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Stringing Fairy Lights

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It's cold out even though the fire is warm, and Harry wraps the blanket around himself a little more tightly. It's a beautiful night, and he's very well aware of this because he's been staring up at the stars ever since the others started talking about their 'conquests'.

He's been expecting this, really. They're teenage boys; attractive teenage boys at that, and they've all got more stories than they've got time to tell.

Harry was hoping nobody would notice his relative silence on the matter, but of course, he's not lucky in that regard.

"How 'bout you, Harry?" Louis asks. Harry likes Louis, really likes him, and wonders if Louis is the type to think differently about what he's about to say. He doesn’t think so. Louis seems like a pretty open-minded person.

He decided long ago that if they're going to be a proper band, they can't have secrets like the one he's keeping. He knew at one point one of them would ask, and he's known he's going to answer honestly.

"Yeah, face like yours, bet you've got a different girl every hour." Zayn snickers. Even Liam cracks a smile at that, and Harry doesn't get to see Liam smile very often.

Harry sniffs, then shrugs, lowering his gaze to look into the fire and very carefully not at any of his band mates.

"I'm gay, actually."

There's a short silence, which he kind of expected. This week's been good for them as a band. He feels much closer to them but while he doesn't think any of them will ostracize him, is positive he knows that much, it doesn't mean he knows at all what to expect.

"Oh," finally, from Niall. He should've expected it'd be Niall to speak first. Niall loves to talk. "D'y'-" He pauses then, maybe unsure of what to say? Harry doesn't know. "Well, that's alright then, innit?"

There's a quiet murmur of agreement from Louis at Harry's side. Harry feels his shoulders relax a modicum. Louis is the one he was worried about, not because he thinks Louis is a homophobe or anything like that, just because he's bonded with Louis so much over this week, so very much. He would hate for anything to mess with their chemistry.

He glances over, trying to be subtle about it, but Louis is looking straight at him with a small, reassuring smile on his face. He reaches over and ruffles Harry's hair before reclining farther in his seat.

Harry tightens the hold he has on his blanket. The fire is blazing hot on his face, but he's not wearing anything underneath the blanket, so he's still a bit cold where his bare skin peeks out.

Zayn lets out a loud breath of air and Harry nearly jumps. "Would not have called that one," he says, but he sounds more bewildered than anything else. "Seriously thought you were knee deep in pussy, mate."

Harry hiccups out a laugh, his smile hidden by the blanket. "Nope," he replies, shrugging a shoulder. "Well, maybe. I'm just not interested in it."

"Such a waste." Louis clicks his tongue, but he's not being serious. Harry wonders if they should really be close enough yet that he can tell whether or not Louis is being serious. "Don't suppose you could lob some of them at me?"

"You've got a girlfriend!" Harry protests, grinning at him and reaching over to smack him on the arm. "The only thing you need to be knee deep in is love and devotion."

He knows, in the back of his mind, that Liam is still silent. He's trying very hard not to think about it, though, because if he does he might cry. He definitely doesn't want to do that.

Louis makes an obscene gesture at him which makes Niall degenerate into hysterics. It's all just as it was before Harry said anything. They steer the conversation in another direction. Eventually, Liam starts talking again. He's not much of a talker in general but what he does say is usually either funny or important.

At one point, their eyes meet over the fire, and to add to Harry's confusion, before Liam looks away, he doesn't appear angry, or uncomfortable, or anything. He just looks a little embarrassed and apologetic.

When it's time to go inside, he's slightly afraid that the others will be unwilling to share a bed with him after his little revelation, but Niall simply says, "It's my turn for the bed, wankers," and crawls in before him. Harry worries that he falls a little bit in love with Niall at that moment, but he's pretty sure he's just tired.

Before he gets into bed after him, Harry feels a hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly. He knows without looking that it's Liam, too large to be anyone else's. Harry smiles just a little, setting his own hand over it very lightly. He feels like he's trying not to spook a horse or something.

"Good night," Liam says finally, removing his hand and moving to his sleeping bag spread out on the floor. "Sleep well, boys."

"Night, Liam," Harry murmurs. Niall doesn't squirm away or shift uncomfortably when Harry gets under the covers, and Louis reaches up from beside the bed to pat his hip before he turns out the light.

Harry falls asleep with a smile on his face.

"Hey, man, don't worry about Liam, alright?" Louis says the next morning while he and Harry are getting groceries out of his mum's car. They volunteered to help, or rather, the other three had refused to move from their comfortable positions.

Harry hums in question, loading another bag onto his arm.

Louis huffs, giving Harry about a pointed look. "You know. Cause he's being weird about the gay thing."

"Oh," Harry says quietly. They move at the same time toward the door of the bungalow. "It's kind of hard not to worry about it," he admits, shrugging as well as he can. "I don't want this to mess up our... chemistry, or whatever."

"It won't," Louis assures him. They heft the bags onto the kitchen floor, then leave to get the rest. "He's just, like. He's been picked on a lot, you know. Being a guy who wants to sing for a living and who takes drama, you tend to get bullied a bit."

"Did you get bullied?" Harry asks. Louis has been regaling them with tales of how he played Danny in Grease for his school play almost nonstop since they got here.

Louis snorts dismissively. "That's not relevant, we're talking about Liam. Anyway, he's just touchy about it. Not grossed out or anything stupid, he just needs time to get used to it."

"Yeah, I guess," Harry says softly. "What about you?" He gives Louis a sidelong glance. "Do you need time to get used to it?"

"Please, I had you pegged from the moment I saw you." Louis sniffs with an air of almost offense. "I was in drama club all of secondary school; I can practically smell homosexuality on people."

Harry laughs out loud, the kind of laughter he loves where it explodes out of him and he can't stop smiling.

"You'll have to teach me your ways, oh wise one," he teases as they shut the boot of the car. "I can't ever tell. It gets me into trouble sometimes," he admits, thinking of unfortunate moments where he's flirted with the wrong person.

"Well, it's a good job you'll have me around to steer you right," Louis replies cheerfully. "And I like that name, oh wise one, I think you should call me that from now on. It can even be in the name of the band, 'The Wise One and Company'."

"Oh, speaking of," Harry starts, feeling much better than he had been earlier in the day. There's just something about Louis that cheers him up. He doesn't know why but he's grateful for it all the same. "I was thinking about the name, and I really think we should consider how it's going to sound when the X Factor man says it."

"Perfect!" Louis exclaims. "Imagine it! We'll get Nialler to say it, 'The Wise One and Company.' It flows."

"It does not flow." Harry elbows Louis in the side. It's so strange to him, to feel this comfortable in a friendship when they've only known each other a week. Granted, they've spent that entire week under each other’s' noses, but still. It's a weird feeling. Nice, but very weird.

"Your mum doesn't flow," Louis shoots back with an air of triumph, and it doesn't make any sense at all but Harry laughs anyway.

"Hey," Harry greets, lowering himself into a seat around the fire. Liam's the only one out there other than Harry, which Harry hadn't orchestrated, really. It's not his fault if Louis took that pinch to the side as a signal to get Niall and Zayn out of the way somewhere.

Liam looks startled. He always looks startled, though, so that's not much different from normal. "Oh," he says, his shoulders tensing. "Hello."

"Is this gonna be a problem?" Harry asks without any pretense. He's not going to act like he has a different reason for wanting to talk to Liam alone. God, if he danced around the topic, Liam might think he was coming onto him, or something.

Liam looks shifty now. "Is what going to be a problem?" His face is made for looking innocent, Harry thinks, almost impressed.

"Liam," he says instead. "Is it going to be a problem?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Liam insists. "D'you want a marshmallow, I've got an extra stick!"

"Liam." Harry sets a hand on Liam's thigh and the other boy nearly jolts out of his skin. Harry snatches his hand back and swallows, his throat bobbing dryly. "That." He clears his throat so he doesn't sound as croaky. "Is that going to be a problem?"

Liam looks a little like he's about to cry, so Harry does his best to look less devastated.

"I - Look, Harry, it's not - I just." Liam's leg is bouncing, jittery. "It's not because of, well it is, but I - I just don't. I'm sorry." He looks miserable, so Harry tucks his lips into his mouth and nods.

"No, look, it's fine." Harry reaches to pat Liam's shoulder before thinking better of it and dropping his hand back to his side. "I just don't want it to affect the band."

"It's not fine." Liam shakes his head a little, his fringe in his eyes and making him look even more like a puppy. "You haven't done anything wrong. I'm sorry I'm all - like this. I swear it's not. Because of. That."

"Because I'm gay?" Harry coaxes softly, not wanting to push too hard. "You can say it, y'know. It's what I am. Just don't call me a – you know, names, or anything, okay?"

To Harry's slight pleasure, Liam looks completely scandalized by that. "I wouldn't - Jesus, Harry, is it, do you really think I-" He cuts himself off, nodding a little. "Of course you do. I haven't exactly given you a reason to not think that."

"Hey, I already told you it's fine. Whatever it is, it's fine. I'm not gonna push or anything." Harry nudges their shoulders together in what he hopes comes across harmless, because it is. Liam doesn't jump this time.

"It's still not fine. I'm not really, ugh." Liam lets out a heavy sigh. "I don't think less of you, or anything. I just, at my school, everyone..." He trails off, swallowing. "It wasn't really a thing that happened. Being..." He suddenly looks determined. "Being gay."

"Right, of course." Harry keeps his face straight, nodding a little instead of grinning like he wants to. "I get it. I mean, I don't exactly shout it to the rooftops. It's just a thing that is, isn't it? Like having curly hair."

"Yeah." Liam is almost whispering, his eyes on his knees. "I'm really sorry, Harry. I didn't mean to... Be a dick."

Harry laughs, surprised. Liam doesn't really swear that often. He doesn't really talk that often either, though. Harry's pretty sure this is the first full conversation they've had since they all got here.

"You're not a dick, Liam. We're alright, yeah?" He offers Liam his hand. It feels weird, too formal for the occasion, but Liam just takes his hand and solemnly shakes it.

“Yeah, we're alright. And I'll... I'll be better. I didn't mean to make you think... Anyway, I'll be better." Liam lets out a whoosh of air and seems to be steeling himself for something, though Harry can't imagine what.

He finds out when Liam carefully wraps an arm around Harry's shoulders and pulls him into a hug, brief and Liam's grip is a little ginger, but a hug all the same. Harry's noticed that Liam doesn't seem to be as huggy as the rest of them. Where Louis and Harry and Niall will snuggle down on the couch at a moment's notice, Zayn's a little more twitchy about it and Liam seems flabbergasted every time it happens.

He smiles, wrapping his own arm around Liam's waist. "Wanna go back inside? It's gone dark," he says once they've stopped. Liam looks grateful that Harry isn't talking about what just happened, and nods, getting to his feet.

"Uh - it's my turn to get the bed tonight, right?" Liam asks as he stretches, knees cracking.

Harry blinks. "Er - yeah, I mean, if you want. You don't have to."

"No, I will." Liam looks bizarrely determined again, so Harry just shrugs and leads the way into the house. To be honest, he'll take overly-eager-to-be-supportive Liam over the other Liam any day.

Harry's not really sure how the others are taking everything, mostly because they're all nervous as hell and it has nothing to do with Harry's sexuality. The competition they're in never really leaves his thoughts, but he's having a lot of fun with these new friends and it's - it's not something he likes thinking about, really. Thinking about how they might not make it through and he might have to give this up... It makes his stomach roll.

He assumes, though, that everything's fine. Niall still laughs and pulls Harry closer when he goes for a cuddle. Harry likes Niall, likes him a lot. He's sweet and charming and he swears too much, and he eats too much, and he talks too much, but somehow it's all just the right amount of too much.

Niall's the sort of friend Harry never would have expected. He doesn't feel like they're forced together, though, because Niall makes it difficult to feel anything other than utterly smitten whenever you talk to him. Niall has smelly feet and a ridiculous accent and somehow neither annoys Harry. He just laughs and lets Niall eat his leftovers, and uses Niall's shoulder as a pillow more nights than not. He has the most comfortable shoulders, despite Louis throwing him indignant expressions and grumbles.

Louis is... Louis is odd. In more ways than one. He's goofy and weird and utterly carefree, and ordinarily, Harry's pretty sure he'd be nursing an epic crush on him by the third day they're here. He doesn't, though. And it's not like he didn't try. Louis has pretty eyes and a crinkly smile and Harry goes mad over that normally, and Louis looks fantastic without a shirt on and he crawls all over Harry every chance he gets, but... But Harry doesn't feel anything but a tremendous amount of affection.

It's not quite a brotherly affection, and he's pretty sure if Louis ever wanted to make out, he'd be totally up for it, more than up for it, even. It's just that there's not the feelings that usually go along with Harry having a thing for someone. He just likes Louis an awful lot and wouldn't mind kissing him.

And then there's Zayn, which, jesus. Harry doesn't know how to deal with how he feels about Zayn. Zayn is quite possibly the most beautiful person Harry's ever seen, but they can't seem to see eye to eye about, well, about anything. They fight almost daily and it's awful because Harry doesn't fight with any of the others like that, not even Liam.

Zayn's just frustrating, and he goes all silent and judgy when you fight with him, lips pursed in a line that Harry wants to kiss but doesn't at the same time. When Harry has tiffs with the others, they're short, usually, and end with a cuddle and an apology. With Zayn, though, Harry just feels like the ends of the arguments are just pauses, and the beginnings of arguments are just continuations of arguments they've already had.

Louis nods solemnly and mumbles, "Sexual tension," when Harry complains to him about it. Harry punches him in the shoulder and doesn't let him pet his curls, which serves him right. It's not sexual tension. It's definitely not.

Harry blames Louis entirely for that night, when he ushers the other two into the house, claiming he needs help finding, well, he didn't actually say what. The point is that it leaves Harry and Zayn around the bonfire alone and Harry is going to revoke Louis’s cuddle privileges for at least the rest of the week for this.

The silence that falls around them isn't awkward, really, it's just tight and wrought with tension that Harry's pretty sure Zayn can feel too, if the way he clears his throat uncomfortably is any indication.

"So," Zayn starts, his hands tucked inside the kangaroo pocket at the front of his shirt. Harry braces himself for a conversation of terrible small talk. "So, Louis said you wanted to talk to me. But you don't look like you want to talk, so he was prob'ly lying."

"Oh." It's like a gust of air punched out from Harry's stomach. "Oh, he did?"

"Yep." Zayn drawls it out, his gaze intent on the fire when Harry looks over at him. He seems at first glance to be completely nonchalant, but when Harry looks closer, there's a flush on his cheeks in the light from the fire and he looks like he's expecting Harry to shout at him or something.

Maybe they should figure this out before live shows.

"It's okay if you don't like me, you know." It takes Harry a moment to recognize Zayn's voice, all quiet and full of false confidence.

"What?" Harry asks. Well, he sort of squawks it, actually. Zayn looks at him weird for it, then seems to realize he's looking at him. He blanches and looks back at the fire. "I don't not like you," Harry says, bewildered. "I thought you didn't like me."

"I don't not like you," Zayn mumbles almost immediately.

"Oh. That's nice." Harry's at a bit of a loss. "Okay?"

"I dunno, we just. We fight a lot, don't we?" Zayn asks, haltingly, like he's not sure if he should. "I mean, we definitely do."

"Yeah, I guess." Harry scratches the back of his hand. "I don't really know what to do about that, though. Like, is there a way for us to stop disagreeing about stuff?"

"Probably not." Zayn looks downtrodden again. It's a good look on him, like most things are, and Harry has to remind himself that they're having a serious conversation here.

"I do like you, though," Harry offers. "Maybe we just need to... Get to know each other better?" He realizes after a moment that it sounds like a come-on. Zayn seems to realize it too, because he's looking at him with what Harry could swear is amusement.

"Are you making a pass at me?" Zayn asks, tilting his head curiously.

What Harry should say is no, of course not, you're not my type anyway. Instead, he hears himself come out with, "Would that be a problem?" which is so far from anything he should be saying.

"A bit if you're serious, considering I'm not really into dick, mate." Zayn is smiling, though, and Harry thinks he might even look a little flattered. "But nah, it's whatever. You could do better than that, though."

Harry fakes outrage. "Are you saying I'm a mediocre flirt?" He holds a hand to his chest.

Zayn shrugs a carefully casual shoulder. "You said it, not me. You're putting words in my mouth." The corner of his mouth curls lazily. Okay, maybe all they need to do is flirt outrageously and they won't fight as much. Harry can deal with that.

"I'll put something else in your mouth," Harry says automatically, scooting over to the seat next to Zayn's. Zayn is sprawled across his chair and he's far more attractive than he has any right being.

Zayn laughs, a bark of it that seems to bubble out of him and leave him with a smile on his face. "Oh, will you? Looking forward to it." He hooks his arm around Harry's neck to drag him closer and rub a hand through his hair. Harry yelps, trying to pull away, but Zayn's stronger than his wiry frame would suggest, and, well, and Harry's probably not trying as hard as he could be.

Right, so that's the plan, Harry decides as he squirms in Zayn's grip. Casual flirtation seems like a good approach here. It's for the good of the band, he mentally insists. That's all.

Everything else aside, they really do sing well together. They work on harmonies all the next day, strewn about the room in what’s definitely not proper positioning for breathing right and singing from their diaphragms or whatever Liam happens to be going on about at any point in time. Even he’s calmer now, though, like it’s taken him a while to settle into being friends instead of just band mates.

The thing with Liam is that he’s been treating this all wrong, in Harry’s opinion. He’s been treating it like a job he has to get done, but that’s not what they should be doing. This isn’t a job (at least not yet, not really). Harry understands, sort of, that this was never in Liam’s plans. Liam was supposed to do this on his own, and the whole being in a band thing has thrown off his life’s timetable something awful.

He made it to Simon’s house last year all on his own, and they’re all still in awe of that because Liam is good, properly good, and he’s been doing this basically as a professional since he was twelve. Harry’s been singing for a long time but he’d never fooled himself into thinking he could make a career out of it. It’s just been a thing he liked doing, and he knows that for the others it’s the same.

Liam, though. Liam has this look that he gets in his eyes when he talks about singing back at home, and it makes Harry feel a bit awful for not taking this seriously at first. But then he’ll see Liam smile, or laugh, and he realizes that despite everything else, Liam’s still just like him, for the most part, still sixteen for another month and a kid inside who thinks he needs to grow up when what he should be doing is having fun doing things he likes to do.

“No, sing up a bit,” Liam instructs him. He’s good at this singing thing, has had like… training and vocal coaches, things Harry’s only ever thought about as a passing fancy. Harry isn’t supposed to be a singer. He’s pretty sure his mum still wants him to be a lawyer or a teacher or something, but that’s not what Harry wants anymore, not for him.

Maybe some people were made to be lawyers and teachers and things, but Harry’s never felt better than when Liam’s making prissy faces and Louis is imitating him from behind, and Niall’s laughing and Zayn’s trying to look bored even as his lips twitch. This feels warm in his chest. It feels right. He doesn’t think being a lawyer could make him feel anything close to this.

“That one was good, wasn’t it?” Louis asks, rubbing his chest a little. Harry gives him a concerned look.

“You alright?” he asks, scooting a little closer. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothin’.” Louis gives him a smile and coughs quietly. “Just not used to singing so much all at once, I guess. I was really just doing it as a hobby before, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.” Harry exchanges looks with Niall, who puts his guitar down. “I think that’s enough for right now, anyway.” He spares a look to Liam, who looks about ready to protest. “No use to anyone straining our voices.”

It looks like it takes a Herculean effort, but Liam nods, swallowing his disagreement in the face of Harry’s bravado, of course. “Yeah, you’re right. We’ve still got a few days to get it perfect, don’t we?”

“Exactly.” Niall nods decisively. “Anyone up for a swim? I think we’re hitting record temperatures in here.”

Harry laughs. He can feel that it’s hot, definitely, but he’s only in his pants, so he’s probably not feeling it as much as the others. They’re still getting used to Harry’s tendency toward nudity, but he thinks he’ll have converted at least Louis by the time they go their separate ways. “I’m in,” he volunteers, getting to his feet. “Lou?”

“Yeah, let me find my shorts,” mutters Louis, not bothering to get up as he has a gander around. “I don’t remember where they’ve gone.”

“They’re in the bed ‘cause of how you hit me in the face with them this morning.” Niall looks and sounds very unimpressed, but Harry lapses into cackles and Louis just puts a thoughtful expression on.

“They’re probably still there, then,” he reasons. “Be a dear and fetch them for me?”

“Piss off,” replies Niall, but he heads toward the bedroom all the same. There’s just something about Louis, Harry’s decided. None of them are terribly good at telling him no.

“Are you coming, Li?” Harry asks, stretching his arms over his head. He thinks he spots Zayn giving him a bit of a onceover, and mentally smirks. Liam just looks startled, probably from the nickname, though they’ve all been using it. Liam still seems startled by most things. Less, though, than he was when they first got together.

“Yeah, sure.” Liam rolls himself onto his feet and strips his shirt over his head. He’s still wearing his shorts from swimming that morning, and Harry forces himself to avert his eyes. He’s not blind and Liam’s – fit. Very fit. He’s got the sort of stomach muscles Harry wishes he had, and strong arms and legs and it’s best to just not go down that road, would make everything in the band more complicated than it needs to be. “I’ll just be in the pool, then,” Liam continues, offering Harry a smile before he jogs off.

Zayn doesn’t swim, so he doesn’t have to change into anything. He mostly just rolls up the legs of his trousers and dangles his feet in the water. They’ve asked if he minds, and he says he doesn’t, likes the time on his own to think. Harry’s not so sure he’s actually thinking, though. Part of him suspects Zayn just likes looking broody and thoughtful. He sure as hell does it enough to have perfected the art of pouty gazes.

“You into him?” Zayn asks as he gets to his own feet, strolling over to nudge Harry’s side. Harry curses in his head, realizing his ogling isn’t subtle at the best of times and he’d definitely been watching Liam’s arse as he left. “Is he your type?”

“Breathing’s my type,” answers Harry automatically. He shrugs a little. “Not really, he’s just. You know. It’s not like we’re a band of ugly people, is it?”

“Guess not.” Zayn pauses. He’s looking at Harry, but Harry doesn’t look back at him, instead pretending that the door he’s got his gaze locked on is too fascinating to look away from. “You wanna fuck all of us, then?”

Harry doesn’t bother holding back a snort. “No. I just have eyes, alright? But I don’t waste my time going after straight guys. I’m not an idiot.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Zayn teases, squawking when Harry gets an arm around his neck and pulls him down to scrub his fist over Zayn’s once immaculate hair. For some reason, Zayn goes completely mental when anyone touches his hair, so of course, they’ve all been doing it as much as possible to wind him up. “Hey, hey! I was joking!”

“That’s what I thought.” Harry lets Zayn go, and the other boy huffs, attempting to straighten out his shirt. His hair’s all in his eyes now, his lower lip pouting out in a sulky way. Christ, but Harry does want to fuck him, at least. And Zayn knows it, if the faint smirk he gets on his face is any indication. “Shut up,” Harry warns.

Zayn’s smirk just widens. “I didn’t say anything,” he points out as he opens the door for Harry.

“You thought it.” Harry lifts his chin, striding through the door. “You know you’re attractive; I know you’re attractive. That’s all. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

“Who’s getting ahead of themselves?” asks Zayn. He’s practically skipping; he’s such an arsehole, and Harry really wishes he was less ridiculously pretty. “I’m just pleased with the compliment.”

“I bet,” Harry says under his breath. He dodges Zayn’s punch to his shoulder and slips into the water, shivering at the temperature before his body begins to get used to it.

Harry ducks his head under the water, giving Liam a wave before propping his elbows on the edge next to Zayn. Zayn has his feet in the water, as usual, but he doesn’t have on the usual half-thinking half-bored expression he usually does. He’s looking at Harry in a very curious way.

“What?” asks Harry, a bit self-conscious. Maybe he went a bit too far? He doesn’t want to flirt so much that the band dynamic gets all thrown off. He just wants to be able to be in the same room as Zayn without one of them storming off in a fit of rage. He’ll tone it down, if it makes Zayn uncomfortable.

Zayn doesn’t look uncomfortable, though, just curious as he waves off Harry’s hesitance. “Nothing, just… Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” says Harry automatically. He heaves himself up to sit beside Zayn, shaking out his hair and grinning when Zayn yelps at the spray of water. “Sorry,” he apologizes.

“Are not,” Zayn grumbles. He shoves a hand through the mess of his hair and wrinkles his nose. “I hate you.”

Harry swallows. “Do you?” he asks, unsure if he actually wants to know the answer. He’s pretty sure Zayn doesn’t hate him. Almost positive. But this whole thing, all these friendships, they’re all so new that he doesn’t want to take anything for granted.

Zayn just gives him a bewildered look before shaking his head. “Uh, no? Don’t be stupid.” Bizarrely, the insult makes Harry feel much better. “Just – piss off about my hair, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Harry’s not going to stop messing with it, but he might do it a bit less vigorously. Maybe. Probably not, actually. “Anyway, you wanted to ask me something?” he prompts.

Zayn looks thoughtful again. “Yeah. So, you said Liam’s not – your type, then?”

Harry has a gander around for Liam before he answers. The other boy is at the opposite end of the pool, sputtering and trying to fend off Niall and Louis simultaneously. His hair’s gone a bit damp at the edges and it’s curling up from it. He looks good, really good.

“Physically, my type’s pretty much just fit,” Harry answers after a moment. “Uh, we’re not really. We’d make good friends, basically? I don’t think. More than that. Even if he were interested, which, definitely not.”

Zayn laughs. “Good point. You don’t have a boyfriend or anything, do you?” he asks, like he’s just suddenly considered the possibility.

“Ha, no.” Harry muffles his snort of laughter quite well, he thinks. “I don’t really… Not really the boyfriend type. I mean, I’ve had them. I just don’t tend to keep them.”

“Oh. Alright.” Zayn looks across the pool again. “What about Louis, then? Is he your type?”

“What’s your angle here?” Harry asks instead of answering the question, a little suspicious now. “Are you – I’m not trying to have it off with anybody in the band, you don’t have to worry about that.”

“Don’t be a twat. I’m not worried about anything. I just want to know.” Zayn shrugs a little. “I’ve never had a gay friend before, have I?”

“I dunno, have you?”

Zayn hums. “One of my friends says he’s bi, does that count?”

“It’s in the same spectrum, I guess.” Harry kicks his feet slowly through the water to watch the ripples curve around his toes. “You can just ask what you want to know, then. Don’t dance around it.”

“I am asking what I want to know,” Zayn protests with a small frown. “I just want to know what your type is. Everybody’s got a type, don’t give me that bullshit.”

Harry gives him a pointed look. Challenging, almost, though he only realizes that later. “My type is annoyingly good looking wankers who put too much product in their hair.”

There’s a little smile curving the edges of Zayn’s lips now. “That could be Louis, too, you know,” he counters.

“And yet, weirdly enough, we both know it’s not,” says Harry airily.

Zayn inclines his head. “I thought for sure it would be,” he admits. “You know he’s into you, right?”

“He is not,” Harry protests. “He’s got a girlfriend, if you haven’t heard.” That’s a laugh, considering Hannah’s almost all Louis talks about. He’s shown them pictures as well, and Harry can see why Louis likes her so much. She’s got the same laugh lines around her eyes that he does.

“Like that means anything. Lance Bass has had girlfriends.” Zayn wiggles his eyebrows at Harry. “They’re like, what do you call them? Beards. Happens all the time. Maybe this Hannah’s a beard.”

Harry scoffs. “That doesn’t happen in real life. I don’t think Louis’s girlfriend is a fake girlfriend. Why would he need one, anyway? He’s not actually a superstar, no matter what he’s told you.”

This finally provokes a laugh from Zayn, who holds his hands up in surrender. “Fair enough, I guess. I dunno, I just could’ve sworn he was into you. He touches you all the time.”

“He touches all of us all the time,” Harry points out. He jerks his head toward the other end of the pool. Louis is giving a very good demonstration of this right now, in fact, lounging on Liam’s back as he bats at Niall’s head. “I think he’s just really affectionate? He’s got like a million sisters, right?”

“I’ve got sisters, and I don’t use my mates as chairs.” Zayn still looks doubtful, but shrugs. “Whatever, though. S’pose it’ll come out sooner or later, if he is.” A smirk pulls at his lips. “No pun intended.”

