Actions

Work Header

all of the places i ain't ever been

Work Text:

The bus drops Harry on a dirt road next to a mailbox. There’s a moment where he thinks he can get back on the bus, turns to look back at the driver and she gives him a light laugh, closes the doors, and drives off. There’s nothing else in sight except for rolling fields and a thicket of trees lining the long driveway in front of him and he thinks, for a second, that this is how most horror movies start.

His phone informs him that there’s no service out here just before the 1% battery finally dies on him and he’s got no choice, but to pick up his bags and start walking. He’s walked about a hundred yards into the treeline when there’s a distant barking and a small, white speck at the end of the trail is getting progressively closer. Harry tries to shield himself with his suitcase and lets out a helpless yelp when the dog barrels towards him. It stops just short of him, tail wagging and barking enthusiastically, pouncing around him and dropping into a deep bow. Harry eyes it. It’s a tricolor border collie with a blue bandana around its neck and a chain slip collar under that, and Harry crouches down to look at its tags. The dog jumps forward towards him and he gets a hand on the dog’s tag, Pollux with a phone number and the address he’s going to.

Hi, Pollux,” Harry says and the dog wiggles some more. Harry continues to walk down the path and the dog trots next to him dutifully, bounding up ahead every once in a while before circling back. The house finally comes into view through the trees and that’s when Pollux starts straying farther, clearly impatient for Harry to hurry up.

When Harry finally makes it onto the property, the man on the porch greets Pollux first, coming down the porch steps and giving the border collie a good ruffle. There’s a second dog who jumps off the porch too, identical to Pollux but with a green bandana. “Niall Horan?” Harry asks as the man stands and smiles.

“You must be Harry?” Niall asks as he comes close, holds out a tanned, freckled forearm. “Welcome!” He’s got a firm, calloused handshake, a fine dusting of sun-blond hair up his arms with a mess of various scars and sunspots. A real life farmer. “Hope you didn’t mind my welcoming committee.”

Harry smiles down at the dogs, both circling and sniffing his legs curiously. “No, he’s great. Pollux?”

Niall nods, waves a hand to the pair. “Castor and Pollux, my partners in crime. They won’t be any trouble, they’re stuck to me like glue at all waking hours. But they’ll take a liking to you if you share your breakfast with them.”

Niall seems nice and non-murderous enough, taking Harry’s bags and setting them on the porch step of the house before asking if Harry wants the full tour, or if he’d prefer to be shown his room. “I’d like to see inside, if you don’t mind?” Harry asks. Niall gives him a once over, still rumpled from the two hour bus ride up here in a half-buttoned shirt and suede boots. They both know he’s totally not dressed for walking around a farm right now but Niall doesn’t call him on it, just shrugs and opens his arms towards the porch and front door.

Niall follows Harry up into the mudroom and the screen door clacks shut loudly behind them. The hallway is white and bright, light filtering in from windows of the rooms, they pass a neat office on the way to the end of the hall, the kitchen. It’s picturesque, the large kitchen windows exposing the back of the house, the vast fields and a barn. Next to the kitchen is a dining room that opens up to a large living room, a basket of tennis balls and plush dog toys on the floor next to the coffee table and a flat screen television, another desk with a laptop on it. Harry’s surprised by the charm of it, understands now why this little farm in the middle of nowhere up north had nothing but five star reviews everywhere online. “Had a wedding here last week,” Niall explains, lingering at the edge of the living room near the staircase. “But it’s just you for the month you booked. I can show you upstairs?”

