Someone is trying to use the pots and pans in the kitchen without making too much noise and making a piss poor job of it. The familiar buzz of early morning London is coming through the gap in the window and Liam would be lying if he said this was the best wake up call he’s ever had. He slips a lazy hand under his pillow to turn the alarm on his phone off and then stretches his arms above his face, wincing when his joints crack.
The screen reads half six in the morning, which means Sophia let him sleep in, bless her. He considers taking advantage of that fact and catching another couple of hours of shut eye. It’s a Friday and the most he’s got to do is a meeting over Skype with some producer from Los Angeles. Soph’s leaving for the weekend though and, while goodbyes are his least favourite thing to do, he’d feel bad without one. He counts to ten, then kicks the covers decisively away from himself.
His skin immediately breaks out in goosebumps. Teeth chattering, he hops on one foot while he gets his rattiest, oldest pair of track bottoms on and zips up a Birmingham City hoodie Sophia usually jogs in, shrugging into the hood for the illusion of extra warmth. There’s still some sleep in the corner of his eyes but the scent of tea bags left to brew too long is urging him to get up and give in to a freshly poured cup.
“Morning,” he croaks out as the stairs creak under his feet. It’s odd how he always forgets that the seventh step from the top always bows under him; after all these years, you’d expect him to know their flat like the back of his hand.
The pot on the stove hisses as he turns into the hall and Sophia smiles indulgently at him while she stirs her porridge. He makes a face at her breakfast and she returns it in kind before she purses her lip-lined mouth for a kiss.
She’s always looked beautiful in the morning. If he was ever to put a timestamp on when he fell in love with her, it was probably one early morning years ago when they’d still both wake up with a hangover.
He keeps his mouth shut while he pecks her lips, mindful of morning breath, and slides into one of the stools by the island. Her make up is lined up by the kettle - she’s always preferred the lighting in the kitchen and he honestly thinks he’ll never be tired of watching her apply blusher across her cheekbone while she makes tea. He smiles at the thought; he’s being a bit soppier than usual.
“What’s that grin about? Are you making fun of my healthy eating habits, Mr. Payne?”
He squints his eyes at her and tips the corners of his mouth back. “‘Bout you, actually. Future Mrs. Payne.” It still sounds so odd to say out loud.
She laughs, tinkering, and scoops a spoonful of porridge straight from the pan. “You’re being awfully lovely today. Miss me already?” She abandons the cutlery in the sink, scooping up her make up into the Marc Jacobs bag he’d gotten for her birthday last year. She doesn’t wait for an answer, probably because it doesn’t matter, hopefully because she already knows it. “Cab’s downstairs,” she says when she looks back up at him, eyes wide and apologetic. “Only time for a quick goodbye, I'm afraid, sleepyhead.”
Liam pouts, always prone to exaggeration because he knows she appreciates it. “Why’d you let me sleep in. I could’ve driven you.”
“Because I knew you’d offer and I’d like to get to the train station in one piece, sweetheart.” She crouches down to retrieve her briefcase and Liam would be a liar if he said he didn’t check her out. The small, curvy lines of her in a clingy skirt is still one of his favourite things.
It should be getting old, watching her and seeing her like this. He’s grateful it’s just become a habit he still indulges in.
Sophia leans over the island, one hand tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “See you Monday? Maybe Sunday night if I can make it.”
He kisses her cheek, breathing in the familiar smell of her. He shakes his head. “I’ll still be here Monday. I’d rather you took the morning train.”
She grins at him and pulls back. “There’s leftover pasta in the fridge -”
“I know -”
“- and please, can you look at that leak in the bathroom, it’s been driving me up the bloody wall -”
“- I will -”
“- and I’ll see you first thing on Monday, yeah? Love you, bye.”
He opens his mouth to say it back but the cab driver honks from down the street and Sophia gets this comically English look about her that all but spells out ‘oh, no, I’ve been less than polite’. He laughs instead, and she runs out, briefcase swinging and small leather holdall slamming by the door. He drums his fingers on the counter, listening for the revving up of a car and then it’s silent in the flat, except for the sluggish sound of the heating kicking in.
He waits for a bit, enjoying the little alone time, then sits up, eyes on the prize. There’s a box of Coco Pops on the top shelf he bought ages ago and he’s been craving some for a good week. Soph would kill him - if only because she’d be jealous - and it only adds a thrill to preparing his breakfast. He gets his ridiculous Toy Story bowl out and hums along to whatever tune he woke up to this morning as he eats his cereal. He feels a bit like he’s five years old and some part of his brain is expecting his mum to appear at the door and scold him for being late for school.
His sugar rush leads him to a second bowl - and a third but no one's to know - and he sends a Snapchat to Sophia, spoon dangling from his mouth, a thin chocolate mustache on his Cupid's bow. By the time he decides to be an adult again, he has a bunch of emails from Jamie from the studio he needs to reply to. At least he can conceivably work from home; song writing is easy enough to achieve with the wonders of Skype and a decent sound system.
He shoves the bowl into the dishwasher and grabs one of the notebooks he always has hanging around the house. This one’s in a terrible state, dog-eared and puffy, scribbled with lines of whatever Liam’s thinking about at any given time. He thumbs through it as he heads down to the basement, not shutting the door behind him because there’s no one to disturb if Soph’s not around.
His laptop is on the floor along with his guitar and something is flashing red and bright with whatever he recorded last night in a fit of creativity. He sits down with his back against the cheap Ikea couch and starts tuning his guitar, fingers pulling at the strings softly. There aren’t words yet - there never are when he first starts writing - but he goes along with it, trusting that they’ll come when they’re meant to. It’s a silly thought, but it’s always accurate of the stuff he’s most proud of.
A couple of hours later and the sugar high has turned to a sugar low. His hand starts to cramp from playing the same part over and over again and his brain is going at a snail's pace. He needs a jolt of something that isn't weak tea and he knows just the trick; there's a little coffee shop ten minutes from their place that he used to go to in Uni, when he'd be rushing a paper or lugging pieces of music he was supposed to have memorised for his final assessment. It's one of the reasons he'd been so enthusiastic about their new flat in Borough when they decided to move in together; he's always felt at his most creative in this part of London and Sophia has always enjoyed hearing his stories about it.
He abandons his guitar and shoddy writing and races up the stairs, tying up the laces of his new Nikes with fervour. There's a mirror in the hallway that tells him he shouldn't be fit to be around other humans in the state he's in - these trackies are really something awful but they're comfy and old and worn in and he can't bear the thought of letting them go. He decides against changing anyway; it's only a few minutes that people will have to put up with him for and the Americano is really worth the trouble. He grabs the keys from his coat pocket and locks the door behind him, nods a hello to their neighbour who's getting into her car. He eases himself into a run; people will be more forgiving if it looks like he's scruffy for a reason.
London in the early hours of the morning is almost peaceful, in a way it never is during the day or the weekend. There are still cars skidding along the roads, and the occasional swear word yelled in an accent you can never properly place because it’s so distinctly here, and the buses are exchanging shifts, vomit stained night buses to big bright red ones ready for commuters. It’s quiet, though, and slow moving and you could easily be fooled into thinking for a moment that the city doesn’t run at double the speed that the rest of the world does.
This is the London Liam loves best.
Sometimes he thinks it’s because he’s not from here, hasn’t lived on these streets since he was a kid, just adopted a small corner of it as his own when work and school and a sense of adventure brought him to the capital. London in the very early mornings can fool you into thinking it isn’t all that different from a small town in the Midlands; there’s the same sort of fog resting over the city, dew sticking to parked cars until someone comes along and writes hi with a finger on the passenger door; you can barely hear the traffic. As if it's stalling almost, until rush hour arrives. The few people that brave the pavement might actually nod your way, sharing a certain camaraderie with anyone who’s not sleeping at this time of day.
It’s frosty today, and he has to sidestep puddles dotting Southbank, his hands going numb before he settles into a rhythm. He pulls his hoodie closer and wraps it around himself, keeping a steady eye ahead, watching as the sun rises over London Bridge to his left. He checks his watch as he pauses, palms on his hips to catch his breath.
He goes through a mental list of the things he has to do today; he checked his emails in bed, eyes still drooping with sleep, and he fed the cats when a disgruntled pair of tails made an appearance at the end of the bed. He stretches and feels his bones crack as he makes his way towards the dome in the distance, more people joining him through the streets for their morning run.
There’s the usual influx of tourists on the bridge, most toting expensive Nikons and balancing them precariously on shoulders to get the best view of St Paul’s in the struggling sun. He winds his way past them and slips the headphones he’d forgotten around his neck into his ears.
He throws his usual fifty pence in the guitar case of the busker that’s always strumming his guitar on the winding stairs and raises his hand at the 'cheers' he hears echoing behind him. The building in front of him turns bigger and bigger and he has to squint at the sunlight that hits the poster for the Matisse exhibit. There are a couple of Spanish students dithering at the entrance of the Tate, wondering whether it’s not polite to just barge in before the official opening time. Liam has no such qualms; he’s lived nearby enough years and done this run enough early mornings to know that the guard at entrance isn’t really one to care about whether the bells have rung for ten o’clock.
He’s not appreciating the arts today though, so he moves past the gallery and heads down Sumner Street amongst the suits already making an appearance.
The burst of warmth he feels once he shoulders the swinging door of the cafe makes Liam shiver. He breathes hot air into his hands and feels the skin gone tight with cold. He could say a few harsh things about London and its ever threatening mood swings. Still, he can smell coffee beans and hear the chatter of early brunches and the jazzy soundtrack that hasn't changed since his days as a music student just across the way. It's a nice reminder.
He orders the latte, smiling at the small barista he doesn't recognise. Outside, he can see the window panes have already frozen over; he remembers the news yesterday. There was a chance of heavy snow through the weekend and by the looks of it, he's going to regret leaving the house in just a hoodie.
He thanks the girl with a nod and leaves his change in the tip box before he goes to brave the storm. He adjusts the hoodie around his neck and hip checks his way through the glass door, both hands wrapped around the cardboard cup. He blames that later, his concentration on keeping his limbs attached and the smell of coffee that’s masking the car fumes, for not looking up and slamming into the next customer.
Both of them jump back instinctively, Liam because he knows how hot the beverage is, the other bloke because he presumably assumes the same. A good quarter of the coffee splashes on the gravel and Liam’s first thought is that it’s already started snowing. The coffee makes a hissing noise on the snow and Liam blurts out an apology before he has time to really figure out whose fault it was.
“Fuck, I am so sorry -”
His brain is still stuck on the near third degree burn so the voice doesn’t register at first. He looks at the bloke with his usual polite half-frown, half-smile and the first thing he takes in is how much better suited for this weather his clothes are. He’s got a long black coat on dotted with snowflakes, and his curls are tucked under a bright blue beanie. He doesn’t recognise him even as he smiles in front of him, dimples making dents in his cheeks. It’s only when a thick blob of snow falls on top of Liam's head that his brain - ironically - unfreezes. He nearly drops his coffee all over again.
“Jesus Chr- Harry?”
Harry smiles wider, the smile Liam remembers now, the one that always seemed to take over his entire face. He finally notices the rest of him too; the cashmere sweater that looks too perfect to have been bought earlier than a half hour ago on the high street; the leather carry on with the airline sticker still stuck to it; the way Harry just seems to fit in London, even though it’s got to have been years since he’s been back here. It’s like a punch to the gut, or something less violent that still sends shockwaves through his chest. His mind is stuck on two things; Harry, Harry, Harry and here, here, here. It’s been so long since those two ideas had anything to do with each other.
“Liam sodding Payne,” Harry laughs, one arm outstretched to tap lightly on Liam’s shoulder. If he’s doing it to make sure this is real, Liam’s relieved because, like, same here, Harry. He tries to pinpoint the last time this happened, the last time they were face to face, but the memory's blurry.
“Harry sodding Styles,” Liam manages to sort his thoughts out enough to sound normal. “Wow.”
“Fancy running into you here.” Harry’s hand has turned clawlike, gripping Liam’s shoulder. Liam’s thankful for the pressure point.
“Me? What are you on about? I fucking live here. What’re you doing away from the sunshine?”
“Missed the doom and gloom,” Harry answers easily, and from anyone else it might come across as cynical, dry humour. From Harry it sounds incredibly honest. Harry’s always managed to love London exactly as you’re supposed to love it, for what it is.
Liam snorts, because for all the endearing honesty, it’s really fucking cold and it’s starting to hit rush hour around them. “‘Course you did. Wow,” he repeats. “What’s it been, like, three -?”
“Five years, six months,” Harry shrugs when Liam’s eyebrows raise. “Good memory.”
Harry’s memory was pretty shit, if Liam recalls their drawn out library sessions correctly. Still, that's neither here nor there. “What’re you doing here?”
“Same as you.” Harry nods at Liam’s slowly cooling cup. “Old times’ sake. But if you meant London? Yeah, I’ve some work at the Tate, and a coupla meetings over the weekend. Kinda shit really.”
Liam finds himself grinning as Harry talks. It’s not just the slight West Coast twang he seems to have caught; it’s the familiarity of it, his slow way of speaking, how it makes everything else sound hazy in comparison, how Liam could close his eyes and see their rank shared flat like it was yesterday. It’s nice, Liam thinks, and swallows.
“Business, not pleasure then?” He hopes it doesn’t come across as sleazy as it does to his own ears. Harry doesn't seem to mind. He just keeps smiling and Liam wishes he wouldn’t because if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that a smile from Harry sticks with you, like cigarette smoke, something to remind you of it when you’ve been without.
“Shit, innit?” Harry’s shoulders slump. “Still, this coffee better taste as good as I remember.”
Liam makes a show of sipping his now frozen latte. “No need to worry on that front, mate.” He nearly misses the way Harry’s eyes flicker to his mouth as he swallows. His phone starts ringing in his pocket though and he has no time to think on it further.
