It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
~ e. e. cummings
Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see. That’s what his father always tells him with that smile of his, the one that says, I’ll tell you that much, but the rest will cost you. Harry never knew what he meant, but he gets it now that he’s sitting in the dim bar of another hotel he won’t sleep in, the ice melting in his £18 gin and tonic. He doesn’t even like gin and tonic, but it’s all part of the game. And it is a game. It has to be, because if it isn’t that means he doesn’t enjoy it and he does. He doesn’t just enjoy it, he loves it. He loves the theatrics of it, of shaving carefully and layering on cologne, something different every night – Floris on Tuesday nights, Acqua di Parma on Thursdays – and picking which suit he’s going to wear. The pinstripe one that makes him look older, maybe the black one that makes him look taller. He doesn’t care what your last name is and he won’t remember your birthday, but Harry always remembers those things, like who likes him to wear Floris. And he keeps track of the gifts as well; who gave him which watch and who gave him the monogrammed cufflinks with the wrong initials on them. That’s part of the game, too: being a different person every night. He’ll be whoever you want him to be. He’ll be your date for your cousin’s wedding and smile for photographs as he tells the story of how you met in a bookshop, reaching for the same copy of Middlesex. Or he’ll lick his lips and call you Daddy if that’s what you want. Anything so he doesn’t have to be himself. So maybe you should believe none of what you see, either.
Nathan. He didn’t think too much about it when he picked it, it was just the first name that came into his head when he was asked. He didn’t have to change his name, but when he met his first client, an overweight middle-aged man with sweaty palms, he didn’t even want him touching him let alone saying his name, so Nathan it was.
That was three years ago and he’d like to say that it’s just a name, but he knows that it’s not. When he’s Nathan, he’s a little smoother, a little more careful. He doesn’t spill drinks or babble about an article he read in the newspaper about a wristband that can tell when you’re having sex. He doesn’t say anything at all, in fact, just listens to you cry about your wife and whinge about work. Listens when your toes are on the edge and you’ll tell him anything for him not to stop, tell him every lie you’ve ever told, every secret that you’re trying to keep. You’ll tell him your fucking PIN number if he’ll keep doing that thing with his tongue. He hears it all, but he doesn’t say a word.
He never says a word.
Okay. Whatever you’re thinking is wrong. He isn’t paid by the hour and he certainly doesn’t hang around hotel bars smiling at lonely businessmen. He works for an agency that you’ve never heard of and you never will. It doesn’t have a website or a number to call when you’re tired and lonely and drinking mini-bar scotch because your hotel room feels so far from home you don’t know if you’ll ever find your way back.
The agency, if you can even call it that, is basically one woman: Charlotte Gordon a Grace Kelly blonde with a sharp tongue and an even sharper smile who works out of her house, a perfectly-balanced Georgian in Chelsea that Harry can suck dick for the rest of his life for and will still never afford. But then that’s how she earned it, she told him the first time he went there, by marrying one of her clients. She said it with a grand wave of her hand as if to say, All of this could be yours, too, Harry. And it is a fairytale, he supposes, if fairytales end with rattling around in a huge house while you wait for your husband to have a heart attack. So Harry smiled and admired the Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the garden because it was kinder than telling her that it wasn’t his fairytale. He was only doing it to pay off his student loans then to pay for his flat and now he’s only doing it until he has enough money to move to New York so he can write that book he’s been scribbling onto napkins for the last three years.
Until then he’s Nathan. Not that you’ll ever meet him. He may smile and hold a door open for you or sit next to you at a bar, smelling faintly of something expensive – something Italian, sunshine and espresso and something else you can’t quite put your finger on that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else – but you’ll never know his name. And even if he tells you – and he won’t – Nathan Styles doesn’t exist. Google him and all you’ll find is a car salesman from Chesterfield.
No. Nathan Styles meets you, if he’s interested, and he isn’t because he already has five clients – two politicians, two CEOs and a premiership footballer – and that’s quite enough, thank you. They’re each allocated one weeknight, a date they tend to keep wherever they are in the world. He’s been on business trips with clients, wandering around Brussels drinking coffee while they’re discussing the Eurozone crisis, and on holiday with them, in a room two floors down from their wives who wake up in the middle of the night and pretend not to notice that they’re alone. He even saw one client on his wedding day, the pink petals from his boutonnière falling at Harry’s feet like confetti as Harry fucked him half an hour before he walked down the aisle.
He’s seen the world, seen it all and he loves it all. Not just the breathless biting sex in hotel rooms that cost more a night than his rent, but being the one thing they can’t live without. He’ll cross the Atlantic just to spend a few hours with someone but it isn’t about seeing them – it’s never about them, not really – it’s about being wanted. About being the guy they’ll risk their careers for, their families for, because they can’t wait a week to see him. He knows all of their secrets. He could ruin them if he wanted, bring the country to its knees, but he never would. He just likes to know that he can when they can’t wait until they get to the hotel and fuck him in the back of the limo, Harry’s cheek pressed to the backseat so all he can smell is leather, or when he’s listening to another desperate voicemail begging to see him. Men like that don’t beg, but he makes them beg.
He’s not doing it right if they don’t beg.
Harry’s weakness for alpha males is well documented. He enjoys being dominated, enjoys the pull of big hands and the weight of someone on top of him, but he enjoys not giving in more, overthrowing them with a flick of his tongue and bringing them to their knees with a finger. That’s why they keep coming back. It isn’t for the sex – they could fuck any one – it’s about more than that. Not just his discretion or the opportunity to do things to him that make their hands shake as they follow him across the line they drew in the sand a few minutes before, but it’s also about giving into him. About letting go and knowing that he’ll be there to break their fall.
So the footballer he’s seeing – let’s call him Karl – is his wild card. That’s what Charlotte refers to him as, anyway, and Harry supposes he is. His other clients are older and married with children not much younger than he is. They take him to dinner at Claridge’s and watch his lips as he eats his steak and listens to them complain about the house they’re building in Umbria. But Karl is younger than him and just wants to fuck in his big white bed in his big white house that was in OK! magazine last month.
Charlotte can’t stand him. She thinks he’s vulgar, with his shaved head and Bermondsey accent. ‘He should be a plumber,’ she always says with a slight sneer when Harry mentions him, fiddling with her wedding ring, but that’s what Harry likes about him. Yes, he’s cocky, but he’s spun something out of nothing. Karl did it. He got out. He didn’t listen to the people who told him to go to university, the ones who shook their heads and told him that for every David Beckham there are three hundred other kids who end up stacking shelves in a supermarket. And guess what? He scored more last season than David Beckham did his entire career so maybe he is cocky, but he has every right to be.
He’d be stacking shelves in a supermarket if he wasn’t.
Harry can’t help but admire that. Okay, Karl’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as his mother would say, but he has a certain charm. A swagger. And he has a body that Harry wants to lick, his skin tight and tattooed and always too warm. Plus, he’s twenty-one so, without being crude, he has a lot of stamina. He’s never late or tired or distracted by his phone. He just wants to be fucked and Harry obliges, fucking him into the bed until Karl’s face is red and he’s panting that he can’t take it. But he does – he always does – and while he doesn’t make Harry’s hand shake, it’s worth it just for that, to see the look on his face when Harry takes him to the edge and dangles him off.
When he got married last month, Harry wasn’t surprised, but after their final fuck – the pink petals from his boutonnière falling at Harry’s feet – Harry indulged him in one last kiss because he’s a lot of things, but he isn’t cruel. He knew it wasn’t over, that he’d call, and when he does, two days into his honeymoon, Harry’s heart sings at the complement, but he doesn’t answer. Charlotte will turn his bollocks into earrings when she finds out, but Harry doesn’t care because there are still some lines he won’t cross, it seems, and he’s glad because he thought he couldn’t see them any more.
