It’s humid, is the thing. Nashville’s been on the verge of thunderstorms for days, and at this point, Taylor doesn’t think the heat will ever break. It’s strange, being back in a place where the air feels like it’s doing its best to suffocate her. Deep breaths feel shallow here.
Taylor drums her fingers on the kitchen table and idly checks the weather on her phone. It’s been months since she left New York and LA, but she still finds herself paying more attention to the forecast in places she isn’t.
There are oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in the oven, and it was a definite mistake. Taylor can hear the air conditioner thumping away in the living room. She should replace it, but it’s just one of those things that she can ignore if she hops in the pool or hides in the basement studio with Ed. In this moment, though, it’s something she wishes she’d taken care of when she bought the place a year ago.
She’d bought it on a whim, a New Year’s resolution of sorts, an exercise in taking things As They Are. Going into the woods, she told herself, even though it’s a renovated farm in Nashville, so not really woods. It was a clean break. Post Adam, post more fame than even she imagined, post feeling like she didn’t have anything new to say.
The timer beeps, finally, and it jolts Taylor out of her thoughts. She wants the cookies, but she doesn’t want to open the oven. The thought alone of the wall of heat is incredibly unappealing. She blows out a breath, and it’s so warm that her bangs still stick resolutely to her sweaty forehead.
Taylor moves fast, slipping on an oven mitt and sliding the two trays of cookies out of the oven. They aren’t her best work, but she’s pretty sure that humidity doesn’t have a positive effect on baking. Whatever. They’re still hot, she knows, but she grabs one anyway, hissing when it burns her fingertips. She thinks about wandering downstairs to the cool of the studio where Ed has been wrapped up for hours now. It was the one exception she made to taking things as they are, putting a recording studio in the basement. She’s glad that she did it, glad that she has Ed here, that by co-writing a few tracks with him she’s not losing her touch entirely.
The pool in the backyard wins out over the basement. Maybe Ed will smell the cookies and emerge, eventually. Taylor heads outside, flip flops slapping the ground as she goes, and even at nine o’clock at night, the temperature is pushing the upper 90s.
It’s dark, and the water of the pool is glowing gently. This is the closest she gets to a beach these days, and it makes her feel weirdly self contained. Nashville isn’t devoid of celebrities, not even close, and it’s not the country either, really. But here, a little outside of town, Taylor doesn’t find much cause to leave, and there aren’t many people around to bother her. She’s got what she needs. Some space, some quiet, a pool. A studio in the basement when she finds something to say. It’s enough to drag friends out every once in a while, an escape from the bright lights and the constant need to be on.
Taylor sits at the edge of the pool, the concrete rough against her skin even through the fabric of her shorts. Ed’s shorts, definitely, because they’re mesh and too long. She’s taken to doing both of their laundry and since Ed arrived two months ago, in the early days of June, more and more of his things have ended up in Taylor’s closet.
She’s not sure how long she sits there. She left her phone inside, and the hum of crickets and the pool’s filter and the cool water on her feet make everything drift. She’s humming along to what she hears, and there’s not a spark, not quite yet. The hooks aren’t falling into her head tonight, but then, they haven’t been for a few months. It’s not that she feels finished. Taylor’s never wanted to do anything but write. But the last album felt like the end of something, and she wasn’t sure what came next. It was strange, after feeling certain and steady for so long, to feel so unmoored.
A mosquito lands on her thigh, past the hem of Ed’s shorts, and she doesn’t realize it in time to prevent the bite. She smashes it anyway, along with the guilt that comes with crushing bugs.
Taylor hears the screen door slam behind her, and a few seconds later, Ed’s flopping down next to her, cookie in hand and hair frizzing as badly as her own.
“Cookies are all right,” he says through a mouthful.
“High praise, especially from someone who’s been living off of spaghetti-os for the past week,” Taylor says dryly. Ed doesn’t even have the grace to look ashamed. He shrugs, swallowing.
“Y’know how it is when you get into it, can’t make myself stop, feels like I’ll lose it if I do.”
Taylor knows. It’s why she used to keep her phone with her at all times, just in case she came up with a line or an arrangement that she needed to write down right that second. It’s funny how fleeting that kind of thing is, she thinks, and how good she’s gotten at letting it go these days.
“Sometimes I get scared that I’ll never write something as good as I did before. It’s stupid, and I’m not like, actively worried about it, but it used to be something I couldn’t turn off, but lately I’m just—” Taylor pauses, because she doesn’t know.
“You’ve been doing all right, I think,” Ed says into the quiet. “Have to get a trampoline out here, relive old times. Write those hits.”
“Yeah? Am I gonna wake up tomorrow to a trampoline in my backyard?” Taylor laughs, and it’s easy to lean over and rest her sweaty forehead on Ed’s shoulder. She can feel the heat through the thin of his shirt and it’s grounding, as hot as it is outside.
It’s not an opportunity that she can pass up, though, as nice as sitting still is in that moment, and she loops her arm around Ed and gives him a firm shove into the pool. The element of surprise works in her favor, and Taylor chokes with laughter at the way Ed’s limbs flail as he hits the water.
It takes him a minute to resurface, and he’s spluttering when he does. Taylor’s too busy trying to stop laughing long enough to catch her breath to notice that Ed’s got her by the ankle, and then they’re both soaking wet and fully clothed and laughing up at the sky.
And this—this is what she lives for now. Small moments with friends, no cameras, no pressure, no one looking at her. It’s freeing, and running away was the easiest thing she could do, but it doesn’t make her feel like a coward.
“How did you make yourself come back?” Taylor asks, the water in her ears making her voice sound faint and far away. Ed’s silent for so long that she starts to wonder if he heard her.
“It didn’t feel like I was forcing myself anymore. Like, I don’t feel like I’m making myself do something that I don’t want to do. I’ve got new things to write about, a new perspective, I dunno. Doesn’t feel like I’m repeating myself quite yet,” he says.
They’ve had this conversation before, but not in so many words. Taylor’s been in a weird place for the last week, the lack of plans and a firm timeline starting to get to her in ways she hadn’t anticipated.
“You’re doing all right,” Ed says, even though she didn’t ask. She hates how well he reads her a little bit. “Always feels easy, writing with you,” he finishes.
And it’s true, writing with Ed feels easy, even in this new era of no plans. She likes writing with other people, adding to their words and way two brains can come up with something so completely new, so different than what they could come up with on their own.
“Just feeling a little stir crazy, I guess. It’s hard to know what to do next when you don’t know what you want, you know? Like, the last thing I want is for people to label the next thing I do another break up record. Cause that’s what’ll happen,” Taylor says, and she doesn’t mean to sound bitter, but it comes through anyway.
“Fuck ‘em,” Ed says, voice slow and scratchy after hours of recording. “Someone’s always going to have something shit to say, you just have to tune it out again.”
“Mmmm,” Taylor hums in response, because he’s not wrong and they’ve had this conversation before, too. Whispered back stage at awards shows, in her back yard on a trampoline, in the back seat of her Range Rover in New York after losing the Grammy for album of the year and Harry Styles holding her hand.
“‘M sure Harry’ll have another perspective on it, you know how he’s always on about fame and that. He’s flying in tomorrow afternoon, gonna work on that duet that was supposed to be on the last album,” Ed says as he rights himself, standing up straight and shaking out his hair. He peels his shirt off and it lands beside the pool with a wet thwap.
Taylor’s proud that her stomach only clenches slightly when Ed reminds her that Harry’s flying in. They’re friends, all three of them, but she knows how easy it is to fall back into Harry’s orbit. He’s always been good at sucking people in and then disappearing. She submerges herself, does a quick handstand, the bottom of the pool scratchy against her palms, then glides over to the edge and hoists herself out. Her clothes feel like they weigh a million pounds, and she knows she probably looks half drowned, but it’s dark and it’s Ed and she reminds herself that it’s not something that matters.
“He’ll only be on about it if you start encouraging him again,” Taylor says as she collects her flip flops and they make their way back inside. Ed holds the door for her, and for a fleeting second and not the first time, she wishes she were in love with him. She and Ed have been friends long enough so she knows that what you see is what you get with him, and it’s a rare quality, especially in their line of work. Sure, people know a lot about her personal life, but they don’t know everything and she doesn’t want them to. Ed just lives like it doesn’t matter what people do or don’t know, and that’s something Taylor wishes she could achieve.
The kitchen feels cooler than it did an hour ago, a combination of being wet from the pool and the oven being off, and Taylor relishes it. Ed grabs another cookie and shakes out his hair, drops of water flying everywhere.
“‘M gonna pick him up from the airport around 12 tomorrow. Harry,” Ed clarifies. Taylor nods and tries to keep her face neutral as she scrapes her hair off of her forehead.
“Are you still cool if he stays here? Probably won’t be more than a few days, ‘ve already got my parts written, and it goes fast when you’re working with someone, so,” he lets his voice trail off. Taylor shrugs, and she’s pretty sure she’s a picture of nonchalance in that moment, chlorine stringy hair and saggy, drenched basketball shorts. Ed doesn’t even play basketball, she doesn’t know why he owns these.
“We’re friends, right? It’s fine. One more person to test my baking skills on,” Taylor says, and her voice cracks at the end, but they don’t acknowledge it. Ed flashes her a grin and disappears down the hall, presumably for a shower, but she wouldn’t put it past him to just fall into bed, wet clothes and all.
Her clothes have moved past uncomfortable at this point, but the cookies’ll get stale if she leaves them out overnight, she knows, so she pulls down the cat shaped cookie tins Karlie got her for her last birthday and puts them away. This kitchen isn’t neat like her kitchen in New York. It doesn’t have anything that makes it hers, even though she’s been here for six months. Taylor’s lost count of how many times she redecorated in the past, but here, away from everything, she hasn’t felt inclined at all.
Taylor pads upstairs, shirt sticking to her stomach. She’s been running a lot, doing a few crunches in the morning when she remembers, and if it’s dark and she squints a little, she can almost see some definition there. Besides doing some writing with Ed, it’s probably the most productive thing she’s done in the last six months.
Her room is silent when she enters, and she groans when she realizes that means she forgot to turn on the air conditioner. She strips off her wet clothes on her way to the en suite, dropping them on the bathroom floor.
The mirror is bigger than Taylor’s used to, and it’s always startling to see so much of her reflection. Her hair looks like straw and she’s bony in a way that’s always made her self conscious, even though she knows it’s stupid. She blinks rapidly and looks away, flicks on the shower and tries to tackle the mess of her hair. It’s getting longer again, because she can’t be bothered to find someone to cut it here, and she missed long hair more than she thought she would.
It’s cool when Taylor emerges from the bathroom, the hum of the air conditioner drowning out the heat birds and crickets outside. She drops her towel and grabs the first shirt she can get her hands on out of her laundry basket. It’s ancient, probably another one of Ed’s, the fabric so worn it’s almost sheer and impossibly soft.
She’s worried that she won’t sleep, that it’ll be one of those nights that her brain just won’t turn off, but there’s something about the white noise of the air conditioner and Ed’s shirt soft against her skin that makes her eyelids heavy and if she falls asleep thinking about Harry being in her house, living with her, if only for a few days, no one has to know.
Taylor wakes up at 4 am. There’s a tiny water stain on her ceiling. It’s almost invisible, and she didn’t notice it until she’d been living here for a good three months. A faint, amorphous blob that doesn’t look like much of anything, but now that she’s noticed it, it’s all she can look at when she can’t sleep at night.
