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The Miseducation of Harry Styles

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~ so you think you could love me? well you got to be stronger than most ~

 

“The thing you have to realise about DJs,” Nick says, gesturing at Harry with a plastic glass, the contents of which is glowing green in a most disconcerting fashion, “is we all go batshit. Like, you can delay the onset of batshit by avoiding the nastier narcotics and never, ever buying a Toto album, but ultimately it comes for us all.”

Nick swallows, pushing non-existent fringe-wilt from his forehead and wondering if he can pass off the sweat sheening his face as mere product of the bar’s sticky air.

“I had this friend – he played so much handbag house in the late nineties that not only did he go partially deaf and get big-fish-little-fish Carpal Tunnel in both wrists, you’d find him having a meltdown in the biscuit aisle in Tesco’s. See, he’d totally lost the ability to choose anything other than what to play next, so having to pick Garibaldis or shortcake or Hobnobs would leave him a crumpled wreck on the floor. He ended up in some sort of rehab. For a while, he’d send me cards with seashells stuck on the front and stuff he’d crocheted inside, but then he just stopped and I haven’t seen him or heard from him in four years. I think maybe he killed himself sniffing craft glue. That’s just one isolated example of the all-DJs-go-batshit phenomenon. You’ve seen pictures of Fat Boy Slim laughing at nothing in a Hawaiian shirt. No one’s immune.”

Harry lifts an eyebrow and tilts his head, disco lights bouncing off his stupidly shiny hair. “So... is this your way of taking back what you did last night?”

“Pretty much.”

“Fine,” Harry says, necks his Coke as if there’s whiskey in it, and walks away, shoving his hair inside a beanie before he makes it to the door.

There’s no way the guy behind the bar has any clue what their conversation pertained to, but Nick’s fairly certain he’s judging him anyway.

“Oh fuck off,” he mutters.

As he stands there, cradling a mostly empty plastic glass and ordering a refill he doesn’t really want, clammy, sickly realisation crawls over his skin and down his throat: he probably just did the battiest, shittiest most batshit thing any human – DJ or normal person – has ever done. He just knocked back Harry Styles, a.k.a the guy he’s been obsessed with for a year.

 

~ whoever knew the voodoo you do ~

 

It starts – as these things usually do – with the cold light of the desk leeching up into his skull and over the tattered remains of a hangover.

Nick can’t actually tell if the beat is in his headphones or is just the swan-song pulse of his remaining brain cells, but either way, it’s making him want to chunder up the bag of carrot sticks and cup of coffee he forced down half an hour ago. Turning his head without lifting it, he makes eye contact with the new production assistant, who has the glasses of a secretary called Janet and the tits of a stripper called Tallulah but whose actual name is Maira, which she swears is a real name and not a typo for Maria (he doesn’t believe her, because she used to work at Radio 4 and probably changed it because people called Maria don’t get jobs at Radio 4).

“Has any DJ ever actually died on air before?” he says.

She hitches up her specs, taps away at the computer, sighs, and says, “Yes.”

“Great. Can’t even have that as my lasting claim to fame, then.”

With an imperious roll of her eyes, Maira leans forward on her chair to survey him with proper disdain. “You having some kind of existential crisis?”

Nick massages his temple. A bit of him wants to toss back, “God save me from people with English degrees who end up in the media,” but a bit more of him actually does want to talk about it with something more responsive than his pot plant – not that he really wants to outline the full extent of his YouTube-Harry Styles-Jägermeister-self-loathing binge to someone who doesn’t know him well enough to put it in the appropriate context.

“Think I’m just a bit sick of myself, to be honest. When I was turning inside out over the toilet at five this morning I kept thinking: is this how much you hate yourself? You want to actually throw up and flush away your own kidneys? Not that I didn’t deserve to lose a couple of vital organs.” He screws up his nose at the memory, although in his defence, those video diaries were just there and even if it degenerated into the realm of screen stroking, it started out as legitimate research. “You ever feel like that? Like you’re too much of a wretch to exist and you shouldn’t be allowed to interact with other humans because you’ll just take them down with you?”

“No.”

“Brilliant. Glad we shared.” He sits up as the countdown tells him he’s supposed to say something witty in 48, 47, 46 seconds. “It better wane, this hangover, or One Direction are going to slay me later.”

“Who?”

“From X Factor. They’re the perky jailbaity ones with all the hair and the teeth and the slightly inappropriate hints that one of them’s dead kinky. Did Natalie Imbruglia in the non-biblical sense and look like they might actually crawl out of the armpit of ITV with something resembling a pop career. Meeting them at this award thing as interview foreplay.”

Maira leans across to push up his fader with a smirk that says he just lost approximately a hundred cool points for knowing all that, plus a million more for getting a bit indignant she doesn’t care about them.

Nick grimaces at her and gathers enough wits to find the microphone and croak, “So that’s the new one from Tinie. Hope you liked it. If you didn’t, you’re really going to hate this next one so go and make a cup of tea or something.” He hits play with unnecessary force, kills his mic, and cues up a jingle and another track. “Should be fun. They’re fun. Harry Styles specially. He’s a darling.”

Maira taps away on the keyboard, goes a bit boggle in the eyes, and looks over with both eyebrows peaked. “Could’ve warned me he’d be naked.”

“He does that, apparently, although never usually in interviews.”

“Maybe he’ll lose his naturist virginity with you.”

Nick has to check twice that he’s picked the right version of the track – the one without the eight-minute ambient break section in the middle, because that shit doesn’t fly when he’s covering a daytime slot – and he attributes the brain fumble to his hangover, and not the thought of Harry Styles sitting across the studio from him and unbuttoning his shirt.

Maira leans forward and checks the desk. “Did you mean to load Scott Mill’s jingle as some kind of joke?”

“Naturally,” Nick says. “You fancy a green tea?”

“Sure.”

With a wave to illustrate that he would go and make them but oh, shame, he’s apparently on national radio, Nick watches Maira roll her eyes and get up. He waits until she’s gone before he finds the correct sting.

Right, that’s it. I’m cutting you off, brain. No more Harry Styles. You’re no longer allowed to even say his name.

Oh, okay, you’re right, in our line of work that’s a stupid blanket policy so you can say it if you’re a) on air, b) introducing him to someone, or c) at some kind of quiz for charity and he comes up as the answer to a question. But that’s it. No more jailbaity potentially a bit kinky pop star person, especially at three in the morning with your hand in your pants and a bloodstream that’s 60% proof.

 

~ what you pay for these riches and fame, well, it’s all a vicious game, you’re a little insane ~

 

“It was awful. I look down and I’m wearing odd socks in front of One Direction. Not like one black and one slightly greyer one, like properly odd socks – one normal one and one yellow and black stripes. And they’re all immaculate, of course, so I keep fiddling with my jeans to keep them covered but it doesn’t work and Harry Styles is just looking at me like it’s malicious and I’m hurting his soul.”

About the no name-mentioning thing: this is exceptional post-interview mortification circumstances, and besides, it’s tequila’s fault. All five shots of the bastard.

“That’s the thing about Harry Styles,” Nick says, waving his sixth shot at no one in particular, “he looks at you with this earnest kind of… earnestness, all sort of sexy but baffled by, like, life and you feel bad for adding to the endless list of things he’s going to lie awake all night puzzling about. And you want to hate him – like, you really, really want to hate him – you yearn to hate him – because he always looks like he’s just rolled out of bed and breakfasted on knickers and he’s all raspy and sleepy and disgustingly perfect – and you meet him – which I have, like, three times now – and you just can’t, because it’d be like smacking a kitten that just gambolled towards you and presented you with a gift it made specially for you from glitter and sincerity.”

The tequila kicks him in the back of the throat and Nick chews a chunk of lime and winces, aware, even through the dullness of alcohol, that all his friends are looking at him in a way that clearly says: will you please stop talking about Harry frigging Styles. We didn’t care ten minutes ago and we still don’t now and we’re not drunk enough for your ohmygod I’vegotacrush shit because you keep stealing all the tequila. Nick wishes he could stop talking about him. Dear god, he wishes he could, because then he wouldn’t be drawing himself up to his full height and spewing out, “If you met him – Harry – you’d understand.”

Half the table decides it’s time to go outside for a fag – two of them don’t even fucking smoke – and Nick lurches over to the bar.

Buffing the shiny wood with his thumb, he imagines what he’d say if Harry Styles walked in right now, put his hand on his arm and said, “Hey Nick – didn’t know you lived round here.”

“Oh, hiya. You want a drink? I’m on a mission to rid the world of tequila and I might die in the process if you don’t take on your fair share. About the sock thing – I got dressed in the dark because my hangover made switching the lamp on exquisitely torturous. I should ball them when I shove them in the machine like my mum does or get some of those sock pegs they sell in the back of the shitty catalogue that falls out of the Sunday paper. Or I could just abandon socks entirely. Maybe I’ll buy one of those big fur-lined two-feet booty things from the catalogue and just wear that all the time and hop.”

Obviously that’s so devastatingly hilarious Harry does that stupidly endearing ducking guffaw thing he does where it’s as if he’s trying to kiss his own armpit, they ditch all their friends, get a table in the corner, and they’re all over each before condensation has even had the time to form on the shot glasses.

Nick meets his own distorted eye in the brass beer pump in front of him.

You have gone totally, utterly, fucking cashew over this boy you’ve had precisely three and a quarter real conversations with. It couldn’t be more tragic if you actually made a shrine to him in your wardrobe. And no, no matter how drunk you get, you’re not allowed to buy a bunch of teen mags from the 24 hour garage and do that tonight when you get in because you think you can pass it off as ironic or something. There’s no such thing as an ironic wardrobe shrine to Harry Styles.

“What’ll it be?” the barmaid says.

“Tray of tequila slammers.”

“How many exactly?”

“As many as will fit, love. Stack ‘em if you have to.”

 

~ you looked at him, he looked at you, and you knew right away ~

 

It’s an ordinary Wednesday when the apocalypse happens. Nick’s just sitting in a nest of CDs, 12” vinyl, and pastel-coloured press releases from record labels proving their indie cred by murdering trees, quietly thinking of something scathing to say about the latest batch of Florrie remixes so they stop fucking sending them and force her into a studio to record something new, and four messages appear like horsemen to herald the end of days:


Hi. Just remembered you gave me your number in case I got homesick and… I am?

Sorry – is this weird?

It’s Harry.

Styles

Nick stares at the words on his phone screen, shoving a biro between his teeth like a bit so he doesn’t stand up and shout something ridiculous like, “Everybody! Harry Styles knows I exist! And he’s texting me! Texting me.”

The office carries on as if nothing significant has happened. From the speaker, Scott Mills starts telling a story about some hippie in a bar in Ibiza who set his own nose hair on fire with a flaming Sambuca and Edith’s producer wheels across the floor on her chair to the coffee machine. It’s all so normal that Nick gets suspicious and runs through the list of people who might buy a phone and pretend to be Harry Styles just to fuck with him. The long list comprises pretty much everyone he’s ever met. The short list is made up of people he’s been drunk and over share-y with recently, and that definitely includes the intern who’s smirking at his Blackberry on the other side of the desk.

Would you do that to me, smirking intern? I suppose I did barf tequila on you ever so slightly last week.

One eye on the intern, Nick types:

Prove it.

How..?

The intern pockets his phone. Nick types:

Tell me something only we’d know.

Nick’s handset vibrates. His brain hiccoughs as he reads:

…like that time you were wearing odd socks?

And what were you wearing?

I have no idea...

Damn. This could’ve been fun...

Fumbling the biro out of his teeth, Nick writes Harry’s number on Florrie’s face and his hand in case his phone eats it. Adding it to his contacts, he puts Harry (that dick from 1D) in the name field and House of Pain in the company one and what the fuck is he doing fucking around when he could actually be calling him? He plays it cool for precisely twenty seconds before hitting dial.

Harry answers on the third ring, and all he says is hello but it’s all low and familiar and a bit husky and gets Nick in the back of the knees, so he’s pretty proud of himself for managing a nonplussed, “Just calling to verify your identity. I had to make sure you weren’t the smirking intern I was sick on last week.”

“You want my mother’s maiden name like the bank?”

“Maybe.” Nick flicks Florrie’s press sheet back and forth, swinging slightly on his chair and wishing his mobile had a cord for him to wind around his finger. “Or maybe we should pick code names for the future.”

“All right. You be puce assassin.”

“That’s – wow. Sounds like a pet name that should never, ever leave the bedroom. You better be lavender ranger, then. Oh god, that sounds like bleach because I was desperately trying not to say something really sexual.”

Harry sniggers, and the resulting harsh flick of A4 to cope with it slices Nick’s flesh.

“Ow, fuck,” he mutters, sucking on his finger. “Now I’ve given myself a paper cut on Florrie.” Retracting it from between his lips makes a weird sloppy kissing noise and Nick pokes at the wound. “If I go quiet, I’m not ignoring you, I’ve just bled to death.”

There’s the slightest of slight pauses before – very quietly and with a hint of uncertainty – Harry says, “Well – you dying is going to seriously hamper my plans. You want to go get a plaster?”

“I’m good, I reckon.”

“Oh. Was going to offer to come over and give you mouth to mouth, next.”

Nick swallows, pressing his phone into his ear, all cold and sweaty right the way down his spine. “Are you flirting with me, Harry Styles?”

“Yep.”

Taking a steadying breath because who just admits it for crying out loud?! Nick says, “Well, aren’t you a sweetheart, livening up a very dull Wednesday like that.”

“Not really, I – ” A voice in the background – Louis’s, he thinks – cuts Harry off, and he sighs. “You want to pay me back? Tomorrow’ll be tedious and messages full of innuendo would help.” Voice in the background again, sharper this time. “I got to go. I’m wanted.”

Fuck, ain’t that the truth.

Nick keeps the phone pressed to his ear long after Harry’s hung up in case he magically comes back or something, and spends the rest of the day mentally collating witty things he can make sound casual.

 

~ admiration, infatuation, elation, we be kicking it the whole damn summer from friends to best friends to part-time lovers ~

 

At first, it’s just messages he puts far too much thought into, and then one day they realise they’re in roughly the same place and Harry says you want to go shopping? and he says yes, always. They end up clutching a clothing rail in a snooty boutique doubled over with laughter because Nick accidentally called the woman who asked if they needed anything ‘duck’ (which didn’t cause the fit of hysterics so much as Nick’s rant: “fuck, I am, I’m slowly turning into my own grandma. You’re young and hip, Harry, help me – save me – before I start claiming Werther’s Original are the height of sophistication and I get one of those dolls with a knitted skirt to hide my toilet roll under.”

“Where would you even buy one of those, though?”

“Dunno. Maybe you inherit them?”

“Or maybe you have to make them yourself to prove you’re worthy.”

“Come on, then. I’ll get the Barbies and you pick the wool. Make sure there’s one that’s got that weird, gritty glitter in it, keep it classy.”)

After that it’s as if they’re always running into each other and cackling, and it’s all nights out and casual arm touches and sushi and texts at 3am just because. Nick looks up one day and they’ve known each other for months and he’s throwing Harry a birthday party and getting the mother of all grateful hugs in return. He’s pretty certain it’s just a Northern transplant thing, that Harry still doesn’t really know many people in London and his life’s changing Wizard of Oz fast, that he wants someone who’s not at the eye of the storm with him to help him step outside it sometimes. Nick tells himself don’t get attached and all that: soon enough Harry’ll stop sending messages and saying yes to invites, because he’s a teenage boy and everyone knows they have the attention span of a flighty cocker spaniel.

The weeks pass and he doesn’t, though, and one Friday, Nick finds himself staring at the TV, with only Gordon Ramsey – who’s very angry about something to do with beef Wellington that he can’t be bothered to give a fuck about – for company. Sipping a green tea and checking his phone hasn’t magically dropped into the land of no reception and yes, he has bugger all to do and this whole ‘it’ boy Nick Grimshaw thing is a great big flaming pile of arse, he fires off:

You up for doing something tonight?

Harry’s reply comes back during the ad break.

Sure. But I don’t want to go out.

Come over to mine? Ramsey’s about to explode I think.

Not that I’m sat in on a Friday watching crap TV.

Some loser at this killer party I’m at (but will blow off cos I like you more) just told me.

Haha.

Staying in is the new going out. I’m sure someone said that to me recently.

That was me and I was lying but whatever. We’ll make it work.

Nick switches off the TV and puts some tunes on instead. Christ, he remembers when Friday night meant a bottle of vodka, a handful of pills, and a club you had to be cool to find rather than a tepid green tea and quality time with your iPod. He almost texts Harry again to say: run, Harry, run away from me, I’ve infected you with early-onset middle age. Doesn’t, obviously, in case Harry listens and leaves him alone with frigging Ramsey and his gravy drama.

Harry pulls up in a taxi half an hour later, gets his foot caught in the seatbelt or the foot well or… his other foot or something, and practically bails out onto the pavement headfirst.

Nipping out in his socks to let him in, Nick hugs his arms against the chill. “Are you pissed, Styles? Rude to do that without me when you knew I was sitting around being a gigantic loser.”

Straightening up, Harry not quite smiles, and leans in to pay the guy with a drawled, “Keep the change. Have a good night, yeah?”

He has sunglasses caught in the pocket of his shirt and shiny red patches on his nose as if he only just took them off, and Nick can’t quite place what’s weird about that until the wind cops a feel under his clothes, he shivers, and realises it’s dark and it’s been freezing and overcast all day.

They go into the lounge, Harry ruffling his hair, and under it, he’s sober – absolutely stone cold.

“Really glad you texted me. Needed to get out but – ” He has the voice of someone who’s spent all night shouting over aggressively loud house music. “ – just couldn’t face all the – you know.”

“Something happen?” Nick gestures to the sofa and sits, chucking the cushions onto the armchair to make room for him. “You all right?”