It’s Harry’s turn to laugh. “That was awful.” He gives Zayn a light push, not hard enough to knock him into the pool, but enough that Zayn grabs onto his arm hard to steady himself, and accidentally yanking Harry closer to him.

“Sorry,” Harry breathes, his eyes flicking up to meet Zayn’s. His eyelashes are, frankly, ridiculous, especially from this angle.

Zayn looks a little like he doesn’t know whether to smile or not. “You’re laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think?” he asks, his voice lowered to reflect their proximity.

“Wasn’t doing it on purpose,” Harry assures. He can’t help letting his eyes flit down to Zayn’s lips and back. To his relief, Zayn just seems amused, dark eyes almost sparkling.

“You really do fancy me, don’t you?” asks Zayn. He doesn’t sound accusatory, so Harry swallows his automatic reflex to respond defensively.

Instead, he makes a small, noncommittal noise. “I was serious when I said I wasn’t going to make a play for anyone in the band,” he says quietly. “You don’t have to worry about it, or anything.”

Zayn looks a bit cross, all of a sudden, and Harry frantically thinks over his words, trying to figure out if he accidentally said something awful.

“I wasn’t worried, you twat. Flattering, innit?”

“Oh. Is it?” says Harry doubtfully. “I mostly just. Stare a lot, probably.”

“Feel free,” Zayn offers. “Why would I mind that?”

Harry observes him carefully, but Zayn just looks affable. “Uh… Most guys mind?” he half asks. “The looking, I mean.”

“Well, I don’t. I don’t think the others will, either.” Zayn looks over at them with a small frown. “You’re allowed, to, like, I dunno. Be attracted to people. Just don’t worry about it,” he concludes.

And the weird thing is that Harry believes him. He’s never been ashamed of his sexuality; his family wouldn’t have let him even if he’d wanted to. He knows being gay isn’t a bad thing, but he’s always thought, a little, that it’s a thing to keep close to your chest, something he can’t really expect other people to always be okay with.

In school, sometimes his friends would make jokes about covering up while they were all changing for P.E., or they would quip about him keeping his eyes to himself while they stripped off to go swimming, or something.

He gave up trying to defend himself against it a long time ago, resigning himself to always feeling vaguely offended around his friends. He wants to tell them that being gay doesn’t mean he’s attracted to all guys, and he wants to tell them that his sexuality doesn’t make him a fucking predator… But he never has.

He realizes, belatedly, that he’s just been staring at Zayn for a rather long time without saying anything. Zayn doesn’t look annoyed, though. He looks… It’s probably wishful thinking, but Harry thinks he actually looks sort of understanding.

Zayn doesn’t say anything about it, though. He just claps a hand to Harry’s shoulder and squeezes.

“You can go swim if you want. I won’t mind,” says Zayn, closing his eyes. He leans back a little and kicks his feet in the water. Harry just stares at him until Zayn peeks an eye open. “Seriously,” he insists. “Go on, have fun. Don’t drown, ‘cause I won’t be able to save you.”

At that, Harry manages a smile. “Oh, won’t you even give me mouth-to-mouth?”

“You should be so lucky,” says Zayn with a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t know it, anyway, so I’d probably end up killing you.”

“Lovely way to go.” Harry stretches a little before he slides back into the water. “Sure you’ll be alright on your own?”

“I think I can manage without you for a bit, babe.” Zayn’s voice is dry, and he nudges Harry with his foot. “Try not to pine too hard while we’re twenty feet apart.”

“Piss off.” Harry splashes him and then pushes off the side of the pool while Zayn’s too busy sputtering to hit him.

Harry makes his way across the pool to clamber onto Louis’s back. Louis grunts and grumbles, but grasps Harry’s legs underneath his thighs to keep him from falling.

“Are you done flirting, then?” asks Louis, hitching Harry up his back a little more.

Harry snorts. “Never. If I turned it up all the way, though, none of you would be safe.”

He can sense the skeptical look Louis is giving him without looking, and Niall is just kind of laughing at him. Liam looks scared.

“I’m not going to,” Harry assures. He feels Louis shaking with suppressed laughter and digs his knees into the other boy’s sides. “Look, it’s not a thing, alright? I’m not going to seduce anyone.” He grins, the way he knows makes his cheeks dimple. Gemma’s always told him it makes him look like a baby goat, so he imagines it makes him appear quite innocent. He might as well use his baby face while he’s still got it. Liam seems to relax a bit, anyway.

“You couldn’t seduce a penguin,” Louis cackles, bouncing in place. “Get off, I can’t move with your fat arse on me.”

“You’re one to talk about fat arses, Tommo.” Niall snickers – which Harry didn’t know people did outside of novels – and reaches around to pat Louis’s bum once Harry’s dropped off.

Louis just grins, though Liam looks scandalized. “My best feature, isn’t it? More to love.”

“It is quite nice.” Harry isn’t sure if he can comment without it sounding like a come-on. Either way, though, he doesn’t think Louis will mind.

Indeed, Louis just looks pleased. “You think?” he asks, wriggling. “Want a feel?”

Liam chokes at that before Harry can respond. “I hardly think that’s appropriate-“ he stammers. Louis rolls his eyes and grabs Liam’s hand, pulling it to rest on his own arse.

“See?” says Louis, beaming.

“Yes.” Liam is still blustering a little, but now he’s blushing as well, and he’s gone very still. “It’s very, er. Firm?”

“Told you. You’ve stolen Harry’s turn, though. He’ll be cross.”

Harry isn’t cross at all, but Liam immediately snatches his hand back and gives Harry a look that manages to be both awkward and apologetic. Harry’s impressed.

“Thanks,” he says, setting his hand on Louis’s arse below the water. Liam was right, it is firm, and it’s been a while since he’s touched any sort of arse, nice or not. “It’s very nice,” he says, allowing himself a little squeeze. To make sure.

“Cheeky,” Louis states with obvious delight.

A cleared throat has them all looking to Zayn’s side of the pool. He’s got an eyebrow delicately cocked, and Harry wonders how long he sat there perfecting that expression before calling their attention to him.

“Sorry, is this a form of inter-band bonding? Am I missing out?” He sounds utterly polite. “Shall I feel you up as well?”

It’s so unexpected coming from Zayn that they all start laughing. When Harry looks back up, Zayn’s got this smile on like he’s proud of himself, biting his lip to keep it from spreading across his face.

Harry decides right then that he wants to make Zayn smile like that as much as he possibly can. It softens his face, makes him look happier and open and gorgeous. Harry, selfishly, wants to lay claim to it, keep that smile in his pocket to pull out and show people, I did this.

Louis is dancing toward Zayn through the water, sending Niall into a fit of hysterics and causing even Liam, still blushing, to release a few little giggles of his own.

For the first time during this stay at the bungalow, Harry feels like they could all actually… be something. Be great. They’ve just got to keep going in this direction.

He muses over that for a few more moments, twisting and turning it in his head.

“Hey, guys?” he says slowly, wading through the water until he reaches where the others are now making a crude semi-circle around Zayn.

“What?” Louis replies from where he’s trying insistently to grab Zayn’s hand, but he’s not quite tall enough.

Harry grins, slinging one arm each around Liam and Niall’s necks.

“What do you think of the name ‘One Direction’?”

That night is cold and rainy, the wind battering the windows so loudly that none of them have any hope of getting to sleep.

They decide, of course, that the only real option is to curl up with blankets and pillows and each other, and talk about what teenage boys like to talk about most.

“It’s been ages since I had a proper shag,” Louis grumbles.

“It has not been ages,” Niall counters. “You’ve only been here a week!”

Louis throws a pillow at him. “Week and a half, thanks ever so. And a bit before that, actually. It’s not like girls are always up for it.”

“At least you’ve got a girlfriend, mate.” Niall uses the pillow Louis has thrown to prop his head up. “I don’t even want to talk about how long it’s been for me. Months.”

Zayn reaches over and pats Niall on the back sympathetically. “Chin up. At least you’ve done it before.” He looks a little self-conscious as the others look at him askance.

“No,” gasps Harry in disbelief. “I don’t believe that, not for a second.”

“What?” Zayn asks defensively. “It’s not that uncommon, you know.”

“No, I know, but… your face,” Harry says in a desperate attempt to get Zayn to see reason. It doesn’t work, if the look Zayn gives him is any indication. “No, but you’re beautiful, you should never stop having sex. You should be having sex right now.”

Louis snickers. “D’you want to help him with that or what?”

It’s Harry’s turn to throw a pillow, which Louis uses to replace the one he threw at Niall.

“Shut up,” he says as the others laugh. “It’s not that, just. Seriously?”

Zayn shifts where he’s sitting with what Harry’s sure is technically a pout on his face. “Yes, seriously. And when’s the last time you got fucked, then, sweetheart?”

Harry doesn’t hesitate. “Boot camp,” he says with a grin.

“You didn’t!” exclaims Liam, the first time he’s spoken since they’d been trying to set up the mountain of blankets. “It was so stressful all the time, and we were always busy, when’d you find the time to-?” He cuts himself off when he sees that all the attention’s on him.

“Get off?” Harry asks politely.

“Yes. That.” Liam looks stern now. “How?”

“Easy, wasn’t it? All of the boys category all did stuff at the same time. Means we all had breaks at the same time as well. Just had to find someone who shared my… preferences.”

Niall snorts. “Face like yours, I bet most people share your preferences.”

“Doesn’t quite work like that. Unfortunately. Would’ve been a lot easier to find someone to hook up with.” Harry makes himself more comfortable. “Aiden’s lovely, though.”

“Aiden?” Louis asks, his eyes widening. “Aiden Grimshaw? You fucked Aiden Grimshaw?” He looks impressed.

“Technically, Aiden Grimshaw fucked me, but yeah.” Harry shrugs. “And he made it to Judges Houses as well, so I’m hoping he’ll get through and we can pick up where we left off.”

“You’ve been thrown over already.” Niall stretched his leg out to prod Zayn with his toes. Zayn smacks at him irritably.

“I can’t believe you fucked Aiden.” Louis shakes his head in disbelief. “I’ve spoken to Aiden before, thought we were mates. He never mentioned he’s been inside any of the blokes in my band.” He seems unperturbed by the noises of disgust the others make.

“Probably doesn’t want it getting out,” Harry reasons. “I think he’s bi. Maybe? I’m bad at telling.”

“Yeah, you mentioned the other day,” Louis remembers. “That must be a bit shit.”

Harry hums. “Only a bit. I’m not actually as much of a slag as I’ve made myself out to be, I don’t think.” He frowns. “Anyway, enough about my sex life. What about you?” he asks Liam. “Have you done it yet?”

He thinks Liam’s certain not to answer, but he’s pleasantly surprised.

“Yeah,” says Liam, quiet and blushing, but two days ago Harry’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have said a word, so he considers it a vast improvement. “Uh, last year. Girlfriend at the time.”

“You’re not dating anymore, though, right?” Niall asks. He pulls his blanket more tightly around himself. “Was she awful at it?”

“No!” Liam looks scandalized again, only this time Harry feels it’s warranted. The look he’s giving Niall is pretty scandalized as well, and Niall lifts his hands in surrender as Liam continues. “No, it just didn’t work out. I’m doing this X Factor thing and she kind of wanted to see other guys anyway.”

“Sorry,” Zayn offers, and the others all echo his sentiments. Liam shakes his head, though.

“No, we weren’t right for each other, anyway. Really, it was just about the. Er.”

“Feelings?” guesses Zayn.

“Sex,” decides Louis. “I think Payne’s been holding out on us. He’s secretly the dirtiest person in the band.”

“No, that’s definitely Harry,” Niall declares to Harry’s utter indignation.

“What’s dirty about me?” Harry asks, looking at each of them in turn. “I’m not dirty!”

“You’re naked,” Louis points out. He’s the only one who doesn’t look shifty under Harry’s glare. “And you were just talking to all of us about all the sex you’ve had and are going to have with Aiden.”

“I’m clean and naked,” Harry grumbles. “S’my house, I can be as naked as I want. And why should I be ashamed of the sex I have? It’s clean sex.”

“Then you’re doing it wrong.” This comes from Liam, of all people, and there’s a moment of stunned silence before they all burst into laughter, Harry included. Liam seems pleased, flushed with his success.

Harry huffs once he’s done laughing. “I promise I’m not dirty!”

“Oh, we know, love.” Zayn pats his arm. The thing about Zayn’s voice is that generally, Harry can’t tell if he’s being sincere or sarcastic. It keeps him on his toes. He’s not quite sure yet if he likes it or not. He probably does, though. Harry’s always had a thing for people who aren’t afraid to give him a bit of lip.

He does what comes naturally to him in response and tosses Zayn his flirtiest glance, under his lashes and biting his lip and blinking slowly.

Zayn mostly looks amused, but there’s something underneath that, something so very like interest that Harry almost shivers.

“If you two are quite finished?” Louis asks, yawning and stretching his arms over his head. “I’m knackered. Can we sleep out here, d’you think?”

“Er, yeah.” Harry clears his throat and tears his gaze from Zayn’s. “There are the two sofas, and I think enough blankets to make the floor comfortable, even.”

“I’m alright here,” Liam offers. Indeed, he looks comfortable lounging in the beanbag chair. The only bit of him still visible is his floppy fringe and one sleepily blinking eye.

Niall waves from his blanket fortress. “Same here. See all of you in the morning.”

“Yeah.” Zayn slips up onto the couch he and Harry have been leaning against as Louis moves in a drowsy lope to sprawl across the other one. Harry bites the inside of his cheek, flicking his gaze around the room. He doesn’t actually have enough blankets to cushion the hard floor beneath him and he threw his only pillow at Louis, like an idiot.

He feels Zayn’s fingers curl around his shoulder just as Louis calls out, “Hey, Harry, you wanna share with me?”

Harry waits for a moment, but Zayn just lets go of him and Harry sighs. He adores Louis, but if Zayn had been about to offer to split his couch, Harry might just need to kill him.

“Sure, sounds good.” Harry gets to his feet and plods across the room, hesitating when he gets to the edge of the sofa. “D’you want me to put pants on?”

Louis eyes him speculatively and Harry very nearly blushes. “D’you want to put pants on?”

Harry thinks about it. It really is quite cold, but he’s got a blanket and Louis’s got a blanket, and he does so hate having clothes on.

“I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you?” he asks.

Louis breaks into a smile and Harry’s shoulders relax a little with relief.

“Come on, then.” Louis is fully dressed in a t-shirt and the bottom half of his plaid pyjamas. He opens his arms and doesn’t seem about to move over at all, so Harry does the simple thing and just lowers himself down to rest on top of Louis. “Comfortable?” Louis asks courteously.

“Hmm.” Harry squirms around a bit, until he manages to get one thigh between Louis’s and pulls the blanket tightly around the both of them. “Yes,” he decides. “Very.”

“Good, I am, as well.” Louis wraps his arms around Harry, resting one hand at the base of Harry’s spine and using the other to tug playfully at Harry’s hair.

Harry tucks his face against Louis’s throat, making a little happy noise. He loves it when people play with his hair.

“Sleep well, Hazza,” Louis whispers to him.

Harry wishes he could fall in love right now. He wishes he could have a mad crush on Louis, and maybe fool around a little and they could be disgustingly cute together and it would be perfect, and lovely, and everything Harry could ever want. He wishes he could see any of that ever happening.

He can’t, though. So he just whispers, “Goodnight,” and settles his head on Louis’s chest.

In the middle of the night, Harry wakes up to the sound of a loud bang, jerking so hard he nearly falls off the sofa. He realizes it was just the sound of the outer screen door banging in the wind just as Louis mutters above him, “Nearly caught me in the balls, you menace.”

He sounds drowsy but not really angry, and Harry smiles. “Sorry,” he whispers, straightening his knee out so it’s not quite as close to delicate parts of Louis’s body. “Loud.”

“Yeah, I heard it too.” Louis pats between Harry’s shoulder blades. “S’alright. Got you.”

Harry’s pretty sure Louis is in some place between awake and asleep, treating Harry like he’d treat one of his little sisters or something. It’s nice, though. Harry feels warm and secure and just the right amount of tired, like he could drop back off any second.

Louis says something that Harry doesn’t quite hear, then, and Harry grunts as he has to lift his head from Louis’s chest. “Sorry, what?” he asks. He feels like he’s speaking too loudly, but that’s probably just the hush of the room, and with the way the rain’s pounding outside, nobody’s going to be able to hear him anyway. “Didn’t catch that.”

“I just said, what’s really going on with you and Zayn?” Louis asks. He sounds like he’s speaking carefully, as though he thinks he might offend Harry somehow. Harry tries to find the words to tell him that he’s pretty sure Louis is one of those people who could say anything to Harry, anything at all, but it’s late and Harry’s tired and he doesn’t quite know how to turn that feeling into words. “You’ve been flirting like mad all day. I practically get a sympathy stiffy every time you look at him.”

Harry snorts with laughter, shaking his head. “It’s nothing like that. Well, it’s a little like that. I don’t know.”

“Very clear, thank you.” Louis clears his throat, his voice still raspy with sleep.

“It’s just, you know how we were fighting so much before?” Harry asks, waiting for Louis to make a noise of confirmation. He knows the others had been getting sick of the way Harry and Zayn couldn’t be in a room for more than ten minutes without finding something to bicker about. “I just thought – we can’t fight if we’re flirting. I mean, probably we can’t. Can you fight with someone and also be making a pass at them?” he wonders aloud.

“Oh, definitely,” Louis assures. He sounds extremely amused. “Violent flirting is always the best kind.”

Harry huffs at him. “You’re making fun of me,” he accuses. “You’re supposed to be nice to me. I’ll kick you off my sofa.”

“You will not.” Louis is entirely too sure of himself for Harry’s liking. “You like me best. I’m going to stay on your sofa for the rest of our lives. That’s a metaphor, by the way.”

“You’re a metaphor,” Harry grumbles. He continues before Louis can point out how that made no sense. “I just really want this to work, you know? This band thing. And it won’t work if we can’t all get along.”

“I know. Just don’t want you two getting along too well, if you know what I mean.” Louis rubs Harry’s back and sighs. “I don’t want you ending up hurt,” he finally says, his voice lowered even more. “I know how this goes, alright? Don’t get yourself in over your head.”

“I’m not in over my head. It’s just flirting; it’s not like it means anything. I’ve been doing the same thing with you!”

Louis gives him a pointed look. “Yeah,” he says wryly. “And you’re on top of me right now.”

Harry doesn’t think Louis is being serious, but he still feels like it might be a good move to establish this before they go on as a band.

“You know I’m not, though, right?” he asks, hesitant. “Like. Whatever?”

“You’re breaking my heart, Styles.” Louis laughs low and soft in Harry’s ear. “Of course I know. I’m no stranger to a bit of fun between mates. Maybe tone it down a bit toward Liam, though. I think he’s been trying to come up with a way to let you down gently.”

Harry has to duck his head to muffle his bark of laughter against Louis’s chest.

“Oh, God, can you imagine?” he asks, grinning up at Louis. “ ‘I’m – I’m really sorry, Harry –‘ “

“ ‘We just wouldn’t be right together, and with the band an’ all –‘ “ Louis is shaking with amusement underneath Harry.

“You’re terrible,” Harry admonishes, gently smacking Louis’s chest. “He’s trying really hard.”

“And it’s very charming,” Louis agrees. “I’m hoping he’ll calm down a bit and stop looking at you like he thinks you’re about to jump on him all naked.”

“Who says I’m not?” Harry wriggles a little. “I like being naked and I like jumping on people. Maybe they’ll overlap sometimes.”

Louis heaves a beleaguered sigh. “Only I would end up in a band with a nudist by trying out for the X Factor. You know, Harry, this isn’t at all how I expected my life to go.”

“It’s fun, though,” Harry muses, rolling a little so that he’s pressed mostly against the back of the sofa, but still wrapped around Louis. “I don’t know if I would’ve liked it as much if I’d got through alone. I would’ve been lonely, maybe.”

He hears a little sigh from Louis and then an arm wrap around his shoulders and hold him closer. “Did I tell you about my audition?” Louis whispers, his voice close to Harry’s ear. Harry shakes his head and Louis huffs out a laugh. “I was so nervous beforehand, I almost threw up,” he confesses. “When I got up there, I was sure I’d get all ‘no’s and everyone would laugh at me.”

“Oh, Lou,” murmurs Harry, squirming to wrap his arms around Louis’s neck. Louis laughs again and ducks to press his face into Harry’s shoulder.

“It was the scariest thing I ever did,” Louis continues. “And then I had to do it over and over at boot camp, too. I think part of me was sort of relieved, when they told me I was out.” Harry feels the bob of Louis’s throat as he swallows. “So, yeah, I’m really glad it’s all of us. I don’t think I could’ve done it, otherwise.”

Harry doesn’t say anything at first, just listening to the rain against the windows and the thunder in the distance. He can feel the way Louis’s chest rises and falls a little unevenly, like he’s keeping in some emotion he’s still not ready to let out. Harry won’t make him, either. Not now. Someday, though. Someday he thinks they’ll get there.

“I’m really glad I met you, Louis,” says Harry into Louis’s collarbone. Louis’s hand comes up to curl into the back of Harry’s hair again.

“Glad I met you, too, Curly. Get some more sleep, tomorrow’s our last day to get practice in and you know Liam will have our heads if we don’t take advantage of it. That means keep your Zayn issue under wraps.”

“It’s not an issue,” Harry grumbles, digging his fingers into Louis’s ribs. “Shut up. You should be talking to him about being less hot, that’d be loads of help.”

Louis laughs, but he sounds like he’s already drifting off again, his breathing evening out as he makes sleepy, snuffly noises into Harry’s hair. It’s unbearably cute, and Harry has another brief moment of wishing that he quickly tucks away. No use in going down that road. None at all.

Harry turns his head to press his other cheek to Louis’s chest and catches a glint in the darkness, eyes watching him, visible whenever the lightning flashes. Zayn.

Zayn just looks back at Harry, his eyes half-lidded. He has one arm dangling off the sofa and his hair’s a fluffy mess, and it looks like he might be drooling a bit. He’s still fucking gorgeous and it’s not fair.

As Harry watches, Zayn slowly blinks, and then smiles at him, the flash of his teeth surprisingly bright. Harry smiles back and tries to resist the pull of sleep, difficult when Louis is so comfortable and warm beneath him.

He wonders how long Zayn’s been awake. Perhaps the sounds of their voices woke him, or the lightning regularly brightening the room.

Maybe, though, he’s been awake the whole time. Maybe the same bang of the screen door woke Zayn up, and he’s just been listening to Harry and Louis talk about how much Harry likes his face, and maybe Zayn knows, now, just how attractive Harry finds him. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Zayn certainly isn’t cringing away or even frowning. Or moving. Harry wouldn’t even know the other boy was still awake if it weren’t for his eyes being open.

Then, slowly, Zayn brings his hand to his lips, and the soft smacking sound is audible as the storm lulls. Harry watches and wonders if he’s dreaming because Zayn pulls his hand away from his mouth and blows Harry a fucking kiss.

Harry really has no choice but to reach up and catch it, his hand moving in the dream-slow way that things do in that place between sleep and awake. He’s still not so sure he’s not sleeping, actually. He’s pretty sure he’s had a few dreams like this since meeting Zayn.

Most of those dreams have involved quite a bit more nudity on Zayn’s part, however, Harry acknowledges. Probably real, then. His life is so amazing right now.

Harry’s not sure when he actually fell asleep, but he dreams of dark, quizzical eyes and the softest lips he’s ever kissed. He wakes up feeling somehow both drained and well-rested.

It’s Louis’s idea. It couldn’t have been anyone else’s, really; Liam wouldn’t have suggested it, and Zayn wouldn’t have, either. Niall might have, but they wouldn’t take him seriously. Harry had the idea, but never would have verbalized it just because he knows it would be taken the wrong way.

But somehow, because it’s Louis, they all listen when he says: “Hey, I think we should all get naked together.”

There’s a sort of silence after he says it, but Louis doesn’t look perturbed by it at all. He just lounges casually in his seat, waiting for an answer.

“Questions?” he asks after a moment. “Comments?”

“Er,” says Niall. “Why?”

“For the bonding, of course!” Louis exclaims. “Think of how close it’ll bring us!”

“I don’t think I really want to be all that close if we’re all naked,” says Liam, quite logically, Harry thinks. “Can I pass?”

Louis suddenly looks very stern. “You most definitely cannot pass, Liam Payne. You’re to get your willy out with the rest of us.”

“I don’t remember agreeing to this?” Zayn points out. He looks very resigned, though. Harry thinks maybe they’d all do anything if Louis asked them to. He has that sort of effect on people. “Harry’s already got his out, anyway.”

“Harry’s always got his out.” Liam sounds bewildered and, as they’ve discovered, tends to default to overly polite when he doesn’t know what’s going on. “Are we really – is this what we’re going to do with the last of our time together before Judges’ Houses?”

“Yes, it is,” Louis informs him. “We’ve got to know each other inside and out for this to work. We’re learning each other’s outs. Now get your dick out.”

Liam looks a bit terrified and Harry takes pity on him. “Leave him alone, Lou, he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to.”

“It’s a bonding experience, Harold.” No matter how many times Harry tells him, Louis refuses to accept that ‘Harry’ is his full first name. “You can’t just opt out of a bonding experience.”

“I’ll go,” offers Niall. He seems generally carefree about everything, so it’s not surprising that he strips off without any more fanfare than that.

Niall is all pale skin and skinny hips, angular and with puppy fat still clinging to his stomach and thighs. Harry doesn’t look for too long, because this is a bonding exercise, according to Louis, and he shouldn’t be using it as an excuse to stare.

“Good show, Niall!” Louis looks delighted and he even gives Niall a little bit of applause. Niall’s cheeks flush a rosy pink when Louis adds, “You’ve got a very nice cock.”

“Thanks?” Niall lowers himself back into his seat, crossing his legs and dropping his swimsuit into his lap. He’s going to get cold soon like that, but for now he seems mostly pleased with Louis’s praise.

Harry frowns. “I don’t get any compliments? That doesn’t seem fair.”

“I definitely told you the first time you got your kit off that you had a smackable bum!” Louis protests. “Don’t be greedy, Harry, it’s not becoming.”

“You know, I’m really very surprised you’re the gay one in this band,” Zayn murmurs to Harry while Louis tries to get Liam to go next. “With all this smackable bum talk going around.”

“I do have quite a smackable bum.” Harry shrugs. “He’s not wrong. Just an observation.”

“Fine, then!” Louis huffs loudly, giving Liam a very disappointed look. “I suppose I’ll go, then. If Liam won’t.”

He pulls his shirt over his head in one movement and then hooks his thumbs into the waist band of his boxers, dropping them as well.

Louis looks… really, really good. It’s obvious that he works to get the body he has and he’s tan from being in the sun all the time, and Harry swallows, scanning him once more. Louis is beaming at him when Harry’s gaze reaches his face.

“Now it’s just you two.” Louis raises his eyebrows at Liam and Zayn. “Flip a coin for it?”

“Nah.” Zayn hesitates, then pulls off his own swim trunks. “I don’t think normal bands do this,” he states.

Louis snorts. “They should. I’ve been thinking about this. It’ll get rid of any awkwardness, right? That way, when we inevitably see each other naked again, it won’t be as weird because we’ve already seen each other’s bits!”

“I’ve seen loads of Harry’s bits and it’s still weird,” says Liam flatly. He looks less nervous, but that might be bullshit for all Harry knows, because Harry’s eyes keep darting away from Liam’s face to catch on Zayn’s neck or his legs or his arse. He’s trying not to but it’s hard when his brain is telling him to look as much as he can because who knows when he’ll be able to see it again.

When his eyes return to Zayn’s face, he looks much smirkier than he had before, and he’s looking straight back at Harry. There isn’t much muscle on Zayn, just skin and bones and gorgeous. Harry wants to lick him.

“Fine!” Liam loudly exclaims, drawing Harry’s attention. He’s the mottled pink color of someone who’s been in the sun for too long and beside him, Louis looks smug. “Fine,” Liam repeats more calmly as he pulls off his t-shirt.

Harry has seen Liam’s abs before, but they’re never any less impressive. He obviously spends time getting his body to look the way it does, all muscles in his arms, and his chest, and his back, and everywhere.

Louis hasn’t said anything else. Maybe he realizes that this is really big of Liam to do, when he’s still so uncomfortable about… about everything, really.

