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The moment he steps outside, Harry thinks it might finally be time to buy a scarf. It's cold and windy, so he pulls up the collar of his coat and shoves his hands deep into his pockets as he starts towards the pub, his boots grinding as he walks down the rough pavement. Dusk is falling sooner at this time of year and the streetlamps are on early. It's not a long walk from his flat to the pub, and he checks his watch as he's standing at a crossing, waiting for the traffic light to turn in his favour. He's a little late for open mic night and as Harry turns the corner and walks towards the entrance doors, he glances in through the window and sees that someone's already up on the stage.

He pushes the heavy wooden door open, just enough to slip inside. The pub is warm, noisy and alive with chatter, and a small group of people have gathered to dance near the stage where two girls are performing a country song. Harry strides up to the bar and orders a whiskey. He watches the bartender prepare his drink and chat to her co-worker – the one with the dyed blond hair and the black thick-rimmed glasses, the one who is always smiling bright and talking to whoever is around. He's wearing an unbuttoned blue and white plaid shirt over a white t-shirt, hair done up and towel thrown over his shoulder.

Harry sees him here sometimes, late in the afternoon, polishing glasses behind the bar and pretending not to be interested in the football match on the telly. Harry had never paid too much attention to him, before. Before he saw him perform on open mic night a few months ago. That's how he got to know his name, too. Niall. His thick Irish accent and throaty laugh sometimes still echo in Harry's head when he goes home, a little drunk, maybe a bit wobbly on his feet.

By the time his drink is ready, the two girls are leaving the stage to the sound of people clapping and whistling. Harry glances around for a place to sit. He spots a free chair in his usual corner, where he has a good view of the tiny stage on the opposite side of the room, and where he can people-watch, undisturbed and unnoticed, scribbling away in his journal. Harry makes his way through the throng of people, sits down and puts his coat over his chair.

He takes a sip of his whiskey, enjoying the slow burn in his throat, warming him up from the inside. A bloke walks out on stage and starts a stand-up comedy routine, but Harry doesn't quite pay attention to him; his eyes wandering around, taking in the people and their interactions, trying to catch bits of conversations around him. The ice slowly melts in his drink as he circles the glass in his hand.

His phone buzzes in his pocket and Harry fumbles to get it out, not quick enough to answer the call, and sees he has two missed calls from Nick. Shit. He definitely forgot to call him back before he left his flat, and considers going outside to call now, but decides against it because he doesn't want to miss Niall's performance – the reason he came here in the first place. Nevertheless, he's surprised Nick is calling him so late on a weeknight, as he usually goes to bed early since starting the Breakfast Show on Radio 1. He reckons it must be something important, so he shoots Nick a quick text, telling him he's out but will call him back in an hour if he's still up. Not a minute later, his phone buzzes again with a message from Nick: I'm off to sleep, let's chat tomorrow. enjoy your night.

When Niall takes to the stage the crowd goes absolutely bonkers - cheering, whistling, and stomping their feet. Seeing as Niall works at the pub and performs on open mic nights fairly regularly, he's developed quite a bit of a fanbase. Harry's only seen him three, maybe four times, but he's noticed that there are a few familiar faces returning and cheering for Niall each time.

Standing in the centre of the stage, his skin and hair tinged blue in the dim lights, Niall smiles brightly, gripping his guitar. 'Cheers,' he speaks into the microphone, 'thanks a lot! The first song I'll play is a cover of one of my favourite pop songs, 'It's Gonna Be Me' by *NSYNC. This is what happens when you're procrastinating. Hope you like it.'

The crowd falls silent as he hits the first chord on his guitar, one hand moving easily on the fretboard, the other picking at the strings. He gently strums a melody, looking down; then steps forward and lifts his head when he starts to sing. His voice sounds heavy and warm, carried along by the music,

you might've been hurt, babe / that ain't no lie / you've seen them all come and go

;;

The late afternoon sun shines through the dirty window, and Harry looks up from his journal when he feels its warmth on his hand. Cursing himself for not bringing a proper camera, he pulls out his phone and takes a picture of the sun and its reflection. He admires the shot for a minute before putting the phone away, and looking around the room.

Tom, a lanky bloke with styled blond hair and glasses, welcomes them to the Photography Society's first meeting of the new school year. He tells them, 'It doesn't matter how experienced you are. You're welcome here if photography is something completely new to you, or if your knowledge of it is already advanced and you want to work on getting better and learning different techniques.'

Harry doesn't pay too much attention to him; he's been a member of the photo club for a year now, so the introduction part is plain boring and he prefers to sit at his desk and doodle in his journal. He's drawing circles and squiggles, framing a poem he wrote earlier at lunch, if you could even call this one poetry. Harry's uncertain about it, scribbled it down in a rush, an eruption of emotions – though the term poetry is far-reaching, he supposes, and a complex idea. There are rules, but then there aren't, and if you ask ten people what poetry means to them, he bets you'd get ten different answers to the same question. So maybe it is a poem, and maybe it's not, it doesn't matter to him. What's important is that he wrote it down, got it out of his system and, after, he could breathe easier.

As he draws a flowery sort of circle at the top of the page, he's torn out of his reverie by a loud thump, followed by roaring laughter. He lifts his head to see what he's missed and Tom has stopped talking and is walking toward the door with a bright smile. Harry cranes his head to see what's so funny. He sees Tom help someone up from the floor, and for a moment he's sure his heart skips a beat or two, because that someone is Niall. Niall, from the pub. Niall, who played that beautiful acoustic rendition of 'It's Gonna Be Me' on open mic night only a week ago. Niall, who is to blame for Harry having that horrible song stuck in his head all week long. Niall, whose glasses keep slipping down his nose when he plays guitar, which is so endearing that Harry can't stop thinking about it.

Niall dusts off his trousers and slings his rucksack back over his shoulder. 'Cheers, mate,' he tells Tom, then turns around, cheeks pinked up like cherries. 'And that is how you make a lasting impression,' Niall says with a laugh, arms spread out. Another gust of laughter echoes through the room.

'Alright, then,' Tom says, picking up a piece of paper from the desk, 'judging from my list of participants, you must be… Niall Horan?'

'That's me,' says Niall, and adds a little sheepishly, 'sorry for being late.'

'It's no bother, you haven't missed much. Just take a seat, I think that one next to Harry in the back is still free,' he says, gesturing towards Harry.

'Cheers,' Niall says and begins to move.

Tom continues, 'So, where was I? Right, we run events like photo walks, workshops and socials every week. We did some fun stuff last year, and we're expecting this year to be just as exciting. We have some things planned already, but of course we're always open to your suggestions, so don't be shy!' While Tom goes on about time-lapse photography, Harry can only pay attention to Niall and the little sway in his walk as he's making his way through the room, smiling at everyone he passes. It seems like he's bouncing a bit on the balls of his feet as he comes closer, and Harry can't help but smile to himself.

Stopping in front of Harry's desk, Niall leans down and whispers, 'So, you must be Harry?' before he slides into his seat. He puts his rucksack to the floor and turns to smile at Harry. It's the first time he's seen Niall up close and he feels jittery and excited, noticing how blue Niall's eyes are behind his glasses and the soft blush of his face. They smile at each other for what feels like an eternity while Harry tries to come up with something to say.

'Hi,' he says inanely.

'Hey,' Niall replies with a huge grin, and Harry's eyes flit down to look at his perfectly shaped teeth. Harry clears his throat, mouth feeling too dry, and looks away. It's just then that he realises his journal's still open and he closes it quickly, nervous at the possibility of Niall seeing what he wrote. Niall looks at him, then down to his journal and back up again, nods and says, 'Oh, you're that posh guy!'

'What?' asks Harry, confused.

'Well, you're that guy with the fancy coat and the leather journal, right,' he explains, pointing to Harry's journal. 'I've seen you around campus. Not a load of students get that dressed up for uni. I mean, not that it's a bad thing, I actually think it's ace that you have your own style. But you do stand out, you know.'

'Thank you, I think?' Harry says, uncertain. Niall just smiles at him, and Harry's unsettled, not sure how to process this information.

'Do you always carry that one around, then?' Niall asks.

Harry looks at the journal, runs his hand over the battered and inked leather. 'I do.'

Niall tilts his head, nodding. 'Writer or artist?'

'Writer.'

'You don't talk much, do you?' he asks, laughing quietly. 'But you like photography.'

'Wouldn't be here if I didn't.'

'Right, right.' Niall looks about the room then, as if he is looking for something or someone. After a minute, he turns back to Harry and says, 'Okay, so here's the thing. A bunch of my mates from the paper told me they'd come to this photo club, right? But none of them are here, so they're either all ill, which is highly unlikely, or they played a prank on me.'

Harry stifles a laugh, then whispers back, 'So you don't actually like photography?'

'I don't know. Never thought about it,' Niall answers, smiling. 'But I'm here now. Might as well listen to what he has to say.' He shrugs, turning away from Harry.

Right. Might as well listen to what Tom has to say, and just like that, Harry pays attention again.

'...but the biggest announcement I have for you today is that we're going to do something special this year, something we haven't done before. It'll be a year-long project and the results of your work will be presented in an exhibition at the end of the summer term next year.'

He continues, 'It'd be very useful for you lot to partner up for that project. New members with little to no experience should team up with those who've either been in the club since last year, or at least have basic knowledge of photography, so you can help each other. So please everyone, before you leave, let me know who you're teaming up with so I can make a list. Alright, I suppose that's it for today, if there are no further questions from any of you, we're done,' Tom finishes with a loud sigh and looks around the room. When nobody raises their hands, he shouts, 'See you next week!'

The sound of knuckles rapping on tables echoes through the room and a commotion begins as people slowly start getting up and leaving.

Harry turns to Niall, asking, 'So, are you staying? We could be partners if you want, I was in the club last year so I have some idea what I'm doing.'

'Sure, sounds good,' he says with a smile. Then, 'sorry mate, gotta run. Don't wanna be late to work. See you next week, then?'

'Absolutely.'

;;

Harry couldn't miss the house even if he wanted to. It's loud - so loud that he's wondering which of the neighbours is going to call the coppers first. He isn't in the mood for a party, but anything seemed better than being on his own at home right now. And so here he is, walking up the pumpkin-lined pathway to the front door and ringing the bell.

The door opens, and he's greeted by a couple of screaming and bloody... witches? He's not too sure about it, but tells them how much he likes their costumes as he passes them, walking inside. One of the girls giggles, clinging to the other one, who yells back at him, 'Cheers, you're not too bad yourself. Nice cat ears!'

Harry gives them two thumbs up and a flashing grin before he turns around and makes his way through the foyer and into the living room, walking past couples sitting on the floor snogging and a group of three blokes dressed as Hobbits, talking about some superhero film.

Hands still in his coat pockets, Harry looks around the room, taking in everyone and their mostly ridiculous costumes. And then he spots Niall, wearing a backwards snapback, bits of his sweaty hair sticking to his forehead in the front, a Celtics jersey and grey Adidas jogging bottoms. He's loud and brash and doing shots with everyone in the kitchen. It's only been a few days since they met in photo club, and they haven't seen each other since. But Harry doesn't see anyone else he knows, so he leaves his coat on a pile on a couch before he walks over.

'Oi, Harry!' Niall yells from across the room, already moving towards him with his arms spread wide and going in for a hug.

Harry didn't expect this kind of welcome but he assumes Niall has already had a few drinks, so he lets himself be hugged and pats him on the back awkwardly. 'Hey. Good to see you.'

'Yeah, mate,' Niall retorts, a bit louder than necessary. 'Didn't expect to see you here!'

Harry shrugs. 'I wasn't planning on coming, it was more of a spontaneous decision. Couldn't find a costume last minute, so I went with the cat ears,' he grins, pointing to his head.

Looking Niall up and down, he asks, 'What about you? You're not wearing a costume, are you?'

'Nah, this is just me,' says Niall. He steps a bit closer to Harry, close enough that he doesn't have to shout anymore when he says, 'I like your cat ears. Bit cute, actually.'

'Thanks,' Harry says, feeling the warmth creeping into his cheeks.

Niall grins widely at him, and Harry watches the way his face scrunches up, likes how much cuter it makes Niall. 'Want a drink?' he asks.

'Yeah,' Harry replies and follows Niall into the kitchen.

'Hey, Josh,' Niall shouts and a small, bulky guy turns around to shout, 'yo' back at Niall. 'Can you get my friend Harry here a drink?' Niall asks, slapping Josh on the back and bringing him into a half hug, slinging his arm around his neck. Josh beams, bottle of vodka in one hand, the other one resting on Niall's waist.

Harry looks up at his face when he hears him say, 'Hey, Harry. I'm Josh, Niall's favourite person of all time and self-proclaimed bartender. What can I get you?'

'Uh, surprise me?' Harry smiles back at him, and just like that, Josh tells him, 'On it, mate,' and lets go of Niall to mix a drink.

Niall takes a sip out of his cup and steps closer to Harry, explaining, 'see, he's on a roll tonight, I have to apologise for him. He's my flatmate.'

Harry nods along, listens to Niall as he goes on, 'he and his band have been asked out on tour by The 1975. We're celebrating tonight.'

'Oh, really?' Harry asks, can't hide that he's impressed. He's heard some things about that band, knows they're from the Manchester area, and the songs he's heard so far are pretty decent. 'How come?'

Niall tells Harry that Josh and George went to school together and have been close friends ever since, but they both learned to play the same instrument and therefore they ended up in different bands. They've always stayed in touch and supported each other, though.

Josh returns with a full cup, hands it over to Harry. He shrugs, 'yeah, I mean. Our band doesn't profit from this at all, like, financially. But you know, it's an opportunity to get out there a bit more, maybe gain a few more fans, sell our merch and stuff.'

'Yeah no, that's amazing,' Harry nods. He sips his drink, which is awfully sweet, too sweet for his taste anyway. He usually prefers whiskey or red wine, but unfortunately those aren't the kind of drinks you get at a student party. He takes what he can get because he wants to get on their level, wants to feel a bit loose and tipsy, wants to enjoy himself tonight.

'So what do you play?' he asks Josh.

'Drums, man.' Josh lifts his left arm and flexes his bicep.

Niall laughs, losing his balance and leaning closer into Harry. 'Dude, you're such a show-off.'

 

In the following two hours, Harry learns two important things: one, Niall is bloody good at noticing when cups are empty and need a refill; two, he's also remarkably good at flirting.

Whenever Harry makes a lame joke, Niall bends over laughing, and although they haven't known each other for long, Harry suspects it might be because Niall likes him, and not because he thinks Harry's jokes are particularly funny. Although, the more fruity drinks he downs, the looser he gets and the funnier he feels. And Niall shouts at other people to be heard over the noise of the party, but whenever he talks to Harry, his lips graze Harry's ears as he leans into him, and his hand has a steady grip on Harry's forearm that makes Harry wonder about how that grip would feel elsewhere.

So when Niall grabs Harry's arm and drags him upstairs, Harry follows him, no questions asked, and pushes into the bathroom with him. He slams the door shut, locks it, grabs Niall by the waist and pushes him up against the door. He leans in to nuzzle Niall's neck and breathes in deeply. Niall smells like a mixture of red bull and cigarettes. Harry brings his hand between them, drags it down his chest, then quickly shoves it beneath the waistband of Niall's pants, tugging on him a few times before he pulls his hand out and spits into it. He pushes Niall's pants down a bit with his other hand, just enough to get better access to his dick, and lubes him up with his spit. Niall's head hits the door, snapback falling off, and he lets out an open-mouthed, long exhale, as if he's been holding his breath since Harry crowded him against the door. Harry's hand is slick, just from the smooth and hot feel of Niall's cock in his hand. He's so hard he feels dizzy with it, so he steps a bit closer and leans his head against the door, next to Niall's, looking down and wanking him relentlessly, pushing the hard line of his cock into Niall's hip.

'Please,' Harry breathes out, moving his hips more forcefully and demanding, slowing the pace of his hand working over Niall, hoping that he'll get the hint. He does eventually, and opens up Harry's trousers, shoving his hand inside and squeezing the leaking head of Harry's cock. He circles it in a tight fist and pumps over it a few times, smearing the precome over the length of his cock, and it feels so good that when Niall starts wanking him for real, he has to bite his lip to keep a desperate moan from slipping out. He speeds up his hand while simultaneously fucking into Niall's, and all he can hear is their breathing and the slick sounds of their hands working over each other's dicks.

His cat ears start slipping off his head, and Niall just looks at him, panting, and his breath is hot and sweet on Harry's cheek. To see Niall worked up like this makes him go mad, and his own orgasm build even quicker than usual. Harry hikes up Niall's shirt with his free hand, buries his head into Niall's shoulder and bites it to muffle his moan when he comes over Niall's hand and belly. Niall strokes him through it and before he can pull back and catch his breath, Niall lets out a high-pitched moan and he shoots over Harry's hand. Some of it lands on Harry's shirt, though, and when he looks down, he pulls his hand back and lets out a weak, 'Gross.'

Harry walks over to the sink and washes the come off his hands, tucks himself away and tries to clean his shirt by holding it under the water tap. Niall walks past him to grab some toilet paper and clean his belly, and Harry catches a glimpse of him in the mirror in front of him. Niall flushes the toilet and comes up behind Harry, moving in to kiss his cheek, but Harry moves away.

'Sorry. I think it's better if I go now.' He starts walking backwards towards the door. 'My shirt's ruined, can't go out to the party like that.' Harry stops and leans against the door when he sees Niall's looking disappointed.

'I just. I mean. I,' he stutters. 'I didn't mean to be rude.'

'Well,' Niall begins, but Harry cuts him off, 'Sorry. I just didn't want to give you the wrong impression, okay. And I'd feel a bit weird walking around a party with spunk on my shirt. I'd just rather go home.'

'No, it's cool, I get it. It's fine. See you next week?' Niall's eyebrows are raised and his eyes are wide open, something hopeful sparkling inside them.

'Course, yeah. See you next week.' Harry nods and gives him a tentative smile before he turns around and leaves.

;;

This time, when Harry steps into the pub, he doesn't have to hide in a corner. Instead he strides straight up to the bar, sitting down on one of the stools. Niall looks up from the book he's been reading behind the bar, face lighting up when he sees Harry.

