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around the world in eighty thousand days

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Harry jumps in place a little, blowing into his hands. “This is loads more cold than I was prepared for,” he says.

Niall, who has on probably the world’s ugliest lime-green puffy jacket, has the indecency to look smug. “If y’wore human clothes you wouldn’t be freezing your bits off, now would ya?” he says.

Harry could admit he’d left his hat and scarves in the hotel room by accident, but it’s hardly likely to get him the sympathy he wants, and anyway, he’d rather just whinge some more. He says, “Tell your country to get its seasons fixed, why don’t you.”

“This is Northern Ireland,” Niall shoots back. “Land of thugs and terrorists. You try tellin’ em what to do.”

Harry ignores him in favor of squinting down the road, complaining again. “It’s been ages, hasn’t it? The taxi ought to be here by now.”

It’s past midnight, and they’re in central Belfast because that’s where their hotel is. The lateness and the bite to the air haven’t seemed to slow down the tempo— the streets are still fairly busy; lots of cars, lots of foot traffic, lots of drunken Irish folk mingling with drunken tourists of all nationalities. He and Niall are more or less huddled in an alcove in the side of their building, away from the streetlamps and the tourists’ curious eyes— but the longer they stay out, the greater chance they have of getting papped, or spotted by roving troopes of fans.

There’s a reason for being out, though: Harry wants to get his Ireland tattoo. He’d sworn he’d get ink done in honor of every country they visit on the tour— talked down from the drunken proclamation of one in every city, thank God. It’s still over a dozen new tats to get, when he already gets mocked for the collection he started the tour with, but Harry’s set on it. Maybe a dozen more will be just enough to show how spectacularly much he doesn’t give a shit about what people think of him. It’s been a tough sell, so far.

“Think our cabbie’s been and gone,” Niall jokes. “Passed us by when he saw those trousers you borrowed from Louis.”

Harry throws himself on Niall’s back, but decides huddling in his warmth is better than strangling him. “Piss off, you wore these last week,” Harry mutters into Niall’s jacket, which has every possibility of being true. ‘Personal wardrobe’ is a thing that tends to lose all meaning on a tour. Along with ‘personal space’, and ‘sanity’.

“Better hope Louis washed ‘em, then,” Niall says.

Harry laughs and punches him. Behind them, the hotel doors swing open in a too-brief burst of warmth and light, and Liam comes out. For a second all Harry can see is his profile, yellow in the lamplight, breath fogging out in white clouds. He spots them and walks over.

“Chokin’ me, mate,” Niall says.

“Huh,” Harry fumbles for a bit, “it’s that or frostbite.” But he pushes off from Niall’s back as Liam walks up to them, grinning.

“Alright, lads? You working this corner now, or still just waiting here?” He’s got his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his suede jacket, a gray beanie pulled low over his forehead. He looks warm as toast.

“We’re doing both, obviously,” Harry drawls. “What’s the euro conversion for ‘twenny pound for a twirly, guvna’?’’

“S’fine,” Niall points out. “They use sterling here, too.”

“That’s proper civilized, that is.” Harry widens his eyes in mock surprise, then has to start blowing into his hands again. They’re turning red around the knuckles from the cold.

Liam shuffles closer, still laughing a bit. “Here,” he says, tugging off his own scarf and winding it around Harry’s neck, tucking in the skin-warmed fleece like Harry’s a child in a blanket.

“Tch,” says Niall, sneering at the mollycoddling. “He just needs to turn a few tricks— get the blood going, all that.”

“You’re made of heart, anyone ever tell you that?” Harry wants to pout at Niall some more, but gets distracted by Liam tugging him closer, till they’re near enough for Liam to shove Harry’s hands in his pockets. The suede is every bit as warm as it looked. “Oh,” he says on an exhale, looking up into Liam’s face. “Cheers, Liam.”

“Can’t have our best vocalist catchin’ cold, can we?” Liam shrugs, but his smile’s gone soft at the corners, looking back at Harry.

It’s just a joke, really, nothing that should make Harry feel well-sunned all over. And it’s not like Liam doesn’t value his own voice— they wouldn’t be here if he didn’t— but maybe he just doesn’t know that Harry’s had more than one moment of wishing he could trade Liam’s buttery vibrato for his own rasp; probably because Harry’s slapped Liam round the face more times than he’s complimented him.

Harry might have felt guilty about realizing this, if he weren’t also positive that Liam knows the truth: Harry’s abuse is just his way of showing he cares.

The taxi pulls up before Niall can do more than bitch about Zayn being the best vocalist, moaning hypocritically about bias and favoritism. With another sneer at them both, Niall ducks into the backseat, followed close after by Svein, one of the band’s very patient Norwegian security staff who’s been waiting out in the cold with them all this time.

“Changed your mind about coming to the shop?” Harry asks Liam, hopeful.

Liam laughs, shaking his head. “Saving most of my skin for our comprehensive song catalog when I’m forty, Haz— told you that before.” He pulls Harry’s hands out of his pockets, giving them a quick rub between his own before setting Harry free.

“What about that— what was it— that paw-print thing you wanted. For your dog?”

“That was a joke,” Liam says. Harry must look unconvinced, because Liam adds, coughing, “It was mostly a joke. Anyway, your cab’s waiting.”

Harry looks over his shoulder, lifting a hand at the driver, then turns back to Liam. “You should come watch. Niall’s just moral support, too. Might grab some Guinness after, make a proper Irish do of it.”

Liam glances away, looking towards the street, and he laughs again, though the sound has a different ring to it now. “Just came out for some air. You lads go, have fun.”

Harry doesn’t puff his cheeks out, though he wants to. He’s nineteen now— isn’t seemly to pout. “Reckon Dublin’s better for a pub-crawl, anyway,” he says. Then he gets in the cab, shoving Niall over on the bench before reaching to pull the door shut.

He waves bye through the window, and Liam waves back absentmindedly. He’s already got his mobile out, pressed to his ear, and he’s frowning by the time the taxi turns the corner and Harry loses sight of him. Harry wonders what sort of message would have brought Liam out into the night and the chill to listen to it; what sort of conversation couldn’t be had in the privacy of the room he’s bunking in with Zayn.

Niall distracts him, asking what he’s planning for his new tat, and Harry runs through the lists he’d made this morning, during their breaks from sound-checks and rehearsals. He’s already got a shamrock, and a tall ship that isn’t for Belfast but could do, anyway— he wouldn’t mind changing the meaning of it.

But instead of leprechauns or Guinness labels, Harry starts thinking about pavements in the cold, and hands around his, and white breath fogging under his ear. It’s a nothing of a moment from the tour so far— small in a sea of sold-out arenas, fans lining up and down streets just to see them— but Harry’s still going to remember it, he knows.

“How ‘bout a snowflake,” he says, which only makes Niall snort, and go on all the way to the shop about pampered Cheshire princesses. Harry’s not listening: he’s pulled the sleeves of his hoodie up, fingers supposed to be seeking a bare patch for a new design—but somehow they’ve stuck, rubbing over the Things I can’t on his arm in circles.

Harry tugs his sleeves back down again, shivering.


Their tour has an absolutely massive number of dates, everyone knows that— and if they hadn’t known it, the number of interviewers whose eyes bug out when they ask the question would have clued them in by now. Harry thinks it’s telling that they give a different answer each time. We do it for the money, Louis’ll say, if he’s allowed to be cheeky. For the groupies, Niall says, to get a laugh. But most of the time the standard answer is: for the fans. And Liam’ll be the one to say it, or Zayn, both with their big brown eyes and sincerest smiles, and the rest of them will nod along, for once solemn-faced and humbled.

The real answer is something stupider than any of those, an unspoken agreement amongst the five of them. None of them ever explicitly came out and said it when the number of dates was still being worked out— not while they sat in chairs in the meeting rooms with glass walls and tables papered with contracts to sign— mostly because it’d already been said, weeks and months and years ago. Back during their X-Factor days, when they were still baby lamb versions of themselves: sixteen and seventeen and eighteen, and all idiots, down to the last. They’d sworn they’d be the biggest there ever was, the best. Spice Girls and U2 and N’Sync could get ready to sit down, One Direction was gonna come up next.

Anyway, it’s loads of dates. It’s most of the year away from home. It’s around the world in two-hundred and fifty-four days— might as well be a thousand— which is why it’s good they’d decided they were all too young to be daunted by exhaustion, too old to be scared of eight months without their mums.

Which is a shame, really, because when Harry comes down with a cold their last few days in Ireland, the first thing he wants is his mum. When you’ve become a giant amoeba made of phlegm and migraine headaches, being fussed at over the phone just isn’t the same as in person. The lads try to help, a bit, but there’s only so much nursemaiding you can expect out of mostly teenage man-children.

Harry looks skeptically at the murky-colored tea Liam’s just brought him. “You swear this isn’t made of ground-up rhinoceros, or like, baby sea turtle?” he asks.

Liam, perched on the edge of Harry’s mattress, quirks an eyebrow without looking away from fiddling with the portable humidifier. “Pretty sure it’s just echinacea and ginseng, mate.”

Harry sips it, trying not to wince. The tea is flavored a bit like socks and mudwater, but he’s probably shouldn’t complain. Liam’s been the first person apart from room service to come and visit Harry all morning. Louis poking his head in the door just to lob another Nicholas Sparks movie at Harry’s head doesn’t count for human contact, especially when the post-it stuck on the dvd read, ‘Get well soon, germ-factory!’

“This is the most unhealthy-tasting tea I’ve ever drunk,” Harry says. Then, in warning, “If you break that, Zayn’s gonna break a chair over your head.” The humidifier has been borrowed from Zayn on the express promise of it being returned in mint condition.

“This doesn’t have a high mode? You still sound like you’re coughing a lung up,” Liam says.

Harry rummages through the piles of wadded-up tissues on the beige hotel coverlet. “Just getting the junk out. Reckon I got some in five different colors last night— wanna see?”

“Get that near me and your life is forfeit. Drink your tea.”

“This tea is revenge, isn’t it.” Harry mutters, forgetting he’s supposed to be acting waifish and appreciative of Liam’s loving care.

“Revenge for what?” Liam says, rolling his eyes. “Always hitting me in the bollocks? Stealing my food? Being a general blight on my existence? I love it.”

“You do, don’t you. Weirdo.”

He and Liam have the kind of friendship where they can mutually torture one another and be gleeful about it. But they do try to avoid kicking each other when one of them is down. Well— Liam does, anyway.

“Have I mentioned how glad I am you don’t get ill very often?” Liam says, with that uniquely Liam mix of sarcasm and sincerity only he can manage. “Just lay quietly and drink.”

As Harry obeys, grimacing, there’s a rapid-fire series of knocks at the door and then Niall barges in, keycard in one hand, tray heaped high with plates of food in another. “Top o’ the mornin’, gooters,” he greets them, laughing at himself as he shuffles over to the bed. Niall’s been uber-Oirish for over a week now, like maybe they’ll revoke his green beer for not representing his motherland.

“Lunch service, atcher service,” Niall says, depositing the tray in Harry’s lap. Harry tries not to spill scalding tea down his bare chest as Niall hops onto the mattress beside him— keeping the tray within easy reach, Harry isn’t fooled.

Liam rescues the mug from Harry, leaving him hands free to balance the tray before the mountain of chips lands in his crotch. The vinegar smell isn’t doing much for Harry’s appetite, which wasn’t great to begin with. “Cheers? But I’m, er, not all that hungry.”

Unsurprisingly, Niall doesn’t seem fazed. “Ah, well,” he shrugs, already reaching for Harry’s burger. “Shame to waste good food, ain’t it?”

“What kind of meal is this for an invalid, anyway?” Liam objects, gesturing with the mug he’s still holding. “Where’s the soup and bread and whatnot? Least I brought him tea.”

“Fair point. Liquid’s best for fussy digestion. We could blend it— Harry, mate, gotta blender?” Niall is chewing and talking at once, doing both loudly. “Or if y’wanna play wee baby bird, reckon I could heave it back up.” When Harry laughs at that, Niall shakes his head, looking apologetic. “Or maybe not. Me mam always said a Horan stomach was a black hole from which naught could escape.”

Liam’s groan is as much laughter as it is anything else, but he looks up from the bed and goes silent, corners by his eyes smoothing out and his lips pressing flat. Harry follows his line of sight and sees Zayn hovering in the still-open doorway, one hand sunk in his pocket and the other poised to knock on the doorframe.

“Sorry— wardrobe crisis,” Zayn says, sounding bored. “Something about blue jumpers being washed with the shirts? I don’t know, I just know I saw Tommo running mad all in lavender down the hallways.”

“Well, that sounds dire,” Niall says, bouncing off the mattress, half-eaten burger still in hand. “Better go stop Caroline from crying tear stains over all our stuff.”

As Niall scoots past him, Zayn’s gaze flickers from Liam, to the floor, to Harry. He looks so determinedly indifferent that Harry wonders if he’s straining something.

“You comin’?” Zayn says, question directed at Liam, but spoken to the tops of his trainers, currently being inspected for invisible scuff marks.

“In a minute,” Liam says. Nothing’s so much as budged about his expression since Zayn appeared— Harry’s beginning to wonder if people’s faces really can get stuck, the way his mum always warned him.

Zayn just nods. “Right. Harry, hope you feel better, mate—see you tonight.”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Harry says, but Zayn’s already vanishing back into the hallway. Harry turns a face that must look as confused as he feels back to Liam. “Hey, what— ” he starts, but Liam is already shaking his head.

“Sorry, Hazza, better go. Crises are my speciality— no wonder, with you lot.” He’s grinning as he says it, face unstuck, but it’s not reaching his eyes.

“Wait,” Harry tries again, but Liam’s standing up, then leaning over to push Harry’s curls out of the way with one hand and plant a kiss on his head. He passes back the unwanted Emperor Wong tea.

“Don’t fret, alright? It’s nothing. Get some rest.”

Harry doesn’t believe him, but doesn’t press the issue— can’t, because just like Louis and Niall and Zayn, Liam’s gone, and Harry is once again left by himself in the big empty hotel room.

He sighs, flopping back into his pillows, turning up the volume of the telly so it can keep him company, since nobody else will.


It has to be the medication he’s on: even exhausted as he is after no sleep for nearly a week, doing gigs every night, barely eating and living off Niall’s never-ending supply of ginger tea and honey, Harry ends up vibrating through soundcheck at the venue in Liverpool, so much so that Marco gets fed up with Harry distracting everyone else and hollers at him to bugger off.

But that’s fine by him— Harry goes and hangs out with the Svein and the rest of his security bros for a few hours. They end up playing poker, and Harry gets to laugh at their astonished faces when he cleans up their money. But he’s reasonable about it, trading all of it back when they teach him swear words in three different languages.

Louis comes to check on him around dinner, bringing along sandwiches and cuddling. Harry stops tweeting every exotic version of ‘arsehole’ he’s learnt to @Real_Liam_Payne in order to hang his head in Lou’s lap, thumping demandingly against his thigh until Louis rolls his eyes and combs fingers through Harry’s curls. Tessa, Harry’s cat, does almost exactly the same thing when they’re at home together. Nick says they’re cross-species soulmates.

“You’ve been a right terror lately; you sure you’re feeling better?” Louis asks, sounding annoyed. It’s fine, though— Harry had realized pretty much from day one that Lou’s annoyance was mostly for covering up his concerned nougaty interior. Or maybe the annoyance is because of his nougaty interior. Harry is still debating that one.

“Fit as a fiddle,” Harry says, “Right as rain, hung like a— ”

Louis plops a hand down over Harry’s mouth. “Yes, got it, shush now. Anyway, you missed out on a proper display at sound check, didn’t you?”

Harry tugs Lou’s fingers away. “What happened?”

“Liam and Zayn slagged each other off, a bit— brief, but it was ugly. Something about phrasing changes; musical nonsense like that. They were nearly at each other’s throats by the end.”

“Huh,” is all Harry says, genuinely at a loss. Hearing about Zayn and Liam having a falling out was like hearing about a sudden aerial flight of swine. It’s not like quarrels never happen in the group, they’re all young men— full of vim and vinegar, as his mum likes to say— but prolonged tensions happen almost never.

He chews his lip, remembering the odd vibe he’d picked up from Zayn and Liam, back in Dublin. And even before then, from the start of the tour, they’ve both been quieter than normal— when it’s just them anyway, as in no cameras around, no microphones. But Harry doesn’t think there could have been trouble in paradise for that long, not really. Niall, at least, would have picked up on it: the lad’s like an Irish canary, tuned to squawk at negative emotions.

Louis tilts his eyebrows up and down at Harry. He says, “Young Harold. You look fit to hurt yourself, thinking so hard. What could you possibly know that I don’t?”

“Nothing,” Harry says, “Probably. Nevermind, don’t worry about it. What happened after?”

Louis shrugs. “Then nothing. They got over it. Got back to work.” He pops off the sofa, then, and Harry grumbles as his head thuds back down on the cushion. “Speaking of work, I have to go fray Niall’s and Liam’s shoelaces,” Louis announces, because he’s an awful person; he adds, “and I promised my sisters a Skype date, and my mum, and El,” because the awfulness is only skin-deep, really.

“Send ‘em my love,” Harry says, already picking his phone back up. There’re about half a dozen notifications waiting, all mentions from Liam’s twitter. Probably he saw all the ‘ich liebe dich, arschloch, umarmen geber’ stuff. Harry feels proud.

“Take it easy tonight, yeah?” Lou tosses back, on his way out the door. “Less with the demented squirrel act, maybe. And eat something!”

Harry huffs. Maybe he’s a bit of a demented squirrel— but at least he’s a sexy one.


When Harry’s cold finally starts clearing up, at least enough for him to be able to sing without sounding like he’s chain-smoked a pack of Zayn’s Malboros, the band gets back to squeezing in promos for the concert and the album and the new single. So on a beautiful Monday morning, bright and early, the five of them are packing into a cramped radio studio for one of those coffee and commuter morning shows that they’ve all done approximately one million times before— two million, for Harry, because Nick cajoles him and Harry’s a pushover.

It’s all a bit of a blur, if Harry’s being honest: the double handful of decongestants to make sure his throat was mucus-free probably wasn’t his most brilliant idea. But his band has his back, like always— the others lads take on the brunt of the interview so Harry doesn’t have to do much more than grunt, and the rest of the time he spends staring into the middle distance, thinking wistfully about the three or four espresso shots he’s going to get at the nearest Starbucks as soon as he’s allowed out of this chair.

He’s jarred back to the present when the radio show host— Harry’s already forgot his name, just calling the bloke ‘Hipster Goatee’ in his head— takes an unfortunate turn in his questioning.

“So, Zaynster— ” says the man, affecting a nauseating fake-friend attitude. “Zaynmeister! Things have been absolutely crazy for you lot, yeah? But you in particular, am I right?”

Zayn makes a vague, non committal sound. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry sees Louis— sat across from Zayn— pull a face and mime hanging himself, because they all know what’s coming next.

“Gossip, ugh, we hate gossip round here, love to clear it up when we can,” says the DJ, lying. “So, Zayn, the tabloids seem to be chewing on you and your relationship with Little Mix’s Perrie rather a lot in the last couple of months. Now the rumors are saying she finished with you weeks ago, before the start of your band’s World Tour. Has it been difficult for you, Zayn— embarking on a huge undertaking like this, with things on unsteady footing back home?”

It’s a rotten trick, and Harry hates when interviewers pull it out: wording their questions in such a way that no matter what answer you give, you’re bound to reveal more than you’d wanted to. It’s one of the biggest disappointments of celebrity— finding out people will still be unbelievably rude to you when you’re famous; sometimes because of it, even. The only defense Harry’s found against it so far is to just not give a shit. That has its flaws, obviously.

Harry looks at Zayn. The press of his lips means he’s pissed but he’s playing it cool, all slow blinks and blank, unrevealing face. Except he’s clearly at a loss for how to navigate the landmines of Hipster Goatee’s question, because he opens his mouth and all he says is, “Er— I don’t, really. That’s, uh. The tour’s, like... it’s been great, so far— ”

Liam cuts in, coming to Zayn’s rescue. “We should stick to talking about the album and the band, yeah? Our outside relationships don’t really factor into it.”

Harry double-takes at him, shocked, because Liam looks exactly as annoyed as Zayn’s pretending not to be. Hipster Goatee hems and haws for a minute, tries to circle back to the girlfriend issue from a different angle, but Liam shuts that down, too, with an untactful declaration of: “Sorry, but all that’s off the table, we’d prefer not to talk about it.”

No doubt Liam’ll get a wrist-slap from the label’s PR rep later on, for the bluntness if not the avoidance, but Harry can’t help but cheer on the inside. He’d been planning to ask Nick throw some shade on this goateed bloke at the next International DJing conference, or whatever, but Liam handling it like this is much better than Harry’s passive-aggressive plan.

And that’s the end of it— the topic switches to Twitter feed questions from the listeners, which any of them could answer in their sleep. Harry stops paying attention— he’s watching Zayn, who’s leaning over Niall to shoot Liam a surprised and grateful look— and Harry thinks: good, this must be it, they must be whole again.

Except Liam doesn’t look at Zayn; he’s got his eyes on the desk, jaw clenched tight. Niall and Louis field most of the rest of the questions, throwing around jokes with an air of desperation, but there’s no lightening the atmosphere after that. As soon as the red light flicks off, interview over, Liam tosses his headset down and stomps out of the studio, not bothering to even shake hands with any of the staff at the station. Not for the first time in their band’s history, Niall’s charm and gift of gab is the only thing that saves them from looking like complete knobs.

Liam goes back in a separate car— to work out, he says, which is Liam-code for ‘be by myself and sulk’— while the rest of them hit up the catered breakfast at the station. And if they each laugh too loudly when Louis starts a food-fight with the bread rolls, well, it’s better than the alternative. No-one wants to touch the Liam-and-Zayn-shaped elephant in the room with a ten-foot pole.


The next time they’re all five together is after lunch, when they’re at the arena for soundcheck. Liam still looks withdrawn and frustrated, if a bit sweaty, and the rest of them are still picking bits of egg out of their hair. The disparity makes Harry’s stomach tie in a knot, cold with guilt, and all he really wants to do is make Liam smile again, joke around like the rest of them are doing.

Also, Harry might have had a few or several cups of coffee at breakfast, and they might be mixing badly with his medicine: it’s hard to tell through the way he feels like he might shake apart if he doesn’t keep moving— like a shark will suffocate if it stops swimming, or whatever— so all-in-all, really, Harry doesn’t think he can be held responsible for his actions. In his defense, a backflip off the stage scenery seems brilliant at the time.

Harry fucks it up, unsurprisingly, bashing his head on the ground. It hurts like hell— but it’s also bloody funny, so a second later he’s laughing his arse off.

“Pour one out for me, gents,” Harry says, giggling at the stars in his eyes. “Reckon I’ve killed m’self.”

“Well, that was spectacularly stupid,” Louis says, hopping down off the stairs and reaching Harry first. “Good job. How hard did you hit your head?”

“There were some ground,” Harry says, not very coherently. Then Liam’s running over, and Harry has to try and figure out which of him is the real one. “Heyyy, Liam. You’ve got three twins, Li, did y’know?” he says.

Liam reaches for his phone. “Bugger the concert; you’re going to hospital.”

“Aww, no, it was a joke.” Harry levers himself up on his elbows. “I was kidding, come on. I was mostly kidding. Just need to have a lie down, okay? I’m really fine.”

“We can take him to the green room, there’s ice and things in there,” Niall offers. But Liam’s already reaching for Harry, pulling Harry’s arm across his shoulders, the hand still clutching his phone curling around Harry’s waist, helping him get to his feet.

“I got it, I’ll take him. Go let Marco and the others know what’s happened, would you?”

Despite being in pain, Harry can’t help but enjoy this overbearing and overprotective side of Liam that comes out when someone gets hurt. Likes it a bit too much, really, he’s hazy enough to admit. It’s a good thing Harry dislikes discomfort on about an equal par to how much he likes being fussed over; he might have found himself in a body cast several times over, else.

Liam puts Harry on the couch in the green room, which is lovely, and then goes away somewhere, which is less lovely. Harry hears murmurings that might be Liam persuading several dozen concerned parties that Harry just needs peace and quiet, but thank you, and then Liam reappears next to the couch with the aforementioned ice, and a pillow.

“I like that you’re a bear,” Harry says, dreamily, putting his thoughts into words in a way that might have been terrifying, if he weren’t too out of it to care.

There’s a pause. Then Liam says, “He’s a nice— don’t get me wrong, but I think you probably spend too much time around that Grimshaw fellow.”

“Not like that,” Harry snorts, then wishes he hadn’t, because ouch, his head. “Like a mama bear, sort of? Anyway, not hairy enough t’be a bear bear. Either kinda bear.”

When Liam replies, he sounds even more worried than before. “I don’t know if I should let you sleep or not— what if you have concussion?”

Harry lifts one hand, flapping it in what he hopes is a reassuring way. “Nah, ‘ve had plenty of concussions before. This feels different; not as echoey, like.”

“Harry,” Liam sounds exasperated. “I’d say you’re the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met, except there’s Tommo,” he says, and the familiarity of that is almost more soothing than the ice.

“It’s never my fault,” Harry insists. Harry might have laughed, too, except the upset press of Liam’s mouth is reminding Harry of the radio interview this morning, and Harry remembers that he’s the one with an actual reason to be brassed at Liam, not the other way round.

“Maybe you should try to sleep, okay?” Liam says, serious now. “I’m gonna ring your doctor for you.”

“Hang on,” Harry says, grabbing Liam’s wrist to stop him lifting his mobile. Harry thinks for a moment, trying to gather what he wants to say. It’s a bit difficult— his head might not be throbbing as badly, but it’s still swimming like a fish underwater. He wonders if it’s potential brain damage or just the cold medicine that’s doing him in. He says, “Hang on, you lied t’me.”

“Alright, fine: you’re more ridiculous than Louis, you win.”

“Nooo,” Harry says, “About Zayn. Before, you told me it was nothing, but s’not nothing, is it?”

Liam isn’t looking at Harry— he’s staring at his hand, where Harry’s got hold of him. But before Harry can let go, Liam’s reversing out of it, gently, until he’s the one who has hold of Harry. “That’s not— ” he deflects. “Listen, Hazza, can we not talk about this when you’ve got a head injury?”

Harry pushes. He’s a pushy person. “How bad is it, really? With you two.”

“You know, normally it’s not this difficult to get you to focus on yourself.” Liam’s upset with Harry, but his fingers lie warm and quiet against Harry’s skin; his index is pressing in at Harry’s pulse point, his thumbnail catching lightly on the can’t in I can’t change.

“Liam— ” Harry says. He wants to fix Liam with a penetrating stare, but it’s too hard, because his eyes keep blinking shut, vision going unfocused at the edges. He doesn’t mean to, but he’s starting to fade now that his body’s gone still— the buzz of caffeine being eaten up by the heavy press against the inside of his eyes, the tired ache in his limbs.

“I’ll make you a deal, okay?” Liam says, with a smile on his face like he knows. “Doze off, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

The couch feels like quicksand that Harry’s sinking into, and he thinks that’s maybe not a great deal but he can’t figure out why, exactly— especially when he can’t focus on what Liam’s face is doing anymore. “Fine, alright,” Harry mumbles, reluctant. Liam makes a humming noise, like a shush.

When Harry realizes what the problem with the deal is, it’s already too late to take it back— the heavy darkness of sleep is reaching up and dragging him underneath.


The only problem is that Harry’s been distracted by life, constantly— and also he’d been sort of falling unconscious at the time— so he doesn’t remember about the deal until Saturday, the end of the week. It’s the last night of gigs before a much desired and needed break.

They’re in Birmingham, at soundcheck, and rather than an extended session of mucking around while exasperated people try to herd them over to this piece of tape or that, they’re doing an actual full-on practice for once, because Zayn’d wanted to change most of his runs to something less ‘mainstream,’ as he’d put it.

Which is cool, Harry doesn’t mind— except that Zayn’s had three tries now at Over Again and the rest of them are still waiting for the chance to jump in on the refrain, because Zayn hasn’t got that far without screwing up.

It’s Liam, unbelievably, who loses his patience: Zayn starts the verse, shakes his head, stops, throws a hand up to Marco and the band, saying, “Sorry, sorry guys, from the top again?”

And Liam says, “Maybe try it on tempo this time, Zayn?” with this sneer twisting his mouth into something unrecognizable, turning him into someone who looks and sounds so completely unlike himself that Harry can only gape.

Niall, sensitive canary that he is, jumps in with a, “Hey, come on, bro— ” one hand on Liam’s chest like he needs to be held back, but Liam’s just standing there.

Zayn’s already whipped around, bristling like Harry’s cat does when a shadow crosses her wrong. Zayn’s sneering, “Nah, it’s fine— he thinks he’s the next Simon Cowell, let him have a go at me.” He might look indifferent but he’s not— Harry’s the closest, he can see the knuckles on Zayn’s hand are bleached out from gripping his mic too tight.

Before Liam can retort, Marco’s stepping in, clipboard and headset and everything, a reminder that they’re all supposed to be professionals, or something— they’re wasting people’s time and money when shit like this goes down. But Marco doesn’t pull out a lecture, or get Paul to tell them off. He just says, hastily: “Alright, you lot— fifteen minute break, then we’ll run it again. Meet back here.”

Zayn’s taking off for the nearest exit before Marco’s even done talking, yanking a crumpled cigarette pack out of his back pocket. Liam’s gone, too, stomping in the opposite direction like they’re magnets with flipped poles that can’t help but push apart.

The three of them that remain: Harry, Niall, Louis— have an exchange with very little talking; mostly it involves communication through body-language shorthand. Niall jerks a thumb over his shoulder, the way Zayn went, the tilt of his eyebrows saying, I’ve got that covered; Harry nods, walking backwards towards where Liam had vanished. Louis gives Harry a surprised look, like, You sure you can handle it?

Okay, yeah, maybe Harry’s the soothee rather than the soother, in most cases— that’s fair— but Liam owes him an explanation, and Harry knows it’s time to collect.

Harry does a complicated eye-roll to convey all of that, and Louis just shrugs and stays behind, leaning his hip on the nearest stage prop while breaking the silence by saying, “Fine— I’ll just wait here like a lump, shall I?” aloud.


Harry finds Liam in one of the hallways leading up to the stage, sitting on the concrete floor with his back to the wall. He’s chewing on his fingernails in a way that’d set their stylist, Lou, clucking at him— but Harry doesn’t think it’d help, just now, to start teasing Liam about his manicure.

Which is not ideal, because ninety percent of their interactions involve teasing each other, leaving Harry a bit lost as to how to proceed. He can’t think of anything to say that isn’t, ‘Mind telling me why you’re acting like a pillock?’ actually— but since Harry doesn’t want Liam to turn turtle and vanish into himself, Harry decides to keep that one behind his lips.

Rather than speaking, he squats down next to Liam, close enough for their arms and knees to knock together, and does his best to project patience.

“I’m sorry,” Liam says, eventually. “I should— I should go back, huh? Apologize to Marco. And to— to the other lads.” He cuts himself off, teeth sunk into his lower lip in a way that looks painful.

The fact that he can’t even say Zayn’s name right now proves to Harry that the situation is a lot more dire than he’d feared. Whatever this thing is, it isn’t meant to be talked about in a dingy, windowless tunnel in less time than it takes to make a pizza. Harry comes to a decision on the spot.

Harry stands up, offering a hand down to Liam. “Wanna get out of here?” he asks.

Liam peers at the hand, then Harry’s face. “What— like, back to practice?”

“No, like, out-out. Practice is dead boring, anyway.”

“Haz, you’ve been skiving off since last week.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I’ve been ill and stuff?” Harry fake-coughs into his fist, then holds it back out, grinning. “I feel faint, really. You should take me back to the hotel, make sure I don’t pass out on the way.”

As soon as Harry sees the wry twist to Liam’s mouth, he know he’s won. Liam disdains Harry’s hand, standing up on his own. “We shouldn’t,” he tries, one last-ditch effort, but Harry’s got him by the wrist, tugging him towards the exit. Liam’s caught in the tide, now, might as well just go with the flow.

“We shouldn’t,” Harry agrees, turning so his back hits the push-bar on the door, shoving it open with his weight. “Let’s, anyway.” And he smiles his brightest smile, pulling Liam out with him into the sun.


They end up back at the hotel, but not in their rooms. “That’s the first place they’ll look for us,” Harry had warned, expert on skiving that he is.

“You want to go swimming?” Liam says, gazing around the empty indoor pool. He doesn’t seem totally opposed to the idea, though— Harry is pleased. It’s to be expected: Liam takes to anything resembling exercise like a pig takes to mud.

Harry hadn’t planned on doing laps, exactly— more along the lines of splash fights and floating around till their fingers wrinkle. Which is pretty much how it plays out, except for Liam insists on keeping their pants on, even though skinny dipping is obviously the best kind of dipping ever.

When he reckons Liam’s been lulled into a false sense of security, Harry pounces. Literally and figuratively. “Alright, now spill,” he demands, clinging to Liam’s back like a limpet.

Liam flounders under Harry’s weight for a second, but steadies them with a hand on one of the ladders, using his other hand to try to— unsuccessfully— pry Harry off. “Spill what,” he says, with an equally unsuccessful attempt at ignorance.

Harry shakes wet hair off his face, ignoring Liam’s noises of complaint as water sprays everywhere. “Your guts. We had a deal, remember?” Their legs are tangling together under the water. He pokes his toenails into Liam’s calves. “What’s this thing with you and Zayn, tell me.”

What with the way Harry’s front is plastered all along the wet line of Liam’s spine, it isn’t difficult to feel him tense up. But he just sighs, making it clear how put-upon he is. He says, “We had a fight.”

“Right, I saw,” says Harry, thinking back to Liam’s cold sneer when he’d said, on tempo.

Liam hesitates. “No, we fought— it was about a month ago. Around the start of the tour.”

Harry is shocked enough to let go. “A month,” he blurts, but doesn’t know what to say after that.

“Harry— Haz, breathe, would you?” Liam’s saying, and Harry comes out of the panicked swirl of his thoughts to the damp cool feel of Liam’s hands on his shoulders, holding Harry up so he doesn’t accidentally drown himself while imagining their band dissolving, crumbling apart like a sandcastle because Harry’s been too self-absorbed and distracted to say anything.

“It’s going to be alright, okay? I’m gonna talk to Zayn, I just— I haven’t, yet.” Liam says, finishing with a wince.

“What happened?” Harry asks, hoarse.

Liam moves away, leaving Harry to tread water on his own, but Liam just levers his arms over the lip of the pool, staring at the mosaic-tiled walls and wiping water off his face in quick, frustrated gestures. “I don’t know— I just. It’s all got so fucked up. Maybe it’s my fault, maybe— ” he laughs, the sound grating like it caught on something coming out. “The stupidest thing is I know it is, but I’m still so bloody angry at him.”

“What happened?” Harry asks again, gently this time. He swims up next to Liam, gripping onto the pool edge. The concrete feels like sandpaper against his fingertips.

“You remember when— back in January, with Zayn and that girl, the waitress— ” Liam says, and Harry nods— of course he does. He remembers the scandal breaking, five different PR reps from the label ringing all five of them at once, telling them to keep their mouths shut until they had a strategy; remembers the sense of outrage and urgency they always felt when their private lives got made public. He remembers Zayn dropping everything to get on a plane back to London, remembers pitying him, and planning to take him out for a pint when it was all blown over. Which Harry still hasn’t done, come to think of it.

“Well, Zayn had rung me, the day after— ” Liam bites his lip, and Harry hears the he shagged her that isn’t said. “Anyway, he was scared, and he was upset, he thought she might have taken some pictures or something, and I told him— I told him he was a prick, and an idiot, and if anything bad happened it was his own fault.”

“Oh,” is all Harry can say; the frustrated guilt on Liam’s face is saying everything else.

In another world— some alternate universe where they’ve all five managed to find each other and become mates without ever becoming international superstars— that would have been exactly what Liam ought to have said. Because in that world, if a guy cheats on his girl, then it’s a mistake that’s just between them, and maybe their mutual friends; it doesn’t have to be a seven-days wonder for the rest of the world to gossip over, or make jokes about on late-night shows. It doesn’t have to be a scandal that could potentially wreck people’s careers.

They’re not in that world, obviously— but the fucked up thing is, they’re all five of them still just regular, idiot human lads. Lads who were lucky enough to have discovered early on that even when they were pushing each other’s boundaries, driving each other up walls, somehow they could still all get on. And everything had clicked, then, like the stars and planets aligning around them; they’d become a family, somehow, without even trying to.

Maybe it’s more than family, even: they’re friends, brothers, comrades and coworkers— all four at once, a bizarre dynamic that can’t be picked apart or understood from the outside. Harry is in it, and even he doesn’t fully get what they are to each other half the time. He only knows the four of them are what’s kept him mostly sane through all the insanity of the past couple of years— through the fame that you think you’ve always wanted until you have it, and then you realize it’s more than being recognized on the street: it’s thundering crowds, loud enough to deafen, and cameras in your face, everywhere, and strangers trying to sneak into your hotel rooms, and sometimes not being able to even walk through the town where you grew up without a line of security guards with locked arms holding back their fans.

So there’s all of that they’ve been through, and a hundred-thousand other moments besides, and Liam and Zayn have always been close, among the five of them. Harry tries to imagine calling Louis a prick who deserves what he gets, and meaning it— but he can’t do it. And saying anything nasty to Niall is like punching a wooly lamb. For any of them to fight, maybe it makes sense that it’s Liam and Zayn. They’d know best how to hurt each other.