It’s a text from Jamie, asking him whether he can get online for a quick session. “Fuck,” he mutters.
“Late for something?” Harry enquires politely. His hand has dropped from Liam’s shoulder and even though he can’t remember when that happened, he misses it.
“Skype meeting,” he sighs, slipping the phone back near his hip. “I’ve got to -” He gestures vaguely in front of him. Harry’s already nodding.
“‘Course, yeah.” He steps to the side, as if Liam didn’t have room on the wide pavement. Liam watches him as he lifts a hand to scratch the back of his neck. He used to do that when he got nervous. “Um, it was -”
“Nice seeing you, too, mate,” Liam finishes off for him, as he brushes past. He blinks a couple of times at the warmth Harry seems to be emanating.
“Yeah, it was. See you when I see you, Liam.”
It sounds too polite, too empty a goodbye coming from Harry. It can’t be helped though; it’s been five years and just, years since they were anything other than a cursory goodbye to each other. Shaking hands would be plain dumb and a hug would mean walking the little distance between them and he’s overthinking this, fuck. He goes for the wave - really, a wave - and then turns abruptly around to die in a hole in peace.
“Oh, thank God,” Liam murmurs to himself. Hopefully Harry will tell him to stop being a prick. Harry’s still standing by the door of the coffee shop, keeping it open for a bunch of City undergrads who giggle past him. “Yeah?”
“Your number’s still the same?”
Liam nods, smiling. “Not that much has changed, Harry.”
“Okay,” Harry nods back. “Good.”
Liam waves again and it feels less of a dick move this time. Still, he looks back when he’s crossed the road. The coffee shop door is closed and he can’t see much through the throngs of people.
Something tugs at him. He ignores it.
He gets home just as most of London hits the streets, pushing the door shut behind him and sighing with relief at the warmth. He kicks at the post on the floor, picking out the letters with Sophia Smith scrawled in the corners. He takes the stairs two at a time and breathes over his hands to improve circulation as he slides his key in the lock. Ηe shuffles out of his scuffed trainers in the narrow hall and nearly trips over himself in the dark as he makes his way to the kitchen. His eyes are half lidded, lack of sleep finally catching up to him, and he pats down the counter mechanically, clicking the kettle on. He’s carefully not thinking about Harry.
Mug of tea in hand - a sad replacement for his coffee - he fits himself on the ledge of the window, legs tucked under his knees, brow pressed against the glass. He pulls the neck of his shirt over his nose, his warm breath making condensation stick to the window. Only then does he let himself stop and process.
Five years is a hell of a long time. Five years since they graduated, five years since Harry left London, five years since… Liam rubs a hand over his face. They haven’t exactly kept in touch. He’s been vaguely aware of Harry, at least in terms of work, through articles and papers, because Zayn is still very much into the art scene and Louis always posts links on his Twitter and occasionally, when Liam is reminded that he has an actual presence on social media, he’ll scroll through Niall’s Facebook albums and see a familiar head of curls in the one entitled ‘Summer '18, East to West Coast’. And then there’s the small cream envelopes that come in the post sometimes, the ones that Sophia always looks at curiously but never asks about, the ones that always begin with You’re cordially invited to… Gallery openings and exhibitions, all supervised by Mr. Harry Styles and would you please RSVP.
He should’ve tried more. He should’ve made an effort, to write maybe, if people still did that. To send Harry his ‘thanks but I can’t make it’ through more than Louis’ disappointed face, to do more than just reminisce when he had to move the boxes that still line the walls of the basement. Harry deserved more than that, they deserved more than that. He pinches his nose between his thumb and forefinger; too much introspection and it’s hardly ten thirty in the morning.
His phone starts trilling again and Jesus, he was supposed to be online hours ago. He opens the text message fully prepared for a verbal assault from his co-writer, only to find an unknown number.
it was really nice seeing you, liam x
Liam’s breath catches and that’s ridiculous. It’s a text, for God’s sake, but it’s a text that means Harry was thinking of him the exact same time Liam was thinking of Harry. He goes to type something back, then deletes it. He has work to do, and he’s not sure how to reply anyway. The text still on his screen, he lowers himself from the window sill and heads to the studio. It buzzes in his hand not a minute later.
so i have thing tonight. a business thing. and it’s going to be BORINGGGGGGG on my own. come with?
He freezes in the doorway, staring at the phone like it’s likely to explode. His brain is whirring, too fast to make out a proper thought. He’s still staring when it gives another weak buzz.
He can hear Harry, is the thing. He knows how he’s looking at his phone and he knows how he’d look if they were face to face right now. It’s that more than anything that makes him hit send.
what shud i wearrrrrrrr ?
He’s supposed to meet Harry at Baker Street Tube Station at seven and the entire contents of his wardrobe are strewn on his bedroom floor by six twenty-five. He knows he’s panicking and he knows there’s no reason to be panicking. Because it’s Harry and at some point in time, he remembers Harry being the one person who could make him feel comfortable. So, this, this agonizing mental deterioration because of the words smart casual, is a complete and utter overaction.
He almost texted Sophia earlier. She’s been his sartorial lifesaver since they met and smart casual to her can be translated to a complete outfit courtesy of Tom Ford and a little imagination. Something like guilt nagged at him though and he bit his cuticles for an hour before he built up the courage to send her a string of xs instead. Then he stood in front of the mirror and cursed Harry.
‘Smart casual’. What the fuck even.
forgot how complicated the tube is !! will be five min late sorryyyyy :(
Thank God for small victories. It’s a spur of the moment decision to pick out his only ironed white shirt and hop to the door while putting on his not-quite-skinnies, not-quite-tailored trousers, black tie around his wrist and coat flapping.
St. Paul’s Station is five minutes from his flat, so he bustles with the crowd going down, trying to do his tie. He swipes his Oyster card on the reader and shares a grin with a teenage girl who follows him through so she doesn’t waste her own. He gives her one-handed salute that makes her giggle and it makes him just a smidge less nervous for whatever’s coming. He follows her down the escalator, watching her bounce a little as she manically types on her mobile.
When the crowd gets to the platform he lets himself be pushed and pulled until he’s as close to the rails as he can get without potentially offing himself. He smooths his shirt down and folds his jacket tighter over himself because it’s even colder down here, the damp making his bones ache. The sign above him reads six minutes which is conceivably enough time for him to get to Baker Street before Harry manages to accidentally find himself in the right place.
It’s a matter of finding shelter from the snow when he resurfaces after a change at Oxford Circus. He huddles under a tourist shop selling Deerstalkers for ten quid and busies himself with backreading Niall’s texts, most of which don’t make sense. He’s in the middle of deciphering one that either involves a rugby tackling or someone getting chucked off The Voice Ireland, when a hand curls around his forearm and a smile is spreading on his face before he has a chance to pretend he’s surprised. “Harry.”
“You look nice,” Harry says, by way of greeting. He stands in front of Liam and Liam thinks for a second he’s displaying his own outfit - more casual than smart, but that’s Harry for you. He’s not though; he reaches a hand out to fix Liam’s tie and Liam experiences a very out-of-body case of deja vu. From the looks of Harry’s face, he’s in a similar position. They both look up at the same time and their eyes meet and suddenly Liam feels foolish for thinking this was ever going to be uncomfortable. He smiles again.
“There. Perfect. Shall we?” Harry offers a crooked elbow which Liam bats away and they start making their way towards Marylebone. It’s getting darker by the minute as they walk, with people rushing by to catch their commute home or striding leisurely towards the nearest happy hour on offer. Harry’s hands are hanging by his sides and Liam spares them a look; there are new tattoos there, ones he doesn’t recognise from years ago, and it pinches something in his chest. He wants to ask but he’s not sure he can, so he just fidgets his fingers in his trouser pockets.
“This is it,” Harry points out, stopping by the entrance. There’s a small queue outside that makes Liam want to roll his eyes just slightly but Harry bypasses it sheepishly, whispering something to the host. He nods them through and Harry’s hand rests on the small of Liam’s back, guiding him among the tables. When he pulls back, Liam can still feel his thumb burning through his coat.
The man at the table they’re shown to stands up when someone takes their coats and Harry lunges at him playfully, letting himself be enveloped in a bear hug. Liam has a ridiculous moment of feeling something akin to jealousy; his eyes seem to able to focus only on the way the man’s arms come right around Harry’s waist and how his beard must make the side of Harry’s face burn. He shakes himself and offers a hand at the other person who’s just stood up. She smiles at him and ignores his hand, going straight for a hug. She’s small in Liam’s arms and she smells sweet, the way Zayn does when he’s had a long night up with the new baby. He glances between the couple as he and Harry pull away; clearly new parents. The jealousy wilts almost instantly.
He shakes hands with the bloke and they all sit down, Harry’s chair close enough that their thighs have to press together. “How are you, Liam?” the woman asks, as if she doesn’t need introductions. Liam laughs and looks at his lap nervously before he answers.
“At the minute, a little overdressed, to be honest with you -”
“Meredith,” she supplies, smiling. “And this is Ben. Did Harry dress you up?”
For some reason, Liam’s body decides that a blush would be a suitable reaction. The tips of his ears burn. “I - no, not exactly, he just said this was a business thing -”
“For fuck’s sake, Harry,” Ben says gruffly, reaching over cuff him. “We were gonna do this at our bloody house if there wasn’t a high chance of getting sick on us. ‘Business thing’. Jesus.”
“What,” Harry says indignantly. “We’re gonna talk work, we work together!”
“You lived in our attic for half a year, Harry, be serious.”
It clicks then. So, this is Ben, the Ben, the person that took Harry in when - Liam bites his lip. When it didn’t work out, he thinks, because that’s a safe way of looking at it. He blinks and tries to refocus on the conversation.
“- you’re saying you tricked him?” Ben laughs.
“I’m saying,” Harry mutters like a two-year old getting told no, “that he wouldn’t have come if I told him he was a last minute replacement for my sister bailing on me.”
Liam’s raises his eyebrows. “I was your second choice?” He drops his napkin on the table dramatically and Meredith laughs, delighted. “That’s it, I’m out.”
Harry’s eyes widen comically and he starts shaking his head, hand clamping down on Liam’s shoulder. Liam smiles reassuringly at him. “Only joking.”
“You better be,” Harry pouts, sticking his nose behind the wine list. Liam shares a look with the others and something warm trickles down through his chest because it feels like a secret, knowing Harry this well.
He lets Harry order enthusiastically when their waiter comes over and the conversation drifts over to actual business for a while. Liam listens on vaguely, zoning out enough to only catch fragments of the conversation that involve an art piece opening at the Met in New York. It’s enough that Harry includes him; he keeps glancing at him when he talks and it’s all Liam can do to nod and offer the little knowledge he has of the galleries in London.
It happens when they’re halfway through the main course; Liam’s sea bass is being shared between him and Harry and Liam is picking at Harry’s baby potatoes without a second thought. They move like they’ve been doing it for years and Meredith bursts out laughing when Harry bites on Liam’s fork and Liam does nothing more than pull it away from his mouth with a heartfelt sigh.
“Look at you two,” she says fondly, head resting back on Ben’s chest. “Can I ask - only Harry didn’t mention - when did you get back together?”
Liam stiffens. Harry’s hands falls under the table and grips Liam’s thigh just above his knee. “I - um.” He looks to Harry for instructions but Harry’s just rolling a cherry tomato on his plate like it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever seen. Liam turns back to the other two, who are smiling. And Liam thinks, it’s okay, because Harry’s only here for a weekend and he’s probably never going to see these people again and Harry’s hand is burning into him again, like he wants to leave a scar.
Liam coughs into his fist and thinks about how it’s a habit he picked up from Harry when the heating in their flat had broken down. “Only a few months ago. Two, maybe?” He raises his eyebrows at Harry and Harry squeezes.
“Yeah. Two, must be.”
Ben grins. “Gotta say I’m glad. He never talked about it but -”
“Ben,” Harry warns.
“Well. Y’know, I s’pose,” Ben finishes off lamely and Liam thinks, no, I don’t know, I only know my part of the story, but nods anyway.
“So, how’d you two meet then?” Meredith asks over a sip of red.
Harry and Liam both laugh at the same time and if there was tension, it dissipates instantly. “Um, I think -”
“You think?” Liam challenges and Harry has the good grace to blush.
“Okay, I'll admit it wasn't my smoothest move -”
Liam shakes his head and leans back, letting Harry recount the rest of the story. He remembers it like it was yesterday, is the truth. The crappy students residence, the decaying futon on the corner, the shitty vodka served in chipped tea mugs; he can almost see the exact shade of purple lipstick the girl he was talking to was wearing, even if her name escapes him now, years later. Harry's insisting that she was too fit and way out of Liam's league and Liam wants to argue but there's no point, he doesn't care, though, if memory serves, he was doing well enough before he was interrupted.
And then, there was Harry. Tall and wearing what was clearly a back-of-the-rack Oxfam buy, the shirt unbuttoned up to his navel, smiling like he was made for it, well-worn dents in his cheeks, his lips stretching out on his face, cherry red. He'd said something to Liam, quiet and slow with alcohol and Liam had no way of knowing then that it was deliberate, to make him lean in closer. They've never agreed on the bullshit reason he gave for starting conversation but Liam didn't remember the girl he'd been talking to until way after.
“Was it love at first sight?”
Liam considers for a moment. He remembers seeing Harry for the first time, he remembers laughing with him for the first time, he remembers looking at Harry and thinking he’s lucky.
"Friends first," Harry shrugs. "That's what he called it."
"Listen," Liam raises a warning finger and Harry grabs at it, eyes sparkling.
