Nick woke to a muffled voice just outside the door, floorboards creaking as someone paced slowly up and down. A quick glance at the clock showed well past 3am so he got silently to his feet, pulling on a dressing gown and closing the door behind himself.
Harry was bouncing on his toes as he walked, Bee cradled against his chest with one arm as she gazed up at him adoringly; Nick's heart used to give a fond squeeze at seeing them together, but it was dampened now by how disappointingly awake she looked. Why couldn't babies just sleep for more than two hours at a time anyway? Harry, just as annoyingly alert as his daughter, caught his eye and mouthed 'go back to bed', brow furrowed as he listened intently to whoever was speaking on the phone.
Nick shrugged - he was up already, wasn't he - and made a phone with his hand, trying to look quizzical.
Harry sighed and did look truly tired then. He jerked his head towards the sofa and Nick followed, flopping down in an armchair as Harry put his phone on the coffee table and turned it to loudspeaker.
"-and we've talked to Simon, he's happy for it to be a joint venture between SyCo and Erskine and you can stay with Jeff or come back to Modest for your management." Liam's voice came from the speaker, a little tinny and slightly sales pitch-y. "Whatever you want, man."
"If we did it," Harry said, sounding similarly like he was in a business meeting. Nick felt sudden dread; this couldn't be what he thought it was, right? Harry held his narrowed gaze, giving nothing away as he continued to softly bounce Bee against his chest.
"Exactly, sure," Liam replied, "we're just looking into it, yeah."
Harry stopped pacing and something in his eyes made Nick reach for him as he spoke again. "And has anyone mentioned this to Zayn yet?"
He didn't hear Liam's reply, his thoughts suddenly too loud to concentrate. This was it, then, finally they were calling in their favours and betting on Harry's good nature and trying to restart the band. And here Harry was, as Nick knew he would be, not saying no, and leaving Nick to deal with Bee on his own. This was so much sooner than he'd even worried it might be though.
"Babe?" He said suddenly, and Liam stopped mid-word, "she okay?"
"Yeah," Harry said slowly, unsure, "she just couldn't sleep."
There was a moment silence and Nick glared at the caller ID as it illuminated the room.
"I'll let you go, Haz, sorry for banging on for so long," Liam said quietly, as if that would help, Nick thought derisively.
"No worries," Harry said on rote.
"Get back to us when you've had a think, yeah? Give my love to Nick and Bobbie."
"Will do," Harry said, bending down to hang up, "loads of love."
"Back at you, bye."
There was a click as Harry locked his screen, and the room was dark again, lit only by the glow of a streetlight seeping in under the curtains. Bee gave a small snuffle and Nick realised she'd fallen asleep, so he tiptoed to Harry and took her, carrying her to her cradle as silently as he could. When he returned, Harry was sat on the sofa, eyes fixed on the floor. Nick sat next to him.
"So," he started, then had no idea how to continue the sentence.
Harry made a noise of vague agreement and turned to wrap his arms around Nick's neck.
"Careful, love, not the best angle, I- oh!" He tried to keep his exclamation quiet as Harry pushed them over, Nick's legs flying up until Harry had rearranged them to being pressed chest to chest, his face hidden in Nick's neck and his legs bent awkwardly so he fit within the sofa. Neck hesitated before settling his arms, one round Harry's waist and one petting his hair. "Oh, Harry..."
"Bee's too young," Harry said, voice muffled, "it's unfair to her, they can't make me. And Niall's doing fine with his solo stuff, I don't know why he's agreeing to this, and good fucking luck getting Zayn back."
"Reckon you could do it without Zayn again," Nick said, trying to keep his voice measured, "and Niall's numbers have been only going down since the first album, he never really made it big the way you did."
"He doesn't even care about money, though."
"Fame does strange things to people."
"He hated being famous."
"Not always," Nick said, as he felt something hot and wet and suspiciously tear-like start to roll down his shoulder. "Probably he's just forgotten about the bad times, and it'll be less crazy this time around, your demographic has grown up a bit since then."
"So you think I should do it then?" Harry's voice was hurt, but Nick knew it wasn't just a rhetorical question.
"Fuck no, love," he said with more passion than he meant to, and Harry lifted his head to look at him, "I just think you should be honest about why you want to say no."
"I don't want to say no..."
Nick fixed him with a dubious look. "That's the kind of acting prowess that got you into a Nolan flick, huh?"
"Shove off," Harry said, and he was smiling but it wasn't reaching his eyes. "Being in One Direction was... It was so good that it was worth the shit we went through to do it. I can't say no to it now."
"Haz, you caught more shit than anyone else, it can't have been fun," Nick said despairingly. Hell, he had caught shit from Harry being in One Direction.
"Well, like, I could have done without some of the privacy invasions, yeah, but, I mean, it all just strengthened my public image in the end, didn't it?" Harry's voice was uncharacteristically bitter, and clearly quoting someone verbatim. Nick could almost hear the Doncaster accent. "The people I paraded around with got hurt, not me."
Nick took a deep breath, preparing himself; he still hated Simon Cowell so much more than he had realised. "I know you only allowed so much attention to protect the others."
"Yeah, well, doesn't matter does it?" Harry looked away. "Eleanor still got death threats, Zayn still left the fucking thing. I still got the preferential treatment in the end."
A laugh huffed unbidden out of Nick, dark and humourless. "You do realise you're blaming yourself for being good at your job? You do know that, right?"
"We were a team, Nick, we should have all come out on equal footing," Harry said, frustration barely contained, "but then Zayn fucked it and it became a damn free-for-all."
"Wasn't it you who suggested the break originally?"
"Yeah, but that's a break. Like, a co-ordinated and managed break, not a dramatic split where we're the teeny-bopper, vaguely-racist villains, and he's the self-centred, virtuosic diva," Harry said, and his voice became a cruel parody of itself. "I didn't think Zayn would ever let anyone see who he really was, but I guess we were all taken by surprise."
That was met with silence, and Nick knew it was because it was fuck o'clock in the morning, but maybe it was also because the whole world was holding its breath like a kid who'd just dropped a glass watches it smash.
"So now I have to go back, because otherwise I'm the diva who tore the band apart and ruined it all for everyone. Again."
"Since when did you care what tabloids say about you?" Nick was almost whispering, feeling inadequate against the taut string of emotion in Harry's voice. It might not be for the right reasons, but what was he going to do if Harry actually wanted this?
"But it's not just the press that'll be saying that, will it?"
Nick felt floored. "They said that to you? Who? Was it Louis? I bet it fucking was, that-"
"Why do you always assume the worst of him? C'mon, Nick, it's getting old," Harry said, and they were both hissing whispers rather than raising their voices because a shrieking baby was the last thing this situation needed. "They all fucking said it, and it's true. I did, I wanted to."
"Just because you wanted to doesn't mean you did," Nick snapped, "anyone would be stir-crazy after that long on tour together. Christ, they shouldn't even be fucking asking you this." Nick was angrier, more desperate, than he'd been in ages. "Fucking Liam, it's only 'cause they know they're not 'One Direction' without you, no one would buy it-"
"Nick, please fucking stop and just listen to me." There were glittering tracks down Harry's cheeks and his hair had mostly fallen out of its hasty bun; Nick had learnt how to let Harry's beauty wash over him like a wave now, rather than burn him up as it had done before, and the familiarity of it cooled all the anger in him. Harry's eyes were wide and pleading and younger than they'd been in years. As always, his heart was tattooed on his sleeve and Nick kissed him because he couldn't bear not to.
Barely a minute later, Harry broke it off. "Fuck, Nick, I-" his voice was harsh and tears were falling again, thicker and faster this time, "I owe everything to that band and those fans and to the boys, I can't just- it's too much to... They need me, Nick, I can't say no."
"Yeah, some of your success came from those things," Nick said after a moment's hesitation, and Harry watched his mouth as he spoke, lipreading and listening as though he had to double check the information. "But most of it came from you, yeah? 95% of it, let's say, which leaves 2% to the boys and then 3% to Radio One, by which I mean me, obviously."
Harry coughed out a watery laugh.
"And even if you did owe them your success, Haz, you're not talking about giving them back your success, you're talking about giving them your life again," Nick said, throat suddenly dry, wishing Harry would look away again, "and your life isn't only yours now, its ours, and me and Bee's. You'd be giving them our lives too, and I know you could never do anything even in the same ballpark as selfish, but I will."
"It's not selfish to want your own life," Harry said, unable to ever let Nick put himself down, and that's what Nick had been counting on.
