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May You Enjoy Your New Life

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It begins for them all at the bungalow – after Liam’s gone out to be a hero and run back inside scared again and they discover they’ve lost the key, so they pull all of the mattresses into a pile in the middle of the room. They’re sitting in a half-circle (so no one has to put his back to the door, just in case that cow really is a murderer) and Louis says,

“Alright, time to lay out the cards. We’re in this together and, hopefully, for the long haul, yeah? So I think – you know, we should just be honest. It’s deal-breakers time. That thing that like, if we’re gonna hate you or something, just tell us all now.”

There’s silence around the other four boys, but it isn’t a disagreeable silence, so Louis takes a deep breath and smooths his hands down his blanket.

“I suppose I’ll start then?” he asks, and no one disagrees. No one’s even really looking at anyone, although Louis thinks he can feel Harry’s gaze out of the corner of his eye. Louis swallows. “I’m – erm, I’m…I’m gay. And – you lot are the first, erm, people, actually, that I’ve ever told that. But like, we’re – I thought you should know?”

“That’s well good, Lou,” says Niall earnestly. He puts his hand on Louis’ arm, and Louis never thought he’d feel quite so glad for an Irishman. “Me mum’s – well, she’s got a partner, right? They live in Edgesworthtown.” He smiles at Louis, then looks at the rest of the circle. “I s’pose that’s mine, then. Someone else can go.”

“I’m Muslim,” Zayn says and he sticks his chin out like he does when he means no one better fuck with me, and he’s the quiet one, so that’s that.

Liam glances over at Harry, who is looking at his knees, and pulls his own knee up to his chest to rest the side of his face against before speaking. “I’m a virgin?” he offers quietly. “I mean, it’s not like I’m – I’ve done stuff, like. But I’m just not… I don’t know; it’s stupid.”

“’S not stupid,” Zayn offers, and it sounds like he’s about to say something more and doesn’t.

Louis smiles at Liam. He looks over to where Harry is curled up in a little ball, chewing on his thumbnail. “Harry?”

The youngest boy mumbles something around his fingernail and doesn’t look at them.

Louis chuckles. “What’s that, Hazza? You didn’t actually say words.”

Harry swallows audibly and sighs, taking his thumb away from his mouth. He coughs in that way he does and doesn’t look at any of them as he says,

“I’m a father.”

Silence.

Harry coughs again. “Or, well, I will be in four months?”

There’s a moment’s pause before Liam says, “That’s in the middle of live shows.”

“Assuming we get that far,” Harry mumbles. “Yeah, first week of November.”

“But what about all those girls at boot camp?” Zayn asks quietly. “Don’t it hurt her feelings?”

“That was just for TV,” Harry says dismissively. “I thought it’d help me get further on the show if I was on the screen a lot early on, you know, if I got put through. It was just a laugh. They were just nice girls and Konnie was just being clever.”

“Are you getting married?” Niall asks curiously. “Are you married already?”

“No,” Harry says, and coughs again. “Erm, we’re not – we don’t actually get on well, even. I mean, we did. Sort of. It was never – like that.”

“Did you break up with her when she got pregnant?” Liam asks incredulously, even as Louis and Zayn shoot him sharp looks.

“No, we were never together,” Harry clarifies. “She, erm, her name’s Clare? She was the girlfriend of my bandmate’s brother? It was just a casual thing. There was like, a holiday weekend and we all got drunk and then everyone else started smoking up? But I don’t, on account of it hurts my throat a lot, and she just doesn’t, so we were hanging out in one of the tents and it just… y’know.”

“Well, how do you know it’s yours?” Liam presses. “Maybe she’s made it up because you’re going to be on X-Factor.”

“Liam!” hisses Louis.

“Well, it sounds like she’s the sort of person who’d cheat on her boyfriend, so – ”

“And I’m the sort of guy then who’d fuck a girl who’s got a boyfriend,” Harry says dully. “You can’t just pick and choose to blame her. We were both there, we both did it. And it’s definitely mine. She never slept with him, and she told me well before X-Factor.”

“But it was just the once.” Liam’s eyebrows are hidden by his hair and his brown eyes are wide. “So even if her first time was you, then how do you know it isn’t the boyfriend’s from after?”

“It wasn’t just the once,” Harry says shortly. “There was like three months of – look, it doesn’t matter, the point is… yeah, I’m going to be a dad about partway through the competition, if we get put through. And I’m not going to tell anyone but you guys until after we’re done with the show.”

“If you’re not together, are you just leaving her to raise it alone, then?” Louis asks quietly, looking at Harry through the dim light.

Harry coughs again, and Louis has to wonder how he can sing with how often he coughs and clears his throat and makes strange, small noises – not that Louis spends all of his time listening to Harry Styles.

“Erm, well, actually, she’s kinda leaving me to raise it alone?” Harry shrugs. “Or, well, like my mum will help while we’re on the show if we get through, and whatever. But basically I promised Clare that she wouldn’t have to worry about it and – well, I like babies, so.” He sighs through his nose and scrubs his long fingers through his hair beneath the knit cap, tilting it askew. “Can we stop talking about it?”