"Just because it was so easy for you -" Somewhere in his periphery he can see Ben and Meredith smiling in on them. He finds he doesn't really care. “It’s always been - a gradual thing for me. Less falling, more -”
“Oh shit, why am I at the bottom?” Harry supplies with a grin. Liam bumps with a shoulder into him.
“Something like that. I didn’t even realise I was pining after you until that accidental date."
Harry props his chin on his palm. “Right, yeah. I - I remember that.”
“C’mon, then, share with the rest of the class,” Ben says impatiently, tilting the last dregs of wine in his glass. With a start, Liam realises all their plates have been cleared. He hadn’t noticed a thing.
“It’s - it was nothing really. Just.” He sneaks a glance at Harry, sees him as he was in their second year, with his too long hair, and ridiculous head scarves, Moleskin in hand as he stood and stared in front of a canvas. “He took me to the Tate and it was - the Turner exhibit, I think?”
Harry shakes his head. “You're always thinking it's Turner. No, we were in the Rothko room. The Four Seasons pieces.”
Liam nods. The Rothko room was dark, he remembers, and he and Harry spent a whole day just lying on the benches, side by side until a member of staff took pity on them and kicked them out.
“And you came to mine -”
“And I made us breakfast -”
“And you didn’t really leave after that.” Liam smiles. It’s so long ago, since he woke up to Harry’s puffy, sleepy face, so long since whatever took over him on that one morning when he just leaned over. That was it; a shift in his sleep and his face was too close and he told Louis once and Louis smiled like he agreed, that Harry’s face was a face that should be kissed.
He thinks that still holds true, now.
Ben clears his throat and Liam and Harry blink. “Wow, I’m getting emotional.” Meredith pats his arm pityingly.
“He’s the romantic in the family.” It breaks the spell; Harry laughs and Liam joins him and they finish their wine in one go.
They stand to leave after the bill’s been sorted - thanks to Meredith, who pays when the rest of them are arguing about it - and leave the restaurant together.
“I’d offer a nightcap,” Ben starts but Meredith shakes her head.
“The only babyproof room is the attic and I don’t think Harry’d fancy going up there again anytime soon,” she says shrewdly and looks up at Liam. It’s like she knows something he doesn’t.
“I guess this is goodnight then, lads.” There’s another exchange of hugs, more comfortable this time and he and Harry stand by the road, watching them get into their car. He looks down, to his slightly scuffed boots, before he glances back up at Harry.
“So,” he starts.
“So, I enjoyed this,” Liam finishes off truthfully. “It was fun. They were fun.”
“They’re great, aren’t they,” Harry smiles. “They’ve helped me out so much, as well. In more ways than one.”
Liam doesn’t want to know.
“Anyway.” Harry looks like he’s shaking something off. “Walk you to the Tube?”
The buzz of a Friday night is loud around them, cigarette smoke wafting from pub entrances and girls in high heels clutching at each other as they get off buses. It’s not an area Liam usually hangs out in and it’s nice, the slight anonymity of it. He wonders if anyone who’s walking by them assumes they’re together, like, properly together, like they’re going home together after a night out. The thought makes him feel warm under his collar.
They get to Baker Street quickly, too quickly for Liam’s liking. Harry’s perusing the ratty Evening Standard someone’s abandoned and Liam catches himself watching him. The way he’s folding his bottom lip in his mouth, the slight stubble on his Cupid’s bow, the curls that are falling over his forehead, his squint as he reads the latest in home investment. And Liam knows, for certain, that home investment is not more interesting than he is and it settles him, to think that Harry’s as nervous as he is. He reaches out to tap his elbow and for the moment when Harry looks up, he looks so unguarded that Liam feels something break.
He opens his mouth - and who knows what his opening line would have been. There’s a bottle of Pinot Grigio in the fridge that we could break into. Or, you don’t have to stay at your hotel tonight, you know. Or, don’t leave me yet. Please. But Harry smiles and Liam’s struck dumb.
“I’m glad you came, Li,” he says quietly. “You should get going before the Tube shuts.”
LIam blinks. “I - yeah. True. Okay.” He plays with the hands he has locked in front of him. “See you when I see you, then?”
Harry laughs. “Sorry I was such a pillock. C’mere.”
It’s a relief that Harry does it, leans in shoulder first, and wraps his arms around Liam. He can feel his thumb digging into his back, and his breath warm on the side of Liam’s neck and, God. He still smells the same; he still smells of too long nights at the library and shitty take away from the Polish place below their flat and fucking organic peppermint shampoo he spent too much on and Harry. He still smells of the Harry Liam remembers saying goodbye to and that’s. That’s it, that’s all Liam can handle, so he pulls back and coughs gruffly.
He still waves, because apparently that’s his new thing and then he lets the crowd wash over him as he joins the queue. He doesn’t turn back this time.
Liam’s curled under the duvet when he wakes up, hogging more than half the bed because he spreads out like a starfish when there’s no one to share with. His eyes are heavy as he tries to open them, mouth hanging half open and smushed on the pillow, and his arm is stretched out, like he was looking for Soph in his sleep. He probably was, actually. He pats down the pillow on his left and can’t help the petulant noise that comes out of his mouth when it feels cold to the touch. He hates sleeping alone.
He lifts both arms over his head, appreciating the crack of his limbs - which he shouldn’t do, he reminds himself, arthritis or something, even if he’s got a while to worry about that. He stares up at the ceiling and kicks away the covers, shivering when the cool air hits his skin. He’s shirtless but not pantsless, and it looks like parts of him woke up before his brain did this morning. He stretches one more time and rolls until his feet hit the floor. Last night’s jeans are pooled at the foot of the bed and he rummages through the pockets mechanically; keys and his phone. It’s ten am and he has a missed call from Sophia and a text from Zayn.
He gets up to go to the bathroom, feet cold on the floor. His reflection makes him grimace - there are creases from the pillow on his cheek - and he downs a gulp of water before grabbing the lone toothbrush. He squeezes out a pea-sized portion of toothpaste and sticks it in between his chapped lips just to get yesterday’s taste out of his mouth. He makes a mental note to pop down the shops for more.
When he’s done, he clicks the door shut behind him and goes downstairs. It’s a disgusting green smoothie kind of day and he makes it while the cats circle his ankles and pout for food. He texts Sophia because she’s probably working right now - or so he tells himself. He tries not to think too hard about the relief he feels for missing her calls and scrolls up to see Zayn's text.
lunch at mine. can’t say no. i’ll pick you up y/y ?
He bites the cuticles of his thumb. It could be a coincidence. Sometimes - rarely - Zayn resurfaces from blissful married life to make contact, even without prompting from Liam or Louis. It could mean that he’s missed them and his mum’s sent him too much biryani.
Or it could mean that he’s not the only one privy to the fact that Harry’s back in the UK. He presses a hand flat on his belly, feels the muscles tense up with something. Nerves, he’d like to say, but he knows it’s not. He’s excited to see Harry again.
For some stupid reason, while he fills the time from now until noon and writes a bit more in the studio, he pulls up the texts Harry sent him last night. He hasn’t added him to his phone - there’s no point in adding an American number he’ll never call - but he can’t help but scroll through them from time to time. Just to make sure they’re real.
At twenty to one, his phone buzzes and he grabs his leather jacket that’s hanging off the back of the couch, winding a scarf around his neck. Zayn is waiting on the corner, looking like he should be driving a Jag, not a sensible dad Vauxhall. Liam lifts his collar up as he runs - it started to snow again last night - and climbs into the passenger seat. He exhales with relief at the warmth.
“Hey, bro,” Zayn says fondly. He punches Liam lightly on the shoulder, then reverses and pulls into the road.
“Hey." Liam pushes through the baby debris to switch the radio on. What is very obviously a Fireman Sam audiobook comes through the speakers. He gives Zayn an amused look and Zayn slaps his arm away and puts 1Xtra on. Liam laughs. "So, this was surprising.”
“Was it?” Zayn looks left and right at a junction, raising his eyebrows at the windshield. “I do go out sometimes.”
“You’re not even going out this time, mate,” Liam laughs. He can see Zayn smiling at him.
“Whatever, you know what I mean. Thought it would be fun and that. Pez and the baby are out with my sister. Plus, Mum sent Waliyah down with like three fucking tubs of biryani and samosas, me and Pez can’t eat all that.”
“Can never say no to Trisha’s food,” Liam says sensibly and Zayn - mama’s boy as he is - rolls his eyes dramatically, because like. Obviously.
“Niall’s already finished one of them.”
Liam did not expect anything less.
It takes twenty minutes longer to get to North London than it should. Liam blames the weather and the weekend but they pull up in Zayn’s street eventually. A few kids in the park opposite are trying and failing to make a snowman. Next to him, Zayn looks like he’d rather stay in the car than face the cold.
“Get it together, Malik.” He pushes him to the driver’s door and Zayn gives him a scathing look.
“This is why I don’t leave the comfort of my 'ome,” he hisses.
“Humans,” he says bitterly and Liam loves him, he really does, for all his ridiculous attempts at coming across as cool. It really only works if you’re one of the people who haven’t seen him drunkenly rap along to Nicki Minaj. Fortunately enough, Liam is one of the lucky few.
They jog to the semi-detached house with the blue door and Liam can hear Radio 5 play as Zayn pats himself down for his keys. It’s a report on the Man United game, which means Louis is definitely already here.
The keys in hand, Zayn unlocks, then hesitates at the door. Liam’s teeth are chattering.
“Listen,” Zayn says and his eyes are shifty. “There’s something I didn’t mention, like.”
“What, Zayn, c’mon, I’m freezing my bollocks off.”
“Thanks for the image. No, right, okay, Louis said not to tell you but -” Zayn’s jaw flexes. He exhales deeply. “Harry’s here.”
“Oh,” is all Liam says. Zayn frowns.
“‘Oh’? That’s it? I tell you the lov-”
“- fine, whatever, I tell you Harry’s here - Harry, who you haven’t seen in years? - and your reaction is just - oh.” Zayn’s eyebrows furrow even further. “You knew! How d’you know?”
“I didn’t say I knew.” Liam blows air on his fists and looks through the window. Hopefully someone will take pity on them and open the damn door.
“Liam, I know you. Your poker face is for shit.” Cold forgotten, Zayn jabs Liam’s chest with an accusatory finger. “There’s no way you two idiots talked without Louis dialing for you.”
Liam can see a figure approach the door through the blurry glass. He’s grateful for them cutting the conversation short for all of five seconds and then the door opens and Harry in an apron is smiling at him.
“Hi,” he says cheerfully and Liam would really love it if he just. Would not.
“Hi,” he says shortly, then elbows his way through and away from frostbite. Zayn’s following him in, keeping close.
“Charming, both of you,” Harry’s saying to no one. Liam can’t afford to look back because of the apron situation.
“He’s not naked, if that’s what you’re worried about,” a disembodied voice licks into his ear and Liam would yelp if he knew it wouldn’t make Louis bolder.
“He wanted to be!” The second voice attacks his other ear and fucked up though he is, Liam can’t help but laugh.
“What are you cooking anyway, Harry, I told you we’re eating my mum’s -”
“I called Trisha and she said it’s okay to heat them up,” Harry says smoothly, following them all into the kitchen. It smells like heaven in here. “She said she doesn’t want to know if you’ve never reheated her food because that would confirm that you’re an idiot.” He smiles to soften the blow and it works, because Zayn opens his mouth, then just huffs and inspects the steaming pans.
Harry catches Liam looking and winks. Liam blushes.
They gather round the table, each with plates or bowls in hand. Niall’s already at the head, scooping forkfuls from a half empty tupperware, and Louis’ at his left, so he can get a clear view of Sky Sports on the telly. Zayn seems to dither, looking between Louis and Harry; Harry pats the seat next to him and he’s not looking at Zayn when he does it.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Niall says after swallowing, happy smile taking over his face. “I’ve missed you lads. I’ve missed this.”
“Stop the waterworks, someone, please, I’m trying to watch the game.”
“It’s the highlights, Louis,” Zayn says patiently. Louis flaps a hand airily.
“Whatever, I still -” his eyes unfocus, going from the screen to looking between Harry and Liam. “Oh, shit, they exist in the same universe. Ow.”
Liam will take a wild guess and assume Harry aimed a kick under the table.
“Rude,” Louis says, rubbing his shin and flicking chicken at Harry’s hair. “Tell me I’m lying.”
“You’re lying,” Harry says sweetly and Louis opens his mouth to say something scathing but stops short.
“I’m only shutting up because we’re having a lovely meal, courtesy of lovely Trish and I’ve missed you lovely sodding bastards. You’ve got something in your hair, Harold.”
Something tells Liam this is all an act and Louis knows exactly what he’s doing. Still, it works and the conversation smooths over with Liam only occasionally stumbling over his words when there’s mention of him and Harry in the same sentence.
They eat and then they watch the football and Harry doesn’t leave his side the entire time. Liam wants to think nothing of it, wants to pretend it doesn’t make his chest expand and contract every time they accidentally brush their hands close but he can’t and the rest of them don’t help. It’s easy to fall into, how they were before. He doesn’t think twice when Harry offers to do the dishes and he stands up to help.
Behind him, he hears Louis wolf whistle. But that’s Louis for you and he knows he’s joking.
“I wash, you dry?” Harry smiles at him.
“Just like old times,” Liam replies, taking the tea towel.
It’s quiet, just the bickering from the living room and the running water and Harry humming a tune under his breath. The stacks of dishes dwindle to their tea mugs and god, it’s stupid, but Liam’s actually entertaining the thought of offering more tea just to spend more time in here. He bites the inside of his mouth and focuses on drying the chipped cup in his hand.
“I think it’s about done, Li,” a voice says carefully and Liam blinks until he feels a hand cover his. Harry pries the mug away from him and reaches over both of them to put it in a cupboard. Liam holds his breath and Harry must hear it. He leans back, that damn BBQ Rules For Men apron hanging loosely off him. His jaw is set, brows meeting in the middle, and even though they're the same height, always have been, Liam feels like he's looming over him.