"I agree," Nick said pointedly. "Look, I don't want you to do something when even the thought of it is making you cry."
"That's not the philosophy you use for Bee," Harry said, a blatant attempt to change the subject, and Nick let him have it. Never one for a quick decision, was Harry.
"Bee cries at base-level hygiene and putting the dogs to bed," Nick dismissed, "I trust your instincts more than hers so far." He kissed Harry again, soft and slow and trying to put in as much love as he could. "Whatever you choose to do, we'll go with you on it." So sue him, he wasn't above guilt tripping; like he said, he didn't have a problem with being selfish, not in this, not anymore.
They lay there for a few minutes as Nick tried not to think about what restarting 1D might actually mean for Harry and for him and for their lives now; he tried not to imagine being left alone with Bee.
"Bed?" Harry mumbled, before Nick could really start spiralling.
"Bed," Nick agreed. They learnt on each other as they stumbled back to their room to sleep as much as they could until Bee woke them again. Nick didn't think this exhaustion was going away any time soon though.
Now he had a kid, Harry had gotten used to running late. Well, late by his standards, which really meant five minutes early, but since he wasn't running fifteen minutes early at least, it counted as running late. Ergo: 13:55, bum hits chair, you've come late, you're disrespectful, especially since literally Louis Tomlinson arrived before you, but maybe he's the kind of person who arrives early now, you don't know, and isn't that a kick in the teeth.
Harry steeled himself and smiled across the table, big and warm as he could. "How's it, Tommo?"
"Not bad, no complaints," Louis smiled back, "yourself, Styles?"
"Yeah, m'okay," Harry replied on rote and it was so fucking polite that he could die.
"How's fatherhood coming along?" Louis' voice was deliberately light and casual and it didn't sound convincing for even a second.
"Great, great," Harry nodded, realising he was tapping a rhythm against his thigh and stilling his hand.
"Get much sleep?"
"Not even a little," Harry said honestly.
"Maybe you shouldn't have let someone like Nick Grimshaw move into your house then," Louis said and it was mean enough that it shocked Harry into actually looking up. Louis was trying to hide a smirk and failing and something in Harry loosened as he felt his own smile become more than just a formality. Louis wasn't as skinny as he used to be and wasn't trying as hard, but he looked healthy and had finally found an outfit that looked both mundane enough that he was comfortable and interesting enough that he wasn't dull.
"You look good," Harry said honestly, and Louis huffed out a laugh. "How's Freddie?"
"Oh, you know," Louis waved a hand vaguely, "kindergarten."
They were saved from further small talk as Niall, Liam, and Simon Cowell walked in. As distractions go, it was a pretty good one, and Harry appreciated an internal moment of calm before standing to shake everyone's hand.
"It's good to see you again," Simon said, voice still the same even now, and Harry suppressed a shudder.
"You too, Simon," he said, letting the words drip off his tongue like cheap honey.
"Congratulations as well," Simon smiled, shallow and pleasant, "Barbra is a lovely name, though I guessed Kale for the office sweepstakes."
Nick is going to throw up laughing when he hears this or he's going to hit something, Harry thought sourly. "Oh, thank you, y'know, it was a close second!"
Simon laughed and it made Harry want to put on a jumper. "Well, take a seat, boys, let's get started."
Simon was predictably at the head of the table, the London skyline merely a backdrop to his solid shoulders, and when Harry retook his seat, he realised the other three boys were all on the other side of the table. Someone had had the forethought to take away any spare chairs, but they would all be aware of that one space being empty. Liam smiled at him encouragingly from across the table, and Harry had to stop himself from glancing away. This was not a good seating arrangement.
"We're here today," Simon began, and Harry's internal Nick supplied dearly beloved, we are gathered, "to discuss the logistics of a band reunion, theoretically happening some time in the last quarter of next year. I don't need to remind you all that no word of this discussion can leave this room, or that of any further meeting, until we are prepared to do a press release as a unit, yes?" He paused for emphasis but Harry didn't look up from where he was flipping his phone round in his hands. There was a blob of apricot dried on the back from Bee's breakfast. "Now, I've asked for you all to come without agents or your management teams so that we can have a frank discussion, man to man, without other opinions muddying the water. This is just to discuss whether or not we want to give it a try again. So, One Direction, new music, a tour, late next year. Who wants to start?"
Harry glanced up and everyone was looking at him. He thanked his lucky stars that he had grown his hair long again and let it fall into his face a little. He had that fucking song from Mamma Mia in his head. Say I dooo...
"New music meaning an album or a single or what?" Niall said finally, letting Harry off the hook.
Simon shrugged and gestured to them all, and Harry felt a seed of frustration take root in him - pretending to be impartial didn't work if you had a vested interest in one specific outcome.
"What would work best is a single first with a b side, then the album and tour a few months later," Louis said, and now no one was looking at Harry and it was just as conspicuous this way round.
"Who would write the album?" He asked, if only to break the ice.
"All of us," Liam said, at the same time as Louis said, "we've got a backlog of songs for a One Direction album saved up, only need a couple more."
There was a long silence as, again, everyone watched Harry.
Liam caved first this time. "And a tour, so that would be...?"
"Arenas," Louis said firmly, and his voice was just a shade shy of longing. Harry watched the firm set of his mouth and finally realised how much he must miss it.
"And you're sure we can still sell out an arena?" Niall asked doubtfully.
"Harry can fill them on his own, I'm sure the rest of us aren't such a discouragement that we could stop that," Louis said, with that familiar edge to his voice that had made sure he could never truly make it as a TV presenter. "UK and Ireland first, I reckon a few US after that and see how it goes."
"Bobbie isn't even six months, I'm not doing an international tour," Harry said quickly, looking over at Niall, "and isn't Alex only two?"
"Alex'll be four when the tour begins, Bobbie'd be two," Niall said slowly, and Harry appreciated that he was at least thinking about it. "Two's too young to really miss you, I reckon."
"Grace would be seven," Harry countered, and Niall nodded, looking back at him through the glasses that were no longer just an accessory.
"You could bring Bobbie along," Liam said gently, "start to show her the world."
"And leave Nick behind? He can't just take a couple months off to be a groupie," Harry said, consciously not letting his voice get any faster or louder.
Louis snorted a little. "Can't he, though?"
"No," Harry said firmly, glaring at him. There were reasons they hadn't stayed in touch, and all of them were now buzzing in the tips of Harry's fingers.
"Well, the tour isn't the first thing," Liam said quickly, glancing between them as though he was now remembering the old arguments too, "first things first is recording the album, or ep, or single, or whatever. Me and Louis have some songs we reckon are really worth a shot, especially if we're doing the album route.
"I've written a few 1D songs over the years," Niall admitted, and Liam smiled at him encouragingly.
"I remember that one you sent me a voice memo of last year," he said warmly, "I always think about what it would be like to do that one live, mate, the fans would absolutely scream it."
Harry felt like he was back in 2015 somehow, still out of the loop, still on the wrong side of the table, except in 2015, the discussions had been about getting out of the band. What the fuck was he doing? "Why now?"
Liam's smile froze in place and Niall's fell from his eyes; Louis still had that sharp glare that had been building since the arena comment. In his throne of a chair, Simon kept on looking calmly neutral, and it was that that was making Harry's blood boil.
"It's not the 10 year anniversary, not the 25th, there's nothing significant about late next year," Harry said, only looking at Louis now because wasn't this a button he'd been waiting to push, really? "Why are we talking about a comeback now?"
"The fans, Harry, we owe them," Liam tried, but he trailed off as Harry and Louis didn't break eye contact.
"You're a decent songwriter, your career's fine," Harry said quietly, and cold fury washed over Louis face.
"What do you want me to say, that I miss it? Because I do," Louis said in that terrible voice that meant he was being truly honest, "I miss it. I want to go on stage. I want to sing the bloody songs I bloody write and have people actually listen again." An accusation lay unspoken in the air between them. "Fuck the money, Harry, I want it back, and I reckon you owe us the help that we all gave you before anyway."
"Yes, because One Direction was all about helping me," Harry rolled his eyes, years of arguments again tugging at his skin.
"Wasn't it?" It was Niall who spoke this time, but he wasn't looking at Harry. For the first time in his life, Harry saw Simon look caught off guard, just for a second.
"So!" Liam said very brightly, very loudly, "what about we give a listening session a go? You can all come to my studio in LA, we can see what options we have, what we'd like, we can make a more informed decision after that, yeah?"
"Sounds good," said Niall, who was looking down at his hands now.