“Not really, actually.” Harry flops down, seeming much longer and younger than he usually does, like he’s just grown an extra foot of torso and hasn’t quite got used to it yet.

“You want to – have a chat? Real one where I say sensible and wise things and make you feel better?”

“Thought I did, but – no, I don’t think so, now I’m here.” He rolls his eyes and bats at his fringe, working it more into his eyes than out of it. “It’s just bullshit, anyway.” A frown and a sniff and he glances at the iPod as it starts bleating a new track that’s grotesquely and jarringly chipper – some cheesy Ibiza thing about cocktails and fucking on a beach while the sun sets. “Where’s Ramsey? Did he actually blow this time?”

“Yeah, total carnage. Bits of his hair transplant in the ceiling fan and all over the savoy cabbage. Turned it off because I didn’t want to upset you. I know you were very fond of his restaurant.” That gets Nick a lip twitch of proto smile. “It’ll be fine. We’ll find you another angry chef to stalk on Twitter. I’ll camp outside Jamie Oliver’s house and poke him with the sharp end of an umbrella every time he leaves until his spirit breaks.”

Harry has a range of laughs from outright guffaw to dirty little snigger to this wicked full-on shoulder-jiggling giggle. The one that slips out as he tucks his chin into the neck of his checked shirt is new, breathy and small and like it’s been punched out of him against his will. He rolls his eyes again and lets one knee sag until it bumps Nick’s. “You would, too, wouldn’t you? You’d…”

He runs out of the will to speak, and his knee’s just there, so Nick makes this grandma tut noise, puts his hand on it, and squeezes, trying not to do the thing where he scrolls through all the stories in the paper and the pressure and the inevitable slump after your dream becomes reality to find the cause.

“Oh come here, will you?” The words are running free before he’s really thought them through, and his hand gets in on the act and migrates from Harry’s knee to pull him up and gather him in by the shoulder. “You’re breaking my heart.”

Harry sags against him with his nose in Nick’s armpit and a kind of gruff murmur that might or might not be actual words in the vague shape of, “I’m fine.”

Rearranging to better accommodate him, Nick shifts in to get his arm actually around him, and wow, this is a great time to have a random flash of insecurity about whether his deodorant’s up to muster. He means to sniff himself and not Harry, but Harry’s all up under his nose with his hair so he gets a lungful of him anyway, and it’s not that he doesn’t already know that Harry smells nice because they’ve clung and collapsed and collided, but it jabs him in the spleen anyway. He’s all manly and aquatic like a windswept beach and combined with the soft grip he has on Nick’s shirt to hold on it’s – well, a monk with no homosexual tendencies whatsoever would be in serious trouble. Cleverly spotting he’s the opposite of that so he really needs to watch it, Nick’s psyche decides to immediately bail him out by having him whisper into the top of his head the thing most likely to make sure Harry will never, ever want to shag him:

“There there, poppet.”

He doesn’t even give it a jokey spin. He sounds utterly, completely earnest – and a bit too much like Alan Bennett for comfort – and as if that’s not bad enough, he pets Harry’s hair. In a salvage attempt, he leans towards the arm and takes Harry with him, but the back of the sofa’s closer than Nick thought and they hit it and get stuck with his chin squashed into his own chest. That jolts Harry’s hand to a new position much, much lower and just a bit too far down in the stomach-crotch region.

Stiffening, Harry holds his breath as if he’s noticed the proximity of wrist to cock but isn’t sure whether he should move it or not and Nick can practically hear him thinking: shit, didn’t mean to do that.

A minute passes and dear god, one of them needs to say something if only to clear the poppet and stop it bouncing around Nick’s head, but they don’t, so they just do this sit-lie-cuddle-thing, fenced in by incongruously cheerful house music for what feels like forever.

Nick breaks first. “Oh god, I’m so, so sorry. This is the worst hug ever and in the whole of my life, I’ve never called anybody poppet. Really think I should have stuck with that as my endearment policy.”

Harry looks up from his chest and at least he’s smiling, now.

“Your gran used to call you that?” He fumbles a bit more upright, knees all bony on Nick’s thigh as he curls them up. “And now you're turning into her you can't help it?”

Trying to keep the surprise that he remembers off his eyebrows, Nick shifts so he’s no longer got fourteen chins and a crick threatening and glances at the ceiling.

“Her and a bloke my dad worked with, actually – you know, the type you call uncle until you’re thirteen and figure out you’re not actually related so the interest he takes in you in your school uniform becomes really creepy. And he still buys you presents at Christmas and you have to say thanks and act pleased because he’s mates with your dad, but really you just want to shout, ‘I’m never going to play the lead in whatever seedy mental porno you’re making, get away from me you dirty old tosser.’”

Harry does his snigger-snort, breath a hot blurt on Nick’s neck as he collapses back into him.

“Don’t laugh.” Nick prods him in the side. “I could have scars here, Harry. I could be opening up, sharing some deep, festering welt that’s been eating away at me. What if this is the reason I always have three drinks too many and my average romantic entanglement doesn’t even last as long as it takes me to finish the crossword in The NME? My record for which is seven and a half minutes, by the way.”

“That the crossword or the – ?”

“The – ” Nick stalls, screwing up his forehead and watching his fingers shift along the seam of Harry’s shirt, making the little pills of cotton dance. “See, I was going to leap in and say crossword, of course all offended and stuff, but now I think about it, seven and a half minutes would probably be about bang-on, assuming we’re starting the clock when I realise he’s interested – which I’m really shit at and get wrong the vast majority of the time – and stop it the second I do something that makes him want to break into a prison just to get away from me.”

“Seven and a half minutes is just the average, though, right?” Harry leans his elbow on the back of the sofa, fingers disappearing into his hair. “So some of them must have lasted much longer than that.”

“If one of us passed out part way through having sex, I guess. Would that count, though? I’d probably subtract unconscious time from the total.”

Harry’s face goes through a range of expressions before coming to rest on jovially puzzled. “You are joking. You’ve never actually passed out during sex?”

“Passed out, got bored and fell asleep – sometimes it’s hard to tell.” He fingers a button on Harry’s shirt, tugging it just to watch the material shift on his chest. “I’ve a hazy recollection of saying, ‘would you just come already so I can go home?’ but I’ve no idea if that actually made it out of my mouth or if I was just thinking it really loudly while idly wondering where he got his wallpaper.”

The wow Harry mouths barely makes it out before he starts heaving with not-quite silent laughter.

“Oh, bollocks,” Nick says, wriggling out from underneath him, “now we need to get drunk.”

“ ‘Cos you just realised how depressing that is?”

“No, because I want you to throw up the brain cells that remember I said that.” He waves at the iPod that’s still Gatecrashering it up like a bastard as he heads for the kitchen. “Put something more drinky on.”

When he gets back to the coffee table with a bottle of Chambord and another of vanilla vodka tucked under his arm, Harry’s on his knees in front of the iPod dock, eye-level with it, and spinning the wheel with slow consideration.

“You’ve a lot of playlists and they’re all called really strange things.” He looks over with this veritable flick of eyelash. “Soul Boat to China? What the fuck is that about?”

Assembling an impromptu cocktail bar with the shot glasses and tub of sprinkles triangled between his hands, Nick plonks down on the floor. “Oh, that’s a good one because I bet you think it’s Motown classics you’d listen to on a boat to – ”

“Why wouldn’t you be flying?”

“ – but it’s not.” With a glug, he fills two shot glasses half way with sticky red liquor, old sugar grinding as he screws the crown-shaped lid back on. “It’s the tracks that grate on my soul and I wish were on a boat to China so I never have to hear them again. I keep them in one place, then I know they’re not going to take me by surprise elsewhere and ruin my day.”

“Why don’t you just delete them?”

Nick pauses midway through topping the glasses up with vodka. A slow, moody bootleg remix of Calvin Harris starts and Harry shuffles over on his knees to join him, biting on the end of his thumb and impressed with himself for stumping Nick with, like, logic.

“Because,” Nick says, and goes back to pouring. “Now, normally when I make these, there’s this cream liquor stuff on the top and the sprinkles go on that, but me and Annie finished that last Sunday – talk about messy – so I reckon if we – ” He retrieves Harry’s hand from his mouth and turns it so his knuckles are under his nose. “Lick?”

The attempt he makes at not looking at Harry’s tongue as he draws it over the back of his hand fails entirely, but Harry takes a really goddamn long time about it and looks at him with very deliberate wickedness so he’s not going to beat himself up.

Nick shakes the sprinkles over the wet patch. Most of them don’t stick and spill their little colourful selves over the floor but whatever. He offers the back of his own hand to Harry for no reason other than to see if Harry actually will. “Do me?”

“Direct. Like it.”

Maybe it’s because he’s clutching sprinkles with the other hand that the look Nick shoots Harry intending admonishment just makes him laugh. “You – ” Nick adds a point that the sprinkles soundtrack with a brittle shpp-shpp, which doesn’t help him be menacing at all. “ – need to stop flirting with me when inebriation’s impending, or I’m going to start taking you seriously, and then you’ll be in trouble.”

“Seven and a half minutes of trouble?” Taking Nick’s wrist, Harry ducks his head, curls tumbling over his ears, and mumbles, “I’ll take my chances,” right against his skin as he swipes his tongue up underneath Nick’s thumb.

It seems to take about forty years and fills Nick’s head with all sorts of things he definitely shouldn’t be thinking in jeans this tight – just the right amount of pressure and wow, warm, and what right does he have to be that good with his tongue at his age? All said and done, it’s probably the best lick Nick’s had on any part of his anatomy in three years. He practically douses himself in sprinkles just to stop thinking about it.

“Ready?”

His voice goes shrill and god he needs to be drunk – dick-sabotagingly drunk.

“Like a slammer?” Meeting his eye, counting three with nods of his head, Harry sucks the sprinkles off the back of his own hand, reaches for the glass, and knocks it back.

Nick does the same, swallowing the mix of raspberries and fake ice cream vanilla, getting the shake of his head out of the way just in time to catch Harry’s expectant wince turning into an open-mouthed smile.

“Oh. Oh – that’s – trifle?” He chuckles and pushes his hair up off his forehead. “Needs more sprinkles, though. Yep, that’s exactly what my heart needs. Sprinkles. Can you make me another one?”

“There’s heart stuff, here? I thought this was just pop star angst.”

“Maybe both? It’s all right, though. Heart’s bruised, not broken.” Harry nods, blinking in a slow, considered way. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

Obviously it’s absolute bullshit. Nick shoves himself up using the sofa. “Hold up, I’ll get you a bigger glass.”

 

~ when hair's combed right and your pants are tight it's gonna be all right ~

 

An hour or two later – or maybe it’s three, he can’t tell – they’re still on the floor, legs loose and tangled like school kids, one of his hands on Harry’s knee because there’s nowhere else for it to go. Or he can pretend there isn’t, at least.

“Impressive – ” Harry tugs up Nick’s hair, levelling it, bouncing his palm on the ends as if he’s making sure it’s flat. “ – how it stays up.”

Chambord smile painted on like cheap and inexpertly applied lipstick, he leans in to peer at it intently. Harry’s always pretty casual with his hands but tonight he’s made a survey of Nick’s face that has included commenting on the length of his nose while running his fingertips down it and writing a veritable poem about his eyes while stroking his brows back and forth. Nick can’t tell if he’s trying to seduce him or tomorrow he has to model him in art class out of clay.

“I accidentally bought Viagra in a club and my cock had no use for it so I blitzed it in the coffee grinder and put it in my hair gel.”

Wet giggles meet his shoulder and Harry winds his arm around Nick’s, playing with his bracelets, fingertips slipping underneath and pulling the cord tight on his wrist bone. “Like your hands.”

“Any bit of me you’re not fond of tonight?”

“Haven’t seen all of you yet.”

Harry licks his lips, rambling eyes suggesting the room’s gone a bit slippery on him, before he focuses on his mouth as if Nick’s the thing he needs to cling to, and the best way to do that is obviously to lurch in and snog him.

He’d taste of vanilla and sprinkles, be hard and eager with his tongue, and it’s not that Nick wouldn’t like Harry barrelling into him and knocking him onto the floor, more that he’s been on Harry’s end of the heartbroken drunken lurch-snog enough times to know you wake up with a mouthful of carpet, bite your own knuckles until they bleed shame, and avoid the recipient for months on end because you feel like a total, utter shit.

“You drunk enough to tell me about your heart stuff?” Nick says, looking at his feet to make the angle trickier. “I told you about my shonky romantic history – you've got that as a guarantee of my discretion.”

With a sag onto his shoulder, Harry sighs. “You ever have a sort of on-off thing with someone where it’s supposed to be fun and then it’s just not?” He draws patterns on the back of Nick’s hand, touch sliding prickles onto his skin. “Got into one of those and – it's not on – but I can't switch it off and – so confused all the time. Dunno what to do.”

“You try that thing,” Nick says, turning his hand so it’s palm up, “where you sleep with someone else and make sure they know about it? That'd sort it. Either they’ll hate you for it and chuck you completely and you can stop obsessing – or they’ll get dead jealous and they'll want to be on with you properly.”

Harry’s fingertips trail up, skipping like soft rainfall, and he sniffs. “That’s the worst advice ever.”

“That’s why I framed it as a question, not advice. Asking me to say something sage about relationships is like asking Batman his opinion on the best feta cheese to use on a pizza. It’s just not our area of expertise and frankly, we’re baffled you’d even go there.”

“Who puts feta on pizza?”

“Batman does – he doesn’t know any better because he’s been too busy being Batman to visit a pizzeria. That’s the moral of the story. I can offer you advice, but if you take it, you’re probably just going to end up with the wrong kind of cheese everywhere because I’ve never even defrosted a relationship of my own, let alone made one from scratch.”

Harry sniggers, lets go of Nick’s hand and sways to the coffee table, reaching for his glass and the vodka.

“Tired of the floor being cold. I want to get up.”

"Sofa's right – "

"No, I mean – heart thing. They – " Harry misses his glass with the bottle entirely, puts it on the table, and points at it as if telling it to stay put while he lines them up. “ – he has – oops – ” He spills vanilla over his fingers and sucks it off, letting them loiter in his mouth while he ponders the origin of the universe. “ – or had – shit, I don’t even know which tense we are, that’s… promising – anyway, he's this way of getting me on my knees. Not, like, just – ” Harry pokes his tongue into his cheek, managing to be at once obscene and adorable. “ – I’m always asking for stuff and kind of... on the floor in comparison. And it's cold.”

Finishing the bottle in Nick’s glass, Harry squints at the dribble of clear liquid until he’s sure nothing else is going to come out, and sinks back with both glasses, handing one over.

"You don't seem very confused to me, Harry. Seems like you know exactly what you want, you're just not quite ready to let go and make a grab for it yet."

"You're pretty drunk, though. How can it make sense to you when it doesn't to me?"

"Because I'm on the outside, looking in." Nick stares at the glass and rotates it so the vodka clings to the sides. "You know the wallpaper sex thing? Never occurred to me that was depressing 'til you said, but of course it is."

"So basically we just need to perv on each other's lives and explain them to each other, then?"

"That's exactly what we need to do. We've solved it. We've solved everything."

"We're brilliant," Harry says, holding his glass out. “Cheers.”

“Chin chin.”

The clink of their glasses seems as if it seals something, although Nick has no idea what because most of his brain’s busy picturing Harry between his feet with his zipper gripped in his teeth.

Note to self-slash-dick: you are not going to take advantage of a trolleyed eighteen year old who’s had his heart squished by someone best left unspeculated about, because a) morally wrong, b) he might be sick on you and these are your best jeans, and c) if we were speculating, you know you couldn’t take said person in a fight if it came to it.

“You think you can bruise your own heart? If someone offers you fun, say, and you keep clinging?”

" 'Course."

Harry downs his drink. “Be pretty stupid, that.”

"Yeah, well, we all are." Nick screws his nose up in sympathy, and offers Harry his glass, too. “Humans are like cheap tissue."

"Are we?" Taking the vodka, Harry raises it in toast before swallowing it with a wince and a shake of his head, and pushes his hair behind his ear, even though it’s clearly not long enough to stay there.

"We're delicate and disposable and we know it, but we place ourselves in other people's hands anyway. And then we act surprised when we rip and they throw us away because we're no longer fit for purpose." Nick sighs and runs the knot of his bracelet around his wrist four times, aware that Harry's watching him all wide-eyed and sway-y. "If we were smart, we'd stay up someone's sleeve or folded in a pocket but we're not and we like being with people, so."

“You lied.” Harry pokes him on the arm. “That was sage.”

“Have my moments. Not sure that was one of them, though, if I’m honest.”

Harry’s head lolls back onto the sofa and he drapes an arm over his face. “Jesus, I’m fucked.”

“You want me to ring you a taxi?”

“Want everything – stay still. Specially me.”

Trying not to laugh, Nick ruffles his hair.

Harry catches his fingers and holds them in a little knot against the bridge of his nose. “ – really sexy hands,” he mutters, and he manages to get a kiss to Nick’s knuckles before Nick can stop him.

“Bedtime for you I think. Get on the sofa, I’ll fetch you a glass of water and a blanket. Or chuck a coat over you at least.”

A disgruntled mumble rumbles against Nick’s palm, and Harry peers out, one eye barely open, lashes fluttering madly to cling to wakefulness.

“Go on with you.” Nick flaps at him and the sofa as if he’s shooing away a stray, but loses any semblance of authority he might have had by taking four tries to get up. Feet full of vodka, he crosses the flat, runs the tap, finds a pint glass, and gets it under the stream. He drinks the first one and refills it, staggers to his bedroom and snags the orange fuzzy thing that clashes with everything from the foot of his bed.

Rather than passing out like a normal person, all Harry’s managed to do in his absence is get his arse on the sofa seat and take his jeans off – or mostly off. He’s wrestling with them where they’re tangled around one ankle because his foot is still sporting a battered Converse.

