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He could be anything, and so he goes to Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“I’m not sure about this,” says Pierre. “You look like one good gust would toss you like Dorothy from Kansas.” Pierre, of course, looks like he could uproot an entire house from the earth with the strength of his arms. Niall is impressed and also a little terrified.

“‘m more of a Toto, I think,” he says.

“Small enough to be,” Pierre replies, and Niall wants to bristle at that because he’s been working out regularly for years, with and without the pressures of the band egging him on, and he’s got enough definition not to quality as small, thanks very much. But then again, Pierre. So he lets it go and grins the sort of grin that says, we’re mates here, we’re having a good time.

“Tie me down to the top of the car if you gotta,” he says. “I won’t mind.”

“Christ,” says Pierre, but he’s smiling. “You’re what, twenty?”

Twenty-four, actually, but it feels good, sorta, to meet someone who knows bollocks all about who he is. It’s been nearly two years since One Direction went on hiatus with no plans of reunion, and Niall doesn’t get papped as often as he used to, but folk will still call out his name on the streets or ask him to pose for a photo.

But here, with Pierre and the rest of his research team in their cramped office on the Oklahoma State campus, with books on statistics and climatology stacked in perilous piles over rubbish bins with empty KFC buckets, he’s just a kid with knobby knees. Feels like X Factor again, if he’s being honest.

“Yeah, okay,” Pierre finally says. “The head of my department seems pretty willing to indulge your request, says you’d be fine with footing the bill for motels and food for the team while we’re in the field.” He cracks a smile, teeth straight, white, and very American against his dark skin. “Rich boy, huh?”

“Something like that.” Niall unconsciously runs his tongue over where his braces used to be.

“Money’s no excuse for someone who can’t work hard, though,” Pierre says. “If you’re dead weight, then we’ll drop you off at the nearest town and leave you there, understand?”

“I won’t be dead weight,” Niall promises, and wonders if they can see how badly he wants this, how he’ll shake clean out of his skin if he doesn’t get it.

They leave the next week in a cluster of three cars, Pierre and his wife Rashida taking point with their rigged-out Jeep with the mounted weather station on the roof, Jerry following in his Corolla, and Niall with Adesola in her 2003 Honda Civic with the paint peeling off the sides of its belly like snakeskin. Adi’s a doctoral student from Nigeria doing her thesis on cloud condensation nuclei. She’s also a former Nigerian chess champion and likes a constant thrum of EDM on the radio as she drives.

“On the road again,” she says happily, “going wherever the wind takes us.”

More like wherever their very complicated software with GIS overlay and real-time updates take them. That’s not even mentioning the ham radio Rashida carries with her that’s always tuned to Skywarn frequencies. Rashida used to work for the National Weather Service but now she’s a storm spotter for fun, and even more so than Pierre, who’s an actual professor of climatology and technically their team lead, she knows where to point their cars towards next.

Niall quickly gets used to words like isobars and Doppler effect and mobile broadband MNVO, gets used to peering over Rashida’s shoulder to see weather patterns growing on radar displays, spilling green and red like radioactive milk.

Gets used to Adi throwing her McDonalds wrappers all over her backseat and painting her nails at petrol stations. Niall cleans down their windows with the sponge on a stick, and when he climbs back in the car it always smells overwhelmingly like acetone. Gets used to the way she yells at her GPS, especially when they’re separated from the others in freeways circling cities, before declaring it a load of rubbish and asking Niall to give directions instead because she, quote on quote, likes his lovely Irish voice.

Gets used to the way Pierre squints at the radar even though he claims he doesn’t need glasses, gets used to the way he does push-ups on the side of the road and then drinks Big Gulps from 7-Eleven. Gets used to the way Rashida says little but notices a lot, the way she always has a shawl over her shoulders because wherever they go it’s too cold, she says, and the shawl was made by her abuela who raised her.

Gets used to Jerry, who’s a photographer, setting up his tripod with his DSLR, Jerry, who on the very first day told Niall all about his gay son that he loves but doesn’t know how to talk to, as if something about Niall clued him in right away this should be their first conversation topic. Jerry who Niall once had an entire conversation with about football before they realized they were talking about two different sports.

“Storm chasing,” Pierre says expansively after the first week, “is an old folks’ sport. It’s 90% sitting on your ass and checking data, and 10% running after storms that fizz out like a can of soda that’s been lying in the sun too long. It’s deeply boring, deeply patient work.”

Adi shows Niall her nails where she’s painted, one letter on each finger, DATA IS KING.

As researchers they’re interested in storms that provide the richest data, that last the longest, that have the most unusual buildup. Rashida scans the radars and Skywarn networks, divining the future like an old-time witch before she says go, and they go.

They drive into fields, into wide-open terrains of grass and dirt and lakes with no roads and a cloudless sky, and they wait. Adi teaches Niall how to play chess. He teaches her how to play guitar. They lie on the hood of her beat-up Civic for hours, until Niall’s back hurts and he’s biting his lip to keep from going stir-crazy. He’s not used to having nothing to do when before, with the band, there were always a thousand demands on his attention all at once.

He could mess around with his phone, answer texts, update his Twitter, but even with little else to do, he doesn’t want to; he set his mobile on silent the day they left Stillwater and doesn’t even check it most days.

He sees storms. Rainstorms, thunderstorms, the sky turning dark like rust and cracking open with lightning. “This is nothing,” Jerry says. “Small potatoes.” Niall likes the way Jerry’s Midwest accent pronounces potatoes.

“We’ll catch a big one,” Pierre promises. “This is Tornado Alley. We ain’t going to rest until we wrangle you a goddamn tornado.”

 

:::

 

“I was in the Maldives,” Niall says, when trying to explain why he got the sudden itch to come along storm-chasing. He was in the Maldives on a yacht, he doesn’t say, that belonged to a record label exec throwing a two-week party where everyone had been drunk, high, and well horny, likely all at once.

“Oh to be rich,” Adi says sarcastically.

His cheeks colour. He clears his throat. “Yeah, well, whatever. There was a party, and I didn’t feel like joining in, so I snuck into a cabin where there was a telly. I flipped through the channels and saw a documentary on storms. I watched it.” He does not say: this was after I took some coke and shagged a Victoria’s Secret Angel on top of the dirty sheets, and then she got bored of me so she left me alone with the telly and sweat drying on my thighs.

“The documentary weren’t even in English,” he says. “Was originally, yeah, but they’d dubbed it over. I hardly knew what was going on, but people were tracking storms in it and I thought — it was so pure.” He flushes even harder. “We’ve been on this earth for how long now and we still don’t know everything there is to know about the skies. Maybe we never will.” He laughs. “Ah, looking at me talking shite. Prolly I just wanted to watch something go whoosh really fast.”

Watching it on that tiny screen, he’d felt his heart pound furiously in his chest, his lungs squeezing tight, and part of that had been the coke, for sure. But when he woke up the next morning and threw up the contents of his stomach into the ocean, he’d thought about the image of lightning touching the ground, and it’d rubbed in his thoughts like scar tissue.

Adi watches him with lidded eyes. “When I was growing up in a little town outside Abuja, I used to pray for a storm to come and strike down my father. I thought God would for sure answer my prayers, but I’d need to do my part to find out when the storm was coming, to be ready.”

“Fuck,” Niall says.

She pats his arm. “I mean that we all come from somewhere, and now we are together in Missouri. Funny how that works.”

I was once in a band with lads from Holmes Chapel, Wolverhampton, Doncaster, and Bradford, Niall thinks, and we got thrown together on national television. But it’s not nearly as good a story.

Then Adi starts telling him about clouds. “Cumulonimbus,” she says. “Cumulus meaning ‘heap’ in Latin and ‘nimbus’ meaning storm cloud. That’s what we’re keeping our eyes peeled for when we’re waiting. You know when you see cumulonimbus clouds forming that a storm’s going to follow. They start when,” she waves her hand, “air currents are carrying water vapor up, up, and up. When they’re really well developed, they have this anvil dome.” She cups her hands to demonstrate. “And when they’re really bad, they become supercells.”

“Really bad but we’re going to drive right into one,” Niall grins, and she grins back.

They follow a growing supercell storm to ten miles outside of Drury, Missouri, and rain batters down on the team’s cars, hammering against the windows. Adi drives with one hand on the wheel while her other hand grasps her portable transceiver, where Pierre’s relaying the data gathered from his Jeep’s mounted sensors.

Then she pulls to a stop with a squeal of tires on wet mud, and says, “Hear that? The equipment’s picking up that RFD coming down fast and sweet. You can see it starting now.”

“What’s an RFD and starting what?” Niall asks, staring at the rain, which is getting rougher and rougher, almost a continuous sheet rolling off the car windows. He’s seen rain like this before, during monsoon season in Thailand, but always from the safety of a hotel room. Adi’s poor little Honda Civic shakes with the force of the gale, then he remembers she’s talking to him.

“Starting what, he asks,” Adi snorts. “The tornado.”

Niall’s tongue is a salty, metallic weight in his mouth; his skin is a woollen blanket he wants to crawl out of, he’s so excited. When the clouds start funneling and spit out a fully formed tornado, Adi puts her foot down on the accelerator and punches the breath out of Niall’s ribcage with the force of the engine. She drives straight into the heartbeat of the rain, where the winds rock the car back and forth, and Niall wants to piss himself or start cackling with delight, he’s not sure which.

They can barely even see as they skirt the tornado funnel, flirting with it without getting close enough to be pulled into its orbit. Adi’s going harder still until she brings them out the other side of the supercell, and Pierre, Rashida, and Jerry’s joined them.

There’s hardly any time to catch a breather before Adi’s turning the fleet back into the storm, where Niall watches the tornado spin around like a dark, majestic thing, like the Wicked Witch of the West.

They make a couple more passes before they stop a safe distance away, and Jerry’s scrambled out of his Corolla to set up his camera for hi-res photos while Pierre and Rashida sit in the front seat of their Jeep with their laptops out, crunching data. Adi’s got her phone out, taking her own pictures for her research, and Niall can’t help but copy her. He climbs to the top of the car, face wet with rain, quiff whipped beyond all recognition, and uploads the pic to Instagram.

Twister!! he types.

 

:::

 

When he next bothers to check his phone he sees that Louis and Liam have both liked the photo, which is nice, puts a good feeling inside his belly. He knows they’re mad busy these days, Louis with Freddie and his new label, and Liam with his new X Factor judging gig. He sees that Harry’s liked the photo too, which is, well, all right, no use getting fussed over it, no use feeling any which way over it, he reminds himself.

The team’s in a petrol station in Dogwood, Arkansas, chasing the next supercell. Niall browses through his Instagram feed while queuing for the cashier, then sticks his mobile in the back of his skinnies. When it’s his turn, he pays for his crisps, beef jerky, a Red Bull, and a new toothbrush because he’s noticed his old one’s getting grotty.

There’s a stand of assorted keychains at the cashier’s, featuring Arkansas (”The Natural State!”), Razorbacks, The Simpsons, some Barbie, and a lone One Direction keychain, a plastic square with their album cover from Four. It’s not a very good make; part of Niall’s face has been cut off. He can hear Rashida shuffling behind him in the queue, so he flips the One Direction keychain over so that all she can see is its shiny, cheap back.

They stay that night in a Super 8 in town, and Niall takes them all out for supper at a 50s retro diner and pays for milkshakes, burgers, and chips. “Richie Rich, you can do better than this, where’s our foie gras, where’s our caviar,” Pierre opines, deadpan, but Niall just rolls his eyes and flips him the bird.

“Eat this for supper instead,” he says sweetly, and Pierre laughs.

Pierre takes up nearly one side of an entire booth, but Rashida squeezes in beside him, practically perched on top of his lap, not that either of them mind. Adi and Jerry sit comfortably on the other side. Niall pulls up a chair.

Conversation is easy while they eat. They talk about American football scores, about Oklahoma State and interdepartmental feuds, about whether or not this diner is authentically 50s and if not, how much will that break Adi’s heart because she has this image of apple pie Americana that she grew up with as a child in Nigeria.

Then they decode the latest text sent by Jerry’s son until Jerry feels less anxious about it. Then Niall tells them about Mullingar, spinning wild stories about his family and childhood that aren’t 100% true but are bloody entertaining, if he says so himself, and he shows them pics of Theo, who’s growing so big it puts a lump in his throat.

“Don’t go home as often as I ought to,” he admits, trying not to look at Jerry who’s still peering sadly at his son’s text.

“Easier to keep wandering, huh,” Rashida says, putting her hand over Pierre’s. He squeezes it back, smiling softly, and Niall aches at the sight of it, they’re so, so in love.

“I wanted home to be a person, this one person in particular, but that didn’t work out so well,” Niall says, and he’s not sure why he’s confessing this when they’ve only known each other for a few weeks, but it slides out from underneath his tongue as smooth as anything.

Here he’s so far from everything he knows that he feels loose and relaxed, like there’s a space opening up between his skin and his bones that he doesn’t have to immediately sew shut. Niall Horan of One Direction hated being vulnerable, hated his private life flapping open for the entire world to gawk at. It made it easier to have people in the band who drew attention away from him, like Harry, or Louis, or — or Zayn.

Niall Horan of Dogwood, Arkansas, no band, eats his chips and admits that yeah, he’d been in love with his best mate and it blew up in his face.