'Hey! Surprised to see you here,' he says, walking over to where Harry's sitting. Harry's a bit nervous to show up unannounced, and his belly's clenching up at the sight of Niall's bright smile. They'd seen each other at their second photo club meeting during the week after the party and things had been a little awkward between them at first. But as soon as he started to explain how to properly adjust aperture and shutter speed to him, things loosened up and they were back to flirting in no time. Things with Niall are so easy, in a way that Harry isn't used to. He can't stop thinking about what had happened between them, and he got the idea it was a silent invitation for him when Niall told him where he worked. Now here he is, because there's just something about Niall that he can't quite put his finger on.

'Well, I hope it's a nice surprise?' says Harry, grinning back at him.

'Look around you. I reckon you came to save me from a slow and boring death. What can I get for you?'

'Do you have wine?'

'We do, but you don't have very many choices. I can offer you anything on that shelf?' Niall raises his eyebrows, pointing to the shelf behind him.

Harry takes a moment to examine the few bottles and decides to go with the red. 'Right, I'll have a glass of Pinot Noir, then.'

'Coming right up,' Niall says as he turns around to get the bottle.

'What are you reading there?' asks Harry, shrugging off his coat and throwing it over the stool next to his.

'Oh, that. It's just this textbook I borrowed from a friend? He's doing Poli Sci,' Niall says while working on uncorking the bottle of Pinot Noir.

'A textbook? You're reading a textbook for fun?' Harry laughs.

Niall grins up at him, pulling the cork out of the bottle, then ducks his head again, cheeks pinking up slightly. 'I know it probably sounds weird, but I don't know, mate. Sometimes I'm just curious about things, you know. Like, I care about something and I want to know everything about it.'

He shrugs and pours the wine into a glass, handing it over the counter to Harry. 'There you go.'

'Cheers,' says Harry and takes a sip. 'Well, that's certainly an unusual hobby. Never met anyone before who reads textbooks because they're interested in something.'

'You sure know how to make a boy feel special, Harry,' Niall says with a cheeky grin.

'Got any other special interests I should know about?'

'I don't know about special, man. Reckon I'm just a regular bloke.'

'Told me you're doing a music degree, didn't you? What instruments can you play?'

'Mostly guitar, but I can play a bit of the ukulele, banjo, and drums. I know a few songs on the piano, too.'

'Just a regular bloke, then.'

Niall laughs and shrugs. 'Sometimes I perform. Mostly I do cover songs but sometimes I write my own. That's actually my favourite thing to do. Writing songs and composing.'

'Oh really?' Harry acts surprised. 'Do you play gigs like Josh and his band?'

'Nah, nothing like that. It's just, I work here and they have open mic nights every other Thursday, so I sometimes play a few songs there. I play for my friends a lot, actually, at parties and stuff. Or for my family. So no, not actual gigs.'

'Is that what you want to do, though? For a living?' Harry asks.

'Yeah, I want to write and compose music for a living, it's what I love, y'know. Maybe for big artists one day, that would be ace. Just imagine how awesome it would be to hear your song all over the radio stations! Or to have the opportunity to work with artists and write songs together. That's my dream.'

'That would be wicked. But wouldn't it be even better if it was you singing that song?'

'Of course, yeah, that would be awesome, mate. But I'm a realist, you know. Don't like to get my hopes up too high. Whatever happens, happens.'

'Fair enough. But if you got the chance to do it, you would?'

'Hell yeah, I would,' Niall smiles. He leans on the counter and looks at Harry. 'So, what is it that you want to do?'

Harry hesitates for a moment before he answers, 'I want to write.'

'Right, you're a writer,' Niall nods. 'What do you want to write, novels?'

'Yeah, anything really,' Harry responds and takes a sip of his wine. 'Novels, short stories, poetry, reviews, articles, columns, shopping lists, whatever. I just want to write. It's the only thing I'm good at. And it's the only thing I really want to do. I can't imagine my life doing anything else.'

'What is it that you love about writing?'

Harry considers this for a minute, taking another sip from his glass, and enjoys being the one in charge. He studies Niall's face, anticipation and curiosity written all over it. 'With writing, I can express myself or just lose myself in it. I can affect people. And there's something about seeing how people react to my writing that, I don't know. I just like it.'

Niall smiles at him and the door opens behind them, a lively group of students coming in. They sit down at a table in one of the corners. Niall shakes his head. 'Can't believe they chose to come in now.' He points his index finger at Harry. 'Stay where you are. We need to continue this conversation. I'll be right back.'

'Not going anywhere,' Harry says and lifts his glass pointedly, taking another sip of his wine.

 

Around half past twelve, Niall starts to close up the pub. Since they're alone, Harry offers to help and they continue to talk as Niall wipes down the tables and Harry stacks the chairs.

'How're you getting home?' Niall asks when they're done.

'Walking. I, uh, actually I live not far from here?'

'Well then, let me walk you home.' Niall beams at him, and Harry couldn't deny him anything, even if he wanted to. 'Yeah, all right.'

They start heading down the street, walking close to each other – so close that Niall's hand almost brushes Harry's hand, so close that their shoulders bump when Harry slightly loses his balance, absorbed in their conversation. Niall tells him stories about his weirdest and funniest incidents with customers at the pub, and Harry can't stop giggling. His cheeks are warm although there's a chill in the dark air around them; his chest feels light and his shoulders are completely relaxed, utterly comfortable around Niall.

When they reach his street, Harry slows down and they're almost creeping the rest of the way until they're standing in front of his building.

'This is me,' Harry says, jerking his head to the side and turning back to face Niall. He's blinded by a streetlamp, so he can't see or read Niall's face, and he smiles nervously.

They stand there awkwardly for a second until Harry steps forward and closes the gap between them, grabbing the lapels of Niall's jacket and pulling him in to bring their mouths together. It's a frantic sort of kiss, bruising, hot and sloppy; Harry's been eager to lick into Niall's mouth ever since he finished that second glass of wine. His nose bumps against the frame of Niall's glasses when he deepens the kiss, sliding his tongue inside Niall's mouth.

Niall is just as eager, kissing Harry back with no finesse. He lets his hands wander down Harry's back to his bum, and it takes everything to retain his self-control. 'So, hey,' Harry says between kisses, 'before we take this any further, there's something I should probably tell you.'

'What,' Niall mumbles without taking his lips off Harry's, 'have an annoying flatmate?' He squeezes Harry's bum cheeks and Harry groans.

'No, actually,' he says, grabbing Niall's face with both hands, 'I live alone.' He pulls them apart slightly, 'I don't date.'

Niall frowns. 'What do you mean?'

'Like, I'm not looking for a relationship right now. I don't want to be serious.'

'Okay,' Niall says. 'What about a bit of fun? Wanna be casual?' He pulls Harry closer and their hard dicks line up through their clothes. Harry gasps.

'Yeah,' he leers at Niall and kisses him.

 

This is how Niall ends up on his knees, in the middle of Harry's kitchen, sucking him off. And he's bloody good at it. He's eager and trying his best to take him all the way down – gagging whenever Harry's dick bumps against the back of his throat. Harry's leaning against the kitchen table, hands gripping tight, trying not to lose his balance when he looks down and sees Niall's head bob eagerly between his legs, nose hitting Harry's belly on every other push forward. His orgasm is quickly building, if the heat pooling in his belly is anything to go by. He feels like he used to when he was a teenager, so horny and on edge all the time.

'Niall,' he chokes out as he tugs at his hair and Niall pulls back immediately, looking up as Harry comes, white hot streaks of come spattering all over Niall's cheeks, nose and glasses. 'Sorry,' he chuckles quietly, gasping for air and coming down from his orgasm. He gets down slowly, kneeling in front of Niall, holding on to his shoulders. He leans forward then, licking away a bit of come that's beginning to run down Niall's ruddy cheek.

'Sorry about the glasses, mate. Guess we're even now,' he says with a smirk and unbuckles Niall's trousers.

'Oh, jog on!' Niall half laughs, half groans.

Sucking another splatter of come off the tip of his nose, Harry starts wanking him rough and quick. He speeds up his rhythm when he notices that Niall's already close, gasping out desperate little oh, oh, oh sounds and leans in to nibble and lick his earlobe. He whispers, 'you've got a cute nose,' and Niall nuts all over his hand.

;;

The vibration of the bass is tangible; Harry feels it pulsing in his limbs and echoing inside his entire body. He feels the buzz of the alcohol rushing through his veins as he moves to the beat in the middle of the dance floor and sings along to the songs he doesn't even know the lyrics to.

After their bender in several pubs they'd parted ways with most of Niall's mates, going on a quest with Josh, Georgia, and Danny for a place to dance and keep partying. Harry can't remember how they ended up in this posh club, where the chandeliers are blinking back at him and the floors are covered with plush carpets; his memory is as blurry as his vision is from all the drinks he'd had. The way he's moving his body and shaking his head is definitely not helping him feel less dazed. That warm, content feeling of being drunk enough but not too drunk has settled deep in his stomach and spread to his cheeks and limbs, reaching out to his toes and fingertips with a tingling sensation. Niall's jumping up and down, sweaty hair clinging to his forehead, constantly fiddling with his glasses to keep them from slipping off his nose. The black lights in the otherwise dimly lit room make his smile seem like it's shining, his teeth lit up in a comical way. Harry's cheeks hurt from laughing all night and he feels loose and lively, as though all of his burdens were lifted off his shoulders. He jumps and wiggles his bum in front of Niall, thrusts his hips and throws his hands in the air. His moves get more and more ridiculous, he's not even dancing anymore, just trying to crack Niall up, making a complete fool of himself.

Niall laughs so hard he's doubling over, holding his belly and shaking with it. Harry's whole face lights up and his stomach does that flippy thing it always does when Niall laughs at one of his lame jokes. It's like a drug, he's buzzing with it but he wants more, always more. So he crouches down and starts jittering, flailing his arms about, and pulls the silliest faces he can think of to keep Niall laughing at him - looking at him - until he starts to feel giddy. He teeters forward a bit and moves closer, acting as though he threw a lasso around Niall, pulling on an invisible rope as he gets nearer and nearer until he closes the gap between them. Gripping Harry's shoulders, Niall pushes himself up and yells into Harry's ear, 'You look like a muppet when you dance!'

Harry can hear the smile in Niall's voice; he leans down, digging his fingers into Niall's hips as he shouts back in his ear, 'Excuse me! I was trying to woo you there,' which only elicits another loud laugh out of Niall.

The music shifts to something slower, so Harry loops his arms around Niall's waist and rests his hands on his lower back. After a few beats, they both get into the rhythm of the song and start moving together, rolling their hips with their legs intertwined.

do you wanna get freaky cause I'll freak you right I will

Harry leans in and nuzzles Niall's sweaty hairline, taking in his scent, and it's driving him mad. 'Wanna get out of here?' Harry murmurs, grabbing Niall's bum and pulling him in closer.

Niall smiles and nods. 'Let me just check with Josh if he's staying at ours tonight or–'

'–Or,' Harry interrupts him, 'we could just go to mine.'

The smile on Niall's face widens, making that magical dimple of his appear, and Harry can't resist leaning in to kiss it.

'We should definitely do that,' Niall laughs out, and Harry moves his lips closer and gives him an approving peck on the mouth. When he draws back, he loosens his grip and runs his hands up along Niall's back.

'We should find the others and say goodbye, then,' he says.

'What if we didn't? I'll text Josh on the way,' Niall suggests.

'You're so bladdered,' Harry says with a laugh, 'I'm not convinced you can still text.'

'I'll make you do it for me, then,' Niall groans.

Harry snorts. 'Oh, will you?' he asks teasingly, tightening his grip again and pulling Niall closer.

Niall attempts to waggle his eyebrows lasciviously. 'I am. In fact, I'll make you do a lot of things tonight,' he says, and Harry feels the laughter bubbling up again, along with an overwhelming feeling of fondness.

 

They walk out into the cold wind. It's been raining for hours, all the streets and buildings wet, raindrops on the cars glistening in the light of the streetlamps. It's blowing hard and still drizzling slightly, so when they stumble out of the club, Harry pulls the collar of his coat up immediately. They walk a few steps until Niall starts to laugh uncontrollably behind Harry, the sound of it echoing through the narrow street. He turns around and finds Niall bent over himself, holding on to a streetlamp with one hand to keep his balance.

'What's so funny now?' asks Harry, grinning back at Niall.

When he's calmed down a bit he attempts to talk, but sputters all over again. Harry can't help but start laughing too, because Niall's laugh is terribly contagious and he feels giddy and drunk and lightheaded. He doesn't even know what they're laughing about, but he can't stop either.

'What are we laughing about?' he asks Niall again, after they've stumbled a few metres forward side by side, Niall wiping at his eyes.

'It's just that,' he starts and his voice sounds shaky, trying really hard not to crack up again. 'It's just that you look like The Count from Sesame Street with your coat.'

'What?' Harry shrieks, sounding mock-offended.

'It's true,' Niall giggles, 'that's the funniest thing ever, man! You really are a muppet!'

'At least I'm not freezing with my coat on,' Harry replies. 'Come here.'

When they went out earlier that night, Niall had only been wearing a hoodie and threw on a jacket, but this late it's a lot chillier. Niall sways a bit when he moves towards him, arms slung around himself. Harry grabs his coat and holds it up for Niall to fit under his arm, sheltering him from the drizzle.

'Just wait until we get home, we'll find a video on YouTube and I'll prove to you that's not true,' says Harry.

'Yeh, good luck with that,' Niall snorts, and Harry feels him shivering a bit against his own ribcage. They walk like that to the bus stop together, and Harry doesn't feel the cold wind or rain, just focuses on the warmth coming off Niall's body pressed against his.

 

They stumble into Harry's flat, laughing again because it takes Harry five minutes to unlock the door, Niall's mocking match commentary not helpful at all.

Harry throws his keys on the kitchen table and strips off on the way to his bed in the corner. He flops down on the bed and reaches for his laptop that's lying on a stack of books nearby.

Niall rummages about in one of the kitchen cupboards, looking for something to eat, while Harry browses the internet for a video of The Count. He puts the laptop on the sheets, and positions it so that Niall can watch from where he's sitting at the kitchen table. Harry laughs when he looks over at Niall, sprawled out on the chair, hand shoved inside a bag of crisps and munching away.

'Alright, found a video,' he says and hits full screen mode and play.

Niall laughs so hard he almost chokes on his crisps and when Harry imitates The Count, he laughs harder. Even while they get ready for bed, Harry can't stop imitating and every time they've calmed down, they just have to look at each other and they're doubling up with laughter.

Smelling of minty toothpaste, Harry crawls into bed with Niall. He hovers over him and says, 'Let's see. How many freckles do we have here?' and starts counting them.

He puts his finger on Niall's neck, touching a freckle and counts, 'One. One freckle,' rolling his r's ridiculously, then puts a kiss on it. Niall giggles and writhes underneath him as he continues counting them, one by one, kiss by kiss.

;;

Harry's waiting for his bag at baggage claim, not paying too much attention to the carousel while checking his phone and standing in the background. He hates that first rush of people, everyone so eager to get at their luggage and leave. Like they're all in a hurry and ready to go for each other's throats if someone jumps the queue. He isn't keen on having body contact with a group of complete strangers, so he keeps his distance and waits until the crowd starts to disperse.

There's an e-mail from his father, sitting unread in his account, daring Harry to open and read it. It can't be good news, never is when he receives an e-mail from him. He takes a deep breath, swipes his thumb over the screen and begins to read.

'son, something came up. had to fly to LA over the holidays. my assistant is going to send presents for you and gemma to her address, hope to see you again in the new year. merry christmas from me and charlotte'

Harry feels it like a punch to the gut, and it's not that he hasn't been expecting this to happen, but it still hurts. No matter how many times he prepares himself to be disappointed by his father, because that's what he does - stands Harry up and then tries to make up for it with money - it still stings every single time. He should have known better than to get his hopes up, but it's the holidays and deep inside, Harry still wants to be recognised and on top of his father's priority list for once, instead of his new wife - who's not even three years older than Harry - or his job. The job that always comes first, always came first, even when he and Gemma were kids. His whole life was spent moving from one fashion capital to the next.

Harry clenches his fist, swallowing down his disappointment. He deletes the e-mail before pocketing his phone, rushing to pick up his luggage and exit the baggage claim to where Gemma's boyfriend Liam is already waiting for him outside. Liam welcomes him with a warm smile that spreads across his face, making his eyes crinkle, and Harry's step gets lighter immediately.

When they arrive at Gemma's flat, Harry is surprised to find it's been redecorated since the last time he visited. It's nice, though, bright cream colours on the walls making the place appear even bigger than it already is and new furniture filling every room. But when they walk down the corridor that leads to the guest room - his room - Harry sees that the picture wall is still the same. Pictures of him and Gemma, scattered amongst other pictures of her with Liam and her best friends.

It settles his nerves, sends a feeling of calm through his body. He stops in front of a picture of him and Gemma as kids, dressed up as a pirate and catwoman. 'Will she ever get rid of this one? What a horrible photo of us,' he asks Liam, who turns around and steps closer to him to have a look.

'Nah, mate, doubt it,' Liam responds with a fond smile. 'I think it's secretly one of her favourites.'

Harry rolls his eyes. 'Of course.'

'It's not as bad as you think,' Liam says, following Harry to the guest room, carrying his bag. He opens the door and stows the bag in the corner. 'Let me know if you need anything.'

'Thanks, Liam,' Harry says and walks into the room. 'Actually, I'd like to have a nap if that's alright with you? Didn't sleep well last night and I'm knackered.'

Harry doesn't tell Liam the whole truth. That he hadn't slept at all because he'd stayed over at Niall's flat. Niall had insisted on having a night out before the Christmas holiday because they couldn't spend New Year's Eve together. But they never made it out and instead ended up shagging all night on Niall's tiny crappy bed until he'd fucked Niall so hard into the mattress that they managed to break the slats. When Niall fell asleep around three o'clock, Harry got dressed and went to his flat to pack his bag and leave for the airport.

'Of course,' Liam agrees, 'you don't even have to ask. You know you're home with us here, right?'

'I know,' Harry nods.

'Gemma will be home around five, and I'll cook something later.'