“Easier if you take your shoes off first, I reckon.” Nick sets the glass down on the coffee table with a clink. “You need – ”

“You.”

Latching a hand around Nick’s knee, Harry tugs him in, faceplanting in his stomach.

“Okay,” Nick says, but it’s not okay – it’s very not okay because he’s got a crotch full of trolleyed person he wants like wanty thing, his morals are all vodkafied, and he has very little character at the best of times.

He settles his free hand in Harry’s hair – damn there’s a lot of it and it’s disgustingly silky and he should do fucking shampoo adverts with hair like this – and tries his best to ignore the way Harry’s mapping the backs of his thighs with his palms. Nick allows himself just a minute of Harry nuzzling – but Harry starts actually going for his zip, so Nick takes a step back and purposefully shoves the blanket at him.

Harry’s eyes slide closed and he murmurs something that sounds disastrously like, “You don’t like me.”

“I like you plenty.” Nick holds the back of Harry’s neck to steady himself, leans down, and kisses the top of his head, lips staying perhaps longer than they should and his thumbs deciding Harry needs a reassuring scuff to his ears. A bit of him wants to say, ‘budge up’ and pull the blanket over both of them, but there’s no way he can keep that platonic, so instead he says, “It’s a not now thing, not a not ever thing, all right?”

He gets a drowsy mumble by way of reply and touches Harry’s chin, offering him a “ ‘Night night, love,” as he stumbles down the wall to bed.

 

After either a minute or hours – he’s killed the brain cells that calibrate time when he’s had a few – a pterodactyl screeches for its young and flushes the toilet. Nick ignores it for a couple of screeches, but choked sobs start to intersperse them and get him right in the heart. He’s been there, been a mess of self-loathing and tears and snot and regurgitated vodka, and it’s horrible when no one comes to make sure you’re all right, especially when it’s vanilla. That really is the very worst vodka on the way back up.

Against his better judgement, Nick squints to hold back the onslaught of slightly less dark that comes with opening his eyes, and swings his feet off the bed with a vague groan that echoes the one rolling down the hall.

The bathroom is like something from a government warning ad about binge drinking: Harry folded over the toilet on his knees in his pants, his shirt half off his shoulder and one hand scrabbling for the toilet roll holder while he heaves, hunching like a cat trying to get rid of a hairball the size of Essex.

Nick has never really been a hair-holder but he goes over anyway, trying to keep down his own wretch at the sweet-tinge on the air that accompanies the splash-moan-whimper-inverted croaky burp thing Harry’s doing. He crouches next to the sink and rubs Harry’s back where his shirt’s ridden up. He should probably say something, but, “You all right?” would be redundant because obviously he’s not, he’s a toilet pterodactyl, and the only other thing in his head is, “Please let me not have killed you with trifle cocktails because that’d be tragic and ridiculous all at once, and I have plans for my life that don’t include being beaten to death by an angry mob of teenage girls with your face on their handbags.”

After a couple more gut-wrenches, a gurgle, and a chunter about being such a fucking idiot, Harry pushes off the seat and flops back against the wall, wiping his mouth on the shoulder of his shirt – which already has stomach contents all over it. He dries his eyes with his wrist but they won’t stay still, and his head drops before he catches it and forces it back against the coolness of the plaster.

“You done?” Nick flushes the toilet again, reaches up to turn the tap on, and dampens a hand towel. “Here.”

Harry swipes at it and clutches it to his chest, so Nick ends up mopping his chin and his forehead like he has plague or something. In a moment of excessive Florence Nightingaleness, he squeezes Harry’s ankle before muttering, “Let’s get you out of that, shall we?” and starting on the buttons on his shirt.

“Knew you wanted – get me naked.”

“Yeah yeah, whatever.” The buttons give it up without a fight, and Harry just sags and lets him do it, arms cast off by his sides as if they’re not even his.

Nick feeds them one by one out of his sleeves and lifts him forward to get the shirt properly off. Unsure what to do with a bundle of plaid and vomit, own stomach flexing until he’s perilously close to adding to the mess, he tosses it into the shower to deal with at some unspecified later.

“Hope you didn’t throw up on my lounge, you little horror.”

“Nope.” Harry waves as if he’s still wearing the shirt and musters a fairly heroic sardonic tone as he adds, “Only myself. And then I wonder why no one wants to be with me.”

“Look at me." Nick catches Harry's chin. "Don't make the bruise worse, right? Don't poke at it like that. It's not no one ever in the world, that's daft. Bruise'll fade and you'll get up off the floor or whatever when you're ready. Nod so I know you've heard me."

Harry nods.

"Stable?”

“Thinkso.”

“Come on, then. We need to get you up because this floor's freezing and it's not a metaphor.”

Harry’s the best kind of drunk, all slight and cooperative. He lets Nick lift him to his feet and manoeuvre his arm around his shoulder. Nick sends his mind on a scavenger hunt for information about what you’re supposed to do with drunkards, retrieving stuff about the recovery position and making sure they don’t lie on their back. He elbows off the bathroom light, Harry’s head heavy and clammy against his neck, mouth murmuring nothing much of anything against the side of his throat.

Harry’s feet catch on each other as they take a few stumbles pretending to be steps, and even though Nick’s got all of his weight, Harry has to throw out a palm to the wall to keep from pitching forward, knocking a picture askew as it lands.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about that. Bedroom for you, I think.” Nick steers him through the door and props him against the wardrobe while he pulls the covers back. “Don’t get any ideas – it’s just because the floor in here needs redoing anyway.” He helps Harry onto the mattress – which is mostly a case of guiding his fall – and moves the bin next to the bed. “Aim for that if you need to.”

He crawls onto the other side and flops down – the resultant moan reminding him of the need for stillness – and rearranges Harry so he’s no longer at risk of suffocating in a pool of his own sick and pillow. He doesn’t really mean to move his hair out of his eyes and say –

“Promise me you won’t die?”

– but he does, and he’s glad when the mumble comes back:

“Promise. Thanks.”

~ baby, take off your cool, I want to get to know you ~

 

Having started the day sneaking out of the wrong side of the bed because Harry Styles was hugging his pillow and blowing snore-saliva bubbles into it, Nick stands in the kitchen with his hair still damp from the shower and a mild sense of disconcertion. He attributes it to encountering in the shower tray Harry’s barfed-on shirt and having to scoop the entire thing up in a bath towel and run through the flat with it to shove it into the washing machine; all he’s usually good for at this time on a Saturday is a lazy wank and shouting at whichever cretin interrupts when the radio alarm goes off at noon. He makes himself coffee and steals one of his neighbour’s newspapers – it’s The Observer but it’ll have to do – and he’s most of the way done with his second mug and all the sections he can read without feeling like an uneducated twat when the bed creaks and Harry murmurs.

It takes him the best part of another hour to actually emerge, and when he does, he’s palming his head and smiling with a sheepish squint. Nick’s brain can’t help it, the rush of: this is why once upon a time I almost made a non-ironic wardrobe shrine to you – I pictured you’d be exactly like this on Saturday mornings.

“Remind me,” he says, abandoning the paper on the table to go and fill the kettle. “You a coffee hangover person or you like a restorative tea with five times the usual amount of sugar?”

“Both,” Harry says, padding over. “Either.”

Nick thinks he’s going for something on the work surface past where he’s standing, but instead, Harry shoves right into Nick’s neck and wraps his arms around him, warm and sleepy and so very nearly naked Nick has no idea where he can put his hands that won't result in a really obvious hard-on.

The words, “Can’t remember all of why exactly, but I have a feeling I should apologise. Lots,” creep out from the mass of curls and breath.

“No, it’s – ” Settling his arms around his waist, Nick ends up with a nose full of hair as Harry clings and presses in. “I’m washing your shirt. It’s fine.” He rubs – or tries to, palm stuttering on his ribs because they’re all sticky with bed heat. “You feeling any better about things?”

Harry pulls back just enough to look at him. “It’s early and – bit embarrassed, but I think – yeah. Got something out of my system.”

“That’s all that matters, then. You want a handful of Nurofen? Or I’ve got these vitamin things Bob Geldof got me into which sort you – ”

“I’m all right.” Harry’s gaze is all over his face and Nick really, really thinks he’s going to kiss him, but all Harry does is smile and murmur, “Look different without your hair done. I like it.”

For want of better ideas – because seriously? He looks like utter shit without his hair done and how’s he supposed to resist that? – Nick slaps his bum. “You need a shower. Help yourself to whatever.”

Harry stays where he is, looks up through his fringe, and he must know – he must fucking know – he looks delectable like that. “Scrub my back?”

“I’ve a perfectly good loofah for that.”

The pout is quite impressive and moderately affecting – and the same can definitely be said for the hard line of cock pressed into Nick’s hip.

“Maybe next time,” Nick says.

Harry shifts back with this look of triumph that he tries to then conceal and pass off as innocent surprise and delight. It’s all Nick can do not to rugby tackle him to the floor. Thankfully, he resists the impulse, but ruins all his good work by adding:

“Leave the door open and I’ll perv on you while pretending to leave clean towels if that’ll make you feel better.”

Harry laughs and saunters off, slipping the waistband of his boxers down before he’s even out of the room to reveal the top of the crack of what Nick knows turns into a very nice arse (he saw the goods when Googling something less shifty: Harry’s face. Which, now he thinks about it, potentially isn’t left shifty at all, because at least wanking over his body would just be a you’re nicely shaped and my cock appreciates that thing and not a your smile is ridiculously pleasing to my soul thing.

“Hey Harry, straw poll. Hypothetically, say a person was pleasuring himself to pictures of you he drunkenly sourced on his phone Googling the words hArry Dyles, would you rather he kept his focus below the neck and imagined coming all over your abs or let it wander up and came all over your face? For statistical purposes, we’re assuming he’s promised he’ll try his best not to get any in your fringe.”).

Nick swallows as water rains onto tile and the door distinctly doesn’t close. He flips the switch on the kettle and makes some more coffee as if the survival of the universe depends on him getting the ratio of grounds to water absolutely spot-on, before gathering up Harry’s jeans and throwing them and a towel through the bathroom door, making a show of averting his eyes and catching a steamy-mirrored eyeful of Harry grinning anyway.

When Harry emerges again, all glistening hair, low-slung jeans, and endless chest, Nick’s waiting against the wall with a choice of t-shirt.

“You want Run-DMC or Patti Smith?”

“Patti? She that girl who was on tour with Adele?”

Nick’s face recoils in horror before he can stop it and he tosses the article into Harry’s face. “We’re going to slide right past that, but only because I’m too knackered to get into a proper muso froth because someone kept me up all night.” He corrects the drunken stance of the picture on the wall behind Harry’s shoulder. “You want something to eat, booze hound? There’s a place not far does a really nice greasy breakfast.”

“Can I make something?” Harry’s all elbows as he tugs the shirt on, loose neck of the thing coming most of the way down to his nipples. “You have a really sexy kitchen. Want to get to know it better.”

Nick waves him over to the fridge and the sink in invitation. “Have at it.”

So Harry does. He talks to the kitchen as if he’s seducing it, tells it its stainless steel is really turning him on, and runs his fingers along the counters before opening the fridge and making this little guttural grunt of approval and amazement. After he’s fished out and chopped some green things and dropped some of them into a pan – done a bunch of stuff, really, that it’s totally incongruous he knows how to do – he gets increasingly dramatic and over the top with it until he’s staring into a pan of boiling water with this look of absolute erotic focus and saying, “I’m going to whisk you now, you little hussy.”

“I’m disappointed in you, Harry. I thought you were going to make tender love to my kitchen not make it feel slutty.”

“I can whisk tenderly when required.”

“Really?”

Harry meets his eye and mouths, “Oh yeah,” lips hovering open for way too long before turning into this mock smug thing that just –

Hiding behind his coffee, Nick dies a couple of times on the inside, and that’s before Harry slides across the floor to the fridge humming the refrain from Let’s Get It On, opens the door, and fucking juggles a couple of eggs before he whisks the water and cracks them into the pan. When that happens, Nick just wants to leap up from the table and shout, “Who the fuck are you?!” and maybe, “Get out!” where both of those are synonyms for, “Please move in immediately and do this every day because I cannot fucking stand the thought of ever making breakfast without you, you total, total weirdo and dickhead who I think I could adore quite shamelessly, given half a chance.”

“How d’you like your toast?” Harry says, dropping bread into the toaster slots.

“As long as it’s not so charcoaled I can draw with it, that’s good for me.”

“Low standards. Always helpful.”

Harry scratches the back of his head, making his hair go a bit fluffy and points at everything he’s got cooking one by one. When the toast leaps up, he scrapes margarine onto it, sucking crumbs off his thumb, and the spoons in the drawer jangle as he opens it and fishes about for forks. With a nod at the plates that looks a bit like a blessing, Harry brings the food over, sliding it onto the table with a waiterly little push.

“Is that avocado?” Nick says. “You’ve made me avocado, egg, and spinach on toast? What did I ever do to you? Apart from endanger your life with reckless drunkenness, obviously.”

Harry dampens his lips and leans on the table on his elbows so they’re eye-level. “Normally I would agree that avocado is an abomination, but this? This is going to change your life.” He plonks down on the chair opposite, hitching up his eyebrows until Nick hacks off a bit of toast, avocado, egg, and spinach and delivers it to his mouth. “Very little that can’t be improved by adding a poached egg, in my opinion.”

Inspired by Harry’s tongue being half out of his mouth, quivering and awaiting a forkful, Nick gets a flash of naked flesh and coughs as crumbs get him right in the back of the throat.

Harry blinks at him. “What?”

“My brain just did that thing where it skips like a record and the needle lands in the middle of something a bit weird and – well, sexual.”

“Go on?” Harry says, chewing in a lazy, drowsy circle.

“Do I have to?”

Crazy fast, Harry’s fork is poised above the back of Nick’s hand, prongs down, expression menacing to suggest that yes, he does.

“I was – briefly, very, very briefly,” Nick says, picking up the speed to get the next part out quickly, “picturing you in bed with a woman. She’s all naked and writhey and moaning, ‘give it to me, big boy’ or whatever women say. That’s not really my area of – ”

“They don’t say that,” Harry says, with a very serious shake of his head. “Not unless you’re actually making low rent porn at the time.”

Oh god. The way he says ‘porn’ is more like porn than most actual porn.

“Anyway.” Nick’s voice is now a goddamn trill. He clears his throat to try and get it down half an octave. “She’s good to go and you say, ‘hold up, love’ and dash off to the kitchen to poach an egg, and then – I don’t know – you drop it on her stomach with a ladle and burst it with your teeth and lick the yolk out of her bellybutton or something. Don’t make a face, I said it was weird.”

“You said it was a bit weird. That’s…” Harry lifts his fork and mouths the ends of the prongs. “…so weird in so many ways.”

“It was your own fault.”

“How?!”

“The way you eat is – that tongue thing – ” Nick waves his knife in the vague area of Harry’s mouth. “I can’t decide if it’s disgusting or arousing.”

“Probably a bit of both? Best things usually are.” Harry shrugs and does it again as he scoops up a forkful of spinach. “Poached sex would be less weird than scramble sex, though.”

Nick watches, coming down on the side of arousing, even though Harry’s talking with his mouth full, which he usually hates. “You reckon? Where’s hard-boiled sit in the oddness league table when it comes to using eggs during foreplay?”

Harry frowns, cocking his head while he chews and thinks. “I’d say it goes: soft-boiled, poached – ” He hums in consideration before nodding. “ – hard-boiled, scramble, raw, fried. I’d be up for anything up to raw, I think. No, maybe I would try raw. With the right person. I wouldn’t eat it off them but wearing it might be all right. Fried’s just nasty, though. I’d run away from fried.”

“You’re such a strange, kinky little bastard.”

Harry keeps his eyes on his plate and murmurs, “Yeah, and if I wasn’t about to go on tour, I think I could fall wildly in love with you.”

He just smiles like it’s no big deal to say that – out loud to the person it concerns – while Nick’s insides implode along with Harry’s egg yolk as he digs a fork into it.

They eat like that, with Nick trying to stay upright around non-existent internal organs and Harry just… being Harry right there at his kitchen table.

The world comes back all sharp and pointy when Harry’s phone buzzes. He checks it with a lazy glance that turns wide-eyed. “Oh – oh shit.” He pushes up his hair to rub at his forehead. “Car – it’s picking me up in ten for this thing. Except not, because I’m here.” He pulls on his eyebrow and looks around the kitchen. “Um – yeah – I’ll run and they’ll wait, probably, if I’m only five minutes late. Are you all right with the washing up?”

It’s the most low-fi freak out Nick has ever, ever seen. There’s a sort of quiet gracefulness to it, the way Harry just gets up at half-speed and finds his things with this distracted abstract expression of concern-yet-not-really and ambles – bloody ambles – to the front door.

Infected by his daze, Nick gets up too and just follows him, and they end up with the post at their feet and Harry shaking his hair into place with his fingers. He tucks his sunglasses into the neck of the t-shirt, which tugs it down even lower.

“Thanks so much for lending me this.”

Nick wants to lick him: start at the thin strip of cotton and the arm of his sunglasses, go right the way up that glorious chest to his throat, around in the hollow a little and up to his ear. He’s staring. He’s definitely staring, so to hide it, he brushes Patti’s face with the back of his knuckles, even though it’s not actually that creased and since when do his fingers have ironing powers?

“Looks better on you anyway,” Nick says, hand moving lower on the pretence of straightening it. “I love this t-shirt but I think you’re going to have to keep it. I can’t wear it again. It’d just end up resenting me for making it look trashy.”

A sniff of laughter, and Harry leans in and says, “Thanks for having me. I had a really lovely time.”

He spins it like he knows it’s such a woeful, awful cliché, at the same time adding this little crooked smile that somehow makes it sound as if he’s so sincere he had to hide it in a joke. And Nick knows he’s just being polite, but when he looks, Harry’s gaze goes all gooey behind his fringe.