“I don’t think we should,” Liam presses, even as Louis says ‘yes, of course’ and Niall and Zayn exchange glances and nod. “Harry, this could screw up everything for all of us. How could you be so – ”

“Stupid?” Harry asks. “Irresponsible? Reckless? Thoughtless? Liam, sometimes accidents happen. That’s just life.”

“But it’s not just your life. It’s ours now, too. I don’t want to get voted out because some guy I didn’t even know couldn’t keep it in his pants.”

“Liam,” Louis says firmly, and he’s the oldest, even if Liam is the de facto leader, so Liam looks at him and inhales sharply through his nose.

“We all want to win,” Louis tells him, staring at Liam reproachfully. “And as much as you might feel worried about the competition, it isn’t fair to compare our situation now to Harry’s. Or Harry’s even to the girl’s. Stop being a prick. If you want to win so badly, why don’t you start off talking about music then and we’ll try picking songs.”

“That’s a good point,” Niall says. “I think we should sing Westlife.”

“No way,” Zayn argues, and his voice is soft and fair and passionate. “If we’re a boy band, we need to be *NSYNC. Except I don’t dance.”

“Well, then that’s just the Backstreet Boys,” Niall argues. “They didn’t dance neither.”

“Boring,” assesses Zayn. “I refuse to be Howie.”

“Well, you’re not Howie, you’re AJ anyway,” Niall dismisses, flipping his hand. “I’m stuck as Howie if we’re *NSYNC, ‘cause Louis is Kevin and Harry is Nick and Liam is Brian. That’s why we should be Westlife, oi?”

Zayn shakes his head, but Liam is still leveling Harry with a sharp, patronizing stare and Louis’ gaze is bouncing between the two of them like he’s refereeing.

Harry stands and jams his hands into his pockets. “I’ll be right back.”

He trips over his feet on his way out of the room, and once he’s gone, Niall reaches over and swats Liam three times hard on the arm. “Whatdja do that for?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Liam’s brow creases down between his brown eyes and he rubs his arm, looking hurt. “I can’t help being sensible.”

“Sensible?” Niall asks. “You fecking well attacked him.”

“You can’t think it’s alright,” Liam asks Niall, wide-eyed. “Sixteen and in the X-Factor and with a baby? It’s the nail in our coffins.”

“It is not,” Louis says decisively. “I’ll not hear another word about it, and you’re not going to bother Harry about it. He’s got quite enough down to him without you henpecking. If he didn’t want to win, he’d not have tried out. What he needs is us, for the show and as friends. So far, we’re failing him for both.”

Liam still looks sullen, but Niall nods enthusiastically and Zayn raises his glass in something like approval. Louis gives them both a smile, then throws off the blankets he’s buried beneath and stands up.

Louis finds Harry sitting outside on the crumbling step by the kitchen doors. He’s got his index finger pressed into the inner corner of one eye and his other hand tangled up in his curls beneath the knit cap, and Louis carefully pretends that he can’t tell Harry is crying.

“Well, Liam hates me,” Harry sighs, breaking the silence after Louis’ sat down beside him with one hand rubbing small, soothing circles between Harry’s shoulder blades.

“Nah,” Louis sniffs dismissively. “He doesn’t know you well enough to hate you. He just really wants to win.”

“So do I!” Harry protests. The wind rustles through the field all around them and Louis notices again, just for a moment, how dark the countryside is out here and how absolutely many stars there are. Then Harry exhales shakily and drops his chin into the basket of his arms. “I always wore a condom, you know? I’m not like, some reckless kid who’s just going to fuck everything up for lack of caring.”

“I know,” Louis says, and he drags his thumb in rolling circles over a muscle knot that makes him ache for how tightly wound Harry must be all the time, all of this hanging over his head.

“It must have just like, broke,” Harry continues, still speaking into his arms. “She told me in May, right at the beginning of May. And then basically it was just – everything kind of…”

“Went to shit?” Louis smiles at Harry, and Harry almost half-smiles back.

“Basically, I guess.” Harry hums softly as Louis keeps working at the knot in his back. “I mean, kind of obviously, my band kicked me out over it. Then Clare and I tried actually dating, and that lasted all of about two weeks.”

“Why?”

“We’re just two different people.” Harry sounds uncomfortable, and tilts his chin on his arms to look at Louis for the first time. “Like… she doesn’t understand why I would even want to be on The X-Factor? She’s at college finishing her qualifications to be a beauty therapist and just wants to live in Holmes Chapel, but she doesn’t think she can even do that if she has a kid.” Harry’s lips purse.

Louis stops kneading Harry’s shoulder and ruffles his hair instead.

“God, and then she and I started fighting all the time and it stressed me out so badly I got like an ulcer or something three days before auditions and had to go to hospital ‘cause I was throwing up blood.” Harry laughs thinly. “I guess I am basically a bit of a mess.”

“I don’t think you’re a mess,” Louis tells Harry, quiet and honest like a confidence. “Are you really getting full custody?”

“Yeah.” Harry rubs his eyes. “Clare may not have real ambition, but she knows what she wants and I can’t begrudge her that.”

Begrudge?” Louis asks, one eyebrow raised and a sideways smirk on his mouth.