'Now that's good news,' Harry jokes and watches the door close behind Liam.

;;

Harry's lying on the sofa, dressed in his pyjama bottoms, a woolly jumper and his most ridiculous pair of Christmas socks. He's just had breakfast with Liam and Gemma, and Harry was so hungry - and maybe the slightest bit hungover from going out with Nick the night before - when he got up that he downed triple the amount he usually eats. The food lies heavy in his stomach now, making him unable to move, so he just lies there and switches on the telly, flipping through the channels until his mobile vibrates on the glass table. He reaches over without leaving his spot and grabs for his phone, looking at the screen. It's a picture of Niall, smiling brightly and giving him the thumbs up, with a plate of food right next to him on the table. The caption says breakfast time !!

He checks to make sure neither Liam nor Gemma are around to witness what he's about to do, then pulls up his jumper to expose his potbelly, aiming his phone camera straight at it. It doesn't look big enough so he hollows out his back and pushes his belly up to make it appear bigger. He giggles quietly as he snaps the photo and sends it back to Niall, adding ours was quite delicious ;)

He's tapping away on his phone when Gemma and Liam pad over and sit down on the opposite sofa. They look ridiculous in their matching Christmas pyjamas, and he watches them as they lie together in a heap of limbs on the opposite sofa, talking quietly and watching an old fairy tale film on the telly.

'Who are you texting?' Gemma pipes up from her spot underneath Liam's arm, arching her eyebrows while she's waiting for Harry to reply.

'None of your business,' he retaliates.

'It's a boy, innit. The one you told us about from uni, by any chance?'

'What? No, shut up.' Harry tries to hide behind his phone as best as he can, but the blush on his face is probably giving him away. He's always been shit at lying, and he could never hide anything from his sister.

'Jackpot,' she yells. 'Liam, our Harry's texting a boy from uni, how about that?'

Harry simply rolls his eyes and tunes them out.

There's a pile of tangerine peels on the table next to him, from where he left them after breakfast. Harry eats a lot of tangerines and clementines, loves the smell of it when he peels them. He wonders if Niall likes them too and whether he'd be able to taste them on Harry's tongue when they kissed. He takes a picture of the peels and sends it to Niall, adding want some?

It doesn't take a minute before he receives Niall's reply: no thanks, a picture of a bunch of chocolate wrappers attached to it.

 

In the late afternoon, they go for a walk when it's snowing. Gemma starts a snowball fight that escalates quickly, so when they come back they're all frozen to the bone. They warm themselves up with tea and wrap themselves in blankets. When Harry checks his mobile and sees he's got a couple of unread messages from Niall, he can't hide the big grin from his sister.

 

After supper, he's in the kitchen, making himself another pot of tea when Gemma comes over, closing the door quietly behind her. Harry looks up and watches her walk over to the sitting area.

'Want a brew?' he asks while he pours the hot water from the kettle into the teapot.

'Yes, thanks,' she replies from where she's sitting on the bench near the window, fairy lights illuminating her face. 'Will you sit down with me for a minute? I need to talk to you.'

'Alright, what's all the secrecy about? I hope Liam's still alive out there?' Harry carries the teapot and two mugs over to the table and sets them down.

Gemma laughs brightly and looks at Harry, cocking her head to the side. 'Sometimes I don't even want to know what's going on in that head of yours, Harry.'

He pours the tea and grins back at her, sliding a cup over to her. 'You really don't.'

'Ta, love,' she says and wraps her hands around the cup. Harry sits down next to her on the bench. 'So, what did you want to talk about, then?'

Gemma clears her throat. 'Right. I wanted to tell you this morning, but I wanted to do it in a quiet moment, and with Liam being around, and the phone ringing, and opening presents, and breakfast, I didn't have a chance. I didn't want to ruin any of it, and you seemed so happy today.'

Harry sips on his tea. He's getting impatient, not sure what she's trying to tell him. He looks at Gemma and blurts out, 'Alright, get on with it.'

'You know Liam and I have been talking about buying a house for quite a while now,' she says, and Harry tries to guess where this is going.

'Yes?' he draws out the word.

'Well, Liam proposed to me last night.' She holds up her hand next to her dimpled face, displaying the ring on her finger that's shining almost as bright as her face. Harry stares at it, and it's awfully quiet in the room. He's looking for something to say, the right words, any words at all, but his thoughts are running wild and they're too much, like overdubbing tracks, one thought louder than the last one. He feels woozy and muddled, unable to stop the thoughts in his head, or to organise or filter them in any way. He swallows around the lump in his throat and winces when Gemma lays a hand on his shoulder.

'Harry? You alright?' she asks quietly.

Harry can see the worry painted across her face, and he doesn't want to upset her. He wants her to be happy, always, but can't focus and tell her what he believes she wants to hear.

'Yeah, I'm just. It's. I don't know what to say.'

'I know, it was quite a surprise for me as well. I still can't believe it to be honest.'

'Congratulations, Gem,' he finally manages to say and leans in to hug her. She meets Harry halfway and they stay like that for a while, holding each other.

'Thanks, donut,' she whispers into his ear, rubbing his back with her warm hand. It's soothing and familiar and Harry relaxes a bit at that. He knows that Gemma is happy and that she loves Liam a lot, knows because he can read her like no one else can. Knows because he sees the little details, like the way that Gemma and Liam look at each other, or the way Liam takes Gemma's hand and squeezes it lightly.

Rationally, he knows it's great and he should be happy for them, but he can't help it, not when the news hit him like this, it's too much and his body is betraying him, making him feel like he's trapped underwater and he can't breathe, like he needs to leave.

Gemma reaches over the table to take his hand. 'Look, I know things haven't been easy for us. But our past doesn't define who we are, Harry, and we can build our own lives and have our own families.'

Harry listens, but he doesn't want to hear what she's saying. Gemma's always been the older one, the one who moved on more easily, who wasn't afraid of everything all the time. She doesn't overthink situations like Harry does, and she makes it look so easy to trust and love people; it's not fair, and Harry wishes he could be a bit more like his sister. He takes deep breaths and tries to stay calm, but it's an effort with a heavy chest and his heart racing.

'You know that, right? That we can have those things. You seemed so happy when you were texting earlier. Was that your friend from the photography club?'

'What does that have to do with anything?' Harry snaps, pulling his hand away from her.

'I'm just trying to say that I'm happy for you, that you found someone you like.'

'You don't even know that. Why are you making this about me now? I don't want to hear any of this, alright.' Harry's tied up in knots and his hands are clenched into fists under the table. 'I'm happy for you and Liam, sorry I didn't react the way you wanted me to.' He knows he's not being fair, but he can't stop himself.

'Harry, please. I didn't expect anything from you and I know you're happy for us. I just don't want you to run from something good. Your friend, what's his name? Niall? He sounds like a decent, nice guy.' Gemma's voice is firm but calm.

'I don't have to listen to this,' he tells her and gets up in a hurry, determined to leave the house.

;;

He grabs a bottle of red wine, not even caring about putting on his coat, and drives Gemma's car to Nick's. The whole time he's driving, he can't stop thinking about the ring on Gemma's finger and the disappointed look on her face, angry with himself for not being able to be sincerely happy for her. He just can't shake that uncomfortable feeling, making his chest tighten and his fingers twitch nervously. It's not exactly like he's jealous of her, but he's thought about this a lot - how they have the same family background and still, they both deal with everything so differently. He doesn't understand why Gemma has the ability to be in a functional relationship, and he simply can't do it. Harry's tapping on the steering wheel, waiting for a red light to turn, when it starts snowing. He watches the snowflakes slowly cover the windscreen until he can't see clearly anymore and turns the wipers on, just as the light turns green.

At the door, he's welcomed by a sleepy looking Nick, dressed only in a pair of pants and a Dr. Dre t-shirt, while Puppy yelps and jumps excitedly around Harry's legs.

'Hey, what are you doing here, thought you're spending Christmas Day with Gemma and Liam?' Nick asks, his voice raspy from sleep but comforting.

'Unexpected turn of events. Are you okay, though? You look a bit pale,' Harry responds while walking through the kitchen, putting the bottle on the table, Nick trailing behind him.

Nick runs his fingers through his messy hair, clearing his throat. 'Thanks. I've been feeling a bit poorly, actually, and fell asleep in front of the telly. Hope I'm not coming down with something.'

'That would suck, mate,' Harry says.

'Indeed.' Nick smiles at Harry, and then looks at the bottles on the table. 'Can I offer you a drink, then?'

'Please,' Harry says. He bends down to stroke Puppy behind the ears, and she wags her tail in response.

Nick walks over to the cupboard and gets a corkscrew and two wine glasses, tells Harry to grab the bottle and walks past him, with Puppy trailing behind. Harry follows Nick into the living room, which is lit only by the tiny kitschy Christmas tree in the corner, the television and a pair of candles on the coffee table. He puts down the bottle and falls onto the couch. Puppy follows suit, jumping into his lap. He plays with her while Nick pours the wine and then hands him a glass. They clink glasses before Harry takes a huge gulp. He just needs to be numb right now, doesn't want to feel miserable and doesn't want to think about anything.

'Alright. Spit it out, Styles. What's going on in that pretty little head of yours?' Nick asks, sitting sideways on the couch, facing Harry.

'Liam proposed to Gemma last night,' Harry says, staring into his glass.

'Oh. That's-' Nick pauses, 'certainly news.'

'Yeah,' Harry laughs, bitter taste on his tongue. He downs his glass in one go, trying to wash the taste away.

'Bit unexpected, was it?' Nick asks, placing his hand on Harry's knee.

Harry takes a deep breath, still comforted by how well Nick can read him, always knowing what's going on in his head without Harry having to spell it out for him. 'I mean, I suppose I should have known, like. They've talked about it before, I just didn't think it would happen so soon?'

Nick squeezes his knee gently. 'You know Gemma loves you, and nothing will ever change that.'

And he knows Nick is right – of course he is – but it still feels like things are going to change between them. Gemma will be starting this whole new life with Liam. Although he's glad she found someone who truly loves her, he can't help but feel betrayed; it used to be them against the world, and now he's been replaced with someone else. He knows he's overreacting, but he's feeling hurt and it outweighs his desire to be happy for her, and that only leads to feeling even more frustrated. Harry nods, despite all that.

'Refill?' Nick asks, and Harry responds by handing his glass over.

'You know it's okay if you don't want to talk about it,' Nick says while pouring him another glass. 'We don't have to.'

Suddenly, Puppy gets up and jumps off Harry's lap, startled by the vibration of his phone in his pocket. He pulls it out and it's Gemma calling, but he doesn't answer, just waits until it stills. 'I should probably tell her I'm okay,' he says, more to himself than to Nick, and starts composing a message, i'm at nick's don't worry i'm fine .xx.

He puts the phone on the coffee table in front of him and takes his glass from Nick, clinking their glasses together and smiles at him, 'cheers.'

'Cheers,' Nick repeats, and they both get comfortable on the couch. Harry toes his boots off and throws his legs over Nick's thighs, asking him about the shit shows he's watching, lets him explain the rules to Harry, anything to avoid talking about what's actually on his mind. He watches Nick as he talks to him, face illuminated by the soft flickering light in the room, sipping on his wine and his free hand flailing around when he's trying to make a point but always coming back to rest on Harry's legs. It's a nice and comforting weight, assuring him that Nick is there for him, like he always has been. It makes Harry's heartbeat slow down, calms his nerves.

They're already on their second bottle of wine, and Harry's feeling warm and sedated, bones heavy from the alcohol, making him sink back into the couch, when his phone goes off again on the table. He mumbles, 'Can't move. Can you get it for me?' from where his face is planted between the cushions.

Nick makes a disgruntled sound, but leans over to get it anyway. 'Oh,' he says, sounding surprised. 'Harry, is there something you'd like to tell me?' He grins smug and wide, looking at Harry but hiding the screen.

'What?' Harry asks, 'No. What is it?'

'More like, who is it?' Nick laughs, showing the phone to Harry, revealing a picture of Niall. He feels like he's just woken up from a bad dream, abruptly sitting up – head spinning – and grabs the phone out of Nick's hand.

'Give me that,' he tells Nick, clutching his phone with his clammy palms, embarrassed like he's been caught doing something he oughtn't.

Nick laughs, obviously amused by him, and he wasn't prepared for this. Hadn't even thought about telling Nick about Niall, but now he might as well. 'It's just uh–a friend, he's just a friend,' he stutters.

'Alright. Does he have a nice cock then, your friend?' asks Nick with a shit eating grin, and something inside Harry's belly unclenches so he laughs back at him, 'He does. More than nice, actually.'

Harry leans back into the cushions and dares to unlock his phone to have a proper look at the picture and the message attached to it: suit up !! off t another Christmas roast ! Hope I look presentable hahaa.

It's the first time Harry's ever seen Niall in a suit and he must admit that he looks dead attractive in it, objectively speaking. Harry giggles, realising how drunk he is, and throws his phone into Nick's lap. 'Do you think he's attractive, objectively speaking?' he asks.

Nick looks at him like he's just suggested they jump off a roof together, 'What are you on about? Objectively speaking? Do you want my opinion or do you want me to tell you that you picked a good one?'

'Ugh,' Harry growls. 'Forget I ever said anything.'

'What's the deal with you two? How long've you known him and not told me about it?' he asks, pinching Harry's calf.

'We met in photo club this year, and, I don't know, we've been getting off ever since?' Harry shrugs. 'It's not a thing or whatever, I've told him I'm not looking for a boyfriend.'

'But you're friends?' Nick offers, 'He wouldn't send you a picture at Christmas if you were just fucking around.'

Harry pushes himself up on his elbows. 'I suppose we are. He's fun to be around.'

Playing with the fringes on Harry's jeans, Nick asks, 'What's his name?'

'Niall.'

Nick nods. 'Niall,' he echoes. 'And Niall sends you pictures of himself on Christmas Day.'

Harry's sitting up, legs still lying heavy on Nick's, moving closer so they're face to face. He's starting to get a bit annoyed and it shows when he says, 'What are you getting at?'

Nick stares right back at him, eyes sincere, and Harry knows he isn't joking around anymore. 'You know. Just seems a bit strange. Does Niall know you're just friends?'

''Course he does, I told him,' he says.

'When?'

'When we first met, I don't know, before we started–' he waves his hands around, 'this.'

'Alright,' Nick sighs, 'don't get me wrong, but that was a long time ago and things can change. Are you sure he doesn't want more?'

'I'm sure. Can we stop talking now?' Harry leans forward and kisses Nick's neck. When he pulls back, he looks at Nick for a moment before he slides off the couch completely, holding on to both of Nick's knees and spreading his legs to settle between them on the floor. He looks up at Nick and this is easy, familiar, and it's exactly what he needs right now. He runs his hands up Nick's thighs, fingers sliding underneath his boxer briefs, until Nick's hands stop him.

'Harry,' he says. 'Sure you want this?'

No, I don't want this. I need this, Harry thinks to himself. He says, 'What does it look like to you? It's not like we haven't done this before.'

Nick says, 'No, but you're obviously upset.'

Harry feels edgy under Nick's scrutinizing look. 'Fine, if you don't want to, just tell me.'

'It's not that at all. I don't want to take advantage of you when you're upset, Harry.'

Harry gives Nick a provocative look. 'I want this. Can I suck you off now?'

Nick laughs. 'Alright, if you insist. Go on then.'

Harry doesn't need much more encouragement than that before he leans in and mouths at Nick's cock through the fabric of his pants.

;;

On New Year's Eve, Harry ends up lying in his bed feeling miserable as all hell. He fell ill two days after Christmas, contracting a terrible cold from Nick. He's a bit glad it happened while he's staying with Gemma and Liam - not that he would ever admit this out loud - because they're pretty great at taking care of him. One of the things he absolutely hates about living on his own is being ill and having nobody around to comfort him. It's alright to be ill when Liam makes you drinks and healthy food, runs you hot herbal baths and lets you have a whinge without resenting you for it.

This is the first day Harry's been feeling better, but he still had to cancel his plans for the night, leaving him on his own and snuggled up in bed on New Year's Eve. He'd insisted that Gemma and Liam go out even after Gemma suggested that they could all stay in together and have a board game party. As much as he loves to beat Liam at Scrabble, he doesn't want to be the reason someone else is missing out on having a good time.

He's in bed, reading a book Gemma had brought home, with the telly on in the background. He's reading the same passage for the third time because his mind keeps slipping when he's interrupted by the buzzing of his phone on the bedside table. He flinches - didn't expect that to happen - and lazily wiggles over to grab the phone and sees Niall's name flash up on the screen. He hesitates for a moment before he picks up.

'Hey,' he answers, voice sounding raspy. It's loud on the other end of the phone, he can hear people yelling and music playing in the background and then shuffling until he hears something slam - a door probably - and everything quiets down.

'Hello?' he tries again, a bit louder this time.

'Grrreetings!' Niall shouts, followed by a laugh. 'Alright, muppet?'

'Aah, yes,' Harry responds with an accompanying laugh. 'You at a party?'

'I am! I'm at this house party, just locked myself in one of the bedrooms I think? Hope I'm not interrupting, but. I reckoned you wouldn't pick up if I did, so, hey. How're ya? Haven't heard from you in a while.'

Harry coughs slightly. 'I'm good. I've been ill, starting to feel better though.'

'That sucks, man! No party for you then tonight?'

'Nah, not quite. Had to cancel my plans. I'm having a blast, though.'

'Are you?'

'Got everything I need. A bed, biscuits, tea, a book, and the telly. Believe me, you wish you were here right now.'

Niall giggles quietly and Harry's heart clenches. He's genuinely missed hearing that.

'Actually. You have no idea how right you are,' Niall says.

'Well, why did you lock yourself in someone's bedroom to call me anyway? Did the beer run out?' Harry asks.

'I was just talking to someone about that article on polar bears I read a while ago in National Geographic and then I kept thinking about baby polar bears and that reminded me of that YouTube link you sent me once, remember, of that little one that kept falling over and I thought of you and then, I don't know, I just thought I should really call you and see how you're doing.'

'Oh.'

'So how've you been, besides fighting a cold?'

