It takes nearly an hour to pluck up the courage to pick up the phone and call Nick. It’s been weeks of scrolling through names, hovering over Nick’s and moving on to do something different, something else. Harry wonders when he and Nick stopped speaking every week and became calls Harry almost made and voicemails left unanswered for days. Even though it’s hardly been any time at all in the grand scheme of things, it’s like a lifetime has passed since they last had a proper chat.
Some days it's as though everything that happened took place in another universe. The kind where summers never seem to end yet finish before they really get started. Those universes are filled with boys called Harry and boys called Nick, in a thousand iterations of themselves, but always, somehow, together. Those boys party their way into other dimensions, sing karaoke in infinite space and dance with the stars. They lose hours to a blur of frantic nights, hurried kisses and they never know the endless ache of wanting impossible things. Harry craves it, sometimes. He loses himself in daydreams of meeting Nick at a TK-Maxx in Manchester in a world without paparazzi or fame. They have a small house with a cat, two dogs and spend evenings watching Bake Off. Everyone is alive, nobody dies and time makes space for them. It's a different kind of future, but it's a nice one. There's something safe about imagining it, like putting on comfortable clothes after a long day.
Nick’s voice jolts Harry from his thoughts. He seems distracted, voice tinny with distance. “Okay, love?”
The endearment lands like a dagger and Harry wonders when love became just another word Nick can say to Harry without stumbling at all.
“I’m coming back to London.” Harry draws a breath, hands sweating. “For a while.”
“It’ll be good, that.” Nick sounds happy and there’s an easy confidence in his voice, as if someone's making him smile. The dogs ruff and rustle in the background and Nick murmurs something under his breath, before moving through the house. Harry used to know the layout of the Primrose Hill flat as well as he knew his own home. Now a door closing is just another door. Kitchen, living room, dining room. Harry doesn’t know anymore. He hasn’t been to Nick’s in ages and he’s had work done since the last time they ate curry in the kitchen and Harry gave the dogs presents in an attempt to buy their affections with fancy L.A. toys. “I’m doing dinner,” Nick says. “I’m a proper chef these days.”
“You’ve always been good at that,” Harry replies. He clutches his phone tighter and looks at his feet. White socks, toes curling against another strange hotel room floor. “They should give you a book.”
“It’s what I’ve been saying!” Nick laughs and the pans clatter in the background. “They should pay me millions. I could be the next Ramsey. Go and shout at people for leaving their lobsters out of the fridge or summat. I could be a proper fancy chef like that ex of yours, taking photos of quinoa and kale.”
Harry winces. A flirty response hovers on the tip of his tongue, but he bites it back. Nick isn’t Harry’s to flirt with anymore. There are new boundaries, fresh lines drawn in the sand that even the oceans between them won’t wash away.
“I’d like to see you.” Harry stumbles over his words, for reasons he can’t understand. Nick used to make him nervous, but it’s been a long time since he’s had his heart pitter-pattering in his chest over a chat on the phone. “Can I?”
There’s a pause just short enough that Harry wonders if he imagined it.
“Yeah, obviously.” Nick is quieter now. “Come round for your tea, I’ll do you one of my new recipes.”
“Sounds good.” Harry fiddles with the duvet and stretches out on the bed, watching the ceiling. “You at home?”
“Yeah. We’re having a quiet night in. The dogs are being needy and Alan Carr’s on the telly.”
Harry swallows because it’s we now, is it? He knew but hearing it out loud doesn’t hurt any less. He wants Nick to find his person. He told him once you’re going to make someone a lovely husband, Grim and Nick ruffled his hair and said maybe one day I’ll marry you, popstar, if you play your cards right. Harry wants all good things for Nick, but there’s a sting to the way the tentatively open door now seems so firmly closed.
“You sound happy.” Harry tries not to sound as sad about it as he feels. He really, really wants Nick to be happy. He really does. The selfish part of him that wants Nick to be happy with Harry also knows that it’s not their time, that perhaps it never will be. There’s still so much Harry has to do, so much he wants to see, so many lives he wants to live.
“I am. Dead happy.” The sound of Annie Mac is faint in the background and Nick laughs at something she says that Harry can’t quite catch. “Love Annie. When’s the Queen going to have to put the flags up for Harry Styles coming back to London?”
Harry turns on his side and stares at the wall. “In a week, I think. Should be back for a while.”
“Doing fancy popstar things?” Nick’s voice is so familiar, so warm. Harry misses it like he misses home, misses the days they could go to Tesco’s and curl up with Puppy on the sofa, hidden away from prying eyes.
“Something like that. A bit of modelling, maybe.” Despite his mood, Harry’s ready for Nick’s laugh and he grins when Nick responds as expected. “Stop taking the piss.”
“Can’t help it.” Nick curses when something clatters to the floor. There’s another mumble in the background and one of the dogs barks. “Pig’s chasing her own tail.”
“She’s a good girl.” Harry swallows around the lump in his throat, his voice rough from the ache in his chest that he can’t seem to shift.