Before Karl got married, he referred a friend to Charlotte, let’s call him Chris. That’s how it works: Harry only goes by referrals. I think we have a friend in common, they’re supposed to say when they call or see him sitting in a bar, nursing an £18 gin and tonic, which is all very le Carré, but that’s part of the game as well. Actually, it isn’t a game at all because the whole thing falls apart if they’re not discrete. And yeah, okay, he does enjoy it – the thrill of it, the subterfuge. He enjoys the sideway glances and watching someone gradually inch towards him, waiting for whoever he’s with to go to the toilet. And he enjoys the way they say it – I think we have a friend in common – their voice shaking and their gaze darting between everything else in the room except him, but Harry knows it’s not a game because there are lives on the line. Careers and families and little girls’ hearts. Little girls who think their daddy is the greatest and Harry would never do anything to make them find out that he isn’t.
Luckily, that doesn’t happen often, but word spreads quickly that he now has Monday nights free so Harry has his pick. He manages to whittle it down to four guys and agrees to meet each one to see which he prefers. Karl’s referral – Chris – is the last. He’s also a footballer and a cursory Google search confirms that provided he doesn’t say anything too stupid, he’s going to be the one. So Harry tries not to be put off when they meet in a club in Mayfair, one of those awful places that parade bottles of vodka with sparklers shooting out of them from the bar to the VIP section, or when Chris winks lasciviously when they shake hands and says, ‘I think we have a friend in common.’
That would usually be Harry’s cue to leave, but Chris is even cuter in person and he can see the hint of a tattoo across his chest under his unbuttoned shirt, so he stays for a drink. Chris orders the most expensive bottle of champagne which Harry is neither excited or impressed by, especially when the waitress brings it over in a rush of sparks. But Harry knows that Chris is showing off and he lets him because he’s surprised he’s being so brazen. Footballers are usually so far in the closet they’ve built extensions so they want to meet somewhere quiet, somewhere discrete. Harry would have met him anywhere so he doesn’t know why Chris chose a nightclub.
‘Are you out?’ Harry asks with a frown when the waitress saunters off.
Chris looks appalled. ‘Fuck no. My Dad was a boxer. He’d fucking kill me.’
‘So what’s all this then?’
Chris doesn’t say anything, just knocks back the glass of champagne and pours himself another. Someone stops to slap him on the back when he’s putting the bottle back in the ice bucket, a huge bloke with cornrows and a cheeky smile. He congratulates Chris on his goal and ruffles his hair and Harry gets it then. Chris is enjoying it, enjoying that people don’t know who Harry is. But then that’s the beauty of footballers, they’re surrounded by so many liggers that he could be anyone, so when the guy walks away and Chris downs his glass of champagne, Harry knows what’s coming. He knows that Chris is just one more glass away from suggesting they go to the toilet. He’s probably already half-hard at the thought of it, of getting his dick sucked in the stall next to the one his teammates are doing coke in. And it’s not that Harry objects, he’s sure Chris has a perfectly lovely dick, but he can’t risk being caught. His clients wouldn’t go near him again. But that’s the funny thing about his job: his clients know they aren’t the only one, but they’d never acknowledge it. They don’t want to know if he comes harder for someone else or if he does that thing with his tongue to anyone else, so they certainly won’t want to see him on the front of tomorrow’s Mirror tangled up in a scandal with a footballer.
Besides, that’s not what this is about. He and Chris are meeting for no other reason than because Harry can. He’s graduated from overweight men with sweaty palms and while he doesn’t have to fancy his clients – he doesn’t fancy any of them, now he thinks about it – he still wants to check them out. That’s all he’s doing. Charlotte handles everything else so there’s no talk of anything vulgar like kinks or anything more vulgar like money. Chris isn’t even paying for this so even if Harry was taking him on as a client – which he won’t be, that much is clear already – he wouldn’t follow him to the toilet. That’ll cost him a lot more than a bottle of champagne.
It’s a shame because on paper, Chris is perfect. He’s tall and lean and he has that swagger Harry can’t resist, but even if he could overlook the other stuff, he wouldn’t be able to endure his company for more than ten minutes. Pretty as Chris is, he’s painfully dull and a bit stupid and while Harry doesn’t necessarily need to speculate over Edward Snowden’s future while he’s rimming someone, he can afford to be picky. So when Chris edges along the sofa, his lips wet as he glances towards the bathrooms, Harry guesses that their hour is almost up and readies an excuse. But before he can use it, a guy walks past their table flanked by a couple of blondes. He turns his cheek towards Harry and when he lifts his eyelashes to look at him, it’s enough to pin Harry to the sofa.
‘Who’s that?’ he asks before he can stop himself, but he feels more in those few seconds than he has in the last forty-five minutes with Chris.
In the last fucking year.
‘You meant it when you said that you don’t know anything about football, didn’t you?’ Chris chuckles, knocking back another mouthful of champagne. ‘That’s Zayn Malik.’
The name is familiar, but then so are a lot of things, like how to speak and how to walk, which Harry’s fairly certain he can’t do anymore without embarrassing himself.
‘He’s a footballer?’ he says, as he watches the waitress seat Zayn and the girls at the table in the middle of the VIP section where everyone can see them. A better table than they’re at, Harry notes, and Chris must too because his jaw clenches as he snatches at the bottle of champagne so suddenly the sharp swish of ice makes Harry jump.
The mood in the club changes after that. All the guys start to stand a little straighter and the girls smile a little looser. Even Chris’ bravado wilts, his eyes not as bright as he tosses a look over to the table Zayn and the girls are sitting at. Harry can’t help but do the same and when Zayn lifts his chin to meet his gaze, Harry looks away again as his heart stops dead in his chest as though someone’s kicked it.
‘I thought he was a model,’ Harry adds hoping he sounds nonchalant even though his cheeks are so hot that he wants stick his head in the ice bucket.
Chris laughs – loud and bitter – and Harry cringes because it sounds like a line – a really bad one – and almost laughs as well, but then he realises that it’s been a while since he’s needed to use a line and he can’t catch his breath.
‘Zayn’s too old to be a model,’ Chris says, sloshing more champagne into his glass and dropping the bottle back into the ice bucket without offering Harry any.
‘How old is he?’
Harry blinks at him. ‘So twenty-six is old now?’
‘To be a model,’ he says, fussing over his hair. ‘Why? How old are you?’
Chris seems surprised. ‘You don’t look that old,’ he says, shrugging in that way only a nineteen-year old can as he downs the rest of his drink.
Harry should have left half an hour ago, but Chris ordered another bottle of champagne and Harry didn’t stop him so there he is, trying to focus on Chris’ unnecessarily loud story about having a threesome with two girls from a band Harry has neither heard of nor cares about. He’s trying not to stare at Zayn but then Chris goes into detail about fingering one of them – with hand gestures and everything – and Harry’s gaze strays back to Zayn. He has to stop, because that’s the first rule: they pay for you, they get you. All of you. And even though Chris hasn’t paid, if he notices Harry checking Zayn out and tells Charlotte she’ll skin him like grape. So Harry makes himself look at Chris, at his round blue eyes and button nose as he all but stands on the sofa they’re sitting on and shouts, I’M STRAIGHT. LISTEN TO HOW STRAIGHT I AM, EVERYONE.