'Great, fine. Been out with my mates a lot. Mostly with Nick and his friends, really. And I've spent Christmas with my sister and her boyfriend, well, he's not her boyfriend anymore, but-'

He's cut off by Niall. 'Oh, did they break up over Christmas?'

'What? No. No, they got engaged actually.'

'That's awesome! Congratulations! That must've been exciting.'

'Not really. I mean, I'm happy for them. I just, I didn't expect it, you know.'

'Oh. Well, that's okay. When my brother Greg got engaged a few years ago I was so excited for him, but I think it's okay to be a bit sad, too. Or, maybe worry about it a bit, because that's your sibling and of course you care for them and want them to be happy, right.'

'I just want her to be happy.'

'Do you think she's happy with, what's his name?'

'Liam. Yeah, I think she is. Liam's a nice guy.'

'See, that sounds good. We should drink to Gemma and Liam.'

Harry huffs out a laugh. 'To be honest you sound like you shouldn't drink to anything right now.'

He hears Niall laugh on the other end of the phone and there's some rustling in the background. He takes the remote control and mutes the telly. 'What are you doing?' he asks.

'Just getting comfortable on this bed. What are you doing?' Niall answers.

'I'm just lying in bed. What do you mean, getting comfortable?' Harry feels his heart pick up a bit, thinking about Niall all dishevelled and drunk on a stranger's bed.

'You know, just lying down. Touching myself and thinking about you.'

'Oh my god, Niall, are you trying to have phone sex with me? On someone else's bed? Do you even know whose bed this is?' he asks, cackling.

'No, and I don't care,' Niall says, voice determined, yet easy. 'It's almost midnight and I don't have anyone to kiss.'

'Me neither,' Harry says. He closes his eyes and tries to picture Niall, the last time they'd been together before he went to London.

'What are we gonna do about it?' Niall asks. Harry's not sure, but it sounds like a challenge to him.

'You should probably go back to the party and look for someone,' he says.

'That's not what I want, though. I want to get off with you. Also, all the blokes at this party are literally like family to me or straight or not my type.'

Definitely a challenge. 'You have a type?'

'I don't. I have a stiffy, though.'

'You're sorta really bad at this.'

'There's just nobody whose dick I want to touch out there. Why's yours in London? 'S not fair.'

Harry laughs, 'No really, Niall, you're terrible at this.'

'So are you, shut up. Never done this before, I'm trying my best here. I'm touching myself now.'

'Are you sure you want to do this now?'

'Yeah, I'm sure Harry, I'm drunk and I'm horny so do you want to help me get off or not?' Niall says, sounding a bit annoyed.

'Okay. Um, I don't know what to say though?' Harry says tentatively. He can't believe he's doing this, but as weird as it is, he likes that Niall seems so loose and determined to do this. Harry puts his phone on speaker, leaves it on the pillow and pushes the blanket away, suddenly too hot underneath it.

'Just, I don't know, keep talking, I'm sure I won't take too long,' Niall says and Harry can hear the smirk in his voice. 'My hand is in my pants and I'm, uhh, I'm wanking myself.'

Harry turns around, lying flat on his stomach and pulls down his pants, wriggling his legs until the pants are hanging low on his ankles. He pulls at his dick a few times before he rubs himself off on the mattress. 'Tell me how you're doing it. How does it feel?'

'It feels so good. Been hard since I heard your voice, actually. So good to finally touch meself.'

'Oh, god,' Harry breathes, working his hips in circles and looking for more friction.

'I was so wet already, didn't even have to use any spit to slick it up. That's what you do to me.'

Harry's face heats up, feels like he's burning up again, and he's moving his hips a bit faster. It's getting harder to breathe like this, and he starts panting quietly into his phone.

'Tell me what you're doing, Harry,' Niall says, his breathing becoming laboured as well.

'Fucking into my mattress, pretending it's you.'

'Yeah, Harry. I want you to.' Niall's breathing is getting louder and quicker, and Harry can't hear anything besides the rustling of his sheets, his own heavy breathing and Niall's voice, needy but demanding. 'Tell me what you would do to me if you were here. Want you to talk to me.'

'I would give you a rim job first, would get you nice and wet for me. I would bite your arse and maybe slap you a bit before getting to it.'

'Yes, yes, I want that. Want to fuck meself on your tongue and your fingers, Jesus, Harry,' Niall moans.

'What else do you want to do?' he asks, rutting into the mattress desperately. He's close already, can feel his orgasm building up slowly but surely.

'I want to feed you my dick, Harry. Want to shove it down your throat.'

'Fuck, keep talking, Niall. I want to hear you,' Harry pants. His thighs are starting to tremble and the muscles in his stomach are flexing every time he drags his cock along the soft cotton of the sheets, now damp with his precome. 'Please, I'm close.'

And then there's a commotion, far away but audible, and Harry can hear people cheering and the first fireworks go off. The fireworks are lighting up his room, but all he cares about is his throbbing dick and Niall's quiet moaning filling up the room.

'Oh, happy,' Niall stutters, 'happy new year, Harry. I miss your pretty cock. Miss your cock and how it feels inside me.'

And that's all it takes for him to come all over the sheets; Harry's legs are shaking, eyes shut tightly and mouth open, rocking through his orgasm. When he's done, he slumps down on the bed, breathing deeply in and out, chest heaving and his heart still racing like mad. He grabs his phone and puts it back to his ear.

Niall gasps, louder than before, 'Harry, please. So close.'

Harry lets out a shaky breath before he speaks, 'My cock misses you, too, you know. I want to ram it into your pale little arse and fuck you so hard you're going to scream for more. Want to come all over your arse and lick you clean.' He stops talking when he's sure that Niall is over the edge and coming, judging by his needy little moans, coming faster and faster, until he finally lets out a loud groan. Harry turns over so he's lying on his back, phone clutched to his face, closes his eyes and listens to Niall's panting, wishing he was there right now to see his blissed out, post-orgasm face.

 

Harry stays on the phone while Niall gathers himself together and leaves the party to stumble home, talking to him the whole way.

;;

As soon as Harry turns his phone back on, it starts vibrating, a few missed calls, texts and emails coming in. He's carrying his bag on his shoulder, burying his face into his scarf, going through his messages. There are a few from Nick, and then, there's a text from Niall: hey man u back yet? wana come over for a drink

He smiles despite himself, walking straight to the cabs while texting back, just landed. give me 30 :) .x

 

Niall welcomes him at the door with that gleaming smile that Harry had seen in his dreams almost every night in the two weeks he'd been gone. Standing in front of Harry, barefoot and in a pair of washed out, dark blue jogging bottoms, grey jumper and unruly hair, glasses sitting low on his nose, he holds out a bottle of red wine, bright pink bow tied around it.

'Welcome back,' he shouts, then steps aside to let Harry in, bag slung around his shoulder.

'Hey,' Harry smiles, walking the small corridor to Niall's room, and letting the bag fall to the floor, kicking it under the desk and pulling his boots off while Niall closes the door behind them. Then they're both moving towards each other, going in for a hug. They stand there for a long while, just holding one another and not saying a word. When Niall pulls back, he hands Harry the bottle. 'Here. Didn't really know what to get you for Christmas, mate. I didn't have much money either, sorry. I know it's nothing special. Hope you still like it.'

'You got me a bottle of Merlot?' asks Harry, inspecting the bottle. 'Thank you, Niall, that's so sweet of you.'

'I've got plastic cups and a corkscrew from IKEA,' he chuckles.

'Classy!' Harry laughs and sits down on the floor, resting his back against the side of Niall's bed. He watches Niall get out the cups and pour the wine, eyes trailing from his hands along his arms to his shoulders and the length of his back. He admires Niall's bum, it's soft and looks extremely nice in jogging bottoms. He likes to knead it, has done it several times before when they got off together, and Niall seems to enjoy it just as much as Harry, if the whiny sounds he makes every time Harry squeezes his arse cheeks are anything to go by. His thoughts digress and he's imagining doing something else entirely to Niall's bum; when Niall sits down next to him and bumps him in the ribs with his elbow.

Niall tells him about his week back home in Ireland, about how ridiculous his family is and how his uncle almost ended up in the hospital on St. Stephen's Day. When Niall tells a story, he tells it with his whole body. His arms keep flailing about and sometimes he gets up on his feet, re-enacting scenes, imitating people's voices. When he tells a story, the spotlight is on him; people pay attention and are drawn to him and his charming presence. Harry is no exception, and he realises how much he's missed Niall, even if they were separated for only two weeks. He feels the sting of it deep in his chest, and the sudden feeling of sadness and remorse consumes him. Tattered and indistinct images of Nick and Christmas Day run through his mind, and Harry feels ashamed.

'How was your trip, had any more fun times with your sister and your friends, then?' Niall asks, sipping a bit of wine and scrunching up his face. It's adorable, Harry thinks, how his nose looks when he does that.

'I did. Apart from that ruddy cold, man. Lots of parties, lots of booze,' he nods. 'Not with my sister, though.'

Niall chuckles. 'Why not? For us, drinking is definitely a family activity.'

'Well, we used to, but she stopped drinking a couple of years ago. Liam doesn't drink, and she decided to stop, so. More for me,' he grins and nudges Niall's cup with his. 'Let's drink to that.' They both take a huge swig from their plastic cups.

'Oh hey,' says Harry. 'I totally forgot to give you this earlier. I went to Portobello Market with Gemma the other day and I got you something for Christmas.'

He lets himself fall on his back and reaches for his bag, starts rummaging around in one of the side pockets. Getting back into a cross-legged sitting position, he's holding a tiny package about as big as his hand, covered in blue wrapping paper with a sticker on top of a cartoon version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.

He hands the package over to Niall. 'I stole that sticker from Liam's Nutella jar, I hope you appreciate that.'

He inspects the package, grinning, looks up at Harry, cocking one eyebrow. 'Classy.'

Harry grins back. 'Right. You should know me by now.'

Niall hums approvingly, ripping open the package, careful not to ruin the sticker, and takes out the box. He opens it, looking at the dark brown leather bracelet draped inside of it, then looks up at Harry and simply stares at him, mouth agape. He looks back down and takes it out, setting the box aside. He runs his fingers along the bracelet, blinking, then takes a deep breath and meets Harry's eyes.

'Harry. I don't know what to say. This is beautiful.' He just stares at him for a long time, running his left thumb and index finger along the bracelet.

'You don't have to wear it if you don't like it, I just. I saw it and it made me think of you, is all.' Harry shrugs.

'Don't be daft, you're not getting that back, ya nut job! No really, I love it. It's just... that must have cost a fortune, and I only got you this bottle of wine. Feel a bit stupid now.'

'Bollocks. Want me to help you put it on, then?'

Niall moves in a bit closer, coming to a halt in front of Harry, sitting down on his knees. 'Alright, yeah.'

Harry reaches for Niall's wrist, pulling it towards his lap, holding it there for a moment and feeling the pulse quicken under his fingers. He feels a bit dizzy, but he's not sure if it's the wine or something else completely. He pushes the thoughts away as quick as they came and starts wrapping the bracelet around Niall's wrist, tying a small but firm knot into it, then looking at it a bit longer before he lets go of Niall's hand.

'Looks good on you,' he whispers.

Niall frames Harry's face with both of his hands and kisses him. Harry kisses back and grabs Niall by the neck until he crawls over and settles in his lap. They end up snogging and grinding against each other for a while, until Niall whispers, 'Bed. C'mon, up.'

Somehow they make it onto Niall's tiny bed, lying in a pile of tangled limbs, kissing and rubbing against each other like a couple of teenagers. Harry is thankful for the distraction and that Niall didn't ask him about his parents and why he stayed with Gemma and Liam. Harry thinks that somehow Niall always knows when something's off but doesn't push. Harry kisses him a little deeper, just a little softer, fingers carding through the smooth unkempt hair that still smells faintly of his peach shampoo. Niall starts fumbling with the button of Harry's skin-tight trousers, swearing into his mouth, 'Fuck's sake. Why'd you have to wear these? Always a bloody challenge to get at your dick.'

Later, when Niall leans in and breathes a hushed I missed you in Harry's ear and that is what finally pushes him over the edge, Harry doesn't dwell on it.

;;

The hot spray of water hits the back of his neck, comfortably numbing his skin. He feels the tense muscles relax slowly and rolls his shoulders with his head hunched down, chin hitting his chest. He left the bathroom door open, and through the pounding of the water, he can hear music drifting through from the other room. Something he doesn't recognise, something Niall must have brought along, he reckons. Soaping up his belly, he's starting to feel better than he did when he woke up with a pounding headache and a crick in his neck. The warmth is spreading from his shoulders down his back, allowing him to loosen up. Feeling grateful that it's the weekend and he doesn't have to be anywhere today, he makes plans to mellow out and do nothing.

Stepping out of the shower, he grabs a towel and dries himself off quickly, pulls on a pair of black pants and brushes his teeth. Thick, cold drops of water keep running down his neck and chest, seeping out from his still wet curls, so he wraps another smaller towel around his head like a turban before he pads out of the bathroom. It's cooler in the other room of the flat, if his sudden goosebumps and stiffening nipples are anything to go by, but Harry feels warm all over, vitalised and relaxed, and he can't be arsed to put on more clothes than he necessarily has to on a Saturday morning.

The kitchen table is already set up for breakfast, and he sits down on one of the chairs, watching Niall standing in front of the hob, probably frying eggs and bacon, shimmying and singing along to the music. He's wearing one of Harry's old oversized and worn out jumpers, one of his favourites, one he just can't let go of despite the holes in it and the poorly stretched out condition it's in. On Niall, it looks even baggier than on Harry and it keeps slipping off one of his shoulders, exposing his delicate pale skin, dotted here and there with tiny moles. The sleeves are rolled up to the crook of his arms, and it's covering his bum just enough that his pants aren't visible.

'Well, look at you,' Harry whistles, waggling his eyebrows, and Niall just laughs in response. 'Hope you don't mind, it was a bit chilly and it was right there, so I put it on.'

'It's fine. You starkers underneath?'

'Not wearing a kilt, Harry,' Niall snorts. He puts the frying pan on a wooden pot holder next to the hob, switches off the burner and turns around to look at Harry.

'You look nice,' Harry says. 'It looks good on you.'

Niall looks down at himself, says 'You think so?' while shaking his hips in an obviously mock-seductive manner. 'How about you make yourself useful and brew us some coffee and tea? I'm almost done with the food here.'

'Alright, spoilsport,' Harry grumbles. He gets up, walks over to the counter and starts fumbling with the coffee maker. 'The usual for you?'

'Yea, I already put on the kettle,' says Niall, fiddling with his glasses. 'You're up unusually early.'

'Didn't sleep well last night, and got up with a crick in my neck and a headache. The shower helped, but I'm still feeling stiff.'

Niall looks up from where he's shovelling eggs onto two plates, 'I could give you a massage after breakfast, if you want?'

'That'd be bloody amazing,' Harry groans, moving over to place a kiss on Niall's exposed shoulder.

They get settled at the kitchen table and start eating while the music's still playing in the background. It's not louder, but it seems like it to Harry, who's now paying attention to it while Niall is hunched over the newspaper, every now and then shoving his glasses back up when they're sliding down his nose. The music sounds soulful but danceable, and the singer has an incredibly well-rounded and multifaceted voice, strong and demanding on the louder songs, soothing and mellow when it's a slower and quieter tune.

A little while later, after they've both emptied their plates, Harry is still sipping on his lukewarm coffee and watching Niall curled up on the chair in his baggy jumper. He sets down his mug and gets up to retrieve one of his cameras from the bookshelf next to his bed, sits down on the floor and starts taking photos of Niall. He experiments with angles and light settings, trying to capture the mood of their slow and cosy morning.

It takes Niall a while to figure out he's taking photos, the shutter of the camera hardly audible with the music playing, but eventually he looks up from the papers and turns around.

'The hell you doing down there? You want to get a cold on top of your sore back?'

Harry lowers the camera and looks at Niall, startled. 'Alright, mum,' he mutters and rolls his eyes. 'How about that massage, then?'

Niall laughs in response and Harry's stomach does that almost too familiar flippy thing. He watches Niall get up from his chair and walk over to him, reaching his hands out to help Harry get up. They walk over to the living room area and Harry flops down on the couch, takes the towel off his head and throws it over the armrest. Stretching his upper body, he bends his arms behind his head while he watches Niall sit down next to him, pulling his legs up and the jumper over them, his skinny knees peeking through the stretched out soft cotton.

'Wanna sit or lie down?' he asks, rubbing his hands.

'You still cold?' asks Harry, done stretching and settled down in a cross legged position.

'Just warming up my hands for you, you muppet.'

Harry bites the inside of his mouth in an attempt to hide the massive grin threatening to split his face in two at the sound of his nickname and how fond Niall sounds. Niall laughs, eyes crinkling in the corners, and adds, 'Come on, then. Turn around.'

Harry does as he's told, turns around so he's facing the armrest where his damp towel is still resting, and repositions himself on the sofa, so that his knees are resting on the seat cushion, and he's sitting down on his calves, arms hanging loose at his sides, hands grounded in his lap. Niall shuffles up and comes up right behind him, setting both knees on either side of Harry's thighs, bracketing him. The first touch of hands is a bit cool, and Harry flinches slightly at the contact. 'Thought you warmed up your hands for me,' he mutters.

Niall says, 'Feck off, Harry. Just try to relax. Enjoy. Stop talking,' while kneading his shoulders gently. Harry closes his eyes then, focusing on the warmth forming in all the places Niall's hands dig into his skin and tense muscles, massaging them with steadily growing pressure. When he feels Niall's hands trailing down along his spine, his mind wanders off to somewhere else, blends out the music around them, forgets about the mental notes he was taking for his English Lit assignment.

When Niall presses his knuckles into Harry's lower back, moving them in small circles, Harry groans. He leans down further to give Niall better access, but Niall's hands come to a halt and he leans into Harry, hooking his chin in the crook between Harry's neck and shoulder, whispering into his ear, 'That good?'

Harry simply nods and groans again, keeping his eyes closed. Niall kisses the shell of his ear, then leans back and resumes with the massage. He presses his thumbs into the dimples on Harry's back and works them in circles while his hands are splayed around his waist, holding on. Harry feels boneless, upper body hovering above his own lap, head hanging low. His breathing has evened out and he feels warm and safe, Niall's thighs grazing his own and emanating body heat.