"Suits me," Louis was glaring at the table, "I'm free whenever."
Harry fidgeted, tucking his hair behind his ears then running a hand through it. Fuck, this wasn't going to go down painlessly any way he played it. "I can do this weekend," he said finally. It was soon but he knew they'd all jump when he said so.
"Great, then I'll see you three there!" Liam turned to Simon. "We'll let you know how it goes, yeah?"
That nearly shocked a laugh from Harry, and he saw Louis struggle to control his expression for a second too. Simon opened and closed his mouth uncertainly before replying, "yes, okay."
"That's that, then," Liam smiled, getting to his feet, "I do love a short meeting."
They all shook hands again on the way out and it made Harry's skin crawl a bit, but when he got to Liam, he pulled him in a bit closer and managed to whisper, "you're a fucking legend, mate."
Liam glanced at Simon, checking he was engaged by Niall. "You don't know how long I've wanted to do that to him," he whispered back quickly, and then they split apart before they could rouse any suspicion.
Liam actually had to stick around for a different meeting and Niall's driver hadn't arrived yet, so Harry found himself alone with Louis in the lift. The speakers were playing a new single from some girl Simon had signed, a song Harry knew Louis had co-produced. It wasn't half bad really, but they listened to it in silence until the doors dinged open onto the lobby. Harry nodded at Louis, who returned it tersely, and made it half way to the doors before Louis caught up to him.
They were stood in the center of the floor, underneath Simon's pretentious modern take on a chandelier, and Harry could see how hard the receptionist was trying to listen without looking up from her computer. In front of him, Louis was unreadable.
"Come on, let's see a picture, then," he jerked his chin at Harry, "I know you sent Liam some."
Harry was nonplussed. "Beg your pardon?"
"Pictures. You know, of your kid?" He looked at Harry like he was concerned for his health. "You are the Harry Styles that just had a baby, right?"
Harry snorted at the poor attempt at humour, but pulled his phone out of his pocket. "Yeah, I guess I am."
His lock screen was a picture of Nick asleep on the couch with Bee and Pig cuddled to his chest, Stinky curled between his head and the cushions, but Harry tilted his phone so Louis wouldn't see it. Instead, he went to his camera roll and pulled up the earliest picture he had of Bee, pink and angry in a hospital blanket.
"2.7 kilos, she was," he said as he gave his phone to Louis.
"Blimey, she looks like she's a loudmouth already," Louis said, voice a bit thin, "suppose she was cursed to that by her genetics."
"People tell Nick he's chatty, they have no idea," Harry agreed darkly, and leaned in to scroll through the next few pictures of Bee's greatest hits: wearing yellow dungarees, plonked on a picnic blanket in Regent's Park; in Fiona's lap, gazing up adoringly; determinedly dancing in her door bouncer. Louis cooed in the appropriate places, and after a few tries, he really sounded like he meant them.
"And Bobbie isn't short for anything, right?" He asked eventually, looking up at Harry, who hadn't realised how close they were getting. Old habits had him stepping away quick.
"Nah, just Bobbie," he said, "Bobbie Andy Twist Grimshaw. Not Barbra, thanks Simon."
"I had Eileen for that, by the way," Louis said, quickly, as if he didn't want to give himself time to think.
"Eileen," Harry repeated, dumbfounded.
"I know you're not the sentimental type," Louis shrugged, "figured Grimshaw might be, though."
Harry didn't even know what to say to that. "S'pose he is, a bit," though he definitely wasn't.
"Yeah," Louis said, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "See you at Liam's, mate." With that, he left, half-jogging out the door with a nod to the security guard, leaving Harry to his confusion.
"See you," he muttered to himself.
Nick was just serving up when he heard the keys in the door, and his involuntary sag of relief obviously amused Bobbie, who gurgled happily up at him.
"You glad your dad is back?" He asked, grabbing a plastic spoon and settling in front of her. "Me too, Beanie Baby, let's make him proud by starting dinner before he comes into the kitchen, yeah?"
Bee blinked up at him with her big blue eyes and nodded seriously. Nick was sure she was a genius for a few seconds before his sleep deprived brain realised that he was nodding too, and she was probably just copying.
"I don't care," he told her conspiratorially, "I bet you're still a genius."
Just to prove him wrong, she refused to open her mouth for the spoonful of mashed banana he was offering.
"Well, who said brains were the most important thing anyway?" He sat back, and looked around as Harry walked into the kitchen. "Probably not your teachers if they were trying to make you feel good. Wahey! Welcome home!"
"Wahey, what are you talking about?" Harry replied, matching his bright tone and not really sounding like he needed an answer as he pressed a kiss to Bee's head. "How's my family doing? Eating well?"
"Nope!" Nick laughed and hoped he didn't sound too maniacal as he looked up to let Harry kiss him hello. "How was the meeting?"
Harry made a face. "Oh, you know, it was, uh... I'll tell you after we've eaten, want a toastie?" His voice was strained underneath the attempt at normalcy, and Nick tried to file that observation away somewhere it would remain intact, but new parent exhaustion seemed to have picked all the locks on his mental filing cabinets. Could you even lock a filing cabinet? Did anyone use them any more anyway, or was it all online now?
"Nick?" Harry said, tapping his forehead and pulling him from his reverie. He was smiling softly down at Nick, used to this by now.
"Toastie sounds great," Nick said honestly and pressed a kiss to Harry's palm, "I'll try and get the young madam to take a bite."
"The banana's new, right?" Harry asked as he turned away and opened the fridge.
"Yeah, she tried it this morning, George got her to eat it," Nick said, picking up the spoon once more, "she loved it when he was feeding her, Pix took it all personal. Doesn't feel like your favourite aunt anymore, does she?"
Bee looked at him with her eyebrows scrunched together, deeply unimpressed.
"Yeah, okay, we all know auntie Fifi's your favourite," Nick rolled his eyes, "now will you please give this banana a try? I mashed it by hand. Lovingly. For you. So you don't die."
Bee was still glaring at him as she started to squirm, twisting away from the straps in her highchair.
"Oh, no, come on, love, please don't-" Nick reached for her without thinking, and she hit the spoon out his hand, a shout already building in her chest. The plastic hit the ground as the banana splattered against Nick's slippers and he inevitably felt the prick of tears in his eyes.
"Manners, Bug, let's not throw things!" Harry said, bending to pick up the spoon, and Nick shunted along the bench to let him have the seat in front of the high chair. Harry took the space without looking and wiped the spoon with the bottom of his jumper before scooping up some more banana. "What about we go for our mouths this time, not daddy's feet, yeah?"
Bee opened her mouth immediately, of course she did, and her eyes widened with delight as she tasted the mush.
"There we go," Harry cooed proudly, "now how hard was that?" He was smiling as he leaned back and offered the spoon to Nick.
"No, you do it," Nick said, with a wave of his hand, "I'll get the toasties."
"Sure?" Harry asked, and he looked up as Nick stood.
"Yeah, she's in a mood with me today," Nick shrugged, trying not to examine how many days he'd been using that excuse for now. Christ, his arms felt like lead. "Cheddar and pesto?"
"Do we have any sun-dried tomatoes?"
"Uh..." Nick checked the cupboard, then the fridge, then glanced around the counter.
"Other cupboard, should be," Harry supplied absently.
Nick looked in the other cupboard. "Yeah, I'll throw some in then."
"Great, sounds perfect," Harry said, "doesn't it, Bug?"
She gurgled, a little bit of banana flying out her mouth and landing on Harry's cheek.
"Good point well made," he replied solemnly.
Three hours later, when Bee was finally asleep, Nick found himself curled against Harry's chest, both of them squished into an arm chair because they'd been avoiding the big sofa a bit since the Great Vomit Incident of Last Tuesday. He was pretty sure there wasn't a smell of even disinfectant any more, that the damage was all purely psychological, but there was damage nonetheless.
"So, your meeting then?" Nick asked, and maybe pre-Bobbie he would have been a bit more subtle than that. Probably not.
"Yeah, so, I, uh..." Harry's voice was echoing through his chest and into Nick's skull, low and comforting. "It was just me and Liam and Louis and Niall and Simon."
"He told you to ditch Jeff, right?" Nick asked, and he started to trace the pattern of Harry's eagle tattoo.
"Just for this meeting, he wanted us to, like-"
"Be without legal aid?"
"-discuss it openly, but yeah, probably that, too."
There was a pause.
"So what did you discuss?" Nick said.