“Sometimes I use words like ‘begrudge.’” Harry smirks right back, and Louis remembers that cheeky kid giving his interview in line at auditions and the absolute, lit-from-within bright joy on Harry’s face when they got put through, and it’s a thousand times more hopeful than the exhausted, wan look Harry’s been wearing. He lets out a breath that makes his lips fan out like Mick Jagger. “I’m not stupid. I know it’ll be really hard. Maybe I’m a fool to think I can be someone even if I’m a dad.”

“You’re not,” Louis says earnestly. “My mum was only nineteen when she had me. I can’t imagine having a kid at my age – fucking terrifies me, honestly – but I turned out fabulous, so. Obviously.”

“Obviously.”

Louis smiles at Harry. “Look, I don’t know you yet, but I’ve got – faith in you, I suppose. I don’t think you’re going to let anyone down, because then you’d be letting yourself down, and you don’t seem the type.”

Harry looks up and the tip of his nose is just a bit red, his lips and eyes looking dried out and this side of puffy. “I don’t want to.”

“Then you won’t,” Louis affirms, grinning. “That’s settled. Now, we either need to sleep, learn the complete dance to ‘Bye Bye Bye,’ or draw a penis on Zayn’s face while he’s asleep. Which say you?”

“Why choose only one?” Harry asks, smiling back. His green eyes twinkle at Louis, and Louis can’t help reaching out to ruffle the curls peeking out over Harry’s ear.

“Do you want a cuddle?” Louis asks casually, slinging his arm over Harry’s shoulders. “You look like you could do with one.”

“Yes, please,” Harry murmurs, the end of his words dovetailing into a magnificent yawn. “And when we draw the penis, can we make it really hairy?”

“Of course,” Louis says, as though any other choice would be completely unhinged.

When they get back inside, Niall and Zayn have completely given up bickering about boy bands and instead have broken out the 360 and Halo 3: Niall plays like he does everything else, with a constantlyrunning mouth and loose-limbed grip on the controller that takes him veering around his own axis like he thinks it’s a Wii; Zayn’s got his legs splayed and head rested against the back of the sofa and the only part of him that moves are his thumbs.

Liam’s still sulking in his chair, peering out with low-lidded eyes and drawn brows from beneath his Bieber bangs as he watches the carnage unfolding on-screen. He looks up as Louis and Harry pad back inside and opens his mouth, but Louis just tightens his arm around Harry’s shoulders and steers him off into the kitchen, where they set about making some tea.

They spent their first day at the bungalow playing football and singing schmaltzy renditions of whatever songs popped into their heads, and their first evening terrified out of their wits of a murderer out in the cornfields who was probably really a cow, but Harry and Louis spend the first night at the bungalow in the kitchen, talking about Harry’s baby and Louis’ sisters and wondering where, actually, they’d be sent for Judges’ Houses and whether it’d be nicer to get Hawai’i or Fiji or Palau or Australia and who was their judge going to be, anyway? Louis hopes against hope for Cheryl, just because, but Harry wants Simon – Cheryl has no idea they’re even a group, does she, and he thinks… well, maybe it’s a stupid, vain hope, but he thinks that Simon might care about this stupid ragtag group and might care about him. And plus, he’s in charge, so if Harry’s secret leaks in November… maybe he won’t get kicked off the show if the big boss is keeping Harry in his corner.

It’s about a quarter past three when Zayn comes in and claps them both on the shoulder with a sort of gruff affection and says, I’m goin’ to bed; beat. Night. Niall follows on his heels but drapes himself over both Harry- and Louis’ shoulders in a sort of starfish hug before he trots out of the room. Liam just waves curtly from the door.

“D’you want to just sleep in the living room?” Harry asks Louis, yawning. “I’m too tired to climb stairs, personally.”

Louis isn’t that tired – he always sleeps late; usually when it’s already gray-morning outside – but he sees the difference in Harry’s carriage even over the course of a few hours. The younger boy’s shoulders seem lighter and his eyes are less drawn. And Louis thinks, really, he was right: what Harry needed more than anything, much more than an X-Factor win, was a friend.

“Yeah, alright,” he says. “I s’pose since we lost the key, we ought to stand guard at the door, anyway. What with a mooing murderer on the loose.”

Harry laughs, open and throaty with his eyes crinkled shut, and the two of them drag mattresses into the living room and sit them side-by-side. They’re lying on their elbows, talking comfortably to each other about porn, when Niall’s shaggy, blond head pops up from behind the couch and about scares the piss out of them.

“Fellas?” he whispers, looking sheepish, “I know it’s stupid and all, but um – it’s just a bit dark out and the field and everything, and we lost the key and there was that – you know, the noise – just – ”

“D’you want to sleep in here?” Harry offers, saving Niall the expense of asking. “Drag in a bed and have at it.”

“Thanks, lads,” Niall sighs gratefully, dancing up the stairs on ungraceful feet.

“Do you suppose he ever walks like a normal person?” Louis asks Harry curiously when Niall disappears. “He always seems to be bouncing.”

“I like it,” Harry decides. “It’s cheerful.”

When Niall reappears, blanket around his shoulders like a cape and pillow hanging from the back of his head like a demented nun as he carries the mattress roll in front of him, Zayn is following along behind, his own mattress bumping down the stairs nonchalantly.

“What’s happening, boys?” Zayn greets, but his accent turns the ‘w’ into a ‘v’ and it makes Harry smirk. “Niall says the party’s down here.”