“I know it’s not an excuse, it was just— it was because of Dani,” Liam says, into the silence, and Harry’s heart breaks that little bit more, because he ought to have known, seen that coming.

“When all that happened, we’d just barely patched things up after our last row, and then— then we were back on the rocks, suddenly, and I felt like I was losing hold of her again, and I wanted something to blame that wasn’t me, wasn’t our jobs, this life— ” Liam’s hands curl against the floor, fingernails digging into the grout. Harry wants to reach out, touch them, but there’s a weird cold knot in stomach, like maybe he shouldn’t touch, just now— like he’s not allowed, not when Liam’s talking about her with his voice sounding like that, his eyes looking so lost.

“Did she...” Harry trails off, still not sure of his limits.

“We’re on a break,” Liam answers the question Harry hadn’t asked, mouth curving into a wry shape. “Indefinitely. Well— she said for as long as the tour, at least— I didn’t really— ” he works fingers through his hair again, scrubbing, dampness making it all stand on end. He laughs, bitterly. “She says it’ll be good for us, a test like this— if we make it through then we’ll know it’s meant to be... something like that? It made sense, the way she explained it.” His mouth tightens into a line. “So much sense I didn’t say a fucking thing to try and change her mind, actually.”

Harry can’t decide how he feels about this news: upset at Danielle for putting that look on Liam’s face, or angry at Liam for letting it happen, because he’s supposed to be better than that. He’s good at love, because he’s always worked at it, even with the four of them— Liam has always been the one who tries so bloody hard all the time, at everything. It’s the best thing about him, when it’s not maddening.

And, well, if Harry’s being honest— a tiny, guilty, selfish part of him wants to be pleased. Because Liam when he’s single is a version of Liam that Harry likes almost better than the original. Single Liam has more time for Harry. Single Liam is more restless, more willing to paint the town, go to clubs, pull girls, get tattoos. Harry has been secretly missing having that Liam around, ever since he and Dani’d patched things up around Christmas. Harry still goes out with his other mates, Nick and Josh and them, but going out with Liam is a rarity. It had felt kind of special, somehow.

Really, this is why it should be Louis here, and not Harry— Lou’s sarcastic eyebrows back at the arena had been right. Harry’s not good at this, at all, he’s an awful human being— he can’t even be properly sympathetic for a mate who’s suffering, he’s just thinking about himself. Harry ought to just sink to the bottom of this pool and drown himself, the world would be better off.

Because he doesn’t have anything better to offer, Harry asks, after an awkwardly long delay, “So, when was this?”

Liam doesn’t answer straight away. He heaves himself out of the pool, cascading water, then turns back and offers Harry a hand out, like he’d heard Harry contemplating watery suicide just a second ago. Harry takes the hand, shivering as the cold air hits his wet skin.

He’s swaddling himself in his fourth luxury-sized towel by the time Liam answers the question. “Back when we were in Belfast, I suppose?”

Harry almost drops the towel he’s knotting at his waist. “It never was,” he says, shocked for about the twentieth time today. Liam’s got his back to Harry, toweling off, but the line of his shoulders is hunched. “You might have said something before,” Harry says, trying— and probably failing— to not come off accusatory.

“You’ve been poorly,” is all Liam says.

“Well— did you tell Niall, or Louis?”

The line of his mouth when Liam finally turns back around tells Harry all he needs to know about that. It’s another thing he wants to be mad at Liam for, keeping everything all bottled in when anyone with a brain could have told him he was bound to explode— and he has— but then Liam’s eyelashes sweep down to his cheeks, black from the dampness still clinging to them, and strange things go tight and hollow in Harry’s chest and he can’t do it.

Harry takes those few steps closer, until he can knock Liam’s shoulder with his fist. “I’m sorry, mate,” Harry says, shoving away everything that isn’t sympathy and guilt. He’s nineteen, now; isn’t seemly to run on id alone, or so adults keep telling him. “You had all this going on, and I never even— I’ve been a proper tit, honestly.”

Liam looks up, frowning. “No, come on, stop. Believe me, I feel shit enough for the both of us.”

“Sod that,” Harry says. “Maybe I didn’t know before, but I know now. Not letting you get away with any more of this gloomy, staring at rain-spattered windows lark.”

For the first time in what feels like forever, Liam cracks a smile. “Is that so,” is all he says.

“Maybe you haven’t met me,” Harry grins, showing his dimple along with his teeth. “I can be a bit distracting?” He does a little shimmy into Liam’s personal space. The effect is probably ruined by Harry’s baby Tarzan hair and the toga made of towels, but whatever. Liam laughs like the hurt’s being punched out of him, and Harry thinks that’s victory enough to start with.

They get dressed, then, and head back to the arena to get hollered at by Marco and Paul and seven other people. Svein drives them over— brilliant Svein, who’d sneaked them out in the first place, who’d stood guard over their pool-time, who still owes Harry a hundred quid from poker the other day, but who’s counting— and for the rest of the night, Harry tries as many times as he can to catch Liam’s eye and smile, bright like the lights, and feels a miniature symphony go off under his ribcage every time he gets a smile back. It buoys him more than the screams from the fans, fills him up like helium, makes him want to try spinning in circles until he takes off like a helicopter. He tells himself it’s the cold medicine and the high from the tour combined, that it’s an aberration, that tomorrow he’ll stop taking them and go back to how he was before.

That’s what he prays for, anyway. Harry can’t take any more eleventh hour revelations: he’s still got one-hundred and sixty-five days of this tour left to try and survive.


Harry ends up spending most of the break back in Holmes Chapel, getting fussed over properly by his mum and annoying Gemma, finally shaking off the last little bit of his cold that’d been clinging on. The most exciting part of his week is his Skype-date with Nick and Tessa but, weirdly enough, Harry doesn’t mind it, or really even miss all the mates and plans and parties he’d had to cancel on. There’s a lot to be said for total indolence.

As it turns out, when the tour starts back up in London, Harry gets plenty of opportunities to make up for his lack of an MTV-style Cancun Spring Break. Nick snatches Harry up practically as soon as they set foot offstage in the O2, hustling him out to some fancy new club where what appears to be half the city’s population is waiting to congratulate Harry with a drink on the success of the tour so far. Harry appreciates it immensely. Going abroad might be exotic and fun, where they’re celebrities and stars, but it’s right here at home where Harry feels most like a king— golden and worshipped and adored.

They carouse through the night, as they do, and when he wakes up the next day, Harry sings and laughs and dances through another amazing concert, and then goes out afterwards again, hardly even catching his breath. But he pays the price: on their free day, Harry stays laid up in bed till two with his hangover, recovering from enjoying himself so much. He finally remembers his promise with a stab of guilt when Liam texts to check in on him.

Did you talk to Zayn yet? Harry types back, rolling under his duvet to escape a hateful beam of sunlight.

define talk. is Liam’s cagey answer, which Harry translates to mean Liam’s said nothing to Zayn over the break, is still living a pathetic lonely existence of navelgazing, is still filling up tattered notebook pages with lyrics drenched in manpain.


In the interests of getting Liam to loosen up and forget his woes, on their last night in London, Harry invites him along with the usual crew when they go out after the show. It’s mostly Nick, and Harry, and their mutual friends from the indie music underground and the radio station, and then about a dozen other vague acquaintances— which is not Liam’s scene, typically speaking. But since Harry says he’ll drag Liam out by his ear if he has to, Liam agrees to come.

Harry does his best to supervise Liam’s night, make sure he has a good time. But Harry is a bit of a hot commodity amongst the crew, so he’s also having to spread himself around: dance with various people, drink the things that get put into his hands, chat up different friends of his friends. At one point Harry spots Liam chatting up two lovely blonde birds— twins, possibly— and he feels such a roll of what must be pride in his stomach that he has to immediately go drown it with tequila.

Maybe a bit too much tequila, though, because about an hour later he and Liam end up back at Harry’s, with Harry hanging his head over the toilet bowl, and Liam sitting on the lip of the bathtub so he can hold Harry’s hair out of the way and rub soothing circles into his back.

He takes the water that Liam hands him, rinses and spits, then drains the rest of the glass in one go. After that he can’t do much more than lean his forehead against Liam’s leg until the room stops spinning so badly.

“See,” Harry says, weakly. “Tol’ you I’m great at distraction. Bet you’re not thinkin’ about how miserable you are, am I right?”

Liam chuckles. Harry can feel the vibration against his cheek. “Nah, you’re being miserable enough for two, cheers.”

“Welcome,” Harry says.

After a bit, Harry opens his eyes, craning his neck to peer up at Liam. Liam’s staring into the middle distance, either lost in thought or not thinking at all. He’s still rubbing Harry’s shoulders and back like he’s forgot he’s doing it. Harry tugs at his ankle, wanting his attention.

“M’sorry I’m terrible at this,” Harry says, glum. “S’why you need Zayn, really. He’d know how to fix you.”

Liam’s hand stops moving. He looks away from the wall, down at Harry. It’s hard to tell from this angle, but the tilt of his smile seems wrong somehow— unhappy in a way that Liam’s smiles should never be. “Am I broken?” Liam jokes, but his voice is quiet, like they’re telling secrets.

“Maybe a bit,” Harry says back, equally soft.

There’s a pause. Liam’s smile falls away altogether. “Maybe you’re right,” he says. “But what can I do?”

That’s a simple solution, one Harry actually knows. “Talk to him, talk it all out. Like, tonight even. Wake him up if y’have to,” he says.

Liam’s forehead scrunches up, a clear sign that he disapproves. “Haz, come on. I’m not leaving you in this state.”

“I’m fine,” Harry says, turning so that he can prop himself against the sink instead of Liam’s legs, setting him free. “You got me home. I’ve spent a night on the floor of the loo before.”

It’s a joke that also happens to be one-hundred percent true, but Liam doesn’t laugh. His eyebrows knit to make that face he has, the one that makes him seem like his whole soul is drooping. Harry hates that look. Five seconds under it and he already wants to promise he’ll never go out drinking again, which would be a terrible waste of his youth; anyway, he gets bought so many drinks, constantly— it’d be rude to turn them down.

This logic makes sense to Harry. He resists the eyebrows. It’s quite possible he’s still more than halfway wasted.

“Harry— ” Liam starts, but Harry interrupts him, groaning.

“Don’t, don’t— your eyebrows are a force for evil.”


“You know—” Harry waves a hand, “Like, they’re your superpower.”

Liam bursts out laughing. His face clears, and the smile he pulls out for Harry next is a real one. “If that’s true, then I know what yours is.”

Harry leans forward, pleased that Liam is playing along. “What’s mine; is it my hair?”

Liam pokes a finger into Harry’s left cheek. “These dimples. Worse than a deathray, I swear.”

Harry laughs helplessly for a while, Liam right there with him. After they’ve quieted, Harry kicks out with his socked foot, catching Liam in the shin.

“Seriously,” he says. “Zayn.”

“I know, believe me.” Liam sighs. But he doesn’t get up.

“You’re too good a mate to keep him in limbo like this.” Harry tells him, stealing the guilt-trip card from his mum.

Liam flinches. “You don’t— I can’t just—” he swallows, expression turning mournful again. “I said things to him. Besides— besides the calling him prick a thing, I mean.”

“Like what things.”

If Liam’s eyebrows had been sad before, they’re absolutely tragic now. “I might have said— that Perrie would be better off. Like, without him. That she might as well dump him.”

Harry shrugs, drunkenly philosophical about it. “So? Tell him you were talking bollocks. That you didn’t mean it.”

“At the time, I did mean it?” says Liam, honest to a fault.

“Well— that’s the beauty of being human, isn’t it,” Harry says, wiggling his foot against Liam’s leg in lieu of patting him on his shoulder, or something similarly comforting. “We’re allowed to change our minds about people, and ourselves, and all that.”

Liam’s fingers flex around the lip of the tub, shoulders drawn in tight, until suddenly they slouch, tension bleeding out. He stretches his legs out to trap Harry’s ankles between them. “Stop that,” he says, with a small grin. “Your hair’s too curly to be sounding that wise.”

“M’also too drunk,” Harry agrees, failing at tugging his feet free. Granted, he isn’t trying very hard. “Anyway, just go, will you? Find Zayn, kiss, make up. If y’can try to run towards each other across a flowery meadow, even better.”

“Fine, alright, I’m going.” Liam stands up, laughing. “But just to make you shut up about it, honestly.” He knocks Harry’s legs out of the way of the door, gently though, and when Liam walks past his fingers close around Harry’s shoulder in a quick, grateful squeeze.

“If you don’t cry at him, you’re not doin’ it right,” Harry says, reaching up to catch Liam’s hand before he can let go. “Send pictures, need proof.”

“God, you sound like Louis.”

“Could be he’s rubbed off on me.” Harry wags his eyebrows lewdly.

Liam laughs. “You’re barking,” he says.

“You love me.” Harry lets go of Liam’s hand, smirking.

“Might do,” is all Liam says, but so mildly that Harry’s heart tries to expand and turn over, both at once. It hurts in the best way possible.

“Hey, Liam,” Harry calls out, stopping him in the open doorway. He turns back to Harry, one hand on the frame, brown eyes open and curious. Harry can’t take that Liam looks at everyone like that: like what they have to say is the most important thing in the world for him to hear. Because Harry wants that, too much, all the time.

“If Zayn doesn’t forgive you, I’ll be your new favorite, alright? As a personal favor.” Harry smiles slow, shows he’s kidding; it’s too stupid to be anything but kidding.

“Oh, as a favor?” Liam scoffs. “Anyway, Tommo’s my favorite.”

“Well,” Harry says. “Maybe you’ll change your mind.” There’s this weird, unfamiliar fluttering going on in the pit of his stomach—for a moment he thinks he might be sick again, until he recognizes the feeling as shyness.

Those eyes are running over him, soft and thoughtful, and Harry’s heart tries to somersault again but he makes himself keep smiling, doesn’t duck his head; afraid that would give away something he doesn’t want to let go of just yet. And then Liam’s answering in that same teasing, mild voice:

“Yeah, might do.”

Harry bites his lower lip, trying to keep his mouth from spreading outside the bounds he’s allowed. “‘Night, Liam,” he says.

“‘Night, Hazza,” Liam answers. He lets go of the doorframe, walking backwards with a small wave goodbye, then his footsteps are shushing into the carpet of Harry’s hallway and he’s gone.

After that, it’s just Harry left with his old, dear friend: the toilet bowl.

The thing about Harry’s house is that he hasn’t really lived two consecutive months in this place since he bought it— he’s always either traveling, or crashing at a mate’s, or visiting home. And tonight, now that Liam’s gone, Harry’s reminded of why. The walls seem to radiate emptiness back at him, the carpet and curtains and sheets smelling too clean, too new and unlived in. It’s half the reason he’d adopted Tess, really, but by now Harry’s cat has lived at Nick’s longer than she’s lived here. There might be something telling in that, maybe, but he’s too tired to suss it out.

Despite his bravado about sleeping in the loo, after ten minutes Harry can’t take it. He drags himself to his bedroom, curling in a ball under his duvet, deciding to hide from everything until their morning bus call. Head still spinning, he wonders what the world will look like when he wakes up. One night, and it already seems like loads has changed.


Harry never really finds out what Liam and Zayn say to each other that night, but by the time the tour’s in Newcastle the two of them are sorted. They smile at each other again until their eyes disappear into crinkles, and grin without showing too many teeth. It feels a bit like things have rewound back to their X-Factor days: seeing Liam and Zayn sitting tucked together in the lounge of the tourbus, reading through the heaps of comics and graphic novels that their fans keep giving them. Instead of the cold and awkward silences of the past month, they’re once again finishing each other’s sentences; Liam’s shirts start to smell like smoke just from sheer proximity.

No-one else in the group mentions the fighting, even to note the absence of it— pretending it never was, probably. So sometimes Harry wonders if he’s the only one who sees the way Zayn sometimes curls his fingers into the hem of Liam’s t-shirts when they’re stood together, or the quiet relief written on Zayn’s face when he thinks no-one’s watching.

And it’s because of those moments that Harry tries very hard not to be jealous, not to be anything besides outrageously pleased that they’re all back to getting on like a house on fire. It’s just that he’s got used to Liam being around more, lately, that’s all. Harry’s always been much more generous with his own attention than with his friends’. Even when he tells himself he’s nineteen, that jealousy is unbecoming, he has to force himself to dive for someone else’s lap besides Liam’s when it comes to picking places to sit.

It’s just unfair, is all, how many times a day that particular choice presents itself.


“Come off it, that was clearly a foul!” Louis leaps up off the couch, looking ready to march through the tv screen and change the score of the game through sheer force of will.

Niall, who’s never been much fussed by the sight of Tommo in a strop, hefts up his game controller, waggling it. “Wanna go best two out of three, Louisa?”

Before Louis can answer, Liam grabs his controller— Louis may or may not have been gearing up to throw it at Niall’s head— solemnly intoning, “Hey, everyone knows the rules: losing is losing, and the loser has to give a forfeit. Break these sacred rules and the gods of FIFA shall become tetchy and rain despair upon the land.”

While Harry and Liam start up a new game, Niall hovers over a disgruntled Louis, dictating “@NiallOfficial is a God amongst lesser mortals,” and making sure it gets posted unaltered to Tommo’s twitter feed. No retractions allowed, either.

It’s turning into a good night. They’re circling back to Sheffield and a transit of other English cities they’d hit a few weeks ago, like deja vu, before gearing up for the leg of the tour Harry’s looking forward to the most: Europe. They’re all hotly anticipating it, really, which— well. The fans in Sweden are something special, he’ll just say that.

So they’re all five on the bus right now, driving down overnight from their gig in Glasgow— and while they should be sleeping snug in their bunks, resting from a long day’s work for another long day to come, instead they’re all wired wide awake and winding down with Xbox tournaments.

It’s a night like a hundred others they’ve had before, nothing particularly extraordinary about it, except for that the unmentioned rift in the group’s been mended, raw edges stitched together and made whole. Instead of sitting in an opposite corner of the couch, absorbed on his phone like he might have done a week ago, Zayn’s hammering his hands on Liam’s shoulders, cheering him on to victory.

Sometimes the five of them can be in a room together, and it’s just a room they’re sharing. But then there’re the times when they’re all, like—there. Involved. Present. It’s one of Harry’s favorite things on the planet; if he ever figures out how to translate that feeling of fun and wholeness into pictograms, he’ll get it tattooed over his heart.

Liam’s team is set on grinding Harry’s into dust— Liam has home field advantage, and cheerleaders, and Tommo screaming advice, so whatever, it’s been rigged—when Zayn’s mobile starts buzzing with a call, ringtone piping out ‘DNA by Little Mix.

It’s a bit against the sanctity of two A.M. game nights, but Zayn presses his phone to his ear as he jumps off the couch, saying, “Hey, babe, ya there? Couldn’t sleep?” in a voice gone all girlfriend-sweet. He heads back towards the sleeping area of the bus, mouthing apologies to the rest of them before sliding the privacy curtain shut.

No-one else seems to be paying attention— Niall and Louis are trying to mutually strangle each other, or maybe just cuddle, Harry can’t tell because he’s busy trying to look over at Liam without looking like he’s looking. Liam, for his part, is just staring at the telly. Except the screen’s been stuck on a scorecard for a minute, unchanging, nothing worth that much dedicated focus, and Liam’s eyes have that same terrible blankness in them that Harry’d seen back in Belfast. So Harry, he kind of— just— panics, a bit.

He grabs Liam’s cheeks in both hands, pulling him in for a loud, sloppy kiss on the mouth. It’s a few seconds or less, hardly anything to write home about, but Harry’s heart has taken off in a run by the time he’s pulled back. Already a little giddy, when he sees the stunned look on Liam’s face Harry immediately bursts out laughing.

Liam’s eyebrows fold into one another, that endearing look of consternation that Harry likes to think of as the Harry Styles Special because he’s so good at getting it to come out. Reckons it’s one of his favorite hobbies, maybe— but this time it was charitable, like. As a distraction. All for Liam’s own good.

“Your forfeit,” Harry says, for an excuse. “You won?”

“Oh,” Liam says, then rallies, shaking off his bewildered look for a teasing one. “Wait, so that was it— you call that a kiss? That was my prize?”

Harry’s willing to give another effort— as a matter of pride— but before he can, Niall’s launching himself across the couch towards Liam, crowing: “Let a real man show ya how it’s done, son,” then proceeding to snog Liam’s face until Liam pushes him away, sputtering and laughing. Harry tries to remember all the many things he likes about Niall; something’ll come to mind any second now, surely.

They do all eventually crash, roll into their bunks in various states of undress, snoring heavily or lightly depending on the boy and how hard he’s smashed his face into his pillows. But Harry, even fuzzy with exhaustion like he is, lies awake for longer than the rest, listening to the familiar sounds of four boys sleeping.

He tries to let it lull him, let it drown out the memory of Liam leaning over Harry’s bunk just before ducking into his own, the way he’d murmured: “Still owe me, Hazza,” with his eyes all crinkled up in humor and promise, disappearing once Louis’d flicked off the overhead light.


After that night, it occurs to Harry that Liam’s perhaps not as fine as he’s been acting, so Harry makes a resolution to keep a better eye out for him. It’s only fair, really, given how much Liam’s been looking after Harry all this time. There’s a manly debt to be paid, or something like that.

As to how this resolve turns itself into Harry spending a lot of time staring at Liam’s mouth, Harry’s not sure. After a few days, Harry comes to two and a half conclusions:

(1) Liam actually talks, like, loads. During interviews, during the concerts, on the phone, off the phone. With the lads, with the staff, with strangers. He’s just a friendly, chatty bloke.

(1a) Liam’s mouth and face are very expressive when he talks.

(2) Liam should shut up.

Harry blames the stupid kiss. He’s kissed a large handful— okay, maybe a shitload— of girls and guys in his time, but there’ve only been a few where Harry can remember the exact shape and texture of their mouths after so brief a time against it. The memory of Liam’s makes something sit uneasy and a little wild in the pit of Harry’s stomach.

Watching Liam’s mouth does serve Harry’s purposes, though: it’s the easiest place to spot tension, and Harry leaps into distraction mode whenever he does. Not with any more kissing, no, that he avoids— but he’s happy to grab Liam’s bollocks, mate to mate. Or hit Liam round the face with a sock, or a towel, or a piece of toast. Or jump on Liam’s back and shout Jay-Z lyrics into his ear. Or upload the many embarrassing pictures he’s caught of Liam sleeping onto Instagram, one picture for every time Liam’s smile comes off too fake for Harry’s liking.

This tactical warfare against Liam’s sadness doesn’t go unnoticed, of course. But Zayn just says, “You still on the cold medicine, bro?” suspicious like always, and Louis rolls his eyes maybe a dozen times, muttering about playgrounds and school children— usually before going in for a titty twist— and Niall, canary that he is, sidles up to Harry one night, saying:

“This is sorry, man, just absolutely pitiful. Have y’tried gettin’ Liam really, really wankered?”

And Harry tells him “Yeah,” a bit wistfully, since hanging out drunk and throwing up with a mostly sober Liam in his clean white bathroom takes up the vastness of what Harry remembers from that attempt. It’s not a bad memory, for all that.


It’s only later that night, dozing off to the hum of the bus wheels eating up the road between Manchester and home, that Harry wonders if Niall was implying something else entirely.

So when Harry has the dream, he blames it on that. He wishes he could blame being drugged out and ill for it, since the vivid lushness of the dream feels exactly like the ones he’d had on those nights of manic euphoria and heavy medication— but despite what Zayn says, that stuff’s been out of Harry’s system for weeks now.

What he remembers from the dream is this: he’s swimming. The room is dark, but the pool is lit up from the inside, painting their skin in swirls of purple and blue. He’s naked, treading water, the feel of it silky and heavy and treacle-warm against his legs. Harry drifts closer to Liam, puts hands on his shoulders to pull them chest-to-chest, and Liam’s thumbs are brushing cool-wet over the black ink birds under Harry’s collarbones, then pressing in like he’s trying to stop them flying off. Shadows fall on and off Liam’s face, rippling with the light, and looking at him is making Harry’s chest hurt, aching like he’s breathing water instead of air. There’s water beaded at the bow of Liam’s upper lip, in the hollow of his throat, and Harry wants to— just, he wants— so he leans in, puts his open mouth against that throat, tastes the chlorine and aftershave and boy of Liam’s skin.

Harry wakes up sweating and panting, heart hammering like he’s running from something, blazing with heat that makes him kick his tangled sheets and blankets away. His body is lit up, already straining for some relief, so Harry turns towards the wall of his bunk, curling a hand around his dick, shoving his other fist into his teeth to bite back the sound he makes when he does. It doesn’t take long— his mind is still flickering through the dream, images pressing up against the backs of his eyes like they’ve been tattooed there.

He comes with a low gasp, already planning dark revenge against Niall for putting the seed of such a treacherous thought in Harry’s head.

He’s never been more grateful for a tour break before. He’s still awake by the time the bus rolls into London, the sun barely rising, and he doesn’t bother to wait for the others before bumming a lift home from one of Marco’s P.A.s. He only wants to escape before someone else sees him— he’s sure that the truth of what he’s dreamt and done will be written all over his face, painted like a confession in the smears of bruises under his eyes.


He doesn’t keep tabs on the other members during the week apart, doesn’t go on his Twitter feed, doesn’t do much more than text people back enough to assure them he’s alive. What Harry does is he dives headfirst into London like he wants to drown in it.

He tells Nick it’s because they’ll be gone for so long after this, he’s got to stock up on home while he can. Patriotism, is what it is: more than enough excuse to pour vodka cocktails down his throat, to dance close with hands that tuck fingers under the waistband of his pants, to fall into dark corners and get off with— according to Nick— what must be half the population of England.

On Sunday morning he wakes up alone, grouchy and hungover as he packs for Europe. Mostly it involves shoving clothes he’d dumped on his floor but not hung up in the wardrobe back into his suitcases. And while he does, he’s unable to shake the hollow, dissatisfied feeling he’d woken up with, like he hadn’t accomplished what he’d wanted. The evidence of his sheets says differently, though, same as the serviettes littering the bedside table, all marked up with lipstick and phone numbers.

He leaves an apologetic note for his housekeeper, then gets in a van for the airport, more than ready to expel the smog of London from his lungs.


Niall and Louis have been in Paris two days longer than the rest of them, doing a few promo spots for the tour, but mostly just tanning on the beaches. This only reminds Harry when he sees them that if he hadn’t been acting like such a prat over the holiday, he too could be sporting a lovely golden tint on his skin.

Liam shows up at the hotel also looking well-sunned, white teeth in a tanned, relaxed smile; probably he did disgustingly healthy outdoor activities all week, like jog shirtless in the park, or go golfing. Zayn is already a glittering bronze god— no help needed there.

Being the only pale one left in the group might be a weird thing to have a sulk over, but, well— here he is. Harry’s not exactly proud about it. But neither does he budge from his sprawl across the couch, listlessly surfing through all the foreign television channels. He already knows they’ll get a thousand Twitter requests tonight asking them to speak in French. He tells himself he’s revising.

“Got the cure for what ails you, gloomy-puss,” Niall announces, sliding over the back of the couch to land on Harry’s legs. Harry grunts, but doesn’t bother moving.

Vous êtes trop gaie,” Harry tells him, drawling into the cushions. It actually improves his accent.

“Nah, straight as a board, me,” Niall says, cheerfully misunderstanding. “I might've bent that way once or twice for Bieber— not sure, was kinda hard to tell with Selena in the same pictures.”

“What d’you want, Nialler.”

“C’mon, shove up,” Niall says, standing up himself, slapping Harry’s derrière as he does. “We’re going out. Have a mission.”

“Have a gig.”

“This comes first. You’ll enjoy yourself, God strike me if I’m lyin’.”

Harry goes along, sighing as he does, but by the time they make it through a line of fans to the van waiting for them— hearing girls scream “Harry, we love you!” in different languages never gets old— and make it to the posh-looking tattoo shop, Harry’s back to feeling like his normal self, the grins he’d had to force out turning themselves into real ones. This is the part of the tour they’ve all been excited about, but Harry especially. He’s got eleven new tats to get, in eleven different countries, starting today.

Niall dismisses Harry’s Eiffel tower idea as too cliche, same for a Notre Dame gargoyle— so then, somehow, Harry ends up with a coin-sized tattoo of a frog tucked into the bend of his left elbow, the words Do not curved over the top of it, and -et Me along the bottom. It’s probably one of the lamest inks he’s ever had done. He kind of loves it.

The others take the mick as soon they spot it, of course. “Pull that one out of a cereal box, did you?” says Louis, smirking. Zayn just wrinkles his nose, which Harry feels is a bit pretentious for someone who has a legitimate Chillin’ tattoo. Liam laughs until he has tears in his eyes, then ribbits at Harry all night, even through the concert. Harry kind of loves that, too.


He marks time like that for a while— new country means new tattoo shop, though they all seem to share the same artists: men and women to take their craft seriously, hovering over Harry with their technicolor sleeves while Harry covers his left arm by smallish increments, black stamps on his skin just like the ones he gets in his passport. He’s been told a million times that he’s going about it all wrong, that tattoos should be a thoughtful business, since they’re going to stay with him for life, but Harry says bollocks to that— the vast majority of things in life aren’t worth taking seriously, he’s learned.

He likes that this will be how he’ll remember Europe when he thinks back on it later: by day, the buzz of the needle and the coppery smell of the ink, by night, after the gigs are done, two or three or five of them will find new ways to slip the lead, skirt the paparazzi, find tiny side-street bars where One Direction’s music never has been nor never will be played. Then they’ll dance with locals to music they don’t understand the words to, trying to sing along anyway, the dizzy taste of exotic alcohols sour or sweet on their tongues. Sometimes they’ll go to sleep as the sun’s rising, waking up a few hours later to do it all over again.


The dream and the kiss feel more distant as the days roll by, enough for Harry to breathe easier, at least— get back to touching and tickling and slapping Liam without second-guessing where his hands are falling, or for how long they linger.

That all goes to shit as Liam continues to exist and be himself, and hilarious, and Tommo’s enthusiastic apprentice in mischief-making. Liam’s always been the type who when you give him an inch, rather than taking a mile, he’ll just give you an inch right back. So Harry’s plan to feel comfortable again with Liam by making free as possible with his person backfires spectacularly when Liam makes free of Harry, too.

Because suddenly Harry can’t go through a gig without Liam tugging threateningly on Harry’s trousers during a solo, or heaving Harry up over his shoulder, or puffing air on the back of Harry’s neck, or ruffling his curls to wildness, or tugging his earpiece out. It’s maddening, and fantastic, and Harry feels like he might just shiver his skin inside out, sometimes.

At their gig in Copenhagen, there’s a moment that almost kills Harry: a fan tosses a pillow that hits Harry in the head and explodes— doesn’t hurt, the others laugh uproariously, and Harry’s mostly just glad it wasn’t a shoe. But then Liam spends more time during their Twitter interlude picking down feathers out of Harry’s hair than he does actually answering questions, and there’s something about being the sole focus of Liam’s attention in an arena that holds thousands of people that makes Harry’s stomach flip and flutter in a way that he’d like very badly not to recognize.

The reality of his situation becomes inescapable later that night, when Harry’s in the shower, hand on himself, relaxed and trying to tug one out before sleep. His brain spin-cycles through random images, then sticks suddenly and inexplicably on Liam’s face from earlier, on the way he’d looked up close: concentrating and fond, lower lip caught in his teeth, fingers buried in Harry’s curls.

Thinking about Liam’s mouth brings back the kiss, the water sliding over Harry’s skin brings back the dream of the pool; next thing Harry knows is he’s gasping, spilling into his hand and leaning heavily against the wall as he comes, knees gone shaky and weak with the force of it.

He rolls himself into a cocoon of blankets soon after, quiet and subdued, the sounds of Niall snoring from the other bed buzzing like white noise in Harry’s ears. His thoughts are all tangled up: half of him feels like this thing should be a revelation, a game-changer; the other half thinks he should write it off as inevitable, a consequence of living in close quarters with four fit lads whom Harry all likes very much.

But the sliver of his brain that isn’t split between two contradictions or frozen up with confusion breathes out a sigh of relief— Harry’s finally let it in, let something happen. Maybe he’s even tipped the domino that follows a string of others into an unfathomable, warm, and unseen distance. That part of his brain just hums Liam, Liam, Liam, under everything else, a background song that throbs in time with Harry’s breath, and finally drugs him into sleep.


It’s a day between gigs, traveling across borders, and ostensibly one of their free ones. Really, though, it’s one of those free days that are spoken of with air quotes, where personal time is put down in the scheduler with the addendum of “as becomes available”— meaning if they wrap up whatever interview or photoshoot or videolog or combination of the above that they’re doing a little bit early, then they’re free to stand and marvel as the pigs fly by because there are no such thing as early wraps. At least, not when you’re in a superstar boyband that requires the coordination of fourteen different people just to write a day’s itinerary.

They’re used to it by now. Harry sleepwalks through the pre-dawn van call, dozes during the quick plane ride from Germany to Italy, and more or less tunes back in only once they’re crammed into a hotel room in Milan. Harry just rolls onto the nearest available flat surface, cradling his heavenly-smelling room service coffee so it doesn’t spill. God, he loves Italy.

On the agenda for the day appears to be some kind of video shoot for a day-in-the-life, maybe, or something for the Italian Bureau of Tourism— Harry’s not quite sure, mostly because baby Lux has been doing something cute with the teddy bear he’d bought her at the airport terminal, and he’s been grinning sleepily at her for a good five minutes or so.

Louis’s knee jostles Harry in the back, though, so he tries to pay attention to Jo, who is bustling around with two different mobiles in her hands, discussing their day plan with Paul and Marco and then, finally, with the five of them.

“So which of us is going to where and with who, now?” Liam asks, sounding as confused as his eyebrows make him look.

Jo is a formidable woman, a model of American efficiency that the label gave them as a present when— as Harry assumes— they started getting big enough to warrant having someone around who could speak unironically about The Schedule, and make five teenage boys think of it in terms of capital letters, too.

“Louis, Niall, and Zayn are going to stay here in Milan for a few hours, shoot some footage at La Scala and the Quadrilatero d'Oro,” she says, scrolling through her phone where presumably every minute is accounted for, “but we’re going to send Harry and Liam ahead to Verona, have them visit Juliet’s balcony. The rest of you will meet up with them later.”

Lou is already whipping out five different outfits for them, fashions more suitable for a day spent in front of the camera than the airport-wrinkled hoodies and jeans that haven’t seen the inside of a washing machine since Hamburg that they’re currently wearing. Harry looks up from dangling the fringe of a scarf for Lux’s chubby grabbing fingers— grinning over how like Tessa she looks when Harry does the same thing for her— and puzzles over what he’s just heard.

“We’re splitting up?” he asks. Liam takes advantage of his distraction to steal Lux away, sweeping her into his lap with wide eyes and a bright smile. He doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the prospect of a whole day spent alone in Harry’s company— well, Harry, plus the dozen or so cameramen, sound guys, drivers, security, and various assistants that will be there, too. Harry is concerned, though. Very.

Next to him on the bed, Louis starts in, gesturing dramatically. “Sorry, mate, it’s the end of an era— the One Direction gravy train stops here,” he says. “The three of us are gonna be a modern-day Fleetwood Mac instead, like, Zayn’s got that angsty feminine Stevie Nicks vibe, it’ll be fucking magic. I dunno what you and Liam’ll be— like, maybe a modern-day Wham! or something? Liam’s George Michael, obviously; you’re the useless one.”

Harry wants to roll his eyes, maybe shove Louis into the pile of dirty laundry Lou’s spent all morning sorting out with a wrinkled nose, but Liam snickers, carrying the joke like the sad Tommo-prentice that he is.

Oh wake me up before you go-go, don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo,” he sings, though it comes out half-cooed because he’s doing it for Lux’s benefit, bouncing her on his knees. She laughs like this is the funniest thing that’s ever happened on planet Earth. Harry wonders if he can get cavities just from watching them.

“Limited resources, boys, lots to get done— makes sense for you five to divide and conquer on occasion,” Jo interjects after this, going on as if the Louis interlude had never happened. That’s usually the best way to handle Louis interludes.

“Love it when I’m a resource,” Niall says from the floor, proving that he’s actually awake underneath the snapback he’d draped over his face twenty minutes ago. “Bein’ a resource s’way better than being a popstar. Can I be a resource from now on?”

Zayn’s by the open window, blowing smoke out to be polite. If it were only the five of them, he wouldn’t care. “Why just Harry and Liam?” Zayn asks, voicing the question Harry’s been wondering about himself.

“Liam’s star is on the rise with the fans— apparently he’s a single bachelor again,” Jo says, sounding as if this is something she gives less than two shits about as long as it doesn’t interfere with her time-tables. “Don’t shoot the messenger; I’m just going with what your publicists are telling me,” she adds, after catching on to Louis and Zayn’s winces.

Liam, for his part, only goes on with making funny faces at Lux. Harry wishes he hadn’t come to the realization that he finds those faces equally as fascinating as a toddler does.

“And Harry?” Zayn is fishing.

“Harry’s star is always up there,” Jo says, matter-of-fact. Harry tries— and fails, given the way Louis immediately smacks him with a pillow— to not look too pleased about it. Harry yelps, almost dropping his coffee, then realizes he finished it ten minutes ago. Might explain why his foot’s gone all jittery against the mattress.