It’s a thing that happens. Happens every day to billions of people, it’s so mundane. You can love someone as much as you want, and they’re not obliged to feel the same way — Niall’s has time to be fine with that. It’s not why he’s here, chasing storms. Not everything in his entire bloody life revolves around Harry anymore.

Which is why when he’s in his motel room that night, watching Netflix on his laptop, and he sees Harry’s email pop into his inbox, he considers deleting it right away. He hasn’t spoken to Harry in over a year, not since they last ran into each other in a club in L.A, and it’d been a dead awkward run-in too, Niall buzzed off his mind on alcohol and pills, and Harry with his hand resting on the bare back of his latest supermodel girlfriend. Niall’s dated models as well, never forgets how lucky he is to have the world’s most beautiful women interested in him, just a lad from Mullingar, but Harry makes it look easy, natural, in a way Niall’s always been a bit jealous of.

They’d seen each other in the VIP balcony of that club and made piss-poor small talk, without any of the thoughtless camaraderie they used to have, where Niall would run around and try to climb Harry’s back for a laugh, or Harry would grind against him on stage with a smile as bright as floodlights. They’ve bollocksed it up, he thinks, and that, boys and girls, is why you ought to never shag your bandmates.

He doesn’t delete Harry’s email. He doesn’t leap to read it either. There’s an email from Bobby in his inbox that’s just more pictures of Theo, and Niall makes sure to reply fantastic, thanks 4 sharing ! ! little buggers gonna take over th world! so he doesn’t feel bad about not ringing Bobby up.

There’s an email from Bressie too, where Bressie goes on amiably about his musical projects, buying a new guitar, reorganizing his flat — typical Bressie domestic normalcy, which makes Niall smile until his cheeks hurt, even at the end where Bressie’s put, with clearly a lot of painstaking precision:

Would be great to see you again, chief, but we know you’re busy. There’s no shame in feeling aimless when your band breaks up, we’ve all been there. Take all the time you like, you don’t got to answer to anyone. But if you need someone to talk to, remember you’ve loads of people who care about you.

HA HA HA, bressie ur such a mama bear, Niall shoots back. gonna warm all o fair ireland with ur giant heart.

He takes a shower and gets ready for bed before he tackles Harry’s email. He uses his new toothbrush until his mouth is full of that squeaky mint feeling, like he’s just brushed his teeth with a really good mojito. Harry’s email, when he opens it gingerly sitting cross-legged on the bed, like it’s a bomb about to go off, is rambly and enigmatic and really fucking hard to understand — so just like Harry, then.

Niall’d be pretty certain Harry was pissed off his face when he wrote this, except for the immaculately clean spelling and how beautifully formatted the whole thing is, like Harry couldn’t bear to send an email that didn’t meet his proper aesthetic, the wanker. He’s not sure he’s ever gotten an email from Harry before that wasn’t something cc’ed to their managers or producers. Texting’s more their speed; email’s for ancients.

Nialler, it begins. Harry starts out complimenting Niall on his twister photo, and then talks about a book about mountains he’s been reading and how he’s not sure how accurate it is, he was talking to someone at a party the other week who’d summited Everest, which was very cool. Instead of summiting Everest, though, Harry’s been working on his quads by riding his new bike all over L.A (”an actual bike, a velocipede, Niall, you know what I mean” as if Niall knows what the hell a velocipede is without having to look it up).

Harry concludes the entire mess of an email by sending along a few lines of poetry about hungry hearts, and at first Niall figures it’s a quote, because Harry loves sneaking in bits of other people’s words into his own, likes to make it a game and express disappointment when no one knows how to speak his secret language.

But when Niall googles the lines, he doesn’t get any good hits, so who knows then, either Harry’s gone into the la-la obscure, which wouldn’t surprise anyone, or maybe they’re song lyrics he’s working on.

thanks xx, Niall replies before he can stop himself, because Harry didn’t have to send that email, and still he did.

Niall helped chase down a tornado yesterday, and he feels honestly, truthfully fucking brilliant; typing a few words out and hitting send doesn’t cost him anything at all.

 

:::

 

Being on the road storm-chasing ain’t a whole lot different from being on tour. Moving from town to town with the same small group of people, stuck in cramped vehicles together for long periods of time, sleeping on strange sheets every night and waking up never quite remembering where all the plug-ins are supposed to be — yeah, this is definitely familiar.

Niall knows how to pack light, down to the essentials. His guitar’s the only guilty pleasure he brings, too big to be practical but too beloved for it to matter. By contrast, the first time he’d opened Adi’s car boot, he’d nearly had a heart attack with how much shit was crammed in there.

It becomes a sore point between him and Adi, because she’s the one who gives him a lift but she’s also really fucking messy, and it drives him up the wall. The car stinks of fast food and dirty laundry after the third week, and he remembers he hated this about tour too, living with Louis’ socks, and Liam’s hand weights, and Zayn’s empty cig cartons, and Harry’s crumpled up notebook papers.

“You don’t need to be so anal retentive,” Adi says crossly. “It’s not as if it’s unhygienic.”

“I can smell it,” Niall snaps. “All day, all the time.”

“I don’t smell anything, and it’s my car, so shove it,” she says, and they don’t speak for another three miles, Adi’s favourite EDM tracks pumping through the speakers until Pierre’s voice crackles over the transceiver, giving them new directions, and they’re working together again, Adi driving while Niall sets the GPS.

She must feel bad about their argument, because she comes out of a print shop in Clarksdale, Mississippi and tosses a t-shirt at his head. He’s eating a hot dog on the curb and he catches the t-shirt with his hand that isn’t dripping with mustard. “For you,” she says, and when Niall unfolds it, he barks out a laugh because it says STORMTROOPER on it with a stormtrooper head beneath. “I made some for everyone,” she says, holding up a plastic bag.

“Thanks, mate,” Niall says, “and, uh, sorry for my outburst earlier. I’m just — used to being the bloke who yells at people to clean up after themselves, I suppose.”

“There’s one like that in every group,” Adi says. “If it wasn’t you, it was going to be Pierre. S’okay. Don’t get mustard on the shirt.”

When Pierre gets his t-shirt, his face brightens and he declares a Star Wars marathon that night in his and Rashida’s motel room. “On one hand, I don’t know why I have to spend all day with you guys and then my evenings too,” Adi says, “but on the other hand, Star Wars, so all right. Jerry, Niall, you coming?”

Niall, who was eyeing a portable induction cooktop at Walmart earlier, says, “Why don’t I cook for everyone tonight? I can make something…” he rifles through all the words in his head that sound better than healthy “...homey,” he finishes. The hot dog is starting to sit heavy in his stomach and he hasn’t gone for a workout in days unless you count push-ups on the side of the road with Pierre. There’s just been no time or proper facilities in the small towns they’re staying at. He ought to start jogging in the evenings, maybe. Plenty of countryside for that.

“Star Wars and our own personal chef,” Pierre says, eyes crinkling. “Does life get any better than this?” He slings an arm over Adi’s shoulders. “I was the one who introduced this lady to the great tradition of American science fiction films, you know.”

“Nearly dropped out of school the first year I was here,” Adi agrees, “I was so busy watching movies.”

This too feels like tour, getting the gang together after a day’s hard work, popping a few beers, and queuing up a film on someone’s laptop. It used to be like this with One Direction, on evenings when no one knew of any good parties or there wasn’t much to do; just the lads relaxing together, horsing around, Louis and Liam on the bed, Zayn lazing in an armchair, Niall building a blanket fort on the floor where Harry always joined him, knocking their shoulders together until Niall could barely concentrate on the movie. Harry was always poking him, playing with his hair, or trying to get a rise out of him somehow.

Towards the end, it was different, though, everybody with their own plans, their own agendas, maybe even a little sick of each other but too cautious to say so. Towards the end, it seemed like Harry was out partying every single night, passing by Niall in hotel hallways with his shirt buttons undone to his navel and his skin smelling of Guerlain cologne, or with lipstick stains on his collarbone.

Jerry lets Niall borrow his car to go back to Walmart for the stovetop, a pot, and the ingredients for a Jamie Oliver pork noodles recipe he’s pulled up on his phone. Jerry is the only person who offered his car when Niall asked, Adi looking blank and Rashida shaking her head no with more force than strictly necessary. When Niall returns to the motel, Jerry’s the first one to peer inside his bags and say, doubtfully, “I think I had Chinese food, once.”

“Jerry’s got the palate of my ninety-year-old grandma in Detroit,” Pierre says.

“Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, my man,” Niall says, “prepare to have your mind blown.”

He starts cooking for them more after that night. Jerry’s the only picky eater and he’s still brave enough to at least try a few bites of whatever Niall’s made before rummaging into his own stash of Campbell soup tins. Pierre and Rashida will eat anything, and after the pork noodles Adi pulls him aside and says, “Thank god, all this greasy American diner food was starting to give me zits. I miss my mom’s jollof rice and her moin moin. Have you ever had moin moin?”

Niall’s traveled the entire world multiple times over, has woken up some mornings not knowing what country he’s in, but he’s never had moin moin. There are loads of things, he thinks with some surprise, that he’s never yet done.

The team goes through several days of chasing storms across the Mississippi plains that putter out like a birthday balloon losing all its air. These are days of endless driving, and even longer stretches camped out in farmland with their equipment primed, staring up at the ever-changing sky. The storms, when they do break, are weak and lacklustre, more rain than hellfire.

A hell of a lot of rain, though. Niall’s never appreciated how good it feels to take off his soaked-through socks at night and wrap himself up in a clean, dry bathrobe. He’s also never appreciated using the loo quite so much; but after spending eight hours in the field with only the bushes for relief, he’s going to dedicate his next song to the porcelain king of the animal kingdom.

Everyone is knackered, a little cranky, but mostly they handle the quiet spells with equanimity. “You can’t always find the big ones,” Rashida says softly. “Even spotting small storms is useful. When we’re the first ones, we can send our data back to the local weather stations, and they can tell civilians what to expect, whether or not the storm’s likely to be in their path.”

“Baseball games moved indoors,” Niall says, half-joking. “Little Annie decides not to hang her paintings out to dry.”

Pierre butts in. “A wedding that isn’t ruined by pouring rain and shrieking winds.”

“A family with two young children who decide not to drive out to a party that night,” Rashida says. “The rain doesn’t obscure their visibility on the road, the children don’t argue and distract the mom behind the wheel, they never get into an accident.”

“Right,” Niall says sheepishly, and that night after they’ve eaten, after everyone’s helped him wash up, he gets out his guitar and sings out a cover of You, Me, and the Weather.

 

:::

 

Jerry’s the first to realize who he is. Jerry’s forty-seven years old and cuts his toenails out in the open with a pair of kitchen scissors, but one afternoon they’re listening to the radio while they’re waiting in the field, and Steal My Girl comes on. Niall stiffens and buries his face deeper into the copy of Sports Illustrated he bought at their last convenience store stop; when he looks up, Jerry’s staring at him.

Then Jerry winks.

“So, um,” Niall says, sidling up to him when everyone else is busy checking on the equipment.

“I can use Google just like the rest of you crazy kids,” Jerry says. “Hey, don’t worry! I think it’s pretty incredible you did all that and you’re barely older than my son, though I’m not sure your pants had to be so tight in every picture. Is that a boy band thing?”

“Yes, Jerry,” Niall nods, “tight trousers are definitely a boy band thing.”

“Do you want me to keep my mouth shut?” Jerry says. “Pierre and Adi are the worst sort of academics; they probably wouldn’t recognize a celebrity unless you came with a number on the Fujita scale. And I’m not sure Rashida even listens to music that isn’t, like, orchestral with chanting in it.”

“Nah, it’s alright,” Niall says, because cat’s out of the bag. “It wasn’t the first thing any of you lot ever knew about me, which is — usually the case for most folks. And plus,” he shrugs, “it’s not like I want to lie to you.”

“Oh good,” Jerry says cheerfully, “because I already told Adi last night.” And sure enough, when Niall looks over at Adi, she’s blatantly staring at them while making a face that’s partly disgusted, like if a member of a multimillion dollar boy band were to drop in on her research trip, she would have expected at least a mention in the local forecast.

“I googled you too last night,” she says, coming up to them, wiping her dirty hands on her jeans. “Actually I fell down a — what do you call it,” she snaps her fingers, “a google black hole pit of despair? It felt more like a brain fever. I must have read at least a hundred different articles on your band, One Erection.”

Niall rolls his eyes at her as she smirks with satisfaction at her own joke. “Okay, One Direction,” she says. “Anyway, I’ve decided my favourite member is Liam, thank you and have a good day.” She goes back to her equipment.

Their streak of storm busts ends that night. The clouds billow up with thirsty darkness as Niall watches day turn into evening, and the sun sets over the silhouette of dust swirling on the ground. As the hours go by, the dust gets heavier until the fields look like they’re swimming in bleak starlight, and then they see the funnel pick up from a great distance, bleeding greyer and sootier the more debris it gathers as it goes. There’s a high-pitched hiss in his ears, the eerie yowl of wind and rain in an otherwise empty stretch of land.

Niall’s been given command of Adi’s handheld anemometer, and every time she makes a stop, driving closer and closer to the funnel, he sticks it out the window and measures the wind’s speed. He records the results and their coordinates painstakingly in his little notebook, and then tells her to move on. They both agree that it’s better if she drives with two hands on the wheel, so he’ll help her with the work. It’s good like this. He’s so glad she asked.