“More like the murderer-cow isn’t,” snorts Harry. “Budge up, Louis, let ‘em in.”

They scoot all the mattresses into a row on the floor like that nursery rhyme about the monkeys and then all four boys are huddled up, chins on their wrists in front of them, back to talking about porn and whether tits are better-looking real or fake (Louis is the tie-breaker, since he doesn’t actually care). That’s when Zayn admits that he’s as much a virgin as Liam, but it doesn’t really bother him, anyway, ‘cause he’s just riding the rollercoaster of life, and Harry laughs so loudly that he has to shove his pillow into his mouth to stop.

“Um.”

They all look up and Liam’s stood in the doorway, looking a bit shifty and sheepish and clutching his own pillow and mattress roll.

“Sorry,” Liam stutters. “It’s only just – ”

“Cow-murderer?” Louis supplies helpfully.

“Yes, the cow-murderer,” agrees Liam. “Um, and I just heard you lot – um, I’ll go back upstairs, it’s – ”

“Don’t be stupid, Liam,” Harry says. “Settle in. We’ve got to move again; heave-ho.”

They push the row of mattresses a bit further and Liam squeezes his own in beside Zayn, who reaches over and pats Liam’s shoulder. Liam settles down a bit gingerly and pulls his blankets up nearly to his ears. He’s a bit rumpled now from trying to sleep upstairs, and there are wild curls peeking through the Bieber straight-ironing. It makes him look a bit more human, a bit less like a Ken Doll, and things feel – better.

“We should sleep,” Harry says.

“We should try singing with the piano in the morning,” Liam says in a small voice. “Just to see how it sounds.”

“Yeah,” agrees Louis. “That’s a good idea. We’ll do that after bacon sandwiches.”

“Even better idea, mate,” Niall sighs, sounding a bit lusty.

“Night,” is all Zayn says, but it’s all they expected, so they each turn over and put their faces into their pillows.

Louis is turned to face Harry and when Harry’s face smooths out in sleep, Louis thinks, god, I’m fucked. He lies awake for a bit because it’s still early for him, and plays a bit of TETRIS on his phone until the sky is sherbet-orange over the fields outside – and the murderer-cow has gone wherever boogeymen go during the day – and he falls asleep.

Later, once they’ve all woken and managed to find some bacon sandwiches and tea and have eaten what was allotted for the entire week, Harry’s stood at the sink, squeezing gel onto his toothbrush and trying to avoid a huge wet splotch that screams of Louis. Niall jostles his way in to share the basin.

“What’s the craic?” Niall says cheerfully. He glops together his toothbrush and paste. “Say, did’ja ever – you know, have sex with her after she got like, well pregnant?”

Harry furrows his brow and bites down on his toothbrush with his furthest-back molars. “No. I told you, we don’t get on. Why?”

Niall shrugs. He moves like a marionette, Harry thinks; like all of his pieces are held together by string and can move independently when he wants them to. “Just wonderin’.”

Harry shakes his head and bends to spit.

Something wet dribbles onto the back of his head.

“Eurgh, Niall! You drooled on me!”

Niall grins at him with white lips. “Get used to it, pops.”

•••

Between the bungalow and being sent to Heathrow for a mystery trip abroad to wherever their judge is pretending to have a home, there are two spare weeks of late summer, burning gold across Holmes Chapel and raining every morning and evening through a sticky white summer-cloud sky. Harry misses the other boys more than he knows he should – especially since there’s a good chance that whenever they get where they’re going, they’ll promptly be sent home again, since they weren’t good enough to make it through on their own and they don’t know what they’re doing to become a good boy band anyway – but he’s always been a social creature and for months, he’s been lurching around the village alone.

It was just nice to have the company again. Even Liam, although he was a complete prick half the time where Harry was concerned.

Harry’s mind is constantly turning: he takes his bike up to the bakery in the mornings and thinks about the competition while he pours coffee and bags up cream scones and apricot pinwheels. He wonders, and hopes – even though Steve is still so nice to him – about whether he’ll ever have to work in a bakery again; he gets into a worry spiral whenever he thinks too hard about how he’ll ever, ever be able to afford a baby on a bakery income if they don’t get put through. If they don’t win.

They have to win. They have to win, so he puts his feelings aside and Skypes with Liam every day to practice singing. Liam’s got enviable pitch and is more sensible than anyone Harry’s ever met, probably, so they just practice over and over and over. They’d gotten an envelope informing them that their song was to be Natalie Imbruglia’s version of “Torn,” and Harry’s started humming it near-constantly at work.

And at dinner.

And when he’s in the shower.

And when he’s trying to fucking fall asleep, which he doesn’t anyway. Sometimes he texts Louis at three in the morning, since the older boy is awake for no reason anyway. They don’t really talk about anything – which seems to be a specialty of Louis’ – but it helps Harry’s brain just smooth out and stop churning for a few hours, until his mother opens his door at eight and throws his apron at his head and tells him that he’s almost late to Mandeville’s again.

He tries to see Clare once a week or so. He missed almost a month while the boys were at the bungalow, and there’s a break in the rain just long enough to make his hair stick down to his forehead with humidity as he bikes over to her house on the eve of leaving for Heathrow.