“Apart from the part with your head in the toilet?”

“Sorry about that.”

Harry should be scampering out of the door, but he stays – lingers – waiting for something, a bit uncertain, and fuck, if Nick isn’t always a sucker for that.

“Seriously, don’t fret over it.” Nick balls his t-shirt against Harry’s chest and maybe just maybe pulls him in. “Believe me when I say that compared to some of the things I’ve done, you were a complete – ” The cotton near burns his knuckles he’s screwing it up so tight, dragging him in until his fist’s caught between them. “ – and utter angel.”

Their lips bump, close around each other with the tiniest and yet only noise in the world, and fuck. Harry’s fingertips make tiny dents on his cheek and his lips part and there’s a flicker of tongue and everything stops.

That’ll be an actual kiss, then.

“Wildly, wildly in love,” Harry whispers, and, looking kind of drowsy, he opens the door and heads out into the sunshine, sliding his sunglasses up his nose.

 

~ didn't believe in magic until I watched you disappear ~

 

The tour drags Harry away with the irresistible force of a riptide. Weeks turn into a month, and they send messages that end with xs, but it’s not the same when he’s slipped from a real person made of too much hair and smile to one made of shiny magazine paper and gossip at the hairdresser’s.

Nick thinks –

Well, he doesn’t think. Or he tries not to. Especially not about the wildly thing.

It’s probably for the best Harry’s thousands of miles away, otherwise he’d just be creating him his own personal Best of Patti Smith and making a show of himself presenting it to him as if it were his soul in a jewel case.

He starts making the playlist anyway, of course, but at least with Harry off apparently shagging fourteen different people a day, he doesn’t get to actually see Nick go the special kind of extra-salted cashew he goes when he likes someone and they’re in that blissful post-first-kiss hinterland where he’s all about giving them the gift of music they didn’t ask for rather than giving them the gift of actively seeking a way to fuck everything up to make sure they never get to a second kiss. He doesn’t get to see the four-day debate Nick drags all his friends into about whether he should start with Because The Night or Gloria so as not to scare him and work up to Birdland or if that’s coddling. He doesn’t get to see Nick toasted in a grimy bar, hit with a sudden cliff face of depression because they play a One Direction song, and coming home to eat undrained sweet corn straight from the can with a teaspoon. In fact, all Harry gets to see of the entire debacle is one message –

u heard of Lauryn Hill?

– that Nick sends at 5am, when for some reason related to post-show fug, lack of sufficiently distracting telly, and having had an argument with Maira about whether Wave is better than Horses (it is, she’s wrong, fuck what fucking Q thinks) he abandons the Best of Patti Playlist Plan because it’s impossible to make a Best of Patti Smith that’s not practically everything she ever recorded. Instead, he decides that what Harry needs is a proper music mix landing in his email to cheer him up. Not that there’s been abundant evidence he’s miserable, but… whatever. Nick is, so.

He calls the playlist The Miseducation of Harry Styles, and he thinks that’s quite witty for fourteen seconds until his brain goes: what if Harry doesn’t get the joke because he’s never heard of that album?

From there it’s a greasy slope, the kind he only slides down when it’s almost dawn and he’s drunk himself sober:

Fuck, I can’t fancy someone who doesn’t think The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of the all-time greats, let alone someone who’s never fucking heard it. How can he not have heard it? She was in the fucking Fugees. Balls, how old was he when they were about? Is me thinking he knows who they are like some old codger thinking I must remember that obscure disco track which unexpectedly blew up all over the charts in May 1985?

His psyche declares open warfare on itself. The pro-Harry cell beds in with: Harry must be able to at least hum Killing Me Softly. He did do Stevie Wonder on the X Factor.

Anti-Harry missile: shut up. He did the worst Stevie Wonder track in his entire back catalogue, and Killing Me Softly would not even count because it’s mostly Roberta Flack.

Team Harry: yeah but if he likes Roberta Flack, that cancels out not knowing who Lauryn Hill is, doesn’t it? And he probably just did Isn’t She Lovely because his mum likes it. You know what he’s like.

Anti-Harry extremist with pockets full of cluster bombs: but what if he didn’t?! Having not investigated Lauryn Hill as a solo artist is forgivable, but genuinely liking Isn’t She Lovely? That’s irreconcilable musical differences, that is, and they are the worst sort.

Really should have pinned him down on this shit before you let him kiss you and fuck with your head. Will you never learn?

By the time Harry replies –

Should I have? Am I shagging her in the papers there or something..?

– Nick’s brain is a no man’s land strewn with body parts, through which one last soldier of indeterminate allegiance is crawling, crying, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

That shoots Nick into a quick round of – what about Edwin Starr, though? If Harry likes him does that absolve him of all his other crimes? – and he decides the only thing for it is to bludgeon his brain with a hot toddy that’s fifty-fifty whiskey and tea.

He goes back to the playlist, adding Ex Factor because when the album info pops up that’ll explain the Miseducation thing and Harry’ll find it amusing.

Or will he?

Nick switches it for When It Hurts So Bad because what if he reads something else into it? Something related to Nick breaking up with him – which would be a stupid thing to think when they’re not even together but wildly and touring and all that jetlag has probably opaqued Harry’s thinking and let’s face it, it’s never exactly clear at the best of times.

Abruptly, it’s 7.30 in the morning and his neighbours are leaving for work.

“Jesus H Christ, Grimshaw. What the fuck are you doing?”

At least Nick realises he’s talking to himself before any of said neighbours overhear.

This is why you don’t do this, remember? This is why if you meet someone you like, you fuck them the day you meet them or not at all. Otherwise this happens.

And this? This is worse than the non-ironic wardrobe shrine. This is batshit. Harry Styles is making you batshit and you’re not even, like, with him in any way at all.

This is what you’re going to do. You’re going to put him out of your head and the next time you see him, you’re going to be a grown-up and tell him the kiss was very nice and he’s very lovely but explain that you don’t do this because it makes you batshit, and you can’t afford to be batshit because you have a career and friends and a life. And if he won’t have it – and he might not because he seems the type to get overinvested from the off – make up a fake boyfriend with anger management issues, a tendency to get jealous, and a Chihuahua with a personality disorder who’s been trained to bite anyone who speaks at below-normal speed.

Wait. That’s batshit too, probably.

“Oh fucking hell.”

 

~ we’re out of our minds with nothing inside ~

 

Early morning light streams through the blinds and into Nick’s eyes. He flinches like a vampire and tries to pass it off as a smile since the person on the other side of the table is the most important person at Radio 1 and is offering him his teeth like a gorilla.

This is what happens when you let Harry Styles make you batshit. You come in for a meeting and get fired before 10am. Under his desk is a box with the contents of your desk in it and he’ll probably just shout, “You! Sling it!” and you’ll end up on some god-awful regional radio station hosting a show called Tea’s Up Bognor Regis!

“Coffee?”

“It’s a bit early for me, to be honest.”

“Think you could get used to it?”

“Get used to anything, can’t you?”

Nick wonders if he should do the speech he rehearsed in the taxi, the one that starts, “All right, I know I keep talking on air about how much I hate the den but you have to admit, it smells rank in there, and I know I was sick on an intern but that was his own fault for getting between me and the toilet to ask a stupid question about that machine in the corner of the studio. Wait, are you sacking me because I don’t know the name of the machine in the corner or what it does? I’ll ask Maira – she’ll teach me – I’m sure she’s very good at educating people. She’s got the glasses for it.”

Or maybe it’d be better to be general just in case he doesn’t know about the intern? Something like: “Look, I know I’m a shambles and I’ve not been on top form generally the last few weeks but it’s not my fault. I accidentally got entangled with a pop star and he did what pop stars do and fucked off to go and get even more famous. I can’t stop thinking about him because he sends me these random photos that are like a cryptic crossword clue to what he’s doing and thinking, and even when he’s not all up in my phone, he’s everywhere I go because he’s a fucking pop star and his face is on an insane number of things. Honestly, I feel a bit like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Which I’ve never seen, obviously, because I’m cool, but as soon as you’re done handing me my arse, my career, and the contents of my desk in a cardboard coffin, I’m going to get trashed as fast as humanly possible and watch it all afternoon, sobbing my heart out because I really don’t want to move to Bognor Regis and Harry’s not here to tell me he’ll come and visit and bring me cake he stole from fancy parties.”

In reality, neither speech is required, because what happens is:

“So you want to host the breakfast show?”

“Are you shitting me?”

 

~ what you want might make you cry ~

 

Nick stands in the queue at Starbucks trying to make his thoughts settle enough to think one the whole way through. There’s no dodging it, though. The one he really wants to think is: this is probably exactly how Harry felt when Simon handed him a recording contract and a biro and said, “Trade me a scrawl of your name for the thing you’ve wanted since you were old enough to want things."

It’s horrible, being so close to a dream it's actually in your mouth, knowing it's going to cost you stuff you won’t even know the value of until it’s gone forever but if you say yes, it'll make you feel as if you’ve a reason to be breathing, now.

Except Harry wouldn’t have thought it like that. He’d have thought: ace and then holy shit and he probably waited until the five of them were alone in the lift and said something like, “Anyone else feel a bit wobbly? Are we crashing or is it, you know, the other thing?”

Nick orders a mocha because this is definitely a mocha occasion and sits on his own in the corner. He texts Harry with:

I’m having a day. When you get this can you just tell me everything will be all right?

Harry calls, even though it’s five in the morning where he is and he’s got a cold so he’s not supposed to be talking to anyone. He doesn’t really croak anything particularly profound, just, “But that’s brilliant.”

It’s so small and simple that Nick can see – when he couldn’t quite before – that yes it might be, if he doesn’t fuck it up. He sits there with Harry on the other end of the line, neither of them saying anything, until his drink goes cold.

Harry whispers, "You stop shaking yet?"

"No."

"Okay."

He just stays, and Nick can't tell, then, what the wobbles belong to.


~ you set my world on fire, you’ve got me spinning and I’ve lost my way ~



I’m back. Want to do something? xx

Out with work people but come anyway?
They’re housetrained.
Mostly.

He sends Harry the name of the pub and sits, clutching his beer bottle and trying not to look as hopelessly, desperately nervous as some fourteen year old who left a Valentine with a poorly-veiled clue to his identity in a locker. The four hundredth time he checks the door, Harry’s actually slipping through it, and meets his eye before Nick can look away and pretend he was actually listening to the conversation being thrown in his direction.

Nick stands on some kind of autopilot and Harry snatches him into a hug. Wrapping his arms around his shoulders, Nick swears he used to be shorter, and has a moment’s freak-out, because is it weird to be attracted to someone who hasn’t even finished growing into who they are yet?

“Want a drink?”

“I’ll give you a hand.”

They stand at the bar, not talking, stealing glances at each other in the mirror, and laughing when they’re caught. Nick doesn’t want to say any of those stupid things people say when they haven’t seen each other in a while – nice to see you, you look well, that a new hat? – but it is and he does and Nick thinks it might be and that’s his head full to capacity.

They manage to get a round in, go back to the table, and Harry pulls a chair up to the corner.

“Don’t want to interrupt if you’re working.” Harry gestures as what he probably thinks is some kind of serious radio stuff list on a notepad, and Nick just wants to shout at him that he’s been away for months and he’s allowed to fucking interrupt because these people push buttons for a living and he’s an international pop star in case he hasn’t noticed.

“That’s actually just a list of things we did at the weekend that we’ve made a pact not to mention on air.”

“Oh, really?” Harry cranes in to skim down it. “Who drunk misdialled the person they fancy and cried into the wrong answerphone?”

The entire team is suddenly very, very busy fiddling with beermats and their hair, and Maira leads a party to the jukebox because obviously it’s vitally important that someone put on a tune that isn’t Shed Seven (which it is, but it hardly takes four people to feed in coins and choose ‘anything but Shed Seven’).

“Whoever it was,” Nick says, swigging his beer, “they can’t decide whether they’re grateful the fancied person didn’t get to hear it, or if they should be panicking because somewhere there’s recorded Voicemail evidence that not only do they have it pretty bad for this person, they were eating a kebab on the pavement. Like – they’re lying on the pavement on a level with the kebab, and halfway through they realise they have chilli sauce in their hair and then get it in their eyes and that’s when the crying starts.”

“That is bad. Definitely pactable.” Harry nods, and Nick can’t tell – at all – if Harry’s figured out it was him.

“What about you? You got any of those what happens on tour stays on tour stories?” Nick shifts in, shouldering the others out of their conversation, nudges his knee into Harry’s under the table. “Secret’s safe with me.”

“Nothing funny springs to mind right now.” Harry gulps at his beer and pokes at the opening of the bottle. “Pretty tired, though. This is probably going to knock me out and you’ll have to carry me to bed. Again.”

He looks up and their eyes and meet and he smiles and it’s… there. Nick hadn’t been sure it would be – but there it is, that gooey tingly thing he gets a faint echo of every time he crosses the doorstep.

Nick hates tingles when they can’t do anything about them because they’re in a pub full of fucking people. One of them takes that moment to tap Harry on the elbow and ask for a picture, and while his back’s turned, vaguely Nick remembers swearing that the next time he saw Harry he’d give him the It’s Not You, I’m Batshit speech – the version without the aggressive Chihuahua, obviously. That’s still the sensible thing to do, but also probably the impossible thing to do when Harry’s being much sweeter than the pissheads who’ve bother him deserve, turning back, and apologising, as if it’s his fault people can’t keep their poking and their phones to themselves and let him have a minute.

Nothing happens that night – they’re sabotaged by colleagues divvying up taxis and herding Nick into one going to where he actually lives, the bastards – and nothing happens the next few times they see each other, either. There are always other people there: people they know, people they don’t but who know who they are, people with cameras who’d follow them and turn them into a story without a heartbeat’s hesitation. He’d never noticed, before, how surrounded they are, perhaps because he was never looking for a conspicuous moment to be alone.

Weeks pass and they slip into this pattern where nothing has happened so many times Nick starts to think nothing ever will, that maybe it’s not people at all, and Harry’s just done what flighty cocker spaniel blokes do and moved on.


~ I can tell that we’re gonna be friends ~


 

Nick spends his birthday calling everyone he’s supposed to and letting them wish him many happy returns and tidying enough to make the place look respectable but as if he hasn’t made any effort. A text from Harry derails him mid-dust:

Happy enforced cake day! See you in a mo x

He can see Harry’s name on the list of people he fumbled it with, the ones he put his hands out to catch who just dropped through his goalie mitts and rolled behind him into the friend zone, the ones who still call him sometimes, but not as often as they used to, and never for the reason he wants.

Wouldn’t be awful. There are plenty worse things than being mates with Harry Styles and at least if it's not going to happen he can move on, go back to what he usually does.

Sighing, ignoring the words because that wouldn't feel hollow at all, now, bouncing around his head, he chucks the duster and the polish under the sink and gets a beer out of the freezer, tiny voice right at the back of his skull going:

Really should have let him blow you when you had the chance. That was an error of judgement.

“Oh shut up, you.”

The door goes and Nick answers it with a, “Someone’s eager,” which means of course it’s Harry and he looks amazing and Nick just wants to lick his face and cry, “Please let me make a late dive, catch you this time, and wrestle you out of the friend zone.” Or something a bit less weird than that, probably, but there’s definitely licking involved.

He backs into the lounge and Harry comes with him, weaving slightly because he’s multi-tasking wrestling a package – stripy paper, slightly askew but neatly done – out of his jacket pocket. "Happy birthday."

It’s obviously a CD but when Nick puts his beer down to take it and goes for the tape, Harry says:

“Don’t open it yet. There’s a story, first.” Harry pushes his hair up and fiddles his hands back into his pockets and something about him being nervous makes Nick want to die. “See, I met someone at this thing and we got talking about music – and you – stuff you like.”

It was probably Snoop Dogg or Skrillex or someone and dear god, Nick hopes Harry didn’t mention not having heard of Lauryn Hill.

“He told me about this shop in New York that’s a holy grail for people into hip-hop, that they do a t-shirt they only give to famous people they think are cool.”

“I know the one – they’re horribly elitist. They wouldn’t even let Jay-Z have one because they heard a rumour he said he thought Snow Patrol were all right.”

Harry laughs, all small and breathy, pulling his jacket out of shape with his fists. “So when we were playing Madison Square Gardens I skived off and went there to get you something.” He breaks off and glances at the floor. “Was properly elaborate – I had to rope Liam in and everything to run interference with these girls outside the hotel – and I got lost – twice – and the area seemed dodgy – and I’d had a moment in the car rental place and got something a bit flash because I thought it’d be embarrassing if someone got a picture of me driving around New York in, like, a Fiat Punto – so, bit convinced I was going to get carjacked, bad time all round, really. And when I got there, the shop was closed because DMX was in there just, like, shopping and not wanting to be bothered.”

“You bang on the glass, all, don’t you know who I am?

“Naturally.” Harry nods really slowly and reaches out to fiddle with Nick’s shirt. “Turns out DMX is a big fan. I signed something for him and he wet himself with excitement and that was just really awkward so I left empty-handed.” His fingers pause on Nick’s chest and he looks up, all soft and shy. “I really wanted to get you something to, like, commemorate the moment I went to extreme lengths to not buy you something, so I had a woman take a picture of me sulking outside – and I was going to have that put on a t-shirt and send it to you but then I realised that would be – weird, and I went to this record shop down the road – and I got you that.”

He gives the CD a shove towards Nick, fingers loitering just a little longer than necessary before he lets it go.

Nick peels away the paper, and there in his hands sits: The Pan Pipe Orchestra of Venezuela Plays Old Skool Rap Classics, which includes DMX and Sisqo’s What These Bitches Want.