She feels wide awake, and even six months after the fact, it’s strange waking up alone. Adam was a constant presence, grounding in a way Taylor wasn’t used to. She never thought she’d get used to sleeping next to someone, but by the end, she did. She stretches, back cracking as she starfishes across her mattress. She misses it sometimes, but it’s freeing, waking up alone. She missed that more. It’s hazy, the place between tired enough to sleep and alert enough to stay awake, and Taylor of a year ago would’ve headed to the studio or recorded some voice memos on her phone. But now she just forces her eyes shut, exhales deep, and tries not to think about anything at all.
Meditation isn’t something she’s ever gotten the hang of. There’s too much going on in her brain all the time, and the more she tries to turn it off, the more her thoughts buzz. Sometimes Taylor wonders if she’ll ever be done rehashing every move she’s ever made, especially this early in the morning. She rolls over onto her stomach and shoves her head between the pillows. Her room is relatively cool now, but she knows that the humidity will win out over the air conditioning by noon. Noon. Harry. Things she doesn’t need to waste mental space on, because what’s there left think about? They’re friends, he’s coming to work with Ed, anyway, so they’ll probably go to the bar in celebration once the two of them finish the track they have planned. Then Harry’ll probably fly back to LA to run around with whoever’s got his attention this month, and she’ll maybe see him at an awards show if she ever writes another album. It’s fine. Nothing to think about.
Taylor must drift off again, because the next thing she knows her room is bright and the air is slightly sticky. She can hear Ed in the kitchen, banging around a frying pan because the only thing he can make is scrambled eggs. On a different day, one where she wasn’t going to be in Harry’s orbit again, one where she hadn’t woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning, Taylor would’ve left him to fumble. She has two choices: stay in bed and drown in her own anxiety, going over and over what Harry will think, as if that’s a thing that matters, or get up and just do, make eggs, put on a load of laundry, go for a run, anything and everything to keep herself from overanalyzing everything she can get her hands on.
Normally, or at least for the last-six-months-normally, she’d just throw on a tank top and some shorts. Pull her hair back. It’s long enough now that she doesn’t need bobby pins, which is a relief. Slide into flip flops. Today shouldn’t be any different. It isn’t. It takes everything Taylor has to put on a t-shirt without changing it three times. Her shorts are genuine cut offs, and they aren’t Ed’s, which is the only allowance she makes. It doesn’t matter because today is just another day.
Taylor makes her way downstairs eventually, and Ed seems to have given up on breakfast in favor of cookies.
“All that noise and you’re just going to eat your way through the cookies that, frankly, aren’t even my best work?” Taylor says, and Ed just shrugs.
“Out of eggs. Should’ve looked before I went for the pan, but I really can’t be expected to go through a logical thought process this early,” he says, still swallowing.
Shit. She did use up the last two eggs last night. That’s what she gets for spur of the moment baking. Taylor hates not being prepared, and this apparently extends to not having eggs, even when she’s not the one who wants them.
“I mean, it’s eleven thirty, but. Time is relative, I guess,” Taylor says, and looks pointedly at the clock.
“Shit! Shit, I gotta run, picking Harry up from the airport,” Ed rushes out, lunging for the keys to his Mini Cooper. He looks ridiculous driving the car, and Taylor knows that Harry will give him shit for it, but he’d insisted that he didn’t want a sports car or anything fancy. She snorts picturing the two of them in Ed’s yellow mini. Harry’ll be thrilled.
“It does not take that long to get there, you know flights are almost always late, and he’s an adult. He can occupy himself if you’re a few minutes late,” Taylor says, and reaches for the cookie tin Ed abandoned.
“Right, right. Still good to stay here, yeah? Probably be holed up downstairs for most of the time, but I told him we’d venture out once or twice, introduce him to the south and that,” and Taylor nods, rolling her eyes.
“Pretty sure he’s already gotten the full experience, which, by the way, isn’t exactly spending time in a basement studio on the outskirts of Nashville, but sure,” she says to Ed’s back, and he just waves as he lets the screen door swing shut behind him.
It’s quiet without him. Not that Ed’s particularly loud, but she’s gotten used to having someone around all the time again. She’s in this weird place where she doesn’t want to be surrounded all the time, but she can feel the loneliness creeping in again, and sometimes it’s fine, but sometimes it’s isolating and she’s afraid she’ll never find her way out.
Eggs. That’s what she should take care of. So the kitchen’s well stocked, because that’s important, and a thing that she can focus on. She grabs her keys and her wallet and a cookie because her stomach feels hollow and not in a good way, and she takes a deep breath as she locks the door behind her.
It’s still hot outside. The heat hasn’t broken, and not for the first time, Taylor wishes for a thunderstorm. Just a brief reprieve from humidity.
During the first few months back in Nashville, she drove the Range Rover she bought when Red went platinum, but after a while, it just felt ridiculous and attention grabbing. It was dad’s idea to get a Honda Fit. It’s small and she can pretend she’s normal and that no one cares what she’s doing.
It takes her more than one try to maneuver into a parking spot. She hates driving, and she knows that if she just did it more, it would get easier, but right now, once a week grocery trips and occasional drives to the airport are enough.
Taylor feels ridiculous wearing Ray Bans inside the grocery store, but it’s easier this way. It hides her face enough that she can hurry in and out without much attention. It happens, sometimes, someone recognizing her, and it still gives her a flutter of nerves and a weird kind of excitement, a reminder that people haven’t quite forgotten about her, not yet. She’s still not sure if she wants them to or not.
She speeds, just a little bit, on the way back. If she hurries, she can make it inside and get changed for a run before Ed gets back, Harry in tow. It’s just putting off the inevitable, but a half an hour running from everything is appealing, even mid-August.
Ed’s Mini is clearly visible when Taylor pulls up. It’s fine. Friends, she reminds herself, because they are, really. Five years is a long time. It’s enough time, and they buried the hatchet at least 3 of those years ago, so. Fine, friends, etc., etc., ad nauseum. If she finger combs her hair and tries to wipe the sweat off of her shiny forehead, well. It’s her secret.
Taylor half expects them to be down in the studio already. Ed’s been working on this album at a frantic pace, and she knows he and Harry have been face timing a couple times a week. But when she trudges inside, they’re still in the kitchen, Ed sitting on the counter next to the stove and Harry leaning against the refrigerator next to him, all long legs in black jeans and hair curling around his shoulders. Not very weather appropriate, she thinks. She can see that the humidity’s already getting to him, hair starting to frizz and a faint sweat stain making its way down the back of his shirt.
They both swing their heads to look at her when the screen door slams behind her, perfectly in sync. Taylor doesn’t catch what they’re talking about, but Ed throws his head back and hits it on the cabinet behind him, and it must hurt, but he’s laughing too hard to acknowledge the pain.
Harry barks out a laugh, slapping his hand over his mouth when Ed makes contact with the cabinet, and when he pulls his hand away, his smile is still pretty devastating. It makes him seem weirdly open even after all of his time in the spotlight. It still looks real and makes Taylor feel Important when he directs it at her. He moves to hug her and she jerks forward instinctively, and they’re just two awkward popstars in her kitchen in Tennessee. She feels awkward, at least. Harry is still hard for her to read. She’s never sure if she should take what he gives at face value or if there’s more there, hiding behind warm hugs and slightly blinding smiles.
He smells nice, Taylor thinks, as his arms close around her. Like clean laundry despite the heat. His hair tickles her neck and it gives her goosebumps. She hopes Harry doesn’t notice. It’s strange, being in such close physical proximity with him again. She can’t remember the last time they touched, exactly. They probably hugged or something at some awards show after party two years ago. They don’t do that kind of thing in public anymore, even if they are friends-ish.
She’s smiling when they pull back. She can’t help it.
“Flight okay?” she asks, and Harry steps back and reflexively runs his hand through his hair. It’s long, well past his shoulders now, and she wonders if he’s going to cut it soon.
He shrugs. “Slept for most of it, ‘ve got a cocktail now, melatonin and theanine, knocks me right out. Just haven’t figured out how to fix my sleep schedule after,” he says.
Ed’s phone goes off, interrupting. His ring tone is Hot in Here, for some inexplicable reason. He glares at the screen and hops down off the counter.
“Label stuff, s’like they’re my keeper or summat,” he mutters and rolls his eyes. “I’m gonna take this call then we can get started Haz, if you wanna put your stuff upstairs and meet me in the studio.”
The kitchen feels smaller without Ed in it, and Taylor realizes that she’s still standing there, plastic grocery bag in hand. She moves to put the eggs in the fridge, and Harry sidles out of her way.
“It’s all right for me to crash here for a few days, right? Don’t want to overstep or anything, Ed said it was okay, but you know. He gets excited and it’s not his house, yeah?”
She laughs and hates that Harry feels like he has to give her an out like this.
“It’s been what, five years? And we’re friends now. We have been. It’s fine for you to like, stay here. Ed is. All my friends stay here when they come to Nashville, and you’re my friend.”
Taylor hopes she sounds more confident to Harry than she does to herself.
“Right,” he says in response, an easy smile spreading across his face. Look away!, her brain shouts, and she manages a quick smile and looks down before his dimple comes out in full force.
“C’mon, the guest room’s upstairs. Ed’s kind of taken over the one down here, sorry. I’m pretty sure he’s never gonna leave at this point,” she says as she leads Harry upstairs. They pass her bedroom door. She forgot to close it this morning, and her bed is a mess. She flushes and pulls it closed as they walk by.
“Taylor Swift with an unmade bed…what would the people say,” Harry snickers, and she reaches back to smack whatever part of him she can reach. He flinches back and huffs out a laugh, and when they arrive at the room she’s set up for him, a door down from hers, she feels light. Like this is going to be okay. Easy like it wasn’t five years ago.
“I’ll leave you to it, um. Ed’s downstairs, obviously. Probably in a full fledged argument with his label. He’ll tell you it’s a discussion between adults, but he’s lying. They want him to fly out to LA and he’s been here for three months, so. He’s there, there’s food in the kitchen, help yourself to whatever,” she trails off as she pushes the door open for him.
“‘m sure he’s keeping the profanity to a minimum, seeing as it’s a discussion then,” Harry says.
“I’ve never heard the word fuck so many times in such a short period of time, and I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on tour,” Taylor says and she smirks when Harry’s eyes go wide.
“He’s corrupted you, hasn’t he?” he says as he tosses his worn Tom Ford carry on next to the double bed.
“Maybe I’m just going back to my roots, out here in the country and shit,” she says, and truthfully, being out here by herself and not having to censor everything has been one of the best parts of leaving LA.
“That going to be your next album, then? Back to country?” Harry asks, rifling through his bag and tossing a clean t-shirt onto the bed. He pulls his sweaty shirt over his head in one smooth movement, and Taylor catches a glimpse of the ripples of his back before she averts her eyes.
“Not sure. I’ve been taking a break, not really in an album headset lately,” she says, looking intently at her feet. She slides off one flip flop to examine the tan line that she isn’t sure will ever fade at this point.
“How’s that been?” Harry’s voice is muffled as he pulls the clean shirt over his head.
She shrugs as he turns around. “Quiet, you know,” she pauses. “Or not.”
Harry pulls a face and doesn’t laugh. Taylor feels awkward again.
“I mean—I know you’ve been all over, and stuff, like—” Harry cuts her off with a shrug.
“Turned out to be harder to stop than I thought, even. Even after being so tired. It was weird, spending time on my own after five years of constant stimulation,” he says, and he looks tired now, standing in the afternoon light in her spare bedroom. It’s a place she never thought they’d end up.
“Yeah,” she says, because she gets it and she doesn’t. “Anyway, bathroom’s next door, Ed’s downstairs, I’m gonna head out for a run before it gets any hotter, so,” Taylor trails off as she backs out of the room. Harry smiles and gives her a little wave.
