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Go Your Own Way

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“What the fuck, Niall?” Harry slams the magazine down on the table in front of his guitarist. This could ruin everything. Harry’s not established as a solo artist yet. The press is full of sharks, circling, waiting to rip him to shreds. They like to see people bleed, watch their insides get torn out and played with by the public. Even Harry’s own fans are waiting for him to make a mistake, half-expecting him to reveal himself as a terrible, cold-hearted betrayer. It’s a better story for the media if he’s an asshole, out for himself, turning his back on his friends and his fans as he tries to distance himself from his cookie-cutter boyband image. And now Niall’s done this. Niall’s done this, in public, when Niall knows what the consequences could be. He knows how important this is to Harry.

The cover stares up at him, a tangible reminder of why his image is spiraling downwards. The headline reads “Harry Styles’ guitarist made my daughter cry”. It’s splashed in red across a photo of Niall glaring at a pre-teen girl as tears stream down her cheeks. That’s one of the more restrained headlines. Harry couldn’t even bring himself to look at the worse ones.

Niall’s not looking at him, just carries on playing guitar like Harry hasn’t said anything. He’s fingerpicking a tune on his old acoustic, the one he stole from his brother to learn to play. Harry doesn’t recognise the song, so it’s probably something Niall’s writing. It sounds tense. “Just fire me, Harry,” Niall finally mumbles, his voice hoarse. He carries on the repeating pattern with his fingers, eyes fixed on his hands even though he doesn’t need to look at them.

Harry feels his anger dissipate, replaced by concern as he looks at his friend. Niall’s fingertips are reddened and blistered, despite his calluses. There are bags under his eyes, standing out against his pale skin. “You’re not fired,” Harry assures him. Now that he’s looking at Niall, it’s hitting him that Niall doesn’t just go around screaming at children all the time. Harry’s known him nearly a year and has never once seen him yell at anybody in anger. Happy yelling, yes. Yelling at the TV during the football, yes. Yelling at a child for no reason? No. But still, he has to be reminded that this is unacceptable behaviour. A certain amount of self-control is necessary in the public eye. “But only because you’re my friend and I know you’d never normally shout at a twelve-year-old.”

“Friend?” Niall looks up at him for the first time, hope clearing his face. Harry feels his gut twist. He’d thought Niall knew they were friends. They’ve been working together for nearly a year, writing and practicing and laughing about stupid stuff. Harry told him about how at the end of the band he sometimes used to cry in the dressing room before the show because he was so sure the rest of the boys hated him. He’d never told anyone else that.

“It’ll never happen again,” Niall tells him. He’s still playing guitar, like if he stops the world will end. It’s not that unusual. Niall’s a professional guitarist. He’s always playing guitar. He takes it into the bathroom with him. But he’s been playing the same pattern over and over since before Harry arrived and there are tiny bloodspots flecking the neck of his guitar, where the strings have worn his fingers down. He must have been playing for hours.

“Is it drugs?” Harry asks, unable to think of another explanation. Niall doesn’t seem like he’s on drugs, but then, Harry hadn’t noticed that his ex-bandmate Nick had had a problem until security had found him comatose in his dressing room before a show.

Niall laughs incredulously. He doesn’t quite sound happy, but it’s less of a worry than the misery that’s been emanating from him up till now.

“We can get you into a program,” Harry offers. He wants Niall to know he won’t judge. Plenty of people succumb to this terrible disease.

“I thought she was a pap,” Niall says. “They were, like, crowding and shouting, and I just… I just hate it…”

Harry gets it. Everyone hates the paparazzi. Even Harry can’t think of any redeeming features, and he’s good at making excuses for people. Even so, you can’t just go around swearing at them, especially if there are fans there as well. “We all hate it,” he tells Niall. “It’s just something we have to deal with.”

Niall nods, his face tense. “Can you stop doing things that make people shout at me?”

It strikes Harry then that maybe he doesn’t get it. He’s used to it. It’s been such a long time since he’s been able to go to a restaurant without attracting a crowd that he doesn’t remember what it’s like to not cause one. A few photographers feels like nothing. But he remembers Niall’s face after their first TV performance, when the small crowd had surged in around them as they left the building. It had pleased Harry, made him feel loved and admired and appreciated, if a little bit frustrated about how long it took to get to the car. Niall had looked ill for the rest of the day. Harry hadn’t thought anything of it, just dragged him away from cleaning his guitars to go out for dinner and celebrate. Niall’s not used to getting papped, certainly not on his own. It was only because Harry had been waving a rainbow flag at a Cher concert last week that anyone was even looking for comments from his band members.

“No promises,” he says. He wants to look out for Niall, he really does. But he’s free, now, and if he feels like flying a rainbow flag while wearing a pink polka dot blouse, he’s going to do it.

“So other than that, how was your date?” Harry asks, trying to lighten the mood. He’s not proud, but for some unknown reason (well, okay, he knows why) he’s kind of hoping it went badly. It’s not that he doesn’t want Niall to be happy, but honestly the girl isn’t right for him. Harry hasn’t met her, but she seems like she’s not in it for the right reasons.

“Shit,” Niall says. Harry keeps his face carefully blank, whooping internally when Niall continues, “I’m thinking of giving up women altogether.”

Harry strokes his friend’s cheek, trying to coax out a smile. “If you decide that’s the way to go, you know where to find me.”

He gets up to leave. He’s due at a meeting with the suits where they’ll spend an hour trying to convince him to be boring. At the door he glances back. Niall’s gone scarlet, a tiny smile on his face. His hands are finally, finally still.

“Same goes if you ever want to talk about what’s going on with you,” he tosses over his shoulder, keeping it casual, not making a big deal out of it. Niall doesn’t really talk about personal stuff that much, Harry’s noticed. That’s okay. Neither does Harry.

***

There’s a lot more involved in planning a tour than Harry had realized. In the group, all he’d had to do was be there and go where he was told. He’s getting a new appreciation for the tour manager and all the other staff now he’s got input into everything. There’s timing and venue choice and creative decisions to be made. Wardrobe and transport and accommodation to arrange. Catering. Support staff. Security. Publicity. Accounting. An opening band. And that’s all on top of the important stuff like making sure the music is good and all the instruments will arrive at their destinations undamaged. Harry’s mostly just let the people who know what they’re doing get on with it, only putting in a couple of requests for venues and a lot of suggestions for wardrobe. They’ve given him the plans. It’s Go Time.

Harry’s just a flight and a night away from doing his favourite thing in the whole world every day for months. He’d give up almost anything to perform. There’s nothing quite like the roar of the crowd, the feeling of thousands of pairs of eyes on you, admiring you as you do something you’re good at. He’s always liked holding people’s attention. There’s something about knowing people are interested that makes him feel alive.

He’s so excited he can barely sit still for take-off. It’s a long flight to LA, but he’s used to it. He’ll try to get some sleep, but it’s hard with the adrenalin pumping through his body. He puts his headphones on. Bowie, for inspiration. The album’s selling well. This tour’s going to be epic.

A couple of hours in, still too hyped for sleep, Harry looks across the cabin to see if Niall’s awake. Niall seems like he’s feeling better about the yelling-at-a-child situation. He hasn’t said a lot about it. They’d almost had a conversation about it yesterday, when Harry had left the studio. Niall had stayed behind, organizing his already perfectly organized stuff for tour because he hadn’t wanted to take the tube at rush hour. “Too many people,” he’d said cheerfully. “Don’t want to scare the bejeezus out of any more kids.” Harry’s starting to get the impression that Niall might be slightly underplaying it when he says he doesn’t like crowds. Or planes, apparently. He’s sitting ramrod-straight in his seat, methodically tearing his in-flight magazine into tiny squares. Harry thinks the better of trying to talk to him about how great the shows are going to be.

It’s strange, flying out for tour on a commercial plane. The last few years of the group had all been private jets, just Harry and his security and a few management people. The other guys had taken separate flights, Nick and Robbie on one doing God knows what with the groupies, and Justin and Gary on another, moaning about only getting to sing in the chorus and plotting against Harry. Their PR people had put out that it was for safety reasons (can’t have the whole band dying if the plane goes down), but it wasn’t. Harry still doesn’t know what he did to warrant the whispering and glaring and refusal to be in the same room as him outside of the shows. It’s not his fault he got most of the solos. He’s not stupid, he knows he got picked for his looks. His voice is powerful and interesting, but he’s not as consistent as Gary was. But teenage girls aren’t looking for reliability, they want excitement. So Harry had got most of the attention. That can’t have been all it was, though. Sure, he’d got most of the attention, but he’d also got most of the flak. At least the others could walk down a street with their sister without creating headlines about how they were cheating on someone with a mystery woman. That has to count for something right? Harry browses through the movies until he finds The Princess Bride. He needs to distract himself. Worrying about the past never did anyone any good.