In the distance, through the knife-slice of their high beams, they can see Pierre and Rashida doing the same for their own designated checkpoints, though their anemometer is the size of an oil barrel and strapped to the top of their Jeep, among other things.

They never drive directly into a tornado; none of their cars are built to withstand that type of wind speed. Niall’s seen pictures by now of TIVs that are, and they’re basically tanks, facing cyclones like an act of war. They’re safe, or as safe as you can be when you’re driving into a wall of brute force wind and destruction, and Niall thinks, fuck that. Nowhere he’d rather be than in this shaking car with his pulse in his throat, watching the sky spit out its swirling fury. It’s like singing a song for the first time and you’re not sure you can hold that high note and for so long, until you can.

Over the boom of thunder, he hears Pierre laughing over the transceiver, like it’s Christmas Day every day. Niall grins and jabs his thumb over the transmission button, shouts: “Oi, you ever think of doing anything different?”

“Are you kidding me?” Pierre hollers. “This is my dream come true!”

“Yeah,” says Niall, and thinks about playing to stadiums of thousands, fans’ screams ringing in his eardrums like something unearthly and wild, the noise of it vibrating through his joints and his teeth, down to the balls of his feet. His whole body absorbing the blow of it, eating it like food. He still hears that particular sound, sometimes, when he goes to sleep, and wakes up thinking, it’s too quiet, it’s too still.

It’s a good storm. They all go to bed happy in a Big 7 Motel in the town of Belzoni, Mississippi. Niall’s falling asleep with his laptop tucked into his side, infomercials on the telly set to a background din, rain slick-pattering a window he’s cracked partly open, when his phone goes off. It’s Harry.

 

:::

 

“I want you to know that I’m completely and utterly pissed right now,” Harry says.

Niall clears his throat. “Yeah, I can tell, mate.”

Harry’s voice is low and gravelly, his vowels taffy-stretched from the booze the way it does when he gets to drinking, and there’s some clanging sounds on his end before he says, as if this is a regular chat, like he’d meant to ring up his mum or Gemma and hasn’t realized his mistake: “Whatcha doing then?”

Niall plays along. “Well, I was about to fall asleep before some twat woke me up,” he says. “Before that I was, uh,” he doublechecks his laptop screen, peers at it blearily, “looking up recipes on the internet.” Trying to find something Jerry will like, he doesn’t say, because Harry doesn’t know who that is.

“Oh me too,” Harry says, “and now I’m baking apple pie.”

“Alright,” Niall says. He doesn’t say anything else, just listens to the sound of Harry’s breathing and the noises of what must be him shuffling around in his kitchen, and then Harry’s hissing oh shit, and hangs up.

Probably just a dream, Niall thinks, checking the bedside clock. It’s two a.m, which is about the usual time of the night to start having Harry-related delusional fantasies. All par for course, except his phone’s lighting up again and when he picks up, Harry’s saying, “I dropped the bowl on the ground, do you think that’s bad?”

“Depends, I suppose,” Niall says, “on what was in the bowl.”

“Flour and uh, sugar,” Harry says. “Now it’s less in the bowl than on my shirt. Also, I can’t believe I wrote you an email that was a thousand and eighty words, and you wrote back with two.”

“A thousand and eighty, eh.”

“I used wordcount! I’m very, very certain.” He can almost hear drunk Harry bobbing his head with the force of his certainty, and likely getting a neck cramp for his effort. Niall glances at his alarm clock again. Now it’s two oh three a.m.

“So you do know who you’ve just called then,” he says.

“Of course I know who I’m calling, Niall.” A pause, slightly uncertain. “Wait, do you know who this is? I did change my number — though I included you in the group text, I swear I did!”

“Yeah, Hazza, I know who this is,” Niall says. He stretches out over his bed, puts a hand over his eyes. “So what made ya decide to wake up your old mate Niall? Is the band getting back together and you realized you forgot the bottle blond?”

“Don’t make fun.” He can practically hear Harry’s scowl; it makes him smile. “And I told you, I’m baking apple pie.”

“Right.”

“I had the idea tonight, you know,” Harry continues. “After I got back from Jeff’s party, I thought — you know what Niall’s probably eating right now? Apple pie. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted one too, but then I was home and too lazy to go out, so I thought, I’ll just make one! I’ve the ingredients, why not. Only, it was so hard to pick a recipe. Do you know how many apple pie recipes are on the internet?”

“Prolly a lot,” Niall agrees, “but, like, where to even begin. One, why’d you think I’m eating an apple pie right now, of all the things in the world, and two, why’d you even wonder what I’m eating in the first place? What’s it matter?” He reaches under his sleep t-shirt and scratches his belly idly, thinking more and more that this whole conversation probably is a dream.

“Where are you right now?” Harry asks.

“What?”

“I saw a photo on Twitter,” Harry says, sounding sullen. “You were with a girl. Somewhere in Mississippi.”

“Jesus,” Niall says, remembering the girl Harry’s talking about, the one who saw him coming out of a Save-a-Lot washroom and asked to take a selfie with him. “What are you, stalking me?” he demands.

“She location-tagged it!” Harry says. “What was I supposed to do, close my eyes so I didn’t see where the photo was taken?” There’s the sound of more clanging on his end, what sounds like a food processor. Niall can barely hear anything Harry says next, only catches the tail end of “...I bet they have apple pie in Mississippi.”

“I reckon they do,” Niall says. “Look, it’s good to hear your voice again, yeah? But it’s arse o’clock at night and I have to wake up early tomorrow to hit the road, so maybe we can do this another time.”

“I can’t sleep,” Harry admits, and Niall quiets. Through the wafer thin motel walls he can hear Rashida in the other room, snoring like she does every night.

“Haz.”

“It’s been like this for weeks,” Harry says. “I lie there staring at the ceiling all night, and when I have to get up my eyes are puffy and gross, and I look like a zombie, but none of that matters coz I’m dead tired. Like, all the time,” he breathes. “I’m meant to be writing material for my first solo album and my head isn’t where it’s supposed to be.”

“Not sure getting yourself pissed and operating a hot oven is gonna help with that,” Niall says, more softly than he would like, because he remembers this. Harry would get fits of insomnia on tour too, and he would whinge desperately about it until Louis would try to headlock him to shut him up, and Niall would say, tell me what I can do to make you stop.

Which always led to Harry climbing into his bed in the middle of the night and curling up behind him with his knees pressed to Niall’s back. He used to claim Niall smelled the best out of all the band members, something to do with his shampoo and how the scent of it was very soothing to Harry’s brain. I’ll lend you my shampoo then, Curly, Niall had said one time, but Harry’d shaken his head and burrowed his nose into the groove of Niall’s shoulder, sniffing him like a truffle-seeking pig.

Nah, I like this better, he’d said. You’re warm, and we fit together. You’re the perfect size.

What, for you to suffocate me with your tentacle limbs? Niall remembered saying, while Harry cackled and rubbed his fingers along Niall’s ribs, tickling him until Niall squirmed.

You caught me out, I’m a mermaid, Harry had said seriously. I wanna be a part of your world.

The memory of it moves through the chambers of Niall’s heart, and he feels happy and sad at the same time. “I thought it was getting better,” he admits. “Saw you sleeping all the time during our last tour.”

“Not really,” Harry says, and Niall’s not sure what that means: that Harry wasn’t actually sleeping like a baby during their last tour, or that he was and now it’s gone bad again. Harry keeps on talking, though. “Think I’m messing up this apple pie,” he says. “Can’t talk to you and measure properly at the same time. Also the room keeps on spinning around me? It’s a right dog’s dinner.”

“Then hang up,” Niall suggests.

“Too late,” Harry says. “Already cocked up the pie.” He giggles to himself. “Already cocked up the head too. Hey, did I tell ever tell you about that time I worked in a—”

“—bakery?” Niall finishes. “I’ve only heard that story more times than I’ve heard me own name. Thought that was supposed to make you good at baking, innit? Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it isn’t as easy as pie and making an apple pie is like,” he thinks, “the astrophysics of baking.”

Niall,” Harry whines, “I told you not to make fun. I’ve gotten sensitive and delicate because it’s been so long since anyone’s done it like you and the lads do. You’ll make me cry. No one takes the piss out of me anymore in L.A.”

“See now, there’s a shame,” Niall says, “coz you’re a ridiculous human being and I can’t imagine anyone letting you carry on without knowing it.”

“Mmm,” Harry says.

Niall sighs. “I do really got to sleep.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, slow and even, sounding a little sleepy himself. “This pie’s a goner. I’m going to give it up and go to bed. But I really did think, I mean, I was going to—” he pauses, and Niall chews on a fingernail. “When I finished baking the pie, I was going to send it to you. In Mississippi, or wherever the sodding hell you are, and whatever the sodding hell you’re doing there.”

“I’m a tempest in a teapot,” Niall says, just for the pleasure of listening to Harry squawk indignantly. “It’s a long story, mate — and not very interesting.”

“Well,” Harry says, “I’m interested.”

 

:::

 

Niall wakes up to the sound of his alarm and the sense that none of that was quite real, because he can’t even remember the last time Harry rang him up out of nowhere and blathered at him until they both fell asleep. He can’t quite shake the unreality of it, not even when Harry calls again the next night, and the night after that too.

Harry’s rat-arsed each time, or at the very least tipsy from a few fifteen dollar cocktails at some L.A bar with too much violet lighting, and Niall wants to be annoyed by that except it’s easier to handle drunk Harry. Sober Harry requires kid gloves, words bit between his tongue and his teeth, a defter hand than Niall’s quite got. Sober Harry’s smart, and careful, and untouchable with his posh clothes and his posher friends. Drunk Harry’s just chatty.

“I knew it!” Harry crows when Niall gives in during their third call and tells him what he’s actually been doing in Mississippi, and now, Arkansas.

“You did not,” Niall says.

“‘course I did,” slurs Harry. “You took a fucking picture of a tornado for your Instagram, your last picture before that was in the science department at Oklahoma State, where they have a well-known storm-chasing team led by the esteemed Dr. Pierre Lewis,” he hiccups, “and every single time it’s ever so much as rained in London, I’ve known you to stand outside and soak yourself through. You aren’t fooling anyone.”

“There’s no way you figured all that out yourself.”

“I used my amazing intellect,” Harry says, “and also the investigative powers of the Niall Horan twitter fan club. Did you know — fans are still tweeting about where you are in the world at any time? Not that I, uh, check.”

“I already know you’re a demented stalker, Styles,” Niall says with a little pleased laugh. “So fine, yeah, I’m out with Dr. Lewis and his team. I’m learning loads. It’s been brilliant so far.”

“Mmm,” Harry says, that slow, thoughtful sound that means anything could be coming next, from folksy wisdom to a monologue about which fruits pair well in a fruit salad and which fruits must be kept on a no-fly zone at all costs. “Don’t stand under trees during a storm, trees are tall and most like to be hit by lightning. Don’t want to see you sizzle just coz you wanted to hug a tree, Nialler.”

“That’s storm safety 101,” Niall says, “but thanks, I’ll be sure to tell everyone on this elite crack team you wanted to remind us that.” Harry makes a content sound in his throat.

The fourth time Harry calls, it’s in the middle of the afternoon and Niall’s giving GPS directions to Adi. He hears his phone buzz but he doesn’t pick up. He hears it again in the evening, but they’re staking out the beginnings of a mesocyclone, so he lets it go to voicemail. The sixth call comes at half past one in the morning, when the storm’s passed but the check engine light on Jerry’s car keeps on flashing, and everyone’s trying to figure out why.

Niall separates himself from Pierre and Adi’s heated conversation, because both of them are insufferable know-it-alls who’ll bicker about anything, even shit they’re not experts in. Rashida and Jerry are on the other side, actually popping the bonnet to take a look.

He ducks behind Adi’s Civic and takes the call. “Hey,” he says, “kinda late for this, innit?”

“That depends on where you are right now,” Harry says.

“Uh, Arkansas still,” Niall says, “I think.”

“Actually, it’s always going to work in my advantage,” Harry replies, “coz unless you’re on another continent, the sun’s always gonna set on California last.” He hums happily, like the entire timezone grid of the U.S. was waiting for his approval and he’s just decided to give it. “I was reading more about storm chasing this morning,” he says. “It was so interesting that I almost forgot to go to my eleven-thirty meeting.”

“For fuck’s sake, Haz, go to your meetings,” Niall says, though without bite, because even if Harry moves at his own pace, which used to drive him stark raving mad during the band, he’s never known Harry to accidentally miss things in his calendar. Harry’s not like that. He isn’t forgetful, he’s just got a truly personalized concept of time.

“And I bet,” Niall adds, “you were just reading the Wikipedia article.”

“Oh totally,” Harry says, “like did you know that many storm-chasers are lovers of nature with interests that also include, uh,” he pauses, and Niall can only picture Harry squinting at his iPad, “flora, fauna, volcanoes, aurora, meteors, eclipses, and astronomy? Tell me, Niall, are you also a lover of flora, fauna, volcanoes, aurora, meteors—”

“Sod off,” Niall laughs.