Niall's hands move upwards, kneading along Harry's spine with his fingertips, and then his damp lips are mouthing at the flesh of Harry's back just between his shoulder blades. 'Any better?' he asks, voice muffled against skin.

'Hmmm,' Harry hums in response, too relaxed and comfortable to properly open his mouth and speak. He lets out a small sigh, warm breath leaving his mouth, when Niall drags his lips further down, trailing his tongue over every single vertebra, circling them, then scraping his teeth over the skin. His hands move around Harry's torso to stroke along his ribs, causing Harry's nipples to harden. Harry trembles a little, shivers running down his spine and goosebumps spreading all over his body. Niall's hands move higher until he reaches Harry's nipples and starts playing with them. He rubs them between his thumb and index finger, and Harry feels his dick twitch, leans back into the touch, seeking out Niall's closeness. Niall shifts behind him and leans closer, lips touching the sensitive spot behind Harry's ear lightly. 'That still good?'

'Yeah,' Harry breathes out, licking his lips that have dried up from his open-mouthed breathing. Niall licks along the back side of his ear up to the lobe and takes it in his mouth, sucking on it while he pinches Harry's nipples lightly and for the slightest moment, Harry feels like his head is spinning, eyes still closed. He squeezes them tight until he can see flickering lights on his eyelids, almost like a starry night sky. He turns his head a bit to the right, giving Niall, who has started to nibble on his earlobe, better access. Harry lets his head fall back onto Niall's shoulder and feels his warm, calloused hands slide down over his belly, stopping at his lower abdomen to play with the coarse hair of his happy trail. Letting go of his earlobe, Niall mouths along his chin and down his neck, sucking gently on Harry's already sweaty skin.

He feels hot all over when Niall's hand slips under the waistband of his pants, fingers slowly running through his pubic hair until they circle around his half hard cock with a tight grip. Niall strokes him off dryly with one hand and it's a bit rough, fondling his balls with the other one. Harry's body is lax and slack and heavy, a dead weight resting on his own feet and leaned back against Niall. His toes begin to feel numb and the position he's in gets a tad uncomfortable. Whilst he doesn't want Niall to stop touching him, he says, 'Think my feet fell asleep. Can we maybe…?'

Before he can even finish the sentence, Niall's already detaching himself from Harry and getting up from the sofa. Harry pushes his bum to the side and his legs out from underneath him, getting settled with both feet planted to the ground and his back leaning against the backrest. When he looks back up, Niall's already got rid of his pants, sliding them down his spindly legs and stepping out of them. He moves forward, reaching straight for Harry's pants, and Harry lifts his bum to help him get them off.

Harry rests both hands on either side of his thighs, staring at Niall, so beautiful and flushed, bathed in a shaft of sunlight coming in from the window, his dick visibly poking against the woollen jumper hanging off his shoulders, soft and loose. Harry watches Niall's eyes trailing over his own body, stopping at his crotch and when he licks his lips, it sends a new wave of heat through him, blood rushing in his ears and a warm tingly feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. Lifting his arms, grabbing the hem of the jumper behind his head, Niall begins to take his last piece of clothing off, when Harry interrupts him with a shaky, 'Don't.'

Niall quits undressing, looking surprised. The tremor in Harry's voice is audible when he continues, 'Leave it on. You're so fit like this.'

'Oh yeah?' asks Niall, putting his hands on Harry's thighs and leaning in close.

'Yeah,' responds Harry, 'now can we please get on with it?' He kisses Niall, fervent and demanding. Niall crawls onto the sofa, hovering over Harry and kissing him back hungrily, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other one on his swollen and leaking cock. He runs his thumb over the slit and smears the drops of precome over Harry's prick. The kiss is spicy-sweet; Harry can still taste honey and ginger on Niall's tongue from the tea he'd been drinking earlier. He wants something different though, something more; wants to taste Niall. He pulls back from their kiss, gently pushing Niall back, hands splayed out across his chest on the soft fabric of the jumper.

'Get up,' he pants, prompting Niall to stand up by grabbing his waist and pulling him up. Niall removes his hand from Harry's prick, placing it on his other shoulder, and rises off Harry's lap.

Harry hikes the jumper up to Niall's belly, freeing his cock, a nice shade of pink and so, so beautiful. 'Hold it,' he demands, voice shaky with lust, and Niall complies. He holds the jumper up to his chest with one hand and places the other on the wall next to him to steady himself. Harry grips the back of his thighs and pulls him closer. He takes the head of Niall's cock in his mouth, stroking the slit with his tongue, a bit of precome dribbling out. The taste of it makes him shiver slightly, sending another stream of arousal through his body, fogging his thoughts. All he knows in this moment is how much he wants to have Niall, how much he wants to be the one in control, how much he wants.

He slaps Niall on the bum lightly and looks up at him, sucking on his cock, signalling Niall to fuck his mouth. He starts thrusting in, gently at first, and every time his dick hits the back of Harry's throat he lets out a moan. Their rhythm picks up quickly, and Harry just takes it. He loves the way Niall fills him up completely, the hot weight of his cock pressing down on Harry's tongue as he slides it in and out of his mouth. He loves how messy it all is, saliva running down his chin and tears pricking at his eyes the more forcefully Niall shoves his dick down his throat. To see Niall lose control like this drives him mad, and it turns him on to be the one who does this to Niall.

It doesn't take long until Niall comes hard, pulsing on Harry's tongue, come shooting in his mouth, and Harry swallows quickly to catch it all. He feels Niall's muscles flexing under his palms, gripping the back of his thighs. He lets go of Niall's dick, and bites the skin near his hipbone. He feels how Niall's legs slowly give out, knees pushing forward, and lets him slump into his lap. He sits down on Harry's thighs, arse cheeks sticking to his sweaty skin. Harry takes it in for a moment, Niall's fucked out expression, face utterly relaxed. He pants while he comes down and Harry leans forward to kiss him, dick still painfully hard and bumping against his own belly.

Niall kisses him back and runs his hands down Harry's chest, when the doorbell rings.

'Fuck,' Harry says, pulling away from Niall and throwing back his head. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck.'

'What? Just don't open it,' Niall says, reaching for Harry's cock.

Harry stops his hand in midair. 'Can't. Waiting for a book I need for one of my courses.'

He gently shoves Niall off his lap and swears under his breath, grabbing the nearest pillow to cover himself with and rising from the sofa. Niall leans over and smacks his arse. 'Hurry up, muppet,' he shouts.

Harry pads over to the door and opens it, holding the pillow with one hand and the doorknob with the other. He can already hear footsteps coming up the stairs when Niall yells, 'Don't forget the condoms and lube while you're up!'

The postman arrives at the doorstep and has to bite back a laugh when he asks Harry for a signature.

;;

Harry is spending a quiet Sunday afternoon in bed with Niall, playing with his hair and mouthing lazily at his neck, with the radio playing softly in the background. When a commercial for The Breakfast Show comes on, Niall says, 'Hey, why'd you never tell me you hang out with Nick Grimshaw?'

Harry tenses up and pulls his hands away, moving back to look at Niall. 'What do you mean?' he asks.

Niall smiles at him. 'It's okay, I mean you didn't have to, obviously, but. I hung out with Amy a couple of days ago? And she had this magazine lying around, and I flipped through it because I was bored and waiting for her to get ready. Well, there was a picture of you and your friends in London. Nick and a few others?'

Harry rolls onto his back. 'Oh. They were probably taken when I was there over Christmas.'

'So that's your mate Nick,' Niall says, running his hand along Harry's arm.

'Well, that's what he is to me. He's just my mate. Didn't think it was necessary to tell you exactly who he is.' Harry turns his head to look at Niall.

'It's not. I just thought it was a bit strange to keep it a secret, maybe?' Niall shrugs.

Harry feels uncomfortable, feels like he's being interrogated. 'It's not a secret. You never asked about him, so why would I tell you?'

'I don't know, because we've talked about him and I was just surprised to see that picture of you with him, and. I thought it was cool. Just wondering why you never mentioned it.' Niall grins at him brightly, but it doesn't feel right. Somehow the smile on his face seems misplaced to Harry, almost inappropriate.

'You don't tell me what all of your mates do for a living either,' Harry says.

'Yeah, but none of them are on the radio,' Niall laughs.

'Okay, so it's about him being famous?' Harry sits up on his elbows. 'What, do you want me to introduce you now? Is that what this is all about?'

'Yeah, right,' Niall snorts, 'bet we'd have a good craic, drinking a few pints together!'

Harry doesn't think this is funny at all, can't tell if Niall's being serious or not and it irritates him. 'I don't think that will ever happen.'

Niall looks offended. 'Okay. You don't have to introduce us, it's not a big deal. I just think it's cool you're friends with him. And he seems like a fun guy? He's got a great job, gets to meet and speak to so many artists. That's amazing.'

Harry turns away from Niall and lies on his side, looking out the window. He lets out a small, sarcastic laugh. 'Sure you don't want me to introduce you? Or even better, introduce you to some people who work in the music industry, that'd be even easier for you.'

Harry feels his heart pound in his throat, and his hand grips tightly onto the edge of the mattress. He tries to keep his breathing even and to calm down, but the tension between them is so palpable he thinks his chest is going to explode at any given moment.

After a long silence, Niall clears his throat and speaks quietly, voice guarded. 'Okay, sorry I brought this up. It's obviously upsetting you, and I didn't mean to do that.'

He feels Niall move closer to him, reaching out to touch his back, but Harry says, 'Don't,' and he withdraws his hand. Harry's heart is still beating rapidly and he feels a bit dizzy. He knows he's overreacting, but just can't help the way he feels.

'I don't want you to introduce me to any of these people. I really don't know what you're getting at, Harry. Why would I want that?' His voice is louder now, more determined and he sounds taken aback.

'Because that's what everyone else wants once they find out. That's why I didn't tell you, okay.'

'I'm not like everyone else. You should know that by now,' Niall says. Harry is afraid to look at him, doesn't want to know if Niall's genuinely upset or mad at him, didn't mean for their argument to go this way.

He mumbles, 'Maybe I don't.'

It's ridiculous, how all Harry can feel is the silence between them, although the radio is still playing. He can hear Niall breathing out loudly and say, 'Alright. Maybe I should leave, then.'

Harry closes his eyes and counts: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and then it happens. It always happens. He hears the rustling of the bedding and Niall's footsteps as he walks over to the foot of the bed. He keeps his eyes closed.

'Harry?' he hears Niall's voice, so close and still so far, so soft and still so harsh. 'Harry. You're acting really weird. Are you not even gonna look at me now?'

And the thing is, it's all he wants; but he can't. He wants to look at Niall but he knows that if he does, it'll just hurt more.

'Okay,' Niall huffs out finally. 'Well, I don't know what to say anymore. This is ridiculous. It's just a really bloody stupid misunderstanding. I can't tell if you're mad at me or not, but I really didn't mean to upset you. Can you at least say something?'

He's not even sure what Niall is apologising for, feels like he's the one who should be apologising.

'Okay,' Harry says.

'Okay what?' asks Niall.

Harry takes a deep breath and looks up at Niall. 'Okay, maybe you should leave.' He rolls back onto his side and looks out the window again.

Niall walks over to the kitchen table and Harry knows he's putting on his shoes and jacket, grabbing his rucksack and walking towards the door. He hears the door open and then Niall says, 'See ya, Harry' before he closes the door behind him, but it sounds like goodbye, echoing in Harry's head.

;;

A few days later, when Harry walks into the photo club meeting, he spots Niall sitting in his usual seat, the chair next to him still empty. He's hesitant for a moment, thinks he should probably sit somewhere else, but sits down next to Niall anyway.

Ever since Niall left his flat that day, Harry's felt uneasy, but seeing him again starts to loosen something in his chest. Niall gives him a fleeting smile but doesn't say anything, and Harry's heart sinks a little.

At the end of the meeting, when everyone gets up and leaves, Harry reaches for Niall's elbow. 'Hey. Can we talk?'

'Sure,' Niall shrugs and they walk out together. They stand in a quiet spot in the hallway and Niall leans against the wall. 'So, what is it?' he prompts.

Harry clears his throat. 'About the other day. I didn't mean to get mad at you and tell you to leave. It was so stupid, can we maybe just pretend it never happened?'

Niall looks at him with a raised eyebrow and doesn't say a word. Harry doesn't know if he should just wait for him to say something or if Niall's expecting him to say more and it's making him fidgety.

Niall nods slowly and says, 'Alright. Just don't do that again.' He takes a step closer to Harry, his face turning into a grimace, impersonating The Don, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold.'

They both cackle. Harry knows that Niall was being serious, but has a talent to break any tension between them.

;;

Harry's standing right in the front row with Niall, bopping his head to the music. He recognises the melody but can't name the song, the voice familiar, calm and intense. In the shine of the spotlight, Harry watches the billows of smoke move elegantly through the air around them, and wonders how something so bad, so poisonous, can be so nice to look at. He's wishing he'd brought one of his cameras with him to capture this moment, when he is jolted out of his thoughts by Niall giving him a friendly slap on the shoulder.

'Hey,' he yells, leaning over into Harry's space, 'are you even listening?'

'Sorry,' he says and leans down a bit, so Niall can easily talk into his ear. 'I said they're good, right?'

Harry nods and Niall beams back at him, face glowing and lit up by the stage lights, shiny with sweat, his hair sticking to his face. They'd been dancing and jumping like crazy when Josh's band was on, and although Harry would usually stand in the back and watch, he had followed Niall when he grabbed his hand and led them to the front. He's hot and thirsty, and although he could probably just go to the bar and order another drink, he stays, because he doesn't want to miss anything, enjoys watching Niall from the corner of his eye.

The club fills up with people after the first song The 1975 play and Harry wonders where they all came from. It gets well crowded and people are pushing from the back and the sides. Between their second and third song, Niall grabs Harry's shoulder and shouts, 'I'm going to go stand in the back, are you staying?'

Harry shouts back, 'No, I'm coming with you,' and follows Niall out of the sea of people to a less crowded space at the back of the room, near the bar. He buys them a new round and they have a great time watching the rest of the show from there, Niall more focused on Harry and shouting lines at him whenever he knows the lyrics to a song. Harry's having fun and he's glad he went out with them, even though he hadn't been in the mood earlier.

He's heard their music before but didn't know what the band looked like, and he's surprised to find that Matty, the singer, is definitely the type of guy he used to go for. Tall and skinny, tattooed, with his dark hair shaved at the sides.

When the show is over, the lights in the club are turned on, and Harry watches the crowd slowly start to leave. He waits by the bar with Niall until Josh finds them and brings them backstage. The atmosphere in the brightly lit room is vibrant, and everybody's loose, having fun and drinking. Although the room is filled with their lively chatter, Harry thinks how much quieter is in contrast to the show before.

He's standing with a group of people that includes Josh and his mate George, nodding along to their conversation while sipping on his beer.

Meanwhile, Niall is sitting on a ratty sofa in one of the corners of the small room, squished between a snogging couple and Matty. At first, Harry didn't think it was a big deal that they weren't hanging out with the same people, but the longer he stands there and watches Niall and Matty, the more annoyed he gets. Matty is sitting close to Niall, keeps leaning over to speak into his ear, and Harry catches himself thinking that he doesn't have to do that, it's not even that noisy. It bothers him and he's tied up in knots, picking nervously at the label of his bottle.

Josh pulls him out of his thoughts, bumping his elbow. 'What about you, Harry?'

'Uh? Sorry.' He tries to come up with an excuse. 'I think I need to get another drink.'

He lifts his bottle as if to prove to them that it's empty before he steps away and walks over to the sofa. Niall is beaming at Matty and Harry wonders what he said to make him laugh so much, convinced that Matty can't be that funny. He probably said something stupid and Niall's just being polite because he's Josh's friend.

'Hey,' he says and stops right in front of them.

'Hey, Harry,' Niall says, smiling up at him.

'What's so funny?' he asks.

'Oh, Matty was just telling me a funny story that inspired one of their songs.'

Harry leans down and looks at Matty. 'Oh yeah? What song?'

'Sorry, mate. Songwriter secret, can't tell you,' he says with a smirk.

Niall cackles. That wasn't even funny, Harry thinks. 'So, have you told Niall any of your songwriter secrets?'

'Yeah, of course, he's a member of the club now. He's a songwriter,' Matty says and takes a drag off his cigarette.

The smoke rises up, right into Harry's face.

He looks at Niall, who smiles at Matty. 'I'm honoured, man. But I could never write lyrics like you, seriously. You're a legend.'

'Right,' Matty laughs. 'And you're a fucking charmer.'

Harry feels sick to his stomach. Legend. What's so great about him anyway? Harry's a writer too. Maybe he doesn't write songs, but he writes poems and it's basically the same thing. Who gives a crap if they aren't set to music?

Harry bends down and points at Matty's forearm. 'Nice tattoo, I like it. Do you have any more?'

Matty looks down at his arm, then up at Harry. 'Yeah, I've got a few more.'

'Cool,' Harry says. 'Where?'

'My chest.'

'Me too! I've got quite a few on my chest, actually. Maybe I can show you sometime,' he says with a sweet smile, leaning in close to Matty.

'Uuh,' Matty says, looking utterly unimpressed. 'I don't know, mate. Maybe not.'

An awkward silence spreads between them and Harry's had enough. He doesn't even want to flirt with Matty, he just wants Niall not to. And Niall doesn't even seem to care, goes back to talking to Matty and Harry is left standing there. Standing in front of the sofa, trying to get Niall's attention. He feels pathetic and doesn't know what to do anymore. He's drunk and upset and wants to leave.

If he has to watch them fool about one minute longer, he's going to lose it.

'Hey so, I think I'll go home,' he says, interrupting their conversation.

'What?' Niall asks. 'Already? It's not even midnight.'

'I don't feel very well, and I'm tired. I'm gonna go.' He's determined.

'Well, you know I'm staying over at yours because the lads are sleeping over at Josh's and mine, so. Can we maybe stay a bit longer? I'm having fun.'

He doesn't want Niall to have fun. Not when he's not having any. He's frustrated because he doesn't want to be angry at Niall, but somehow he is. And he doesn't know why.

