She was two thirds into a pint of cider at the local when Nick felt everything change. It was a Thursday in late April and work had been absolute hell, but that was nothing compared to what happened that evening. Louis had been part way through describing the antics of the girls at her work when Eleanor had appeared out of nowhere, her hand sliding over Louis’ shoulder before she leant in for a kiss that Louis happily returned. Confusion and hurt washed through Nick and she felt the hot sting of jealousy mix with the low grade burn of heartache that sat heavily in her stomach. Louis hadn’t even mentioned Eleanor before, except when she told stories about work, nothing that indicated this.
“Sorry,” Louis said quietly, leaning forward on her elbows so Nick could hear her over the table when Eleanor disappeared to use the ladies room. “I know that probably came as a shock.”
Shrugging her shoulders, Nick used her straw to mix her vodka-diet-coke and waited for Louis to tell the whole story. It was a disgustingly sweet account of the two of them bonding at work over the Metro’s Rush Hour Crush every day and Eleanor taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and putting her own advertisement in there only two days earlier. Nick’s stomach sank and she felt wretchedly nauseous but she smiled through it, congratulating Louis on bagging a lovely girl moments before Eleanor returned to the table.
“And then,” Eleanor said, giggling into her wine glass before she sobered just enough to finish her story. “And then! Louie here, she just turned bright red and I’ve never seen her so shy! but she agreed to go out to dinner with me and now we’re here, so it all worked out.”
Nick smiled thinly, shaking her head as if the story were as terribly endearing as Eleanor had made it out to be. Louis was one of Nick’s dearest friends and she had to be supportive here but if anything she was worried about Louis’ careless behaviour. Dating someone from work was never a good idea and the last thing they needed was Louis out of work, again. She was so lost in her own thoughts that Nick missed the subject change. When she managed to follow the line of conversation she was almost shocked to find Louis and Eleanor were talking about a Brave New World. Nick turned her nose up when Eleanor mentioned that she preferred Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Quietly watching Eleanor and Louis’ rapid fire discussion of books, film and television, Nick was mildly surprised to find that not only was Eleanor a disarmingly lovely girl, she was smarter, wittier and funnier than Nick had thought she would be. Draining her glass, Nick could easily see how Louis had fallen for her.
“I’m gonna head off,” Nick said, faking a yawn for effect as she stood. She’d just interrupted Eleanor mid-sentence about some poet laureate that Nick had never head of. “Got work in the mornin’ an all.”
Eleanor grinned up at Nick, her brown eyes wide and glassy, her lips stained dark plum-red from the wine. Nick felt an odd stabbing pain in her gut; Eleanor looked so damned kissable. If she hadn’t been here with Louis, if Louis hadn’t just been kissing Eleanor, Nick may have tried to convince Eleanor into her bed. The thought made her bak, guilt running through her like cold water down her back. Louis was watching her, an odd gleam in her eye that Nick couldn’t read. Brushing her hair off of her face with the palms of her hands, Nick quirked an eyebrow at Louis who just pursed her lips, looking momentarily disappointed before she looked back at Eleanor, one hand high on Eleanor’s thigh.
“Nice meeting you, El,” Nick added. “I’m sure I’ll see you ‘round a lot more now.”
Eleanor waved one limp-wristed hand at Nick, a dopey smile on her lips that Nick belatedly realised were moving. Nick missed what she said. Throwing Louis a small, tight smile, Nick hurried out of the door, catching her hip on a barstool on the way out.
During the short walk home, Nick felt like her chest was too tight and her eyes burned. Her breath caught in a stuttering sob when her key caught in the front door and the door handle hit her hip in the same place where the barstool had. Crying out a soft whimper, Nick tried to stave off the impending panic attack that was building inside her like a storm. It felt like a lifetime of slow breaths with her eyes closed until she felt like she could breathe properly again, her chest more like a rumbling clap of thunder than a too tight spring.