“Tell me not to, Liam.” He sounds so serious and Liam would be impressed there's no shake in his voice if he had room in his body for any more emotion. His stomach contracts and he's a grown man, he refuses to call the flutter he's feeling butterflies. Harry's staring at him intently and then his gaze drops to his mouth and there's a lump in Liam's throat, not wholy unpleasant, recognising the anticipation. The pads of his fingers itch and his breathing is shallow and he thinks he knows now, what's going to happen.
He's not sure he's ever waited this long for a kiss.
“Don’t, Harry,” he parrots obediently. Neither of them hear him.
Harry shuts his eyes and breathes and Liam doesn’t even bother to collect himself that much. His hand tugs at the strap around Harry’s neck and he screws his eyes shut even before Harry’s palm grazes his cheek.
It’s a clumsy, ‘sort of but not quite’ kiss that reminds Liam of when he was in Year Nine and couldn’t believe his daring at playing Spin the Bottle. You might’ve thought they’d never kissed before, let alone every damn day for three years. It’s sweet though, and soft, and a bit like a first kiss and it makes Liam’s gut ache. His hands grip lower, sliding to the dip of Harry’s hip bones for something to hold onto. Harry goes along with it, his body pliant to the touch, sneaking his damp hands around Liam's neck and down to the small of his back.
Liam’s brain is mostly blank, whited out from anything coherent, but a single, crippling thought buries its way in. How did I go on so long without this?
It makes him pull back, minutely, just enough that's he's still breathing harshly into Harry’s mouth, but they're wound together so tightly it doesn't really matter. His forehead burns where it's pressed against Harry's and for a stupid moment, he wonders how long he's been running a fever.
Then Liam’s phone rings.
“Shit, fuck,” he mumbles, untangling himself and grasping for his phone. Where they were pressed together just a second ago, there's more than distance between them now. Harry takes a step, then another back and Liam pats himself down, his back hitting the cold surface of the fridge.
It’s the bloody personalised ringtone that’s making his hands shake. Harry says nothing, just gestures at the sink and turns his back to him. Liam wishes he couldn't read every muscle there as well as he can.
He takes the call in the patio. “Hello?” He only sounds a little off.
The connection’s bad and it must be howling with wind in Manchester. Sophia’s all but shouting down the line and even though his head’s fucked, she makes him laugh like she always does. He bites at the cuticle of his thumb and tries to concentrate on the conversation, and not Harry's footfalls leaving the kitchen.
“...for God’s sake, this is stupid. I’ll call you again tomorrow, yeah, babe? Give my love to the boys. Bye, speak soon!”
He stares at the screen for longer than necessary after the call ends. He barely notices the tap on his arm and when he startles, Niall is giving him a small smile.
“Yeah, fine, always.” He rubs a hand across his forehead. “What’s up?”
Niall looks too shrewd for comfort. At least Liam can always count on him to know when to not ask questions. “Harry’s gotta go. Meeting or something. We’re saying goodbye.”
Liam swallows dryly but follows Niall to the hallway, where Harry’s hanging off Louis’ back like an impractical sloth. Zayn’s making silly cooing noises and taking pictures of them with his phone. It’s so familiar, the whole setting, that he wouldn’t blink twice if Harry sidled up to him and steered him out so they could go home together.
“Are you taking a cab?” It’s not just Liam who’s surprised when he blurts it out. Louis actually opens his mouth to say something but closes it slowly, eyes swiveling between the two.
“Um." Harry glances at Louis and Liam has to wonder if that's where Harry's been staying, not in an impersonal hotel room like he'd assumed. It makes something in him give, to know he's not Harry's first choice anymore. Hasn't been in a long time.
Harry's looking back at him, expression inscrutable. "Yeah, I. We can share a cab."
He's not sure where Harry's staying and a cab ride to nowhere is useless if Louis already has his car here. “Yeah, alright,” Liam says despite it all.
He grabs the jacket hanging from the stand and nods behind him. Zayn’s giving him a concerned look that he doesn’t want to decipher but he’s saved from overthinking it by the cabbie honking. Liam leads the way, Harry's quiet footfalls splashing in the wet snow behind him.
“Where to, lads,” the cab driver asks as they get in. He's wearing an Arsenal shirt and a grin that can only mean they beat Man United. Harry’s staring at his lap and doesn't talk.
“Aldersgate, mate. Just the one stop, cheers.” Liam waves at the three men standing at the doorway; his ears are going to be burning for the next five hours, probably. He sneaks a look at Harry, who’s staring resolutely at the other side. His ankles are crossed and there’s a whole seat between them and Liam wants to reach out and hold him.
He doesn’t. He keeps his eyes on the road. He kind of really, really wants a cigarette.
There’s a packet in his front pocket, digging in his thigh, and he hasn't taken a drag, he thinks, in years. It's not that he needs it - not like he's ever been addicted, but he gets an itch sometimes. He’d bought it this morning, from the newsagents underneath the flat and tried not to connect the dots his brain was already whirring at.
Maybe he's a little bit addicted. Not necessarily to cigarettes. Zayn would probably laugh and offer him his nicotine gum.
The radio is playing the news in Turkish and Liam counts the minutes down until the mini cab hits a red close to the Barbican. He bangs on the partition and slips a couple of crumpled notes through to the driver. "Good luck, mate, cheers," he says because he knows it’ll be dreadful this time on a Saturday. He opens his door and grabs Harry’s hand, not listening to his protests over the sound of traffic. They wind through a 56 bus and a BMW to get to the pavement and only then does Liam let go.
“Very James Bond of you,” Harry comments lightly, looking over a quiet Beech Street with undue interest.
“Always trying to impress you,” Liam replies truthfully and Harry actually turns this time and meets his eyes. There’s a ghost of smile playing there.
“What am I doing here, Li?”
“D’you really have a meeting?” Liam asks instead of answering. They’ve started walking through some unspoken agreement, Harry’s coat flapping in the harsh cold.
Harry shrugs. “Nothing that can’t be done over Skype."
“Then come over,” Liam says simply.
Harry bites his lip, in the single most endearing thing that’s ever fucked up Liam’s life. “Where’s Sophia, Liam?”
It’s jarring, it is, hearing Harry say her name. It’s like they’re two parts of Liam that shouldn’t coexist and it’s selfish of him to think that, he knows.
“She’s up North. Conference for work.” He can see the river from where they’re standing. “She won’t be back till Monday.”
Harry does that slow blink of his that has people eating out of his palm.
It's a good thing Liam's immune to that now.
“Okay,” Harry says. “Okay.”
Liam pretends not to know what it is Harry’s agreeing to.
He says nothing, just takes the steps to his building two at a time and fumbles with the keys in his hands, pushing back the hair that’s plastered to his forehead. When the door refuses to budge he kicks it open, leaning against the jab for support.
Harry hasn’t moved, just stands close.
“You’re gonna catch your death out here,” Liam says.
“This is, like, five minutes from our old flat,” Harry murmurs, ignoring him.
“I know,” Liam croaks out and forces himself to go inside, leaving the door swinging behind him. He’s not sure if he expects to snap shut or not; but when it doesn’t, he breathes out in relief.
The heating's on thankfully and the cats only make minimal fuss when he pushes them aside to get in. He switches on the lights in the living room and kitchen and busies himself with filling their food tray. In his peripheral vision, he can see Harry slip out of his boots and suddenly he's seeing him five years ago, always barefoot and always complaining that his feet were cold.
"A lot fancier than ours though," Harry muses, continuing the conversation like there'd been no interruption. "You have a spice rack."
Liam snorts. "Yeah, the spice rack really makes a difference." He's never quite mastered dry sarcasm and turns out a lot more straight faced than he'd intended. Harry doesn't seem to mind; he just keeps walking, fingers dancing along surfaces. It looks like he's trying to work something out.
"What are you doing, Haz?" They're past him hesitating over something as tedious as nicknames, he reckons. He stands up, wincing at the protests of his knees.
"Filling in the blanks. There's a lot of them." It’s not accusatory; it’s just there, a fact.
Harry leafs through the pages of the books they've got laying on the coffee table - Portobello Market, two years ago, Liam thinks and then, involuntarily, you were in San Fransisco - and smiles at the framed Polaroids of Zayn's stag do and the first song Liam wrote that went gold and the knick knacks that he can probably tell are from Karen a mile away. All things that happened apart from Harry, away from him, and Liam squeezes the countertop trying to keep ahold of his thoughts.
"I've - I've got work to do." He gestures behind him to the basement, as if Harry would know. It's not a lie exactly; he has some demo tapes he's supposed to look over and even though there's no deadline, he needs to leave the room. Now.
Harry looks up at him, in his too loose shirt and too tight jeans and his toes curling into the carpet. "I don't have to be here, Liam," he says quietly.
That's the thing though - he does. Liam can't have Harry in London if he's not close, it's like defying a law of nature, bending something that's not supposed to shift. "No, I - want you here. Just - work, you know?"
Harry smiles with one corner of his mouth. "'Kay. I'll keep myself entertained." Liam doesn't doubt it.
He doesn't shut the door all the way as he comes down. It's for the sliver of natural light, he tells himself - it's still early evening and the sun is bleeding in the sky. But really, it's for Harry's hand clinking against a glass, for Harry's humming as he walks from room to room, for Harry having a conversation with the cats about how boring Whiskas is with no gravy. He's not sure he does any work, other than scribble aimlessly in a notebook and try to persistently not think in what ifs and if onlys.
He doesn't recognise the opening chords at first. For a mad moment he thinks Harry's playing and that's another flashback, of them sitting on the floor of their always cold shared flat, Harry nestled between Liam's thighs, their hands tangling as Liam taught Harry to play a G chord. But then Elvis Costello starts crooning and Liam pauses. Because that's their song.
He scrapes his chair back and moves without thinking, the notebook slipping from his lap. He takes the steps two at a time, bounding up and creaking the door open carefully. At the kitchen door he stops, latent logic kicking in, but then Harry spins into focus, one cat curled in his arms as he dances to Alison. Liam feels the air punched out of him and leans on the door jab for support. But it eases away almost instantly; he feels his back muscles relax, and he crosses his arms, not helping the smile that spreads on his face as he watches Harry dance along.
Harry sees him somewhere at the beginning of the second verse, a dimple making a dent on his left cheek. He lifts Dolly in the air to meet her eyes of all things and boops his nose against her whiskers. "Gonna put you down now, girl. I'm very popular." The cat slips from his hold like she's understood every word - and Liam shakes his head at her departing tail, because it's been two bloody years and she still refuses to treat Liam as anything other than a food source - and Harry turns, still swaying to the guitar. He offers an open palm.
"You're stil as rubbish at this as you always were," Liam says. But his tone is anything but reproachful when he takes Harry's hand anyway. Harry shrugs, letting Liam twirl him under their arms.
"Two left feet," Harry murmurs, not bothered at all. "Take me or leave me." He doesn't blink away at his words and Liam knows he should stop, or turn away, but they make him squeeze on Harry's fingers tight until Harry reels him in closer.
They keep turning on the spot on the cold marble of the kitchen, Harry's bare toes bumping against Liam's socks, his arms winding around Liam's waist when the music starts fading and Elvis is just quietly repeating the lyrics Liam's always loved. Harry nestles his head close to Liam's, whispering the words under his breath.
The record behind them stops spinning and makes a quiet scratching noise. They should break apart now, but Liam can't seem to find the strength to unwind his arms from around Harry's neck. Harry breathes hotly against Liam's shirt, with no intent behind it, but it makes Liam aware of the dull ache that's been building in his gut. He panics and fumbles his hold on Harry when he pulls back.
"I'll get you blankets and - and stuff, yeah. You're staying." He doesn't ask and he definitely ignores the clock on the wall. It's barely bloody nine o'clock.
Harry's eyebrows knit together but he nods anyway. Liam does the same a little frantically. "Okay, alright, wait, um. Here."
He stumbles into the hallway and grabs a spare blanket and pillow at random, desperately trying to ignore the way his jeans are chaffing against his dick. This is not happening, his body is not betraying him like this. Except it is, and he needs to get away from Harry and deal with it, stat.
He shoves the sheets at Harry when he gets back and pats the sofa down with nervous hands. "There's - the bathroom's to the right and I just did some washing so, if you need pyjamas or -"
"You know I don't," Harry interrupts, which decidedly does not help at all.
"Right, okay, I'm - goodnight." He doesn't think he runs upstairs, but it's a very close call.
He locks the ensuite bathroom, fucking about with the key until he remembers how it works. Then he leans back, his back to the wall, working with his flies a little desperately. He nearly cries out with relief when he pulls his pants down and gets a hand on his cock. He rubs himself dry, almost like a punishment for something he hasn't done, trying not to rely on muscle memory. But it's there, regardless; Harry's hand pressing down on his back, Harry's leg slipping between his thighs, Harry whispering my aim is true, in that gravely voice Liam used to record to demo his first songs. And in between those memories, as Liam pants and uses the precome leaking from his dick to soften the burn, there are clearer images, of Harry above him in their old bed, of Liam biting and soothing a bruise on Harry's hipbone, of everything Liam thought he'd gotten finally over.
He comes quickly, too quickly, and has to stop himself from crying out by biting the fleshy part of his bicep. He sinks down on the floor after that, relieved and ashamed and wiping his hand on his jeans.
What a fucking teenage thing to do. And how is it, that eight years after they've met, Harry still has the power to reduce him to a thirteen year old boy with carpal tunnel. He shakes his head and stands up, trying no to look at Sophia's skin care products on her side of the sink.
He washes his hands and brushes his teeth furiously, then splashes his face with ice cold water just in case. There's no sound coming from downstairs when he finally unlocks the door and he breathes out in relief. He doesn't need any more reminders that Harry's close.