Harry politely averts his eyes when Liam removes his trousers. His gaze lands back on Zayn completely by accident, and Zayn isn’t looking at Liam, either. He’s looking at Harry, the smirk still on his face, his eyes all dark and – challenging, almost. Harry just can’t figure out what he’s being challenged about, and Zayn looks away before he can do more than vaguely wonder.

“You’re so muscle-y,” says Louis with obvious admiration. “It’s making me feel inadequate. You’re two years younger than me. You should be all squidgy and short.”

“I’m sorry?” Liam half-asks, still embarrassed but a little pleased as well. “I run a lot. I like running.”

He runs all the time, does Liam. Harry suspects he’s got a running fetish. Every morning he’s out for about an hour, and then he has to go for another run before he can sleep.

“Maybe I’ll come with you sometime,” Louis volunteers. “I’m started to get a tummy.” He rubs a hand over, to Harry’s eyes, his completely flat stomach.

“You look gorgeous and you know it,” he tells Louis, looking down at his own pudge. He’s not self-conscious about it or anything. He knows he looks good. He just doesn’t have abs like Louis or Liam. Zayn doesn’t have them either and he’s still the sexiest person Harry’s seen in real life.

Louis is grinning at him now, twinkly and stupid. “Well, thank you, young Harold –“

“ – That isn’t my name – “

“ – Young Harold,” repeats Louis loudly. “You aren’t so bad yourself. You’re very curly.”

“Thanks,” Harry says, his voice as dry as he can make it.

Still, Louis is beaming. “You’re welcome! See, don’t we all feel closer now?”

“Colder, maybe,” grumbles Niall. “I’m freezing my dick off. Can I put my shorts back on now?”

Louis looks a little put out that nobody’s appreciating his brilliant idea to promote inter-band unity.

“I feel a lot closer to everyone,” Harry says. “Great plan, Lou.”

“Yeah, lovely. Glad we had this opportunity.” Zayn doesn’t sound very sincere. “Don’t know how I would’ve gone on without seeing your balls.”

“That’s the spirit,” Louis praises. “Now we’re like brothers!”

“I’ve only got a sister, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how brothers work.” Harry hooks his arms around Louis’s neck in a hug. They’re both still naked and Louis smells quite a bit like a boy who hasn’t showered in a few days. It’s still a nice hug.

Louis hugs back with unbridled enthusiasm even as out of the corner of his eye, Harry can see Liam pulling his jeans back on, and Zayn sliding back into his pants. He supposes casual nudity just isn’t for everyone.

Niall seems comfortable enough, still reclining naked even if he does have his pants balled up in his lap.

“We should go skinny-dipping,” declares Louis.

Liam puts his head in his hands and Harry hears him mutter, “No more ideas,” under his breath.

“It’ll be a laugh,” Louis insists, putting his hands on his hips. He doesn’t pose a very menacing figure, all naked and huffy, but Harry supposes it’s the intent that counts.

“No,” says Niall in a flat voice. “It’s getting dark, which means it’ll be freezing in there. I’ll get icicles on my balls.”

“There’s an old saying: The band that gets icicles on their balls together stays together. Or something like that,” he loudly clarifies over Liam’s anguished cry of, “That doesn’t even sound good!”

“Probably won’t be that cold,” Harry muses aloud, half just to see the horrified look on Liam’s face. Zayn seems content to just watch this play out with no input of his own, which is typical. Zayn really doesn’t like to participate in discussion until he knows who’s going to win.

(Louis usually wins because Harry always agrees with him, and Niall doesn’t care, and most of the time Liam seems too astonished that Louis is a real person to mount a useful offence.)

“Come on, it’s not even that cold, I bet,” Louis coaxes. “Harry’d know, wouldn’t he? It’s his pool. Tell him, Harry,” Louis commands as he folds his arms over his chest.

“It’ll be brilliant,” decides Harry. “It’s still warm enough out anyway that even if it’s a bit nippy, it’ll just feel nice.”

“Everywhere’s nippy when you’re there.” Zayn smirks at Harry, but he’s taking off his pants again, which is distracting. “Considering you’ve got twelve of them.”

Harry pouts. “There’s only four, and they’ve got feelings, you know. Don’t be cruel.” He puts his hands up to cover the nonexistent ears on his extra nipples.

“Have they?” asks Louis, giving Harry’s chest a contemplative appraisal. “Not, like, I know they’re not sentient or anything, but do they react to stuff like normal nipples? Get hard when it’s cold, and that?”

Harry rubs the pad of his thumb over his lowest nipple. It tightens a bit and he shrugs. “Yeah,” he confirms. “They’re all normal nipples, it’s just there’s more of them.”

He leaves his nipples alone then to clap, startling the others.

“Are we doing this, then? We’re already dressed for it. Might as well.” Harry puts his hands on his hips and raises his eyebrows, which seems to make Liam blush even more.

Louis gives Liam a firm look. “Get your pants off, Payne,” he commands. “Or I’m taking them off for you.”

There’s no way Louis would do anything of the sort, and they all know if Liam was really against the idea, Louis would let it go. He likes to push at Liam’s buttons, but he’d never keep going if Liam was honestly upset.

Harry is pretty sure Louis has grown fond of Liam now, even though at first he’d complained to Harry in secret about how Liam didn’t fit with them and he was too quiet and stuck on himself and too concerned with being professional. As their time together has passed, though, Harry’s watched Louis switch from prodding at Liam to be a dick to prodding at Liam to get him to open up a little.

Liam sighs loudly, his eyes turned to the sky, but even though he’s still all red, Harry can see the resignation in his face.

“Fine. But only because you’ll never leave me alone if I don’t, and I’d like to sleep tonight.”

Louis is giving Liam a wide grin and actually cheers when Liam removes his trousers again. Harry’s not sure if Liam will ever go back to being the color he normally is.

(The water’s so cold that Harry loses all the feeling in his feet, but Zayn gives him a hug to help warm him up, so he doesn’t mind.)

It’s very hot in Marbella. It’s more than that of course, so many metaphors for opportunity, but when Harry thinks back on it he thinks he’ll remember the heat more than anything. They’ve been taking every chance to be in the water instead of on the sand because the sand is approximately the temperature of lava, so they should’ve expected, maybe, that some sort of sea beast would take that as a sign to attack. Now Louis’s gone off to hospital to get his foot sorted out and they’ve got hours until they’re supposed to perform, and nobody knows what they’re going to do.

Simon’s given them the latest slot, in the hope that it’ll be enough time for Louis to get back, but they might have to do it without him, and they can’t get it to sound right at all. Harry’s scared, and he can see that the others are, too, and nobody’s surprised when Zayn wanders off after the fortieth go-through where the song sounds like shit.

“I’ll go,” Harry mumbles when Liam looks ready to take off after him. Liam’s good at being logical, but he’s not quite as good at reassuring. If nothing else, Harry knows he’s good at that.

He finds Zayn sitting on one of the patches of rocks and stones that overlooks the sea, mid-cigarette and appearing to be a combination of pensive and just tired. Harry sits beside him and doesn’t say anything. Zayn doesn’t, either, but Harry thinks it’s only a matter of time. He obviously wants to talk, and if Harry’s the only option, he’ll just have to talk to Harry.

“Louis reckons we’ll be famous,” says Zayn after a long while, his cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He looks even younger than he is, which is probably the opposite of what smoking’s meant to do. It’s supposed to make people look older and more mature, but Zayn just looks cripplingly young, like a boy trying to play at being like his older brother. Scared. He looks scared.

They’re all scared. Harry’s so scared that thinking about it makes his stomach roll

“Does he?” Harry finally says in return. “Louis reckons a lot of things, doesn’t he?”

There’s a pause as Zayn looks out over the rocks and taps the ash off the end of his cigarette. “S’pose,” he mumbles after a moment.

“Out with it,” Harry commands, swinging his legs up to fold them. “What’re you sulking over?”

“I’m not sulking; you’re a twat.”

Harry barely blinks. Zayn seems to like calling him a twat. He’s got personalized insulting nicknames for all of them.

Louis’s is ‘knob’. Niall’s is ‘idiot’. He doesn’t seem to have one for Liam. Perhaps he thinks being Liam is insulting enough. No, that can’t be it. Zayn likes Liam best of all of them, Harry thinks.

“Yeah, alright, but you are sulking, so you might as well tell me why. If you’re still in a mood when Louis gets back, he’ll bother it out of you.”

“I know he will. He’s a knob.” Zayn heaves a sigh and angrily stubs out his cigarette. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, it’s you, isn’t it?” Harry reasons. “When d’you ever want to talk about anything?”

“We could talk about the song we’ve got to have perfect by three hours from now, even though we’re down a member, and I’m out of smokes, so before we can even get in front of Simon, I’m probably going to kill someone and we’ll get chucked out anyway. D’you want to talk about that?”

In the ensuing quiet punctuated by Zayn breathing heavily, Harry wonders if he’s an awful person for thinking Zayn looks really good when he’s upset. He’s sort of flushed and pouty and Harry wants to kiss him. He’s crazy for thinking his crush had dissipated at all. It’s still going strong as ever.

“Well,” Harry starts carefully. “We could talk about that, yeah. If you want. Not stressed about it at all, then, are you?”

Zayn makes a noise like a disgruntled giraffe and fidgets in a way that makes Harry think he’d really like another cigarette. “No. I don’t want to talk about it. Never mind.”

“No, you can’t get out of it now.” Harry shuffles closer as well as he can and puts on his best sympathetic friend expression. It’s not difficult, as Harry does feel sympathetic, and at this point he thinks it’s fair to call Zayn his friend. “Come on, let’s talk to Uncle Harry about it.”

This earns him a vaguely disgusted look from Zayn.

“Mate, if I had an uncle look at me like you do, I’d never fucking sleep. Don’t ever say that again.”

“Oh, right, sorry,” says Harry. In retrospect, that was probably a bit weird. “Tell friend-who-fancies-you Harry, then.”

“Much better.” Zayn cracks a reluctant smile. “No, I don’t know. This is just sort of. It. You know?”

Weirdly enough, Harry does know. This is sort of it for him, too. He’s young enough that he could try out again later in his life, but he has no doubt he’ll never be as good on his own as he is with these four boys. They’ve got something, something really good, and Harry just hopes Simon can see that as well.

Harry thinks he will. They might not have the strongest voices in the competition apart from Liam – who has one of the best voices Harry’s ever heard, and he’s only a few months older than him, which is fine, of course, Harry’s not jealous of Liam’s great voice and abs and general pleasantness face-wise – but they have something.

“Yeah, I know,” he says after a moment, nudging his knee against Zayn’s. “Me too. But it’s, we’re good, you know? We really are. And we’ve practiced, and I mean, have you seen the other groups? It’s not like there’s loads of competition. They’re lovely blokes, but I think we can probably beat out Twem.”

That gets a laugh out of Zayn, and Harry adds it to his mental list of times he’s made that happen. It’s not the longest list in the world, but it’s a satisfying one.

“Husstle are good,” Zayn points out. “And I heard the new girl group, the ones like us, heard them rehearsing earlier and they’re pretty good and FYD – Princes and Rogues are poncy, but they’ve got a risky song choice and that might help them.”

“Are you writing up adverts on all the other groups?” Harry laughs. He chances an arm over Zayn’s shoulders. “We’re good, too. We’ve got Liam, and we’ve got your face – all our faces. We’re all young, good-looking lads. I hear teenage girls like that, and that’s the demographic the X Factor appeals to. So there,” he concludes, which probably negates any and all reason he’s just concocted.

Zayn rolls his eyes. “Okay, so we’ve got as good a chance as anyone else. That’s still only a three in eight chance we go through.”

“Yeah, but we’re going to.” Harry does his best to sound more confident than he is. “Don’t think like we could get through. Think like we’re going to get through.”

“We’re going to get through,” Zayn repeats. “Alright, we’re going to get through. We are going to get through.”

“Right, we are,” Harry says firmly. “We’re going in one direction and that’s the live shows.”

Zayn laughs, but it’s more of a groan, so Harry doesn’t think it counts. “That was awful. Doesn’t even count as a joke. Zero stars.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” sulks Harry. “Louis’s done worse.”

“Yeah, but Louis tries to make awful jokes. You just… do.” Zayn shakes his head. He’s smiling, which is the point of jokes. Harry takes that as a success. “We should get back,” Zayn sighs. He tucks the cigarette he’s been fiddling with behind his ear. “Lou’ll be back soon, probably, and if we don’t want to sound crap, we’ll need to spend the day practicing before we go in front of Simon.”

“Fair point.” Harry crouches and then gets to his feet. “Until he does get back, we should, I dunno, let them film us looking pitiful, drum up some sympathy for when the show goes out.”

“Devious, you are.” Zayn looks mildly impressed. “That’s a good idea, in case we do get through. Have you always been so manipulative?”

“Not always, I don’t think,” muses Harry. “Maybe, though. I’ve never paid attention.”

Zayn shrugs and takes Harry’s hand when he offers it, pulling himself up. “Whatever keeps us here. I don’t care. You can do nothing but cry on camera if it gets us through.”

Harry snorts out a laugh. “I don’t think we’ll need to resort to that. Louis can cry on cue, though.”

“Might be useful.” Zayn shakes his head. “I never thought anything like this would happen when I tried out.”

“Didn’t think you’d be talking about wanting to stay on the show so badly you’re willing to fake cry for pity votes?” Harry tucks his thumbs into his pockets.

Zayn nods, a bewildered look on his face. “And I’m in a band, and you fancy me, and that’s just normal, like it doesn’t even matter.”

“Well, I appreciate that. Thanks for not punching me,” Harry adds. “Always a fan of no punching.”

“I wouldn’t have punched you, you twat.”

Privately, Harry thinks Zayn sounds overly defensive, but it could be his imagination. Either way, he likes when people don’t punch him. He’s been punched before and it’s not pleasant.

Zayn continues, “It’s not that it would’ve bothered me – or, I don’t know, maybe it would have. But now it’s like I see the way you look at me sometimes and it’s just… it just is.”

Harry shrugs. “Glad I don’t have to try and hide it. I’m rubbish at hiding when I like someone. But if you were the type of person who minded, I probably would’ve stopped fancying you.” He sighs. “Anyway, doesn’t matter. Your status as unattainable dreamboat is fairly permanent.”

Zayn goes a bit pink. It’s so cute Harry wants to die. “Shut up,” Zayn says to Harry, but Harry can see that he actually looks quite pleased.

He mentally adds a tally to his list.

Thankfully, Louis does make it back in time, and their audition in front of Simon goes... well. It's nervewracking even though they've all performed in front of him before. That's only natural, since this is their first time performing for him as a group, as a group he made, and they all feel like they need to prove that it wasn't a bad decision. They deserve to be here and Harry hopes that their performance showed that.

He's tired by the time they get back to the house, even though it's not very late. Just the pressure of the day combined with him still not quite being over the jetlag, he imagines. The others aren't tired, though, or at least they don't look it. Louis manages to seem bouncy even though he's limping everywhere and Niall – well, Harry's never seen Niall look tired, really. Even when Niall's asleep, he doesn't look tired.

Harry feels a responsibility to stay up with the others. Especially if this is the last opportunity they're going to have to stay together all five of them, if tomorrow Simon decides they don't have what it takes. He wants to think that they'd keep in touch, but he's young, not naive. He's sure they'd make an effort for a while but they'd slowly drop off contact with one another and Harry doesn't want that.

He likes all of them, is the thing. He likes Louis, with his mad jokes and the way he always seems to need to be touching one of them. He likes Niall, always upbeat and Irish to the point where Harry sometimes has difficulty making out what he's saying. He likes Liam, because he knows Liam wants this more than anything, and Liam is trying, even though he obviously isn't used to having to get along with four boys all at once with four different personalities. Harry sort of gets the impression Liam didn't have many close friends before this. He's mentioned only one by name, Andy, apparently his best friend from home.

And Harry likes Zayn, who doesn't mind that Harry stares at him and he's so good-looking it's got to be illegal some places and even if they still get into snits, Harry's pretty sure Zayn likes him back. Not in quite the same way Harry likes him, but he would be alarmed if he was that lucky, anyway.

"Wish we could get hammered," comments Niall, lounging back on Liam's bed. They all have their own rooms in this massive house but they've congregated in Liam's because it apparently smells the best, and Harry does value pleasantly fragranced spaces. His own room smells like dirty socks, and he can't even see the floor in Louis’s, which, considering they really haven't been here so very long, is saying something.

"Louis’s the only one of us who could, anyway," Zayn grumbles. He's at the foot of the bed, fiddling with the top of the post he's leaning against. "Without anyone making a fuss, I mean."

Louis snorts. "Like you all haven't before. Don't give me that goody-two-shoes act. I bet you've danced on a table or two in your time," he directs toward Liam, who looks startled and unnecessarily defensive. Harry really wishes he'd just – relax, once in a while. Even looking at him sometimes makes Harry feel uptight.

"I can't drink," Liam says. He's tugging at a string that's come loose from the knee of his jeans. Harry's a little surprised Liam has jeans that are frayed. "I've only got one kidney, so I don't, yeah, can't drink at all."

"You've only got one kidney," Louis repeats. He looks like he'd like to check to make sure Liam's not lying. Harry's not sure how he'd accomplish that, but he is sure he'd like to watch. "Does nobody in this band have the exact number of everything people are supposed to have? Harry with his four nipples and now you've only got one kidney. Niall, you don't have a third lung or something, do you?"

"No, just the eleven toes," says Niall, calm as anything, and for a moment, Harry finds himself trying to peer at Niall's feet where they're curled under him. It's only once Niall releases his cackling laugh that Harry realizes that he's, well, quite stupid.

Louis grumbles, flopping back on the bed so that half of him is sort of in Liam's lap. Liam goes pink and seems a second away from shoving Louis off before he heaves a beleaguered sigh and just shifts so Louis’s limbs are at least not prodding him so much.

That's progress, at least. When they were at the bungalow, Liam barely let the others give him a high five. Harry thinks Louis’s been good for him. Louis’s been good for all of them, really, but for Liam most of all.

"So, we can't get hammered," concludes Niall, returning to the original point of the conversation. "What can we do? I really don't want to think about how we might not get through. Someone distract me," he demands, his gaze moving expectantly between all of them.

"Fresh out of distractions," Zayn sighs. He looks all effortlessly cool and Harry wants to mess him up a bit, so he reaches over and ruffles Zayn's hair. Zayn squawks and, to Harry's utter surprise, actually tackles him. He goes down hard, even if they are on a bed, and gets the air knocked out of him.

"Hey," he coughs, his chest heaving.

"Told you not to touch my hair," says Zayn, and he sounds reasonable but he's also sat astride Harry so reason's a little hard for him to listen to at the moment.

Harry takes a deep breath and then pushes Zayn back, wrestling him down and then lifting his arms in victory.

"I guess that's one way to combat distraction," says Louis from his seat on Liam. "I've got a pound on Hazza, best two out of three."

"I've got Zayn," Niall replies, digging in his pocket and coming up with one shiny coin. "Go on, do me proud."

Harry looks back at Zayn and shrugs, and Zayn gives him a little nod in return before squirming out from underneath him – which Harry very deliberately does not think about too hard – and diving to attack Harry again.

The next five minutes are a blur of tackling and elbows in ribs and grunting. Harry's sure they could be doing just about anything else, but it's hard to think about not getting through tomorrow when he's got Zayn smacking him around.

"Alright, children," says Louis finally, pushing his hands between them. Harry nearly bites him before realizing he's not Zayn and Louis is more likely to actually hurt him. Zayn's skinny and scrappy, but Louis has muscles and things. "That's enough. If one of you breaks an arm, I'm not explaining to Simon."

"I wasn't gonna break his arm," grumbles Zayn, lounging back against his post. His hair's a mess. Harry wants to do terrible, dirty things to him. He catches his breath and pulls himself across to the other post, shoving his own hair out of his face. "I was just gonna teach him not to mess with my hair."

It strikes Harry that they didn't really question Louis’s instructions. "You're not the boss of us," he says, squinting at Louis in consternation. "I'll break his arm if I want to."

Louis snorts so hard it looks like it hurts. "Harry, you can barely break ice. I don't think you would've done any permanent damage."

"... Could've," Harry mutters sulkily. It's not an important conversation but he feels like he needs to say something, at least, to fill the silence. They know each other alright at this point so it's easy enough to make casual conversation but this isn't exactly a casual situation. Come tomorrow, they're either through to the live shows and about to spend any number of weeks together, or they're probably not going to see each other again. Unless they decide to try out next year as a group or something, but – Harry's pretty sure if this doesn't work out, Liam's going back on his own. He's the only one of them who doesn't need the group and they all know it. Convincing Liam to stay in the group once they've failed, the second time for him... Harry just can't see it working out.

But maybe he's wrong. To be fair, he knows Liam the least out of all of them.

"I wish there was something to do other than wait," says Liam as Harry thinks that. He looks out the window where the sun is just barely dipping down low over the sea. "It's too early to sleep, and I don't think I'd be able to, anyway. Not with all this... All this stuff in my head. You know?"

He shrinks back in on himself, sort of. That's the part of Liam that Harry doesn't understand. When he’s singing, Liam is so full of life and movement and confidence, but it's obviously a mask because the second he puts himself out there at all when it’s just them, he seems to crumple, sure that somebody's going to tear him down. It's – Harry's annoyed by it, but he also wants to beat up whoever made Liam like that, which is a confusing combination of emotions.

"Yeah. Can't think about anything other than tomorrow." Harry leans his face against his knee, heaving a sigh. His stomach is turning over and over as he thinks of the possibilities. On the surface, either they get through or they don't, but it's so much more than that. Tomorrow, they find out if they could make it as a band, they find out if this chemistry Harry feels like they have is entirely imagined, and they find out how they're going to be spending the next, potentially, twelve weeks of their lives. If they go through, it'll be all cameras and people knowing who they are, and that's scary, but the thought of getting sent back home, alone, to work in the bakery again... That's even scarier, in a way. And Harry doesn't want it.

He doesn't want to spend his days making pastries, and he doesn't want to go to uni. He doesn't want to go back to the other band he left behind and watch the looks they'll pass between him – the looks that'll say he thought he was better than them but it turns out he's not. He wants to become something. All he wants to do is have somebody tell him that he can do something and do it right.
He'd told Zayn earlier to stay positive, but it's much harder when there's literally nothing they can do now. Before, he could tell himself their performance might be amazing, but now they've done the performance and he thinks it was good, but there's part of him that thinks maybe the other groups did better. Maybe the other groups are better.

"Oi," Louis says, breaking Harry from his spiraling thought process. He's giving him a chastising look when Harry turns to him. "I can see the negative thoughts making your hair curl."

"I just have curly hair." Harry reaches up to pat the mass of unruly curls on top of his head. "Dunno if you noticed."

"Very cute, Styles." Louis prods Harry's thigh with his toe. He hasn't moved from his position almost atop Liam. "Out with it. What's got you looking all pensive?"

"I just really don't want to go home," Harry replies honestly. "I know I told you, I had this other band, and they weren't really happy about me auditioning, I guess." He thinks back to a few of the texts he'd sent that went unanswered. "And they really weren't happy I got put in another band."

"When you say not happy," Niall replies, frowning a little. "D'you mean, like...?"

"I mean I don't think I'm gonna be able to be in any band other than this one if we don't get through." Harry laughs but it sounds bitter so he stops. He's not bitter, mostly. He knew Will wasn't really – well, he knew it was a possibility when he auditioned. That they wouldn't welcome him back with open arms.

"Well, better get through, then," Louis reasons. "And it's not like we can't stay a band, you know. Even if we didn't get through. Which we're going to."

Harry thinks that'd easier said than done. Maybe Louis and Zayn could, since they live quite a bit closer, but Liam's down in Wolverhampton and Harry in Cheshire, and then Niall's off in Ireland... It just wouldn't work. It wouldn't, so they've got to get through tomorrow.

He sighs again. There's no way he's getting to sleep tonight. No way at all, not when he keeps thinking about how much he hates making the crust for the tarts. He hates the smell of it and he hates getting dough under his fingernails.

"Wish there were board games or something," he mumbles. "Or, like, I don't know. Something. I'm psyching myself out and I just want it to be tomorrow already."

"I think there's chess, but that's not really a five person game, is it?" Liam hums, his eyebrows pulling together. "And I'm awful at chess."

Harry doesn't think he's met anyone under forty who isn't awful at chess, but that's beside the point. He flops down, spreading out on the bed. He sort of wishes Zayn would wrestle him again. It might bruise him, but at least it wouldn't be this awful process of negative thoughts followed by recrimination followed by more negative thoughts.

"We should go down the beach," says Zayn suddenly. It's especially odd coming from him, considering he'd told them before that he doesn't really like being in water.

"We should?" asks Liam. Louis is already nodding in agreement, but then, Louis likes anything that causes mischief or sounds like it might get them into trouble. He'd nearly convinced Niall to jump of the roof of the bungalow into the pool before Harry's mum had turned up with sandwiches and almost had a heart attack.

"Yeah, it's as good an idea as any, isn't it?" Zayn says defensively. "Better than staying in here and brooding."

"I can't go in, though, not with my bum foot." Louis looks thoughtful. "You'll build a sandcastle with me, though, won't you, Zayn?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever." Zayn shrugs. "Just thought it might be nice to get out of this room for a while. Might tire us out."

In the end, they traipse out to the beach all in a row with towels and their swimsuits on. Harry stays in the water for a little while, has a splashing fight with Niall, one which is rapidly derailed when Niall recruits Liam as a shield, which isn't fair in the slightest. Zayn and Louis argue about what sort of castle to make and end up making what looks more like a sand-row-of-hills, but Zayn fashions parapets out of small stones and Louis finds some shells along the shoreline that make good decorations.

It does tire them out, a little. Enough that Liam yawns in the middle of a sentence, and Louis pats his shoulder.

"Are you a sleepy Liam?" he asks, peering at him. Liam probably goes a bit pink, but it's hard to tell when the only light Harry has to go by is the moon.

"I'm fine," replies Liam, scooping more sand up to help shape the north tower of the 'castle'.

"No, I'm knackered," insists Louis. He stretches his arms above his head and yawns as well, and it's obviously fake but Liam seems to appreciate the effort. "Come on, let's go back in. I say we use Payne's bed as it doesn't smell like pants."

At that, Liam looks like he wants to protest, but Niall's nodding and snickering and Harry's room does smell naff, so he thinks it's probably for the best.

Liam sighs and gives in, of course. It's terribly difficult to try and actively resist when Louis wants you to do something. He's very convincing.

They head back through the dark hallways, dripping everywhere and shushing each other because they're almost definitely not supposed to be out right now. Harry likes the thrill of it.

He's not sure they're actually doing it until he's getting changed for bed (which really means he's putting clean pants on; normally he'd sleep nude but his room's the coldest in the whole bloody mansion) and Louis charges by to knock on his door.

"Sleepover in Liam's room, bring your own blanket and stuff," he says before he skips off into Liam's room, across from Harry's.

Harry strips his blanket from the bed and uses it as a bag to carry his pillows over, too. The other three have made themselves comfortable on the bed, which is big but Harry wouldn't have thought it was that big. Liam is on one side, looking bewildered as usual, with Louis on the other side and Niall lounging at the bottom of the bed. Zayn seems to be curling up in the chair in the corner of the room, so Harry shrugs, and makes himself a little bed on the floor. There's enough carpeting down in the rooms that it's alright to lie down on, and there were about fifty pillows on his bed, so he's proud of the cocoon of sorts that he manufactures.

"Comfortable?" asks Louis as he shifts around on the bed to get comfortable himself. Liam seems resigned to the situation, already resting his head on the pillow and closing his eyes. Louis continues, "You look like a dog, walking around in your bed before you settle."

Harry laughs and burrows himself down until he's pleasantly warm all over. The light's already off, so it's really just a matter of mumbling his goodnights to the other boys and realizing he might be more tired than he'd originally thought before Harry's out like a light.

The next day is probably the most tense Harry's ever been. The only good part is that they don't have to wait until that night to find out their fate. A tech comes up to inform them that they'll be going in front of Simon and the cameras around noon, so they should be ready to go by then. If she's surprised to find them all together in one room, she doesn't show it.

"This is it," mutters Liam once they've all got dressed and congregated back in his room. He looks a bit ill, actually, and Niall rubs his back. Liam doesn't even flinch away from the touch much. "Feel like I'm going to be sick."

"Don't do it on camera," instructs Louis, like he thinks that's what Liam was planning to do. "Not very cute."