Zayn Malik’s straight, Harry thinks as Chris makes a point of winking at the waitress when she passes, revoltingly, hopelessly straight and Harry loves it. It’s making his heart beat a little faster as he watches how unfazed Zayn is, sipping his champagne as the girls he’s with paw at him. He has nothing to prove, no stories to tell, like Chris, no wink for the waitress or smug smile for everyone else when one of the girls draws him into a deep kiss. It’s like a red rag to a bull and Harry wants to charge over there and pull her off him, to climb into Zayn’s lap and lick his way into his mouth while his hands mess up Zayn’s perfect hair and perfect suit. He’s so immaculate – all in black apart from a diamond stud in his left ear – that Harry wants to leave creases in his shirt and teeth marks on his neck. Fucking brand him right there and then before taking him in his mouth and sucking him until he’s sweating and shaking in his Prada shoes.
‘So then she came again. I didn’t even have to touch her.’ Chris laughs and Harry wants to reach for the bottle of champagne and down it in one because this isn’t fair. He wants to be over there with Zayn, but he’s stuck with pretty but dim Chris and it isn’t fair. But it is what it is, so Harry just smiles sweetly, but when Zayn turns to kiss the girl on the other side of him, his nerves tense suddenly. He’s trying not to stare, but he must be because when they pull apart, Zayn looks at him as if he knows. Harry would normally look away, tease him a little, but he tries to take in as much of him in as he can before Zayn looks away again, his wide eyelashes, the sharp line of his jaw, the not so sharp curl of his mouth. The top button of his black shirt is open to expose an inverted triangle of skin that Harry wants to press his tongue to until he tastes salt and when he thinks about it, his heart does that thing again where it feels like it’s been kicked.
‘I’m going for a piss,’ Chris says, with a wink that is as subtle as it is unwelcome.
Harry smiles again, pretending not to see how he has to cover his hard on with his hand as he swaggers towards the bathroom. As soon as he’s gone, Harry looks at Zayn again, but he’s gone and it takes him a second to realise that it’s because he’s walking towards him. Harry holds his breath and when Zayn passes his table, he doesn’t think before he’s on his feet, following him to the bar, his legs suddenly a little weaker.
‘I’m Nathan,’ he spits out as soon as he catches up with him, not even waiting to catch his breath. It’s been a long time since he felt that – since a guy made him nervous – and he doesn’t know what he thinks is going to happen, but he likes it.
Likes how it feels in his bones.
Zayn presses his palms to the bar and turns to look at him from under his eyelashes and it makes the collar of his shirt stick to the back of his neck because it’s like being undressed, button by button. He licks his lips and it makes Harry lick his lips as well because all he can think about is kissing him. Kissing and kissing and kissing him. Kissing him like those girls just did, until Zayn’s jaw clenches and his eyelids shiver shut.
‘I know,’ Zayn says at last. ‘I think we have a friend in common.’
Harry’s heart does that thing again.
He’s breaking about seventeen rules by going to Zayn’s house. Harry doesn’t pick up guys in bars. That’s not how this works. All clients have to be thoroughly vetted and tested or, at the very least, they have to book an appointment through Charlotte. She’s going to kill him when she finds out. Actually kill him dead. Especially when she finds out that they met while he was out with Chris.
Harry doesn’t know what he’s doing, why he didn’t just give Zayn his number like he would anyone else. But Zayn isn’t anyone else and that’s exactly why he shouldn’t be going to his house. This isn’t about sex. It’s never been about sex. Control? Certainly. Money? Absolutely. But never sex. If it was Harry would have packed it in three years ago when his first client came in his hair before he’d even taken him in his mouth. But then he looks out of the window of the cab he’s in, watching as it rolls along Chelsea Embankment, past the brightly coloured barges and Albert Bridge, white as toothpaste against the black sky, and his heart hiccups at the thought of seeing Zayn again.
Three years and he hasn’t felt so much as a passing fancy for anyone. Perhaps a barista in a coffee shop with tattooed arms and a pierced lip or a guy on the tube who’s reading Gone Girl and he wants to ask him what he thinks of Amy, but no more than that. No more than a flicker that never quite catches and burns out by the time Harry walks out of the coffee shop or gets off at his tube stop. He never thinks of them again, and if he does, it’s only for a moment, remembering their mouth or their long fingers when he’s having a sleepy wank in the morning, but it’s not enough to think much more than that.
It’s never enough.
He thought it was the job, that he’d flicked a switch to be able to do it because he doesn’t feel anything any more. He does, of course, he still gets hard, still shivers when someone’s teeth catch on his nipple, but he never feels it in his bones, in his marrow. Kind of like a decaf coffee that doesn’t quite taste the same and he forgets a few minutes after he’s finished it. But then he doesn’t want to feel anything, because if he did, if he felt something every time, his heart couldn’t take the strain. That’s the trouble with Harry, he either feels nothing at all or he feels everything at once, there’s no inbetween. So there he is, fidgeting as the cab pulls off Chelsea Embankment, fidgeting like he’s on a first date. And with that he’s sixteen again, in his Topman suit and his father’s tie, on his way to pick up Emma Holland for summer prom, and his heart feels brand new.
It makes him lightheaded, the thought of Zayn, and he doesn’t know why him. He never knows why. When he likes someone like that, in that dizzying, distracted way that has him drifting away while he’s reading a book or waiting for the kettle to boil, he can never say why. It isn’t the way they look or dress or smell, or maybe it’s all of those things, but it’s something else as well, the same something that keeps him up at night and he doesn’t know why or whatever makes him listen to a song on repeat for days.
Why that song? He doesn’t know.
Why Zayn? He doesn’t know.
Zayn arranged for the cab to pick Harry up at the club exactly half an hour after he left so Harry doesn’t realise he’s heading for Cheyne Row until he sees Charlotte’s house, set back from the road with its Liberty purple front door and sash windows. Of fucking course Zayn lives there. He can’t live in Surrey like everyone else who plays for Chelsea or in a glossy penthouse overlooking the Thames with black silk sheets and a pool on the roof. No. He has to live there, across the street from Charlotte.
The light upstairs is on and Harry imagines her, sitting at her dressing table in a satin gown, brushing her hair a hundred times. He almost laughs as he clambers out of the cab, not because it’s funny, but because shit like that only happens to him. If she looked out of her bedroom window she’d see him and only he would risk something like this under her nose. But he can’t lie, the thought of it, of getting caught makes his heart beat a little harder. After all, it’s not too late. He could ask the driver to wait while he tells Zayn that they have to meet somewhere else, suggest they meet at The Gore instead. So when he presses the buzzer and the gate begins it’s slow swing open to reveal the Range Rover Zayn left the club in, Harry only has himself to blame.
Zayn answers the door looking as immaculate as he did when Harry last saw him, right down to shoes. Harry had hoped that he would have shrugged off his suit jacket, perhaps undone another button to reveal the pendants hanging from the necklace around his neck, but he looks the same. Even his hair is perfect, glossy and watermelon seed black, and Harry wonders if he fixed it while he was waiting. If he brushed his teeth or put on more cologne, and the thought makes Harry fidget again.
Zayn invites him in and Harry tries not to gasp when he accepts but he definitely stares. His house is huge, unnecessarily so, the glass ceiling three stories high so all Harry can see is stars as he tips his head back to look up at it. ‘This house is the Boo Radley of the street. That’s why I bought it,’ Zayn explains, reading Harry’s mind. Harry raises an eyebrow at the reference then swallows a chuckle when he leads him through the living room. It’s so different from Charlotte’s house it can’t be an accident. There are no pretty little sofas with delicate legs or vases of peonies, their pink petals as thin as Bible paper, and Harry realises then that it’s the house she was complaining about last year. A monstrosity, she called it when she saw that it was being built, and Harry knew it was nothing to do with how modern is was – how brutal, with its hard lines and sharp white plaster – and everything to do with the fact that she knew who’d buy it.