“If we don’t make sure Wikipedia articles tell the truth, then who will?” Harry says sternly. “It’s the people’s encyclopedia, and we are the people. Wikipedia also says ‘when storms are going on, there is often little or no time to eat or relieve oneself.’ Is this true, Niall? I hope you’re properly relieving yourself. Maybe you ought to keep a log, so you remember to relieve yourself regularly.”

“My weeing diary: Niall Horan, age twenty-four. I’ll send ya updates every time,” Niall says, and Harry sounds like he’s actually considering it, the barmy lad. When Niall hangs up, he’s still laughing quietly, and the rest of the team seems to have sorted their car troubles out, or at least come to a decision of mutual ignorance, because Adi’s watching him with her eyebrows raised.

“‘s a mate of mine,” Niall says, somewhat guiltily. “Haven’t heard from him in a while.”

“I’d worry more if you didn’t have someone at home to call,” she replies. “Was starting to think you were a serial killer.” Her eyebrows lower and then pinch together. “Was it Liam, the cute one?”

“No,” Niall says, “and what the hell, I’m obviously the cute one.”

“Mm,” she says doubtfully, so he pretends to kick her in the arse while she ducks for safety. It’s only later, when they’re driving back to town and keeping an eye on Jerry, that he realizes this time Harry hadn’t seemed drunk at all.

 

:::

 

Thing is, it’s so easy to talk to Harry again. Niall loves all the boys of One Direction, they’re his brothers, he’d step in front of a speeding lorry for them, even Zayn, who Niall still loves the way you love someone enough to let them go. But Harry’s always been the easiest to talk to. With Louis and Zayn, he’d always had to reckon with their sharpness, their moods, the way they’d never wanted anyone to get one up over them. And Liam Niall’s always been soft for, always wanted to give him the entire world, to never have a reason that’d make him stop smiling.

But with Harry, he could just say whatever dumb stuff that was skimming the top of his head and not fuss over how it’d be taken. Maybe it started out because Harry was the youngest, the baby of the group, so it was alright that Niall never had to put up a front for him; he just assumed that if he was happy or sad or freaked out, then Harry probably was too.

He’s never felt the need to impress Harry, to act cooler and spin big stories the way he sometimes did for the others. Niall’s a dork, and Harry’s a dweeb, and even if Harry grew up to become an international heartthrob, the sort of person other pop stars write breakup songs over, and Niall turned into a bloke who drops off the radar and chases storms, well, that don’t change anything. They always did get that about each other, let themselves clink together like dice.

In Dumas, Arkansas, he turns the corner hall in the Days Inn to use the ice machine, and he nearly trips over Pierre and Rashida pressed against each other and their good friend the wall, while they snog each other’s faces off. Niall doesn’t squeak, he really doesn’t, but he whips himself around the corner again, face red.

Jerry’s in the car park, repacking his Corolla. When he sees Niall’s face, he chuckles. “You saw them too, huh? Bed’s just too far for them to get to when they’re like that.”

It’s not like Niall hasn’t stumbled over Zayn or Harry with their girls a thousand times over, but Pierre and Rashida are, well, old and married and he’s pretty sure they have a kid in uni, and he’s forgotten, nearly, that people could be like that. Could want each other so much they’d hanker to get their hands over each other in broad daylight, right beside the hum of the ice machine.

“When you’re out on the road for this long,” Jerry’s saying, “you need something to quench your thirst, know what I mean?”

And uh, no, Niall loves Jerry, he really does, loves his bald patch and his paunch belly and his ability to giggle like a thirteen-year-old with a boy band poster on his bedroom wall, but he doesn’t want to know what quenches Jerry’s thirst. Only he doesn’t have much of a choice because Jerry’s reaching into his car boot and pulling out a scrapbook. Niall can see the edges of worn, dog-eared photos sticking out between the pages.

“I think Adi’s calling me,” Niall says desperately. “I think she’s fallen into the loo.” But Jerry gives him a skeptical look and opens his scrapbook, and it’s storm photos on every page.

“Who needs a pinup girl when you can have this,” Jerry says, and breathlessly points out all his favourite photos to Niall, ones he’s taken and ones he’s clipped from the internet. Underneath each picture Jerry’s painstakingly written the date and place, and Niall can see that the photos span decades of Jerry’s life. Jerry’s even given nicknames to some of the very best storms, and gives Niall a rundown of the greatest hits, his face sweating red with pleasure as he describes the details lovingly.

Harry laughs until he drops the phone when Niall tells him later that night. “Some blokes do it with Playboy, some get off on pictures of lightning,” he says. “Now which camp do you fall into?”

“Ha ha,” Niall says. “When he pulled out that book, I honestly reckoned I was done for, but it actually wasn’t that weird? Was sort of sweet, really.”

“This is where it begins,” Harry says. “When you’re inviting us to your commitment ceremony to your favourite weather phenomenon, I’ll give the best man’s toast and mention this day.”

“Oh fuck off,” Niall laughs.

“No, I mean it,” Harry says gleefully. “This could be an untapped market for niche pornography. We could make our own magazine and call it…” he drops his voice to a low growl, “Jizz Storm.”

“Pretty certain that was the unofficial title of any One Direction tour,” Niall says.

Cum Tornado,” says Harry.

“Light drizzle with a chance of dick juice,” Niall says, and fuck, it feels good to make Harry wheeze with laughter. It’s like a glimpse of how things were before everything went tits-up. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get this chance again, but time and distance’s a magical brew, and he can joke around with Harry without being a sad sack about it. It’s fantastic, having his best mate back in his pocket, even if a part of him’s waiting for the catch.

He wonders about that, during a call when Harry’s exfoliating his legs, which he knows because Harry’s talking him through the entire process, and also rambling again about apple pie. “I tried making it for real,” Harry says.

“Real as in sober?” Niall asks dryly.

“Yeah!” says Harry. “You know, I’m very concerned you’re basically road tripping across small town America and you aren’t stuffing your gob with apple pie. Have all the movies been lying to me?”

“This may shock you,” Niall says, “so hold onto something tight. But I’m actually pretty indifferent to fruit pie? Apple or otherwise. If you got to give me a pie, give me a good shepherd’s pie any day.”

“I am agog at your hatred of fruit, Niall,” Harry says. “Simply astonished. Me and my exfoliated legs can’t even. Hey,” he adds, “did you know that apple pie wasn’t even invented in America?”

Niall shifts his mobile from one shoulder to the other, studying the vending machine in the motel hallway. “Think I did know that, come to think of it,” he says. “What do you reckon I ought to get, a Coke or a Sprite?”

“Neither,” says Harry, “coz your body is a wonderland and you shouldn’t put poison in it.”

“I think I’ll go for a Dr. Pepper, thanks,” Niall says cheerfully while Harry makes disapproving noises at the lack of coconut water options in Dumas, population 4,706. “So what, you were trying to make pie again?”

“I gave it another go,” Harry says, “but I think I did it wrong. Well, first I forgot the shortening. Then I put in too much flour and it came out crumbly. I had to bin it. Well, after I made Kendall eat some and she told me bin it or else.”

The sound of the Dr. Pepper can hitting the bottom of the machine sends a hollow echo through Niall’s ears. Harry, realizing what he’s just said, says, “Wait, no, we’re just friends! ‘s not like what they say.” He takes a breath, reading Niall’s silence for what it is. “Maybe we did fool around in the past but it was just for a laugh. I know she’s got someone else on her mind, and so do I.”

“None of my business,” Niall says. He picks up the Dr. Pepper and it’s sweating cold in his hand.

“I told you, it’s not like—”

“No, it really is none of my business,” Niall says lightly. “Go on then, tell me more about your pathetic attempts to bake a pie. ‘m starting to think your entire story about working in a bakery was a filthy lie,” and so Harry does tell him, and Niall listens and laughs at all the right places.

 

:::

 

Harry calls him at all hours, sometimes in the mornings on his way to the studio, sometimes in the afternoon when he’s hiding in the loo from his producer — Niall’s gotten more butt dials than he ever thought possible — but most of the time, Harry rings him at night when he can’t sleep.

Storms aren’t courteous enough to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule, and when they’re knee-deep in wind shear and updrafts, Niall won’t pick up because he’s got to help his team first. At first he doesn’t pick up when they’re in the field but no one’s doing anything important, just waiting, because Adi’s still in the car beside him and it’s not the same as the privacy of his motel room where he can say anything.

But then he misses three calls in a row from Harry, doesn’t get to talk to him for nearly a week, and the next time when Harry calls at two a.m., and he’s in Adi’s car, he glances sideways at her before answering quickly. She’s working on a newspaper crossword and grumbling about how you’d have to be a bona fide American to answer any of these pop culture clues; she hardly even notices what he's up to.

“Hiiiii,” Harry says. “So, I think a cat’s been stalking me.”

“It thinks you’re food,” Niall says immediately. “It knows you’re soft and weak and fluffy. Prolly thinks there’s a mouse nest in your hair.”

Adi looks over at him, and then goes back to her crossword, still scowling. Niall shrugs at her and settles more comfortably into his seat. He’s been sitting in it so much, it’s perfectly molded to the shape of his arse. Outside the windows they can see fat raindrops hit the ground like little bombs. There’s a low-key mumble from the transceiver that’s Pierre and Jerry talking about downburst winds.

“It’s not a stray cat,” Harry says, “‘m pretty sure it belongs to my new neighbours. Did I tell you about them? I think he’s a—” Niall can picture Harry screwing up his face in thought, “—banker of some sort? Hedge fund manager? What’s that job in Vogue?”

“Pretty sure Vogue’s about fashion, not banking, mate.”

“No, like,” Harry says patiently, “in the articles about so-and-so’s beautiful house with their perfect English garden and their stable full of horses, the lady’s always a socialite-turned-designer, and she’s always married to a man who’s a hedge fund manager or summat.” He hums. “Seems weird to me, like why can’t socialite-designer ladies ever marry blokes who’re accountants or chemists or mimes. Or the other way round too. Why can’t hedge fund managers marry, like, a lady who’s a tree trimmer?”

“Not sure how they’d meet then,” Niall says.

“Well, she could be trimming trees and he could be watching her from the window because he really likes trees, and also she has nice forearms?” Harry says. “I dunno. You got to use your imagination, Niall.”

“Haz, you have a million dollars in the bank,” Niall says. “How many tree trimmers have you met lately?”

“None,” Harry admits, “but I want to try! I get my house cleaned and my lawn mowed, don’t I. Seems wrong to not know anything about the people who do it. Don’t want to be a snob just coz I got money now.” Niall can hear him poking around his bedroom, turning down the blankets and crawling into bed. “But lately the only new person who wants to talk to me is this cat.”

“Been having rich and meaningful conversations, have you,” Niall says.

“When I get home, she’s always waiting on my stoop and follows me inside,” Harry says, followed by sounds of rustling that means he’s trying to get comfortable in bed. Niall does his best not to think about that too deeply. “Dunno how she gets past my gate, but she does. I’m thinking about catnapping her. Clearly she’s not being satisfied at home.”

“I think if anyone got hold of a picture with you and a cat,” Niall says truthfully, “the entire internet would explode. Best not to do it, mate.”

They chat a bit longer, having the craic about this cat and her possibly nefarious motives for trying to get into Harry’s affections, until Harry’s zonked out and Niall’s listening to the sound of his snores for a beat too long before hanging up. The storm’s progressing and Adi’s put her crossword away to start up the car again.

In the morning Harry sends Niall a picture of a grey tabby snoozing on a Restoration Hardware couch. Niall sends him a picture of last night’s storm, followed by a picture of Rashida eating apple pie at a mom and pop diner. Harry sends him an angry face emoji. Why aren’t YOU eating it? he writes.

ur jonesing for a sexy selfie, styles??? Niall shoots back.

Some of us need more than just tornado pics in our wank bank, Harry writes, and Niall sends him three knife emojis in quick succession, and puts away his phone while laughing.

He spends the rest of the afternoon with Rashida who shows him how to use her ham radio that she built, and it’s a brilliant feeling because Rashida usually keeps to herself and Pierre, doesn’t have a lot to say to Niall even on the best days. But now she takes the time to show him the different frequencies storm spotters use to communicate with each other and the local authorities. She talks to him about Skywarn and the National Weather Service, where she used to work before she took the time off to have a baby and there was no job for her to go back to once that baby was grown.

“Think I’m a bit like you,” she says softly, adjusting her shawl. “I had my dream job, and now I don’t know what to do next.”

“I — uh — yeah,” Niall stammers, because Rashida still intimidates him a little with her cool calm, especially when she leaves him with the radio and wanders off humming but if you like causing trouble up in hotel rooms.

“What’s that song, darling?” Pierre calls out.

“Never you mind,” she says.

 

:::

 

Harry’s crying when Niall picks up. Harry’s an ugly crier, no doubt about it, all huge wracking sobs and if Niall were around to see, blotchy pink face and puffy eyes too. Louis once went an entire month with Harry’s weepy face at a wedding reception set as his phone wallpaper, just for a laugh, until Niall helped Harry steal Louis’ phone and change it to a picture of Gerber babies.

“Oh fuck, what’s wrong?” Niall asks, trying not to panic.

“I just—” Harry gulps, “I just—”

“Come on, spit it out.”

“I just watched Titanic for the first time and it was so sad,” says Harry.

“What the fuck,” Niall says, staring down at his phone. “Harry, you goddamn wanker, you really freaked me out there, I thought maybe someone was dead, so don’t do that again.”