"Not loads, really, I mean," Harry started twisting one his rings round against the arm of the chair, "just saying the options were, like, late next year, a single, and maybe an album a couple months after that, and a tour, could be international. Didn't even mention the Zayn in the room."
"That's only one option, Haz," Nick frowned, "I thought it was all undecided?"
"It is, it is, it's just," and Harry was proper fidgeting now, "Liam and Louis have some demos for new songs saved up, and Niall does too, we were gunna maybe get together and they could show me some stuff..."
Nick tried to keep his voice level, seeing it in his mind's eye as one session turned into an album's worth into a tour's worth into a life's worth. "Right, and when was that?"
"Well, like, I thought, there's nothing happening this weekend, so... Liam's said we can all go to his, that's where the demos are, so..."
"I thought Liam lived in LA still?"
Harry's hands were conspicuously still as he spoke. "Yeah, I mean, he does." There was a moment of silence. "I thought, uh, maybe you and Bee could go visit my mum?"
Something bitter curled in Nick's stomach. "Don't you think your mum might not want to see you too maybe?"
"Sure, I, uh, thought I could be back on Monday, fly into Manchester instead, come find you," Harry said, breath catching Nick's hair, "fly out Friday evening."
"So now you're organising weekend getaways straight after working so hard to get the time off, then?" Nick was surprised at how level his voice was.
"No, that's not what I-"
"And you don't think I can't handle a couple days on my own with her, so you push us off onto your mum, yeah?" This was cruel and ugly but Nick didn't care, at least he was being honest with himself. Get Harry angry and God forbid, he might be too.
"Don't be stupid, Nick, that's not what's happening here," Harry said, and his voice was brittle, which should have made Nick feel victorious. "You know mum's been bugging us for a visit for, like, a month now."
"Convenient," Nick said scathingly.
"Fuck's sakes, Nick, let's just-" he sighed heavily, and shifted in his seat, dislodging Nick, "let's go to bed, talk about it in the morning."
"Sure, that'll work," but Nick got up anyway and went to let the dogs out without even glancing back.
When he got back to their room, Harry was already in bed with the lights out, not even properly pretending to be asleep; he was on his side, back to where Nick would be, and Nick suddenly wondered why he was letting himself behave this way. He turned and padded down the hall, tiptoeing into the nursery and sitting down next to the cot.
He watched through the bars as Bee sniffled in her sleep then started mouthing at the back of her hand before falling still again, Nick's heart racing with prayers for her to stay unconscious. She was wearing a hand-me-down babygrow from Aimee's kids and the colour palette was accordingly garish, but the nightlight turned it dusty and washed out; Nick actually liked it better this way.
This wasn't how you were meant to make me feel, Nick thought miserably, poking a finger through the bars to tuck the corner of the sheet back in.
As if she could sense him, Bee rolled over and grabbed right to his finger, sighing a tiny breath as she settled.
Despite his exhaustion, that still managed to pull Nick's mouth into an unwilling smile. Looks like it might just be me and you after all, kid, how do you feel about that? He closed his eyes and leaned against the bedpost. She didn't let go of his finger.
Yeah, me too, Bean.
Nick was weird and tense for the rest of the week, avoiding Harry's eyes and shutting down at the first signs of serious conversation, so by the time it got to Friday morning, Harry was almost glad to be going for a couple of days.
"Give your dad a bit of time to cool off, yeah?" He asked Bobbie as he got her dressed.
She hiccuped in what Harry interpreted as reproach.
"Yeah, I know, Bug," he sighed, wiggling the elastic waistband of her trousers into place, "but it's hard."
She blinked twice.
"You'll understand one day," he said, "now let's go find your booties, yeah?" He whisked her up into his arms, letting her fly for a second just to hear her delighted laugh. "Where do you think daddy left them? Do you think maybe Pig might have adopted them as her own again?"
Bobbie hit his chest and let out a shapeless noise that somehow managed to be insistent.
"Oof, Bee, come on! Take a chill pill, man," he slipped into a corny Californian surfer dude accent as he bounced her in his arms. In his back pocket, his phone buzzed. Transferring Bee to his other arm, he got it out and read the text.
maybe hes just overtired, doubt hes been this sleep deprived ever since he stopped doing breakfast
Harry started at the screen, rereading twice before realising he was biting his lips again, and he'd been trying so hard to break that habit. "C'mon," he said to Bee, bouncing her a little so they were face to face as he held her tight to his side, "you're caught in the middle of all this, any advice?"
She grabbed at a stand of hair that had come loose from Harry's plait and tugged hard.
"Fuck, ouch! Okay, what have we learned about pulling on daddy's hair, yeah?" He hissed as he pried her fingers loose. "C'mon, let's, uh... Let's do a selfie for Claire, huh?"
He balanced his phone against a mug of cold tea on the coffee table and squatted down in front of it, settling Bee in his lap and pressing the three second timer.
"Big smile, Bee!" He said, laughing just so she would follow suit, and he flipped her arms up like she was cheering a goal at a football match. The shutter clicked, and Harry sat down cross legged, letting Bee wiggle happily in his lap as he grabbed his phone; it was a really cute picture, Harry's pyjama bottoms accidentally matching Bee's jumper, Bee's grin gummy and his grin big if a little tired. He thought for a second before typing.
Probably, ive just never seen him like this, its kinda scary, like what if this is something more permanent?
Harry went to twist one of his rings subconsciously before realising he hadn't actually got himself dressed yet, so there were no rings to twist. His Google session on postnatal depression in fathers yesterday had been - as most medical-related Google sessions were - inconclusive, but now Harry couldn't tell if asking Nick to maybe see a therapist would help or not. His gaze landed on What to Expect: The First Year where it had fallen off the sofa after Nick consulted it on Bee's refusal to eat mashed apricot.
In his lap, Bee mumbled something, and he looked down to see her brow furrowing, worry making her lip tremble.
"Sorry, love," Harry laughed, consciously brightening his expression, "lost in thought! Your daddy's a funny one, isn't he?" His smile seemed to reassure her and she reached for him, so he gave her his hand to play with. God, she was still so small though. "He loves you so much, Bug, I love you so much, you got that?"
"Ack!" She cried triumphantly.
"Ack," he repeated, "now, who wants to help me start packing before daddy gets back from the supermarket? Do you, Bee? Or should I ask Stinky?"
Nick was walking the dogs when his phone started ringing; it was WhatsApp, so he balanced it on the hood of the pram and accepted the call, smiling wanly as Harry came into view on roughly four pixels per frame.
"Hi, love, you alright?" Nick said, glancing both ways down the road before crossing into the park. "How's the flight? Last I checked you were still over the Atlantic."
"Yeah, it's fine, I'm, uh..." He fumbled with something off-screen, "over the middle of Canada? Anyway, how was dinnertime?"
"Okay, she had half the bowl," Nick replied, and glanced round to check she was still asleep. "Nodded off as soon as we left the house, which is good." He put the brake on the pram next to a bench and picked up the phone to angle it so Harry could see her. "That hat Gemma knitted is well cute."
"Right?" Harry said, voice proud with the combined weight of both brother and dad. Nick let Pig and Stinky off their leads as he continued. "Told you so. I just watched the third Iron Man, so I'm, like, almost halfway through."
"You know," Nick smiled as he sat on the bench, "when I said you missed out on stuff while touring, I meant more sex with me than the Marvel films, really."
"Like to think I'm catching up on both," Harry hummed, unconcerned.
Nick, who now couldn't hear Chris Hemsworth's voice without associating it with a particularly good blow job, had to agree. He shifted in his seat, and changed the subject. "So what's lined up next?"
"Dunno, they have Happy Together on here, if I wanted to be a proper nostalgic narcissist," Harry shrugged, "might just have a kip."
"Sun's starting to go down here," Nick said, holding up the phone so Harry could see the golden light reflecting off the clouds. He panned around for a few seconds, showing Bee asleep, Pig and Stinky making friends with a Labrador, a couple of joggers passing up the hill. When he switched the phone back to himself, there was a soft look in Harry's eyes.
"How're you doing, Nick?"
There it is. Nick held back a sigh and looked away. "Yeah, good." He certainly didn't need to be tiptoed around like a traumatised child, and that's all Harry seemed to do these days.
"Yeah?" Harry's voice was unbearably gentle.
"Yeah, I'm fine, can we just, like, not?" Nick laughed hollowly.
"Not talk about it?" Nick ran a hand through his hair and stood up, aimlessly walking to the end of the bench and back. "All we fucking do is talk about it, Harry."
Harry wouldn't look away. "We've never talked about it, love," and he sounded absolutely miserable.