Stumbling into the bathroom, Nick stepped out of her jeans and pulled her vest top over her head, leaving it to puddle on the floor with the damp towels and dirty clothes. This day had been inevitable but it didn’t stop from hurting her any less.
They had been the most unlikely of housemates, Nick and Louis. They’d met as students at Goldsmiths through mutual friends and initially they had detested each other. One night at the Student Union Harry had put it down to their similar personalities which had only caused more tension between the two of them. It wasn’t until Nick had been down on her luck and needed somewhere to stay that things had changed; she ended up sharing a ten-bedroom house in South-East London with Harry, Louis and a handful of their friends. Being the only two girls in the house they formed a truce of sorts, after finding Niall’s dirty undies in the sink, late one night over two day old pizza and coffee while cramming for exams. When uni ended and Harry moved further into the city to be closer to his new job as underling to some hoity-toity law firm, Louis and Nick ended up moving into a small two bed flat in New Cross, away from rowdy boys who kept their dirty socks in the refrigerator.
That had been two years ago and Nick had gotten so used to Louis being hers. She’d entertained those fantasies that came at three am, the ones where she told Louis how she felt. Nick had lived for those moments. The ones where her mind supplied her with endless possibilities and where Louis loved her back. The quiet moments where she could dream of their friendship blossoming into a beautiful relationship where the only difference would be that she would be able to curl up beside Louis at the end of a long day, that she’d get to kiss and touch and have Louis for all the world to see.
Louis had Eleanor for that now, and like it or not, Nick was going to have to watch another girl love Louis. The thought, made worse by the memories of Louis kissing Eleanor at the pub, made Nick feel ill.
Standing in front of the full length mirror in just her underwear, Nick made a face. She was tall and she had long, dark hair, like Eleanor, but that was where the similarities ended. Stepping out of her underwear and unclasping her bra, Nick looked at herself in the mirror. She turned to the left, and then the right before trying to get a good view of her own bum.
Scrutinising herself, Nick noted that her breasts were small, less than a handful in her own hands but they sagged in a way that made her self-conscious. Dragging her hands down over her stomach, Nick pouted at and patted the small paunch before her hands drifted over to her hips. There was no definition there, just the slightest flare from her waist. her hips were so bony that she could see the hard jut of her pelvis in the mirror, Nick made a fact that only got worse as her eyes drifted down to her legs. They were skinny little things, too long and gangly to be considered attractive, just like her arms.
Nick saved examining her face for last. She saw it every morning when she swiped a thin line of eyeliner across her lids and smudged lipstick across her lips. There were tears in her eyes as she made herself take a proper look and took in her long her face was. It had been years since anyone had called her horse-face but the insult came to mind like a blaring siren. Her face really was too long, mottled with freckles that no foundation could completely cover and her eyes were far too big for her face. Biting back a sob, Nick felt disgust and distorted clarity move over her. Compared to Eleanor she was hideous.
Covering her mouth to muffle the sharp sound that rose in her throat, Nick watched her body shake with the force of emotion that poured out of her.
Later she would claim the need for change, but Nick could’t honestly say what made her pick up the pair of scissors off of the vanity. Desperation and disgust fought for prominence as she hacked at her long hair with the blunt scissors. By the time she was done her hair was ninety-percent gone, uneven and so very, very short that the tears came faster and thicker.
Nick’s face was splotchy, wet with tears that wouldn’t stop falling when she looked at herself in the mirror. The face looking back at her was full of sorrow and regret that it made the heartache all the worse. She barely recognised herself without her almost trademark hair. Sure it was the same long face and too-thin body with a puffy stomach staring back at her but Nick would bet good money that if she were to walk past Harry or Aimee or any of her other close friends on the street, none of them would recognise her.