His bed is still unmade from this morning and cold until he buries himself in. He's not going to be able to sleep; it's too early and he's too wound up and his brain has come down from his orgasm high and is working double time now. And then there's the creaking he hears on the stairs, seventh from the top, the one he always forgets.
"Li?" There's no light coming in from outside, but Liam can still make out Harry's outline in the dark. He doesn't answer, just drags one corner of the duvet until Harry takes the hint. He doesn't need much prodding; there's the soft sound of footsteps and then Liam's enveloped in warmth. He feels exhausted then; ready to just, give in.
Harry doesn't touch him, just scoots as close as he can, enough that Liam can imagine his heartbeat against his own back. "My flight back’s on Monday morning."
Liam's throat constricts. He doesn't want to break the illusion, whatever it is. He doesn't want an expiration date. "Okay," he says anyway. "Alright."
"Alright," Harry echoes. "Night, Li."
It's too dark to see much but Liam can still see him sidle in next to him, stupidly long and flat and with too much hair and Liam is half convinced he's some kind of panic-induced hallucination, the way he's biting his lower lip until it looks like it might bleed, the way he hunches over, as though not used to taking so much space. He's so warm, even though they aren’t quite touching, just ghosting each other’s shoulders, and Liam feels a trickle of sweat across his forehead, his teeth achey and sore and like he swallowed gravel.
He watches as Harry's breathing becomes steady, eyes turning heavier by the second as he gives in to sleep. It's only when Liam's sure he's passed out that he exhales and lets the tiredness wash over him. He buries himself in bed, next to Harry, like he hasn't done in five years and for the blink of an eye before sleep, it feels like nothing's changed.
He’s in the middle of a dream - something unspecific and comforting, the kind of dream that's too frayed at the edges to hold onto - when Harry comes through the door, the smell of morning chill and fresh bread tickling Liam’s nose and making him think of that summer he spent at Harry's mum's years ago. They'd made the four hour drive to Manchester last seven hours, just for coffee stops and snogging in the backseat, and Liam had lingered at the front door terrified that Anne would hate him. She hadn't and she still hasn't, and there's always a spot above the fireplace for the Christmas card and xs she sends him every year.
He keeps his eyes shut stubbornly when he feels Harry looming over him, his side of the bed dipping dangerously.
“Are you awake?”
He considers pretending he’s beyond reach but he doesn’t want to, is the thing. No point in lying to himself now. “Not anymore, you prick. what d’you want?” Well, he doesn’t have to be nice about it, does he.
“Nothing. Just checking.” He can hear the smile in his voice. Oh, Christ.
“What is it, Styles?” He’s still talking into the pillow.
“I." Harry coughs. "I got us breakfast."
He can feel Harry’s fingers playing with his hair. He turns from where he’s laying and glances up at him, in all his wet, stupid glory. The fringe is plastered over his eyes and his nose is red with cold. Liam hates him. “You went out?” He glances at the window and the snowstorm brewing on the other side of the glass. "In this?"
"Popped round to Waitrose for supplies." Harry shrugs. "It's a bit awful outside, I figured we could - stay in."
Liam rubs the sleep from his eyes and tries to settle the pitter patter of his heart. The sight of Harry is a lot when he's just woken up.
Harry winds a finger around a loose curl on Liam's head, one of those that never see the light of day once he's tamed them in the mirror, then lets go. "Okay, up! Eggy bread is waiting!" He grabs Liam's hand unceremoniously and pulls.
"Eggy - ? Are we five?"
"Don't act like you hate it, Liam Payne," Harry dismisses him, jumping down the stairs.
He sets himself in front of the stove and starts forking out slices of French toast onto a plate. Liam doesn't help out, especially not with his hand still wrapped around Harry's, but he watches, his chin resting on the bony part of Harry's shoulder. "Ketchup or maple syrup?" Harry grins and moves his face to press against Liam's stubble. "Or both?"
"That's disgusting," Liam replies, not flinching at the touch. "Both."
"Knew it," Harry crows, squirting liberal amounts of both on the heaps of bread in front of them. He grabs a corner of bread with ketchup smeared onto it and slaps it on a piece with maple syrup; Liam’s mouth is open and waiting. It tastes just as weird and good as it did when they were students and they saved up ketchup portions from McDonald’s.
“I’ll make tea?” Liam asks through a mouthful and Harry nods, cheeks bulging with toast. There’s a smidge of ketchup at the corner of his lips that Liam blinks at before turning his back. He busies himself with the teapot, spooning the loose tea in and counting the time he lets it brew in the happy noises Harry makes as he eats.
The corner where Harry’s lips meet is still red. Liam puts down the piece of toast he’s given up chewing on and brushes his hands on his track pants. Harry pays him no mind, he’s too intent on reaching up to get two mugs and the shirt of Liam’s he’d borrowed - old and faded and frayed, from the charity shop down the corner of the street - rides up, a sliver of his tan skin erupting in goosebumps. It’s probably that, Liam thinks, it’s probably that that spurs him on and makes him pull Harry down again by his sleeve. Harry raises his eyebrows in question and Liam gives up, reaching a thumb up to wipe at the stain. He’s not sure he’s ever been this gentle with anything in his life.
Harry’s eyelashes flutter as Liam swipes his thumb away and Liam swears he hears his breath stutter out. Liam’s still holding onto his sleeve and Harry’s hand scratches out until he grasps Liam’s wrist and squeezes. His blood circulation has probably seen better days.
“Liam,” Harry breathes out harshly. “Just today - just until I leave -”
“Anything,” Liam’s already promising, his mouth already swallowing Harry’s words. Because fuck it, fuck resisting, fuck everything. His entire world is concentrated on the space between him and Harry and he could bet everything that this is it, the edge of the world, in his flat, closed off in snow, with Harry. “Anything.”
Both Harry’s hands clamp around Liam’s wrists and now it’s Harry kissing him, fiercely, like it’s the last thing he’s ever going to do. And this, this is the kiss Liam remembers, the only kiss he’s ever gotten out of Harry. Pointed, like his entire body was made for it. Liam pants out and Harry takes his time sucking from the corner of his mouth, leaving a wet trail on the underside of Liam's jaw. Liam feels heady, like he's topped off a night out with too strong cider, like the worst, best hangover he’s ever had in his life. "I want you," Harry whispers into the soft part just under Liam's throat. "I want you," his breath bitches and then he bites, and Liam feels the skin break under Harry's teeth, "so badly."
That’s what does it, that's what makes Liam’s knees almost buckle but Harry’s there to hold him upright.
Liam's arms squeeze tight and Harry must take that as a yes. He pushes them both out of the kitchen, one careful step at a time, his mouth back to Liam's lips. They bang against the door frame in the living room - because even careful Harry, even like this, he was always clumsy and Liam laughs to himself and kisses him again.
Harry pushes him down until Liam’s sat at the edge of the sofa and he fits himself between the bracket of Liam's legs, kneeling on the cold floorboards. He doesn't sit on the heels of his feet, just sits up straight, facing the length of Liam's neck. Liam's looks down at him in startled wonder, watching as Harry starts tugging at Liam’s T-shirt until he takes the hint. When that’s on the floor, crumpled, he takes the hands looped around him and threads his fingers between them, pressing their palms on the cushion. He doesn't ask permission this time, just keeps a tight hold on Liam's fingers and leans over.
His tongue teases over Liam's nipple and Liam tenses up and sucks a deep intake of breath. Harry presses his tongue flat over it, then moves away, nosing on the soft side just above where Liam's ribcage is heaving up and down. He kisses the skin with his mouth closed, then eases his teeth over and sucks. Liam makes a noise that makes him bite the inside of his mouth to keep quiet.
Harry sucks until the skin is red and raw, then soothes it over with his tongue. He pulls back, admiring his handiwork, then glances up again. Liam's breathing heavily and he can feel his cheeks blotted pink but his eyes still stay on Harry's. He nods at the question Harry doesn't ask and Harry doesn't blink when he attaches his mouth to the other nipple and swirls his tongue. Liam does his utmost not to give in and shut his eyes, compensating by biting his lip until he’s sure he's drawn blood. There's a rhythm in his own pants that Liam recognises and he knows, he knows that Harry knows that Liam's close but he's being persistently, deliberately quiet.
He realises what Harry’s going to do before he does. He eases back, offering a small, chaste kiss as compensation - as chaste as a kiss on someone's nipples can be. Liam knows he’s looking at him rather aggressively. Harry grins and clamps Liam's hands down harder, squeezing at the wrists.
"Why did you - stop." His words come out in little needy, breathy puffs of air and Harry just flashes his teeth and leans up. Liam has to remind himself that he can, and tips his chin down until they catch. The kiss isn't light or chaste this time; Harry uses his tongue like he hopes Liam will take it as a preview. When he leans away, he’s about as glassy eyed as Liam expects his own reflection would look in a mirror. The kiss doesn’t help though; Liam’s groin is still aching.
"I have my reasons," Harry says quietly, too soft for the smug words Liam was expecting. He runs the pad of his thumbs against Liam's pulse, soothing and presses close, kissing softly down the column of Liam’s throat. He doesn't stop, keeps going until Liam’s muscle turns tight and his belly flutters under his wet mouth. It's overwhelming, getting to feel this, getting to hurt from wanting it so badly and finally, finally getting it.
Harry noses and kisses and blows air into Liam’s belly button until Liam laughs and falls back, his back bouncing on the back of the couch. Harry wastes no time in climbing up on top of him, sitting himself snugly in Liam's lap and shrugging out of Liam's shirt. There's a case to be made for overstimulation. Harry's not being still, he's gently rocking his hips and Liam would eat his hand about it being a premeditated move. "You're - such a twat, Hazza," he whines, biting the inside of his cheek to sound less breathless. "Are you going to get me off," he asks impatiently.
Harry looks delighted. "Are you begging, Liam Payne? This is absolutely the best day of my life."
Liam bangs his teeth together and reaches up weakly to pinch Harry's nipple. Harry makes a noise that doesn't exactly sound pained.
"Harry," Liam moans, rotating his hips against Harry's and leaning up to align their mouths. Liam's tongue drags slowly in Harry's mouth and he'd be quite content to do this for a while if it wasn't for the way his dick was straining in his pants. He's never really been one to hold off on orgasms. There's only so much self control he can exercise.
He sneaks a hand between them, grunting when he has to fiddle with Harry's sodding belt buckle. "Do you have to be so - ?"
"Yes," Harry mumbles, and Liam can feel him huffing out a laugh. He clamps his thighs together for the least bit more friction.
Liam opens one eye with effort. Harry's hovering above him, teeth marks on his lower lip and furrowed brows meeting in the middle of his forehead. It would be adorable if he weren't currently not making him come.
Harry's face breaks from its concentration for a split second to smile over at Liam. It's flooring, a bit, how that one smile makes his heart speed up even more. He's getting fucked in more ways than one and it should be scary.
He thinks if Harry keeps on smiling at him like that, that might be okay.
He brushes his thumb over Harry's knuckles weakly, with no intent behind it but it triggers something in Harry; his face crumples and Liam can see him swallow, his Adam's apple moving down and glistening slightly. He makes quick of the layers left between them - his skinny jeans end up on the floor and - of course - he's pantsless because he's Harry. Then he hooks his thumbs in the waistband of Liam's trackies, sparing them the theatrics when he leans down for a kiss. It's hungry and Liam can hardly keep up, can hardly not read into it.
"I've missed you," Harry kisses into his mouth. "I've missed you so fucking much." His hand is on Liam with his last word and Liam's not entirely sure the groan he lets out is just because of the pressure on his cock.
Harry strokes him fast, urgent, his eyes never leaving Liam's face. He lifts his free hand and licks at it and Liam can't tell if he's putting on a show or just doing it to get on with it; but his chest tightens and the slick and slide of Harry twisting his hand on the head of his dick is just on the side of too much. He fists the couch on either side of him and has to bite the side of his cheek to stop Harry. Harry's face almost breaks.
"Together," Liam reassures him. "Together."
They’re both panting, open mouthed, the sofa springs creaking underneath them. It takes no time at all for their hands to move in unison, Harry's forehead resting on Liam's shoulder as he fists him. Liam's hand is pressed flat on Harry's back, nails digging in everytime Harry twists. His other hand flicks at the head of Harry's cock and it elicits a moan out of Harry, something Liam can feel reverberating in his lungs. He presses his hand further down, squeezes the rounded side of Harry's bum and feels Harry shake when he drags a finger across his hole.
"N- now," he stutters out. Harry doesn't reply, just turns his head and bites down on Liam's shoulder, teeth piercing the skin. Liam shouts out as he comes and it's Harry's name that makes Harry keel over, spilling into Liam's fist.
They lie there, on top of one another for Liam doesn't know how long.
Liam's playing with his carton of Marbs, tipping the corners along Harry's naked shoulder, guiding it through the dips in his ribs and his waist. Harry’s watching him, his head resting on his arm like a pillow, and his hair is completely askew. The fringe that wasn’t there yesterday has fallen on his forehead and he looks young, terrifyingly young, and it makes Liam almost feel like no time has passed. Like they’re the same people they were just before Harry took off to another life.
“Ben comes to he US every other weekend,” Harry says quietly and Liam loses the grip he had on the carton. It falls between the sheets, white on white, and Liam doesn’t care really; he’s got his fix already.
“What,” he asks, confused. Not five minutes ago, Liam had his hands wrapped around Harry’s thighs and he was biting the pale skin where someone had tattooed the words ‘might as well’. This is a bit of a non sequitur.
Harry clears his throat, still looking fixedly at Liam. “Ben has a second house in San Fransicso. And Louis comes over whenever his bank isn’t after his arse. And Niall’s always travelling. I haven’t seen Zayn in a while, but I know they’re planning a trip in the summer.”