“Niall is single, too,” Niall says, still on the carpet.

“You are,” Jo agrees. “That’s why you’re with the other two, for balance.”

“Oh, is that so?” Louis says, trying again to smother Harry. He thinks psychologists call this behavior Displacement. Psychologists would have a field day with Louis Tomlinson. “Did you hear that, Zayn? Nialler’s meant to bring our level up, she says. Did you ever think you’d see the day?”

Zayn shrugs, getting the last drag from his cigarette before stubbing it out on the windowsill. “Dunno— sounds just the same as the last three years t’me.”

“I like that one, he can stay,” Niall says.

Harry nicks the pillow from Louis, before he can fling it at either of them for siding up against him. Harry says, “don’t be cross, it’s only a few hours without me. You might live.”

“I say Hallelujah, is what I say,” Louis sneers, in that scathingly dishonest way of his. “Anything that gets the fans off Larry— what is it— Stylinson? for five seconds is a blessing.”

“Throwing me over, Tommo?” Harry puts on his best wounded-deer expression. He slinks off the foot of bed to sit next to Liam, huddling into him. “Liam, tell Louis how he’ll miss me once he can’t have me anymore.”

“Luxie,” Liam says, voice gone precious, slipping the hand that’s not tangled with the kid’s around Harry’s back and drawing him closer. “Give your Nuncle Harry a kiss, sweetheart? Think he needs one.”

Lux obeys, crawling over Harry’s knees to plant a sticky-wet kiss next to his nose, giggling.

“She’s shameless, I swear,” Lou tsks, scooping her up. “Come help your mother sort the clothes, okay, baby? How about you don’t flirt with the fellas until you’re thirty.”

The conversation goes on above their heads, Jo and Paul arguing transportation logistics, Zayn-Niall-Louis arguing the relative brightness of their stars, but Harry’s not paying attention anymore.

“Getting kids to do your dirty work, huh?” Harry teases, turning towards Liam’s ear, speaking low.

He means it as a joke, forgets how pressed together they are until his lips almost graze Liam’s neck. Forgets until Liam turns his head enough to slant Harry a curious glance, telegraphing something else Harry can’t read in the quick downward sweep of his eyelashes, in the way his fingers curl slightly into the small of Harry’s back.

“Fine,” Liam says, corners of his mouth catching on a small grin. “Next time I’ll get Paul to kiss you, alright? You’ve got jam on your cheek, by the way.”

Harry laughs, because he can’t not. Privately, though, he’s thinking about the torture of spending a day alone with that grin, remembering that he’s concerned for good reason. If there were a way to make his star sink in the next hour that didn’t involve Twitter suicide— like declaring undying love for Nazis, brussel sprouts, Taylor Swift, or the unholy trinity of all three— he just might consider doing it.

As it is, though, Harry is looking forward to the day with a sense of mingled excitement and despair.


It’s a fun day— of course it’s fun. If Liam's spirits are at all dampened by not having Zayn or Louis or Niall around, he doesn’t show it. He bounces on the balls of his feet just as much as he ever does when he’s enthused about something, grabbing Harry’s hand once they’re out of the van to drag him to look at different things: old crumbling walls, stained glass windows, pigeons that are so tame they’ll hop into your hand for a crisp.

The shoot goes smoothly. Mostly they have to act like tourists, look pretty in various picturesque spots, then speak some pre-packaged lines in Italian for the tourism advert. Harry makes sure to ask one of the P.A.’s to translate his before he does, just on the remote chance Louis might have had access to the script. ‘I like big cocks in my mouth,’ sounds really innocuous when you say it in Swedish, Harry’s discovered.

They laugh a lot and mess around a lot, and that’s as easy as it’s always been. When they get to the scenes at Juliet’s balcony they both spout off the lines of the play they can still remember from school. Liam improvises with a soulful, “Harry-o, Harry-o, wherefore art thou, Harry-o?” and it barely qualifies as funny by anyone’s standards, but somehow has Harry on the ground laughing his arse off, anyway.

They go back and forth with the ‘Harry-o and Liamette’ theme for a few more minutes, until the film crew shuffles them over to the next spot. There’re these walls with inset panels where passers-by leave messages in honor of the real lovelorn Juliet— walls of indecipherable text and papers stuck on with chewing gum, all smooshed together in a dozen different languages. It reminds Harry a lot of his Twitter feed, actually. Then a P.A. is handing Harry and Liam both markers, telling them to have at it.

Harry chews on his pen cap for a while, undecided. He looks over at Liam, who’s grinning to himself with his aviators pushed back on his head, white Henly gaping open at his throat in an effort to make him look like he’s on holiday, that one extra button undone that he’d blushed over— like he hadn’t worn his tops that way voluntarily all through X-Factor— and Lou had insisted on, bless her. He looks just the part— and he is every part, really: celebrity, tourist, boy next door. Harry doesn’t know if he wants to smack him or cuddle him, but that’s not the part that’s new.

Liam’s writing typical corny Liam things: 1D has the best fans in the world!!, and love u directioners, and live while you’re young & appreciate the little things, all of which make Harry roll his eyes. He bends to ink his own message on the panel, going for something nostalgic, just because.

Liam wanders over to see what Harry’s writing, and Harry tries to shield it with his hands, complaining that he’s not finished. Liam just puts his huge hands around Harry’s wrists, prying him away like Harry doesn’t have an inch of height on him, like Harry’s built like a bird instead of with wiry muscle and sinew, like manhandling him is easy. Harry’s heart rate picks up, he can’t help it. He swears under his breath about it while Liam reads aloud:

All the stars will tell the story.”

It’s unfinished, so Harry fills in the rest— “Of our love and all its glory.” He rubs at his wrist. It doesn’t hurt, but there’s a smudge of black on the inside of it that looks like Liam’s thumbprint. Harry is very much trying not to think about making that mark permanent; what it might look like as a pair of bruises, maybe, pressed below the cut of his hipbones.

Liam’s eyebrows rest together for a second before his expression clears, probably remembering the lyrics from all the times Harry’s flopped down next to him on a couch or a plane and jammed a headphone in his ear. He grins, saying, “Ah, I might have known. Is this about Romeo and Juliet, then? Or just your tragic, one-sided affair with the King.”

Harry bites his tongue over the tragic unreturned love bit, but forces himself to smile, make a joke. “It’s never one-sided with me. Anyway, I just like bringing back a classic.”

Liam looks like he doesn’t buy this, but he doesn’t call Harry on it, just teases: “Huh— suppose you’re not just the empty-headed, dimpled waif we see on all those magazine covers, then.”

“And you’re not a puppy-faced saint, either,” Harry counters.

“Used to be, maybe,” Liam says.

“Until Tommo happened to you, right?”

“Yeah, that,” Liam agrees, and then Harry would swear, absolutely swear, that Liam’s gaze drops to Harry’s mouth, just for a second, and Liam says, “I definitely don’t have the will of a saint. I wouldn’t say my thoughts are the purest, either.”

And Harry has no clue what he might have said to answer that, if he’d been able to think of anything at all over the thundering of his heart in his ears— he doesn’t have to, though, because the people with the cameras call a wrap for the day, and Harry remembers, belatedly, that the two of them aren’t actually alone.

He hopes that the last few minutes of footage will be montaged into the stuff from earlier in the day, conversation muted out by a tasteful acoustic remix of one of their songs. Normally they’re not at all about censoring themselves for the media and the press— make a point of being vocal in their opinions, sometimes— but the selfish part of Harry wants to keep that moment just for himself, and for Liam. At least until he has a better handle on what it might have meant.


It’s already after eight o’clock, with the sun just starting to sink low over the rooftops and burning the sky orange as it goes. Harry and Liam are set free, left to their own devices with instructions to not wander too far while the filming equipment gets put away.

They’re near the Piazza del Signori so that’s where they go, strolling along the cobblestone streets like it’s nothing, like it wouldn’t take a literal act of God for them to be able to walk around this unnoticed back in London, or New York, or L.A. That’s one of the best parts about touring, Harry’s found. If the stars and planets align— if the timing’s just right— then sometimes they can get lucky, just like this, and discover one of those rare and fast-diminishing pockets of the world where they can blend in, be two more anonymous faces in the crowd.

Neither of them marvel aloud at this, not wanting to break the spell— they just walk around the square, queue up to buy food at the most popular panini stand they see, then take their sandwiches and wander downhill, back towards the waterfront. The river Adrige is flowing bronze and yellow in the light of the sunset. They lean up against the railing while they eat, chatting a bit and watching the tourboats out on the water.

They’re talking about nothing, really, but Liam’s had the same half-smile on his face since this morning, the one that Harry’s been going slightly out of his head trying to figure out. Especially now, when the breeze off the river tosses Harry’s curls to his eyes, and Liam’s the one reaching up to push them back before Harry can, still smiling.

It hits Harry, then, how massively date-like this is— the two of them alone, by the river, with the sunset and everything— they’re in Italy, for God’s sake. And maybe if they were any other two people in the world, Harry could have written something completely different on Juliet’s wall: something that might have made Liam laugh, or blush, or ask Harry, ”Wait, do you really—?” and then Harry might have tipped his face into Liam’s, kissing his shocked-open mouth until Liam was persuaded into kissing him back.

His mood isn’t quite ruined, but Harry can feel himself starting to sink into his own head, and he doesn’t want to spoil the day so he turns his back to the river. He hitches his elbows up on the rail, leaning into it while he watches the cars go by on the street behind them, and the people walking by, and the little dog sniffing around the rubbish bins at the corner— just trying to get distracted.

Liam notices the subtle shift, of course— it was too much to hope that he wouldn’t. “What’s up?” he asks, elbow nudging Harry’s ribs.

Harry mulls over how to explain without explaining: how to talk about suddenly feeling guilty because he has so much— everything, really— but then sometimes it’s not enough, he wants more, and does that make him a bad person, a fraud. People always mock him for speaking slowly, but it’s just that he wants to be understood. Being misunderstood is too bloody easy, he should know— he’s Harry ‘Villain of the Year’ Styles.

“D’you ever feel like a liar?” Harry asks, which isn’t quite right, but isn’t exactly wrong, either.

“Hmm,” Liam says. Harry isn’t looking at the moment, but he can practically feel the puzzled furrow of Liam’s eyebrows. “Is this your way of fessing up to breaking my ipod last week?”

“No,” Harry says, then, “yeah, I mean, I did. I’ll buy you a new one, sorry.” He tucks his hands into his pockets, air turning cooler now that the sun’s mostly gone. “Do you ever get, like, that hollow feeling, like maybe all of this is too much, or something? More than you deserve, like... like you tricked millions of people into thinking you’re something better than you are.”

“Yeah,” Liam answers, after a pause. Harry looks at him, then, catches the wry twist of his lips. “Yeah, have my moments,” Liam says, glancing back. “Didn’t think you were one for them, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, it’s just—” Liam waves a hand, gesturing at the water, like it can feed him what he’s trying to say. “I always thought you were sort of, you know— not above it, really? But like, that you’d learned to let stuff like that wash over you, since the early days. Honestly, Haz, I’ve always kind of envied it. Nothing seems to stick to you, anymore.”

“Some of it does, sometimes,” Harry says.

Liam makes another thoughtful sound, still facing out to the river. After a minute, during which he’s clearly thinking, he speaks up again. “Maybe I do think it’s a lot of weird, freakish luck that landed us here— like, all five of us, together, and doing this,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want it. That doesn’t mean I think we don’t deserve it.”

“No, we do, we are lucky,” Harry agrees, sliding closer to Liam, till their arms and hips and legs all line up on their opposite sides, like a reflection. “We do deserve it.”

“And you, too. Harry, there’s nothing about you that’s a trick.” Liam elbows him again, this time with a low chuckle. “I mean, you own a mirror, I know you do.”

Feeling oddly disappointed, even though Liam is being his normal, lovely self, saying all nice things, comforting things— none of it is quite what Harry wants to hear. He looks away, back towards the river, gone from gold to nearly black, now, like someone’s poured in a bottle of ink. The wind’s picking up again, colder off the water, and he tangles his fingers into his curls, impatiently holding them down. Maybe he should just hack them off— he’s toyed with the idea half a dozen times before, for different reasons: to be cheeky, for a lark, for something new.

And, occasionally, for the fantasy of just escaping himself, his own reflection, until the hair grows back and it all catches up to him again. He never has, though, obviously—too nervous, or too lazy, or none of the above. Anyway, Liam’s buzzcut already stole most of the drastic-hair changing thunder.

Suddenly, for some reason Liam is pushing Harry’s shoulder, turning him so he’s off the rail and standing up straight. “Hang on, I want to try something,” Liam says. Harry tries to peer over his shoulder at him, confused, but Liam’s hand clamps down, holding him still and facing away. All Harry can see is the pavements, currently emptied out of pedestrians.

“What are we doing?” Harry asks. “Is this, like, a trust fall? Haven’t done that since bootcamp.”

“No, just— sing something, would you?” Liam asks.

Harry feels himself still, the natural restlessness of his limbs quieting down for a moment. He lets his hair go, even though it flops over and tickles his nose. “What should I sing?” he asks.

“Um—” Liam lets him go, and Harry hears the rustle of clothes, like Liam’s getting something out of his pocket. “Try Hey There Delilah,” Liam answers, finally.

Harry knows the song, really well— had even considered it for a concert solo once, since the lay of it’s nice for his low register— but he thinks if he has to sing it right now, here, alone with Liam, he might just have an aneurysm.

“Don’t remember it,” he says.

“Ha— you are a liar, after all.” Liam sounds amused, then his voice turns coaxing. “Come on, Hazza. Just a bit of it, okay?”

“But—” There’s a sharp jab, Liam’s finger poking Harry between his shoulder blades.

“Sing it, Styles.”

So Harry sings, because despite moments of self-doubt, or of stage-fright, Harry will always be a bit more of an exhibitionist than he is anything else. He hums a bit, till he has all the words lined up just so in his mouth, ready to be sung, and then he lets them out, closing his eyes against the twilight skyline, curling his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders and letting his voice rasp over the ‘Oh, it’s what you do to me’s like he’s dragging the words through smoke.

He only gets through the first refrain before he can’t take it anymore— he trails off at the last note, spinning around to see what Liam’s doing. Harry catches Liam lowering his mobile, thumbing over the screen— sees it’s been on the record function.

“Oh,” Harry says, a cold weight sitting in the back of his throat. Probably just from singing without warming up. “For a Vine, right? A Keek?” he asks, trying to make his mouth curl up when it doesn’t want to.

“Nope,” Liam says, surprising him. When Liam pockets the phone and meets Harry’s eyes, it’s with a smile that Harry can’t pick apart— other than it’s soft, and sweet, and it’s just for him.

“That’s only for me to keep,” Liam says, and kicks out lightly, the toe of his trainer connecting with Harry’s boot. “I’m your fan, too, yeah? Always been one. Just— I wasn’t sure if you remembered that.”

“Oh,” Harry says, again, this time with an entirely different feeling behind it. The grin he’d been trying to force now wants to break free of his face, seems like. So he lets it, and when he thinks he can put the appropriate amount of teasing lilt into his voice he asks, “My biggest fan, are you?”

“You mean when I don’t want to strangle you?” Liam laughs, then shrugs. “Maybe not,” he says, glancing towards the river and back, smiling in that maddening way. “I do have my days, though. Sometimes I reckon I could give your mum a run for her money.”

The urge to kiss him hits Harry hard and unfairly, like a punch to the stomach. He sucks in a breath, ducking his head down. “That’s, er—” Harry says, and his cheeks are burning, but he blames it on the wind. Harry Styles doesn’t do bashful. “Me too,” he says, hastily adding, “I mean, for you.”

Liam just hums, throwing an arm around Harry’s waist and steering him around like a sheepdog.Harry lets himself be herded, and they start wandering back to the piazza, where the filming staff will probably be frantically looking for them by this point.

“Aw thanks, sweetheart,” Liam says, just like he does for his fans, grinning like he doesn’t believe Harry for a second. Harry wants to argue the point, that he means it, but Liam’s arm, his body pressed up against Harry’s side, his voice— everything about the other boy is warm, right now; Harry just wants to bask in him like a lizard under the sun.

“Have a request for me?” Liam offers, after a few steps. “Fair’s fair, after all.”

Maybe Liam’s kidding, but Harry’s not one to waste an opportunity for revenge. He thinks for a moment, comes up blank, and then smirks as he says the first thing that pops into his head.

Volare, maybe? Yeah, no, do Volare. Sing it, Payne.”

Liam’s eyebrows jump. “Good one,” he says, humming under his breath for a minute to find the tune, same as Harry’d done. “Christ, all the Italian,” he mutters, but bravely launches into the song.

He’s good, of course he’s good— he’s Liam Payne, of One Direction. By the end of the song he’s leaning in close, so that the heat of his breath is puffing against Harry’s ear, while he’s changing the lyrics to a list of all the Italian cars he knows, crooning them Dean Martin style: “Ferrari, Fornasari, Lamborghini, Maserati—” with his voice and laughter shivering down Harry’s spine, walking together till they’re all the way up the street.


They’re in the middle of a gig when Louis crosses the stage, taking the minute break they have while Niall makes one of his adorable thank you speeches to sidle up to Harry, shout in his ear on the pretense of giving him some water.

“You alright?” Louis asks.

“M’great,” Harry leans in to shout back. “Why?”

“No reason,” Lou tells him, giving him an odd look. “It’s just that you’re a bit— vibrating?”

Harry shakes his head, confused, but realizes at the same time he’s bouncing on his toes, ready to fall into the next song once Dan strums the chords, Josh kicks in the drums. Harry’s a sprinter waiting for a gunshot.

“I’m fine,” he says, pulling back to fiddle with his earpiece; sodding things always come loose— probably doesn’t help when you’re jumping up and down a lot.

“Stage fright?” Louis says, moving back in, the skeptical look on his face proving even he doesn’t believe it. Stage fright isn’t really an issue for Harry, anymore— at least not on tour, where the nights and the stages all blend together like paint smears on a canvas, where sometimes he has to peer out at the flags in the crowd to remember what country they’re in— Spain, tonight. Madrid.

“No, I’m just—” Harry almost says wound up, which would lead to Louis asking why, which would lead to Harry having to explain how beyond awkward it is to wank off over one of your best mates while you’re stuck sharing a room with him, so Harry’s done without for the past few nights; instead, he says: “I'm just excited.” Unconvincingly, if Louis’s frown is anything to go by.

Harry’s saved by Niall’s speech ending, by the music kicking in, by Liam singing out the first lines of One Thing, all while smiling cheekily and pointing to Harry from on top of the platform stairs, smooth voice leading Harry into his own verse like it’s done a million times before.

He sings his part and turns away, adjusting his earpiece again, trying not to think about what Tommo’s just said, about how many times he might have given himself away without even thinking— how much attention he keeps paying to Liam, how many flying leaps he’s taken just to have Liam try and catch him; how many times Harry’s teased him, goaded him, practically begged to get touched back.

Harry can’t deny that things have been charged, almost, ever since Verona, as if some unnamed balance has shifted. Falling asleep in the same room for the past few nights has been the biggest test of self-discipline of Harry’s life: laying there in frustration, knowing he could just get up, move three feet over, and be in Liam’s bed. There’s a part of him that’s getting surer and surer that Liam wouldn’t tell him to leave. But the part that isn’t sure keeps shouting him down, saying he’s daft, he’s imagining everything.

He’s thought about asking to swap rooms with one of the others, except he doesn’t want to be asked why— morbidly, too, he doesn’t want to give up the slow torture of bumping shoulders with Liam while they brush their teeth over the same sink, the minor intimacy of sitting up in bed together, watching telly till they’re dozing asleep.

The impulse to kiss him comes and goes all the time, but the part that worries Harry most is that somewhere along the way he’s stopped thinking, ‘Ha, kissing Liam, that’d be a lark’, and instead he’s very seriously imagining the noises Liam might make if Harry licked into his mouth, or stuck his hands down the front of Liam’s jogging shorts, or bit down just so on Liam’s lower lip. So this is more than a problem, now, really. It’s a capital-P Problem.

Louis was right— Harry has been buzzing. He needs to go out, needs to do something— get a tattoo, get pissed, get off— just, something.

He does his best to keep distance from Liam for the rest of the gig, but it’s not exactly like Harry’s calmed down, he’s still as wound up as he was before— and, yeah, maybe it makes him reckless. Maybe during One Way or Another, Harry does a backflip off the stage scenery that he actually pulls off this time, to the exalting shrieks of the crowd. Maybe during Teenage Dirtbag, he strips off his shirt and tosses it into the crowd, only to have Marco mime strangling him when he ducks backstage for a new one. Maybe during She’s Not Afraid, Harry gets carried away singing the ad libs, going to his knees at the edge of the stage and air-humping while his voice soars out higher than the screaming.

It’s Liam who rescues Harry from that one, from the forest of hands that are seconds away from reaching past security and yanking him down into the swarm. All Harry feels are long fingers landing hot on the back of his neck, slipping in sweat before gripping tight and dragging Harry to his feet, and Harry might have laughed at the disapproving look on Liam’s face if his bones weren’t threatening to turn to liquid on him. He sways for a second, dizzy from the blood in his head rushing everywhere it shouldn’t, and then Liam’s hands are at Harry’s elbows, steadying him.

For a few seconds everything falls away, turns to static, and it’s just Liam’s eyes darting back and forth over Harry’s face like he’s confused, like he doesn’t know what he’s seeing, and Harry’s looking back, feeling lost and exposed, everything happening too fast for him to keep up with.

They break apart an instant later, instincts kicking in and mics going up to their mouths, both of them doing their jobs for the rest of the concert. Which, thank God, isn’t much longer.


After, when it’s over, the encore’s been sung, they’ve made their bows and they’re safely backstage, Harry throws out the idea of going clubbing to everybody straight away, while they’re all still changing out of their sweaty concert clothes. Niall’s up for it, he’s always up for painting any town— bless his lovely Irish heart— and Zayn, too, but Louis opts for staying in, making some calls home, and so does Liam.

Josh says he knows a sick club in town, so they go there. And it’s a good scene, good energy, but within two beers Harry knows it’s not working— his game, whatever it’s called, that thing about him that can pull with barely a flick of his hair, it’s off somehow. He thinks maybe more alcohol will fix him, unwind whatever part of his chest that’s been in a knot, but all that ends up happening is he drinks too much too fast, until he’s puking his guts out in the alley after it’s barely turned midnight.

The only passable part of the evening is when Harry pretends to lose his keycard so that Zayn and Niall let him bunk in their room. This way, at least, Harry doesn’t have to see Liam with his head still swim-spinning like an underwater merry-go-round, doesn’t have to risk what might come out of his mouth. That night, Harry sleeps with Niall’s loud snoring in his ear, grateful that he doesn’t have to face Liam while feeling like there’s only one person in the world with an answer to the question Harry knows he shouldn’t even be thinking of asking.


In retrospect, getting a tattoo done while you’re still kind of hungover and tetchy is probably not the greatest life choice. Because when that happens, you end up saying things like, “Whatever, man, I just need something special, something for Spain,” and then you lie back with your eyes closed, feeling nauseous and uncomfortable and wishing you’d never woken up this morning. Then, about an hour later, you see what’s been put on your skin, and you have to slink through soundchecks with a bandage on your arm, praying that no-one asks to see your left forearm ever again— or at least not until you can get certain things lasered off and/or covered up with something else.

Predictably, about thirty minutes before their concert, Harry’s getting his hair messed with so he’s trapped, and Louis is the one to pounce. He rips the bandage off with smirk, saying, “Let’s have it, then, you’re obviously embarrassed, that means it’s gotta be good.” He slaps Harry’s hand away when he tries to cover his bared arm, and then Louis just— freezes.

Five minutes later, Harry’s slunk down as low as he can get in the makeup chair without actually being off it, glowering at himself in the brightly-lit mirror, wishing it were actually possible for someone to die of laughter— like from a ruptured spleen, or a popped lung, or an exploded blood vessel— whatever works, Harry’s not too fussed about details. And it should happen to four people, right now, here in this room. Simultaneously. Harry will go out and carry the gig and the rest of tour on his own, he’s fine with that.

Liam, sympathetic soul that he is, is the first one to recover, levering himself up with the arm of the couch. “Sorry, Haz, I’m sorry, we shouldn’t,” he says, wiping tears off his face with the hem of his t-shirt while he speaks. “But seriously, only you could accidentally get a Real Madrid tattoo in Spain, it’s just so—” and then Liam is sputtering again, face scrunching up as he falls back into peals of laughter. Niall and Zayn are clutching each other on the couch, howling or something, Harry doesn’t even know, but Niall’s face is purple, so hopefully that means he’s going to pass out soon.

Louis has somehow rolled himself underneath the couch, hyena shrieks eventually tapering off into breathless groans that make him sound like a troll, and now he’s just saying, “I can’t, I can’t— my stomach, ow, it hurts, ow—”

Even the hair stylist had had to leave the room when it became clear she was shaking too hard from laughing to try and wield a hairbrush.

Harry hates everyone; the world is against him.

“Hey, come on, don’t pout,” Liam says, calmed back down to intermittent giggles, and he walks over to crouch down next to Harry’s chair.

“Yeah, Harry—” Zayn gasps from across the room, wiping his eyes on Niall’s sleeve. “We still love you, right? Even— even though you’re a—a dirty traitor.” He and Niall immediately hoot at this, crowing in each other’s faces, and Harry is so busy trying to glare them down he doesn’t notice Liam reaching for him, not until Harry feels the hand on his arm, calloused fingers smoothing across the crook of his elbow and down.

Liam’s looking up at Harry, eyes still bright with laughter even with apologetic crinkles in the corners of them. But he just presses a kiss to the sore skin of Harry’s new tattoo, then the one next to it from Italy (a boot) that’s only a few days old, and then his lips drag down the few inches to Harry’s tat from Denmark (lego blocks), kissing there, too.

Harry can only stare, startled out of his bad mood, and when Liam lifts his eyes again, looking up through his lashes with his mouth still grazing Harry’s skin, Harry’s heart pounds once, hard, like a shout.

“There,” Liam says, sitting back on his heels and smiling, oblivious to the fact that’s he’s just rendered Harry speechless. “Those ruffled feathers soothed, yet?”

What’s a feather, Harry wants to ask, because he’s forgot, along with why they might be ruffled in the first place. He’s forgot a lot of things, seems like, that don’t have to do with the lush pink bow of Liam’s mouth and where he might like to put it. And he’s still so close—it would be simple, like, simple as breathing for Harry to bend forward just a few inches, to—

“Oi, Curly!” Lou bugles, finally emerging from under the couch. Harry sits up straight in his chair, shoulders held stiff. “I hope you know you owe me, like, twenty thousand drinks for making me have to exist in the same room as that tattoo for the next however many years,” Lou’s saying. “And I think we should definitely start on that debt, like, tonight.”

“M’also offended, deeply,” puts in Niall, who has never once been offended in his life, Harry’s pretty certain. “Count me in, bro.”

“Harry owes our entire country a pint,” Louis says. “It’s the very least he can do. Personally, I feel an apology to the Queen is in order.”

“Oh, like that televised apology he did that one time, remember?” Liam says.

“Yes, exactly!” Louis agrees, pointing gleefully. “Like, globally witnessed groveling. Love where your head’s at, Payne.”

Harry resigns himself to another six or eight hours of this torture, if not days, or weeks. Even if he gets the thing lasered off, Harry Styles going to Spain and getting a Real Madrid club tattoo that time will be legend, will be something that goes down in the annals of the One Direction mythology, will be more than likely held over his head for the rest of his life. Especially by Louis: Tommo’s like an elephant, never forgets a joke.

“Was an accident,” Harry mutters, not that anyone’s listening, or cares. They’re going on now about making him wear one of Niall’s tank-tops for the concert, or maybe permanently, displaying Harry’s shame for all to see. Frankly, it’ll be a miracle if he survives the night.


The concert is every bit as awful as Harry had feared, but he copes in his own way, mostly by tipping over Louis’s mic-stand every time he goes to make a quip, and giving Niall a huge Chinese-burn after he mentions Harry being a ‘huge, huge fan of the national pastime’. Liam keeps a protective hand cupped over his crotch pretty much the whole night, steering well-clear of Harry’s warpath.

Going out afterwards isn’t too bad, though, because even though Louis and Niall keep introducing Harry around the bar as Cristiano Ronaldo’s cousin, ‘Jerry Heraldo,’ and laughing like it’s the wittiest jape ever invented, Liam’s come along for the fun, too. After about an hour in, when Harry slides out of the booth on the pretense of buying another round, he makes Liam go up to the bar with him.

They get the beers, but just as Liam’s about to sweep up three of them to take back, Harry pinches the hem of his t-shirt, pulling him close enough to talk over the music, asking, “Hey, y’mind if we hang here for a bit? Need a break from Louis n’the others.”

“Of course,” Liam says, smiling. “No, yeah, I get it.” And he stays with Harry, no taking the mick or questions asked. And it’s just— it’s nice, how easy with him sometimes. Wasn’t always, but that’s kind of the thing Harry likes most about them, him and Liam: the way they fit into each other’s spaces now, given the way they didn’t used to— it feels earned, like. It feels important.

They drink companionably for a bit, and then Harry finds himself saying, “It’s good when you come out with us,” except what he really means is, it’s good when you come out with me— because Harry doesn’t know if there’s anyone else who likes it as much as him when Liam's leaning back against a bar like this: limbs gone loose and relaxed, eyelashes brushing the tops of his cheeks in heavy, intoxicated blinks.

“Yeah?” Liam says, blinking more, and then he chuckles. “Well, I try not to do it too much.” He pauses to take a swig of his beer, and Harry tries not to stare too obviously at the long line of his throat as he does. Then Liam’s saying: “S’cause I don’t even feel like myself, going out like this. Nights like this, I’m more like you than me.” He’s even speaking a bit slow, same as Harry does, but the words are still confusing.

“What’re you on about?” Harry asks.

“You know how it is, Hazza—” Liam waves his free hand. “You’re always getting, like, swept away. And I like it when you sweep me away with you.”

Harry has to hold himself still, to try not to read too much into that, no matter how it sounds— flirting comes easily as breathing to Harry, but not everyone’s that way, Liam especially. So what if Liam is smiling at Harry like that, and reaching to drape an arm across Harry’s shoulders, pulling him in warm and close— Harry shouldn’t let his heart keep beating a half-beat faster because of it.

On instinct, Harry’s arm goes around Liam’s waist, for balance— it’s not even something he has to think about anymore. But this much is normal, it’s nothing he’s not allowed— at this point, after this many months together with all of them living in each other’s back pockets, Harry would have to work really hard to find something Liam maybe wouldn’t let him get away with.

“Reckon you should get swept away more often,” Harry tells him, voice gone deeper than normal; it’s just because he’s a bit drunk, that’s all. “Maybe it’s good for you, Li.”

Liam’s hand migrates from Harry’s shoulder to his neck, palm open and warm against his skin. Harry would pay a million pounds sterling to know, right now, if the way Liam’s thumbnail had scratched lightly from Harry’s ear to the middle of his throat was deliberate, or by accident.

“By god, Harry Styles,” Liam says, equally low, but he’s laughing— Harry can feel the rumble of it from where they’re pressed together— “you’ll be the death of me, won’t you?”

The feeling is more than mutual, Harry thinks in a daze, trying not to shiver too much.

Then: fuck it, Harry thinks. Fuck over-thinking this, fuck being careful, fuck not going after what he wants— he’s done playing it cool; done pretending that whatever this is, it doesn’t exist.

“C’mere,” Harry says, and pulls Liam’s bottle out of his hand, ignoring his soft ‘hey’ of protest. He sets it down on the bar next to his own. “Let’s dance, I wanna go dance.”

“You do?” Liam is blinking again, surprised. Usually Liam’s the one who drags them all out to the dance floor, not the other way round. Usually Harry is a few more sheets to the wind by the time he stops whining and goes.

“Yeah, I do,” Harry says, taking Liam by the wrist and leading him out.

Liam puts on the brakes only once, right on the edge of the crowd, where the people are swirling and pressing together under strobe lights and the heavy bass beat of the mix the DJ’s got on. It’s much louder in this part of the club, the music something tangible that swells up in Harry’s blood vessels, throbs in his ears, makes him feel covered, disguised, like a slightly different version of himself. A version of himself that’s allowed to try this on with Liam, fuck the consequences.

“What about the others, though,” Liam asks, tugging against Harry’s hold on his arm while shouting in his ear to be heard.

Harry turns around, already moving his shoulders to the music, letting himself get caught up. He feels reckless, knows it probably shows in the way he’s grinning at Liam, leaning closer than is really necessary to be heard as he answers back, pressing their chests together.

“What about them?” Harry says, laughing, and pulls Liam the rest of the way into the crowd. It’s surprisingly easy to say, and even easier to mean it: Harry loves all four of his bandmates, really. But Liam’s become this bright, shining thing that turns Harry into a magpie; at least for right now, he wants to keep Liam all to himself.

Harry’s alright at dancing, or at least dancing like this: no choreography, just bodies curving together and apart, the push-pull of hands and arms, his heartbeat and his breath matching the rhythm that he moves to. It’s a lot like sex, obviously, and sex is something Harry knows decently well. But if Harry’s alright, then Liam’s actually good— especially when he’s got alcohol in his system so he’s not trying to be perfect, he’s just letting himself have fun— and Harry likes seeing him like this, thinks dancing was a great idea. He mentally bumps great to fantastic idea when Liam gets fed up with Harry moving off-beat from him, teacher-mode switching on when he puts hands around the span of Harry’s waist, drawing him close and moving him the way Liam wants Harry to go.

Harry blames the heat of the room for the fact that he can’t seem to catch his breath, blames the music for the restless itch under his skin, blames the maddening sight of Liam with his lip caught between his teeth for the way Harry rolls his hips into Liam’s. And maybe Liam’s thigh slips between Harry’s when that happens, and Liam’s fingers dig into Harry’s lower back when he does it again, grinding against Liam and not even pretending it’s by accident.

Until Liam’s hands are on Harry’s, tugging them off where they’ve gripped into Liam’s shirt, and Liam’s laughing, sounding breathless when he jokes, “What is this; it’s like you’re trying to prove something.”

Maybe he’s just talking about the dancing, but Harry doesn’t take it that way.

“What if I am,” Harry says, and he’s running on pure instinct at this point— if any of this is a mistake he doesn’t care, he’ll do it now and worry later— so he presses up into Liam, twisting his hands free so that he can slither them between their bodies, where sweat is making their t-shirts damp and clinging, till Harry’s fingertips are skimming the top of Liam’s jeans. Rather than hear it, he feels Liam hiss in a breath when Harry’s knuckles graze against his stomach. So Harry does it again, on purpose, and looks up to watch Liam’s face when he does.

“What would you do about it?” Harry asks, smirking, dizzy and reckless with the rush of doing this, actually doing this, actually touching Liam like this and letting himself mean it.

Liam doesn’t believe him, though, that much is clear in the way he laughs, more breath than sound in it, and he puts a hand on Harry’s nape to pull him back a few inches, putting air between them again. “You’re mad,” Liam says, but with his eyebrows drawn together as if he’s questioning it.

Just like at the concert, Harry can’t really control the way his body responds to Liam’s hand on his neck, and this time he knows for certain how Liam’s seeing him: red mouth fallen slack, the slight tremor of his eyelashes before they slit nearly shut. Harry can see the exact moment Liam reacts to that, because he looks like he’s been knocked over the head with a cricket bat.

“Jesus,” Liam says, low, and there’s a moment where the heat in his eyes matches Harry’s, a moment where Harry’s stomach feels pitched high like he’s in a boat at the top of an ocean swell—except then Liam takes a step back, faltering, and Harry plummets.

“Haz—” Liam says, and Harry doesn’t get the chance to find out what he might have said next— an excuse or an apology— because before Liam can speak, a lovely dark-haired girl approaches both of them, sliding deftly into the space that’s just opened up.

“Oh, hello,” she says, her fingers landing light and flirtatious on Liam’s upper arm, her voice a throaty contralto that matches her black eyes perfectly. “Hope you don’t mind. May I join you?” she asks. Her looks and her accent give her away as a local, while the upward quirk of her lips gives away her surety in her welcome.

Harry is caught somewhere between grateful and resentful for her interruption, and Liam doesn’t seem much better off, with the way he glances between Harry and the girl for a second, a line in his brow before he says, politely, “Yeah—yes. Of course.”

They start dancing together, and just as Harry is about to turn and retreat he finds her hand on his wrist, drawing him in towards both of them, and her eyebrow tilted up in an obvious invitation. And— well. Harry’s never been one for turning down invitations.

So the three of them dance, boy-girl-boy, and it might have been awkward except Liam keeps meeting Harry’s eyes over the top of her head and they’ll grin at each other, because if there’s a definition of getting swept away, then this interaction has to fall comfortably within it. Then all three of them are laughing outright, when the girl tries to teach them how to dance salsa and merengue after the DJ switches up his Top 40 House remixes with music that’s a bit more homegrown.

Harry’s pretty rubbish at it, but the girl and Liam just tease him gently, both of them taking it in turns to lead for Harry, guiding his hips to the beat, finally giving up and just twirling him around in circles until he’s laughing and dizzy and falling all over himself, hands clinging to their bodies for balance.