She trips over her own feet in her rush to get back to her room, to get out of the house that’s suddenly making her feel claustrophobic. It’s hard to reconcile being lonely and needing to be alone, but right now she needs to run.
The newest episode of Serial is queued up on her phone, and she throws on the smallest pair of running shorts she owns, slips on her sneakers, and she’s running down the stairs and out the back door in record time.
Taylor’s never been a fast runner, and for years it felt like pulling teeth. Every second, every footfall took a painful amount of effort. But lately, it’s a relief, being able to focus on something tangible. It pushes everything else out of her head until it’s just heat and sweat and the pounding of her heartbeat and how hard her feet hit the ground.
She’s drenched in sweat when she gets back, and she’s gone through at least two full episodes of Serial. She crashes through the back door and makes a beeline for the refrigerator. It takes half a bottle of water for her to feel human again, and she lurches towards the stairs to take a shower that’s as cold as she can stand.
When she gets out, it takes all her energy just to flop onto the bed in a towel. It’s still unmade, left in disarray in her rush to get out of the house. She’ll make it in five minutes. Five minutes, just a little time to rest before she puts on some clothes and pretends to be a normal, well adjusted human being again.
It’s 8 o’clock. Taylor really did mean to lay down for just five minutes, but her body had other plans, apparently. She feels dizzy and disoriented when she sits up. Her bed is still unmade, she’s got a towel wrapped around herself, and her hair is probably reaching new heights of embarrassing. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and pads over to the laundry basket that’s still full, sitting next to her dresser. Everything’s a little wrinkly at this point, so she opts for the bikini she wore on vacation in Hawaii years ago. It’s bright and hardly worn and feels like it’s from another lifetime.
The house is quiet when Taylor pads down stairs. Ed and Harry are probably still in the studio, and she’s willing to bet that they spent more time watching cat videos on youtube and fucking around on the guitar than doing any actual writing or recording, but whatever. It’s their time, not hers.
There’s plenty of food in the kitchen, but she doesn’t feel motivated to make anything, really. She hesitates, then unwraps a piece of cold pizza, even though she knows it’ll probably give her heartburn. She takes that and a can of the hard root beer Ed bought her last week and makes her way out back to the pool. She’s not sure how long she sits there, legs dangling in the cool water, but judging by the number of mosquito bites she acquires, it’s at least an hour. It’s dark and there aren’t any stars. The clouds moved in and everything feels heavy but there’s still no actual rain.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Harry’s voice comes from behind her. Taylor jumps a little. She feels self conscious in just her swim suit, and she knows her back is covered in angry red mosquito bites, but it’s not like there’s anything she can do to cover up. Not like Harry cares, anyway. She scratches at a particularly large one on her thigh as she turns back to face him.
“Hey, mate,” she says in a horrible attempt at a British accent, and to Harry’s credit, he barks out a laugh. He ambles over to sit next to her, all long legs and inexplicably small gym shorts. He must’ve lost his shirt somewhere between the studio and her backyard, because his tattoos are on display, black smudges in the dark.
“Be warned, if you come out here, you’re signing up to be eaten alive. Stay at your own risk and all that.”
Harry looks confused.
“Mosquitos? They’re everywhere. Comes with the territory. It’s been so bad this summer that I almost moved back to LA,” Taylor says.
“Ah,” he responds as he settles down next to her, sliding his legs into the pool. The water warps the faded BIG on his toe so much that it would be unrecognizable if she didn’t already know it was there.
“Don’t get many of those at home,” he says as he wiggles his feet back and forth underwater. It makes his toes look especially strange. Taylor doesn’t know if home for him is LA or London these days. She doesn’t ask.
They sit in the quiet for a few long minutes, just the two of them and about a million crickets, and the sound of their feet moving gently underwater.
“How’d it go today? You guys get anything done or was Ed too distracted by the presence of an actual human being to focus on working?” she asks, breaking the calm.
“It’s been hard for him, you know. ’s never lived with a robot before. There was a period of adjustment. Think he was too afraid to tell you,” Harry says, and his tone is so flat that for a second she thinks he’s serious, but then a grin is breaking out and spreading across his face and she has to throw her head back and laugh.
“I’m the perfect host, okay, quiet and I bake stuff sometimes and I even do laundry because sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.”
Harry smiles, dimpling at her in the dark. “He did say it was like living with his parents again,” he says, like he’s sharing a secret. She rolls her eyes.
“He is perfectly welcome to go record somewhere else, this was his idea but I won’t be offended if the company doesn’t meet his standards.”
She slides off the edge into the water and glides onto her back. She feels weightless like this.
“Maybe I’m here to steal him away,” Harry deadpans. “Made some progress, anyway, but Ed fell asleep. Hope he doesn’t drool on anything, but I didn’t have the heart to wake him.”
Taylor snorts. “He’s not used to having actual human company. The only kind of stimulation he’s gotten in the past few months is me and angry phone calls from his manager.”
Harry’s laugh shatters the quiet, and she belatedly realizes what she sounds like. Her cheeks heat up immediately and she’s glad it’s dark enough that he can’t see.
“One track mind, I swear to god, not that kind of stimulation, come on. Though if he’s desperate, you’re here now, I’m sure you could help him out.”
Harry smirks and stands up. When they’re standing next to each other, Taylor knows they’re almost the same height, but when she’s in the deep end and Harry’s at the very edge of the pool, he towers over her.
“Maybe I’ll take him up on it then,” he says, and then he’s backing up and taking a running jump into the pool, pulling his legs up into a cannonball before she’s hit with wave after wave.
She takes a deep breath and plunges underwater, relishing the cool of the water against her face. She’ll have to take another shower, and her hair will be dry and stringy from the chlorine, but it’s worth it.
When Taylor resurfaces, Harry’s floating on his back in the shallow end, long limbs dark against the glow of the pool lights. His eyes are closed, and it’s too easy to glide up next to him and splash a wave of water in his unsuspecting face. He flaps around and almost kicks her in the nose and she has to swim over to the side of the pool to support herself, she's laughing so hard. Her eyes are closed and she all she can smell is chlorine, all she can hear is crickets and Harry flailing around, trying to regain his bearings.
“Just trying to keep you on your toes,” Taylor says, laughter making her hiccup. Harry shoots her a withering glare.
“I’m not the one hiding out, been spending a lot of time on my toes, thanks,” he says as he dives back under, legs re-emerging in a handstand. He holds it for a good five seconds, and Taylor’s impressed, but she can do better.
“Five seconds, Styles, really? Thought you could last longer than that,” she says when his head pops up, innuendo intentional this time, and she smirks at him when he laughs, and it’s still as loud and unabashed as it was when he was a teenager.
“Pretty sure we both know how long I can last, but let’s see you do better, yeah?”
They’re definitely flirting now, and Taylor didn’t think that this was what they’d fall into. But casual joking and banter is easier than talking about how good he is at leaving, so she lets it lie, cheeks flushed, and flips into her own handstand.
She makes it to twelve mississipis before her lungs start burning and she has to give up. Double what Harry managed is good enough, anyway.
In her rush for air, she’s come up with her hair plastered all over her face, and she claws it away gasping. Harry’s looking at her like she’s something, and he’s not sure what. She ducks back underwater to slick her hair back.
When she resurfaces and opens her eyes, he’s standing in front of her. His hair is slicked back and he’s got a few spots on his forehead, just like he did when he was eighteen. It’s strangely endearing, makes him seem less larger-than-life and more normal twenty three year old.
“I beat you,” she says, chest still heaving a little. She’s backed up against the side of the pool, and Harry’s so close he can probably see the tiny freckles that have broken out across her nose.
Taylor’s not sure what to do. Harry’s looking at her appraisingly and she doesn’t know what to make of it, isn’t sure if he’s going to kiss her or if she’s going to get a mouthful of water as payback. She isn’t sure which she wants. She doesn’t expect him to ask.
“Is it—can I kiss you?” Harry says, and his voice sounds rough and quiet. Taylor’s silent for a minute, because she never thought they’d end up here again. She feels naked and there are goosebumps on her chest and the edge of the pool is pressing insistently against her back. She must take too long, because Harry steps back, concerned and apologetic.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m overstepping, shit, Taylor—” She interrupts him, surges forward and presses her lips against his because she doesn’t know how else to stop him from second guessing himself. And, she thinks, deep down she never let this go, not really.
It’s quiet again. There aren’t any screams or camera flashes. No audience at all. Just heat birds humming and air so heavy it feels like it’s going to swallow them alive. Harry feels taller when she’s slumped back against the edge of the pool. Maybe he grew a few inches. Maybe Taylor just has bad posture. His arms find their way to the concrete behind her, and his chest presses up against hers and he’s like a furnace, a sharp contrast to the cool of the water. His lips are soft against hers, like he’s still asking her if this is okay, even though she’s the one who kissed him.
It’s just soft brushes of mouths against mouths, until Harry’s tongue swipes her lower lip, and she exhales sharply, mouth opening to let him in. He kisses her so deeply, like he’s trying to climb inside her, and his lips are soft and he gets more confident when Taylor slides her arms around his neck, fingers tangling in his hair. She tilts her head to get a better angle, and he hums into her mouth before he breaks the kiss, lips finding their way to her neck.
It’s been eight months since anyone’s touched her like this. Which, in the grand scheme of her life, isn’t really that long. The two years before 1989 felt like some kind of fever dream, a blur of feeling acutely alone and triumphant and nervous all at once. But this feels new again, even though they’re treading over old ground, Harry’s hands cold from the water of the pool at her waist. He’s gentle, like he’s feeling her out instead of feeling her up. His lips are hot and insistent against her neck, and she hopes he leaves a mark. She breathes out a sigh, and he nips the thin skin of her neck before covering her lips with his again, mouth slotting against hers and she feels desperate, wishes they could stay like this forever.
It feels like they stand there for hours, making out in the pool like teenagers, like Taylor never did when she was actually a teenager. There’s something addictive about just kissing, she thinks, as Harry slides a hand down to thumb across her nipple. She can’t feel much through the padding of her bikini top, but she shivers anyway. It’s not a push for more but she squeaks into his mouth. Harry’s body feels so warm against hers, chest and hips covering her up. She never wants to stop. Wants to live inside this one moment forever, to forget all the hurt that led to it and to avoid all the questions that will come after. This, just this is enough.The insistent pressure of Harry’s lips against hers, the way he licks into her mouth, just as breathless as she is. The way their mouths keep finding new ways to fit together.
When Harry pulls back, it's pitch black, even though Taylor was sure it hadn’t been more than a few minutes. His lips look red and bruised, even in the dark, and she hopes he can’t see the blush on her cheeks.
“I should head in, probably,” she says, “mosquito bites, you know.” She trails off, rubbing her lower lip. They’d kissed so long it feels swollen, and she wonders if she’ll still be able to feel it tomorrow.
Harry clears his throat and drags his eyes up from the mark he made on her neck.
“Right, I’m hoping I escaped unscathed. Have to keep Ed focused tomorrow, he’ll take anything and turn in into a di-scratch-tion,” Harry grins as he sidesteps to lift himself out of the pool.
Taylor can’t help but laugh.
“Frankly, that was terrible, even for you,” she says to Harry’s retreating back. He turns around long enough to flash a grin at her, teeth bright in the dark, before pushing the back door open and disappearing inside.
Taylor covers her face with her hands and rests her elbows on the edge of the pool. The concrete digs into her skin and it hurts, but it grounds her. Without Harry’s body covering her, she feels cold, and it’s a relief after so many days of feeling like she was going to die of heatstroke.