Nick's voice died in his throat. He opened his mouth, then closed it, and again, and there was something burning on the back of his tongue, trying to get out, and this was his chance. Harry, I'm not good enough for all this, I don't deserve it, and I don't know how to tell you you're both free to go. Take Bee and find someone else who can actually look after her, but also don't fucking leave me, please don't ever leave me. Tell him, you fucking coward.
"Right, well," Harry said, visibly giving up and pulling himself together, "I just called 'cause I think I left my other phone at home, the black one, so I was wondering if you could keep an eye out for it? I think it's maybe on the coffee table on the upstairs landing."
"Okay, sure," Nick said, and his traitor voice was measured and even and working just fucking fine now, of course. "I'll have a look for it when I get back."
"Thanks," Harry said, and his smile was forced. "I'll, uh, let you get back to it, then, have a nice walk, uh, rest of your walk."
"Yeah, you too," Nick said, "I mean, flight."
"Thanks, talk to you later," and with that, the call ended.
Cool. So now Nick was crying, on a bench, in public. Cool and great and cool. He tucked his head down, staring at his blank screen, trying to be inconspicuous as the joggers passed by. He realised he was trembling. Get a fucking grip, Grimshaw, good grief.
After a few seconds, Stinky came and started snuffling at his legs, then hopped up on the bench and looked up at him. Nick returned his gaze then choked out a watery laugh as he whined and leant against Nick's side, which Nick figured was the doggy equivalent of a comforting hug.
"You're the best, you know that?" He told Stinky, scratching his ears. "You're the coolest guy I know."
Pig, who definitely had a sixth sense for Nick complimenting other dogs, gave a bark and ran over from the tree she had been sniffing at.
"You too, obviously, of course," he said as she jumped up next to Stinky and plonked her head down on his thigh, "the absolute greatest." Her head was heavy on his leg, and through it he could feel the rise and fall of her body as she breathed, the rhythm counterpoint to Stinky's panting. He clung to those small actions until his cheeks were dry. "Come on, then," he said, and grabbed the leads to reattach them, giving each dog a treat because they kind of deserved them.
In her pram, Bee started to stir, and she blinked up at Nick with her long lashes then reached for the little bag of dog treats.
"Yeah, no, let's get human food sorted first, hmm?" Nick said, stowing the treats and clipping the dogs leads to the pram. Then he unbuckled Bee and pulled her up to balance on his hip, leaving one arm free to push. "Don't look too red, do I?" He asked her.
She burbled out a small string of noises and hit her head on his shoulder.
"Good, because I'm, uh, pretty sure that the lady coming up ahead of us," he twisted a little so she could see better, "is our neighbour! Say hi, Bumblebee!"
"Nick, Bobbie, hello there!" Enid's thick Welsh accent turned Bee's name into three syllables as usual, and that always made Nick smile. "How are we doing this evening?" If she thought Nick looked a little blotchy, she didn't mention it.
"Not bad, are we, Bobbie?" Nick said, and Bee reached for Enid's outstretched hand, grabbing on with an iron grip and smiling wide.
"Oh, good," Enid smiled, rubbing a thumb over Bee's tiny knuckles.
"How are you, pet?" Nick asked, still trying to work out why his motherly side came out for Enid when they were the same age.
"Not bad, not bad, Tom's cough is clearing up," she replied happily, "he should be back to work on Monday."
Bee interrupted him with a loud "uh!"
"What is it, duck?" Enid asked.
Bee stared back at her for a few seconds before getting shy and tucking herself back into Nick's neck. He and Enid shared a laugh as he rubbed a thumb across Bee's back, warmth blossoming in his chest when she snuggled in close.
"Are you still okay to take the dogs on the weekend, then? Or will Monday be more complicated now?" He asked.
"Oh, no, don't be silly, we're looking forward to having Pig Dog and Stinky Blob," she leaned down to scratch their ears as they perked at the sound of their names, "I think Beth is looking forward to having an excuse to get away from her revision, really."
"Oh yeah, year 10 mocks, right?" His time doing breakfast meant Nick now had the year's exam schedule inscribed deep in his bones.
"Yes, which is absolute bollocks, honestly," she said crossly, then looked a bit sheepish. "Excuse my language, Bobbie!"
Nick looked down at her little head on his shoulder. "S'okay, she's fallen asleep, I think."
"That's good," Erin grinned, "and here I am, always saying it's Tom's fault that Beth swears like a sailor! Best let you get her off to bed then, Nick, dear, I'll see you tomorrow, yes?"
Nick hugged her with his spare arm. "Yeah, I'll get the dogs over to you around lunchtime, thanks again, so much."
"Don't even mention it," she replied.
When Nick got home and had deposited Bee in her cradle, tucking the baby monitor into his back pocket as he cleaned the last of the dinner dishes and tidied up the sitting room, he hummed a little to himself, George Michael having somehow got stuck in his head at some point. He chased his sudden motivation to do chores from room to room, putting all the records back into Harry's music room from where they had disseminated across the house, collecting all the abandoned items of baby clothing and putting a wash on. He was replacing some art books back onto the hallway bookshelf when he came across Harry's forgotten phone. As he picked it up, the screen flashed up with a text from a few hours ago.
Clare Uchimaaaa: you guys did kinda rush into all this without much warning, it might not be what you were expecting
Nick tried to convince himself that Harry had been talking to her about the 1D reunion, and pretty much failed. As quickly as it came, his good mood evaporated and he shuffled to their bedroom, dropping the phone on the dresser without looking, heart thumping in his throat. So Harry was complaining about him to old friends on the other side of the world. No big deal. Definitely not making Nick feel like crap, not at all. No, he was hugging a pillow because he wanted to be without human contact.
His own phone vibrated and flashed up a WhatsApp - H: Night night i love u both xxx
Nick didn't reply.
Harry was barely out of the gate when he heard his name being called. Well, not exactly his name, but in that accent and insistence, his name might as well be Henry. He turned around to search for a flash of bright yellow, but he didn't have to look far.
Moira, his bodyguard, stepped in front of him as Aimee barrelled towards them through the crowd.
"Let me at 'im!" Aimee said, with her best Eileen impression, as she came to a halt, and Moira looked at Harry uncertainly over her shoulder.
He sighed dramatically. "If we must," but he grinned and dropped his bags to open his arms wide for a hug.
Aimee ducked around Moira and wrapped her arms tight around his middle. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming? Are Nick and my goddaughter here? Where are you staying? What are you doing here?"
"I didn't know you were still here," Harry said defensively, squeezing her back. "I thought you left yesterday?"
"Time zones, div," she said, and reached up to flick his forehead. "I was just about to go through security. Anyway, you've picked up bad habits from Nick."
"Oh, I have?"
"Yes, you have," she said accusingly, "you both just ignore questions you don't want to answer."
"Or maybe you just ask too many questions at once!" Harry laughed, then glanced up as Moira coughed conspicuously. A small gaggle of people were starting to congregate nearby, staring wide-eyed at him and Aimee. "Fancy grabbing a drink before security?" He asked her.
"You need to ask?" She replied, and linked her arm through Harry's to lead the way.
They ended up in some fakey Irish pub that would have been a Weatherspoons if they were in an English airport, sequestered away in a back corner as they nursed their drinks - a beer for Aimee, something pink and umbrella-y for Harry.
"Shove it, I haven't had a proper cocktail in donkeys," Harry muttered at Aimee's raised eyebrow.
"Definitely haven't if that counts as a real cocktail," she said drily. Her lipstick left a red mark on his glass as she tried a sip. "Nasty," she summarised succinctly.
Harry shrugged, then took out his phone to snap a badly lit picture of their drinks before angling the camera up at Aimee. "Smile!" He instructed.
She did, adding in a big wink for posterity; as Harry looked down at his phone, she asked, voice conspicuously casual, "so how's your boyfriend doing?"
"Your best friend is fine, thanks, he's, uh..." Harry started, then reconsidered. This was actually Aimee, not just some random acquaintance. "I don't think he's doing so well, actually, I think he's finding it quite, err, hard to adjust?"
She wasn't surprised, nodding in a way that suggested she'd been expecting that answer. "To what?" She asked anyway.
"I dunno, to being a dad? Or maybe being off work? Or to me moving in?" Hard to tell when you shoved everything at him at once, he berated himself.
"Well, he's been waiting for you to move in for a decade or so at this point, so it's not that," she hummed, looking at him knowingly, "before you get your panties in any more of a twist."