Oddly pleased, and mildly distraught by that, Nick cleaned up the bathroom disposing of her hair before she trudged down the hall and climbed into bed. Burrowing herself under the layers of sheets and thin blankets, Nick pushed her fingers into the afghan rug her mum had made and sent down when she’d first moved to London five years earlier. Curling up tight beneath the blankets, Nick wrapped one arm tight around her ribs, her hand feeling at the bony ribs and hips, her fingertips catching the bruising skin at her hip. Whimpering at the physical pain that melded with the emotional distress, Nick closed her eyes to try and sleep. She couldn’t be awake when Louis bought Eleanor back. she could listen to that.
Nick tossed and turned until the front door opened, her heart going still in her chest until she registered only one set of footsteps in the hall. Louis hadn’t brought Eleanor home. There was the briefest moment of relief that suffused her as she listened to Louis quietly get ready for bed and she belatedly realised that Louis’ careful movements in the next room were for her benefit. Louis thought she was fast asleep.
It wasn’t until Nick heard Louis’ soft snores about twenty minutes later that her own heavy eyes started to close.
At six the next morning Nick called in sick for work. her mostly sleepless night and the exhaustion of crying on and off all night gave her a convincing husky voice and cough that her boss didn’t even question her. Nick hid in her room, moping quietly in bed until she heard Louis hustle out of the front door shortly after eight-thirty.
She felt pathetic and hated herself even more for hiding away. Not that it stopped her from texting Harry at lunchtime about crashing at his place that evening. Nick rationalised it that she just needed a few days away to adjust and get used to this very new situation in her life.
Dressed in a pair of leopard print legging and an oversized t-shirt with Dr. Dre on the front, Nick was standing over the kitchen sink on her third bowl of Coco Pops when Louis crashed through the front door. At two in the afternoon, the last person Nick had expected was to run into Louis who was supposed to be at work.
“What are you doing here?” Nick asked, her tone a lot sharper than she had meant it to be.
Louis recoiled slightly before catching herself. “Why are you here?” She threw back before adding, “What happened to your hair?”
Running fingers self-consciously through her hair, Nick licked her lips. “I felt like a change,” she whispered, the last part catching in the back of her throat.
Louis looked confused but her expression was once again something that Nick couldn’t decipher and she hated it. Louis wa s the only person in the world who she could count on to know exactly what she was thinking. “I like it,” Louis said, softly. “Not feeling good, babe?” Louis asked. She was across the kitchen, her palm at the base of Nick’s skull to check for temperature before Nick could blink.
“Migraine,” Nick lied, stepping to the side and out of Louis’ personal space.
Louis frowned at that, Nick not quite entirely sure if it’s her moving or that blatant lie so she spooned a too-large mouthful of cereal into her mouth to distract herself.
“I forgot my purse,” Louis said, one hand at her forehead as if she’s trying to wipe the frown from her face. “I’ve got dinner tonight with El so I thought I’d pick it up on my lunch break...”
Nick nodded slowly, swallowing painfully around the lump that’s formed in the back of her throat. It kills a part of her to ask but she put it down to masochism or being a good friend - they’re both the same thing at this point anyway. “Anywhere nice?” she asked, pushing her eyebrows up to highlight her interest.
Lou beamed at that and it felt a lot like a sucker-punch that drew all the oxygen from her body and it hurt. Louis told her all about this place in Fitzrovia 'that’s a bit pricey but El loves,' and Nick just smiles, painfully politely, while pushing soggy Coco Pops around her bowl. Just like that Nick is no longer hungry and all she wants to do is go back to bed and cry.
Louis’ phone chirruped in her hand and she looked down at her screen with soft, fond smile while Nick dumped the contents of her bowl in the bin.
“You like El, right?” Louis asked casually, looking up from her phone. The question is so casual that if she were asking anyone other than Nick it would seem innocuous. But it is Nick and she can tell, unfortunately for her, how concerned Lou is.