The dogs go upstairs first and Niall carries Harry’s bag up. The upstairs is a few rooms, one bedroom with a PRIVATE sign, presumably Niall’s, but four other open rooms. Niall walks into the bedroom next to the bathroom, places Harry’s suitcases carefully on the mattress. “Windows can open but there’s no screen, I don’t have the best heating/AC but if you need a fan or blankets or whatever just let me know. Bathroom’s all yours next door, shower, bathtub, the works.” Niall rubs his chin, retreats to lean against the doorframe as Harry steps fully into the bedroom. It’s basic but bright and warm, a queen bed made with a plethora of pillows, a stack of washclothes and towels on the dresser against the wall. There’s a recliner and desk with a chair against the window. It’s twice as big as Harry’s flat in London. “Uh, dogs usually sleep with me in my room but I’d still suggest sleeping with your door closed, they can be nosey and we get up early,” Niall continues, ticking off his fingers as he remembers other notes. “No maid service, I know that’s pretty obvious but you’d be surprised how many people come expecting me to fix their beds everyday.”

Harry nods, thoroughly impressed and itching to sit down and unpack, write. “Uh, what about payment?” He asks. The reservation said something about stay in exchange for minor farm-hand work but that’s probably not mandatory, right. Harry brought more than enough cash.

“I won’t ask much of you for the first few days, just get acquainted with the place, do your dishes and shit like that,” Niall explains easily, cutting himself short to cluck sharply at one of the dogs who’s trying to creep past his legs into Harry’s room. “Whatever you feel comfortable doing, I’m not going to have you out there wrestling the sheep or anything. It’s just nice to have an extra set of hands--”

“I-- wait,” Harry interrupts, feeling himself blush. “I...I can’t just? Pay cash?”

Niall meets him with a blank expression, biting his lip. “No. No cash, no credit.”

Harry feels stupid but he’s clearly in too deep now, might as well follow through with his embarrassment, “Look, I know on the site....but is there any way I can just pay? I’m--I’m here to work on my book, i was just looking for a place to get away for a while--”

“I’m really sorry, Harry, but that’s how this works. You can stay for your month in exchange for helping me out around here. If that’s not going to work, I’m sure I can find you a nice hotel in Dublin.”

“No! No, I…” Harry pauses, burying his face in his hands for a moment. “I’m sorry. This place is exactly what I was looking for, I just thought….maybe your policies were more negotiable. I’m sorry. I’ll stay, whatever you need.”

Niall brightens again, relaxing and uncrossing his arms. “Good! Like I said, it won’t be anything I don’t think you couldn’t handle. But don’t worry about that yet, I’ll leave you to get settled. Any questions just give me a shout. My mobile number and some other info is on the dresser--wifi, routine, about the house, stuff like that-- if you need anything else.”

He’s left to settle in after that, Niall and the dogs heading back outside and Harry watches them from the window until they disappear inside the barn. Harry unpacks, tucking all of his clothing into the large dresser, lining his shoes up at the end of the bed. He rumples the tightly made bed and plugs in his computer at the desk and suddenly the room feels homely, lived-in. He flops onto the bed with the small WELCOME TO HORAN FARMS folder. There’s a little hand-written page with the house’s landline and Niall’s mobile number, the password for the wifi cabbagepatch92. The rest of the folder are basic sheets about the farm, about the closest towns. Niall’s farm is twenty miles north of Carrickmacross, a fifty acre farm passed down through the Horan family. He makes most of his money from sheeps’ wool, his produce, and renting his farm out for weddings and parties. There’s a page of “Farm Fun Facts!”, sheep can grow up to 13kg of wool a year / pigs are thought to be the 4th smartest animal, behind dolphins, chimpanzees, and elephants / goats and sheep don’t have teeth on their upper jaw / the chicken is the closest living relative to the T-Rex!

Harry falls asleep with the folder on his chest and wakes up to a setting sky, pots and pans clinking softly downstairs in the kitchen. The smell of some kind of sauce makes Harry remember how hungry he is, letting his grumbling stomach draw him downstairs, where he lingers at the edge of the dining room. One of the dogs hears him and lets out a small noise and Niall pokes his head out of the kitchen, smiling. “You want some spaghetti?” He asks, “I made more than enough.”