They take a break for a minute so Harry can get his wind back, and in that break the girl tells them her name— Selia— and after Harry and Liam give their names back, Selia says that they both should buy her a drink, because she’d like that very much. She has a hand on Liam’s shoulder and the other on Harry’s arm when she says it: it’s a signal that’s clear as day, a suggestion of where this night is heading. He thinks that Liam sees it, too, but Harry wants to be positive.

So when they go up to the bar for the drinks, Harry wordlessly takes the beer out of Liam’s hand and replaces it with a shot of Jameson, tossing back his own without breaking eye contact, Liam’s eyes burning into him more than the whiskey does. Harry sees the way Liam’s gaze slips over Harry’s mouth, his throat, back to his face, and he sees the moment Liam decides something because his eyes go dark with it, and he tips back his shot, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows. When Harry passes him a second shot Liam drinks that one, too.

The three of them go back to the dance floor, and there’s a lot less laughter this time around. By unspoken agreement, Harry and Selia slot Liam between them, anchoring his body like parentheses: Selia with her arms around his shoulders, breasts pressed soft and full against his chest, and Harry with his hands warming Liam’s hips, fingers dipping into his pockets while Liam rocks back against Harry every time Selia rolls into his front. It’s more than a bit surreal, more than a bit intoxicating— everything about this is making Harry’s head spin more than the alcohol ever could.

It isn’t long after that before Selia’s leaning in to say, “Feel like getting out of here, boys?” with her voice syrup-heavy and warm, no mistaking her meaning for anything else.

Harry blinks slow, says, “We could do that, yeah,” as casually as he can, certain he’s already given his hand away, certain that anyone who looked in his face right now could see how much he’s panting for it, but still not being able to bring himself to care. Even though it’s Harry that agrees, it’s actually Liam who guides the three of them out to the front of the club, who gets them a cab, who pulls his mobile out to text the others that he and Harry are taking off.

They all share the bench seat in the car, Selia in the middle now, and she wastes no more time before kissing them both, one after another, turning to Harry with her lips still slick and wet from Liam’s kiss. She tastes like cranberry vodka and something else, and Harry chases that second taste with his tongue until she’s falling back from him, laughing, and pushing him towards Liam. Harry likes that she’s telling him to do what he wants to do, anyway, so he goes unresisting, crawling carefully across her lap and landing in Liam’s, holding his face still so that Harry can lick the red smear of lipstick from the corner of his mouth. It’s not a proper kiss, not yet, and Harry is about to finish what he’s started but he can’t, because the car’s slowing down and stopping; they’ve arrived at Selia’s place already.

They have to leave the darkness and safety of the backseat, face the wide open sky for a few seconds before they make it inside, then up a flight of narrow stairs to her flat. She invites them in and they go, they’ve come this far already— but Harry catches Liam rubbing his palms against the legs of his jeans, swallowing heavily as they follow her through the living room and into the dim lavender light of her bedroom, their forward momentum stumbling over the pause.

Harry’s been in a handful of threesomes before— mostly with two girls, but a couple also with two blokes, like this, and he knows it’s better when there’s at least a bit of negotiation ahead of time, some idea of who wants what. But a glance at Liam’s face shows his current grip on his courage is fragile at best, won’t stand for anything being spoken aloud just now.

Selia seems to sense this, too, because it’s Liam she focuses on first— kissing him again, languidly, unbuttoning his shirt and pushing it off his shoulders, and underneath he’s only got on a white tank that looks unfairly good against the tanned muscle of his skin. It’s like she’s reading Harry’s mind because she does exactly what he’d have done, next: dips her head to nip low at the cords of Liam’s neck, biting at the meat of his shoulder, pulling a groan out of him, speeding up his breath.

Harry’s heart is beating faster, too, just from watching, blood rushing low and tight to his groin. He wants to touch them both, his mouth has gone dry from how badly he’s wanting, and he licks his lips, bites the edge of his thumb— just a quick sting of teeth to prove this is really happening, this time he’s not actually dreaming it.

Selia is good, her transitions smooth as when they were dancing as she draws Liam with her towards the bed, turning him so that the backs of his knees hit the mattress, a hand on his shoulder making him sit, then lay flat. Something swoops and dives in Harry’s stomach when Liam’s eyes flick across the room, finding Harry; Liam hasn’t forgot him. Selia’s gaze follows soon after. But while Liam’s hands curl into the dove-gray sheets, Selia’s reach towards Harry, beckoning him forward and he goes, three steps taking him to the bed with Selia’s arms waiting to fold him in, draw him down to her and to Liam both.

It’s either luck or her guidance that has Harry fitting the long length of his body in between their own, the heat radiating from either side making him want to curl up like a cat and purr. Then it’s his turn again at Selia’s mouth, her teeth tugging playfully at Harry’s lip, more brazen with him than she’d been with Liam. She guides Harry’s hands to her breasts and he’s happy to oblige her, squeezing lightly and thumbing across her nipples through the thin silk layers of her blouse and her bra, drinking in the soft sighs she’s making.

Then there’re hands on Harry that certainly don’t belong to a girl: large hands slipping under the stretched-out cotton of Harry’s t-shirt, palms dragging unexpectedly low across his stomach, fingertips skimming along the armature of his ribs, the shivery hot feel of it punching the breath out of Harry’s lungs.

After that comes Liam’s mouth at the nape of Harry’s neck: a warm press of lips that quickly turns bolder, turns into a line of kisses drawn along Harry’s neck and up to his jaw— open-mouthed kisses, damp and heated with the edge of teeth. It’s enough to make Harry shudder, swelling up until he’s achingly hard, dick trapped against the tight seam of his trousers. All he’s doing now is gasping into Selia’s ear because of the things Liam is doing to him, concentration completely shot to pieces. He feels lit up, heart thundering, blood fever-hot, every point of contact with Liam a live wire that’s feeding electricity just under Harry’s skin.

Harry’s dizzy with it, it’s got too difficult to focus on Selia so he gives up trying. He moves on instinct, turning his head until his mouth lines up with Liam’s. It’s like two tumblers of a lock slotting into place when they meet, the relief of it so overwhelming that Harry groans. Liam doesn’t hesitate; he’s licking into Harry’s mouth the instant it opens up for him, their tongues sliding hot-slick against one another, the rasp of Liam’s five o’clock shadow stinging Harry’s lips and chin in a way that goes straight to Harry’s dick.

And now he’s just blindly seeking more: twisting his body around until they’re front to front, feeling their chests push together with each of their panting breaths. Liam’s thigh nudges between Harry’s knees, and Harry groans again at the just-right pressure of it, letting his legs butterfly apart while he starts working a hand between their bodies, fumbling for his trouser button and flies. Liam’s fingers bury themselves in Harry’s sweat-damp hair, holding him still while Liam layers on one bruising kiss after another, kissing like he wants to climb inside Harry and live there.

Everything inside Harry’s head is a buzzing, swirling chorus of yes and this and Liam, so he’s a bit startled when slender, feminine fingers brush his own aside, Selia’s hand reaching from behind Harry to help unzip his trousers, then slipping under the waistband of his pants, wrapping around his length with a deft and sure touch. She squeezes him gently, and Harry can’t help the sharp low cry that he makes, gasping into Liam’s mouth as she starts moving her hand up and down, her thumb smearing the precome at the head, nail catching barely at the slit. It’s too dry, but he’s so wound up it doesn’t matter; Harry hasn’t had someone else’s hand on him in a month and he knows he’s not going to last— all of this is too good, almost too much. These quiet sobbing noises keep coming out of him as Selia works him over, and he’s just panting against Liam’s lips now, but suddenly Liam’s mouth and warmth and breath are gone.

Selia stills and Harry peels his eyes open, seeing that Liam’s sat up in the bed. His eyes are wide and his face is crumpling up with guilt and shame, and he’s saying, “God, what am I— I’m sorry, Haz, I’m so sorry— fuck. I can’t, I can’t do this—” with his hands scrubbing roughly across his face, fingers trying to grasp his too-short hair in the way that means Liam’s scared, he’s shaken.

Harry wants to sit up, too, wants to pull Liam back down, wants to kiss away the fear in his mouth until he’s smiling. But before Harry can manage to refill his lungs, even say Liam’s name, he’s standing up, crossing the room to the doorway and then he’s leaving, the click of the front door drifting back to the bedroom just a few moments later.

Harry does sit up, then, staring bewildered at the space where Liam just was. He doesn’t know what just happened—it wasn’t supposed to be this way, it shouldn’t have been this way—everything had been so good just a minute ago, so what had Harry done wrong?

Behind him, Selia sighs, and her arms come around Harry’s chest. “That is a pity,” she says, “he has a wife, maybe? A girl— a girlfriend?”

Harry just shakes his head, not trusting himself to speak.

“Ah, well.” Her fingers squeeze his arm, then trail up to his collarbone. “But you and I, we can still— you would like to, yes?”

For an answer he turns, kissing her again, a lot more fiercely than before, and she hums in a pleased way, drawing him back down to the mattress, this time on top of her. After a moment she reaches over to her bedside table, then presses the familiar foil packet of a condom into his hand.

It’s not the best he’s ever done, quick and with their kits still on, which Harry normally doesn’t like even when he’s not fucking someone. But tonight his blood is boiling just under his skin, simmering with tension that wants to unravel him at the seams, so after he rolls on the condom he just rucks Selia’s skirt up, pulls his jeans down, and sinks himself between her willing thighs.

It doesn’t take long, for either of them— when he gets close he reaches down, gets a thumb on the slickness of her clit, and she comes moaning loud and he likes that, tries to let the sound of her fill up his ears, wanting to unhear every soft pleased sound Liam had made into Harry’s mouth when they’d only been kissing each other. Harry thrusts a few more times, willing himself over the edge, and when he comes his mind goes beautifully, blissfully empty white—but it’s only just for a second.

They lay side by side for few minutes, after, Harry wide awake and staring up at the ceiling when normally he’d already be drifting off, pulling his partner close like a blanket against the chill of sweat drying on his skin. He hates being the arsehole who runs out after a shag, but he knows he can’t stay. He scoots off the bed, murmuring something about getting back to his hotel, shoulders hunched as he roots around in the dark for his shoes.

“Hmm. That was nice. I am sorry about your friend,” Selia tells him, getting out of the bed as well, but she only goes to her bathroom, and there’s the sound of running water. “I saw you two, at the club. I thought I could help,” she speaks over the noise of the sink, toothbrush hanging out of her mouth. She leans against the doorframe, clothing rumpled and hair a tangled mess, but at ease in a way that Harry almost resents. She’s yawning, too, sounding only vaguely concerned, like she’s talking about the weather forecast.

“They like to stay, most times. The other boys,” she says, and it’s like she’s seen right through Harry’s chest to the cut-up pieces inside of him. After that he can’t get out fast enough, tripping over his feet and his goodbye, walking out of the door and down the stairs, fumbling to ring Svein for a pick-up as he goes.

While he waits, he thinks about ringing someone else. Nick, Ed, Louis—any of the ninety-three numbers saved in his phone that aren’t labeled ‘Hug Dealer’ would do, really. Not to confess what’s happened, but just for the sound of someone else’s voice in his ear, to get something besides his own thoughts in his head.

In the end he doesn’t, though, and not just because it’s past one in the morning—because Harry can’t quite bring himself to lift his mobile, or dial a number; can’t manage anything, really, besides sitting here on the curb of this deserted street somewhere in Spain, his clothes still half undone and his head resting heavy against his knees.


The next day is a nightmare. Their flight to Portugal is at the crack of dawn, and Harry moves through the airport on autopilot, sleeps on the plane, and when they make it to the hotel in Lisbon he sleeps a bit more— missing out on the soundcheck until Marco sends a P.A. up to the room to drag him down to work.

He and Liam avoid each other the whole time, even when they’re doing the gig— Harry knows the other lads think they’re being strange, but he doesn’t explain, barely speaks to anyone, he just can’t. His head’s not in the right place, he has to let muscle memory move his feet, instinct cue him in when to smile and when to sing. He’s phoning it in and he knows it, feels bad for the fans and his bandmates, knows that they deserve better than this from him, knows he’s acting like a miserable, angst-ridden teenager. That doesn’t mean he knows how to stop.

By the time the concert is over he just wants out, he just wants away. He gets one of the assistants to switch his flight for tomorrow to a redeye for tonight, and he cashes in all the rest of his favors from Svein for a lift back to the hotel and then to the airport.

Harry doesn’t tell any of the others that he’s going, he just goes. It’s only when he’s on the plane, right before he has to turn off his mobile for take-off that he texts the four of them the same message:

Missing home. Going back to LDN 2nite. Have a good break lads, see you in June.


Harry rings Nick almost as soon as he’s touched down in Heathrow. It’s ungodly early in the morning, earlier even than a morning radio host has to be up, but Nick’s one of those friends that will answer any time you ring them. Harry suspects this is not so much from sentiment, though, but because Nick literally never sleeps.

“If it isn’t my favourite human hairball,” Nick greets him, “Are you topside again? Back from the wild blue yon so soon? Tess’ll be pleased to see you.”

It’s a fat lie, since Tess has sulked and hidden under the bed every time Harry’s had a chance to visit while on tour, but Harry appreciates him saying it, anyway. “Couldn’t spend another minute apart from you, Grimmers,” Harry says back, attempting his usual flirty tone despite the fact that his eyelids feel leaden, like they’re drooping down to his chin.

It’s nice to have the comfort of Nick’s sarcastic laughter back in his ears. “This milkshake does bring all the tweeny heartthrobs to the yard. Can be trying at times, but I like to believe I bear it with grace,” Nick says.

Harry rolls his eyes. “We’re going out later, yeah?” He’d decided on the plane that what he needed was a hard reboot— to turn off completely, and maybe fix whatever it is that’s gone wrong with him. And the fastest way Harry knows how to turn off one’s brain—barring illegal substances—is with a massive amount of alcohol.

“Of course, laddie, sure. All of London’s best, brightest, and most scantily-clad are dying to welcome you home,” Nick tells him.

“Then I’ll meet them with open arms,” Harry says.

“And open legs?” Nick cackles.

“That too.” Harry says, shrugging, because it’s more than likely to be true. Part of the plan, even. Whatever—or whoever—it takes to flush Liam Payne out of his system, he’ll do.

He rings off with Nick, and after he gets home Harry doesn’t even bother turning on the lights. He starts stripping off his travel-dusted clothes in the darkness of the foyer, naked by the time he hits his bed. He sets his alarm for nine o’clock at night and passes out for eighteen hours straight. Bless his jet-lag. It’s the most consecutive sleep he’s got since before he auditioned for X-Factor, probably.

He likes it because it’s almost a whole day gone without thinking of Liam, or Liam’s stupid face, or his stupid smile, which Harry reckons could be counted as progress—except for when he goes to rustle around for some clean, unwrinkled clothes, he finds a hoodie Liam had left over ages ago, here for some tacos-and-film night with the boys, that Harry’d been too lazy to ever give back.

He’s still sitting on the floor of his walk-in wardrobe, Liam’s stupid sodding hoodie bunched up in his hands, when Nick rings to make sure Harry’s awake and getting ready. He hurries to stuff the hoodie back in the corner where he’d found it, irrationally ashamed, like Nick can tell over the phone what he’s been up to.

“I need to get laid tonight,” Harry says, because there are levels of pathetic he’s laughed at in other people, before, and he’s pretty sure he just blew past all of them with that little display.

“Hmm. Not to be blunt— it might be tough, you know, given how dead unattractive you are?” Nick’s tone is skeptical. “But I think we can make that happen for you.”


Harry doesn’t quite mean to, but that night at the bar he pulls a bloke.

It’s not that he’s never done before— just— it’s been a while. Since last year, actually, and the thing with there almost being pictures, and the man hadn’t even been that good a shag. Harry’s stuck mainly to girls, since then— easier that way, safer, whatever— except this guy catches his eye and Harry’s had some tequila already and he can’t quite help himself. What had Liam said about it— Harry likes to be swept away, right.

Chad’s his name—or Brad, maybe, the music’s too loud in here— and Chad is an American tourist, tanned and athletic and well fit, and he doesn’t recognize Harry at all, which is hilarious. Harry tells him, “Name’s Jerry, bro,” laughing, and after two beers and a dance Harry leads Chad the tourist to the loo and blows him in one of the cubicles. It’s not nice, exactly— the tile hurts Harry’s knees, and the setting’s not the classiest— but it’s been a while since Harry’s had a dick in his mouth, and the musk and the taste and the slick mess of it are enough to get him stiffing up in his own jeans by the time he’s got Chad off. Chad makes noises like he wants to reciprocate, but Harry doesn’t let him, just says, “Would rather you fucked me, mate, t’be honest.”

They get a cab straight after that, go back to Chad’s hotel, and then Harry gets on his hands and knees and lets Chad stuff him full of his cock. It’s rough and drawn-out in the way he likes, he comes twice before Chad’s got one off, but when Harry’s lying there after, sticky with sweat and his own spunk, he can’t shake the wound-tight feeling in his gut, like it’s somehow not enough.


Harry wakes up at three the next afternoon, hungover and sore, back home with a mobile full of angry texts from Nick and the about-town crew, remembering with a pang that he’d ditched everyone back at the club. Harry seems to be making a habit of that, lately.

Feeling sick for more than one reason, Harry makes himself a strong Irish coffee, transforms his headache into a buzz. And he goes out with Grims again the next night, and the night after that. He lines up shots on the bars— tequila, whiskey, vodka, whatever— then downs them to the cheers of the crowd pressing close at his shoulders, and then he’s doing body shots off his friends, off acquaintances, off strangers: whatever wrist or neck or collar bone is put on offer, sprinkled with salt, Harry uses it. By the time he’s had seven or so shots everything’s hilarious again, and it doesn’t really stop being hilarious, because when the buzz starts winding down he just tips his head back and lets more alcohol burn its way past his throat.

His head spins and reels, like he’s stuck on a permanent roller-coaster. It almost works: he almost forgets about Liam. He definitely forgets about Chad. He lets two girls blow him and shags a third, pulling a different bird every night, and there might have been a fourth round in there somewhere but he can’t be sure, the nights are all blurring together for him now.

On Saturday night, his last one in London, Nick— or someone who looks very like Nick— is cooing at Harry, pinching his cheek, saying, “Aww, ickle Harry’s first bender,” with sardonic affection, and for some reason this makes Harry just laugh and laugh and laugh.


Harry wakes up to the shrill of an alarm on his phone Sunday morning, jackhammers behind his eyes and puke dried in his hair. Everything hurts— even his fingernails hurt. He’s in the bathtub, which is lucky, because he can’t manage to move except to turn on the taps, hot as they’ll go, and he sits half-dressed under the spray until standing upright doesn’t make the world spin off its axis.

Around nine, a driver and an assistant from the label— Martha, or Mary, they’ve met before but he doesn’t remember her name and feels bad— come over to Harry’s to fetch him, except he’s obviously unprepared because he’s managed to put on pants and collapse onto his couch but not much else. So the assistant does the packing for Harry’s trip home: clothes and toiletries tucked neatly into a suitcase, even the souvenirs that he’s brought for his mum and Gemma from overseas. After an aborted attempt to get off the couch, he lets her insist on helping him, which would surely have made Liam frown in disapproval if he were there to have seen. Guilt starts gnawing again at Harry’s stomach, then, and doesn’t really go away for the whole four hour drive up to Cheshire.

He’s had about a gallon of water and a handful of Panadol by the time they get there, and the driver’s obliged Harry by pulling over twice for him to vomit on the road, so he feels closer to human-like again as they’re turning into the driveway up to the house. There’s nothing he can do about his bloodshot eyes, though, so Harry has to keep his Ray-Bans on like a stupid celebrity pillock as he’s knocking on the door, while he’s hugging his mum and stepdad hello, and they haven’t even seen him properly since March.

His mum pulls him into the kitchen while his stepdad takes the suitcase in, and while the kettle’s still heating up she slips Harry’s sunglasses off his face, tsking him. “Oh, baby,” she says, quiet, and just that is enough to start Harry sniffing, his throat closed up and eyes wet like he’s a nappy-clad toddler again. It’s quite pathetic, but he lets her hug him and Harry just starts crying; he doesn’t even know why he’s crying, that’s how exhausted he is.

By the time the kettle’s done boiling, he’s made himself stop, scrubbing his cheeks with his hands. His skin feels raw all over, like he’s been freshly tattooed, but he knows he hasn’t done anything worth remembering in a while.

His mum makes him tea, just the way he likes it. “Why don’t you take this upstairs and have a nap, alright?” she suggests, worried and gentle. “You’re so worn out I can just about see through you. I’ll call you down for supper, how’s that sound.”

It sounds like all he’s capable of at the moment, really, so Harry just nods, and carries his mug up to his old bedroom, second door on the right. It’s been converted to a guestroom for a while now, but there’s still his old desk there, and his old bed, and Harry’s mum has even made it up with his old threadbare Superman bedding, just for his visit. Harry puts the tea down on the desk, pulling off clothes and aching in just about every part of himself.

He crawls under the sheets, and they smell like vanilla laundry detergent and home, and for some reason his throat is still tight, it’s hard to breathe. He doesn’t let himself think about the thirty or so missed calls and messages on his phone— from his crew of mates, and the lads, and their managers, and his publicist— probably each of them wanting to ask Harry what the fuck he's been doing for the past week. So he can’t ring anyone back, see, not yet— because if he’s being honest, Harry doesn’t have a bloody clue what to say.


Being home again is a lot like it was last time Harry was here, except for getting over being poorly, he just— he might as well admit it— he’s heartsick.

Funny how the two different things still make him act the same: Harry cocoons himself in the duvet on his bed and doesn’t really emerge for three days. He keeps half-expecting his mum or Gemma to come round and smack him out of it, but his family gives him space, brings him tea-trays, treats him exactly like an invalid, and he’s feeling sorry enough for himself that he lets them.

There’re only two days left of the break, and Harry’s in bed still, seriously weighing the repercussions of disembarking the plane in Mexico City then buggering off to the Yucatan for the rest of the tour, when his mum raps at his door and lets herself in. She perches at the end of the mattress, watching him thoughtfully, and Harry squirms and picks at loose threads in his sheet, waiting for the shoe to drop at last.

“Harry Edward Styles,” she says, getting right into it. She nods her head to his mobile, where it’s been sitting black-screened and dead on the desk since he arrived. “I think it’s about time to get back to reality, don’t you?”

He’s nineteen— he knows it’s not exactly the height of maturity to pout at your mum, but he’s been stuck in self-pity mode for over a week and he can’t quite help it. “What about telling me you’re worried about this mad life I’m leading, and if I want to give it all up t’be a boring, safe dentist instead, that’s fine, you’ll love me anyway,” he says. His voice is hoarse, maybe, but it’s from disuse more than anything else.

She shrugs. “I would, sweetie, except I know you don’t want to quit, not really.” Her tone has gentled a bit but remains stern, like whatever she says is inarguable fact. He reckons once you become a mother, it probably is.

“You love what you do,” she says, “and you love those four boys. They’d be as lost without you as you are without them, believe me.”

“Oh,” Harry says, looking towards the window, just until he can get the hot sting behind his eyelids under control. It only takes blinking a few times.

“You know what else I know?” his mum says, going on. “I know you’re strong enough to get through anything: because you’re my baby boy, but you’re also my son, and I built you that way.”

“Like a robot?” Harry wrinkles his nose at her, knowing it’ll make her laugh.

“Very like,” she agrees, grinning at him. “You’ve also got your friends and family, we’re always here to help you whenever you need. There’s just one thing you have to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Turn your phone back on, my love,” she says, wryly.

“Fine,” Harry says, after realizing the mum guilt has already settled in under his skin, there’s no getting rid of the itch now except by doing what she tells him to. Which, given that she’s a very smart lady, he should probably be doing anyway.

She strokes his hair for him, then gives him another one of those looks. “Is there anything you want to talk to me about while I’m here, and you’re here, and we’re sharing this touching moment?”

He gets as far as opening his mouth, but instead of Liam’s name, what Harry says is, “No. I— not yet,” kind of helplessly.

She hums. Then, after a pause which is too casual to be anything but, his mum lays a trump card on him. “Guess who rang me twice this week— did I tell you? Karen Payne. Lovely woman, that Karen. We follow each other on the Twitter thing, you know.”

Harry’s heart is stuck somewhere between his throat and his stomach, wobbling out of place against his ribs. “Oh,” he says, utterly at a loss. “Did she.”

“Mmhmm. She’s got her son home from the tour, too. We’ve lots in common, Karen and I.”

After three days of virtually no stimuli, this is suddenly all too much for Harry. He slinks down in the bed, pulling the covers up over his face. He can be nineteen tomorrow— right now, just, he’d prefer to be nine, and hide from the world until it goes away.

“Alright, alright, I can take a hint.” The mattress dips as his mum gets up to leave. “Love you, baby.”

“Love you, too,” he manages, muffled under the covers.

“And get a shower, you,” she gets in, cheerfully, just as the door’s clicking shut. Typical parenting.

She might have a point, though. With the covers up over his head, Harry’s pretty much swimming in his own smell, ripened over days of wallowing and indolence. It’s not exactly daisy-fresh.

With a long-suffering sigh, Harry throws off the covers, getting up to do what he’s been told.


The shower is the easy part, and he maybe zones out more than usual— even for him— to delay the part that comes next. But when the pounding of the spray over his neck and shoulders turns tepid, then frigid, he can’t put it off any longer.

He sits on his bed in his pants, wet hair dripping down his back. He’s fidgeting with his necklaces with one hand and spinning his mobile round in the other. He tries to laugh at himself, how ridiculous he’s being, but the sound just comes out sounding all wrong so he stops. He’d charged his phone while he was showering, and the little light’s gone green, meaning he’s out of time and excuses. Blowing out a long breath, Harry finally thumbs over the power button, shoulders already hunching under the avalanche he knows is about to hit.

Two minutes later, after it finishes buzzing and chirping with missed notifications, Harry starts slogging through the pile. Most of it’s what he’d expected: everyone worrying about him, then pitching insults at him, then threatening him with bodily harm if Harry doesn’t text/ring/email them back right away. He tries to make a note of anyone from the label who’d seemed especially pissed off— he might get one of the P.A.’s to send off some flowers, if he can.

It’s Liam’s messages that Harry saves for last, and he almost can’t do it—he nearly goes to delete them unread, but then he tells himself if he’s going to manage seeing Liam face-to-face in two days, Harry has to be at least able to read a few texts from the man.

There aren’t as many as he’d expected, which could be either good or bad. Harry scrolls to the earliest sent messages and starts there, his heart thudding dull and heavy against his chest.

There’s only two from Liam sent on the night Harry’d flown out from Portugal on his own:

you seriusly r just leaving? just like that?

call me back when u land we need 2 talk

After those, though, Liam’d sent nothing— nothing about being worried, or angry, or sorry, or anything that Harry can understand or interpret enough to settle the cold twisting of his stomach. The last three texts are timestamped from nearly a week ago, when Harry’d still been in London.

whoopss haha m drunnkkk annd andy forgot 2 tak me mobil c ur nott the only 1 r u haz

sorry 2 txt whn i’m liek thiss i just hate feelin like thsi so muchhhhh

whoaaaa thiss girl is tyin 2 cherryystems wit her tuongue shits like amazinnng

And Harry doesn’t know what to with any of that, at all. So instead of driving himself mental over it, Harry takes the easy way out, and he rings up his publicist.

It’s brilliant, because he doesn’t have to do much, just make apologetic noises and then let her slag him off— in a professional way, of course— for nearly an hour. It’s almost cathartic, letting the waves of disapproval roll over him. Apparently Harry’s antics have landed him in the gossip rags again, which is hardly surprising. There’s no mention about Brad— Chad? which is a bit more luck than Harry deserves, probably, and it makes him feel guilty about that whole mess all over again.

After Sheryl’s had her way with him, he rings up the label right after—decides he’ll do them all in one go, because why not. He deserves a bit of punishment. Somewhere in the middle of the third PR rep who takes it upon themselves to remind Harry— very gently, and without making judgments about his lifestyle choices— that he’s ultimately responsible for his own image, and that he has millions of young, impressionable young fans looking to him as an example, Harry considers going outside and drowning himself in the nearest pond.

His Twitter rep is the easiest on him— Greg just begs Harry to stay off his feed for a few more days, only to avoid setting any inadvertent fires, and then asks him to remind his bandmates that commenting on a story, even to say it’s bollocks, is all the tabloids and gossip-mongers want. Harry agrees, but doesn’t text them about it; they all know better by now than to comment on stories, anyway. Mostly. Louis does tend to conveniently forget, sometimes.

He knows it’s still putting off the inevitable, not ringing any of the four of them back. He tells himself he only has two more nights until he sees them again, until they’re back on tour and all breathing the same recycled air, anyway. The truth, though, and he knows it: he’s a coward. Harry’s always been the type to show his back to his fears rather than his teeth, and the thought of what Liam might have told the other boys about the night in Madrid makes Harry shake with fear more than any stage has done in years.


It’s Liam, ultimately, that has Harry breaking his radio silence before he’s quite ready to.

The text comes around midnight, when Harry should be asleep because he has a plane to catch at eight that’s going to take him to Mexico, back to his boys. But he’s not asleep, because he’s packing— if by packing one could mean lying backwards on one’s bed listening to mix cds you’d made when you were fifteen.

He knows the text’s from Liam, somehow, before he even unlocks his phone. Maybe because his heart drops, suddenly, or because he’s listening to Transylvania and thinking about Liam while he does— really, Harry hasn’t stopped thinking about Liam since he sobered up— anyway, Harry just knows.

He sits up on his bed to read the message, like that’s going to help it not feel like a kick to the gut.

hazza please just say its not bcuz of me. plz talk to me, i cant take this just talk to me, say anything u want 2 me.

Harry reads it five times, goes to reply, then throws his mobile down on the mattress, burying his face in his hands and hearing nothing but the sound of his own harsh breaths and the pounding of his heart in his ears for long minutes.

The next time he picks up his phone it’s with hands that are shaking, but he ignores it, because he knows what he has to do.

I’m sorry— Harry types in. We’re fine I swear, everything can be like it was before. I’ll see you tomorrow alright? Good night Li.

The track’s switched over when he wasn’t listening— now it’s Jack White singing about hitting himself with a stone, and Harry wishes his fifteen year-old self could have been a bit less prescient.

Liam doesn’t reply back. Harry gives up on packing, throws his dirty clothes into his duffel along with clean ones, same as he always ends up doing despite all his intentions to do better. Then he goes and curls up in his old bed, body curved around his thin and lumpy old pillows, knowing this is the last feeling of home he’ll get to have for at least two more months. Harry holds that thought, painful and close, while he drifts off to sleep.


The plane ride over is torture. Harry tries to sleep, but he can’t, and he orders a double jack and coke from the stewardess before even thinking about it, just wanting to escape some of the tension riding in his shoulders and the pit of his stomach.

The first mouthful goes down easy, a sweet familiar burn, but then Harry has to go and imagine Liam’s look when Harry sees them again in Mexico City, and he already knows the exact way Liam’s mouth and forehead would crumple, just from Harry walking up with whiskey on his breath. After that he can’t even touch the glass, just sits hunched low in his seat with his headphones in, frowning at the tiny flight display for an indeterminate number of hours before muscle memory kicks in and he finally does doze off.

The four of them are all at the hotel together by the time Harry gets in, after making it through customs and through the insane street traffic on his own, and he’s tired and hungry and wrung out and so, so not ready for this. The boys are just lounging around on a couch in Louis and Harry’s room, like they arranged this days in advance, like it's a bloody planned intervention with self-help booklets and everything.

Harry stalls in the doorway, balking. Every instinct is screaming that confrontation is coming, he should run away— but he makes himself plant his feet, makes himself try to smile, to say, “Hiya, fellas,” as he slings his bag to the floor.

“Hey,” they say back in turn, looking around at each other. Fuck. This is definitely an intervention.

Surprisingly— or not, if Harry only erases the past month from his memory, versus the past three years— it’s Liam who stands up, steps forward before any of the rest.

For a few seconds that feel excruciatingly long, Harry can only look at him: standing there in just plain travel clothes, trackie bottoms and a t-shirt and socked feet against the carpet, the light from the windows behind him, and Harry’s chest feels so tight that taking a breath is painful, like breathing in smoke.

Liam’s rubbing the back of his neck, eyes flicking to Harry’s in shy, awkward butterfly bursts before staying, his mouth setting at the same time, obviously determined. “Listen, Hazza, can we talk for a minute?”

Harry’s heart makes a concentrated attempt to eject itself from his ribcage, but then Harry’s eyes trip down to Liam’s other hand, the one not on his neck, and sees he’s holding a newspaper, tapping it nervously against his knee. It’s a British tabloid, and not even one of the especially sleazy ones.

Harry leans back, pulls a wry face. “What, were you elected spokesperson? Gonna be our real daddy, now?” he tries to joke. It might come out a bit more snidely than he intends it to.

Liam’s answer is steady, unimpressed. “No, they all wanted a go at you, actually. I just bagsied you first.”

Harry can’t even look at the others, after that. Sinking into the floor sounds preferable to speaking or hearing another word, actually, but Harry takes a bracing breath, tries to remember what his mum had told him, hugging him bye at the airport: “This too shall pass, baby—” which is some of that very adult-sounding parental advice Harry has never much known what to do with.

He nods at Liam, croaks out a, “Okay, whatever,” and ends up following him to the en suite bedroom, heart in his throat with each muffled step, desperately wanting to think about anything, anything at all besides what happened the last time they were in a bedroom together.

He sits down gingerly on the edge of the mattress while Liam shuts the door, then turns around to lean against it with his arms folded, like he’s deliberately cutting off any avenue for escape.

Liam holds out the tabloid, flapping it. “So how about explaining this,” he says, still in that calm, steady voice. He tosses the paper down on the bed next to Harry, who picks it up to look properly.

It’s a tabloid, so everything’s sensationalized, but there’s no getting around the fact that yes— that is indeed a picture of Harry outside of a nightclub, vomiting on some poor sod’s shoes in full technicolor glory. Harry winces, both because he’s just realized he owes Svein a new pair of shoes, and also because he doesn’t remember that happening, at all; that’s how far gone he’d been.

Harry clears his throat, setting the tabloid aside. Liam’s asked for an explanation. Harry’s had days and days of just sitting in his bed, nothing to do but think about that same question.

“Pretty sure you’ve seen me heaving on a man’s shoes before, Liam,” Harry says, because that’s all he’s got, all that’s safe.

Liam looks actually pained at that, eyebrows drawing together. “Please don’t fuck around right now,” he says. The arms he’s had crossed over his chest have changed, slid down— now they’re more curled around his stomach. Liam begins speaking low and earnestly, twisting the knife in Harry with every word.

“You know we’re not upset because you did the teenage celebrity trainwreck thing for a week, right? But, Harry, you turned off your phone? I mean, if it was just me that you didn’t— I would, I would get that—” Liam swallows, hard, and neither of them meets the other’s eyes. Harry hears Liam take a breath in the still of the room, and then he’s going on: “But you didn’t talk to any of us for two weeks— two weeks, Haz. Not even Niall, or Louis. And it’s just— we all made a promise, remember that? Way back at the start, we said that if we were gonna do this, like, actually fucking do this, then we can’t ever shut each other out.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Harry says, miserably.

“Didn’t mean to what— go mute on us? Go on a drunken bender?”

“Both?” Harry offers, then feels guilty, especially after Liam tilts his eyebrows at exactly an angle that lets Harry know how obvious it is he’s full of shit. “No, that’s— that’s a lie, I’m sorry, I’m lying. I meant to do it, mostly. I was stupid, alright? I know how stupid I was. I just... needed a break.”

Liam exhales in a long breath. He moves away from the door, coming to sit on the bed, too, though it’s a good three feet away. Harry can’t help but feel a sting at the difference two weeks has made: before, Liam wouldn’t have hesitated to sit pressed all along Harry’s side, like birds on a wire, or peas in a pod.

“Look,” Liam says, very carefully. “I know we didn’t— you ran out so fast, after the concert in Lisbon, I didn’t get a chance to—to explain myself—”

At that, Harry freezes up. This is it, he has to speak first— he can’t let Liam be the one to say what they’d almost done should never have happened, that it was a mistake, the way Harry’s spent the last fortnight dreading, lead in the pit of his stomach every time he’s imagined it.

“No,” Harry says, rasping the words out through the tightness of his throat. “You don’t have to say anything. I told you, we’re fine, alright?” He forces the smile, then, like he’d memorized, practiced in the mirror. “We just got, like, a bit too carried away. That’s all that was.”

Liam’s face stays still, doesn’t flinch at that the way Harry’d half-expected. Except for the brief tightening of his mouth, Liam could be a statue right now— head angled down, shoulders rounded, squeezing his hands between his knees.

“Alright,” he says, after Harry’s held his breath long enough to feel dizzy from it. “Alright, that’s— yeah. I mean, you’re right.” Liam looks up, then, and he smiles at Harry for what feels like the first time in years, even though it’s a weak one, and shaky; barely a shadow of what Liam’s smiles can be. Liam says, “So—so, we’re good, then?”

“‘Course,” Harry says, then, meekly: “you’re not still mad at me?”

Liam’s smile twists, but it only goes lopsided, an exasperated lilt that Harry’s seen a thousand times before. “I dunno,” Liam retorts. “Are you gonna go off the deep end again, shut us all out?”

“No?” Harry chews on his thumb, hesitating; he doesn’t want to lie. He thinks about the drink from the plane, and in the interests of honesty he adds: “I don’t want to, but I’m afraid I might have, y’know, what’s it called— an impulse control problem? Is that a thing?”