'You can stay if you want, but I'm leaving. Sorry.' Harry looks at Matty. 'Nice to meet you.'

'You, too,' says Matty.

'Alright,' Niall sighs, 'I suppose we're leaving.'

 

Outside, Niall grabs Harry's arm and stops him. 'What was that in there? You were acting like a right tit!'

'I'm not feeling very well,' Harry says, not very convincingly.

'Right,' Niall mutters. 'Whatever helps you sleep at night, mate.'

'What's that supposed to mean?' Harry asks. He knows Niall has every reason to be mad at him, and it makes him even angrier. Angry at himself, frustrated because he doesn't understand himself.

'Don't play stupid. You were looking to pick a fight.'

'I was not.' Harry keeps walking. 'Anyway, I wasn't the one sitting in Matty's lap all night.'

'Oh, so that's what it is?' Niall jogs a bit to keep up with him. 'If I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous.'

'Yeah, right,' Harry says. 'I'm definitely not jealous.'

'Good, cause you have no right to be. It's not like we're dating, you don't want to be serious.'

'What do you mean, I don't want to? I thought we were on the same page here.' Harry stops walking.

'Well, Harry, maybe things change,' Niall says, standing next to him. 'People can change their minds about things, alright! And I don't know what you want from me.'

'What do you want me to say?'

'I don't know, maybe I'd just like to know the truth for once. What are we doing?'

'Why does everything always have to be so complicated? I like you, and I like being with you because it is the exact opposite of that! We have fun, and it's not complicated. I like it the way it is, why does it have to change?'

'I don't know Harry, I wasn't the one making this complicated by acting like a petulant child tonight. I was having a good time, and you ruined it.'

Niall keeps walking and Harry follows, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach.

;;

Harry turns over and presses his face deep into the pillow, letting out a sigh, feeling terribly sore. When he looks over at Niall, his eyes skim over the pale skin of his chest and belly, sheets pooled around his waist, giving Harry a good view. He feels guilty when he sees all the bruises he left the night before, scattered all over Niall's body. He leans over, body moving of its own accord, and runs his hand over Niall's ribs before he crawls over his body to nuzzle his neck. Niall huffs softly, still dozing with his eyes closed and mouth opened just the slightest bit. Harry starts kissing his neck gently, breathing in Niall's scent.

'Wake up,' he sighs against the salty skin, leaving wet trails all over Niall's neck, covering every love bite with a tender press of his lips. It's the closest he can get to an apology, can't make himself say it out loud. Niall winces underneath him, groaning something indecipherable, words blurred together and voice heavy with sleep. It encourages Harry to go on, kissing along Niall's jawline, working his way up to his warm cheeks. He stops to look at Niall properly for a moment, all bleary-eyed with tousled hair, sending a pleasant tingling feeling all through his body.

'Morning,' Harry whispers before he leans down to kiss Niall on the mouth. He slides his lips against Niall's chapped and dry ones, running his tongue over them to make it easier. His heart starts thumping quicker when Niall kisses him back slowly, pushing his tongue against his. They just kiss lazily for a while, Harry's hands running restlessly up and down Niall's chest and ribs, while Niall's hand finds the nape of Harry's neck, playing with his hair for a bit before pulling him off cautiously.

'Morning breath,' he says quietly, scrunching up his face as if he just bit into a lemon.

Harry tries not to feel offended, but feels his heart sink a little nonetheless. 'You've never complained about this before,' he grumbles.

'Well, I don't know what died in your mouth last night but you taste rotten,' Niall says.

'Hey,' he drawls and hits Niall on the thigh – cautious and playful – not hard enough to hurt, but Niall still yelps.

'Ow, why d'you do that?' he asks Harry, shoving him off a little reluctantly.

Niall's eyes are puffy and Harry has to reach up and trace his index finger along the pillow creases across his warm, pink cheeks, feels his own heart beating faster at the sight of him and says, 'Well, you have a bad case of pillow face.'

He moves his hand further down to play with Niall's nipple, caresses the skin around it and runs his fingertips along his ribs. Niall twitches away, huffing out a laugh. 'Stop it. No tickling.'

Harry starts kissing the love bites, looking up at Niall whenever he puts his lips to one of the dark spots on his skin, saying sorry with his eyes and lips and Niall looks back at him and Harry thinks he understands.

When Harry crawls back up and lies down next to him, they just look at each other for a long while. He feels like they're in sync again, their balance evened out until Niall speaks.

'I should probably go, have to work later,' and Harry feels like he's just been punched in the gut.

He says, 'But you can walk from here. It's much closer than your flat.'

Niall gets out of the bed, says, 'Sorry, I just. I want to change, my clothes stink from last night.'

He gets dressed and Harry watches him and thinks about how he probably took it too far last night. He would apologise, except he doesn't feel like he has to, he was so sure he and Niall were on the same page. Niall was the one who asked him to bend him over the table and fuck him. He let Harry mark him up, moaning and pulling on Harry's hair. He was so sure Niall enjoyed it just as much as he did, and he let Harry kiss him just a few moments ago. He doesn't know what Niall is upset about and how he can make it better. He doesn't want to make promises that he can't keep, and maybe he can't give Niall what he wants. But if it doesn't matter that Niall's leaving, then why does his stomach drop as he watches him put on his trainers, crouched down on the floor?

Harry's still lying there, unmoving and only half covered up by the sheets as Niall walks over to his side of the bed, all dressed, already wearing his jacket with his messy hair hidden underneath one of his snapbacks, ears poking out, and hands shoved in his pockets.

He says, 'Hey.'

Harry is overwhelmed with how much he wants to kiss Niall, how much he wants him to stay, his whole body tensing up, but he can't say anything other than, 'Hey.'

Niall takes off his snapback and runs his hand through his hair. 'So. I'll see you around?' He steps closer to the bed, sets the hat down and Harry replies, 'Yeah, of course.'

'Cool.' Niall's moving in closer and half crawls on the bed with his knees, shoes hanging in the air, upper body hovering over Harry while he leans down. Harry's heart is racing, and his skin is hot, too hot to be comfortable, and he can barely hear himself when he croaks, 'What are you doing?'

Niall doesn't answer, simply guides Harry's chin to expose his neck and leans in close. His lips softly touch the sensitive skin there before he scrapes his teeth along the same spot. He then sucks on it and gives him a proper love bite.

He hops off the bed when he's finished, putting his snapback back on and says, 'Apology accepted.'

He walks away from the bed towards the door, turns around halfway and keeps walking backwards. He makes a phone gesture with his hand, nods and shouts, 'Call me' before he leaves.

Harry feels utterly confused, touches that still wet and warm spot on his neck with his fingers, lightly pushing his index finger into the bruise, just enough to feel it. It's there and permanent, like a reminder, telling Harry don't forget me.

;;

With the Easter holidays coming up, Niall suggests going away for a week, having a break as a way to de-stress before getting stuck with revision.

They agree on going to Formby Beach together and rent a cottage to stay in. It's small and simple but bright and nice, and it has everything they need. The exterior walls are covered in white wooden panels while inside all the walls are painted in a pastel yellow, and the windows are big enough to let the sunlight in and brighten up the whole place.

For a whole week, they don't use their mobiles and just turn them off and take them along in case of emergencies. They're lucky the weather is nice and mostly sunny, so they take a lot of walks and bike rides, go to the sea every other day and take photos in the woods. It rains twice while they're there, and when it does, they stay in bed all day. Niall brings his guitar and writes songs while Harry sits on the patio and scribbles in his journal. Sometimes they sing songs together in the evenings. Mainly, Niall plays the songs and does the singing, but after a glass of wine or two, Harry joins him.

;;

With his eyes closed, Harry breathes in the fresh country air deep into his lungs. He lies in the grass next to Niall, both of them with their arms and legs spread out like starfish. The warmth of the sun is heating up his face, but the light breeze is pleasant and makes him feel even more comfortable. He turns his head to the side, opens his eyes to see their bicycles thrown carelessly to the ground not far from them.

'I missed this,' Niall sighs beside him, and Harry turns his head to look at him. He can see his profile, can see that he's got his eyes closed underneath the shades he's wearing, the corners of his mouth pulled up and forming a smile. 'I genuinely missed this. It makes me think of home, man.'

'What reminds you of home?' asks Harry.

'Just, the quiet, I reckon. The nature. It's so awesome to just lie down in an open meadow. Can't really do that in Manchester, can you,' Niall provides.

Harry chuckles. 'Not if you don't want to get dog poo on yourself.'

'Exactly,' Niall laughs. 'I mean, I love going to the park, but it's nothing compared to this. The countryside. Love it.'

'So did you grow up in the Irish countryside? I can't even imagine how that would be,' Harry says. He shuts his eyes again, tipping his face towards the sky.

'Yeah, Mullingar is this really small traditional Irish town, you know. Basically, everyone knows each other. It's great. We used to live in a really small house near the fields. Me and my mates were outside all the time.'

Niall goes on about how beautiful the Irish countryside is, and soon enough they're swapping stories of what it was like to grow up in their respective families and locations. Harry tells him about all the cities he's lived in, about the countless times he, his sister and father have moved.

Niall rolls to his side, propping his head up on his elbow. Harry rests his hands on his chest, facing Niall. 'So, what about your mother? You haven't mentioned her.'

Harry's heart starts pounding like crazy; he knew that question would come sooner or later. It still doesn't make it easier to answer. He takes a deep breath and tells Niall, because he wants to, because he feels at ease.

'She passed away when I was born. There were complications, and it apparently all happened so quickly that she didn't even get to hold me.'

'Oh,' Niall breathes out. 'I'm sorry to hear that, Harry.'

'No, it's okay. It's something I've lived with all my life. I didn't know her. Only from stories people have told me about her.'

'How's that like?' Niall asks.

'It's weird. It's like a part of me is missing. Sometimes I feel like I know her and other times, when I look at pictures or something, she feels like a stranger to me.'

Niall hums beside him, reaching out to touch his arm and trace the lines of one of his tattoos. 'Is one of your tattoos for her?' he asks.

'The one on my collarbone, it's the year she was born.'

'That's beautiful.'

'Thanks,' Harry says. 'Time's a funny thing, if you think about it. Like, our lives are so evanescent and just fleeting moments in comparison to our history or the universe, you know.' He stops to think for a moment. 'There's this poem by D. H. Lawrence I love, for example. There's a line that goes 'the gap in the great constellation, the place where a star used to be' and it got me thinking about how insignificant human life is.'

'You do that a lot, don't ya. You think too much.'

'I don't,' Harry scoffs.

'Yeah you do. I think you're caught up in your own head a lot. Have you ever tried to think of nothing and focus on just doing something?' Niall asks.

'What do you mean?'

'Like, just do stuff. Scream or whatever.' And just like that, Niall sits up and starts yelling something at the sky, flailing about with his arms.

Harry laughs. 'What are you doing,' he asks.

'Your turn now,' Niall replies. 'Come on, let it all out!'

Harry hesitates, looks behind him to see if anyone is around.

'There's nobody here except us. No one's gonna judge you, Harry. Just do it!' Niall laughs, letting out another loud and ridiculous scream.

And Niall's right–what's going to happen, they're in the middle of nowhere. So Harry takes a deep breath before he yells as loud as he can. Soon enough, it turns into a competition between them, who can shout the loudest, Niall always challenging him. They must look ridiculous to anyone, shouting and laughing until they're both out of breath.

Niall steps closer and stands over Harry, solid - like a human bridge, Harry thinks - and bends down, reaching out his hands. 'Come on, get up,' he prompts.

Harry takes his hands and lets himself be pulled up by Niall. He's not even standing up straight when Niall lets go of his hands and yells, 'Race you,' turns on his heels and runs away. It takes Harry a moment to catch on, but when he starts jogging after Niall it doesn't take him long to overtake him, his long and spindly legs definitely an advantage. They run down the dunes, and the longer they run, the more sandy they get.

Harry trips over his own feet and tumbles downhill, crying out in surprise. That gets Niall's attention and he turns around to see what happened, not bothering to stop running down the sandy dune. He guffaws when he sees Harry lying in the sand, dusting himself off. Losing his balance, he falls to the ground as well, making Harry laugh in return.

'Serves you right,' he shouts and walks over to Niall, rolling around in the sand, holding his belly as he's gasping for air.

'Alright, you can stop now,' Harry says with a laugh and drops down next to him, giving him a playful shove.

'Sorry,' Niall wheezes, ''it's just, you looked like a baby giraffe trying to stand for the first time there.'

The mental image makes him giggle and his cheeks heat up from embarrassment. He's used to Gemma or Nick teasing him about being so clumsy, but not many people know him well enough to do that.

'Oh my god, shut up,' he shouts and climbs over Niall's body.

'Or?' Niall prompts.

'Or,' Harry takes both of Niall's hands and pins them over his head, 'I'll tickle you.'

'Oh, you wouldn't.'

'Try me.'

They just look at each other for a while, before Niall says, 'Did the muppet trip over his own two feet?'

'Oh, someone's bold,' Harry laughs and tickles Niall under his arms, moving on to his ribs and belly. Niall shrieks and fights back, kicking his feet and trying to roll them over. They jostle for a while and end up rolling down the hill together the rest of the way to the beach.

When they reach the bottom of the dune, Niall gains the upper hand and kisses Harry. It takes him completely by surprise and knocks the air right out of his lungs. Gasping for breath between kisses, Harry forgets everything around him. It feels like the rush of the sea wraps around them like a blanket, and he doesn't know how long they lie there. When Niall pulls back, they're both hard and panting.

'We probably shouldn't take this any further in public,' he grins down at him and Harry nods. Niall climbs off and they sit up next to each other. They don't say a word, just sit and watch the sea in front of them.

After a while, Niall breaks the silence. 'Have you ever just sat down and watched the waves break?'

'No. Not like this.'

'It's soothing, isn't it?'

'Yes,' Harry agrees. It's calming and nice. When Niall moves a bit closer and leans his head on Harry's shoulder, he drapes his arm around him, and even though it's much breezier right by the water, he feels warmer and cosier than he has in a while.

;;

Stepping out of the shower, they walk over to the bed together, naked, hair still wet.

'Lie on your stomach, so I can put aloe on your back,' Harry says.

Niall does as he's told and Harry kneels on the bed, reaching for the bottle of aloe vera gel on the bedside table. He squirts some on his hands and sits down on Niall's bum.

'Okay?' he asks. Niall groans beneath him.

He leans forward and carefully spreads the gel on Niall's sunburnt shoulders and upper back. When he's done, he leans in close and whispers into Niall's ear, 'Better?'

'Yeah, ta,' Niall says.

Harry rolls off Niall and lands on his back next to him on the bed.

'Now that was smooth,' Niall giggles.

Harry smiles and wiggles a bit closer. 'Can we continue what we started in the shower now?'

'Definitely,' Niall says. He pushes himself up on his elbows and moves closer to Harry to kiss him.

Harry loses track of time then, loses himself in the kiss. He feels warm and loose, muscles relaxed from the hot shower and his belly swoops when Niall climbs on top of him, caressing whatever parts he can reach.

He lies on the bed and closes his eyes, savouring every touch and every kiss Niall leaves on his body. He runs his fingers through Niall's hair, who's moved down to kissing his chest, and his skin feels like it's burning up, prickling everywhere Niall is touching him.

Harry's so worked up and tingling everywhere, that when Niall's lips finally wrap around his cock, he lets out a deep sigh. Niall takes his sweet time, laps at Harry and hums around him. The room is quiet, and all Harry can hear is the ticking of a clock and the filthy wet sounds Niall makes. Harry lifts his head off the pillow to watch him for a moment, then tugs at Niall's hair until he looks up, so gorgeous with his rosy cheeks and Harry's cock in his mouth.

When he pulls off, Harry watches the spit stringing from Niall's pink mouth to his cock and it drives him wild. Niall crawls over his body, dick bumping against his when they line up perfectly. He reaches over Harry to fetch the lube and they just kiss for a while, rutting against each other until they're both sweaty and breathing hard.

They kiss until Harry can't taste himself on Niall's tongue anymore, until he's breathless and has to pull away and look at Niall, framing his face with both hands. He wants to freeze time, wants to remember it forever. His heart is racing, but it's not only because he's turned on. There's something else there, and he doesn't know what it is but he wants to savour it.

Harry nudges Niall's nose with his, kisses him again while Niall's rhythm gets more frantic, fucking into Harry's hip. He licks into Harry's mouth and feels around for the lube, sits up and kneels to lube up his fingers.

Harry grabs for Niall's wrist on impulse, leading his hand between his legs. His heart skips a beat when Niall looks at him, and he gives a shaky nod.

 

It's still pitch-dark outside when Harry wakes up; the rain is tapping softly against the windows, a comforting sound and the exact opposite of his own unsteady breathing and beating heart.

Niall breaks the silence. 'Are you asleep?' he whispers.

Harry considers feigning sleep for a moment, but decides against it and answers, 'No.'

Niall hums quietly and presses a kiss to Harry's chest. He whispers, 'That was really nice, you know?'

'What was?' Harry asks in return, although he knows. Maybe that's why he's afraid of the answer. His palms are sweaty, heart kicking into overdrive.

'The, you know, the sex,' Niall breathes against the skin around Harry's nipple and runs his fingers along Harry's ribs, causing him to shiver. He tucks his head under Harry's chin then, lying on his chest and Harry can't focus on anything except the tremors running through his body.

All he can think about is how Niall must be able to hear the pounding of his heart, or feel it. He says, 'Yeah, I liked it.'

But Niall is so gentle and easy; it feels good to hold him in his arms, and Harry doesn't want to let go, doesn't feel the need to run away. 'Sure hope you did,' Niall laughs lightly, rubbing his foot along one of Harry's calves. It tickles a bit, but the feel of cold toes against his own warm skin is soothing and comforting, and Harry can't remember the last time he felt this way.

'It's just that we've never done it like this before and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it,' Niall offers. 'I felt so close to you. Really felt a connection between us, you know.'

Harry's unsure what to do, what to say, holding his breath for a moment, considering. Should he be honest? Should he make a joke, to break the unbearable tension he's feeling? Eventually, he settles on, 'Maybe you just felt different because you fucked me?'