“Harry – ” Nick’s voice pitches and he tells himself it’s just a CD, not his soul in a jewel case. Except it kind of is because New York was ages and ages ago and story and that deserves the mother of all hugs. He pulls Harry into him, coiling his arm around his neck and getting right into his ear to whisper, “This is the worst CD anyone has ever brought me. Maybe the worst CD anyone has ever bought anyone.”

Harry laughs into his shoulder. “Exactly.”

“I love it.”

They’re just unhugging to look at each other when the doorbell bongs.

“That’ll be other people, then.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, frowning at his shoes. “Is it me or are there more of them than there used to be?”

Rolling his eyes, Nick goes off to get the door, and all he can think is that if Harry’d told the story a bit faster, they might have had time for a quick snog of the sort that starts all sweet and thank youish and ends up on the floor.

The closest he gets to any kind of tongue action that night, though, is a peck on the cheek when his friends egg Harry on to embarrass him, and he hopes he gives good fluster because he loses Harry shortly after and ends up getting plastered on something the colour of bile that tastes like aftershave.

 

~ don’t forget who you are, you’re a rock n’roll star ~

 

Sitting at his desk at home, digging out receipts to compile his expenses, Nick decides that enough nothing is enough – it’s been more than a week since his birthday and clearly this isn’t just going to happen of its own accord. He needs to make a move. He needs to be proactive and manly and overt, and what’s he waiting for, anyway? It’s not as if he’s never made a move on anyone before.

Except that’s a lie and he hasn’t. He’s collided with people in a haze of tequila and woken with all the hard stuff except getting rid of them done, or been the guy you end up fumbling with on a sofa at 5am because all the normal people have already copped off with each other and the person you actually fancy has passed out with his face in the crisps, but actually ask someone out? Gone somewhere with someone with romantic intent? Never.

It hits him like one of those whompy things on Total Wipeout that making his first proper move on someone half the world wants to sleep with – someone who’s used to being chatted up and propositioned and is regularly showered in vegetables that have phone numbers and sex acts scrawled on them – is potentially the worst idea ever to flit through his head, and given some of his sartorial disasters, that's a hotly contested award category. Fuck, he should have practiced this on people he didn't actually care about. In fact, he should have done what everyone else did and started working towards this when he was fifteen instead of collecting trainers and pop tunes like he was stockpiling for a very specific kind of apocalypse.

How can he be this old and never have done this?

Nick head-butts the desk and lies there on his receipts, breath fluttering the paper.

Maybe he could just do the tequila thing and sneak an offer in on the sly. Salt - "Hey Harry, you want to come back to my place?" - tequila - lime - "But I always come back to your place," - salt - "I meant for sex, this time," - tequila - "Oh, 'cos the way you said it made it sound like you wanted to wear face masks and play mahjong," - lime bite of crushing self-hatred.

Nick stares at the papers on the desk, squinting at the one under his nose. When did he spend £103.91 in Pizza Express?

"Hey Harry, you want to come to Pizza Express? I need to see if the decor triggers a recollection so I can decide if I can write this off against tax or I was pissed on my own time and craving carbs. Oh, and by the way, I'm going to ask if you want to share a plate of dough balls and I hope you'll be able to read between the lines and tell that we're actually on a date thing and that you'll think it's sweet or something that I'm too much of a coward to just ask you out directly."

Nick sits up, something flapping on his face. He swats at it, nudging his mouse, and iTunes appears on his computer, The Miseducation of Harry Styles still sat there in the sidebar.

With a, "Huh," Nick has a moderately genius idea.

Or as close as a man with a receipt from Pizza Express stuck to his face is ever going to get to one, anyway.

 

~ change the rules, throw away the rubric ~

 

Freshly burned CD in hand, Nick pings his way up through the floors in the place Harry’s staying. It’s one of those apartment blocks for businessmen who commute in and don’t have any mates to stay with when they’re working late: looks like a hotel; a bit too clean as if there’s always a team of people buffing the door handles to keep the fingerprints and any snatch of humanity off them. He checks Harry’s text with the flat number in it as the lift door opens and finds the right one to knock on, having accidentally timed it so perfectly that he can’t fuck about with this or he’ll be spectacularly late for work.

Harry answers wearing a t-shirt that’s obviously been living in a suitcase, and behind him there’s a tray on the floor with the remains of some pasta thing and his laptop, where the last series of Skins is frozen.

“Obviously you’re very busy turning this disgustingly grown-up apartment into a cesspit so I’ll get straight to the point,” Nick says, and holds the CD out. “Made you this when you were away and you might as well have it.”

“What’s on it?” Harry flips it over in his hands, squinting at Nick’s handwriting. “Are these lyrics?” He opens it, and – finding only his own face reflected in the CD – frowns. “Where’s the track listing?”

“Google them. It’ll be like a treasure hunt or something. Keep you amused.”

“All right.” Harry looks up, smiling like that’s not at all weird, and this, this is why Nick jitters when he thinks about him: when he does something cashew, Harry just kind of goes with it. “You coming in?”

“I got to get to work but – listen to that and pick me up after the show tomorrow night and I’ll take you somewhere quiet for a drink?”

“Just us?”

Nick nods, and Harry echoes it, going a bit too smiley until he realises he’s doing it and reins it in.

“Right. Well, I’ve got to go, but – ”

Nick checks the corridor, probably looking a bit like a comedy spy in a sketch show, and – coast clear – he leans in, slowly enough so Harry has time to say, “What the fuck?” if Nick has got this all terribly, horrendously wrong and the panpipe rap CD and all the little glances when they're surrounded aren't actually what he thinks at all.

Harry’s eyes widen, fix on his lips, and cross a bit before closing just as Nick’s kiss lands on his mouth. He planned a peck – mere statement of intent or a placeholder or something – but Harry’s not having that. Hand firm on Nick’s collar, Harry sinks against him, mouth opening. It’s not so much a kiss as a blindside. Heart going like a weird techno remix, Nick steadies himself with a palm full of denim and hipbone. It’s not nearly enough so he scrabbles for Harry’s hair for something to cling to and tugs him right in, and Harry takes that as an invite to push up onto his toes and into it and curls his arm around Nick’s neck. That results in them both going all writhey and increasingly breathy as they take turns chasing each other’s tongues back to where they came from, and when they break apart for air, Harry makes this tiny throat noise like the word what got stuck.

“That. I just wanted you to know that,” Nick says.

That was pretty good for off the cuff so don’t ruin it by saying something stupid and unnecessary. Just turn and walk away like a cool person and pretend this was no big deal. Turn turn turn turn turrrrrrrrn.

His feet decide to have him back away instead and he just prays one of the doorknob people isn’t behind him buffing away on their knees with a cloth, because nothing would ruin this moment more than him tripping – which he’ll do in a great big flail of arms and battered trainer, naturally – crying out like an offended quail and landing on the carpet in a pile of, “Oh flaming Nora,” (which, for the record, was the first thing his grandma said when she came round from falling down the stairs and breaking her thigh bone in two places).

“Um – yeah,” Harry says, like it’s desperately profound, and maybe it is – Nick can’t even fucking tell at this point because his head’s just a whir of white noise and stuff his gran’s said that he’s trying not to let out of his mouth. “I’ll be listening. Play me something decent.”

“Great.” Nick tuts and fumbles for the lift button. “Now I’m all nervous.”

 

~ why do I feel safer on stage than in my living room ~

 

Nick looks at Maira over the top of his coffee mug. He’s drinking it out of habit and regretting it increasingly with every sip as the cocktail of caffeine and thirty-minutes-ago-I-had-Harry’s-lips-on-mine adrenaline makes a stammer run all the way through him and manifest in repeatedly knocking his ankle against the leg of the desk like a head case. God, he hopes people can’t hear it over the tracks. They’ll think he’s gone mad and is playing a weird garage version of everything.

“Is it ever a good idea to text someone you fancy to see if they had chance to listen to the mix you made them yet, especially if it’s not technically possible for them to have done so in the time since you gave it to them and they said they’d be listening to you on the radio anyway?”

“Yes. Except you should call them and ask live on air.”

“You’ve changed, Maira. When you started here you were so – staid and now you’re trying to cajole me into making a fool of myself. Think I’ve corrupted you.” He gives her a little impressed nod. “What do you reckon the best track we’re playing tonight is?”

Maira adjusts her glasses and peers at the list. “Objectively speaking I’d say the new Bashy track.”

“That is pretty mint. Subjectively?”

“I feel that – ” A quick hum, and Maira leans back on her chair with a squeak. “ – I have a more visceral emotional reaction to the Friends one.”

“We playing Mind Control or Friend Crush?” Nick says, smile creeping up on him, ninja-style.

Friend Crush.”

“Magic. Cue it up for me?”

He nips outside with his phone and types:

next one’s yours x

It takes two goes to send, and when it does, he wonders what on earth he was worried about, because it’s easy as pie, all this.


~ I'm lost again, it's happening ~


 

The pie feeling implodes to nothing but crumbs soon enough. He woke facedown on the sofa, having spent the night watching reruns of Location, Location, Location in a fit of not sleeping, the thought going round and round and round in his head that what the fuck is he doing admitting he has feelings and going out with Harry properly when couples do nothing but bicker and make each other miserable? Sure, it's all fine when it's sneaking a kiss in the doorway and giving each other CDs, but how long does that last? Around 4.30 - when Kirsty was wearing some black and red floral monstrosity - he started picturing himself and Harry having one of those rows people have in supermarkets:

"I hate jam tarts. I must've told you fourteen times. Why do you never listen to me?"

"Because you never say anything interesting. I'll put them back if it's going to bother you."

"No, have them, see if I care. But if you're having those, you're not allowed to whinge when I get that yoghurt you don't like."

"This is exactly why I didn't want to move to Basildon. I knew you'd be a cunt here, because everyone's a cunt in Basildon."

"Some of my best mates live here."

"Yeah, and I hate them an' all. Why do you think I want the jam tarts? I need the sugar to take my mind of how much I despise this wretched existence you've shackled me to."

His phone buzzes on the desk with a text from Harry that reads –

can’t wait to see you. xx

– lack of capital implying Harry started with something else originally but deleted it. Of course he’s not going to go fifty shades of crazy wondering what that was.

"Have you had a lot of Red Bull?" Maira says. "Look a bit wired."

"Can you call in sick to a date?"

"Someone set you up with one of their friends?"

Nick fiddles with the faders, pushing them just up far enough to make that little click noise but not far enough to actually send anything out. "Set myself up with someone."

"Why would you set yourself up with someone you don't want to go out with?"

"I do want to go out with him - at least I think I do - I just don't want to end up in Basildon having a fight about jam tarts and how do you avoid that?"

"Don't go to Basildon?"

Great. Apparently the best Nick can hope for is that it'll one of those nights where the show passes as if it’s been stapled to an arthritic snail so he has time to think it all through and get his head straight. Unfortunately, the bastard thing sprints past like Usain Bolt running for free chicken nuggets, and before he’s had time to get anything resembling his shit together, the light-up phone goes to say he has a guest waiting in reception.

Nick does the final link – sounding to his own ears like a hyperactive rabbit and praying that’s not actually playing where Harry’s been stowed. No avoiding it, then. Maybe Maira's right - they just won't move to Basildon and everything will be fine. Nick grabs his things, attempting a stroll as he makes it over there. His reflection in the stupid shiny floor tells him he looks more as if he just really needs the toilet and he forgets how to walk in any natural way entirely when Harry actually notices him.

“Hey.”

Harry sounds like he just got out of bed, but his outfit screams someone cool helped him with it and when he pulls Nick in for a hug he smells distinctly shower-fresh and especially beachy. For some reason that disables Nick’s hands’ ability to remember where they go when you’re hugging someone and they flit from his shoulders to halfway down his back.

His lungs are brittle by the time Harry pulls back, and fuck, even if he's dodged the jam tart row by never going to Basildon this is not easy as lemon meringue, it’s easy as doing nuclear fission equations blindfold while boy scouts diligently poke you with chopsticks.

They manage some pitiable small talk in the car while they drive to a bar where Nick knows they won’t be bothered because it’s mega rubbish so no one goes there. Speakers that should have found their way into a skip a decade ago blare out a baffling mix of Europop and really obscure early eighties synth, all the bar staff are wearing leopard print, and the cocktail menu on the chalkboard has everything but the Frog In A Blender crossed out.

Harry’s assessment is, “Interesting.”

He leans on the bar and orders Nick one of the frog things and a Coke for himself, and when the drinks arrive, he asks Nick if he can try a bit, sips at the cocktail, and coughs into his shoulder for about five minutes. “Think that has actual frog in it.”

“You know some frogs are hallucinogenic?” Nick takes a slurp and blimey, it’s vile in a really distressingly earthy way. He presses his fingers to his lips for a second to suppress the burn of vomit in his oesophagus. “I licked one at Glastonbury a couple of years ago.”

“How was it?”

“Slimy and it made me throw up, mostly because it only occurred to me after I’d had my tongue on its belly that it’d probably already been licked by hundreds of hippies.”

Great, they’re talking about sucking frogs and barfing. Nick rakes his brain for things his friends have said about dates they’ve been on for tips about how this should go, but it’s all just, “and then he tried to do me in the arse without asking and without lube, how rude is that?” and “so we’re in the taxi and he’s so shit-faced he’s green, and let’s just say I’ll miss the handbag more than his face,” and “I’m not proud of it, but how many chances in your life do you get to go to an orgy with Bruno Mars?”

“So – you come here often, then?” Harry says, and does that thing he does sometimes where he blankly says something really cheesy but his eyebrows dip halfway through saying it and you can tell he sort of regrets starting out because he can’t decide if he deadpanned it enough to make it funny.

Normally Nick finds it adorable and hilarious but for some reason tonight it just seems weird that Harry’s trying to amuse him because it's normally something he does completely incidentally. “Only when the riot was on because everywhere else was on fire.”

“Fun times.”

Nick rattles the ice-cubes around his glass, trying to find the way they normally are with each other, but it’s as if he’s wearing someone else’s skin. “Annie’s playing tonight in Hackney – we could head over.”

“Don’t mind.”

“I mean she’s in one of those phases where she air cowbells behind the decks and I can’t promise I won’t join in, but – ”

Like the drift of a feather, Harry’s fingers brush his wrist. He smiles, leans right into Nick’s ear and tickles the shell with the words, “Or we could just drink these and go back to yours?”

His voice is all sex, but just to make sure he runs up Nick’s arm with his eyes, looking at him with a bitten smile and suggestion of the non-mahjong kind.

It plays out at a hundred miles an hour in Nick’s head, the city blurred into stripes of neon motion like a Chemical Brothers video as they drive to his too fast. They’ll stumble in all over each other and Harry probably won’t even wait until the door’s closed before he’s on his knees, and later, the bedroom will surround them and blot out the world until there’s nothing other than the dark little hollow between Harry’s hair and his ear. The morning won’t be awkward because they know how to do that and Nick’ll tell him to stay, if he wants, while he’s at work, because it’s been gnawing at him, the thought of Harry alone in that hotel place that’s nothing like a real flat. Harry will because – even when he has nothing to say and he can’t be arsed with anything more complicated than playing stupid games on his phone – Harry hates to be on his own, and he’ll bring more and more of his things over until Nick forgets whose t-shirt is whose.

They’ll chug along for a while and then a trip or a tour will come up. Harry seems the sort to be earnest and make gestures in the moment so he'll say something about Nick being able to trust him while he's away, but Nick’ll make a stab at pragmatism and explain he’s not really the jealous type so Harry doesn’t have to make a promise to keep his hands etc. to himself, that they can just see how they feel when he gets back.

Taste of all the metallic sweet corn he’ll be eating already in his mouth, Nick wonders how often they might do that before he realises he should just have made a non-ironic wardrobe shrine to Harry and left it at that, because the thought of turning into who he was the last time Harry left and getting stuck like that is worse, probably, than the jam tart thing.

Harry’s fingers are around his wrist, now, like a bangle, and he’s tugging Nick away from the bar and to the door.

Very gently, Nick removes them. “Not sure that’s a good idea. Maybe none of this is.”

“Why not? I thought – ”

There’s this great, clonking you liked me just sitting there like stifling disco smoke, and Harry swallows and fiddles with his glass.

Nick tells himself Harry’ll bounce back – he’s eighteen for fuck’s sake, a flighty cocker spaniel – and Nick will too, once he’s got drunk enough to cry tears of lime and tequila.

Maybe it’s just the aggressively blue disco lighting, but, with his lips pinched together and his gaze on the floor, Harry looks absolutely nothing like a flighty cocker spaniel. It’s more… terribly emo Afghan hound puppy who broke a vase with its tail, glued it all painstakingly back together with its paws, and got shouted at anyway for breaking the vase and using all the glue.

“Harry, the thing you have to realise about DJs is – we all go batshit.”

 

~ if you can see me, then you’re probably a little too close ~

 

Nick staggers out of the bar with frog cocktails and the image of Harry storming off sloshing about his stomach. Rain slides down the gutter like a flume and pours from the low rumbling clouds, and, looking about for a cab, he sees a Range Rover parked at the end of the street. Inside, Harry’s lit up by his phone, frowning and biting his lip beneath his beanie. It’s like being stabbed in the lower intestine – not once, not with one sharp point like a knitting needle so it’s over and done with, but repeatedly, like having a porcupine fucking pogo on it. Goddamn he hates Harry Styles.

Hair sodden and wilted into his eyes, Nick jogs down the road and knocks on the passenger window. “What the fuck are you still doing here?”

Harry clutches his chest and Nick realises, yeah, probably should have approached from the front. Leaning across, Harry pushes the door open. He doesn’t look at Nick as he slides onto the seat and makes a veritable puddle of a man all over the upholstery, just stares at the bonnet, where rain bounces like it’s Irish dancing to the tune on the stereo, which is dismayingly familiar.

