on his knee, playing a game that seems to consist of him holding out his hands, her slapping them, and laughing hysterically. Being glad to see him is apparently the new hot trend.

Niall raises his drink in greeting and Nick smiles. “Hey kiddo,” Niall says.

Alaia hides her face in Nick’s jumper, like she’s kissing the rabbit on it.

“You remember Niall, yeah?” Rochelle says. “He sent you that teddy from Australia. Say thank you, baby.”

The reply is muffled by the wool in front of her mouth and Nick rubs her back, wrinkling up the pyjamas she’s already in — the trousers of which are bright pink and covered in clouds and sheep, the top yellow stripes.

“Marv got her ready for bed, I take it?” Niall says.

Rochelle sags onto the balustrade. “He sent her to school this morning in like… I don’t even know where he found them? They were like lederhosen? And then… wellies? And he put these tights on her like — I didn’t even know baby fishnets were available, never mind in like green. She is going to grow up with such a complex.”

“Some people pay good money for that level of authentically eccentric styling,” Nick says and Niall murmurs agreement.

“Maybe he’s just trying to express his creativity.”

“I’ll express his creativity,” Rochelle says, with a roll of her eyes. She strokes her fingers through Alaia’s hair. “Well, everyone’s here and you’ve said hello to them all so time for bed for you, missy.”

“Mum, uncle Nick says I can go and meet his dog.”

“And we can, sweetie.”

“Her name is Pig because she looks like a pig. But not pink. Like a white pig.” Alaia pokes at the hole in Nick’s jeans. “Flora’s got a dog.”

“I know, you showed me pictures, remember?”

“But we still can’t get one?”

“Maybe one day.”

Nick leans into the kid’s ear and stage-whispers, “Don’t tell anyone but borrowing or visiting a dog is so much cooler than having one all the time, because then you only get to do the fun stuff.”

“What fun stuff?”

“Ball throwing, tummy tickling — all the best bits, none of the weeing in your shoes.”

“Pig wees in your shoes?” Rochelle says, fingers going up to her mouth in horror then retreating back to point at Nick’s feet. “Did she wee on those shoes? That you’re wearing in my house?”

“These are Saint Laurent, I keep these in a lock box just in case. Shall I take her up?” Nick says. “I am so in the mood for teeth, a cuddle, and a story.” He scoops her up and she giggles into his neck. “Kiss for mummy?” He leans in and Rochelle blows raspberries on Alaia’s mouth. “And for uncle Niall?”

Wet lips land on his with a big smacking sound and Niall, in surprise, adds, “There you go.”

Niall’s still wiping the secondhand gloss and spit off his mouth when Nick carries her up the stairs, telling her to wave night night nighty night, and disappears around the corner.

“He’s so great with her,” Rochelle says. “Shame he hasn’t got someone to have one with. Right, where is the mama effing rosé?”

Niall drifts back to the conservatory and listens through the adult stories for strains of the ones Nick’s telling about Barbie saving the world by remembering she knows astrophysics. It feels like ages until he comes to join them — at least two glasses worth — but when they’re all taking their seats at the table, Niall can’t remember a single thing he said or had said to him.

“You two all right on the end, there?” Rochelle says. “I ran out of plates so if you’re going to Instagram, can you get like either or set in the frame so no one knows they’re not all matching?”

She takes her seat at the other end opposite Marvin and Niall looks down the row — Marv and Roche, Oritse and… Aimee yes it’s Aimee, Emma and Matt maybe Mark, him and Nick.

“Christ, look at us,” Nick says, “only two singles relegated to the spares.” He smiles and reaches for the wine. “Suppose there are worse people I could be looking at all night, though.” Instead of filling his own glass he goes for Niall’s, eyes all hooded as he tops it up and sets the bottle down next to the little bowl of ginger. The sun’s just set and the lamps are on low, and it suits him, the yellow light. Nick waves over the floofy pink flowers between them. “This is very romantic. Feels like we’re on a date.”

“Have I said what a great jumper that is?” Niall says.

“Not yet.”

“It really brings out your… I don’t know, chin?”

They both laugh slightly too loud and look away at the same moment. Next to Niall, Emma throws them both a dramatic wide-eyed glance.

“We’re just… ” Nick trails off into a wave of his glass of water and an uneasy soft chuckle.

“Playing,” Niall says. He can’t tell if he’s even disappointed. He takes a California roll and throws it into his mouth. “Thumbs up on these, Roche.”

“Thaaaaanks,” she says, grinning, “I dialled the number myself.”

The talk devolves to a wedding Oritse’s best man at — chatter about the stag do collapsing into Marvin and Rochelle’s wedding, Emma and MattMark’s — and Niall nods along even though he’s no idea who the bride and groom are. It’s like this whenever he comes back. New people have always been added to the circle, new jokes have formed, new conversational riffs he knows he’ll never quite understand even if he asks someone to pick it apart and explain it to him. However hard he tries to keep up with people, change always happens. Pointless trying to keep up with it.

Marvin asks about the tour and while Niall talks, Nick leans on his hand and smiles at the end of every line, even though he must’ve heard about and seen the things Niall’s talking about from Harry. He keeps looking at Niall even when MattMark, Oritse, and Marvin take over with their reminiscing. “Remember that girl who – ”

“Don’t you give Niall ideas,” Rochelle says, leaning over the table to slap Marvin’s arm.

“As if I’d have to.”

“Oh right, this is what you all do when you claim to be playing golf, is it? Stand around exchanging your seedy stories?”

“That one about Vegas was too good, man.” Oritse shrugs and his smile, when it comes, is so slick it definitely belongs on the cover of a magazine.

“Do I even want to know?” Rochelle’s palm is flat on the table and she’s leaning in over the sushi to peer at Niall, expression wolfish. She definitely does and Niall smiles because he knows it’s expected, the trotting out of these things for a run around.

“Like I said to the lads,” Niall says, spreading his hands. “She was a showgirl… we had a lot of tequila, and then a very long conversation about amps. The thing with the nipple tassels? That was an accident.”

Oritse and Marvin crack up and Niall tries to remember how he told it before, but all he can find is them not believing he was talking to her because she was a sound technology student, was full of questions about whether line arrays really have enough throw for a full-scale arena, that she just happened to be mostly naked because she was performing in the kind of place Josh and everyone decided Niall would want to go. He smiles in an attempt to demure out of the story and reaches for his wine.

Somebody tell me what happened with the nipple tassels?” Rochelle says. She pointedly glares at Marvin, then Oritse, back again with a lifted brow. Marvin cracks first.

“Like he said,” he says, “they’re in super VIP in this place full of showgirls — show’s over but they’re still drinking, pairing off, whatever. A lot of tequila is going down but for some strange reason, she is not falling for Niall’s cable banter. So he points at her boobs and says — wait I can’t do the accent.”

Neither can Oritse but he picks it up anyway. “ ‘Here, can I have a go on those?’ ”

“Right, right.” Marvin splutters into the cuff of his shirt. “And she thinks he means the tassels — whips them off like no shame — and then he’s like — “ 

“ ‘Well suppose I’d better put them on, then.’ ” The accent’s even worse second go around. “So the scene goes — Niall shirtless, but in tassels. Her shirtless, but no tassels — ” Oritse pauses to look at everyone in turn. “ — and Niall for reasons that he never made clear decides this is the optimum moment to give her a lap dance. And he’s grinding — ” Oritse lifts his arms out and thrusts to demonstrate, shaking the table with his enthusiasm, closing his eyes, mouth going slack in an expression Niall hopes he has truly never, ever pulled in his life. “ — giving it all that — ”

“And that my friends is when Liam walks in with a bottle of champagne, singing Happy Birthday.”

“And Liam — bless him — he just says, ‘Well you seem to have this in hand,’ turns around, and leaves.”

The table goes off — Rochelle screeching, “Oh my gosh,” Oritse hammering with his knuckles as Marvin doubles over, Emma’s hand over her mouth as she guffaws  — everyone’s laughing at him, but it’s Nick still looking at him, not laughing but quietly smiling, that makes Niall pink up.

“Not a night I’ll forget in a hurry,” Niall says. “Think I’m still a bit hungover from it, actually.”

He downs the wine he’s been working on, pours another glass, and thankfully Rochelle takes over with a story about The Saturdays, when she somehow got her heel caught in her dress coming down the stairs to the stage, fell arse over everything, and when she got up, her hair was totally caught on her tit tape. MattMark takes his turn — this venue manager whose kid was a big Busted fan. The two of them went wild, ended up passed out in the dressing room while the others tried to keep the kid from seeing his dad face down in a pool of his own puke.

“You see the other guys much now?” Rochelle says.

“Not now they’re on tour with — you know. I got my own things going on.”

MattMark eyes the wine bottle with hungry disgust and Niall remembers now, the stories about him.

There’s a swell of warmth in the room and it hits Niall all in a rush behind his eyebrows. He stares at some yellow fin tuna. It doesn’t help as much as he hoped it might.

“You all right, there?” Nick’s voice is low, meant only for him.

Niall wishes they were sitting side by side instead of across from each other, so he could put his hand on Nick’s leg to steady himself. There are two plates. He can’t tell if they match or not. Is he allowed to Instagram them if they don’t match but they’re not real?

“Perfect.”

Nick nods, pushes his chair back with a scrape on the wooden floor. “Anyone mind if I just nip out for a ciggie?”

Niall blinks up at him to watch him let himself out of the conservatory and duck around the side where Marv’s beast of a barbecue lurks. There’s a bench out there underneath an arch of honeysuckle — the thing was in bloom when Roche came to view the house and she fell in love with it, showed Niall five different angles on her phone in the pub. “It’s like something out of a fairy story,” she said. “How could anyone not be happy when they could go outside and look at that?”

Marvin scratched his head a lot that night about it being too expensive, too much of a risk when both of their careers were still so uncertain, and Niall wants to ask them both if it was worth it, if happy really was as easy as buying a house with the right sort of plants. He doesn’t — but only because Emma’s talking about one of their producers from The Voice getting a hernia.

“I’ll go keep Grimmy company,” Niall says, instead, and catches his foot on the doorframe as he slips out, his knee complaining at the twist.

Night’s fallen most of the way in and the light from the house makes squares on the lawn as he weaves across it. Around the edges, the trees haven’t quite got their full leaves on either, but it’s peaceful for a sky view full of sticks.

Nick’s sitting on a wall again, blowing smoke at his own feet, his phone balanced on his knees.

“Why’d you always look like an advert?”

Nick swivels his head. “You what?”

Niall flops onto the bench under the honeysuckle, leaning back on it as if with the power of his thoughts he might be able to turn it into a swing. “Nothin’.”

The chill cossets him, like it’s got him under the arms. Welcome to the drunk trough. He likes the trough. It makes everything glazy.

“That was quite a story, about Vegas,” Nick says.

“If I hear that repeated on the radio, you’re a dead man.”

Nick takes a drag on his cigarette, leans back to blow smoke rings at the sky. “You should be more concerned Rochelle’ll tell it on This Morning.”

“She wouldn’t.” Niall wants another drink to keep him right here not thinking about anything, but the thought of more wine makes him feel sick. He waves at Nick’s cigarette. “Don’t suppose you got anything stronger?”

“Sorry.” Nick holds the packet out and Niall hovers over taking one before shaking his head. “You get anything finished today?”

“We didn’t. Left the others at the studio. I might go back later.”

He won’t but it feels as if he should want to and saying it bridges the gap between the two.

“I want first play when you do.”

Niall looks him dead in the nose. “You’re definitely our second choice after Dave Berry.”

“What?” Nick shrieks. “After I rescued you from the worst excesses of Rodigan and all. Is there no such thing as loyalty these days?” He cracks a grin and his phone lights up. “Guess who.”

“Beyoncé.”

“He says hello.”

Nick awkwardly taps a one-handed reply and hits send. He asks about the others, about who else they’re working with and if it’s true Wiz Khalifa wants to come on and do a guest rap. He’s all over the idea — “One D on Charlie Sloth, that’d put some fire in the bloody booth!” — and Niall likes it, how Nick can talk so endlessly about so little, how he knows a little about an endless list of things, how conversation with him never stands still so if you don’t like where it’s at, it’s not long before it’s moved.

He rests his head back against the wooden thing the honeysuckle’s growing up. Smell like crushed expensive sweets circling as he lets Nick talk about his dog and his brother and his friend Colette who did something funny yesterday, all of it mushing together with the wooziness in his head.

“You doing anything this weekend?” Nick says.

“Was gonna have the lads over actually, watch the match. You’d be more than welcome.”

“Wouldn’t want to show your mates up with all my excessive football knowledge.” Nick takes a drag on his cigarette. Is it the same one he started with? “Wait, you did mean football, right? There’s not some big, like… I don’t know, rugby match everyone else is talking about?”

He looks so genuinely concerned Niall laughs. “Just Derby but it should be a good one.”

“Right because they’ve got the thing with the guy who’s been doing the thing recently.”

“I’ll send you a cheat sheet if you’re coming.”

 “Aww thanks.”

Nick stubs his cigarette out on the side of the barbecue and drops the butt into its mouth. He paces a short way backwards down the garden, clasping his hands, and his eyes do that thing again where they skim Niall’s face and down, make him want to shiver and simultaneously puff out his chest. “Nothing more romantic planned?”

“What was it you said the other night? Chance’d be a fine thing?”

“Oh come off it, you’re a millionaire in a band. If you’re not beating ‘m off with a stick, rest of us’ve got no chance.”

“I’m beating something off,” Niall mutters.

Nick’s voice goes all mock goading and he ducks down. “No Victoria’s Secret model who’s caught your eye?”

“Thing is — ”

And the thing is… what, exactly? Niall blinks at his own knees. There are lies he could tell, ones that’d fit into stories already in circulation or others he could make up now about a girl who’s flying in next week, not sure how it’s going to go, like. But there’s something about the way Nick’s looking at him. Like he already knows. Like he’s turned Niall inside out and seen all his secrets on the other side of his skin. It’s abrupt, how pointless it seems to lie when it’s only Nick and he’s sitting in a honeysuckle arch.

“I’m — well, gay, I guess.”

“Harry never said.” 

Niall rubs at his scar where it bisects the rip in his jeans. “Harry doesn’t know. This is my first time saying it.”

Nick makes a startled, sympathetic noise, and then the bench sinks under the weight of his arse.

“No big deal.” Niall closes his eyes specifically so he can open them again and look directly at Nick to prove it.

“ ‘Course not,” Nick says, with less volume than Niall would’ve thought his voice ever capable of delivering. He hesitates a fraction before his arm drapes around Niall’s shoulder. A waft of smoke and seaside aftershave and it squashes all the air out of Niall’s lungs.

Christ, where’s it come from, this weight all of a sudden? He wants to say it doesn’t matter — everyone talks shit in gardens, Harry keeps on teaching him that. But fuck, he’s not saying it, and why isn’t Nick laughing so he can too? Can he still pretend it was just a joke, prove it by giving him all the gory details of what it’s like to have a real life Vegas showgirl suck your dick?

He supposes he could give him what it’s like to have one throw up on your trainers while profusely apologising and asking about work experience, but it’s not really the same thing.

“Shit.”

Nick tightens his fingers on Niall’s sleeve. It makes his head go woozy so he curls into Nick’s neck like he would if he were Harry, closes his eyes, takes a few sharp breaths. And it’s Nick. Harry’s Nick. Niall didn’t even really know him much at all before last week. He can’t even tell if he did it because it seemed like the right moment or he’d had enough pretending or if it was something else, something ragged and reckless, if he wanted to tell the one person who could bleat it out to everyone tomorrow morning. He pushes hard against Nick’s neck.

“Here’s the plan.” Nick’s closer, whispering, almost, words hitting his cheek. “I’ll give you a boost so you can stick your head up over the fence — check the world’s not exploding.”

A snort of a laugh comes out of Niall’s throat and he barely catches it before it turns into something more like crying.

“Oh, love — it’s fine, you’re fine.”

Nick holds him tighter — like his arm’s rigid and his grip’s solid as a man clinging to a cliff — and Niall doesn’t really know what to do, only that he needs something to hold onto. Nick’s other hand is the only other thing, resting on his leg. He slides his fingers under Nick’s, fixates on Nick’s knuckles as they move to accommodate the request and squeeze. He maps the shape of his big almond nails and his veins sticking up like the mountain ranges of California seen from a plane.

They stay there so long Niall forgets what they were doing before, how they got here, how to do anything else.

There’s a rap on the kitchen window.

“Oi you, is there anyone you won’t try it on with?” Rochelle has one eyebrow raised at Nick, who lets go of Niall’s hand so subtlety and casually he bets she won’t remember it was there at all.

“Not my fault you’re too cheap to get a heater out here,” Nick shouts back at the glass. “It’s bloody freezing and he’s too Irish to bring a jacket. Recipe for disaster waiting to — er — happen.”

Only because he’s so close Niall can sense Nick swallow at his fumble and there’s some kind of security in it, Nick being nervous.

“Yeah yeah you tart.”

“Watch it Humes, or I’ll tell him that thing you told me about you, Marvin, and the hot sauce.”

Rochelle points at Nick violently, long pink nail pointing right at his heart like she might be able to shoot a bullet from it. “You swore to take that to your grave.”

Nick answers with a smile and she tells them when they get their arses inside, there’s pudding. “Might just sneak another fag,” Nick says.

“When you both get some lung disease don’t expect me to send you any flowers,” Rochelle says, and when she’s gone back to the conservatory, Nick inches around, knees knocking against Niall’s, his hands both resting in his lap, like he’s making it obvious they’re there if Niall needs.

“All right?” Nick says.

Somehow it’s got properly dark. Makes it intimate, the question he’s asking. Niall should force a laugh — yeah of course, like I said, it’s no big deal don’t make it one — but Nick’s face has gone surprisingly earnest and it makes Niall feel like a sack of skin with nothing inside holding it up. “Can’t rightly tell, to be honest.”

“Yeah.” Nick offers him the packet from the bench but Niall shakes his head. “You going to be sick?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Ok. Let me know if you change your mind.”

Nick waits, fiddling with the holes in his jeans, and Niall’s sure a minute ago he could barely keep his head up but now, now he’s very awake, but like inside himself, like the outer bit’s a case and fuck knows what it’s doing but inside, his thoughts are doggishly alert.

He pushes away a memory of a hotel hallway where he ran into Zayn on his way back from an impromptu party on Louis’s balcony, Zayn’s eyes rolling like bits inside a snow globe, but the words out of his mouth clear as the most unspoilt crystalline lake:

I can’t do this anymore, man.

Maybe it’s the way of things that it’s only when your body’s wrecked your mind can focus on a thing you’ve been not directly thinking about.

There’s laughter in the conservatory.

“Sorry.”

“Whatever for?”

Niall shrugs. “Now you got to think of something to say, don’t you?”

“Not something I struggle with, traditionally. But — I don’t know. Do you want jokes or do you want advice like I’m a proper elder gay or — ”

“Sure, what you got?”

“Oh shit,” Nick says, “you’re supposed to say no I’m good thanks, let’s go fill our faces with empty calories.”

Niall could laugh, let him off the hook, but he doesn’t.

Nick’s hands go for his hair, rucking it one way and back, before he’s sighing, holding his own hand in the cradle of the other. “Can tell you it gets better or easier or whatnot, but you’ve lived in the world same as I have. All the things that stopped you saying it before now, they’re not imaginary, and there’s no use pretending they are.”

Niall snorts. “Might as well just find a girl and be done with it, then.”

“Nothing to stop you.” Niall wasn’t expecting that. “Some blokes do real well out of it, power couple and all that. Only thing to decide is are you going to be upfront with her, draw up your terms for how you’ll both have a bit on the side every now and then, or are you going to make her believe she’s really the person your heart’s in as well as your dick?”

Niall picks at the quick of his middle finger. “Wouldn’t have to be like that. I go for a pint in a place there’s girls and someone starts something saying I left with knickers in my pocket.”

“I do read the papers.”

There’s a snicket of skin Niall can’t detach. He lifts it to his mouth and pulls it off with his teeth, pain sparking. “I don’t care, like? Not until my dad’s on the blower asking if I really like this one and when I’m going to bring her home.” He inspects his nail. There’s a little rivet in the flesh, not bleeding. “He saves everything, my dad. He has these folders and folders and folders, like one day he’s going to build a museum and it’ll all be there in glass cases, everything that’s ever been said about me, whether it was true or not, everything all jumbled up together like there’s no difference.”

Nick’s mouth hitches, wary. “You can always tell him the real story.”

“But how do I explain…?” Niall can’t find the words he means and he huffs in frustration. “That is — how do I tell him that sometimes you do things knowing how they’ll look? It’s not always as simple as this is true and that’s lies.”

Nick shrugs. “Who says you need to explain?” At Niall’s frown he sinks down inside himself.

“I don’t know. Fuck, it’s — ”

Niall throws himself back against the bench so hard the honeysuckle shakes. He should leave this conversation out here, go inside, and tell some more stories about touring. There’s this hilarious one about getting drunk in South America. It takes a turn through partying with their support act and some dancers, ends with him sleeping in the bath and waking with a toilet roll clutched to him like a teddy bear, Twitter handles written all over it. He tore up and tossed it around himself like confetti, laughing at nothing then crying at the same because of jet lag this weird liquor like lemonade. Course now when he tells anything like that, Nick’ll be looking at him, know it’s all a tilted mirror on reality. He shivers.

“You cold?”

“ S’not that.”

Nick rubs at his arm anyway.

“Funny game at first, isn’t it?” Nick says, after a while, his voice hollow and a touch harsh. “Let people assume, say sommat that’s just a little bit of a lie even though it feels so big you’re surprised you get away with it.” He pulls a honeysuckle cluster off a branch. “Problem is you end up with these different versions of yourself, don’t you? This one everyone else is seeing pasted over the real version, who’s just scared all the fucking time someone’s going to rip the first one off like a plaster your skin’s still stuck to.”

Niall’s heartbeat picks up. He glances at Nick, trying to see his face without looking at him too obviously.

 “And — ” Nick swallows. “ — it’s not easy, yanking the plaster off yourself, either. So don’t let anyone tell you it is or you should’ve done it sooner or give you any shit.”

Niall rests his head on the arch. He looks at each light window square on the lawn, checking each one has four corners, lining them up in his head with the real rooms. A bit of him wants to pull off all the skin around all his nails just to have something to distract him from the conversation he never imagined having. Or did, but not at all like this. In his version there were pillows and regrets for a duvet, an accent not dissimilar but not the same, either, all of it spilling into someone who kisses with all of his mouth. “What would you know about that?”

“Got a lot of female friends and I used to be — well, let’s just say someone who actually likes me a lot once accused me of being bitterly ambitious. Said my obsession with maintaining my image was rotting my actual life.” Nick looks up at the sky and puffs out a humourless laugh. “It had been, though — I evaded having a proper boyfriend because I wasn’t sure how to handle it, how it might affect my career, let people think what they wanted about me and my friends. Used to think — well what’s it matter?”

Nick shifts on the bench, crosses his legs, arm right there against Niall’s. It’s not the right time to think about it, but he likes it, being close to Nick. Likes the dimple in his chin and the line of his jaw and the way his fingers dance about when he talks. Likes too his ridiculous rabbit jumper, the way his knees bust out of his skinny jeans, and that he’s so much quieter and more thoughtful and yet emphatic and angry than Niall gave him credit for.