But Niall just tilts his head up and looks at him. 'I don't think so. I've fucked other guys before but it's never been like this. For me, at least. Don't know about you.'

His skin is prickling, and he's itching to touch Niall. He gives into the urge and runs his hand along Niall's back gently. 'I don't, um,' he stutters, 'don't know. Don't usually talk about this stuff.'

Niall smiles at him fondly, rests his head back on his chest and says, 'You don't have to. I just want you to know that I feel safe with you and it was really good for me.' He runs his hand along Harry's arm reassuringly. And Harry's run out of words, is out of his depth, but so utterly grateful for Niall not pushing him, always handling him so carefully. Harry touches Niall's chin and tilts his head up slightly, leans down and kisses him.

;;

Harry just wants to get home and into his bed. He woke up with a headache, their train back to Manchester was delayed, and he's tired from travelling, so all he wants is to lie down and get some rest. He phones for a taxi at the train station – he's had enough of public transport for the day.

When they arrive at his flat, he drops his bag to the floor and walks straight over to the bed. All he wants is to have a nap, but when he sees the pile of Niall's clothes on his bed, something inside him snaps.

'Why's all this shit on my bed?'

He hears Niall behind him say, 'That's from when I changed right before we left. We were in a hurry, remember?'

Annoyed, he grabs it and throws everything to the floor.

'Hey, why'd you do that?'

'Because I wanna sleep and your shit's all on my bed, that's why,' says Harry.

'I said I was sorry. You didn't have to do that, though.' Niall walks up to him and picks his clothes up off the floor.

Harry sits down on the bed and starts undressing. While he's unbuttoning his shirt, he looks over at the bedside table and sees Niall's favourite mug sitting there. He always leaves them everywhere and it drives Harry crazy. Why can't Niall ever remember to put anything away no matter how many times he asks him, Harry thinks to himself and shrugs his boots off, steps out of his trousers. He swallows it down, doesn't say anything.

Harry heads to the loo to have a wee, then walks back in the kitchen to get a glass of water and take a paracetamol before he lies down. Niall sits on the sofa and taps away on his mobile.

When he walks back to the bed, he trips over a book that's lying on the floor.

'Fuck's sake,' Harry hisses.

'What's wrong?' Niall asks, looking up from his mobile.

'Stubbed my toe on one of your textbooks,' Harry groans. He bends down to grab his foot and waits until the pain subsides.

'Well, that's an old story,' Niall chuckles.

And that's it, he can't keep it inside anymore. 'When the fuck did you move in here? I don't recall you paying rent. Your stuff is everywhere, and I've had it up to here.'

Niall looks at him, dumbfounded.

'I don't remember ever asking you to move in with me. What are you thinking? That you can just come into my life and like, make yourself at home?' Harry yells, waving his hands about.

'Harry, calm down.'

'Don't tell me what to do. I will calm down when I want to.' He knows he's being irrational and petulant, but he can't stop now. He desperately tries to stay in control of the situation although he realises he has already lost it. It's almost like he's watching himself and knows he should stop but he can't.

The more he wants to stop the more he yells and the more hurtful things he says. He's overwhelmed and disappointed and he wants to prove he's right, that Niall is going to hurt him.

Niall just stands there, doesn't even shout back, looking at the wooden floor. It makes Harry unbelievably angry.

'Say something!' he shouts.

Niall slowly lifts his head and looks at Harry, shoulders slumped down, looking defeated. 'I don't know what you want me to say?'

'Tell me what you want. What do you want from me?'

'I told you that, I told you what I want.'

'You want to be my boyfriend? Is that what you want, Niall? And then what? Play happy families with me?'

'No. That's not what I want.'

'Then what do you want? Leaving all your stuff here at mine, for what?'

'I don't know why you're so angry now. My stuff's been here for a while.'

'Well, you can gather your shit and take it with you when you go, as far as I'm concerned.'

'Alright, if that's what you want,' Niall mumbles. He walks around the flat and collects some of his clothes. Harry is pacing up and down the kitchen, feeling restless and unsettled. Carrying a pair of jogging bottoms, some shirts and a book, Niall walks up to the kitchen table and sits down, putting his clobber on the chair next to him.

'I just don't understand this, Harry. Can we talk about this?'

'What's to talk about?'

'Well, everything was fine. The holiday was great, we had such a good time together, and now? I'm confused, Harry, help me understand you.' And Niall sounds so calm and genuinely confused, but Harry can't explain what's happened, and he certainly isn't in the mood to talk this through. He just wants Niall to leave, so he can deal with the chaos in his head.

'You know why the holiday was so good? Everything was good because we were in a fucking bubble the whole time, that wasn't real life.'

'But I still feel the same about you here.'

'Until you get bored and move on,' Harry spits out. It's supposed to sound like an accusation. He wants to get a reaction from Niall, his calm way making Harry feel agitated and his skin crawl.

Niall pipes up, 'How do you know what it's going to be like? You don't know that!'

'Oh, come on, Niall,' Harry yells back at him, 'stop living in a dream world. There is no happy ending.'

Niall speaks quietly, 'I just don't understand why that matters to you so much. It's like, you always need to know how things will end before you decide if you want to do them or not. You can't tell the future. I don't know what's going to happen, but neither do you. So don't tell me this is not going to work out when you're taking the easy way out. I tell you what, it's not going to work out if you're not even willing to try.'

'What's the point in trying? It's not like I haven't tried before, and it's always failed.' He wants to throw something, wants to let out his frustration because this isn't fair.

Niall counters, 'Well, some things are worth trying. Some things in life are worth fighting for, you know.'

And it feels like Niall's sticking a knife into his ribs and turning it, a sharp pain that sends unpleasant shivers down his spine. He just wants to escape this situation, his body riled up like he's going in for a fight.

Harry yells, 'Good for you, Niall! And how's that working out for you?'

Niall doesn't respond, just looks at him with big sad eyes and Harry can't take this, he feels so helpless and he grabs the thing nearest to him, one of Niall's snapbacks, and throws it in Niall's lap, shouts, 'Here, I don't want to talk. I just want you to go.'

'You want me to leave?' whispers Niall, and he looks so sad, so close to crying that Harry can't even look at him.

He screams, 'What does it look like to you?' and stomps away, sits down on the sofa. He hears the screeching of the chair and footsteps following him to the living room area. He decidedly doesn't look in Niall's direction, but stares out the window, hands shaking in his lap.

'Harry, maybe we should try to talk about this. Please? I know you care,' and Niall's voice breaks, Harry doesn't have to look at him to know he's trying hard not to cry. 'I know you care about me. I know you felt it too.'

'It was just sex, Niall! You fucked me, that was it!' he yells so loud that his throat starts hurting, and he knows he can't stay. If Niall's not going to leave, then he will. He gets up and walks over to the bed to grab his coat and his keys. When he turns back around, Niall's standing in his way and looking at him, cheeks ruddy and eyes brimming with tears, shaking his head. 'No,' he says, voice shaky, 'no, I know you felt it too, it wasn't just sex. Harry, please stop lying to yourself.'

Niall's reaching out for Harry, but he swerves and makes a dash to the door, shouting, 'I want you to collect your stuff and fuck off. When I come back, I don't want to find you here!' He slams the door shut and starts running down the stairs, almost tripping over his own feet, so wobbly on his legs he feels dizzy; all he hears is the loud rushing in his ears.

;;

Days begin to blend into each other for Harry after that.

He is not sad. The only thing worse than being sad is other people being able to tell if you're sad. So he pretends that everything is fine, busies himself with uni work and puts a lot of effort into his end of the year photography project. It's working out for him, and he is not sad.

Initially, he's relieved when Niall doesn't show up to photo club, at least that's what he tells himself. The fear of a confrontation that had his belly tied in knots and kept him up at night is gone now, but when he doesn't show up the second week, he reckons Niall must have dropped out for good. He's afraid of asking Tom about it, and when someone looks at him, he wonders if they can tell it's because of him, that he's the reason Niall isn't coming anymore. Wonders if anyone ran into him on campus, and what they might have talked about.

He spends a lot of time in the library revising, in the darkroom developing photos, or at home, on his own. Doesn't feel like going out, or seeing anyone. Talking is exhausting sometimes, wearing him out, and so he scribbles and writes down his thoughts in his journal.

 

Four incidents lead to ringing Gemma.

One: he chooses his works for the exhibition and two of them are photos that he took during his trip to Formby. One photograph is a close-up of a tree stump, the tree bark resembling cracked desert earth. The other one is a shot of Niall watching the sea, taken in profile. A panoramic shot, starting from the left with Niall's face out of focus, leading to the beach and the waves in the right corner, sharp and bright blue.

Two: he runs into Josh on campus. They chat for a bit, the usual small talk. Josh is friendly as ever, but it feels a bit awkward, talking to him when Harry hasn't seen Niall in a while. He doesn't dwell on it too much, but he can't fall asleep that night. And while he's tossing and turning in his sheets, he can't deny that it probably means what he doesn't want to admit to himself.

Three: he finds one of Niall's snapbacks under his bed. His flat looks like it's been hit by a bomb during revision week, books and loose papers scattered all around the floor and his kitchen table. It's a Thursday night and he's frantically looking for a textbook that he needs. He finds it at the edge of his bed, lying on the floor. When he ducks down to pick it up, he sees something red sticking out from under his bed. He retrieves it and sees that it's Niall's Chicago Bulls snapback. He doesn't know what to do with it, so he puts it back.

Four: he runs out of tea and finds that ginger and lemon tea in the back of one of his cupboards, the one he only bought for Niall because it was his favourite. He doesn't even drink it. And that's how he ends up sitting at his kitchen table, looking like a picture of misery, and dialling Gemma's number.

She picks up on the third ring, 'Hey love, how are you?'

'I hate ginger and lemon tea,' he says.

'I know,' she chuckles, 'What's with you? Something wrong?'

'I just want to drink some tea and I don't have any real tea. Just this stupid fucking ginger and lemon tea that I hate. The only reason I have it is because of Niall and he's not here so nobody's gonna drink it anyway, so I might as well just throw it away but I'm sitting at my kitchen table staring at a packet of ginger and fucking lemon tea and I just can't throw it away.' It all comes rushing out, words strung together and he has to take a deep breath, collect himself.

'Alright, Harry. Calm down. Let's start at the beginning, yeah?'

'Okay,' he nods.

'What do you mean, Niall's not there? Did something happen to him?'

'No, no. It's not like that. We're not hanging out anymore,' he says.

Gemma hums on the other end of the line. 'What happened? I just got your postcard from your holiday a couple of weeks ago and it seemed to me like you were getting along fine.'

'We were. It was perfect, that's the thing,' he says and plays with the tea packet, something to busy his free hand. 'It was like, too good to be true, Gem. I don't know. When we came back, I went mental, like absolutely lost it.'

'Why?' Gemma asks.

'I don't know, I suddenly noticed how much of his stuff was lying around at my flat. And I panicked, I just wanted him to go.'

'Oh, donut,' Gemma sighs.

'I yelled at him and I said some really horrible things,' he mutters, too ashamed to speak it out loud and clear.

She hums in his ear, and he keeps talking. 'I fucked it up, but I think I miss him. I just didn't know what to do, and now he's gone.' It's hard to talk when it feels like his throat is closing up.

'Harry, I'm so sorry. Have you tried to talk to him about it?'

'No,' he says.

'But you want to?' she asks.

'He probably hates me.' Harry walks over to the sofa and plops down.

'Do you want some advice?' And it's a rhetorical question, she knows that's exactly why he called her. She continues, 'Because if you miss him and you're miserable, you should do something about it. Life is what you make it, right?'

He has to smile, 'Right.'

'Don't think about what went wrong for too long, I know you tend to do that. Instead, you should focus on what to do next. An apology seems like a good start to me. I'm not saying it's gonna be easy. But you have to at least try if it's important to you.'

'I know,' Harry sighs. 'But the thing is when we had that argument it was sort of about how he wanted to be serious and I wasn't ready for it.'

'I think you're ready, Harry. The only thing standing in your way is your fear. But you deserve this. You deserve all the good things. Allow yourself to be happy.'

He takes a moment to collect his thoughts. 'What if he doesn't want me anymore?'

Harry doesn't even want to think about this possibility.

'Honestly? Judging from the few things you told me about him, it seems to me like he genuinely cares about you. And I know he likes you the way you are. So you shouldn't even worry about that. Now I don't know what's going on inside his head, Harry. The only way to find out is to talk to him.'

'Ugh, I hate that you're always right,' he groans. 'I don't even know what I'm more afraid of, him not wanting to be with me or him wanting to be with me.'

Gemma snickers quietly, 'Oh, love. Don't be afraid of being with someone you like. I'm not gonna lie, having a relationship is hard work, but it's so worth it. Yeah, of course Liam and I argue sometimes, and it's not always sunshine and roses, but we also make up. It does suck sometimes, but that's life. You'll get hurt and nobody can protect you from that. But being alone doesn't protect you either, and besides, where's the fun in that?'

She's right. Deep down, he knows she is. It's difficult to change your habits, though, the deep-rooted ones, the ones that have become a part of you.

'I know,' he moans. 'Everything was much easier and much more fun when Niall was around.'

Gemma urges him, 'See? You should talk to him, Harry. But you have to be sure you want this.'

He cranes his neck and looks over to the kitchen table, where the tea packet is still lying. He doesn't really have to think about this, it's a gut decision and he knows he wants it.

;;

He's stood in front of this door countless times before, but never so nervous, never before had to be afraid of the door being slammed in his face. He knocks twice, and the time until it's opened feels like an eternity to him.

It's Josh who's looking back at him, dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a hoodie, visibly surprised to see Harry.

'Hey, Harry,' he says, standing between the door and the doorframe, so Harry can't see inside.

'Hi,' Harry fiddles with his watch, mind gone blank. 'Uh, I. I came to talk to Niall. Is he, I mean. Can you tell him I'm here?'

Josh seems a little wary, so he adds, 'Please, Josh. It's important.'

'Okay. Wait a minute.' Josh nods and leaves the door ajar, and Harry standing outside. He's staring at the doormat, his pulse racing with anticipation.

He can hear murmurs and footsteps, and when he looks up again, Niall opens the door and the words spill from Harry's mouth like an avalanche, 'I came to apologise.'

 

Back in Niall's room, Harry sits down on the bed out of habit, with Niall opposite him in his desk chair. 'Okay,' he says, arms crossed. 'I'm listening.'

'I'm sorry I yelled at you, I didn't mean to go mental. And I know I overreacted, but it just happened, and I couldn't control myself. It's just that, sometimes I get defensive when I get overwhelmed.'

'Well, for me, that came completely out of nowhere,' Niall says.

'I reckon it did, but it's not easy for me to explain. When we came back, it was like all I could see was how many of your things were at my place and I felt, like, cornered? And things were just moving way too fast for me. I hadn't even thought about a relationship. Or maybe I had considered it, but on that trip everything was so different and I didn't think it would work back here.'

'But it does. I don't understand you, Harry, seriously. It worked out fine, as long as we didn't talk about it. I'm sick of pretending we're something we are clearly not.'

'I talked to my sister and she said I'm the type of person who, like, who leaves people before they can leave me? And I think she's right. Maybe I wanted you to leave because I didn't actually want you to leave? I know it makes no sense.'

'I'm trying to understand you. So you do want to be with me?' Niall asks and walks over to the bed, sits down next to Harry.

'Yes,' Harry says.

'Well, I want to be with you, too. And I'd like to try again, but only if we're on the same page. I don't want casual anymore. I want to try properly dating.'

Harry nods. 'Yeah, I want to try that, too. I missed you so much and I know I want to be with you.'

'Just to be clear, when I say dating I mean a proper relationship.'

'I know,' Harry says.

'And I need you to promise me that you won't shut me out like that again. I can't deal with that, and I don't want to, either. You hurt me with the things you said to me.'

'I'm so sorry, I didn't mean it,' Harry mumbles.

'I missed you, too, you know. I failed one of my exams because I couldn't focus on revising because I was thinking about you all the time. And you didn't even call me, or try to talk to me even once.'

His chest feels tight and it's hard to breathe, the thought of Niall being this miserable, the fact that he was the reason for it, is too much. He's ashamed and wishes he could rewind time and do it better.

'I'm sorry, Niall. I feel so bad, I don't know what to say.'

'It's alright, I can retake that exam but I just need you to know how much that hurt me. And that I don't want to feel like that again.'

'But what if I'm rubbish at relationships?'

'As long as we're being completely honest with each other, we can make it work. Just talk to me, okay?' Niall says. 'We're talking now. You can always try to explain yourself, and I'll always try to understand you.'

Harry tentatively drapes his arm around Niall and starts rubbing his back. He looks at him and Niall gives him a small smile. Harry's heart is beating fast, but it's not an unpleasant feeling anymore. He smiles back and Niall goes in for a hug. It feels good, comforting, and Harry buries his face in Niall's shoulder to hide his smile.

;;

Harry's standing outside the pub, huddled under the awning to avoid getting rained on, having a smoke. He's not usually a smoker, but sometimes it helps to calm his nerves, and he needed to get out for a while and have five minutes to himself. A breather. That's what Niall calls it, at least. 'Need a breather?' he asks, when they're out together, surrounded by his friends. They're good when they're on their own, familiar with each other, and those are the times when Harry feels most comfortable. With nobody around to see them, judge them. It's only been a week and Harry is grateful that Niall's been so understanding, and knows when it's getting too much for him. Feels it when Harry's about to run away, and lets him have a moment to himself, so he'll come back and stay.

The smoke burns in his lungs, and his boots are soaked with dirt and rainwater. In hindsight, he shouldn't have worn his velvet boots after all, the weather unpredictable as ever. He takes one last drag off his cigarette, throws it to the curb and grinds it out.

He walks back inside, making his way through the throng of people. The pub is packed, and Harry can tell how nervous Niall is - biting his nails - because it's his first real gig and unlike when he plays at open mic night, he's going to be playing all original songs this time. They're all here to see him perform, and Harry is so proud of him.

He stands near the small stage with Josh and a few of Niall's friends when it's time for him to play. This time he remembered to bring his camera, and while Niall strums his guitar and pours his heart out to the whole room, Harry takes a few pictures of him.