Harry’s just drifted off to sleep, his movie long over, the strains of Fleetwood Mac in his ears, when he feels a sharp tap at his ankle. He starts awake to see Niall in the seat next to him. It’s hard to make his face out in the darkness, but he’s tapping his fingers, jiggling his legs. Harry can feel the tension vibrating off him. “Talk to me, Harry,” Niall says, his voice higher than normal, the words snapping out sharply.

Harry sits up. “Are you afraid of flying?”

Niall shakes his head, wiping sweaty palms on his legs and looking up at the emergency exit sign. “It’s not so much the flying as being in the plane.” His voice shakes. “There’s no way out.” He follows it up with a hysterical laugh that makes Harry’s chest constrict.

Shit. Harry reaches for him, wanting to make it better. Trying to offer comfort. Niall flinches away from his hug. “Don’t touch me,” he says.

Harry doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how to fix this. Niall could have said something to management. He could have gone to the flight attendant – they must have training for this kind of thing. He could have woken up one of the other band members, or even Lou. She’s good at comforting people. Harry knows from experience. But he’s come to Harry specifically because he thinks Harry can help. And Harry can’t.

Harry does his best. Cracks a couple of jokes that surprisingly seem to help a little. The flight attendant comes to offer help. Niall, much to Harry’s dismay, sends her away, turning down her offer to get a doctor. He sits with his head in his hands, breathing deeply. Harry keeps talking.

He talks and talks, rambling nonsense about stuff that doesn’t matter. Keeps his voice slow and calm as he tells Niall song by song about the Rolling Stones Concert he went to in Australia until Niall’s upright in his seat again, breathing normally. “I wish you’d been touring with us,” Harry says. “You’d have loved it. I met them after and everything. I don’t think Mick Jagger was that into it, but Ronnie Wood sent me a text the other day…” It had been a beautiful day. For a few hours, he’d forgotten about the toxic atmosphere in the group. He hadn’t even minded that nobody had wanted to come with him. He’d been watching legends.

“I can’t believe you went to the Stones without me, Harry,” Niall manages to joke.

Harry figures he must be doing something right. “If I’d known you were out there I’d have waited,” he says. This time, Niall doesn’t twitch away when Harry pats him on the shoulder.

By the time they land, Harry’s voice is hoarse and tired.  He’s gone song-by-song through every concert he’s ever attended except the ones he’s performed at. He’s shown Niall seventeen pictures of Gemma’s cat, and done an in depth analysis of Shania Twain’s seminal debut album “Shania Twain”. Neither of them have got any sleep, but it seemed to help. Niall hasn’t tried to rip the plane doors off or anything, anyway.

Niall thanks him when they’re waiting at passport control. There’s no reason to thank him. He’d tried his best, but all he’d really done was talk about nothing. He pats Niall on the head by way of reply, trying to convey how relieved he is that his friend is okay.

***

It’s an hour till the first show of the tour. Harry’s nerves are fizzing. His stomach churns. There are snakes writhing inside him, worries twisting through his head. Doubts and doubts and doubts. A cheer goes up in the crowd as the opening band takes to the stage. They’re an electro-pop duo called Lilo. Truthfully, Harry had just let management pick them while he focused on making sure he had his own show covered. He’s a little worried they don’t like him. He wasn’t friendly enough. What if he seemed unwelcoming? He’d made a joke as they were going on about how they should try to lower people’s expectations, but they’d both just stared at him.

“This is going to be great,” Harry says, trying to sound confident. “Anyway, you can always pull my guitar lead out if you have to.” It comes out less jokey than he means it to. He wishes his Mum was here. Can’t think why she’s not. All that stuff he’d been telling himself while he wrote his album, about independence and adulthood and becoming his own person sounds like bullshit now. “I am mine,” he’d repeated every morning while he meditated, as though it was the path to enlightenment rather than a line from a song that he’d seen tattooed on his one-night-stand’s thigh. It seems now that he hadn’t understood what it meant.

Niall puts down his phone. He’s been recording the pre-show build-up for posterity. “Aww, come ‘ere, Pet,” he says, opening his arms. Harry melts into them. Niall’s warm and comfortable, his calmness flowing into Harry as he rubs Harry’s back.

“There’s nothing to worry about, Harold,” Niall tells him, his palm making circles between Harry’s shoulder blades. “I’d tell you if you weren’t good enough.”

That’s true. He remembers vividly from the first time he’d played in front of Niall and made the mistake of asking “So, what did you think?” He hadn’t known Niall well, and had thus far been unaware of Niall’s total lack of understanding of the social rules around when to answer that question honestly.

Harry nods into his neck, breathing in the smell of toothpaste and aftershave and freshly-showered Niall.

“Are you sniffing my neck?” Niall asks him.

Harry nods again. “You smell nice.”

Niall shrugs. “Fair enough. Carry on. Sarah, tell Harry he’s great.”

Harry hears Sarah’s voice from where she’s walking past behind him, tapping drumsticks together. “We’re fantastic, Harry. It’ll be the best show these people have ever seen.”

“Let go of the poor man, H,” Lou’s voice orders him from the doorway. “Why aren’t you dressed yet? Put some clothes on before we all go blind.”

Harry gives his guitarist one last squeeze. “You’re a good hugger, Niall. You could be a professional.” Then he lets go and follows Lou over to his rack of clothes to get dressed in confidence-boosting Gucci. The suit is iridescent purple with a floral pattern and it feels like a shimmering suit of armor.

Harry’s nerves disappear with the screams of the crowd. The joy in the room floods into him, fills up his empty spaces, soothes all his fears. In this arena, in this moment, there’s no sadness. No rage. No hate. There’s no unbearable pressure. He’s here to entertain people, and that’s all he has to do. “Hello Los Angeles!” he shouts into the microphone. The screams rise up to greet him. “I’m Harry. It’s a pleasure to meet you all. Now, it’s my job to entertain you and that’s what I intend to do… so stay safe, stay happy, and treat each other with kindness. This is called Sign of the Times.”

The show is going brilliantly. Not a missed note, not an awkward pause. Just Harry’s music and a crowd of people loving it. But then it’s time for Carolina. As Harry slips the strap of the guitar the tech hands him over his neck, he becomes suddenly and terrifyingly aware that he’s completely forgotten how to play it. Sarah’s counting them in. The instrument hangs like a dead weight in front of him. He fumbles his hands into position, clumsy and hesitant, strumming so his pick is just barely touching the strings. He’s one of those assholes who pretends to play guitar because it looks cool. Only he’s not one of those assholes, because he doesn’t look cool playing guitar, he looks like a massive praying mantis. What he actually is, is one of those assholes who plays guitar in an effort to be taken seriously. It’s not working, because apparently he’s not good enough at it for muscle memory to take over, and he has to keep looking at his hands. His voice sounds weak because he’s thinking too hard about the guitar. The crowd is still adoring, but he can hear himself in his in-ear and he sounds like shit.

He’s contemplating just losing the guitar. It’s not like his part is particularly vital. All he’s meant to be doing is adding an extra layer to the sound. Niall’s doing all the heavy lifting. He looks towards the wings where the guitar tech is waiting. He could signal her. Pretend there’s a technical problem that means he can’t play. Lie to the crowd and pretend he hadn’t been over-confident and too eager to impress people to take into account his actual ability.

Niall’s blocking his view of the tech. If Harry didn’t know better he’d think he was doing it deliberately so stop Harry communicating with her. Niall drifts closer, bathed in blue light. Harry can see the muscles in his forearms moving with the music. He looks like he was born with a guitar in his hands. Harry knows he wasn’t. Knows Niall worked and worked at it. Wasn’t a prodigy or anything. But he’d loved it and wanted it and made it happen. Harry looks up at his face. Sees his smile of encouragement. Realises that while he’s been looking at Niall, his hands have moved of their own accord exactly where they’re meant to go. He keeps his eyes on Niall’s face, pretends they’re rehearsing alone in the studio. Niall does a couple of little rock star moves with the guitar, like when they’re messing around pretending to be the Rolling Stones or The Who or Don Henley and Stevie Nicks. Harry grins at him and puts a bit of husk in his voice next time he sings.