Liam looks doubtful. “Well,” he says. “You are nineteen.”

“So are you,” Harry says, and does his best not to roll his eyes. He hates it when Liam forgets.

“Oh, right.”

“I was thinking I should lie low for a while, anyway,” Harry admits, “Keep it down with the partying, and stuff. Probably be good for me.” He doesn’t say the part where Sheryl had all but threatened to disembowel Harry if he didn’t spend at least a few months like a hermit to make up for the nightmare she’d had on her hands over all the other stuff.

“Reckon it would be, if you can manage it,” Liam agrees. The wrinkle of his nose is saying everything unspoken about what he thinks Harry’s chances are.

Harry turns on the bed, faces him more squarely. “Just for that, I should make you help me,” he says.

“What? Oh, like a, what’s it called— a sponsor, or something?”

Suddenly inspired, Harry says: “You can be my sober companion. Kind of help keep me on the wagon, like. You’ve had way more practice than any of the rest of us.” Half of him is kidding, waiting for Liam to laugh and shrug it off— Harry wouldn’t mind, he’d take it as a win, anyway. But, as he probably should have expected, Liam doesn’t do that.

Instead, Liam’s body angles the same way Harry’s had done, knee pulling up on the mattress so they’re facing each other, and then Liam’s saying, all soft eyes and soft mouth and gentle everything: “Yeah, of course, Haz— whatever you need, I’ll give you, you know that.”

And Harry has to bite down on his lip, hard, before he can trust himself not to blurt something that comes too close to what he really wants. Just like that, he’s back to being almost as much of a wreck as he was at home; knowing this easy, immediate forgiveness is more than he deserves. It’s not what he was expecting, any of it, but even as he’s breaking apart all over again he can feel it: tiny little tendrils of warmth wending their way into cracked-open parts of him, dangerously like hope.

“Hey. Can I ask for one more thing?” Harry says, very small.

“Yes, ‘course you can.”

“Can I get a hug, hug dealer?”

Liam doesn’t answer, just scoots forward on the bed and then his arms are pulling Harry into his chest, then enveloping him, and Harry’s pushing his face into Liam’s neck and holding him back, tight, much tighter than he should but Harry can’t help himself. Harry closes his eyes and lets himself be wrapped up the smell of Liam, aftershave and fabric softener and sweat from the summer heat, just for a second, then Harry says, “Thanks,” because it’s all he can manage.

Liam’s arms squeeze Harry back, just as tight, almost so that Harry can’t breathe, but he doesn’t mind it. “I missed you, you idiot,” Liam’s saying, a bit roughly. “You scared me, alright? I don’t want to— just— don’t do that again, Haz, please.”

Harry nods into Liam’s shoulder, fingers bunching up into his shirt before Harry makes himself let go. He feels young, and stupid, and more lucky than he can say that he can still have this much at least of Liam, even if everything that happened ruined the chances of anything more.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, meaning it in more than one way.

Liam pulls back, too, but he reaches up, cradling Harry’s head in his hands, pads of his thumbs rubbing over Harry’s cheeks. For a second Liam seems like he wants to say something else, but he only bites his lip, keeping whatever it is tucked away. He kisses Harry’s forehead briskly, then Harry’s eyebrow, then his nose, until Harry chuckles and pushes him off. Liam just grins.

“Dork,” Harry says.

“Brat,” Liam gives back. Then, “Come on, better get up. Promised I’d deliver you back to Louis before lunch. Something about how he needs to flay your skin off an inch at a time? Dunno what that means, exactly, but it sounded entertaining.”

Reluctantly, Harry gets up and follows Liam out of the room, bracing himself for exactly what Lou’d promised, and more.


“Think your winning streak’s about to end, mate,” Liam says, clearing his rack as he lays his tiles out on the board, spelling out a seven-letter word. Harry should be watching the play, but he’s stuck on Liam’s face, instead: the competitive glint in his eyes, the pleased-with-himself smirk on his face.

They’re on the road, sort of, stopped off the highway somewhere between Ohio and Kentucky, their tourbus train crammed into the parking lot of a Waffle House between semis and rusted-out pickup trucks. They’d all had their supper of syrup and grease, but that’d been hours ago—the real reason they’re not back on the highway yet is because of the honky-tonk bar across the road. Louis’d seen the name—‘Bootlicker Bill’s’—and decided it absolutely had to be a pin in the map of their journey through America, or however he’d phrased it.

Harry had waved off— he’s only a bit over a week into his promises and still mindful of them. Liam had volunteered to keep him company, they’d broken out the Scrabble board, and now here they are: score almost even, Liam’s deficiencies in spelling made up for by his strategic use of premium squares, and Harry finding himself helplessly fond of Liam’s small hisses of victory, even as he’s wondering how a bloke who can’t tell the difference between ‘there, they’re and their’ is keeping up with him.

“Triple word score, how about that,” Liam’s saying, gleeful, “So that would be— ergh, I hate maths— thirty-six, isn’t it?”

Harry looks down, checking. He has to bite down on his knuckle for a second to not give himself away. Liam is bouncing on the couch, already adding the points to his running score, and Harry can’t— he might be a lot of things, but he’s not a person who can tell Liam that ‘CALDRONS’ is actually spelled with a U in it, not when he’s smiling proudly like that.

“Good play,” is all Harry says, and he’s fine with it, really. There’s loads of things he doesn’t tell Liam, these days.

These days, being around Liam is a lot like being on a diet, Harry’s found. Not that he has a lot of experience with dieting, but he does have a mum and older sister, and Louis gets weird about the size of his hips, sometimes— anyway, dieting is all about rules, right, and tricking yourself. The deals with yourself are the key: you’re allowed a one-armed hug, but not a full one; lips can graze across cheeks and ears when you lean in to tell him something, but never his neck.

It’s about knowing certain things aren’t good for you— like staying up late with Liam, watching old episodes of South Park and laughing too loud at his terrible Cartman impersonation— but you cheat sometimes, tell yourself just this once can’t hurt.

But the most important rule about dieting—avoiding the situations that lead to temptation in the first place— that’s where Harry tends to fail the most. For all that he just might go crazy from this, having Liam always at his fingertips and forever out of reach, Harry can’t make himself stay away. And it’s not like they have any room to escape each other, even if they’d wanted to. All of them are stuck together on this tourbus for the foreseeable future, eating away the miles in North America night by night, breathing in the different air of however many states in all four corners of the continent.

But Harry has his rules, even though he bends them, and he’s not drinking himself into a blackout after every show, or going off with whichever groupie looks the most willing— so, you know, he’s a bit proud of that. Far as it goes, he reckons he’s coping fairly well.

Liam nudges Harry under the table, warm socked foot pressing against Harry’s cold toes, bringing him back to the game.

“Your turn,” Liam says.

Harry studies the board for a moment, then his tiles, and finally sets down ‘QUERY’, playing off the R Liam had laid down. He’s been saving that Q for an age, waiting for a premium square, but Harry’s started thinking maybe losing to Liam wouldn’t be such a terrible tragedy—even if the other boys will take the mick for years.

“Query,” Liam says, with a cute puzzled frown. “Is that a real thing? Are you sure?”

“It’s like a combo of question and inquiry,” Harry explains.

“I dunno about that. Maybe you should give a demonstration of one, just to be certain.” When Liam’s foot knocks into Harry’s again, he looks closer at the other boy, and this time catches the gleam of mischief lit behind Liam’s eyes. Harry is never going to forgive Louis and Zayn for teaching Liam how to be a smart mouth. Like, ever.

“Are you quite finished?” Harry asks, rolling his eyes.

“Ooh, excellent demo, Mr. Styles, A-plus.”

Liam’s back to looking at the game, fingers tugging at his lower lip in thought. Harry looks away, towards the window instead; watches the yellow beams of headlights stream down the pitch-black highway, feeling the rush of the larger trucks rattling the bus around them ever so slightly.

The click of tiles gets his attention, just in time to catch Liam’s grin and flourish as he finishes off ‘QUEEF’, playing off of Harry’s ill-used Q, of course.

Harry blinks at him, amazed for more than one reason. Liam only continues to grin. “What?” he says, after a beat. “It’s a real word, I promise.”

“I know it’s a word,” Harry says.

“So you’re not gonna dispute me?”

“Hardly,” Harry says, shaking his head, suddenly helpless with laughter. “No, you’ve done it, you’ve won, I forfeit.”

Liam cheers, taking a picture of the board with his mobile, and then Harry actually has to leap out of his seat to wrest it from Liam’s hands after he threatens to post the picture to Twitter where his eleven-million followers can revel with him in Harry’s defeat. The things is, it starts out as a half-hearted swipe, and then out of nowhere Harry’s half across the table, half across Liam, scattered tiles raining down around them and onto the floor. And Liam is laughing up at Harry, hands braced against his arms, and their faces are closer together than Harry’s allowed in a long time.

Liam’s mouth is right there, Harry can’t not look at it: wide open and flush and warm-looking, and Harry has a flash of fantasy— something he normally only lets out on a cheat day, when he’s too tired to keep fighting with himself every second— and it’s just, it’s what might have happened that night in Madrid, if Liam had stayed.

Harry thinks about that more than he should, especially with a hand on himself, alone in the shower or the dark of his bunk: he thinks about how it might have felt, straddling Liam’s shoulders, feeding his dick into that beautiful hot mouth with Selia pressed flush all along Harry’s back, riding Liam and gasping damply against Harry’s neck while she does. Or if Liam had wanted him to, Harry would have rolled over in a heartbeat— would have let Liam put him on hands and knees and press into him, groaning praise with every inch he takes; Harry’s reasonably sure he could have made Selia come on his tongue, with Liam’s heavy thrusts pushing Harry’s face against her.

Almost shaking, Harry pulls back, all the way back to his own side of the couch and into himself, taking an iron grip on everything: his thoughts, his face, his breathing. As a distraction, or maybe just for something to do with his hands, he fusses with his hair, fixing it like the bit of rough-house messed it up. With his fingers tugging his fringe back like they’ve done thousands of times before, Harry can find a way to smile, to say: “Sorry, no pictures allowed. Really, it’s terribly unsporting of you, Liam.”

Liam snorts, sitting up and tugging his collar back around from where it’s got twisted. “Yeah, because you’re all about playing fair.”

“Depends on the game,” Harry says, wanting to take the words back when Liam slants him a look from under his lashes, too quick for Harry to decipher.

“So,” Liam says, digging the remote out from where it’s wedged between two couch cushions. “South Park till the lads get home?” He sounds hopeful, or maybe that’s just Harry’s feverish imagination, again.

Harry should say he’s knackered— he is, after all— he should go to his bunk, shut himself up in the dark, sleep until the phantom imprint of Liam’s hands curled around Harry’s forearms fades away. He needs less time in Liam’s company, not more.

Just this once can’t hurt, Harry thinks, and aloud he says, “Only if you swear not to do your Cartman voice, Liam, promise me,” scooting around to Liam’s side of the couch so they can both see the inset telly on the far wall of the lounge.

‘I do what I want,’” Liam says, snickering, holding up his arm along the back of the couch to welcome Harry in.


The tour seems to pick up speed in momentum from there, till the cities and arenas feel like they’re flying past Harry’s nose in a blur, till looking out the bus window doesn’t tell him where they are anymore, all he sees is farms and then towns and then skyscrapers, then back to blue skies stretched like a blanket over yellow fields.

It’s kind of strange, in practice, being sober all the time— Harry almost feels more exhausted than he had when he’d made a regular practice of shutting down clubs half the nights of the week, pushing through his own limits by simply refusing to acknowledge they existed. It could be that the promotions have stepped up, now that they’re in America: they’re actually doing more things— packing the schedule with more interviews, more radio spots, more burning their candles at both ends, constantly.

He hasn’t been counting the days, exactly— he’s not in AA, he’s not gonna get a chip for this, and he certainly doesn’t plan to never have a cosmo again for the rest of his life, that’s mental— but he doesn’t realize he’s hit a month on the wagon until Liam points it out for him.

They’re in Pittsburgh, singing for an audience of ecstatic fans dressed all in black and yellow like they’re bees, Harry’s half been expecting them to start buzzing— when Liam crosses the stage to Harry during Teenage Dirtbag, drawing him in with a warm sweaty hand on the back of Harry’s flushed sweaty neck, and then Liam’s shouting in Harry’s ear, out of nowhere: “I’m so fucking proud of you, Hazza!”

Harry pulls back far enough to see Liam’s face: he’s grinning, that stupid one where he looks all lit up from the inside, brighter than the stage lights, and Harry is completely confused. But Liam doesn’t give him time to answer back, Liam just pounds Harry’s shoulders and spins away, dancing over to Niall with his voice tripping up into his bell-clear falsetto, singing about Iron Maiden tickets.

The song’s mostly over before finally Harry gets it, and by the time they’re queuing up for Rock Me, Harry’s got a huge grin splitting his face, lungs swelling up with air, and he belts his verse the best he’s ever done, possibly. Liam gives him a thumbs up for it, anyway, and Harry takes that as an invitation to drag his mic stand over to where Liam’s bouncing through the song, and they bounce together, singing in each other’s faces and riffing their air guitars while the crowd stomps along to the chorus, shaking the whole stadium. It’s moments like these when Harry’s one-hundred percent sure he never wants to do anything but this for the rest of his life.


He has more time to reflect on the milestone after the show’s over, after the confetti and the encore and the hugs and meet-and-greets backstage with the VIPs— Harry reckons they’ve met the daughters and nieces of every producer in the music business, by this point— and they’re piled onto the bus, headed off through the sunrise to God knows where, next; Canada, maybe.

It’s not like Harry or Liam have ever explicitly come out and told the other lads about the sober companion deal, or whatever, but by the third time Harry’d turned down an invite to go out, they’d all realized something had changed. So he’d confessed before a show one night, everyone lounging about in the green room, and he’d tried to keep it casual— said he was just trying to dry out for a few months, was all.

Louis had taken the piss first, predictably. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he’d scolded, with that deadpan face he does. “We’re British, mate, drinking is the national pastime; where d’you think you’re from, Yemen?”

And Harry’d hit him round the head with a cushion, and Louis’d fought back until he’d won and then cuddled Harry, so Harry translated everything Lou’d said as opposite, just like normal.

Then Niall had volunteered to drink Harry under the table— what that was supposed to prove, Harry’d never figured out— and Zayn’d chimed in helpfully after that, saying, “You can always take up smoking instead if y’wanna get off the sauce, bro.”

After that it was pretty much a Harry free-for-all, until they’d slagged off everything about his lifestyle choices from his clothes, to his hair, to his scented candles. Harry had taken it as gracefully as possible, knowing it was part of the penance for earning their forgiveness. But he was still grateful and pleased when Liam’d laid about the room with a towel, whip-cracking the others into submission, telling them to take Harry seriously and not be prats about it— which, to be fair, they absolutely would have done on their own, it’s just Liam made it happen loads sooner. Harry had smiled at him from across the room, and Liam had smiled back— and that, right there, had felt like the first step on a very long road towards being okay.


Harry isn’t pouting. He isn’t having a sulk, either, or wallowing in self-pity, or any of the other self-indulgences that Louis’s eyebrows seem to be implying.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Liam’s saying, hovering near where Harry’s sat on the bed, all anxious frown at the corners of his mouth and slightly-drooping shoulders. And if it weren’t for Louis staring him down from the doorway, then Harry would say “yeah, stay” in a heartbeat. As it is, Harry ends up biting his tongue, plucking at a loose thread on the hem of his t-shirt.

He’s had a bit of a rough day. Every interviewer since Michigan has been digging at Harry about Taylor, and he still hasn’t even read the article where she supposedly mentions him; Sheryl’d said it was “suspiciously vague, at best,” over the phone, which, what does that even mean. It’s not that Harry doesn’t know how to non-answer a question— it just can all get so tiresome, sometimes, that’s all.

So Harry might have spent most of the afternoon looking forward to chilling with Liam in their hotel room, using their blessedly free night off to catch up on episodes of Hollyoaks, ordering in deli sandwiches— only it turns out Liam’s forgot, he’s made plans to go to the cinema with Louis and Zayn, instead.

They’ve already seen it before, too— midnight showing a week ago, some film about giant robots fighting aliens, how many nuances could they have missed the first time around— so it’s possible that Harry’d frowned, like, the tiniest bit when Liam brought it up. Which had led to Liam remembering his plans with Harry, and then apologizing profusely, and then offering to cancel on the film.

The thing is, Harry knows what he’s allowed to ask for and what he’s not: the rules are clear, and they’ve been clear ever since he’d sent that text back to Liam about things being as they were before. So Harry’d bitten back the flare of jealousy and said, “No, nevermind, don’t worry about it,” as graciously as he could manage, except it might not have been in the most believable tone of voice; Harry’s a singer, not a sodding actor, so what the hell does Louis expect from him, really.

“It’s fine,” Harry tries again, even doing his best to conjure a smile. “Go watch your robots; I’ve got some emails from Gemma I should catch up on, anyway. She always writes me essays, like, rambling on and on—” Harry stops himself, realizing who that sounds like.

Liam laughs, looks relieved, and the smile he gives Harry is a real one. “Must run in the family,” he teases, and Harry swats at his leg, making Liam dance out of reach, still laughing.

Zayn shows up in the open doorway, jacket and snapback on, mobile in his hand. “Ready to go?” he asks, grinning at Liam. Harry has to suddenly and urgently mess with his hair, hiding his face under the flop of his bangs until he’s sure he doesn’t look like some kind of suspicious, green-eyed troll.

Harry feels the brush of Liam’s fingers through his curls, but it’s just for a second, while Liam’s saying, “Cheers, Haz— I’ll make it up to you, alright?” then the touch is gone before Harry can even sit up. After that, Liam and Zayn are heading down the hallway, chattering in loud, excited voices about ‘mecha’ and ‘kaiju’, whatever that means.

Louis lingers, though, leaning against the doorframe. He’s watching Harry, still, and Harry’s stomach bottoms out with nerves, wondering what Louis thinks he’s seen.

“Go on without me, yeah? Forgot my beanie, I’ll meet you there,” Louis yells down the hallway, and there’s a vague shout back that Harry doesn’t catch because he’s too busy wondering if there’s a fire escape outside his hotel window.

As if sensing Harry’s fight-or-flight instincts kicking into gear, Louis shuts the door to the room, trapping Harry in. The look on Lou’s face is a rare one, thoughtful and serious at once. Harry’s only seen Louis with that look a handful of times before, and it always resulted in him saying something very insightful and penetrating— neither of which are things Harry thinks he could stand up to, just now.

“Sorry, I just— was there some kind of science breakthrough I didn’t hear about?” Louis says, tone already kicking in hard and snide, not even building up to it. “Can doctors do a reverse surgery now, turn two separate people into conjoined twins? Did you and Liam get attached at the hip when I wasn’t looking?”

“Not that I know of,” Harry says mildly, fishing his mobile out of his pocket for something to look at that isn’t Lou’s eyes boring down into him.

“Are you sure? Because the way you just sounded would imply otherwise.” When this fails to get a rise out of Harry, Louis starts to imitate him, flopping down onto the mattress behind him and sprawling dramatically. “‘Oh, no, you go on, Liam,’” Louis says, affecting Harry’s drawl, layering it in a pathetic whimper. “‘I’ll stay here, it’s fine— might perish and die from boredom, unwanted and alone, but lay some nice flowers on my grave, whatever.’”

Harry pretends to be absorbed in his phone, but Louis leans over with a huff, snatching it away.

“No, come on, at least give me the courtesy of fucking looking at me when I’m accusing you of fraud,” Louis snaps.

Harry’s hands fall down to his sides, feeling heavy and useless. He doesn’t know what else to do with himself, so he gives Louis what he wants, leveling a glare at him. “You’re being rude,” Harry says, uncomfortable and stiff. Harry doesn’t like rudeness. He also doesn’t like confrontation, mostly because of the rudeness involved. Louis Tomlinson often goes hand-in-hand with both. Harry has no idea how they ever became friends.

Lou’s eyebrows shoot up, sardonic and impatient with Harry’s deflection. “Well, shit. Hold on, mate, because it's only going to get worse from here." Louis gets off the bed, standing up with his hands on his his hips, towering over Harry with every inch he can take. He says: “It isn’t enough to have millions of strangers obsessed with you, is it— you’ve got to be the apple of every fucking eye, don’t you? Especially Liam’s, because he’s in vogue with you right now, or some bullshit. Next week it might be Niall, right?”

Harry wants to either disappear, or develop sudden and spontaneous deafness. Running away wouldn’t help, much as he’d like to. Tommo’ll dog you to the ends of the Earth to get his point across, when he gets like this. Harry knows there isn’t much use in defending himself, but he tries, anyway. “You’re wrong, alright. It’s not like that with Liam, he’s helping me.”

“Oh, right, this new sobriety kick you’re on about.” Louis wrinkles his nose— not quite a sneer, but a half-one, as if that’s as much effort as the thought deserves. “Except I can’t help wondering if maybe that wasn’t the whole point, huh? Like, your whole little binge-drinking stunt.”

Harry goes hot all over, then cold, as the implications of what Lou’s saying sink in. “Fuck you,” he says, low, the words barely wanting to come out of his throat. He thinks he’s never said that to anyone in the band before, let alone Louis.

Louis doesn’t even flicker an eyelash, let alone slow down. His voice gets tighter, each word punching through Harry’s chest like a knife: “Because if that’s the reason why, Harry, if that’s it— then I don’t even know about you anymore, I really don’t. Because that’s the shittiest thing I can imagine doing to someone, ever, especially Liam. Christ, d’you know how scared he was when we saw the tabloids? I mean, we were all worried, but Liam, you know what he does? He rings me, right? Fucking midnight or something and he’s in tears, asking me if I’ve heard from you. D’you get it now? Bloody fuck, Harry— he literally thought you were going to land yourself in hospital.”

“It wasn’t like that, come on—” Harry tries, and it’s weak and he knows it. Being weak makes him tired, and angry, but mostly he’s angry at himself. He doesn’t think Louis is right, but Harry’s also scared, fucking terrified, actually— because what if he is.

“I just got carried away, alright? I fucked up, I royally fucked up, how many times do I have to say that,” Harry says, and hates how resentful he sounds.

“Fine,” Louis says. “But just— tell me what the fuck’s going on with you lately, will you? We used to talk to each other, remember that?”

“Talk to you every day,” Harry mumbles, stung.

“That’s not what I meant, and you bloody well know it. Like, ever since the tour started, pretty much, you’ve been all—” Louis makes a whirling, expansive gesture, glaring down at him. “So, come on. I’m done with your wishy-washy bullshit; time to spill. And don’t tell me it’s got nothing to do with Liam, because I’m not a fucking idiot.”

Harry crosses his arms, sulking underneath the flopped-over spill of his hair, knowing this will piss Louis off the most.

Louis pins Harry with a hard, considering look. “Seriously, though—” he says, “are you shagging him?”

“I’m not,” Harry answers, too-quick and too-vehement, feeling a hot flare of anger and guilt pinch his throat as he does.

He doesn’t know if it’s how he’s said it that sells him out, or his face, because the next thing Louis says is: “Okay, you’re not. But— you want to be, don’t you,” and it’s offered shrewdly, but also not without a measure of sympathy.

It’s the sympathy that does Harry in— the anger falls out of Harry’s bones in a rush, leaving them brittle; his skin feels caved-in and loose, like a deflated balloon. Harry says, “I might be—” and he swallows, throat gone dry, doesn’t even know what he’s admitting until he’s said it— “Yeah. Yeah, I think I’m in love with him, Lou.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Harry realizes this is the first time he’s admitted to it: this huge, overwhelming thing that’s been consuming his life for months, and it’s the first time he’s said it out loud, or in his own head, or anywhere. Now the words are out in the universe, he can’t take them back, make them unsaid. It’s more than a bit terrifying, and he curls his arms around his stomach, waiting for the universe to knock him down for his daring.

Louis looks stricken, for his part. But then almost immediately he seems resigned. “Oh, Harry,” he says, sighing. “You poor, idiot child. I might have known; you’re so young.”

This is so outrageous coming from someone who so regularly acts twelve instead of twenty-one that Harry can’t even speak. He does his best to shoot daggers from his eyes.

“So what if I’m young”, he mutters, because there’s no age limit on feeling things. He’s been in love before, even, or at least something that felt close enough to the standard definition for it. Nothing about what he feels for Liam seems to even touch close to the standard definition, though: like, if there were markers in the ground, then Harry’d outstripped those ages ago and miles back. His hands have started shaking a bit, thinking about it. He grips them around his knees to hide it.

Louis only sighs again, loudly this time, and flops down against Harry’s side on the mattress, giving up the height advantage. “So very, very young,” he says, and when he pulls Harry in for a one-armed cuddle, Harry wonders if maybe Louis might have a point. Because maybe if Harry were older, a hug from Louis wouldn’t be such a comforting thing, like a blanket or a mug of tea on a cold morning. And maybe if Harry were older, he’d feel less overwhelmed by such a stupid, simple word. It doesn’t seem to make any difference that he’s used it before, in hundreds of different contexts; sang it, even, in hundreds of songs when he’s been on a stage in front of thousands of shining faces and felt larger than life itself. The truth is that right here, right now, putting ‘Liam’ and ‘in love with’ together for the first time, Harry is a mouse, quivering and small and scared.

“What do I do?” Harry asks, trying to shrink into Lou’s chest the way he’d been able to do three years ago, before he’d shot up like a weed.

Louis hesitates, then hugs Harry closer, fingers combing through his hair, gentle around the tangles. “I’m not sure, if I’m being honest, which I s’pose I must. I’m— ah, I’m guessing you haven’t talked to Liam about any of this?”

Harry shakes his head against his shoulder, cheek burrowing down into the stretched out cotton of Louis’s t-shirt.

“Does he feels the same about you, d’you reckon?” Louis asks. It’s a question Harry probably should have seen coming, but somehow he’s managed not to, and it hits him like a punch to the gut.

Harry’s bare toes curl against the plush of the carpet, digging in, and he thinks about Liam. it’s something he does a lot, admittedly. There’re hundreds of things about Liam that Harry knows he’s taken for granted: the way he’ll let Harry lean against his back when he’s tired, even though they’ve all been up for twenty hours and are wobbling on their feet; the way he tries to be funny even when he doesn’t have to be, when Louis or Niall’ve already got in with a joke, and the way his mouth tugs in the corner, pleased, when Harry can’t help but laugh at him anyway.

It’s not difficult, at all, to picture the way Liam smiles when it’s just for Harry, like he’s sharing a secret, or the face Liam pulls when they’re singing with their mic stands crossed. And it’s especially easy to remember that night in Madrid, the way Liam’s tongue had pushed in soft and demanding, opening Harry’s mouth like a flower.

“I dunno,” Harry says, hoarsely, his throat gone tight before he could stop it. “Maybe, I think? But he—” Harry bites his lip, keeping the rest of the words in, his stomach winding itself into knots. He thinks: but Liam wouldn’t have left that night, would he, if that were true.

“Well,” Louis says, quiet, with something yielding in his voice for the first time. “You’re easy to love, Harry. I’ll give you that.”

Harry just huddles further into Louis’s side, at a loss for anything else to say. He’s glad to be forgiven, and miserable all at the same time, and confused, and mostly overwhelmingly grateful for Louis’s existence.

After time has passed, Harry doesn’t know how much, Harry asks, “Didn’t you say you were gonna meet them?”

“Enh, seen it before,” Louis says, not budging an inch, and, oh— there’s Harry’s answer, at least to one question. This, right here, is exactly why he and Louis are friends.


Harry sandwiches two pizza slices together and shoves both in his mouth at once, nearly choking as the bus lumbers around a sharp corner and tilts him in his seat. His back sticks uncomfortably to the leather of the couch where he’s still filmy with sweat from the show they’ve just finished. He winces, wishing he didn’t have the last shower, like always, but it’s a designation that’s stuck with Harry since the band’s X-Factor yesteryears. Trying to change his lot at this point would be like trying to shift time and space.

If they were still at the arena, it wouldn’t be an issue— those places are usually rotten with showers, for sports teams and all that— but for some reason they’d been hustled out a lot more quickly than normal, nearly straight from the stage: showers skipped, shaking hands at a run, all the food that would normally be piled high on a craft services table shifted over to the ludicrously too-small table in the bus kitchenette, waiting for their post-gig ravenous appetites. Harry knows they’re headed further west tonight— always west and west, on this tour— a long overnight drive from Colorado to Utah.

Aside from the vague weirdness of it, though, he’s not too concerned. Jo’s in charge of the mysterious intricacies of the band’s schedule, as usual; if they have some morning show they’re supposed to be fresh as daisies for by sun-up, she’ll have told Louis about it by now. Whether Louis will actually prep the rest of them for it, though, or just set all their alarms to the most obnoxious children’s programme theme songs he can find, that’s a whole other question.

Louis flops on the couch next to Harry, double fisting his pizza with satisfied noises, while Niall and Liam go off arguing down the hallway about bagsing first shower, which Niall claims Liam forfeited when he poured that bottle of water down Niall’s trousers during ‘Kiss You’. Harry chews thoughtfully, listening to the sound of their voices muffling out under the hum of bus’s engine. It’s a compelling argument, but Harry doubts Niall will win— mostly because Liam’s roughly the size of a Clydesdale next to him, even in hi-top sneakers.

Harry’s trying to balance eating his makeshift sandwich with checking his mobile to see if Nick’s posted any new Instagrams of Tessa, mostly only managing to get grease all over himself, when Niall comes stomping back into the eating area. He’s muttering about Liam being a bully and a terrible human being, consoling himself by shoveling pretty much an entire box of pepperoni into his gob as he does.

Zayn’s face down on the couch, but Harry knows better than to assume the slice of chicken barbeque on a plate by his head is fair game. Whatever meditative post-show recovery trance Zayn goes into is snapped out of quickly; Harry’s had enough bruises in the past to prove it.

The pile of food on the table has been mowed down a sizeable amount— Harry’s on his third pizza-smush, Lou’s on his third handful, and Niall’s on his third box, maybe— by the time Liam comes back from his shower, voice preceding him into the kitchen.

“Has anyone seen my bag? Can’t find it. I swear I put it here before the gig, though,” Liam’s saying, and a moment later he appears, clad only in a towel around his waist and a truly hateful scattering of waterdrops across his chest and shoulders and collarbone.

Harry glances up from his phone and immediately looks away, swearing up a blue streak in the privacy of his thoughts. Harry isn’t an overtly religious person, but the number of times he’s seen Liam with his kit off seem to Harry to be more than proof that: (A) God exists, and (B) his sense of humor is wicked and perverse.

Unfortunately, Louis’s face is where Harry’s eyes land when he looks away, by accident, and Lou can probably read the exact thoughts Harry would have preferred taking to his grave; oh, yes, he certainly can, it shows in the way Lou’s eyebrows go up in reaction, mouth curling at the corners into that familiar devilish smirk.

“Oi, Payne,” Louis says, throwing in a woof, cat-calling: “Ay, papi!

Harry contemplates testing the safety-lock on the bus door, seeing if he can muscle it open and throw himself under the wheels before Louis can do whatever he’s planning next, because Harry can see it coming like a trainwreck. Apparently Louis feels somehow he has a lot to make up for by acting relatively decent during the emotionally weakened moments of Harry’s confession, last week; now he needs to balance the scales.

Liam is just standing there, dripping on the floor, face caught somewhere between laughing at Louis and looking nervous. It’s a familiar one for all of them.

“Oh lord,” Louis’s going on, and getting up from the couch, prancing over to Liam. “Those arms— those muscles— that physique—” Lou flutters his hands over Liam’s bare chest in emphasis, like a magician leading up to a trick; the trick is that he’s forcing Harry to watch, isn’t it, because Harry couldn’t look away now even if there were a real train barreling up behind him. Lou’s still gushing over Liam’s abdomen, saying: “You’d think I’d be bored of it by now, or at least desensitized, but I’m not, I’m really not.”

And Liam, the idiot— he smiles, laughing, and then he breaks the cardinal rule of the band: never feed into Tommo’s stunts, if you can avoid it.

“Well, looking in the mirror must be fairly disappointing,” he says, teasing Louis back. “You’re welcome to look at me all you like.”

This is skirting dangerously close to breaking rule two, as well: for the love of God, never start a war of escalation with Louis. Because Louis ups the ante after that, of course he does, he can’t help himself, Harry’s convinced he was dropped on his head as a child— “Seriously though,” Louis says, and now he’s actually touching Liam, hands fondling over the cut lines of Liam’s pecs, “Did you get implants? I mean, women tend to throw loads of their underwear at me— should I start saving you some bras, mate?”

“Only if you model them for me first,” Liam shoots back.

Niall bursts into laughter so hard it actually wakes Zayn up, or un-trances him, because he sits up with a groan, blinking around at them in annoyance. He reads the situation amazingly fast.

“Oh god, Li,” he says, shoving Niall away from his ear, who only collapses against the arm of the couch, still hooting. “Put it away, would you? Put all of it away.”

“I was trying to,” Liam says, defending himself, finally pushing Louis’s hands off his chest. “Have you seen my bag? Like, the one with my clothes?”

Harry concentrates on eating his food like it’s the last slice of pizza on earth, and ignores the squirming feeling in his stomach. There’re probably a lot of methods to getting rid of Louis low-key and discreetly, he thinks—they do go overseas a lot; how hard could it be to ‘accidentally’ leave him behind, really?

Zayn and Liam vanish towards the bunks. Zayn’d apparently borrowed some tops out of Liam’s bag earlier; the days Zayn actually wears his own clothes are like mini-miracles— not that Harry has much room to talk— and once they’re out of earshot Louis sighs loudly, flopping back down next to Harry.

“Bloody Zayn,” Louis complains. Harry kicks him hard in the ankle. “Ow! What, I was only— oh, right,” Louis says, after Harry widens his eyes emphatically in Niall’s direction, who’s given up laughing in favor of consolidating the remainder of the food into one box and paying not a whit of attention to the two of them, luckily.

“Dinner for my man Dan,” Niall explains, bouncing up to the front of the bus and their driver before Harry and Louis can stop him. Harry feels a bit guilty as he goes, like Harry should have pointed out that Liam has yet to have eaten, but whatever— Liam could stand to shed a bit of muscle mass, anyway.

“Vindictive,” Louis says after Niall’s gone, snorting in the way that means he’s impressed. “But bloody Zayn, seriously, right? Ten more seconds and I could’ve had you help me give Liam a grope.”

Harry thinks about the number one rule of the band and only takes a bite from his stone-cold pizza crust, glaring at Louis as he does.

“Don’t give me those sad cow eyes,” Louis says, which, maybe Harry’s laser glare needs some work. “It’s all for your own good, innit?” When Harry continues to fail to rise to the bait, Louis sighs gustily, slumping back against the arm of the couch. “Ah well,” he says, thoughtful, “Not like our Liam doesn’t shower pretty much every day. Plenty of golden opportunities in the making, is what that is.”

Harry chews his crust, slowly, with the greatest air of suffering possible.

A minute later Louis mutters about going to check on Niall, finally looking guilty, so Harry assumes his cow eyes have done their work.

Liam and Zayn wander back in before Harry’s been alone in peace for barely a minute, this time with Liam fully clothed. Liam looks in mournful silence at the once-full table that’s just breadcrumbs now; it’d probably have a tumbleweed blowing across it if this were an old spaghetti western film. Liam’s sad cow eyes can put all others in the business to shame, Harry’s pretty sure.

“Here, I’m not that hungry anyway,” Zayn says, offering up his still-untouched slice on a plate.

“Bless you,” Liam says, taking the plate and a seat on the couch, his legs nearly knocking into Harry’s from where they’re both sprawled out. “Just for that, I almost forgive you for nicking my favorite top.”

“Wasn’t it Tommo’s first?”

“Right, but I nicked it from him fair and square,” Liam says, talking around a mouthful of food.

Harry’s stuck watching them, feeling somehow like a fish outside of his fishbowl: Zayn’s gone back to his meditative lounging pose, but now his feet are kicked up in Liam’s lap, which is the kind of thing that normally would make Liam fuss while he’s eating, except tonight he’s not, he’s just arguing the provenance of a Batman t-shirt that’s so ratty and old that the collar is spotted with holes, the color gone from black to gray. Looking at him like this is making Harry’s chest feel uncomfortably tight— in a way it’s worse than looking at Liam fresh from the shower, almost.

Still, for all that Harry might have thought the world would have ended with admitting he’s in love with Liam, it hasn’t. Except for the fact that Louis knows Harry’s secret, not much has changed. North America is still being eaten away under the wheels of their tour bus, where Harry has slept so often now that a hotel bed feels dead underneath him, like it’s not breathing. They still play gigs almost every night, wearing down holes in their shoes from the miles they dance across a stage, wearing out their songs. Harry loves their music as much as the next fan, but singing the lyrics feels papery sometimes, dry on his tongue like he’s reciting a recipe.

Doing a tour would be unrelentingly tedious, he supposes, if he didn’t have these four lads to share it with— they manage to make every night different, mixing it up and making him laugh, even while the setlists, and the Twitter questions, and the vibrations that shock through the soles of his feet from the concrete floors of a staging room are the same in every city.

Liam especially seems to have boundless energy on stage, bouncing around every bit as much in Dallas as he had at the O2 in London on night one, when it was half a year, half a lifetime ago. And for all that Harry’s mum had told him ‘this too shall pass,’ promising light at the end of the tunnel, Harry still feels the same: catching the white of Liam’s smile from just the right angle can still make Harry’s heart feel squeezed up inside his chest, like someone’s got a fist around it, and he’s been waiting for that to go away but it hasn’t yet; part of him is wondering now if he even wants it to.