Liam just looks more ill, and accepts the cuddle Niall obviously wants to give him. Harry thinks it's only partially because Niall wants to make Liam feel better and mostly because Niall's looking a bit peaky himself.

They're directed downstairs all too soon. Harry feels sweaty and nervous and faint. It's weird; every stage he's got to 'til now, he's been nervous, sure. This is different. This feels like the most important thing he's ever done. Hell, it probably is the most important thing he's ever done.

The cameras are being set up. He thinks that means they'll be up soon. Everyone's kept apart today, so they don't even know if anyone's already got through, or if they're last to go. They don't know anything. That's the worst part.

"Okay, you guys are up. Good luck," says one of the cameramen. He doesn't sound very sincere, but he doesn't know them, so that's understandable. Harry swallows and automatically grabs for the hand next to him for a little reassurance before they go on, and it's Zayn's, of course. Harry takes a deep breath and Zayn squeezes his hand before he lets it go. Harry feels, impossibly, a little better.

Simon's not any less intimidating than he usually is. He looks serious, from what Harry can see of his face, but at least his eyes aren't covered with sunglasses so they can properly see his expression.

"Hello, boys," he greets.

They all mutter things back, but Harry's sure it's obvious that they'd rather get past the niceties and get down to business.

But this is the X Factor, and it's television, so Simon has to draw it out for more than just a simple answer. They're stood in a row and Harry has his arm around Niall because he thinks otherwise he might not be able to stand up. Someone's thumb – Louis’s, he sees when he glances over – is digging into his collarbone and it hurts but it's grounding as well.

Simon keeps talking, about weaknesses, and risks, and Harry's vision starts to waver a little. He hopes the camera's on somebody else because it's probably really obvious that he's seconds from just falling over, and then there's a pregnant pause before –

"I've gone with my heart. You're through."

For a moment, Harry's not sure if he's heard right. There's a second of nothing, no sound, no breathing, nothing, and it seems like the world stops and then – they're through they're through they're through

He doesn't know who he's hugging but he's hugging somebody, and they're through, Simon's put them through, so Harry extricates himself and nearly tramples Niall to get to Simon and throw his arms around his neck. A second later somebody else is on Simon's other side and if Harry was in his right mind he'd be more alarmed by how they're all just hugging Simon Cowell like that's a thing people do, but they're through to the live shows of the X Factor and nothing's normal.

"Thank you," Harry whispers, and his eyes are wet now. It's a little embarrassing but mostly he's just – he can't bring himself to feel embarrassed about it when they've just got through. He thinks it's okay to cry now. Nobody's going to call him a weepy little gayboy here, because, because they're his band, now, and his band is through on the X Factor.

He puts his hands over his eyes to try and force the tears back in but they just keep coming. Simon tells them that they'll need to work ten times harder than all the other groups but Harry can do that. They'll all do that. He knows they'll work harder than anybody on this show's ever worked to prove that they can do this. They might've been thrown together but they're good and Simon Cowell thinks so.

They have to leave to talk to Dermot in front of the cameras, and he's glad Dermot doesn't seem to expect much because all Harry can do when he says it again, that they're through, is sort of scream madly and let Zayn pull him into another group hug. His face is against Zayn's neck and he smells really nice and he's got friends all around him, real proper friends. Liam's even grinning, really grinning, and it changes his whole face. Niall's jabbering, his accent thicker than it normally is, and Harry thinks that Louis might be crying, too.

"We've done it," he says against Zayn's neck, one arm around him and the other around somebody else; he's not moving his face to look. "We did it, we did it, he said yes. Did you hear, he said yes."

"I know," Zayn says faintly. Maybe he's crying, too. Maybe they're all just big weepy boys right now, and maybe that's just fine. Harry doesn't think he'd have it any other way. He's fine how he is, with his boys all round him, through to the finals of the X Factor.

They have to go back to their homes for a while after Marbella. It's weird that Harry feels so thrown off kilter by it. He's only known these boys for about a month in total, but when it's just him at home it feels a bit like he's lost a few limbs and he can tell his mum's noticed, too. She keeps asking after them, asking if he's texted the others recently.

The answer to this question is invariably always 'yes', because he's desperate for contact with them. He texts Louis nearly every day and at least twice Harry's woken up to answermail messages on his phone from Niall, completely wasted and therefore not understandable in the slightest.

He even texts Liam a bit, back and forth. Well, twice. Well, once-and-a-half. They've had a whole conversation about music now, and half of one about which kind of soda's better before Liam has to leave to do a gig. It makes Harry feel a bit useless, actually, because he's not doing anything but lying around and wishing he was back in London. London's so much better than Holmes Chapel, where everyone's trying too hard to be something they're not, and the buildings are all the same size and shape. Harry wants London's brutal honesty and fast pace. He got back to Cheshire and could practically feel himself slowing back down to match everyone else.

He's only texted Zayn once, but that's mostly because Zayn's got awful reception. Or at least, Harry hopes that's what it is, and Zayn wasn't just lying because he doesn't want to talk to Harry. He wants to think it's not that, though, so he just decides he can wait until they see each other again.

He does, however, get to talking with Aiden again. Aiden's got through as well, for the boys, him and Nicolo (Harry's seen his audition, and is already dreading sharing a house with him) and Matt Cardle (who everyone's apparently pegging to win).

Harry's genuinely happy for Aiden. He'd got to know him pretty well at boot camp, even apart from the sex, which was good in itself. Aiden's got the same quirky sense of humor Harry has, and he wears cardigans. Harry's always liked a man in a cardigan.

Aiden's made vague hints about maybe being interested in picking up where they left off, and Harry can't say he's uninterested. It had been really good sex and they both know it wouldn't be made into a bigger deal than it is. And if they're going to be confined to the X Factor house, there's not really anyone else Harry's going to have great opportunity to sleep with. Well, Harry mentally amends, not anybody who's interested.

But Aiden is interested, and he's bloody gorgeous and talented and funny, and Harry could (and has) done far, far worse, when it comes to getting laid. He tries to make hints back but he's not nearly subtle enough, so just ends up saying flat out that he'd really like Aiden's dick in his mouth again.

Lucky for him, Aiden seems endeared rather than frightened by Harry's forthrightness, and he agrees. Harry's happy with this development. It means he won't have to waste away sexless for however long they're on the show. And, to be honest, he's half-expecting to need a bit of something anyway if he's going to be sharing space with all the other boys. That much testosterone all in the same place is probably going to make Harry just walk around with a constant boner. It'll be easier to deal with if there's someone willing to deal with him.

And he's talked to Aiden, a lot. As much as it's possible to talk to somebody when you only spend boot camp with them. It's a hard four days and they only really spend it with their own category, though, so they did get to know each other rather well. And Harry likes to talk after sex. It makes it feel less impersonal. Aiden's hilarious, as Harry discovered. Behind the sort of anti-social awkward vibe he gives off, he's actually an amazing conversationalist and he likes good music. If nothing else, they can at least talk about sex and music, which are two of Harry's very favorite subjects.

Harry's one of the first people to arrive to the X Factor house. They're all to loiter in the main room until everyone's there, so that the cameras can get shots of them going into their rooms for the first time. Harry guesses he'll have to get used to that sort of thing, always being prepared to be filmed. It's a little intimidating, if he's honest.

He's the first member of his band to get there, at any rate, though there's also a few people he recognizes: Cher, and Rebecca, and Matt. Soon enough, other people start to trickle in. John, from the Overs, and FYD, from the groups. It's good that it's such a big room because it starts to fill up fast.

Liam's the second member from One Direction to arrive, lugging a suitcase behind him and looking both nervous and a little lost. When he spots Harry, Harry can almost see him sag with relief. They don't hug, but Harry gives Liam a firm pat on the shoulder. It's weird, but he did actually miss Liam a bit. He wasn't expecting to.

The next to arrive from their group is Niall, looking very tired, probably from the long flight he had to take to get here. He smiles despite it and gives both Harry and Liam massive hugs even though it takes Liam a moment to hug him back.

Harry spies Aiden, then, finally, talking to Matt on the other side of the room. He must have missed him in all of the Niall-hugging, but Aiden sees him at almost the same time and grins, tipping him a wave. Harry excuses himself from the others to head over to him and jumps on Aiden's back.

To his credit, Aiden doesn't even flinch, just sighs and hitches Harry's legs up his back. "Matt, this is Harry, dunno if you've met."

They haven't, but Matt seems pleasant enough, greeting Harry back and then saying something about wanting to check in with Nicolo. It doesn't strike Harry as a brush-off, but even if it was, he's not offended by it. It's not like Matt knows him as anything other than the monkeyboy on Aiden's back.

"Hello, missed you dearly," Aiden says, swinging Harry gently into the wall. "Though, have you got heavier?"

Harry huffs. "I have not. That was very mean of you to say. Might not even give you a handie now."

Aiden laughs to himself, and it doesn't sound frightened at all. Damn it. "Love, you're sixteen. By the end of the day you'll be begging to give me twelve handies all in a row."

"Like you've got that kind of stamina." Harry digs his knees into Aiden's sides. "I've got loads of patience. And suitors. If you won't have me, somebody else totally will."

"You mean like that bloke from your band what's glaring at me?" says Aiden conversationally, and Harry's head whips around, half-expecting to find it to be Louis. Louis is very, well, a bit possessive of Harry's attention at times, so it wouldn't be unusual. It's not Louis, though. Louis doesn't seem to have arrived yet, because Zayn's the one glaring over at them and when he sees Harry's noticed, he stops and looks at Niall, dragging him into a conversation.

"No," says Harry slowly. "No, he's not. Er, he's not really into. That." He didn't think Zayn was, anyway. He's still pretty sure he's not, but he can't think of another reason for Zayn to be upset about him talking to Aiden. It's not like they're doing anything too suspect, so Zayn can't be angry that, what, the cameras might see?

That could be it. Harry's put a lot of thought into this, into what their chances could be and what they can do to make those chances better. They definitely don't need an openly gay band member when they're trying to appeal to teenage girls. He'd talked to his mum about it, while he was home, and she understands his decision even if she expressed concern about its effect on Harry. He'll be fine, though. It's just something he's got to do if he wants to make it. There'll be time to be open about it once they're famous, if they make it that far.

But he can't see why Zayn would be so upset about it, if the cameras saw him being affectionate with Aiden. Especially when Louis’s just arrived and is – sort of – nuzzling Liam's throat, and Zayn is barely looking at them. That seems like it'd be the bigger issue.

Harry frowns. Oh, well. He'll have to make a note to ask Zayn about it later.

"You should probably head over there, though. I think everyone's here now and they'll want group unity or whatever you guys are supposed to have." Aiden carefully lowers Harry to the ground, which he appreciates, and Harry gives him another half-hug before returning to his band mates. Louis immediately envelopes him in a hug, so tight that Harry's ribs hurt.

"Hello, missed you, dearest," Louis greets in Harry's ear, giving his hair a good ruffle. It's nice, and Harry laughs, squeezing Louis back.

"Missed you too, pumpkin," he teases. He and Louis have been using pet names a lot while they text, and apparently it's going to happen out loud as well. Harry doesn't mind. He likes pet names and he likes Louis.

They're interrupted when someone official-looking comes into the room. Harry doesn't recognize him, but he's got an air around him that says that they're supposed to listen to him, and the room goes quiet.

"Alright, your rooms are ready, we just need to get some good shots of you going into them, so if we could have some big reaction smiles, that'd be nice. The names are on the doors, just look around until you find yours," he says, and then he crosses something off his clipboard and leaves.

There's a pause, and then a scramble as everyone tries to exit the door at once. Harry lingers behind with the rest of his band until the stampede's over and then they go off in search of their quarters for the next however-long.

There's only one room with their name on it, which is a bit daunting. How they're going to fit five boys in one room, Harry doesn't know. He finds out the answer when he opens the door: bunk beds.

The cameras are on them so they go wild, cheering and dropping their luggage on the floor and rolling on the beds. Even Liam gets into it a little, slipping off his shoes and then bouncing on the one bed in the room that's not tiered.

Louis grabs Harry and wrestles him onto one of the beds to tickle him and Harry laughs like a madman. If nothing else, it'll make good TV. And that's what they're supposed to be doing here. If Harry was a cynical person, he'd say that being entertaining on this show is more important than having good vocals. But then, Harry's never been a cynical person.

What he is, however, is horny, and he's finally in a house with someone who can do something about that. The rest of the boys decide to get an early sleep which is a good idea, but instead of doing that, Harry texts Aiden to see if they can meet up somewhere in the house.

They agree that one of the bathrooms is probably the best bet and the one down the hall isn't going to be occupied by anybody this late. Harry tiptoes down the hall just in case there is anyone else still awake, nervous about having to choose a song tomorrow or whatever (Harry's honestly trying not to think about it too hard) and he slips into the bathroom to find Aiden's already there.

"Hey," he greets, and he doesn't turn on the light, but he does lock the door. If anyone has to use the loo, they can just use one of the million other ones in this ridiculously gigantic house. "How's things? Liking your roommates?"

Aiden shrugs. "Already knew I got on with Matty. Nicolo's... bit odd. I can deal with it." He accepts it when Harry kisses him. "Paije doesn't really talk to anybody. Don't think he's expecting to stay long."

"Oh, that's a shame," mumbles Harry. In reality, he couldn't give less of a shit, but it's important to be polite. Aiden seems to know, and he laughs before getting a hand into Harry's hair so he can really kiss him.

It's one of the best things about Aiden, in Harry's experience. Harry hadn't told him he likes being heaved around a bit while he's fooling around, but Aiden had understood that without him saying it. Which is good. That's a bit of an awkward thing to try to bring up to people. They either think that he's into really heavy stuff like choking or shit like that, and it scares them off, or they just don't feel comfortable with it. And that's fine, too; Harry knows not everyone's into the same stuff he's into. But it's nice that Aiden is.

Aiden's currently holding him in place, pushed back against the door so that he can get the right angle and plunder Harry's mouth with his tongue. Really, that'd probably be enough for Harry, to get him off just fine, but that's not what he came here for and they both know it.

It's really good to be so thoroughly kissed that his lips feel sore by the time Aiden moves from them, getting a hand in between them and shoving it into Harry's boxers without any further fanfare. Harry lets out a wet gasp, tilting his head back against the door more. It's been ages since anybody's touched his cock other than himself and he nearly fucking aches with how ready he is to get off.

Aiden doesn't hold back, kissing Harry again and biting his lower lip as he twists his wrist. They know they can't stay in here long, just in case somebody actually does want to go to the loo. It'd be hard enough to explain why both of them are in there without having to deal with questions about why Harry's lips are red and bruised and why they both smell like sex.

"Sorry it's gotta be a quick one," Aiden mutters, his mouth pressing hard against Harry's neck. "Maybe sometime this week we can make it to an actual bed."

"I hope so," mumbles Harry in response. His breath sounds loud, interspersed with the slightly wet sounds coming from Aiden's hand on his cock. He's not going to last long, but that's good, at least for now. "I like beds. Beds are my favorite."

Aiden huffs out a laugh. "I just bet they are." He palms up over Harry's dick and keeps his hand there when Harry comes with a half-moaned oh-oh-oh. "Alright," he says, grabbing a wad of toilet roll and using it to wipe off his hand. "My turn. Fast, come on."

"So romantic," Harry teases, but he drops to his knees carefully. He's learned his lesson about that; he nearly broke both his kneecaps once when he did it too fast and he doesn't fancy doing it again.

Aiden's hard in his boxers, and Harry just tugs them down enough to get Aiden's cock in his mouth. It's a good-sized dick, not so big that Harry feels like he's constantly choking, but big enough that the stretch burns his lips a bit. Harry likes that feeling. He likes sucking dick, if he's honest. He's good at it and he likes feeling in control even when he's not really in control.

"Yeah, that's good," hisses Aiden, getting his hand back in Harry's hair. He doesn't yank, which Harry hates, but he does tug a little, and that's fine. Harry swallows him down as far as he can without choking (because they might have to sing tomorrow; Harry has no idea and he'd like to not fuck this up before they've even really started) and traces his tongue over one of the veins on the underside of Aiden's cock. He can taste pre-come bitter and salty on his tongue and it makes him anticipate the end even more, when he'll be able to swallow Aiden's come. It's like a grand finale, and finales always feel like big events.

It doesn't take too long. Harry's good with his mouth and he thinks that maybe Aiden hasn't got off with someone for nearly as long as he has. When Aiden spills down his throat, Harry's groan echoes his and he swallows rapidly, then pulls back to lick a trace of it from the corner of his mouth.

"God, good, yes," he announces, sitting back on his heels. "Well, that was good fun, wasn't it?"

Aiden laughs at him, but it doesn't sound mocking, just amused, and a little flummoxed. "Yeah, great fun, Hazza. Thanks loads. You good to get back okay?"

Harry is, so he says as much, wobbling a little when he finally gets to his feet. That does do a number on his knees, even when he doesn't whack them against lino like an idiot. "I should be alright. It's not like anyone in my band would mind." He shrugs. "They already know we hooked up at boot camp."

"Knowing's a bit different from smelling, love." Aiden taps Harry's nose and Harry scrunches his face. "I'll see you tomorrow anyway, yeah? If we have time. I don't actually know everything we're doing," he admits.

"Me either. It'll be an adventure for both of us," concludes Harry, stretching his arms above his head and bouncing on his toes to stretch out his hamstrings. "You can go out first, I'll follow in a few minutes?"

"Sounds good to me." Aiden unlocks the door after he pulls his pants back up, and he makes sure to check down both sides of the hallway before he leaves with one final wave behind him.

Harry leaves after he washes his hands and checks the mirror to see how fucked his mouth looks. It's not bad; Aiden hadn't been too thrust-y and he hadn't tried to take him all the way. Mostly he just looks like he's had something cherry flavored, and that's fine.

He makes it back to the room by hiding in the shadows (even though that's probably not necessary, it's fun to pretend to be a spy, and Harry likes having fun) until he gets to their door. When he opens it, he waits, holding his breath. All of the sounds from inside are the rustling of bedsheets and sleep-heavy breathing, so he thinks he's safe. He closes the door behind him and digs in the bag next to his bed to find new pants, stuffing the old ones away and then climbing the ladder to get into his bed. Louis in the bed beneath his, and Niall's across from him, with Zayn underneath that bed and Liam in the only solo one. They'd just sort of taken whichever ones they wanted, and nobody'd protested at any of the decisions.

Harry falls asleep almost instantly, exhausted from the long day and from finally getting a decent orgasm. He just has to hope the rest of the week is as easy as today was, but he has a feeling that it really, really won't be.

He's right. The next week is one of the hardest Harry's ever had, full of rehearsal and vocal training and getting their hair cut (Harry's looks awful – they cut it too short and now he looks like a sheep) and getting styled and waking up early and going to bed late. They're doing everything all at once and Harry's ready to fall over because of it.

The others aren't dealing with it much better. All the others in the house have been doing this so much longer. Even Aiden's been doing music while he did uni so he's used to having to manage loads of things at once. The most Harry's had to do at once before this is maybe work a shift at the bakery and then later do a gig for thirty or forty people. He's never had to do anything like this, and apart from Liam, he doesn't think any of the others have, either. And even Liam's starting to droop a bit, with all the expectation pinned on him. He's getting most of the lead vocals and to be honest, Harry's grateful. His voice certainly isn't strong enough to carry a song yet and neither are any of the others'. Apart from that, Harry thinks he might throw up if he has to lead the song in. Even starting the song and then fading out sounds frightening enough to make him feel a bit sick.

But this is his life now. Practice, practice, practice, try to bond more with the band, try to mesh vocally with the band, try not to kill anyone. It's hard, everything is, but Harry just has to remember that in the end it will be so worth it.

Or, at least, he hopes it will be.

It helps that he has Aiden to talk to, as well. If he has any issues with the others, like how Zayn's started picking little fights with him again, or when Liam is so dull, or Niall's unrelenting cheerfulness that gets more and more on Harry's nerves as the day progresses and he gets more tired. It's not so fun to have someone so perpetually upbeat around you when you just want to grumble and then sleep.

He doesn't really get annoyed with Louis. But then, Louis is different.

Zayn, though. Zayn is infuriating when he wants to be. And it's all worse because even when Harry's talking to Aiden about how much of a dick he is, Zayn's still so unfairly attractive that Harry wants to punch himself in the face. His haircut wasn't even stupid like the rest of theirs were. Zayn's just made him look sort of rakish and charming, while Niall looked like he'd had a mishap and dunked his head in bleach and Liam looked like he had a head made of Lego. Louis looks like a wood elf, and Zayn still just looks like someone Harry wants to fuck. It's maddening. Everything about Zayn is maddening.

"I just, he's so, I hate him sometimes," he mutters to Aiden, grinding down against him. They still haven't managed to get full sex in, but it's only Friday. Harry's got hope.

Aiden doesn't sound too interested, but he might be distracted by all the frottage. "Yeah, twat," he replies in a mumble. "Can't believe him."

Harry huffs out a laugh and leaves it, bracing himself on Aiden's shoulder so he can get a better angle on it and grind down in just the right spot to make Aiden groan, loudly enough that Harry worries someone might actually come into Aiden's room.

They've discovered that's the safest place to do anything. Matt's always off practicing even though he must know he doesn't have to, and Nicolo generally spends as little time in the house as he has to.

At any rate, Zayn doesn't stop being annoying, but Harry tries better to deal with it, because they have a live show to get through and it won't do for them to be sniping at each other in between lines.

They get through the first elimination. FYD goes home, and Nicolo, and Harry's not really affected by either. He wasn't close to the boys in FYD and while he thinks Nicolo is hilarious and Aiden seems to think he's alright, they've only known each other a week. Harry knows that the more he gets to know these people, the more it'll sting when they get voted off, but it's what he signed up for. He's going to take this thing as far as he can, no matter what.

The second week is a little bit easier than the first. Whether that's because they're getting settled into the competition or Harry's just got too numb to actually keep track of what's going on, he doesn't know, but he's grateful for it either way.

They practice just as hard, though. There are already stories in the papers about how they're not working hard enough, and they're not taking it seriously. It's not fair. They work just as hard as all the other contestants but because they're young, people assume they're not trying. The truth is, Harry's not sure anyone's trying harder than they are, if only because they feel this pressure to prove themselves.

There are also already rumors about him hooking up with Cher. Harry guesses that might be a good thing; after all, if he's hooking up with Cher, he's far more available to the usual type of fangirl than he'd be if they knew he was gay.

It's not really so much different from before, actually. It's not something he talked about a lot when he was at home and it's not something he feels the need to talk about while he's on the show. His sexuality is – well, it is important to him, because it's part of him and Harry wants to make sure he never forgets that, that he always remembers it's a part of who he is and he can't change, and he wouldn't want to change, no matter what. But while it's important to him, he doesn't think it's important to other people. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.

So he stays quiet, and lets people assume whatever they want to assume. If they want to think he's screwing Cher, then fine. They're entitled to think that, even if there's not really much evidence for it, he doesn't think. They're the same age and they live in vaguely the same place, and that's really all they have in common, even if he does think she's really very cool. Too cool for him.

Any publicity is probably good publicity at this point in the competition, anyway. Nobody's forming opinions on people based on how they sing or how they perform yet unless they're really really spectacular, like Matt, or they're really really bad, like Wagner.

Harry'd feel worse about thinking that but Wagner keeps treating them like shit because he's older than them, and fuck that. He shouldn't even be here.

They work and work and work, and they have other things to do as well, interviews and going on Twitter and catching up with their families, when they have time. Which is almost never. Harry's started forgetting what his mum's voice sounds like. It sounds curiously like 'My Life Would Suck Without You' when he tries to remember it, which is probably a sign he's actually practicing too hard. Twice this week he's found himself humming it under his breath before he gets to sleep, and he doesn't even have any of the main parts. That's all Liam with Zayn echoing and Harry, Niall and Louis doing some harmony bits. They're doing really well at learning the song. Harry thinks maybe Simon's giving them easier ones on purpose and then one week he's going to whip out some piece by Chopin that they're going to be expected to do in the style of one of those a Cappella groups, with just their mouths.

But for now, it's 'My Life Would Suck Without You', which is maybe not – Kelly Clarkson's not a hero to Harry personally but he guesses she could be, to some people. The theme doesn't say 'Heroes To One Direction' or it'd be a much different set of songs being performed. Better songs, of course.

Harry keeps feeling sick when he's about to sing, is the thing. He's never got stage fright like this before, and it's the day of their performance, and he's screwing everything up for everyone when that's the thing he swore he wouldn't do. He tries to hide it, hold it back and just sing quietly when it's his turn but it's, he finally just can't do it anymore and he opens his mouth to sing and knows that if he leaves it open he's going to be sick everywhere.

He snaps his mouth shut and covers it with his mouth and is vaguely aware that there are cameras on him, capturing every second of this, and he's about to be sick on the stage. The other boys have stopped singing, all of them dropping out one by one, and there's a hand on his shoulder, voices asking him if he's alright but he's not alright, he feels like he's about to faint or something stupid and he's so hot underneath all these bright lights, and his stomach is churning, and he's fucking it up for everyone.

Somebody leads him to the edge of the stage and he can hear Brian saying something about how he should sit out if he can't perform and he nearly throws up all over him. He doesn't want to sit out, he doesn't need to sit out. He can do this, he can. There's no way he's going to mess this all up on the second week.

"I can do it," he insists, but his voice is a silent almost-squeak and nobody is paying attention to him. They're all making plans for what to do when he inevitably can't perform during the soundcheck and it's not fair. He's the one who'll need to perform, so he can decide what he's capable of.

Harry opens his mouth to speak again but feels the sick trying to claw its way up his throat and closes it again. There's someone's arm around him. He thinks it's Liam's. Somebody else is sort of patting his back and then someone crowds in close to him and doesn't even hesitate to give him a hug. Harry inhales. Lynx. Niall. Niall gives good hugs. He doesn't squeeze hard enough to upset Harry's stomach even more and he's not burning hot like a furnace, he's just comfortably warm and he smells good, and his jumper is fuzzy. It feels nice against Harry's forehead.

"Hey, mate, you alright?" asks Niall in his ear. Harry's most definitely not alright, and, to his utter humiliation, he's pretty sure he's about to cry. This is everything he's never wanted and somehow it's happening all at once. "What's wrong?"

"Don't feel good," Harry mumbles. That's an understatement. His voice is still weak and creaky, and he's definitely crying. What a cock-up this is. "I'm sorry. I'm ruining everything."

"You're not ruining anything, Hazza, don't be stupid." That's Niall's best chastising voice, and to be honest, it could use some work. "Can't help if you've gone over ill, can you?" He's being really very sweet and it's making Harry want to cry more than he already is, tearing up from frustration and his stomach hurting, and feeling like everyone's going to be so disappointed in him.

"But we need to finish soundcheck," mutters Harry, as somebody else gets an arm around his neck. He thinks it's Savan, from what he can see, anyway. Someone wearing a beanie.

Savan clears his throat, from so close to Harry's ear that it can only be him hugging Harry's other side. "The others are going to have to finish soundcheck by themselves. We're having someone take you to see a doctor, okay? You can't do the song like this."

"I can," Harry insists, but his voice is hoarse from the tears and even if he could open his mouth without being sick everywhere, he'd sound like shit.

"Hey, it's alright. We don't want you to hurt yourself," Niall murmurs to him, rubbing his back. "Go see the doctor, Harry. You're more important. I'm sure it'll be better by tonight, and if you overwork yourself now then it'll just hurt later."

Harry hiccups, and wipes his wet eyes on Niall's jumper. He doesn't seem to mind, but Harry still feels bad once he's realized what he's done. "Sorry," he sniffles, trying to wipe his eyes, which is hard when Niall's hugging him. Thankfully, Niall lets go, and Harry can scrub over his eyes with his hands. The cameras are probably still on him too, so whether or not he's okay, this'll end up in the show. Brilliant. The whole country can see how much of a crybaby he is.

He's ushered off to the doctor, who checks him over for everything possible before declaring that it's a simple case of stage fright. Harry's never had stage fright so badly it's actually kept him from performing – it's normally just jitters before he goes onstage, and once or twice he's felt a little lightheaded, but he's never felt ill before. He says as much when they collect him to do their pre-performance package. With the other boys sat around him, he feels less embarrassed about it, but it's still something he wishes he didn't have to talk about.

Before the show, he shoos the others away so that he can have a moment alone in the loo, not to throw up but to just have a bit of quiet before he goes on. He takes a deep breath, nearly ready to leave again when Liam slips in the door. He's honestly not who Harry was expecting to come and speak to him, so he's struck dumb for a moment.