“Then some rag got pictures of me off my face and kissing a pal. A pal who had a real boyfriend. They went to town on her, had a quote from an anonymous close friend saying I was always staying over when he was away, that I were just using her and how stupid she was. I wasn’t sleeping with her — never had — but the using bit were kind of true, weren’t it?” Nick glances at him, cautious and small. “Like you said, one day I’ll be gone and bits of old newspaper’ll be all that’s left. I did some proper navel-gazing, saw a really rubbish therapist, made my agent swear I wouldn’t have to do some shitty tabloid confession or talk about being sad and confused. They said they’d find someone friendly on a broadsheet, pick the right moment. When it finally happened, was over in half a sentence.”

Niall swallows. “That sounds okay, like…?”

“In all fairness I left out the night before where I stupidly Googled other people who’d come out and threw up for six hours.” Nick shifts on the bench, pulls the cuffs of his jumper down over his hands. “And it’s not like you say it and all the bullshit goes away because it doesn’t. I had a text this morning though, into the show, from the mum of a teenage lesbian saying how much she lights up every time I talk about fancying Douglas Booth. Because it’s breakfast radio where everyone can hear it. That was the opposite of rubbish.” Nick stares down. “ ‘Course then there’s the tweets I also got telling me to stay away from Harry before I give him AIDs, so it’s a mixed bag.”

The wood Niall’s using for a pillow digs into his temple. He rolls into it. “I can imagine. Always someone just sitting there waiting for the opportunity to be a dick. Can’t live your life trying to avoid drawing their fire.”

“No, no you can’t.”

Niall stares at his mouth. There’s a freckle, bigger than the others, bleeding into his lip.

Nick considers him for a moment. “Been an all right chat, this, hasn’t it?”

Niall nods.

“Let’s get you back inside and some water in you, yeah?” Nick says, and tugs on his sleeve until Niall moves.

Inside they’re having no dairy, no fat ice cream, none of them sitting at the table and Marvin trying to beat Rochelle in a game of guess the rapper from three seconds of music. Nick steers Niall around the edge of the room, grabs a bottle of water from Rochelle’s fridge, hands it to him, and says he’s got to get home, already way past his bedtime.

“Should go too,” Niall says, eyes shrivelling at the onslaught of light. “I’m — studio tomorrow. You — share a cab?”

“I drove — give you a lift though?”

They ping-pong between hugs to tell everyone goodbye and thank Rochelle for a lovely evening and it’s much better when they’re over the step and on the drive. Nick opens the passenger door for him and winds the windows down, and maybe it isn’t anything but Niall’s never had anyone drive him home like this before.

Or — well of course he has. Louis has, Liam has, Harry has in that phase after he passed his test when he took unnecessary journeys just because he could. But he’s never had dinner sitting opposite someone, had a lengthy chat about something so freshly unwrapped, then had them drive him home. Or maybe he has and he’s just forgotten.

Bottle between his knees, he gives Nick directions even though the sat nav’s right there with nothing to do, just to talk about something that isn’t important. He tells him right at the lights and first exit of the roundabout, straight across here, just to put off thinking what happens when they stop. 

When they do, it feels like he could kiss Nick if he wanted to. Like Nick would write it off as the product of a night with a higher emotional component than he signed up to. Like he might want it just a little bit because he doesn’t say anything, just looks over like, this decision is on you.

Niall can’t decide if any of the things happening in his body right now actually belong to Nick. So he leaves it with an awkward hug across the gear stick and goes inside, rosé pitching him towards the sink.

 

 

*

 

 

Day four in the studio. The laptop’s not been exorcised. The thought of biting the carpet walls has been making Niall gag on and off for 126 minutes.

His phone buzzes.

Nick Grimmy:

How’s your head?

Liam cranes over to read it but Niall snatches it up quick and turns the screen back to black. He sneaks away to the kitchen to get some more orange juice and reply:

Fell off in the toilet

He’s not expecting anything but Nick rings, laughing as Niall answers. He launches into a story about being on his way to the supermarket, that if Niall really needs it, he’ll bring him a smoothie, detox with flax seeds and five different minerals from seaweed.

He spends the afternoon with his laptop in the corner, pretending he’s working on harmonies, instead, copy-pasting facts about Derby into an old email address he has for Nick from something Harry sent.

 

 

*

 

 

“How — why do you know Nick Grimshaw now?” Eoghan says.

In all fairness Niall was not expecting Nick to actually show up to the football, let alone with bags of kale chips and a dip made of some kind of bean that’s supposed to be good for your skin. “Am I eating it or wearing it like a face mask?” Niall said as Nick explained it.

Nick retorted, “How the hell should I know? I’m in lad mode now.” Then he leant in, grinning. “Ten minutes, bit of cucumber, it’s like you’ve never been to a party in your life. 

Against the odds he’s actually learnt the cheat sheet, keeps spitting out facts every time the commentator says somebody’s name — “fourteen goals so far this season,” “oh he’s the one on loan from Villa isn’t he?” “Scottish international and lead singer from Coldplay, what a guy,” — and by half time, he’s actually into it, biting the skin on his lip as if he actually cares they’re one down.

They go to the pub, after, and Nick endears himself to everyone by getting a round and then telling a story about the time what they’re drinking gave his friend the shits. He chooses the seat next to Niall and Niall tries not to read into the way he keeps looking at him. He doesn’t text Harry or really check his phone much at all — leaves it on the table for a good twenty minutes when there’s nothing much happening except Eoghan talking about a charity bike ride and Nick telling him all about chafing and how the best slash worst thing to have when you’ve been cycling for ten hours is a burger.

Bressie gets his phone out to show them a map of the route, tuts before he gets there, tossing it away.

“Problem, man?”

“Nothing, just my cousin talking shite on Facebook about the referendum.”

“What’s that?” Nick says. His beer leaves him with a foam moustache and Niall wishes he wasn’t twitching at the conversational turn so he could properly enjoy imagining licking it off.

“Marriage equality. They’re letting us vote on it because Lord knows, popular opinion always leads to good choices politically.”

Niall shifts on his seat, trying not to react at the way Nick looks at him askance. “It’ll be yes, sure it will.”

“Well it fucking better be,” Bressie says. “The mental health of Irish LGBT teenagers is appalling — I’ve seen the stats.”

There’s talk of who’s going back for it but all Niall can really concentrate on is Nick leaning into him. He smiles along with the conversation as it drifts over him, a rumour about certain churches hatching a plan to spoil the papers, something on Newsnight about expected turnout.

Niall reaches for the packet of Marlboros Nick left on the table. “Can I bum one of these?”

“I thought you were giving up?” Eoghan says.

“I am.”

“Me too,” Nick says, pushing to his feet.

They nip out together and Niall lights a cigarette, hands it to Nick, who stands with one foot tucked up behind him and resting on the wall like a flamingo.

“If you’re going back to stick an x in a box, I could come with you,” he says, sighing the smoke out, “get me a wig and pretend I’m Annie Mac.”

“How’s your accent?”

“Amazing, so it is.”

It’s on par with Oritse’s but Niall lets it pass. He leans on the wall next to Nick and steals the cigarette out of his fingers. “We’re giving up,” he says, to Nick’s offended face. “Or — cutting back.”

“Hate dieting,” Nick says, but he doesn’t light another one, just waits for Niall to hand it back.

Over the road there’s another pub with a chalkboard outside declaring it’s closed for the wedding of Tim and Suzanne, the window all decked in flowers and inside, candles on the tables. Niall scuffs at a pebble with the toe of his boot. “Do you not think it’s weird that, like, strangers — they get to say whether or not you can get wed?”

“Weird’s one word for it.”

The stone skids into a crevice where the paving’s cracked. “Suppose I have to have opinions, now, on everything like that.”

Nick takes the cigarette, cheeks hollowing as he draws on it, lip quirking up to let the smoke out. “They come in your welcome pack with your rainbow flag and a copy of Clueless on DVD.”

“As if I haven’t already got that.”

“Got opinions too. You just might not’ve been leaving either out where people can see.” He smiles as if he thinks he might’ve been too harsh, jerks his head at the wall. “Your mate with the thighs and the statistics, he seems all right.”

“He’s top.” Niall takes the cigarette, slips the filter between his lips, breathing in comfort and Nick all at once.

“You never thought about telling him?”

“ ‘Course, but — there’s the thighs, the bike rides, the statistics.” Niall screws his shoulders into the wall, as if he’s scratching like a bear on a tree. “He’d have me on a chat show back home before I finished the sentence.”

“Christ, I feel inadequate. When it was happening here, all I did was send a rainbow emoji to Scott Mills.”

Niall hums amusement. “Reckon I could manage that.”

“You fancy it, then, getting married?” Nick nods at the pub window opposite.

“Sure — you want to pretend to be Tim or Suzanne?”

Nick laughs, cupping his elbow. “Normally I’m all over playing the bride but I really don’t think I can pull off a name with a zed in it.”

Niall squints up at him. “Reckon you could be a — Zac? Or Zoe? Or — ” He can’t think of any others, apart from the obvious. He just stands there, staring into Nick’s eyes, trying to force himself to make a joke about Zayn being a name that suits a lot of people, that they had a conversation about just switching Zayn out like a character on a long-running TV show.

“Nah, I’m definitely more a Tim.” Nick finishes the cigarette, checks his phone. “I gotta go.” He pulls a reluctant face. “I got a meeting for a fashion thing.”

Niall feels like a kid throwing a birthday party, as if he should say thanks for coming, and hand him a plastic bag with cake in.

“Was fun though.” Nick hugs him, arm on top of his shoulders and the other around his middle. Niall squeezes back trying not to think too much about the way Nick feels against him. “Tell everyone I said bye?”

Inside, Niall sinks onto the bench, and everyone’s still here but for a second, everything feels slightly shifted out of focus.

“Where’s your new best pal?” Eoghan says.

“Had to shoot off.”

“Shame,” Bressie says, “he brightened the place up.”

“Fancy him, do you?”

Niall rocks his empty glass between his palms. “If you do, you’re in luck – he likes your thighs.”

 Bressie slaps Niall and the back and says, “Well, he can come again, can’t he? Another for the road?”

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Day nine in the studio. Everything smells of last night’s pizza and Louis’s feet but in it, they’ve found something resembling inspiration. The laptop spits out a rough around the edges version of the song and they all look at each other, nodding, half-smiles. It’s a bonus track at best and Niall scratches at the scab under his nail because they all know it but no one’s saying it and perhaps that’s worse than everyone thinking they’ve done something good and being wrong. He would get into it, but he needs to be out of here.

Louis looks up from the bags under his eyes. “Do for now, yeah?”

“Send it to Harry, see what he thinks?” Liam’s tosses a ball of paper and it bounces off the cans in the bin.

“Who gives a fuck what he thinks.”

“We should — ”

Louis locates his trainers from where he kicked them off under the desk and toes one on. “Celebrate is what we should. Who’s in?”

Niall shakes his head with a hopefully casual, “I’ve plans.”

“Oh plans. You’ve got plans, have you? Is it golf plans or something else fantastically middle-aged?”

“Fuck off. Was Tom’s idea. Some party. Come if you want — Nick Grimshaw’s DJing.”

Louis wrinkles his nose and claps Liam on the shoulder. “Just us then.”

“I think Soph fancied a quiet one act— ” Liam stops himself at Louis’s frown. “Suppose one wouldn’t hurt.”

“That’s the spirit, Payno.”

Liam rolls his eyes as Louis drags him out of his chair and to the door. They sign a few things in the car park, grin inanely into phones, and Niall hops in a car back to his for a quick change.

The party’s in what’s supposedly the hottest club in town — or so the woman who owns it says on the invites. Niall recognises the sponsors well enough to know that if it isn’t when it opens, there’s the money there to make it so. It’s exactly the sort of place it’s important for him to be seen, apparently, but that’s really not why he came.

Niall edges around a mustard-coloured sofa covered in guys from Made In Chelsea, smiling hello at a few people he knows, and somewhere behind him the photographer is sending up flashes like a distress signal that bounce off the amber glass chandeliers. The DJ booth’s at the back in front of a bare brick wall and Nick’s already in it, headphones bracketing his head, fingers busy on the desk while he nods to the beat of a track that’s not playing out to anyone but him. Niall hovers for a moment by the corner but no-one’s looking, so he unhooks the rope of velvet cordoning Nick off and fastens it again behind himself.

That gets Nick’s attention all right. He slides his headphones off and pulls Niall into a hug with one arm, letting him go to mix the tracks together. He waves at Florence and she gives him the thumbs up.

“You gonna play one of mine too?”

“If I’d known you were coming,” Nick says, and launches into the worst rendition of Steal My Girl Niall will probably ever hear.

“So it’s not just Oasis you like to condemn to death?”

“No, I do all my favourites.”

They’re smiling at each other way too much, probably. Niall gestures to the decks and says, “Can I have a go?”

Nick slips the headphones onto Niall’s head and the party disappears. He mouths something, points at the CDs he’s burnt and scribbled all over the back off, but Niall can’t make it out until he knocks one of the cups off his ear. “What you saying there?”

“We’re playing Ciara next. You know how to — ”

“Technically.”

Bumping Niall’s arm with his elbow, Nick steps in and leans over the desk. Niall can see most of the way down his shirt where it billows out like a curtain. He imagines the fur of Nick’s chest against his cheek and a few other things that might happen after that.

Nick grabs the CD cover, lips pursed while he finds the track, selects the right number. He hits play and it blares in Niall’s ear so loud he stumbles backwards.

“Shit, sorry — “ Nick turns the volume down and hits another button so Florence and Ciara are both playing, one in each ear.

“It sounds like going mad.”

Nick chuckles. “You hear the beat?” He nods to illustrate and Niall joins in to prove he’s got it, that he might not be Phil Collins on the drums but he can count four beats in a bar. “Right now just — line her up.“ Steering his hand onto the desk, Nick places it over a large knob with a wheel in the centre. He shows Niall how to slow Ciara down and speed her up, how to rock the track back and forth, his fingers pressing in and ghosting away again to illustrate. “Got it?”

Niall nods but it’s hard to concentrate with Nick so close, the soft cool silk of his shirt brushing Niall’s arm. He nods out one two three four, tweaking the dial until it sounds almost right, and he could get it more exact maybe if half his brain wasn’t trying to fathom what Nick smells like tonight.

“Ok watch the countdown.” Nick hits the button that sends the track back to the start, eyes on Niall’s as he taps the button and fader to illustrate. “It’s this one, then that one.”

Niall watches the blue numbers fall and start to flash orange as Florence finishes up. He hits start and Nick’s fingers hover just above his as he reaches for the fader and brings it in over the top.

Niall gets it almost right and laughs, and just as a flash goes off in their faces, Nick throws his arms open and shouts, “Niall Horan in the house everybody!”

More flashes and there’s a whoop of general agreement from the dance floor. It’s almost like being on stage for real, the way everyone’s rooting for him.

“I want to do another one,” Niall says.

So they do. They do track seven then eleven then one, Nick’s hands there to help even though Niall’s not sure he needs them. They’re really getting into it when a guy with actual record boxes shows up, muscles Niall out of the way and tuts at something they’ve done to the dials.  

“Well that’s me told,” Nick says. He gathers his coat from where he’d abandoned it under the desk and shoves his CDs into his pocket, backing Niall out of the booth, reaching past him to unhook the rope.

Niall fumbles his way down off the step, far too awake to contemplate going home. He could text Liam and Louis, see where they’re at, or Bressie maybe for a quiet pint, but neither of them are what he’s spent the last few days thinking about, pulling the courage together for. “You got to get to bed?”

“Why? You looking for an excuse to skip out?”

“I’m not, but… I’m only staying if you are.”

Nick’s eyes rove his face, dip down behind his lashes before he smiles. “Buy me a drink, then.”

 Even after they’re served, they hover at the bar. Nick rests his elbow on it while Niall sinks down to suck on the straw in his concoction of sparkles and fruit. The girls on the dance floor do their best with the tunes but there’s something metallic and unfamiliar about them, and from their faces it’s not that Niall’s just been out of the country and missed them blowing up.

“I think I preferred your Rodigan.”

“What?”

Niall turns into Nick’s neck and lifts up onto his toes. “Said I preferred your Rodigan.”

“A cardigan?”

“Rodi — the DJ from the party. Before.”

Nick’s face says he still doesn’t really know what Niall said and Nick points off to the side, jerks his head for Niall to follow. With a flash of pass Nick produces, they’re through a door Niall didn’t notice, and in another room.

It’s much less crowded out here, just a few older people in suits and floor-length dresses sipping genteelly in front of a pond while a bartender shakes a Martini into a glass. Candles provide the light and once the door’s properly closed behind them, it seals them in amongst velvet-padded walls, just the faint thump of the bass from next door making it through.

Nick introduces him to a few people — the owner of the club who’s looking expensive and frazzled, a restaurateur fresh off the plane from Milan, a painter who enquires about Harry and if he liked his present — but Nick doesn’t seem to want to dally with any of them and secures them one of the sofas under a giant gilt frame housing a painting of Madonna’s head on a giraffe’s body. He crosses his legs and props his head on his hand on the back of the sofa. “That’s better,” he says, then wrinkles up his face in a grimace. “Christ, I must be getting old.”

Niall’s not a stranger to the world of the VVIPs but he’s never been much of a one for the secret clubs behind doors you’re not allowed to ask to be opened. One time Harry showed up at the studio green and waxy of skin, smiling his face off regardless, told him all about this place he’d been with Nick that didn’t even have a name, that to get in you go into a shop and say you’re there to see the mayor, and they let you through a door anyone else would mistake for a fridge. This is the kind of place though he and Nick could do anything and no one would cause a stir.

He swirls his drink with his straw, feeling it behind his belly button. “Can’t believe they have a pond.”

“You should get one for your lounge,” Nick says. “Very relaxing. Not to mention a talking point — you want to come back to mine, play with my carp? Unlike me, they’re coy.”

“Reckon that’d work, do you?”

“Certainly different to the usual, isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t know.”

Nick’s fingers muss at his hair. “No?”

Niall shrugs. “Was at home, then in a house full of cameras, then recording, then on tour.”

“You never go out after a show?”

“Sure, but what was I going to do, say, ‘Hey lads, which of you wants to come with me to a gay bar after the matinee?’”

“Harry would’ve leapt at it.”

“Daresay, but taking Harry with you if you’re trying to meet someone’s like taking Rooney to play in your five-a-side game, then wondering why you don’t get picked to start.”

Nick laughs and murmurs, “Fair point.”

And this is how it is now, then. Niall can say gay bar and meet someone, whatever he wants. If he felt so inclined, he could tell Nick about giving his first hand job, that when he was over the shock of having a dick in his hand he started to wonder if there was such a thing as elbow strain. He could tell him about kissing Harry, about watching him sometimes in the bathroom. He could tell him all the things no one knows about, apart from the picture of Frank Sinatra on his wall. He weighs his meagre handful of stories, looking for the one that’s most likely to impress a man who can make velvet padded doors open and chuck out casual puns about fish. “There was a guy — while back now. From the label.”

Nick chases his straw around his drink with his tongue. “Wait, really?”

Niall sniffs a laugh of affirmation.

“I want the trysts where you left arseprints on the boardroom table, I want the coke dick blow job stories, I want you threatening to have him sacked in a moment of medium to high emotional drama.”

“Was nothing like that, sorry to say. Barely anything to it, really.” Now he’s telling it, it all seems so much smaller, but Nick’s staring at him like he’s fascinated. “Met him when we got stuck together in a lift. I was freaking — he didn’t know who I was — thought I was an intern. And I let him keep thinking it.” Nick’s eyebrow lifts and he catches the straw, placing it in his mouth in a way that seems deliberate. “Had to be a bit inventive, like, explaining why I wasn’t around that much — but not like he was looking for a boyfriend anyway. Then there was this party — wasn’t expecting to see him and he definitely wasn’t expecting to see me, especially not with my face everywhere on the posters. But we had some drinks, arranged to meet in the toilets.” Niall shifts on the sofa, bringing his knees up in front of him. “And he, like, goes down to suck me off then instead he just… started crying.”

“What? What happened?”

“Remembered he was married, I guess.” Niall’s mouth curls into half a smirk without his explicit instructions. “I just — got my jeans back up and left him to it. Never saw him again.”

Nick’s actually open-mouthed. “No. Oh my God, Niall, oh my God.”

Niall sticks his thumbnail between his teeth, unable to tell if he should be pleased with himself for saying something Nick thinks is shocking or abashed. “Whole thing was much more hassle than it was worth.”

“Usually is, in’t it?” Nick’s face flashes with a fresh cackle before he settles back on his hand, long fingers stroking through his hair. “And… since?”

Niall shrugs again. “Other things on my mind.”

It’s not really true — or it is but it’s not a whole, full truth, just a segment. Back in the day he thought it’d be Harry, Harry he said all this to, Harry who took his face in his considerate fingers and kissed him all right. Maybe was like Nick said — evaded a boyfriend because he wouldn’t know what to do with one, waiting instead on the fantasy he’d cooked up in hotel bed after hotel bed, that one night Harry would crawl in with him, and just whisper, “I know.”

He had other fantasies about Harry too, like.

“Another?” Nick says, nudging Niall’s hand with his glass.

“Sure.”

Niall was certain Nick would leave after having one to be polite, but he comes back with cocktails and shooters and a look that says he’s in for the night.

It’s after 2am when they leave through a barrage of flashes and shouting to duck into a cab. Nick gives his address, drapes his coat over his knee, and at some point it must’ve been raining because the glass has acquired a pattern of droplets.

Niall hovers on the brink between elated and annihilated, leans his head back on the seat of the cab to stare at the dirty grey fabric of the roof. He’s sitting right next to Nick even though there’s four others he could’ve chosen but Nick’s humming quietly along with Starship on the radio and looking out of the window so it doesn’t seem as if he minds.

“You gonna be all right, for tomorrow?”

“Three hours of sleep,” Nick says, and lazily his head comes back, listing to one side. He pats Niall on the knee. “Be fine.”

“You say that like a man who’s done it before.”

“This is nothing. I’ve gone to work in every state you can imagine.”

His smile belongs on a jackal and Niall’s never wanted anyone in such a rush. He starts breathing really heavy, like his lungs are ahead of his brain. He puts his hand on Nick’s leg, like it wanted to be at Rochelle’s.

Nick’s posture changes as if he’s more awake, now, and he presses his leg against Niall’s.

Beyond the window, London’s speckled into fragments of streetlamp and traffic light and grey buildings ambling past, and nothing in the entire city seems as big or as dwarfing as his hand on Nick’s thigh and the pressure of that reply.

Keeping his eyes focused on the gap where the window’s open, Niall moves his fingers more in between his legs, lets them drift higher, following the seam of folded denim. His little finger grazes the apex. That’s where Nick’s balls must be and holy shit, just because he’s not looking doesn’t mean no one else can see it. He retracts his hand and snaps his head up, glances at the driver. The guy’s head turns on the top of his thick neck and Niall thinks well, this is it, he knows one or other of them is famous because of the photographers where he picked them up. He’ll sell a story and tomorrow morning it’ll be everywhere blazing red, pictures of him and Nick staggering off together and an exclusive about Niall feeling him up in a cab.

The driver tuts at a Sainsbury’s lorry before crossing the junction.