He laughed sheepishly at that, ducking his head to take a long drag through his straw. It was a shit drink. "Too late," he said.
"Idiot," she said, and flicked his forehead before shifting round the booth to pull him against her side. "There's only two things in this world more important to Nick than you, and it's his daughter and me, so don't go getting all mopey about his pessimistic mood swings."
Harry leaned against her, sinking into the contact; it felt like ages since he had a proper hug. "Does it still count as a mood swing if it's been going on, like, three months?"
Aimee sighed deeply, and Harry felt her move through the places they were touching. "Listen, Haz, Nick is..." She collected her thoughts. "Nick is what us old hippies call melancholic; basically, he thinks too fucking much and can't get out of his own head long enough to see he's inventing his own problems. What your job is," she said, poking his shoulder, "is pulling him out of his downward spirals when they go a bit crazy."
"I've been trying, what do you think I've been doing all this time?" Harry asked, hopeless, "it's just Bobbie takes up so much time and he just hasn't bonded with her that well, and he's started spending more time walking the dogs than talking to me, and he doesn't even listen to the radio anymore, and-"
"Hey, Haz, come on, shhh," Aimee interrupted, turning to pull him into a proper hug, and he realised he was breathing really fast and his head was spinning and there were tears threatening to spill over and fuck, he hadn't had a panic attack in years.
"He doesn't want to listen to the radio, Aims," he whispered, and what did that say about Nick's mental state, huh? Harry missed coming home to the background natter of voices and top 40 hits, interspersed with Nick's snide comments on how he wouldn't have run that link like that, or that the new game was a copy of some old feature, or how the host was just so fucking young. Nick didn't even want to listen to the radio anymore.
"He just misses it," Aimee said sadly, pulling back a little to let Harry wipe his nose on a napkin. "He's been doing radio for so long, he probably feels lost without the structure and the hours of chat each day. Kinda makes sense he's finding it hard to connect to his new audience of one."
"Two," Harry corrected.
"How many days do you stay home with him all day," Aimee asked, "don't even go out once?"
Harry didn't meet her eyes. "He goes out too, sometimes with me, or we take it in turns to have Bobbie."
"I don't think he's properly left the house in weeks," Aimee said, not unkindly. "So why are you here Harry?"
Harry rolled the stem of his empty glass between his fingers as he spoke, watching the cocktail umbrella spin. "Talks about getting the band back together," he admitted.
Aimee laughed at that, short and disbelieving, then kissed his forehead and stood. "I've got to go, got a flight to catch, baby," she said, "when do you go back?"
"Get into Manchester on Monday," he said hollowly, "Nick's taking Bobbie to visit my mum."
"We'll meet up when you're back in London, then, drag him out to a museum or something," she turned to go, grabbing her bag, then hesitated. "Harry, I..." She was struggling with her thoughts; Harry could relate. "You're not actually getting back with them, are you?"
Was he? He looked beyond the excitement of new music and new shows and people to share a tour bus with for a moment and saw Bee bonding with a babysitter to give Nick some time out of the house, and Nick turning off the radio so he couldn't miss having a microphone, and Harry's toothbrush, unused in the en suite. "No," he admitted finally, "not really."
There was relief on Aimee's face, and that more than anything made Harry realise how dumb he'd been. They'd all thought he was going back, maybe even he had. He stood clumsily as she leaned over the table for a last hug. "I'll be in touch," she called as she walked away.
Harry huffed out a breath, then laughed at himself. "Idiot bastard," he muttered, and sat back. Aimee had left half her pint and Harry was in no rush now to break this news to the boys. Fuck, he was an asshole.
"We going too?" Moira asked, appearing from nowhere to sit down next to him.
"Five minutes," Harry said, attempting a smile. She nodded and pulled her phone out, playing some candy crush knockoff. Harry nursed Aimee's beer, going warm now in the LA heat, and slowly, a plan started to take shape in his mind.
Nick awoke to an empty cot and sat bolt upright, heart leaping into his throught because, fuck, Harry is never coming back now. Then then he widened his awareness beyond the bed he woke up in and heard Anne downstairs, cooing out babytalk in a way that was definitely no longer appropriate for her own children, and Nick sat back to catch his breath. He stretched, letting his back click before sagging forwards over his legs and closing his eyes into the softness of the blanket he always stole from the cupboard when sleeping at Harry's. Except Harry hadn't lived here in a decade, so this was Anne's.
He allowed himself a selfish moment of relief at not having to deal with Bee yet; yesterday had been terrible. He and Anne had tried to take her to the zoo and she had screamed the entire ride there, red and angry and only calming down when Harry had been on facetime, starting up again the second he hung up. She'd eventually exhausted herself and fallen asleep in Anne's arms, who'd held her in her lap the whole ride back. Nick had just watched. He sighed and sat up again, checking his phone to find a billion new texts and emails, as always, and none of them worth looking at except Aimee's and maybe Harry's.
just ran into ur boy at lax hes all mopey now flying back pls bring my goddaughter to see me asap! from Aimee, typically stream-of-consciousness.
fancy coming along to couples baby yoga thursday? he shot back, half joking but maybe half not.
Harry's message was a voice note, and shit if Nick didn't remember those from every album cycle since 2015. He clicked on it reluctantly, telling the dread in his stomach to just fuck off.
It was a snippet of a song, more pop-y than Harry usually did, even though it still had some retro rock vibes. Honestly, it sounded like every 1D record Nick had not enjoyed playing once he moved to breakfast. It wasn't even Harry singing, it was... Niall? Probably? Nick blamed the audio quality for that confusion. As he relistened to it, a new text popped up below the audio file.
Thinking of that for the single, what do you think?
New plan re: release btw
Red nose day?
Nick typed back before he let himself think. oh great even sooner hooray
The three dots lingered as Harry typed, disappearing entirely twice, and Nick felt the ugliness rising in his chest again. He began to type - maybe if youre that eager - but then the message finally appeared.
Over sooner too. What about the song?
Nick knew what Harry was asking for, and last time Nick had had the most fun yet singing back the dumb snippets of choruses he'd got, because as Harry's vocals improved, Nick's voice cracked more and more trying to imitate it. That just felt like embarrassment now.
He locked the screen, dropping it on the bedside table, and fuck you world, I'm not too old to leave someone on read, Nick thought spitefully. He pulled his eyemask back on and rolled over to fall back asleep.
When he awoke again, three seconds later, it was to a room obviously bathed in early afternoon light beyond his eyelids as Anne shook his shoulder gently.
"Nick, sweetheart?" She was so soft and so kind and Nick just wanted to ignore her and pretend to sleep until she went away. "I don't want to wake you, but you won't sleep tonight if you sleep in much longer."
The most mum reason ever, Nick thought, mustering a begrudging fondness, and he made a show of blinking his eyes open slowly, stretching as though he wasn't already fully awake.
"Sorry, love," Anne smiled, perching on the edge of the bed, Bee in her arms.
Nick tried not to let the nerves build as he settled back against the headboard. "Morning, Anne, morning, Bob," he said, "would offer kisses, but, y'know," he gestured vaguely, "morning breath."
"Not morning anymore," Anne smiled, and handed him Bee.
Nick held her gingerly against his chest, supporting her head exactly as he'd been taught and tucking his knees up and still, 6 months on, so fucking terrified he was going to drop her. "Afternoon, then, bean burger," he whispered.
Bee blinked up at him, one hand reaching to grab at his necklace.
"What have you and grandma been up to, then?" He asked, and she sneezed.
"We watched some TV, then she helped me feed the cats, and we made pancakes for lunch, didn't we?" Anne smiled. "She made friends with an empty milk carton until I distracted her with some music."
"Shania?" Nick said.
"Of course," Anne said, because it was a dumb question. "There's pancakes waiting downstairs when you're ready, Nick, dear, I'll leave you two alone."
"Be right down," Nick promised, and tried for a smile as she stood.
"Nick, are you..." She hesitated at the end of the bed, tugging at the corner of the blanket to straighten it. "Is everything okay?"
Nick laughed emptily, and looked down at his daughter, who was still staring back as if she didn't know him. How do you tell someone you think their child is trying to ditch you?
"I think Harry is trying to ditch me," Nick said, because, apparently, that's how you do it.
Anne blinked hard, twice, a third time. "What?"
"I think he didn't realise, and now he misses his work, and he probably wishes he stuck with being Bee's uncle, and I..." He looked away, at the old 1D poster on the wall, because he couldn't meet anyone's eyes, not anymore. "I think I have to let him."