After a few songs, Josh walks on stage to help Niall out and back him up on percussion. Niall starts to stutter something about a song he wrote for a special someone, looking right at Harry when he does, smiling sheepishly. Harry is completely taken by surprise, didn't know anything about this, and puts his camera away to pay attention to the song.

When Niall starts to sing, he can feel how nervous Niall is, and he's just as nervous, unsure of what to expect. The song is beautiful, though, and Harry hangs on Niall's every word. It's a love song, and Harry's not used to feeling butterflies in his stomach like that.

When Niall is done, it's almost impossible to get a minute alone with him – he's constantly surrounded by people, everyone congratulating him. His face is glowing and he's smiling a lot, and Harry is happy for him that it went so well. He texts Nick and drinks a coke while Niall is having pints with everyone. It's his night, after all.

A bit later, when Harry's arguing with Josh about who's the best drummer of their time, he receives a text from Niall: help ! need t get outta here :))

 

They stumble into the flat and try not to trip over each other, connected at their mouths. Harry pushes Niall into the wall, pulling at his plaid shirt, mumbling, 'off' into his mouth. When they make it to Niall's room, Harry's already stripped down to his pants, and Niall's still struggling with his belt while Harry's sucking at his neck.

'You were so hot up there tonight,' he says when he's finished leaving a mark right next to one of Niall's freckles.

'Yeah?' Niall breathes out, 'You think so?' He walks backwards into his room, guided by Harry, who's holding on to his shoulders, trying to step out of his jeans at the same time. 'You liked it?'

'I loved it,' Harry says and goes in for another kiss. They stop walking and Niall drapes his arms around Harry, hands slipping underneath his pants to touch his bum. 'Bed. Now.'

Harry draws away and walks over to the bed, pulling off his pants in the process and crawls up on it on all fours. He strokes his dick while Niall reaches into his bedside table drawer.

'Hurry up,' Harry sighs, 'I'm so hard for you.' He looks over his shoulder to watch Niall strip off his pants and get on the bed behind him, throwing a condom on the sheets and flipping open the bottle. Harry buries his face into the pillow in front of him and works his prick, hears the familiar squirt of the lube and sticks out his bottom, eager to be touched.

'Jesus, you're so desperate.'

'Shut up and get on with it,' Harry groans. 'Please.'

He feels Niall's hand grabbing his hip, holding him still. 'I love it when you're begging for it,' Niall says, planting a kiss on his arse cheek, and Harry shivers when he feels the cold wetness at his entrance. He pushes back onto Niall's finger and relaxes. It doesn't take long until he's fucking himself on three fingers and Niall's asking, 'You ready?' although he probably knows Harry is, keeps scissoring his fingers inside to stretch him. He rips the condom wrapper with his mouth and has to pull out his fingers to put it on.

They don't talk when Niall pushes inside Harry, or when he starts moving. It's quiet and only the sound of their breathing and skin slapping together fills the room. Niall holds on to Harry's hips with both hands and pounds into him until he starts hitting the right spot, making Harry moan and swear.

They fuck until they both come and collapse on the mattress, Niall lying on Harry's back while they both catch their breath. Harry gets a towel and puts it on the wet spot while Niall gets rid of the used condom and has a wee. When he comes back, he crawls on the bed and curls up to Harry, fitting right into his arms. Harry drapes his arm over Niall's stomach, their bodies so close and still a bit sweaty. It's warm in the room, and Harry feels how tired he is, ready to fall asleep any minute. He nuzzles the back of Niall's neck, and mumbles, 'Thank you' into his hair.

Niall turns his head slightly, 'Hmm?'

'The song, I loved it,' he whispers and the last thing he remember before he drifts away to sleep is how Niall squeezes his hand once.

;;

Harry is woken up by the buzzing of his phone. He gets it out from the pocket of his jeans lying in a heap on the floor next to the bed, sees the caller ID and sighs. Nick. He gets out of the bed, careful not to wake Niall, and starts gathering his clothes, getting dressed quickly. His phone buzzes again, this time with a text from Nick: you can't just leave me hanging like this. tell me your boyfriend sang a song to you and then not tell me WHAT he sang.. call me back when you're up xx

Boyfriend.

He sits on the edge of the bed, staring at the phone in his trembling hand and wonders why he can't even see that his hand is shaking when it feels like it's out of control and he can't hold on to anything. It feels like he's losing ground and it's nauseating, so he pockets his phone and puts his hands on his knees, gripping them so tightly he's sure there will be marks later. He watches Niall for a while, trying to calm his breathing. Trying to tell himself that everything is fine, and he should be happy right now, not freaking out. What the hell is wrong with him?

Niall looks so peaceful when he's asleep, softly snoring and his neck coloured the slightest pink, sleep warm. Harry leans over and presses a gentle kiss to Niall's shoulder blade, careful not to wake him. He can't bring himself to leave a note, doesn't even know what to say, or where even to begin. His chest feels tight, and it's getting harder to breathe.

All he can think about is that he needs to get out, needs space to breathe, time to think; he needs to get as far away from this - from Niall - as possible.

;;

Headphones on, drinking wine straight from the bottle he bought in a rush at the station, Harry sits on the train from Manchester to London. It was a rash action - when he left Niall's he couldn't bear the thought of going back to his flat. He didn't think at all, just needed to get as far away as possible and since Gemma's and Nick's are his only other options, he bought a ticket on the spot for the first train to London.

He sits by the window and looks outside, watches the landscape rush by, his bag on the seat next to him. It's the bag he brought to Niall's the day before, with a set of clothes to change into, his toothbrush, journal, one of his cameras and his wallet.

Harry doesn't care about what people might think of him if they saw him drinking that early. He wants to numb his senses, numb the fear, and stop his thoughts from going round in circles.

It doesn't help that Niall starts to send him text messages when he gets up, doesn't help that they shift from confused but sweet to worrying to upset in a matter of hours. His guilt wears him out, and every single message or missed call is just another reminder. He reads them all, thumb hovering over the screen for a long while, but never texts back.

When he steps off the train in London, he almost falls over and Harry realises how drunk he is. He checks his watch and walks to the nearest open pub he can find.

;;

There's a knock on the door, followed by Gemma's voice calling his name, and Harry curls up, pulling the blanket over his head to hide from everything and everyone.

'Harry, you've got a visitor. Come on, get up, sleepyhead,' Gemma calls from somewhere near the bed, shaking him gently. His head is pounding and he doesn't want to see anyone.

'Go away,' he growls, kicking his feet as if someone was trying to grab and pull him out of bed. He feels the mattress dip beside him and Gemma rubbing his shoulder through the sheets.

'Harry, please. There's someone here to see you.'

'Who would want to see me, nobody even knows I'm here!' he grumbles, too tired to deal with anything.

'What's the last thing you remember from last night?' Gemma asks.

'I remember I phoned for a taxi,' Harry groans. He sticks his head out and immediately regrets it, the sun shining in from the window blinding him, too bright for his tired eyes.

'Who's here?' he asks, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing the sleep out of them.

He feels Gemma's fingers digging into his hair, scratching his head lightly, a comforting gesture. 'Don't get mad, but I talked to Niall on the phone last night. He tried to reach you all day, and your mobile kept ringing while Liam helped you get undressed and put you to bed. Poor lad was worried sick, so I told him you were here.'

Harry looks at Gemma. 'How did he even get here?'

'You should ask him that yourself.' She speaks quietly, her voice soft around the edges, 'Get up, donut.'

Sighing deeply, he throws the sheets to the side, and looks at Gemma. She smiles at him. 'He wants to see you. And I know you want to see him.'

It's suddenly hard to breathe, and Harry whispers, 'But I ran away.' Saying it out loud makes it real, and it hurts to think about it but Harry can't ignore it anymore. He wanted this so badly, and yet he couldn't stay.

'Don't be too hard on yourself, love. You're trying, aren't you? And I'm sure Niall wouldn't be here if this wasn't important to him. If you weren't important to him,' she says. Harry swallows and his throat hurts, burning with regret and guilt.

'Alright, I'm coming.'

 

Harry picks up a ratty Rolling Stones t-shirt off the floor and puts it on before he pads barefoot into the living room. He feels every step, every movement of his body because his muscles feel sore, and his head is aching. He hears clatter and subdued voices coming from the kitchen on the left, and supposes it's Liam and Gemma in there. Niall's sitting on the sofa with slouched shoulders, biting his nails. He does that when he's nervous, Harry's watched him do it several times before. He clears his throat audibly and Niall startles, looking right at him. He looks exhausted and tired, dark circles under his puffy eyes, and Harry's never quite seen him like this before.

And in that moment, Harry's sure that it's impossible for him to look as miserable as he feels. He's the reason why Niall looks like that. He's the reason he's worried and he's the reason he came all the way to London and Harry feels like he needs to throw up.

'Hey,' he says, pausing two steps from the sofa.

'Hey,' Niall echoes. 'You look like shit.'

Harry smiles and his belly seizes up, it's so like Niall to make a joke to break the ice. 'So do you,' he says. 'Wanna come to my room?'

 

The room is lit up by the rising sun, warming up the sheets. Harry leans awkwardly against the closed door for a while, before he motions for Niall to sit down on the bed. His hair looks unbearably soft, just likes his cheeks, and Harry wants to run his fingers through it, wants to kiss him stupid and make his cheeks turn the colour of a Red Delicious.

'So, how did you,' Harry starts, looking down at his feet, eyes flicking to his tattoos there, never gonna dance again.

'You can thank your sister I'm here. She answered your phone last night and we talked for a bit. Josh let me borrow his car,' Niall says. 'After I talked to Gemma, I decided to come here and talk to you. Because I can't keep doing this.'

'Oh,' Harry says, chewing on his bottom lip. So that's why he came here for, to be the one leaving him, Harry thinks and closes his eyes. Maybe it'll be easier if he doesn't have to look at him.

'I thought we wanted the same thing, you know?' Niall says, voice calm yet resolute. 'After last week, I thought we were dating. I told you what I want. I told you how I feel. And maybe I'm naive but I thought you got that. I thought I made myself clear.'

Harry keeps his eyes closed, chin pressed to his chest and tries to focus on his breathing. Tries to stay calm despite the raging storm of emotions inside of him.

'So I don't really understand how you could just leave me like this, and. I need an explanation. I need you to talk to me about this.'

The silence between them stretches out like bubblegum and it's not an uncomfortable silence per se, but Harry's brain goes into overdrive, trying to come up with something to say. He wants to say so much, but doesn't know how to, never knows how to say the important things out loud, has always been better with his hands, with a pen and paper. He walks over to the foot of the bed, crouches down to rummage around in his bag on the floor, pulling out his journal.

'Look,' he says, sitting down next to Niall, 'I'm only good with the written word.'

Harry fumbles with the ties on his journal, picking at them to keep his hands occupied. 'Maybe you could,' he trails off, forcing himself to look at Niall, 'maybe you could read this, and if you still have questions then, I can try to explain?'

'You want me to read your journal?'

'Well, just flip through it if you want, I mean you don't have to read everything, obviously.' He's feeling antsy, muscles taut and chest tight. He pushes the journal into Niall's hands.

He says, 'I'll be in the kitchen,' as he moves to stand up from the bed, but Niall reaches for his arm.

'Don't,' he says softly, holding on to Harry's wrist. 'No more running away. Please?'

And it's the hardest thing Harry has ever had to do, but he resists the urge to leave. He looks at Niall and can see his own fears reflected in his eyes, can see the worry on his face; Niall's always so open, so easy to read for him. It's what he wants, it's who he wants, and right then, Harry realises what it is that makes people want to be in a relationship. What it is that makes them put themselves out there.

He and Niall look at each other and he can't say no to Niall's pleading eyes. He sits back down next to him, mumbles, 'Alright,' and Niall lets go of his wrist, opens the journal.

Harry doesn't know what to do in this situation, doesn't know if he should look at what Niall's looking at, if he should comment on anything, or if he should just sit and wait it out until Niall says something. His palms are sweaty, so he rubs his hands on the mattress, pointedly looking at his thighs resting between them.

'Do you want me to look at something in particular?' Niall asks.

'Uh, well,' Harry says, 'it's more about trust, I think? This is where I keep all my thoughts and things that are important to me, so like, I trust you with this. And I'm just rubbish at talking about my feelings and stuff, you know.'

'I've noticed,' says Niall. Harry dares to turn his head and watches Niall flip the pages, flicking through his poems and doodles, quotes and glued in keepsakes, like pictures or ticket stubs.

Niall stops and says, 'you kept my notes?'

'I did.' Harry explains, 'I liked them. They made me smile every day and I wanted to keep them and remember that. That feeling they gave me. I know it's silly.'

'It's not silly,' Niall says. 'I'm just surprised, I think it's very sweet.'

He continues to skim through the journal and Harry watches him, curious what he chooses to read. He begins reading a poem and after a moment he looks up at Harry.

'Who's this about?' he asks.

'It's about my father,' Harry says and fiddles with the rings on his fingers.

Niall nods and continues reading. When he's done, he moves on and takes his time with reading a page here and there, looking at drawings and pictures Harry took.

Niall holds up the journal to Harry, displaying a drawing that says, everyone leaves eventually

'Do you really feel this way?' he asks.

Harry shrugs, 'I suppose, yeah. It's just that, nobody's ever stuck around. And I mean, it must be me, right? There's something wrong with me.'

Niall puts the journal away and turns closer to Harry, 'Don't say that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with you, Harry.'

Harry stares at his hands, still playing nervously with his rings. Niall covers Harry's hands with his.

'No? Then why do I ruin the one thing I really want? There must be something wrong with me, because I just keep fucking up.'

'Well, you're not the only one with doubts and fears. I'm scared, too. I've never been in a serious relationship before. I don't know what I'm doing either.' Niall pauses and takes a deep breath. 'So there's nothing wrong with you, alright.'

It makes Harry smile. He feels so understood, so safe with Niall. It's a feeling he only knows from being around his sister.

'But if we do this, I need you to promise me something.'

'What is it?' Harry asks, holding Niall's warm hand. His palms are sweaty, too.

'You have to promise me that this was the last time you'll do this. You can't keep running away from me.'

'I promise,' Harry blurts out. He wants this, and he's willing to fight for it. 'But you have to promise me one thing, too.'

'Yeah?'

'Promise me you'll be patient with me?'

Niall smiles. 'You're lucky I'm so patient. Wouldn't be here if I wasn't.'

'I suppose,' Harry says.

Niall leans in close, their noses almost touching. 'I wouldn't have fought for this if I wasn't so mad about you.'

Harry moves forward and kisses him. Kisses him until he starts feeling dizzy.

'I brought you something,' Niall says when he pulls back. 'It's silly, but. I saw it and it made me think of you.'

He pulls something out of the pocket of his jogging bottoms and hands it over to Harry. It's a small silver key ring pendant in the form of a miniature shovel, and it's warm in Harry's hands. He thinks of how Niall kept it in that pocket all this time as he twists it to get a better look, and bursts out laughing. Engraved in the shovel is a text, saying I DIG YOU THE MOST.

Niall joins in, and the tension between them disappears gradually. Harry feels something loosen in his chest and he can't stop laughing. Relief washes over him and his whole body vibrates with it.

'So you like it,' Niall gasps, cheeks rosy from laughing.

'Are you kidding me, it's perfect,' Harry says.

;;

The late afternoon sun shines down on them.

Harry leans back in his chair and watches Liam at the barbecue. 'Sure you don't want me to help you?' he asks.

Liam chuckles, 'no, I'm fine. Wouldn't want to risk starting a fire, you know.'

'Alright. That's how it's going to be today, huh? Forgot how much you and Gemma love to make fun of me when I'm hungover.'

As if on cue, Gemma and Niall walk out into the garden, carrying glasses, plates and cutlery to set the table.

'Harry,' Gemma pipes up, 'you didn't tell me that Niall's had his first real gig the other night. That's a big deal.'

'Oh yeah,' he says. 'Well, I only found out about it a week ago. But if you don't want to miss out on anything that's going on in my life, maybe you should subscribe to the nosy sister newsletter,' he jokes.

Niall laughs, clapping his hands. 'Good one!'

'Really,' Gemma says, one eyebrow raised, looking at Harry, then over at Niall. 'You two deserve each other. No offense, Niall.'

'Hey,' Harry says, drawing out the word.

She sets the plates down and arranges them. 'So, how was it?'

'Great. He was great,' Harry smiles at Niall and watches him place knives and forks next to the plates across from him.

'I would love to hear one of your songs, Niall. I think Liam still has an old guitar lying around somewhere,' Gemma says.

'Oh my god can you stop? Don't put him on the spot like that, Gem.' Harry rolls his eyes.

Niall shrugs, 'No, it's cool. I don't mind.'

Gemma walks over to the barbecue, probably trying to find out where Liam hid the guitar and Niall sits down in the chair next to him. He leans over and whispers, 'You really don't have to do this if you don't want to.'

But Niall just smiles at him, 'Are you mad? Of course I'll do it.'

'Good, I'm just making sure you're okay with this.'

'I'm great. Liam and your sister are so nice. I mean, they invited me to this barbecue and they're letting me stay here for a night, it's the least I can do.'

'Yup, they're pretty great,' Harry agrees. 'Gemma told me she likes you, so you're fine. You're practically family to her already.'

'She's feisty, man. Funny and very smart, I like her.'

'Sorry, forgot to tell you, she's the cooler sibling.'

'Too late now. She's not the one I drove to London for.' Niall reaches for Harry's hand under the table.

Harry's heart flutters. 'No, she isn't. Did she tell you embarrassing stories about me?'

'Excuse me, I didn't tell Niall any funny stories about you,' Gemma interrupts them, setting down a bowl of salad and taking a seat. Liam is right behind her, bringing two plates of barbecued meat and veggies.

'But how about you,' she looks at Niall. 'Tell us one? And don't tell me there's no story, I know my brother.'

Harry watches Niall as he tells them the story about why he started calling Harry his 'muppet', watches how he makes them laugh and how easily he fits in, and squeezes his hand just a little bit tighter. A feeling of hope and confidence bubble up inside of him when Niall squeezes back and he catches Gemma winking at him. Harry thinks that yes, this could work.

They fit.