Niall breathes out as they accelerate, and sharply back in when Nick’s fingers find his thigh without the rest of Nick apparently having moved. Not reacting doesn’t seem like an option when his whole body is this totally new kind of aware, like the only bits of him that exist are the bits under Nick’s fingers and the rest’s just there watching, egging it on. Niall spreads his legs, pushing up into the touch, losing it a bit inside himself when Nick turns into him, squeezing his leg, moving a little higher.

And they can’t, but…. Nick’s coat’s like someone passed out face down across his knee and Niall’s head flashes with what ifs. The sign on the flipped up seat says in yellow to keep your feet off the cushions and your safety belt fastened, that if you throw up it’ll cost you, but there’s nothing about not wanking someone off. Literally a sign. Niall drags the coat across his legs too, checks the driver’s still got his eyes on the road.

Nick sniffs, amused, fits the heel of his hand against the bulge in Niall’s jeans. He leaves it at that for a moment and Niall’s thighs ache with the effort of holding still, of not squirming and grabbing Nick’s hand in both of his, shoving against them. Getting it, maybe, Nick tucks his long fingers between Niall’s jeans and the seat. He applies extra pressure right between his legs and Niall’s breath hitches before he can stop it.

Looking directly in the rearview mirror and without moving his hand, Nick says, “Can we have Radio 1 on?”

The cabbie obliges and Niall’s about to scream that he’s a narcissist when the station hops and he gets it: a relentless stream of dance music is better cover than a late night geezer talking shite between classic 80s tracks. He’d be impressed if his brain wasn’t so focused on Nick kneading his prick with the heel of his hand, pads of his fingers taunting beneath.

Doesn’t seem fair he’s the only one trying to be quiet. The cool silky lining brushes Niall’s knuckles as he moves his hand. It’s awkward, elbow bent up against his stomach, but he finds denim and zip and Nick’s hard too.

It’s like DJing, matching the stutter of his exhales to the track that’s playing, Nick’s fingers guiding, tracing up and around until he’s felt the entire shape of Niall’s dick, squeezing just lightly. Niall wants to undo his zip right here and get that touch where it belongs, on his skin. At the same time he’s not sure he could stand it — what’ll Nick think if he just goes off in his hand? He shifts on the seat trying to get less sensation and it catches him unawares, Nick dropping his head so his lips are against Niall’s ear. They’re hot, mumbling, and he’s breathing fast.

“Whereabouts mate?”

Niall closes his eyes. It had edged out of his consciousness. Cab. Mirror. Fuck.

Nick clears his throat. “Yeah — just — you see that red car?”

He sounds less steady than before and he doesn’t meet Niall’s eye when they stop. The lights come on and Nick’s asking how much, getting out.

The open door’s waiting for Niall to follow him but he can’t move. This is not the guy at the label with a wife in every mediocre hand job stopping things from ever going too far. If he gets out, that’s it, he’s having sex with Nick and there’s no going back.

Niall croaks his address to the driver and leaves Nick standing there on the pavement, hugging his coat.

 

 

*

 

 

 

The hills are Niall’s favourite part of LA. They look nothing like home, palm-treed as they are with adverts crowing about liposuction and sheep placenta facials instead of the services of bricklayers, and yet there’s something about the shape of them, the way they roll into each other like the rucks of a duvet which in turn makes stress roll down his arms and out of his fingertips. Not that he’d appreciated, back home, that was what hills inspired in him. He hadn’t known then what it was like for jitters of nervous excitement to be just plain nerves, to stare at a crowd behind the glass and know there was no way out but through it. He hadn’t realised expanse wouldn’t always be there or that it was a thing he required. He takes a bottle of water from the cooler in the seat and sips at it.

“You staying long?” the driver says. She taps the armrest, a huge ruby glinting on her finger.

“Maybe.”

“I love London.”

“Me to but — it’s good to get away sometimes, you know?”

“I hear ya.”

Niall stares out of the window as they come to a halt in the traffic. Last time he was in the back of a car —

Good to get away. It’s good to get away.

He tells it to himself a few more times, pushing down the other voice: is it, though? And is it really away if there’s a thing you have to keep from thinking about?

 

*

 

 

Day three in this studio. Niall’s reset the clock but the walls are begging for teeth and there’s a new song on the laptop.

Liam bops along to its melody, a cap acquired from somewhere on his head and a pen twirling between his fingers. “Should defo play this to the others.”

Only — well there are no others now, are there. Only Harry. Niall still hasn’t seen him, even though he texted when he got to the airport. He’s in the same state but might as well be in the middle of anywhere but where they are. Niall had this image all the way over, ten hours to really fix it in his head, that here in LA they’d stitch themselves back together. Thought they’d sit around Harry’s pool maybe like they did at the bungalow and just… talk about the future and make each other wee with laughing. Instead, they’ll see him a string of tomorrows that never come.

“I don’t like it,” Niall says.

Louis rolls his eyes and scoops up the basketball from the sofa. “You don’t like anything.” He bats the ball from palm to palm, sighing. “If you’re going to slag off everything of mine, at least bring something of your own.”

“Don’t have to be a chef to know when there’s something wrong with the food.”

“No, but if you’re not doing any cooking, don’t complain when someone makes you a sandwich.”

“Maybe if we take a break.” Liam’s eyebrows crinkle hopefully.

“Could do with a fag I suppose.” Louis gets up, takes the ball with him, and after a few slams of various doors he’s thunking it off the concrete outside.

“He worked really hard on that.”

Niall pushes the coffee he’s been not drinking for the best part of an hour away from him. “Well it doesn’t show.”

“That’s harsh, mate.”

The engineer who’s been waiting on them rubs her chin like she’s watching her parents drunken-fight at a wedding, and Niall jerks his head towards the corridor. The door flumps closed behind them and gold discs by people not them stare out from the wall. “Thought we were done singing about his girlfriend is all.”

Liam leans in as if the discs are listening. “He was proper cut up, right? It’s an outlet or whatever.”

“ S’boring.”

Liam’s tongue runs the length of his lip and he looks to the door, Niall, back again. “Suppose you wouldn’t get it.”

“What wouldn’t I get?”

“Nothing.”

“Say it — say what I wouldn’t get.” Liam avoids Niall’s glare but it’s not as if they haven’t had the conversation before.

Can’t wait until Eleanor gets here.

Lucky, man, Soph’s not got any free time until half term.

Perrie — 

Will you all shut up about your girlfriends? We’re supposed to be playing pool.

Ooooh tetchy. You need to go do yoga with Harry, work some of your tension out?

Better still get a girl of your own and stop being a jealous little prick.

“He just — he’s under a lot of pressure,” Liam says. “He knows we’ve got to really deliver.”

“How we going to do that when we’re not even all together?”

“He’ll be here t— ”

“Tomorrow, I know.”

Huffing like Niall’s being very difficult, Liam glances at the ceiling. “Let’s go and chill out, yeah?”

The car park’s barely got room for a basketball court in it but there’s hoops set up anyway, the foot of each one rusted with piss and circled by cigarette ends. Louis flicks one into the collection and bounces the ball, catches it, tosses it towards the ring. It rolls around the top before falling off the back and Liam dives in to snatch it up, looking every inch the college jock, vest slipping off his arm to catch on his bicep, rocking side to side on his ankles like he’s dodging imaginary foes.

The two of them dick around until Louis gets the ball wedged under a car. While they hunt for an “I don’t know just something to give it a poke with, Liam,” Niall sits on the wall, kicking his heels against it, chipping away at the old mortar.

“So I heard about this place, right, where they sell this — ” Louis grabs a branch fallen from the trees that shield the place from the road and hits the deck, crawling toward the tyre like a commando. “ — drink with cannabis syrup in it.”

“Oh, aye?”

The ball ricochets out from under the car with Louis’s expert snooker jab. “Supposed to get you high and drunk.”

“That sounds like five years, out in four for good behaviour.”  Liam stops the ball with his toe.

“It’s California, Payno,” Louis says, springing to his feet. “It’s practically not illegal.”

Liam’s forehead wrinkles as he lines up his shot. “So that’s still illegal but not as illegal as it would be somewhere else?”

The ball bounces off the rim with a twang and Louis catches it, squinting. “Why do you always care about the technicalities?”

“Because I don’t want to get rubber-gloved every time I go through customs, that’s why.”

“You up for it, Niall?” Louis’s expression is conciliatory. It’s not that it doesn’t have a certain appeal, two kinds of intoxication for the price of one, but every time he’s been pissed since that night with Nick, Niall’s relived it. He goes through his options. Can’t say he’s meeting someone for a drink or dinner, Louis’ll just say, ‘let’s make a night of it, all of us.’ Can’t say he wants to work otherwise he’ll have to have something to show for it.

“Said I’d go over to Harry’s.”

Liam makes a noise in his throat like he’s still in Leroy’s character. “Ooooh get you with the invite.”

“Yeah, aren’t you special.”

“He’s our bandmate. Don’t need an invite to go round and see how it’s going.”

“Rrrrrright. Give him our love.” Louis scrunches his face up in a mockery of a smile and overshoots, punting the ball into the trees. “Oh fucking ‘ell,” he says, as a group of girls scream.

It seems as good a cue to leave as any.

As he drives, Niall’s half a mind to go back to where he’s staying, say he changed his mind or Harry wasn’t home, but he knows how aloneness goes by now — ceilings to be stared at, TV to be irate with, food he makes and then can’t be arsed to eat, throws away then wishes he hadn’t. The sat nav takes him on a journey of discovery through all LA’s worst neighbourhoods before he gets to the bit he recognises. The houses are all very Harry — each one different, each one nestled in greenery, each one perfect for a family three times the average size. Niall tells his phone to text Harry and let him know he’ll be there in five, that the gate best be open, and he gets the code back in reply. Niall tries to get Siri to send Harry a smiley but she won’t comply.

“You have reached your destination.”

The sun’s never appeared to burn away the clouds and it’s muggy enough to be unpleasant when he rolls down the window. He punches in the code and waits for the gates to Star Trek open, checking the rearview like a reflex for fans trying to sneak in.

There’s not much of a drive before the house and the garage starts and Niall pulls up next to another car with rental plates. Maybe Louis and Liam have come along and beaten him to it. He sags at the thought of all of them going to the place with the cannabis drink.

It didn’t used to be like that. He used to collect up all their nights out and cling to them. It’s almost enough to make him turn around but Harry’s coming out the front door now, his hair scraped up onto the top of his head. He’s barefoot and wearing a shirt with a tropical pattern on it, and it’s the opposite of what Niall’s expecting, the way he’s been imagining Harry feeling all these weeks. He gets out instead on the verge of a laugh, like they’re back on X-Factor and every time he sees Harry he expects him to have changed his mind about liking him.

“Hey,” Harry says, like it’s two sentences, and with an arm around Niall’s shoulder he leads him into the coolness of the house.

It’s not changed much since Niall’s last flying visit — a new painting that looks like black and white film stars cut up into chunks and rearranged into trees above the fireplace and the sofa’s moved from where it was to the window. There are two pairs of boots kicked off underneath and Niall’s halfway to placing them when Nick sticks his head in from the garden and says, “Er — hiya?”

Fuck. Fucking trend. Fucking bollocks.

“Oh — you’re — here?” To make everything worse Nick’s only in shorts, the kind that imply he’s recently been in the pool so they’re sticking to him and making obvious things that really should be under a towel. Things that were under Niall’s hand not that long ago. Things he’s been thinking about not thinking about and the reason he’ll never be able to listen to that Starship song or shop at Sainsbury’s or get a cab ever again. “Why’re you here?”

“This thing called a holiday, Niall,” Harry says. “D’you want a drink?”

“I’ll have one of those smoothies we got yesterday,” Nick says, and pads back outside, pushing his sunglasses up his nose.

Great. Niall never should’ve switched to Radio 2. That trail with Nick’s voice catching him unawares is a fucking shadow compared to this. If Harry’s only got kale juice in, he’s properly fucked.

He looks around the room, tugging on his collar to try and let the air conditioning in and the memory of Nick’s breath on his ear out.

Those boots are awful close under the sofa. His stomach flips on an image of Harry pulling Nick’s clothes off, toeing both their boots to the ground, making it feel like expert foreplay before climbing on top of Nick and kissing him with all of his mouth. Harry would’ve been on his knees in the back of that cab giving Beyoncé a run for her money before they got to the traffic lights. No wonder Nick’s here in short shorts and sunglasses.

Harry comes back with a smoothie and a beer and Niall grabs his arm. Shooting a pointed glance over his shoulder at Nick, he says, “Am I interrupting?”

Harry’s mouth pops open while he thinks about it, finally settling on, “I’m working, he’s on holiday. That’s it.”

He avoids Niall’s eyes and Niall’s not at all sure he believes him, but they go outside and Nick’s got his feet in the pool and a book by his side. Harry hands Nick something green in a plastic cup and takes his seat back at the table, where his MacBook’s gone to sleep and his guitar’s resting in a nest of lyric sheets. Work, holiday — if Harry’s lying they made a good job of setting the scene before he came in.

Niall hovers on the edge of the decking. Shit, he has to choose where to sit. It feels like so much more than where to park his arse.

Harry smiles at him, almost uncertain, and points at the space opposite on the bench. “Wasn’t expecting you so nothing’s finished.”

The wood’s warm under Niall’s jeans and he pulls a few of Harry’s notes towards him. There’s a lot of different ideas in various stages, handwriting that suggests a plane or a hurry to get it all down, doodles that might have something to do with the song — or in the case of this crying clown he’s just uncovered, well, he hopes not. There’s one song that’s got four pages with different versions, various bits crossed out, and notes in the margin written by somebody else. One of the typed-up pages is marked final.

Jeez, Harry’s so settled here he has a printer. It’s an absurd thing to knock the wind out of him, but it does.

“You want to listen?”

Harry’s turning the laptop towards him with a frown before Niall’s had chance to gather himself. He presses play and Nick’s sitting right there, only half not-watching, tapping his soles on the top of the water to make little splashes. 

A hot rush of embarrassment races over Niall’s neck at the sound of Harry’s voice, raspy and imperfect as it flows out of him, this song about not being with someone and not being not with them either. Sometimes, Harry’s emotions are so present, like he doesn’t even wear them on his face, they leak out of him and into the air; it’s impossible not to feel them seep in through your skin like they were yours in the first place.

He glances at Nick, who’s pretending not to listen but clearly is, and Niall can’t see where he’s looking — if it’s at Harry or him. How can Harry just play a song like this in front of Nick? He lifts his shirt away from his chest and flaps it to make a breeze. His pulse is going like an intruder alarm and maybe that’s what it is, the thought he’s intruding. He checks for the exits — he knows the way through Harry’s lounge and across the drive, he could be out the front in two minutes maybe. He could get in the car and drive off, but do what? Go to a bar with Louis, fall out of it with girls who don’t know what they’re in for? Go with Liam and listen as he bangs on about how much he misses Sophia and shows Niall pictures of her in her swimsuit, like it proves something? Briefly he entertains a fantasy of driving to the airport and getting on a plane to literally anywhere. Just picking something off the destination board. Stress they said for Zayn. Surely he could get the same? 

The song dwindles, the laptop goes quiet.

Harry stares at him, not quite uncertain, not quite confident in it either. Like he wants Niall to tell him it’s shite, like only that’ll harden his opinion, give him permission then to think that it’s not. But Niall can’t do it because somewhere inside his garbled brain he registered a melody that could really work as a single.

“It’s grand, Harry.”

“I’ve said that thirteen times already but apparently LA has made him a perfectionist.”

“It’s ok,” Harry says, but he’s smiling, picking another file. “This one’s better, though.”

Niall forces himself to focus on Harry’s voice, on the lyrics. It’s about wanting to go back and slip into the same old scene you used to have with someone, being unable to handle the thought of someone else touching the things you left in their house. Niall looks at Nick but he’s looking away at the hedge and smiling at the tiny pink flowers or the birds so Niall can’t send him a question with his eyes, ask if Nick told him Niall’d been over, played a guitar on his sofa, had a hand all the way up the leg of his jeans. Jeans that might be Harry’s. A guitar that might be Harry’s. Nick’s not Harry’s though.

Harry and the chords fade out.

“It’s not right yet because I need to — I haven’t figured out the bridge or the harmonies because I thought Zayn would — ”

Niall really doesn’t want to be sitting with Harry anymore.

“I’m boiling. You got any spares?” Niall waves a frantic hand at the pool, already getting up like he’ll throw himself in regardless.

And wouldn’t that be a thing, to throw himself in a pool in LA with all his clothes and his sunglasses on, his phone, car keys, and his wallet in his pocket because he doesn’t have to care about anything getting trashed. Be like being a proper rockstar, like the picture of Roger Daltry Nick has in his hall.

Harry nods through his confusion, points him towards the pool house, tells him to help himself.

It’s very undramatic, walking across the grass usually, but under Nick’s gaze, Niall feels like a penguin, feet unsuited to the terrain.

The outbuilding’s all white on the outside and chilled and dark beneath, built slightly into the bank of the hill. Once he’s in there, Niall can breathe, at least. He does five — in for six through his nose and out through his mouth, pulls off his clothes where there’s a screen for the modest, and a little washing line where various shorts are drying. Harry’s trunks are predictably tiny. Niall tugs them on anyway, takes a run, and bombs into the pool.

Someone laughs and Niall sinks all the way to the bottom to avoid it, moving his arms to keep himself down. He didn’t take a big enough breath to stay there for long and when he emerges, Nick’s looking at him, grinning from under a soaking fringe. Niall floats for a moment, waiting for calm, but it doesn’t come so he gulps a lungful of air and submerges, keeping his eyes open to watch Nick fracture into more manageable pieces broken up by lines of water and cloud. This time he stays down long enough to count 60 with his burning lungs. He comes back up and does it again and again, holding for 65, 70, 72. He rises up through the water and breaks the surface, water on his lashes turning everything round and deformed. It’s like he’s been crying only he’s empty inside. He sinks again and makes it to 84 this time, but on his way back up, he realises if he does it any more, it’ll start to look odd.

Niall swims to the side where Nick’s shins are, hooks his elbows up onto the edge of the pool, and stares at the trees. He pictures himself as part of the hedgerow, just a thing that exists and grows, tied into the coolness of the ground and stretching up without purpose to the sky. The water laps, pleasantly chilled about him, and he shakes his hair out like a dog. He gets a face full of spray when Nick kicks out at him, and being startled makes Nick easier to look at.

He’s smiling.

Niall slaps the water and it’s not enough to really splash him but Nick shies away anyway, garbling all shocked and offended, flicks a wave back at him with a deft kick.

It’s almost like being on holiday except for Harry muttering, “Would you two knock it off? I’m trying to write.”

His tone’s such that Niall can’t tell if he’s actually annoyed or just doing a very good impression for comedy purposes. Nick grimaces at Niall. “I gotta go anyway.” Nick hauls himself to his feet. The water drips off his heels, more running down his calves making the hair come to a point. He lopes across the grass and goes inside.

Niall balances his fingertips on the water, looking at how it dips and clings. He lifts them up to break the seal. Drip drip drip and he can’t seem to quell the impulse to slap the water so hard it stings.

Niall.”

No mistaking that whine for anything but genuine.

Niall pulls himself out of the water, air racing in to bump up his skin. He leaves damp footprints on the concrete all the way around the pool to one of the loungers, but once he’s on it he can’t settle, mind buzzing about sun cream and if he’ll burn through the clouds, bits of Harry’s song in there too, and images of the others, if they’re sat there right now in a bar where Liam’s fretting about getting arrested.

He tries to settle anyway, rearranging his elbows between he lounger’s slats. “Should’ve come to the studio today.”

Harry’s scribbling something with his lips pursed. “I will, once I’m ready.”

“We’ve not got long, we need to — “

“I’m well aware of the timetable, Niall.”

The white dry skin around Niall’s nail is ragged and mushy with chlorine. He pushes it back with his thumbnail. “Had a game of basketball — and did you see what those fuckers did to my car?”

“I write better alone, without… distractions.”

“Sure. Well you do what’s good for you.”

Niall lies back and counts to 100 but it’s no good. He gets up, shaking his hands out. “You want another drink?” he says, ignoring the fact his bottle’s still sitting on the table, barely touched.

Once he’s inside the house, he follows the faint strains of music up the stairs. At the top he’s a choice of doors and he tries two, craning to pick out the song until Nick starts singing and gives away where he is. Niall tries not to work out from the tangle of clothes on the floor and across the chair if this is Harry’s bedroom or one for guests, but Nick’s in the en suite, trunks in the sink, his arse right there in his pants, jiggling to the song playing on his phone. Niall pushes the door open and Nick must’ve heard him coming because he’s looking up, unsurprised, reaching for a towel. He throws it at Niall’s middle.

Niall meets Nick’s eye in the mirror. “You leaving ‘cos of me?”

“Christ, you’ve got a big head,” Nick says, titled where he’s drying his hair with a towel. “Meeting a friend for tea.”

It’s not like Niall’s completely unaccustomed to being up close and personal with a guy in his pants, but it’s different, the way Nick’s eyes track the movement as Niall drags the towel over his chest, down his legs, and he gives his hair a cursory ruffle-over.

Niall’s not sure if Nick notices his dick’s stirring just from looking at him, but he gives as good as he’s getting, watching the rise and fall of Nick’s chest in the mirror. He switches to Nick’s freckly back and pictures himself biting his shoulders, holding his waist, maybe even pushing into his arse. Nothing to stop them doing that, if they wanted, is there? “Did you tell him?”

“Tell who what?” Nick’s mouth stays open and his hair’s still damp but he abandons the towel anyway, peers into the mirror, pushing his fringe up.

“Harry. Did you tell him I got you pissed and groped you?”

Nick frowns, folds his arms across his chest. “That’s not what happened.”

“Is it not?”

“No and you know it.” Nick turns, rests his arse on the vanity, and his gaze is no different for being direct and yet now Niall wants to avoid it. He looks around the bathroom for something to comment on — that’s some top tiling, hey wonder where Harry got that candle? — but other than that there’s nothing in it but Nick and some weird hippie song about being a man. He looks at Nick’s stomach, gets whacked by this… gratitude for the vague outline of the muscles there holding him up. “And no, I didn’t tell him. Was under the impression that was kind of a secret. Plus — bit embarrassing init? I mean Christ, bank robbers have left the scene of an actual crime slower than that.”

Niall scratches his eyebrow but he’s always been shite at conversations that start, “About that,” or “Sorry,” in fact in the whole of his life he’s not sure he’s had more than two of them and neither of those went well.

He edges around Nick to put the towel back on the rail, close enough to him for the hairs on his arm to react as if they’re about to touch but not so much he actually brushes against him. He lines the bottom of the towel up perfectly just to stay there. “How long you here for?”

“Just a couple more days.”

Niall hates how far away a joke seems, how far away Nick touching him again seems too. “It’s — Harry — he’s — bet he was pleased to see you.”

“Was his idea, so yeah. Look — I need to get ready so — do you want owt?”

That’s the question, isn’t it.

Nick’s face is very square and the sun’s brought out freckles on his nose that didn’t used to be there.

Niall scrunches his toes against the tile, looks instead at the silky hem of Harry’s towel. Lying in bed thinking, it’s one thing, and flirting it’s another. But doing — doing with Nick, it’s a new level of everything. He could sack it off, the whole idea — apologise for leading him on and tell Nick he’d like to be mates. Nick would go with that, he reckons.