Liam looks like Liam always looks, a bit nervous and a bit serious. "Hey," he says, with half a wave. "I just thought – you know, check and see if you were alright. If you were still all stage-frightened."

"I'm better," Harry says decisively. His stomach feels a bit dodgy still, and his head is pounding, but there's nothing either of them can do about it so it's worthless to mention.

Liam clears his throat. "Because I used to, I used to get really bad stage fright before I performed. Like, getting sick beforehand and stuff all the time. If you needed any tips or anything, I thought maybe I could help."

"You got stage fright?" asks Harry, curious. Liam's so confident onstage that it seems entirely unrealistic that he'd have any sort of stage fright. He has such presence then that Harry's not seen him have any other time. "Seriously?"

"Yeah." Liam bobs his head in a quick nod. "Yeah, all the time. And then I'd be sick, and it'd make my voice go hoarse, and that'd just make me even more nervous, so I knew I had to do something to get rid of it or I'd end up never being a proper singer."
Harry frowns thoughtfully. It's very typical of Liam. He has a problem that could get in the way of what he wants to do, so he solves it. When Harry has obstacles, he changes the course he's on; Liam barrels through them. He guesses that might be the biggest difference between them. Harry goes around mountains while Liam climbs them. Same result, different process.

"So what did you do?" Harry asks, leaning against the sink and fixing his shirt. If he messes up any of the stylists' work he'll be murdered. "Breathing exercises or something?"

"Those can help," Liam affirms. "Er, sometimes I count? Like just picking a number and counting to it, so that I can think about something other than what I'm about to do. Drinking loads of water. Having a sweet works too; anything to get your mind off the fact that you're about to perform to people who are going to make decisions about you based on what they see."

That seems logical. Harry digs into his pocket for an old Wine Gum, and pops it into his mouth. It tastes a bit linty, but it's something. "T'ankoo," he says around it. "'preciate the 'elp."

Liam nods, and he's back to looking embarrassed, but Harry actually feels like they might understand each other a little better. "Yeah, of course. No problem." He touches his hair, like he's self-conscious about it, and then shoves his hand into his pocket. "We're up soon, though. So."

"Right, we are." Harry gives the Wine Gum one last suck and then spits it into the bin. Not very sanitary, but neither is the entire bathroom, if he's honest. "Let's go, then. Get it over with."

"I think we'll be really good," says Liam earnestly, holding the door open for Harry.

They are. Or at least, the judges seem to think so, and they get through on Sunday, so they can't have been horrible. Harry's least favorite part of the week is when he's standing on that stage with his band waiting to be told if they're through or not, but his very favorite part is when Dermot says their name. He knows they might go a bit overboard with the celebrating but it's hard not to when every week they're proving to the critics that they're holding their weight in this competition.

Mondays are always half relaxing and half stressful, because they need to pick out a song and choose the arrangement and work with choreographers, but after that they get to just chill and be ridiculous around the house. It's weird how quickly it seems like the house is thinning out, with four acts already gone, and two of them being groups in the competition. There are empty rooms now, where before it seemed like they were all crammed in and overflowing round the edges.

Because there are empty rooms, it means Harry and Aiden can use them for nefarious purposes, like blowjobs and handjobs and, when they get the time, which they haven't yet, they've got permission to fuck on Diva Fever's old beds. Harry had flushed scarlet when Craig had said that upon their leaving, but it doesn't mean he's not willing to take advantage of the kindness.

He does wish, a little, that he could hide it better when he's just sucked someone off. He's just finished with Aiden and returns to his room to find it's empty except for Zayn, and when Zayn looks up from his computer, the immediate raise of his eyebrows tells Harry that he knows what he's been doing, or at least he has a good idea.

"Hi," Harry says, trying to brush it off and flopping down onto Louis’s bed. Louis won't mind and Harry doesn't feel like climbing up to his. "What're you up to?"

"Obviously not anything as fun as you've been up to," is Zayn's response, and Harry throws a pillow at him with a laugh.

"Course not," he agrees, using Louis’s other pillow to prop his head up. There's silence for a good minute before Zayn speaks again, reluctantly, like he isn't sure whether he should or not.

"What's it like?" he asks. He's not looking directly at Harry, instead keeping his eyes trained on the foot of the bed Harry's on. Harry's pretty sure he's blushing.

"What's what like?" Harry replies. He knows full well what Zayn's asking, but if he can't say it out loud he's got no business knowing. That's Harry's philosophy (which his mum taught him, to be fair) and he thinks it's a damn good one.

Zayn huffs and rolls his eyes. "Twat," he says, which was only to be expected. "You know what I mean. What's it like to suck people off?"

Harry hums and frowns a little. "I dunno. Well, I do know. It's hard to explain, or really easy to explain, I can't decide. It's pretty much what you'd expect, if you think about it."

"I've never thought about it," says Zayn, which, well, it's Harry's turn to roll his eyes. "That's why I'm asking you."

"Well, have you ever received a blowjob?" Harry asks, flipping over to look at Zayn upside down. "Because it's exactly like that, except on the opposite end."

He supposes he deserves to have Louis’s pillow thrown back at him, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. He rubs his nose and sets the pillow on his stomach, dangling off the side of the bed. "You asked!" he says, frowning at Zayn. He wonders if it looks like a smile since he's upside down before dismissing the thought as unimportant. "That's what it's like!"

"Okay, but like," says Zayn, "how do you breathe? How do you not choke? How does it work?"

"Oh." Well, those are actually half-reasonable questions. Harry feels a bit bad for making fun. "You can breathe through your nose, you know. And if you're having trouble you just pull off for a bit and give them a bonus handie." He shrugs, which is difficult when you're upside down.

Zayn looks thoughtful at that. At least, Harry thinks he looks thoughtful. A lot of things are harder to tell from this angle, and the blood is rushing to his head. He flips back over up onto the bed, so he can look at Zayn right side up. Yes, thoughtful. "But don't you choke?" Zayn repeats insistently. He still looks a bit blushy but determined. Maybe he thinks this is his only chance to bring it up. It's not; Harry's fairly open about his sex life and a bit of curiosity about bumming's never hurt anyone, as far as he's concerned. "I can't even eat an ice lolly without choking sometimes."

"Dicks aren't quite as cold," reasons Harry. "And some people probably do choke. I haven't got much of a gag reflex." He can't help but notice Zayn turns nearly purple at that. It's a lovely shade on him. "You just go slow. Hold their hips down if it seems like it's going to be a problem. And you don't have to just take the whole thing at once. You can start off slow, because the top's more sensitive than the rest of it anyway."

He grins. "Why? You looking into trying it? Because I can definitely find you a willing test subject." He winks, exaggerated and jokey, and hopes Zayn doesn't take it the wrong way.

Thankfully, he just lets out a short laugh. "Er, no, thanks. Don't think I could ever do that. I was just curious. You always look sort of." He swallows. "Happy. I guess. And I guessed that's what you were doing."

"It was," Harry confirms. "Yeah, I know my mouth gets a bit red." He wipes his lips even though he knows there's nothing on them. "And I like giving them. It's fun."

"Fun?" Zayn's eyebrows raise more, and Harry realizes they never really went down from when he came into the room. "Really?"

"Yeah, really." Harry sits up and folds his legs. "It's like, it's really easy to control the pace and stuff. And I like the, you know, I like the taste. I know a lot of people don't, but it's alright for me."

Maybe Zayn didn't know what he was getting into when he asked about this, because he looks like he might explode a little. "Okay." His voice has gone funny, too. "Okay. I, uh. Good to – That's nice. I mean. Okay."

Harry's about to reply when Louis bounds into the room and starts hitting him with the pillow. It's not even the first time it's happened today, but when the pillow fight's over, Zayn has his headphones back on and he's looking intently at his computer screen, so Harry assumes that the conversation is over.

And what an interesting conversation it was. Harry’s hopeful it won’t be the last one they have.

It’s not too irregular when instead of forcing Harry off his bed and into his own, Louis just plops down on top of him and makes himself comfortable. Pretty typical, actually. Harry knows some of the other people in the house think maybe he and Louis have an inappropriate relationship, or however it's phrased. He doesn't care. He's not fucking Louis and if he was, it wouldn't be anybody's business but theirs.

Louis stays where he is for a while, silently rearranging the curls in Harry's hair until the others are all in bed and the light's been turned off. Harry can hear Niall's snoring by the time Louis actually says anything, low and hushed like he wants to make sure none of the others can hear if they're awake.

"Hey, what were you two talking about when I came in here?" he asks in Harry's ear. "Looked sort of intense. I didn't interrupt anything weird did I? One of your bizarrely sexual staring contests?"

Harry sputters quietly. "We don't have – sexual staring contests of any time. Well, I might have sexual staring contests with him but they're not returned, if you haven't noticed. He's a bit not gay for that."

"Hmph. You don't have to be gay to have a sexual staring contest," says Louis archly. "I have them with Aiden all the time. They're fun. I'm sure whatever sort of staring contests you have with Aiden are more fun but mine are just lovely."

"Shh," Harry finally says, because he doesn't know what else to say. Louis is a bit weird most of the time and very weird sometimes, and Harry's discovered that it's frequently best to just give him a bit of a cuddle and let him talk. Harry doesn't have a problem doing that. He likes Louis’s voice, and he likes cuddling people, and it's – Louis is probably his best friend here. Or maybe ever. Actually, Harry doesn't know if he's ever met somebody who just gets him like Louis does.

He's just really good, is Louis. And Harry doesn't really want to fuck him, which is new. He loves Louis and he's frequently astounded that Louis likes him at all but it's weird to Harry that he doesn't actually have a real desire to make that into anything else. Maybe it's just more than that. Louis is his best everything, and Harry doesn't need to kiss him to make it better because it's already the best that it could be. Louis makes him feel good, and that's all he needs to do for Harry to like him as much as he does.

Aiden's also good; they are mates even if they're frequently having sex instead of talking. They do manage to have conversations in between and sometimes during (Harry thinks Aiden might have a bit of a thing for having ordinary conversations while he's getting Harry off – "Did I tell you they want to give me a mic stand that looks like it's made out of chain?" "Yeah, but can you jerk me off a bit faster?") and Aiden's just a good mate to have, really.

There are people in the house with them who make Harry nervous, and he's made an effort not to talk to them very much, in case they decide to sell a story to the papers, or blackmail him, or something. He doesn't know how this show business stuff works. He likes his band and he likes Aiden, and Aiden likes Matt, so he can't be too bad, and Cher's alright but she scares him a little, and Mary's lovely for a chat, and otherwise, Harry really doesn't talk to anyone. But the people he talks to are the best ones, so he doesn't think he's missing out.

Louis, though, Louis knows what Harry's thinking sometimes before he does, and he pokes Harry's side and says, "Hey. You're not, you know. Pining, or anything, after him, are you?"

"After Zayn?" Harry asks with a soft snort. "Hardly. I'm not hung up on him if that's what you mean. He's still just really hot, and they didn't mess up his hair or anything, either. He doesn't even like me that much, anyway, so it doesn't matter."

"He likes you just fine. He calls you a twat as a sign of affection, you know." Louis pokes his side again, and Harry squirms almost enough to knock Louis off of him. "I just don't want there to be, you know. Problems."

"There aren't going to be problems." Harry sighs. "I told you, I'm not hung up on him. I just like looking at him. Not a crime, is it?"

"Not a crime," Louis agrees, leaning his head down onto Harry's chest. "I'm the oldest, so it's my job to worry about things like this."

Harry snorts. It's loud enough that Louis shushes him and Harry shushes him back and it becomes a shushing contest until they hear Liam grunt from across the room and Harry slams his hand over Louis’s mouth. He knows Louis is going to lick it even before he does. It's just the sort of thing Louis would do, because – and it's the reason what he said was funny in the first place – for all that Louis is the oldest, nobody would say he acts like it. The four of them would because Louis is always taking care of them in some way or another, but from an outsider's perspective it's almost certainly Liam who acts the oldest, still so serious and closed off from the rest of them. Louis is working on him, coaxing him out of his shell, but it's slow going.

"Anyway," says Louis, settling down again. "Good. Don't let it get out of hand, okay?"

If it was anybody else, Harry would feel grumpy about that statement, but from Louis, he knows it's actually concern, and he takes it as it's meant, nodding.

"I won't," he promises. He doesn't think there's a way it'll get out of hand. If they go home on Sunday, which they might if they can't get this song to sound right by tomorrow, then he might not even see Zayn again. And if they last longer, he's got Aiden to get his sexual frustrations out with. Zayn doesn't even like him very much. It's not like Harry's got, whatever, feelings for him. That'd be ridiculous.

It's nothing, and it's going to continue to be nothing.

Of course, nobody can just trust Harry to be able to handle things. It's not really surprising that the topic comes up again. What's surprising is when.

"So, Zayn?" asks Aiden, his fingers slick and deep inside Harry. They've managed to set aside an hour in between rehearsals and going shopping or whatever else they have to do this week which is good because Harry needs a good orgasm so badly he'd been considering begging off sick, and he would've felt like shit about it but at least he'd have been able to think straight afterward.

They still have about forty-five minutes left of their hour and this is not how Harry would prefer to spend it. He grunts and squirms, trying to ride down on Aiden's fingers. "Is this really a great time to talk about this?"

"It's the only time I can shut you up long enough to ask any questions of my own." Aiden crooks his fingers and gives Harry a playful bite to his collarbone. This is blatantly untrue, but whatever.

He gasps when Aiden shifts his fingers and moans, "Okay, I guess." He spreads his legs a little more to give Aiden room. "Long as you promise to keep doing that."

"Mm. Course, gorgeous." Aiden nuzzles at Harry's throat. "Zayn, then? I'm just a stand-in for what you really want, am I?"

"As if I'm your first choice," Harry counters. In response, Aiden crooks his fingers until Harry groans and his hips jerk. "Alright, go on," he manages after a moment. "You were saying?"

"Right, I was." Aiden laughs in Harry's ear and presses a kiss below it with damp lips. "I've noticed, you look at him an awful lot. And we're mates, you know, me and Zayn, great mates." He slips a third finger in beside the other two. "Except when I'm talking to you, I guess, 'cause then he just glares at me. Now why would he do that?"

Harry cranes his neck to mouth at Aiden's shoulder. "No idea, actually." He can't stop his voice from sounding raspy, but even if he could, he thinks Aiden rather likes it. "Half the time I think he can hardly stand me."

"So you're not already having it off with him?" asks Aiden, giving Harry's cock a quick tug with his other hand. "I'm not caught in the middle of a lover's quarrel or anything, am I?"

Harry has to laugh. "Uh, no. 'bout as far from as it can be. Just quarrel. No – no lover's – fuck," he concludes, his back arching off the bed. "Fuck, okay, enough about that. Have we got time for you to fuck me?"

"Maybe, if you're good," teases Aiden, his fingers sliding out of Harry. He wipes the remaining slick on himself and then grabs the tube of it from where it's buried in the sheets to squeeze more out. That's probably for the best. It's been ages since Harry has had more than fingers.

"Hands and knees, love," Aiden murmurs, patting Harry's hip to get him to flip over. Harry grumbles as he does, mostly because he's really the laziest person ever, even when it comes to getting laid, but a little bit because he knows Aiden will bite his thigh once he's where he's supposed to be.

The first push is hard and quick, and Harry has to drop his head to keep from just collapsing to the bed under the pressure of it. It doesn't hurt too much, which is better than he was expecting, but it's still a lot more than Aiden's fingers. Aiden keeps his forehead pressed to Harry's shoulder blade and a hand stroking his hip, letting him adjust.

"'kay," Harry mutters when he's ready for more, shimmying his hips a little. "More, please."

"So polite." Aiden kisses the jut of his shoulder blade before he rocks his hips forward to fuck into Harry the rest of the way. It's deep and good, so good that Harry hisses out a moan and grinds back against Aiden in a silent demand for more.

Aiden's a great fuck, and Harry's grateful not for the first time that he made it through to live shows with Harry. He has no idea what he'd do without this. Probably go insane. At any rate, he's glad Aiden's here, and he's glad Aiden's willing to help a mate out.

It doesn't last too long because they're both fairly young and it's been a while for Harry at least, but it's tremendous while it's happening. Aiden's good at keeping a rhythm that's not that steady, so it keeps Harry guessing, and he whispers in Harry's ear and sometimes he laughs, which makes Harry laugh, and there's nothing Harry likes more than being able to have a bit of a laugh while he's getting fucked. It's like several kinds of happiness all at once.

Once they've both come, and Harry's panting, resting with one leg thrown over Aiden's and his hair in a state, Aiden speaks again. "So. Zayn?"

Harry groans. "No, seriously, stop. I don't know why nobody thinks I can handle this on my own. He's really hot. You've seen him. You know."

"He is really hot," Aiden agrees. "And you've got a massive thing for him, and he knows you're sleeping with me, and glares at me all the time."

"Hey, wait," protests Harry, leaning up onto an elbow. "Stop – there's not any correlation there. Stop. Stop it. I'm trying to bask in the afterglow."

Aiden holds his hands up. "I'm just saying. You want to fuck him. And I don't think you should rule out him wanting to fuck you."

"Shut up," Harry grumbles, giving Aiden his best disgruntled look. "This is – stupid. He doesn't want to fuck me. He's straight. And he doesn't even like me."

"Everyone likes you," says Aiden, which is not true in several ways and for several reasons. "I think you should go for it."

"There's nothing to go for!" Harry exclaims. "Just shut up, alright?" He firmly places his head on Aiden's chest. "We've got like ten more minutes. I'm sleeping now."

Aiden laughs, but his fingers card through Harry's hair to push it off his forehead, which is quite nice. "Alright, Hazza. Sorry for upsetting you."

"You should be," mutters Harry. Really, he's already forgiven Aiden. He'll forgive anyone who plays with his hair anything if they keep at it long enough.

But it does make him think, which he’d rather not do. Thinking never turns out well, not when it's something like this Harry's thinking about, and not when there are so many other things he should be thinking about instead. He shouldn't be focusing on the ludicrous idea that his thing for Zayn might not be entirely one-sided. He should be focusing on practicing their song, which still doesn't sound right, or on – on getting over said thing. There's no point in thinking about how Zayn could like him back. Like him back; even the thought feels juvenile in Harry's head.

He can't stop thinking about it, though. He'll find himself drifting off while they're practicing, squinting at Zayn to see if he's actually looking at Harry or if he's looking off into space. He hates that he's looking at all. He hates that he can't tell. And he hates that Aiden and Louis put the idea in his head at all. If it wasn't for them, Harry would be functioning, like a normal person, instead of obsessing over the exact thing he told himself he wasn't going to obsess over.

They get filmed going shopping with the rest of the top twelve, and it's mental. Harry was pretty sure they were well-liked in the competition, considering they've been getting through every week and the screams when they perform, but the hysteria that greets them in the shop is like nothing Harry or any of them could've anticipated. Girls start crying when he smiles at them. Liam winks at one girl and she actually passes the fuck out. Liam looks bewildered by it, and helps her up, and she nearly faints again. It's ridiculous. It doesn't make any sense, when Harry thinks about what he'd expected from this competition when he auditioned. Maybe a few more followers on Twitter. Maybe someone frowning at him in the street like they knew him from somewhere but couldn't place it. Nothing like this. Definitely not anything like this.

They sign autographs for people before they leave (autographs! the only autograph Harry'd ever signed before all this had been for Louis in the toilets at boot camp, and he hadn't had a proper signature or anything, just signed 'Harry' on a napkin) and talk to a camera about how insane it is, which is something else Harry's having trouble getting used to. The cameras are always everywhere, always wanting to know what they're thinking or what they're doing or how they're taking something. Harry hadn't thought most people would care what he thinks about the new Tinie Tempah track, but apparently it's something the country needs to know.

Soundcheck goes... Alright. The song still doesn't sound right, and they're getting progressively more antsy about it the more they practice it. It's not lack of rehearsal; Harry's pretty sure they've been rehearsing more often than they've been eating, but it just, there's just something wrong. From the way Simon's frowning, he can hear it too.

"I'm not feeling it," he says when he joins them on the stage. It feels like a failure even though Harry knows it's not necessarily their fault the song isn't working. They're trying their hardest. The song's just not right. "You have another one you've been working with, don't you?" Simon asks, his brow furrowed thoughtfully. "The Pink one?"

They've been sort of practicing that one as well, as a fall back option if this one kept sounding wrong. They've not been working as intently on it, hopeful that the first song would work, but it doesn't, obviously. When they run through the Pink song, it sounds good. Not spectacular, not anything special, but it sounds good. And all they really need is to sound good.

Simon seems satisfied when he joins them again. "Do that one again," he instructs. "It's really good. I mean seriously, good." He nods and Harry feels his shoulders relax. It's less stressful to at least know that Simon thinks they'll do alright.

The performance itself is as overwhelming as it has been the past two weeks. The second they step onstage it's all screaming and even the backing track isn't as loud as all the girls in the audience. Cheryl Cole calls them her guilty pleasure. Cheryl Cole. Harry might be gay, but he's got eyes just like anybody else does, and being Cheryl Cole's guilty pleasure sounds like a fine thing to be indeed.

The audience at home seems to be as happy with their performance as the judges were, and they're through another week. The competition seems like it's going by both too fast and too slow, like Harry wants life to slow down a moment so he can breathe and savor it but he also wants to get through a little faster. This is sort of torturous, waiting to see every week if they're good enough or not, if the fickle British public are going to still like them.

They don't see until later, what Louis Walsh said about them during Belle Amie's performance. About Simon paying all his attention to them and none of it to the girl group. Harry doesn't think that's fair; it makes them out to be the villains and they're not. They're just trying to do their best. He can tell the Belle Amie girls are rocked by what Louis said as well, because they've all got along fine until now. Harry had asked Sophia to pass the salt at breakfast Monday morning, though, and she'd given him a look like he'd spat in her cereal. Becka Creighton doesn't seem as bothered by it, though, smiling at Harry like normal when he walks past her in the hallway.

Geneva and Esther are being cold too, and it might be that Harry's just imagining it, but the rest of the house seems chilly as well. He asks Aiden about it when he next sees him, muttering the question into his sweaty collarbone as they both breathe heavily with aftershocks.

"Have the boys and I done something?" he asks, muffled by Aiden's skin. "Only everyone's sort of. Giving us dirty looks."

"I always give you dirty looks." Aiden laughs a little, ruffling Harry's hair, and Harry hits him.
"You know what I mean," he grumbles. "I dunno. Maybe it's me. Feels like everyone's avoiding us. Not just the girls, either."

Aiden shrugs a little, his fingers tracing the line of Harry's spine. It feels nice, soothing. "Not that I know of. Only really talk to Matty, though. I might not be the best person to ask. Maybe it's 'cause everyone thinks you're going to win?"

"Matt's going to win," says Harry flatly. "Matt or Becca or you. Everyone thinks that."

"Except Simon Cowell wants you to win," Aiden points out. "He knows you're his best shot so he's putting his energy into you. Not your fault," he says before Harry can protest. "I know it's not your fault. But like, he obviously favors you."

Harry sighs and rests his head on the pillow. "Yeah. Maybe." In reality, he knows Simon favors them a bit, but he still doesn't think it's fair they're being made out as the bad guys. They aren't making Simon do anything, and they've not been anything but nice to Belle Amie. "But what about everyone else in the house?"

"I think that's your imagination, Curly." Aiden gives him a pat on the bum. "Everyone here loves you to death, even with being so naked all the time. I think they've decided it's charming. Or maybe they like your arse as much as I do."

"I don't really want to think about, like, Wagner perving on my arse, thanks." Harry gives Aiden's nipple a tweak. "You think so? I'm just going mad?"

"You were already mad," replies Aiden. "Maybe a bit madder, though. You're everyone's favorite housemate. Not mine, though. I can hardly stand you."

"Shut up." Harry tweaks Aiden's other nipple, and harder this time. "You think I'm adorable."

Aiden sighs, but he does gather Harry a little closer. "I suppose, if I must."

It's good he does have Aiden, because when he's not with him he's still thinking about Zayn. Zayn, who has taken to looking at Harry much too intently for Harry's peace of mind. It's not in a checking-out way or anything like that. He's just looking at Harry, and not even that often. Enough to make Harry want to shout things at him about unnecessary staring and leading people on.

Zayn never says anything directly to him about it. He just says normal things, about the song they're doing (Total Eclipse of the Heart this week – Harry doesn't really understand the song choice, but he's seen the outfit they want Louis to wear and he is all for that) or asking if Harry wants to play FIFA, or whatever. They aren't fighting, which is refreshing. They aren't really doing anything. It feels a little like they're both waiting for something to happen, but Harry hasn't the foggiest what that something might be, so they're just... At a standstill.

He comes back to the room one night to find the other four already there. That's fine; it's not like they don't know what he's been doing with Aiden. Liam barely looks up from his phone – probably texting that dancer he's been talking to – and Niall gives him a wave from his bunk. Louis and Zayn are wrestling. They do that a lot, and it's, Harry doesn't know if it's a weird sexual frustration thing or what, but he does know it's fun to watch. He plops himself down onto Louis's bed and watches them roll around in the middle of the room. Louis has a lower center of gravity, and he's a bit thicker, but Zayn fights dirty, as Harry knows from experience. They're a pretty good match for each other, and it's sort of like clothed, PG-rated porn, which is nice.

"Who's winning?" he asks Niall after a moment to take it in. It looks like Zayn's got the advantage right now, but Louis is good at flipping people with his knees, so that could change in a second.

"I think Liam's winning," says Niall decisively.

"Cheers," calls Liam, shooting Niall a thumbs-up. He still doesn't look away from his phone. Dancer Danielle must be fascinating to talk to, because Liam's almost always texting her or talking to her on the phone. It's kind of cute. If you're into that sort of thing. And Harry's nothing if not an incurable romantic.

"I've got him," Louis huffs from where he's sat astride Zayn, two seconds before Zayn does something Harry can't see that makes Louis shriek and tumble to the ground, where Zayn rolls on top of him.

Niall is surveying them with a curious expression. "Is it like, something about having loads of siblings, do you think?" he asks Harry. Harry doesn't think it is, but it could be, maybe. It's not that he never gets the urge to try to pin Zayn to the floor, though, so he thinks it might just be a Zayn-and-Louis thing. Whatever that means. They're all still working out their friendships with each other, and maybe Zayn-and-Louis is going to be synonymous with clothed grappling. It's a far better cry than Zayn-and-Harry, which is apparently going to be synonymous with unresolved sexual tension and quibbling. Harry sighs. He wants clothed grappling with Zayn. And unclothed grappling. And unclothed-ness in general. It's a hard life he leads.

Eventually, Louis and Zayn settle on opposite sides of the room, breathing heavily and slumped on the floor. They look worn out, but sated. Harry guesses if he can go to Aiden to get his energy out, the others can have their own methods of expending their manic energy. Apart from Liam, who's probably not ever been manic in his life.

"I won," pants Zayn, his face gone red with exertion. "I definitely won that one."

"You lying fuck, I got the last pin in," Louis argues, but it looks like he can't muster up anything more than an indignant huff. "How's Aiden, Hazza?" he asks, now staunchly ignoring Zayn.

"Well-fucked," says Harry automatically, laughing when Niall groans beside him. "Nah, he's fine. Sends his love and all."

He swings himself around on the bed, letting his head dangle off. He likes the feeling of the blood rushing in his ears, and it's easier to talk to the others from this angle. He continues, "Nervous about this week, lads?" They've practiced the song enough to get a good feel for it, and they do like to talk it out a bit when they all know their parts, see who feels comfortable and who needs a bit of a pep talk. They work well together, Harry thinks with a smile.

"Nervous about my bit," admits Louis. Louis hardly ever admits when he's unsure about something, so it must be serious. "First solo. Feel a bit like I'll be sick whenever I think about it, ha." Indeed, he's gone a bit pale, and he swallows as the others give him sympathetic looks.

"I'll be singing under you," Liam assures. "I mean, if you get too nervous. I can just come in stronger?" He shrugs, and finally tucks his phone away. "If you're that worried about it. It's not a problem."

"No, I think I can do it, it's just. You know. I'm not really." Louis blows his fringe out of his eyes, and he's not looking directly at any of them. "We've all got, like, what are they called?" he asks Zayn. Honestly, if it's a word one of them can't think of, Zayn's really good at knowing what it is. Harry vaguely recalls something about Zayn wanting to be an English teacher if singing didn't work out, and he thinks he would've been really good at it. And Busted would've written songs about him, too. "Like, boxes we fit into."