Harry’s like a moth to light, Taylor knows. So blinded by the brightness that he can’t see anything else. And it’s fine, when you’re the light. But it only lasts for so long before he gets burned out, and then it’s like he was never there in the first place. She doesn’t know where they go from here. If they should talk about it or pretend it never happened. If she should try again or let him go, back to LA or London or wherever home is for him these days. If she should just be okay with the fact that he’s always going to float in and out of her life.
She wishes she was tired, and resolves to try to eliminate naps as she pulls herself up and out of the pool. The air feels pleasantly warm now, less suffocating and more like a comfortable blanket. She grabs her empty paper plate and wishes she’d remembered a towel. She’s sure Harry tracked enough water through her kitchen as it is.
When she gets inside, she can hear the shower running upstairs, and it feels strangely domestic, even though Harry’s only staying for a few days. But with he and Ed here, it feels like a full house, like she’s not by herself anymore.
She grabs a kitchen towel just to pat herself down, and trips downstairs to see if Ed has, in fact, drooled on anything expensive in the studio. He’s stretched out on the couch when Taylor sees him, eyes shut and mouth slightly open. No drool, which is good, and a change of pace.
“Did he tire you out already?” Taylor says loudly, leaning against the wall. Ed groans in response and nearly topples off the couch.
“Didn’t sleep last night, and I was in a special place this afternoon because of it,” he mumbles. “Time’s it now?”
Taylor’s phone is in the kitchen, and she’s not sure if she remembered to switch the clock down here for daylight savings.
“9-ish? Maybe? Can’t remember if I switched this clock or not. But I meant to lay down for like five minutes when I got back from my run earlier, and then it was 8 o’clock and my hair was standing up straight and I was only wearing a towel from the shower,” she says.
Ed sits up and blinks at her, eyes bleary.
“Where’d Harry get to, then? Bastard let me fall asleep down here then just left,” he says.
Taylor shrugs. It’s cold down here, and she feels like one giant goosebump. Maybe this is why Ed rarely emerges.
“We went for a swim. Heat hasn’t broken yet, so it still feels like an oven outside.” She’s proud of how casual her voice sounds.
Ed nods through his yawn, and she can hear his back cracking when he stands up and stretches. She winces in sympathy and curls her arms around herself to warm up.
“You should get that checked out, probably. I’m sure I could find you someone good, mom’s been going to a chiropractor for years,” she says as Ed makes his way over to the stairs. Taylor follows him up.
“Might do, Harry’s been going on about some yoga that he’s been doing, says it straightened his back out a bit.”
She can still hear the shower running when they get upstairs. It’s still a head trip, kind of. Harry being in her house, upstairs, in the shower of her guest bathroom. Swimming in the pool in her backyard in Nashville. Kissing her like it’s still something they do.
Ed heads in the direction of the kitchen, probably to demolish some of the Ben and Jerry’s she keeps in the freezer at all times. It helps when she’s feeling frustrated, or she can’t write, or she’s bored, which is almost all the time now.
The water shuts off as Taylor’s walking up the stairs, and she jogs the last few steps to her bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. Her hair feels like straw, a combination of chlorine and washing it too often because of said chlorine. Catch-22 and all that. When she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror on her closet door, it’s still startling. Since moving back to Tennessee and taking a break, she doesn’t look at herself much anymore. It’s half defense mechanism and half something else, an extension of getting away maybe.
She looks tired. Still tall, still skinny. Her legs are littered with mosquito bites, red and angry and just looking at them makes her itchy. Her hair’s messy. Taylor can’t even think about what her hairdresser in LA would say. Probably that it’s beyond saving. She looks like someone else. Not like the Taylor Swift that won a bunch of Grammys or the Taylor Swift that kissed Harry Styles at midnight in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
There’s a mark on her neck. It’s faint, and it’ll be gone in a day or two, but tomorrow when this feels like a dream, like she’s finally gone crazy and started imagining things, it’ll remind her that they were together. That Harry wanted her. Wants her. Sometimes, anyway. In the past tense and sometimes in the present.
Harry thunders down the stairs, shaking Taylor out of her thoughts. She’s not sure why he and Ed feel the need to stampede up and down the stairs, but she’s also not used to living with boys. Men, whatever. Guys. Maybe it’s a thing. She grabs her phone off of her nightstand. She doesn’t have any notifications, and it makes her feel lonely. It’s confusing, because six months ago, this was what she wanted. Some quiet, a chance to disconnect from everything. For no one to hold her accountable at all. It’s lonelier than she thought it would be.
‘want to come up for a break? boys taking over,’ she fires off to Serena, and heads into the bathroom to take her second shower of the day. If she ever goes back to LA, her hairdresser is going to kill her.
By the time she leaves the bathroom, Selena’s responded.
‘working on a video but if im back by wed morning we’re good,’ it reads, and the thought of having her here, if only for a day, is appealing.
‘sounds worth it to me, what time should i pick you up?’ she taps out, and Selena’s reply is instantaneous.
'10? pa just booked my flight. love u. hope ed’s forcing yu to be less of a shut in.'
‘he’s been more of a shut in than me, i think,’ Taylor writes, ‘get ready to make up for that’
It feels invigorating to have plans after three months here, holed up with Ed. Normally he’d be itching to get out every weekend, but he’s intent on finishing this album. She can’t fault him for it, and she’s glad that he’s here, but it’s lonely in a way she didn’t anticipate. Taylor’s used to filling every second. Her mind’s usually full to bursting, the next line, the hook that’s a surefire hit. But for months she’s felt stagnant.
She doesn’t have writer’s block, necessarily, it’s just that nothing’s felt easy since she ended things with Adam. Taylor isn’t sure if she’s just tired or if she’s really done this time. If she doesn’t have anything new to say. If what all the critics said was true, that she can only write songs about boys. It’s ridiculous, because she already knows that isn’t true. But there’s a voice in the back of her head that keeps telling her all she’ll ever do is write break up records, and she knows it’s not that simple, but that voice won’t be quiet.
Her desk is neat, a clear record of her lack of motivation. When she’s in the thick of it, words and melodies crammed in her head, she usually has notebooks all over, her laptop open and phone full of voice memos. Tonight, everything’s orderly. In its place. She’s not getting any ‘storage almost full’ alerts on her phone. The green striped moleskine she bought specifically for lyrics is closed, purple pen on top, untouched.
It’s funny, Taylor thinks, because yesterday her head felt too full, buzzing with anxiety and words like it used to, but everything was just out of reach, but tonight there are things within reach. She has things to say. It’s quiet in her room, air conditioner aside. Ed and Harry have probably disappeared into the depths of the studio again. Selena’s coming tomorrow, that’ll help clear her head. She can still feel Harry’s lips on hers, and that’s what forces her to open her notebook.
It doesn’t feel like it used to. It’s work. Nothing’s falling into place, but it’s good. It’s different. She isn’t sure how long she writes in the dim light of her computer, but her hand feels cramped up when she stops. She’s still confused, but her head feels less buzzy. All the times I fell in line instead of love stares up at her from the page, and her handwriting is messy and the words look slurred, almost. But it feels honest. It feels like her too big, empty bedroom in Nashville, it feels like choosing to be alone after so many years of being surrounded. It feels okay.
The sound of her alarm isn’t something Taylor will ever stop dreading. Even now, six months into not being accountable for anything but feeding herself, hearing it go off is like nails on a chalkboard.
She reaches for her phone, and in her rush to make the noise stop, she knocks it onto the floor. It’s not the best start to a day she’s ever had, but when she finally manages to hit snooze, the silence is blissful. It’s 9:30, which means she should definitely get up and get moving so she’ll make it to the airport in time, but the second she has somewhere to be, her bed is the most comfortable thing in the world.
Taylor can hear Harry bumbling around in the guest bathroom when she swings her legs over the side of the bed. She probably woke him up with her alarm, and she feels guilty about that and about kissing him before she pushes it down. She and Selena can drink about it later, and everything will be fine. Harry will fly back to wherever, Ed will finish his album, and Taylor will probably figure something out.
The mosquito bites from the night before are vivid against the tan of her thighs, she notes, as she pulls a pair of denim cutoffs on. All she wants to do is scratch at them until they bleed, but she tamps down the urge.
By the time Taylor’s stumbled into clothes and found her keys, she’s probably pushing it time wise, and she almost runs over Harry when she rushes out of her bedroom.
“Where’s the fire,” he says, and he sounds sleepy and familiar, and he’s still not very funny. His hand is on her waist and it’s burning hot through the thin fabric of her t-shirt. She rolls her eyes and steps out of his space.
“Picking Selena up at the airport, we’re gonna hang for the day, give you and Ed some space,” she says, brushing past him and heading down the stairs.
“Bring her by later, yeah?” he shouts after her, but the door’s slamming behind her before she can answer. He’ll survive.
It’s not that she’s avoiding him, Taylor thinks as she drives slightly above the speed limit to the airport. It’s just that she needs some time. To get out of the headspace where she thinks she and Harry are meant to fall together, somehow. Because she’s an adult and that’s not how it works, because they’ve tried it before and it didn’t work, and friends is safe but maybe him staying at her house isn’t.
When Taylor gets to the airport, she’s not late, and Selena runs into her arms, smelling like sunscreen and airplane, and she missed this.
“Missed you,” Selena says, and Taylor grins into her hair. She gets lonely, but it’s also easy to forget how good human contact is until you’ve gone without it and then gotten a taste of it after a drought.
They get brunch at a tiny cafe that never lets people take pictures of them and just wander around Nashville for the day, and Taylor wonders if she could convince Selena to just drop everything and come live here with her.
They’re sitting at the bar, and it’s dark and smokey and this isn’t normally Taylor’s scene, but just doing something different feels like something. They get beers and friend pickles and talk about how things with Niall didn’t work out again and listening to her friends’ problems has always been easy. Not that she wishes ill upon them, but she likes helping people, hearing their stories instead of obsessing over her own.
“So,” Selena starts, and Taylor knows that tone of voice. Knows that the inquisition is coming, and she’s not sure she’s ready for it, even if it is why she asked Selena to come.
“What happened between you and boy wonder? I know it must’ve been him, Ed doesn’t usually shake you like this,” she asks. “And the two of you have been living together incident-free for like three months now, right?”
At this point, Taylor’s just proud of the fact that she managed to keep her and Harry’s kiss between the two of them for this long. Ed might know, she’s pretty sure Harry tells him everything, but she hasn’t seen either of them today, and Ed isn't one to get in the middle, even now.
“I mean, we’re friends, right? Harry and I have been friends for years now. Maybe acquaintances is a better word but we’re completely fine.”
She picks at the label on her beer bottle. Selena hums, and for a second, Taylor just zones out, lets the murmur of voices and Langhorne Slim on the jukebox take over.
“I know what it’s like to keep falling into someone, you know? I mean, the whole world knows, but. It’s hard,” Selena says, and it’s not like Taylor’s forgotten the years she and Justin went back and forth. She’s pretty sure that the whole world isn’t in a hurry to forget.
“It’s just. I’m not unhappy here. It’s weird, yeah, but I couldn’t do it anymore. If I never get my picture taken by some forty year old guy in a hoodie again it’ll be too soon, if I never see my picture on the cover of US Weekly again I’ll die happy, I just. I loved it, you know? But I had to give up a lot.”
“And you’re not sure you can ever get it back, right?” Selena says softly, and that’s the thing. She’ll never be ungrateful for what she has. Can’t imagine having done anything else. But there’s a point where the constant scrutiny is irreversible.
“Exactly,” Taylor exhales, “It’s like you’re falling in love with someone and everyone’s watching like it’s a car crash and they can’t look away and it’s just not sustainable.”