The show’s a triumph. He’s sure he’ll find plenty to beat himself up about later on, but as Harry goes around introducing the band, all he feels is pride. “On lead guitar,” he announces, holding Niall’s hand high in the air, “I couldn’t have done this without him… All the way from Ireland, my very special friend Niall Horan. Isn’t he handsome?” The crowd goes wild. And so they should.

***

“This is not what I thought I’d be doing today,” Clare, who plays the keyboards, says to Harry. They’re at the hotel pool in Miami, participating in an impromptu water-aerobics session Niall has started. It’s not what Harry had thought they’d be doing when he’d suggested going to the pool either. The image in his head had been more along the lines of floating around in the cool water in between bouts of lying in the sun. But now that this is happening he can’t think why that had seemed like a better idea.

“And one, two, three, four,” Niall shouts. Harry hops up and down on his left leg four times. He suspects Niall has never before attended a water-aerobics class. This one is certainly louder and splashier than the one Harry went to with his Grandma that time. Harry had been the youngest participant by some fifty or sixty years and the only male. He’d spent it flirting outrageously with Barbara from the bakery to make her laugh, and found the exercises surprisingly difficult. Niall’s version seems to consist mostly of star jumps and shouting, but he’s managed to get almost everyone at the pool involved. He’s even somehow charmed that older couple Harry had heard complaining to the concierge that having popstars in the hotel disrupted the peace. The lady’s smiling and everything.

  “And now grab a partner. It’s chicken time!” Niall’s already dragging Harry towards him by the bicep.

Clare’s laughing. “I’m out,” she says. “Have fun.”

Most of the aerobics class disperses to recover in the shallow end or on the loungers beside the pool as Harry crouches down to hoist Niall onto his shoulders.

“Oh, you don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into,” Louis, one half of the opening band warns them as he hefts himself onto his bandmate’s shoulders. Liam staggers slightly like he hadn’t been expecting it. He’s built like a rugby player, with broad shoulders and way more abs than a normal person. Harry’s not sure he could fight him off (not sure he’d want to). Louis isn’t as big, but he seems coordinated and he’s got a glint in his eye like he won’t go down easy. It’s on.

The battle is fierce and more un-ironically fun than anything Harry’s done with his LA friends for years. Eventually, Louis falls into the water with a splash so large it almost hits Clare and Sarah where they’re drying out in the sun. Harry goes on a victory lap around the pool with Niall still on his shoulders, flexing his muscles and roaring.

When they get back to the deep end, Louis is back on Liam’s shoulders and they’re taking on two of the other guests. Harry veers out of the danger zone. Niall slips off his shoulders, sliding down his back, arms looped around his neck. Harry turns to face him, feeling suddenly warm in spite of the cool water. The bright Miami sun is sparkling in every droplet running down Niall’s skin. His hair is wet and dark, bringing out the blue in his eyes. He’s laughing. There’s a second of perfect tension as their eyes meet. The words Harry had been going to say are lost on his tongue. He can’t think smoothly, forgets what he was doing. He hasn’t been flustered like this since he was fourteen.

Niall’s giving him a look and he can’t tell if it’s on purpose or not. Like Harry’s the best thing he’s ever seen. But Niall kind of looks at everyone like that.

There’s a huge splash as Louis shoves his opponent off his partner’s shoulders, and the moment is broken.

***

They go out to an all-night diner in Iowa, just Harry and Niall and one security guard. It’s peaceful at 1AM with no one around to interrupt them as they eat meatloaf that almost tastes like Harry’s Mum’s. It feels like a long time since Harry left England. Longer since he was home. He’s not sure he knows where home is, now. Nowhere truly seems to fit. People say home is where the heart is. Home is not a place, it’s a person. It’s people. But if that was true, Harry should feel like he’s at home now, surrounded by the friends he loves, or he should feel at home when Mum and Gemma visit him and shower him with the affection they can’t smother him in when he’s away. And he doesn’t. The only place he feels at home is on stage, showing off, exaggerating himself, singing.

Niall nudges him, nodding towards the corner booth across from them. “Do you think she’s alright?”

There’s a woman hunched over a cup of something, staring down at a phone. After a moment, she puts the phone away, wrapping her hands around her mug like she’s cold, although the temperature is perfectly fine. The lights are low to ease the contrast with the night, but her face is still visible to Harry, beautiful and sad. Maybe she’s lonely, or homesick, or she’s just been broken up with. Maybe she’s lost her job or her family or her confidence. Maybe she’s just got a sad face.

Harry slides out of the booth and goes over to her. “Excuse me,” he says politely, trying to seem non-threatening. He knows what a strange man approaching a woman in the middle of the night can seem like. “Are you alright? Is there anything we can do to help?”

She seems flustered to be spoken to. “I’m fine,” she says after a pause.

 “Would you like to sit with us?” Harry asks. “We were just about to get cake. You don’t have to, I just thought I’d offer. You know, if you want some friendly faces for a few minutes.”

She looks at him properly. Looks over at Niall and Paul. Thinks. At last she nods and follows him back to his booth.

By the time the cake arrives, she’s smiling shyly as she listens to Paul and Niall wax lyrical about Ireland.

When they leave, Harry tells her, “You’re a beautiful person. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

She hides a smile behind her coffee cup. He hopes he’s made her day a little better.

The next afternoon Harry finds Niall in his hotel room, cherished cherry-red Gibson in his lap, singing, “As he walks away, she slowly breaks a smile… the skies are blue, haven’t been for a while…”

Harry listens from the beginning and knows it’s not a Harry Styles song.

“Why aren’t you making your own music?” he wants to ask. He doesn’t. There’s a selfish part of himself that doesn’t want to hear that Niall’s not making his own music because he’s playing guitar for Harry.

***

 

In New York, Harry’s friends come to the show. They rent out the VIP section of a club after and throw a party. His friend Kendall is there, tall and stunning in a little black dress, looking for company for a night. As Harry’s slipping out the back way with her, Liam grabs his arm, pulling him behind a large statue of a Greek God. Harry’s not entirely sure what theme the club was going for. He’s calling it ‘eclectic’.

“I can’t let you do this,” Liam shouts over the music.

Harry stares at him. “Do what?”

“I can’t believe you’d cheat on Niall! I thought you were nice, Harry!”

Harry blinks. He peeks around the statue, scanning the room for Niall. Spots him in the corner, talking to Harry’s mate Ed. They’re too far away to hear, but it’s clear what they’re talking about. They’ve both got imaginary guitars in their hands and wild excitement on their faces.

He looks back at Liam. “I would never cheat on Niall.”

Liam splutters. “I saw you Harry. Going off with that girl.”

Harry looks over his shoulder. Kendall is looking around her in confusion, trying to see where he disappeared to. She looks impatient. “Niall’s not my boyfriend,” he says. It comes out strangely sad, not at all the tone he was aiming for.

Liam’s eyes are wide. “But…” he releases Harry’s arm.

Harry starts to go after Kendall, but Liam stops him. “But he did your buttons up for you,” he says, almost comically perplexed.

Liam’s reading too much into it. That’s just a thing Niall does, like tidying up and always sitting on the right side of a couch. He fixes things when they’re wrong. Harry had missed a button yesterday, so Niall had fixed it. That’s not weird. It doesn’t mean anything.

“You did his shoe up,” Liam continues. “And then you kissed it.”

Niall had a sore knee. What kind of person doesn’t tie a friend’s shoelace when their friend has a sore knee? He’d kissed it better because he felt like it, and it made Niall laugh.

“You went out on a date the other night?”

It hadn’t been a date. They’d gone and got Japanese with Harry’s security. It hadn’t been romantic, except in Harry’s head.

“You sang him a love song!”

That had been for the audience, though. Playing it up for the crowd. Putting on a show of flirting with his guitarist. He could have done the same for Sarah or Clare or Adam, but he’d known Niall would like it. Niall had sung the harmonies back at him. It had been fantastic. They’d held hands and Harry had pretended it was real for a second.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Kendall draping herself over a guy in an inappropriately formal suit. Oh well. He hadn’t been that invested in it anyway.

“He went to the doctor with you!” Liam still can’t seem to get his head around it.

Harry had woken up with no voice last week. He’s texted Niall, and Niall had been a good friend and come with him to do all his talking. After the doctor had prescribed vocal rest, Harry had downloaded a robot voice app. They’d had a fantastic day making it say the rudest words they could think of, while Harry held his giggles in to save his vocal cords.

Liam’s frowning. “Why aren’t you together?”

Harry looks over to where Niall is demonstrating something to Ed on his invisible guitar. He’s so talented. So likeable. So in love with music. So unaware of what he has. He doesn’t need anything else holding him back.