The thought twists at his stomach. He squeezes the hem of the towel at both corners and remembers the cab ride back to his own house, the rolls of the driver’s neck a pitying smirk, the accusatory blip of the keypad on the front of his place, the way even the light switches and the toilet paper seemed to be glitching in and out of existence because he’d done something that set the course of his life down a path the universe did not intend and needed to adjust to.

He can’t look at Nick but finds he can step closer. “Maybe.” So close now he has to work out where to put his feet so they’re not trampling Nick’s. “Hobbit. You’ve hobbit feet.”

The corner of Nick’s lip twitches up, he can tell even though he’s staring Nick direct in the chest, trying to work out what the charms on his necklace are, imagining blowing them a path through the hair there to sit direct against his skin. “Rest of me’s anything but tiny,” Nick says, with a raise of his eyebrow. “Up for it?”

By way of reply, Niall kisses him. Or — he bumps against Nick’s mouth with his at any rate. It’s not really a kiss until Nick’s fingers are on his jaw and he gasps and that lets Nick in, but then it’s like Nick’s drawing something out of him that’s attached to his belly button.

He makes a noise with no purpose but to be noise in his throat, all of him buzzing like he’ll never be able to keep completely still again. He scrabbles behind Nick for something to hold onto, palm slipping on the cold surface. He’s not really meaning to rub against Nick’s thigh but once he is, seems silly to stop it.

Nick kisses hard, his thumbs under Niall’s ears, and it’s terrible and brilliant, the way it makes him want to do things he’s only ever thought about. He strokes down Nick’s chest before he loses his nerve, chilled, damp skin making his palm stagger. Just as he’s cresting Nick’s waistband, skimming the front of his pants, Nick’s fingers circle his wrist, and he mumbles, “Maybe — maybe not so fast this time? 

“Bollocks to that.” Niall strains in for another kiss but Nick leans back. “You want me to say I’m sorry?”

Nick frowns. “No, just – chill out a bit?” He brings their mouths together again. The stroke of his tongue says he’s trying to take things steady but Niall’s never felt less steady in his life.

He’s jumping inside himself, hands skittering from Nick’s collarbone to squeeze at his hip as he tries to remember everything he learnt in a lift about somebody else’s. But that guy was all jittery and Nick feels nothing like him at all. Niall not sure he can be doing with this trickle of feeling; he needs a blank hit of it all at once. He tugs the elastic of Nick’s waistband, but Nick’s fingers find his wrist again. “Jesus, Nick,” Niall says, “you really want to take your time? We’re in Harry’s bathroom.”

Nick’s eyes have this ring around the pupil that from real close looks like burning wood.

Niall drags Nick’s head down and snatches at his mouth. He’s not really expecting Nick to go with it, but he does. His stubble’s rough and his thumb digs into the small of Niall’s back and it all gets heavy fast — which is exactly what Niall wanted — obliteration of all of his thoughts. He drags his fingernails down Nick’s chest to the fuzz under his bellybutton, and this time Nick lets him keep going until Niall’s palming his dick.

The cotton of his boxers is damp from Niall’s shorts and it’s so hot, the way the fabric clings, and Nick’s breath hitches when Niall rubs. He’s completely focused on it when Nick says, “What do you want?”

“I — ” He hasn’t thought about it. He’s thought of little else, but in all of the imagining, he wasn’t talking. Nick was calling the shots like Harry told him. “I dunno, just whatever.”

He goes to touch again but Nick’s breath fans warmth on his ear. He thumbs Niall’s skin just under and gets even closer, like he’s trying to speak directly into Niall’s brain. “Imagine I’m not real if it helps,” he says. “Imagine it’s a fantasy. Tell me what happens next.”

Does he know Niall’s been doing it since the back of the cab, letting himself play the game where he’s right back there, only this time, he gets out? Niall’s skin’s already clammy everywhere they’re touching, blood racing with the presence of Nick’s face, his hair, his breath. Niall’s head goes to everything at once — Nick on his knees right there, or switching to the bed instead, Nick on top of him, fingers buried deep inside until Niall’s eyes can’t stay the right way up in his head.

“You have to tell me what you want, love.”

It’s gentle, the way he’s whispering it, and yet it doesn’t feel at all soft, this thing Nick’s asking. 

The collisions of hand on dick he’s had before — he could ask for that, but was that ever really what he wanted or was it just all that was being offered? Maybe it created one of those plaster versions of himself, this guy who only gets off in ways that are easy to brush off, fast as he can, unthinkingly. Maybe the cab tugged at the edges before he was ready for it to come off. Niall meets his own eye in the mirror over Nick’s shoulder. He looks ready to rip that off but is he? Only one way to tell.

If it was a fantasy, if it was a fantasy, if —

“You bend me over the counter and eat me out.”

There’s maybe five seconds after he says it where they both stop breathing, and in it Niall’s insides gambol through the cab and Harry downstairs to a conversation he had with Zayn once about weed, of all things.

How do I know if I’ll like it?

You don’t, bruv. That’s part of the thrill init, finding out.

“You’ll stop if I don’t like it, right?”

“ ‘Course.” Nick looks right at him, scuffs his chin with his thumb. “You want to pick a word that means you’re not into it?”

Niall goes with, “Melon.”

He watches the connection of their tongues in the mirror as they kiss, heart flipping at the way Nick’s eyes are closed like he’s taking it all very serious, before Nick turns him around to get his mouth on the back of Niall’s neck.

Harry’s ridiculous shorts are a wet drag down his thighs to his knees, and it doesn’t take very long at all until Nick has him gasping against the marble of Harry’s sink.

 

 

*

 

 

Niall sits on the edge of the backseat, pulling on his lip while they wait for Harry to get his act together. Everything should look different, he’s sure of it, because sitting here in Harry’s drive he can remember so vividly, after, sneaking back down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out to the pool, still tingling with Nick’s breath on the crease of his arse and his hand on his dick. 

“Be out in a minute, go on,” Nick said, swatted at him playfully as he did.

Niall expected the world to have shifted, but if it did, well, no one told the hummingbirds in the trees or Harry’s frown, his lyrics, or his laptop, all of them carrying on as if Niall hadn’t just had a tongue up his arse. And Niall thought maybe when Nick came out to join them Harry’d be able to see it in the way that they smiled, just on account of knowing both of them so well. But when Nick emerged — dressed, jeans shorts, his shirt open so it was like grandma curtains over his chest — Harry didn’t even look up. Nick fastened two buttons somewhere in the middle and left the rest, padded over the grass, his car keys dangling from his finger. “I’m off to Rita’s, love,” he said, stopping behind Harry’s chair, hands on his shoulders.

Harry leant back, almost smiling, and maybe he only didn’t see it because he wasn’t looking for it in Nick’s face.

“See you later, grumpy pants.” Nick kissed him on the forehead, sauntered over, and Niall thought he was going to carry on straight past, but instead, Nick leant in and planted one half on his mouth. “And you, mardy bum,” he said.

Niall outstayed his welcome that night waiting for Nick to come back, used the pretence of showing Harry ideas for songs, eyes darting to the door every two seconds even though he’d no idea what to do if Nick actually came in. What was he planning? Bid Harry good night and go up with Nick to bed? ‘Hey Harry you got a condom or two I can have?’

He flicks through Twitter and the messages on his phone. There’s a couple from Nick he hasn’t answered, just emojis to say that he landed and he’s all zzzzzed out, days old because Niall hadn’t known how to answer it, if he was supposed to answer it at all. He was waiting, he supposes, for a chance to take a picture to send which would be less of a commitment. Maybe he’ll take one of Harry, since he knows for sure Nick will like that.

“Who you texting?” Harry says, when he opens the door of the people carrier.

“No one.”

“That’s very odd, Niall.”

“You sound like shit.”

Harry coughs into the back of his hand in reply, folds his legs into the footwell. Behind his sunglasses he looks like shit too. Or at least he looks like a slightly worn-out version of Harry Styles, which is to say not really very shit at all.

Niall waits until they’re crossing the parking lot under the sunshine, tries to sneak a picture of Harry from the side to get the building with James’ name on in the background.

“Get papped enough thanks,” Harry says, and grabs Niall’s hands, but he’s smiling, a bit.

“Come on.” Niall wrestles his phone free and throws his arm around Harry’s middle. He takes a blurry selfie, Harry mostly hat and him mostly hair. The writing he was so keen on capturing on the building is back to front. “Oh. Can you — how do I flip that?”

“You can’t, you have to post it backwards,” Harry says, and strides off inside.

Niall stands there for five minutes trying to find the option before he realises it’s not a thing. “Fucking wanker,” he mutters, and sends it to Nick.

 

 

*

 

 

The thing about coming home is it never really feels like home if there’s no one in it. Niall nods to Frank on the wall next to the TV. Once upon a time he thought about getting a cat just for moments like this, but Liam of all people pointed out that unless Niall found himself a girlfriend to move in and feed it, it’d starve before he got back.

Is that why you proposed to Perrie? Too tight to pay for a keeper for your menagerie?

Watch your mouth, mate.

Sock fight had ensued. Niall still hasn’t got those fluffy red ones he used to like to sleep in back.

He goes over to the fridge but damn, he ordered his shopping for the morning because he wasn’t sure if he’d definitely be back by the last available time slot. A flick through the takeaway menus leaves him uninspired by all his usual favourites and he could go to the shop but the thought of dragging his jet lagged ass there and back pushes on the nerve in his forehead. He messages Nick:

U in ?

Gets back:

Y

He scratches at his chest, only a little bit imagining it’s Nick’s hand. It’s such a cliché, can’t stop thinking about — how many times has Niall laughed when Liam or Louis suggested that as a lyric? And yet all the flight back, he watched films, and now he can’t remember anything about them or even what they were, just pulling up the provided duvet and letting his hand drift over his dick, not wanting to actually go to the toilet and wank in case Nick was… what? Waiting for him at the airport with a balloon?

He wasn’t, but he was the first buzz from Niall’s phone when he switched it back on.

Do u have Cornflakes ?

Nick Grimmy:

Granola?

It’s not exactly a gilt-edged invite but Niall reaches for his car keys anyway.

Nick opens the door wearing a cardigan that’s seen better days, Pig trying to push through his knees to get out onto the street. He dips down to catch her by the collar and drags her back in, her paws skidding on the floor. “We’ve had four walks today already, I’m not taking you out again.”

Once the door’s closed, Nick ferrets a toy out from where it was apparently drying on the radiator and tosses it towards the lounge. Pig scampers after it and almost forward rolls to get it in her mouth before plonking down to give it a good chew.

Nick pulls the two halves of his cardigan together before fixing his hair. “Just got back?”

“Literally.”

Too late Niall wonders if it makes it sound as if he came right here from the airport, if he should explain about his shopping and overestimating the amount of traffic there’d be around Heathrow. Be a nice story for Nick’s radio probably, pop stars and Ocado, but doesn’t look like Nick’s waiting for explanation. His gaze is on the move, up over the front of Niall’s T-shirt and the bit of his chest that’s poking up out, and down, smiling more and more the lower he gets. His eyelashes flick up again when he gets to Niall’s crotch.

“You want that granola, then?”

It’s the same look he had when he said bedroom fuck interested but Niall knows now what it feels like when it’s more than a look that’s got you undressed. He doesn’t mean to think about Harry but he does, this story he told once about someone unspecified who made him go actually weak in the knees just whispering in his ear, and Niall doesn’t know if it was Nick or not but he can more than imagine it, Nick’s breath on him and the sense of imminent collapse.

“Want you if I’m honest.”

Only after he’s said it does he realise Nick might laugh, but Nick’s mouth is occupied with his now, all at once like they leapt into it. He gets his tongue on Nick’s teeth and he doesn’t understand how it can be a thing that he’s missed when he’s never consciously done it before. Still, the first touch of Nick’s fingers on his arms makes him groan into the space where their lips don’t quite fit, and they’re making such a noise, he’s sure of it, pull apart only to get right back to it at a better angle.

Nick’s hands are much defter than they appear when they’re waving all about, roam his body like they’re bringing his hips and ribs and the top of his head off the bench and into the game. Niall tilts back to try and get the feeling where he wants it and Nick slips off his lips, kissing his chin, down his neck, nipping up a mouthful of cotton and skin.

“No marks where anyone’ll — ”

He gasps because Nick’s hands trail lower, brushing the shape of Niall’s dick. “I know the rules,” Nick says.

Niall cups the back of Nick’s skull and steers his head down to meet where he’s touching, and Nick’s on his knees, working Niall’s fly open before Niall’s even had a chance to ask, blowing him right there, barely properly into his flat.

Nick’s coffee table has flowers on it, the kind you’d usually get on Mother’s Day, all big and white and verdant, but Nick assures him they’re not for her or from a suitor before he goes back to kissing him, sloppy and so warm Niall fancies his lips might melt.

The open flies of both their jeans are gaping not unlike mouths against each other too, buttons warm from their bodies even though they both dispensed with their tops somewhere between over there where he came in Nick’s mouth and the couch they fell onto after. He’s not sure how long ago that was because it feels like a dream that never happened, but like he’s still there too. His brain can’t keep up, but his mouth at least knows where it is when Nick’s is against it, and his hands are happy enough slack in Nick’s hair. He hooks his foot over the back of Nick’s leg to bring the weight of him in again and Nick goes with it, gaze flitting from mouth to his eyes until he’s too close to focus. Niall’s innards turn insubstantial as custard and he knows it’s just plane weirdness that hasn’t worn off yet.

Nick slots them back together and the room disappears. For ages there’s nothing but sloppy noises and throat hums, muffled sighs and the hush hush of leg on leg as they shift.

Niall squirms at the tickle of Nick’s kiss on his neck but that only encourages Nick to move further down, his hand on Niall’s chest, kneading it like he’s trying to press it back into his spine. He ducks to mouth over Niall’s nipple, finds a spot he likes just above and stays there, tongue a flicker and teeth not nearly enough. 

“Can you — harder, like.”

“You said no marks.”

“Fuck that.” Nick peers up. His eyebrows are an intrigued arch and now Niall wants it, he wants it with all the bits of him that are awake. He looks down at himself, drawing his fingers to a spot he should be able to hide. “Little one. Know you want to.”

The wet tut of Nick’s mouth opening, fastening on, it’s incredible what it does to his stomach even before he really feels it, the pressure of Nick sucking on his skin. His fingers pull up inside themselves, clawing in Nick’s hair to hold him there.

Nick’s teeth graze through the wetness his tongue has left, he breathes out, “Like that?”

“I really like that. Fuck it — I’ll get a concealer.”

What he really, really likes, it turns out, is the way Nick can flip from laughing against his skin to being so devoted to a task.

They’re warm with the glow of two orgasms each when eventually they slow to a stop, Niall’s knee at home between Nick’s thighs and Nick’s fingers running up and down his side.

Niall’s sure if he were Harry or someone he’d be saying, “Thank you, that was incredible,” and he’s not, so he just lies there, softly hot and dozy while Nick traces his bicep.

Nick stifles a yawn on Niall’s shoulder. “Sorry. Past my bedtime.” He meets Niall’s gaze and makes him feel as if he’s been folded in half. “Stay if you want, but be warned — my alarm’s pretty brutal.”

He prises himself away, grimacing, but in truth Niall’s not sure he’d be able to sleep, unsure what he was supposed to do, roll over or spend all night locked against Nick’s back. “I best home to bed — jet lag’ll kick in at some point.”

He reaches for the shirt Nick tugged off him and cast away on the coffee table, and when it’s over his head Nick helps him get it down again. Niall gets to his feet, pins and needles creeping up his soles until he shakes them out.

Nick follows him up and it’s weird, all the air between them as they fasten their jeans, an entirely different temperature and density to where they just were. Maybe Nick’s more used to it because there’s nothing to suggest he’s really thinking about the movement of his feet on the way to the door, nothing in the way he twists the key to unlock to indicate there’s anything going on in his head other than the impulse to yawn and hit the pillow.

“You want to borrow a jumper?” he says, hugging himself against the night.

“I’m good.” Niall inches out and he’s going to say bye but Nick’s smiling and touching his elbow.

“Here, what you doing with yourself tomorrow?”

“Not much probably.”

“You want to come for your tea?” He’s smiling halfway like he’s nervous. “Say no if you want but — nice isn’t it, sometimes, to have plans.”

“Depends on what you’re making, I guess.”

“Salmon — or a stir fry, maybe. Nothing fancy.”

“That’ll do me.”

Nick nods in that way that suggests he’s amused but not quite enough to laugh, and he leans in, says, “Night night, then,” and kisses Niall quickly on the side of his mouth.

  

 

*

 

 

Niall thought he was done with the part of his life where Harry Styles smiling at him could make his stomach shrink, but there it is. Granted there’s actual surprise in the mix this time because if Harry told anyone he was coming back, Niall wasn’t included in the message. 

The place they’re in has the floor of a school hall and the dreary-drape walls of a budget wedding. Louis has found a cut out of a snowman and is trying to wear it like an apron to make it be his partner in some kind of weird dance and Liam’s scrolling through his Twitter trying not to get dragged into taking the thing’s place.

Zayn flits in, calling Louis a twat but finding a paper snow lady of his own to dance with, only it’s just a memory of something else which Niall has honed to fit. 

They meet a bunch of kids who’ve brought them gifts of all things, little tokens of heart shaped plastic and nuggets of glitter the shape of their own heads, and it all feels very normal, except for the part where one of the carers has to explain very slowly to a little girl with tubes in her nose that Zayn isn’t here because he needed a rest and it’s ok because they’re all still best friends.

Harry ducks down and he’s nodding, telling her they’ll always love Zayn and Zayn will still be around, doing his own thing. He gives her a hug and one of his hairbands to wear as a bracelet and when he straightens up, Niall wants to ask him how he has all these lies ready to spill out of his mouth. Is this what he was doing in LA? Did he find an acting coach come therapist to help him work them out?

They wave goodbye to the hospice and pile into two vans. Niall tries to get in Liam’s but Louis nips around him, asking Liam to wind the window down so he can have a fag. On the backseat of the other one with Harry, Niall hides in his phone, looking through the pictures he took. He tries not to get to wondering how many of these kids will still be here at Christmas, remembers Zayn squinting tears out of his eyes under a relentless sun, saying how he never imagined it when he went on X-Factor, how much death there’d be, how he didn’t understand how anyone thought him doing a graven voice over could ever be enough. 

And now there’s just the four of them to carry all that. Niall rubs at his shoulder. None of this was ever part of the plan. Or plans, because they never just had one. They had the one from the bungalow and another conceived in Sweden, one for LA and another from Japan, yet another, more secret one borne in Niall’s garden with the tickle of the grass, just him and Harry weaving a joint daydream that inch by inch started to come to pass.

Harry’s phone goes and Niall stares out of the window to keep from looking at who it is, but Harry nudges it quiet. “Phoner reminder,” he says, even though Niall never asked. “You wanna have dinner later or — do something?”

“I’ve plans. Someone’s cooking for me.”

Harry’s eyes light up. “Can I come?”

“Don’t think they will’ve made enough for three.”

“Oh.” Harry frowns and his hands fall into his lap.

Niall likes it more than he should, the thought of Harry sat on his own in his house while he’s on Nick’s sofa with Nick’s hand on his chest or his dick in his mouth.

The studio’s not ringed in fans, at least not when they get there — although it probably will be by the time they come out. The four of them settle on creaky office chairs with luke warm cups of coffee. They go through a song Liam’s written with Julian and another Louis did with Jamie, before Harry plays them what he’s been working on — the two he played for Niall by the pool and another, this guitar thing Niall would usually be all over if he wasn’t flicking the hairs on his arm. Back when he was at home, he used to put up pictures of studios in his bedroom and imagine himself there with next summer’s anthem playing on the desk. He never imagined that he’d come to resent the places for never having any windows, for existing in their own time loop where hours pass as quick as minutes and day and night ceases to have any meaning.

The discussion rolls to how the chorus of Harry’s might work and a quibble of Louis’s over the lyrics, Liam agreeing he wants to change it and Harry standing fast.

“Niall?”

“Whatever, I don’t care.”

The way Harry slumps doesn’t make him feel better like he thought it would, and Niall takes his phone out to scroll through Instagram. Laura’s got new shoes and there’s a golf course rolling out from a photo, filling him with longing to be there instead, sunshine on his forearms and grass leaving stains on his shoes. He texts a few people to see if they’re free for a game this week and when he looks up, Louis is rolling his eyes.

“Well fine, it can stay but I’m not fucking singing it. I’ve already got one about coffee cups and one about fucking tea. I’ve got to think about the future. I don’t want this to be my tagline, that guy who always sings about beverages.”

“All right, all right, keep your hair on,” Liam says, hands raised in defeat. “I’ll do it, or Zayn c— ”

The air’s too thick to breathe. Niall tries a couple of frantic attempts anyway, chest working like a piston on nothing. His thumbnail between his teeth doesn’t do it so he bites at the skin until bits of it come off, working one side before the other. “Fuck’s sake.”

“Oh niiiiice one, Liam.”

“I didn’t — I forgot. Sorry, guys.”

“Forgot? You forgot? How can you forget something like that?”

“Stop gnawing on yourself,” Louis says. He smacks Niall’s hand away from his mouth. “There’s a perfectly good buffet over there.”

“Oh, is that for us?” Liam says, a little shrill, and as if it’s not the kind of thing people lay on for them all the time. He pushes off the table and goes over to get a paper plate. “Bloody love a cocktail sausage.”

Louis mutters that there’s a very obvious joke about Sophia in there but it’s too obvious to dignify and crosses out the line he’s been arguing about.

“So, anyone want a cup of tea?” Harry says.

“Do me one.” Louis keeps his head down over the paper, mouth pinched into a line. “And extra sugar for Niall for the shock he’s apparently still experiencing.”

“Fuck yourself.”

“You’d know all about that.”

“Lads — ” Liam’s gaze flits between them, as if Niall might be about to haul Louis over the table by his collar and headbutt him. And fair enough because Niall’s never really been a fighter but sometimes the way Louis acts makes him think fuck it, he could learn. “Settle down, yeah?” Liam glances at his plate like he’s really debating whether he should put it down so as not to have to fling it, spraying the wall with cubes of pineapple when Niall pounces.

There’s blood in Niall’s mouth from his fingernail and he wipes it on his jeans, pressing on the shredded bit of his skin until he can get his shoulders down a notch.

With a quiet look at everyone like they’re chimps and he’s the guy talking about them for TV, Harry glides to his feet and ambles out of the wrong door before he finds the kitchen behind another. Beyond the grimy criss-cross pattern safety glass, he opens the cupboards one by one, then the drawers, clunking about for a spoon. He’s probably humming one of his own tunes.

Liam leans in to Louis’s side to talk about something Julian said when Niall had already left. Niall’s sick of them anyway. He follows Harry into the kitchen.

Harry actually smiles at him like they’re on the same side and says, “Long day.” He drops tea bags into the mugs and goes back to the cupboard, pushing aside a jar of coffee and another of Bovril.

“Aren’t they all.”

“Least you’ve got something to look forward to, after.” Harry’s attention flickers from Niall’s eyes to his mouth to the mark on his chest and back up. “Who’s the lucky lady?”