“When you storm off,” Nick says, “it’s usually better to go the whole way home. At the very least, you go to another bar, get wasted, and pour yourself all over someone whose name you don’t even bother to ask. Kids today – you don’t wait around to give the stormee a lift home.”

“I’ll bear that in mind next time.” Harry hooks a finger over the steering wheel and chews his lip, nodding along with the stereo. “I like this one.”

“You better. My computer got an STI downloading that illegally.”

With a turn of the key the engine starts, and Harry pulls out into the night.

Nick spends the entire journey resting his head on the window, own thoughts in the lyrics rolling back at him in a taunt. He realises two things: everything feels worse with a damp collar, and there’s nothing he can say that’ll shove this tidily into a dustpan. Balls.

They pull up outside his flat, and Harry kills the ignition – properly – so they’re trapped inside the rain with silence of the kind that folds up on itself until it’s stacked in a tight little origami tower.

Harry wets his lips. “You’re being disconcertingly quiet.”

“Maybe you only get a finite amount of words and I used them all up. Maybe there’s a lot of things I’d like to be saying but they’re just trapped inside me and buzzing like really riled up bees.”

Harry’s eyes flicker over, and they’ve done a lot of things to Nick in the past but they’ve never made him feel as if he’s going to wither and die like a dandelion in a weed killer advert before.

Soggy shoes resting apologetically together, he says the only thing he can think of that’s both truthful and not epically painful. “I don’t do this, all right? Shouldn’t have tried.”

“Why did you, though?”

“It’s probably all on the CD.”

“So it’s not a music mix, it’s a coded message?” Harry makes this little huh noise, reflection all foggy and puzzled against the night. “Say I only listened to it eight times – ”

“Eight?!” Nick eyebrows flee up to hide in his hair in alarm. “You listened to it eight times since yesterday? That’s – ”

Say I only listened to it a handful of times,” Harry says, very deliberately flexing his fingers and balling them back up again, “and say I didn’t really – you know – decode it just, like, listened to it and danced a bit, do you think you could just say whatever you were trying to? Now? Have you got the words for that? Because I don’t get it. I don’t get what changed.”

Nick swallows – or tries to, but some fucking thing is lodged in his throat, a callus formed around how defeated and annoyed Harry’s voice has gone. He scratches at the rough, damp denim on his thigh. Better out than in, get this over and done with, why not kick a real puppy too etc..

“Nothing changed, but I realised who I am. I’m full-on cashew for you, here,” Nick says. “Sometimes I get, like, addicted to people – I want to put them on replay and drown in them – and usually that’s fine because they don’t want to sleep with me, and I just end up eating stuff right from the tin and hating myself and eventually it’s all sort of over there somewhere.” He waves down the road to where the trees list like pissed cheerleaders in the wind. “So – that’s what I do. That and drunken – you know – when the person you want’s in the crisps or whatever. I don’t do going out together on purpose and feelings and I can’t help thinking that’s the way it should stay because the thing about my people addictions is they pass. And when it does, I reckon that’d hurt you quite a lot, probably, because you’re the type to get overinvested really early, get your heart bruised, and then let someone fill you with dangerously alcoholic trifle cocktails until you turn into a toilet pterodactyl.” Nick catches Harry’s reflection shift. “It’s a really inappropriate time to be smiling, Harry.”

“You’re being funny, I’m sorry.”

“Well – stop it.” Nick tuts, and Harry has to look out of the window and press his fingers to his mouth. “Can’t you just let me be quietly and gloriously one-sided about this thing? I know how to do that.”

“Not much fun for me, though.”

“Yeah, well, I’m doing you a favour. You’re young and a pop star and I’m going batshit, and there’s no way that doesn’t get messy. Trust me, we shouldn’t do whatever it is you think you want to do with me even if – occasionally – late at night and full of booze I think that might be quite nice.”

Wrapping an arm around his knee as he hitches it up to rest on the steering wheel, Harry looks over. “What do you think will happen?” He’s smiling again and Nick can’t tell whether he’s winning here and Harry’s seeing the light or laying a trap. “What’s the potential mess? What’s the messiest mess that could happen?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” The tilt of Harry’s head suggests it’s not, so Nick rolls his eyes. “All right. Say – against the odds – it’s fine for a while and we don’t fight about jam tarts and I learn to deal with you not always being there without becoming a pathetic, sweet corn-eating, pining bastard, one day you’ll wake up and there’ll be nothing to eat in the entire flat and you’ll text me at the studio to ask me to pick you up some muesli on my way home. I’ll go to Waitrose or wherever and it’ll be all Swedish this and high fibre that and I’ll wander the cereal aisle muttering, not knowing what you want, and angsting because I should, shouldn’t I? I should know what kind of muesli you like if we’re living together. I’ll wind myself up until I’m so busy worrying about what me not knowing your breakfast preferences says about me as a person and us as a thing that I’ll get lost and a bit confused. I won’t be able to make a choice because after a certain point, DJs can’t choose anything but records, and on top of that, the whole breakfast show gig plus trying to keep up with your sexual demands means I haven’t slept in forever and that’s just accelerated my inevitable descent into batshittery. It’ll all be too much for me to handle – I know it will."

Nick pulls his sleeves down over his hands, focusing on a tiny strand of stray cotton and not the way his heart's matching the rain patter for patter.

"I’ll sink to the floor right there by the porridge, clutching a packet of that muesli cluster stuff that pretends it’s good for you but is secretly drenched in honey and ninja calories, and I’ll rock back and forth until some security guard finds me and mistakes me for the dangerous kind of head case. He’ll call the police and they’ll cart me off, and someone will get a photo with their phone – because there’s always some fucker with a phone and no sense of basic human decency – and I’ll be wearing some awful tragedy of a cardigan and the next day the by-line in the paper will be something like: Harry Styles’ lover looked aged as he got arrested and then committed. And you’ll see me – all grainy and old and news printed and in some sort of cell – and you’ll realise who I am, and you’ll leave me."

Nick pauses, but Harry doesn't say, "fair enough," or "yeah, you're probably right," or any of the things a sensible person would, so he goes on:

"Two weeks later you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of the advances of some immaculately waxed and perma-tanned singer with a lap dancer name like Chance or Jude and a very kind heart, and it’ll be so much simpler with them you’ll wonder what you were ever doing with me." Nick tugs the stray cotton free from his cuff, watching as it tumbles into the foot well. "I’ll lie to the psychiatrists and tell them it was just a coke binge gone south to get released from whatever godforsaken institution I’m crocheting doilies in, and go back to work too soon because I don’t know what else to do with myself and I can’t stand to be in the flat because you’re everywhere but not there and it makes my teeth ache. In all probability I won’t be able to face people sober knowing they saw me going mental with muesli clusters while wearing a cardie that looks like a poncho, so I’ll have a vodka or twelve in the car on the way there. That means that when I see a picture of you and Chance-slash-Jude on the cover of a gossip rag someone’s left lying around, I won’t be thinking straight, and that’ll be it. I’ll hang myself live on national radio with my headphones and a whole generation of kids listening in the car on the way to school will need therapy."

He sighs, watching two rain drops slink away from each other on the windscreen. "You’ll come to the funeral – of course you will – and you’ll cry and say nice things about me to my mum because you’re so fucking decent, and you’ll live a pleasant life with your kind-hearted Chance-Jude person and it’ll all just be slightly tainted by the memory of this DJ you were with once who went batshit." Nick drags his gaze from the star-crossed raindrops to Harry. "I can’t do that to you, I just can’t, and you shouldn’t ask me to.”

Harry stares at him, open-mouthed, for about a decade while Nick just sits there thinking: well you asked.

When Harry does speak, it’s a torturously slow, “Thought you were going to say something about, like, ruining our friendship.”

“Well that too.”

“How can you tell all that from two kisses and half a drink? That’s – ”

Nick’s chin wobbles and he grits his teeth together to keep it still. “Say it – go on, say it – it’s batshit. Because I’m batshit. You made me go batshit earlier than I had to.”

“You know,” Harry says, very quietly, “I think this might go slightly better if you stopped caring more about things that haven’t happened and this weird idea of how I could potentially ruin your life than, like, reality and stuff I’ve actually done with you. It’s not really very fair, that.”

Great. Chastised for lacking emotional maturity by someone who’s only been old enough to vote for six months. Hello, new low.

“I’d probably just go and get my own muesli,” Harry says, rubbing his knee as he ponders. “I don’t even like muesli, if I’m honest. I’d rather have Cornflakes – and you can’t really go wrong with those because they’re just… Cornflakes. And even if you did bring me cereal I’m not that fond of, well, what have I done that makes you think I wouldn’t just say thanks and eat it anyway? There’s no cereal I hate so much I’d, like, get mad about it or break up with you over it, so you’ve kind of had a supermarket mental breakdown for no reason. And using that as a reason not to go out with me even though you want to? Well, that’s… preposterous.”

Nick swallows. It’s a special kind of heart wrenching that he’s reduced Harry Styles to dragging out the word ‘preposterous’. “Shall I get out, now?”

“Can I come in with you?”

“What? That’s – ” Nick huffs, hands falling back into his lap. “I’ve got this all horrendously wrong. You’re the one who’s batshit. I took you on the worst date in history, talked about snogging frogs that had been previously licked by hippies, said all that, and you still want to have sex with me? I always knew you were kinky but that’s properly fucked up.”

Harry laughs. He actually fucking laughs. It bursts out of him in this cackle-splosion that makes his eyes go all sparkly and crinkle at their corners.

“I hate you,” Nick says, reaching for the door handle. “You’re unfathomable. This is exactly why I don’t do this.”

A waft of cold air and rain rushes in as he throws the door open, but Harry’s fingers wrap around his elbow, pausing him just long enough to slip a sly kiss onto his cheek. “ ‘Night, Nick,” he says. “Been fun.”

And Nick doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just gets out as if it didn’t happen, walks on his soggy trainers to the front door as if it’s not raining, and when Harry calls, “Drink some water,” gives him the finger over his shoulder.

 

~ you have seen me through some trials and tribulations and some tears, but everybody thinks I'm weird ~

 

“Florrie finally got her act together and recorded a new song, then,” Nick says, holding the CD up and letting the Jiffy bag fall onto the pile of Jiffy bags sniffing at his feet.

The production team are utterly nonplussed by the news. He slips the CD into his computer anyway and listens while it spins up.

“Fred Falke remix of this would be sick.” He taps on the edge of the desk before opening a new browser tab and saying so on the reaction form. “Hey, Maira, you want to go out and get trashed with me tonight? Like, Saturday night trashed even though it’s Wednesday?”

“Not really,” Maira says, pushing her glasses up her nose.

“Magic.”

He sits there with Florrie bouncing about just to highlight how very his life has sagged around his knees, and his phone goes. Naturally – because the apocalypse always happens on a Wednesday – it’s a message from Harry (that dick from 1D). His profile probably still says House of Pain and hafuckinghahahaha to that.

Nick gets Florrie gripped between his teeth for something to bite on and swipes the message to read it. Oh, great. It’s not one message – there’s four of them. That always goes so well. If he’s lucky, Harry won’t have actually filed for a restraining order because that could really get very awkward professionally.

If I ask you out for dinner, will you have a stroke or something?

Date-type dinner, that is.

So we’re clear I’m going to flirt with you obnoxiously. And run my foot up the back of your leg under the table.

Swallowing and removing Florrie – shiny cardboard CD sleeve sticking to his lip – Nick sets his phone down on the desk and nudges it away with the tip of his finger.

“It’s not a bomb,” Maira says.

“Beg to differ.”

She sighs as if she wants to ruffle his hair and then strangle him with his own shirt. “You want a coffee?”

He nods and she wafts off, leaving him alone to deal with the ticking phone bomb. Who asks someone out to dinner after that catastrophic shambles? He eyes the screen until it goes dark, lights it up again, and repeats that three times before he finds the guts to type:

Yes, I would definitely have a stroke if you said that.

Great. Do that this afternoon and then meet me at Joe Allen’s at seven. Want to try the Secret Burgers.

Nick wants to type something like: fuck you, Harry Styles. I’m not going to have dinner with you just because you say so.

But he is.

Probably.

Because people who are not only prepared to put up with but have dinner with his batshit are few and far between. In fact, so far it’s a list with only one name on it.

He doesn’t type anything. He just sits there, waiting for panic to claw its way up his spine.

 

~ then I'm ready to run, ready to fall, think I'm ready to lose it all ~

 

Bare brickwork broken up by posters of Hollywood icons and candles in jam jars give the place an air of old, noir-ish, effortless glamour. It makes Nick’s palms itch around the glass of red wine he ordered and yet can’t seem to drink, and he checks his watch for the fortieth time and hates the little hand and the big hand for pointing at seven and five.

When he looks up, Harry’s there in the doorway, all elbows as he edges in while someone’s trying to edge out. He tries to hold the door for them but it doesn’t really open all the way because the entrance is cramped up with tables so they have to go under his arm and he ends up doing this weird apologetic sort of dance around them to actually get inside. He pushes his hair up and sniggers at himself, leans into the greeter woman before clocking Nick at the table and telling her his date’s already here so he’s good.

Nick clings to his wine glass so he doesn’t just make a run for it action blockbuster-style over the tables, strewing starters and shocked faces in his wake, and when Harry’s settled across from him, he looks at him through the jam jar light and thinks: fuck. You’re the kind of thing people should only look at through a pinhole camera because you singe eyeballs. The real killer is he hasn’t made an effort. He hasn’t put on a jacket or gone all out with a crisp shirt and proper trousers. He’s just wearing those jeans that refuse to stay above his arse and a t-shirt. He probably chose that because it drapes him in normality, and evidently all the time he spends just listening to Nick ramble on means he knows him far far far too well.

“What?” he says.

“You look nice.” Nick winces. “Not nice, that’s what you say to your mum when she’s off to a wedding regardless of the fact she’s wearing an outfit that closely resembles an explosion of cheesecake. You look – oh, now I can’t think of any word but nice – anyway, people throw knickers at you so you know what I’m saying.”

“I don’t think they throw them because they think I look nice. Don’t really get the knickers thing, to be honest, but I don’t think that’s it.”

“Maybe it’s nothing to do with you and they just want rid of them.”

Harry plucks Nick’s wine glass out of his fingers to take a sip. “Have you calmed down?”

“A bit. Like halfway, maybe? But I could go off again at any second so watch it.”

“Well,” Harry says, very carefully, “it’s not a big thing, but I was thinking about it this morning, so. Think it’s a bit ridiculous you think I’m the one who’s going to get overinvested. You’re the one apparently picturing us moved in together – at least, you know, before you go to the asylum.”

“Don’t laugh at the mentally-afflicted, Harry, it’s mean.”

“I’m not laughing.”

“You are inside your head – I can tell.” Nick steals his wine back, swigs at it, and wonders where the waitress is because if Harry's going to be all logical and reasonable and grown-up, he’s going to need a top-up the size of the rest of the bottle. “And all right, I might have made a few leaps – but you started it.”

“How?!”

“You said wildly. You said you could fall wildly in love with me. If that’s not overinvested, I don’t know what is.”

Harry makes this noise like all the stuck cogs in his brain suddenly clunked back into place: gumph.

“Yeah, but – ” He ducks down and leans in and Nick tries not to look at him but he’s persistent about getting in his eye line and in the end Nick just gives in. “You’d been really kind to me and – I said could. I meet people all the time I could maybe fall in love with. Doesn’t everybody?”

“I don’t.”

“You get obsessed with people, though? Same thing. You thought about it – what it’d be like if we – you know.” He makes this gesture like a slow clap that never lands with a look that says he thinks saying the words ‘got together’ will send Nick over the edge. “We’re both just thinking yeah, I want more of you. Only difference is I said it out loud because I… do that.”

Harry takes the wine back and just waits while Nick runs through it. It has the feel of the truth about it: at once blindingly obvious and totally invisible until right the fuck now.

“Oh,” Nick says.

We’re in the same place, then. Fuck, I’m on a dinner date with Harry Styles and he’s not overinvested and I’m not overinvested we’re both the same amount of vested and I think I’ve run out of reasons not to do this unless I’ve acquired a boyfriend with anger management issues and a tetchy Chihuahua and forgotten.

“And it’s fun,” Harry says, as if he’s coaxing a timid golden retriever puppy out from under the sideboard after a thunder storm, “doing it for real, when you’ve been thinking about it so much, and seeing how it goes instead of just imagining it’ll be a nightmare. And even if it is a nightmare you get a story to tell and that’s – otherwise you end up, like, talking about shoes.”

Nick fiddles with the table edge. “You have a very persuasive voice, you know. You should do adverts – shampoo adverts – be in them and do the voice over.”

“This is going to go really well,” Harry says, smiling slowly – knowingly – over the rim of the glass, “the wine with the Secret Burgers, I mean.”

“How do you know if they’re secret and you never had one before?”

“Intuition. Think I’ve got a pretty good one. If that’s – ” He frowns and squints and with his hair in his eyes it’s nothing short of adorable and Nick is so very, very screwed. “Is it a thing you have one of, or..?”

“I’ve no clue.”

After a quick swallow, Harry pushes the wine glass back across the table and looks up at him through his fringe. “I’m going to say something now I never intended to say to you. Ready?”

“No. I’m the opposite of ready.”

“Too bad. Remember the first time we met?”

“Dimly.” The table leaps as Harry delivers a swift and very deft kick to his shin and Nick’s knee jumps up into the wood. “Ow – mother – ” Nick reaches down to massage the whacked spot, grimacing and huffing. “You promised to treat my lower extremities nicely, if I recall.”

“You deserved it and you know it, but – ” Harry’s gaze sweeps the surroundings and he smirks, hooking the toe of his trainer onto the ankle of Nick’s jeans and rubbing ever so slightly up his leg.

“All right,” Nick says, squaring his shoulder blades to try and squash the shiver shimmying between them. “I remember it vividly. I recorded every single detail in my diary and I play the moment over and over again in the cinema behind my eyelids when I can’t sleep, which is always.”