Harry thanks him and takes the invitation as a chance to come into the kitchen, moving carefully around the dogs and Niall. He takes one of the plates from the counter and waits patiently for Niall to serve himself and then he steps aside, going to the opposite counter to grab a few pieces of garlic bread from a warm basket. He gives Harry a nod before leaving the kitchen, carrying his dinner into the living room. The TV turns on a few moments later. Niall’s going to be easy to live with, Harry thinks, the ideal roommate who doesn’t get in the way but is happy to make accommodations.

Harry takes his dinner back to his bedroom, determined to chip something away at his book that he came here to write. He’s not sure what it really is yet but he knows he wants it to be in the countryside, maybe a love story without the distractions of a city or a corporate job or a huge population to get in the way.

+++

It’s not even nine in the morning when Harry shuffles downstairs following the smell of coffee, half-expecting Niall and the dogs to be in the kitchen for breakfast too. Instead the house is empty, coffee pot still half-full in the machine and a box of muffins and pastries on the counter with a note that says help yourself!

Harry does, pouring himself a cup of coffee and taking a scone and orange. He’s lingering at the sink, trying to figure out how to write about how beautiful Niall’s farm is, when he sees the dogs. Niall’s kitchen window opens up to the expanse of fields for the sheep, backdropped by the high hills of northern ireland, other farms fences spotting the hills in the deep distance. The sun rises into Niall’s kitchen, the early-morning glare making Harry squint into the window to watch the dogs bound around Niall. He’s washed in the bright gold of the sun so Harry can only make out his silhouette, baseball cap and a wide, open smile while he gives the dogs instructions, the two of them bolting out of view from the window. Niall stretches his arms over his head, arching his back and resting his palms on his head while he takes a few wandering steps towards the dogs. He’s awake and fluid, Harry can hear his occasional sharp whistles from inside the house as he directs the dogs, probably controlling the herd out of Harry’s view.

+++

They come inside around noon for lunch and Harry finds himself lingering to watch Niall again, the man coming in followed closely by his panting dogs and they make a beeline for the kitchen. Harry watches from the dining room over the top of his computer, Niall tossing the dogs each a bone first and then taking off his hat. His hair is matted and sweaty, the line across his forehead from his cap a distinct line of sweat and sun. He pulls his shirt from his stomach and lifts the hem up to his forehead. Harry gets a long view of the dark hair trailing from Niall’s belly button, the tan cut of his hips. He’s lean but sturdy and Harry hasn’t had a chance to understand that yet but he’s starting to now. Niall turns to wash his hands and Harry watches his shoulders work, the sweat making his shirt cling to him and shows how broad he really is. “Harry?” Niall calls over his shoulder and Harry flushes, like he’s been caught redhanded, “You want some lunch?”

Niall’s eyes are brilliantly blue in the natural light of the kitchen and up close there’s still a sheen of sweat over Niall’s neck and chest, a particular drop in the hollow of his neck. Harry helps him make BLTs for the two of them, the dogs waiting patiently behind them for scraps of bacon that Niall tosses over his shoulder to them.

“What time do you get up?” Harry asks once they’ve settled around the dining room table, Niall finishing off their prepared lunch by setting down two glasses of lemonade.

“Usually 4:30, let the animals out at 5:00. We came in and had breakfast ‘round 7:30 but I didn’t want to wake you.”

Harry watches him eat for a while, turning over the hundreds of other questions he has in his head. “You do that everyday? What do you do?”

Niall half-laughs, mouth still full of sandwich, and he takes moment to swallow and clear his throat. “Well, gotta feed everyone first thing in the morning, and then have Cast and Pol move them out to their fields while I clean out the barn and shit. Just me, that’s usually a couple hours, and then come in for lunch. If we’ve got nothing after that sometimes we’ll nap, but it’s usually more chores. I gotta fix one of the fence sections in the sheep paddock and start prepping the garden today.”