***

 

 The night before they all go their separate ways for the Christmas break, they have a Christmas party. Niall kisses Harry on the cheek under the mistletoe – a tiny, barely there surprise kiss that nevertheless causes Harry to smile every time he thinks about it for the entire Christmas break. He chooses to pretend he didn’t see Niall kiss seven other people on the cheek that night.

It’s good to be home, although he’s not sure it can really be called home if he hasn’t been back in two years. Mum had cried when he told her he’d come to Holmes Chapel for the break. She cries a lot. Maybe more than Mums are supposed to cry. He’s going to try harder from now on. Call her more. Visit more. Make sure she knows he loves her. Gemma doesn’t cry, but she does get embarrassingly soppy about how he’s a grown-up now. They text most days (probably more than most people text their sister), but it’s not the same as being in the same room.

While they’re decorating the tree, Gemma asks, “So have you done anything about Niall yet?”

Harry concentrates on untangling the lights and pretends he hasn’t heard her.

“Tell me things, little brother,” Gemma whines, “Here, I’ll do that. You can hang these up.” She takes the lights from him, handing him a box of homemade decorations. They’re ragged and faded. One of them is just a red scribble on a piece of paper. Mum’s kept them since he was tiny. Harry hasn’t seen them in years. There’s a burning behind his eyes. He might be catching his Mum’s crying.

“Niall doesn’t need anything done about him,” Harry says. “Niall’s fine.”

“Yeah he is,” Gemma leers exaggeratedly. Harry throws a paper star at her. “No seriously, why is he not my new brother yet? Everyone else in the room can see it…” She sings the line from one of his early songs teasingly, but she’s smiling at him. Harry regrets introducing them over Skype.

The thing is, Harry’s not really sure why. He can tell himself it’s professionalism as much as he likes but it doesn’t make it true. He thinks he might be scared. Maybe of Niall saying no. Maybe of Niall saying yes. It’s hard to tell.

Gemma looks up from the lights, suddenly serious. “It’s scary when it matters, Harry. It’s a big deal. But he’s good for you, and I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”

Harry’s seen the way Niall looks at him too, but he’s also seen the way Niall looks at his guitars and the expression on his face when he’s talking about music, and he knows he’ll only ever come second. Niall’s never talked about why he became a touring musician instead of an artist in his own right. Harry hasn’t asked, because he respects Niall’s right to keep that to himself. He suspects it’s a confidence issue or a lack of opportunity, because it’s certainly not a lack of talent.

He takes one end of the string of lights Gemma’s untangled, wrapping it around the tree in an artistically haphazard manner. “He’s my best friend,” he says. “I want him to be happy.”

“You’d make him happy, Harry.”

But would he? Harry’s worked with a lot of session musicians. Some of them are happy doing it, but some of them have a look in their eye, like life hasn’t quite worked out and they’re stuck mechanically playing music they don’t care about. Then there’s the few that look genuinely dead inside because their job has taken away everything they love about playing music, reducing it to something technical and emotionless. The ones that go through their whole lives thinking they’re not good enough to achieve their dreams. Harry would rather go without Niall than see that happen to him. Niall with the warmth sucked out of him wouldn’t be Niall at all.

His phone buzzes with a message from Niall. It’s a selfie of him bundled up so heavily against the cold that he’s almost spherical and only his eyes are visible. It’s good to be home.

Harry laughs. God he misses Niall. He shows it to Gemma. She puts her arm around him. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but that one’s a keeper.”

He rests his head on her shoulder. She’s a good sister. He wouldn’t trade her for the world.

“Are you two finished with the tree?” Mum asks from the doorway. Harry hadn’t heard her car pull up, or he’d have gone outside to help her with the groceries. “Who wants to make a gingerbread house?”

Harry puts his hand up. “I do!” He jumps up. “Hold on, I got us jumpers to wear.”

Three hours later, they’re all wearing matching reindeer jumpers, big smiles, and varying amounts of flour. Harry’s Mum hands him the piping bag to put the final touches on the enormous gingerbread house they’ve made. It’s three stories high, with chocolate-button roof tiles and stained-glass windows made from boiled sweets. There are snowmen made from marshmallows in the garden and candy cane pillars by the doors. It’s only slightly wobbly. He touches the piping bag to the third floor window to create the ledge, and like so many times before, he finds he’s pushed too hard. It’s like watching in slow motion as the entire structure collapses in on itself, floor by floor.

His Mum’s laughing so hard she can hardly hold the phone still to take a photo, but she still manages to capture Harry with the piping bag still hovering over the pile of gingerbread, a look of deep consternation on his face.

He sends a series of photos of the event to Niall, finishing with a depressingly-lit photo of the end result. This would never have happened if you were here, he sends. He imagines if Niall were to make a gingerbread house it might be less ambitious, but it would at least be structurally sound.

Niall texts back some time later. What were you expecting? There was nothing holding it up.

I take offense at your assumption. You can’t see what’s under the pile.

I’ve met you haha

And you sent me 14 pics of the building process

I’d like to see you do a better job

Niall sends him a picture the next day of him with his nephew standing beside a plain but sturdy single room gingerbread house.

 

***

It’s just him and Mum and Gemma and Grandma on Christmas day. He helps with the cooking and does the dishes. It’s lovely and peaceful. Nothing extravagant or wild. Harry likes extravagant and wild. If he’d never made it into the entertainment industry, had finished school and become a lawyer like his Dad, he would have probably spent the whole day complaining he was bored, maybe even taken off for Hawaii or Jamaica or somewhere else warm. But this picture-perfect, postcard old-fashioned English Christmas is everything he needs this year.

He doesn’t hear from Niall until he’s about to go to sleep. It’s a photo of Niall lying in bed wearing the Eagles shirt Harry gave him. Harry hides his phone from himself so he can’t text back something that will change the entire nature of their relationship.

***

The first show after the break is in Dublin. Harry’s ready for it. Two weeks is enough peace and quiet. He wants to be on the move again, with full days and variety. He wants to be onstage, surrounded by music. He wants to see his friends.

 Niall’s mother comes to the show, which is a bit nerve-wracking, especially on top of it being the first show for a while. Harry’s never met her before, not even on Skype, but he’s always got the impression that Niall’s family don’t really approve of musicians. From the little Niall’s said about it, Harry gathers that they’d prefer him to be a builder or a plumber, or something else practical and useful that would bore the shit out of him. She turns out to be perfectly pleasant, if a little severe.

“You look after my boy,” she tells Harry sternly, while Niall’s off sound-checking guitars. “He’s a good boy. I don’t want him messed up in any nonsense.”

Harry suspects Niall would be much more likely to get messed up in nonsense if he was stuck in Mullingar with no excitement and no people who understand him, but he doesn’t say so. He knows how mothers feel about their sons being a long way away. His Mum tells him regularly. “I do,” Harry says, even though Niall seems to him to be perfectly capable of looking after himself.

“He worries,” Niall’s Mum says.

Harry’s about to say something about how easy-going Niall is, like maybe he’s relaxed in the music-industry environment. But then he thinks about it, remembers how tense Niall had been after he’d accidentally yelled at the little girl. Remembers how scared Niall was in the plane. Maybe Niall does worry. He doesn’t get a chance to ask more because an assistant is barreling towards him, a look of barely concealed panic on her face, and anyway Niall’s on his way back over.

 Lilo have been in a car accident. They can’t go on tonight. Louis is in the hospital with a probable broken arm. They have no openers. The room gets quiet and tense. A crowd is already gathering outside the building. They’re expecting openers as well as Harry. It’s all very well, maybe even fair to say that none of the fans are there for the openers, they’re all just waiting for Harry, but even so they can’t ask fans to pay what they have and then only give them an hour and a half of music. Plus, the opening band warms the crowd up, gets them excited, builds momentum. If they start on a stone-cold, disappointed crowd, the show’s going to be a disaster.

“There must be someone we can get at short notice,” someone says. “This is Ireland. Irish people love music.”

Harry has a sudden brainwave. A way to solve all their problems. “Niall! Oh, Niall, Niall, Niall, you can do it.” He’s aware he might be getting slightly overexcited. “You’ve got 45 minutes of songs.” It’s a brilliant idea. Niall’s got loads of songs he can perform on his own, accompanying himself on guitar. He’s even already sound checked. They all know he’s got a great voice, he’s professional, and he’s used to being on stage. He’s a safe bet without an audition and he’s got songs he knows well enough to play without a rehearsal.