Because it shouldn’t be this hard— it never has been, before, to move on, find someone else to fall in love with— he can do that, it’s usually easy for him, Harry usually likes falling in love, cultivates and savors it. This is the first time he’s felt almost blindsided by it, though, and he wonders if that’s what makes the difference. Maybe the surprise of Liam is what’s made Harry cling so tight without even realizing it— like he’s holding his breath on reflex.

The world hasn’t come to an end, not quite. Still, if Harry keeps having nights like these— one’s where he has to change the way he’s sitting, fold his legs up underneath himself to remove the temptation of tapping Liam’s feet with his own just to get him to look Harry’s way, because it feels like he hasn’t in ages— then maybe Harry just might start wishing that it had.


The thing about Zayn is that he always seems to catch Harry by surprise. Harry’s just about to roll into bed, two eyeblinks away from passing out even though it’s barely ten o’clock— they’ve been up since four doing press and photoshoots, on top of a late gig last night, he thinks he’s allowed to call it an early night— when Zayn says from the balcony, “Hey, wanna join me?” with the low susurrations of his voice following a stream of smoke into their room. Harry only hesitates for a second before nodding and walking out there, slipping the door open and shut behind him as he goes.

The hotel they’re in for just for the night is a nice one, and the view they’ve got speaks of money: they’re five stories up, overlooking a large, oblong shaped swimming pool that’s ringed with palm trees and lit from the ground with pale green lanterns. The motorway is a distant glimmer past the end of the building— the blurry streak of headlights and the low-level hum of cars is all that Harry can make out through the dark. They’d flown down from Seattle for the sake of keeping up with their schedule, and it’s odd to be off the road for a night; Harry wonders how well he’ll be able to sleep without it underneath him.

Zayn’s leaning closer, reaching across the patio table to offer up his pack of cigarettes, and Harry takes one, slipping it between his lips before bending down to the lighter Zayn holds out next. The taste of tobacco fills his mouth, and he breathes it in as the tip of the cigarette ashes and turns red. When he stands straight again, he lets his lungs blow out, exhaling the smoke as he walks to the balcony and props his arms up along the railing. The California heat feels like an opened oven door against his face, but with the the cooler air pouring out from their room behind him, Harry doesn’t mind it too much.

“Thanks,” Harry says, turning back around to Zayn, keeping his voice pitched low into the dark and stillness.

Zayn just shrugs. They smoke in companionable silence for a few minutes, and it’s nice. The smoking itself Harry doesn’t particularly like or dislike— he’d done it loads in school, when he’d been in a shitty garage band with his friends and reckoned himself cooler than Bono. But that’d been before auditioning for the show, before Harry’s mum had found out and lectured him until he’d quit. After that he’s only had the odd fag or two on random nights like these, mostly with his mates, mostly just to keep someone company. That’s the part that’s nice, for Harry, at least.

He keeps quiet, breathing smoke in and out, waiting for Zayn to say whatever’s on his mind. That’s what invitations like these usually mean, anyway. Zayn needs an excuse to talk, sometimes, a little bit of a buffer, especially if the subject’s not easy.

“So, yeah,” Zayn says eventually, scratching at the side of his neck. “Look, I know it’s been a while, but I never told you, like, thanks. For what you did.”

Harry goes still, because he has an idea now of what’s coming. He wants to turn around, or go back into the room, but he makes his feet keep their spot, turning his hip into the railing instead, making the movement one of flicking ash over the balcony, something casual.

“What did I do?” Harry asks.

“Li had said you talked to him— like, back when he and I were kinda, like—” Zayn’s voice is soft, and Harry sees him struggle for a moment to find the word he wants, thumbing at his nose, “When we were off-kilter, or whatever.”

“Hmm,” Harry grunts, after a beat, and puffs his cigarette, watching the cherry climb closer to the filter. He hasn’t smoked in a while— since his bender, actually, when he’d been a proper club-rat, hanging off strangers whose faces he still doesn’t remember, drink in one hand and a fag in the other— and the nicotine is affecting him more than it should, making him light-headed, kind of hazy.

“Anyway, Liam said that you—” Zayn hesitates, coming at it from a different angle, “I’ve just been thinking about it a lot recently, I dunno. Like, where we’d be now if we hadn’t made up, and stuff.” Zayn can be all mazes, sometimes, turning corners when you don’t expect. Harry watches him from under his eyelashes and a gray-hued veil of smoke, trying to guess where he’ll end up.

“It’s important to me, that’s all,” Zayn says, quiet, looking out towards the freeway, the low light from the telly on mute in the room making half his face seem carved from marble, the bow of his mouth around his cigarette a perfectly captured moment rendered by an artist’s hand.

Harry gets what Zayn’s not saying, not in so many words: that it’s Liam, Liam’s important to him, and Harry understands that perfectly— how could he not.

It doesn’t stop him from feeling strange about this whole conversation, though, especially given how jealous Harry’d been of Zayn back then, without even realizing it— and how much he still is, some days, in certain moments. There are days when Harry has to fight back a hot curl of jealousy towards anyone Liam smiles at.

It leaves Harry with not much to say that feels safe, so he settles for nodding his head, scratching his toenails against the sun-warmed concrete of the floor. “Yeah, mate, s’fine. Don’t even worry about it,” he mutters, and breathes the last wisp of life from his cigarette, exhaling the smoke heavy and thick from his mouth as he leans over to stub it out in the ashtray.

And Harry gets Liam and Zayn, he really does: Liam was the first of the rest of them to see through Zayn’s moodiness to the insecurity underneath, and that the aloofness was just awkwardness in disguise. They were a lot alike, actually, back then—maybe even a bit moreso than now, since living this life has hit them both differently— but Liam had been the first one of them to make a space for Zayn, back when their brotherhood had been newly-minted, when they’d all been caught in the thrall of the possibilities unfolding at their feet.

Harry doesn’t quite remember how he and Liam had started making space for each other: it was after Liam had got better about giggling through rehearsals with the rest of them instead of frowning, definitely— probably after he’d called Harry ‘Hazza’ for the first time, too; Harry does remember laughing at the way Liam’s eyes had gone a bit wide and apologetic, saying, “Ah, sorry, it—it just slipped out?”

It had been easy to look up to Liam like an older brother, back then, before Harry’d realized just how hopeless he was, and naive in a lot of ways, but surprising and daring in others. The surprises of Liam were what won Harry over more than anything else.

They’d all grown together, but not grown up together, not really, and the difference between loving Liam and being in love with Liam feels like a gulf that’s miles wide. If he could just cross it, go back to the way he’d felt before— then he wouldn’t have to keep this massive thing holed up inside his chest anymore, wouldn’t have to try to find new ways of breathing around it. Wouldn’t have to worry about smiling too wide whenever Liam knocks his shoulder against Harry’s and grins at him sidelong.

But it’s too far, Harry can’t go back now; he wouldn’t even know where to turn around and take the first step.

Zayn offers up the pack again, but Harry waves him off. He’s got a hand on the sliding door when Zayn stops him, still in that same low voice that had lured Harry out in the first place.

“Harry, wait,” Zayn says. His voice sounds strange, but maybe it’s the smoke.

Harry looks his shoulder at him, tilting his head out of the light to see what Zayn’s face is doing. He seems apologetic, actually, with the corners of his mouth turned down, knuckles of one hand scrubbing at the dark growth of stubble on his cheeks.

“It’s just— I don’t know, I was just thinking you looked kind of— sad,” Zayn says, and now Harry gets what the apology is for: bringing up all this mushy feelings stuff, especially when he’s not sure of its welcome. Deep chats through the night have always been more of a Zayn and Louis thing, for whatever reason.

“M’just a bit tired. Long day,” Harry says, grateful his voice is always kind of raspy.

“Long tour,” Zayn says back, and Harry nods. It reminds him of something Liam had said in an interview, recently: that doing a tour is like living with a months-long runners high, and by the end you’re beaten down, just running on sheer endorphins. Harry’s never been in a marathon before but that had resonated with him, anyway. Forget the runner’s high— Harry doesn’t feel like he ever even caught a second wind. On nights like this he feels heavy, oversaturated, struggling towards a finish line he can’t even see.

“Look,” Zayn says, “Can I just tell you something, about Liam?” Zayn taps his pack against the table, fidgeting, and Harry has to fight the urge to put his hands over Zayn’s, hold him still. Zayn’s saying: “Listen, he cares about you, okay? Like, a lot. Even before all the— the tabloid stuff, he always worried about you more than anyone.”

Harry doesn’t know what to do with that, so he tries a joke. “Oh. Does that make me the weakest link?”

Zayn makes an impatient sound. “Harry— d’you still not get it? You’re the strongest, actually, of all of us. And sometimes, maybe it’s like— you don’t really need us. Like you could go off without us and be fine. Li, maybe he just, like, saw that about you. Before the rest of us saw it.”

“Maybe I could,” Harry says, when he can speak. “Don’t want to, though.”

Zayn’s face is turned away, hands cupped to light up another cigarette, but he sounds like he’s rolling his eyes. He says, “Good. We kind of like having you around, yeah? Even with the way you dress.”


“Just, whatever’s keeping you locked up in your head,” Zayn pauses to drag from the filter, voice coming out tight on his held breath when he says, “you should let it go, alright? And come back to us.”

“I—” Harry has to wet his mouth, it feels desert-dry, before he can get out, “Yeah, I’ll try, thanks.”

And now Zayn is looking at Harry too knowingly— maybe even pityingly, it’s hard to tell in the half-dark. Harry knows Louis hasn’t said anything, so it must be that Harry’s transparent, that he’s an open book, that everything he feels is written across him just as plain as the black ink on his skin.

It’s more than just the smoking that’s making him light-headed, now. Harry makes an excuse to Zayn, some bollocks about finding Svein to ask him security stuff, Harry doesn’t even know, he just knows he wants to get away— for once, he wants to be by himself.

He grabs his shoes and his hotel key before he ducks out, at least, but he doesn’t put his shoes on—instead he ends up holding them as he wanders down the empty carpeted hallways until he reaches the hotel lobby. He crosses the expensive-looking foyer, with its rugs and crystal chandeliers and ferns, until he reaches the hotel bar. The foyer had been deserted but the bar is not—there’re at least three or four other patrons near enough to hear Harry when he asks the bartender for a bottle of bordeaux, and see the way he doesn’t get ID'd after he gives his room number for the tab. He can’t quite bring himself to care.

There’s a rule about leaving the bar with open bottles, but Harry doesn’t care about that either— he tucks the bottle under his arm along with his shoes, and he’s walking again, this time with more of a purpose. Crossing back through the foyer, he walks out the back doors of the lobby, following the manicured path up to the pool. There’re signs posted along the gate that clearly state the pool hours, but Harry ignores those, too— what’s one more thing, at this point— climbing over the fence after tossing his shoes, clumsily switching the bottle between his hands as he does, barely managing not to trip and tumble over the top.

Getting back over when he’s ready for bed is going to be fun, but he doesn’t want to worry about that now. He’d prefer to just turn his brain off for an hour or two, actually— not for a whole week, like before, but just for the rest of the night. He wants to turn off, and sleep, and not have to wonder how many more months or years he’s going to have to live like this— however long that their band has tickets to ride, maybe, however long they’ll be together and tethered to each other’s heels— with Liam holed up tight in Harry’s heart, rooted in and unevictable.

Walking over to the pool, Harry plunks himself down on a deck chair, lifts the wine bottle to his mouth, and gets to work.


Harry is nearly halfway through the wine, sat at the edge of the pool with his trousers rolled to his knees and his feet kicking in the water, when Liam finds him.

The metal clink of the fence is what gives him away. Harry turns his head just as Liam’s boosting himself over the top of it— with far more grace than Harry’d done— and when he lands light on his trainers on the pool side of it, Liam just looks at Harry, and Harry can only look back.

“Hey,” Liam says, quiet. His voice is an exhale that’s nearly swallowed up by the murmur of the pool’s filters and the wet slosh of water against tile.

“Hello,” Harry says back, automatic. Taking that as an invitation, Liam moves towards Harry, sitting down at the lip of the pool alongside him with his knees drawn up and his shoes safe from any errant splashes.

Harry waits for a judgment that doesn’t come. Liam seems to absorb what he’s seeing in silence: Harry with the bottle, drinking, obviously far off the wagon at this point— but Liam’s eyebrows don’t furrow together disapprovingly, his mouth doesn’t get pinched. He looks expectant, maybe, and Harry doesn’t know why, and he’s feeling too fuzzy from the wine to try and puzzle it out.

“How’d you find me,” Harry asks, looking away and flicking at the water with his toes. There’s a small corner of him that’s cursing his rotten luck, but the better part of him thinks that this was inevitable, somehow. He wants to be annoyed that Liam’s found him out, but it goes against the grain—there’s something in Harry that can’t help but bend to Liam like the sun whenever he’s around.

“I had a guess,” Liam says, simply. There’s a small breath of hesitation before he adds: “Zayn said you guys had a chat, earlier?”

“Yeah, we did,” Harry says, feeling the memory of it roll over in his stomach like cold porridge, lumpy and unwelcome; only for a moment, though, then the wine is doing its work, keeping Harry’s muscles loose and warmed. “He had some good advice for me,” Harry says, long on his vowels without slurring, he’s proud of that, and he lifts the bottle to his mouth again. He’s already been caught with it— might as well.

“He told you to get pissed, alone, near a large deep body of water?”

Harry laughs, “Oh, no. No, that was my own clever idea, see?” He leans forward, flailing his arms like he’s going to tip over. Except the fizz of alcohol in his brain and bloodstream is making it hard to gauge his movements, so Harry ends up tipping forward more than he’d meant to— and just as his heart is starting to pound in alarm, Liam grabs a fistful of Harry’s shirt, pulling him back from the edge.

“Hi,” Harry says to Liam’s face, finding it suddenly very near, with Liam’s brown eyes blinking at him owlishly. And it’s only now that Harry realizes how dangerous this is. He hasn’t been drunk around Liam since that night in Madrid, and if he’s honest, more than half the reason for that is Harry not being able to trust himself; not knowing what he might try to do, given half a smile’s encouragement.

Liam’s still got a hand in Harry’s shirt, pulling it taut against Harry’s throat and arms. Harry wants to touch Liam, too, he has his rules and that seems like a fair deal for now, tit for tat—but he makes sure to be careful. Harry lifts his free hand, tracing the black arrows on Liam’s arm, barely even grazing the sharp clean edges of them with a fingertip. There, he thinks, through the haze he’s in; that should be safe, should be enough.

To Harry’s surprise, Liam catches Harry’s wrist as he goes to pull away. Harry flits his eyes up at him, startled, and Liam lets go, before the heat from his fingers has barely even begun to seep in.

“Sorry,” Liam says, embarrassed.

“What is it?” Harry asks.

Liam sucks on his lower lip, considering, and he’s let go of Harry’s shirt now, too, trusting him to not flop into the pool on his own. Liam says, “It’s a bit— okay, just, don’t take this the wrong way? But I’ve missed— I’ve missed—” and when he can’t quite spit it out, Liam’s hand scrubs through his hair and he laughs at himself, just a quick huff of breath. “This sounds completely daft, but I’ve missed you touching me? Yeah, I have, honestly. It’s just, you used to do it rather a lot, and now it’s like— like you think it’s not allowed, or something.”

Harry holds air in his lungs until they feel like they’re going to cave in, and when he exhales out, Harry asks, “Isn’t it, though?”

“I’ve always let you get away with rather more than I should, Hazza,” Liam says, the corner of his mouth pulling up in a half-smile, the look on him familiar and strange all at once. “In case that wasn’t obvious by now.”

And that’s everything, Harry thinks, but doesn’t say. It’s everything that’s wrong about them, and what’s right, too. The problem is that Harry’s too selfish: he doesn’t know how to stop taking from someone as generous with himself as Liam is.

Liam’s saying, “It’s just— you did say, didn’t you, that things could be like they were before. But, Haz, that’s not going to work, alright? Not if you keep handling me like I’m glass.”

Harry blinks a few times, and then the absurdity of that hits him—maybe it’s wine, it probably is, but suddenly everything is much funnier than it should be, than it has been in a long time. So Harry giggles into the back of his hand, and he asks, “Sorry, wait, are you saying you miss me dickslapping you?”

“No!” Liam says, surprised, and then as Harry goes on snickering, Liam’s mouth twitches, eyes folding up as he laughs along. “Fine, that might be what I’m saying, kind of.”

Then it’s Harry’s turn to be surprised, as Liam reaches over and gently pries the bottle from Harry’s fingers, taking a pull from it after he does. “Ah well,” Liam says, after swiping his wrist across his mouth. “Least I haven’t had any odd bruises to try and explain during make-up, there is that.” He looks at the label, reading it like he’s curious. “What’s this, then? It’s kind of amazing.”

“French claret,” Harry explains, absently, caring more about the new redness of Liam’s mouth than he does about why Liam’d taken the bottle away. “From Bordeaux, France. The soil is like, really rich there.” Harry doesn’t know why he knows so much about wine. He just does.

“Huh,” Liam says, mouth pulling thoughtfully, eyebrows tilting in. “Never tried it before, I don’t think, but Dani never much liked reds—” then he winces, forehead bunching up even more. “Sorry, I shouldn’t— force of habit.”

Harry’s head is swimming, and the sudden inrush of guilt isn’t doing him any favors. “Shit, I’m such a— I’m a shit friend, Liam, I am. Absorbed in my own life like a miserable twat. I mean, how’re things with you, how is Danielle.”

Liam looks at him, but Harry can’t read his face, and Liam’s voice comes out almost casual as he says, “Oh, right, you must not have seen— your scandal thing sort of buried it in the tabloids, cheers for that, but— yeah, it’s.” Liam’s other hand comes up, the one that’s not resting the wine bottle against his knee, and he rubs the back of his neck. “It’s over, now. Officially. We ended things during the last break from tour.”

Harry tries to think— he wishes very much that he wasn’t drunk, hearing this for the first time— his mind is trying to go in six directions at once, reeling like he’s sat up too fast after laying flat, and the only thing he finds he can say is: “Oh, fuck. Bugger, mate, m’sorry. Did she—?”

“Nah, you know, it’s alright, actually? It’s been a relief, in a way. I never realized how much energy I’d been spending, always trying— just like, trying to convince myself we could still make it work. She saw how hopeless it was long before I did, that’s all.”

The green lighting from the garden is catching Liam’s face in profile, where he’s looking across the water; he looks painted on, colored in. Harry thinks half the melancholy he’s reading in Liam’s mouth could be from the play of the light, because Liam doesn’t sound sad—he sounds tired, like a dimmer version of himself, but he doesn’t sound sad.

Looking very philosophical, or maybe it’s just the wine he’s gesturing with, Liam’s saying: “It’s better this way, really, it is. Nobody should have to convince themselves they feel something that they don’t, or that they can’t. It’s too much of a waste.”

Harry looks away, then, drawing his feet up out of the water and towards his body, fitting his chin against his knees. For long seconds, all he can feel is the ache of his chest where he’s curled around it, fighting to get in air that doesn’t want to come. But the warm weight of the wine in his belly is easing him off before long: making everything that’s sharp into something dull, making the feel of Liam’s eyes on him soft, like a breath in Harry’s ear, pulling him back.

“Well, m’still sorry I didn’t know,” Harry finally says, turning his cheek to his knees to look at Liam, resting that way.

“It’s fine, Haz, don’t do that— we didn’t announce it, really. And the tabloid stuff was just rumors.” Liam drinks from the bottle again, a longer pull this time, and after he swallows he sighs, “It’s funny, kind of— the only really bad part is she got the dog in the split.”

“What, y’mean Loki? He’s... wait. He’s your dog, isn’t he?”

“He was ours, more like. And Dani asked if she could keep him, and I said okay.” The regret that Liam’s showing now is eclipsing anything that’s come before, making Harry start to believe that Liam actually means it, amazingly— all the Hallmark card stuff he’s said about being better off. But Liam really does love that dog, Harry knows that much for sure.

And because he is maybe not in one-hundred percent control of himself or his mouth, at the moment, Harry tells Liam: “Hey, y’know, I have a cat. Like, she’s at Grim’s, for the tour, he’s watching her. But I’m gonna get her back, after.”

For the first time since letting go of Harry’s wrist, Liam touches him, nudging Harry’s knees with his own, sounding amused. “Are you offering your cat as a consolation prize, Hazza?”

Harry reckons he might be trying to bribe Liam, actually, but has enough presence of mind not to cop to that out loud. “She’s a very nice cat,” Harry says, unfolding and sitting back on his hands.

“Yeah, Haz, I’ve met your Tess. She nearly took my hand off, remember that?”

Harry purses his lips, thinking over it. “That means she likes you,” he decides.

Liam laughs, a sudden bright glittering sound that gets dampened by the water and the night air that’s swung like a curtain around them. “The two of you are kind of scarily alike,” he says, snickering around the lip of the wine bottle, lifting it again.

“Are you trying to say that I like you, Liam,” Harry says, wrinkling his nose, going for the joke, feeling giddy on the wine and Liam’s laughter. Harry does like Liam, is the thing: likes Liam when he’s thoughtful, and protective, and over-excited, and impish— he just, he likes Liam. Sometimes in overwhelming amounts.

Liam sits back, too, propped up on an elbow, close enough for their shoulders to brush. His body stretches out lean and long in front of him, and Harry has to remind himself of the rules: he can’t just roll on top of Liam’s body the way he wants to, swallow him up with his own. That would be a very bad idea.

Liam hums, like he’s considering. His answer is teasing. “You’ve never bitten my hand when I’ve tried to scratch your belly— but yeah, I’d say you do, a bit.”

At that, Harry reaches for the hand Liam’s got wrapped around the neck of the bottle and bites it, teeth sinking in around the fleshy heel of his palm. Again, Harry is reminded of the fact that he’s fairly wasted, right now.

Liam laughs again, breathier this time, or maybe that’s just Harry’s imagination. “Well, then,” Liam says, pulling his hand free. “Who needs a cat when I’ve got you?”

“You do have me,” Harry agrees, before he can stop himself. He makes a mental note to never fall off the wagon around Liam again. He only hopes he can remember it in the morning.

“Suppose I’d better take care of you, then.” Liam says, smiling and fond, as Harry does his best not to tip over into his lap and purr. “Let’s get you to bed, hmm?”

“Okay,” Harry agrees, and watches Liam get to his feet, then lets himself get pulled up as well, where he manages to only sway a bit into Liam’s chest as Liam brushes at Harry’s clothes, gathers up his shoes for him, hooks a steadying arm around his waist.

Liam isn’t entirely unaffected by the wine he’s had, either— neither of them are falling down or staggering, but they are mutually holding each other up, and they both laugh into each other’s shoulders when they realize the pool gate was actually on the latch the whole time. Least it saves them from having to climb back over the fence.

By the time they make it inside the hotel, Liam is singing Swimming Pools halfway under his breath, and Harry can’t stop himself from pressing his nose behind Liam’s ear, echoing the chorus back at him, saying, “Drank,” at all the right intervals. They get to Harry and Zayn’s room and don’t bother fishing out his keycard, Harry just knocks on the door in time to Liam’s impromptu beatboxing, and they’re laughing again by the time Zayn opens it up looking grumpy and sleep-rumpled.

“I’ve found this wandering, is this his home?” Liam says to Zayn, fingers tickling at Harry’s ribs, and he spins away from Liam, laughing, brushing past Zayn into the room.

“Oof,” Harry says, collapsing onto his bed face-first, by virtue of the fact that he ran into it by accident. Or, given the way the sheets are all rumpled and smell faintly of cigarettes, maybe it’s Zayn’s bed. Either way, Harry doesn’t bother to move. His head is floating away from him now that he’s horizontal somewhere. Liam and Zayn’s voices are murmurs that swim past his ears without really sinking in, he’s already tuning out.

Then hands are pulling gently at Harry’s clothes, getting him out of his trousers and shirt— Liam’s hands, or Zayn’s, or both— because they know Harry won’t be comfortable sleeping in them, they’re good mates like that. Harry’s fading fast: he remembers being exhausted even before all this had happened, hours ago, and it’s rapidly catching up to him— mixing with the wine and pressing like a heavy black curtain on his mind, slowing him down.

A weight slumps down on the bed next to Harry, after that, and he cracks open his eyes to see the blur of Liam’s back and shoulders, the sandalwood smell of his cologne taking over the musk of smoke that Harry’s breathing in.

Harry hears Zayn’s voice, a low rasp from close by: “Need help getting back to yours, Li?”

And Liam saying back, slurry and tired-sounding, “Yeah, might, inna minute though.”

That’s the last thing Harry knows before the black curtain overtakes him, and he falls asleep.


It’s an off day but not an off-off day: they’d had a gig last night in Oakland and now they’re in Las Vegas, hanging out in a radio station, just finished up with a breakfast show that they’d had to be in-house for by dawn. So when Harry goes looking for Zayn and finds him sleeping in the green room, skinny legs thrown across the arm of a tatty-looking couch and his beanie pulled down over his face, Harry isn’t exactly surprised.

They’ve got about twenty minutes to kill before the sound booth is set up for them to record a few station-announces, and Louis and Niall and Liam are off God knows where— probably trying to play footie in the car park to stay awake, Harry wouldn’t put it past them— but right now he’s got a favor to ask Zayn, and this is the first time Harry’s caught him alone in two days.

Harry waves the Starbucks coffee he’d sent a very bubbly and helpful P.A. out for under Zayn’s nose, at first, and when that doesn’t get a twitch Harry says his name, low and coaxing. “Zayn,” he tries, then, “Zaynie,” drawing all the vowels out.

“What, m’busy,” Zayn grunts, not moving.

“Need a favor, bro.”

“I’m not gonna teach you all the Marvel superheroes, Harry. Google it and piss off.”

Harry holds his ground in the face of Zayn’s sleep and nicotine-deprived grumpiness. “No, not that kind of favor,” he says, patiently. “Need a sketch, actually.”

Zayn pulls his beanie off his face at that, squinting up at Harry. “What kind of sketch,” he says, after staring at Harry for a long minute— which could have just been Zayn trying to wake up, or could have been him reading down to the depths of Harry’s soul, too.

“Gonna get a new tat today, maybe,” Harry says, finally daring to touch Zayn, moving his legs so Harry can sit on the couch, passing Zayn the coffee at the same time.

“Oh yeah?” Zayn grunts against the lid of the cup, sounding vaguely interested for the first time. “What d’you wanna get?”

Harry tells him.

Zayn is definitely trying to peer inside Harry now, but Harry looks away; he fiddles with his hair, picks at the bobbly bit on the knee of Zayn's old jogging bottoms. He’s given away everything already, anyway, and his stomach is churning, waiting for Zayn to say how awful Harry’s idea is, how doomed it is to be regretted later on—but he doesn’t. Zayn just says, quiet, “My sketchpad’s in my bag. Get it for me, will you?”

Harry does.


Two hours later, when Harry leaves the station in a separate car from the others, it’s with Zayn’s sketch folded up and tucked neatly into the pocket of his jeans, burning a hole there like it had been for the entire agonizing time they’d had to do the station announces— which had taken even longer than usual, because Liam and Louis had kept daring each other to say the wrong call signs, cracking up every time. Normally Harry’d have been laughing along with them, but today he’d only been impatient to be gone.

The helpful P.A. had been helpful again, ringing ahead for Harry, setting him up with an appointment time at the shop. It isn’t often that he'll get five free consecutive hours to sit down or lie underneath a tattoo gun for something elaborate like Harry wants— all the details of his moth had taken six hours, actually— and then with the night off to recover, as well, Harry knows he has to take advantage. Before he can change his mind, or talk himself out of it, that way he’d been half-afraid that Zayn would.

It’s why he doesn’t invite Niall along, or anyone else— just tells the others he’ll be out for a bit and then goes. He spends the drive along the Strip chewing on his thumbnail, forehead against the glass as he takes in the city in its early-morning hours. He’s only ever seen it by night before, really: lit-up, neon, and packed corner to corner full of people; by daylight it seems washed-out and ghostly, all the iconic buildings pale as eggshells, facades ready to crack and spill gold coins out into the street.

The tattoo artist is a woman— Lane— and very professional about her job, with a sick-looking panorama of the Sistine chapel ceiling blanketing her left arm, except with the host of angels replaced by cats. Harry likes her quite a bit. If he ever decides to get a tribute to Tess tattooed somewhere on him, he reckons Lane is who he’ll come to.

She asks all the necessary, professional questions about what he wants: size, placement, color— and the final design she papers up based off Zayn’s quick sketch makes Harry catch his breath and just nod, struck mute. The amount with which he wants this to be on him already is like an ache, and when he can finally shrug off his t shirt and lay face down on the padded table he feels relieved.

It’s been months, but he still remembers the experience of getting his moth tattoo— his biggest one to date, all that black ink having to be scrubbed into Harry’s sternum to get it so dark. It had burned like cat claws raking over sunburned skin, throbbing worse even than all the miserable nights from the last tour Harry’d spent cramped into his bunk, muscles and bones caving in with growing pains and unable to sleep from it. And after the moth, all the coin-sized doodles he’s collected along the tour so far felt like nothing in comparison; Harry could’ve almost slept through half his sessions for those.

The thing is, Harry’s never had work on his back before, and he hadn’t anticipated how awful it would be— the buzz of the needle feels like it’s grinding into his spine, rattling around behind his eye-sockets, and he can feel his skin getting damp with sweat as his body tries to cope with the relentless white-hot pain. He doesn’t ask to stop, though. He does what he always does: keeps his breathing even and deep, tries to concentrate on the music being fed through a speaker by the artist’s ipod. Bon Iver is on the playlist, surprisingly, that’s one Harry doesn’t hear around tattoo shops too often.

And finally, after about the first hour the edge falls off, fading into the background, and Harry’s eyes go from squeezed shut to only closed, the clench of his jaw relaxing by increments. This is the part of getting a tattoo that he likes most, that keeps him coming back for more and more, maybe— the way the sting turns into a scratch, into something that feels like it’s chasing the restless itch out from underneath Harry’s skin, burning it out of all the places where he’s buried it.

The itch has been bad all year for the most part, but the past month especially— and for the past few days, living inside his own head has been like torture: all Harry’s been able to see, on an endless repeating loop, is the way Liam had looked when Harry had rolled over after the night by the pool and woken up to him.

Liam had still been asleep, amazingly— body stretched out and warming the bed less than two feet from Harry, mouth parted slightly, breathing steady and slow. Sunshine from a slit in the curtain had been slanting down across the white sheets, lighting them up, limning the edges of Liam’s cotton t-shirt and catching in the stubble across his jaw, turning it blond. And Harry’d felt bleary, barely awake, still kind of fuzzy from the wine—he couldn’t think or remember why he shouldn’t let his eyes drink their fill of Liam, and so Harry had, tucking the pillow underneath his cheek and his hair behind his ear to see better.

Liam had moved, then, like Harry’s movement had rippled across the mattress. But it was only a small shift of his face, nose snubbing more into his arm from where it’d been folded up above his head, eyebrows and mouth tugging into a frown at the same time. Harry had held his breath, waiting, but Liam hadn’t woke.

Harry has no idea how long he might have gone on staring like that, feeling the rightness of the moment shift and settle down into his bones, feeling like the world had properly aligned after being on a tilted axis for so long— except there had been a squeak from the other mattress, breaking the quiet, and the sound of the patio door snicking open and shut. Zayn, probably, going out for a morning smoke.

Harry’d turned to look over his shoulder, to check that it was really Zayn and not someone else in the room, and by the time he’d looked back Liam’s eyes had slit open, meeting Harry’s across the pillow as he set his face back down.

Liam had blinked, then, slow and more than once, like he’d needed a few tries at it, and Harry’d finally had to roll over on his back, eyes squeezing shut before reopening them to the dull gray of the ceiling. Seeing Liam come awake in Harry’s bed was too many of the things he’d been wanting so desperately for so long— except it was none of those things, not really, and Harry hated how easily he’d been able to fool himself into thinking it was real.

“Harry,” Liam’d said, voice scratched over with sleep. Then, “Time s’it?” with a shift of the mattress like he’d been stretching, a low groan going along with it. That had been the nail in the coffin for Harry, the straw on his back— he’d sat up to get out of bed, feet and toes sinking into the carpet, digging in.

“Too early,” Harry had answered, then fled.


When the others opt to go out that night, brave the crowds on the Strip for the chance to see the fountains go off at the Bellagio, Harry opts to stay in— wants to stay exactly where he is, as a matter of fact, facedown on the couch, not budging an inch.

He’s still a bit woozy from the handful of Panadol and the post-tattoo endorphin high, but he doesn’t miss the way Liam leans over him, reaching over the back of the couch to tug his hair, teasing him.

“You’re really gonna pass up on Celine Dion anthems and flashing colored lights, Hazza?” Liam asks, laughing. “You’ve changed, dude.”

Harry just snorts into the cushion.

Niall emerges from his bag, finally clutching the hat he’d been digging for, but he hesitates when he sees Harry and Liam like that, snapback left tucked only halfway on his head, brim sticking up in the air.

“You feelin’ ill, mate?” Niall directs at Harry, blue eyes narrowing.

Harry’s insides squirm uncomfortably at the idea of lying, especially to Niall, so Harry shifts his shoulders on the couch, adjusting, and tries to say, “M’just sore, don’t feel like going out,” in the most diffident way possible.

“I keep telling you to set timers on your runs,” Liam scolds, assuming Harry’s sore from working out too long, which Harry doesn’t bother to correct. “You get so lost in space, honestly,” and Liam sounds exasperated and fond and exactly like Harry wishes he wouldn’t, sometimes. Except no, actually, he doesn’t, not really— and now Harry’s even got an etched-in reminder of why, burning just between his shoulder blades and halfway down his spine.

“Reckon I’ll take a pass on the fountains, too,” Niall says, tugging his hat off and tossing it back to his bag. He fluffs his hair back out with his hand, too casually. “Yeah, crowds might get a bit wild, there; better not risk it.”

“You sure?” Liam asks, fingers catching absently at the tangles in Harry’s curls as he pulls back, and Harry turns his face into the cushion just for a second, hiding it. Liam says, “Paul and Svein and half the team are coming, though, it should be pretty safe. Hate the thought of you being cooped up back here for a reason like that, Nail file.”

“Won’t be cooped up, will I? Got this bundle of fun to keep entertained with.” Niall moves over to Harry, perching on the coffee table so he can reach across and slap Harry’s leg. Harry watches him covertly from under the fall of his hair, suspicious of the sudden change of heart.

“Alright, if you’re sure,” Liam says, then, to Harry: “Hope you start feeling better, mate, I'll check on you afterwards.” He punctuates this by tilting athletically over the back of the couch, arms braced with his weight as his legs kick up in the air, see-sawing down to smack a kiss against Harry’s ear.

“Gross,” Harry complains, scrubbing the spot, wincing when the motion uses the muscles in his back.

Liam doesn’t apologize, just starts singing the chorus to All By Myself’in an overly-operatic way, heading out to leave. Harry can’t see Liam’s eyebrows, but he’s willing to bet they’re scrunched-up and ridiculous.

The sound of the door closing cuts the singing off, with Niall belatedly shouting, “Adios!” after him.

When Niall looks back to Harry, he realizes the stretch of his mouth he feels is not so much a disgusted frown as it is a daft, over-sized grin, so he flips it around as well as he can, all while the look on Niall’s face gets more and more incredulous.

“Bet you fifty quid you didn’t go jogging, did ya?” Niall says, breaking the drawn-out tension.

“Not as such, no,” Harry admits.

“Bet you went and got a bloody great tattoo, didn’t you?”

“Might’ve done, yeah.”

Niall groans. “It’s not another club tattoo, is it, God, bet it is. What’s wrong with you, seriously.”

“It isn’t,” Harry says, offended, and shuffles his knees under himself, enough to sit up in a hunched sort of way, gingerly lifting the hem of his top. Niall’s hands help out, so Harry doesn’t have to stretch his arms around as much, and he hears Niall’s low whistle when he sees it.

It’s easy to picture what it is he’s seeing— from the sketch, and the pictures Lane had took, and the way Harry’d spent a good twenty minutes in the loo after he’d got back to the hotel, staring at his back in the mirror— the long black peacock feather gently curved along Harry’s spine, and the delicate barbs wisping out from the quill, and the sudden flare of bright green for the eye of the feather where it hits just below Harry’s nape.

“This the tat you wanted for the U.S. leg?” Niall asks, and Harry chews his lip, wondering how vague he can get away with being. He did get the tattoo while in the States, after all.

After a beat, Harry tugs his top back down, glad it slips easily over the clingfilm bandage that’s keeping the layer of ointment from going everywhere, and then decides to tell the truth. “No,” he says. “This is for something else that I wanted.”

When he’s turned facing front again, Niall is scratching his forehead, fingers pushing up abortively at a brim that’s not there. Then he reaches for the hotel phone that’s on the table next to the couch, tucking the receiver up against his ear.

“Yeah. This sounds like a conversation that requires food,” Niall says to Harry, then he greets the receptionist on the line, ordering: “Everything fried you’ve got to room three sixty-eight, cheers.”