Clare answers the doorbell in sweats and a tank top, eating a yogurt. Her bright blonde hair is piled up in a knot on her head and she’s still got false eyelashes on. Harry nods at her and tries to sweep his damp hair out of his eyes.

Clare sighs and shakes her head, giving Harry a small, fond smile. She rests the yogurt on her belly and quickly rakes her nails through his hair, fluffing it back to where it should be.

“You need a haircut,” she says. “Do you want one before you go?”

“Sure,” Harry says. “Thanks. How’re you feeling?”

“Fine,” Clare says. “Bored. It’s nails this week at school and I can’t go ‘cause the fumes. I’ve just been around the house, and it’s driven me batty. I alphabetized my mum’s recipes all week. So glamorous.”

Harry looks down at his shoes as he toes them off just inside the doorway and the sky breaks outside with more lazy rain. He’s never sure whether she does it purposely or whether he just has the guiltiest little heart, but somehow he always ends up feeling like he’s ruining Clare’s life.

“You were gone awhile,” Clare hedges, gesturing him into her kitchen with the spoon. “I was getting a bit scared that you decided to run off after all.”

“No,” Harry says firmly. “Stop it. You know I won’t. I was just busy with the show.”

“Right, yeah,” Clare says, toddling over to get a towel to wrap around Harry’s shoulders. “You’re headed off to some exotic vacation tomorrow, yeah?”

“Well, maybe,” Harry says. “But it’s – well, it’s not a holiday. I’ll be like, working, and probably crying a lot and just coming back here.”

“You know you won’t,” Clare mumbles around some hairpins. She spritzes down his hair with a spray bottle of water and starts to comb it through. “You’ve got a lovely voice. And you’re charming enough to talk the devil into heaven; you’ve got the x-factor well enough.”

“Thanks,” Harry says, softly and sincerely. It’s not that he doesn’t like Clare, really. It’s just that they don’t like each other enough.

“So are you off to Turks & Caicos? Ibiza? Seychelles? New Zealand? You know, while you’re on your flight, I’ll be off to the gyno again to get prodded in the hooha. But I guess such is life,” Clare continues, twisting up locks of Harry’s curls to get them out of the way for a trim. “Emily and Haydn and Alistair are going out to Leedsfest to see Arcade Fire and Band of Horses tomorrow, and you’re going out somewhere fabulous, and I’ll be here eating yogurt and alphabetizing my dad’s tax returns.”

And that’s why.

“I’m going somewhere for a job,” Harry says, trying to breathe through his nose. “So I can take care of my baby, okay?”

“You’re going ‘cause you love singing and you’re good at it,” Clare argues. “It’d just be a bonus if you get money for the thing.”

Harry purses his lips and tilts his head the way Clare wants so she can get at his hair. She’s not being unkind – she’s really being complimentary, and she was right: he did need a haircut – but he hates that she isn’t even trying to bond with the baby, even though he understands why.

Clare sighs behind him. “Sorry,” she says softly, tweaking his ear. “I know you hate when I do that.”

“It’s fine.”

She cuts his hair in silence for a bit before she says, “We’ve been watching the show. It always kicks a lot when it’s on, so either it loves music or hates it. Probably loves, though. Do you know when your episodes are on?”

“Later,” Harry says. “We were some of the last auditions and I was near the middle of the day, and then bootcamp. But I don’t even know whether they’ll show me at all. I’ll be on the Xtra Factor, though, ‘cause they filmed – I filmed a gag where I’m supposed to be like dating all these girls at bootcamp, so. They’ll show that, I think.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Clare says, but she’s gentle and she runs her nails over the back of his scalp again in a way that gives him shivers.

“At the end I get kidnapped by this really creepy old man, if that makes you feel any better,” Harry offers, and this makes Clare laugh outright.

She scoots around him to cut his bangs, since they don’t have a mirror, and Harry reaches out hesitantly to let his fingertips graze over the bump of the baby. Clare doesn’t look away from where she’s snipping at his hair, but nods, so Harry flattens his palm carefully over the skin.

“That’s weird,” he says after a moment. “It’s kicking like on rhythm.”

“Hiccups,” Clare mumbles around her pins again. “It gets them all the fucking time.”

“Does it hurt?” Harry asks, concerned, glancing up at Clare. He gets an eyeful of hair trimmings for his trouble and his eye waters down his cheek.

“No,” Clare says. “Kind of tickles. It’s been really squirmy lately and is always kicking me. Also, I have to pee ‘cause it’s sitting on my bladder, so I’ll B-R-B.”

While Clare is gone, Harry blinks his eye madly and tries not to think about the fact that she actually said “BRB” out loud. The hair is finally out of his eye, but the rain has picked up and smacks against the kitchen windows when Clare comes back.

She touches the side of his chin, down near the curve of his jaw. “Tilt this way.”

He does, his hand sliding back onto the mound of her belly easily as she snips a few more shards out of his curls. She was right; the baby is squirming and kicking and hiccupping like crazy under his palm, and Harry can’t help smiling a little as his heart seizes up and he strokes gently with his thumb. There’s a real little person-thing under there, turning somersaults under this fingers and trying to get comfortable and he wonders whether maybe it’s the yogurt giving it hiccups, because there’s like bugs in yogurt or something, aren’t there? Or bacteria or something, so commercials tell him. Maybe the baby doesn’t like it.