Liam blinks. “You didn’t have to come.”
“I didn’t have to come,” Harry repeats, shrugging his shoulder. Horizontal as he is, it makes the skin on his collarbones bunch up and the faded writing there isn’t easy to make out. Liam wants to map out every unknown inch of him.
Liam could ask why, but he knows. He rubs his eyes with a knuckle and settles in closer to Harry, his jaw resting on his palm. “Why now,” he says instead.
A muscle jumps in Harry’s face and if Liam didn’t know him so well, he probably wouldn’t have noticed. The shadows from outside cast his face in odd angles.
“The truth?” He sounds croaky and Liam wants to kiss his neck. He nods.
Harry screws his eyes shut and blinks them open again. “I always miss you. I’ve never stopped missing you.”
“That’s not what I asked, Hazza.”
“I know. Just making sure.” Harry’s eyes tilt towards the ceiling and he’s playing with his fingers. If he was standing now, he’d be tilting his weight from one foot to the other, like Liam remembers doing when he was a kid and he was nervous.
“What’s her name,” he asks. It’s a shot in the dark and it could just as easily be his name. Harry exhales.
“Does it matter?”
Liam swallows. “When?”
Another half shrug and it’s maddening, it is, Harry acting like a child when he’s not. “A week ago, maybe.”
Liam’s blood is pounding in his ears. “You broke up with - with this person a week ago and then you ran away to me?” He can’t help his snort. “Classic.”
“What,” Harry says blankly, turning to face him. His face has turned hard and there’s a line between his brows that Liam doesn’t like, has never ever liked.
“Nothing,” Liam murmurs, because he doesn’t have the energy for this, maybe he never did. He wonders who in the whole fucking world does have the energy to catch up with Harry Styles.
A hand grips his forearm just as he pushes the sheets away and starts getting up. “No,” Harry says emphatically. “It’s clearly not nothing.”
“It’s nothing, Harry, leave it. Leave all of it. It’s kind of what you do.” And shit, shit, he did not want to say that. Harry’s grip tightens, then loosens straight away and Liam is able to move. He finds he can’t now.
“It’s 'kind of what I do'? What, leave? You?”
He’s not even processing the words that leave his mouth. “Me. This girl with no fucking name. London. Yeah, me.”
There’s a rustle of sheets and Liam turns to see Harry standing by his side of the bed. He’s naked except for the socks he refused to take off. It would be funny if it wasn’t actually the least funny thing in the world.
“You want to know her name? You want to know every person’s name that came after you, Liam?”
Liam stands up too. “That’s not what I -”
“Because I can give it to you, Liam. I can give you every fucking name and it still won’t change the fact that your list has a fucking name too. And yours is a bit more permanent." He sneers through the last, and sounds nothing like Harry.
Liam feels his chest seizing up. “Don’t you fucking dare -”
Harry's hands are running through his hair with manic speed. “You wanted to play this fucking game, Liam. You want the truth? Every time it ends with someone, I have this blinding moment of panic that it’s not me, and it’s not them, but it’s you. You who’s the problem, you who I keep running from, you who I’m scared I’ll always be running to. And this time I fucked up, because I did fucking run. To you.”
Harry’s breathing through his mouth, harshly, and Liam could well be doing the same, the way his muscles have tensed.
"I only ever ran away from you the one time, Liam." Harry sounds defeated now, like a deflated balloon, and his shoulders have sagged. He's got the terrible posture of a sixteen year old with a growth spurt. Liam wants to hug him but he's rooted to the spot. "And even then, it was only because you didn't want to run with me."
"You were moving to America, Harry," Liam croaks out eventually. "And you didn't even - you never even said goodbye to me."
Harry's looking at him from the opposite side of the bed, searching. There's regret there; whether it's enough to make up for the sleepless nights after Louis told him Harry had gone, for good, Liam's not certain.
"I thought you didn't care," Harry whispers. "I thought, after Sophia... I thought you didn't care."
Liam moves, stands up straight and crosses the distance between him and Harry, because the thought of Harry believing Liam might have ever not cared is not acceptable. His hands wrap around Harry's neck, his fingers meeting under the hair that curls at the nape, and it's not gentle this time. This time Liam pushes and tries to tell Harry everything without a word.
He kisses and squeezes at the same time and he's not sure if he's more angry or desperate. It's sloppy and messy and he can feel Harry struggle for breath under his hand. He presses down with his thumb, until he feels Harry's pulse fluttering. The grip he has around Liam's arm goes slack.
“Haz,” Liam whispers to his lips, and his voice is shaking. He squeezes again, then lets go. "Harry, please."
It’s like a lightbulb goes off or something, because Harry’s eyes open, and Liam sees him blink, suddenly, like he’s only just woken up, and there’s a surge of something in him, that makes him push Liam back, until the small of his back hits the dresser. Liam's hand drops from around Harry's neck and there are pink thumbprints at Harry's collarbones that make Liam pant. They’re kissing then, desperately, Liam’s mouth hungry on Harry’s, his tongue pushing in, his hands pulling on Harry’s hair even though it has to hurt. Liam finds that he doesn’t care, the one time he doesn’t give a damn if maybe Harry hurts because it’s the good kind, the kind that makes Liam want to bite him and mark him and suck and pull and scratch.
"Where's - where'd you keep -" Harry's fucked up his throat and Liam doesn't care if it's his fault.
He scrambles with his hand behind him, loath as he is to let go of his hold on Harry. The drawer hits his back and he pushes through the crap in it blindly until his fingers wrap around a tube. He intertwines his hands around Harry's head one more time for a kiss, then lets go to prop himself on the dresser and shove the lube at Harry. Harry laughs, deep and shaky, and he reaches up to touch his mouth against the corner of Liam's mouth.
"Much as I'd love to, I'm not as young and athletic as I used to be, Liam Payne." He looks up at Liam through fluttering eyelashes, shy all of a sudden. "My knees'd give over."
"Take me to bed, then," Liam murmurs into his skin and he knows he sounds needy and he'd hate that usually. But the thing is, he does need Harry.
Harry nods, still halfway trembling, and smoothes his palms down against Liam's back. Liam wraps his legs around Harry's waist and then he's hoisted up until they fall on the mattress. Their limbs are tangled as they bounce and there's a moment where they could just burst into giggles, make this into the funny kind of sex they used to have all the time. But Harry stops himself, eyes intense as he looks down at Liam, and Liam knows this is not the time.
Harry sits back on the heels of his feet and Liam watches his hands as he uncaps the bottle and coats his fingers. He wraps a hand around Harry's wrist when he leans down. "Go - go slow, okay?" he says shakily. "It's been a while." He doesn't say how long. He reckons Harry can guess.
Harry gives him a smile. "When have I not taken care of you."
Liam tips his chin up for a kiss instead of answering. He doesn't want to answer that.
Harry's first finger against him is cold and tentative and it makes Liam wince, the leg Harry's propped up on his shoulder spasming at the unfamiliar feeling. Harry distracts him with his mouth, his finger circling slowly, carefully. Agonizingly.
"More," Liam pants out. "I can - more."
He gets to work, gradually, his eyes never leaving Liam's, his pupils dark. Liam recognises this, Harry’s concentration and the way he liked to break Liam down piece by piece, pressing him down using only his hands. He felt as open and as vulnerable as he does now but there’s still that feeling of safety that hasn’t shifted. Harry looks at Liam like he knows and his free hand shakes when he reaches over and intertwines their fingers.
The pain's searing when Harry finally gets knuckle deep and Liam gives in and screws his eyes shut. He stretches his knees apart and Harry moves to fit closer and they don't talk, don't need to and Liam can't, doesn't want to think. But it's there, how they've always been so much better at communicating without needing words. Harry presses a second finger against Liam and Liam grunts, pain finally mixing with pleasure. The stretch burns him out and he counts then, the days and years since the last time this happened; it wasn't Harry then and Liam thinks that's why the memory's blurred and faded. It was never any good with anyone other than Harry.
Harry's second finger twists inside Liam and hits a spot that makes his eyes go black and pinpricks of light appear behind his eyelids. He bites back a moan and Harry must notice, because he chases it with his mouth, licks into Liam and moves his hand, opening Liam up. He feels full and Harry's movements become relentless, free hand squeezing Liam's hip like he wants to fucking kill Liam. "You're so - tight," Harry pants out, leaning down like it's effort enough to talk. His hair tickles the underside of Liam's jaw and Liam huffs out a laugh between the noises Harry's fucking out of him. Harry grins above him, the boyish, cat-got-cream smile that Liam's never not known how to love.
"Could you - just on my fingers?" Harry asks, and Liam could say something about him ruining a sentimental moment but Harry's fingers twist inside him and Liam feels his eyes roll to the back of his head and that's forgotten. The truth is - yes, he could, he definitely could and he can recall with frightening clarity every time they had tried, when they'd be sweaty and laughing and Harry would be mumbling incoherently on the floor, revering every one of Liam's knuckles. But he doesn't want that, not now.
"I want - that's not how I want it," Liam shakes his head and Harry sucks in his bottom lip and swallows. Then he nods and Liam prepares himself for the emptiness and tries not to think about that being too much of a metaphor. Harry drags his fingers out of Liam slow, and presses a conciliatory kiss to the inside of Liam's leg, sticky hand soothing the spot over.
"I'll be back," he promises and God damn, fuck, but Liam's heart beats double time at the words. There was once a time when he'd do anything to hear Harry say that to him; he's not sure that much has changed to make Liam not want to believe it. He watches Harry from the corner of his eye, kneeling over their pile of discarded clothes, afternoon light shining on his naked shoulder. I love you, Liam thinks and screws his eyes shut.
Harry's fist is clenched tight when he comes over, knuckles white and digging into his wrist. Liam's hand twitches at his side, his whole body wound tight at the thought of Harry being inside him, finally. His dick is hard and leaking against his stomach and he wants to touch himself badly but he doesn't, the empty ache too strong and Harry too close for Liam to do anything but paw at him.
Harry tears the foil wrap and Liam stares up at he ceiling, breath baited. He feels another kiss pressed to each of his knees this time, before Harry spreads them apart and Liam feels the air being punched out of his lungs when Harry lines himself up. He leans down, his elbows on either side of Liam and for a moment he does nothing but watch him quietly.
"Fuck me," Liam whispers. His throat is hoarse. "I've missed you."
Harry inches in and keeps his eyes on Liam, his eyelashes fanning out every time a bead of sweat drips down his forehead. Liam's breath hitches as he gets deeper; he's had no more than a finger inside of him for so long and Harry's much, much bigger than a finger and it's Harry - it's Harry and his body's always been in awe of him. His hips cant up to meet Harry's thrust and suddenly he's in him, balls deep and Liam chokes because it's been so long. They look at each other again and Harry's got indents from his teeth on his lower lip. It takes effort for Liam to lift himself up but he does, brushing his mouth against Harry's. "Fuck me," he repeats, because Harry looks like Liam feels; overwhelmed and disbelieving and clueless about what comes next. "Fuck me, Haz." Harry nods mutely and shuts his eyes, pulling out, then slamming back into Liam.
Liam wraps a hand around Harry's arm, the muscle jumping under his nails as he digs them in. It hurts, having Harry inside, but it's a good hurt, the kind of hurt Liam had forgotten he could miss.
Harry builds up a rhythm, his thrusts coming fast and shallow and hitting Liam in just the right spot. He keeps his hand around Harry, squeezing every time it's all too much, holding Harry close. Harry's eyes meet his again when Liam whimpers, his cock filling up with the pressure of Harry leaning down on him.
"Keep me," Harry murmurs. His voice is almost too low to make out and Liam's not sure he even hears it, rather than just feels the reverberation against his chest. Harry's not moving anymore and Liam feels full, so full. He's not sure Harry's just talking about now.
He comes like that, the feel of Harry inside him and the crack in his voice as he noses under Liam's jaw. His hips stutter against Liam a couple more times until he stops, and Liam winds his fingers in Harry's hair as Harry comes, body thumbing with the aftershocks.
He wakes up to the heat of an awfully warm and very naked body pressed next to his and it takes him a full moment of blinking and focusing in front of him to recognise the figure beside him. He smiles before he knows what he’s doing; Harry’s mouth is parted, drool dried at the corner of his lips in a way that should be anything other than endearing and his curls are fanned over Liam’s pillow, like some kind of borrowed halo. Liam really wants to touch, maybe stick his thumb in the little fold of skin he knows will dimple when Harry finally wakes up, but he doesn't because sleeping in the same bed after what's happened is as much as he can handle. It feels precarious, whatever this is, and he sort of just wants to enjoy it, the peace before the storm.
“Stop staring,” Harry mumbles a couple of minutes later and Liam snaps back to attention, turning until he’s facing the ceiling and willing his cheeks not to turn pink. From the corner of his eye, he can see Harry stretching, hands balled in fists as he snuggles in closer to Liam. There’s never been anything more tactile than Harry Styles waking up.
Liam huddles under the covers in self defense, because Harry always gets possessive with the duvet when he's cold. He muffles his protest in his pillow and breathes in; it smells like comfort and Harry and things Liam shouldn't recognise anymore but does. The thought makes his belly ache. Which in turn reminds him that he's hungry and that their French toast has long since been ruined.
He leans over Harry, ignoring his mumbled groan when Liam presses down to reach on the floor and rummage around their shit. He grabs the first phone he sees and plunks himself on the bed again, this time allowing Harry to hog the covers. Not that it matters anyway, because Harry just buries himself into Liam's side, like he's not too long for that.
He hits the home button on the battered phone. The lock screen is Harry and his sister, looking tall and tan and gorgeous on a West Coast beach, holding up peace signs like that's still in fashion. He'd only meant to check the time - early evening, though the sky outside makes it look like midnight - but now he's curious, after this small glimpse into the Harry he hasn't gotten the chance to know.