Smile crooking, Harry grips one of Nick’s feet between his, locking their legs together. “I was so nervous,” he says as if they’re under a blanket they’ve turned into a tent and he’s sharing a secret by the light of a torch. “I used to sit in bed with a cup of tea and watch you on the telly and imagine we were mates.” Harry’s smile bends the words, and he looks down at the table and pokes at the wax caught on the lip of the jam jar. “Kept thinking fuck, what if he hates me? What if he thinks I’m just some muppet in a pop band? And you were really sweet, I thought, but all the while we were talking, I was paranoid you were teasing me and I couldn’t tell. Because why would you be nice to me or want to hang out with me? You’re Nick Grimshaw.” He looks up, pinches his lips together and washes with this thoughtful smiley melancholy thing he’s mastered forty years before you’re supposed to. “Still expect it, sometimes, that you’re going to go: only joking.”

“I’m not joking. I’m batshit, not a total bastard.”

Harry’s knees squeeze his; he’s not sure if knees can technically kiss, but that’s what it feels like they’re doing, and suddenly he wants to line every bit of them up, press their fingertips and their noses and the inside of their elbows together just because.

Instead, they eat. The Secret Burgers are annoyingly good and the wine does go with them, and he has that feeling again – the one he had when Harry made him breakfast – as if his insides have abandoned him and he might crumple like a building that’s just had someone press the big red button on its demolition.

Harry drops the relish, sucks it off his fingers suggestively, and everything gets all giggly and blushy. Then it seems a bit less like some great big boom just went off, and by the time Harry drives him to work and invites himself in to curl up in the corner where the webcam can’t see him, it’s all Nick can do to stop himself from passing him a note that reads:

I’m having a really lovely time with you, please let’s not stop?

 

~ I’m your type, it’s alright, young and right, delay your flight and stay the night ~

 

“So this is me, then,” Nick says, undoing his seatbelt as they pull to a halt.

“Oh, coincidence. Me too.”

Harry’s so good at fake, baffled surprise Nick can’t help but smile at him. “You always just invite yourself in, Harry?”

“Yep.”

Nick mutters, “Harlot,” and gets out, but he’s grateful because he couldn’t think of a way to say it himself other than, “You want to come in? Let me just state this is not a mahjong face mask invite.”

They stand on the doorstep for an age with Nick getting the entry code wrong – mostly because Harry slips around him like a jacket and laughs shivers onto the back of his neck. Once they’re in the dark hallway, Harry slides into him hips-first, all limbs and eagerness and smiles, and the crooks of his elbows land around Nick’s neck at the same time as his lips find Nick’s with a persuasive sigh and a nudge. Nick kisses him, plays a bit hard to get with it – moves back just as Harry goes for a proper snog, kisses him again all small and sweet, winding him slowly back up – and after a couple of attempts and being left hanging, Harry growl-whines at him and tugs on the ends of his hair.

Nick grins against his lips, but having fucked him about so egregiously, it seems the thing to do to let Harry get his way, so when he presses in again, Nick lets his momentum stagger them into the wall. He ouffs, and when Harry's mouth captures it, Nick abandons teasing and hooks his thumbs into the belt loops under Harry t–shirt to hold him there. He lets Harry have his way with his mouth, lets him kiss him how he wants – which apparently is with nibbles and sweeps of his tongue and the kind of grip on him that actually make him feel a bit dazed.

They’re just getting properly into in – a bit handsy and moany for a semi-public place, truth be told – when somewhere down the corridor, a key grates in a lock. Pulling away, all bright-eyed and cheeky, Harry curls his fingers around Nick’s wrist and tugs him into a scamper down the carpet.

They tumble through Nick's door all giddy and kiss drunk, and Harry stumbles to the sofa and tips over the back of it in a kind of lazy-person’s vault. He flips and stretches out on his back, toeing off his trainers and kicking them over the arm.

“Don’t stand on ceremony, Harry.” Nick turns a lamp on, dumps his things on the kitchen table, and waves at the fridge. “You want a drink?”

“Nope. You.” He prods the cushion next to his hip and his voice goes all low and a bit petulant, aggrieved that Nick’s not already tearing his clothes off when clearly that would be the polite thing to do. “Come here.”

Nick gets a beer, mostly to prove he’s not going to go over just because Harry said so, even if he has got one arm behind his head so Nick can see the effect of the hall snog already bulging his jeans and a sly grin that might actually have magnetic powers. He knocks the lid off the bottle on the edge of the counter, catches it mid-air with a snatch, and chucks it into the bin.

“Nice wrist action. Come in handy. Oh, that's – ” Harry's eyebrows do their damn, said something suggestive thing and he smirks.

Nearly coughing on a mouthful of foam at the thought, Nick crosses the lounge, and he supposes at least getting so obviously flustered that Harry laughs at him will save him from having to say, “Look, just don’t expect anything suave. I’m going to consider this a riotous success if you don’t wait until I’m asleep, steal my fancy moisturiser, and sneak out. Not that you can’t afford your own, probably, unlike that pikey bastard from Fire, Police, Ambulance. Who steals moisturiser? Was it not enough to leave me passed out on the floor with my jeans around my knees, he had to riffle through my products and choose the most expensive thing as some kind of weird, anti-aging memento?”

Harry’s so sprawled out there’s nothing for it but to either climb on top of him like a heathen or perch on the edge by his thigh. Nick does the latter, because he hasn’t done this sober since he was seventeen and with a guy he didn’t fancy just for the sake of it. All that encounter taught him was, “could you turn that up or keep it down a bit? I like this one,” is not a thing you say when you’re giving head.

Probably not going to be a problem this time, and not just because the radio’s not on. He pretends there’s nowhere else for his hand to go but Harry’s stomach, rubs soft rucks of t-shirt back and forth while he takes another fortifying sip of beer.

Harry takes the bottle, swigs from it, and sets it down on the floor. He covers Nick’s hand with his and moves it down with an epic lack of subtlety to his hard-on.

Dragging his fingernails just lightly over the denim, Nick leans in, and Harry meets him halfway up, curls his hands into his shirt as their mouths meet to pull him down. Maybe it’s the beer that makes his stomach fizz and churn as if he’s had too much cheap cola and sherbet, maybe it’s that by the feel of it, Harry has a very nice dick, or maybe it’s that Harry's kissing him like he talks – slow and rambling and earnest – and he's talking as he kisses, all these not-quite word noises tickling Nick’s top lip. Wanting to do this until he knows what they all mean, until he can pick a nnfhh from a mphhh, Nick tries to suck them into his mouth and read them where they start on Harry’s tongue.

Harry’s arms wrap around his neck, all warm and heavy, and he squeezes Nick’s ears with his elbows and lets out this little c-huh noise, which as clear as anything is a plea for more and gets him right in the lungs.

“Budge up.” Nick abandons the idea of not being a heathen – he needs to be all over him right the fuck now – and nudges at Harry’s hip.

He gets the idea to turn on his side and back into the upright of the sofa, but that’s as helpful as Harry gets, apparently. He keeps on clinging, trying to get his tongue into Nick's mouth while he struggles to rearrange his legs. He ends up standing bent double and falling onto one knee because Harry refuses to give the kiss up and just hangs like deadweight. Sinking down against the heat and hardness of Harry’s body, Nick huffs amusement and indignation, but no one has ever wanted to kiss him so badly they couldn’t stand not to do it for ten seconds while he repositioned and… crap, just when he thought he was in as much trouble here as he was going to get, Harry has to take it up another notch.

He’s barely finished settling – panicking he’s not far enough onto the seat, that he’ll flail off, crack his head on the coffee table, and won’t it be just his luck if the only bed he sees tonight is one in A&E – when Harry hooks a heel into the hollow behind his knee, and pulls his leg in to slot between his thighs.

Running a hand up to his pocket, Nick mumbles, “Strumpet.”

Harry’s mouth forms an, “Oh,” all silent and mock offended and barely-suppressed laugh, and Nick works his other hand underneath him, watching the drift of Harry’s eyes closed as he moves back into the kiss, making an appropriately apologetic noise when their lips meet.

It’s so good, all cosy and smooshed together. Normally Nick would feel ridiculous playing with someone's hair or taking a moment to run a knuckle along their jaw instead of just getting straight to the point, but Harry inches into both with a pleased sigh. Hitching up his t-shirt to just slip his fingers into the warmth there and explore his ribs with his thumb, Nick wonders how he’ll ever get up again. Maybe he won’t. Maybe they’ll just move onto the sofa. Maybe they’ll find an accommodating pizza delivery boy who’ll let himself in and bring them the essentials rolled up in dough.

It’s all going very nicely until Nick senses Harry's attention wander, and opens his eyes to find Harry's gaze over his shoulder, looking at his wrist.

“Are you – are you actually checking your watch? You put coins in a metre or something when I wasn't paying attention?”

“Just making sure I'm upping your average.”

For a second Nick has no idea what he means – and then he does, and jabs him in the stomach, which has very little give to it and Christ, how many sit-ups does he do?

“You little sod. You’ve no idea how much I wish I’d never said that.”

Harry shakes with sniggering, ducks into his shoulder all crinkly and breathy. Impossibly it's that which makes Nick absolutely ache all the way along the soles of his feet and inside his wrists where his pulse sits. He gathers Harry in by the hair, kissing him while he's still laughing, deep and unconstrained this time, until Harry’s kiss noises turn high pitched and urgent and his fingers shift down inside the neck of Nick's shirt.

Nick pulls him closer still, bending his knee, and pushing into the heat between his legs, going all tight of jean and stomach at once.

Moving against him as if he wants to wrap them completely together, Harry makes an entirely new noise, groaning rumble of it going right to Nick’s dick and urging it on, even before his fingers stray to undo a couple of buttons and rake through Nick’s chest hair.

Idly Nick wonders if Harry might be able to get off just riding his thigh, and the thought is enough to throw anyone off their stride.

Doing something that’s annoyingly close to a whimper into Harry’s mouth, Nick slides his hand up his endless leg and over his hip. Harry’s ridiculously appealing little arse is right there, so he follows the band of denim waistband around, ending up with a handful of soft boxer cotton and bum. He rolls into him – pressing Harry into his hand – and Harry mouths against his lips, distracted, wet, and mumbly. Those little noises are going to be the death of Nick, he just knows it, but when he looks, it's Harry who seems pretty far gone, all loose and smiley, his hips inching in again for more.

Maybe most men would take that as a favourable comment on their prowess, but Nick knows better; Harry told him when he was drunk that the last time he was on a plane, a spot of turbulence made him so horny he had a furtive wank right there in his seat while watching the last Alien film (“Putting Fassbender’s head in a bag, though. What were they expecting people would do with that?”

“It’s a wonder it’s not already a sex toy.”

“It is, I Googled it when I was bored.”

“Did you buy one?”

“No, but only because PayPal was down and then I forgot.”)

So he doesn’t giggle – no one likes a giggler when they’re doing this – Nick tears himself away from Harry’s mouth to nose under his ear, finding a spot with his breath that makes Harry wriggle. He kisses it – Harry positively writhes – and he tastes nice there, all soft and foggy, beachy smell of his aftershave faded so it’s just clinging very faintly to his skin. Nick only abandons going over and over it with his tongue and his teeth because Harry mumbles, “Ugh, tickles,” and draws a hand down between them to push at Nick’s shoulder.

His expression doesn’t disappoint, all sheepish and blissed out like he’s high. He comes back a bit, pouts, and scrunches at Nick's shirt, pulling him in to do it again, rocking against him this time and making a long ggoooh sound when Nick’s lips travel down his neck interspersing kisses with laughing at him.

By the time Nick gets back up to his mouth, Harry’s breathing in short snatches, and he relinquishes his grip on Nick’s shirt and works his hand beneath the hem to his fly.

Dick thickening at the tease of his fingers as they ferret up the zip to the button instead of going the other way like a normal person would, Nick nips Harry’s lip, aiming for outraged when he says, “You’re very forward, you know.”

“Tell me I’m a tart?” He grins against Nick’s mouth and strokes over the denim, thumbing the head of Nick’s cock, grin widening when Nick bites his lip harder and hisses around it in response. “Like it when you call me names.”

“Bet you do,” he says, retrieving Harry’s hand, fingers over his pulse as he brings it up between them, sliding their fingers into each other, “you little rascal.”

Harry’s eyes narrow and he pounces.

Flailing out the arm that was trapped underneath him just in time, Nick grabs a handful of sofa, and everything goes dark and hot as he gets a face full of Harry’s fringe or maybe chest or maybe fringe then chest. He emerges on the very edge of the sofa, staring at the ceiling with Harry’s knees squeezing his hips, a breathy kiss that’s all tongue and teeth having started without him.

He's barely caught up with the change in position and the kiss when Harry sits back, running his hands down Nick’s chest, skipping over material and hair and nipple with a smile. He meets Nick’s eye, tugs his own t-shirt off, and before it’s even landed on the floor and his necklaces have stopped swinging, he’s popping the button on his jeans and working the zip down so obscenely slowly it sounds like a growl.

Nick doesn’t really want to give him the satisfaction of looking, but he does, and he thinks his mouth is open and maybe he can’t breathe for a second but seriously. There’s really not a word for how he looks, so anyone would say:

“Shameless.”

He goes to say something else, but Harry reaches into his pants and starts to stroke himself, his other hand undoing a couple of buttons at the bottom of Nick’s shirt, pushing it apart to scratch at the skin below his bellybutton, rucking the hair until Nick’s toes curl up into a ball and he has to bite the inside of his cheek so as not to say something incriminating and stupid.

In retaliation, Nick steals a move someone made him actually wibble with: runs his thumbs up the inside of both of Harry’s thighs, tracing the seam almost all the way to the top, stopping short, starting again at his knee, doing it over and over before he finally goes right the way to the top. By the time he gets there, follows the path up to the bottom of the zip where Harry’s knuckles shift under thin cotton, Harry’s squirming into him with short little ruts and the noises tumbling from his mouth are distinctly moanish. Nick touches him – not really enough to count, just a drag of his fingertips down his cock where it's not in his own hand – but Harry collapses forward, presses his chest to Nick’s, mouth desperate for another kiss, arching to keep Nick’s hands where they are.

Nick manages to get inside his fly, fumble his way to a few strokes of hot and smooth and slick, but either his arm is way too long or way too short to find the right angle – it really could be either – or maybe it’s just the insistent tongue in his mouth disabling his ability to multi-task. Sliding his hand out from between them, Nick flattens his palm to the base of Harry’s spine and cups his arse with the other to fasten Harry tight against him. He shifts until their cocks slot into a neighbourly clinch – and good lord, even through the layers it’s enough to make him go a bit weak in the head.

He grinds up, foot falling off the sofa – but that’s better because the floor’s a more solid thing to push against. He does, Harry meeting him halfway and shifting for a better angle, knee slipping off the seat so he has to hook his toes onto Nick’s leg and cling to his shoulders to stay on. Nick would suggest they move – do something sensible like relocate to the bed and maybe take some more of these clothes off since they're not actually fifteen year olds copping a feel in a scattering of Geography textbooks while his mum's at Asda – but god. With the shift they’ve chanced upon exactly the right arrangement of everything and the pressure as they move against each other veers from unbearable to delicious, and if they stop now, surely they can’t ever find this again?

“Oh god.”

Harry slides off Nick’s mouth to breathe hard and ragged at his neck. Beneath his lips, Nick’s pulse goes frantic, and Harry nips at it, like he’s trying to catch it and hold it still.

To get him back for doing something that’s such an unnecessarily big turn on when he’s already clearly in quite a state, Nick runs his nails over the dip of Harry’s back – Harry gasps, stomach pulling in – and his kisses go sloppy and make a mess all the way to Nick’s ear.

Nick slides his hands into the back of Harry’s pants, works his way down until his fingertips are right in the crease of his thigh, encouraging Harry to rub harder against him in spite of the tangle of partially-undone clothes, because if he stops for a second Nick’s sure he will actually die.

Quite unnecessarily, Harry mutters, “Like that.”

Nick splays his fingers out before gathering Harry’s arse back into a squeeze.

“Really like – I’m going to – ” Harry swears, harsh and breathless, inching up. “Going to come if you keep – ”

The words twist Nick all over at once.

“That’s kind of the point.”

Harry looks at him and Nick can’t tell if he’s confused or just in that place where his brain’s so devoid of blood his own name would take a second or two to compute. He nudges Harry’s nose with his and kisses him, moving across his cheek to whisper to him.

“Want you to. Right here.”

Harry tries to kiss him but his lips are too erratic – increasingly so when Nick palms his arse with one hand, but runs the other up to his hair to take control, shifting him against his dick.

“Oh – oh yeah.”

Harry falls off his mouth to nuzzle his neck, mumbling all gravelly and nothingy, and Nick ignores his own dick – it’s more than used to it – and the ache in his back, focusing on the way Harry moves until he can feel him switch from loose and compliant to tense all the way up his spine, body more purposeful as it finds the place he likes best. He slips his fingers just into the heated crack of Harry’s arse, and with something between a whine and a grunt, Harry bites down on a mouthful of collar and neck, and thrusts in tiny, tiny circles.

Nick chews down an, “Ow,” because fucking hell, his teeth are sharp, but it's absolutely worth it, because Harry wraps his hands in his shirt, clinging to him as he pushes right into him and comes with a string of frantic breaths, so much quieter and more secretive than Nick thought he'd be. Nick strokes his hair and runs his hand up his back, oddly fond when Harry shivers under his palm.

It takes him a moment to stop panting and emerge, flushed and sheened of forehead, and with drowsy imprecision he lands a kiss on Nick’s chin, muttering his way up to groan into his mouth, tongue loose and hot and teasing, doing nothing to alleviate the insistence of Nick’s dick against his jeans.