There’s a weighted silence where Harry debates whether or not Niall’s expecting him to help. He did rent his room here in exchange for helping out around the farm, but it’s only his second day and he doesn't exactly know what the “help” entails. “Do you need a hand?” He finally settles on asking and Niall shrugs, polishing off the last of his sandwich.

“I’m sure I can find something for you to do, but you’re free to just come out and watch us.”

I’ve been watching you all morning, Harry thinks, and Niall gives him a smile and a wink before he gets up from the table, carrying his plate and glass to the kitchen. He puts his baseball cap on, a dirt-covered hat with a patch that reads IRELAND IS FOR LOVERS. “If you wanna come out, we’ll be behind the barn, Harry!” Niall calls back as he and the dogs head for the front door.

Harry does join them after he’s done the dishes, stacking them carefully back in the right cabinets and then he pulls on his brand-new boots, purchased specifically for this trip, and heads outside. He takes a while to roam the land alone this time, can’t even fathom how Niall and two dogs manage fifty acres of animals and gardens. The gardens are closest to the house, the ground has been tilled, but Niall had talked last night about how it’s not quite ready for plants yet--mostly strawberries and tomatoes and carrots and potatoes. There’s a distinct layout of the gardens, the stone trail Harry’s following distinct and clear as it cuts through the lines of dirt mounds.

The gardens are only two or three acres worth of the land, a quick walk back to the barn. The doors are open and there’s some bird pecking around on the floor, but the rest of the building is empty, all the animals out in their fields. Most of Niall’s livestock are Galway sheep, two hundred of them on forty of the fifty acres. He’s got two horses and a handful of goats, a small chicken coop as a wing off of the shed behind the house along with apparently unofficial animals, a few cats slinking around the barn and birds in the rafters that scurry to hide when Harry walks through.

The back of the barn opens up to the larger fields, and Harry sees Niall standing a ways away in the middle of his flock of sheep. Harry walks along the fence that borders the field until he’s a few yards away from Niall and the dogs. Niall gives him a wave and starts towards him, the sheep parting as he comes through and Pollux bounds after him, Castor lingering behind to keep an eye on the flock.

“You wanna come in?” Niall laughs, gesturing for Harry to hop the fence. Harry makes a face. He’s not scared of the sheep but. There’s just a lot of them.

Niall doesn’t pester him, instead hopes to sit on the fence railing next to where Harry’s standing. “You ever see herding dogs work?”

Harry shakes his head and Niall smiles, his face beaming proudly, “do you want to?”

The way Niall directs the dogs is like a work of art, claps his hands together and shouts, “Let's work!” And the dogs snap to attention, watching tensely for his instruction. It’s a series of whistles and clicks and half-word noises to instruct them, both circling the flock in a half-crouch. Niall has distinct whistles for each dog, sending Pollux forward to move the sheep while Castor stays at the edges to keep the group together, shifting the whole flock away from the patch of grass they’d been milling around for a while. “I want to get a third dog,” Niall admits with a smirk, “but I don’t have the time to train it. I could get another hundred sheep if I had a third, though.”

They walk back to the barn and Niall offers to show Harry how to hose out the sheep stalls, “Dirty work but it’s usually what takes the longest-- I won’t make you shovel the hay and shit out unless you want to,” but it’s pretty basic and Harry feels accomplished when it’s done.

+++

Niall goes to town a few days later, Harry so deep in his writing he almost doesn’t hear Niall leave. Downstairs is quiet, the dogs both chewing on new bones. There’s leftovers in the fridge and a note from Niall, Let the dogs out please or they’ll go mad ! even if u just play frisbee with them for an hour

Harry settles in on the couch with his computer and a staunch determination to hammer out his next ten pages. Pollux and Castor are circling the kitchen, probably eyeing the crusts from Harry’s sandwich he left on the counter with their nails clicking on the tile, but other than that the house is warm and quiet. The windows are open and Harry almost doesn’t notice the faint odor of manure wafting in from the fields anymore, has gotten used to the soft creaks and groans the house makes on a windy day. He plows through three pages before Pollux jumps on the couch and whines a bit, trying to climb into his lap. “Pol,” Harry whines, the wiggling dog in his face snapping him out of his focus and he has to shove him off the couch, “You fuckin’. Shit.”