By the time piles of chips and onion rings and sundry golden-brown and delicious things arrive on a trestle, Harry has managed to avoid working himself into a state by remembering that this is Niall ‘Best at Hugging’ Horan— whatever he has to say will be fine. Harry can let himself hear it; he probably should hear it, even. Therefore Harry tries not to feel the twisting anticipation in his stomach— tries not to think about dominos, or the fact that if Niall knows, there’s only one person left who doesn’t. It’s easier once the food is in front of them: the smell hits Harry’s nose and he realizes how ravenous he is, that he hasn’t actually eaten anything since yesterday.

Niall casts an approving eye over him as Harry grabs an entire plate of eggrolls and pulls it into his lap. Niall’s perching on the arm of the chair across from the couch, still watching Harry like the world’s littlest Irish gargoyle, and Harry doesn’t begin to feel comfortable until Niall reaches for the mountain of taquitos on the trestle and begins shoving them one by one into his own mouth.

The sense of security is short-lived, however, because Niall starts talking a minute later, waving one of the taquitos for emphasis as he does. “So,” he says, chewing. “You’re kind of an idiot.”

Harry blinks, sucking a piece of cabbage out of his teeth. “Well,” he says, unsure. “That’s not very nice of you.” His voice inflects upwards at the end, like it’s a question.

“Okay, listen to me, ‘cause I say this out of love: your new tattoo is great, man, really beautiful and stuff.” Niall sticks another taquito in his mouth, crunching down. “Did you ever consider just getting: ‘Liam, please fuck me’ written across your arse?”

Harry chokes on his eggroll.

After he’s finished hacking out his lungs into the serviette Niall throws at him, Harry wheezes, “Have you been chatting with Louis? Or Zayn?”

Niall pulls at face at Harry. “Those rocket-scientists? They’re the ones who talked to me.”

Harry looks down at his hands, balling up the serviette in a sudden onrush of guilt. In theory, he’s wanted to go Niall a hundred times before now, to lay himself and his problems at Niall’s feet, ask for help. Actually following through, though— that’s always been the undoable part. Even now, opening his mouth to speak, everything Harry wants to say feels bigger than his mouth, coiled uncomfortable and tight in the back of his throat.

“It’s— yeah, it’s Liam.” Harry says, admitting to it. The eggroll is sitting like a rock in his stomach.

“As I said,” Niall agrees, rolling his eyes.

Harry frowns, setting his now unwanted plate aside and falling back against the couch before he can stop himself. He regrets it as soon as he does, of course, rearing up and hissing like he’s been slapped—the chili-pepper burn that zings across his skin certainly has a lot of similarities. So Harry might be feeling the tiniest bit sorry for himself when he asks, “Do we really have to talk about this?

“Haitch, c’mon. You’ve been in way over your head, haven’t you. This feather thing— yes, that— prime example, right there, of you bein’ the complete opposite of subtle.”

Harry tugs at his lip, and then laces his fingers together, then grips his hands over his knees. Nothing about him seems to want to settle— everything good that getting the tattoo had done for him is fraying apart, all that inner peace gone shriveled up like a leaf under a microscope.

“It's just—” He swallows, tries again, though his voice is still smaller than it should be. “It’s just that I haven’t known what to do, about any of it.”

“Seriously, though,” Niall says, “Why haven’t you just told him? He’s good for lending an ear, our Liam. It’s not like he’s gonna be mad at you.”

Harry doesn’t know what the sudden trigger is— the earnest blue of Niall’s eyes, maybe, silly as that sounds— but a confession wants to come bubbling out of him. It’s the thing that he’s told no-one else on Earth, not even Louis— and before Harry can quite think it over, he finds himself telling Niall, tongue thick and numb with the words, “We almost had sex, once. Me and Liam, I mean.”

And at that, Niall— unflappable Niall— actually leans back in reaction. “Whoa,” he says, and he scratches at his forehead with the hand still holding his half-eaten taquito, food forgot in his surprise. “That’s— wait, whattya mean, ‘almost,’” Niall asks, like he’s annoyed. “What in bleedin’ fuck stopped you?”

Harry already regrets bringing it up— everything in him is wishing for a way to rewind, make it all unsaid. He tries to keep his shoulders deliberately pliant; the way they’re hunching up is playing hell on his new tat. “Dunno,” Harry says, plucking at his lip, shrugging with the bare amount of movement. “He walked away. Didn’t want it, I suppose.”

“He said that? Liam said that?” Niall persists.

“Well, no,” Harry says, frowning. “Not as such.”

“Alright— so what’d he say?”

That night in Madrid has dogged Harry’s steps for over two months, hovering over everything he says and thinks and dreams, driving him mad with the way he can remember it only in half-pictures, everything filtered through a whiskey-scented haze. There are parts that stand out with crystalline clarity: like the way Liam’s hand had felt, warm and large against Harry’s stomach, and the way his teeth grazing Harry’s jaw had shocked through him; then there’s also the way Liam had looked when he’d pulled away, broken open and raw— but most of the rest is like sand and smoke, slipping out of Harry’s grasp whenever he reaches for it.

He doesn’t remember the end very well, but he does remember Liam walking out, and the sound the door had made when it had shut behind him. Harry shrugs, again, throat too tight.

“Nothing,” he tells Niall. “He didn’t say anything. He said he couldn’t do it, I think, something like that.” Harry runs his palms over the knees of his jeans, frustrated. “We were kissing, he left, that was the end of it.”

“Lemme guess,” Niall says, “You never spoke about it ever again, the both of you.” When Harry shakes head, confirming this, Niall sighs gustily, fingers pressing briefly at his eyes, muttering: “Dead stupid, swear to Christ, don’t know how you’ve survived this long.”

Harry is uncomfortably aware that if that’s anyone’s fault, it’s his— Harry and his ‘everything can be like it was before,’ text; that and his little, ‘we just got carried away’ speech. But—

“What’s there to say?” Harry asks, wanting to know. “Liam he decided he was straight, after all, or that I wasn’t doing it for him—” Harry makes a sound, a harsh exhale, but it doesn’t take the weight off his chest. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t be daft,” Niall says, curt. Harry thinks back regretfully to before the start of this conversation, when he’d reckoned Niall would go easy on him, just tell Harry to cry it out or whatever, give him a hug. But no, instead Niall’s saying a lot of upsettingly insightful things, like: “Sounds like you’re assuming a bunch of shite, if y’ask me.” And then asking, “Anyway, if it doesn’t matter, then why get that tattoo, huh?”

“Because. I don’t know,” Harry says, when the truth is he doesn’t know how to articulate himself. “Because I’m not subtle,” he finally says, because that’s part of it, at least.

Niall looks skeptical. “Liam might be as big of a dummy as you are, but m’pretty sure he’s gonna know something’s up when he sees it.”

“I get a lot of tattoos,” Harry says, as if this one could ever slot right in with the rest, and Niall gives that excuse the unimpressed snort it deserves. Harry rakes a hand through his hair, scraping it off his forehead, back aching and his body tired. He looks away, through the large windows, and they’re high enough up that all the night-blackness and neon are smearing together from the distance. With his voice rasping and miserable, Harry says, “Maybe I do want to know for certain, alright, is that so wrong? Maybe I don’t want to keep wondering if it means something when he takes care of me, puts me to bed, falls asleep next to me. Maybe I can’t take having all this hope and nothing to do with it.”

There’s a long silence on Niall’s end, and when Harry finally looks back at him, Niall is gnawing away on the neglected half of his taquito, eyes on Harry, looking thoughtful. When he sees Harry turn back, Niall hums at him in sympathy. “Laying your cards on the table, are ya? Gotta say, bro— you’re in the right city for a gamble this big, least there’s that.”

And at that massively unhelpful bit of advice, Harry groans, dropping his head down into his hands.

“Just think,” Niall goes on, “all this’ll make a wonderful story one day, yeah? Your grandbabies might not be bored to tears when you tell it.”

Harry’s mobile goes off in his pocket, beeping a notification. When he pulls it out, he sees it’s a text from Liam, just a smiley face, but the picture attached is of the fountains, the scene that must be in front of Liam right now: a huge blurry fan of water colored in gold, the Bellagio hotel lit-up and set back in the distance.

A second text comes in on its heels, this one just a message by itself:

hope your feelin better hazza

Harry wordlessly passes his phone over to Niall, who hums again.

“Huh,” Niall says, passing it back. “Don’t think he’s too subtle, either, that one.”


They’re freshly off the stage from their last Vegas show, still sweat-soaked and buzzing with it, when the Guest Services rep for their hotel stops by for a chat, flitting around the green room where they’re all inhaling food and trying to catch their collective breath. She passes out swag bags— high-end chocolates, organic skin care products, Burberry neckties, not a bad haul— and then reiterates, for only the dozenth time, that the hotel’s VIP facilities are all at their disposal, and there’s a wide variety of restaurants, and bars, and lounges all within Mandalay Bay’s purview— oh, and one of the hottest nightclubs in the country, too, where their covers and refreshments will all be comp’d, of course, if only they decide to come, please, pretty please.

So even though it’s past eleven by the time they’re done glad-handing their own VIP’s and stuffed into the shuttle to take them on the short skip from the arena to the hotel, Niall and Zayn have made a case for it and they decide to all go— give it the big one, actually, get dressed to the nines and celebrate the almost end of the American leg of the tour. They split to their rooms for showers and agree to meet up around midnight.

Harry’s never been the fastest at showers, so he might already be running a bit late by the time he gets out, puts on his favorite pair of jeans and the most unwrinkled shirt he can find in his suitcases, and finally sets to messing with his hair. It can’t decide if it wants to stand up or flop over— wants to do both at once, apparently— and Harry knows that maybe he’s stalling, but it’s been less than a week since the wine incident by the pool, and now they’re all going to go out in Vegas, and it’s just— Liam’s been so proud of Harry, lately, and happy for him—

His apprehensive ditherings are interrupted by a quick staccato knocking on the door, then Liam’s popping his head around the corner to the bathroom, reflected in the mirror, and Harry can see the wry face that Liam pulls as he takes in the battle Harry’s been fighting and losing with his hair.

“Not sure why you bother, Haz,” Liam says, shaking his head ruefully. “Think wearing a bag over your head is your only choice, really,” and he presses up to Harry’s shoulder, chucking a finger under his chin.

“Get bent,” Harry says, without heat to it, swinging his fist down towards Liam’s groin. Liam intercepts him easily, anticipating it, and his hand feels big and over-warm around Harry’s wrist, and Liam’s laughter in Harry’s ear is almost too much— makes Harry want to shiver and step away and lean closer all at once. Then Liam has to go and make it worse by running an apologetic hand up Harry’s back.

It’s been a couple of days, but the tattoo is still a bit sore, still healing, and dancing around all night hasn’t done it any favors. The pressure of Liam’s fingers is light, but still enough to make Harry flinch at the sudden sting. Liam lets go of him instantly, laughter cutting off and expression shuttering, and Harry can’t just let him think— as if any touch from him would ever be unwelcome; that’s ludicrous.

So Harry blurts, “It’s not— I mean, I got a new tat; still a bit sore there.”

Something that looks like relief flickers across Liam’s face, then his eyes are opening up to Harry curiously, and Liam’s running his gaze down the same path his hand had took, like he’s trying to make out the outline of Harry’s tattoo through the button-up shirt.

“Finally did your back? That’s wicked, what is it? Is it big?” Liam asks.

Harry’s stomach feels eaten up with real butterflies—and in spite of his bravado in front of Niall, all the things Harry’d said about wanting to know once and for all, Harry still takes the coward’s way out, saying, “Show you later— we’re late, aren’t we? C’mon, they must be waiting for us.”

“Right, I was meant to fetch you. I forgot,” Liam says, sheepish and grinning.

“So fetch me,” Harry says, grinning back, and tugs Liam by his sleeve to the door, both of them laughing.


They have a quick huddle in Niall’s room before heading out, Niall passing around little bottles

from the mini-bar to toast with. Louis makes a quip about wolf-packs that has everyone snickering— their dvd for The Hangover had cracked on the last tour, that’s how many times they’d watched it— and when they throw back their drinks, Harry keeps his to just a sip, letting the sharp taste of Jack coat his tongue, aiming for moderation already.

Liam sees him do it, though, and smiles at Harry from across the circle— just a half-tilt of his mouth with his tongue pressed up against the back of his teeth, conspiratorial even in the midst of the other boys. It’s a smile that reminds Harry too much of Liam’s other smiles, the ones from Verona and Madrid; the ones that had driven Harry to desperation, into doing all the things he’d done.

And now here’s one last thing he’s been driven to do— getting a large and painful and slow-to-heal tattoo in the middle of tour. He’s got it for a lot of reasons, but maybe the one that’s hardest to admit to is this: maybe as it heals, then maybe Harry can, too; he can follow Zayn’s advice, finally get out of his head; let all the feelings that have been saturating him evaporate through his skin like vapor. Harry thinks if he can do that, then maybe that’ll be his own version of a Las Vegas magic trick.

In the interests of not relapsing, Harry already knows he’s not gonna get drunk tonight— no matter what Louis says, pulling Harry down to his height with an arm slung around him and Zayn both, crowing on his way to the lift: “Let’s make a proper howl of it tonight, lads!”


The club is absolutely sick— in a word, it’s Vegas. Everything is lasers and lights: there’s a whole wall taken up entirely with LED screens, flashing patterns and colors in time with the music, more hugely dizzying than the ones they use for their own concert. The screens extend up onto the ceiling, even, where there’re about a dozen disco balls; along with those, Harry sees costumed dancers hanging in suspension above the heads of the people crowding up the dancefloor, dripping with feathers and lace.

A hostess guides them up to the VIP lounge— just a balcony on the second tier, but it overlooks the whole club, and the couches are leather and posh as hell, and there’s already Cristal chilling in ice buckets. Harry feels a bit like Kanye West, if he’s being honest.

They hang out for a while, taking it easy; Harry moreso than the rest, obviously, because he’s having to wave off glass after glass of champagne and martinis and mixers that the servers keep bringing round. He stays camped on the arm of one of the couches, mostly texting on his phone, keeping a grip on the same sweating bottle of Beck’s Sapphire he’s been nursing for forty minutes now.

“You look thrilled, bro,” Niall says, plopping down next to him.

“Just behaving myself,” Harry says.

“Can’t have that,” Niall snorts, trying to push him off the arm of the chair. “Go dance your feelin’s out, do you good.”

Harry groans and acts like dead weight, staying put. “Don’t wanna dance,” he says, trying to seem pitiful. “Just danced through our whole gig. My feet hurt. M’back hurts. Everything hurts.”

“Fine, then,” Niall says, holding out his Guinness bottle. There’s a flush on his cheeks that says he’s not drunk yet, but well on his way. “Top me up, if you’re set on being useless.”

Harry goes to protest again, but then he remembers Liam and Louis saying something about heading down to the bar a few minutes ago, and he snatches the bottle away in his free hand, standing up.

It takes a bit of doing to slither his way through the packed-together bodies in the club, trying to not take stray elbows to the spine, but Harry’s had a lot of practice at it, and it helps when you’re the one not tipping over with every step. He finds Liam and Louis pretty easily, since some fans are hovering around them, asking for pictures and stuff. Harry hangs back until the coast is clear, then comes up smirking behind them, just as they’ve finally turned to the bar to try and order.

“Ew, I love One Direction,” he squeals, pitching his voice up obnoxiously.

His voice isn’t really made for squealing, though. Louis whips around, hackles up like they always get when sloppily drunk blokes whose girlfriends won’t pay attention to them try to slag off their band. When he sees it’s just Harry, Louis relaxes, kicking out at Harry’s shin.

“Harry Styles is so ew,” Louis says, nose wrinkling as he does his imitation of a teenage girl. Liam just laughs indulgently at them both.

“Alright, Haz?” Liam asks, smiling at him.

“Alright,” Harry says, saluting with his bottle, realizing he’s got Niall’s too. “Er, this isn’t mine,” he says, lifting it.

Liam rolls his eyes, reaching out and prying it from Harry’s grip. “You’ve never liked Guinness in your life, Haz— I knew.”

Louis is looking back and forth between the two of them— something he does a lot, lately. Along with these great heaving sighs, like they’re both too stupid to go on living. Harry can’t say he appreciates it very much. Before Louis can do the sigh, though, he frowns and pulls his mobile out of his pocket, reading a text message.

“Hmm, Niall wants me,” he says, eyes flicking up to Harry and back down, then he’s grinning. “Emergency meeting or something—” and before Liam can do much more than straighten out in alarm, Louis is flapping a hand, saying loftily, “For cool people only, though, so don’t you two go getting any ideas. Right, I’m off.”

Harry watches him head back to the VIP loft, suspicious. But then Liam’s tugging on his shoulder, pulling Harry up next to him at the bar to take Louis’s vacated spot, and Harry forgets about anything else.

“S’fine, right? We can have our own club, you and me. We can form a Tall and Burly Men’s club,” Liam says, his face and his smile still open, inviting Harry to play along.

“Might as well make a basketball team while we’re at it,” Harry suggests, “M’pretty sure I’d be ace at that.”

“Oh, definitely; it's so your sport. Might be your calling, even.”

Harry laughs at that, and they settle shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar for the next few minutes, sipping their drinks and people-watching. Well, Liam is. Harry’s habit for a while now has been Liam-watching.

And he can’t help but notice the differences tonight: where normally Liam’d be brimming over with the energy of a place like this, letting it get under his skin, bouncing on his toes, singing along to the music— tonight he’s still like the surface of a lake, no ripples, everything contained.

Before he can stop himself, Harry’s turning towards him, giving up the pretense of looking anywhere else. He reaches up to press his thumb to the tiny furrow between Liam’s eyebrows, trying to smooth it out.

“You alright?” Harry asks, low as he can with the din all around them. Liam catches Harry’s hand as he’s pulling it back, holding it in both his own and examining it like it’s new to him— thumbs sweeping over the metal of Harry’s rings, pressing between his fingers. The bow of Liam’s mouth is closed and serious, for once not smiling, and Harry’s heart kicks hard against his sternum, louder in his own ears than the bass beat of the music.

“Just tired, sorry,” Liam says, letting Harry’s hand go. “Don't think I've been sleeping very well.”

“Long tour,” Harry says in sympathy, the echo of his conversation with Zayn passing through him as he does.

“Long tour,” Liam agrees, like it’s a mantra. He offers Harry a smile then, but it’s only with part of his mouth, doesn’t get anywhere close to his eyes. And then slowly, like the words are reluctant to come out, Liam says, “Hey, Harry, can I ask you something?”

Wanting to put him at ease, make him smile properly again, Harry makes a joke out of it, says, “Yeah, go for it, definitely shave your head. Q-ball’s the only look that’s left for you, really.”

It gets a chuckle out of Liam, but then the two of them are approached by more fans, and they lose some time giving out hugs and posing for pictures that are bound to turn out blurred to hell. By the time they can extricate themselves gracefully, moving away from the bar somewhere towards the wall and out of the immediate throng, Harry’s almost forgot the question.

Once they’re back alone, Liam brings it up again, peeling the label off his beer bottle as he stumbles over asking it. “It might be— it’s a bit of an odd question, so. You don’t have to answer, if you’d rather. It's just that I'm curious, sometimes—”

Harry lifts his eyebrows at Liam. “Just spit it out, man.”

“Okay. It’s just, that night— you know, when we were in Madrid—” Liam hesitates, and Harry’s heart starts to pound again over that one word, heavy anxious throbs like it never stopped. “I wasn’t sure if you ended up, like— you know.” Liam clears throat. “With that girl. Selia.”

Harry does his best to play it cool, though he’s sure he’s failing spectacularly at it. “Oh. You mean, like, after you went back?” he asks, trying to clarify, and Liam nods.

It’s taking all of Harry’s self-control not to run for the door. He shifts on his feet, remembering what Niall had said— something about making assumptions, maybe— but the floor feels seconds away from crumbling away underneath him and he can’t seem to string together a proper thought. “Why— why d’you want to know?” he says, mouth dry.

Liam’s finally got the label peeled off, and now he’s tearing strips in it. “I dunno—” he says. “It was a bit of a weird night? I was— ah. I was quite drunk.” His shoulders are hunching into themselves, like they do in those rare times when Liam gets uncomfortable, or embarrassed. “Just trying to get an idea of the whole picture, I s’pose.”

Harry has only been in a car accident once before, and he doesn’t recall much— just that it’d been late, someone else driving, coming home from a party on a school night— it hadn’t been anything life-threatening, Harry’s friend had only driven them into a tree, but Harry can still feel the impact of it: the loss of control, that terrible jolt, that moment where you feel like your body is going to fly away and leave you behind in the wreckage.

And Harry feels something very similar, now, in this moment, realizing that the night he’s been eating himself up over for months is something Liam might not even have clear memories of. Harry gathers himself in, summoning his best acting: he’s got years of playing the part of himself resting right at his fingertips, and he clings onto that as he mimes being wounded, pressing a hand over his chest.

“Ouch,” Harry says, pretending enough for the hurt that’s real to seem fake. “You don’t even remember snogging all over my face?”

Liam pauses, then he says, “No, I do— I— yeah. I remember that.”

Nothing about this is funny, so Harry doesn’t know why he has to fight down the urge to laugh, suddenly. After the silence has gone on too long, too awkwardly, Harry makes himself speak again, words tasting bitter as he does.

He says, “We ended up fucking, if that’s what you were wondering. Selia was there, and we were both—” His tongue feels like it’s going to swallow itself, so he stops; he tries to wash away the bad taste with the warm dregs of his beer, but it doesn’t help. He wipes his mouth, after, and shrugs one shoulder. “Didn’t get any complaints,” he finishes.

“Ah. That’s— yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought,” Liam says. He goes to take a swig himself, but seems to change his mind mid-way, putting the bottle with its shredded label down on a table like he’s done with it

“Well, I mean, you didn’t want me. So I made do,” Harry says, going for another joke, speaking before the words can pass through his brain-to-mouth filter, desperate to get away from the tension in the air between them.

And Harry could fling himself into traffic as soon as he says it, he really could; not only does it make him sound like an absolute bellend, but now Liam’s looking at him, eyes blown open and mouth dropped wide, and maybe it’s just the play of colored lights from the LED screens that’s making him look stunned, like Harry’s punched him, but maybe it’s not.

Liam looks away, eyes tearing off Harry’s face like they’re stuck with Velcro, but he almost immediately looks back again, blatantly staring. Harry can’t take it— he drops his own gaze to the floor, to his scuffed-up boots and the way his toes angle towards each other, holding his breath and waiting for Liam to call him out on how full of shit he is. But really, why can’t Liam just laugh? Just laugh at the stupid joke like he always does— usually doesn’t take more than an eyelash flutter to set him off laughing— then they can move on, change the subject; they can forget this whole awful, awkward conversation ever happened.

Liam doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t say anything.

Harry breaks first, setting his bottle on the table next to Liam’s, the click of it impossibly heavy and loud, almost tipping both of them over in his haste. And he says, “We should probably get back to the others, don’t you think? Interrupt their super-secret meeting, or whatever.”

Without waiting to see that Liam’s following behind— for once actually hoping that he isn’t— Harry turns and starts pushing his way through the crowd.

Harry starts in the direction of the upstairs lounge, but halfway there he finds himself veering towards the loos instead, because his stomach is rolling itself into knots, the little he’d drunk sitting oppressively in the back of his throat. But when he maneuvers through the queue of girls waiting for the ladies’, Harry doesn’t hit the mens’— instead he walks seven more steps and shoulders his way through a door that says ‘Roof Access’ in bold black letters, stumbling up a flight of dirty-looking steps till he hits another door, also unlocked, and then he’s out of the club entirely, he’s outside.

There’s nothing out there except the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, some stubbed-out butts on the ground, and miles and miles of panoramic Las Vegas skyline. Harry barely sees it. The air is thick and desert-dry and hot against his already overheated skin, but Harry’s still sucking it up in gulps, willing the away the tightness in his chest and the churning in his stomach. In his head, he’s telling himself he couldn’t possibly have fucked up everything good in his life with just a few sentences, that’s mental; things like that don’t happen in real life.

The door creaks open again behind him, letting out a too-loud burst of music and noise. Then Liam’s there, standing five feet away, which is just perfect. Harry can’t even properly escape.

“Haz, you okay?” Liam says, palm lifted up like he wants to brace it under Harry’s elbow, like he’s concerned.

“Needed some air,” Harry says, short, drifting back from Liam’s hand, putting more space between them. The rooftop is slippery with grit under Harry’s boots, crunching loud and obvious as he moves. Liam is still looking at Harry like he needs propping up, so Harry stiffens his shoulders, adding, “Be back inna sec, promise.”

Liam nods, but it’s absently, like he’s not really hearing it. He doesn’t leave.

For an excuse to be up here, or maybe just to be doing something, Harry moves closer to the edge of the roof, setting his elbows on the concrete ledge and looking out. The height is dizzying, but Harry’s head is already spinning enough that he doesn’t notice, and no matter how hard he tries to focus on it, the glitter of the city lights keeps blurring together into one big kaleidoscopic mess.

Harry gives up, closing his eyes, but that only makes it worse— all he can feel now is the way his body is strung too tight, every molecule of him hanging on the edge of a flinch, waiting to hear the door open and shut again.

It doesn’t come. Liam’s voice breaks the silence, words coming out too fast, like he’d been holding them behind his teeth until they jumped out on their own. “Sorry— I don’t mean to, but I keep— I just, I need to know why you said that?”

When Harry turns, Liam’s running a hand backwards through his hair, screwing up the slant of it; Harry recognizes the nervous gesture as an older one, from when Liam’s hair was longer, more grown out. Harry still remembers when he’d stopped straightening it, sometime after the end of the X-Factor tour, and they way Liam had shrugged bashfully when they’d teased him, and the way he’d said, “Dunno, thought I’d try looking like me for a change.”

Harry licks his mouth, feeling like the dry air’s sapped every last bit of moisture from it. “Which part,” he says.

“That I didn’t want you,” Liam says, words loud against the night air, like neon. “Why would you say that?”

Harry can only gape at him, because no part of this makes sense: not what Liam’s asking, or the way he’s looking at Harry— like this matters, like it’s important— none of it. And now Harry does laugh, a short hard sound that startles him coming out, and he says: “Liam, you left,” with emphasis on the last word, more than he means to, so that he almost bites it.

Liam seems startled, too, like that wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Confusion settles across his face, pulling the corners of his mouth the wrong way. “But, Harry,” he says, “You— I mean, we— we were really wasted, right?”

It’s difficult to manage even on his bad days, but Harry reckons he might be getting angry now. “Right, I know, I was there,” he says, still with the same sharpness, hoping to stave off a lecture on all the idiot things Harry Styles can accomplish while smashed out of his mind. He’d been drunk that night, but not beyond his limits drunk, not even close. He’d known exactly what he was doing, every step of the way.

Except that seems to be the opposite of what Liam’s thinking, because he’s moving closer to Harry now, hands up like he’s pleading, and what he says next is: “I had to go, Hazza. You wouldn't've— it wouldn’t have been right, if I stayed. Like— like taking advantage of you, or something.”

Harry is staring again, his heart’s racing and his skin feels fever-hot; he’s so mad that he’s burning up with the heat of it. He thinks that’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard Liam say, so he tells him that, voice grating harshly: “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.”

Liam visibly clenches his teeth around his own frustration. “No, it isn’t, it’s not— look, I’m sorry, alright, but you’ve got a history of making poor choices when you’re pissed—”

“Stop,” Harry says, loud, nearly shouting it. “Just stop, Liam.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” Liam says, and he’s upset, too—easy to tell by the crumpled fold of his mouth, and his eyebrows, and the way his lips keep setting in a line, grim and determined. “I don’t like saying it as much as you don’t like hearing it—”

“Will you shut up?” Harry tells him, and everything inside him is boiling up, all at once: all the confusion and fear and love he’s struggled with, each of them changing shapes inside his chest, taking up different amounts of space from one moment to the next, pressing up hard against his throat and his ribcage. Largest of all is the disbelief: knowing he’s tortured himself over that night, and run himself in circles over it, all this time, and this is the reason why— this is, this stupid—

“Be pissed off all you want, Harry, but I had to, alright?” Now Liam’s yelling back, driven to it like he never is, all that endless patience used up. “There’s a lot I can take, yeah? I can deal with a lot of things, but having you look at me like—” his voice catches, but only for a second, “—like I’m a mistake, that’s never gonna be one of them.” He shakes his head, eyes gone black and wild. “I couldn’t do it, I’m sorry. Be fucking angry with me if you have to be, but that’s the truth.”

Harry growls and bursts forward, a rush of arms and movement, shoving Liam so he stumbles back a step, and Harry steps with him, grabbing up fistfuls of his t-shirt. “Don’t even dare,” Harry says, towering up to every inch of his height, using it to glare down at Liam, gritting out: “Don’t tell me what it was, that night, or how I would have felt. And don’t you dare say you’re a poor choice, because you’re not, Liam, never. Not for me. Not for anyone.”

Liam’s hands latch over Harry’s, trying to twist him off; from this close, it’s impossible for Harry to miss how hard he’s shaking. “Haz— what the hell?” he says, and his voice has lost all the fierceness it had just a second ago, quaking slightly at the end.

Harry ignores the tremors in his own hands— it’s just the adrenaline, the fight or flight response, because any other day of the year Harry would be the person who ducks his head, lets the confrontation go by him, swallowing his voice— but he knows he can’t be passive about this. He’s gotta stay for this, be in this; for once, he’s gotta fight.

“You’re not a poor choice,” Harry repeats, pushing down the anger, and it goes easily, overwhelmed by everything else that’s clamouring at him. His voice is thick with almost everything besides anger when he says, “I didn’t go to bed with you that night because I was wankered, alright? I wanted you, and it seemed like— I thought you wanted me back. So I pushed it, I pushed hard for it, and then you went and ran out, like—” Harry gives him a little shake, using the grip he has on Liam’s t-shirt, and Liam just takes it; his face has changed completely from what it was, he looks—

Harry swallows, summoning his courage from the same place it comes from when he has to go out on a new stage, sing for a bigger audience, sing over the top of screams that shake ceilings—using it, he says, slowly, “Tell me now if you don’t want me, if that’s why. Tell me if I was wrong. Because I still want you, a lot. More than really seems fair.”

Liam is frozen, eyes doe-wide and very brown. “Oh,” he says, then, “I— Harry—”

Harry unfists his hands, flattening them against Liam’s chest, palms hot and huge against his wrinkled t-shirt, heels anchored against Liam’s sternum, fingertips grazing his collar. Harry can feel it, now— the thundering race of Liam’s heart gives him away, and the next thing Harry asks is: “I think you are, but tell me you’re sober. Say it, Liam.”

Liam’s tongue darts out, wets his lower lip, like a reflex. “Yeah, yes,” he says, barely breathing it. He rocks back on one foot, but it’s an abortive motion— like he’d tried to move away, out from under Harry, but didn’t let himself.

“Good,” Harry mutters, leaning in. “Me too.”

“Harry—” Liam says, like it’s a plea, but Harry ignores him, closing the distance, pressing his lips soft and deliberate against the corner of Liam’s mouth. Liam’s chest hitches under his hands, breath drawn in so sharp it must be painful, and Liam reaches blindly for Harry’s wrists, fingers wrapping too tight, pinching against the band of his watch and against skin, but Liam’s not pushing Harry away, he’s saying, “Wait—”

Harry doesn’t let him say the rest of it— knows that if they pause to reflect now he might not ever get this back: this adamant, reckless courage; this willingness to speak his mind, and the truth; to ask for what he wants and reach for it. Harry moves his head half an inch to the side, lips dragging till he has more than the corner of Liam’s mouth; this time he doesn’t stop until he’s kissing Liam for real.

Liam does make a sound into Harry’s mouth, then, but it’s not words— just another harsh breath, this one like a sob, and then his hands are leaving Harry’s arms to clutch at his neck, and the back of his head, fingers sunk deep into Harry’s curls, crushing their mouths together hard and fast. Liam opens his mouth to Harry’s, and world is suddenly wetness and slickness and heat, exactly like Harry remembers from the night in Madrid except better, amplified times a thousand. Nothing’s coming in through a haze of alcohol, now, it’s just the two of them— sweat beading up on their skin, breathing against each other, the sounds of traffic from the street far below— and Liam, who’s kissing Harry like he’ll die if they stop.

But still, even with that, Liam’s the one to pull back first. He pushes against Harry’s chest, surprised laughter coming out of him as confused as it is breathless. “Hang on, wait,” Liam says, panting through it, “This is— I can’t keep up with this—”

Harry makes a frustrated sound, ducking his head down, wanting Liam’s mouth back, but Liam keeps holding Harry at arm’s length, shaking his head.

“Harry, Haz, I can’t— give me a second, alright?” Liam says, with just enough desperation to make Harry hold still, to listen. Liam leans back in, forehead pressing briefly against Harry’s in gratitude, hands coming up to cradle Harry’s face. Liam doesn’t seem upset, though; there’s something close to awe in the way he says, still on the edge of laughing: “This is mad, do you get how mad this is? Is this really happening? Because I could have sworn— I just— I didn’t think I was allowed to want you, for so, so long.”

And Liam’s saying all this with his thumbs sweeping along Harry’s cheeks, like that day in Mexico City, that first day back together after they’d been broken apart. Except Liam’s mouth hadn’t looked like this, back then: kiss-stung, his lips parted, practically begging for Harry to sink back between them.

Harry groans, tangling his fingers in Liam’s top again, saying anything to reassure him, even nonsense like: “Well you are, you’re allowed, okay? You’re fully allowed, Liam, I promise, you are so, so allowed—”

But it works, it’s enough. Liam laughs again, a full laugh this time, eyes wrinkling from it, and he says, “God, Haz, shut up,” just before doing what Harry’s been holding his breath for—using his hands on Harry’s face to reel him back in.

They kiss again, and again, for Harry doesn’t even know how long. They kiss until the roof-access door bangs open behind them, and they end up springing apart like startled deer.

There’s a beefy bloke who’s appeared, dressed all in black with the white ‘Security’ logo across his massive barrel chest. The man sees them and he says, menacingly: “This area’s restricted to guests, you two.”

Liam’s the one who nods rapidly, speaks for them. “Right, yeah, ‘course,” Liam says, clearing his throat. “We were just, ah, inspectin’ things— great place you have here, absolutely amazing. So, right, we’ll be going now.”

Then Liam grabs Harry’s elbow, who’s useless at this point, just laughing helplessly behind his hands, and Liam drags Harry with him towards the door. They squeeze around the security guard, who’s looking at them like they’re completely off their rockers— which is fair, probably— and Liam says, “Have a lovely night, sir,” just as they’re slipping back inside.

Once they’re on the staircase, door shut behind them, Harry collapses against Liam, muffling his laughter between Liam’s shoulder blades. Harry’s not at all drunk, but he feels that way: buoyed up on happiness, and giddy, like every string that’s been tethering him down’s been suddenly cut, like he’s floating away.

Liam reaches around for him, squeezing Harry’s thigh. “Hey, let’s get out of here, okay?” Liam says, tipping his head back so his mouth rests against Harry’s ear, speaking over the renewed loudness of the music.

Harry recants everything: Liam is the smartest. No-one has ever been as smart as him.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, briefly pressing his nose into the dip between Liam’s neck and shoulder. “Let’s do that.”



Harry ends up holding onto Liam as they weave their way out of the club— clinging, really— and he can’t even pretend it’s just for the sake of not getting separated, because when they’re back in the hotel corridors Harry doesn’t let go: just keeps his fingers twined with Liam’s, or in the hem of his top, or plucking at his sleeve.

They get into the lift together, and Harry has to stand near enough to rest a hand on Liam’s hip for the entire ride, pressed against the line of his body, even though there’s people in the lift with them, and the walls are mirrored— it’s clear as day just by glancing at their reflections and their mouths what they’ve been doing, probably, but Harry can’t help but be glad about it. It’s a fierce hot feeling that flares up under his breastbone and doesn’t relent, even when they’re alone, Liam sighing at Harry as they stumble the length of the hallway together because Harry still has to keep hands on him. Liam tugs the keycard from Harry’s pocket to slide it through the lock to his own room, since Harry’s too busy hovering at Liam’s back, fingers curled into Liam’s belt loops, pulling him flush to Harry’s chest.

The darkness of the room feels like slipping into a pool, the rush of cooler conditioned air hitting Harry’s face like water. He takes a breath, then another, then lets Liam go, walking over to the nearest bed, navigating through the dark by the strip of hallway light across the carpet.

Liam’s the one to throw the deadbolt and flick on the lights. His eyes find Harry across the room as he does, as he’s tossing the keycard onto a side table. “Oh,” Liam says, smiling, but there’s uncertainty in it. “Now you want to be all the way over there, huh?”

It’s just that it’s occurred to Harry that what he’s been doing might be pushing—pushing like he pushed before, because he wanted it too much—and, just—he has to be certain. They both do, because Harry fucked it up in Madrid, and now, somehow, by a miracle, they’ve got this chance again. They’ve got to get it right this time around.

“Tell me again, Liam, please,” Harry says, low and serious, and he sits on the mattress, tucking his hands under his thighs.

Liam pulls a face, saying, “Replay isn’t a thing anymore.” But then he studies Harry more closely, taking him in. Liam chews his lip then, and copies Harry’s posture, to a degree; he leans up against the wall, hands behind his back, and he says, steadily: “I can say it as much as you like—it’s only going to keep being true, though. I wanted you, Hazza, and I still want you—” his lips tip upwards then, ghosting over a smile, “More than really seems fair.”