“Are you sure everything’s okay?” Nick’s concern makes Harry feel like a tit. It's stupid to stubbornly cling onto something that wasn’t his to hold onto in the first place.
“Everything’s fine. It’s good, man.” Harry steadies his voice, pouring every last bit of conviction into the reassurance. He doesn’t want Nick to worry about him. There’s nothing to worry about after all. It’s just Harry getting lost in his thoughts, the way he sometimes does when he’s miles away from home.
Tomorrow the world will shift imperceptibly, and the day will have a different air to it. His fancy loafers won’t look quite so lonely by themselves on the hotel room floor. He’ll text someone he’s into and take them out for dinner somewhere nobody else goes. Harry’s used to falling in love. He just always expects to fall out of it. That never happened with Nick, even though Harry’s spent long enough running in different directions to let Nick think it happened a long time ago.
“It was fun wasn’t it?” Harry’s voice catches in his throat and he can practically picture Nick frowning at the phone. “The old days?”
“Yeah.” There’s surprise and a faint edge to Nick’s voice, as if he’s annoyed with Harry bringing up the past, which perhaps he is. It’s probably not great being reminded of the things you used to get up to with your whatever Harry was while your new man tops and tails the carrots or whatever the fuck. “Singing karaoke, painting the town red. My old bones couldn’t take that kind of lifestyle now. I’m thinking of getting Botox.”
“Give over.” Harry snorts. “You don’t need it.”
“I do.” Nick laughs and it’s back to easy, familiar and safe again. The moment for reminiscing seems to have passed. “Miss you, Harold.”
It’s fond and genuine, and Nick probably means it. He just doesn’t mean it the way Harry does when he replies, “Miss you too.”
Harry doesn’t just miss Nick. He misses the way the universes he built with himself and Nick in it always included this one. He misses the door of possibility, left slightly ajar. He misses being able to call Nick up and have it turn into something—breathless dirty talk down the end of the phone on a hot, restless night. Chatting for hours, flicking through channels on the telly or putting on a film in the background. They used to be able to speak on the phone without speaking at all—the line open, just to feel connected as the miles stretched out between them. It’s probably good that they don’t do that anymore. Harry’s phone bill used to cost a fortune.
That’s the way it’s always been with Nick. Endless conversations stretching across continents, then months of wanting compressed into hours or days. Fleeting moments that they tried to make last just as long as they could. They spent so long spinning in place without really moving forwards, they were bound to start going in different directions and the hours without speaking dragged into weeks and months. It's not what they could have been that makes Harry feel so lost—they couldn’t, not then, not now even, not yet. He's not sure it's even the should have been. It’s just that Harry can’t shake the feeling that somewhere in another world, they already are. He and Nick have made it, and the thought makes his heart leap and his chest tight. It's probably some kind of zombie apocalypse knowing their luck, but he bets there’s a place where Harry and Nick got their fish and chips and shouted at the Manchester skyline without a care in the world. That Harry and Nick kiss at the end of it all, because they want to, because they can and because there aren’t any cameras. Because that Harry wasn't daft enough to stop kissing Nick, when he had the option.
“I’ll text when I land,” Harry says. The clinking of cutlery in the background lets him know that Nick’s fancy supper’s nearly done. “We’ll get coffee.”
“Do you want picking up?” Nick knows Harry doesn’t. He used to, but it’s been a long time since they’ve done that.
“I’ll get a car.”
Nick clears his throat. “I’d like you to meet him. When you’re back.”
Harry blinks. The ceiling is white and bright, the lights making his eyes sting. “I’d like to meet him too. Bye Grim, see you in a bit.”
Harry hangs up the phone and goes onto Instagram. He avoids Twitter now. There’s too much there he doesn’t want to see, but he still likes Instagram and finding stupid memes online. He clicks on Nick’s name and scrolls through the latest photographs. He looks at the pictures of a man he doesn’t know yet, next to the one he’s never been able to get out of his head. Eventually, he turns off his phone and finds something to watch on Netflix. Let’s search for romantic comedies and see what we can find.
Even the films he’s seen a million times before don’t call to him tonight, so Harry closes his laptop and picks up his notebook, covered with scribbles. The leather is faded, and the pages are almost falling apart, the book stuffed full of half-finished ideas. He imagines Nick—not his Nick, but one just like him—in a universe where anything is possible. The kind with hidden magic, dragons and demons, where people can cross oceans in a single step and find one another in a heartbeat. A universe where secrets don’t have to be secrets, where they don’t have to be buried away somewhere. Harry imagines their secrets pushing through the cracks in dried earth, green shoots blooming into flowers.
He writes himself into a romantic comedy all of his own. Out of all the possible endings, he ends up choosing one where a boy called Harry goes onstage during an open-mic night at a tatty bar in Leeds, full of students and hipsters. He can see it all so clearly it's as if he's there, lights bright on his face and bottles of beer clinking in the background. He writes quickly about a boy who hit the big time and lost the man he could have had, in another time, in another world.
He calls it 'Harry's Love Song.'