"Archetypes?" Zayn guesses. "We all fit into personality archetypes, you mean?"

"Yes, that," says Louis thankfully. "We've got those and I'm like, the funny one, I'm not. If someone was going to remember something about me it wouldn't be my singing, would it?"

"Hey." Harry frowns, and he can see Niall leaning forward out of the corner of his eye. "Don't say that. You've got a great voice. Your solo's sounded really good every time we practiced the song."

Louis looks like he'd like to disagree, but instead, he just says, "I'm just nervous. I don't want to ruin the whole song."

"Why haven't you said anything about this before?" Liam asks him. He's shuffled across his bed a bit, Harry notices, and now his dangling leg is pressed against Louis's shoulder. Harry's impressed, actually. Louis does like physical contact a lot and he especially likes physical contact from Liam, who isn't usually prone to it. There's a reluctant smile tugging at his lips already, and he shrugs.

"It's not a big deal. Forget I said anything," he replies, heaving himself up and onto Liam's bed. He kicks sideways to hit Liam's foot, and then flings himself backwards. "I'm not that self-conscious about it. I'm just worried about my solo, okay? Like, okay, my voice isn't the strongest, but I did get through to boot camp on my own. I'm obviously not terrible."

"Right you're not," Niall says firmly. "Rubbish. And if I hear you saying you are I'll whollop you upside the head."

"Wouldn't want that." Louis sounds half-sarcastic and half just sort of grateful. It's a bizarre combination. "Thanks, boys. I think it's time for bed now, though. Knackered and we've got a busy day of avoiding Belle Amie ahead of us."

Zayn grumbles from the floor, but stands, groaning and holding his back. "Fucker, you murdered my back," he curses, giving Louis a dark glare. "I'll get you back for this."

Louis grins, and nearly skips to his own bunk. "Anytime, Malik. I'll happily beat you again and again."

The look Zayn gives Louis then is grumpy as Harry's ever seen Zayn, and it's – it's really very cute, but Harry doesn't say that because he wants to wake up with the same number of bollocks he went to bed with. Instead of commenting, he just climbs up into his own bunk. He wants to say something to Zayn, but he doesn't know what and he doesn't know why, and he doesn't know if he wants to say it in front of all the other lads anyway.

"Goodnight," he finally decides, and he receives four soft 'goodnights' in return.

"Feels a bit like a dream, doesn't it?" Liam says, staring out the car window. There are about a billion tiny girls screaming their names from outside and Harry's taking video of it on his phone just in case it never happens again. There's a chance it won't, after all; Simon's warned the over and over that the media is very fickle and they can't count on the cotes just being there week by week. They're working hard anyway, but Harry's sure that Simon's words stick in all their minds.

"Yeah," Louis replies when nobody else does. He's in the seat behind Harry, and he sounds awed. "This is so weird. I'm from Doncaster. This doesn't happen to people from Donny."

"It doesn't really happen to people from Cheshire, either," says Harry, keeping his phone held up and turning to make it easier to talk. There's a cameraman in the corner of the car but he's restocking the film in it or whatever; Harry doesn't pretend to know how those massive things work. "I don't know if it happens anywhere but here."

There's a lot of things he means by 'here': London, the X Factor in particular, in this car. The other contestants have dealt with a bit of craziness; Cher and Matt and Aiden mostly, but he doesn't think it's too off the mark to say that their band gets most of it. Their car gets mobbed all the time, to the point where they need extra security, and Harry's checked the views on the YouTube videos. They're getting more views than almost anybody, except Matt. Of course, that doesn't really mean anything, but it can't hurt.

"I keep feeling like, like I'm going to wake up and my mum's going to be there telling me to get ready for school." Zayn's throat bobs as his eyes stay locked out the window. There are still so many girls outside that it seems impossible the car's moved at all, but it has.

"Oh, that's good," Louis says. "Keep that for the VT, that was really good, remember that."

He's saying it to be funny, and it is, but it rings true in a way that's not really funny at all. Sometimes it's seemed like their lives are being compressed into photos and soundbites and Harry's not so sure he likes it. He laughs anyway.

"Feeling better about your solo?" Niall asks. He's sat between Harry and Liam, so he can look out both windows, but instead he's looking back at Louis. People underestimate Niall, and Harry's not sure why. He's really good at knowing when people need to be talked to. It's a really useful talent. "Now you've done it a million times?"

"Yeah." Louis's mouth quirks up at the side. "Yeah, loads better, thanks. Might even be able to smile while I'm singing it this time."

That's a laugh. Harry doesn't know if he's ever seen Louis sing without smiling. Louis can get a little down on himself over his voice but he's the kind of person who genuinely enjoys singing so much that he can't stop smiling when he's singing, and you can hear it in the words that come out of his mouth. Harry thinks that's a little bit more important sometimes. And he's fucking brilliant with harmonies, which is why they don't sound nearly as good without Louis's voice in their performances. They're good, they're alright, but until Louis's part gets added in, they're not brilliant.

They're brilliant during the performance, though. Niall echoing Liam is amazing, and Zayn's vocals are solid, and Harry's are, too, and when it gets to Louis's solo, he's grinning the whole time with Liam singing under him, and Harry finds it hard to stop smiling when he looks at all of them and how ridiculous they look, with the 'blood' under their eyes and the rips in Louis's shirt which are probably supposed to make him look like he's been mauled but really just make him look like a low budget rent boy, and Zayn's blood-drips which are insanely attractive and Harry's not even into that kind of thing, and Liam's bloody ripped jeans, and the attempts to make Niall look like anything but a blond baby angel. They look ridiculous and they sounded good, and they get all great feedback from the judges, and everything is amazing.

Harry wants to shout with happiness but he settles for smiling until his cheeks hurt. Zayn's smiling too, and Harry didn't cause it this time but it still makes him feel warm in the pit of his stomach. It's his favorite kind of Zayn-smile, the kind where he's biting his tongue a little and grinning. When they tumble offstage, they're all hugging and going on about the performance and it's, everything's just, it's perfect. Harry forgets about all the rumors he's getting blowjobs from techs and he forgets about everyone saying they're not working hard enough. He forgets about everything but how good it feels to be with his band and know that they're fucking good.

It's a great feeling, and it lasts into the next morning, when he remembers that they have to do the same thing again this week. Every week they're still in the competition is amazing, a blessing, but it doesn't make the work any less difficult, and it doesn't make all the shitty things go away. Whenever Harry gets on the computer he sees another gossipy article that reads like it was written by a fourteen year old speculating about which female contestant he's fucking this week. It's Cher again. He'd thought the gossip rags had moved on from that, started talking about her being with Liam instead, but it seems like it's back to Harry.

He feels like he doesn't have a right to be as upset about it as he is. It's not like he's made it clear he's not into girls. Still, it itches under his skin that he's been photographed with Cher maybe twice and it means he's fucking her but he's sat on Louis's lap in public maybe twelve times and there aren't any rumors about them fucking. Well, not proper rumors, anyway. He does get a few weird tweets about it, but that's about all. None of the actual papers think there could be any possibility he's anything but – he remembers the phrase Zayn had used, back at the bungalow (which seems like years ago now), 'knee deep in pussy'. It's crude, but it also seems to be what the country thinks of him, and he shouldn't – doesn't really – mind. He just wishes... Fuck, he doesn't know what he wishes.

Aiden kind of understands, except he really doesn't. There are all sorts of rumors about Aiden, but most of them are things about how people think he's gay. It doesn't seem to bother him very much, but not much bothers Aiden.

"I guess I can see why you'd be upset about it," he mutters. It's another one of those casual conversations they tend to have while they're also having sex. Actual sex, too, which is nice. They've been able to really fuck twice now, this'll make three times and Harry's been tremendously pleased with every time. Aiden let Harry ride him this time, which is his favorite position as it lets him be, well, a bit lazy, at least with Aiden. While they're talking, he can just seat himself and rock a little when he wants some stimulation, or if he wants Aiden to make a noise. Aiden makes pretty noises. "I just don't think it's that big of a deal. You're cute. I guess people think that means you fuck all the women."

"If only they knew." Harry grinds down and lets out a happy hum. His arms are hooked around Aiden's neck to give him leverage when he wants to lever himself up and then down again. "It's not like I mind, it's just not true. I don't like it when people lie about me." He frowns. Aiden rolls his eyes and then kisses him, which makes it much harder to frown. Harry tries anyway, because he's contrary, and Aiden gives him a firm enough spank that he jolts upright a little.

"Of course you don't like it when people lie about you." Aiden rubs the stinging skin of Harry's arse, and Harry stops glaring at him. "Who does? It's not even good lies, either. No orgies or anything."

"I know!" Harry complains. "You'd think I'd at least be into kinky straight shit. I don't even get anything creative. I want twelvesomes."

Aiden laughs and nuzzles into the line of Harry's throat. "Sorry, love," he mutters. "I'll mention a twelvesome next time I'm around Katie."

His tone's gone a bit grumpy, and Harry knows it's because none of them really like Katie, ever since she started telling shit to the press about Matt. Matt's a really good guy, and he's worked hard to be here, and he doesn't deserve someone trying to take that all away because they want more headlines. Katie wants to be famous, and Harry thinks she might want that more than she wants to be a singer, and that's, that's fine. But it doesn't give her the right to try to take away other peoples' dreams.

Harry gives Aiden a squeeze, and he clenches a little, enough that Aiden groans and his hips twitch.

"Menace," he growls, biting Harry's shoulder. It's far enough down that Harry can probably cover it with his shirt when he goes out. Apart from that, he's naked in the house and nobody's asked any questions about the myriad of lovebites that litter his skin on a daily basis. Not even Katie's asked. And that's a surprise. Maybe she thinks he's too young to get anything out of.

By the time he and Aiden are finished, Harry's got a pretty good limp going on. It's not bad enough that he'll still have it when he wakes up, or not noticeably, but it's enough that when he gets back to the room, Zayn coughs. He's the only person in their room. This seems to keep happening, and Harry doesn't mind, but he does wonder where everyone else goes when Zayn's in here by himself and Harry's off gallivanting with Aiden. Oh, well. It's none of his.

"You alright?" Zayn asks slowly, giving Harry a look up-and-down. It's not a come-on, but Harry likes to think of it as one. He deserves something, he thinks. He deserves a sainthood for how little he's actually touched Zayn in the past few weeks.

"Yup." Harry gingerly sits climbs up to his bunk, letting his legs dangle off the edge and looking back over to Zayn's bunk, across from him. "Right as rain. Just a bit. You know."

"I really don't." Zayn's eyebrows raise. "Not sure I want to know, but I'll ask anyway: Why do you look like you've sat on a cactus?"

Harry clears his throat to keep from laughing. "Not, er, not a cactus."

He watches that make its way through Zayn's mind, and he can pinpoint the moment he figures it out, because he wrinkles his nose. "Oh, seriously? So I really didn't want to know."

"Probably not." Harry laughs, reclining on his bed but rolling onto his side so that he can still easily talk to Zayn. "But you did ask."

"I did ask," Zayn agrees, and then he doesn't say anything for such a long time that Harry wonders if the conversation isn't just over. "But like, hypothetically. If I did want to know."

"What?" asks Harry blankly. There's no way Zayn's asking what he thinks Zayn's asking. But there was that time he'd asked about blowjobs... Still, better to be sure. "If you did want to know what?"

Zayn's eyes roll to the ceiling and he looks suspiciously pink-faced. "If I wanted to know. About. That. Like if I was just curious."

That phrase pops into Harry's head, 'If you can't even say it, you shouldn't be talking about it.' He thinks he can make an exception for Zayn. He's already making exceptions for Zayn, like the ones where he promised he'd never have a thing for a straight boy, and he'd never harbor a crush for more than a month without results. Apparently making exceptions for Zayn is just what he does. "Uh. I mean, if you wanted to ask, you could. Ask. Like, I won't stop you or anything. I'm not shy, you might've noticed."

"A bit." Zayn laughs, short and cut off, and rubs the back of his neck. "Yeah, I might. I might be curious. Not for any reason," he warns, gaze narrowing in on Harry. "I just want to know. S'intriguing. And, you know, I've never. Ugh, shut up," he grumbles at Harry, who can't stop grinning. "Never mind, I'm not curious about anything, you twat."

"No, no, I'm sorry," Harry says, even though he doesn't have any reason to be sorry at all. "I'll be serious. Promise. What do you want to know? I'm an open book, as they say."

He makes himself comfortable while Zayn thinks, shoving a pillow under his head and, for good measure, one under his arse. It doesn't hurt so much when he's lying down, but he can still feel the burn in his calves and the pillow helps at least a little bit. Or it might not help at all, but it's there now and Harry doesn't feel like moving again.

“I don’t know,” Zayn finally concludes, which is not helpful in the slightest. Harry rolls his eyes and Zayn must see because he hastily continues like he thinks Harry’s about to tell him to fuck off. “Like, I don’t know any of it. I don’t get it.”

“Probably goes a long way in explaining why you’re not gay.” Harry sighs wistfully. “Sadly.”

Zayn looks like he would very much like to throw another pillow at Harry, but he refrains. Harry appreciates it. "No, not like. I just mean, the logistics. If it hurts so much, why do you do it?"

Oh, that's a much easier question to answer. "It mostly hurts afterwards. During, there's a lot more good stuff to focus on. It's only once the adrenaline wears off that I feel it in my back, or my knees, or whatever. A lot of it depends on the position you're in, too. Like, if you're getting all contorted, you're going to be aching more next day, yeah?"

"Oh." Zayn seems to process that, and then he nods. "Yeah, okay. Makes sense."

"And it's not like that's all you can do, you know," adds Harry. "Blokes can still do loads of things that girls can do. Kissing and handjobs and blowjobs and things. Usually, when I'm off with Aiden, we're doing that. We don't get to actually have real sex very often." He shrugs. "Takes some time, to get ready and all."

"Does it?" Zayn looks intrigued again, rather than frustrated. "What d'you do? To like, get ready?"

Harry's glad he seems to have lost the shyness he'd had before, because it's a lot easier to answer questions when they're posed bluntly. "Like, fingers, mostly," he says. "I like fingers a lot. Sometimes that's all we do, actually. You don't have to, though, as long as you use enough slick you can just go really slowly and it'll still be fine. I just really like fingers first, but not everybody does."

"And that makes it hurt less?" asks Zayn. He's not even pretending to look at his phone anymore, setting it aside and putting his chin into his hands as he looks at Harry. "When it's an actual, you know. Dick?"

Harry nods. "Yeah. If you've not done it in a while, it obviously still hurts a bit, but once you've got used to it, it's not bad at all. Just a sort of stretching feeling."

This is nice. It's nice to have a conversation with Zayn, even if it's about gay sex. He doesn't think he's spoken to Zayn so in depth in quite a while, actually, between rehearsing and going off with Aiden and interviews, and filming shit for whatever show they don't know. He should make more time for the other boys, because it's not enough to sound good (and they do). They've got to still get along with each other. Harry knows they all like each other just fine but it's not the same as when they were at the bungalow or even in Spain and they were together all the time getting to know each other. They're still together all the time, but they're generally too busy to just hang out, and that won't do. Harry makes a mental note to spend more time just talking to the others. It can hardly hurt.

"Okay." Zayn frowns, thoughtful. "And like, you use, do you still use a condom?"

"Always." Harry waves his hand vaguely toward his bag, which is where he keeps his, but Zayn has no way of knowing that and so understandably appears very confused by the gesture. "Just because you don't have to worry about getting a guy pregnant doesn't mean you're in the clear. There's all sorts of shit you can catch." He wrinkles his nose. "And it's just messier without, innit? Like, I don't even want to think about having to wash after someone's spunked in me."

Zayn looks revolted. Harry really doesn't blame him. "Alright. Thanks, I think that's enough. My knowledge for the day." He smiles a little, just a hitch of his mouth up at the corner. Harry likes that smile, a lot, thinks it might be his favorite of Zayn's smiles, and he's got loads.

There's the smile he gets when Niall's accent gets really thick, when he's talking quickly or when he's excited or happy or tired. It's amused, and a little bit perplexed.

He has another smile for when he's talking to Liam. It's not that Harry keeps track of all the conversations Zayn's ever had; he just automatically pays attention to Zayn whenever they're in the same room. His gaze travels to Zayn without his permission. It's all very frustrating. But he does watch, and he sees the way Zayn smiles whenever Liam makes a joke or something. It's a good smile, too, and it doesn't make Harry jealous in the slightest. It's a pleased smile, surprised and appreciative. Harry wants to fuck it.

Then there's Zayn's smile for when he and Louis are fucking around, wrestling or fighting or – foreplay, whatever they call it in their heads. Harry doesn't know. He just knows that their smiles match when they're doing it. Exhilaration and happiness and ferocity all at once. Harry's a little scared by that smile but he's also intrigued by it, wants to figure out how to make it happen. He'll figure it out before he dies. He's determined to do that.

He doesn't know if Zayn has a smile just for him. Zayn's got smiles for the rest of them, though, so it seems only fair that he should have one for Harry. Be a bit shit if he didn't.

Harry doesn't think he'd know if Zayn did have a smile for him. It's one of those things you can't really tell about other people; you can't tell the sort of smile they smile for you, and you can't tell the sort of thoughts they have when they think about you, or the way they fall in love with you. You can't watch things like that happen if they're happening because of you. It's just not possible.

All he can do is hope that Zayn does have a smile for him, and keep an eye out for it. He won't know it when he sees it, but he can try, and it's not exactly a chore to watch Zayn's face when he smiles. Sometimes his eyes crinkle and it's one of the best things Harry's ever seen.

Harry realizes, belatedly, that he's been daydreaming about Zayn's smile for the past few minutes and now Zayn's looking at him strangely. "Oh," Harry says. "Oh, yeah, that's fine. No problem. If you've got any other questions, you know. We live together."

"I'll keep that in mind," responds Zayn, and damn his voice because Harry still can't ever tell when he's being sarcastic and when he's being serious. He guesses he'll find out when Zayn does or doesn't have more questions.

As it is, he's got a bit of an awkward semi from talking about sex and looking at Zayn's face, so it's easier to just grin at him and then squirm around until he can go to sleep. He dreams about fucking Zayn. It's not exactly a dream he's never had before, but he does wake up sweaty and hard, and he has to jerk off in the loo before he's able to function.

They're seeing Simon today, getting filmed popping round his office. They don't normally pop round his office, but they're doing it on camera this time, so Harry assumes that's the reason why. Make it look like they regularly chat to him. And it's not like Simon doesn't keep track of them; he's checking in on how they're doing with the song all the time. They're just not. Mates with Simon Cowell. In the grand scheme of things, Harry doesn't think that's really a thing to get upset about. Being mates with Simon Cowell would be a bit weird.

Simon tells them he's got a vague idea for a song, something uptempo after they did the slower one last week. He wants to showcase how fun they are, and makes a mention of how they should talk about that in their pre-performance video package. That's easy enough. They do have a lot of fun in the house despite how busy they are. Last week they'd wrapped Niall up in all of their blankets and pushed him down the stairs to see if it'd feel like sitting in the back of a bus. Niall said it didn't, but it wasn't the worst way to travel.

They come to a decision: Kids in America. They all know the song. Everyone knows the song. It's a perfect song for what Simon wants, because it's uptempo pop and they can all get their vocals in. When they put together the arrangement, the vocals are pretty evenly spread out, except Louis hasn't got a solo bit. Harry chances a glance over to him and finds that he doesn't look upset in the slightest. He looks relieved, actually, and Harry relaxes. Really, if Louis isn't comfortable having solos, then he shouldn't have them, even if the rest of them all think he's got a great voice. It doesn't really matter, if he doesn't think so. He's the one who'd be singing them.

Their first run-through of the song is already good. It's not a hard vocal part and any rough bumps that don't get smoothed out will probably be covered up by how much they'll be bouncing.

"We're really shit dancers," Zayn notes when they're working out the choreography for the song, later in the week. "Like, I'm surprised we haven't hurt each other trying to dance. We're really awful at it."

"Better than some people." Brian Friedman mutters this as he casts a gimlet eye over to where Wagner is trying to seduce some of his backup dancers. They don't look charmed at all. Harry doesn't blame them. He can see Wagner's chest hair from here, and his shirt's buttoned up all the way so Harry doesn't know how that's even possible. "Okay, guys, when you come out for the chorus, don't fall into the open space and you should be alright. That's the only thing I'm worried about, because you haven't come off the stage very much yet. Just keep an eye on your feet as inconspicuously as you can, and you should be alright."

Harry can't really stop looking at his feet then, because that would suck, falling off the stage in the middle of the song. He can't really think of anything that would be worse, except maybe forgetting your words, and that's been drilled into them so much that Harry had a nightmare once where he forgot the chorus of Nobody Knows and he woke up in a cold sweat. They're never going to forget their words, at least, but Harry also doesn't think he'll ever be able to hear the phrase without a shiver going up his spine.

Soundcheck goes well, and their performance goes better, apart from one point where Zayn doesn't remember that you've got to lift the microphone to your mouth if you want everyone to be able to hear you sing. He fixes his mistake almost instantly, and the judges don't mention it, so Harry hopes that means they're safe. He thinks Zayn was probably just trying to remember not to fall off the fucking stage, which is an admirable goal to keep in mind.

They don't have, really, any time to rest, once the show's over. It's like they get through with their performance and then bite their nails until they get through the next day. And then it's on to a new song to learn, a new routine. Harry doesn't want to get lax with it, even though sometimes it seems like they could just get onstage and wiggle, and people would still vote for them. They're working hard, and they're going to keep working hard. They have to. If not to prove anything to anyone else, to prove it to themselves.

It's Elton John week next week and there's really only one song they can do. He huddles up with the boys to check and make sure they agree, and when they pitch the idea to Simon, he seems to be proud of them for taking the initiative. The Way You Look Tonight will be a way to make sure they can show off their vocals, and when Simon asks if he'll take the lead vocal part instead of Liam, Harry actually feels like, yeah, he can do it. And without being sick, too.

It's all very monotonous, even though in between there's other stuff they do. They rehearse. They try and fail to dance. They sleep. They do it all over again.

And then they're told they're going to a film premiere, the Harry Potter premiere. They get to all get dressed up and go out and they ride in a limo, and then they step out of it and people cheer for them. People are shouting for them, telling them to turn around so they can get good pictures, and it's just, it's all a little overwhelming, but then – the entire competition's sort of overwhelming. Even on their downtime, it's hard not to think about how they're on television, and sometimes people want to film them just being lazy around the house, like anybody would find that interesting. Once or twice a camera catches Harry naked, and he gets told that he should really start wearing pants around the house. It's a hassle because Harry likes being naked, and nobody else has got a problem with it, but he starts putting pants on when he ventures outside the room. In the bedroom, it's a free-for-all.

They're waiting in a room with the other contestants when fucking Harry Potter comes strolling into the room to talk to them. Actual Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe is talking to them, about Emma Watson and how he's been watching every week and he thinks they can win. Harry Potter thinks they could win the X Factor. Harry might never breathe again.

If that wasn't enough, when they're on the red carpet, Actual Emma Watson comes up to them and wishes them good luck and lets them kiss her cheek, and Louis nearly passes out, and Harry nearly passes out, and it's all, yeah. Overwhelming. This is not the life Harry envisioned for himself when he was standing in line over the summer waiting to see if he could make it through to boot camp. This isn't the life any of them imagined.

"This was the best week ever," Harry mumbles into the dark later, when the suits have come off and his hair's still stuck together with hairspray gunk but he's too tired to go have a shower. There are four sleepy mumbles in reply, and Harry smiles as he falls asleep.

The song goes down amazing when they perform, standing on boxes like they're Westlife, with screaming girls everywhere in the audience. The judges still don't have anything bad to say about them, and Harry wonders when that'll change, if that'll change. Maybe it won't ever change. For the first time, Harry honestly, truthfully feels like they could do it. They could win the whole thing. He doesn't think it's everything going to his head – in the morning the girls outside the studio scream their names and faint when they take pictures with them, and that could really easily do his head in – but he thinks they've got as much of a chance as any of the other contestants. Maybe not Matt, or Rebecca, or Cher, but they're really good. They're really, honestly good, and Harry thinks they could do it, if they keep trying as hard as they are now. They could actually become the first group to win the X Factor.

Of course, there are obstacles. Matt’s been getting good comments every week, and Rebecca, and Cher’s a lot cooler than they are, and Aiden’s got something really special. There are so many people in between them and the finale, and they’re all people Harry really likes, but that doesn’t mean he’ll lie down and accept defeat from them.

He expects the results to go how they always have, but all of Sunday is really. Tense. He’s not sure why, but Aiden’s nervous, and that throws Matt off, and the two of them being thrown off makes everyone else stressed. Harry doesn’t know why Aiden thinks he’s got anything to worry about. Everyone knows he’s one of the favorites, and there’s loads of celebrities who love him. There’s no way he’s going home.

Except. Except.

Except One Direction are called, and they celebrate, and Harry waits off in the wings to watch everyone else get through, and. Aiden doesn’t. He’s in the bottom two.

Against Katie, though, so it’s not like it’ll go to deadlock or anything, because it’s Aiden. And it’s Katie.

And then Simon backs Katie. Cheryl backs her own act, and so does Dannii, and Louis backs Aiden, and Simon. Simon backs Katie.

Harry’s holding his breath as they take the envelope out to Dermot. He’s vaguely aware that the other boys are still there, and Matt’s next to them, but he feels lightheaded and dizzy because this, this was not in his plans. This was not supposed to happen.

Still, everyone loves Aiden, don’t they? He’s got so many fans, and with the shitstorms surrounding Katie, there’s no way Aiden’s going home. There’s no way.

The act who received the fewest votes from the public and who will be leaving the competition tonight is... Aiden.

Harry can’t breathe. Before it was that he was holding his breath, but now he legitimately doesn’t think he can take any air into his lungs. His hands are covering his mouth like he’s a scandalized housewife and he knows, logically, the cameras are filming all of this and someone’s going to joke about it on next week’s show or something but he can’t bring himself to care.

He can see, out of the corner of his eye, Matt’s got his face buried in his hands and he knows this is awful for more than just him, and he should like, try to comfort somebody but he can’t. He can’t move.

They’ve finished off watching Aiden’s best bits onstage and now he’s trundling off, and his face is exhausted but he’s smiling wryly. Matt gets to him first, and they hug for what seems like a million years, muttering to each other. Harry’s still standing in the same place when Aiden moves on to him, and he’s only just realized he can feel tears on his face.

“Hey,” Aiden says to him, arms fitting around Harry’s shoulders. “What’s all this? Blubbering everywhere, Styles?”

Harry squeezes his eyes shut and shoves his face against Aiden’s shoulder. He’s getting his shirt wet, but he doesn’t care. Probably, more people will cry on Aiden tonight anyway. He’s very well-liked in the house. Because he’s really, really great. Harry feels more tears welling up and has to sniff hard to keep them at bay.

Aiden’s sort of rocking him back and forth, and Harry thinks this is a laugh, Aiden’s just been eliminated and he’s comforting Harry. Ridiculous. Nothing about this isn’t ridiculous, to be honest.

Harry leans back and looks up at Aiden and tries to think of anything to say that might make this less awful. What comes out of his mouth is, “Wagner’s still here.”

It makes Aiden laugh and wince simultaneously. “Oh, thanks. That’s what I want to hear, the country likes Wagner more than me. You really know how to cheer a guy up.”

“Sorry.” Harry hiccups a laugh, scrubbing his fists underneath his eyes. “Sorry, I just don’t. I don’t. I don’t know what to say. How’d this happen?”

“I knew I was going today.” Aiden shrugs a shoulder. “Saw the numbers on some website earlier. Never thought I’d win, you know, but it would’ve been nice. I’ll get to be on Daybreak now.”

There’s a whole line of people who want to talk to Aiden, so Harry lets up after Aiden promises to come find him later. Once he’s done packing. Christ, packing. Because he’s leaving.

While Louis has a conversation with Aiden that’s full of arm waving and righteous anger, Zayn sidles his way up next to Harry and clears his throat.

“Alright?” he grunts, nudging Harry’s hip with his own. He’s obviously trying his best, and Harry appreciates it.

“Not really.” Harry shrugs and curses under his breath, swiping at the tears on his face. They won’t stop coming. “This is, this is stupid. It shouldn’t have been him.”