But Harry didn’t say anything, just commiserated with her when she was right because that’s London. He loves what a contradiction it is, how the skyscrapers stick up between the crumbling, cake coloured buildings like birthday candles, but as cosmopolitan as it thinks it is, everyone knows their place. This is Old Chelsea. People like Zayn don’t live in Old Chelsea, that’s why it took Harry so long to realise where he was. The Chelsea players live in the townhouses and apartments off Sloane Square, the ones with hot tubs and televisions that appear from the end of the bed. Old Chelsea is for old money. Lords and Ladies, not working class kids done good. No wonder Charlotte had a stroke when she realised a footballer was moving in. But Harry kind of loves Zayn for it, for sticking two fingers up at them all. Charlotte used to be a fucking hairdresser.
But while his house is nothing like hers, it’s still exactly what Harry expected: perfect, but completely soulless. Charlotte’s house is as well, but in a different way. Her house is quiet, so quiet that you realise your shoes squeak. It’s not the sort of house you want to sit down in, but then Zayn’s isn’t, either. The living room feels like an airport hanger that’s been neatly separated into four sections: one for sitting, one for reading, one for eating and one for sitting by a floating chimney breast that’s been painted a miserable shade of grey and has some sort of stainless steel fire place at the bottom.
Harry hates it. Hates it. He doesn’t need to see the rest to know that there’s a home cinema and some sort of games room with Zayn’s England and Chelsea shirts framed on the walls. There’s probably an array of cars parked somewhere and it’s all so cliché it should be comforting. It’s the sort of house footballers show off in magazines, everything white and shades of grey interrupted every now and then by a purple lamp or a wild watercolour that Zayn probably thinks will be worth something one day. But Harry can’t see him anywhere. There are no photos on the walls, no keys on the table by the front door. Anyone could live there. No one. It’s basically a seven-and-a half-thousand-square-foot hotel suite and Harry wants to run around and mess it up, to look behind the books on the shelves and down the back of the sofa, find some hint of him. A receipt from his favourite restaurant or a pack of cigarettes that he hides in a drawer.
Harry wonders what Zayn would do if he did. If he rearranged the sofa cushions or left fingerprints on the glass staircase. As he looks at it, Harry’s heart hiccups again as he realises that he wants to leave fingerprints, to leave some piece of himself behind. The thought of it, of fucking Zayn halfway up the stairs, his knees and feet skidding on the glass steps as he tries to hold onto Zayn’s hips, makes him breathless as he listens to Zayn’s shoes tapping steadily across the marble floor and tries to keep up.
Harry can’t remember the last time he thought something like that, the last time he looked at someone and wanted to fuck them. Not needed to and there’s a difference he realises as he looks at the back of Zayn’s neck, at the neat line of skin between the collar of his black shirt and his blacker hair that Harry wants to run his tongue along.
He bites his bottom lip and slips his hands into the pockets of his trousers in case he gives into the urge to, or to knock over one of the potted orchids just to see how Zayn reacts, until finally, they’re in the kitchen. That’s what Harry expected as well – more marble and stainless steel – but it’s noticeably smaller than the living room, probably because he never uses it. Harry thinks of his own kitchen then, of the empty fridge and two-day old teabags festering in the sink, and tries to picture Zayn in his, making a fried egg sandwich on a Sunday morning or coming home drunk and spilling the salad from his kebab on the marble floor, and can’t. He’s probably never even used the oven.
‘Do you want a drink?’ Zayn asks, walking around the island in the middle.
‘A cup of tea would be lovely.’
Zayn looks at him like he’s nuts and Harry has to bite down on a smile. He knew it would ruffle him, which is exactly why he said it.
‘But it’s one in the morning.’
‘Bit late for caffeine, isn’t it?’
‘Were you planning to go to sleep?’ Harry does smile then, but Zayn doesn’t let himself, the corners of his mouth twitching as he reaches for the kettle.
‘Okay. Tea it is, then.’
Harry nods and when Zayn walks over to the sink to fill it, he wanders back into the living room. He stands in the middle of it for a while, listening to Zayn moving about in the kitchen as he tries to imagine living there. He could fit his flat into a corner of it and that’s probably what pisses Charlotte off more than anything, that it’s bigger than her house. She’s probably dying to see inside, to sweep through and scoff at the coffee table of art books and the sheepskin rug that Harry wants to feel against his back. He licks his lips at the thought, Zayn breathless and heavy on top of him, his eyes closed and Harry’s name skidding across the marble floors. The thought of it makes him so hard that he has to stop and lean against the dining table as he checks whether the potted orchid is real. It is and he’s surprised, but he isn’t surprised by how new the table looks. It’s clearly never been used, probably to snort a line of coke off but no more than that. Harry doubts Zayn is the dinner party type. He can’t even picture him in a furniture shop picking it out, but then Harry’s sure he didn’t. His furniture isn’t the sort of stuff that you pick out of the Ikea catalogue and spend a Sunday afternoon putting together, harassed and hungover. It’s the sort of furniture that just arrives, Harry thinks as he wanders over to the bookcase. It was probably already there when Zayn moved in.
The books surprise Harry as well. He assumed they would be hardbacks, gilded classics like Sense and Sensibility and Great Expectations, but he plucks off a copy of Things Fall Apart, which he studied at university. It’s untouched, he notes, putting it back then running a finger along the shelf. All of them are, their spines unbroken, and Harry can’t help but push some of them in so they’re no longer lined up neatly. Then he takes Breakfast at Tiffany’s and moves it to the shelf below with a playful chuckle so it’s between The Wind-up Bird Chronicles and Pale Fire.
When Zayn comes out of the kitchen, Harry is by the sofa, turning one of the cushions around. Zayn moves it back then hands him the tea and Harry has to hide his smile behind the mug as he wonders if Zayn even knows that he’s doing it, that he’s walking around the living room moving everything back into place. Harry can see that he’s losing his temper, his jaw clenched and the skin between his eyebrows pinched as he paces back and forth. He waits for Zayn to tell him off, but he doesn’t, just turns off the lamp on the end table and straightens the framed black and white photograph on the wall behind the sofa that Harry was sure he wouldn’t notice was off kilter.
‘I like that,’ Harry says, pointing his mug at it.
‘Thanks,’ he mutters, but doesn’t look up, just walks over to the dining table and starts turning the orchid until he finds a position only he can see.
‘It’s nice,’ Harry teases. ‘Who’s it by?’
Zayn doesn’t answer and Harry kind of wishes Charlotte was there because she’d slap him across the face. He has a Helmut fucking Newton on his wall and he has no idea.
Good thing you’re pretty, Harry thinks as he watches him and God, he’s pretty, even when he’s pissed off, the crease between his eyebrows deepening as he rearranges the books with a pointed sigh. Harry would apologise if he wasn’t enjoying how much it was bothering him. He’s not usually in the habit of messing with his client’s, but he can tell that it’s been a while since someone disrupted Zayn like this and Harry wants to disrupt him, make him spit and swear as he tries to hold him down and can’t. The promise of it makes Harry’s bones shiver and he suddenly doesn’t care about his tea or about messing with him, he just wants Zayn, wants him everywhere, on the dining table and the sofa and on the middle of the floor, the black, black sky moving over them.
‘So where do you want me?’ Harry asks, walking over to the wooden chair by the fireplace and tracing the heart-shaped back with his finger. ‘This looks comfortable.’
Harry smirks. ‘Ask nicely.’
Zayn doesn’t – just looks at him – and when he tilts his head at him as if to say, Do as you’re told, Harry knows that he’s not pissed, he’s furious. He’d be lying if he said that he didn’t feel a shiver of satisfaction at doing it to him, at the thought of how hard Zayn’s heart is beating and how his hot cheeks would feel under his fingers. It makes his legs falter as he puts down the mug and walks over to where he’s standing by the sofa.