He loses it after that, gets caught up in trying to edit what he wrote and the darkening sky outside. He slumps to lay down, laptop balanced on his chest and somewhere between the paragraph about Niall’s wool production and the wool industry of Ireland, he falls asleep.

“What--the fuck,” Niall barks from the kitchen, jolting Harry awake. It’s dark outside and he must have shut his laptop at some point because the living room is dark. Niall’s home and turning on lights as he comes, the hall light flicking on and the light that filters into the living room illuminates the mess on the floor. There’s two pillows torn to bits and a shredded newspaper everywhere, Harry not even having time to process it before Niall walks in, turns on the full light. Castor and Pollux are sulking guiltily behind his legs.

“You didn’t take them out, did you?” Niall asks and Harry drops his head, mimics the guilty expressions of the dogs. When Harry doesn’t answer, Niall scrubs his knuckles through his hair, surveys the damage in the living room. He turns to the dogs and points a firm finger at them. “I’m going to run you both so hard tomorrow you’re going to die.” Harry almost smiles and then Niall turns and points the same finger at him, “And you’re going to clean this house up. Now.”

Harry and the dogs slink through the house and clean as they go, followed by Niall. Harry’s expecting Niall to lecture him but he doesn’t, just talks and watches as Harry gathers up the newspaper and pillow fluff.

“When I first got the dogs as puppies, I couldn’t leave them alone. Like, ever. I had to have them with me everywhere I went because if I left them alone, they’d raise absolute hell.”  Niall hasn’t spoken like this since Harry’s gotten here, just talking, telling stories, his soft lilting accent heavier in the quiet house.

They move into the kitchen, where Harry’s sandwich plate is shattered on the floor and his crusts are gone and the garbage can is overturned, ripped bags and towels everywhere. Castor and Pollux lay on the mat in front of the sink and Niall sits on the countertop, the three of them watching Harry clean.

“Border collies, any herding dog really, will work and run and follow you until they literally pass out. So I would train them outside every single day until they could hardly walk back to the house, had to carry them in a few times. So I thought that’d be good, right? Like, super trained and exercised dogs who are doing what they’re bred to do, what they love doing.”

Harry hums as he sweeps up the spilled garbage, mostly dirt-covered paper towels and dog food containers. The dogs’ ears are perked up and they’re both watching Niall intently, waiting for him to drop any buzzwords like sheep or play or walk or field. “But it backfired. Because when they were finally trained and grown up I figured, like. Now we can sleep in and don’t have to spend twelve hours a day outside p-l-a-y-i-n-g, right? No. They learned that routine as puppies and now that’s what they expect. So they have to go outside everyday, or else this happens. Understand?”

Harry doesn’t realize Niall’s asking him until he looks up and Niall and the dogs are watching him. “Oh. Yeah. Yes. Dogs have to go outside.”

Niall winks, jumps down off the counter and the dogs stand up, too, tails waving expectantly as Niall heads to the kitchen doorway. “You’re a quick learner, then.” He gives his sharp whistle and Castor and Pollux are crowding him, following him down the hall towards the stairs. “Have a good night, Harry.”

+++

Contrary to what Harry assumes, rain doesn’t mean a day off. Niall and the dogs slog out to the barn at 5:00 as usual, Niall armed with a raincoat and boots and the dogs with their endless enthusiasm. There’s Niall’s usual note on the counter with instructions for Harry, today’s just take it easy! We’ll be in the barn until lunch

Harry feels pent up after two weeks straight of working outside with Niall, finally feels like he understands how Castor and Pollux feel when they aren’t let out. He only manages a page of his document before he shuts his computer, rifles through his dresser for his jacket and wellies he packed just in case of a day like this. He leaves through the back door, in the direction of the garage. It’s the only place on the farm he hasn’t had a chance to see yet, but the door is open every day, a tractor and an old Range Rover at the front spots.