“I know.” There’s a pause, and then Zayn’s arm winding hesitantly around Harry’s waist. It’s like Harry’s body takes that as permission for him to turn enough that he can cling to Zayn and cry into his neck like a baby. Harry’s brain is horrified, but Zayn doesn’t jerk away, just rubs Harry’s back and lets him cry.

He lets Harry cry on him the whole way back to the house, mumbling gibberish in his ear and softly rebuffing the others when they ask if he’s okay. Harry’s glad about that, because he doesn’t want to talk to anybody right now. He just wants to get this out because he knew, he knew that none of this was permanent and any friends he made certainly wouldn’t be permanent, but he thought. Part of him thought Aiden might be. But now Aiden’s gone, too.

Somehow, they’re in their room, now, and everyone else is downstairs because that’s what they always do, to say goodbye to whoever’s been eliminated this time. It’s a bit of a morbid ritual, but it’s nice to have constants in this competition, where so little stays the same from week to week.

“We should be down there,” Harry mumbles, his voice hoarse from crying. His eyes hurt and he’s pretty sure he looks like he’s been sunburned, he’s so red, but Zayn just shushes him.

“Aiden’ll still be there in half an hour, and you look a mess.” Zayn’s tone is somewhere between unsure and joking. “Thought you might want to clean up before you go back downstairs. I told the boys; they’ll keep everyone away for a while.”

Harry’s filled with – gratitude, that he’s been put in this band, with these boys who genuinely like him and want him to be the best he can. He thinks he’s better because of them.

Zayn’s been hugging him this whole time, but he doesn’t protest when Harry pulls back to rub his eyes again. Harry sniffs and licks his lips, because they feel dry even if they’re salt-slick with tears. Zayn is blurry through Harry’s wet eyes and the room’s a bit dark, but Harry can still see the half-concern on Zayn’s face.

“You’re really great,” is all Harry can think to say, the only thing that he thinks he could’ve said without his voice breaking. Really, Zayn could be downstairs having booze and playing Twister (because they’re a really odd house of people) and instead he’s up here with Harry, letting him cry all over. It can’t be much of a good time.

Zayn makes this snorting, skeptical sound, and Harry frowns. “No,” he insists. “You’re really great. Thank you,” he says clearly, and then he doesn’t know what in the world possesses him, but he leans forward and kisses Zayn on the lips.

It takes him a moment to realize what he’s done, and when he does, he jerks back. His eyes feel like they’re about to fall out of his head. “Shit,” he says succinctly. “Shit, sorry. I don’t know why I –“

He has no idea why he’s stopped talking until he realizes he’s kissing Zayn again, only he definitely didn’t initiate it, but that makes no sense, because then Zayn would’ve had to kiss him, and that makes. That makes no sense.

Zayn’s lips are soft and Harry’s are already sore and red because he’s been biting them, and Harry half-thinks he must be dreaming again. He swallows a noise that wells up in his throat and closes his eyes to kiss Zayn back. Whatever is happening, he’s not missing out on this because he doesn’t know what’s going on.

It’s a good kiss, despite how Harry’s still crying a little, which makes it a bit. Wetter, than normal kisses tend to be. Zayn’s really good at kissing. Zayn. Is really good at kissing. Which Harry never expected to find out.

The kiss ends suddenly, when Zayn squeezes Harry’s shoulder and then flinches back so hard Harry wonders if he accidentally bit him or something. His face is still close, though, and he’s breathing a bit hard. Harry’s proud of himself.

“Uh,” says Zayn. So he must feel about as capable of coherency as Harry does. “Uh, feel better?”

That takes Harry a moment to process, and when he does, his mouth drops open in indignant outrage.

“Did you just pity kiss me?” he asks, his voice rising at the end of the sentence in disbelief. “Did you actually just pity kiss me? Was that an actual fucking pity kiss?”

Zayn looks sheepish, as he should, and Harry very nearly hits him. “No?” says Zayn, but it sounds more like he’s saying what he thinks is going to make Harry not angry. “I just. I. No.”

“I can’t believe you just pity kissed me,” Harry mutters, more in disbelief than any actual fury. He got to kiss Zayn, and the fact of it’s still doing a good job of eliminating any anger he might feel. “No, I don’t feel better. You dick.”

It’s a lie. Harry does feel better, quite a bit better, and he’s not crying anymore, at least. His eyes were starting to feel dry, like he had no tears left to cry. He might not, considering he’s been crying since forever, since Aiden’s name came out of Dermot’s mouth and that must’ve been an hour ago at least. Harry’s eyes would’ve shriveled up and fallen out of his head without Zayn’s interference. Really, he’s grateful. Or something.

“You’re not crying anymore,” Zayn notices, which, well, Harry’s not. That doesn’t mean Zayn should get away with his evil, evil plan, no matter how nice the process was. “Did that, at least.”

“No, I just ran out of tears.” That might also be true. It’s possible. Well, Harry doesn’t actually know if it’s possible, but it sounds as good as any other implausible thing he could’ve said. Zayn doesn’t believe him either way. Harry can tell by the rakishly attractive smirk on his face that Harry wants to wipe off with his dick. “Shut up,” he says firmly.

“I made you feel better,” Zayn replies, all sorts of smug about it. “Just admit it. I cheered you up.”

“Well, we should get down there before we’re missed,” Harry says in a voice that strives to be loud but fails due to how sore his throat is from all the crying. He just sounds rusty.

“Admit it!” Zayn insists. “I cheered you up. Louis couldn’t even cheer you up and I cheered you up.”

“No, you felt me up.” Harry huffs, and adjusts his fringe without looking directly at Zayn. The thing is that he’s not sure he can look at Zayn without blushing. The light’s low, and Harry’s already flushed from tears, but he’s positive Zayn would still be able to tell if he blushed. Zayn’s good at things like that.

“And it made you happy. Come on, just admit it,” Zayn cajoles, setting a hand on Harry’s knee to push it back and forth. “I totally cheered you up.”

“If I say you did, will you leave me alone about it?” grumbles Harry. He ducks his head so Zayn won’t be able to see his lips twitching into a smile. Zayn can probably tell anyway, but Harry likes to at least maintain the pretense that this Zayn, the Zayn that jokes and teases and flirts, isn’t the Zayn that Harry fantasizes most vividly about.

He’s definitely blushing. And Zayn can definitely tell.

“No,” says Zayn. “But I’ll gloat a little quieter, if you want.”

Harry wants to like, hit him, or something, but he’s not naturally a very violent person and aside from that, he doesn’t want to damage Zayn’s face. It’s far too enjoyable to look at. And they need it to win the show, probably.

“Then yes, you cheered me up,” Harry says with a sigh. “But don’t let it go to your head,” he warns when Zayn’s grin widens. Honestly, though, it can go to Zayn’s head as much as he wants it to if it makes him smile like that. He looks like he’s made of sunshine and pure beauty, like Harry’s actually making him happy. Harry likes making people happy, but more than that, he likes making Zayn happy. He’ll make an idiot of himself more often if it gets Zayn’s face to do that.

True to his word, Zayn doesn’t vocally celebrate, but he does look more pleased with himself as he gets to his feet and offers Harry his hand. “Come on; you’re right, they’ll be waiting for us. I told Niall to save us some cake, but no promises if we don’t get down there within like ten minutes.”

Harry laughs, wiping his cheeks. He’s sure it’s obvious he’s been crying, but everyone downstairs will have seen him doing it already so it doesn’t really matter. And he doesn’t feel like washing his face. He feels like, well, kissing Zayn again, but failing that, he’ll settle for cake and cuddles. The cuddles don’t have to be provided by Zayn, though it’d be acceptable. He’ll probably have to get those from Louis.

“Yeah,” Harry finally says, sniffing and swiping his wrists over his eyes one more time. “Yeah, alright. What kind of cake is it?”

“Chocolate.” Zayn shoves his hands into his pockets once Harry’s upright. “I think. That okay?”

“Of course.” Harry takes a deep breath. “Well, time to face the music,” he says in a poor imitation of Peter Dixon. He continues when Zayn opens his mouth, no doubt to make fun of him, “I want ice cream, too. I think I deserve ice cream; been working hard, and you can’t have cake without ice cream.”

“Whatever you say.” Zayn extricates one of his hands from his pocket to swing his arm around Harry’s neck. They’re about the same height except Harry slouches, so Zayn’s the perfect height to keep Harry tucked against his side.

Harry very definitely doesn’t think about that at all. Useless to think about. Doesn’t matter at all, even if his lips are still tingling a little. Especially then.

The house is weird, without Aiden there. It’s not like Harry never spent time with the boys before, because they’re a band and they really do like each other, so even when they’re not ‘on the clock,’ as it were, they hang around in the room or downstairs playing video games, or they sometimes go out shopping. They spent a lot of time together. But now they’re spending all their time together.

Harry doesn’t know if it’s just him. He guesses it’s possible that the other four were already spending loads of time together and it was just him off with Aiden, but he doesn’t think so. Now it’s just the five of them. All the time. And Harry expects it to be too much, as the week goes on. He expects to get fed up of something or someone and have to go off on his own to calm down, but that doesn’t happen.

Maybe in some ways it’s good Aiden’s left. Harry definitely feels closer to his boys (which he’s started calling them in his head: ‘his boys’ like they belong to him. In a way, they all probably belong to each other and have since all this started.) and that’s important in a competition like this. It’s not just about singing, as Simon likes to say. Harry thinks it’s harder when you’re in a band, because people like Matt and Rebecca just have to worry about singing and being likable.

They don’t have to worry about getting to know the other people in your band, and learning what they like or don’t like, and bonding and finding out things about them you didn’t know before, and they don’t have to worry about getting the people in your band to actually like you, and they don’t have to worry about incessant crushes that just. Won’t. Go away.

His thing for Zayn’s gotten worse, which he probably should’ve expected. He can’t shunt his frustration off onto Aiden anymore, so instead he’s got to sneak off to the bathroom in the middle of the night to think about Zayn and wank. It’s a bit miserable but it’s better than holding it in.

They don’t talk about the kiss. That’s fine. Harry doesn’t even know what he’d say if they did. There’s nothing to say about it that both of them don’t already know: Harry liked it. Harry likes Zayn. Zayn likes Harry. Just not like that. And it’s fine. It honestly is, and Harry thinks the more he tells himself that, the more it’s going to ring true. Hopefully, anyway.

It’s Beatles week on the show, which means Harry’s gone mental trying to figure out what song to do. They’ve got to pick the right one, even if this wasn’t the week everyone’s going to be focusing on them, which it is. As the only band of boys left in the competition, and a band of boys the press have been calling ‘The Fab Five,’ they’ve got a lot to live up to.

But Harry loves The Beatles anyway, and he’d want the right song even if he didn’t know everyone expected them to have it. There are so many amazing, fucking brilliant songs from that songbook and Harry doesn’t want to pick, like, ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’. He shudders even thinking about it.

They don’t want something too obvious, though. No ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ or ’I Saw Her Standing There’. Something people are going to know, but not something that’s going to make them roll their eyes and tune them out automatically.

They finally decide on ’All You Need is Love,’ which Harry thinks is perfect. Unexpected but not out of nowhere, and enough harmonies in it to make the judges happy. It’s upbeat and it’s got a good message. It’s the best choice.

Even if Harry’s still a bit sad he couldn’t convince Simon to let them sing ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?,’ which clearly would’ve been the best choice.

He’s glad they don’t really have choreography. On his best days, Harry’s got two left feet, and on his worst days he hasn’t got any feet at all. The others aren’t much better, apart from Liam, who’s obviously great at everything, and Niall, who isn’t but doesn’t care enough to get uptight about it.

Mostly they just have to stand on boxes or in front of microphones, and for this performance, they have to wiggle a little and play up to the crowd. They’ve been told to do that anyway, most weeks, so it’s not hard to adapt it to the tune of the song.

“I just wish we could do this at like, noon,” Harry grumbles, sprawled in a corner of the choreography room. He doesn’t know if that’s actually what it’s called, but it’s a room and it’s where they do their choreography, so the name seems apt. “It should be illegal to be awake this early.”

“Man up, Styles.” It’s not surprising when Louis’ weight settles on top of his back, the other boy’s knees on either side of Harry’s ribs. “It’s, like, ten. It’s not that early.”

“You’ve had tea,” Harry grumbles. “I haven’t had tea and Niall wouldn’t let me have any of his sausage roll.”

“ ‘cause it’s never some of it,” Niall says from, well, somewhere. It’s nearby, but Louis is on Harry’s back so he can’t have a gander around. “I let you have some of my chips once, turned around an’ they were all gone. You’re a menace.”

“That was just once,” Harry whines. He’s not ashamed to admit it’s a whine. It’s cold outside and he’s hungry and it’s early and he’s tired and he hasn’t had any tea and Niall’s being mean to him. “I was hungry.”

“They were mine and you stole them.” Niall doesn’t sound sympathetic in the slightest. “And you’d’ve stolen all of my sausage roll, too. Thief.”

“I just wanted a little.” Harry’s spine is starting to hurt. “I’m a growing boy. I need sustenance. Protein and the like.” He does his best to wriggle out from underneath Louis, but he’s exhausted and not trying as hard as he probably could, and Louis is heavier than he looks. Most of his weight must be in his arse.

Louis hits him when he says that out loud. He probably deserves it.

“D’you need help?” comes Zayn’s amused voice from above Harry’s head. He sounds closer than he’d be if he was standing, which means he’s probably crouching, which means Harry needs to stop thinking about that. “You don’t look comfortable.”

“Never better,” Harry grinds out. Fuck being sixteen and not being laid on a regular basis, seriously, he’s getting a boner from thinking about someone’s dick being maybe close to the top of his head. “Lou has a very cushy bum. S’like being sat on by a massive beanbag.”

“Watch your word choice, Curly.” Louis pinches the back of Harry’s neck. “ ‘Regular sized beanbag’, if you please.”

“It’s like being sat on by a regular sized bean bag,” Harry dutifully repeats.

“Much better.”

“Here.” Zayn’s hands are very pretty, Harry notices as he sets them on Harry’s forearms. Dainty, almost. Elegant. He curls his fingers around Harry’s wrists and then leans back, letting his weight do most of the work to pull Harry out from under Louis. For his part, Louis grunts when he’s suddenly dropped on his arse. “Better?” Zayn asks courteously, when Harry manages to right himself.

Harry’d rather still be on the ground (maybe without Louis on top of him, as his lungs had hurt after a bit) or at least sitting, because his legs hurt. His whole body hurts. His mum had called it ‘growing pains’ but Harry thinks it’s probably more like ‘waking-up-at-fucking-six-every-morning pains.’ Either way, his muscles ache and standing up isn’t fun, but he nods anyway.

“Yeah, thanks, mate.” He could hardly fail to notice that Zayn’s still holding his arms, and his thumbs – if Harry’s not mistaken – are lightly rubbing over the undersides of his wrists. It feels so good that shivers roll up Harry’s spine, and he has to pull his hands away before he embarrasses himself. More than he already has.

“No problem.” Zayn doesn’t sound like he’s noticed anything awry, but Zayn’s also really good at keeping his emotions off his face and shit like that. It’s very annoying when Harry just wants to know if Zayn’s angry with him, or pleased, or whatever. He’s getting better at being able to tell, but he’s still not perfect at it, and right now Zayn’s a mystery.

“Guys, Brian wants us back now,” Liam says, ambling up and swinging his arms over Zayn’s and Niall’s shoulders. That’s another good thing about them all spending even more time together – Liam’s started to really, actually relax around them. He seems to worry less, or at least worry less obviously. He’s more fun when he doesn’t look like he’s about to have a panic attack or whatever. “We’ve got ten minutes left and then it’s Katie’s turn.”

Harry makes an involuntary noise of disapproval. He doesn’t mind Katie much, really, but he’s still holding it against her for Aiden being gone, and for still being there, and for. Well, that’s it, really, but let nobody say Harry can’t hold a real proper grudge.

He still wants to lie down or sit or something, but this is technically his job, and he’ll do it if he’s got to. Even if he’s tired. And horny. And he really, really wants a sausage roll.

As he slumps to the door with the others, Harry gradually becomes aware that Zayn’s humming something under his breath. It sounds beyond familiar, not like Harry’s heard it on the radio once or twice but like he’s sang along or put it on repeat all day. When he realizes what the line is, he grins, and nearly trips over Niall.

And when I touch you, I feel happy inside…

Their performance is amazing. They sound good, they look good, and toward the end, a load of girls swarm the stage around them. It was planned, but it doesn't make it any less extraordinary for Harry. It's like a preview of what they could have, if they can make it to the final. If they can win.

They have the ability. And Harry thinks they have the fanbase. Now it's just a matter of getting that fanbase to vote, getting the fanbase to be reflected in the voting numbers. Matt's got a lot of fans as well, and the entire city of Liverpool is rallying around Rebecca. They've both got good stories, as well: the single mum trying to win for her kids, and the down-to-earth guy trying to live out his dream. They're One Direction's main competition, in Harry's eyes. Cher's good, amazing, really, but she's a bit same-y and while they've got the same demographic to appeal to, Harry's pretty sure they beat her out.

Still. Anything can happen. Obviously, anything can happen.

Harry never sleeps well the night before the results. He's always, always nervous, even if maybe he shouldn't be, considering how well they've been doing, and how they've never been in the bottom two. He thinks this might be Katie's last week, even after her giant makeover. Katie or Paije. Harry just hopes he's not wrong and actually One Direction are going to get no votes and out tomorrow, and he'll have to go back home, and, and, and, and he's too nervous to sleep again.

He sighs heavily and punches his pillow. The room's dark and he can hear the other boys around him, Niall's snoring and Liam's shuffling. Liam can never stay still when he's sleeping, tossing and turning, shifting his sheets off and then scrambling in sleep to get them back on. Harry'd found it really annoying at first, but now he wonders, if they got voted off, if he'd be able to get to sleep without Liam's sounds.

It's not like Harry isn't tired. He is. He's exhausted; performance days always take a lot out of him and this one had been worse than usual because they'd had to get up earlier in the morning, and earlier than they already get up is... fucking early. Harry's not happy about it, and now he's grumpy because he can't get to sleep, and he wants to sleep, and if he doesn't sleep, he already knows he's fucked for the results tomorrow. And he'll be groggy during the group number. Fuck everything, basically. He just wants to be able to sleep, and not think about how they might go home.

They got good comments again. Even Dannii's comment about Zayn and Niall having off timing had seemed a bit halfhearted, and rightfully so, because their timing had been fucking perfect. If their timing had been even a little bit off, it would've screwed up Harry, considering he had the main melody line, and he didn't screw up, and neither did Niall and Zayn. Harry reminds himself that the only person who's really concerned with their welfare in the competition is Simon. The other judges obviously aren't always going to sing their praises. It's a competition, and they can't forget that the competition's not just between the contestants, but between the judges as well.

Harry would be able to be less nervous if he could just. Get to sleep. He knows that not getting enough sleep is going to make him more paranoid, and it's not like he'll be able to catch up on it because they never have lie-ins during this experience. Harry's last nap was about three weeks ago and it was damn near orgasmic.

Oh, god, now he's thought the word 'orgasmic' and he's getting horny. He doesn't want to get out of bed, because it's cold when he's not under the duvet and the last time he'd tried to nip off for a wank he'd accidentally stepped on Louis' hand and woke him up, and Louis still hasn't let him live that down. He never even got to have his wank.

Still. Everyone's asleep, now. And he's on the top bunk, so the only person who'd be able to see him if he did happen to get off would be Zayn, on the other top bunk and – apart from how Harry doesn't think he'd mind much if Zayn happened to catch him mid-wank – Zayn's a notoriously deep sleeper, and it doesn't take him long to drop off, which they know because he's caught naps during rehearsal, and in the car, and practically standing up. The chances of him being awake right now are slim to none.

That settles it. Harry shoves the duvet down to his thighs and takes a moment to let his body adjust to the cooler air. It's always a bit warm in their room because of how many bodies there are, but right now Harry thinks he's probably flushed from the feeling of doing something so wrong when he could be so easily caught. It's making the air feel colder. Or that might be his imagination.

He walks his fingers down his chest first, and over his stomach. He still doesn't quite have abs, but he's not bad. And he likes to tease himself a bit before getting right to it. The thrill is in the chase, and all that. The capture, in this scenario, is also pretty brilliant.

He's already thickening up, which isn't surprising. Harry's always liked a bit of an element of danger. Hooking up behind garages, or when he knows somebody's going to come looking for him soon. It's the adrenaline, he thinks, the idea that he could get caught.

But he doesn't have a lot of time to waste. Sharing a room with four other boys means, among other things, that one of them is almost definitely going to wake up at some point during the night. Harry has no way of knowing when, but he knows it's going to happen, so he should get going before that happens. He's not looking to be in the middle of a really good wank and then having to deal with, whatever, Louis' hand reaching up over the side of the bunk to slap his stomach. That's happened before. It's not fun.

He wraps his hand around himself and shivers a little at how good it feels. Since Aiden left, Harry's been left to deal with himself alone, and it's not nearly as fun, and he can't get away to toss himself off a lot when they're so busy. They were busy before, but before he'd been able to buy an hour or two on occasion. Now, they're rehearsing loads more than they're doing anything else. It's good for the band, and good for their performances, but it's terrible for Harry's sex drive.

Harry slowly strokes up, once, and his toes curl. He can hear Liam moving around again, in his sleep, and Louis coughs once, but other than that, it's silent. He's breathing a bit loudly and he can hear his heart pounding in his ears. This is so risky and he's loving every second of it. He brings his hand back to his mouth to quickly lick his palm, ease the way a little, and his hand feels so much better with that bit of damp to combat the friction on his cock.

His other hand absently plays with one of his nipples, rolling it between thumb and forefinger. The little ones are a bit more sensitive than his 'proper' nipples, but they're all fun to play with. He'd obviously prefer if someone else was playing with them, but you work with what you've got, as they say.

He's getting off from the dirtiness of it as much as he's getting off from touching himself. There are four other boys in the room, all asleep, so it's not like Harry can make any noise. He bites his lip to be sure of that, harder than he needs to because he likes the way it feels. He's getting hot again, even without the duvet on. Sweating a bit, he can feel it when the cool air passes over his chest or his forehead.

He twists his fist on the next upstroke, and a breathy uh tries to punch its way out of him, a noise clawing up from the pit of his stomach. It's muffled, but faintly audible, and Harry freezes for a moment to listen and see if he's woken anybody. There's just silence, apart from his breathing, and Liam shifting. Niall's not even snoring anymore, but Harry doesn't think he's awake. If he was, he'd be muttering. Niall mutters a lot. Muttering, in an Irish accent, is nearly unintelligible, as it turns out. He's probably just turned onto his side or something. That's fine, then. Everything's fine.

Harry closes his eyes and tries to think of his usual masturbatory fantasy materials. There's the normal ones, Beckham in the changing rooms after a match, or Tony from Skins giving him head, or Grimmy from the radio talking in his ear while he fucks him. Harry can't get any of those to stick, though. His brain isn't working well, and all he can think of is fucking Zayn. Bending Zayn over something and fucking him or Zayn fucking him against a wall, or sucking Zayn's cock while he wears Zayn's leather jacket or kissing Zayn while he jerks him off. All he can think about is Zayn, and, well, it's not like he has time to tell his brain why that's a really bad idea, so he rolls with it.

Fantasy-Zayn smirks at Harry from his knees, even teasing now when he's a fantasy and Harry could technically get him to do whatever he wants. Harry doesn't know what that says about him. Probably a lot. Fantasy-Zayn licks his lips before he licks the head of Harry's cock and his lips are ridiculous, plump and pretty, and his eyelashes are fucking not of this world, Harry's sure of that. He has to bite his lip hard again when Fantasy-Zayn's eyelashes lower over his eyes and he sucks down on Harry's cock, messy and wet and perfect just like Harry always wants his blowjobs. Fantasy-Zayn gives amazing head, which isn't surprising, but it is good to know. About a fantasy.

Harry's breath stutters. Alright, this is doing it for him. Other images flit by as Harry imagines them: Zayn bending him in half and fucking him so hard he's got finger-bruises on his hips; Zayn riding him slow and filthy, still a goddamn tease; Zayn and Zayn and Zayn. Zayn leaving lovebites on his neck; Zayn fucking biting his nipples, Zayn manhandling Harry to his knees and holding his hair out of his eyes so that he can get a good look at Harry's mouth on his dick.

Harry is almost shocked by his orgasm rushing over him, so shocked he forgets himself and mutters, "Za – " before he cuts himself off and bites his lip. It hurts from how hard he's been doing it but that just adds to the pleasure coursing through him, and everything feels so good that he can't tell if he passes out or if he just opens his eyes to a pitch-dark room.

He sighs, eventually, shaky and soft as he can. He doesn’t hear anybody else making noise, and nobody’s shouted at him or grumbled about how he should put his dick away, so he thinks he’s safe. Well, he amends with a wrinkle of his nose, safe and a bit sticky.

And he didn’t have the forethought to bring anything to clean up with, of course. He hadn’t planned on doing this. But he’s done it now, and there’s no going back. He’ll just have to clean up with these sheets and then wash them tomorrow. He’ll find time to do that. Somehow.

Or he thinks that’s what he’s going to have to do, until something hits his ribs with a soft thump. He jumps and almost screeches because he’s the only one awake, and he scrambles for whatever it is because what if it’s a bird that’s attacking him somehow or like a ferret that’s got into the room. In the dark, it’s hard to see, but Harry’s eyes adjust as he holds the thing in front of his face. It’s – It’s toilet roll? Harry squints. No, it’s definitely toilet roll.

He’s orgasm-slow and so it takes him a minute to even think to try and figure out the trajectory of it, but there’s really, there’s only the one option. If it came from Louis, he would’ve just reached up and put it next to Harry, and neither Niall nor Liam has the right angle to be able to hit him with it. Unless Harry’s become able to magically summon things, there’s only one person who could’ve thrown it.

Sure enough, when he rolls over onto his side, Zayn’s eyes are glinting at him from his bunk across the room. Harry can feel his cheeks go red, as he remembers which name he very nearly called out when he came. From the look on Zayn’s face, he was awake long enough to catch that.

Harry doesn’t know if there’s something he supposed to say in this instance. Should he apologize? They haven’t ever really said they’re not to jerk off in the room. It’s not part of the official Room Rules. It’s just been sort of understood. Maybe he is supposed to apologize. Harry hasn’t got any idea. He doesn’t know the standard of conduct.

Slowly, he unwinds a bit of bog roll to clean himself up. That’s obviously what Zayn meant him to use it for, and Harry’s not one to reject a gift. It’s either this or the sheets, and this way he doesn’t have to do laundry tomorrow.

He doesn’t take his eyes off Zayn. Everything feels very charged right now, but Harry thinks that might just be because he’s finished getting himself off not long ago and Zayn was awake for at least some part of it. That’d feel electric either way. Still, Harry doesn’t want to look away. He never wants to look away from Zayn, but this feels different even from that.

Because he’s looking, he sees when Zayn’s lips part so that he can lick them, and then Zayn whispers, softly, so soft that Harry can barely hear it:


It’s only one word but Harry can feel his cock twitch with the weight of it. He’s not getting it up again so soon after but it’s a near thing, with Zayn calling him dirty so low with his voice velvety smooth in the darkness. Harry’s buzzing with it, and he’s reminded of every single filthy thing he just thought about Zayn, everything that made him come harder than he has from just his own hand in a long time.

Harry still doesn’t think he’ll be able to get to sleep. He’s bone-deep exhausted but his eyes are still locked with Zayn’s and he’s not going to be the one to look away first.

Finally, what feels like a year or two or forty later, Zayn’s eyes drift closed. Harry watches for a while longer, but they don’t open again, and Zayn’s breathing is evened out. Asleep, then. Harry feels weirdly both disappointed and relieved, but at least it means he can probably sleep now.

And that he does, almost as soon as he closes his eyes. When he wakes up, it’s to Louis shrieking and telling him to put clothes on so that they can get some breakfast. Harry doesn’t know what he’s expecting from Zayn, to say something about it, or to say nothing about it, but all he gets is a half-smile and a bit of a once-over, which, well. Isn’t exactly nothing. Harry can deal with that.

The day goes by quickly as it always does on results shows. It seems like one moment Harry’s eating cereal and the next they’re getting ready to go out and do the charity song. He saw Aiden once, in passing, but didn’t have time to say anything to him before he was rushed off to get his hair done.