Maybe they have that in common. Not liking yogurt.

“Okay,” Clare declares later, startling Harry out of his enamored preoccupation with the fluttering feeling of the baby kicking at his hand. “You’re done and you’re gorgeous. You’ll capture the hearts of a nation.”

“You make it sound like I’m a fancy show dog,” Harry says, but he smiles at her.

Clare crinkles her nose like she’s equivocating and Harry laughs. She ruffles his hair. “Do you mind if I just nap with my iPod in while you have baby time?” she asks. “I’m tired.”

“No, that’s fine,” Harry says, secretly glad that he can almost have some privacy with the baby.

Clare smiles gratefully at him and ruffles his hair, so Harry scowls and shakes it back out, shaggy-dog style indeed, as he follows her out to the living room. He can see that she’s built up her nest on the couch over the last few weeks since he saw her: there are issues of Elle and Glamour, Grazia and Hello, even a few issues of Frankie buried under the blanket around the sofa and empty yogurt containers everywhere. Clare stretches again and rolls her shoulders before settling down on the couch, nestled back against a pile of pillows and issues of OK!. She puts her earbuds in and closes her eyes as Harry folds himself down into the space between the couch and coffee table.

He reaches out towards her belly. “Can I…?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clare mutters, relaxing into the cushions. “Whatever.”

Harry carefully pushes her tank top up a bit so that he can see the baby -- well, not really, he thinks, that would be really weird and probably pretty gross -- and leans in close enough to almost-rest his lips against the bump. Clare reaches down sleepily to pet Harry’s soft hair, but it’s more because his curls tickle her than because he’s him and she’s her and it’s their baby.

Harry sweeps his fringe back as best he can and slides his palm over the roundest bit of Clare’s stomach again. He glances up to check that Clare’s really asleep, or nearly, and whispers, “Hi, Baby. You’re a lot bigger than last time we talked.”

Roll and flutter.

Harry grins and his chest warms up with his ticklish-bright heart and he nuzzles the tip of his nose and the pad of one finger against the place where the tiny feet are kicking at him. “Have you been good lately? Where do those hiccups come from, Baby? Is it the yogurt?”

A squirm.

“That’s what I thought,” Harry murmurs, soothing gently with his palm. “Well, you’ve only got a few more months to deal with it. And then I promise, no yogurt ever. Not under my roof. Oh – there they are again, huh. I’m sorry.” There’s a somersault beneath his hand so small and slight that he can barely feel anything but the little twist, but Harry giggles and his nose crinkles and he doesn’t even glance up to check that Clare is still asleep before he rests his lips in the vague direction of the baby’s legs. “I’m also sorry I was gone for so long. You probably don’t even remember me. I was really busy, though, with that thing I told you about, the competition. The other boys came to stay out here so we could practice and maybe win so I can give you everything. Except yogurt.”

The baby gives a contented stretch, so Harry keeps talking. “We were learning our song, and I get a solo even though Zayn and Liam probably sing better than me, and Niall and Louis are just as good, maybe. We’re singing that song, ‘Torn’… you don’t know that song, probably, since you’re like negative four months old, though. Here.” He presses his mouth up close to where he thinks the baby’s ear might be, near Clare’s hip, and hums the song.

There are a lot of tiny wriggles, and he chooses to think that it’s dancing.

He rubs with his thumb a minute before he speaks again. “I’m gonna be gone next week, too, ‘cause I’m going – I don’t know where I’m going, actually. But I’m coming back. But then I might – I might be gone for a while. Like, until you’re born and a small person and everything. And I’m really sorry if that happens that I won’t be here to talk to you like this. I do want to be here for you, but it’s something I’ve gotta do. You’ll hear me, though, probably. On TV. And when you’re born, I’ll talk to you every day and you can see what I look like. I’d describe myself for you but I don’t think you understand concepts like ‘curls’ yet. Since you can’t see anything. They’re sort of a visual idea.”

There’s a rhythmic patter under his fingertips and he taps against the little feet like he’s playing piano and the piano is playing back. “I should probably go home to pack my suitcase. But I love you!” he offers earnestly. “I’ll sing you the one you like before I go.”

He puts his mouth against Clare’s belly again and hums his way through Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” then adds, “And if you’re a boy, then please don’t be offended. I’d say ‘it’ but it sounds weird.”

He rests his forehead against the bump for a minute, then stands up. He cracks his back and touches Clare’s shoulder. She opens her eyes lazily and reaches down to fold her tank top back down over her stomach.

“Thanks,” Harry says, smiling sweetly with his lips closed and eyes soft. “I really appreciate it. I’m gonna go.”

“Mmm, no problem,” Clare says. Harry holds out his hands and she takes them with a smile so he can help her sit up in the floppy nest of pillows and blankets and fashion spreads. “Is it still raining out there?”

“Not sure.” Harry shrugs. “I wasn’t paying attention, really. Can I use your bathroom before I go? And I want to see my hair.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clare says, and stands up with a soft groan. “Go ahead. I’ve just gotta stretch a bit. My back’s aching.”

“You should get a massage,” Harry suggests, then pauses. “Can you get a massage?”

“I don’t think so,” Clare muses. “I can’t lie on my belly for a while. It’s okay. Come November I’ll get more massages than I can handle.”