They look at each other and Harry can’t help but drink him in. He’s impossible, his face nothing but sharp lines – his nose, his chin, his jaw, his skin stretched tight over cheekbones that Harry could write sonnets about – but there’s a softness to him as well, to his eyes and the sudden pink of his mouth that balances it out, like water lilies on a pond. Harry doesn’t know what he wants more, to knock him back like a shot, bend him over the over the back of the sofa and fuck him quick and rough, or to take his time, reach for his hand and lead him upstairs, do it in the middle of his bed. So when Zayn tells him to turn around and he doesn’t, Harry’s not putting up a fight, just distracted as the knot in his stomach tightens. Not like it usually does, with that strange sense of determination, hopeless overachiever that he is. When I’m done, this guy is going to pay double. Not even with the trepidation he feels every time he sleeps with a client for the first time and he’s scared that he won’t be able to get it up. He’s nervous, he realises with a shiver when his fingers flutter at the thought of unbuttoning his shirt. He’s done this so many times that when guys touch him he can’t even feel it any more and he’s nervous.
‘I said: turn around.’ Zayn arches his eyebrow in a way that tells Harry that he won’t ask so nicely next time, and Harry feels that, feels the bristle of it against his skin as he turns around with a smile that tells Zayn he’ll do as he’s told, but just this once.
‘Put your hands behind your back,’ Zayn says and Harry’s heart bangs suddenly, like he’s turned the television up too loud, as he hears Zayn unbuckle his belt. ‘You’ve touched enough in this house tonight,’ he says in Harry’s ear, his breath hot and thick as he winds the belt around his wrists. ‘You’re not allowed to touch anything else.’
Harry wants to laugh, tell him not to be mad, that he used to tease Karl, too, tease him about the exorbitant amount he spent on neon lights for his swimming pool and on that hideous life-size sculpture of Iron Man. But Zayn’s voice is so hard that the urge to make another wry remark dies as Harry struggles to catch his breath at the thought of what’s about to happen, if he’s the one that’s going to be bent over the back of the sofa and fucked quick and rough. That scares him, not the thought that Zayn might hurt him, but that he wants him to, that he wants Zayn to bite his shoulder and call him a slut, fuck him so hard he feels it. He just wants to feel it.
‘Face me and get on your knees,’ Zayn tells him and it turns his stomach to water because it’s been a while since Harry has been spoken to like that. He’s been seeing his clients for so long that they don’t need to direct one another. He knows which of them likes him to be waiting in bed, which of them likes to undress him slowly, the tips of his fingers catching on his nipples before they skim over his hips. Maybe later, when they get into it, they’ll tell him to open his legs wider or to bend over, but they never speak to him like that, like he’s a whore, and he’s ashamed of how hard it makes him as he does as he’s told. It’s a struggle with his wrists tied, but when he loses his balance, Zayn puts his hand on his shoulder to steady him, but it doesn’t help at all, Harry’s head spinning at the fleeting moment of contact. It’s the first time they’ve touched, he realises, and it’s nothing, but he’s sure that he feels the heat of Zayn’s hand, even through his suit.
‘Don’t move,’ Zayn tells him and he sounds so sure that Harry wonders if he’s been thinking about this since he saw him with Chris in the club: how he wants him, in what position, in which room. Harry had hoped they would do this in his bedroom, that Zayn would let him see the pieces of himself he doesn’t want everyone to see, a framed photo of his parents, perhaps, a seashell from a holiday he doesn’t want to forget, the sort of things Karl had in his bedroom. If he’s honest, Harry used to get off on those things, on the smell of his fiancé’s perfume on the sheets and her hair pins on the bedside table. Once he used her hand lotion as lube and came before Karl did. But maybe they’re not in his bedroom because Zayn wants him there so that every time he walks past the sofa, he’ll think of Harry on his knees. Maybe they’ll do it against the wall in his bedroom, Harry on tip toes, his cheek pressed to the plaster. Harry hopes that he’s thought about it, that there’s a chair or rug in every room in the house that Zayn wants to fuck him on. Or maybe he’ll let Harry fuck him, slow and deep, his mouth to Zayn’s ear telling him how beautiful he looks as he shudders with delight beneath him.
When Zayn starts to undo his trousers, Harry holds his breath. They’re both fully dressed so when Zayn takes out his erection the sudden flash of skin is shocking. The head of his cock is wet so Zayn doesn’t have to tell Harry to open his mouth, his lips already parted as Zayn curls his fingers around the base and feeds it to him. Harry makes sure that his tongue catches on the tip first, licking away the gloss of precome before slowly swirling his tongue around it. It makes Zayn choke on a gasp and stop, but Harry doesn’t, his eyelashes flickering shut as he leans forward and takes him in his mouth. Zayn tells him to wait when Harry closes his mouth around him then says it again, his hips stuttering forward when Harry ignores him and sucks until his cheeks hollow. He has to pull Harry’s hair to make him stop and fuck, it hurts so much it brings tears to his eyes, but it’s worth it to see Zayn lose his cool for the first time.
‘Don’t,’ he says through his teeth, pulling at Harry’s hair again as he reaches for the back of the sofa to steady himself with his other hand. But Harry doesn’t listen, taking him in a little deeper this time, so deep that his lips are almost touching his fingers. That makes Zayn keen towards him and the sound he makes is so fucking needy he must be sweating, and the thought of it, of peeling his black shirt off later and lapping at his damp skin makes Harry’s hands ball into fists as his hips roll at nothing, desperate for relief as his erection digs into the zip of his trousers.
‘Wait,’ Zayn hisses, pulling Harry’s head back. A silver thread of saliva from the tip of Zayn’s cock to Harry’s bottom lip is the only thing still connecting them and Harry almost doesn’t take a breath because he doesn’t want to break it.
‘For what?’ he pants, tilting his chin up to look at him.
Zayn doesn’t respond, just sweeps his thumb over Harry’s mouth and he’s his then, Harry knows, his lips parting again as Zayn puts his hand on the back of his head and guides his cock back into his mouth. ‘Fuck,’ Zayn grunts, sitting on the back of the sofa, both his hands in Harry’s hair as Harry tightens his lips around him and starts sucking again. Zayn tries to guide him, tries tugging his hair to get Harry to slow down, but he can’t because that’s what Harry does, you can tie him up and tell him what to do, but he’ll still find a way to touch you in a way you didn’t know he could.
‘Your mouth,’ Zayn breathes and it makes Harry’s cheeks burn because even over his heart pounding in his ears, he can hear the noises he’s making, the steady, satisfied hum that Zayn must feel in his bones as Harry sucks, loud and greedy. It sounds so obscene in the library-still living room that he’s ready to come in his pants because he hasn’t sucked someone off like that, with such utter, shameless abandon, since the first time he did it and it felt so good – so right – that when he walked home, he cried. And he wants to cry again, his shirt sticking to his back as he listens to Zayn saying, So good over and over because he’s about to lose it, Harry knows, and that’s what gets Harry – what gets him off every time – knowing that he’s doing that to someone.
It’s the only thing he’s good at.
‘Fuck. I- I-’ Zayn pants and Harry wants to know the end of that sentence, to be in his head and hear what he can’t find the breath to say. He wonders if he’s calling him filthy, like Karl used to. ‘You filthy bitch,’ Karl spat, the first time Harry deepthroated him then came so hard his legs gave way. If Zayn’s calling him the same thing Harry wants him to say it, wants to know what he’s doing to him. But he knows, he can hear Zayn’s pants getting shorter and can feel him going slack against the sofa.