"Nick, sweetheart, I..." Anne's voice was placatory. "Are you feeling okay? Like, health-wise?" She stepped towards him, reaching for his forehead like he was a kid begging off school.
"I'm fine, Anne, I'm not sick or delusional, except I guess I am, but not anymore," he said, and in his arms, Bee started to squirm, his sharp tone upsetting her. "Oh, no, come on, don't be like that!" He tried to brighten up, and Bee smiled back uncertainly. "I think your dad is going to start going to LA and New York more and more and then off on tour and then move out and then it will be permanent!"
"Nick, no, he's not-" Anne's voice was only calm on the surface, but Nick couldn't bear it anyway.
"He already pushed the single date forward, red nose day, he can't wait to get back to being the nation's favourite second-coming-of-Bob-Dylan-slash-Jesus, can he?" He was grinning to try and stop Bee from crying, but he was a hypocrite because tears were coursing down his own cheeks. He must look fucking bonkers.
"You don't mean that," Anne said quietly, but there was anger in her voice. "Now, I love you, Nick, but don't you ever talk about my son like that again, or I'll-"
"You'll what? You'll tell him?" Nick laughed, and thrust Bee at her, barely letting her get a grip before jumping up and grabbing yesterday's clothes off a chair. "You know what? Please, be my guest. Tell him he can have it all. His fucking career, and Bee every other weekend, and whoever he wants to shag, and I'll just fit in around him, yeah? Like every one-bloody-else, that's me." His hands were shaking too much to do up the buttons on his shirt so he ditched it and grabbed the first thing out of the drawers that looked like it could fit. Fleetwood fucking Mac it was, then, and he left.
He took the stairs two at a time and only realised he didn't have any socks when he tried to pull his boots on. Stubbornly, he yanked them on anyway. Upstairs, Bee had started crying.
"Nick?" Anne shouted, and she sounded scared now. "Nick!"
He slammed the door behind him and jumped in the car, thankful he'd not remembered to pull his cards and keys out of his jeans before sleeping last night. It took two tries to get the key in the ignition, and by the time he was reversing out of the drive, Anne was opening the door, Bee still crying on her hip; she was shouting something he couldn't hear, but he didn't know if that was the engine or the blood rushing in his head. She looked so fucking sad.
He'd barely been driving ten minutes when his phone went, Harry's face flashing up on caller ID, still some dumb ugly selfie from when he'd stolen Nick's phone for a week in 2013. Nick was honestly trying to hang up when he accepted the call.
"Nick?" Harry's voice was worried and gravelly and Nick's brain couldn't help but do the mental maths to work out what time it was for him. "I just got a really weird voicemail from mum, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine!" Nick snapped, trying to hang up, but the fucking screen had gone dark for some reason.
"She said you drove off, left Bee with her without a word-"
"Oh, there were words," Nick said bitterly, indicating as he pulled over into the hard shoulder and fumbling for his phone.
"She mentioned some of them, yeah, Nick what the fuck is going on?"
"Just piss off!" Nick exploded, "stop acting like you know a good damn thing about it, Christ!"
"I don't know, that's why I'm asking, Nick!" Harry was shouting too now. "What the fuck is wrong with you? You can't just dump our baby over some argument you completely imagined!"
"Oh, imagined did I? Remind me where you are right now?" Nick scoffed.
"On a plane back to you! Nick, how-" Harry's voice cut off as Nick just gave up and pulled the phone battery out.
He sat for a second, perfectly still, as the cars whizzed past on the motorway, then he screamed.
He hit the steering wheel and his chest and the floor, and yanked on his hair and the seatbelt; he voice was a noise he'd never heard before, like an animal in pain, and somehow far away from himself. He beat his arms until his voice went hoarse and dull and his tears dried up.
What have you done?
Harry's heart was thudding as he let himself in through the back door, had been since he had heard his mum's voicemail those unbelievably few hours ago; it felt like a fucking lifetime. Bee was in her highchair, and she stretched out her arms to him with a happy gurgle of recognition. Despite himself, he smiled.
"Heya, Bug," he said softly, lifting her into his arms and holding her as tight and as close as he dared. His mum wasn't in the kitchen, but he could hear the running of the tap in the downstairs bathroom, so he didn't give into the sob building under his throat. "You're okay, Pea Pod?"
Against his chest, Bee mumbled something and tucked herself into his jacket.
"Yeah, me too," he said and sank to the floor, cradling her so they could see each other. "What do we do about your dad, hey?"
"Aah," she said sadly, and grabbed tight to his finger. Her brow was furrowed in just the same way Nick's did when he was upset.
"Good point," he croaked out, and leaned down to kiss her forehead, then just decided to lay down there on the kitchen floor with her. She wriggled, and kicked against his chest, and pulled on his hair, and he couldn't look away.
Nick didn't even cry as he drove, or seethe with anger, or even feel spitefully vindicated; he didn't feel much of anything at all really, going at a pretty regular speed and paying a regular amount of attention and taking his regular route. If it wasn't for the lack of music, it would have seemed a very regular moment to an outsider.
I have failed as a father, Nick thought calmly, and, huh, interesting. No response.
I've fucked everything up, he thought, rephrasing it slightly. Once again, he felt nothing about that, almost like he'd known it long ago and now wasn't surprised that the other shoe was finally dropping.
Next junction's my turn, he thought with the same emotional involvement as the previous two statements, and he moved into the exit lane.
It was a quarter past six when he pulled into a parking spot and got out the car, automatically going round to the passenger side before remembering there was no baby to extract from her car seat. A quick glance around showed no parking meters, so he just locked the car and took advantage of his long legs as he speed-walked down the road. When he came to the shop he had only been subconsciously aiming for, he found a girl locking up the front door.
"Err, hi," Nick said loudly, and she looked up, startled. Nick winced a bit as he realised how this must look, random strange guy running up to you on a dark street, but after a second she seemed to recognise him.
"Hello," she said, "you're Nick Grimshaw. I used to listen to you on the radio."
"Yeah," Nick said, "I mean, thanks."
"You had a baby with our Harry," she said, and maybe girl wasn't quite the right word for her age, but she was definitely younger than Nick and for sure not old enough to have worked at the bakery when Harry was working there. Our Harry.
"Yeah," Nick said lamely and there was an awkward pause for a few seconds as he tried to force his thoughts into some semblance of an order.
"Can I help you with anything, or...?" She turned away slightly, obviously trying to remind him that she was the only person left after locking up at work and probably just wanted to go home and have dinner.
"Sorry, yeah, this is weird, I mean, I just-" Nick ran a hand through his hair and huffed out a breath, "what's your name?"
She looked up at him with guarded eyes now. "Sarah."
"Sarah, great, pleased to meet you," Nick tried to go for some of his public persona charm but he could tell it was falling short. "Can you teach me how to bake?"
Whatever Sarah had been expecting, it wasn't that. "What?"
"I wanna, uh, bake a cake? But I don't know how, and I don't exactly have access to a kitchen at the moment, so I, uh," he gestured to the door they were standing at, "thought of you guys?"
"You want me to teach you how to bake," she repeated, and, yeah, it sounded mad when Nick heard it out loud.
"Or just to, like, help me with making, like, just one cake, I mean," Nick said, losing confidence with every word, "never mind, forget it, I'll just, uh, sorry." He turned to go.
"I'm not one of the bakers, I just work at the counter," she said and Nick looked back at her.
"Harry was only a shop assistant," Nick said with a small smile, "still calls himself a baker, though." For some reason, that thought was the last stone needed to change the course of the river, and Nick actually felt the dam of his ribs crack. "I fucked up, Sarah."
"You look like you definitely think you did," she said, and her face was gentle like Alexa's got when she was holding Aimee's kids. Softly, she put a hand on Nick's arm and he clung to that feeling just to stay standing against the overdue rush of his grief; all he'd had was anger before. "I only know how to bake like a normal person, it won't be professional at all."
"But you'll help?" Nick croaked out.
"You buy the takeout for dinner and I'll help." Sarah offered her hand. "Deal?"
"Okay," Nick said wetly and shook on it as they both pretended he wasn't wiping away tears with his other hand. "How's deliveroo round here?"
"There's a decent Indian up the road, we can just call them," Sarah said, and she unlocked the door once more.
"I'm just gunna have a smoke," Nick said quickly, "order what you want and I'll pay when it gets here, yeah?"
She nodded. "I'll start setting up then."
"Okay, cool," Nick said, and tried to infuse his voice with honesty, "really though, thanks."