Niall appears to be in a certain amount of shock, but somehow at 6:30, he’s standing at the side of stage waiting to go on as the venue fills up.  Harry gives him a hug around the acoustic guitar he’s wearing. “Thanks Niall. You’re the best.”

Niall doesn’t reply. Just nods and waits for the stage manager to wave him on.

Harry’s meant to be getting ready for his own show, but he’s not. He’s standing in the wings with Niall’s Mum, watching Niall become whole.

Niall’s always been popular with Harry’s fan base, but it’s always been as a supporting character. Someone who looks good with a guitar in his hands while he backs up the star. Harry can feel the crowd turning as Niall plays. They’re not just waiting for Harry anymore, they’re listening to Niall. Seeing him. Appreciating him.

Towards the end of Dancing in the Dark, Harry hears Niall’s Mum give a quiet “Oh,” of understanding. He gets what she’s realising, watching this. This is what Niall is meant to be doing with his life. Harry sees the flash of a smile as Niall plays the outro.  It’s pure, unadulterated joy.

***

Harry’s show goes brilliantly. The atmosphere in the room is incredible, lifting the whole show beyond what it is. During Kiwi, every able-bodied person in the room is on their feet. Crowds are always good in Ireland, but this time Harry knows it’s partly to do with Niall and the energy radiating off him all night. The crowd erupts every time Harry goes near him. At the end, when Harry’s introducing the band, a chant of “Niall, Niall, Niall…” goes around the room. Harry joins in.

***

“Don’t read it, love,” Lou tells him, handing him a folder with pictures of his suit for the next show. They’re on the bus, waiting for the rest of the band and crew to arrive for the trip to Belfast. She’s trying to distract him, and he appreciates it, but it’s not working.

“I’m not,” he lies, putting his phone down and looking at the folder. “Thanks for putting this together.”

“It’s their job to be mean, Harry,” she says, giving him a quick hug and leaving him alone.

Harry’s always wanted to be one of those people who doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He tries so hard. And mostly he doesn’t. He doesn’t care if people think he’s weird, or don’t like his friends, or don’t like what he wears. He doesn’t care that he isn’t what people would traditionally call ‘good’ at dancing, if he wants to dance, he dances. He laughs at things he thinks are funny, he does things he enjoys, he supports causes he believes in. If he falls over in front of a crowd, he can see the funny side. It’s just that he’s always been good at things. It’s important to him to do things well, not just to impress people, but to quiet the little voice inside him that says nasty things when he fails. So when a review describes him as “a gaudy exhibitionist decidedly lacking in talent” or “a disappointing follow-up to a superb opening act” it cuts him deeply. He’s read both of those in the last half hour, along with a review stating “Styles was noticeably outclassed by his guitarist Niall Horan, who proved himself extremely talented when he stepped in for the absent opening act Lilo at short notice.” Harry wishes he could just laugh it off and hold on to the feeling from last night, but he can’t help believing them a little. There’s a queasiness inside him. For the first time in months, he’s not excited for the next show. It doesn’t even matter that for every bad one, there’s 10 people saying they love him. The harsh criticisms stab through like needles, directly into his skin.

Niall’s seen the reviews. Harry can tell the second he climbs into the bus. He’s overly cheerful, but it’s not the easy, contagious excitement of last night. His shoulders are tight and he’s biting his nails, smiling too wide and talking too much and not looking Harry in the eye.

“Louis has a broken wrist,” Harry tells him, “Lilo can’t play for a month. We’d like you to open, if you’re interested.” He’s trying not to sound like he cares about the reviews, but he can tell from the look on Niall’s face that it hasn’t come out right. Too businesslike. Too polite.

Niall pulls his fingertips away from his mouth long enough to nod and laugh nervously. “Anything you need,” he says, too eagerly, hesitating before continuing, “Or I could find you different openers, if you’d rather…”

Harry knows he should say something about how he’s not angry that the reviews said Niall was better than him. About how he’s still just as happy for Niall as he was last night, before he’d seen what anybody thought. There’s something damming the words up, stopping them coming out. “Thanks Niall. We’ll sort out payment later, yeah?” He hears the dismissal in his voice, cursing himself internally as the artificial smile falters on Niall’s face. But he can’t have the conversation that’s going to happen if he brings up the reviews, so he walks away to talk to Sarah and pretend that everything’s fine.

A few minutes later, Harry settles back down in a corner and pulls out his phone again, looking at twitter and YouTube comments and blogs about the shows. There’s a masochist inside him that feeds off it and he doesn’t know how to stop listening to it. Across the bus, Niall is playing Go Your Own Way on guitar and pretending it’s not pointed.

***

 

Niall’s acting weird. He’s been acting weird all month, since the day after the show in Dublin.  He won’t talk about how well he’s doing as the opening act. Every time Harry mentions it he suddenly remembers something else he was meant to do and disappears. The only time he ever looks properly relaxed is on stage. He won’t even gently rib Harry about his guitar playing anymore. It’s like he’s suddenly worried about offending him. He hasn’t made a joke about how he’s the one holding the whole band together for weeks.

Harry misses him. He interacts with him more on stage, when the anxiety-field surrounding Niall is at its least potent. He finds funny YouTube videos to show him, new music to share with him, starts reading a book about golf in front of him to encourage him to initiate conversation. Niall smiles at him and laughs at his jokes and agrees with him too often. It feels unnatural, like they’re only pretending. Underneath it, the constant awareness of the gossip lingers.

Today, they’re playing ping-pong and not talking about the article they’d both seen claiming there was a rift in the band. It had talked about Harry being jealous and angry at Niall for stealing his glory. It had claimed Niall hated Harry and was just using him for publicity before he released his own music. None of it’s true, but truth doesn’t always matter. Perception can be just as damaging. Harry’s trying so hard not to let any hurtful statements get to him, and he’s really, truly happy for Niall. How could he not be, when anyone who watches Niall perform his own songs can see that it makes him complete? He just has to keep reminding himself that he and Niall are doing different things. Just because Niall is good at something, it doesn’t mean Harry isn’t good at what he does. It’s hard to turn off the little voice that says “What if they’re right? What if he is better than you? Maybe you’ve peaked. A has-been at twenty-four…” but when he listens to Niall, the voice doesn’t speak to him at all. In any case it doesn’t matter how Harry actually feels, the press will find a way to turn it sour. Harry learned a long time ago to never let them see your heart. They’ll find a way to rip it out and use it as entertainment.

Harry throws himself sideways to hit the ball, managing to land it on the very corner of the table before Niall can get there. Niall laughs, and it’s the closest thing to a natural laugh Harry’s heard from him since Dublin. “You bastard,” he says, throwing it back to Harry to serve. The game is competitive enough that there’s no time to think. It’s helping.

Niall’s phone rings before Harry can serve. For a second, he looks like he’s not going to answer it, but it keeps ringing until he picks up. Harry plays keepy-uppy with the ping-pong ball on the paddle while Niall moves into the corner, like it will give him privacy. Harry tries not to listen, but the corner’s really not that far away and if Niall had not wanted anyone to overhear his conversation, he would have left the room.

Niall’s talking to his agent. Harry can’t hear what his agent is saying, but Niall’s face is bright.

Niall’s laughing a small, disbelieving laugh. “Really? Are you serious?” His eyebrows are raised in surprise. The dimple in his cheek is out. Oh, Harry’s missed it. He knows he should leave, but Niall’s getting good news and he wants to be here to congratulate him.

“Capitol?” Niall asks. There’s a pause as his agent says something. Then, incredulously, “How much?” Another pause and, “When?”

Harry drops the ping-pong ball and picks it up, starts counting again. He can hear the voice on the phone speaking, but can’t make out the words. He tries to keep his eyes on the ball.

Harry’s not looking, but he can hear the smile fall away from Niall’s face. Niall’s voice is lowered, rough. “But what about Harry?” he’s asking, “I’m his guitarist, he needs me… I can’t…”

Christ, Harry should have left the room. If he leaves now, Niall will know he’s been listening, and if Harry knows anything about Niall, it’s that he’ll want to pretend this phone call never happened.

“I’m sorry,” Niall’s saying, “I can’t… I’m not just… Harry…” He’s facing the wall now, his voice a strained whisper. Harry wraps his jumper round his head, covering his ears so he can’t hear anymore.

Niall’s hung up the phone, turned around to talk to him. Harry pulls the jumper away from his head. “Niall,” he starts.

“I have to go clean my shoes,” Niall says, and practically dashes out of the room, not even stopping to collect his jacket.