His expression’s halfway between a smirk and fond curiosity and Niall knows he could play it off the way he has in the past: don’t be nosey; no one special; I don’t fuck and tell. This time though a little bit of him wants to hurt Harry for being gone so long, for always being so very gone, for never explaining why it’s important or why it’s more important than they are, for coming back every time like everyone’s in love with him and expecting everything to reform around him as if he’s always been there. Just for a second he wants to punch Harry Styles right in the middle of his everything, so he looks him squarely in the eye and says, “Nick.”

Harry misses the sugar he was reaching for. He frowns at his appendage before going back in, getting a grip on the bag this time. Like a dummy in a museum, he finishes the tea, and Niall stares at the water as it brews, wanting to laugh at the thought he’s glaring enough to boil it without the need for a kettle. Harry hands him a mug. “Don’t burn your mouth,” he says, and that’s that.

The next few hours pass with Liam and Louis arguing back and forth and Harry ignoring them in favour of strumming at his guitar. By the time they’re done it’s late — so late it’s dark and cold and Louis doesn’t even bother asking if anyone wants to go out, just jogs to his car and drives off. Liam attempts a cheery wave and Niall slams the door closed after them and then there they are, him and Harry in the car park with nothing but a few discarded chip wrappers and the coo of the pigeon for company.

It’s making Niall breathe like a wild horse and the tries to stamp it off.

“Hey — ” Niall’s halfway to his car when Harry catches up to him, hand on his arm to make him stop. “Hey — you ok? You want to talk?”

“Not to you.”

In the light from the flats opposite, Harry’s expression collapses and Niall gets a flicker of a much younger version of him, face stolen from an aeon ago when night meant the nylon rustle of sleeping bags and secrets passed between heads pressed close together to be quiet. “What have I done?”

“What haven’t you.”

“What’s that mean?”

Niall shrugs, swallowing, searching out a streetlight to stare at so he doesn’t have to look Harry in the eye because the second he does, his mood’ll shatter. It’s something he can’t abide about Harry, the way he breaks open the way you want to feel and climbs inside to rearrange you to his liking. The first time he did it, when he crawled inside Niall with nothing but a smile in the sunshine and a laugh, when he swapped Niall’s nerves out for believing in something so big and grand — Niall should’ve known it was all something Harry was doing because he could, that it didn’t mean anything, wouldn’t last.

“Don’t shut me out, Niall,” Harry says, and it sounds so much like a script from a shitty daytime soap that Niall laughs.

But it’s not funny. The torn fingernails he’s jabbing into the palm of his hand tell him that if nothing else.

“I don’t need to shut you out, know why?” Niall spits the words out and surprises himself how much he means them. “You close the door behind yourself every time you leave.”

Harry’s jaw goes slack and he takes an actual step back. “What?”

“You know full well what. You swan off right when everyone needs you without a second thought. If there’s a more selfish gobshite on the planet, I hope I never meet him.”

Niall’s never made him cry before so he’s not sure exactly what the run up looks like from that perspective, but if he had to put a bet on it, the way Harry’s blinking, they can’t be far from water spewing from his eyes.

“Why are you angry at me when Zayn’s the one who — “

“Because Zayn never — ” Niall swallows and grits his teeth. “You know what? Forget it.”

He goes to turn but Harry catches his shoulder, digging his fingers in to make him stop, turning him back. “No — what? Zayn never what?”

Niall bucks him off, shoves his hand into his hoodie pocket, knuckles stretching the seam. “Zayn never promised me.” He hurls the words out with more force than he intended and they seem to hover in the night before falling to the ground around Harry’s ridiculous pointy boots. “You — you came to my dad’s house and you lay in the garden with me, and you said you wanted us to be the Rolling Stones. You said forever, Harry. You said old and wrinkly and drug-addled and senile, that when we can’t remember our own names we’ll still know we’re One Direction. 

“And I’m still here, fuck.” Harry throws both hands up, lands them on his own head with a slap, tugs at his hair.

“You’re not. You’re never here anymore. I came to LA to — ” The ground and the back of the studio and the bins bow. Niall wipes his nose and his lashes with the cuff of his hoodie, smearing wet stuff all the way to his ear. Fuck, this is not the place. “ — but you didn’t even text me back.”

“I was writing — I still want the wrinkles — why do you think I’m working so hard?”

“A band, it’s people, not a back catalogue.”

“It’s both. If we don’t have good songs, who’s going to care?”

Harry’s face is imploring but Niall can’t stop. He wants to turf up every inch of Harry’s soul where lurks something he’d rather not look at and shove it right in his face. “That’s what matters to you, isn’t it? That’s what’s always mattered to you, people. Other people. Other people caring about you and what you’re doing. You’ve never been in it the way I have, never needed me — "

“I care about you. I care about Louis and Liam and — everyone.” His voice trails off, comes back smaller, and to compensate he steps closer, tentative, his hands twitching at his sides like if Niall’s not really careful they’re going to end up hugging until they fall over. “And yeah, I care about the album and what people will think of it. I care about making something really great one day but we won’t if all we do is dick about for hours over one line someone else wrote and fall apart when someone mentions Zayn.”

“No one fell apart.”

Everyone fell apart.”

Niall’s turn to take a step back. “I didn’t.”

“Sorry to break it to you but you’re handling it the worst of anyone. We knew — we knew how he felt and we knew it was coming but the way you’re acting — it’s like you were in love with him.” Harry stares him down and Niall realises two things simultaneously: Harry’s got really fucking tall and at some point in the conversation he also grabbed a shovel and started digging. “But it’s not as simple as that, is it?”

“What is it, then, if you’re so smart?”

“I think — “  Harry hesitates, some conflict in his chin before his eyes narrow. “Like — did you really want a music career when you auditioned or was it something else? ‘Cos for the rest of us it’s like Zayn left the band but you think he left you like — personally.”

“Don’t be — I’m not….”

Harry’s face softens but he leans in, goes deadly quiet. “I’m happy to be your fall guy or your punching bag or whatever, but — there’s so many cracks in us right now, Niall.” He swallows, goes watery, like a very long time ago with a TV camera in his face. “Zayn did what he did and no one’s saying it’s not hard but — right now? It’s you who’s looking like the one who’ll actually break us apart.”

Niall turns from him, yanks up his hood, and stalks away to his car. “Oh fuck off, Harry. Fuck off away to your songs.”

 

 

*

  

 

 The traffic’s terrible and full of cars that look just like Harry’s, so when Niall gets home, his hands are still shaking so much he has to press the keys four times before the doors will lock.

Inside he heads straight for the shower. Under its stream he can almost hear his thoughts so he turns his face up to the spray and grimaces as the water bounces off his eyelids. He wants to flip it all the way to cold and stay there until he’s shivering but his phone’s buzzing on the back of the toilet where he left it. He ducks out enough to see it’s from Nick:

Are you coming or shall I feed this to the dog?

He closes his eyes and ducks back under the spray, but after he’s scrubbed shampoo through his hair and ground gel into his armpits he thinks well, why the fuck not.

Nick’s street is always a lull. The streetlights are the kind from a time when people had effort to spare to make things look pretty for no reason and Niall pulls up, breathes out against the steering wheel. His shoulders unbunch at the image of Nick’s hands picking him out of his clothes and leaving marks for Harry to find on his skin.

The metal rail of the stairs cools his palm and it spreads up through him by the time he gets to the front door to press the buzzer.

Pig goes off behind it, yammering, and Nick joins in the conversation as he opens it, coming to an abrupt halt.

“Oh,” Nick says. “I — I thought you changed your mind. Er — ”

“Who is it, love?”

Nick swallows and beckons Niall in. There’s a woman all in black apparently reading cards on Nick’s dining table. Nick introduces them and Niall hovers in what would be the doorway if the room had one, rocking back on his heels. If Harry has ruined this for him too –

Nick’s got the same shirt on he was wearing in LA, the memory flooding through Niall like a blush deep deep down. Those hands were on the backs of his thighs, that same face that’s chattering away about Tarot and how the dead man doesn’t mean what you think, apparently, hot and wet against the curve of his arse. Niall’s staring at Nick, he can see it in the reflection of the window, but he can’t quite remember how to say the things you say when you come over to someone’s and find a stranger, can’t be bothered pretending to care about anything but the way the shirt falls away from Nick’s body and Nick’s turned its sleeves up in just the right spot to make the most of his arms.

“So,” Nick says, placing his hands on Colette’s shoulders, “you hear from Sadie today?”

Colette turns one of the cards over. “No, why?”

“Was saying she missed you and it’d be really good if you popped round. You know, soon.”

“Saw her Saturday, what’s she talking about? And why she texting you if it’s me she wants to see? Arr crap, did I leave my phone switched off all day again? If that daft thing’s dead I’ll — ” She starts upending her handbag and Nick chuckles before crouching down to whisper in her ear. Her eyes go big and she looks at Niall with more focus than before. “Right you are, then,” she says, and gets to her feet, gathering her things and shoving them back in along with Nick’s pepper grinder and a couple of pens that look quite expensive. “Am I taking Pig?”

“No, tah.”

“See you then, love.”

She kisses Nick on the cheek and bustles out.

Nick locks the door behind her, and in her wake, the air in the room’s almost thunderous.

“Didn’t have to chuck her out.”

“She don’t mind.”

“What if I just came here to borrow your guitar?”

Nick comes up behind him. A waft of seaside aftershave and he undoes the zip on Niall’s hoodie and slides a flat, firm palm down under the low neck of Niall’s T-shirt. “Then you better fix your face because every inch of it says you came here to fuck.”

Exhaling, Niall leans back against Nick’s shoulder, pushing out against the faint drag of Nick’s fingernails over his skin. Nick’s breath followed by Nick’s lips fan out on his neck, and he closes his eyes to better appreciate the way Nick burrows down into the folds of his hood to nip at his skin. He turns his head and finds Nick’s mouth waiting, and at the catch of his lips, everything slides away. 

When he was a kid, he’d sneak his mum’s books sometimes, thumb through the pages that smelt of libraries and ink stamps to the sex bits. There’d be talk of surrendering and he never quite got it, but now Nick’s holding him there while they sway and kiss and kiss and kiss, he likes it. The neck of his shirt tugs as Nick moves down over his stomach and the brewing storm there, and Niall breathes in quick and harsh against Nick’s mouth.

Withdrawing his hand, Nick eases him around, bumps their noses together, and looks at him cross-eyed.

What Niall wants is something out of porn, to have all emotion slammed out of his body as he hits a wall, for Nick to be on his knees ripping him out of his jeans before he says another word. He goes for Nick’s cock, thumbing a line down it, pressing probably a little too hard.

“I just got to — ” Nick’s voice is croaky with being quiet and he clears his throat. “ — I just got to let the dog out. Go through if you want.” He nods off to where the bedroom is, pats his thigh until Pig comes trotting over, wagging her tail. “Won’t be a minute.”

Niall leaves him to argue with Pig about whether or not it’s actually raining because a moment alone wouldn’t go amiss. He follows the pictures on the wall down the corridor and pushes the bedroom door open. Throws him that the bed’s made like it would be in a hotel, the duvet tucked neat under the pillows and a blanket over the top folded back halfway down. Just to mess things up he toes off his boots and socks, kicks them into the corner by the wardrobe, undoes his hoodie, and chucks it onto the chair in the corner. He’s not sure what to do, then, if he should get undressed or turn on the lamp, but if he goes at it like it’s a fantasy, if he pretends the wood beneath his feet isn’t actually real, what happens next unfolds all in inkiness and shadows, Nick’s mouth a ghost he can’t quite make out on his skin.

There’s a dresser on one side of the bed and he slides the drawer open. The flowers in the vase on top shake at the movement but he finds what he was looking for — condoms scattered around the box they came in and a brand of lube he recognises. There’s toys too in garish shades of plastic, but he leaves those where they are and gets the rest out, sets them next to Nick’s phone charger. He shuts his eyes to stop thinking, only opening them again when Nick’s padding down the hall.

“Hello,” he says, and he sounds so like Harry it churns Niall’s chest. He quiets it by curling his fingers up into Nick’s hair and pulling him down to meet his mouth.

Nick’s cold from being outside, fingers a shock where they toy with the hem of Niall’s T-shirt, lifting it up, letting it fall back. “Yeah?” Nick says, tugging on the fabric.

Niall’s so wound up, in answer, he makes the noise he makes in vocal rehearsals when his voice has given out. His shirt’s up over his head with a rush of fresh air, skin pimpling up, Nick’s hands soothing them, sensation a thick drag before his teeth make a pinpoint on Niall’s shoulder that causes his insides to roll up.

“You need the bathroom or owt?” Nick’s hands on his hips are big and steady, make Niall almost forget what he’s asked.

What’s the etiquette? Is he supposed to tell Nick he got over friendly with the attachment on his shower the plumber who fitted it claimed not to understand? Checking behind him, Niall climbs onto the bed, and scoots back. “I’m good.”

Smiling, Nick kneels at his ankles, leaning over him as Niall tips back. He hovers on all fours above him, attention fixed on his face, material of his shirt a maddening brush on Niall’s skin. Nick dips down to tongue at his nipple and he’s so focused, Niall can’t look. Breathing too fast, he turns his head and finds Pig’s eyes where she’s staring at them from the rug. She grunts, wags her tail like he’s going to throw her a ball, noise of it thumping loud as Niall’s heart in his ears.

Nick noses at his ribs and licks up, but Niall can’t concentrate, mechanically opening his mouth for a kiss.

“She bothering you?”

“Bit.”

“Get to bed, Pig,” Nick says, and he must’ve been practising with her because she actually goes. He swats out at the door with enough force for it to swing shut.

Now it’s just him and Nick and the ink blot shadows. Feels more serious, like there’s nothing to give his attention to but the thing he’s about to do, like that moment when they’re under the stage, the chant of the crowd above, and expectation in the air but also prickling up out of his own skin. He’s already reeling inside himself from how alone they are, how dark it is in here, the knowledge he could do anything, and no one but Nick would ever know.

He falls out of the kiss, gets a hand between them to loosen his jeans. He goes back to sucking Nick’s lip into his mouth, letting the zip slide down when he pushes up, working his hands over the cool, flimsy silk of Nick’s shirt. It gets to him, the weight of Nick all over him, the way he could crush all thought out of Niall so hard and fast his eyes would roll back. He murmurs something to that effect against the place where Nick’s jaw turns into ear, but it’s not enough. He finds Nick’s lobe with his teeth, bites down.

“Hungry?” Nick’s voice is low and gravelly, rumbles through Niall’s stomach.

“Impatient. You know why I came.”

With a slow grin, Nick slides his hand into Niall’s boxers. The front of them snags, sticky, on his knuckles and the realisation Nick must know how much Niall wants him twists his lungs up like balloons being forced to take the shape of giraffes. But before he can deal with it, Nick’s fingers smooth over the head of his dick, easing the next stroke down. He nuzzles behind Niall’s ear and says, “Any requests?”

“Don’t be too gentle.” He looks down to see the head of his own dick poking up from the elastic as Nick’s fingers clasp below the crown, the firm slip of Nick’s long fingers hiding it again. “Christ.” He falls back against the pillow, arm limp across his eyes.

The bed shifts, but he doesn’t register what’s happening until Nick tongues at his fingers, letting the startled jerk of Niall’s hips guide his dick into his mouth. That he’s good at having his mouth fucked isn’t a surprise but how quickly it has Niall writhing is. Nick reads the exact moment Niall’s had enough of his jeans to pull them down to his knees and off, abandoning them over the side of the bed. A kiss to his bare hip, then more of his glorious mouth as he runs his hands up his thighs. There’s such purpose it sparks electricity in the hair there and he’s not stopping, not until he’s thumbing Niall’s bollocks. He pushes like he intends to get them into his mouth too, can’t quite, just enough to rut against his lips, warm where they’re stretched round the base of his dick. It’s so much Niall claws at the bed with his toes and pants out, “Jesus fuck.”

Nick pulls off, rolling Niall’s ball up to the base of his dick, keeping it there with his thumb while he kisses down over its curve, tonguing just below.

Lifting his arm, Niall looks down but all he is is a blob of white for a face and a moan between his legs. He tilts so Nick can get lower but when Nick licks close to his hole it makes him clench.

“Gonna come if you — ”

“That’s the point, love.” His gaze flicks up. “Be more relaxed, then we can take our time.”

Our time.

Could be horrendously intimate, the idea time is theirs to play with, not belonging to either of them but both, but also there’s laughter in his throat because either they’ve a perfume called that or it was one of the names they considered. Nick’s lips steal his amusement though, and Niall would probably be embarrassed about the obscene wet noises if rough little snatches of heat and suck didn’t have him flickering between punishment and relief. He slides Niall’s straining dick onto his tongue and the rush of hard heat, it’s too much, even before there’s a thumb as well as saliva against his arsehole.

Niall jerks against the bed, slips out of the corner of his mouth, spurting against his cheek with his chest heaving. He looks down, open-mouthed with surprise it actually happened.

“Thanks for that,” Nick says, wiping his face on the blanket, but when he comes back onto all fours above Niall, he’s smiling. Or smirking at least.

Niall pulls him in with his shirt to lap at his mouth more than kiss it, undoes the buttons one by one, pushing the flimsy material off his shoulders until it’s down far enough to be shrugged off. There’s a fresh rush of the smell of him, warm and salty like a beach at sunset, and Niall just wants all of him right the hell now.

It’s hectic and a bit dirty, kissing like this, light scratch of denim on his skin, his body unsure if it’s supposed to be coming down or revving back up. More so when Nick runs a hand up his leg to hitch it round his waist, shifts them onto their side to get his fingers into the crease where Niall’s still damp. He grapples with the thought he’s really going to do this finally and Nick’s jeans simultaneously, and it proves too much for his brain. He abandons the button to just rest his fingertips against Nick’s erection while Nick does it.

Nick has to roll to the side to get them off with a shimmy, then he’s back against Niall’s side, naked.

Niall steals little looks at him as if he’s never seen knees before, as if there’s something especially erotic or scandalous about the inside of his wrists or the quirk of his mouth, trying to make out all the bits of him that look more shadow than man. He’s had his hands on Nick’s dick but not really seen it yet and as Nick strokes he wants to bat his hand away and just look. 

“You’ve never — “

Niall shakes his head, reaches for Nick, coming to stop on his stomach where the fuzz of his chest narrows down to a trail. He follows it with his fingers, skims over Nick’s hand to take its place, tugging until the glint of Nick’s eyes disappears and his lips part.

In the dark it’s easier. Maybe a bit of his brain’s pretending it’s a fantasy, that any second he’s going to snap back and be on the floor of his own bathroom, one foot up on the sink and his own wet fingers up his arse thinking about something not quite this, but like it. He parts his knees, guides Nick’s hand between his legs, curls his fingers until Nick’s tucked right behind his balls. “Want you to do it.”

His hand’s so warm it sends a deep blush all the way to his throat, just that. When their mouths land on each other they’ve forgotten how to kiss, takes them a while to figure it out.

Nick leans across him and grabs the lube. It makes a wet fart noise as he squirts it over his fingers and Niall almost laughs, holds it back because Nick repositions under Niall’s leg, so close, tucked into his side, elbow squeezing Niall’s thigh to him.

He holds onto Nick’s arm, trying to catch his breath at the cold slide as Nick works inside. It’s not like when he’s fooling around in the shower or when the guy from the label shoved one in there to get blowing him over and done with quicker; Nick’s slow and deliberate, smiling cautious in the dark, thumb an anchor on the base of cock pressing and doing something to him Niall thinks someone should really have told him about before. Looking for something familiar Niall touches himself — he’s not quite hard and not quite not either — but it’s good, pad of a second finger making him gurgle a curse that never quite leaves his mouth. And it’s in, slide and stretch enough to make Niall’s body turn into jelly, wobbles originating there turning to twitches.

“You all right?” Nick says, so very quietly but it’s such an interruption to the blissful edge he’d been teetering on Niall almost starts.

Saying anything feels like a thing in the distance he can barely make out, even though Nick’s fingers are just rocking inside him.

“It’s nice and all but — ” Niall’s voice is slurred like he’s had eight pints and he tries to put himself back together enough to concentrate. He reaches past his leg to squeeze Nick’s dick. “ — you want to?”

Nick withdraws his fingers to get a condom. Everything narrows on the noise of him tearing it open. He hands it to Niall, glances down. “Do the honours?”

Takes him a few goes to get it rolled all the way down and he pauses, staring at the patch of hair where his fingers are. A flash of a conversation comes back, one he doesn’t want to place too exactly.

Come on then, give us the grisly details.

Wasn’t grisly at all, actually. He’s lovely.

“What about this?” Nick taps Niall’s knee and Niall’s overwhelmed with him thinking of it.

“Didn’t ask my physio but — ” He swallows. “ — should probably just steer clear of any of that ankles behind your head shit.”

Nick laughs, and as he leans in, he hooks a finger under Niall’s chin to lift him up for a kiss. He starts to lower them back towards the pillow.

“Wait.” Niall halts him with a hand on his chest and Nick’s eyes going all panicked seals it. He can’t handle this and Nick looking at him at the same time. “Probably better like — ” Niall turns halfway over. “If that’s..?”

“Yeah, just — ” He grabs a pillow, pushes it under Niall’s hip as he settles on his stomach. He inches behind Niall, straddling his thighs, lowering down until his dick rests, hot and heavy against the crease of Niall’s arse. “Still ok?”

Niall’s not sure that’s the word for when your entire body’s humming with anticipation so he works his arse back against Nick’s crotch.

“Melon out any time,” Nick says.

Niall nods but he’s aching when Nick touches him, thumb pressing inside, pulling him open. He can’t help the gasp, can’t think in terms of what’s happening, only that it makes him collapse inside himself. He pushes back but the head of Nick’s dick skids up his crack.

Nick grips his hip, and this time when Nick lines up, he eases in, just the head at first. Still, Niall groans against his own arm, mouth slack as Nick draws back, presses further in with a push of his hips as he pulls Niall back.

“All right?”

A hot flush shoots up Niall’s neck. Dipping his back he shifts into the bluntness in his arse, turns his head to say, “What did I say before?”

“What did you know before, though?” Nick’s leaning in to meet him. He kisses Niall over his shoulder, the first real thrust of his hips making Niall fall off his mouth. Nick wraps an arm around him, holds him there against his chest, and it’s so much all at once, Niall’s glad Nick can’t really see his face.

He screws his eyes up to properly feel Nick inside him. It’s… more or less exactly what he thought it would be back in the day when it first flitted into his head, the shameless, desperate idea this might be something he wanted to do.

After a moment they get to moving, slow and shallow at first, and Niall goes tight all over quicker than he was expecting. He pushes up off the bed, fumbles for Nick’s arm to hold onto, digging his fingers in hard enough to feel bone. It’s the way Nick’s stomach contracts against him then comes back that’s really doing it for him, the way when he moves, it affects his breathing. At the thought, a clench starts in his arse and takes his stomach with it.

Nick groans right next to his ear and turns out, he can look at Nick after all. Can turn to watch the press of his lips together and the way his face tenses as he mumbles, trying to keep the noise inside. Can meet Nick’s eyes as they open, let his mouth go slack to tell him he likes it when Nick does that roll and holds still just a second.

 But that’s all.

He slides his arms away from him and buries his face in the duvet, tugging on it, pillow under his hips providing friction on his dick but not the right kind.