Harry's snoring in his arms, so Liam shimmies higher up to accommodate him, sliding his thumb across the screen. Then he hesitates. He could just ask; he could prod Harry in the ribs where he's ticklish and get him to mumble the passcode before passing out again and that'd be that. No big deal, no harm done. And it's not a test, not knowing for sure what Harry's used, it's not a measure of how much Liam knows him, and of how much he's missed out on knowing these past few years. It's a four digit number, he tells himself, it doesn't mean anything and really, it's stupid that he's wasting brain power in this. He's being an idiot.
But... He used to know, is the thing. He'd programmed it in himself, in Harry's old phone, and it hadn't been a thing, or it had, one of those stupid, innumerable details that had made them them. Liam knew where Harry hid the posh Green & Blacks chocolate bars for when he got a craving that wasn't fruit; Harry would know to lock the door in the morning after Liam went running because he'd always forget; Liam would carry Harry's Oyster card in his wallet more often than not and Harry would have to always come back if he went somewhere on his own, a kiss to Liam's cheek when he'd be waiting to hand it back to him at the door.
He keys it in, the street number and 4, for the number that would always hang loose it outside their flat. He waits for the millisecond it takes, for the screen to jump and ask him to try again. But it doesn't, because it's been five years, and Harry hasn't lived in their old flat and in London longer than Liam, and his passcode is still the same. Liam exhales the breath he didn't know he'd been holding in and kisses the soft crown of Harry's head. Harry's lock screen is a Turner, something with waves and a stormy night, and it turns out, however long it's been, Liam still knows him all too well.
Harry had been listening to music before he'd snuck in here last night. Curious, he thumbs at the song he'd paused at; it's by a band Liam doesn't recognise and it still makes him laugh, Harry's tendency to listen to the most obscure shit possible. He snorts at his most played - amongst the Head and the Heart and the Kings of Leon, there's the glaring Lil Wayne track because he's never known Harry to be a music snob - and swallows when he sees an album that has Liam Payne on the production list. Harry's been keeping up. Liam finds he's not surprised.
His camera roll is about as messy as his iTunes is organised. The first dozen are selfies of Harry and Louis that make Liam laugh out loud, more close ups of Louis' nostrils than anything else. Then it's Harry falling in love with London again and every gallery he used to haunt when they were kids at Uni and the nostalgia kicks in again, like a bruise in his side. There's Anne and Gemma and the route Harry takes when he's running in the US. There's Ben and Meredith and a bundle of blankets in the crook of Harry's arm that makes Liam's chest feel tight.
She's pretty when he gets to her and Liam surprises himself when he doesn't feel jealousy at the girl who had Harry; she makes a ridiculous face in every photo Harry's taken of her, indulging him in the exact way Harry should be indulged. She looks like someone Harry wants to keep, the way he tries to keep everyone who passes through his life.
He's creeping on photos of Harry's apartment in San Fransisco when there's a grumble and he feels a pout against his shoulder. Harry's hair tickles his chin as he sits up, rubbing a knuckle in the corner of his eye. With an arm on either side of Liam's torso, he purses his chapped lips and offers an open mouthed kiss. Liam frowns at the morning breath. Harry just gives him a slow smile back and leans back in when Liam sighs and puts the phone down to wind his hands through Harry's hair. They kiss lazily, bad breath and all, and Liam feels his cock fattening up, suddenly alert to the fact that Harry's up and willing. He doesn't realise that Harry's just playing at distractions.
"Don't you know it's rude to go through other people's phones while they're sleeping? I could have nudes on there."
Liam raises an eyebrow at Harry, watching him sit with his back on the headboard, still pressed flush against him. "You're not other people. And obviously I didn't get far enough."
Harry grins. "Please. I'm not an amateur. Nudes are strictly for Snapchat. Niall swears he doesn't screencap 'em."
"Wouldn't trust Niall," Liam lies, laughing.
Harry shrugs, unbothered. "You know I like showing off."
Liam feels the blood pulse through him, a warm flush traveling down his chest. Before he has time to think better of it, he props himself on one hand and heaves himself over Harry. They don't touch, but Harry's legs fall open anyway and he falls back on the pillow with an 'oomph!', his nose tickling Liam's. Liam can feel him rut his hips up and then Harry bares his teeth when he finds friction against nothing.
Liam smiles, despite his equal need to get off, and leans on one crooked arm to brush at Harry's hair with the other. "Oh, Styles, what am I gonna do with you?" He's teasing, but there's a truth there that makes his voice break.
Harry blinks up at him, all slow. "Anything you want, Liam Payne. Anything."
They get each other off quietly, with no rush, just Liam rubbing off against the swell of Harry's arse and Harry biting his lip and stubbornly not touching himself. It's a marvel when he finally shoots off, coming just from the light press of his cock against Liam's stomach and trying to catch a breath while he mouths at Liam's jaw.
It's only their stomachs growling in sync that make them get out if bed. They both pad down to the kitchen naked and cold just at the sight of the frost on the windows. Liam sits by the counter, humming along to the radio and watching Harry sort through his shopping. Every so often, he'll come over offering a spoon for Liam to taste and Liam will dig his fingers into the flesh just above his hip, pulling Harry close. Their dinner almost goes the way of their breakfast thanks to Liam not being able to keep his hands off but the oven interrupts them and Liam lets go of Harry, however reluctantly.
When the food's done - something Moroccan, with too many spices Liam wouldn't even begin to recognise - they put on pants ("Don't want your bits to smell of turmeric, do you, Liam?" "I mean, if you want to have a taste, feel free.") and sink to the floor. Their backs against the buzzing fridge and their legs tangled underneath their dishes, they pass a bottle of red between them and drink with their lips wrapped around the top. It's the indulgent, bohemian sort of thing they used to do when Harry wanted to do student loans with style and Liam finds himself aching for the twenty year olds they were.
"What's with the face?"
Liam blinks at the hand that's waving in front of him and refocuses on Harry beside him, smiling something small with the corners of his mouth. It's unbearably fond and it looks like the feeling Liam's been keeping close in his chest. "What face," he says, batting Harry's fingers and interlocking them with his own. Harry tilts his head.
"The 'I'm so old and wise and wary of the world' face you've got going on. Doesn't suit you."
"Are you saying I'm not old and wise and wary?" Harry's fingers squeeze once.
"You are definitely none of those things."
Liam snorts. "Feels like I am though. Sometimes." He sighs and stares down at their hands. "I miss this. I miss feeling like this."
Harry's smile turns down slightly. "Young and stupid? We're still both those things."
Liam presses the heel of his hand against the back of Harry's, feeling the bone and chapped skin moulding to his touch. "Sometimes I forget though, y'know? Sometimes it's like I'm pretending to be an adult too much."
"This is all ridiculously introspective of you, Liam."
"I guess you bring out the worst in me." He looks up at Harry when he says that, like he's making sure Harry knows it's a lie; there's no need though, because Harry's still smiling. The pinch in his heart is back; as he looks at Harry, at the cold skin and the pink lips, at the eyes that look unfairly green in the muted light of the sun setting. Liam licks his lips and he tastes Harry. It makes him brave.
"Hey. I -"
He's interrupted by a faint vibrating sound from the ceiling, then the sound of -
"MC Hammer?" He laughs, half because it's funny, half because maybe the universe has a point, stopping him from admitting what he was about to confess.
Harry bangs his head against the cupboard, groaning. "Louis has the best fucking timing."
Liam loosens his grip. "You can get it. He's probably just checking you're alive."
Harry sniffs and pulls their hands into his lap. "He knows." He plays with a ring on his knuckle, beating it against Liam's forefinger. "What were you about to say?" His voice is quiet, barely a whisper, barely heard over the wind beating against the glass of the windows.
Liam feels so tired all of a sudden. He leans back, turning his head to the side so that he's looking straight at Harry. "I love - how you look half naked in my kitchen." It might be the coward's way out but it doesn't make it any less true.
Harry doesn't look disappointed. He laughs and Liam feels a thrill curling at the pit of his stomach when he spots the pink stains high on Harry's cheeks. "God."
"And I love how you're never, ever embarrassed but that just made you blush."
"Cos it was corny as shit, Liam."
"I love how you're the worst liar in the world," Liam continues, undeterred.
"Am not -"
"I love your cooking, and your hands -" and Liam brings them to his lips now, kissing each separate knuckle before going on, "- and your face when you come -" Harry sniggers obnoxiously, "- and your enthusiasm for blowjobs, and your stupid, impulsive trips to London, and how easy it was to unlock your idiot phone and -"
"Liam." Harry's thumb presses on his Cupid's bow to stop the flow of words.
"Me too," he says simply. "Still."
The storm that's been raging over London for the better part of the long weekend wanes after the sun goes down, leaving a bed of virginal snow over the city. It's still cold and the window panes turn brittle with frost but through some unspoken agreement, long after midnight, Liam and Harry finally layer up. After spending most of the day in less than their pants, Liam's jumper feels scratchy against his skin and his boots take ages to lace up. Harry, though, looks like he was made for English winter. He's in Liam's clothes, stuff he's forgotten in boxes pushed to the back of his wardrobe, like every half-remembered dream Liam's never wanted to wake up from.
"Cute," he says quietly, tucking Harry's curls under the grey beanie he's shoved over his head.
"Damn. And I was going for macho."
"Missed by a mile, Styles. It's okay, I still like you."
Harry's face is soft in the hall light when Liam unlocks the door. The wind is biting but Harry still looks warm. "I'm glad you do."
The clutch at each other's sleeves coming down the front steps. Liam's boots squeak as they trudge through the snow; he can see Harry wincing at the wetness when his suede boots get soaked. The sight is funny and familiar and Liam doesn't think twice when he lets his hand slip further down into Harry's. Harry doesn't say anything and doesn't look down at their tangled fingers but Liam can see his mouth tilt upwards. It feels precious, this does; not quite a secret, because Liam isn't ashamed of it regardless of anything, but kept hidden in the folds of snowy London.
There's almost no one else sharing the pavement with them. A couple of cabs and night buses brave the slippery roads but other than that, London's quiet. They don't talk, almost as if they're trying to keep the fragile bubble they're in intact, except when Harry pulls Liam's arm all of a sudden and kisses him into a damp wall. Their entwined knuckles crack in the cold but the rest of them is warm with each other's body heat. Liam's almost tempted to stay there, under the shadow of the London Museum, doing nothing but kissing Harry's chapped mouth and feeling his thumb digging into his jaw.
"You drive me - fucking crazy," Harry groans, pulling away enough to blink his eyelashes with Liam's.
"Same," Liam says weakly, pushing half-heartedly at Harry's shoulder. "C'mon, move, Styles."
Harry lets out a frustrated whine but follows through anyway, dragging Liam behind him as he stomps on the empty road. Liam allows himself to be pulled, at least until the toe of his shoe catches on a pile of snow and he grins.
Harry harrumphs when he's met with resistance but doesn't turn around fast enough to stop Liam. He yelps when he feels the snow slide down the back of his neck and starts jumping like an idiot on the spot while Liam guffaws at the sight of him. It only lasts until Harry's patted all the excess snow into his coat and then Liam runs, with Harry quick on his heels, pelting snowballs at him like his life depends on it.
They get to Southbank wet and shivering and giggling like drunk teenagers. Harry climbs onto the railings, his hair stuck to his forehead with perspiration and melting snow, and Liam falls back, watching him. It smells of burnt sugar on this side of the river, from the vendors that hang about listlessly until late, and it almost overpowers the pungent water. The City lights glitter in the distance and there's a glow of someone's cigarette flickering in the fog and Liam almost wants to call this perfect. Or, as perfect as it can be.
He breathes out into his numb hands and rubs them together to get some feeling back in them. The air in front of him crystallises. “Remind me again why we’re out here freezing our toes off?”
Harry grins widely from his precarious position on the railing. Liam gives into his impulse and puts a hand against his back. “Because we’re still young and mad and - that other thing we’re not saying. And I love this city like this.”
Liam rolls his eyes, heat pooling in his stomach, and bunches his hand into a fist, tugging Harry down. He lands against Liam’s chest with a put-on ‘ow!’. “I’m cold,” Liam says decisively.
“Loser,” Harry says, scrunching up his nose, his accent slipping again. "Ugh, fine, let’s go save you from hypothermia.”
They wind up in the tiny Lebanese corner shop by Liam’s, lured in by the braying laugh of someone who’s clearly too drunk to be responsible for a kebab. They share a styrofoam cup of Turkish coffee that tastes more like sugar than anything but it warms the tips of Liam’s fingers and it’s sweet on Harry’s tongue, so Liam’s not about to complain.
When they get back to the flat, the coffee spills on the front steps because Liam’s hands are shaking too much to hold it and get the door. Harry’s face is red with cold and it’s all Liam can do to lean in and bump his nose against the pinkest patch of skin. “I could warm you up, I think,” he whispers in the dark. His voice sounds scratchy and deep and Harry snorts at him.
“F- your hands are bloody freezing, Liam, don’t - ah,” he yelps when Liam sneaks a hand on his skin.
Liam laughs in retaliation, pressing his fingertips deeper into the indents of Harry’s ribs under his shirt. “Just trying to survive hypothermia.” He nudges Harry softly to the wall and Harry complies, looking dopey with lack of sleep. He lets his hands settle just above Harry’s hipbones and takes his time mouthing at his neck, his leg slipping between Harry’s thighs. It’s not long before Harry’s rutting against him quietly. They both make grunting noises as they rub against each other, their breaths turning into smoke because Liam went and forgot to turn their heating on. No wonder his cats hate him.
They bury themselves on the couch after, Liam with his back against Harry’s chest and a threadbare blanket on top of them to restore circulation. He can hear Harry yawning behind him, his arms a dead weight around his middle.