One foot in the door, she stopped and looked at him openly, searching his face for something. "Just give me Rita Ora's number and we'll be even," she said, deadpan, and closed the door behind herself before Nick could work out if she was joking.
He huffed out a laugh just in case then lit up a cigarette for plausible deniability, even though he didn't really feel like one right now. He shivered a little as he blew smoke into the unusually cold air, and looked up at the stars you couldn't see in London. It wasn't like there was a million more here, really, even though it was a clear night. He tried to work out which one was the plough but after a minute of struggling to tell one collection of whiteish dots from another, he gave up.
He stubbed out his cigarette only half smoked and watched a couple of cars drive past, headlights slightly blinding after his attempts at stargazing. He blinked against the flares they left imprinted on his eyelids. When they faded, he told himself, he would go inside and make a great fucking cake and fix this fucking mess.
"What a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation," Nick said to himself with his best Jake Gyllenhaal impersonation, which was, admittedly, not very good. He had a better Heath Ledger in him if he was being honest. "If you can't fix it Jack, you gotta stand it." Then he laughed at himself and shook his head ruefully, because this was too much of a cliché moment even for him, and went into the bakery.
It was almost 9:30 when he and Sarah locked up the bakery again, parting ways with a big hug and a waived offer to actually give her Rita's number. Nick had glanced at his car only for a second before deciding to walk the ten minutes it would take to get to Anne's; three minutes in the car was definitely not long enough to work out what he was going to say.
Except apparently neither was ten, because he was rounding the corner now and he was shaking because of the cold and the nerves and he was worried he was going to drop the cake box so he was carrying it like he carried Bee, gingerly and holding too fucking tight, and he was having to gulp in air and he couldn't tear his eyes from the ground so he didn't actually notice that anyone was standing outside the house until-
Nick stopped short at the end of the driveway. "Harry?" His voice was thin.
Harry leapt forwards, then stopped, remembering Bee cradled in his arms, so he took three long strides forward then hesitated again because Nick hadn't moved towards him at all.
They stared at each other for a long moment.
"I've got some-"
"-thing for you."
Nick shifted from foot to foot, still 3 metres away, still not coming closer. He was holding a familiar white box like a shield in front of his chest. "I made, uh... This is for you."
Harry didn't move, suddenly hung up on the fact that he had run down the drive for Nick; Nick was going to have to walk the last few steps himself. "You made my mum cry."
Nick winced. "Sorry."
"You disappeared for, like, 7 hours," Harry said, and he didn't even try to keep the accusation out of his voice. "We didn't even know if you were ever coming back."
"Of course I was," Nick whispered, eyes fixed on the ground between them.
"Well, it wasn't that obvious to the rest of us," Harry said, studying Nick's drawn features, but Nick was hard to read when he retreated like this. "Your daughter's been quiet all day."
At that, Nick huffed out a breath and his face went entirely blank. "Well, that's good to hear, glad to see she's good so long as I'm gone."
"Oh, come off it, Nick," Harry said, too tired to put real heat in the words, "quiet doesn't mean good."
"If all she did was scream at you, you'd probably feel different," Nick snapped.
"She tells you how she's feeling! She laughs, she cries! She doesn't trust anyone else to look after her the way she trusts you!" Harry tamped down the urge to stamp his foot in frustration. "How can you not get that? She doesn't trust me like that, and apparently neither do-" Harry's throat closed up and he would never forgive his body for making him start yet not letting him finish that sentence.
"I tell you how I'm feeling all the time!" Nick hissed, taking a step closer, and Harry held his breath. "You know I love you, and you know how fucking hard I'm finding this, and you know how much I hate that you're going off on a world tour already, and you know I'm trying so much to-"
"It's one concert, Nick! Red nose day single and one concert!" Harry interrupted. "I know you miss your job, and we'll work out a way to fix that for you, but this solves it! One last hurrah and we're done!"
"One concert?" Nick repeated, and he was finally looking at Harry.
"Yes, you idiot," Harry sighed, "one fucking concert."
"We'll work it out?" Nick asked quickly, "my career?"
"Yes!" Harry said, not sure why they needed to have circular conversations all the god damn time. "Obviously cold turkey from work isn't doing it for you, so we'll fix it!"
They stared at each other as Harry watched things click into place behind Nick's eyes, filling them in a way they hadn't been filled in a long time.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. He was still standing so far away and all the fight drained from Harry.
"It's fine," he said, "wasn't the first time you've been an idiot, won't be the last, just... Take a leaf from this one's book, yeah? Just tell me next time, Nicholas, yeah?"
"As soon as they start going wrong," Nick promised, and he hesitated once more before crossing the gap in two long steps and taking Bee into his arms, replacing her with the box Harry had all but forgotten about. "I'm so sorry, Bee, this is going to get better, I'll be better." He kissed her forehead, her nose, her cheeks, until she was giggling. Nick was laughing too, quiet and dry.
Harry watched until he couldn't bear it, looking away like he'd been trying to stare at the sun, and his gaze landed on the box in his hands. He could draw that logo blindfolded, W. Mandeville Grocer and Baker.
"Did you buy me an apology cake?" He asked, incredulous, as he lifted the lid.
"Didn't buy one, no," Nick said, voice reserved.
The cake in the box definitely would not have met sale standards, and Harry couldn't help but grin at it. It was a lopsided sponge cake with watery looking pink icing drizzled on top; in wobbly green handwriting, the words were probably closest to WeLcoMe hbMe Hanny. "You made me a cake?" He whispered.
"I went to your bakery for help," Nick said, and he actually looked nervous.
"You absolute prick," Harry said honestly, and pulled his close for a kiss, each of them balancing a daughter or a cake in their spare arm.
They went into the house after that to cut up the cake, and as Harry fetched a knife, Nick bounced Bee on his lap.
"It's way past your bedtime, we're gunna be truly fucked tomorrow," he told her, "so in for a penny, as they say, would you like some icing?"
"It's a special occasion," Harry agreed, sliding a plate with a generous slice in front of Nick.
"H'grrm," Bee said, after a little deliberation.
Nick dipped a little bit of the icing onto his finger and wiped it into Bee's tiny palm, since they were trying to wean her off sticking other people's fingers in her mouth. He and Harry shared a grin as she lead her exploration with her tongue.
"Haz?" They all looked up to see Anne hovering in the doorway, decidedly not looking at Nick. "Can I have a word?"
"Sure, mum," Harry said easily, using Nick's shoulder to pull himself back up and following her into the corridor, his body language telegraphing ease and comfort.
Nick deliberately didn't eavesdrop, focussing on Bee and the little noises she made as he entertained her with small tickles to the tummy. Her giggles were delighted and almost cartoonish in their cuteness, and Nick wondered about what Harry had said outside. The way she trusts you.
"Maybe I'm not doing so bad," he whispered to her, and it was the first time he'd ever said anything like that aloud.
Bee smiled sleepily.
"She's going to bed, obviously we're allowed to stay another night," Harry said, coming back into the kitchen and picking his own plate off the side on the way. "Reckon we should make a move late tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, sounds good," Nick said, "she not coming to say night night?"
Harry smiled softly as he sat back down next to Nick. "Give her time, love. Probably wouldn't hurt to apologise either." There was no bitterness in his voice, and not for the first time tonight, Nick wondered what he'd done to deserve someone like Harry.
"I'll never stop being sorry for this, it was dumb, and cruel, and let's be honest, it's probably not over yet." Nick said bluntly.
Harry seemed to struggle with himself for a second, then he pressed a fierce kiss to Nick's lips and barely leaned back as he spoke against his cheek, "it was understandable and you're forgiven."
Nick cupped the back of his head and kissed him again, because there were no words for this. When they broke apart, Harry was smiling.
"But you're right, it's not over, and you are definitely going to start seeing a therapist, okay?"
"But I-" Nick started to protest, then shrunk under Harry's hard stare. "Yes."
"Thank you," Harry said, hippie parent voice in full force.
There was silence except for the clink of forks on plates and deep breathing from Bee who had, inexplicably, fallen asleep straight after eating the icing.
"It's good cake," Harry said after a minute, "how did you manage that?"
"I may have been relegated to decoration duties only," Nick admitted, sure that Harry was also remembering the cake he'd tried to make for Pixie's birthday a few years ago that had come out resembling nothing so much as a burnt calzone.
"Nicholas Grimshaw, letting someone help?" Harry laughed with a shock that probably wasn't entirely fabricated.
"Shut up," Nick grinned, nudging their thighs together under the table, "I'm trying to make it a habit."