Nick bites his shoulder, tongue hot then a cold rush of air all the way down Niall’s sticky back as he moves away. He slips out, rests on his heels, kneading Niall’s arse before he manoeuvres Niall back, lifting his hips. Another wet raspberry of lube and he’s back inside, Nick’s hand on his dick this time.

Panting, Niall digs his chin into his chest to look, can hear as well as see his dick push in and out of Nick’s grip. He reaches down to touch too, slippery fingers meaning the sensation slips away as soon as he thinks he’s got it. It’s like his heart’s not even beating, his whole body just waiting waiting waiting for the moment it’s enough. He lets the motion of Nick’s hips push his face into the bed, lets him take over. While Nick’s fingers glide and tease, he heats the space with his ragged breath, and when he comes, it’s with the taste of Nick’s sheets all over his tongue.

Nick pulls out, jerks himself off, hissing and swearing until he groans and lists to the side.

Niall wants to look at his dick as it shrinks back up but everything inside his head and his heart such a rush. He can’t seem to fathom it, what just happened, but he can slide until he’s mostly flat and let out a low grumble.

“You all right over there?”

Niall peers out, down Nick’s body, over the place where he’s stroking his stomach, avoiding his dick until he’s not, rearranging it with a cage of fingers lower down. Niall closes his eyes to keep the image there and shit, it’s not going to get old for a while, feeling like this.

“I am. I really am.”

Nick laughs, all blue-grey and shadowed where he’s shuffling back against the pillows, pulling the duvet up to get under. He frees it where Niall is too, and it’s good to move, to reassure himself his body’s still doing everything it’s supposed to at the same time as dealing with so much new. He looks at Nick at the strike of a match.

“Horrible habit,” Nick says, voice twisting around the cigarette in his mouth. “Want one?”

Nick lights another from his, hands it over. He rests an ashtray on the covers between their knees, and with his eyes closed as he inhales he looks like an advert again, his hair messed up and sweat sheen in the hollows of his neck.

They should probably have one of those conversations that feel like really talking, but Niall can’t think of anything that needs saying. Maybe he’s just out or it’s all beyond what there’s words for. He just smokes until he’s done with it, grinds what’s left out against the glass.

“Just going to – ” He gestures to the bathroom, hops out.

He doesn’t turn the lights on but he’s enough experience of navigating hotel rooms to avoid stubbing anything while he runs the taps and cleans off. Nick’s got the same candle as Harry – the one that smells like campfires and autumn – on his sink, and Niall doesn’t mind it, the idea whenever he’s in Harry’s hotel room, he’ll think of this.

When he goes back out, Nick’s plugged his phone in and is scrolling through his messages. Niall hovers, not sure if he should get dressed and go until Nick smiles and pats the bed. He taps a couple of short replies out, flicks to his alarm.

“That thing really going to go off at five?” Niall says, pulling the covers up around him. 

“Sorry,” Nick says, doesn’t look at it as he sets it down. “If it’s any consolation Pig’ll probably have woken us up before that. You a cuddler?”

His only experience that’s anything like this involved tucking himself back into his pants while his partner paced by the door telling him to hurry up. “Not especially. Can if you want?”

Smiling slightly, Nick leans in and kisses him — brief and soft and almost platonic. “Sleep tight,” he says, and goes back to his own pillow.

Niall closes his eyes when Nick does, listens to Nick breathing, and for a long time it feels as if they’re both quite awake inside.

He’s not expecting to fall asleep but he must do, because the next thing Nick’s voice is thick in his head like clouds whispering in a dream.

“I got to go to work, love. Stay, though. Pig’s not allowed on the bed so when she gets in, try and make her feel guilty.” Nick kisses his cheek and Niall turns into it, instinct. “Be back about eleven.”

Snuffling. Niall screws up against it until a cold, damp spongy thing nudges his cheek. He cracks one eye and Pig’s pawing at the duvet, making herself a nest. “You’re not allowed,” he says. She flops down half on him, butts her head against his arm until he pats her belly, fleshy hollowness of it echoing in the room.

They’re still like that when Nick comes back. Niall stirs through him opening the door and chucking his keys and his bag down on somewhere hard, blinks awake properly when Nick sits on the edge of the bed.

“Morning sleepyheads.”

Pig thunks her tail against Niall’s thigh, scrambles up to slobber at Nick while he holds her and her tongue at arm’s length. “Gerroff,” he mutters, but he’s laughing at her too. “Here, I bought you a present to make up for last night.” He lifts his hip up to get into his pocket, pulls out something yellow and shrunken. “Who wants a pig’s ear?”

“Your idea of breakfast in bed sucks.”

Nick chuckles and holds it out for Pig until she sniffs it, follows it as he leads her to jump off the bed and onto the floor, hopping up onto her back paws to try and get at it until Nick lets her take it and crunch it down.

Niall looks up at him from the pillow, at the curve of his back, his glasses and his fuzzy jumper, and just for a second he imagines being here all the time, the guy who plays guitar in the lounge and waits for him to come back from the radio.

With the sunlight coming in through the shutters and the flowers in the vase, there’s a hint of Rochelle’s dinner in it. What if he stayed here so long he planted something in the garden, something to cure all ills when they looked at it.

Nick shuffles back towards the headboard, lifting his long legs up onto the duvet. “Harry was after you,” he says. “Love a string of badly spelled texts at 4am.”

Niall lifts off the pillow. “What you tell him?”

“The truth.” Nick sighs, meets Niall’s eye with a smile that says he knows what’s ricocheting round his head. “That he should take his stupid drunk arse to bed.”

Niall headbutts him in the jeans.

“You guys busy?” Nick says, stroking through Niall’s hair. “Lots of pop star things to do this morning?”

“Might avoid today entirely.” He breathes in against Nick’s thigh. “I told him, anyway, Harry.”

Nick’s fingers still. “Yeah? Go ok?" 

“Screaming row in the car park.”

Nick lifts his knees and Niall rearranges so he can look up at him. “Not about, like, this. Was one of those ones where you both just start shouting and everything goes from terrible to worse.”

Nick rubs over Niall’s neck with his palm and looks for once as if he’s no idea what to say.

It seems ages ago, but Niall can still feel it, the stab behind his breastbone, they way Harry looked at him before he walked away. “He says we’re cracking — it’s shit.” He breathes out, heavy and long. “But maybe it’s not even a problem. Louis and Liam, they’ve got their girlfriend and their family and their friends and their plans. They talk about after like it’s not very far away at all.”

“Does Harry have one, a plan?”

“He never talks like that — he’s in this for life, I reckon. It is his life. He don’t give a shit about anything or anyone else.”

Nick hums, slow and deliberate.

Niall tries to picture it — just in the loose way of a fantasy — a life where he used to be in One Direction. A dinner party, where he’s sitting next to someone young just back off a stadium tour, and in their head he’s NiallNeillNigel who was in that boyband you used to see on people’s walls, a vague recollection of scandal and wasted potential. He tries to see Harry in Marvin or Oritse, someone with a new career, slips a few on him like he’s trying on suits but — nothing fits him as well as being Harry. Nothing looks as good on him as his smile behind a microphone or the way he lights up when someone says they like his song.

“Fuck.” He rolls his face into Nick’s leg to hide. “Why is it — I can lose it at me dad or anyone else and it doesn’t matter, but when I do it with Harry I feel like utter shit?”

“Them eyes, isn’t it?”

“Feels like even my brain’s on his side.”

Nick’s fingers go back to his hair. “Sometimes, love, we don’t fight with who we’re really angry at. We fight with the person we’re the most sure loves us.”

“That’s stupid.”

“No it’s not. It’s smart, take it all out on someone you know’ll forgive you.”

“That’s not what I did.”

Nick smiles, and somewhere along the line when he wasn’t concentrating on it, Niall’s started to get turned on by the warmth of his hip and the rhythm of his fingers in Niall’s hair. He presses against the line of duvet rucked up between them, nuzzles into the soft creases of Nick’s pocket. His jeans smell of being on the floor and probably of dog treats, but it’s comforting. Like it’ll prove his point, he undoes Nick’s jeans. His dick’s still soft in his boxers and Niall slips the button on the front free of its eye until he can see Nick’s dick, tucked to the side. He sneaks a finger inside and strokes over it, smiling at the smoothness of the skin. He adds another finger, runs them down to the head in its little cowl of skin, opens the material a bit to get his mouth in close. A twitch of reaction and Nick slides down the headboard, watching him with steady eyes even as his breathing skips one.

It’s all so comfortable, so very easy for Niall to ease his head further into Nick’s lap, to slip him out of his boxers and into his mouth.

Niall sucks him all the way to hard, then rides him right there while he’s still in his jeans.

 

 

*

 

 

Nick’s grumbling and asleep when his phone flickers on with a soundless message in the dark.

Niall sits up in case it rings and his heart thuds when he sees the name.

Harry:

Is he with you? 

Niall doesn’t swipe to open it, to see if there’s more, because really he shouldn’t be looking at all. Another follows quick on its heels, though:

If he is look after him x

Two minutes later Harry tweets — Nick has his alerts on apparently. It’s a lyric Niall wrote about going grey with your friends. Everyone hated it — a cliché drenched in saccharine was the consensus reached by all but Harry, who very quietly said, “Well I like it, actually.”

Niall had forgotten all about it, until now.

 

 

*

 

 

He waits it out at Nick’s, playing his guitar and eating something that’s allegedly courgette noodles, until the next evening.

When he gets back to his, there’s a shadow in the doorway trying to peer through the letterbox and cold dread hits him — it’s a fan who’s unexpectedly ninja and he’s no battery left to call for help. They shift their weight and straighten up and — wait. 

“When someone — ” The figure jumps, clutching for the front of their shirt. “ — tells you to fuck off, Harry, it’s polite to stay fucked.”

Harry turns, pushes his hair out of his eyes. Doesn’t look like he’s slept much and Niall likes it a bit, the thought of being responsible for the smudges under his eyes. “Came over last night,” he says. “Where were you?”

“Where’d’you think?”

Niall punches the numbers on the security panel to quiet the alarm and get into his house. He engages a fantasy about just letting the door close in Harry’s face but in spite of himself, he’s holding it open, because the last thing they need is a pap behind the hedge getting a photo of them rowing on the front lawn. Not that he’s feeling particularly row-ish. Spending the best part of two days in bed with someone will do that, he supposes. 

“Why aren’t you there again tonight?” Harry says. The lights come on. He’s fiddling with his rings and there’s satisfaction in it, knowing Nick’s got a work thing when Harry doesn’t.

“Unlike you, I don’t believe in worming myself into a person’s life when I’m about to fuck off on tour again.”

Harry’s Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. “I don’t want to fight with you about Nick.”

“What do you want to fight about, then? The album? Zayn? What?”

“I — “

“Tell you what Harry, how about you just start and I’ll join in.”

Niall empties his pockets, phone, wallet, keys, drops them on the table in the hall where his answer machine’s blinking as if it’s doing the Devil’s work. He turns back to Harry, squaring his shoulders ready for whatever Harry came here to throw at him, but Harry’s just hovering by the door, wringing his hands.

“You could’ve told me sooner. That you’re into blokes.”

“Know I could’ve.”

Harry’s lips retreat between his teeth. “Why didn’t you?”

“Maybes I wanted you to be a person I didn’t have to tell. Maybes I thought you knew me well enough to see when I was lying and when I was losing it quietly all by myself. Or maybe you just weren’t there. Other day you fancied yourself my psychiatrist, but seems like you know Jack shit about everything, doesn’t it?”

He sort of means it as a joke, can see Harry doing a Freud voice and asking about his childhood, but Harry sags against the door. His legs concertina up and he thunks down on Niall’s floor, his hands coming up to cover his face.

Niall rolls his eyes, huffs, waits for it, for Harry to look up with his sad cow eyes and say sorry, make Niall feel like the biggest bastard who ever lived. But Harry doesn’t say anything — in fact he’s not really making any noise, apart from the door knocking against the frame in time with the judder of his shoulders.

“What the fuck are you — will you get up?”

Niall edges in and Harry shies away, bringing his elbow up to hide his face in. Niall gets a peek at glassy red eyes. The other night Niall thought the flag posts for him crying were all in the blink but evidently it’s more all-body than that, mostly in the limbs that usually hold him up. Fuck him and his dramatics, really.

The floor’s harsh on his bones as Niall kneels at Harry’s feet. He stares at the patchy suede of his boots and when he touches, it’s rough under Niall’s palms. He holds Harry there at his ankles, stroking up to his jeans. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Harry’s face emerges, incredulous, red, and wet. He takes an open mouth breath, saliva strings between his teeth shaking. “Everything’s wrong.” He rolls his eyes but has to squeeze them shut before he’s done. Fresh tears leak out anyway and there’s his chin, now, quivering away. “It’s just — everything. Zayn left and you hate me — and I don’t know how to — fuck.”

He thumps his head back on the door.

Niall opens his mouth to say something but there’s nothing there but a padder noise that’s not quite a tut or a cluck.

“I never know what to do anymore — so I just keep on — doing whatever — like — ” He shrugs, huffs, face turned up to the ceiling and collapsing in on itself. “ — but — if this — if it’s not working — I don’t know what else — ”

Niall knee-walks across to Harry’s hip — behind his scar his knee is fucking livid about it — and plonks down next to him. “I don’t hate you,” he says. “Lots of people I could hate but — never you, all right?”

Harry’s arms flop down onto his knees and now they’re here, it all seems very distant, the reasons Niall had for wanting him to cry.

Once, he found Harry on the tour bus with his face in a pile of socks, and when Niall asked him what he was doing he said he didn’t know, only that suddenly he felt like the time he got lost in Marks and Spencer when he was too short to see over the racks to his mum. He made Niall promise not to tell anyone he was being so pathetic, and Niall just crawled in and spooned him until he fell asleep.

“You remember — ” He has to stop because his throat’s too tight to get the word out. He’s not sure what he was going to say anyway, why he thought it might be helpful to remind Harry of what’s probably an embarrassing emotional collapse, but Harry scoots over, head heavy against Niall’s shoulder when it lands. He bounces it a couple of times before he settles, picks the tears off the corner of his eye with his ring finger, rubs it out with his thumb, staring at it as if he’s never seen saltwater before.

Harry gets forgetful like that, sometimes. They’ll be in the dressing room chugging water after a show and he’ll be texting, stop, like he’s surprised by the existence of the thing in his hand. He’ll say something funny like, “Zayn’s not coming,” and hold it out with an expression his face has never made before.

Zayn’s not coming.

Was like he was on pause, waiting for someone to tell him how to react. Like it was too big a thing for him to decide on his own.

Weird. Niall will never know what expression he was making, so that moment’ll always look in his head like Harry standing there, sweat curls in his hair and a tremble on his mouth. And Harry, he’ll always have been alone with it, see it through the tinge of responsibility, through knowing he was about to drive a spike through each one of them like they were balloons.

“What’s going on, Niall?” His voice is tiny and clogged with emotion.

Closing his eyes, Niall presses back against the door. “I don’t rightly know.”

Inside his own private darkness everything’s just very far away. He can’t find the snatches of his life he needs to string together like bunting to deck out the moment and prove they all led to it, although he’s sure at some point there was more to it than him just wanting Harry to be there or to call. There must’ve been.

The anger he had in LA, in the studio, in the car park, it all feels very flimsy now. Maybe Nick was right and he was never really angry with Harry at all. Maybe he was just in the wrong place with the wrong face.

“You know that song that goes they say anger is just love disappointed?”

On his shoulder, Harry’s head turns. “No?”

“Sounds true, though, doesn’t it?”

He’s sitting up now, pulling at Niall’s hoodie. “Play it for me. Is it on your phone?”

“It’s there — ” Niall waves at the table to stop Harry digging for his pocket. “Let it go flat, anyway.”

Harry scrambles onto his knees to get his phone out, uncurls Niall’s hand and presses it into his fingers. “Find it?”

“It’s not that important.”

“Is to me.”

Niall swallows. Harry’s phone’s warm from where it’s been in his jeans and it takes him a minute to find it on YouTube, one of those scratchy versions sounds as if someone recorded it off the telly. Harry sits there on his heels rapt, though, and Niall has that feeling again like he did in LA, like there’s too much feeling pouring out of the song and into the air, only this time, it’s his, even though he didn’t write the words.

The days after Zayn, Niall listened to this song until his earbuds felt fused to his ears. There was a lot of talk, he remembers, but it was like a soap he didn’t follow. Everything was so loud, dramatic, and he’d just sit there while they acted out their scenes.

It stops playing and Harry meets his eye. His cheek twitches like he can’t decide whether to smile or cry, and not being able to decide pushes his brows together into a frown.

Niall turns Harry’s phone over and over in his hands.

“What now?” Harry says.

“I don’t know.” Niall pushes a hand through his hair, tugging it up from his scalp. “You want to get smashed?”

Niall’s stash box lies between them depleted and open-mouthed on the floor, sharing its fate with a bag of pistachios. He put on music to fill the space between them — old rock songs of the kind he and Harry like best about sweet loves that turn bitter and the roll of the highway away from them — and it’s not that they’ve smoked a lot, more that he was ready for it, to let it weave its way through his cells and unpick him. Maybe they both were.

The smoke’s hot and sour in his lungs and he breathes out, nudges Harry’s arm to get him to take his turn.

“I hate — “ Harry’s hunched over, nail buried in the shell of a nut he’s been trying to get into for maybe four minutes. “I hate when they’re impenetrable. Gah!” He chucks the pistachio at the wall, eyes going big when it bounces off Frank Sinatra and comes back, fast.

Niall laughs at him ducking under his arms and throws a shell at his head. He misses and settles against the bottom of the sofa, crossing his ankles so he can’t see so much of the rug.

Plucking the joint out of his fingers, Harry flops back, his gangly legs steepled next to Niall’s and his head disappeared behind his knees so far as Niall’s concerned he’s just a greyish exhale and shins. He tries to get back to the conversation they were having, but he can’t remember what it was about, only that halfway through they went into the kitchen to scavenge and Harry started yapping about textures, how he wanted something hard but salty in his mouth.

The laugh which blurted out of Niall’s mouth was predictable but a long time in coming, and as he rooted through the cupboard, shoving quinoa aside and debating whether a tin of tuna fit the bill, Harry leant in, face against the blade of shoulder, arms around him, so very gentle and warm. Like a human jumper, Niall thought. “Pistachios,” he said with triumph more befitting an explorer.

Harry declared it, “Perfect, Niall, perfect like… exactly that.”

Felt like something had changed, although nothing actually had.

Now, Harry’s grumbling along with the music, his knees knocking against each other in time with the drums.

Makes Niall seasick to watch them so he wriggles down, pushes away from the sofa with his head until he’s flat on his back. A cobweb clings to the ceiling and Niall blows air up at it, trying to get it to move in his draft.

An indeterminate amount of time passes. Usually Niall would be able to tell because of the tracks but he forgets if he’s still listening to the same one then can’t make his mind scroll back and remember if the one before was the Beatles or Fleetwood Mac. Harry’s drumming on his thighs, which means he’s finished the joint and Niall would usually be annoyed because he’s hit the plateau. He should call someone, but everything feels soft around the edges, like they’re in a cocoon. He strokes his neck and down over his chest, going all warm and gooey underneath his own touch.

“Was talking to someone.” Harry’s voice drifts down like it’s been loitering in the ceiling with the cobweb but he pauses — leaves it so long he might have fallen asleep.

Niall kicks his hip.

“Oh,” Harry says, and chuckles to himself, clutching his stomach. “Yeah — was at a party. Or not a party — it was a gig and turned into a party, after. Anyway they said — they were in a band this person, one with a lot of… changes to the line up — and they said it’s better when someone dies because then when you move on, you’re, like, honouring them?”

“So what you saying? You want to go kill Zayn for the good of the band? Because I have to say, regardless of some of my feelings on the matter, I’m very… anti that.”

Harry burbles like he’s laughing but his mouth’s too slack to do it properly. “I don’t know what I’m saying.” He goes quiet again, thinks about it for a whole track. “Don’t think we’d be the ideal choice anyway for assassins. Zayn’s got that cat-like hearing, I’m not exactly stealth, and you — you have that fainting over blood thing.”

“That was literally one time.”

“Best not to risk it. He lives to see another day.” Harry sniffs, tilts his head towards the speaker for a moment as if he can get more of the music in his head like that. “You think it’ll be weird,” he says, “when we go back? Like… will the stage feel bigger?”

“Not as if he took up much room.”

“No, but — ” Harry rearranges, shifting on the floor, squeezing his ankles together and letting his knees fall open. Niall could easily fit in there. “ — I don’t want it to be like there’s a space for him and we’re all avoiding being in it.”

“Can you even remember which bits are his?”

“Kind of?”

Niall tries a few replies about we’ve done it before without him, we’ll get used to it — but it’s different, they both know it.

Harry nudges at Niall’s hip with the toe of his boot. “Do you have any more snacks?”

The words roll out of Harry’s mouth like he’s singing them and it takes Niall a while to stop thinking that enough to treat it like a real question. 

“I could make kale chips.”

“Kale chips?” Harry says, lifting his head, horrified face floating up in the gap between his knees.

“I’m saying it’s within the scope of my capabilities,” he says, “not that it’s what I want or a good idea.”

Kale chips, Niall?”

Niall shrugs. “Figured — well. LA. You like LA. It’s a kale city for kale people. You probably like kale. Chipping it seems… I don’t know… trendy.” He brings his hands together on his chest, laces his fingers together. “Nick — he made this dip to go with them you can also use as a face mask.”

Harry takes a very big breath, like he’s using his inhaler.

Niall squints at him to make sure he’s not. “I didn’t try it, as a face mask.”

He’s not sure why that’s important, why he’s decided it makes up in anyway for the amount of time he’s spent with bits of Nick in his ass. Not that it’s any of Harry’s business, but there’s not his business and then there’s staving off an asthma attack.

“About that,” Harry says, because unlike Niall he has no respect for the noble art of weaselling out of uncomfortable conversations. “Do you even like him?”

“If I didn’t why would I — do the thing we’ve been doing?”

Very careful, picking at a thread on his jeans, Harry says, “Maybe you’d go for it because you knew I did.”

Niall’s jaw clenches, but it’s not anger so much as Nick feeling like a thing that he wants to keep protected. “Believe it or not, Harry, some things are nothing to do with you.”

Harry glances at him, frowning.

“I was here, you weren’t,” Niall says, gaze fixed on the ceiling. “That’s really all there is to it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Harry rolls onto his knees, quite impressively springs up onto his heels in a crouch. He sways for a moment, pushes his hair back. “It’s not that.”

He clops away, tripping only slightly on the strip of metal that marks the edge of the kitchen.

Niall wants to ask what it is, then, but he can’t imagine anything good will come of it so he stays within the safe confines of his eyelids. Whatever Harry’s doing, it involves chopping something and since they’re his knives Niall should probably go and supervise. He will, in a minute — or definitely the one after that.

The house sinks away under a familiar melody Niall has a vague recollection of singing one night in a pub back home, guitar with no A string on his knee, doing the best he could, going back a year later and seeing a snap of himself on the wall. How little you have to impress people before you’re in a frame; how much the frame demands of you once it’s got you locked inside.