Harry ignores him. “Nature is truly a frightening force,” he says sternly, though the sternness is somewhat ruined by the fact that he’s now hiccupping. “I don’t like the thought of you out there without me to protect you. Anything could happen! A twister could crush your car. A flood could sweep you out to sea. A bear could come and eat you for supper.”

“Agggh,” Niall says, and hangs up.

“Never mind, this is actually serious,” Harry says when he calls back the next evening. “Where’re you right now?”

“m in bed,” Niall yawns, and he’s tired, strung out from fourteen hours tracking this one storm across the ridges of eastern Tennessee. “Was gonna have a wank and then go to sleep, what’s this about then?”

Harry goes silent for a second. “Oh, uh, I can ring you another time if you want?” he says, and Niall snorts at how hesitant Harry sounds because it’s so unlike him, but this phone buddy thing isn’t anything they’ve ever done before, so all of it’s new and strange and woolly.

“Later I’ll be busy,” he says. “Rashida’s got her eye on another storm brewing not far from here, so you might as well spill the beans now. What can I do for ya, Haz?” He flips over onto his stomach and peers at the motel alarm clock. “Isn’t it, like, three a.m. in L.A?”

“Couldn’t sleep tonight,” Harry admits softly. “Couldn’t get this track right either. I keep thinking, maybe if I work on this song and figure it out, it’ll help me fall asleep, but it’s rubbish so far. I keep getting stuck at the hook.”

“Play it for me then,” Niall says, biting back another yawn. God, he’s fucking knackered, but he wants to hear the song Harry’s working on, knows the pressure Harry’s under to deliver material for his album. He tells him this, and Harry queues up the unfinished track that’s him singing about hungry hearts, putting Niall on speakerphone so he can hear both Harry and the song at the same time.

“See what I mean?” Harry says when he’s played it once. “It don’t sound right, the way the verse jumps into the chorus. There’s something missing there, I think.” He sounds frustrated, and Niall can picture him combing his hair out of his eyes with his fingers.

“Hang on, give me a mo,” Niall says, hanging off the bed to grab his guitar. He plops it on his lap, scrambling into a cross-legged position on the bed. “Play it for me again.” Harry does, and Niall starts strumming along, getting a feel for it — it’s a Harry song for certain, full of the quirks and tics Niall’s come to associate with Harry’s songwriting style, and it’s so familiar that his fingers know where to go nearly before the rest of him does, playing Harry’s tricky hook back at him while he talks out loud.

“Yeah, I see what you mean there, it’s too abrupt,” he says. “Hmm, how about—” He shifts the chords a bit, and Harry makes an interested noise. “Nah, that’s not quite it either. Or what about—” He tries something else.

Harry sings the hook for him again. “Wait, do you think that’s any good either?” he asks. “Liam thinks the words need work too. Liam says hi, by the way. Misses you loads.”

“Miss him too,” Niall says, because it’s always easy when it comes to Payno. “Lyrics are fine, I reckon. It’s your hungry heart. You can fill it up however you want to. You just got to find the chord progression and it’ll all gel together.”

Harry laughs tiredly. “Sure I’m not keeping you up? We can do this again when you’ve the time.”

“Well, I checked with my PA,” Niall says cheekily, “and she says now’s a good a time as any in my crowded celebrity schedule. C’mon, mate. Let’s try that bit again. I can sleep in the car tomorrow while Adi drives, it’s no big deal.”

They play through the song again and again, brainstorming about what works and doesn’t work. The lyrics Harry’s wrote are about desire and sex and being hungry even after your person’s left you, and it makes Niall think about them, their history, though Niall’s so far gone on him that any song will do that trick.

He hasn’t been able to listen to the radio for years without thinking about Harry and that one night in London, after they’d wrapped up the last few meetings with their lawyers and record execs finalizing the termination of their contract. He’d signed his name to so many papers his wrist cramped up, and on the steps to the underground car park with his Range Rover and driver waiting, he’d squeezed all his lads together in a group hug because he wasn’t sure when he was going to see them next.

So that’s that, he’d thought with an anvil in his chest, and was genuinely surprised when Harry decided to follow him back to his London house. Surprised because Harry’d seemed like the one who most wanted to break up the band, bigger and better projects waiting for him in glitzy L.A. He didn’t need Niall anymore, certainly didn’t need to sprawl on Niall’s couch and crack open a beer, watching footie on the telly while Niall stared at him with the sort of strange incredulity he reserves for bizarre zoo animals.

But he’d figured, Harry was allowed to be lonely too. And it’d made Niall’s chest feel light and happy, knowing that Harry had picked him out of all the lads to faff around with, that Niall was maybe still his favourite, even at the end. So he’d joined Harry on the couch, helping him make quick work out of Niall’s case of Carlsberg, until they were both drunk and giggly and handsy, and somehow that turned into them giving each other blowjobs, Niall gasping with his head in the clouds while Harry licked stripes up and down his cock, eager but clumsy in his inexperience.

You’re not very good at this, Niall had said, giggling and trying not to rock his hips. First time with a bloke?

And Harry had grinned up at him, mouth red. I’m a curious boy. Gotta try everything at least once.

That’s not what the song is about though. He’s stupid to even think about it. Harry probably doesn’t even remember that night. “Hey,” Niall says, trying to hide how his voice has gone hoarse, “what if we take out this bit,” he plays it on his guitar, “and add this in? Would that make the progression smoother?”

“Let me hear it again,” Harry murmurs. “I’m not sure.”

“Gotta try everything at least once,” Niall says, and then snaps his jaw shut because he didn’t mean to say that, didn’t mean to throw Harry’s words back in his face when they’re talking about something entirely different.

It’s fine that Niall was Harry’s experiment back then, better him than poor Liam, or god forbid, Louis. They all knew that Niall was the one who got off with blokes sometimes, who’d stare at their fit sound techs for a beat too long, so it makes sense that when Harry got curious he’d go to Niall first.

Niall would like to think that if Harry pulled that shit again now, he’d have the sense to say nope, soz, he’s not interested in being anyone’s fairy godmother of gay sex. But truth is, sitting here on a 60-dollar-a-night bed in the wee hours of the morning, jamming together, he knows that if Harry wanted to booty call him, he’d be on the first flight out to L.A. His storm team would look for him in the morning and find only a puddle of clothes where his dignity used to be.

Good thing Harry isn’t asking. Harry just wants help with his song, but even that makes Niall feel lightheaded. It’s working with Harry like he used to, yeah, clicking into a familiar writing groove, but it’s also doing this again, making music he’s good at. Harry and music are the two things he’s never been able to sweat out of his body; they’re in him always, like a fever.

The morning’s creeping in through the windows when they finally stop working, Niall’s knuckles tight and sore over his guitar strings. “How’s that feel?” he croaks. “Forget the song, we’ll work on that later. How’d you feel about getting some sleep?”

“Mm, nearly there,” Harry says. The sound of his slow, even breathing is impossibly loud over the phone. “Tell me about what you’re up to. Tell me something about storms. I wanna hear it all.”

“Sure,” Niall rasps, putting his guitar away and pressing his cheek against his pillow. “I ever tell you what it’s like to go into the bear’s cage?”

“I told you!” Harry says. “No getting eaten by bears!”

“No, you twat, the bear’s cage is what we call the dangerous part of a storm,” Niall says, rubbing at his tired, itchy eyes. “The wall cloud’s the bear, where a tornado’s starting up, see? The rain and the hail’s all around you — that’s the cage.” He rolls around to lie on his back, and talks to Harry slowly and sleepily about all the things he’s learned in the field, until he can see the sunlight sifting through the slits in his curtains, and six states over in California, Harry’s snoring.

 

:::

 

The tornado’s gathering about five miles east of the municipal airport in Humboldt, Tennessee. Adi’s face is still green from eating bad shrimp last night. “I did tell you not to order the shrimp,” Pierre chides for the fifteenth time over the transceiver, which Niall privately agrees with, it’s her own fault for going out by herself instead of eating the meal he’d offered to make. He would have cooked the shrimp properly.

She throws the transceiver a truly hateful glare and says to Niall, “Take the wheel, I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

She’s never let him drive her Civic before, and he’s scrambling into the driver’s seat before she can have time to change her mind. The wind and the rain howl at him, soaking him through his windbreaker before he’s in the driver’s seat, slamming the door shut and snapping on his seatbelt. “I hope you feel better very soon,” he says with every ounce of sincerity even as he’s cackling to himself with delight.

The wheel feels worn and solid beneath his hands, still hot from Adi’s skin. The storm’s whipcord fierce outside, and he gets hit in the face with another sheet of rain as Adi gingerly climbs into the passenger’s seat. She groans and slumps over onto the dashboard. Niall’s foot comes down on the accelerator, hard, jolting her.

“Christ,” she says.

“Sorry, sorry,” he says, going gentler. The tornado funnel’s half visible from inside the walls of the cage, and he squints at it, watchful in a way he never was before he met this team. They’ve been waiting for this wall cloud to descend for over two hours, and now it’s here, and he’s ready for it, his skin shivering with cold and excitement as he follows Pierre out into the storm.

“Keep a safe distance behind us,” he hears Rashida say over the transceiver. “We don’t want you to get hurt here, Niall.”

“What would your fans say,” Jerry agrees.

“Niall has fans?” Pierre asks in confusion. “What for?”

“I’ll be safe,” Niall promises, but it’s hard to follow their instructions when what he wants to follow most is the storm. The sound of it is like the low crescendo of waking up in a hotel on tour and hearing crowds gather beneath his window, shouting his name and hoping for a glimpse of him. The noise they made when he popped out on his balcony to wave had been deafening, sometimes.

The sound of the storm outside Humboldt, Tennessee builds and builds until his head rings with ghostly echoes, and the sky’s iron grey and decided to swap out spitting rain for hail. Tiny little bullets of ice smack into the windshield before getting swept away by his furiously swishing wipers.

Up ahead Pierre’s chasing the cyclone with single-minded determination, the equipment on top of his Jeep rattling with the force of the hail. Niall trails him, listening to Rashida read the numbers as they come in: wind shear, wind direction, GIS coordinates. Adi groans again in the passenger seat, fumbling for a baggie to vom into, and he knows the car’s got to be making her feel even worse, especially at the speeds he’s driving it, but she doesn’t tell him to stop, probably won’t ever when she loves this even more than he does.

The road is flat, stretching on for ages, and Niall drives it with his heart leapfrogging in his chest until there’s a sudden sound that bursts his eardrums and there’s electrical sparks bouncing off his windshield.

He slams on the brakes. Adi screams. He screams too.

“Holy shit!” he shouts. “Was that — fuck — was that lightning?”

Pierre’d explained it to him from the very beginning, that it isn't the rubber wheels that make a car safe when lightning strikes it. It’s the metal top, the carriage, something to do with creating a Faraday cage. Niall’s not quite sure of the science of it, only that the golden sparks from the boom are still skittering across the glass, and his breath’s wedged in his throat, his knuckles tight on the wheel.

“Don’t touch anything metal!” Adi snaps. “Put your hands on your lap and keep them there.”

Niall lets go of the wheel and obeys, breathing hard.

“Electrical current could still be passing through the car,” she says. “Got to wait for it to enter the ground before we know it’s safe.” She then leans over and voms into her Dollar General bag. Good thing it’s plastic, Niall thinks shakily.

“Well,” she says weakly, when she’s done, “it was bound to happen at least once. I think it’s okay now to move around.”

He nods, bites his lip. Then, “fuck!” he says with real feeling, and his face breaks open in a grin. “We got struck by lightning! That was fucking amazing.”

30,000 amps of current, and the electrical gauges in the car are fried, not to mention both front wheels are blown out. They have to wait there like sitting ducks in the storm, watching the tornado pass them, until a tow-truck from town comes to fetch them, hauling them in for repairs. It’s one of the best nights of Niall’s life, hands down.

There’s a text on his phone from Harry when he remembers to check, standing around the garage with Jerry, who’s come to help figure out the situation with the car since Adi’s in no fit state to do it. The text consists of a picture of Harry’s bare shoulder, where it’s red and flaky, and do you think this is a medical condition???

Niall calls him. “Pretty sure it’s just a sunburn, mate,” he says when Harry picks up.

“Maybe,” Harry says dubiously. “You sound breathless, Niall, why do you sound breathless? Am I interrupting you from something — or someone.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” Niall says brightly. “I was getting hot and heavy with some lightning strikes.”

What?” Harry shrieks.

 

:::

 

Niall pays for the repairs to Adi’s car because whatever, he has the money and it’s not like he’s doing much else with it. She’s not pleased by his offer, but she doesn’t say no either. Either way it means they’re stranded in Humboldt for the time being. “You don’t have to wait for me,” she tells them. “You could go on to the next storm — Niall, you can ride with Jerry — and when my car’s fixed, I’ll catch up.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Pierre says. “I think we’re all glad for a bit of a break, aren’t we?”

“We can use this time to start writing up our data,” Rashida says. “Get a head start on it instead of leaving it all to the end. Don’t look so glum, Adesola, this is really a blessing in disguise.”