Harry lets him go. It’s the worst excuse for leaving a room he’s ever heard. Niall clearly doesn’t want to talk to him. And what would he say? He’s got a horrible sinking feeling that Niall’s just turned down a record deal for him, and he’s got no idea what to do about it.

***

Lilo rejoin the tour in Paris.

“Are you sure you want us back?” Liam asks. “Niall’s been smashing it.”

“Of course we want you back,” Harry tells him. It’s mostly true.

“He was really weird about it, though,” Liam says. “Like, way happier than he should be about not opening anymore? I mean, he always looks like he loves it when he’s singing, right? But he said he was getting back to where he belongs? And then he pretty much ran away.”

Niall’s quiet before the show, wistful as he watches Louis and Liam play their set.

Harry stands beside him, listening to the openers. If he’s honest he’s not really an electro-pop kind of guy. “Thanks for last month,” he tells Niall. “That was amazing, what you did, stepping in like that. You’re so talented, Niall.” He places his hand on the small of Niall’s back, rubbing his thumb back and forth. Niall lets him leave it there.

“Now everything can go back to normal,” Niall says. He sounds hopeful, but he looks sad.

Harry makes up his mind to make sure Niall knows he cares.

***

The next day is a free day. Harry gets up early and makes two smoothies at the juicing station in his room. It’s one of the few ridiculous celebrity requests he allows himself. He drinks his own and carries the second one to Niall’s room. He’s going to cheer Niall up today. Make sure they’re back on solid ground friendship-wise. Make sure Niall’s in a good place before he makes any sort of suggestion about making demo tapes or copywriting material or playing shows. He doesn’t want Niall to think he’s trying to get rid of him.

Harry drags Niall out of bed. “Play with me,” he says. He’s not letting Niall escape today.

It’s cold and clear, the sun newly up. The streets of Paris are quiet, all but the earliest risers still in bed. Harry pulls Niall along by the wrist. Today’s going to be a good day. It’s just them. Harry’s given his security detail the slip so they can pretend to be normal tourists experiencing the joys of the city of romance. They take photos at the Eiffel Tower before the crowds arrive, ridiculous ones where they try to look like they’re holding it, and a nice touristy selfie of them both, Harry’s arm around Niall’s shoulders. He pulls Niall into a tiny café up an alleyway, ordering croissants and hot chocolate in broken French, even though he’s meant to be off the carbs and refined sugar. There are love-hearts decorating the tops of the hot chocolates. Harry smiles to himself and rests his leg against Niall’s under the table. Niall doesn’t seem awake enough to have noticed, but he’s not doing that weird fake smile thing or saying how fantastic everything is too many times.

They go shopping at Yves Saint Laurent and Harry buys the most ridiculous piece of clothing he can find, just so Niall will take the piss out of him in that familiar, friendly way he hasn’t done for weeks. It’s just a bonus that it’s an excellent frilled shirt he’s planning to wear often on stage.

By the time they’re trawling through a vintage vinyl shop mid-afternoon, it’s like nothing was ever wrong. “HarryHarryHarry,” Niall exclaims, his face alight with enthusiasm as he discovers the classic rock section. There’s a mint condition signed copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run in his hands and no way they’re leaving the shop for at least an hour. Harry starts at the other end, trying to find something he hasn’t heard before.

They sit close together in the cab on the way back to the hotel, clutching onto each other for dear life as the car weaves through traffic at breakneck speeds. They’re nearly at the hotel, halfway through an argument about whether Bob Dylan belongs in the rock section when Harry sees the first of the fans. He knows they’re fans because it’s a group of teenage girls running towards his hotel. One of them is holding a sign that says FUCK ME HARRY in large, glitter-filled capitals.

The street fills up with people as they approach the hotel. They’re standing outside, chanting his name. “Can you take us around the block, please?” Harry asks the driver as he turns on his phone. He’s got hundreds of missed calls. Word’s got out that he’s disappeared. Apparently most of Paris has felt the need to wait to see him arrive back at the hotel. It’s surrounded.

“We should just go somewhere else,” Niall suggests. He’s twisting his hands together, all of the happiness of the day drained out of him.

Harry shakes his head. They’ve seen him now. They’ll just follow. People are already crowding in front of the car, getting in the way. His security team are on their way to escort them to the door.

“I’ll see you inside, okay?” Harry steps out of the car, security shielding him as the people surge in on him. Paul stays behind to bring Niall after him, but it’s taking everyone else to prevent Harry being dragged under as the fans reach out to grab him. It's the worst mob he’s seen since he went to South America with the group.

It takes a long time, and they have to stop and help several fainters along the way, but eventually they make it safely through the doors of the hotel. Harry thanks the security team and tries to peek out the window and spot Niall. He can’t see him and he has to come away from the window because it’s making the crowd rush at the hotel.

He sits and waits for Niall. It seems like a very long time, but finally he’s through the door, riding a wave of screaming.

Harry’s chest tightens, his heart thumping. Niall is death-white and trembling, gasping for air. Paul’s practically carrying him. Harry gets up to go to him, but Paul’s shaking his head, supporting Niall as he throws up in a bin. Harry goes to fetch him water because it’s the only thing he can think of to do. By the time he gets back, Niall’s sitting slumped against a wall, head in hands, shoulders shaking. Paul’s standing a few metres away, fending off the stream of concerned people trying to approach him. He allows Harry to pass with a quiet warning of “Don’t crowd him.”

Harry crouches in front of his friend. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. He can feel himself choking up. Niall lifts his head and Harry never wants to see that expression on his face again. He wants to hug him, but he doesn’t. He’s pretty sure that would count as crowding. “I should have listened to you. We should have gone somewhere else.” He sits beside Niall, placing the water within reach. “I had no idea it was this bad,” he says, although he can’t shake the feeling that he should have known. “You could have said something. We would have organized something to help. You can tell me anything, Niall, you know that, right?”

Niall droops sideways, resting his head on Harry’s shoulder. “I’m not leaving you,” he says, like he thinks Harry thinks he’ll leave the band over this. Like that’s what Harry’s worried about. Harry doesn’t know what he’s done to make Niall think Niall being in the band is more important than Niall’s wellbeing, but he wishes he could take it back.

He rests his hand on Niall’s head. “You’re my best friend,” he says. “I want you to be happy.”

***

Harry spends most of the next morning apologizing to people. He should have known better, but he’d honestly thought there wasn’t much risk. There haven’t been mobs at any of the other hotels on tour, and he’s been doing quite well at going incognito. It’s amazing what a difference it makes wearing crazy suits on stage and dressing down offstage.

Paul yells at him, mostly about Niall, but a little about Harry’s own safety. His manager yells at him about endangering himself. The warm, motherly lady who runs the catering yells at him about Niall. Two of the guitar techs and the guy who does the lights yell at him about Niall. Louis makes a special trip to visit him in his room and yell at him about Niall.

Harry’s mum rings him and cries about how worried she was. He spends twenty minutes reassuring her and promising to never go anywhere without security again. Then she tells him off. She’s seen pictures of Niall in the mob.

Harry looks up the pictures, finds video of Niall confused and panicking and swaying on his feet, Paul holding him up as his knees buckle.

There are tears prickling in the corners of his eyes, but he doesn’t let himself cry because this isn’t about him.

He goes to check on Niall. They’ve got a show that night, but they can cancel if Niall’s sick.

He finds Niall packing his suitcase. There’s an ironing board set up and neat piles of perfectly folded clothes organized by colour on his bed.

“Do you need to call in sick?” Harry asks, watching in concern as Niall frowns down at a sky-blue t-shirt, unfolding it from its perfect rectangle and placing it on the ironing board. There isn’t a wrinkle in it, but Niall’s running the iron over it again anyway. Louis said Niall was packing when he dropped in earlier and that was four hours ago.

“Trying to get rid of me, Harold?” Niall asks, laughing the sharp-edged laugh that means it definitely isn’t a joke.

“Of course not,” Harry says, “You know I want you here. I just think… maybe you should go to the doctor? Are you sure you’re ok?”

“I’m fine,” Niall says. “Why the fuck does everyone keep asking me that?” The sky blue shirt is refolded into a perfect rectangle and placed on the blue pile. He’s ironing a pair of socks. “I just want to do the show.”

Harry’s stayed in thousands of hotels in his life. He’s never once used the iron on offer. He’s pretty sure Niall’s not okay, but the subject’s clearly not open for discussion. “Pretty sure those are done, Niall,” He says. “We just care about you. Everyone was worried.”

“They don’t need to be. I’m fine.” Niall packs up the iron with false casualness, like he’s realized it’s making him look like he’s not as okay as he’s claiming to be. Harry watches him place his clothes tidily in his suitcase and close the lid, zipping it up easily.