Selena laughs and drains the bottle of Yuengling she’d been nursing for the last half an hour. She flags down the bartender and orders two pints of pale ale.
“I know some stuff about being a car crash,” she says. “You just can’t win, really.”
The bartender slides to cold glasses in front of them, and Taylor smiles in thanks and takes a slow sip.
“We kissed. Harry and I, I mean. In the pool. I thought he was going to kiss me so I kissed him first, and then I said I was getting a lot of mosquito bites, so we didn’t talk about it and we went inside and now we’re here.”
Her empty bottle’s gone, and she doesn't have anything to pick at, so she scratches at a mosquito bite that’s swelled up on her arm.
“It probably sounds like a rebound, but.” Selena waits patiently for her to finish.
“It felt like I was playing house, with Adam. I can’t explain it, really, it sounds dumb when I say it out loud. Like I was living this life but it wasn’t mine. Like I was a pod person or something, I don’t know,” Taylor says in a rush, and it’s out there now.
“Okay,” Selena says as she swats her hand away from the offending mosquito bite.
“It’s okay for you to break up with people. You know that, right? You aren’t obligated to stay if you aren’t happy. You should be honest with who you’re with, but that’s all you owe them.”
Taylor rubs over the reddened skin.
“He was always careful with me, I don’t know how else to describe it. Like he was trying to make up for everyone else? Or he just didn’t want me to write about him, because that’s going to be a thing for the rest of my life,” she says, exhaling on a laugh.
Selena sighs, and Taylor knows that she knows what this feels like better than anyone. When you just get sucked back in over and over again, and you can’t tell if it’s because it’s Meant To Be or because it’s just familiar and comfortable after so long. Taylor’s not sure she’d ever describe her and Harry’s relationship as comfortable, per say, but it’s familiar. Something she knows. The nervousness and anxiety and the way it feels like the whole world stops when he kisses her.
“Are you happier now? Because that’s what it comes down to, really,” she asks.
And that’s the question, isn’t it? She is. She doesn’t believe in fairytales anymore, but that hasn’t stopped her from wanting it, is the problem. She can pinpoint the moment in each of her relationships when she thought to herself it’s never felt like this before, and every time it felt new and breathtaking. And then it wasn’t enough anymore, and Taylor’s not sure how to reconcile this new version of herself with the fairytale she always wanted.
“I think. I think I will be? Like, it’s within reach, but I don’t know how to get there. I wrote for the first time in weeks last night, so. That’s something, right?” Taylor says.
“It’s more than something,” Selena says, and when Taylor looks up, she’s grinning so wide that her eyes are all crinkled up at the corners, and Taylor laughs because in this second, in this smokey bar that’s going to be impossible to scrub off her skin, she’s happy.
“I’m going to be honest with you, okay?” Selena says, and Taylor nods, even though she knows what’s coming and isn’t sure she wants to hear it right now.
“I think if Harry were serious about the two of you, he would’ve done something about it a long time ago.”
It hurts. Taylor knew it was coming, and it still aches deep in her chest. She knows it’s the truth, but it’s so easy to push it to the back of her mind. To cover it with Harry’s hands on her waist this morning, and the way he looks at her when they’re having a conversation. Like she’s the only thing that’s ever mattered. Like she’s the only one in the room.
It shows on her face, she knows because Selena reaches out and attaches her hand to her knee in a death grip.
“I’m only saying it because you know how it is every time he comes back, he’s always going to turn around and leave again, and it’ll be months before you hear from him,” Selena says.
“It feels like it’s for real every time, doesn’t it?” She asks, and Taylor knows. Knows Selena knows exactly what it’s like. That doesn’t make it easier for either of them, though.
“I don’t even know what I want, like I broke up with the guy who should’ve been the love of my life? It just felt flat, and it was terrifying. That I got to a point where that’s how I felt about love and my romantic relationships,” Taylor says.
“You just. I have to believe that there’s a happy medium. That rush that comes from being with someone who makes you feel strung out all the time and the quiet that someone steady brings. I’m not saying I’ve found it, but it has to be out there, right?” Selena says, downing the rest of her beer and going for her wallet.
“Shit, your flight, sorry,” Taylor says, fumbling for her phone. She slides a 20 under her half empty glass.
“Hey, it’s fine, we’ll make it. I wasn’t paying attention, anyway.”
It’s dark when they make their way outside, and the heat is still unbearable. Taylor knows that it’ll take the entire ride to the airport for the air conditioning to kick in, so she foregoes it for open windows.
“It’s not that I think Harry is going to fix anything,” Taylor says into the relative quiet. “but it’s not calm with him. It never has been, and it reminds me of what it can be? Electric and sparkling, like that.”
“I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t do anything, I just. Remember that burns out just like everything else. And it’s hard to let it go before it gets to that point. When it’s still good, you know?”
“I remember. Still hate boats, god.”
Selena laughs and reaches across the console to grab her hand. They make it to the airport just in time, and Taylor doesn’t want it to end, wants it to last a little bit longer. Just her and Selena and the smell of second hand smoke and the heat of August bearing down on them.
“Love you,” Selena whispers into her hair when they hug goodbye.
“I owe you forever for listening to me whine,” Taylor says. “I’ll come out to LA whenever you want, I swear. Give up the recluse schtick for a few days.”
“Next week, please? I’m sure Ed’ll survive a few days on his own. Tell him I said hi. And Harry. Last time I saw him was like three months ago when he was in LA with Niall.”
They pull apart and then Taylor’s by herself, walking back to her car. She feels a little sweaty, and she definitely doesn’t smell good. She kind of wants to swim, kind of wants to just fall into bed, sans shower.
When she gets back, it’s dark, and when she lets herself in, she can see Ed and Harry thrashing around in the pool. She could join them, but she’s still processing. Still trying to decide what it is she wants, exactly, so she drops her bag and her keys on the counter and heads for the recipe cabinet.
Baking is comforting, still reminds Taylor of New York when it was shiny and new and exciting and she and Karlie would stay up until the early hours of the morning trying new recipes. The notebook with all of her favorites is worn and covered in grease spots. She’s been meaning to rewrite it since she arrived in Nashville, but she can’t quite let this one go.
Ed’s plowed through most of the cookies, but Taylor decides that brownies are the way to go this time. Mostly quick, and she can ice them later if she still feels motivated. She can see the two of them flailing around in the pool out back, Ed on the huge inflatable alligator he brought with him when he arrived at the beginning of summer, Harry trying to drown him from the looks of it.
She’s gotten the brownies in the oven and the sink is almost clear of dirty dishes by the time Ed stumbles in the door, dripping all over her kitchen floor.
“One day, you’re gonna remember to bring a towel out with you, and it’ll be easier for everyone.”
Ed rolls his eyes at her, and he looks like a teenager, hair plastered to his forehead and basketball shorts threatening to slide off his hips, and Taylor feels unbelievably fond in that moment, wet kitchen floor aside.
“Spent too much time with my mum last time you were in Suffolk.” He sniffs the air and wanders toward the oven. “Brownies?”
Taylor nods. “Ina’s recipe. The best one, obviously. I might ice them later. Selena and I were at Campus Pub and it’s going to take an hour long shower just to scrape the cigarette smell off of my skin.”
Ed’s response is muffled by the kitchen towel he’s using to dry his hair.
“Went to my favorite dive bar without me, that’s how it is, huh?” He flings the towel and it’s in her face before she can react.
“You’re there twice a week without me!” she squawks, whipping the towel off her face and tossing it back into his waiting hands.
“Yeah, but I don’t plan it out and bring a mate along, it’s just a quick stop after I put gas in the Mini, not a social outing!”
Taylor doesn’t dignify that with a response. She finishes drying off the mixing bowl and sets it on the counter. It doesn’t make sense to put it away if she’s just going to make icing later, she justifies.
“Where’s your partner in crime? Saw him trying to dunk you through the window.”
Ed peers into the oven. “Still out there, s’just jealous that I have a pool toy and he doesn’t.”
Taylor glances outside. Harry’s still in the pool, the blue light eerie against his dark hair. She watches him do laps back and forth, arms strong and steady before diving underneath.
“I’m gonna shower then turn in, probably, unless these brownies are good to go?” He looks hopeful, and she laughs.
“Probably not for an hour or so? I have to let them cool before I can ice them. Breakfast isn’t out of the question, though.”
Ed salutes her and drips off in the direction of his room. Taylor thumbs through her phone, glancing at the timer. When You Were Young comes up on shuffle and she turns the volume up and spins around the kitchen. She grabs the microphone shaped tongs out of the drawer by the fridge, because she’s alone and this is what Karlie got them for, anyway. Well. This and barbecue, when she moved here, but she hasn’t gotten around to that yet.
The back door slams open just as Taylor’s belting out he doesn’t look a thing like jesus, and Harry’s throwing his head back and laughing before he joins in. Their voices don’t sound terrible together, and it’s something Taylor’s thought about as they finish the song together, grinning at each other in her kitchen.
“Nice microphone,” Harry smirks, and Taylor laughs.
“It was a moving gift. Can’t say I’ve used it for cooking much, but I do most of my singing in the kitchen these days, so. Works out.”
Harry sniffs the air just as the timer goes off. Like Ed, he’s forgone a towel. Between the two of them, she’s going to have to invest in a caution wet floor sign for the kitchen.
She pulls the brownies out, and they really do smell good. They’ll be better with icing, but it’s hard to wait.
“Smells good,” Harry says, and he’s so close Taylor can feel his breath hot on her shoulder. She shivers and puts the brownies down on a rack on the counter. When she turns around, Harry’s right in front of her, skin still wet from the pool and tattoos stark in the light of her kitchen.
“How’s Selena?” he asks conversationally, like he’s not staring at her lips and she’s not staring at his. Taylor shrugs.
“All right, had to fly back to LA, she’s working on a new video, but it was nice to have her here. Hadn’t seen her in a few months.”
Harry nods, eyes still trained on her face, and he steps forward enough to put his hands on the counter behind her, trapping her gently in place.
“Saw her the other day, was in LA with Niall for a while. Don’t think they quite worked it out, but he’s been crazy about her for years, so who knows what’ll happen.”
The other day, he says, when Taylor knows it was months ago, knows Harry’s propensity to use that phrase as a reference for any day other than the present. How he’s still so transient after all these years.
“Will it ever, at this point?” Taylor laughs. “It’s been like five years. I think she’s tired of being let down.”
Harry’s brow furrows, and he takes a half step forward to press completely against her. He’s cold from the pool and it wakes her up, his wet swim trunks pressing against her cutoffs. She can feel the water seeping through the fabric and knows it’ll look ridiculous when they separate.
“Don’t think he’s going to give up on her,” and it’s the last thing Harry says before he covers her lips with his.
He’s still cold against her front as she slides her hands around his neck and tangles then in his wet hair. His stomach is tense against hers, and she’s pretty sure her t-shirt is translucent now, but she doesn’t feel like she can get close enough. She bites down hard on his lower lip, and he groans, the vibration rumbling through her, and his mouth is so hot against hers and she’s not sure how she went so long without it. He slicks his tongue against hers and moves his hands to her waist, pulling her tighter against him.
There isn’t any space left between them, just flimsy pieces of fabric separating their skin, and Taylor slides her lips across his cheek, makes her way to the corner of his jaw and sucks hard. Harry stutters out a breath above her and she soothes it with her tongue, working over the red skin until he has a mark that rivals hers. In that second, Taylor wants everyone to see it, wants everyone to know that Harry is something that’s hers, even if it’s just for now. Wants him to remember her when he inevitably leaves, wants him to remember the way her hands slid down his chest.