He’s still thinking about it when Harry shuffles back in, his boots abandoned, socks slipping down so his toes look an inch longer than they are.

He lands awkwardly, leaning back for balance like he’s doing a yoga pose called sitting, plate in hands.

“What you find?”

“Biscuits.”

“I heard you chopping, though.”

Harry sets the plate down between them, sucks crumbs off his thumb, eyes on Niall’s like they’re not having a conversation at all. Like they’re in bed and — oh, Christ. “Thought — I halved them.”

Clearing his throat as if it’ll take back him going warm all over, Niall sits up enough to look at the plate and sure enough, he has. Some of them are in two halves and others have fragmented into two big bits and lots of little ones. “Why would you —?”

Tucking his hair behind his ear, Harry takes one of the halves and rests it on Niall’s thigh. Tongue peeking out of his mouth like he’s really concentrating, he picks up another and gingerly places it next to it, swaps it for another that’s a better fit. “So we can have half each,” he says, “like one of those necklaces with the two — ”

A gap in the music jars them both.

They just look at each other and the bit where Niall’s lungs rest on his stomach feels like a cave. 

When the next track starts, it’s Wild Horses and seriously, fuck its timing.

Harry pushes the bits of biscuit together so they make a whole one, meets Niall’s eye again, imploring.

Niall pushes up on one hand and it’s startling, how close it brings him to Harry’s face. He’s never really been able to handle it at such short a distance, the intractability of Harry’s gaze and how it comes back more intense each time he blinks. He’s breathing quite deliberately, practically drowning Mick out, and it’s the way his eyes flicker to Niall’s mouth real quick and nervous that makes Niall touch his lips to Harry’s.

It’s very very soft, the way Harry kisses, the way he opens up, the flicker of his tongue, the noise he makes when he touches Niall’s cheek like a whine he’s been keeping in for far too long.

Niall can feel it in the pit of his stomach, can already see Harry crawling away again across the carpet, spinning the bottle until it lands on someone else. The reaction of his gut is to snatch at the moment, get as much Harry as possible before he’s gone, but he ignores it, just lets the kiss carry on happening the way Harry wants, takes his face very gently and thumbs at his ear.

Harry tilts his head, does a row of little kisses right along Niall’s bottom lip before he fastens their mouths together again, tongue thick when it meets Niall’s inside his mouth. Niall leans back, stomach muscles protesting with how slowly he’s doing it because he wants Harry to get what he’s doing so he won’t break the thing between them. Harry follows him, loses his concentration only for a second as he moves the plate of biscuits to Niall’s other side. Then there it is, the feeling of being kissed with all of his mouth and better still, Harry’s hand resting on Niall’s stomach, like a magician drawing up butterflies into a swarm.

He eases off to more little kisses, looks at Niall from the end of his nose.

The room behind him’s greyed out like an old TV screen, and the expanse of it increases as Harry edges down Niall’s chest.

That’s it, then. Niall closes his eyes to hold the sensation for as long as he can.

“Your thighs are majestic, Niall.”

Niall lifts one eyelid but he needn’t have because his leg’s more than up to the challenge of letting him know Harry’s gathering up the biscuit bits, dropping them in the rough direction of the plate, and brushing the crumbs off his jeans. It changes from practical brushing to Harry running his nails over the denim, tilting his head towards it as if he’s trying to hear the blood beneath racing in Niall’s arteries.

The room closes down so it’s nothing but Niall’s breathing and his heartbeat under his tongue. His fingers twitch and little shivers emanate from where Harry’s scratching, like jagged purple lines of mini lightning underneath his skin.

Harry swings a knee over Niall’s to sit on his thighs, and Niall knew he was lithe but still it’s arresting, the way he comes back, chest dipped low enough to brush against him, spine unfurling in a low curve. He kisses Niall’s chest over his T-shirt, hooks his fingers into the thicker material of the opening and pulls the neck down. It’s so much for his jittering skin it almost puts Niall in a trance.

Not so much though he doesn’t notice when Harry stops. His gaze has latched onto something, flickers up to meet Niall looking down in question — and Niall sighs out a wince because there’s a bruise. Everything throbs like the walls are keyed into both their pulses, but slowly — so slowly — Harry kisses it. He twists his head like a bird with a grain to catch, trying to fit his mouth perfectly to the mark Nick left on his chest. His tongue flattens, burning to Niall’s skin, and with his eyelids fluttering closed, he sucks like he’s trying to pull the memory of Nick’s lips into his mouth.

 If he’s not careful, this will shatter until it’s just reasons not to do it — but Niall threads his fingers into Harry’s hair. He rubs gently over the curve of Harry’s skull while Harry finds another love bite — the original that’s gone through all the shades to a dull yellow. By the time Harry’s done with that, Niall’s desperate to be free of his jeans. He steers Harry’s mouth down and down until Harry’s snuffling against the zip, licking over the denim like he can’t wait for skin.

The music that was playing goes flat, like it’s on a radio in someone else’s house, and Niall wants to take a picture of Harry so one day when he can’t remember if this really happened — a day that might well be tomorrow — he can take it out. Vaguely he registers how different Harry is to Nick, how Nick’s all business but Harry likes to mess about, how he bounces a dick off his lips and sucks on the head in little teases, curling his tongue around before he’ll let it all the way in his mouth.

He flips Harry over, gets Harry’s smooth stomach underneath his tongue. There’s no bites but there’s leaves and a cage to trace the outline of, and he returns the favour using all the moves Nick’s gifted him, the thought hot behind his eyeballs that maybe Harry can tell he’s a poor imitation man.

The floor’s unforgiving but they lie there anyway, both of them with hands crossed on their stomachs like they’re already immortalised in drapes of marble. Somewhere between learning Harry’s a shouter when he comes and noticing the cobweb’s drifted off the ceiling Niall’s body went into overdrive, processed all of the chemicals he provided it with and left him feeling… blank.

In all the times he wanted it, in all the times he imagined the knock on his door to be Harry with an inviting smile and not room service, he never really went through afterwards. Or he did but it wasn’t the immediate or specific kind, just the idea of them having leapt over that barrier and now being free to wrap themselves in a hotel duvet the size of a storm cloud. Was never part of his fantasy that looking at Harry would seem insurmountable.

The playlist he put on has run out. He should get up and put something else on, something applicable for the dawn stealing in like torchlight through the windows. But maybe there’s no music for this. Maybe in silence is the way this was supposed to exist.

“We coming back from this?” Harry sounds far too sober too.

Niall doesn’t know if he means Zayn or Nick or tonight or what. “Honestly?” he says. “I don’t know.”

 

 

 

*

 

 

Apparently it’s Sunday.

Niall finds this out when he finally charges his phone and there’s a text from Rochelle about Marvin doing a barbecue even though the forecast says rain later. There’s other texts too, like, but it’s at the top so Niall replies to it to say he’ll see them later in order to pretend the others don’t exist.

He takes the longest shower he’s probably ever taken, staring at the tile, then reading the back of his shampoo bottle, because every time he closes his eyes he thinks of Nick’s breath on the back of his neck and every time he opens them and gives them nothing to do, well, there’s Harry.

Work into a lather. Rinse off.

It’s as good advice as any.

Niall stops off at the shop so he can show up with beer in order to give the rosé a miss this time.

Alaia’s running round the garden in wellies, a bikini, and a fuzzy purple fur coat when he arrives, and Rochelle kisses his ear when he raises an eyebrow and says, “Don’t ask.”

Niall sits under the honeysuckle and watches the clouds, the smoke billowing from where Marvin’s poking the charcoal with something that looks like a sword. “You need a hand, there?”

“It is a hundred per cent under control,” he says, coughing as he gets a face full of ash.

And, like, Niall’s not one for seeing metaphors in barbecuing but he fucking feels that.

Memories go up with the smoke — the studio where they spent a week of the summer recording and having fruit fights in the garden, his belated birthday where the guys gave him a statue, a late night party for nothing at Louis’s where they couldn’t get the fire going until Zayn found lighter fluid under the sink.

Do the job, that.

Louis threw it on from a distance, arm over his mouth as if it might protect him if the thing went up. It never did, though. Must’ve been the bottle was mislabelled or had been emptied and replaced with something else.

He’s not sure why he’s even thinking of it.

“Looks great, right?” Rochelle’s standing, one hand on her hip, smiling at her arch.

“Like a fairy story.”

She smiles, tilts her head to peer at him. “You seem better.”

“Than what?”

“Seriously last time you were here I thought crikey, things must be really bad. Me and Marv, we thought maybe we should ask you to stay for a bit but — ” Her attention skips down the garden. “Alaia — don’t eat that!”

It’s hard to hurtle over grass in flip-flops but she gives it a shot, snatching the kid away from where she’s picked a shrunken apple up off the grass.

“We went over this,” Rochelle says. “Only eat what mommy and daddy give you.”

“Dad said I’m old enough to get my own fruit.”

“Did he now.”

Marvin’s grin drops and he’s fascinated with his barbecue tongs, clacking them together like a metal lobster claw. “Oops.”

Niall laughs into his beer and rests back against the arch. It smells like sweets left out in the sun. Maybe he does seem better than the last time he was here. He can’t quite remember the why or the how of the conversation, only that he woke up the next day with all his clothes on, not even under the covers, stared for the wall for a while trying to work out how he felt. Wasn’t much there, though. He popped painkillers out of a packet and slopped water down his top, hid behind his sunglasses in the back of the car, and Nick was on the radio, said his name, and it felt like hearing their single for the first time. Occurred to him he’d grown so accustomed to churning through the days it wasn’t very often anything really surprised him, made him smile.

Zayn was in the paper this morning — Niall saw at the checkout — and he had half a thought about unhappiness, how he spent so long convincing himself Zayn’s would blow over because he needed to believe it for the sake of himself, not because he thought it would.

Rochelle brings Alaia over and she clambers up next to him, kicking her wellies off the edge of the seat. “Have you got a girlfriend?” she says.

“Not right now,” Niall says, “do you?”

She laughs and he shows her the pictures Nick sent him of Pig lying in the middle of the bed with all her paws in the air.

 

 

*

 

 

The sun’s coming in, lighting up his unmade bed and a notebook littered with scribblings. He can barely make out his own writing in places, but his fingers trip over the fret board as he feels his way through the second verse, song forming like he’s known it for ages.

Who’d have thought all he needed to find his inspiration was a bunch of shit to avoid.

Not that he’s doing a very good job of it because he’s pretty sure if he turns the page he’s going to find at least one drunk poetic witter about dark nights and eyes and on the next today’s date circled in question marks.

He rests his arm on the curve of the guitar and looks out the window. He could stand to have a place with a better view — sometimes he flicks through listings for houses and fancies he might get himself a country pad — but he’s always balked at the number of rooms, who needs that much emptiness to try and fill?

The church bells clang and it must be practise because it’s neither the right day nor time to call for repenters. He grabs his biro and turns a u into a pitchfork.

Every day on his way home from school, Niall used to pass this church — modern type, priest with a Britney mic and a PowerPoint, and a billboard out the front on which someone would hang messages designed to make you go inside. One early summer day, when he should probably have been panicking about homework but could only think about getting to the shop for an ice-lolly, the billboard said: confront your demons. He pictured them, these little red things with potbellies and horns like the kind gift shop windows flooded with in October, and he thought: is that really fair?

As he understood it, demons were a thing that couldn’t be avoided — a person started picking them up when they were born and just carried on, unless they chose to go about freezing one off with the application of Hail Marys, like a wart. So there’s demons and there’s people both existing without particularly asking to — why did the demon deserve to get shouted at? It was just doing what it existed to do. What if the demon wanted to attach itself to a person to learn humanity? He’d half a mind to go inside and ask. Hey sister, father, whoever, if it’s all about love and tolerance should that not be extended to the bits of ourselves we don’t like? Would the demons not be less of a problem if they weren’t painted in such a negative light? Maybe they’re just throwing a tantrum for attention. That’s the way it goes, right?

He leans on his guitar. Maybe it’s just the sun today that’s made him think of it, because it’s that unexpected sort everybody likes best. Or maybe he’s just been trying to find an excuse for the mess that started in his head and bled out.

Not that he feels very messy, if he’s honest. Maybe he’s run out of messiness because he woke up this morning, fixed himself something for breakfast and actually ate it, has half a song written, and the rest swirling around biding its time. He did a little interview where he said he was looking forward to the shows and actually meant it and managed to get through an email from Liam without rolling his eyes.

Setting the guitar down he reaches for his phone where he abandoned it between rucks of the duvet.

Good luck with rehearsals or whatever pop star nonsense you’re doing

A picture of a shirt with flamingos on:

too much!

*?

He thumbs through his pictures for something to send back, halts on a rainbow shamrock. He saved it soon as he saw it, Bressie in his head egging him on from imaginary stands to tweet it like he was running into the worst defensive line, while some frail version of himself nibbled his nails on the sideline. Ridiculous, over an Instagram. He posts it, not knowing if it’ll really help anyone, least of all himself. He watches the likes go up and up and he gets a message from Bressie:

Good on you xxxx

Niall stares at it, then scrolls through his contacts to dad and presses call.

“Oh, Niall, how are you?”

He’s doing something in the kitchen — washing up maybe because there’s a clink of china on another bit and his voice is all squashed as if he’s holding the phone between his ear and his shoulder.

Niall holds off on saying anything which might cause him to drop it into the water, asks about everyone he’s supposed to, answers a load of questions about the shows starting again and what he’s had to eat, when he’s next flying off. A door closes on the other end and Niall’s palm’s all sweaty on the handset. “Where are you?”

“I’m just off out to the car.”

“Before you get in — wanted to ask. You going to vote in the referendum?”

“Oh, I already did. I’d hell of a game. Queues out the door and I had all the shopping with me — mine and for next door on account of her broken wrist and there being a special offer on the tins of soup last night. I thought I wouldn’t get it in the booth and I dropped some oranges but this nice lady who I think just started working at St Catherine’s helped me catch them before they rolled all the way — ”

“I meant — did you vote yes?”

“Of course I did. What kind of question’s that?”

And Niall could leave it for now, just knowing, but it feels like the kind of day to do it so he closes his eyes, breathes out, heart thumping behind his smile.

“Dad, there’s something I want to tell you, but you got to keep it under your hat....”

 

 

*

 

 

Crowds actually do roar. Niall learnt so watching someone else play an arena. From the vantage point of way up in the gods, he could see the way a chord rippled over them producing waves of excitement, could make out the flash points of energy in the seated bits, the way a single chorus could turn the entire place around.

Sometimes he thinks he only gets it, what his life is, when he’s looking at someone else’s crowd, because when he’s up there himself the feeling is huge but tempered with the practical — the snare in his monitor peaking painfully loud, a light leaving him dazzled, watching his footing over the set so he doesn’t stack it and end up all over the entire internet looking like a fool. When he’s watching someone else — and it doesn’t matter if they’re putting a difficult shot or playing a killer set — he can appreciate better the way people scream or shout, that they’re not thinking about him as a person who’s up there with a guitar, that it’s mostly about the sense of belonging to and for a moment. 

So he just placed the call, “So Ariana tonight — get me in?” to get his head back in the game. No other reason.

He’d be lying if he said it wasn’t one of his preferred perks that if he’s met someone once or knows someone who knows them, it’s completely acceptable to ask if they want to hang out. Time zones are a godsend. Everyone’s got their own things to get away from, their friends asleep in inconvenient countries half a globe away. He’s had plenty of nights out start with one text that turns into twelve hours falling out of one party and into the next, replacing anyone who got too close with someone whose name he hadn’t quite learnt yet. So he watches the crowd and he trips into a party, into a cab and then someone’s house, and he understands it completely, the way some people get caught in the cycle, but he’s not doing that.

 

 

*

 

Tonight, the restaurant’s decked out like they’re in a cave, and as if to complete the experience, the place is littered with things to forage: cubes of cheese in little dishes, bread on sticks, and supposedly the world’s most virgin olive oil.

“How can there be, like, grades of virgin?” Niall says. He’s found himself in a group of Spanish kids and honestly he’s not sure how.

“Si?”

“Triste — no es una — ” Niall gestures, trying to summon his Spanish teacher from the grave, or wherever she is now. “ — situacion — er — definivito?”

The guy leans in, all confused as he chases an olive around in a dish of the juices of its own long-gone friends. “Que?”

“Never mind,” Niall says, and pours his new friend some more wine.

He’s pretty sure the guy’s into him because it’s hard to imagine another reason he’d keep tonguing a cocktail stick like that, but if Niall’s honest, the thought of it takes all the saliva out of his mouth and whatever the guy’s up for, he’d probably be needing that.

 

 

*

 

The club’s the kind where sweat rolls down the walls and a jaunt to the toilet involves pretending not to see people hoovering white powder off the sinks. The DJ drops a new song into a gallop over the old one and Niall points at it and mimes dancing to the couple he’s been talking to at the bar. The guy nods so they head for the group Niall came with, gyrating and waving their arms in between the beats. He stares up at the lights and it’s just what he needs, to be surrounded by people who don’t give a shit about anything except whether he’s going to finish the bottle in his hand. Someone shouts in his ear about if he wants to come somewhere else later for skinny-dipping, as if he’s going to refuse an offer like that.

 

 

*

 

 

The pool’s nicer than Harry’s, Niall thinks with some satisfaction as he sinks his feet into it. Or maybe it just looks it because it’s night and softly warm in this basement, fairy lights like fireflies bobbing in the trees beyond the glass. They’re under Kensington he thinks — he lost track of exactly who he came with, and this might not even be the party he was invited to, but he’s never really let that sort of thing bother him before. There’s lights pulsing in the walls to the sound of the stereo upstairs and pool balls knocking together in the next room over, a couple of girls with champagne flutes marinating in the hot tub. 

 He takes a picture of the tiles, the water, trying to capture both it and the garden but it doesn’t really come out, more like it’s been drawn by one of those painters he learnt about at school who founded a style by having cataracts. He kicks his feet out making little splashes that ripple out. On the grass outside there’s a chase going on — and while the promised skinny-dipping was vastly exaggerated, he’s not sure how sensible it is for anyone to be running that fast in a bikini like that.

One of the girls from the hot tub wriggles out of the water to pluck an orange from a branch. “See? I told you — they are so fucking real.”

Niall lies back against the tile to stare at the reflected dapple of the water on the ceiling. It’s not often he wishes for company beyond what’s around him but it might have been nice to share this bit of tonight with someone he’ll see more than once in a blue moon, if that. 

 A guy he knows from Ariana’s show huffs down to join him, nudges his arm with his elbow, looking over to the hot tub. “You gonna hit that?”

“Not my type.”

The guy runs a finger over his curling lip and Niall can’t remember what his name is, only that he didn’t think it suited him much when he was told it. “If that ain’t, what is?”

Niall has a million answers to this question ready to go: wouldn’t you like to know; I’m already attached. They used to trip out so easily.

“Northern, apparently, stupid smile, at least one dodgy tat. And a penis helps. Big fan of that.”

Ariana’s guy thumps his knee and laughs and laughs and laughs.

Maybe it’s just because his feet are still dangling in the pool but Niall thinks about plasters. Ripping them off’s one way to do it but given a bit of time, they also soak off by themselves.

 

 

*

 

 

Day whatever in the studio. When he gets there, Louis is already trapped behind the glass wearing askew headphones, scribbling on the lyrics sheet propped up on a stand that looks older than Niall is. 

Julian’s at the desk under a ridiculous headscarf and hat. He punches a button and says, “Ready?”

Louis nods and Liam backs out through the door, giving him a thumbs up. “Nice of you to join us,” he says.

The memory stick in the pocket of Niall’s jeans presses into his leg.

Always sounds weird when it’s just one of them singing. Louis’s face is hidden behind the mic shield like he’s a villain from Batman and he goes over the same line a dozen times, throwing the emphasis on and off until Julian tells him, “Yeah great, like that.”

Louis pushes the glass door open and flops down onto the sofa. “I thought the first one was better personally.”

“Right guys,” Julian says, “who’s next?”

“Before that,” Niall fumbles with his pocket. He drops the memory stick onto the desk. “It’s that one I started a while ago. I finished it.”

Louis sits up. “Niall, I really don’t think — ”

“You said if I wanted to comment, I had to bring something to the table. So I have. I have to sing enough about your girlfriends — won’t kill you to give it a shot.”

Liam blinks, looks at Louis. “Well that’s — fair enough.”

“Is it, is it Liam.”

Niall cocks his head. “Should I do a joke about how you’re sour ‘cos you’re missing your partners in both crime and romance? Or – should we try not ragging on each other for a bit on account of us all having had kind of a rough time?”

Louis bristles, nostrils billowing out.

Something in the kitchen moves and when Niall looks, behind the grimy cross-crossed glass, it’s Harry, grinning, and doing a little dance.

He gets that feeling he hasn’t had in ages, the one he grew accustomed to when Harry would sneak into his room and tell him secrets in the dark. He pushes through the door to join him.

“Hey.”

The walls of the kitchen are whitewashed concrete and remind Niall of a TV prison. Or maybe it’s just now he’s in here, the bravado which got him through the door’s run out and he’s trapped.

“You want a tea? Was just making one.” Harry’s voice is bright but slow, slightly forced — Niall’s heard him do it in interviews where he says something doesn’t bother him, that it’s all part of the job, recognises it enough to know it means Harry’s treading carefully.

“Why the hell not.”

Harry’s top rides up when he reaches into the cupboard for another mug and Niall can’t keep from looking, even though he knows it’ll be obvious he has.

It seems an age ago they were rolling around the floor together, but he can recall with perfect clarity the strangled noise Harry made when Niall took him in his mouth. It obliterates from his mind everything they have in common but that.

“Shaping up nicely,” Harry says, with a nod and a frown at the studio, “I think.”

Niall wants to know everything he’s thought and done since Niall lay there in his lounge pretending to be asleep while Harry slipped his boots on and snuck out the door. But if Harry’s saying things like shaping up nicely, he’s in unfazeable pop star mode, and if there’s one thing Harry is, it’s good at locking himself up tight in that.

There’s always a key, though. “So — you seen Nick?”

“Why?”

“Just wondering how he is.”

Harry smiles, hesitates just a moment before he pokes Niall’s shoulder with a teaspoon. “Worried you broke his heart, Niall?”

“As if I could.”

“Was joking.” Harry’s gaze is very interested in boots he’s been wearing for at least a year. “Sorry.” The kettle shakes, steam spewing out of its spout, and clicks off. Harry lifts it and pours very carefully into the mugs. “Meant it when I said I won’t fight about him. He’s not — ”

“Worth it?

“ — like that.”

Frowning, Harry presses his lips together. He’s probably debating whether he can go back on what he said about fighting if it’s to defend Nick’s honour — he is so worth it, Niall, how dare you.

Not that Niall really meant it anyway — he just thought that’s where they were heading. “What is he like, then?”

Harry ducks down to open the fridge and get the milk out. He shoots Niall a look that’s both sly and smiling, the same one he gets when they’re playing Scrabble and he just spotted a devastating triple word score. “You know what he’s like.”

“I guess.”

In a way he’s not sure he really does know Nick though, because he was in his head as an idea and a name long before he went over for Oasis and a beer. He’s always been Nick who Harry’s smiling at through his phone, Nick who’s making Harry jittery before a show, Nick who Harry talks about when he’s had a few, lurching his cheek into his hand and saying, “He’s just so… gah, you know?”