They get rooms at the Knights Inn in town, and Niall goes to the Aldi Food Market to pick up some ingredients for supper. He’s been looking up recipes for Nigerian moin moin, because it might make Adi happy, though it’ll have to be moin moin Tennessee-style with what he can scrounge at the store. He picks up a bag of black-eyed peas, some onions, and bell peppers, and is loading the rest into Jerry’s car when a rental Hyundai Sonata pulls up beside him in the car park.

“Hi,” says Harry, rolling down his window.

“What the hell,” says Niall.

You got hit by lightning,” Harry says, getting out of the car.

“The car got hit,” Niall says slowly, not sure what’s going on. “I told you, I’m fine.”

“Well, good,” Harry says stubbornly, and keeps on staring at him. It makes Niall self-conscious, is what it does. Niall’s in his stormtrooper t-shirt with ripped jeans and worn, banged up Supras covered in mud. He’s carrying bags of discount groceries, and his dark roots are showing, and he hasn’t shaved in days.

Harry, on the other hand, is in a silk Gucci shirt, silver studded boots, and he’s wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat like he thinks it’ll make him more inconspicuous but really only makes him look even more intensely like Harry fucking Styles. He fingers his cross nervously, his face soft and tired from insomnia despite how sharp he looks, and Niall swallows.

“Are you taller?” Harry asks.

“Not likely.”

“Oh. You seem taller,” Harry says, tilting his head. “Maybe it’s coz there’s so much of you I want to look at.”

“Jesus,” Niall says, discomfited as always with how freely Harry throws his affections around. “It’s good to see your dumb face again, Styles, though I got to admit, this ain’t exactly how I pictured how we’d do it.” He shoves the last bag of groceries into the boot and slams it shut. “Thought you were supposed to be making an album.”

“Thought you were supposed to not be hit by lightning,” Harry parrots. “It’s alright. Jeff knows I’m here. Told him I needed a bit of a break since I haven’t been, you know, sleeping well.”

“You aren’t the only one who needs a break,” Niall says, and Harry scrunches up his face in confusion. “Never mind,” Niall says, smiling. “Want to come back and have supper with us? Since you’re here and all.”

It ought to be weird, going back to the Knights Inn and introducing Harry to the rest of the team. It isn’t weird at all; it feels right, like two parts of his life slotting together. Harry’s charming and polite, pushing through his red-eye weariness, and Niall’s so proud of him, the way Harry knows to ask Pierre and Rashida about their work, and Jerry his photos, and Adi her home. Niall gets to cooking the moin moin, throwing the occasional glance over to see if Harry’s doing all right. Harry always is, but Niall decides to save him anyway by calling out, “Could use some prep help here, mate.”

“Thanks,” he says, bumping his shoulder against Harry’s as Harry picks up a knife.

“For what?” Harry asks curiously.

“For being so good to them,” Niall says. “I know they’re not your usual Hollywood lot but—”

“I can be friends with people who aren’t famous,” Harry says, sounding angry. “I haven’t changed that much.”

“‘s not what I meant,” Niall says. It’s not about fame or money or whatever; it’s about how bright Harry is, how he lights up every room that he’s in, and everyone who’s around him feels like a dull half-shadow. He doesn’t say that, though, just gives Harry an onion to start chopping.

Harry must really be struggling with his album that he’d track Niall down to come visit, Niall thinks, but he doesn’t ask about that, just like how Harry’s never asked him why he’s out here, doing this. They finish prepping the moin moin and then set it to cook while Pierre and Adi continue the Empire Strikes Back portion of their Star Wars marathon, Rashida sitting at Pierre’s feet knitting while Jerry sprawls out beside her, more than half asleep while waiting for his son to text back.

“It’s too bad you’re grounded right now,” Harry says, whispering so that they don’t distract the others. “Would’ve liked to go on a chase with you.”

“Yeah,” Niall says.

When the moin moin’s ready, they pause the movie and eat it all together on the ground, not even bothering with tables or chairs. Adi makes happy sounds as she shovels it into her mouth. “It tastes like something my seven-year-old cousin would make,” she says, “but truly in this case it’s the thought that counts. You’re a good egg, Niall.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Harry asks brightly, ruffling Niall’s hair while Niall ducks and shoves him aside. “I remember when we first started touring, I’d get homesick, couldn’t sleep, and Niall was always the one who made it better. Always thinking of the rest of us. He was our lucky charm, our bright ball of Irish sunshine.”

“Fuck off,” Niall says, laughing, “you’re making me sound like a pet dog, not a human being.”

“Wait, you two were on tour together?” Pierre asks, furrowing his brow. “Are you... part of a band?”

“Oh my god, honey,” says Rashida, “come here and I’ll show you something neat on the internet.”

Jerry burps and rubs his belly, well-satisfied from his tins of Campbell soup. “I saw a bar next door, looked kind of decent. Who’s up for some beers?”

“Always,” says Niall, and Harry nods along.

 

:::

 

Two pints in, and he’s stumbling to the loo when Adi comes out of the ladies’ and says, too casually, “So your friend Harry just happened to be in town the same time as us, did he? Humboldt must be an entertainment mecca these days.”

“Must be,” Niall says. “See you’re feeling better now.”

“The curative power of your cooking,” she says expansively. “Also, I think it’s romantic. Harry coming out here for you.”

“‘s not like that all,” Niall says, feeling his stomach squirm. “Nothing romantic about it, it’s just that he—” he shrugs. “I think he’s feeling a bit lost too, and maybe I’m the only one who gets that, knows what it’s like.” She gives him a look he can’t decipher, but he doesn’t want to argue about this with Adi, who doesn’t get it, not when he’s got Harry sitting at the bar waiting for him.

“Heyyy, I’m back,” Niall says, wrapping an arm around Harry’s shoulder. He leans into him, marveling at Harry’s warmth, the two-pint brightness in Harry’s eyes. Harry beams at him like Niall’s the thing he’s been searching for this entire time.

“Heyyy,” Harry replies, nosing into Niall’s shoulder. “I was watching Rashida wipe Jerry’s arse on the floor at darts.”

“He never learns,” Niall says, sliding back onto the barstool.

“So,” Harry says, “do you want to see a picture of my neighbours’ cat? I’ve decided to call her Apple Pie.” He laughs softly to himself, and Niall tries not to stare too adoringly at Harry’s profile because 1) creepy and 2) Harry’s not actually that funny, objectively speaking, it’s only Niall’s daft, treacherous heart that thinks so.

“Let the Apple Pie picture show commence,” Niall says, waving his hand. He orders them another round of pints, and downs his readily as Harry flicks through a series of increasingly mundane cat photos on his phone: Apple Pie snoozing in a puddle of butterscotch sunlight, Apple Pie poking her nose into Harry’s pool, Apple Pie dressed up with a ribbon around her head and Harry’s face half-squished in the frame of the photo in the world’s least coordinated selfie.

“Apple Pie’s scared of the rain,” Harry says smugly, glancing at him like he’s daring him to make something out of that. Niall snorts.

“You live in SoCal. What rain?”

“It rains sometimes!” Harry says.

“Like a fairy pissing herself over the city,” Niall says. “Let me tell you about real rain.”

“I’m from England,” Harry rolls his eyes, “I know what rain is.”

“Nah, you really don’t,” Niall says, and grabs at Harry’s hand so that he can tell him about all the amazing storms he’s seen. He doesn’t even realize what he’s done until Harry’s fingers are curling around his, and he can feel the cool press of Harry’s rings against his own overwarm skin. Niall licks his lips, his mouth suddenly dry and parched, but that’s nothing more beer won’t fix, he thinks.

They’re well on the way to pissed, and an hour later Niall’s finally realized that the bar’s mostly empty and he and Harry have been scooching closer to each other this entire time, dragging their stools until their thighs are pressed together, until Niall’s practically straddling on Harry’s lap. He feels warm and sweaty and anxious, licking his lips again while Harry watches him, wide-eyed but quiet.

“What’re you thinking right now?” Harry asks in his gravelly voice.

“Thinking about why you’re here,” Niall admits. “Thinking about going back to the inn and getting out my guitar and working on Hungry Hearts with you. Isn’t that why you came?”

Harry leans in even closer, until his hair is falling out of his bun and it brushes against Niall’s cheekbones. Niall hisses in a breath, sharply. “Part of it,” Harry says, voice so low as to be a whisper. “But also I came out here to kiss you.”

“Oh,” Niall says.

“I mean — can I?” Harry asks.

“I, uh, yeah,” Niall swallows, “but not here.”

Thank god the bar’s right bang beside the inn, Niall thinks, because he’s not sure he can get his legs to work properly, not sure he can get his pulse to stop hammering in the soft spots of his wrists and his throat. He fumbles with his key card when they get to his door, all too aware of Harry behind him, patient and polite and not demanding anything of Niall, which makes it even worse because Niall wants it, so bad, like he’s worried he’ll scare Harry off with his eagerness.

He shouldn’t have worried, though, because when they get through the door and Niall’s closing it behind him, Harry forgets patience, forgets politeness and courtesy and gentlemanly behaviour, and he crowds Niall up against the wall, kissing him. Niall groans and kisses back, thirsty, pressing a knee between Harry’s thighs and burying his fingers in Harry’s hair.

They trade tipsy, sweet kisses for a long time, Niall sipping kisses from Harry’s mouth while Harry whimpers and shivers, shoulders braced over Niall’s body. His arms tremble where they’re pinning Niall against the wall, and Niall brings one of Harry’s hands to his mouth, bites at his fingers and nips at his wrist. He can feel Harry’s pulse beating even louder than his, wants to keep time by it through the press of his teeth.

“Is this alright,” Harry gasps, and Niall shoves him backwards towards the room and the bed.

“Get the fuck out of your clothes,” he says, and Harry scrambles to obey. He rips the buttons off his very expensive shirt in his haste, and starts tugging off his trousers, only it gets a bit confused because he keeps trying to kiss Niall at the same time, Niall laughing as he leans in and kisses back, purposefully trying to distract Harry from his task.

Harry growls, swearing and looking upset until Niall takes pity on him and leans back, dropping himself onto the mattress and letting Harry get the rest of his kit off. “Pants too,” Niall says, and has to press his nails into his thigh when Harry shimmies out of his briefs and Niall sees the long, hard curve of Harry’s cock against all that lovely tattooed skin.

Suddenly it seems like an egregious error that he hasn’t memorized all of Harry’s tattoos, have forgotten about some of them in the time that’s passed since. It seems unbearable to him that he allowed this to happen. He makes up for his sins by pulling Harry onto the bed with him and crawling on top, kissing each one of Harry’s tattoos that he can find. Harry groans and arches his back, his throat as taut as a kite-string. “Niall,” he says. “Fuck, Niall, why’re you still wearing so many clothes.”

Niall ignores him, continues kissing the swoop of Harry’s collarbone, the muscles of his forearms, the long, smooth plane of his belly. “You’re so gorgeous,” he says, “fuck, you turn me on,” and Harry makes a sound that goes straight to Niall’s prick, so that he’s got no choice but to crawl back up and kiss him on the mouth again, tasting Harry’s moans as he wraps a hand around Harry’s hair and tugs gently.

Harry goes crazy for that, becoming a tangle of limbs as he rolls them over on the bed and goes about getting Niall out of his kit. Niall keeps a hand tangled casually in Harry’s hair, watching Harry go dark-eyed and shivery every time his fingers tighten.

“You’ve so much more stubble than last time,” Harry pants when he’s finally gotten Niall out of his clothes, and Niall’s lying beneath him, snogging him lazily.

“Haven’t bothered to shave lately,” Niall says. “You like that?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, turning pink, and Niall rewards him by flipping them over and kissing the sharp cut of Harry’s hipbones, rubbing his stubble all over Harry’s laurels and then moves lower onto his thighs. Harry cries out at that, yoga-fit thighs tightening around Niall’s head, and then cries out even more loudly when Niall licks at his fat, leaking cock. Harry’s got such a beautiful cock, he thinks, it deserves to be immortalized in a museum, but not until Niall’s done with it.

He takes Harry’s cock into his mouth and enjoys it for a long while, licking at it like a lolly, wet and sloppy and filthy, taking his time. Harry’s a trembling mess by the time Niall leans off with a squelch and a pop, a line of precome dangling from his mouth to the head of Harry’s cock. He makes sure to lick the precome all over his lips, showing how much he likes it, and Harry closes his eyes like Niall’s physically hurt him.

“I want you to fuck me,” says Niall. They never got to, last time, and if this is their only chance, then he wants an ache to remember Harry by. “Only,” he says, biting his lip, “I’ve not got any condoms.” He hasn’t had sex since the Maldives, hasn’t been thinking about it at all, not until Harry rolled back into his life.

Harry blinks at him, foggy and dazed, until he seems to realize what Niall’s saying and he’s scrambling off the bed to fetch his wallet. “Here,” he says, fishing out a condom and throwing it at Niall’s chest. “I got one.” He climbs back onto the bed and starts ripping the packet open.

“You came prepared?” Niall asks, falling back and enjoying the flex of Harry’s thighs. “Haz, you slag.”

Harry smirks and flips his hair out of his eyes. “It’s my Niall Horan just-in-case condom. Been carrying it with me for ages.”

Niall swallows. “Can’t let it go to waste then,” he says, and bats Harry’s hands away so that he gets to be the one to roll the condom over Harry’s prick, mouth watering at how much cock there is to slide down. That’ll be him soon enough, he thinks hotly, and then he can’t bear to wait anymore, he’s pushing backwards onto the pillows and fingering himself, legs splayed sluttily. “No lube but I’ve hand lotion,” he says, and it’ll have to be good enough.