She pulls back from his neck. The mark is blooming red and obvious, even against the tan of his skin, and she flushes with satisfaction. She runs her finger over it and when she trails both hands down his chest, Harry’s hands tighten on her waist. When she looks at him, his eyes are dark and his mouth is open and so, so red. It’s easy to trace over the laurels at his hips. Satisfying to see the goosebumps her fingers leave in their wake, and the way his stomach muscles clench.
When she slides her hands around to dip beneath the waist of his shorts, he pulls her back against him and he’s not gentle this time. His lips are desperate against hers, and when she digs in what little fingernails she has, he moans into her mouth and she can feel him, half hard against her thigh, and want rushes through her, hot and foreign. Taylor feels like a live wire, and when Harry slides his hand up her waist to palm her breast, she sighs into his mouth and digs her fingers in and holds on. Harry’s hitching his hips against hers now, and her brain is short circuiting and all she can think is please make me feel this way forever and it’s like stepping off a cliff into a free fall.
Everything’s narrowed down to Harry’s hand sliding up from her breast into her hair, winding into her ponytail, and the pressure of his lips on hers. She can feel how wet she is between her legs, and five years ago, it would’ve embarrassed her, but now all she wants is his hands all over her, pressing bruises into her sides. He pulls back and Taylor whines. Her lips feel swollen and puffy she spares a fleeting thought for Ed, in his room down the hall. She hopes he stays there.
Harry’s got both hands on her waist and he’s looking straight at her as he unbuttons and then unzips her cut offs.
“Okay?” he rasps, and his pupils are so blown there’s almost no green left, and all Taylor can do is swallow and nod. He slides the shorts down her legs painfully slowly, and she grips his shoulders as she steps out of them. She’s acutely aware now that they’re half naked in her kitchen. When Harry hooks his fingers in her underwear, she tightens her grip on his shoulders. He’s still looking at her, and he pauses until she nods again and they slide down her legs and he’s got his hands on her waist and he lifts her up on the counter like she doesn’t weigh anything at all.
For a second, all Taylor can think about is how unhygienic it is. Then the fact that she will never, ever be able to set foot here without thinking about this exact moment. Harry drops to his knees and he’s looking up at her as he hooks her legs over his shoulders and it’s so heady that she has to close her eyes for a minute. When she opens them, it’s because Harry’s licked a broad strip across her clit, and she drops her head back against the cabinet with a gasp. She forgot how much he liked this. How much she likes it.
She’s at the very edge of the counter, and it would be uncomfortable but all she can focus on is the swirl of his tongue and his fingers pressing bruises into her thighs. She can’t stop panting, tiny moans falling out of her mouth, and she leans forward and slides her hands into his hair. It’s tacky with chlorine but she scratches her fingers against his scalp, and Harry hums against her in response. Taylor rocks into it as best she can, and he pushes his tongue into her and the noise she makes is loud in the quiet of the kitchen.
Harry’s tongue is hot and insistent but not quite enough. “Finger,” she pants, “give me your finger,” and Harry pulls back, her hands still in his hair, and slips his hand between her legs. It’s awkward, and Taylor half feels like she’s going to slip right off the counter and flatten Harry, but it’s hard to think about anything but the way Harry pushes his finger inside of her. She rocks against it, and he closes his lips around her clit as he slides another finger alongside the first and that’s what does it. Her knees lock on either side of his head and all she can do is ride out every wave until she’s trembling and oversensitive, Harry’s lips on her just this side of too much. She leans back and tugs on Harry’s hair, pulling his face away. Even looking down at him, red faced, shiny lips and chin, hand working in his shorts, is enough to make Taylor feel like she could go again.
“I always forget how good you are at that,” and she sounds breathless and Harry just closes his eyes and grins, muscles in his forearm tensing as he works a hand over himself. Taylor feels like a wet noodle when she hops down off the counter, but she has enough energy to bat Harry’s hand away and pull him up to push him against the counter.
“Your turn,” she whispers in his ear, and her heart is pounding as she slides his shorts down, still half naked, still a hallway away from Ed, who’s hopefully sleeping.
His dick is impossibly hard and slick at the tip, and Taylor swallows before she looks at him and licks her palm. Harry’s staring at her, mouth open, and he slams his eyes shut when she wraps her hand around him. She remembers what he was like at eighteen, with a hair trigger and so eager they didn’t manage to get their clothes off half the time. Remembers the first time she slept with him and the way he looked at her like she was the best thing he’d ever felt.
It’s been years, but Taylor hasn’t forgotten. She jerks him off with practiced twists of her wrist, and Harry’s panting out her name above her when she sucks the tip into her mouth. He groans, his voice so much deeper than it was the last time they did this, and she sinks down as far as she can, exhaling harshly when her noses presses up against the soft skin of his belly. It’s been a long time since she’s done this, and she has to pull back quickly when Harry nudges at the back of her throat, but when he groans again and winds his fingers through her hair, undoing her messy ponytail for good, she never wants to stop.
She pulls off and starts jerking him in earnest, his dick hot and slick in her hand and she reaches up to scratch his thigh and he’s twitching so she takes him down again, hand covering what her mouth can’t and he’s tugging on her hair but she doesn’t pull off, just lets the bitterness flood her mouth until she can’t take anymore. Taylor leans back and swallows, wipes her mouth. The kitchen floor is cold against her knees and she’s still half naked and Harry’s still in front of her, shorts around his ankles, chest flushed, and breathing hard. His eyes are closed and his hair is a mess and it’s like they’re who they used to be, just for a second.
Taylor stands up and reaches for her shorts and underwear and slides them up her legs. Harry’s eyes are open now, but he’s still leaning against the counter like he’s not totally sure he can stand on his own. She nudges him aside so she can spray down the counter, cheeks reddening slightly. The brownies will probably be cool enough to ice soon, but now it seems like too much.
“I missed you,” Harry says as she finishes wiping down the counter. She crumples the paper towel in her hands and forces herself to look at him. He’s got his shorts pulled up again, and he’s leaning against the refrigerator like he belongs there.
Taylor turns so she’s facing him. “There were days when I couldn’t breathe, that’s how much I missed you. All I could think about was how you weren’t next to me anymore, and everyone hated me and it was hard,” she says, and she hadn’t planned on being this honest tonight, but she’s not sure what he expected her to say to that. When they had this conversation five years ago, she wanted to cry. She could probably make herself cry now, if she tried hard enough, but she doesn’t do that anymore. It feels like too much with Harry right in front of her, so tangible and in reach. She could step forward and touch him if she wanted to.
“We’re not having this conversation here,” she says. “I’m half naked and I smell like a bar and I’m tired.”
Harry shrugs. “I’ve smelled worse. Ed today, even. Years on a tour bus with Niall’s feet.”
Joking aside, he looks winded, like he’s not sure how he ended up here. That makes two of them, Taylor thinks. So she makes sure the back door is locked, flicks off the kitchen light, and reaches for his hand. He takes it, and they’re quiet going up the stairs. She can hear Ed’s snores as they pass his room and she can’t help but laugh.
“He’s like an old man now, I swear,” she giggles, and Harry huffs out a laugh behind her. She lets his hand go when the arrive at her bedroom door, and Taylor doesn’t want to fall into what it was before, when her whole world started when Harry looked at her and stopped when he looked away, when everything they did felt breathless and tragic. But she still wants him, even now, even if she doesn’t know what that means yet.
“You can come in, if you want,” she whispers, and looking at him in the dark reminds her so much of December and hotel rooms.
“If. If it’s okay,” Harry says, and he’s smiling. It’s tentative, but it’s there, and this is hardly the worst decision she’s ever made, so she pulls him in with her and pushes the door shut behind them.
It’s weird having him in her bedroom. It’s dark and the air conditioner is grumbling and she can smell the cigarettes on herself and the chlorine on Harry’s skin.
“Save water, shower with a friend?” Harry asks, and he’s grinning at her like he’s eighteen again, cheeky and like he’s never gotten a no in his life. The laugh that bursts out of her is surprising, and it feels like they’re stumbling into this like it was yesterday, and she hasn’t forgotten what comes next, but she doesn’t want to say no.
“My shower’s not fancy so don’t get too excited,” she says as she rifles through the laundry basket for a clean shirt. She unearths a pair of Ed’s boxers for Harry. He looks offended when she hands them to him, and she hasn’t forgotten is love of sleeping naked.
“My room, my rules. Wearing clothes for one night isn’t going to kill you.” Taylor shoves them into his hands and leads the way into the bathroom.
“Just think of the look on Ed’s face tomorrow morning at breakfast,” Harry snickers, and Taylor rolls her eyes even though he can’t see it.
She locks the bathroom door behind him, and she never pictured them here. Standing in the bathroom with clothes plastered to their skin, breathing heavy. She’s never felt more sober than she does right now. She doesn’t look away when she grabs the hem of her shirt and pulls it up and over her head. It drops to the floor in a heap. Harry’s looking at her, and she feels more self conscious than she did downstairs on her kitchen counter, his head between her legs, and it doesn’t make any sense. She reaches back and unhooks her bra. It slides down her arms and Harry’s eyes are so, so green, glued to her face. He hooks his thumbs in the waistband of his shorts, mostly dry now, and slowly, slowly slides them down his legs, and he’s still looking at her when she does the same.
They’ve been naked in front of each other plenty of times, but never quite like this. Taylor lets herself look. He’s sturdier now, twenty three worlds away from eighteen. She wonders if she looks different to him. Her hair’s shorter than it was when they were together, and she’s been working out more, even if she hates it. She’s not sure if she’s made any progress on that front at all.
“My shower curtain’s from Ikea, that’s how not fancy my bathroom is,” she says as she flicks the water on.
“Totally unacceptable for someone who’s richer than me,” Harry smirks, and she pulls the shower curtain aside and steps in. The warm water feels nice, even though it’s still a million degrees out. She hasn’t turned the air off since Harry arrived. He steps in behind her and slips a little, grabbing her shoulder to steady himself.
“Please don’t wipe out in my shower, I’m not insured anymore,” Taylor says. She smooths her hair back and it’s not funny, but he laughs anyway. She grabs the shampoo, and he reaches out for the bottle in her hands.
“Can I?” he asks, voice low and abruptly serious, and he’s drenched when she turns back to look at him. The only thing she can think about is all the times she showered alone after he left, and she hates herself for that, but she hates him a little, too.
“Okay,” she says, and her voice sounds rough in her ears. She clears her throat and turns back around.
His hands are gentle against her scalp, slowly working out the build up of smoke and sweat and chlorine, probably, and it feels like a peace offering. When he finishes, he turns her around, hands insistent on her shoulders. He kisses her before she can offer to return the favor. He maneuvers her so her shoulder blades hit the tile, and she exhales sharply into his mouth at the cold. His lips trail down her neck before he noses at the faint mark from the day before, and she’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to forget how good he is at this. How easy it is to fall back into him every time.
Maybe there’s something about water for the two of them, because they kiss for a long time, until the press of their mouths is hotter than the water of the shower. Taylor detaches her lips from his, and Harry blinks, like he’s dazed.
“Should finish cleaning up before we totally exhaust the hot water supply,” she says, and it breaks the moment. They manage to make their way out before the water turns ice cold, but it’s a close thing, and Taylor’s shivering when they turn it off. They trip out of the shower and she hands him a towel and grabs her own, and she forces him to put Ed’s boxers on before they leave the bathroom.
It’s dark in her room, and her bed is still unmade. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she’s going to start making it again, even if it’s the one productive thing she does. She pushes the blankets aside and crawls in, and she’d thought it was implied that she wanted Harry to stay, but he’s standing a foot away, pigeon-toed and uncertain, and Taylor doesn’t want to admit it, but it makes her heart clench in her chest.