Harry gives in to his impulses and wraps his arms around him. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers, “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

Niall stands stiffly in the hug, patting Harry on the back. “No big deal,” he says. “Part of the job, isn’t it? Won’t let it get to me next time.”

But it is a big deal, and they both know it.

Harry leaves to head to the venue early, hopefully draw away whatever crowd is left outside. Niall’s already unzipping his suitcase and pulling things out before Harry’s shut the door.

***

At the show that night, people are holding up signs in the audience. Harry has the lights brought up and sees that they all say the same thing: SORRY NIALL. It’s a beautiful gesture. Harry ushers Niall to the microphone to thank them.

“I… I’ve got issues…” The line seems to come from Niall’s mouth of its own accord, the way things sometimes do.

“Niall’s going to sing you a song to say thank you,” Harry tells the crowd, gesturing for Niall to start from the beginning.

Niall sings about how he’s got issues, and as Harry stands back and listens, he realises that Niall needs this. He’s sharing a part of himself with all these people, acknowledging his feelings in a way that he hadn’t been able to do with Harry, or with any of the other people who’d asked him if he was okay. The crowd is listening, unified by shared experience and understanding. It’s a beautiful moment, and a reminder that Harry will never be enough.

***

It gets better after that. Before the mobbing disaster, the day out in Paris must have done some good. Maybe it was the hours spent in the music shop, maybe it was the time they spent alone together, maybe it was Harry telling Niall he was his best friend.  Maybe it’s just that the fuss over Niall performing on his own is dying down. Whatever it is, the strange, unacknowledged tension between them has lessened. Niall smiling freely, teasing him again, pretending to be Keith Richards to Harry’s Jagger. He runs his fingers down Harry’s chest, feeling the silk of his shirt, and wraps an arm around his waist. He laughs genuinely at Harry’s jokes, joining in with bad puns and weird digressions. They play golf and guitar and talk for hours. Harry’s trying to be more open. He’s nearly ready to take the risk and let Niall know he means it when he says Niall’s wonderful.

But Niall watches Lilo open every night and the bright smile he wears can’t mask the look in his eyes.

Harry’s going to talk to him about how he should go solo, he promises himself. But somehow he never does. Encouraging Niall to go solo means saying goodbye, and Harry’s not ready for that.

***

 

“Are you ready for this?” Harry asks, pressing play.

“I can’t believe I agreed to this,” Niall grumbles, holding in a smile.

Harry can’t believe he agreed to it either, but he’s not passing up the opportunity to make someone watch Titanic with him. He pats Niall’s leg, leaving his hand there as he lies back on the bed. He’s never been so aware of someone lying next to him.

To Harry’s surprise, Niall makes it nearly an hour into the movie before he checks his watch. He must be enjoying it. Usually by halfway through he’s either playing on his phone or asleep. “What?” Niall asks, catching Harry staring.

“You look lovely tonight,” Harry says. Maybe he’s been flirting more than he should lately, but it’s just something that happens when he sees someone he likes. He can’t seem to turn it off.

“Thanks,” says Niall, trying unsuccessfully to hide how pleased he is. He’s wearing blue. It’s very much his colour.

A while later, Niall shifts his leg, allowing Harry’s hand to shift up his thigh. Harry’s heart thumps. He shouldn’t do this. But it’s been so long and Harry’s been so good. Niall’s right there, warm and relaxed and happy to be spending time with Harry. Harry wants to hold onto the feeling, make it more, pull his best friend close and wrap himself around him and never let him go. He props himself up on his elbow, gazing down at Niall. Niall’s looking directly at him, eyes full of something warm and deep. He runs his hand up Harry’s arm. Harry’s resolve collapses. He leans in.

He stops. Takes his hand away. Forces himself to pull away. Tries not to flinch as Niall freezes.

“What’s wrong?” Niall asks. It’s whispered, vulnerable. Harry hates himself for what he’s about to do, but it’s what’s best in the long run. Best for Niall, anyway.

He clutches at one last string of hope. “What did you mean? When you said you wouldn’t leave? Me or the band?”

A sweet, sad song is playing in the movie. There’s a silence overtop it. Then Niall says softly, “Both.”

“But what about your music?” Harry asks, “Aren’t you going to make an album? I know you want to make your own music.”

“I won’t abandon you, Harry,” Niall promises.

Harry does the hardest thing he’s ever done, wrenching himself away, sliding off the bed and walking out. It’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t say anything. There aren’t any words. He doesn’t look back. He can’t. He’ll break.

He goes and sits alone in the hotel sauna, crying where no one can see him.

***

 

“What’s happened, Harry?” Lou asks him. She’s doing his hair for the photoshoot. Harry had turned up late and ugly from a sleepless night, wearing yesterday’s clothes. She’s doing her best to work around how haggard he looks. Luckily, they’re going vintage rock star for this article rather than teen pop idol or androgynous glam musician. Haggard works for it.

“Nothing,” Harry lies, doing his best to block out the image of Niall’s hurt face that’s been haunting him since he walked out of his hotel room last night. He doesn’t know how long Niall waited for him. He didn’t go back, just sat in the gym until morning. The photoshoot is inside the hotel, which is lucky. He doesn’t think he could drag himself anywhere else today.

“Mmmmhmmm,” Lou doesn’t sound like she believes him. “Did you and Niall break up?”

“We’re not- we never were-“ Harry stumbles, trying to parse out a sentence after he’s already started saying it.

“Are you sure?” Lou asks. He’s sure. Stopping it before it started had been horrible and heart wrenching, but if he’d given in to himself and let it happen, he’d never have been able to do the right thing.

Niall is across the room, talking to Sarah in the excessively happy tone he uses when he thinks he’s doing a good job of pretending everything’s fine. Harry’s been avoiding eye contact all morning. He can’t take the look he’s going to see there.

“They’re waiting for you, Harry,” Harry’s manager comes to collect him, taking him to be interviewed and then have his photos taken. It’s a piece on the whole band, with short articles on each member. Harry had been excited about it, wanting to share how wonderful they all are with the world. He’s struggling to feel anything about it now.

“Lovely to see you,” The interviewer says, shaking his hand. She’s interviewed him before, he’s not sure when. He’s struggling to keep up with the pleasantries. Her Irish accent is throwing him.

He responds to the questions robotically, allowing years of media training and practice to take over. Says the words people want him to say, while all the time Niall’s “Both” spins through his head.

“And Niall?” The interviewer asks, “How did he end up in your band?”

“I remember the first time I saw him,” Harry tells her. The studio had organized a session guitarist for him to work on a song with when he was writing his album and it had turned out to be Niall. Not that interesting for readers, but it had been interesting for Harry. “He was waiting for me in the studio to work on a song. He was wearing a shirt with dinosaurs on it and playing Waiting on a Friend.” Harry had stopped and listened, taking a moment to appreciate it. “I knew straight away he was the one.”

***

Harry shuts himself in his hotel room with his acoustic guitar. He and Niall haven’t talked about anything non work-related for days. He can’t explain himself. It hurts too much, and he knows Niall won’t understand. Probably isn’t even willing to listen. No matter how many times Harry tells him he’s doing this for him, Niall won’t see it that way. Can’t see all the possibilities ahead of him. Harry’s making a sacrifice for Niall’s future, but all Niall can see is Harry turning away. Harry hadn’t even been sure Niall felt any differently about him than anyone else. He is, now that he’s broken Niall’s heart.

Sitting on the bed with his guitar in his lap, he starts strumming. Niall had been teaching him to play it before they went on tour and got distracted. He’d never quite got the hang of it, but his playing has improved from playing every night and it’s not as hard as he remembers it being. It’s still going to take some practice, but he’ll have it down soon enough. He and Niall used to trade out verses when they were just messing around in rehearsal. That’s what Harry’s aiming for, but right now he’s on his own. He starts to sing, letting the song say all the things that won’t come out when he tries to talk about his feelings. “Lovin’ you… isn’t the right thing to do… how can I… ever change things that I feel… if I could, baby I’d give you the world… how can I, when you won’t take it from me?”

He needs Niall to take this. Soar off into the world, instead of becoming sad and faded, standing in the background. If he doesn’t, Harry’s given him up for nothing.

The tour ends in London. The arena is packed out and pumped for it. Harry forgets everything when he’s on stage, singing and playing, putting on a show for the crowd. He goes full apocalypse for Sign of the Times, losing himself in the music, wailing “We don’t talk enough… we should open up… before it’s all too much…”

Niall’s right beside him the whole show, all problems forgotten as he plays guitar and does the harmonies. Harry’s going to miss him. Harry’s been missing him already.