“He gets anxious when you don’t text him back,” Harry says. “So text him back. Unless you’re, like, dead or severely injured — in which case text me and I’ll break it to him with the gentlest of emojis.”

He fishes the bags out of the tea and adds the milk, peering up in a way that should look like he’s being sarcastic, only he doesn’t quite pull it off.

Niall touches his arm. 

Harry’s gaze flickers to it and his lips are between his teeth again, his knuckles popping where he’s clinging to the teaspoon.

“You and him,” Niall says, being really soft about it, “are you sure there’s not something going on?”

Harry rolls his eyes, but when he looks up, he tucks his hair behind his ear, and there’s uncertainty in it. “Mean — there’s always something, isn’t there. If you like someone.” He inches closer. “Like… you don’t switch it on and off. It’s always… there, once it’s been there. You know that.”

Harry’s eyes, when you look right in them — they make you feel like you’re rolling down a sprawling hill, laughing and excited and scared for your life.

He can’t blame Nick if what he’s tried to do is limit the power of that by fucking other people, or whatever it is Harry’s getting at.

Niall takes the tea Harry’s made him, nods at the studio. “One of us better go sing before we get in trouble.”

“Suppose,” is what Harry has to say to that.

 

 

*

 

 

 

“Fuck me, it’s a big one.” Liam spins around in the middle of the stadium, peering up at the roof.

His voice doesn’t echo and Niall noticed a year ago or so that was the real difference, that when they used to play in smaller places, before the crowd came in, they could hear themselves bouncing back off the walls. At the time he hadn’t realised that one day, there’d be such a gap between them and the edges of the venue their naked voices would get lost, even at a shout.

“Reckon you can handle it?” Louis says. “Or if you can’t, here’s a man who can.”

He tilts his head at Harry, who’s ambling over, hands clasped behind his back and not paying nearly enough attention to the veins of arm-thick cable which haven’t yet been trapped under the mats. “Hello everybody,” he says, and if he heard what Louis said it only shows in the way his gaze alights on him for only a fraction of the way it might’ve in the past. 

He looks somewhat smaller than he’s been in Niall’s head of late, but maybe it’s just what he’s wearing or the way his hair’s scraped back off his face. Before he can say anything else, Liam reaches for him and pulls Harry forward.

“Out the way, Haz.”

There’s a guy sweating profusely as he bends double to lay Gaffa tape where they’re standing and all the way down to the catwalk. Beyond it, on the stage, the lights start rolling like eyeballs, doing their own little rehearsal to shake off the funk of being in storage.

Niall can get how they’re feeling, but as he looks around the stadium, at all the seats that’ll later be full of waving glow-sticks, phones, and posters, it’s not nerves or apprehension that races through him, but relief. Here, he knows what to do. It’s all marked out for him in case he forgets — signs every metre pointing him to his dressing room, another that says, “You’re in Cardiff!” and the day, the date all spelled out. There’s crosses of tape on the stage and the set to tell him where to sit, where to stand, a towel and a bottle of water where he’s most likely to need it because someone has worked that out. Here is a place where decisions don’t really exist for him, where the routine of it rises up through the steel beneath his feet, and the flash of what feels like a million cameras blots out all the thoughts in his head.

“It’s good to be back, right?”

Harry meets his eye and there’s something shy about it, but then it’s gone as he turns to yawn into the cuff of his jumper.

“Someone keep you up all night?” Louis says.

“Yeah. We had a nice long… chat.”

Liam does a very good impression of a scandalised old woman in a supermarket hearing about a neighbour knocking off the butcher for a discount.

They follow the signs through the labyrinth backstage to their dressing rooms, smell of catering drifting down to meet them halfway.

“Oh, risotto,” Harry says.

Niall hangs in the doorway, waving hello while Harry goes in and helps himself to a hug and a banana.

Zayn hated it, the waiting. He always wanted to cut it fine, had no patience for sitting around, no appetite for either the buffet laid out or the yoga Harry tried to talk him into to help him relax. Most times, they’d find him in the car park hiding behind the trucks with a fag, guiltily avoiding the people from the venue after he set off the alarms going through a fire exit.

Niall supposes that’s the way of it: when you really want out, you just want out.

They cluster at the back of the stage behind a curtain of black material that always smells of fake strawberries and granddad’s gas. Liam’s bouncing up and down, shaking his hands out like it’s a drama class, while Harry stands perfectly still with his eyes closed. Niall works his in-ears in, plugs them into his pack, and when he looks back Louis has joined them, one hand a fist he’s working into the other as if they’re going out into a boxing match. 

Wordlessly — on autopilot — they form a circle. Or, well, it’s more of a square really. They all put their hands in the space between them, Liam first then Louis, then Niall, Harry last. Niall stares at the tattoo near his thumb to keep from thinking about how odd numbers are more aesthetically pleasing, all the better to ignore the nag in his chest which is still clinging to the ridiculous: Zayn coming out from behind the curtain, Ben Winston with a camera and James Corden almost pissing himself as Zayn tells them: only joking, lads. 

They count it off as the music starts and the LED show wakes the crowd until they roar like a dragon.

“Let’s do it!”

 

 

*

 

  

The shows fly past, and vaguely in the back of a car Niall remembers an interview in the very earliest days with a jackass who kept asking about how it felt to be losers, Zayn taking the microphone and saying:

That’s the thing about us, mate. Know how to bounce back.

Not like he made a habit of it, but when one was really needed, Zayn could be counted on to have  — not quite a comeback, but something that would make it clear he was putting up a fence around them that couldn’t be climbed.

Niall breathes out at the window, his thumbnail on a bit of loose skin, but the impulse doesn’t last.

 

 

*

 

 Before he’s really realised it, they’re staring the last night in Europe in the face. The show’s a blur and they have a little party, after. Such a little party that when Louis and Liam go off to find a fire extinguisher for a prank they’ve conceived, it’s not long before everyone else has filtered out into the corridor and it’s just him and Harry.

It’s not like they’ve been avoiding being alone together — it just hasn’t happened — but still, it feels dangerous, the way they’re sitting on the same sofa, even though Harry’s perched on one arm and Niall’s sitting against the other one with his entire legs between them. He watches Harry’s Adam’s apple dip like a buoy as he swallows a mouthful of beer he must’ve been holding for a while and wishes someone — anyone — would come back, is glad, still, when no one does.

“So.”

“A needle pulling thread,” Harry says, sniggering at his own joke.

It should be enough to put anyone off fancying him, really, but he meets Niall’s eye askance, popping a cheek dimple on purpose, probably.

“You know how it is when we’re on stage and there’s a bit of tape telling you where to stand?”

“Ohhhhh,” Harry says, “is that what they’re for?”

Niall shoves at his leg with his foot. “Reckon what I could do with is those for all the rest of my life. Go here, do this — ” He pauses, fingers the label on his bottle, rakes his eyes over Harry deliberately slow and obvious. “ — all the hazards marked around the edges clearly in yellow.”

Harry looks at him. “Is that how you think of me?”

“Any particular reason I shouldn’t?”

“Only because we’re going to be spending quite a lot of time together in the immediate future, Niall, and I could take real offence at that.” He struggles to keep his face straight, rubs at the corner of his mouth where it’s threatening to give away the grin underneath. “Bad for morale.”

Niall’s been thinking about it, how much time there’ll be, how many hotels. It’s always different when they’re not dipping back into their lives every day, makes him feel more like he’s in a real band, all of them – the musicians and the crew and all of them – in it together. It’ll be even more different than usual, this time, for about a hundred reasons. Or two main ones at least, but only one of them looks at him occasionally like he’s remembering undoing his jeans.

“Can’t believe we’re here already.” Niall flexes his ankle, pushes his toes into the arm of the sofa, but that wasn’t what he wanted to say at all. “You ever think about it? Like… all the effort it takes?”

“All the time.”

“And, like, what happened to Zayn’s mic and the sign with his name on for the dressing room and his blobs of tape? Someone had to peel those up. Or – learn not to put them down each day.”

Harry frowns softly at him. “You all right?”

“Sure. It’s just sad.”

Harry nods, staring down at his hands.

It’s such a little conversation in such a little room, but the weight in Niall’s throat tells him: it’s the one he’s been waiting months to have.

They just sit there for a bit – there’s a commotion in the corridor and what sounds suspiciously like Louis cackling but they both know better than to go out and look – until Harry clears his throat.

“So this… Gaffa tape policy you’re into,” he says. “That mean if I put a blob on someone, you’d think that was where you were supposed to be?”

“When you say it like that it sounds stupid.”

“No more so than anything else.” Harry taps Niall’s knees to get him to pull his feet out of the way, slides down off the arm, and onto the seat. “Can I give you some advice, Niall?”

Niall buries the toes of his boots under Harry’s thigh. “Sure, what you got?”

“Let Nick make his own decisions. And I’ll make mine. You only have to handle yours.” 

“What’s that mean, though, really?”

Harry turns, leaning in. “It means – ” He places a kiss on Niall’s knee. “ – I’m leaving.” He hovers there, peering up at Niall. “And so are you. And neither of us is going to be back for a while. So do what you want, before we go.”

“Why does this feel like a trap?”

“Because you’re used to second-guessing things, probably.” Harry’s smile, when it comes, is the kind of tiny private one that hollows Niall’s stomach. “It’s not, though.” He straightens up, inhales deep and slow. “Life is long, you know? There’s very little won’t sort itself out if it wants to.”

“You steal that off your mum’s Instagram?”

Harry leans back on the sofa, closing his eyes. “Fridge magnet.”

“You’re such a pair of fucking hippies.”

“I’ll tell her you said that.”

 

 

*

 

 

Niall’s trunk’s lying in the middle of the lounge, its metal teeth clamped shut over everything he’s taking. No matter how often he does it, there’s always panic that he hasn’t packed enough, and he reminds himself for the umpteenth time that shops are a planetary phenomenon and it really doesn’t matter if there’s anything he’s forgotten.

His phone goes and he’s expecting a reminder about his car so he doesn’t even think before checking it.

Nick Grimmy:

You off?

Niall bites his lip, types back:

tmrrw

He should put his phone in the trunk and lock it up before –  too late. It buzzes again.

Come over? x

Niall toys with it for a few minutes but really, it’s better than sitting, recounting his socks, and Nick’s been doing that thing where he’s always in his head again. He flips the lid of the trunk and grabs the first thing that looks half decent.

Nick’s street isn’t even really dark when he gets there. He sits in the bay for a moment wondering what he’s doing, because he hasn’t seen Nick in weeks — not unless he counts the briefest of encounters in the office of their press people, them backing out of a meeting about perfume and Nick just arriving for one. Maybe he could’ve made it go a different way instead of accepting the almost comical swing of the glass door between them. He could’ve pushed it open and asked after his dog or his X-Factor job, but Nick was already waving when he thought of it.

“He looks good,” Harry said, leaning against the mirrored wall of the lift.

“When does he not?”

“If you two are forming a fucking fan club,” Louis said, “can you at least wait until we’re outside in case I gag?”

Harry laughed and they shared a glance. Was nice, being on each other’s side again, and it’s not that he wants to mess with that but he’s not sure this will. Who to text is definitely within the scope of things Nick’s capable of deciding.

The metal’s familiar cool under his palm as he jogs down the steps to Nick’s front door. There’s music playing inside when he knocks, a scrabble of paws on wood.

“Get back you — it’s Niall — you like Niall.”

Nick manages to get the door open even though he’s almost bent double holding Pig back.

Niall crouches down and catches her, all of them shuffling inside like some kind of multi-limbed mismatched crab.

When Nick’s got the door locked he straightens, puffing out a laugh, pushing his hair this way and that. He’s wearing a shirt — almost sheer between the flowers that roam over it, only a couple of buttons fastening it together around him, a new necklace tangling in the gap.

“Nice to see you,” he says, and it feels so genuine Niall wants to collapse.

Pig’s nutting the back of his leg and Nick rolls his eyes and tells her to find her toys. Her nails clatter on the wood as she obeys and as soon as she’s gone, Niall misses her, because now he can’t say any of the stupid space-saving things rattling around in his head.

Nick’s closer, though, tugging on the front of his top. “How you been?”

“Busy. Recording — shows — perfume — all that.” Maybe he should apologise for not calling, but he’s never called Nick so would’ve been weird if he had. He texted — pictures from the studio or the plane, and he realises too late that means Nick knows what he’s been doing, so that’s probably not what he was asking. He frowns, looks at the floor. “I’ve had a lot to think about.”

He pulls Niall a bit closer. “How you doing with that?”

Niall shrugs. “How’s anybody doing with it?” He’s bumping into Nick now, wanting to laugh and yet not, his breathing raw in his throat.

“You want a drink or sommat?”

“I really don’t, thanks.”

He reaches for Nick and kisses him, and at the press of Nick’s thumbs under his ears, it’s like a gust of wind racing through him and clearing a lot of dust out.

Nick’s tongue finds his and Niall grabs for Nick’s arm to steady himself, glad he did a moment later when Nick abandons his mouth to kiss his neck. He rolls his head to make the muscle pop to give Nick somewhere to bite, and Nick makes his way down, breathless on his skin, but stops. “You smell like Harry.”

It’s not a question, not curious, or uncertain, and Niall can’t tell if that’s why his heart’s pumping. He looks down at himself, screwing up one eye in a wince. “Good reason for that, probably. This is his, I must’ve grabbed it from the dressing – ”

“Oh. I thought you might’ve shagged.”

Niall swallows. “Well, not to upset you, but…that as well.”

Nick’s mouth quirks up at one side. “I’m not upset, love. If anyone understands what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a Harry Styles charm offensive, it’s me init.”

He’s looking at Niall like it’s him who’s done something dodgy admitting it, and Niall really wants Pig to skid in with a ball, because the thing hanging between them is all fragile and maybe precious and he’s so afraid to break it he wants someone else to do it first.

“Wouldn’t say it was a charm offensive,” he says.

“No?”

“More like — I don’t know, an effective but unorthodox way of cleaning my floor?”

Nick laughs, and then he’s back, gathering Niall into him, mouth where Harry’s shirt hits his skin. He goes at his neck like he’s trying to suck his veins out, and Niall’s so fucking into it he can’t breathe.

 

 

*

 

 

The blender goes off the same time as Niall’s alarm and for a moment he wonders why it won’t switch off when he slides. He blinks at the shutters until they’re properly in focus, being awake sharp behind his eyeballs and in his stomach. He rolls out of Nick’s bed and into his jeans. Nick’s folded Harry’s shirt and left it on the sink with Niall’s shoes tucked underneath, and he fumbles into them and helps himself to a spray of Nick’s deodorant and a swill of mouthwash.

Pig’s in the kitchen with his balled-up socks, chewing on them where they’re caught between her paws, and Niall lets her have them only in part because they’re patched with drool. He goes up behind Nick where he’s feeding blueberries into the plastic shoot and puts a hand on his hip to say good morning.

Nick smiles and turns the blender off. He fills a glass and a travel mug and hands Niall’s over. “Nothing fancy,” he says, voice still half asleep.

It’s colder than Niall’s expecting and he shivers as he sips it, backing up against the sofa for something to lean on. Thing about doing a smoothie instead of a coffee first thing is your brain’s your own, then, and you have to decide what to say.

He’s never really had to leave anyone behind before. Not like this, anyway. Not with them making him sustenance and having to do it straight after it’s finished. He should’ve asked someone how he’s supposed to go about it, but the only person that’s even an option is Harry and —

Well. Is that where this is leading?

He breathes in, smells Harry’s fruity cologne and Nick on his skin. He can sort of see it: Nick’s on the screen, his face yellowed by being so far away and it probably being 4am where he is. The hotel’s interior is four different kinds of elegant grey and against it, Harry’s shiny shirt makes him look like an exotic bird. He skips over to the bed and instead of sitting like a normal person in front of the laptop, he leans over it, says hello to Nick with his hair all upside down.

Makes Nick laugh anyway. “How’s Denver?” Nick says.

“Is that where we’re at?”

“I put them in Nick’s phone,” Harry says, plumping down on the bed next to Niall. “So someone always knows.”

Harry’s reaching for Niall’s hand, touching the inside of his wrist, and Niall doesn’t miss Nick noticing. Harry’s fingers touch Niall’s cheek, considering, considerate as he brings him in for a kiss, angling his face so Nick can see.

It fuzzes out like they’ve lost the connection. Maybe that’s all his brain can conceive of for now.

Nick’s drying his hands after rinsing the jug out and his hair’s everywhere, smile the same, like his mouth keeps deciding to start one but thinking better of it. “She loves them,” he says, gesturing at Niall’s socks.

“They’re a good colour on her. Really bring out her… paws.”

Nick does an abrupt, cut-off laugh, and Niall can’t tell at all if he remembers or if he just thinks it’s funny here and now.

Doesn’t matter really.

He’s only drunk half the smoothie Nick made him but he sets the glass down on the counter anyway, noticing for the first time in his life the way it makes a mountain shape, clinging to the sides. Different ones do different heights and gradients, probably — oats or anything thick like that make a pointy Thielsen while that watery spinach one Harry makes is more of a Table.

“Anyway. I’ve a plane to catch,” Niall says, like they haven’t spent all night fucking specifically because of that. Like he doesn’t want to do it again right now with Nick’s teeth in his shoulder and his jeans around his knees. He’s breathing like Nick’s blowing him and he needs to stop this moment from dragging on, but Nick’s looking at him, fiddling with the cuff of his jumper. “While ago — you said your type was here. And I’m not gonna be for ages.”

“My texting game is next level,” Nick says, “and I bet you look real good on FaceTime.”

Niall’s not sure if he was expecting more of a declaration, or if he could handle it if one came, let alone make one of his own.

“Bye Nick,” he says, steadies himself on Nick’s shoulder to peck him on the mouth, and leaves.

 

 

*

 

 

They’ve dipped low enough the mountain range is unveiled between the clouds, a hollow that looks like something from a geography textbook on the top of one and a lake sprawling at the foot of another.

“Well there she is,” he says.

Harry shucks his blankets and slides off his seat to come and sit on Niall’s footrest and crane out of his window, as if the view might be significantly different from his own. “Pretty.”

Niall half smiles a reply, keeps on tracing the landscape, as if in it might be the answer to the question his brain can’t quite form.

“Did you see this?” Harry’s holding out the magazine he was reading, Zayn’s face curved on its glossy page under a headline about a fashion show. “He looks well, doesn’t he?”

“You speak to him?”

Harry shakes his head. “You?”

“Wouldn’t know how.”

One of those minutes with a lifetime in it passes. And maybe Niall can see it, a wedding or something where they’re all together for another reason, and none of them really means to, but they drink and laugh the thing into the past it was always going to be.

He can hear Zayn saying it:

I had a sick time, mate.

Large, warm hands cradle Niall’s ankles, lift his feet, pads of Harry’s fingers drawing soothing circles that make all the hairs on his legs push up against his jeans. 

“You’re going to miss Nick too.”

It’s quiet, but a statement, not a question.

Niall remembers what he thought that meant, stares out of the window at the clouds coagulating below them. “Miss everybody. Way it goes, isn’t it.”

Harry strokes a little higher. Niall doesn’t have to be looking to tell his hair’s escaping from its bun and he looks like a painting. He’s been on so many journeys with Harry, has seen him sleeping and puking and sneaking to the toilet for a wank, all of it with the same sheen of unreality from altitude, panic, and sometimes sleeping pills. “Can listen to him,” Harry says. “Makes it easier.”

“How so?”

“When I can hear him laughing about Pig throwing up on his bed, at least I know he’s ok. And then when we talk, it’s like I’m still in his life, because I know he went to Tesco.” 

“You and the five million other people listening.”

“Quit as soon as we land and go back if you want.” Niall turns to him sharply and Harry’s gaze doesn’t waver. “I’m serious, Niall. If you want out, just do it. Don’t fuck us about like Zayn did.”

Niall’s breath catches in his throat, because it never occurred to him Harry actually thought he’d leave. Sure, sometimes he thinks idly of the country pad with the view he could buy himself, of Rochelle and her arch, and, lately, of a boyfriend with face mostly unspecified and a hand he could hold in the street. But as if he’d swap for it.

“You see any wrinkles here?” Niall says, gesturing around his own eyes. Harry shakes his head, starts to smile just loosely around the edges. “Shut the fuck up, then.”

Smiling more fully, Harry places Niall’s feet down and crawls up onto Niall’s seat, gets himself comfy half on half off his lap, socked toes on Niall’s shins.

“Can take people with you when you leave, you know,” he says, like it’s for Niall and Niall only and more than that, something only Harry could tell him. “Even a lengthy separation’s only temporary if you want it to be.”

“I am taking away your fridge magnets.”

Harry rearranges the creases on Niall’s sleeve. “Fine. I can’t crystal ball it and tell you everything’ll work out, but neither can you and tell me it won’t.”

“Is any of this supposed to be reassuring?”

“No,” Harry says. “Just true.”

Niall looks out the window as the cloud and the landscape rolls past. And fuck him, but it does sound it.

Not like he’s having a grand revelation, sitting here surrounded by flight attendants and Harry’s knees, but he can see how someone like Harry, someone who’d fallen in love at the wrong moment and never quite out of it again, would turn uncertainty inside out until it became a beacon rather than something to be afraid of.

“That why he doesn’t mind you leaving all the time?” Niall says, because he's not sure there'll ever be another moment quite like this one.

“Who says he doesn’t mind it?” Harry rests his head on Niall’s shoulder, fingers dancing over the folds of material bunched up at his elbow, and honestly Niall wasn’t expecting him to answer at all, let alone like that. “But I decided to do this. And he decided crying at airports wasn’t his thing.”

A week ago Niall might’ve asked him, “How’d I fit into this?” but he thinks he’s starting to get what Harry meant at the party. How he fits in is for no one but himself to decide.

Harry presses his lips together, gestures at the magazine he discarded with his toe. “Do think about it,” he says, “what if everyone stopped listening – what if one day we showed up to a gig and no one was there.” His fingers stop on Niall’s arm. “And – I’d still want to do it, I think, especially if you were there.”

Niall huffs a hollow laugh. “Always One Direction, ’til we’re just two lonely skeletons doing the Joe in the graveyard.”

“Is that a promise?”

Niall goes to laugh but Harry’s really asking it — looking right at him, right up close, here at forty thousand feet where Niall’s only escape is to throw him off and lock himself in the toilet like a spoilt rich brat of a child.

Thing is, the future — their future — it’s like the mountains they’re sailing over: sprawling and scary and dangerous, only bits of it known, so much of it still to climb up and see. And everyone knows you don’t go up a mountain without a buddy to tether the end of your line. Maybe works for rolling down hills too, who knows.

Niall nods and Harry crushes his hand almost with how fiercely he drags it to his mouth to kiss. “We got each other, haven’t we, then.”

There’s only a shaky certainty in it, still, and he’s tracing the details of Niall’s fingers like he can’t believe they’re there, so Niall curls an arm around his shoulder and pulls him in.

“That we do, Harry.”

And it’s just words, Niall knows it, but right now, maybe Harry needs to believe them. Niall gets that, because once upon a time, he lay in the grass with a boy he was already a little bit in love with and accepted a promise of a lifetime that looks like a Rolling Stone.  

He squeezes so Harry can feel it, rests his lips against his hair, closes his eyes, and breathes out, “That we do.”