“I’m s-o-o-o-”, Harry yawns again mid-sentence, tightening his hold around Liam, “- so tired.”
“We can sleep,” says Liam softly, rubbing his palm soothingly on the part of Harry he can reach. “Alarm’s on for tomorrow, yeah?” It’s the only vague allusion they’ve made to Harry leaving. Harry sniffs.
“I can.” Liam licks his lips. “Drive you tomorrow. If you wanted.”
Harry laughs. “You know what? I think I’ll take the risk.”
Liam elbows him weakly. “I’ve improved.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it, babe.” Harry kisses the top of his head lightly and his lips are still cold from outside. It makes Liam’s skin burn anyway. “Goodnight.”
It’s incredible how easy it is to sleep like that, in a couch that doesn’t fit them both. It’s probably muscle memory at work, or else it’s just damn hard-headedness, but Liam sleeps like a baby until the buzzing interrupts him and he blinks awake.
It’s a cool morning, which isn’t surprising, and he shivers at the cold cushion sticking to his back instead of a warm body. He pinches his nose between his thumb and forefinger and allows for the crack as he stretches his back. The familiar chorus of cats complaining makes him turn on his side and he looks down groggily to both of them staring at him expectantly.
“Go bug Harry,” he mumbles, kicking the blanket off his legs in an effort to get himself up. One of the cats hisses unhelpfully.
“Harry,” he groans in the direction of the kitchen. “Harry! Feed my flatmates, please.” He waits for the telltale deep laugh or the rattle sound of Harry shaking the catfood. It doesn’t come.
Liam frowns and swings his legs from the couch. The kitchen to his left is silent and he can’t hear the plumbing from someone using either of the bathrooms. His heart is suddenly beating louder. Daisy is pawing indignantly at his shin. He takes a deep breath through his nose and looks at the coffee table in front of him. There’s a folded page of a notebook tucked under the corner of his laptop. A loopy ‘Liam’ is scrawled on the top side.
“Fuck, Harry,” he mutters and stands up, kicking Daisy to the side. She makes a noise that probably means he’s never going to get a good night’s sleep ever again.
He nearly trips over his own shoes as he races into the hallway, the head of his hoodie trapped around his ears. He doesn’t bother locking the door behind him, just slams it and tries not to slip on his arse on the ice that’s settled on the steps. He looks wildly from one end of the street to the other, heart in his throat. Then he spots the flashy red Audi that Louis’ bank account is still mourning and Louis himself waving both arms in the air to attract his attention. Relief floods through him.
“I’m sorry my best mate’s a fucking idiot -” Louis starts saying, palms up, when Liam runs towards them.
“I’m not a fucking idiot, Louis,” Harry mumbles from inside the car, coat done up to his chin. He looks over to the driver’s window where Liam’s panting. “Hi.”
“Look, I just wanted to make it easier -”
“That wasn’t your decision to make -”
“It hurts, Liam, alright?” Harry’s jaw is set, like he’s trying not to let it shake. “It hurt enough leaving you once.”
“At least - let me say goodbye this time,” Liam whispers and his voice comes out gruff because there’s something pressing down on his chest making it hard for him to take a breath. Harry’s lower lip wobbles.
“Fuck, I’m - I’m sorry, Liam, I didn’t -” Harry scrambles with the door handle and Liam can almost hear Louis’ eyes rolling as he opens the door for him. There’s still a car between them. “I didn’t mean for that, Li. I wasn’t leaving you - like that again.”
Liam nods, not trusting himself to speak.
“You’re both idiots,” Louis mutters from beside Harry. Liam smiles at his feet and Harry gives Louis a watery laugh.
“Thanks for bringing my stuff,” Harry says, nudging Louis into a hug.
“At six in the fucking morning and don’t you ever forget that, you loser. Come back soon, yeah?” Harry nods and shoulders the bag Louis hands over. “And I’ll talk to you later, yeah, Payne?” There’s an awful lot of understanding in Louis’ eyes when he looks over at Liam.
“Yeah, see you, Tommo.”
They both wait until Louis’ car is gone and then Liam takes Harry’s luggage and starts walking to his own car. Harry follows close behind, not speaking.
He turns the heating on as soon as they get in, making the windows on either side steam up. Before he turns on the ignition, he looks over at Harry. “Don’t do that again. If this is all we’re ever gonna get - don’t do that to me again. Please.”
Harry’s face is soft and he looks sleepy. He blinks and brings both hands up to frame Liam’s face. “For whatever it’s worth - I promise.” He kisses Liam lightly just above his Cupid’s bow. Liam tries not to think how this might be the last time.
It takes less than an hour to get to Heathrow, no matter how carefully Liam drives. By the time he pulls up in the drop-off parking outside the terminal, the sun’s started to rise, staining the sky pink. He stares at it for a long moment after he’s switched off the engine.
“You got your bag?”
Harry smiles at the windshield. “All set, mum.”
Liam laughs and looks at him finally; he doesn’t look broken, just tired and beautiful and everything Liam can’t have. “All set and ready to go.”
“Never ready for that.” Harry rubs a hand across his face and breathes out loudly. “Just - let me - can I -?”
Liam feels his stomach bubble up with nerves. “Don’t say anything, Harry -”
“No, this is just,” he sighs frustratedly. "It's not that you’re my only shot at, like, happiness? And you’re not - you’re not the one that got away.” Harry bites his lip, steeling himself. “But you were my best shot at it. And you still - you still fucking are.”
Liam doesn’t speak. He’s not sure he’d know what to say if he could.
“I love - I love dancing with you. In your kitchen. To an Elvis Costello song. Just so you know.” Harry smiles and opens the door finally. Liam can’t move except to lean over and tug at Harry’s sleeve. Harry’s eyes are wet.
“Me too. Harry. Just as much - as ever.”
He watches him until the automatic doors shut behind him and doesn’t expect him to look back. Harry doesn’t do that and Liam doesn’t want him to and he’s been parked here too long because one of the airport security is starting to walk over to him, looking like he’s up for a fight. Liam raises a hand in acknowledgement and goes to turn the key. His hand shakes as he hesitates. Then his phone rings.
“Fucking -” He pats down his pockets and slides his thumb over to accept the call. “Hello?”
“Hey, love,” says Sophia. Liam swallows.
“Hey, you. Nearly home?”
“Should be at the station in half an hour. Feeling up to picking me up?”
Liam looks at the sliding doors one more time. No one’s coming out of them.
“‘Course, love. See you soon.”
He starts the car.
His boots squeak a little on the linoleum as he takes a turn through the crowd. The room smells of lemon and spilt tequila cocktails and the coffee he’s been relying on since this morning to keep him going. Nick is hobnobbing with the guests and stragglers and someone in a neatly pressed suit is diligently polishing the artist’s name hanging above the door. Harry smiles to himself, because he likes seeing the place like this; buzzing with people and quiet talk, alcohol and the dim lighting making everything a lot less intimidating than it was the first time he came inside, packed with art enthusiasts and hipsters in fake glasses and then there was him, thanking his further education for at least giving him a chance to interview here.
He glances at his reflection in the glass of one of the exhibits and swivels straight for the toilets to splash some water on his face. He rubs a hand over his chin and feels his fingertips burn at the stubble brushing them. His hair - grown stupidly long because he’s trying to grow it out little - is falling in an unstyled fringe over his forehead and he can spot tufts curling stubbornly behind his ears. It makes him laugh a little and he runs a hand through them to settle them into something less embarrassing. He’s nervous, like he always is at the opening of a new exhibition, and he spots the shake in his hand as he goes to open the bathroom door on his way out. “Chill, Styles,” he mutters to himself before he joins the party, smoothing down the collar of his shirt.
The usual hip crowd go out of their way to talk to him, clinking cocktails with ridiculous names against his whisky sour and acting all blase about the diversity of low brow art. Harry indulges them, because that’s his job, but he keeps one eye on the door. He likes the kind of people who come to hang out at the Spoke, he really does - but it’s those who stumble in that he’s always more interested in. Nick says it’s his habit of collecting strays, trying to lure them into the world he loves so well. Whatever, that might be true but it works, if their being cramped tonight is any indication.
He glances down at his phone when there’s a pause in conversation. There’s the usual congratulatory emails he’ll have to get back to in the morning and texts from back home wishing him luck. He grins at Niall and Louis’ messages and Zayn’s excited capslock and his mum’s tear filled voicemail and does the maths in his head; it’s about four am in London now, so there’s no point in relying on them for stress relief. Still, it’s nice to know that they were thinking of him in the dead of night. He scrolls aimlessly down the list of texts like he’s waiting for another one to appear. He isn’t, he tells himself, but even to his own ears, it rings false.
One of these days he’s going to have to learn not to expect things from people.
The exhibition goes well, apart from Harry needing to step in every time the artist went head to head with every college student who’s probably considering changing their major from art. It winds down around midnight, because everyone in the Bay Area knows it’s time to leave when the alcohol starts trickling down to warm beer. He stands by the door playing good host, glad of the warm breeze easing through after being under the AC for hours. Finally, it’s only down to a dozen people crowded around Nick’s desk, bidding on the art pieces they want to buy and Harry goes around tidying up empty glasses, even though they’ve got someone coming in to do that very job tomorrow morning.
Harry adjusts the bottles he’s got cradled in his arms and turns towards Nick.
“There’s someone in the back asking for you. English? Mentioned something about a - Turner?”
Harry frowns and glances around the pieces they’ve got perched on the walls; they’re all Wes Anderson inspired posters. “I - the painter?”
Nick shrugs. “I told him he was probably in the wrong place but - I don’t know, he said he was right where he needed to be.”
Harry keeps his brow furrowed and turns around, glancing into the far room. The only thing he can see is someone sitting on the bench with his back to Harry; he’s wearing a plaid shirt instead of a three piece designer suit and that tells Harry he’s one of his so-called strays. He smiles to himself and dumps the bottles in the recycling bag he’s carrying, before walking over.
He stops by the door and leans on the door jab, looking into the room. It’s darker than the rest of the gallery because this piece is sensitive to light and Harry’s eyes take a moment to adjust. He coughs into his fist to announce himself and holds his breath.
“I’m always thinking it’s Turner, aren’t I,” says Liam quietly, his back still turned. Harry watches the way his shoulder blades move under his shirt and it’s like the roll of a film he’s seen over and over again.
“Pretty much,” Harry mutters, taking a couple of steps inside until he hits his knee against the side of the bench. It’s tempting to look down at Liam’s face but he resists, still intent on the poster in front of him.
“I like this, though. Reminds me of comic books.”
“Very astute of you,” Harry comments, grinning despite himself.
“I can be astute,” Liam protests, and it might be Harry’s hearing but he sounds closer this time. “Sometimes.”
Harry doesn’t move, just stares at the art in front of him until the colours start fading into each other. He wants to ask, he wants to ask so badly it’s killing him but he can’t. This is Liam’s turn; it’s his time to talk.
“I’m sorry that I just - turned up,” Liam says finally. Harry tilts his head to the side and chews on the inside of his cheek. He can feel warmth from one side of him and he knows it’s not just Nick saving up on electricity in favour of the humid sea breeze. It’s Liam.
“I was gonna call - or email you, or whatever, to - to wish you good luck. I knew this was a big deal, Zayn kept saying it was. But I couldn’t - it felt wrong? Y’know?” Liam sighs and Harry can feel his breath tickling his skin. There’s goosebumps on his forearm. “I don’t know. Anyway. I’m jetlagged, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
The only thing Harry can hear is the sound of Nick humming something out of tune in the front. He thinks about the last time he saw Liam, outside a packed Heathrow, swerving his car into the road. That was three months ago now. He thinks about getting that call from Niall a few weeks later. He thinks about how Liam never called him after that.
Harry blinks, confused, and looks down almost without wanting to. Liam doesn’t look any different than what he remembers seeing in London. He looks like he’s travelled for twelve hours, like he hasn’t slept in even more but other than that, no. He’s the same Liam Harry left behind. Again.
“Hm?” he says distractedly. Liam smiles.
“Sit. Please.” He taps the bench next to him and scoots up, just enough so Harry can fit.
Harry hesitates, then shakes his head at himself and sits down. There’s enough space between them that they’re not touching. He looks ahead again at the poster.
“You know, right?” Liam starts again. “Niall - he told you, didn’t he?”
Harry makes a noise at the back of his throat, trying to settle himself. He remembers how close he was to hopping back on a plane two months ago, how happy he was for the hour after Niall’s call. He glances down at his hand, flat on the wood of the bench. His index finger is tapping on it nervously.
Liam takes a deep breath beside him. “I couldn’t come with you when I was twenty-one. I was a scared kid and I was in love and America - America was so far away from home.”
Harry can see himself at twenty-one. Broken-hearted and lonely and away from home. He looks over at Liam and finds him looking right back at him. “I think I know the feeling.”
Liam’s eyes crinkle at their corners and Harry’s missed him. He’s been missing him for too long.
“I’m not twenty-one anymore. And I’m not scared. And America’s still really far away but - but I think it could be home. And -” and here, Harry holds his breath, because he thinks he knows what might be coming and his finger is beating a tattoo against the bench, “- and I love - you,” Liam says simply, shrugging his shoulders. “You.”
Harry nods, still not taking his eyes off Liam. “I know,” he croaks out. Liam laughs softly.
“You’re supposed to say -”
“I know,” Harry says, his voice stronger now. There’s a balloon in his chest and he’s not sure it fits, the way it’s expanding. He laughs, hoping it makes it easier to breathe. Liam watches him, eyes flitting over every inch on his face.
Harry’s hand on the bench goes still when Liam’s covers it. Somewhere in the front of the gallery, Nick’s shouting that he’s about to close. Harry doesn’t answer, just squeezes Liam’s hand tight as he can.