Right before the encore would usually happen, Harry pauses the show, signaling the techs to bring his guitar and set up an extra mic. “We’ve got an extra song tonight,” Harry tells the crowd, waiting for them to quiet down before he starts strumming. “Niall,” he turns to face his friend, “Will you sing with me?”

Niall has already picked up the song and started playing along. He heads to the second microphone and starts singing, just like he always used to when they were practicing this song. “Lovin’ you… isn’t the right thing to do… how can I… ever change things that I feel?” Harry can feel how deeply he means it. It’s etched all over his face, carved into his voice. He’s singing just to Harry, the audience forgotten, and it’s full of things he’s never said to Harry.

“You can go your own way… go your own way…” They sing the chorus together, echoing each other. “You can call it another lonely day…”

Harry’s lifts his hand to swipe at his eyes, realising he’s not playing guitar. Emotion makes his voice crack and shake as he takes the second verse, trying to make Niall see. “If I could… baby I’d give you my world… open up… everything’s waiting for you…”

***

Harry puts his best face on for the after party, smiling and thanking people and promising to see them soon. He watches from the corner of his eye. Niall’s putting on a show too. Everyone’s best friend. He leaves as soon as he can, politely declining everyone’s company, even Gemma’s. She came especially to London for the last show and keeps trying to bring up the Go Your Own Way performance. He tells her he’s tired and goes back to his room to practice for the awful thing he has to do tomorrow.

***

Niall stands aside, letting him into his room. It’s impeccably tidy. Harry’s about to mess it up.

He turns down Niall’s offer of coffee. If he puts it off, he’s never going to be able to do it. He pulls up a chair. “Why don’t you sit down?” He suggests.

Niall looks like he’s waiting for the guillotine. He sits on his bed, hands bunching in the smooth covers, eyes fixed on the floor.

“Niall,” Harry begins his speech. He’s planned it carefully, trying to find the best words to explain why he’s doing this. “I’ve loved working with you.” It sounds cold and impersonal, over-rehearsed and insincere. He continues, because he has to do this and he has no back up plan. “You make everything better for everyone around you. You’ve got so much talent, Niall. You could do anything you set your mind to. You could be anything. But you won’t, not while I’m holding you back.”

Niall doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t look at Harry. Sits with the bedclothes balled in his fists and waits.

“We’re not renewing your contract,” Harry tells him. He presses his lips together, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.

Niall looks at him, seems like he’s trying to force a smile. “Guess I’ll see you around then,” he says, getting up to open the door, ushering Harry out.

“Please understand, Niall,” Harry begs, “I just want you to be happy.”

Niall’s face is closed off. He stands by the door, staring at the floor and silently waiting for Harry to leave.

***

Harry’s meant to have a few weeks off after the end of his tour, but he doesn’t take them. He finds work to do and throws himself into it so he doesn’t have to think about the mistake he might have just made. Niall might not forgive him. He hasn’t heard from Niall since he told him to go solo. He doesn’t know if Niall understood that’s what he was doing yet. He waits for his phone to ring. It doesn’t.

It’s not until several months later that he allows himself to hope. He’s in Italy, between scenes in the Gucci advert he’s filming when he hears Niall’s voice on the radio, singing one of the songs he wrote on the road. One of the PA’s is humming along. “Such a pretty song,” she says. Harry nods his agreement, smiling. There’s violin in the track, adding a haunting refrain the fingerpicked guitar. It’s beautiful.

Grimmy interviews him about the track on Radio One and calls Harry after. “Our Niall’s a charmer, isn’t he?” he says. “Get back in there, Harold, he’ll be swept off his feet in no time.”

He sees a video of Niall on stage at a Christmas concert, wearing the hell out of a Santa shirt, arms raised to the sky as he basks in the crowd singing his song back at him. He watches it three times in a row, listening to the husk in Niall’s voice as he sings, “Coz I want you bad… yeah I want you baby…”

One day, not long before Niall’s album release, he gets a notification of a video. He clicks the link. Niall’s in a dimly lit room, backed only by a piano and a violin. His eyes are closed. It’s the most still he’s ever been. “I’m afraid… that what we have is gone…” Niall sings. A chill runs through Harry. He can feel every tiny corner of feeling in it. Waiting, knowing something’s wrong, not knowing how to fix it. Permanently fearful that something has slipped away and can never be recaptured. Harry knows that feeling. Harry’s caused that feeling. “Still a flicker of hope that you first gave to me, and I want to keep,” Niall sings, like he’s in a trance or a memory. “Please don’t leave.” It’s like a kick in the gut. Cold tears run down Harry’s cheeks. He doesn’t want to hear that Niall felt like this, but he doesn’t turn it off. It’s one of the most beautiful things he’s ever heard.

***

Niall’s album goes to Number One. Suddenly there are videos of him everywhere, performing with his band and interacting with crowds. Playing guitar, singing, interacting with crowds. His smile is bigger and brighter than Harry has ever seen it. It’s like there’s not enough room in his body and his personality is bursting out all over the room. He’s not performing, not pretending, not putting on a show. He’s just being Niall, relaxed and comfortable and happy in himself. Happy by himself.

Harry goes on the morning show with Grimmy. Talks about how proud he is. He means it. He is proud, and not just because Niall’s music is doing well. Proud because Niall has done this for himself. Found himself and let everybody see.

He gets a text later that day. His heart speeds up when he sees his phone light up with NIALL. Niall hasn’t contacted him since the morning after Harry’s tour ended. It’s not like Harry has sent thousands of unanswered texts or anything, but sometimes when he hears his phone, a strange irrational hope runs through him that this time it will be Niall. Now that it is, he’s kind of afraid to read it.

Want to come to my show in Dublin? It says.

Harry gets on a plane.

He tries not to think too hard about what he’s going to say to Niall. Thinking too hard is what made everything go bad last time.

Niall’s show is amazing. Harry sneaks in the side door at the last minute and watches from the side of stage opposite Niall’s family so he doesn’t have to see their accusatory looks.

Niall’s better live than he was on the album. He’s taking something from the crowd, giving them everything in return. There are vocal changes and musical variations, the band playing tightly together and having fun, extending jams and solos. There’s no need for any extra production, Niall’s voice sounding better with nothing to get in its way. A murmur goes up around the room as he sits at the piano. He’s never done that before, but he does it just as well as he’s done everything else.

The gaps between the songs are filled with natural, friendly chat. It’s like hanging out with Niall in rehearsal, Harry thinks with a twinge of regret. “Sorry about all the sad songs,” Niall is saying. “I was heartbroken, but I’m not anymore.” There’s a cheeky smile on his face. Harry wants to run his thumb across his dimple, hold Niall’s face close to his own. Apologise for every second Niall has suffered.

Harry goes to Niall’s dressing room after the show. It’s huge and empty. Simple and straightforward and meticulously neat. Niall’s Mum will be pleased. No hookers and blow for Niall even now he hasn’t got Harry looking after him.

Niall’s not there. Harry waits. He’s got no idea what he’s going to say.

Niall steps into the room, freshly showered and dressed up nice. Harry’s unprepared, despite the fact that he was the one that was waiting. “Hi,” he says, waving like a weirdo.

Niall’s face lights up, eyes crinkling as he beams at Harry. He waves back before crossing the room and throwing his arms around Harry. “You came!”

“I missed you,” Harry whispers in Niall’s ear as he reluctantly releases Niall. He holds Niall at arm’s length, looking at him for a long moment. “Wow. Your show was amazing.” It doesn’t seem like enough to convey how it made him feel, but Niall doesn’t seem to mind.

“I’m glad you came,” Niall tells him, chuckling. There’s no awkwardness, no hesitance, no anger. Harry can’t quite believe it, but Niall seems genuinely happy to see him.

 Harry almost takes the easy way out. He’s pretty sure Niall would give him a pass if Harry doesn’t mention anything. Would still welcome him back with open arms and never again mention the year they spent not talking to each other. He has to do it though.

“Listen, I – I know I’m not great at, like, talking about things and explaining myself and you know – telling people stuff…” Harry rambles. His palms are sweating. “I’m really sorry for how I… you know… but I want you to know it wasn’t because I don’t lo- care about you.”

He looks hopefully at Niall, knowing he hasn’t done a very good job apologizing.

Niall laughs. “I think I get it now,” he says. “Setting me free, yeah?”

Harry nods and closes the gap between them.

THE END