“Of course!” Nick said quickly, too quickly and with too much enthusiasm. “She’s lovely and funny and smart, Lou,” Nick adds, slower and less like it was killing her to admit how wonderful Eleanor is. “She’s a proper looker, too. you’ve done good, Lou.”
Louis’ cheeks flushed at that. She’s thoroughly embarrassed and pleased at the same and Nick is so painfully in love with her.
“I was worried,” Louis said quietly on a breath. “You left so quickly and you were so quiet last night, I just thought that, you know...”
Nick felt the stirrings of guilt gnaw at her insides. Drawing Louis into a hug, Nick pressed her lips to the soft, sweet skin where Louis’ neck met her shoulder like she always did and sighed softly.
“Don’t be silly, Buttercup. I just wasn’t feeling well. Your girl is beyond lovely.” Nick explained, her voice whisper soft to try and disguise any emotion that might give her away. She could feel the soft curves of Louis’ body against her body, hear the soft and steady inhale, exhale of Louis’ breathing. Worst of all she could feel the moment Louis relaxed. Nick silently cursed herself, she was such an unbearable. “I promise I’ll be more like regular ole Nick next time I see her.”
Nick felt Louis smile against her cheek and closed her eyes.
Squishing Louis tighter to her before letting go, Nick tried to tell herself she that it was time. She needed to get over Louis and she would. Louis deserved a good friend and Nick couldn’t be a good friend if she was still in love with her.
“You fuck’n knew this was gon’ happen, di’n’t you?” Nick asked. She meant it to come out stern and accusingly but the hiccup in the middle and whiny tone ruined that.
Harry raised a single eyebrow over his glass and Nick swore at him. How dare Harry be so, so, so, so sober. How dare Harry pity her. That was the expression that flittered around the corners of Harry’s eyes at Nick’s outburst.
“Knew what?” Harry asked, his voice calm and measured and Nick really hated him right now.
“You knew that I was in love with Lou,” Nick said softly, unable to stop her face from falling or her eyes from filling with tears. “An’ you knew that Lou was falling for Eleanor.”
In Nick’s opinion Harry at least had the good grace about himself to look repentant.
“I had a feeling,” Harry hedged, shifting uncomfortably when Nick starts to bawl.
It’s not the first time she’s cried in front of Harry but this time it was very different. Crying over exams and dissertations and missed deadlines for work placement was completely and utterly different to have your heart obliterated.
“Nick,” Harry cooed, pulling Nick against his chest for a cuddle. “Sweetheart, please don’t cry. It’ll all be okay.”
Nick was stinking drunk but she knew bullshit when she heard it. She’d started drinking on the bus on the way over to Harry’s and Harry had found her sitting on the side of the road, a half-drunk bottle of vodka between her thighs a few hours ago now. She knew that drinking wasn’t going to solve anything, that if anything it was going to make everything worse but she was rubbish at dealing with her feelings.
“I’m such a fuck up,” Nick whined into Harry’s neck. “Who just goes and falls for their flatmate?”
Scrubbing her sore eyes with the backs of her hands, Nick looked up at Harry and felt a fresh wave of tears ready to burst.
“You’re not a fuck up, Nick,” Harry barked, the sharp sound sending Nick over the edge.
Nick had no idea what to do with herself, she wasn’t naturally weepy. She tried to bury her face against Harry’s chest to hide her shame and her unrepentant tears, but she found herself gasping for breath and ended up sitting awkwardly on the edge of Harry’s sofa, sobbing into her hands.
Harry’s hand rubbed slow, gentle circles against her back. She understood the helplessness he was feeling. It was usually her who was comforting Louis when she got worked up and there was nothing to do or say until she’d cried it out.
“Nick, babe, why don’t we get some sleep and talk this out over brekkie?” Harry suggested. “You’re exhausted and I’ll make you pancakes in the morning.”
Hiccoughing against her wrist, Nick looked at Harry and took a deep breath, “This is your fault,” she whined. “If it wasn’t for you I’d never have met her and this never would’ve happened.”