Finally, he gives into it, holding Harry’s head still with his hands and thrusting up into his mouth. It’s not something Harry usually enjoys – being so pliant – but Zayn makes the most helpless sound when his cock hits the back of his throat that Harry can’t help but roll his hips, the zip of his trousers catching on his hard on, making him gasp. Zayn winces when he does, his hips bucking so suddenly Harry gags. That makes them both shake and Harry wonders if Zayn can feel his throat fluttering around the head of his cock because before Harry can recover, Zayn lifts his hips as his hands push down on the back of Harry’s head and inches in deeper.
It makes Harry’s eyes water as the damp patch in his trousers spreads until his underwear is sticking to him and he can’t feel the bite of his zip any more, just the threat of his orgasm that’s about to spill out of him at any moment. But then Zayn pulls his hair and there’s a roughness to it, as though he’s trying to hold on more than anything, that tells Harry he’s passed a line he didn’t intend to cross. Harry’s wrists strain at the belt then because he wants to touch him, which is a strange thing to want given his cock is in his mouth, but Harry wants to kiss him, to feel the curl of his tongue and to slip his hands under his shirt to clutch his back, feel his skin and the curve of his ribs under it.
‘Fuck,’ Zayn pants, drawing his hips back, but before Harry can catch his breath, he starts fucking his mouth with short, sharp strokes that make Harry’s hands ball into fists behind his back. Then with one last thrust, Zayn cries out and unravels and it’s enough to make Harry come as well.
Come in his Armani pants like a thirteen-year old.
Harry can’t remember the last time he came like that. Not for years – years and years. He’d be disgusted with himself if it didn’t feel so good, his whole body humming like a car left idling on a frosty morning as Zayn holds his head and hisses, ‘All of it.’ But there’s no need. Harry swallows everything and even tries to tease more out of him as he closes his eyes and sucks until Zayn starts to shake and thrust into his mouth again.
When Zayn finally lets go of his hair, Harry tips his head back to suck in a deep, desperate breath, but it isn’t enough, his chest heaving. It doesn’t help that all he can think about is kissing Zayn – tasting him, letting him taste himself – about bending him over the sofa and fucking him until their calves are burning and their toes are curling in their shoes.
‘You’re amazing,’ Harry pants, head spinning, and he doesn’t recognise his voice as he peels his eyes open to find Zayn looking at him intently, his face softer. So soft.
‘You okay?’ he breathes, moving one hand to Harry’s face. Harry can’t help but press his cheek to his warm palm when he does, all but purring when Zayn wipes the corner of his mouth with his thumb then sweeps the pad of it along his bottom lip.
‘That was amazing,’ he breathes, trying to lick Zayn’s thumb and missing as he stands up.
‘The bathroom’s through there,’ Zayn says, untying the belt from Harry's wrists and nodding towards the kitchen. 'I'll call you a cab.'
When Harry walks back to the living room, Zayn is sitting on the sofa, drinking a scotch as if nothing has happened. He stands up when he sees Harry, the ice shivering in his glass, and it’s so smooth – so elegant – that Harry says a little prayer that his feet don’t fail him and he spills across the floor.
‘Alright?’ Zayn asks when he stops in front of him, and that’s kind of smooth as well, like he couldn’t give a shit. It hurts more than it should, but then they’ve only been apart a few minutes so Harry’s heart shouldn’t be beating like that, either, too fast and too hard, as if he’s just got off a plane to find Zayn waiting for him in Arrivals. And it’s kind of pathetic – kind of cliché – how his nonchalance makes Harry want him more, but it does. It makes him want to reach for him, to fist his hands in his black hair and run his tongue along his bottom lip until Zayn opens his mouth. Given what they’ve just done – what Harry does most nights – it’s such a silly thing to miss, a kiss. Childish even. But it’s all Harry can think about as they stand there, looking at one another, and he wishes Zayn would just give him that tiny moment of softness. His thumb wasn’t enough.
But he doesn’t, just sips his scotch while Harry catches himself looking for some sign that he isn’t okay, either. A ring of sweat around his hairline. A cut on his bottom lip from where he had to bite down on it. But there’s nothing. There isn’t even a crease in his shirt and it makes Harry feel like shit as he licks the last of him from his mouth.
‘Do you need me to call you a cab?’ Zayn asks flatly.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Zayn asks flatly.
Harry looks towards the door. His neck is sore but he doesn’t realise he’s rubbing it until he looks back to see Zayn frowning and there it is at last: a flicker of concern. It only lasts a second before Zayn realises and the skin between his eyebrows smoothes, but Harry sees it.
‘Okay,’ Zayn says with a shrug that doesn’t bother Harry as much as it would have a moment ago, but something in him still won’t settle.
‘Okay,’ he repeats, and that’s his cue to leave, he knows, so he doesn’t know why he doesn’t, why he stands there, looking at Zayn, like a dog waiting for a treat.
‘What?’ Zayn asks, sipping his scotch.
Harry shakes his head. ‘Nothing.’
‘Never been treated like this, huh?’
‘Like what?’ Harry tenses, lifting his eyelashes as if to say, Don’t you fucking dare.
But he does.
‘Like a prostitute.’
Zayn looks at him when he says it – right in the eye – and he may as well have thrown his drink in Harry’s face. He must see Harry’s jaw clench, because the corners of his mouth twitch as he shakes his glass so the ice rattles.
‘That’s what you are, isn’t it?’ He smiles and Harry doesn’t give him the pleasure of correcting him, just holds his gaze, his nerves tightening like piano strings. ‘And I’m the dumb fuck footballer who doesn’t know that he has a Helmut Newton in his living room.’
That hurts just as much somehow, as much as being called a whore, the thought that Zayn doesn’t think badly of what he does, but of who he is. It sends a surge of shame flooding through him and when he looks up at him, not sure if he should defend himself or plead for forgiveness, Zayn seems satisfied, licking his lips as Harry’s cheeks flare.
‘That’s how you make a living.’ He nods towards the sofa. ‘So you don’t get to come into my house and look down your nose at me, okay?’
Harry read something once about the different stages of grief. Not that he’s grieving, but the rush of emotions he feels when he leaves Zayn’s house kind of feels like he’s lost something. Not just Zayn, which he’d get over eventually with enough time and aimless sex, or even what they could have been, which he won’t let himself think about, but it’s what Harry’s lost of himself, the man Zayn thinks he is. That’s what hurts most: that he’s lost the chance to be anything other than the cocky prick who made fun of him. That he’ll always be the cocky prick who made fun of him.
Harry knows the first stage is denial, he remembers that as his cab rolls back along Chelsea Embankment. It’s not as bad as he thinks, he tells himself when he feels his cheeks flush again as he thinks of the way Zayn looked at him. Through him, actually, down to the bone. He can fix this, he tells himself when he gets home, when he’s in the shower scrubbing himself until his skin is red. He’ll go to Zayn’s house in the morning, take croissants and coffee and tell him about the time he spent twenty minutes banging on about how overrated Kate Atkinson is in class, only to find out she’s married to his professor. Tell him that he isn’t a snob, that he watches The Real Housewives of Atlanta and mixes peanut M&Ms in with his popcorn when he goes to the cinema. He’s a fucking idiot, but he’s not a snob. He’d never look down at Zayn.
He can’t sleep thinking about it, about the injustice of it. At 3 a.m. he gives up and looks it up. Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Anger hits him about fifteen minutes later when he decides to do something useful and pack for his trip to Paris. He reaches for a suit – the charcoal grey one that’s almost black but not quite – and thinks about how much Charles likes it, how his cheeks get a little pinker when he sees him in it and how, even if they’re in a ballroom full of dignitaries, he can’t help grazing the back of Harry’s calf with his foot under the table.