She smiles and Harry swallows before he tries to smile back. Then he ducks away to the bathroom, where he tosses his hair in the mirror a few times before leaving. Dark streaks pour down the windows at either side of Clare’s green front door, and it’s warm and humid in a way that feels heavy; the kind of muggy, wet August night that feels like every inhale would mean breathing mosquitoes.

Clare pads up behind Harry, rubbing her eyes with one hand and her belly with the other. “Come on. I’ll drive you home. It’s shitty out there.”

“You don’t have to,” Harry says. “You can sleep.”

“No, it’s fine,” Clare says. “I might stop by The Fortune City on my way back and get a Chinese. I want prawn crackers so fucking badly.”

“Okay.” Harry nods. “Will my bike fit in your car?”

“You can put it on the rack on the roof, if you can reach,” Clare says. She stretches, and her hair’s coming out of the ponytail, and her eyelashes came unglued while she was asleep so her eyes look more human now, and Harry can remember suddenly why they started in the first place and how they ended up where they are now. Clare blinks sleepily and looks up at Harry as she smooths her hand back down over her stomach again, straightening her tank top where it rode up. “Don’t look at me like that, Hazz. It’s just a ride home.”

“I know,” Harry says. “I didn’t mean to look at you like anything. Not like – in a bad way, just like, in a nothing way. Or not – that sounded bad. I didn’t mean it bad.”

“Get your bike,” Clare says, and Harry tethers his bicycle to the roof of Clare’s car while she reapplies her makeup and does her hair for the ten-minute trip to the Chinese restaurant for takeaway.

In the car, “Turn My Swag On” plays through the sound of the shushing wiper blades and pattering of the rain, and Clare says carefully, “That girl who auditioned with this song was really good. That was on this week.”

“Yeah, Cher,” Harry says. “She is good. She like, rapped ‘Viva La Vida’ at bootcamp. It was weird, but I liked it.”

“Is she one of your girls? On that – the skit you told me about?”

Harry looks over to Clare where she’s peering intently through the windshield at a stoplight. “No. None of them got put through.”

“Okay,” Clare says. She shrugs one shoulder and Harry reaches over to pat her knee.

“Do you want me to get your Chinese with you? Or for you, even, since it’s raining?”

“No,” Clare says. “It’s fine. It’s warm out and you’ve got to pack, anyway. I hope you do win, you know. I’ll be voting for you and all.”

“Thank you.” Harry squeezes her knee gently, and they’re quiet the rest of the way up to Harry’s drive. He unclicks his seatbelt, leans over, and kisses Clare swiftly on the cheek. “Keep me posted, yeah? Just – even if nothing’s wrong, just send me a text every day with an update or whatever? And what the doctor says tomorrow?”

“I will,” Clare says. She gives his knee a little squeeze back and unclicks her own seatbelt so she can turn enough for Harry to give the baby a soft rub. “Take care of yourself. Have a safe flight and everything.”

“I will,” Harry echoes. He smiles at her and opens the door. The rain whooshes in and immediately his left side is soaked. “Talk to you later! Thanks for the ride!”

“See you, Hazz,” Clare says, waving, and Harry throws the door shut. He struggles a minute to unhook his bike from the roof in the gale, but eventually stumbles the rest of the way up his driveway with it, giving Clare a last wave. She backs down the driveway as he lets himself in the front door and shakes out his hair like a shaggy dog.

He heads upstairs to change into some dry clothes, pulling his phone from his pocket on the steps. He’s missed calls from both Liam and Louis, but he already knows what Liam wants – to practice – so he skips it and texts Louis back instead.

whats up?

nurthing Louis texts back straight away. you ?

just bin to see clare, Harry writes back, then sets the phone on his dresser to strip out of his sopping shirt. It starts ringing while he’s still trapped in the sleeves, and he curses as he stumbles over and hits the bedpost. Once he’s fully extricated himself, he answers on the last ring. “What?”

“Is the baby okay?” Louis asks in a rush.

“Yeah, fine,” Harry assures him, letting his wet trousers fall to the floor in a clump. “I just try to see her and the baby every week and missed a bunch ‘cause you were all out here. I wanted to say hello before I left again.”

“And it went okay?” Louis asks. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me. Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry says as he settles onto his bed. “I don’t really – no one else ever asks me. Even Mum stopped a few weeks ago once we’d settled the custody thing and I stopped getting the ulcers, basically. And Liam… well, you know Liam. He just doesn’t want to know.”

“Right,” Louis sighs. “He’ll come around eventually, I suspect.”

“He’s a robot.” Harry shrugs. “No, it went okay. Now that we’re not fighting we get on civilly enough. I wish I loved her, though. I think it’d be easier. But I just don’t. She keeps calling the baby an ‘it’ and talking about ‘well, come November,’ and I’m just like… she could pretend to care? I guess? That makes me sound horrible. Sorry.”

“Is she taking care of the baby, though?” Louis asked. “Like, she’s not out drinking and stuff with it?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Harry says. “Seems to be a lot of yogurt and sleeping.”

“Well, then she does care enough,” Louis says. “There are worse ways to be than apathetic. My mum’s a nurse, and she tells horror stories about what she sees in peds and ob-gyn with parents who really don’t care.”