She felt horrible laying the blame at Harry’s feet but the guilt at making him feel bad for a few moments wasn’t enough to stop her from moaning at him.
“But you’d never have met Niall, or known the pleasure of dancing to Cheryl Cole at three am during exam time,” Harry countered, completely nonplussed by Nick’s attempt.
“Why is she so wonderful?” Nick asked, blubbering all over again. “Why did she have to be the most gorgeous girl I’ve ever seen and the most intriguing and so, so, so perfect?” Pressing her forearm across her eyes, Nick bit hard into her bottom lip to stop herself from sobbing harder. “This is the shittest feeling in the world, Hazza. I feel like my insides are trying to become outsides and I don’t know how to stop feeling like the world is ending.”
Glancing at Harry, Nick tried to read him. He’d broken up with Caroline a few months ago. She was a charming girl a few years older than him who worked in the corporate law sector at Harry’s law firm. They’d been disgustingly beautiful together and they’d seemed so happy. Harry said it had been a mutual decision but Nick had seen how much it had hurt him.
“It gets easier, love,” Harry murmured. Nick watched him lean in, closing her eyes when Harry pressed his lips to her brow. “It’s the most overused sentiment in the world but it gets easier. It sucks to begin with and then one day you wake up and it’s a little easier. It keeps going like that until you wake up and there’s just a dull ache that goes away when you put your feel on the ground and get on with it.
Curling into Harry’s side, Nick stroked one hand down Harry’s arm until he looked at her. Hiving him a small, pathetic excuse for a smile, Nick laid her head on Harry’s shoulder.
“Thank you, H. For letting me come over and blub on you, for being a good friend,” Nick said, wiping her wet cheek against Harry’s shirt. “For letting me use your nice work shirt like a tissue.”
“You’re disgusting, Nick,” Harry said with a surprised bark of laughter.
“Dunno what I’d do with you.”
Harry wrapped his arms tight around Nick and squeezed, his lips pressed tight to her hairline.
“You’d have Aimz and Henry to cry on,” Harry pointed out.
Laughing, a short, wet sound, Nick swiped her hand down her face before wrapped her hands around Harry’s forearms. “You’re definitely going to make me pancakes in the morning? I’m sad enough already, Harry, don’t make promises you don’t intend keeping.”
“If I don’t make them, we can go to Hoxton and go to The Breakfast Club or something,” Harry reassured her. “I’ll get you pancakes, darling. And bacon and all the black coffee you can drink.”
Yawning, into Harry’s arm, Nick pouted up at Nick. “You’re not gonna make me sleep on the couch are you?”
“You just want in my bed, you minx!” Harry said, laughing loudly.
“True,” Nick agreed, humming softly as she wriggled out of Harry’s arms. “No funny business though, I just want, no need, cuddles.”
Harry shook his head and looked like he was going to start laughing at any moment. “C’mon then, Miss Grimshaw. You know the way.”
Taking Harry by the hand, Nick led the way to Harry’s bedroom. She stole one of Harry’s t-shirts to sleep in and quickly got changed in the bathroom before climbing into Harry’s cushy bed. Nick wriggled down until her feet were over the edges and pulled Harry’s arm across her middle. “You’re the best friend a girl could ask for, H.” Nick mumbled.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” Harry agreed, turning so that he was pressed up flat against Nick’s back.
The warm comfort brought tears to Nick’s eyes and before she could help herself she was sobbing in Harry’s arms again. She felt Harry press his lips to the back of her head, his arms holding her tighter while she fell apart under the care of her dear friend.
It only lasted for a few minutes, exhaustion giving way to small, hiccuping sighs as she tucked herself further into Harry’s embrace. “I’m sorry, H,” Nick said, her sleep filled voice slurred.
“You’ll be okay, Nick, I promise.” Harry whispered, peppering the back of her neck with kisses.