“You can stay here tonight, if you want,” she says, scooting over and patting the space next to her. She only has a full sized bed here, but they can probably make it work. “It’s part of the deal when friends stay here. One free night in bed with me,” and it falls flat, but Harry shuffles over and folds his up his long limbs when she pulls the blanket over both of them.
Taylor’s slept on her stomach for as long as she can remember, and her neck regrets it on a regular basis, but tonight she rolls onto her side so she can look at Harry. He’s on his back, eyes closed, and for a second she thinks he’s asleep already.
“I was careless with you,” he says bluntly. He turns his head to look at her and he looks flat and a little sad. His hands are restless against his chest, and all Taylor can think is that he’s gotten her in trouble before with fast hands and loose lips and wandering eyes.
“I was careless in general,” he continues. He’s still looking at her, and she’s not sure if he wants her to respond. Isn’t sure what to say either way.
Harry clears his throat and looks back up at the ceiling. “I kept telling myself that I would get over you like you got over me, like, just throwing myself into writing and letting people come to me instead of trying to go out and find them,” he says. “But it only worked for a little while. I kept stumbling into things. I’d get lonely, like. I’m not great at spending too much time on my own. Felt like ages since I’d been with someone, but ages for me is a month, sometimes.”
Taylor rolls over onto her back, mimicking Harry’s position. “Can I be honest with you?”
Harry’s silent for a minute, and when she looks over at him, his eyes are red, like he wants to cry, maybe, but not in front of her. She knows that look. Twenty stitches and all that. She rubs her own chin but doesn’t stop looking at him.
“Yeah,” he exhales after a long moment.
“That’s the thing with you, Harry. You’re here until you’re not. You love people until you don’t. Everybody wants you so there’s always a next thing and it’s always better than the last. Next girlfriend, next best friend, next project, whatever. You don’t know what it’s like when people stop wanting you. When it feels like you’re out of options and you don’t know what comes next.”
It’s quiet for a long minute, and Taylor thinks maybe this is the end, for good this time.
“I know. It’s not an excuse, but different cities every night, not knowing where I was, having to leave people to come home to others all the time, it just—it messes with your head, makes you feel like it’s normal. To always be leaving but coming back at the same time. I dunno,” Harry says, voice cracking.
He’s not wrong, necessarily. She’s been there half asleep halfway around the world, no idea where she is, half of her friends have been there, but it never felt quite that way for her.
“And when it ended, I thought I was ready, and like, I was, cos five years is a long time to be away, innit? But it wasn’t the same. It was like tinnitus, but with places, almost. All these echoes of where I’d been following me around and I couldn’t shake them. So I just packed up and kept moving.”
Harry lapses into silence, and she’s not sure what to say. They’ve still been here before, and Harry’s always been so good at being larger-than-life. Silly and a little dirty and making everyone in the room feel like he’s paying attention. It was just the smaller moments he couldn’t get quite right.
“Sometimes I hate it,” Taylor says, and it’s the first time she’s stated it out loud in so many words. “Sometimes I wish I could hide out forever. Never let anyone see my face or say another word about me again. I had to get away, it felt like every decision I made was for someone else. Not for me anymore. But I didn’t leave everyone behind. You can’t do that and expect them to wait for you.”
“Don’t know who I’d be without it though. Don’t know who I would’ve been. I spent so many years romanticizing hotel rooms, but all it did was make everything feel impermanent, you know?” Taylor does. It’s why she ended up here, on the outskirts of Nashville, with shitty air conditioning but enough room that she feels free. Room that’s hers, for good.
“Staying in one place for a while isn’t failing. It’s okay, you know, to be still. It just takes some adjustment,” Taylor says, and she reaches across the mattress for his hand, her heart threatening to beat out of her chest. He tangles his fingers with hers, squeezing so tightly for a second that she gasps, and his grip relaxes, but he doesn’t let go.
Time stretches out between them, and when Taylor looks back over at him, his eyes are closed. He’s breathing slow and steady and his mouth is parted. His skin is glowing against his tattoos, and she slides her hand out of his and props herself up on her elbows to get a better look. The ship is still there, and she can’t help but reach out and trace the sails lightly. She remembers the blissed out look on his face when the needle was on his skin, and the way the camera flashes were less blinding than usual when they left. She remembers him reaching for her hand.
He’s covered some of them up and added new ones and it’s still as haphazard as it was when he was a teenager. He looks like he’s covered in scribbles, and he told her once that he gets them to remember people and places. Wonders if he ever thinks of her when he rubs the ship on his upper arm. Wonders if he thinks that makes up for all the leaving.
She’s not sure how long she stays like that, tracing his tattoos, but when she wakes up, she’s on the opposite side of the bed, arm thrown over the side of the mattress. She rolls over, and Harry’s on his stomach, stretched out as much as he can be without touching her, but he’s still here, and it makes her stomach clench.
It’s domestic in a way that’s faintly familiar, but she pushes down the thoughts of someone else, of waking up next to someone and still feeling tired. She gets up quietly, doesn’t want to wake him. She wants to take a picture of this, Harry’s skin warm against her white sheets, blankets tangled at his waist, but she knows better. It’s satisfying, in a way, leaving him tangled up in her sheets.
It’s a spur of the moment idea, the kind Taylor doesn’t usually act on, but it feels right this time. She’s thought about tattoos before, but never loved an idea enough to actually get one, to brave the scrutiny that would inevitably follow. She’s not afraid of the pain or anything, has enough friends who are covered to know that it’s really not that bad, but it’s Harry stretched out next to her, and the frantic maybe maybe maybe in her head that pushes her into action.
She calls a place Ed had casually mentioned weeks ago and makes an appointment, and an hour later she’s in the car, sunglasses on and Lucius playing on high. She maneuvers into the parking lot with minimal difficulty, and when she gets out of the car, her heart’s pounding. She’s nervous and excited and it feels like she’s on the edge of something, even if she’s not sure what it is yet.
The buzz of the needle is weirdly soothing. Taylor closes her eyes and revels in the burn against her skin. She can’t take this back. It’s permanent, and for the first time in her life, she feels like she’s moving in a direction that’s entirely new.
Fifteen minutes later and her arm is bandaged and she’s back in her car, music turned up, windows down, and adrenaline pumping through her veins. When she pushes through the back door, Ed’s in the kitchen, a bowl of easy mac in his hands. He zeroes in on her arm right away, her tank top hiding nothing.
“What’d you do?” he asks around his mouthful of noodles.
Taylor grins at him, pulse still racing. “Joined the club,” she says. Ed’s mouth drops open when he makes the connection.
“You fucking went for a tattoo without me? Thought we were friends, and you go off by yourself,” he says indignantly.
She shrugs. “Didn’t want to interrupt the creative process,” she says, smiling. “It was spur of the moment, anyway, I didn’t want to give myself time to talk myself out of it.”
“Not an acceptable excuse, Swift. Make sure you take the bandage off after three hours. I have some stuff that you can put on it after,” he says.
Taylor nods. “Cindy says hi, by the way. Wants to see how your last one is healing up when you get a chance.”
“She’s great, yeah? Shit, meant to text her a month ago,” Ed says, sliding his phone out of his pocket as he finishes up his mac and cheese.
“Brownies are ready, decided not to ice them. Felt like too much work and they’re good even without it.”
“Might’ve tried one this morning.” He at least has the decency to look vaguely guilty. “Trying to finish up the song, Harry’s got some stuff lined up in LA next week and he’s hard to tie down.”
Taylor’s stomach drops, and she hates it, because she knew that Harry was leaving, but it’s instinct now to want to grasp for any part of him she can reach, because who knows when he’ll come back.
Ed’s got a paper plate from the cabinet behind him and a few brownies piled on it, and she wonders what he knows.
“We talked for a bit last night,” she says, and Ed just looks at her and yup, he knows that it wasn’t just that, but she also knows that he won’t call her out on it. She doesn’t want to dwell on what Harry may or may not have said to him, but her curiosity gets the better of her.
“Did he say anything to you?”
Ed takes a bite of brownie before he answers. “Wish I had something for you, but. Don’t fancy getting between you two. Harry’s my mate. You’re my mate.” He tousles his hair with both hands, and the gesture reminds Taylor of Harry so much that she laughs.
“Sorry, just. You’ve been spending too much time with him,” she says and she mimics his hands. Ed laughs, loud and carefree and Taylor feels the tension start to dissipate.
“We’re both too good at leaving,” she says, and five years ago, all she knew how to do was hold on. These days a solid grip seems impossible but she can’t seem to stop wanting it.
“You just need to talk about what you both want, that’s it, innit? Define your terms and that. And then just see how it goes, yeah?”
Taylor knows he’s right. The ghost of it’s gonna go down in flames is a constant presence, but she can still feel the burn on the inside of her bicep of all the times I fell in line instead of love, and it’s intoxicating and a gentle reminder.
“Gotta get back to it,” Ed says, breaking the silence. “Harry was doing some yoga pose to realign his back or summat, and I don’t trust him not to break the couch.”
He’s halfway out of the kitchen before he turns back. “Probably going to finish up the rough cut tonight, if you wanna listen. S’good. Different, but it fits, I think.”
He leaves, and she can hear him clamber down the stairs, and Taylor’s alone in the kitchen again. Her arm feels like she’s got a bad sunburn, and she wonders how Harry felt waking up alone in her bed. She cuts two pieces of brownie for herself and pads upstairs, flip flops quiet against the carpet.
The clouds outside look heavy, but they’re so far off that Taylor doubts they’ll get any rain today. It’s sunny and 70 in LA, and she almost misses it. She’d gotten a text from Selena that morning, a picture of the pier, and ‘it misses you :(‘.
She sits down at her desk and flips open her notebook. It’s still only half full, but it’s good. There’s progress there. A new direction, maybe. Owning up to her mistakes, admitting that it’s not sunshine in her head all the time, that there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, and the latter is devastating sometimes. She flips to a new page, and she’s not sure how long she sits there, scrawling on page after page, humming to herself, but it’s dark when she looks up.
Taylor can hear the low hum of Ed and Harry’s voices downstairs, and she figures they must’ve finished for the day, or at least gotten bored or hungry enough to vacate the studio. She’s excited to hear what they have. She knows Ed wants to move on to something different, and that Harry’s been writing a lot now that he’s on his own. She thinks about what it would be like recording something, the three of them, what it would be like now that they’re all older and jaded and Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran and One Direction aren’t, for lack of a better word.
When she leaves her room, Ed’s on his way up the stairs.
“Ready to hear it? Still a bit rough, but it’s there, I think.”
“Pretty sure you don’t have to worry about it going number one,” she says as they bound down the stairs.
Ed snorts. “Y’haven’t even heard it yet, but thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Harry’s stretched out on the couch in tiny shorts when they get downstairs, and he smiles lazily at them. Taylor can see the mark she left on his jaw, probably just because she’s looking for it, but it makes her shiver all the same.
“You’re gonna be blown away,” he says as he goes into a full body stretch, and Ed makes a noise of annoyance.
“Both’ve you are going to jinx it, thanks. Not doing any good, giving me a big head before it’s even released.”
Taylor shrugs. “Think it’s pretty guaranteed that people will love it. It’s been years since either of you put out anything, so. You don’t even have to try very hard. That better?” She smirks and Harry snickers from the couch. Ed shoots both of them a withering glare and pulls up the track on his Macbook.
The three of them are quiet as it starts to play, and it sounds like a lullaby almost, Harry’s voice rasping over Ed’s guitar, singing about how hard it is to leave and then Ed’s weaving in with how hard it is to come back, and it is going to be huge, she can tell. Not just because it’s the two of them, but because it’s different. Taylor will never get tired of listening to songs about romantic love, but this is different. This is loving and leaving places and not understanding the why of anything.