“Let me,” Harry says, and fingers Niall open so carefully and delicately that Niall wants to sob. Harry’s fingers drip with lotion as he pushes them inside Niall’s arse, first one and then two, and then a third finger stretching him open slowly while Niall stares up at the ceiling and curses. It doesn’t take very long. His whole body’s beer-loose and open, ready to be fucked.

When Harry pushes his cock inside of him, he’s not sure which one of them makes that helpless little sound, only that it thrums in his ears and gets him embarrassed. Embarrassed by how breathy he’s getting, embarrassed by how he keens, but then Harry’s burying his face into his shoulder and groaning loud enough to be heard through the walls. He starts moving his hips, pumping them back and forth, driving Niall deeper onto his cock.

Niall hasn’t had sex in so long, but he suspects that even if he’d been having sex morning, noon, and night, it’d not be as good as this. Harry lifts up Niall’s hips to shag him at a better angle, and Niall helps him. He wraps his legs around Harry’s waist and holds on tightly as Harry rocks into him, squeezing down on Harry’s cock until Harry’s whimpering too, saying “god, god, god, Niall.”

“I didn’t know it could be like this,” Harry says as he braces himself over Niall and fucks into him harder, sweat coating their bodies as they move together. “I’d hoped.”

“Hazza,” Niall cries out, encouraging him to go faster, harder, until the bedsprings are squeaking under the force of their fuck, and they’re banging the headboard against the wall with every thrust.

Harry stops then, and Niall could kill him. “What?” he gasps out, trying to tug Harry back into him. “What is it?”

“Will you — will you ride me?” Harry asks, almost shyly.

Niall’s thighs burn as he climbs over Harry and sinks onto his cock. Harry’s mouth is a wet pink ‘o’ when Niall slides down; his lashes are wet and clumped together with sweat. He’s the most wonderful natural phenomenon Niall’s ever seen, and the most dangerous.

Niall’s not going to last much longer, and judging by the way Harry’s breathing hard through his nose, Harry won’t either, but he feels it with a pang of regret because he wants this to last forever. Wants to ride Harry all night, servicing himself on his cock and watching the colour spread down Harry’s inked chest, wants to lick up his blush like cream on his tongue.

Harry digs his feet into the mattress and arches up to push into Niall, meeting him thrust for thrust, and Niall’s arms are trembling so much he has to hold onto the shaking headboard for support. He rides Harry intently, reaching a free hand down to touch where Harry’s cock is holding him open, running a finger over the rim of his hole where Harry’s stretching him so wide.

The feel of it coaxes a desperate groan from his throat, waters and feeds his noises, and he’s bouncing roughly, wildly, hands moving to tug on Harry’s hair when he comes, fat white globs splattering like paint over Harry’s flushed chest and all the way up to his chin. Harry makes a shocked sound, and digs his fingers into Niall’s hips to snap him a couple more times on his cock, Niall whimpering with sensitivity and loving it, until Harry’s thighs clench and he’s coming too, gasping and shaking.

They’re both too exhausted to do much else afterwards than collapse on top of each other like a pair of cheap shelves. Harry ties off the condom and throws it into the rubbish bin. He misses, and Niall winces at the mess that’ll make in the morning. But it isn’t morning now, they’ll deal with that later.

He tugs Harry under the duvet and cuddles up to him, yawning into his shoulder, the same one he got a text of. “Yep, bet this is a sunburn,” he says, poking at it and then kissing it gently to take away the sting.

“Obviously it’s a sunburn,” Harry says huffily. “Obviously I was just pretending it could be a horrible medical condition to get your attention.”

“You’re a freak,” Niall says, halfway asleep.

He’s soon slipping into at least three quarters of the way asleep when he feels Harry tuck an arm around his waist and lean in, hair curling over Niall’s cheek as he whispers, “I texted you after London, why’d you never reply,” but his voice is quiet and distant, and it feels more like a dream.

 

:::

 

He wakes up alone. At first he feels like Apple Pie, his skin striped with sunlight through the blinds as he stirs awake. But when he rolls over there’s an empty indent beside him and a piece of paper torn from the complimentary notepad that says, Thanks for last night xx. H.

Niall tries to lick out the cottony taste from his mouth, fails, and stumbles out of the bed to the shower, dragging a good chunk of the bedsheets with him as he goes. As he turns on the hot water, he touches the bruises on his hips from where Harry had clutched him last night as he was fucking him, and his arse is still sore and pink when he gently pats at his hole.

He likes his showers to be as close to blistering as possible, but the groaning pipes of the Knights Inn can only do so much. He towels himself off when he’s done, throws on a Derby jersey over his joggers, and finds Rashida and Adi in the room by the lobby where they’re serving continental breakfast. “Where’s—” Adi begins, but Niall interrupts her with a shrug. He plops down beside her and starts spreading cream cheese over a bagel.

Harry’s boots are gone from the room, the used condom’s gone from the carpet, his rental car is gone from the car park, and Niall never saw him bring in any bags, so he must’ve never meant to stay. They didn’t get a chance to work on Harry’s album, is what he thinks instead of thinking about anything else, and he puts too much cream cheese on his bagel and has to scrape half of it off with a knife onto Adi’s plate.

They go to the garage that morning to check on her car, and when Niall corners the mechanic when Adi’s in the loo, he hands over his credit card and gets them to fix the gauges and the tires by tomorrow instead of two more days. “Maybe you guys shouldn’t drive straight into lightning storms,” the mechanic says, wiping his oil-black hands on his coveralls.

“Maybe lightning storms ought to stop driving straight into us,” Niall says.

Then they’re loitering outside the garage, waiting for Jerry to give them a lift on his way back from buying more batteries for their gear. Adi sighs in frustration, casts a mournful glance at her car through the windows, and says, “You sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

Niall fiddles with a bottle of Powerade, thinks wistfully of the jogs he was going to do in the mornings, only now his body’s too sex-sore for it. “I told you,” he says, “it wasn’t a romance.”

“I saw the way he looked at you,” says Adi.

He shrugs.

“You want to talk about weather forecasts instead?” she asks.

“Bloody hell yes,” Niall says, and loves her for it. When the car’s ready Adi thinks they’ll go into Kentucky next, there’ve been some interesting weather patterns there, might be a big one, she says, though Rashida’s better at prediction than she is.

She tells him about sitting at a coffee shop yesterday afternoon and writing five more pages of her thesis, which she’s nervous about showing to Pierre because she doesn’t know what he’ll think, and also she’s pretty sure her entire body has become just one huge coffee conduit, which never used to be the case back in Nigeria. “But it’s so easy to get good, cheap coffee here,” she says, looking around them. “Okay, not-bad coffee,” she says, “though how am I to know the difference?”

Adi’s right. When they get her Civic fixed, they drive into Kentucky, and she lets him take the wheel so that she can work on her thesis, writing and rewriting those five pages until Niall’s not sure they’re talking about the same Pierre or an evil grad-student chewing monster who’ll rip her to pieces.

The same Pierre who stops him at a petrol station in Kentucky while the rest of them are filling up on sodas and crisps, and says, “I’ve heard of One Direction before. I’m not completely out of touch with pop culture, despite what you might think.”

Niall laughs with his teeth showing. “S’okay, I don’t think you’re our prime demographic anyway.”

“Listened to a lot of your songs since, though,” Pierre says. “Me and Rashida. Good music to drive to, keeps me awake on the road, so thanks.” Niall punches him on the shoulder playfully, and Pierre grins. “You’ve got real talent, Toto. Even I can tell that. You’re an alright storm-chaser—”

“—alright?” Niall squawks.

“—maybe even a good storm-chaser with more training and experience and, you know, a basic understanding of high school science,” Pierre says, “but you’re a damn fine musician. You going to go back to that then, when all this is over?”

“Dunno, haven’t made up my mind yet,” Niall shrugs. “What about you?”

“Storm-chasing’s a seasonal thing,” Pierre says thoughtfully, “and when we don’t got twenty-something millionaires bankrolling our field missions, we have paying jobs to return to. Adi and I are headed back to Oklahoma State to write up our research, Jerry’s got his wedding photography business, Rashida… well,” he says, breaking into a laugh, “not quite sure what Rashida will do, but I know she has her heart set on working for the National Weather Service again, so we’ll make that happen, somehow, it’ll only be a matter of time.”

The way Pierre says it, it’s like a stone rolling down a hill: slow, solid, certain of its destination. Niall doesn’t know how to be that certain about anything, lives in a world where you can be number one on the charts one week and drop five places the next, replaced by someone newer and hungrier waiting in the wings. Where websites spin stories about you and the people you love to get traffic. Where lads you call brother up and leave the band without a goodbye. Where you wake up in the morning and you’re alone.

“Been at odds with myself,” he confesses, and Pierre gives him a fond look, like yeah, he knows, but go on. Niall leans against the Jeep, tilts his head up to feel the cool wind picking up from the north. “All them other lads have moved on,” he says, “and I’m still here treading water.”

“Why’s that?” Pierre asks.

“What if—” he makes himself say it, “what if nothing’s ever like that again? When you climb so high there’s nowhere left to go. What if being in One Direction was the best it’s ever gonna get?”

“Seeing the world, making fans faint with joy, buying whatever you like, and having sex with whoever you want, all by doing what you love best?” Pierre says.

“Not everything was like that,” Niall says, “or that simple.”

“But some of it?”

“Sure.”

“Then that wasn’t the best it’s ever gonna get,” Pierre says. “Because trust me, as someone who’s spent a good chunk of his life on the road doing what he loves best — none of it’s worth shit if you don’t have someone to come home to.”

“Whoa, doc, that’s proper wise of you,” Niall says, widening his eyes dramatically. Pierre hip-checks him against the Jeep companionably, except since it’s Pierre and he’s superhuman strong, Niall trips over his feet and hits his head on the window.

“Or if you’re really lonely,” Pierre adds, “get a cat.”

“Got a cat, thanks,” Niall says, rubbing the bruise on his head. “Moody, attracted to shiny objects, hangs out with other cats, likes to rub his face into things. His name’s Harry.”

“That’s what I hear,” Pierre says. “Cats, pretty boy pop stars — pretty much the same thing, really.”

 

:::

 

It’s raining in L.A. Niall knows this because he sees the photo Harry’s just posted to Instagram, grey skies and raindrops sliding leisurely down coffee shop windows. The light hits the glass like a needle, scattering reflections over the globules of water, and if he squints closely enough he thinks he can see a part of Harry’s elbow mirrored back like a tiny secret just for him. It’s raining in L.A, and he’s in Pecos, Texas, setting up meteorological equipment.

Season’s coming to an end, and everything feels slow and still, even the storms. The first storms he saw live huge in his mind like gleefully spinning zoetropes; he can play them over in his head from beginning to end, remembering what it was like to be in the heart of that much chaos. The last storms he sees, at season’s end, are more like photographs — he blinks, like a shutter, and remembers only an image.

A crook of lightning against a mine-dark sky. Wheels stuck in the mud, whirling and squealing until he has to get out and help push. Hail getting under his collar and melting icy down his shirt. A tornado funnel jumping through the fields like playing hopscotch.

He thinks of that documentary he watched that gave him the itch to do this, thinks about how he lay stunned in that bed on the yacht, sweating out his own discontent. The human body’s mostly water, he thinks, and now he’s seen and he knows: water can be anything it wants, can go anywhere. The very sweat from his body gets evaporated into the air and the skies. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only travel.

Sprawled on the grass in Pecos (“home of the world’s first rodeo!” says the city sign with a bucking bronco), Niall feels the rain bounce lightly over his windbreaker and his head, bowed as it is over his phone where he sends Harry a text. hey hows writng goin.

Harry hasn’t contacted him since appearing in Humboldt, and it makes Niall anxious, afraid they’ve destroyed something they were only starting to put back together. Niall loves sex, and Harry’s the first person who pops into mind when he thinks of it, but he doesn’t even think about sex when there’s other, bigger stuff going on. It’s not like with Harry. He loves Harry like the sky loves the ground, loves him with the fierce, tender terror of driving a car straight into lightning, feeling the wheels blow out with a spray of electrical sparks, only he doesn’t know how to say that.

Harry was always better with words, and Harry’s also the one who isn’t returning his texts. Harry’s letting Niall’s calls go straight to voicemail, and Niall’s tempted to leave him one that’s just one long frustrated scream, but he doesn’t want Harry to get the wrong message, literally.

Jerry leaves the team outside of Pecos. He’s got a wedding to shoot nearby, and then a flight back home to Oklahoma City. Niall makes him chicken noodle soup and pours the rest into tupperware containers. “You have to eat these,” he insists. “If you let them go to waste, I’ll haunt ya like an avenging ghost.”

“My boy’s meeting me in Dallas,” Jerry says, smiling so widely. “I’ll share it with him.”

Rashida peels apart from the group outside of Fort Stockton. “I’ve got a sister to visit,” she says. “Haven’t seen her in years. Take care of yourself, Niall. Read that book about ham radio I gave you. It’s very good.”