“No,” Harry says softly, thinking back to the fuzzy memories of his biological father. “I know. She’s not bad. I just – I love it, even though that’s maybe stupid.”

“Harry!” Louis laughs. “It’s your baby, of course it’s not stupid if you love it! Weirdo.”

“Well, sorry,” Harry huffs, grinning. “I don’t exactly know what’s normal and not normal in being a semi-absentee teenage dad, do I?”

“You ought to read up on it,” Louis says loftily. “Call Michael Cera and ask about Juno or something.”

“Very funny,” Harry says drolly. He sighs. “So where d’you think we’re going tomorrow?”

“Could be anywhere, couldn’t it?” Louis asks back, a course of excitement thrumming through his voice. “Last year Dannii took hers to that hotel in Dubai, didn’t she? With like the giant water park and the dolphins and all. But then Simon’s were just at Los Angeles, so it really could be anything. I just hope it’s not like, ‘surprise! You’re in Manchester!’”

Harry laughs. “Oh, that would be our luck. We’ll get Louis Walsh who hates me and we’ll be in Crewe.”

“Well, don’t think like that,” Louis says. “We’re gonna get Cheryl and she’ll be so impressed by us that she’ll just have to take all her clothes off and frolic in the ocean with us.”

“I thought you were gay,” Harry muses, then tenses. It’s not something they’ve talked about since Louis first mentioned it, and even that was hardly a discussion.

Louis answers him easily enough. “I am gay; I’m not stupid. I mean, I’ve got eyes, haven’t I? Cheryl Cole is fucking hot!”

Harry snorts a startled laugh and feels his shoulders relax. He casts an eye around his little bedroom, the same he’d had since they had moved to Holmes Chapel from Evesham back in primary school. There were still pockmarks on the walls from hanging all of his kiddie posters over the years; Frankie Sandford and Caroline Flack and Busted. There was the scorch in the corner from copying Fire Ball from Friends with Will and Haydn in Year 7 – his mum had been angry. There’s the nearly-empty bulletin board that used to teem with photos of White Eskimo and Will and Haydn and Nick; there are still photos of Ashley, but all old standards are gone. What’s left is a photo of Clare with the beginnings of her belly months ago and one Harry had tacked up as an afterthought just this morning. It’s a photo of One Direction. They look happy and excited and cool – they look like a boy band.

But they also look young and sloppy and scared.

“What if we don’t get put through?” Harry asks Louis quietly.

He hears rustling on the other end of the line like Louis’ going outside. A car beeps its way past a moment later and Harry wonders what Louis’ house looks like. He’s never been to Doncaster. It must not be raining there even though it is in Holmes Chapel.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Louis asks back.

“Sure.”

“I think Simon’s stacked the deck for you and Liam to win,” Louis confides. “I’ve been working it out in my head. ‘Cause my audition was shit, yeah? I know that. Or at least it wasn’t – I mean you and Liam and Zayn are really good. And Niall’s got so much like, presence or whatever; Niall’s got ‘the X-factor.’ But I’m… anyway, I worked it out. They upped the age for Boys, yeah, so they could pump in Matt Cardle and um, what’s his name – Marlon something. That way they could drop Liam and you out of Boys without people causing a fuss, right? And then they put you two in a group together with the rest of us and stacked the other Groups in our favor. I mean, really, like… I’m sorry, but Diva Fever fucking suck! Twem is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life, literally, and Princes and Rogues look like paedos. Simon runs X-Factor; he knows who he wants to win. It’s Liam and you.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Harry scoffs despite the pleased twinge in the bottom of his belly. Simon had seemed enthusiastic at his original audition; that much was true. And they had upped the age seemingly just to get Matt and Marlon into Boys… but there was no way. Simon’s whole industry depended on shows like the X-Factor and Harry was just… Harry.

“Well, I think I’m brilliant,” Louis retorts. “I know I’m right.”

“I don’t think your audition was awful,” Harry says. “I mean, I wasn’t there, but you were good at bootcamp. You’re the best dancer of us all, except for Liam.”

“Fucking Liam,” Louis swears cheerfully.

“Fucking Liam,” Harry agrees. Smile lingering on his lips, Harry cast a glance through the window at the gray evening rain. Wherever they were headed, he hoped it would be sunny and bright. “I still have to pack. I should go.”

“Yeah, same,” Louis sighs. “It’s hard to know what to bring when you don’t know where you’re going.”

“Well, our all-white boy band gear. Boyz II Men costumes, rather.”

“Fucking Liam,” Louis swears again, slightly less fondly. “I can’t believe he rejected my idea.”

We’re not the male Spice Girls.”

“We could’ve been! You’re Posh, Zayn’s Ginger, Liam’s Sporty, Niall’s Baby, and I’m Scary. It would have worked!”

“I’m hanging up now.” Harry determinately holds in his laugh, fizzing and happy in the pit of his ribs. “See you tomorrow.”

Louis hums. “See you, Hazza.”

Harry sets his phone down on the nightstand and slings his legs out of bed with a crack of his spine and an ooph. He sets about packing his suitcase, Coldplay whispering just beneath the sound of the thunderstorm pummeling Holmes Chapel and thrashing at Harry’s windows; Harry packs both his swimming trunks and his ski jacket and hopes for the best.

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