When the last few notes fade out, they lapse into silence again, let it settle.
“Congratulations, seriously,” Taylor says, and waves her hand at Ed when he tries to interrupt. “This is the best thing you’ve ever done. Leave it like this, it’s not too rough, it feels organic, not slick or anything. Leave it. Trust me.”
“Let’s sleep on it and see, dunno what the point of this fancy studio is if we’re just going to leave it like that,” Ed says, but he’s smiling, and when she looks over at Harry, he’s smiling too.
“M’gonna head in, I think. Flight’s tomorrow night, should give us enough time to finish, you think?” Harry says, back cracking as he eases himself off the couch.
Ed nods through his yawn, and when Harry pads upstairs, Taylor goes to follow him.
“Hey,” Ed says when Harry’s reached the top of the stairs, and Taylor turns back to look at him. “You’re gonna get it figured out, I think. This time,” and she doesn’t know what makes him say it, but she hopes he’s right.
When she gets upstairs, Harry’s leaning against her bedroom door. His legs look like toothpicks in his tiny shorts.
“I think your shorts might actually be shorter than mine.”
He smirks at her and she knows that he’s always going to be leaving but maybe, maybe he’ll start coming back.
“D’you want to stay with me? Tonight, I mean.”
“If it’s okay? I don’t want to encroach on your space, or whatever, but I’d like that.”
“Friends, remember? I can keep reminding you if it helps,” she says, and his hand is warm in hers when she grabs it and pulls him in.
He pulls his shirt over his head while she changes, and when she turns back around to face him, he’s in tiny grey briefs, scratching his stomach, and he looks soft in that moment. Like this is where he was meant to end up.
They fall into the same positions they did the night before, and even after six months alone, Taylor knows how quickly she could get used to this.
“I listened to it a lot, you know,” Harry whispers, and it takes her a minute to catch on to what he’s saying. Of course he did. He was there for part of the recording. The whole world knows he listened to it. But this feels private, like it’s just for her. Like he knows what it was like when he left.
“Best thing I ever wrote, I think,” she whispers back, and he pushes forward to press his lips against hers.
“I’m not going to leave you,” he breathes against her mouth, and it’s the most intimate thing they’ve ever done, even though their mouths are the only parts that touch. He pulls back after a second, gives her space that she’s not sure she wants.
He’s dangerous now, more than he was when they tried this the first time, and the second time. He’s grown up, and so is she, for all intents and purposes. He has a career and houses and cars and intentions and promises on the tip of his tongue. And it hurt before, but they were young and reckless and she knew then that every second could be the last one.
Please don’t break my heart, she wants to say. “Thought you had some stuff lined up in LA,” she says instead.
Harry closes his eyes and blows out a breath. “Doesn’t mean I’m not coming back.”
Taylor bites down on the doesn’t mean you are that’s leaving a bitter taste in her mouth, and surges forward to kiss him instead.
It’s the easiest thing in the world, having Harry in her bed. The hard part is everything else. His hands are firm on her waist, and she hates that she loves how small it makes her feel. He’s working over that mark on her neck again, and she knows this time that it’ll be purple and obvious and still not permanent enough. She’s a masochist at heart, even if she doesn’t really want to admit it to herself. She wants it to hurt, wants to have no choice but to remember it tomorrow.
Harry makes his way back up to her lips, his wide mouth covering hers like they’ve got all the time in the world and nowhere to be for the rest of their lives. It’s a lie, she knows. He’ll be gone tomorrow, but his mouth is warm and wet when she slicks her tongue against his and she’d give it all up just for this. She missed this. Missed the way Harry made her feel, like he was intent on swallowing her up, like he’d never want anyone else. That was the dangerous thing about him, back then. When his attention was on her, she never doubted him. But there were too many opportunities for him to be somewhere else, and five years ago, somewhere else was better.
It’s never completely cool inside, the air conditioner in her bedroom still no match for the humidity of late August, but with the long line of Harry’s body against hers, the heat is suffocating. Taylor pulls her lips from his, and the wet noise they make when they detach makes her cheeks heat up. She inhales deep as Harry looks down at her, eyes dark and lips parted and bitten deep red and in this moment it feels like he belongs to her again. Just her, no one else, as long as they stay here, hidden in her bedroom with subpar air conditioning and the real world miles away.
“You’re quite fit, you know,” Harry whispers into the silence, and Taylor remembers five yard ago, remembers eighteen year old Harry smirking at her from under his curls and saying those same words to her at the Kid’s Choice Awards. It jolts her out of the lazy heat and she exhales on a laugh as she slides her hand around his neck and pulls him back down.
He’s urgent now, lips firm and wicked against hers. Taylor cants her hips up, up, searching for friction and Harry groans into her mouth as he reaches down to slide her underwear off. His skin feels so hot through her shirt, and he pulls his mouth away from hers and slips his hands under it and helps her slide it off, and she’s naked and Harry’s chest is flushed and there’s a low rumble of thunder outside. She has to laugh, because of course tonight’s the night that the heat breaks. Harry in her bed, body warm above hers, pressing her firmly into the mattress, success and everyone pulling him away again on the other side of tonight.
He looks confused, and she just shakes her head, because it doesn’t matter. They’re here, right now, and Taylor slides her hands down his sides, over the slight swell of his hips and pushes his underwear down as far as she can. She struggles for a minute, but gets it the rest of the way down with her feet, and he laughs and smiles down at her until they’re flush against each other again.
“Fuck, Harry,” she gasps when she feels him nudging up against her, and he grins and kisses her lazy and slow. Taylor feels strung out, her whole body on edge, but Harry keeps kissing her like they’ve got nowhere to be. His mouth slides to her neck and down the center of her chest, and she can feel how hard he is, just from this, pressing against the inside of her thigh, and for a wild second, she just wants him inside her. Wants to feel the heat of his skin in ways she never has before.
She pulls back instead, and Harry looks concerned for a second, lines appearing across his forehead. “Condom,” she pants, and she can see his throat bob as he swallows, and she throws her hand over the side of the bed to feel through her nightstand. Harry follows her up the mattress and she grunts in frustration. It’s been a long time, before she moved here, but Taylor’s responsible. She knows she has some in here, somewhere. She turns onto her stomach and Harry pushes her hair aside, pressing sloppy kisses against the back of her neck, his breath hot on her skin and she feels hot all over. Isn’t sure if she’s ever wanted someone this much.
The box is hiding under a journal she abandoned months ago, and she whips one out triumphantly. “We’re good! We’re good,” she says, turning back over, and Harry’s biting at his lips, the skin red and almost bruised.
He takes the condom from her hand, and her fingers are shaking, just a little. Taylor closes her eyes, listens to the sound of him ripping it open and then there’s gentle pressure on her eyelids. She squeezes them tighter and he kisses down her cheeks until he finds her mouth.
“Okay?” he asks against her lips, and she bites his lower lip in response.
He rubs his dick over her clit before he slides into her, and she loses her breath for a minute. It’s so much all at once, him hot inside of her and his sweaty forehead pressed against hers.
She kisses him softly, swipes her tongue against the bite marks she left on his lower lip, and he starts to move so slowly that it feels like they’re underwater. Everything’s muted, the rumbles of thunder in the distance, the brief flashes of lightning. The way he’s panting against her lips. He reaches down to rub at her clit, and she can’t help but twitch her hips up into the movement.
Her orgasm builds so slowly that it’s a surprise when it finally washes over her, and she’d be embarrassed at the noises that are coming out of her mouth, but it’s too good. She drags her fingers down Harry’s back, remembering how it pushed him over the edge last time, and his hips start to stutter. It feels good having him inside her, even when she’s already come. He’s always so hot and just the right side of too much.
“C’mon, Harry. Let go,” She says into his mouth, and she goes to bite down on the mark she left on his jaw and he shoves in deep one last time and moans, lips skipping across her shoulder as he comes.
Rain is pounding against her window, hitting the metal of the air conditioner, but it’s calming. Taylor feels like a giant exhale. Harry groans into her shoulder and slides out slowly. He swings his legs over the side of the bed and pads into the bathroom to get rid of the condom, and Taylor never wants to let this go.
Lightening flashes when Harry walks back in, and he blinks rapidly, trying to adjust.
“Been waiting weeks for this, I swear,” and she means the break in the weather, but Harry smirks at her as he climbs back into bed. She hits his shoulder, right on the ship tattoo, which reminds her.
“Got my first tattoo,” she says, and holds out her left arm so he can see the words. They’re scabbed over, and the skin’s still a little red, but it’s there. Her words, forever, scratched into her skin.
“Can I?” Harry asks, holding out his hand, and Taylor nods. He grabs her elbow, pulls her arm closer to read.
She watches him mouth the words, and she’s nervous. She’s always been honest in her writing, but this feels different. Like she’s admitting something after years of trying to be perfect for everyone all the time.
“You wrote it?” he asks, even though she’s sure he already knows the answer. She nods.
“It’s different. Good different. All of us, you, me, and Ed, trying new things. Think we’re gonna smash it.”
Harry grins and it’s silly, but Taylor hopes he isn’t wrong. Hopes they’re all going to be good. Great, even.
He drapes his arm around her chest and spoons up behind her, and they watch the lightening flash and he whispers, “I’m not going anywhere,” when she’s so close to the edge of sleep she’s not sure if she dreamt it or not.
The humidity finally breaks, and it’s bearable to sit outside without being drenched in sweat again. Harry’s next to her, their legs in the pool, and they’re listening to the finished track on Harry’s phone. When Ed finishes in the shower, he’ll drive Harry back to the airport, and it’ll probably be weeks before she sees him again. But right now, they’re sitting in her backyard by the pool, sharing headphones. Four and a half years ago, Taylor was alone on a boat in the British Virgin Islands trying to come to terms with the fact that it was over, that the last time she’d ever kiss Harry was already in the past. She was wrong, obviously. They’re like magnets, even now. Circling each other from a distance, slowly getting closer and closer. Each afraid of spooking the other.
The track ends, and Harry clears his throat.
“I want to try this, for real this time.”
It’s not that Taylor wasn’t expecting it, but it’s still surprising. It’s still something she’s heard before, and she knows that wanting it isn’t always enough. Sometimes, though. Maybe it is.
“Yeah?” she says, trying to keep her tone light as she pulls the earbud out.
Harry turns to look at her, and he’s serious.
“You fall in love with everyone, you know. I’ve seen it, more than once,” and she tries to laugh it off, but she catches the hurt in his eyes before she looks down at her knees. They’re so much tanner than the rest of her legs, probably from running. She imagines Harry coming back, going for a jog with her in the morning before it gets too hot. Just the two of them. A secret that no one ever finds out.
She knows they could go around and around and always come back to the same old ground. Always leaving, almost always coming back. Almost. But they’re here now, and that’s what matters. That’s what fucking matters. So she covers his hand with hers and slides her other hand around his neck and kisses him.
“We can try,” she mumbles against his mouth, and he grins and topples both of them into the pool, clothes and all.
It’s hard. It’s Nashville to London to LA and it’s jealousy and dirty Skype calls when she’s angry or feeling possessive or just missing him, but it makes her feel alive. Like this life was hers to have all along, she just had to reach for it and not let go.
She’s having tea with his mom one afternoon in Cheshire, tea-tea, not dinner tea, while Harry’s out finishing up some track he’s working on for someone she doesn’t recognize when it hits her that it’s been six months, and they’re still okay. It’s not that long in the grand scheme of things, but it feels like something. Always leaving, but always coming back.