Charles adores Harry. He’d never talk to him the way that Zayn talked to him tonight. Never treat him like that, as though he’s nothing. No more than a mouth to fuck. The more Harry thinks about it, the angrier he gets. By 5 a.m. he’s livid and by 6 a.m. he’s seething. If he had Zayn’s number he’d call him and tell him that he’s the asshole, actually. Harry may be a prostitute (if that’s what Zayn wants to think if it makes him feel better about leaving the club to meet him when the two girls he was with were clearly up for it), but he’d never deliberately hurt someone. If he hurt Zayn then he’s sorry, but it wasn’t on purpose. Zayn meant to hurt him, though. He took aim and fired.
So who’s the asshole?
But Harry doesn’t have Zayn’s number, so all he can do is wait until his gym opens at 8 a.m. then run on the treadmill until his legs feel like they’re about to give way. That usually helps, but when he leaves, his hair still wet from the shower, he catches himself gnawing at the corner of his mouth, and it’s been a long time since he felt that, the sting of being misunderstood. It makes him feel fifteen again and hiding books from his father in case he throws them out. You read too much, kid, he used to tell him, like it was a bad thing. You should be at the park with your mates, drinking cider and fingering whatever slapper will have you. His mates agreed. They laughed at him when they were at a party and instead of getting off with a girl, he ended up holding her hair in the garden while she threw up. But then everyone thought he was weird and okay, he still is, but people laugh at his jokes now and they get his pretentious Nietzsche references. They get him, so when he sees a black cab approaching, he hails it.
‘Cheyne Row,’ he tells the driver when he climbs in the back and he’s out of his mind, he knows, because this isn’t a moment of weakness, a champagne-fuelled lapse in judgment, like last night. It’s broad daylight and Harry is horribly, painfully sober. He’s never felt more sober, in fact, as though there’s nothing left inside him, only the anger burning through him, devouring everything else until he’s shoving a £20 note at the driver and pressing the buzzer on Zayn’s gate until he can feel the hum of it in his finger.
It’s Sunday so the street is more quiet than usual, making the buzzer sound twice as loud. He’s aware of curtains twitching around him and if Charlotte looks out of her bedroom window, she’ll definitely see him, but Harry doesn’t care because Zayn isn’t a client and he never will be so fuck her. If she sees then she sees.
Zayn answers with a clipped, ‘Yes?’
‘It’s Nathan,’ Harry says, pacing on the spot.
He almost punches the buzzer. ‘Nathan the prostitute.’
There’s a louder buzz but when the gate begins to swing open, Harry doesn’t wait and pushes it, squeezing through the gap and pacing across the driveway towards the house. It looks different in daylight. Harder. Harry can see why Charlotte hates it. In a neat terrace of Queen Anne houses with their neat windows and neat window boxes frothing over with ivy and geraniums, Zayn’s too-white, too-narrow house is disarming, like a red wine stain on a tablecloth. There’s nothing soft about it, no curtains in the windows or bay trees on either side of the front door. There’s nothing even familiar about it, Zayn’s Range Rover gone, replaced by a yellow Ferrari that Harry would kick if Zayn wasn’t standing at the door watching him.
‘Isn’t this a pleasant surprise,’ Zayn arches an eyebrow at him as he approaches, gym bag bouncing against his hip. He looks so good – flawless in a dark blue suit and pale blue shirt – that it makes Harry want to throw up, but he rolls his eyes instead.
‘It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday morning,’ Harry sneers, pushing past him into the house. ‘Why the fuck are you wearing a suit?’
It isn’t the best start.
Zayn follows him in, tugging on the cuffs of his shirt as Harry stands in the middle of the living room with one hand in his hair. Harry can smell coffee and just that hint of familiarity – of home, almost – in the vast, chilly living room makes something in him soften as he thinks of Zayn with sleep-flattened hair sipping a cup of coffee as he sits at the dining table leafing through the Sunday papers. But then Zayn smirks and says, ‘I’m due in court,’ and when Harry feels the dig he remembers why he’s there.
‘Okay.’ He holds his arms out. ‘Maybe I am a snob. Maybe I judge people who spell definitely with an A and think that Fifty Shades of Grey is the best book ever and maybe I judged you based on every footballer I’ve ever met and I’m sorry.’ Harry lifts his chin to look at him, but Zayn doesn’t flinch and he doesn’t know what he was expecting. After the way he looked at him last night, he knew that Zayn wasn’t going to be gracious. And it’s not like Harry wants him to forgive him, but whatever he wants, it isn’t that. It isn’t Zayn looking at him like he’s a potted orchid that’s in the wrong position.
Harry suddenly doesn’t know why he’s there. Zayn’s obviously made up his mind about him and he’s not going to change it with an apology and an embarrassing anecdote about Kate Atkinson. Harry doesn’t even know why he cares – Zayn’s wrong, he’s wrong – but he does, his blood burning as Zayn looks him up and down, taking in his scruffy trainers, sweats and Carhartt hoodie then keeps going, looking at something over Harry’s shoulder that makes him feel like he isn’t in the room any more.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says again and he hates how it sounds, like a kid trying to avoid being grounded. Not that Zayn is even listening, his gaze dropping to his gaudy gold watch. ‘I shouldn’t have judged you, but I do that sometimes.’ Harry persists, waiting for Zayn to look at him, but when he doesn’t, it’s like a pin in his resolve. He feels tears suddenly stinging the corners of his eyes and turns his cheek, horrified. He doesn’t know where they came from, if it’s guilt or shame or he’s just exhausted from banging his head on the wall between, but everything suddenly starts spilling out of him, like a neglected bath overflowing. ‘I do it because I went to Cambridge and I was supposed to write a novel and I was supposed-’ Harry stops and shakes his head as he realises why he’s there and it’s nothing to do with Zayn, but he can’t stop. ‘I was supposed to be someone but I suck dick for a living. So maybe I’m a bit bitter about that.’ He concedes with a nod and he should probably be embarrassed but he’s never going to see Zayn again so fuck it.
‘Clearly,’ Zayn mutters, looking at his watch again.
‘But I’m not nasty.’ He points at him. ‘What you said last night was nasty.’
Zayn looks at him for the first time since he opened the front door. ‘Was it?’
He says it so matter of factly that Harry feels something in him bow. ‘You know it was, that’s why you said it,’ he says, arm dropping back to his side, suddenly not as sure.
‘Why? What did I say?’
Harry laughs, sudden and slightly hysterical, covering his face with his hands. It sounds so silly in Zayn’s painfully grown up living room that it makes Harry laugh more, doubling over as he realises what an idiot he is. He hasn’t stopped thinking about what Zayn said since he left there last night. He’s questioned what he said, what he does, who he is, picked himself a-fucking-part and Zayn doesn’t even remember what he said.
‘What?’ Harry hears Zayn say and holds up a hand.
‘Sorry. It’s not you.’ Harry can’t help but smile as he adjusts the strap of his gym bag on his shoulder and walks back towards the door. ‘I shouldn’t have come.’
‘Are you sure?’ Zayn asks when he passes him and Harry doesn’t need to look at him to know he’s smiling. ‘Seems like you have something to say.’
He does, actually, so if he’s going to say it, it has to be now because he won’t get another chance and he can’t keep doing that, he can’t keep holding stuff in because it’s easier to let it hurt him. And while it isn’t Zayn that he wants to say it to, he’ll do. That’s why he’s there – why he’s so angry – and he should have known, but it’s been so long that he forgot how this feels. So he stops when he gets to the door and looks back at the living room, at the grey sofa and grey rugs and grey chimneybreast, Zayn in the middle of it all, like a lump of turquoise in a jar of nails.