It’s difficult to keep his seat, hearing that, but Harry does— because as much as it makes lovely fingers of warmth curl up around his heart and squeeze, that’s not what he’s after. “Not that,” he says, hands gripping tight to his legs now. “Tell me you’re sober, again, I need to hear it. Tell me you won’t freak out and run away if I start to touch you.”

Liam spreads his hands, patient and calm, beneficent. “I am, I can promise you that— I’ve never been more sober, and if you don’t get over here and touch me, I’m going to strangle you quite cheerfully.”

The floating away feeling is back, and Harry gives into it— lets it buoy him up till he’s standing, and then he’s moving, long legs crossing the room in just a few strides. When he’s a foot away Harry says, “I’m going to kiss you, alright?” as a warning.

“Good. Hurry up,” Liam says, reaching out when Harry’s close enough to pull him in by his sleeves.

Liam’s mouth is everything Harry remembers, and everything it looks like: soft and warm and pliant, opening up easily under the first coaxing press of Harry’s tongue, Liam making a low pleased sound when he does. They move together slowly this time, less frantic than on the roof. Harry’s got his hands trying to span Liam’s waist, and Liam’s hands are on Harry’s shoulders, thumbs digging in, anchoring each other down, each breath they trade between them feeling like they’re proving something.

“You’re not gonna tell me twice, huh?” Liam says, pulling back, but it’s not far— Harry can feel the shape of Liam’s smile brushing against his lips, and when Liam tilts left, feathering smiling kisses at the corner of Harry’s mouth, moving down to his jaw.

Harry is very interested in that, but he’s also remembered something else that should be said before they go much further, so he leans out of it, reluctantly, opening his eyes. Liam is right there, watching Harry curiously, mouth swollen and red, and Harry literally can’t keep himself away from it— he moves his hands to Liam’s face, kissing him again, lingering long enough that Liam’s body begins to arch off the wall, curving into Harry’s. Harry groans at the contact, breaking free of the kiss.

“You’re too much,” Harry pants against Liam’s cheek, voice rasping out, “You’re too much to almost have and not get, d’you know that?”

“Haz,” Liam says, matching his groan, turning his cheek into Harry’s, seeking his mouth again, and when Harry avoids him Liam says, impatient and fast, “You have me, Christ, this is having me.”

“But before—” Harry says, shaking his head, catching Liam’s hands where they’re tugging at his clothes. He’s got to just say this one more thing; clear the air. “I did lie, before, when you asked me— if it was because of you.”

Liam stills, and Harry takes a deeper breath, trying to make up for what his lungs seem to lack. Harry looks at Liam, who’s looking back with his eyes open, neither of them hiding from this, and Harry tells him: “Everything I did over that break, it was because of you— but listen, Liam, it was my own fault, alright? I fucked up in loads of ways, because I was hurting, but it was all me. Every decision, every mistake— all of it.”

“Well,” Liam says, after absorbing that. “As long as we’re confessing, I should admit I did feel a bit hypocritical for scolding you, once we got to Mexico.”

“You did?” Harry says, puzzled. “Did you have a drunken bender that I missed?”

“Er, not exactly?” Now Liam does duck his head a bit, clearing his throat before saying, somewhat sheepishly: “I might have got pretty wankered over the break, myself? And, ah— I might have shagged some bloke I’d never met before.”

Harry probably couldn’t have been more surprised if Liam’d said he’d pulled the Queen. Immediately on the heels of the surprise comes a hot flare of jealousy— but Harry pushes it away, or tries to. After all the shagging he’d done in that week, trying to purge Liam out of his system, Harry’s got no right to it.

“Did you now,” Harry says, neutral as he can manage.

“It was nothing—” Liam says, “It meant nothing— maybe that makes me sound like a twat, I don’t care.” He worries his lip again, maddeningly, and when Harry’s eyes catch on that Liam reaches for him again, tugging the pockets of his trousers until Harry’s settled between Liam’s knees, hands braced on the wall on either side of Liam’s head.

“I just— I had to see, about you,” Liam says, voice lower now that they’re only inches apart, like he’s confiding a secret. “I had to see if it was just about something stupid, like— like being curious.”

“And?” Harry asks, equally low.

“Honestly, after I stopped kidding myself, it didn’t feel like anything other than what it was.”

“So what’d it feel like?”

Liam shrugs, the movement brushing his shoulders against Harry’s wrists. “Practice,” Liam says.

Harry lets out his breath, exhaling against Liam’s neck, and when Liam shivers Harry follows it with his mouth, nuzzling in just under Liam’s ear, along the line of his neck, until Liam’s arching up into Harry again.

“Who was it?” Harry asks, murmuring with his lips on Liam’s collarbone, and Liam’s fingers have moved from Harry’s pockets to the small of his back, pulling Harry’s shirt out from where it’s tucked in to get underneath it, to get at skin.

“Dunno,” Liam says, breath hitching when Harry scrapes upwards with his teeth, and it comes out half on a groan when he says, “Some guy, dunno, doesn’t matter.”

“So you were thinking about me?” Harry persists, as Liam palms the bare skin of Harry’s back, fingertips digging in just under the lowest part of his tattoo— Harry starts to feel himself sweat, just from that, pinpricks of feverish heat chasing themselves over his body in a wave.

“Yeah,” Liam says, and Harry kisses him, sinking his teeth into Liam’s swollen lower lip until he’s gasping, then soothing the sting with a lighter kiss, tilting his head and layering another one on top of that, then asking:

“While you were kissing him?”

Liam’s head falls back against the door, resting between Harry’s hands, his mouth obscenely red and slick-looking from Harry’s kisses, his neck marked up from Harry’s teeth. If Harry weren’t already achingly hard, dick stiffened up insistently against the zip of his trousers, then that sight, right there, would be more than enough to get him there.

“We— we didn’t— ah, do much of that,” Liam says, sounding like he’s catching his breath.

Harry doesn’t know why he can’t just drop it, why he has to know— but the heat from his jealousy is still riding low in his belly, coiled up next to his arousal, and it’s driving him just a little bit mad, maybe; not over the edge of reckless, but skirting right up to it, definitely.

“Did you think about me when you were fucking him, Liam?” Harry asks, hoarsely, with his mouth nearly against Liam’s mouth, hovering but not kissing him, though the desperate clutch of Liam’s fingers on Harry’s back seems to be begging for it.

Liam doesn’t flush, or look embarrassed; his eyelashes flicker against the top of his cheeks, eyes going dark in the way he looks back at Harry, meaning and intent heavy in Liam’s gaze and voice when he nods, saying, “Every second.”

“Show me,” Harry says, and Liam does.

There’s nothing slow in the way they kiss now, open-mouthed and hungry, Liam licking into Harry’s mouth with long, wet glides of his tongue, his hips rocking up into Harry’s in a way that can only be deliberate. When Harry groans at the friction, Liam does it again, dipping his head down to press his lips against Harry’s throat.

He mouths down Harry’s neck, breath humid and warm, chasing kisses with soft nips of his teeth, each sting feeling like it’s run on a thread to Harry’s dick, tugging out tight little throbs of pleasure. The ache’s got too much— Harry has to slip a hand between them, pop the button on his own trousers and tug down his flies, trying to ease some of the pressure off— but Liam makes an approving sound when he feels it, and his hand slips past Harry’s to tuck inside his trousers, fingers curling eagerly around the thick shape of Harry’s cock through the cotton of his pants.

“Fuck, Liam,” Harry gasps, surprised, his body curving around Liam’s hand from how good it feels— just that, already— and Liam’s mouth drags back up, stubble scraping Harry’s neck and cheek along the way.

“Yeah, you want to?” Liam pants into his ear, like it was a question, palm rubbing warm over the front of Harry’s pants, pressing the damp patch where he’s been leaking back against the head of his dick.

Harry thinks that if they don’t finish what they’ve started, this time, he might actually die in a blazing inferno of sexual frustration; out loud he says, not very coherently, “I do, think we should, think we definitely should.”

Liam goes for Harry’s mouth, kissing him, and in the same movement he takes his hand out of Harry’s trousers, gripping instead at the backs of his thighs. There’s a moment where Liam breaks the kiss, bending, tightening his grip, and in the next he’s lifting Harry up, spinning them both in a dizzying rush until Harry’s against the wall, Liam’s hips pinning him to it. The breath gets knocked out of Harry’s lungs, leaving him as shocked laughter, and his legs wind around Liam’s waist on instinct, arms going around his neck and shoulders and clinging tight.

“I’m not going to drop you,” Liam tells him, amused.

Thing is, there’ve been plenty of times in the past when Liam’s dragged Harry around by the legs or feet, wrestling him, or chucked him off a couch to make space for someone else— or even that one memorable time, when Liam had got a shoulder under Harry’s stomach and heaved him up, fireman-style, just to win a bet with Louis— so, yeah, Liam’s pretty strong. But those were all in much different contexts from this, obviously.

Harry lifts his eyebrows, obliging Liam by squeezing his biceps a bit, saying, “You think you can keep me up? I’m quite large, you know.” Then Harry squirms, bowing his spine out, trying to get away from the wall where it’s pressing hard and uncomfortably against his still-healing tattoo, ending up pressing a lot more into Liam instead.

Liam’s voice comes out a lot more breathless than before when he answers, “If you want me to, yeah. Whatever— whatever you want.”

Harry shifts again, getting more of the wall rasping against raw skin and the hard line of Liam’s dick against his own at the same time, both sensations making him shudder. “Reckon I want to get on a bed so you can fuck me,” he grits out, teeth clenched around a groan.

Liam doesn’t answer— he just leans back, bracing, till he’s carrying all of Harry’s weight, and he spins them again, walking them to the nearest bed and half-lowering, half-dropping Harry on top of it. Liam gets a knee up on the mattress and follows Harry down, until Harry’s flat on his back and Liam’s a warm, solid weight between the spread of his legs.

Harry half-sits to meet him, a hand on Liam’s neck and one on his arm to pull him the rest of the way to Harry’s mouth, and then they’re kissing again, both of them toeing off their shoes over the edge of the mattress, until Liam starts fumbling one-handed with the buttons on Harry’s shirt, making small noises of frustration as he does but Harry’s too busy digging his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans to help.

Harry gets a condom out, tossing his wallet away and slapping the condom wrapper against Liam’s shoulder, getting his attention.

“Showtime, tiger,” Harry says, and Liam leans out of the kiss far enough to chuckle at Harry, shaking his head.

“God, you’re embarrassing,” Liam tells him, breathless and fond. Harry squirms his hips up, clutching at Liam to pull him into it, feeling dizzy and proud when Liam’s laughter gets lost in a groan, neck bowing as Harry grinds them together a second time.

“You going to fuck me or not?” Harry asks, impatient.

“Right now?” Liam says, still not taking the condom that Harry’s trying to press on him, “You mean, like, right this second?”

Harry huffs, saying, “Don’t want to wait another two months for it.” He leans up to get his mouth on Liam’s neck again, licking into the hollow of his throat, tasting salt and skin, the sandalwood of Liam’s cologne sitting heavy on his tongue. When Harry falls back to the mattress, Liam looks both turned-on and troubled.

“Without any—”

“Condom’s lubed,” Harry says, growling as Liam pins his hips down when Harry moves to rock them again. “It’ll be fine, I’ll like it, don’t need any— just want you to fuck me, hurry up.”

Liam kisses along Harry’s jaw, then biting with a sharper edge of teeth than before, and Harry can’t help the sound that gasps out of him, or the way he turns his cheek to duvet to lay more of his neck open.

“Hmm,” Liam says, with his mouth still damp and open on Harry’s throat. “No.”

“Liam,” Harry whines, writhing a bit more desperately now, heating up at the idea that Liam might make him beg for it, blood running hot to his groin, to his cock where it’s trapped between the thin fabric of his pants and the weight of Liam’s thigh. Harry starts tugging open the buttons of his own top, needing his clothes off a lot sooner than Liam’s making it happen, rasping out, “I’ll beg—you want me to? I will, please, Liam— come on, want your dick, give it to me.”

“Don’t always get what you want,” Liam says, irritatingly, but he helps Harry pull his top off.

“Yeah, I do,” Harry says, trying to sound he’s proclaiming law, but when his bare back hits the embroidery of the duvet he hisses, the cat-scratch sting of it ricocheting down his spine, making him wince.

Still hovering above him after tossing the top away, Liam freezes, and his voice sounds anxious when he asks, “Sorry, did I—?”

“You didn’t, it’s not that.”

“Ah,” Liam says, then his expression goes curious. “Oh, it’s— is it your new tattoo? Could I maybe see it now?”

Harry’s heart stops for a second, instinct making it stutter over itself from the same fear of discovery he’s lived with all this time. But he forces his eyes up to Liam’s face, taking in the way he looks: swollen-mouthed and wanting and waiting for Harry’s answer, and Harry reminds himself that this is happening, this is real, they’re really doing this.

“Yeah, you can, yes,” Harry says, and goes unresisting when Liam puts a hand on his shoulder, rolling Harry over onto his stomach.

Harry lays still with his head on his arms, holding his breath. For some reason his heart is hammering more from this than from all the kissing they’d done, and Harry can feel every single place where they’re in contact: the weight of Liam sitting on Harry’s thighs is like an anchor, while Liam’s hands are miles wide, fingertips tracing slowly over the sore and tender edges of Harry’s tattoo, mapping out the quill and the thin barbs of the feather like they’ve been inked in braille.

Every touch feels magnified, over-large, and before long Harry is muffling his gasps into the crook of his elbow, fighting with himself to hold still, not squirm and shiver under Liam’s hands.

“Harry— Haz, this is—” Liam’s tone has gone soft and wondering like his fingers are, but he doesn’t finish the thought— instead, Harry feels Liam line his right forearm up along Harry’s spine, skin pressing to skin, comparing his tattoo with Liam’s own.

Then Liam shifts, his body moving farther down Harry’s legs, and Harry knows why when he feels the damp press of Liam’s mouth on his back. Liam’s lips trace the same paths his fingers had, the rasp of his stubble sending sparks racing along Harry’s raw nerve-endings.

“Can I tell you something?” Liam says, speaking low into the quiet of the room.

Harry has to swallow twice before he can answer, and his voice still comes out halfway to ruined when he says, “If you tell me I’m beautiful, I’m gonna knee you in the bollocks next time we’re onstage, Liam, I swear.”

Liam laughs, the vibrations of it echoing through Harry everywhere they’re pressed together. Harry turns over and Liam lets him, resting his chin on Harry’s stomach and smiling up at him.

“Well, you are,” Liam says, “But that’s not what I was going to tell you.”

Harry stretches his arms above his head, then folds them behind it, very much liking the way Liam’s eyes go dark, watching him. “And what were you going to tell me?” Harry asks.

“Just that I reckon I’ve been a little bit in love with you since I met you,” Liam says. He does it with a shrug, but his eyes are a steady, gentle weight on Harry’s face, nothing casual in them at all.

Harry’s heart is still hammering, only it’s migrated somewhere up in his throat, but he swallows it back. “And now it’s a lot,” he tells Liam, like he’s insisting on it, and Liam grins.

“Now I like you a lot lot,” Liam agrees, kissing Harry’s stomach, mouth dragging with a warm, humid exhale to the jut of Harry’s hipbone and pressing kisses there, too.

“Well,” Harry laughs, nights spent watching South Park while huddled up close dancing momentarily through his head. “I like like you a lot lot, too.”

Then Harry reaches down, gets his fists into the sleeve and collar of Liam’s t-shirt, pulling him back up Harry’s body, because he’s just realized it’s criminal how long he’s gone without that mouth against his own. Liam is more than happy to go, blanketing himself on top of Harry and sinking into his mouth, already knowing what Harry’s after, or maybe he just wants the exact same thing. While they’re kissing, Harry starts scissoring his legs out, twisting and pushing with his feet, and Liam follows his lead, until they’ve managed to kick the scratchy duvet off the bed, leaving behind only a mound of pillows and a tangle of lovely, smooth, white sheets.

Harry’s more than eager to move things along, but it seems Liam’s dead set on being infuriatingly romantic and slow about this. When Harry tries to peel off Liam’s t-shirt, Liam wriggles out of Harry’s grip, breaking the kiss to sit back on his thighs again, fingers tucking inside the waistband of Harry’s trousers and pulling down. Harry can’t really object to that, so he shifts his arse to help, laughing when Liam swears at how tight Harry’s jeans are, finally yanking them free of his calves and ankles with a grunt.

Next off are Harry’s pants, leaving him naked under Liam’s appreciative gaze, and Harry thinks they might finally start to get down to business— but no, Liam just hovers over Harry’s body, hand brushing Harry’s necklace aside to kiss down his chest and stomach, across the wings of his moth tattoo, like Liam’s memorizing the landscape of his skin, like Liam hasn’t already seen almost every inch of Harry a hundred times before.

Harry wants to protest the glacial pace, but he’s too busy arching up into Liam’s lips wherever they fall and groaning like he loves it, apparently, which just makes Liam glance up at Harry along the length of his body, eyes gone heavy-lidded and pleased. Liam’s lips and tongue and teeth suck a lovebite into Harry’s hip, right below his v-cut. It’s close, maddeningly close to where Harry’s dick is resting hard and flushed against his stomach, the head of it stamping sticky dabs of precome onto Harry’s abs whenever he shifts. Liam only taunts him further, coming closer but not close enough, hands spreading Harry’s legs enough for Liam to settle between them and suck bruising kisses into Harry’s inner thighs until they’re quaking.

“You absolute wanker,” Harry manages to get out, though he can hardly breathe anymore, and he feels Liam huffing laughter into his hip. Harry wants to swear at him again, but instead he sinks his fingers into Liam’s hair, ecstatically glad that it’s grown out enough for him to grip, tugging in a way that’s much more demanding than it is suggestive.

“Alright, alright,” Liam says, still laughing, and finally— finally— wraps long fingers around the base of Harry’s cock. Harry barely has time to sigh in relief before Liam’s swallowing the length of him into that beautiful, velvety mouth.

“God,” Harry chokes, tossing his head back as Liam sinks down on him, world narrowing to a pinpoint in an instant. It’s a good thing Liam’s strong enough to keep Harry pinned, because despite all of Harry’s best intentions, there’s no possible way he could have stopped himself from bucking up into that mouth after so long of Liam teasing Harry with it.

Liam doesn’t really pick up a rhythm between his hand and his mouth, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in effort, blowing Harry’s cock like he wants to get scored on it. Liam keeps Harry shallow, at first, using the flat of his tongue to rub and lap at the head of Harry’s dick until Harry’s fingers are tightening involuntarily in Liam’s hair, and when he makes a complaining sound Harry forces himself let go, gripping tight to Liam’s shoulders and t-shirt instead. Liam gets braver after a bit, taking Harry deeper, and Harry forgets everything except the pleasure throbbing low in his groin and building up, all of it radiating from the slickness and heat of Liam’s mouth.

It doesn’t take long for Harry to get close, but when he does he pulls Liam up; reluctantly, though, because his body is screaming at him with the need to come. But Harry’s thought about this too long— obsessively, maybe, so he knows what he wants— no way Harry’s ready for it to be over so quickly.

Liam comes off Harry’s dick with an obscene little pop, panting, his lips red and slick with a gloss of spit and precome until he wipes them against the back of his hand. “S’okay? You alright?” he asks, and the new roughness in his voice makes Harry’s toes curl into the mattress, makes him want to see what it would take to ruin Liam completely.

“Told you—” Harry says, aware now that he doesn’t sound much better off. “Want you to fuck me, Liam— want to come on your dick.”

Liam sits back on his heels, still catching his breath, eyes widening at Harry in disbelief, until he shakes his head, laughing through a groan. He says, “Remember when I said you’d be the death of me one day? Still true— still incredibly, horribly true.”

He dives back on top of Harry then, but in a controlled way, lowering himself down with arms on either side of Harry’s shoulders to kiss his cheek, by his ear, and the corner of his mouth, until Harry sighs at his hesitance, turning his face to catch Liam’s lips full-on, licking inside to prove how very much he doesn’t mind the bitter taste and musk of himself on Liam’s tongue, in his mouth.

The way they’re pressed together only reminds Harry that— unbelievably— he’s the only one with his kit off, and Liam’s still wearing his clothes. “Liam,” Harry groans into the kiss, but it’s a complaint, and he tugs again at Liam’s top, making a second attempt at getting him out of it.

Liam bites reprovingly Harry’s chin. “Are you always gonna be like this?” he asks, exasperated.

“Just wait till you’re the one gagging for it, mate,” Harry says— he’s teasing Liam, really, but it’s also a bit of a test, too.

Liam levers himself up, looking down at Harry with his eyebrows tilted in the way that means Liam knows exactly what Harry’s about; there haven’t been many times in their shared history when that hasn’t been the case, so Harry doesn’t know why he should be surprised.

But Liam only gives Harry that half-smile of his, teasing Harry right back, saying, “Oh yeah? Well, knowing you, you’d probably work me all up and leave me hanging off the edge for hours and hours, all strung out and begging, then you’d go have a dip in the pool or something.”

Now it’s Harry’s turn to lift his eyebrows. “Sound more like you love the idea of that, why don’t you.”

Liam laughs— Harry decides he likes the sound of Liam’s laugh after he’s been sucking dick, and makes a note to hear it as often as possible— but Liam’s also flushing, too, cheeks pinking up even more than they’d been from all the snogging and exertions. Finally, Liam sits up enough to get his t-shirt off, tugging it over his head, saying, “Shut it, you,” as he chucks it somewhere in the vicinity of everything else. The carpet of the hotel room is getting quite crowded by this point.

Harry’s not looking at the carpet, though; he drinks in the endless miles of Liam’s skin, smooth and tanned and muscled. Harry wants to, and he’s allowed, so he puts his hands on Liam’s stomach, palms gliding warm along his abs, and Harry says, challengingly, “Make me, then.”

Liam’s chest rises and falls with a heavy breath, then he’s shuffling backwards off the bed. Harry’s hands fall to the cold sheets instead, but curl up into them as Liam lifts his eyebrows at Harry and begins to tug off his trousers, unbuttoning his flies and doing an oddly graceful hop as he pulls off one leg, then the other— Harry could never have managed that without tipping over.

When he’s down to just tight black pants, Liam walks around the bed to the side table, and Harry cranes his neck to follow him, watching with anticipation lighting up under his skin as Liam pulls out a small bottle of complimentary hand lotion from the drawer.

“This work?” Liam asks Harry, showing him the bottle.

“That what you used on your guy from the bar?” Harry asks, though he’s tamped down the jealousy, mostly— his dick is already twitching just from the promise of Liam’s fingers about to be inside him, it’s a good distraction.

Liam rolls his eyes, tossing the bottle so it hits Harry in the chest, his reaction too slow to catch it. He fumbles in the sheets for it while Liam crawls up the bed, re-settling between Harry’s legs.

“He did himself— you’ll be the first bloke I’ve fingered, if that’s alright with you,” Liam says, only a bit huffily, bending down till he’s only inches off Harry’s body, the heat from his skin pressing down like a weight, till Harry has to hold himself back from arching up to meet him, get the long line of Liam’s body against his own where it belongs. Instead of doing that, Harry unscrews the top off the bottle, holding it up, and Liam’s hand lifts from the mattress so that Harry can squeeze out a generous dollop into his palm.

“Let’s see how you do,” Harry says, hoarsely, bending his knees up and butterflying his thighs open even further, leaving Liam with better access.

Liam rests his left hand on Harry’s knee, squeezing— maybe for his own reassurance as much as Harry’s— and his eyes run down from Harry’s face like water, pouring over him, until he’s looking where Harry can feel him touching, the fingers of his other hand rubbing careful and wet over the rim of Harry’s arsehole.

Harry jolts at the sensation, a sharp breath leaving his lungs, then he sucks it back in with interest as Liam’s fingers slowly presses inside, two at once, right from the start. It’s been a while since Harry’s had even his own fingers working him open— no time on a bus or in a cramped tiny shower stall for anything more than a quick wank into his hand— and the stretch of it burns, startling and hot, impossibly tight-feeling even as Liam begins to work his fingers deeper, slippery with the lotion.

Harry breathes deep through the discomfort, same as he does while getting inked for a tattoo, and after only a few minutes the ache has subsided, till the press and slide of Liam’s fingers has Harry buzzing, wanting more. When Liam checks in on him, voice coming quiet through the hum of the air-conditioning, saying, “Talk to me, Haz— is this alright? This okay for you?” Harry doesn’t hesitate, licking his lips, telling Liam,

“More, c’mon, give me another.”

Liam doesn’t question it— he slides his other hand from Harry’s knee, down along the inner skin of his thigh, the blunt edge of his nails scraping up to Harry’s groin in a way that makes him gasp. With his face set in concentration, lip caught between his teeth, Liam adds his ring finger in, twisting alongside the other two into Harry’s hole till it’s aching again at the new fullness.

Liam’s moving his fingers in and out in a rhythm, now, faster than Harry would have done or expected, and Harry shudders through it, the pain blazing away under the pleasure that flares up. He doesn’t even realize Liam’s reaching for something under Liam breathes out, “C’mon, Hazza, let me— I want to—” and Liam’s fingertips curl up inside Harry, brushing suddenly against his prostate.

Harry groans, loud, his hand flying to his own cock, curling loosely around it, feeling the warm electric shock ricochet through his stomach again as Liam makes a pleased sound and repeats the motion, rubbing the spot unerringly now, and Harry pumps his fist around his dick in time with it, slicking precome down along his shaft. The feeling escalates faster than Harry would have thought possible, until Harry’s body is straining to come and he whimpers, gasping, “Wait, wait—”

Liam’s fingers slip out of Harry, leaving him empty and desperate to be filled again. But he doesn’t want Liam’s fingers back.

“Where’s the— thing. The condom, c’mon.” Harry pants, hands already scrabbling in the sheets to find it, he can’t even remember dropping it.

“Under your leg, I think,” Liam says. Harry fishes until the crumpled foil of the wrapper is in his hand, and when he looks up, Liam is watching Harry, fingers hooked under the elastic of his pants as he drags them down and off.

Harry barely has time to take in the sight of Liam’s cock standing long and thick against his stomach, the precome-slicked head of it poking out from his foreskin, before Liam’s pants hit Harry in the face, skin-warmed black cotton swallowing up the world until Harry can scrape them off.

Liam’s eyes are alight with laughter when Harry does, and Harry mock-growls, throwing the condom at him in return. Liam catches it easily, and when he leans down to kiss Harry in quick apology he can feel the shape of his own smile pressed against Liam’s mouth, and the rush of Harry’s heartbeat is as much due to giddy happiness as it is from the reality of having this, finally, at last.

While Harry settles back against the mattress on his elbows, Liam gets the condom on, nudging his foreskin down as he slips it over the head, smoothing the latex meticulously down the length of his shaft until he’s gripping himself at the base, fingers gone shiny with the lube from it.

“Ready?” Liam asks, breathing out, and when Harry nods, wordless for once, Liam moves forward till he’s kneeling close between Harry’s legs, pressing his lube-slick fingers back into Harry’s hole, making him gasp, and Liam moves them like he’s checking his work, making certain of it. Harry’s had more than enough.

“Get on with it, Liam, before I strangle you,” Harry says, rough and breathless, and he lets his thighs fall open wide enough that he knows he’ll feel the protest of his muscles after the adrenaline’s gone, but right now he doesn’t care, he just reaches with both hands to grab Liam’s arse, pulling him till he’s where Harry wants him, till the blunt head of Liam’s dick is nudging up against Harry’s entrance. “C’mon, m’ready, fuck me—” Harry tells him, head bent down to watch, to see— then all the breath leaves his lungs when Liam does as he’s told, levering himself up on an arm and using his free hand to guide himself in, sinking balls deep inside Harry in one slow push.

The noise Harry makes feels wrung out of him by the sudden renewed burn and the impossible feeling of fullness, Liam’s cock thicker by far than his fingers had been, stretching Harry out even more.

“God, Harry,” Liam says, the movement of his chest getting shallower as he holds himself still, sweat beading up on his face from the strain. “This feels— oh, fuck—” he breaks off, then he’s looking Harry over with furrowed eyebrows, asking, “You— you alright? Am I hurting you?”

The familiar worry in Liam’s voice is enough to help Harry crest past the ache, his body moving to the place where the pain buzzes into pleasure, where the thick intrusion of Liam’s cock feels perfect and right. Harry’s heart pounds a handful of times, kicking up against his lungs, and then he’s running his hands soothingly over Liam’s trembling back and arms, telling him, “S’good, you feel so good, been wanting you like this for so long—” voice murmuring low. And he says, “It’s okay, you can move— I won’t break, it’s okay.”

Liam takes Harry at his word, rocking his hips out a few inches, then pushing back in. When Harry moans encouragingly, Liam does it again, only deeper, syrupy heat and sparks kindling in Harry’s stomach just from that, and his moan goes ragged on the end, lost as he loses himself in sensation. Harry’s never taken dick with so little prep, but he doesn’t think that’s making the difference— it’s Liam, it has to be, he must be the reason why every touch feels magnified times a hundred.

Pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes, Harry fights not to come straight away, struggling against the way his body is wound up almost to the edge, and the way Liam’s dick feels like it’s laying heavy on Harry’s prostate every time he moves, threatening to drop Harry over the cliff that he’s hanging onto with tooth and nail.

Liam stills again, pulling Harry’s hands away from his face, concerned, and Harry imagines himself the way Liam must be seeing him now: pupils blown wide, lips swollen from where he’s been biting them, skin sheened in sweat, and they’ve only just started fucking.

“I’m fine, I’m good,” Harry explains between breaths, adding, “I’m close, Liam.”

“Jesus, Harry,” Liam groans, but Harry is too gone at this point to be able to tell if it’s praise or a complaint. Liam pulls out entirely and Harry shivers at the loss, opening his mouth to whine, but Liam’s hands are already warm and large on Harry’s hips, guiding him to turn over.

Harry goes, bracing himself up on hands and knees, head hanging down as he feels Liam’s cock line up and push back in almost immediately, Liam fucking into Harry with shallower strokes now, not enough to get either of them anywhere but enough to make it last.

Harry’s necklace is swinging from his neck, set in a pendulum motion above the sheets by their bodies rocking together, and Harry’s dick and balls feel heavy between his legs, full up like an echo of the feeling of Liam filling up Harry.

Liam’s hands slip from Harry’s hips, one gripping low at the nape of Harry’s neck, fingers tangled in curls, and the other sliding a hot, stinging trail through the sweat on Harry’s spine up the length of his feather tattoo, making Harry cry out, every nerve-ending in his skin feeling like it’s waking up under the drag of Liam’s fingertips. Liam groans loud in answer, his hips jolting faster against Harry like he can’t help himself, the steady rhythm he’d been keeping forgot in renewed desperation.

“Is this good— is this—” Liam asks, and Harry’s dimly glad he seems to be having as much trouble forming coherent thought as Harry is.

“Yeah, yes— fuck, Liam,” Harry gasps, unable to catch his breath for a proper answer. Liam’s fingers tighten around the back of Harry’s neck, sending another rush of heat down Harry’s spine to meet the pleasure from where Liam’s thrusting into him, and Harry collapses down to his elbows, flushed face pressing up hot against the mattress.

Harry’s groans get lost against the sheets, his breath echoing back to him humid and claustrophobic, but he doesn’t care, everything else in the world has spun away from Harry that isn’t the drag of Liam’s cock, or the way Liam follows Harry down, chest plastered along Harry’s lower back, sticking to each other with sweat, and the way Liam licks a long stripe along Harry’s tattoo and follows it with his teeth, punctuating each scraping bite with hard, rolling thrusts of his hips.

Harry’s nearly sobbing for breath now, fingers clenching up in the sheets till his knuckles are rimmed white, and he pushes back up into Liam, arching into him, choking out, “Please, please,” until Liam’s arms move to wrap tight around Harry’s middle, hauling him upright against Liam’s chest and seating him deep on Liam’s cock at the same time, making them both shudder with the feeling of it.

“You wanna come?” Liam pants against Harry’s ear, mouth wet and open on Harry’s shoulder, his throat, asking, “You ready for it now?”

“Liam, please,” Harry moans out in answer, and Liam manhandles Harry onto his back again, same position they’d started in, but Liam’s holding Harry’s legs open with hands on the backs of Harry’s knees, his grip slipping in sweat. Harry reaches behind himself, finding only a pillow but he holds it fast like an anchor as Liam starts fucking him in earnest, railing into Harry until the slick slapping of skin on skin buzzes against his ears, each thrust knocking a sharp, staccato cry out of Harry’s throat.

The pleasure is building in that inevitable way now, coiling heavy and low at the base of Harry’s dick and in his balls, cresting up like a thin wall of pressure just under his skin, waiting to be popped, for the wave to break.

“C’mon, Hazza, c’mon, c’mon—” Liam’s chanting now, breathing the words as he thrusts, like he’s willing Harry over the edge. He uses his grip on Harry’s legs to press them further open and back against Harry’s chest, until Liam can fuck in impossibly deep, like he literally wants to fuck Harry’s brains out, and it works— Harry’s mind blanks out, fuzzes white with static as he comes, spine bowing while everything low in his body goes tight and liquid all at once. His dick stripes come where it’s slipping between the flat planes of their stomachs, smearing into a mess as Liam continues to move and Harry rides his orgasm to the end.

Liam must have only been holding off for Harry to go first, because it only takes a few more thrusts before he’s following after Harry, his shouts echoing back from the ceiling, body collapsing down and shuddering against Harry’s while he’s still clenching and shivering with aftershocks.

Liam rolls off Harry and to the side, Harry wincing briefly at Liam’s exit. Liam murmurs something low, Harry doesn’t catch it, it’s probably some kind of apology. Harry lies in a daze for a minute, weightless and boneless, reinflating his lungs. He feels pretty okay about what’s just happened, all things told.

When he can make his limbs work again, Harry shifts onto his side, facing Liam, wrapping arms and legs around him and hauling him in close, a heat-generating buffer against the conditioned air that’s gelling the sweat on Harry’s skin, cooling him off too fast.

Liam grunts as he’s pulled face-first into Harry’s chest, and he bites Harry’s pec in mild rebuke.“You’re all hot and sticky,” Liam says, but Harry’s sure if it were a real complaint, Liam would be giving more than the absolutely zero effort he’s currently putting forth into moving away.

“Pot calling kettle,” Harry tells him, vaguely amused by how wrecked his voice sounds, scraping against the rawness of his throat. That’s going to fun to explain for soundchecks, tomorrow. Or today, even, given what time it probably is.

“Yeah, but I’m not covered in spunk, am I?” Now Liam does pull away, but it’s only to reach for the nearest pillow, and he uses it to mop up the come on Harry’s stomach and the places where it’s got smeared on himself. The pillow gets chucked across the room, after, followed by the used condom. Harry laughs at him.

“I’ll pick it up in the morning,” Liam says, defensive.

“Or you could leave it for housekeeping like a real rockstar,” Harry says, tugging him back down. Liam’s head lands up on the mattress only a few inches from Harry’s own, and he’s smiling, half of it lost in the sheet.

“Some of us have manners,” Liam says, but the fondness in his voice can’t be disguised. He looks tired, and soft, and happy, and it makes Harry’s heart flip over in his chest to think that look is all just for him.

“Some of us do,” Harry agrees, but he’s shuffling forward, meeting Liam’s smiling mouth with his own, kissing him. There’s no urgency in it, only this: Harry trying to feed every feeling that’s slinking whiskey-warm through his veins back into Liam; swapping quiet breaths for quiet breaths; Liam’s fingers resting languidly on Harry’s cheek, and his eyes opening to Harry’s across the sheet, black eyelashes smudging over the tops of his cheeks when he blinks.

“You want to stay?” Harry asks— for once, this year, he’s already certain of Liam’s answer.

“Couldn’t kick me out if you wanted to, Haz,” Liam says, teasing and sincere and earnest, like only he knows how to be. “‘Fraid you’re stuck with me.”

“Should probably warn Louis, then,” Harry says.

Liam’s eyebrows furrow for a second, then he grins. “Oh, right. This is his room, too.”

Harry’s already stretching for the edge of the bed, tilting over it for a dizzy few seconds to grope on the floor for his trousers, fishing out his mobile. Liam’s arms wrap snug around his legs— keeping Harry from going too far, or from accidentally rolling off, or both.

Phone in hand, Harry crawls back into place, firing off a quick text to Louis, spelling and grammar rules forgot as Liam hums and starts to kiss slow and sweet behind Harry’s ear, fingers combing through the sweaty tangles of his curls.

can u kip wit niall 2nite? thnx mate preciate it

Louis’s reply is almost immediate: what??? why?! niall’s off his face rn you know he snores like a bear when he’s drunk why would you make me

Harry’s reply is a bit curt— in his defense, Liam’s mouth is a pretty big distraction: fine so share with zayn w/e

Louis texts him back: liam’s sharing with zayn though

Harry’s reply is admittedly a bit smug: don’t think he is actually


Louis’s next series of texts, which happen to go ignored and unread until the morning—

don’t think i don’t know exactly what that means!! you beautiful bloody slattern!!! finally!! i could kiss you

spose i’ll let liam do that tho hahaha

shit better not get any cum on my clothes or on my bed or on my shoes

fuck i’m giving you ideas aren’t i

ok fine i’ll share with zayn but you owe me and don’t think i’m not gonna take the mick like its never been took before mate

live in fear for the dawn

ok love you both!!!!! be safe!! saddle up!! all that!! xxx


The End.