Harry’s fingers fumble down. Seeming surprised he can’t get right at it because his own body is in the way, he eases back and sits up, rearranging his pants so they’re no longer mostly off.

“Whoa – ” His foot slips from Nick’s knee and he grabs some shirt to get his balance back, eyes startled as if he had no idea what he was resting on and there’s a ravine beneath them and not just a drop of half a metre to the floor.

He looks a mess: shirtless; flushed; jeans tangled round his thighs; waistband dangerously low on one hip. He makes a very beautiful mess, though. Nick thinks, fuck so loudly inside his own head he’s genuinely amazed Harry doesn’t hear it, and maybe that’s why he barely notices Harry clambering off until – after a little stagger – he kicks at Nick's ankle to get him to move and grins at him, wetting his lip.

Nick complies, shifting to sit up – or more accurately slump into the corner of the sofa – and yes, his spine is truly going to loathe him in the morning but this is hardly the moment to clutch at his back like an old man.

Harry slides his hand over the damp patch he made on Nick’s jeans and the bottom of his shirt, squeezing, giving Nick a few lazy scuffs of his thumb that are exquisitely torturous before he eases off and sinks to his knees between Nick's feet. Gentle kisses flutter under Nick’s bellybutton as Harry undoes the button and zip, and he eases the material apart to pull his cock out.

Propped against the sofa and wishing he had something to bite on, Nick drags in a painful lungful of air, letting it out through his nose. He’s way too warm and sweaty inside his half-undone shirt, drenched in body heat that’s not all his own, but he forgets it entirely when Harry smiles up at him all slow and sweet.

He doesn’t waste any time, gets straight to it, and licks the head of his cock, steadying it with his fingers as it responds. Opening his mouth around it, Harry slides down, no teasing, heel of his other hand on Nick’s stomach, fingers scrunching up to tug the hair there as if he knows that’s exactly what drives him nuts.

Clinging to his curls – sticky in the crooks of his fingers – Nick rolls his eyes at the ceiling. Jesus, this is going to be over really, really quickly if he carries on like that. He voices it as some kind of grumble that tickles his feet and watches the light throb to the beat of his own pulse as Harry’s lips tighten and slide up, do it again and again until his breathing doesn’t really sound like breathing at all.

Harry backs off, slurp of his lips around the head filthy as he gets it really wet and delivers a series of short, tight, sucks right there. Fingernails shifting to dig into Nick's hips, Harry encourages him to fuck into his mouth, and Nick does, going absolutely incoherent even inside his own skull.

He knows if he wants to get out of this with his dignity intact he really shouldn’t look down, but of course he does. Normally Nick thinks the best anyone looks with a mouthful of cock is a cross between a cheap porn star and that Munch painting, but Harry looks oddly serene, eyelids closed and fluttering – until they very much aren’t and he’s staring up like he’s daring Nick to come. He works his tongue against the underside of Nick’s dick, inching up, adding his fingers until he’s more jerking Nick off into his mouth than anything, motion slick with his own spit until Nick can’t tell what’s responsible for the surge of feeling.

Abruptly on the brink, Nick attempts to pull away, but Harry frowns and hums in disapproval. And that’s it. Nick lets go of his hair for fear he’ll tug it off like a wig and fists the sofa unable to keep quiet as he spills in his mouth. That’s when Harry does ease off, just enough to make sure whiteness dribbles off his lip. He strokes Nick through the aftershocks, makes sure he’s looking before flickering out his tongue to gather up his come, and swallows.

Nick can barely think, so talking is probably desperately inadvisable, but it’s really very important to get out by any means possible:

“Oh god. That’s just obscene, you – ”

Harry kisses the inside of his knee, biting at the denim and giving it a tug with his teeth. He gets up, wriggles free of his tangle of jeans and boxers, and drops back onto the sofa with a pleased little chuckle. He settles tucked into Nick’s side, leg hooked over his thigh, fingers on his jaw to turn his head into a kiss.

Making room for him under his arm, Nick gives him the best one he can muster with his brain disconnected and all his muscles wilting like they’ve taken a Valium. It’s not his best effort – mostly he just lie-sit-sprawls there listening to his heartbeat – which is everywhere, as if it’s reverberating off the walls like a bass line – while Harry nibbles at and sucks on his bottom lip.

Knocking his head against Harry’s, Nick looks at him, trying not to think something really stupid about the way his arm looks right the way around him, his fingers hanging towards him like they’re magnetised. He knows exactly how this happened, and yet he has no idea at all how this happened. Perhaps he needs Harry to perv on the moment and then explain it to him when he's drunk. He doesn't say that, of course. When he gets his breath completely back he says:

“So you’re rather pornographic, then.”

“That a good thing?”

Nick tucks Harry’s hair back where it’s supposed to be, even though it won’t stay put for long. “Like you don’t know. Don’t pretend you don't do it on purpose – I’ve got your number.”

By way of reply, Harry wrinkles his nose against Nick's cheek, and Nick shifts to move but he rumbles a complaint and snuggles down. Of course he’d be a cuddler. Nick kisses Harry’s forehead and stays where he is. “Tell me something, then? Why’d you do Isn’t She Lovely on X Factor?”

Harry looks up and quite clearly – barring something like Nick revealing he's a mermaid – it's the last thing he expected.

“Humour me," Nick says. "Moments like this, you’re allowed to ask daft questions.”

“Thought it’d be cute?” Harry shifts up a bit to play with Nick’s chin, tracing the shape of it as if he’s never seen one before. “Wasn’t sure I was good enough, but I thought I might be able to sneak through the first round if I was cute and… it's a really cute song. I said cute a lot there but I can't think of another word. Why’s it matter?”

“Just curious. What’s your favourite Stevie Wonder song, then?”

Purple Rain Drops,” Harry says, with an emphatic nod. “No question.”

Nick swallows. “Are you sure that’s a Stevie Wonder song? I’ve never even heard of it.”

The first line tumbles out of Harry’s mouth, something about splattered flowers and daydreaming for hours, and he grumbles his way down a scale. Either he’s writing something with a tinge of blues genius on the fly or he’s not and he knows obscure, cool album tracks and – either way, holy fuck.

“Close your mouth, Nick, or I’ll be tempted to put something in it.”

“Shut up. At least I know who Lauryn Hill is.”

“What, and I don’t?”

“You asked if she was one of your tabloid girl– ”

Harry rolls his eyes. “That was a joke.”

“Fuck you, Harry Styles.” Nick shoves at his shoulder, but there’s no real force in it because his arm’s the very definition of limp so Harry just laughs at him and digs his heel into his leg. “You can’t just drop a bomb like that – you can’t just lie there, naked, and tell me you were Machiavelli at sixteen and reveal a secret stash of soul knowledge and that you fucked with me and I didn’t notice. That’s – ” Too much is what that is. Too fucking much. Especially on top of a blowjob like that. “What about Patti Smith?”

“Oh, well – pretty sure she wasn’t on tour with Adele – just said that to see if you’d do that thing with your nose.”

“I do not do a thing with my nose.”

“Yeah, you do.” Harry rests his head against Nick’s cheek, sighing as if he’s indulging him. “When someone says something uncool, you flare like you’re narked with them, but I've noticed that really, you like having it confirmed you’re the coolest person in the room. So about Patti – " Harry breathes in, all slow, and his chin scrunches as if he's writing a thesis and deciding which line to share to sum up his work. "I liked the track on your CD, bought some other stuff. Think it’s pretty decent so far. Not sure I’m going feel as strongly about her as you do, but that’s all right, right? Give us something to argue about that’s not important.”

“How can you say Patti Smith isn’t – ”

Harry lifts his eyebrows like that indignant froth was exactly what he wanted and yeah, okay, Nick’s nostrils have gone a bit wide and poked cow-ish.

“I should throw you out,” Nick says, bopping him on the nose with his finger.

“You’re not going to, though.” Harry snags the tip of his finger between his teeth and mouths the end of it. “You’re going to take me to bed. You're going to let me keep you up all night. And then, tomorrow, at work you're going to whinge about how tired you are and hope, just a little bit, everyone guesses why.”

He pulls off with a noisy kiss and looks up, grinning.

Nick wishes he had will power or inner grit or whatever it would take to actually shoo Harry away like a stray, but he doesn’t and he never has, so instead he just says:

“All right, fair cop. Come on.”

 

~ I'll be at least two people today, if that's okay ~

 

Nick sits at the table with a stolen newspaper – lucked out with The Guardian, this morning – nursing a light hangover and a mug of tea, watching as Harry juggles his way around the kitchen and makes this scramble thing with tomatoes and cheese that’s apparently going to revolutionise the way Nick thinks about breakfast (he doesn’t tell Harry that breakfast consisting of anything other than coffee and handful of vitamin pills and/or painkillers is in itself a revolutionary concept, that his stomach usually considers itself lucky if he remembers to toss it anything other than accidentally-ingested chewing gum before noon). Turning the page, he reads an article on the American presidential election just to avoid the thought of tomorrow, when Harry’ll be on a plane to the States and he’ll be here with his coffee and the kind of empty quiet that leaves goosebumps.

It’s not as if they’ve spent every minute together these last weeks; just enough of them that Nick knows he’ll probably have a bit of a wobble, because he did the stupid thing and gave Harry a key the very first time they woke up together (which wasn’t together, so much, because Harry didn’t stir when the alarm went off and he looked as adorable as a basket full of snoozing puppies so Nick didn’t have the heart to wake him. He just had a shower and got dressed, and Harry was still asleep when leaving became pressing, so he ended up sitting on the bed and tickling his face with his own hair for about five minutes until Harry’s sleepy mumbles turned into a dozy blink, a swat, and:

“Why’re you dressed?”

“Morning, sleepyhead. I’ve got a tedious meeting to get to.”

“Oh – oh, I’ll – ”

“Stay, if you want? I’ll leave the spare key in the door – take it with you if you want to nip out, change of clothes, or – ”

“If I want muesli?”

“That is not going to be a running joke.”

Harry’s snigger suggested that yeah, yeah it would be and there wasn’t anything he could do about it.

Before Nick had really thought it through, he was saying:

“Whatever, come for your tea? Just – let yourself in if I’m not back yet and pick something. Take away menu’s your oyster or get it on with my kitchen if you’d rather. Just – you shouldn’t be eating stuff on trays on your own until you’re seventy and stink of charity shops. We’ll go to a gig, after – maybe catch ten minutes of the headliner before – ”

Harry just kissed his knee and that was sort of that, really).

Harry’s been careful about not making a thing of it – he’s gone back to his a couple of nights on the pretence of being knackered and bad company – but still, his hay fever pills are in the drawer next to the plasters and there’s a pair of his trainers under the bed and a couple of his shirts – including the one he barfed on ages ago – hanging up with his.

Bit like a wardrobe shrine, really. Is that ironic?

And no, you’re absolutely not allowed to take to wearing those shirts while he’s away because they smell of him. You might think you’re pastiching some kind of cliché but you won’t be. You’ll just be moping around in Harry’s shirt like a loser. You’ll forget to take it off because it’s so soft and warm and you’ll go to work in it and you know what your luck’s like – there’ll be a guest in, and there’ll be a picture, then, on the internet of you wearing his shirt, and he’ll see it, somehow, and then he’ll know and it’s been going so quietly and nicely.

Sliding the plates onto the table, Harry drops down into the seat next to him, stealing a sip of Nick’s tea. “Urgh – how much sugar is in that?”

“None. I’m trying to be healthier. It’s dismal,” Nick says, reaching for his fork. “Next stop spinach smoothies. Talking of – when you were off on tour, I tried to make that avocado thing of yours. Went right through the bastard with a knife trying to get the stone out and stabbed myself in the hand – like properly stabbed, it bled for hours – I only didn’t go to casualty because I was too embarrassed. I’ve got a scar and everything.”

“Let me see?”

Nick holds his palm up for inspection.

“I bet – ” With gentle lips, Harry kisses it, and it’s all soft and chaste except when he looks up, his eyes are wicked, as if he’s thinking about going back to bed in a bit and maybe taking the scramble with them. “ – you tell people you got that in a rap battle that turned nasty.”

“That I made a blood oath with Lady Gaga, actually, but I’m definitely switching it up in the future. ‘Hey everybody, did I tell you about the time I was rhyming with west London’s most hardcore salad crew and the avocado just lost it and went for me? Got proper feisty in there and maybe I don’t look the type but I fight dead ghetto when cornered. Ask Harry. He was there.’ You’ll back me up, yeah?”

Linking their fingers together, Harry smiles all slow and sincere. “Talking about it’s pretty traumatic, actually – I can’t even look at guacamole without welling up.”

“Aww, you made me go all fluttery,” Nick says.

Harry’s thumb brushes the bracelets caught around his wrist back and forth, and he just sits there for a moment doing this thing with his face that suggests he’s endlessly pleased with himself while Nick pretends he’s joking about the fluttery thing and goes to work on his eggs.

“Nice, right?”

“Very nice, actually.”

He’s so very not talking about the scramble and if he makes it through to Harry leaving without saying something monstrously needy wrapped in a blanket of weird, it will be time to call the Pope and say, “Hi, is that Benedict? One, you seem like a bit of a bastard and two, I’d like to report a minor miracle.”

“What time’s your flight?” Nick says, reaching for his tea.

“Morningish.”

Morningish is how you end up running through the terminal holding your jeans up with one hand and waving your passport with the other.”

Harry shrugs and spears a tomato. “Someone’ll text me the details later, probably. I don’t pay attention until I have to, otherwise I get too nervous.”

“You’re not really – are you? It’s just some award thing. It’s not even the one where you get slimed.”

Harry looks up, all please don’t make fun of me, as if Nick might do anything other than a grandma tut, push back his chair with a screech, and reach for him, guiding him in until their foreheads are together. Harry just leans, trying to smile, and Nick’s not really used to this yet, being the person who gets to see him feeling really flimsy.

Scuffing his nape, he says, “It’ll be fine.”

“What if it’s not? It’s easy when it’s fans because they like you, you know? What if everyone hates us and they’re just looking for something to justify it and I’m the one who gives them a reason?”

“Oh, poppet, you’re – ” Nick sighs, closing his eyes and head-butting Harry gently on the cheek. “Shitting hell, I – you just bring that word out of me. I don’t even mean to – ”

Harry kisses his nose, breathy sniggering all over his eyebrow. “I like it, actually. Makes me feel like if it all falls apart you’ll take care of me.”

“Which we both know is ridiculous. I can’t even look after a biro.”

“They can be tricky, though.”

“Come here, you.”

Nick shifts over to make room for him on his chair and drags Harry onto it, hand to his hip to keep him on. “Yeah,” he says, just slipping up under his t-shirt to touch his skin. “You’re much easier to get along with than a pen. If you get lost you come back and you’re yet to leak all over my favourite bag.”

Harry goes all nuzzley and floppy against him, leg out and foot at some weird angle on the floor.

This is the moment, Nick knows it is, when Harry would say the very earnest thing Nick scripted for him if he was going to, the thing that starts, “So I’m going away, but – this? Not leaving it behind, or anything – I’ll call when I can – bring you a present – email me and let me know what you’re doing so I don’t miss anything?”

It’s the same moment, probably, Nick could say:

“You still think you could do that wildly thing with me, Harry? Because I’d really like that, now I’m used to the idea.”

It’d be the simplest thing in the world to properly stick them together.

But he doesn’t say that, because he’s not sure it would be fair when Harry’s feeling flimsy, and they can always talk when he gets back. Or something.

Harry just says, “Will you put me some music on my phone?”

“Usually charge people lots of money for my DJing skills.”

“Pretty sure I can afford you.” Nick digs him in the ribs in admonishment, and Harry squirms, going all wide-eyed and innocent. “Been saving my pocket money, I meant.”

“Oh, don’t even start with – ”

Harry cuts him off by catching his chin and turning him into a noisy kiss. “You going to go batshit?”

“Probably, if I’m honest. Maybe you’ll come back and I’ll be crafting things with pasta shapes and glitter glue in a home for disturbed DJs – me in one corner, Tony Blackburn and Armand van Helden in the other talking to garden gnomes, Noel Edmonds on the telly and all of us hissing, ‘open as many boxes as you want, you fucker, it’ll come for you too, you’ll see!’ You’ll have to break me out.”

“Guess that’ll keep things interesting, at least.” Harry shifts off the chair, comes back with one leg either side of Nick’s. He shifts right in, curling is feet around the chair legs so they’re chest to chest, stomach to stomach, connected all the way down. His thumbs fit under Nick’s ears and Nick fits his to the dips at the base of his spine. He wonders if Harry can feel him not breathing. “I like interesting.”

“It’s weird that you just say what you think.”

“It’s weird that you don’t. But I like weird so that works.”

With a tilt of his head back, they’re kissing – the way they do sometimes that makes Nick feel as if he’s turning slowly to rubble, and Harry’s gathering him up in handfuls of dust and scrag ends of metal and rebuilding him in an entirely new shape.

That’s batshit. Harry Styles has made him properly batshit.

He’ll put tunes that say all the things he can’t even bring himself to think very loudly on Harry’s phone and as soon as he’s out the door, make Harry a playlist he’ll send him to listen to when he lands – Joan Jettlag Classics or Thinking In LA or something equally twee. He’ll text Harry good luck too many times and he’ll open a tub of ready-made icing and olives and eat both with the same fork while he mopes and waits for clips to appear on YouTube. He’ll probably take to wearing nothing but Harry’s shirts and add his trainers too even though they won’t fit, and he’ll check his phone every ten minutes in case Harry’s having a day or a moment and has rung him just to breathe at him for a while.

Maybe it’s because Harry’s in his lap working his t-shirt up over his head and biting at his earlobe, but Nick thinks: well, doesn’t sound too bad, does it? What’s a little batshit, really?

He was always going to end up there anyway, and Harry suits him far better than one of Norman’s unforgivably garish Hawaiian shirts.