‘Fine. You want me to say it: you did it, Zayn. You’re someone,’ he tells him with one last shrug. ‘It’s not fair to remind me that I’m not.’
He’s halfway across Battersea Bridge when Charlotte calls. Harry almost doesn’t answer, but it’s never good to ignore Charlotte; she’s like his mother, she always finds out eventually. So he wipes his cheek with the cuff of his hoodie and takes a deep breath when he answers, hoping it isn’t obvious that he’s been crying for the last ten minutes.
‘Hey, Charlotte,’ he says as breezily as he can. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Mr Styles, how are you this morning?’
‘I’m good, thanks. Just picking up some stuff for Paris.’
‘Of course. The car’s coming at midday, right?’
‘I think so.’
‘Good. So you can spare me a moment.’
Harry stops walking and closes his eyes.
‘Of course,’ he says sweetly. I can spare a moment for you to crucify me.
‘Excellent,’ she says, just as sweetly. ‘By my calculations you should be about halfway across Battersea Bridge so I’ll see you in ten minutes, yes?’
Harry looks over the edge of the bridge and sighs wistfully. ‘See you in ten.’
Harry hopes that Zayn doesn’t see him walk past his house again. He shouldn’t care, but he still tugs up the hood of his sweatshirt and dips his head as he walks up the steps towards Charlotte’s front door. The housekeeper answers, a tiny, nervous woman called Marla who has soft hands and hair the same colour as Zayn, that same watermelon seed black. She’s worked for Charlotte longer than he has, although he can’t think why; she has the broken, unfocused gaze of those women you see on the news who’ve escaped after being locked in someone’s basement for ten years. This morning she’s especially fidgety, throwing herself at him and hugging him as though he’s come to save her.
‘Miss Charlotte, very, very mad,’ she whispers, when she lets go.
Harry gulps. Actually cartoon gulps. ‘How mad?’
‘Sit by sideboard.’ She grabs his arm and squeezes. ‘Use candlestick if need to.’
Usually Harry would laugh at that, but he knows Charlotte well enough to believe that this is something Marla has considered. He wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t something in every room in the house that Marla’s considered using as a weapon.
Charlotte is waiting for him in the conservatory, a large, delicate room that glints like an upside down crystal glass in the sunlight. It’s completely white – the walls, the chairs, the rugs, everything – which makes the garden look obscenely green, as though it’s been drawn in crayon. Charlotte is sitting neatly on a chair, also in white, her blonde hair pulled into a loose bun and her glasses perched on the end of her nose. ‘I can see you,’ she says in that sing songy way she does when Harry doesn’t know if she’s amused or about to go for his throat. He assumes she’s talking to him and stops, but it’s the gardener who’s outside, pruning a rose bush and has had the audacity to wander into her sightline. She rolls her eyes with a pained sigh when he scurries off, but before she goes back to her newspaper, she lifts her chin and when she sees Harry hovering, she peers at him over her glasses, pink lips pursed as if she has no idea who he is.
‘Morning, Charlotte,’ Harry says with a silly wave, pushing his hood back.
‘Mr Styles,’ she says with a frown. ‘I didn’t recognise you in-’
She trails off, waving wearily at him.
‘Gym,’ he explains, looking at his hoodie and sweats as he runs his fingers through his curls which he realises must have dried in a wild tangle.
She nods, gesturing at him to sit on the chair opposite hers. It’s so white, like the first page of a new notebook, that he’s terrified to sit on it, but when he hesitates she tells him to sit and if Charlotte Gordon tells you to sit, you sit. So he does as he’s told, eyeing the candlestick on the sideboard as he shrugs off his gym bag and puts it by his feet.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
‘Would you like some tea?’ she asks, nodding at the coffee table between them.
Charlotte is nothing if not civilised, so he isn’t surprised to find an array of pastries and fruit. She may be about to rip him a new one, but there’s no reason they can’t have tea first. Say what you will about her, but she’s an impeccable hostess.
Harry nods and Marla appears from nowhere because God forbid Charlotte lift a teapot (or maybe it’s that she doesn’t trust Harry with it) and when Marla disappears again, Charlotte picks up her cup and saucer and sits back, tilting her head at him.
‘Are you okay, Harry?’
‘Of course,’ he says, reaching for the milk jug.
‘You’ve been crying.’
His hand shakes a little as he lifts the jug. He hopes she doesn’t notice.
‘Terry called,’ he says, the lie rolling too easily off his tongue, but he can hardly tell her the truth. Besides, Charlotte doesn’t like to bother herself with nonsense like emotions so he knows that if he blames his father she won’t push it.
Harry rubs his eyes. Just thinking about him makes him exhausted. ‘He’s back.’
That much is true, at least, even if Harry hasn’t answered any of his calls.
Charlotte nods, sipping her tea. ‘Well that explains it.’
Harry shouldn’t bite, but he reasons that it looks more suspicious if he doesn’t.
‘Explains what?’ he asks, gaze fixed on his cup as he stirs his tea with the sort of focus scientists usually reserve for mixing dangerous chemicals.
‘Who’s Zayn Malik?’
Harry was about to pick up his cup and he’s glad he didn’t because the shock of it would have made him spill tea everywhere. He doesn’t, but even the thought of it, of the stain he’d leave on the white chair and the white rug makes the tops of his ears burn as she waits for him to answer. But he doesn’t know what to say, whether to make a joke or just come right out with it, because Charlotte doesn’t usually come out of the gate fighting like that. She likes to make polite conversation first, ask Harry about his day or complain about the weather, so Marla’s right, she must be furious.
‘He plays for Chelsea, doesn’t he?’ Harry says carefully, lifting his eyelashes to look at her. She smiles and sips her tea and his stomach lurches because he knows that smile, it’s her I’m going to give you one more chance smile. ‘It’s nothing, Charlotte,’ he admits with a defeated sigh. ‘We met at a club last night.’
‘While you were with Chris?’
‘After. He’d gone.’ Harry sits a little straighter, his cheeks hot. ‘What? Am I not allowed to have sex any more or does everyone have to pay for it?’
‘Of course not, Harry,’ she says, sipping her tea. He’s playing with his bottom lip and tells himself to stop as she puts her cup on the saucer and looks at him over her glasses. ‘But why did Mr Malik just call insisting that he pay for the evening?’
Harry’s stomach lurches again, so suddenly that he has to rest his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. He tells himself that it’s because Charlotte’s about to cut his heart out with a butter knife, but as he feels how hot his cheeks are against his palms, he gets a flash of the night before, of Zayn shaking his glass until the ice rattled.
‘I can explain,’ he says through his fingers.
‘You like him,’ she says with a sigh. He hears the gentle shiver of her cup and saucer as she puts them on the coffee table and when he lifts his head, ready for her to tell him off, he finds that she’s smiling kindly. ‘It was bound to happen eventually.’
Something in him relaxes. ‘Like with you and Max?’
She laughs lightly and it sounds like a chandelier quivering. ‘Oh don’t be so silly.’ She reaches for a grape and looks down at it between her fingers. ‘But there was someone else.’ She lifts her chin to arch an eyebrow at him. ‘It did not end well.’
Harry nods, rubbing his face with his hands.
‘So it is with some reluctance,’ she says with a theatrical sigh, ‘that I extend Mr Malik’s invitation to spend Monday evenings with him.’
‘What? But-’ He stops and frowns at her, his cheeks stinging as he thinks about his outburst in Zayn’s living room. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure. He just called and he’d like to see you on Monday at 9 p.m.,’ she says with a tight smile and Harry’s heart does that thing again.