Then it’s him, Adi, and Pierre in their last night outside the rural homesteads of Altuda, population 20, waiting beneath the stars. The last storm of their season and it’s a bust, clouds dissolving to dump plain old rain on their heads and not much else, any sign of severe weather having dissipated with the squall. “Goes out with a whimper,” Pierre says good-naturedly, and Niall thinks, I don’t want that to be me.

Pierre nearly breaks Niall’s ribs hugging him goodbye. To Adi he says, “I want your next chapter on my desk within two weeks,” while she cowers behind a telephone pole. They watch him drive off in his Jeep, kicking up ribbons of dust in his wake.

Adi gives Niall a lift to El Paso, where they spend a day eating tacos from food trucks, staring over the border into Mexico while she stresses out about the next chapter of her thesis without actually doing anything about it. More and more tacos are eaten, fewer words are written, tears of blood are shed. When she drops him off at the Hilton in the late afternoon, she leans over from the driver’s seat and Niall grins, holding his arms out for a hug, only she says, “Can I have your used underwear?”

“What,” he drops his arms, “no.”

“Too bad,” Adi says. “If you gave me your underwear and signed it, I bet I’d make a lot of money selling it on eBay. Could pay off some student loans.”

“I mean, that’s not actually a bad idea,” Niall says, “except for the part where it violates every shred of me personal dignity.”

“Well,” she says, “we’ll have to think of something else then.” She drops a kiss on his cheek before he climbs out of the car, and then drives off at a speed in defiance of every traffic law in the state of Texas.

He checks into the hotel, and then checks his phone. Still no answer from Harry.

 

:::

 

He rents a car the next morning and gets on the Interstate 10 towards California. From El Paso to Deming to San Simon to Tucson, he crosses Arizona with the windows rolled up but the radio on, singing out loud to the new Taylor Swift, banging out the rhythm with his thumbs on the wheel.

He drives past deserts, valleys, river basins, cows. The towns spread further and further apart, stretched taut across the geography, and he nearly runs out of petrol outside of Willcox after he misses an exit and keeps on going. He screeches into the next stop with a hope and a prayer, and a shake of the head from the bored Us Weekly-reading woman at the petrol station who’s watching him stumble out, dust-filthy and stubble for days.

He gets In-N-Out and eats it on the side of the road under a candy blue sky, watching the lorries go by, and the minivans full of families, and couples in sick sports cars. He’s got his headphones on and his favourite album loaded up, legs dangling off the car bonnet, and pressed against the animal part of his brain Don Henley’s voice is singing, And still these voices are calling from far away, wake you up in the middle of the night just to hear them say.

He squeezes the contents of four ketchup packets onto a napkin and drags his chips through it one by one, licking the salty vinegary taste off his fingers when there’s nothing left. He crumples the whole thing up into a bag when he’s done, taking his root beer into the car with him.

There’s billboards dotting the interstate yelling at him to visit what they can only describe as The Thing. THE THING, WHAT IS IT? one says in blue and yellow, like something out of a ten-cent comic. MYSTERY OF THE DESERT, says another. EXIT 322, next to a logo of a Shell and Dairy Queen.

Niall pulls his car over and snaps a billboard pic for Harry on the side of the road. whatya think the Thing is? ? he texts. think i’ll survive if i go see it? HA Ha

There’s no new messages when Niall pulls into The Thing outside of Benson, and pays his dollar to wander through the exhibit where three steel sheds are crammed full of weird shit, like carvings of tortured souls, dusty saddles, monster footprints, and a vintage Rolls-Royce that supposedly Hitler once rode in.

There’s an older couple beside Niall examining the automobile, and the man’s got a checkered bum bag, while the woman’s got on a gauzy shirt with whales. It makes him want to go blind, looking at it. Harry would like it. He tries to angle his phone and take a covert photo without them noticing and telling him he’s a creep.

The Thing turns out to be, as far as he can tell, a mummified mother and child in a glass coffin. It looks more like a Halloween party prop that’s been molding in someone’s attic. He takes a picture for Harry anyway. this could be us, ya think? he sends. tommo’s alwys sayin we’re not fresh faced babes anymore!!

A few minutes later, his phone buzzes. When we die, I refuse to be mummified with you.

A few seconds later: Can you ask that lady where she got her shirt?

Niall feels triumphant, like he ought to be baring his teeth and crowing in victory. He settles for getting a vanilla milkshake in town that’s as thick as paint and then driving out of Benson, taking the route towards Tuscon with the city limits glistening under low-hanging, night-dark clouds. He passes all the cars that are going too slow, switching lanes and zigzagging until he’s cleared Tuscon and driving ever further west, downing Red Bulls and turning the radio dial all the way right to stay awake until he’s crossed the state border into California dreaming.

He’s got a voicemail that he listens to after dropping exhausted into his hotel bed, and it’s his manager saying, “Been trying to reach you for ages, where the hell are you. I’ve some projects lined up you might be interested in. Check your email and call me back.”

He calls back, in the morning, getting out of the shower and shaking his head like a dog, spraying water everywhere. As he’s waiting for the call to go through, he wanders arse naked over to the windows and spreads open the curtains with two fingers, just to peek at what sort of day it is. The call picks up on the other end with a click.

“It’s me, your favourite ex-boybander and recent science nerd, reporting for duty,” Niall says. “Whatcha got?”

 

:::

 

There’s a cat having a kip outside the gate to Harry’s L.A house, and Niall figures, if Harry’s not home then least he’s got company while he waits. “Oi Apple Pie,” he says, scratching behind her ears, “don’t you got a proper home to do this in?” But then again if he was a cat, he’d want to hang out with Harry all the time too. He’s a human and already suffers from that particular affliction.

He rings the intercom a couple more times, and when no one answers, follows his original plan for waiting patiently for about three minutes before climbing the fence and vaulting over. He bangs his bad knee scrambling over the gate, and curses loudly, except the alarm’s even louder when he hits the grass. It makes Apple Pie leap on all fours, tail electrified, and she starts to yowl.

He sees Harry’s face peer out from a second story window. He waves.

“Um,” says Harry when he’s opened the front door for Niall. He disappears down the hallway to silence the alarm, and Niall pads after him, watching him jab at a complicated-looking panel with increasing desperation before Niall leans over and does it for him. He’s got an alarm like this too for his place in London.

Harry looks — frankly dreadful, swathed up in a purple silk robe with his hair all tangled and greasy, and swipes of bruised shadow beneath his eyes. It’s clear he hasn’t been sleeping well, probably been living off fumes for days, and Niall’s throat clenches up, his fingers flexing uselessly at his sides. It occurs to him, for the first time, that when it comes to life after One Direction, maybe it’s not Harry who’s meant to save him. Maybe it’s the other way around.

“Come on,” Niall says, “let’s get you to bed,” and Harry follows him up the stairs like a docile child, limbs slow and heavy, eyes lidded as Niall finds his bedroom after the third try and wrestles him into his, well, truly ridiculously lavish bed, not that Niall’s complaining.

“Can’t tell if I’m dreaming,” Harry says when Niall climbs in beside him. His hand hovers over Niall’s hip, until Niall grabs it and presses it under the hem of his shirt, letting Harry feel his bare skin.

“Go to sleep, Haz,” he says. Harry takes a deep shaky breath, and does.

When Harry wakes up, it’s past eight, and Niall’s sitting beside him on the bed reading the ham radio book Rashida left him. He’s got one hand on the book and the other resting casually on Harry’s belly where the robe’s spilled open, thumb stroking Harry’s moth tattoo idly. Harry rolls over to look at him, and Niall puts the book down. “Hey,” Harry says, voice rough and scratched up, butting his head into Niall’s clavicle.

“Not a dream, see?” Niall says. “You hungry? I could make us some grub.”

“‘m starving,” says Harry, and they go downstairs together to take a look at what Harry has in his fridge. Not much, is the answer, and Niall wants to make a quip about how man can’t live on fruit and juice alone, except he doesn’t because Harry’s still dead tired, blinking slowly at everything like he’s seeing a banana for the very first time. He makes Harry eat one while he explores some more. There’s salsa in the back of the fridge that still smells alright, and a can of kidney beans in the pantry, so he dumps them together to warm up in a pot and makes rice in Harry’s Zojirushi rice cooker.

“Cheap and easy eats,” he says proudly, and Harry consumes his bowl like he’s never going to be fed again. “Slow down, mate, there’s more left,” Niall says, watching him, and Harry looks sheepish.

“Turns out it’s a lot harder writing an album’s worth of material,” he says, “when you’ve no band with you.”

“Well, I’m here,” Niall says, “and I reckon helping lay tracks on a Harry Styles album might be the sort of project my manager meant after all. You might need a bloke with a guitar.” He nudges their feet together beneath the table and smiles without a care in the world, though his heart is pounding and his palms are sweating. Harry smiles back at him, slow and sweet, and Niall relaxes a bit.

This could be it, he thinks, mates helping mates out. In another life, maybe this is as far as it goes. But Niall’s not as lost as he used to be, has the mileage on the car to prove it, so he says, “Why’d you leave?”

Harry’s got salsa on his chin, and a spot of dried drool on the corner of his mouth, and he flicks his gaze to the kitchen lights before saying, “Thought that’s what you and me do. You wanted me to. In London.”

“Yeah,” says Niall, “coz I didn’t want to be your one-night buddy shag. And maybe I was back then, and maybe that’s alright, we were dumbfuck kids, but it’s been two years and I don’t, I don’t think—” he rakes a hand through his hair, where it’s soft and ungelled because who has time to quiff up on the road. “Don’t think that’s what it was, this time,” he finishes lamely.

Harry grits his teeth, like it’s just as painful for him to have to talk about his feelings. They’re two pop stars who’ve poured out their hearts in every song they’ve sung, but this, there’s no one to see this but them. “You never,” Harry begins. He struggles to finish. “I texted you after London. Called you. Sent you emails. You never replied. You, like, dropped off the face of the earth and no one knew how to reach you.”

“I—” Niall realizes. “Alright, yeah, I was kind of a shit.”

“You were,” Harry says, voice louder. He leans forward, hair uncurling from where he’d tucked it behind his ears. “You were a shit, Niall, and I tried, okay, I tried then and I was the one who made the effort this time too, always calling you, literally chasing after you. So—” his voice rises, “I might’ve left you in that motel in Tennessee, but fuck, Niall, you were always the one who was leaving me first.”

Niall’s eyes feel prickly hot. He’s embarrassed and upset and wistful, because god, they wasted so much time. “I’m here now,” he repeats. “Took me a while, I suppose. I didn’t know. But I got here in the end.”

“After being hit by lightning,” Harry scowls.

“I told you, it was the car that—”

“Shut up,” says Harry, and he crawls over the table to kiss him. Niall licks the salsa off his chin before fitting Harry’s mouth against his own, kissing him and tugging him closer eagerly. Harry collapses half on the table, and Niall slides his hands into Harry’s hair, kissing him while keeping him steady, refusing to let go because any minute where he’s not got Harry’s beautiful mouth on his own, or Harry’s clever tongue, is a wasted minute as far as he’s concerned. Harry’s trying to eat him like a second helping of supper, and Niall’s trembling and trying to give as good as he gets, his whole body arched towards Harry’s, tilted into his orbit.

“Ow,” Harry breathes, “I think I’m lying on top of a bloody spoon,” but he doesn’t stop kissing Niall, starts laughing instead into his mouth. Niall pulls back reluctantly, and tugs Harry round the side of the table and onto his lap.

“Don’t want to be responsible for any spoon-related injuries,” he says. “Wanna make you feel good all the time.”

Harry’s eyes are bright. “I’m on board with that plan,” he replies. He leans forward, resting his bum on Niall’s knees, and he licks Niall’s ear before nibbling on his jaw. “Thank you,” Niall hears him murmur.

“For what?” Niall asks, gripping him tighter, feeling lightheaded.

“For coming back,” Harry says, and Niall wants to say — so much, he thinks, wants to confess every secret thought he’s had in every storm, but they’ve time for that, later. There’s songs to work on, and a soft bed to sleep in because Harry still looks too damn knackered for his liking.

Harry wraps all his limbs around Niall like an overgrown weed, and insists Niall carry him to the bed. Niall stumbles with his hands cupped around Harry’s arse, veering wildly, crashing into a wall, and finally manages to safely deposit Harry on the mattress before he topples on top of him, bouncing and laughing.

Later, while Harry’s sleeping, Niall sneaks out to his car and brings in his bags. He fishes out his laptop and crawls back into bed, one leg slung over a snoring Harry’s hip while he types out a few emails to his manager with the names of some bands he’d like to work with. An email from Adi comes in around midnight, and he gives it a quick glance — if not your underwear, how about locks of your hair? and let’s do this again sometime — before flagging it for later.

He misses his motley little team, but it’s a comfortable sort of missing, like leaving behind a pair of your favourite joggers in a place you know you’ll go back to when you’ve the time. There’s a huge window slid open by Harry’s bed where he can see the moon’s a fat dollop of white, and he can feel the breeze on his face, an easterly wind coming in from a cloudless sky.

Harry’s talking to himself in his sleep, mumbling and gnawing Niall’s shoulder with his riotous hair stuck between his teeth and underneath the pillow. Niall helps him out a bit by picking out individual strands before giving it up for a lost cause and going to sleep too. He leaves his laptop running on the floor. He knows, without having to check, what tomorrow’s forecast is going to be when they wake up: another beautiful day in California.