Group songs are always a bit weird because he’s not actually singing into the microphone, just mouthing and listening to his voice come out of the speakers. He only has one line but it’s still scary, even then. He’s always afraid he’s going to make it really obvious he’s lip-syncing and get yelled at.

When the performance is over, he nearly fights his way through the others to hug Aiden from behind. They’ve been texting all week but it’s hard to go from touching someone every day to only being able to talk to them over texts. It’s nice to feel Aiden, warm and solid again.

“Oh, hello,” says Aiden, setting his arms over Harry’s in a backwards cuddle. “Did you miss me?”

“Yes,” Harry mutters, even though he knows it’s not a serious question. “Yeah, I really, really did. A lot.”

Aiden laughs, and turns around to give Harry a proper hug. “I could tell. How’s the house without me?”

“Sexless,” grumbles Harry. That’s not explicitly true, if you count all the jerking off he’s been doing, but Harry doesn’t count it. It’s not sex if it’s just your own hand. That’s just… sadness. “Louis never lets me win at FIFA.”

“Oi, you little fuck,” Aiden protests. “I never let you win. I’m just awful at FIFA. Which is perfectly normal.”

Harry laughs, and gives Aiden another squeeze. “No, but I did miss you. Loads. Loads and loads.” It’s true; even if it’s helped to build his friendships with the other boys, Aiden’s been missed. Not just by Harry, either. Zayn’s been upset about it and Louis just yesterday had loudly complained about how Aiden’s gone when less deserving people are still there, conveniently when Wagner was nearby.

He stays with Aiden until it’s time to go out for the results. He’s still a bit nervous, but they get called second so his preoccupation doesn’t last long. The bottom two ends up being Cher (surprising) and Paije (not so surprising). Harry wasn’t that close to Paije, so he’s not really busted up about him going home. It’s a reminder that they’re thinning out quickly now, though. Cheryl still has three acts in but there’s only them from the groups and Matt, now, from the boys. Louis has two overs left and at this point, Harry’s a bit worried Wagner’s going to end up taking it all.

He did get booed, though, when he got through tonight. Harry’s pleased about that.

It’s another week on the X Factor. Life goes on.

The next week’s harder than any of the others because they have to memorize two songs and two sets of choreography. Thankfully, their second song isn’t really a moving around the stage song as much as it’s a stand at the microphones and give the camera your best boy band faces song. The first one, though, ‘Summer of ‘69’, that one’s harder, because they’ve got to remember all the complicated harmonies and they’ve got to remember not to fall off the stage at the same time. That bit’s harder.

In the end, though, they all know the words to both of the songs already, because they’re called classic rock songs for a reason, because they’re classics. Harry was brought up on these songs, and so were the other boys.

It’s one of their easiest weeks yet. They rehearse, they do a TwitCam, they sign stuff, they sign a CD they’re actually on, which is close to Harry’s dream situation. Everything’s just, it’s just good. They’re probably coasting to the final and Harry thinks he should feel worse that he’s completely discounting Katie and Wagner and Mary, but – he honestly thinks the final four have been set since about week two. It’ll be them, Cher, Matt and Rebecca. From there, Harry doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but that he’s pretty certain about.

They sail through, and Katie finally goes, and Wagner finally goes, and everything’s looking fucking fantastic. And then. And then.

And then Zayn gets a phone call. One phone call and everything’s in danger now, and it’s not like Harry’s more concerned about their place in the competition than he is about Zayn – Zayn’s genuinely one of his best friends now, and Harry was there when he got the call. He saw Zayn’s face go from that smile he gets when he holds his tongue between his teeth to, to just, it just dropped. Harry didn’t know what happened right away, he just knew that something had gone very, very wrong.

It’s his grandfather, Zayn explains, his head bowed as he packs a bag. He’s got a car to take him back home in an hour and he’s not even looking at the clothes he’s shoving into his bag. Apparently he’s been sick for a while but they’d been hopeful he’d pull through. It’s not a surprise, says Zayn, but they can all tell from his face that he’s devastated.

“Sorry,” he says under his breath as he waits downstairs. They’re waiting with him. Of course they are. He looks so young, Zayn does, and maybe Harry hasn’t got a right to think that, but he does. Zayn looks so young and so vulnerable and so sad. He doesn’t have any reasons to be sorry. Harry’s sorry. He won’t say that because he knows Zayn would see it as pity when it’s not. But Harry’s just so, so sorry.

They have to practice, and it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. Zayn’s gone, and Simon’s gone – not that he ordinarily has too terribly much to do with their rehearsals, but it was, it felt good to know that they could have him come by if they needed him for anything. But he’s gone, and Zayn’s gone, and it’s all. Nothing’s right. Nothing’s fine, I’m torn, Harry finds himself thinking at one point.

But they do get on with it, and of course they sound fucking awful without Zayn. If they’d auditioned like this, Harry wouldn’t have put them through to boot camp, even. Harry knew that they relied on Zayn’s harmonies to make them sound fuller, thicker, but he hadn’t noticed how heavily they relied on him. It’s really jarring, to say the least.

The week seems longer without Zayn there. It’s not like Harry doesn’t like the others, like, Louis is one of the best friends Harry’s ever had. Probably the best friend Harry’s ever had, if he’s honest. He’s never had someone like Louis, someone who’s so frank and honest and open with him, and someone who listens to him, someone who just cares so fiercely about Harry. He’s so beyond grateful for that. And he loves Louis like, like nothing else.

Liam and Niall are such good mates, funny and now that Liam’s relaxed it’s so much easier for Harry to see the layers underneath how professional he can get. Liam’s kind and he’s got a good laugh, and when he and Louis decide to work together, it’s chaos, and it’s fantastic. And then Niall’s just a laugh to have around, has a way of making everyone around him relax and not take everything so seriously.

But then there’s Zayn. And Zayn’s not there. And it’s like there’s suddenly a massive hole in Harry’s life. It’s sort of like after Aiden left except worse, because Aiden was one of Harry’s really good friends, but Zayn is one of Harry’s best friends, and a bit more. Him not being there… sucks, to put it simply.

Zayn gets back the night before their performance. None of them have the heart to make him practice the songs then, so they decide to cram it all in the next morning before soundcheck. He looks rough, tired and red-eyed probably from tears. None of them are oblivious enough to mention it, and neither is anyone else in the house.

They settle in the gaming room and put fucking Toy Story of all things on the big TV and nobody says a word about it. The five of them take up one couch even though there’s three other ones in the room. Everything feels off kilter because Zayn’s off kilter, even if they all fit together again because he’s back with them. They’re not going to be right until Zayn is. And none of them can fix this.

Zayn’s head slowly leans down onto Harry’s shoulder as they watch the movie, and soon enough he hears his breathing even out. Asleep. Harry can hardly blame him. Zayn looks like he hasn’t slept for about a year.

“Hey,” Harry says, softly but loud enough to catch the others’ attention. “I’m going to help him up to bed, okay?” he asks, his hand curling in the soft cotton material of Zayn’s shirt. He doesn’t want to wake Zayn but doesn’t have any other options if he doesn’t want to carry him. Zayn’s skinny as hell but Harry hasn’t got any arm muscles. He tries to do it as gently as possible, rocking Zayn until he grumbles and blinks his eyes open. The bags under Zayn’s eyes make Harry hurt inside, but he does his best smile instead.

“Time for bed, Zayner,” he whispers, helping to coax Zayn to his feet. He nudges his foot against Louis’s and nods his goodnight to the others. Zayn comes along easily, sleep-malleable and, and Harry hates himself for thinking it, but cute. He shuts off that line of thought as quickly as it comes. Not right now. This is not a good time.

He doesn’t want to make Zayn get up the ladder when he’s like this, so he rolls him onto Liam’s bed instead. Liam won’t mind taking Zayn’s and he’ll understand, because that’s the kind of person Liam is. He probably would’ve offered his bed up anyway, without anyone asking.

Harry gets Zayn situated, stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers with the duvet pulled up over him. He makes to leave, his good deed done, but Zayn grabs his wrist before he can get too far away from the bed. It’s not a particularly tight grip, but it stops Harry in his tracks anyway.

“Stay?” asks Zayn, so quietly Harry half-thinks he might’ve imagined it. He’s positive he did imagine it, until Zayn repeats, louder, insistent, “Stay. Please.”

And what’s Harry supposed to say to that? If Zayn doesn’t want to be alone right now, then Harry won’t leave him alone. He shuffles into the bed when Zayn squirms back to make room for him, and he lets Zayn settle back down against his side. He’s not – expecting it, when Zayn’s face presses against Harry’s chest, and he can feel wetness against his skin. He isn’t expecting it but he can’t say it’s a shock. Zayn needs this, probably, needs to be able to stop pretending to be strong. If Harry’s someone Zayn can trust to break down in front of, then Harry’s honored, and he won’t tell a soul about it.

It’s reversed from last time, when Harry was the one crying and Zayn was the one helping to put him back together. Harry knows it’s not at all the same. Aiden going home was so, so much different from losing a member of your family, a person who’s supported you the whole way through. They’d all known how close Zayn was to his grandfather. Harry can’t even imagine how Zayn must be feeling right now. All he can do is feel a bit helpless and hold Zayn as tight as he can.

Zayn doesn’t stop crying for a long time, long enough that one of Harry’s arms goes a bit numb and his throat’s rough from whispering soothing words against Zayn’s hair. The way Zayn cries is different from how Harry cries. Harry can’t really do silent tears. He blubbers a little. Zayn, though, if Harry couldn’t feel the wet on his chest, he wouldn’t know Zayn was crying at all. He can’t see Zayn’s face, only the dark tufts of his hair and the start of his forehead, and the only sounds Zayn’s making are occasional snuffling sounds or shuddering intakes of breath.

He stops eventually, relaxing slowly against Harry and loosening the grip he has on his waist. He keeps his face where it is, and Harry swallows before he whispers, “Zayn?” because he doesn’t know if Zayn’s asleep or not, and if he wants Harry to leave.

“Yeah?” It’s unexpected, Zayn’s voice, all rusty and creaking.

“Oh. Thought you might’ve fallen asleep.”

“No.” Zayn rubs his face on Harry’s shirt, which, it’s not like it could get wetter. “Still awake. Exhausted.”

“Yeah.” Harry doesn’t know what else to say. There’s nothing else he really can say. So, of course, his brain decides he should say the stupidest possible thing: “Not kissing you to make you feel better.”

Insanely, ridiculously, Zayn laughs, quiet and wonky because his voice still isn’t working the way it usually does, but he laughs, and Harry is enamored. “You’ve cut me deep,” says Zayn, looking up at Harry.

Harry really shouldn’t find him attractive right now. He’s the worst sort of awful person, because Zayn’s obviously upset and he’s been crying on Harry for the past whoever knows how long and it’s clear on his face. His eyelashes are all stuck together and his face is red, and his hair’s a mess of fringe on his forehead and he’s fucking beautiful, is what he is. It’s alright to think it. Harry can’t exactly help what he’s thinking.

“Sorry, love, no pity kisses for you,” he mumbles, trying for a smile. It’s a relief when Zayn smiles back.

“Hey,” Zayn says, and then he leans up. Harry, stupidly, tilts his head toward Zayn like Zayn is going to whisper a secret into his ear, like they’re fucking six years old at a playpark. Instead of doing that, Zayn kisses his cheek, staying there just long enough to give Harry time to recognize that’s what he’s done and then pulling away to settle back against him. “Thanks,” he whispers, and then he closes his eyes and, from what Harry can tell, immediately drops off into sleep. One moment he’s awake and the next he’s just sagged on Harry’s chest and his breathing’s slower.

Meanwhile, Harry feels like he’s just been whacked upside the head with something. He’s gone through so many emotions in the past fifteen minutes, and he has no idea how he’s supposed to respond to any of them. In the end, Zayn probably has the right idea, so Harry sighs, snuggles down, and absently makes a note to thank Liam for the use of his bed.

The time spent before their performance is almost entirely rehearsal. Zayn needs to add his part and it’s amazing how quickly that makes it perfect. They go from sounding barely passable to sounding fucking brilliant and it’s insane, Harry thinks, that just one of them not being there made such a difference.

The Rihanna song is good, but Harry’s pretty sure that ‘Chasing Cars’ is going to be something spectacular. They’ve all been going around all week quoting it.

(“Hello, Liam.”

“Louis. I can’t sing with you on my back.”

“Let’s spend time chasing cars.”)

It’s a song that Harry feels in his bones, because they – One Direction, they, Harry and his boys, His Boys because they belong to him and he belongs to them and that’s that – are the song, and Harry can see that on the boys’ faces while they’re singing it. The lyrics are too perfect. ‘We’ll do it all, everything, on our own.’ And maybe it’s not on their own; they’ve had Simon and Savan and Brian and there’s no way they could’ve done this without any of them, but. But. It’s them. The Boys. It’s just them, and Harry thinks that without them it wouldn’t have become this.

Whatever this is. Something special, that’s for sure.

Their first song goes well, it’s fun, there are girls dancing all around them and it’s hilarious to watch Liam’s face when he sees what his special friend Danielle is wearing, but Harry gets his back for laughing at him when Zayn finishes getting dressed and Harry practically chokes on air.

“I see you’ve figured out what you’re wearing, then,” he chokes, coughing. “How’s anybody supposed to pay attention to anybody but you?”

Zayn looks very pleased with himself, and fucking Christ, he deserves to. “Eyes on the audience,” he says primly, hooking his arm around Harry’s shoulder. He only just keeps himself from messing up Harry’s hair, which is good as their stylist would’ve murdered him and they need his voice. And his face. Well, Harry needs his face, preferably as close as possible.

It’s magical, out on that stage. Harry knows that getting into the final is what’s important, but then, with the bright lights on them as they stand together and sing this song that’s so, so relevant to all of them. Harry and His Boys. Harry thinks if they went home now it’d almost be worth it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not fucking brilliant when they do make it through. They all love Mary, and she’s been like a mum away from home for all of them, but it’s still a relief. They’re in the top four, in the finals of the X Factor. They’re on top of the world.

It shouldn’t be as devastating as it is when they don’t win.

They knew they might not. Matt and Rebecca are amazing, and they’d never been in the bottom two, either, and, and, and Harry feels like his heart might fall out of his chest. He’s happy for them, except he’s not happy about anything and might never be again. He might be sad forever. He’ll probably be sad forever, because he can’t think of anything in the world that could make this okay.

He cries from the moment they get off the stage, cries and can’t breathe and knows he needs to stop crying so he can breathe except he just can’t. He can’t do anything but cry and choke and cry and cry. He doesn’t even know who he’s crying on, just that they’re also crying and trying to calm him down. Harry doesn’t know that he can be calmed down. This was everything, all of his chances on this one thing and now it’s over and they weren’t good enough. Was it him? Is he the reason they didn’t win?

“Shut up,” grunts whoever’s hugging him. “Shut up, you twat, of course it wasn’t you.” Zayn, then. Pretty pretty Zayn. Zayn, who’s done this for him far too many times. Zayn’s crying, too, and it’s the second time Harry’s seen Zayn cry since he’s known him. That’s too many times even if he does look really nice still. Harry doesn’t know that Zayn ever looks not-nice.

“You. Crying,” Harry says dumbly, the first noise he’s managed other than gasps or sobs. On the stage, someone’s going to win soon, but Harry can’t bring himself to care because they just lost and he doesn’t care about anything.

No, that’s not true. He cares about His Boys. He’ll always care about His Boys, no matter what.

“My Boys,” he says, and either Zayn’s appeasing him or he’s psychic, because he nods and gives Harry a little shimmying hug.

“Your Boys,” he agrees quietly, pulling him closer into a proper hug. “Breathe for me, alright? Just breathe, we’ve got to go back out there with everyone when someone wins.”

And Harry listens. He couldn’t pull himself together, but he guesses it’s different when Zayn’s pulling him together, because he takes three deep breaths and nods, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. He has to breathe. Breathing. Breathing for Zayn.

“Give him here,” commands Louis’ voice gruffly from somewhere off to the side, and then Harry’s passed off like a toddler. It’s as good as anything else because he doesn’t know if he could actually walk under his own power yet. “Hey, Curly, what are these tears for?” asks Louis in his ear, like he’s not crying as well. “Stupid show, we didn’t need to win it anyway. All we need’s our boys, yeah?”

“Boys,” Harry mumbles in agreement. Maybe someday he’ll be able to speak in complete sentences again. His Boys. Louis is one of His Boys and he’s one of Louis’s. He’ll be okay. He’ll be okay. He’ll be okay.

Harry pulls himself into some semblance of alright-ness in time to watch Matt win. Matt deserves it, he so deserves it, and watching him driven to tears with how much it meant to him actually makes Harry feel better. Not much better, because it meant a lot to him and His Boys, too, but a little better. Matt deserves it. Matt deserves whatever he can get.

They nearly kill him piling on top of him in the middle of his performance, but that’s okay, too. Harry deserves a bit of a forceful cuddle.

He can’t think of anything to say that will get across, You deserve this so much and I’m happy for you but also a little bit want to murder you. When it’s too loud for anybody to hear him and he’s fairly sure the cameras are on Dermot talking, he leans over and ends up whispering – well, something his mother would be cross over if she knew about it. It’s good she’s not there or he’d be grounded until the end of time.

The trip back to the house is just more tears on top of tears he’s already cried, because he doesn’t really have a reason not to anymore. He cries himself dry, probably, because there comes a point where he physically can’t force more out.

They’re staying in the house for one more night before they all disperse back home, and Harry’s, Harry’s not ready to say goodbye to anybody. He’s lived with His Boys and Becca and Matt and everyone, and it’s been so long and he won’t be with Lou on his birthday or anything and they’ve just lost the X Factor so Harry slips away from the celebration and sequesters himself in a bathroom to just be away from it all for a while.

Of course, that doesn’t last long, and there comes a knock on the door once he’s been in there about ten minutes.



“Hey, let me in.” He can hear Zayn trying the handle of the door with no success because Harry’s locked it. He sighs, and gets up to unlock the door before Zayn recruits Liam (who, to be fair, would do anything for Zayn, so Harry wouldn’t blame him for it) to bust the door down or something crazy.

Zayn’s eyes are bloodshot just like Harry’s, and he gives him a smile when he opens the door. “Alright?” he asks, pushing past Harry. Takes his seat on the toilet, as well, like a dick. “You disappeared.”

“Wanted to get away from everyone,” says Harry pointedly. Well, not really pointedly. He doesn’t actually mind that Zayn’s come to find him. Zayn looks shrewdly at him anyway.

“Want me to leave?” he asks. He looks a bit like he won’t leave even if Harry said he wanted him to.

Harry doesn’t really have to think about it. “No,” he decides, settling on the edge of the bath. “No, stay.”

Zayn settles, nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, alright.” He worries his lip and then looks back up at Harry. “I wasn’t lying for the cameras, or anything,” he says all of a sudden. “When I said – you know, about staying together. I don’t want to, this is going to sound, you know, but. I don’t want to make music that’s not with all of you.”

“Cheesy,” replies Harry, but he’s relieved and he knows it’s obvious on his face. He hadn’t quite thought Zayn was lying, but it’s still nice to hear that Zayn does feel the same. It’s weird – before all this, back when he auditioned, he was determined to make it himself. Tired of bands, tired of feeling resented for things he couldn’t control. Now he can’t imagine trying to live his life without these four boys. Even just the thought of going home without any of them tomorrow is a bit frightening.

“Hey,” Zayn says. It’s the start of a lot of his sentences, like he wants to make sure the person he’s talking to is paying attention. Like what he has to say to you is important no matter what it is. Except he doesn’t say anything after that, he just leans across the space between them and kisses Harry.

Somehow, it’s not weird. Harry wasn’t really, he wasn’t, he didn’t anticipate it, but it’s not weird. At least he’s already finished crying this time, so it’s a bit less wet. But honestly, they’ve been dancing around this for ages and Harry’s not going to ask questions when he could be kissing Zayn. That seems like the obvious right choice.

It’s a much better kiss than the first one, which was a bit shit, Harry’s not going to lie. Most kisses where there are tears involved are shit, in Harry’s experience. This one, though, Zayn’s not holding back, and his hand’s on Harry’s jaw and his tongue is in Harry’s mouth and, oh, okay.

This is good. Harry can roll with this. Zayn’s an excellent kisser and really, that’s what Harry needs right now, this heat licking in his stomach and Zayn licking into his mouth, until Harry has to pull back for breath. He knows how to breathe through his nose during a kiss, but he hasn’t yet mastered being able to breathe while kissing Zayn.

“Okay?” asks Zayn, his voice low. He’s panting a little and Harry’s face is so close that he can’t see Zayn’s expression properly but he sounds a little like he doesn’t know how Harry’s going to react.

Harry swallows, has to, before he can speak. “Pity kiss?” he manages. He will actually hit Zayn this time if it is.

They’re close enough that Harry can feel the way Zayn’s lips curl up into a smile. “No,” he says simply. That’s good enough for Harry. Better than good enough.

“Do it again,” he murmurs, already leaning in. Zayn meets him halfway and if the first kiss was good, this one’s better, hotter and rougher and Harry really wants Zayn to just push him against a wall and fuck him.

That’s not really an option right now, considering all Harry knows about their not-even-a-relationship is that Zayn’s not kissing him out of pity, but surely there are other things they can do.

He just asks, when he next has to take a breath, his head dizzy, before he can talk himself out of it: “Can I suck you off?”

It’s Zayn’s turn to look like he’s been poleaxed, though he rights himself fairly quickly. “Bit quick, aren’t you?” he asks, and it’s obviously a joke, but.

“I’ve wanted to get your dick in my mouth for ages,” he says firmly. “Please let me put it there. I really, really want to.”

Zayn bites his lip hard enough that Harry kisses him to make him stop before he hurts himself, and Zayn kisses back, laughing through his nose. “Yeah, alright,” he murmurs, catching Harry’s lips one more time. “Better be good, though. Been having dreams about this since you told me about it.”

Harry remembers that, what seems like ages ago when he’d come back to the room and Zayn had asked him about giving head. Now Zayn can have firsthand experience.

“Didn’t have to dream about it,” Harry mutters, slipping off the edge of the tub onto his knees. He knows he’s good at this but he wants it to be especially good for Zayn. He wants Zayn to remember this as like, a life-changing blowjob. The one blowjob to rule them all.

He’s seen Zayn’s cock before, but as all things, it looks much different when Harry’s about to suck it. He gets a good grip on him (Zayn’s already gone half-hard and Harry’s not much better in his jeans) and strokes. It’s a lot easier to give a good one when the other person’s already got a hard-on.

Harry’s reminded, suddenly, violently, that everyone is still downstairs. The top sixteen and their families and everyone, and he’s about to suck Zayn off in a loo up the stairs. To keep from laughing, he licks over the head of Zayn’s cock, salty and already leaking a little. God, Harry’s wanted this for what feels like forever. Finally getting it’s almost better than winning would’ve been.

He has to wonder who the real winner is, anyway. He’s like 99% sure Matt’s never had the opportunity to put Zayn Malik’s dick in his mouth.

Harry hums, and licks his lips to get them wet. Zayn’s hand’s in his hair and he has no idea when that happened, but he’s not opposed to it. Maybe Zayn’ll pull it while Harry’s going down on him. He hopes so.

“Fuck,” Zayn says faintly. When Harry glances up, he’s staring at Harry like he doesn’t believe he’s there, mouth dropped open a little. His jaw’s already dropped and Harry hasn’t even started. That’s a good sign.

He decides to show off a little and relaxes his throat to take half of Zayn down in one go, and he has to slam his hand down on Zayn’s hip to keep him from jerking up so hard Harry won’t have a voice for a week. He keeps his hand there just in case, his thumb along the line of Zayn’s hip bone, and eases back. It does burn a little, but that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. Not like he’s got any more performances to worry about, actually, so he probably doesn’t need to be so careful.

Decision made, Harry slides his mouth back down, until the tip of Zayn’s cock is pressed against the back of his throat and then a little farther. There it is, that feeling, one he hasn’t had in a while: the feeling of a really nice dick stretching your lips just the way you like and it’s not too big or too small. Just right. Zayn’s dick is like the perfect porridge from Goldilocks.

Harry refocuses. Why he’s thinking about fairytales when Zayn’s cock is in his mouth, he has no idea.

And Zayn’s so good at getting a blowjob. After the first time, he doesn’t try to rock his hips up any more, letting Harry dictate the pace, and he doesn’t yank Harry by the hair where he wants him. He guides him a little at some points, but that’s just polite, to tell the other person what you like when they’re going down on you.

Harry’s hard now himself, and he undoes the button and flies on his jeans to give himself a little bit of room to breathe. He presses his palm flat against himself when Zayn groans, cut-off and eager. He can’t even imagine the other sorts of noises Zayn might make, and he can’t help but wonder what he’d sound like if Harry fucked him, if he’d moan just like that. Harry hopes so. He hopes Zayn’s got all sorts of noises he’ll let Harry discover.

It’s been a long day and Harry’s not a bastion of stamina himself, so he’s not surprised when Zayn frantically taps him on the shoulder. “Hey,” he says, of course that’s what he says, “close.”

Harry doesn’t pull off. He wants this, wants to taste it more than just about anything, wants Zayn to come in his mouth more than he wants, like, sweets, and he really likes sweets, and they’d probably taste better.

When Zayn comes, he makes this stuttering-gasping-moaning noise that Harry basically wants to hear forever on a loop in his brain. He think he’d be alright if that was the only thing he ever heard. That wouldn’t be a problem at all.

He thinks he’s going to have to take care of himself and that’s just fine, but after he gets his hand around himself he only manages a few strokes before Zayn’s heaving him up and this toilet was really not made for two people to fool around on, but Zayn’s jerking Harry off so Harry’s not going to complain too loudly. He just shifts until he can settle in Zayn’s lap and pants against his neck until he comes. Zayn makes a disgruntled sound, and Harry laughs when he looks to see Zayn’s hand covered in Harry’s spunk.

“Gross,” Zayn grumbles, but he sounds mostly satisfied. Harry rolls his eyes and grabs Zayn’s hand, and in long licks, cleans it off. Zayn looks bewildered by the action but also like he might be getting turned on again, and Harry is very smug about that.

He shuffles back, simply dropping onto the floor because that’s the easiest thing to do now that he’s not chasing an orgasm. “So,” he says, his trousers tangled around his knees. His arse is very cold and he’s just hooked up with Zayn, and lost the X Factor, and really everything’s very confusing. Harry’s just a boy; he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to handle all this.

“So,” Zayn agrees, which isn’t really an answer to anything. His lips twitch like he knows Harry’s all out of sorts. “So.”

“Comments?” Harry ventures. “That’s never happened before, to my recollection.”

Zayn shrugs. “I just. You’re very.” He huffs, frowning. “You’re just really Harry about everything.”

Weirdly, that makes a sort of sense. Harry knows that the main reason he likes Zayn is because Zayn is always so very Zayn about everything.

“Okay,” he says slowly. “But like. Is that a thing that you. Like? Or.” He groans. He’s not very good at talking when he’s come so recently.

“Well I didn’t think you were Liam, if that’s what you’re asking.” Zayn rolls his eyes. “I dunno. You’re just, you’re Harry and I guess I just thought, you know, if I’m going to think about kissing you all the time maybe that means something.”

“Does it? Because that’d explain a lot.” Harry thinks about kissing Zayn almost constantly, and often when he’s about to go to sleep. Or have a wank. Really, he’s not been under any illusions that he didn’t fancy Zayn. He just never thought anything would come out of it.

“Shut up. Twat.” It’s added almost reflexively, and they share a smile. “I just. I don’t do – this. I’ve never done this. Bit scary,” Zayn says, and it’s clear he’s trying for flippant but he does look rattled.

“It is a bit scary,” says Harry in return, his voice gone quiet without his permission. “But I think, sometimes… The best things are the ones you take a chance on, aren’t they?”

All of this, being on this show and meeting His Boys and getting all of these opportunities, Harry wouldn’t have any of it if he’d never taken that first chance. He owes everything to that first chance that he took. And he really hopes that maybe, maybe Zayn will want to take a chance on him.

Zayn looks at him straight on, and Harry doesn’t look away, even when Zayn slides down to sit on the floor with him. He picks up Harry’s hands with both of his, and squeezes.

“Yeah,” Zayn says softly. “Yeah, I think they are.”