Harry ducks inside the building, pushing his hood off his head and fumbling blindly for a lightswitch. The light stutters to life when he finally finds it and he’s surprised to see that it’s a fairly large garage, the tractor’s disc harrow attachment and a golf cart at the back wall. It’s cold, too, even with the garage door open to the humid March air. There’s a workbench with an open but untouched toolbox, a bag of golfclubs leaning against the stool and an organized mess of dog food bags, sheep and horse feed, old bridles and ropes. Harry walks along the wall, pausing to admire a large half-painted birdhouse in the middle of the counter, a box of vegetable and flower seeds that Niall came home with a few days ago. And then at the shelves in the back of the garage: jars. There’s a whole shelf of them, meticulously labeled, strawberries, 8/01, apples 10/14, tomatoes 7/10, jars and jars lining the wall. Harry grabs two jars of apple preserves without thinking about it, tucking them into his jacket before jogging back through the rain into the house.

It takes him fifteen minutes to tear Niall’s kitchen apart for flour and butter, another five minutes to clear off one of the counters to work at. He keeps the butter and water cold, cutting large chunks of butter into his bowl of flower and working them together with his hands, flattening the butter cubes in his palms and adding splashes of ice water to work it all together. His brain wraps fully around making the dough, kneading it against the counter until it’s doughy enough to chill. While it does he continues to rummage for a pie pan, doubtful that he’ll find one, but determined to find something that’ll do. There are parts of Niall’s kitchen that clearly haven’t been touched in a while, also evident from the amount of sandwich supplies and microwavable meals in his refrigerator.

He doesn’t find a pie pan and opts for apple turnovers instead. He has to roll out the dough twice, can’t get it flat and smooth enough the first time and when he finally gets it perfect he pauses. Grabs a small plate and places it upside down on the dough, tracing the circumference of the plate with a knife in the dough. The dough gives him eight circles and he carefully spoons small heaps of the apple preserves onto each circle. He brushes the edges with eggwash and crimps them with his fingers, poking holes in the tops and dusting the final products with sugar.

They’re still baking when Niall and the dogs come in, sopping wet and there’s a commotion in the doorway, Niall shouting, “Harry, grab Cast!”

There’s not much warning before a soaked border collie comes tearing down the hall. Harry manages to grab Castor just before he can wreck havoc through the living room, squeezing the squirming, wet mass and carrying him back down the hall to where Niall’s waiting at the mudroom, has an equally-dirty Pollux by the collar. “Can you--” Niall starts as Harry carefully lowers the dog to the floor and Niall grabs his collar, “Can you go into the laundry and get me some towels--”

Harry’s already nodding, jogging to the back of the kitchen and ducking into the tiny laundry room, grabbing a stack of towels. They both wipe down a dog, Harry covering Pollux with a towel and rubbing him down despite the squirming and when he picks the blanket off the dog he tears down the hallway, followed closely by Castor.

Harry turns to Niall, who’s got mud smeared down his forearms and his shirt is dirty and damp. “Uh,” Harry gawks as Niall tugs off his flannel, his white undershirt just as soaked. Niall wraps the dog towel around his shoulders and ruffles it through his own hair, making it stick up everywhere. He raises his eyebrows expectantly at Harry and then inhales deeply, “Are you baking something?”

“Apple turnovers,” Harry replies weakly just as the kitchen timer rings loudly. Niall’s face lights up. “Oh, no way? I didn’t know you were a baker. Let me...I’m gonna take a shower. Serve one up for me!” He calls over his shoulder on his way towards the stairs.

It’s the longest ten minutes of his life, waiting for the turnovers to cool and for Niall to come downstairs. Harry plates two and leaves it on the dining room table, ends up hiding in the kitchen doing dishes when he hears Niall come down. The dogs have been circling Harry the entire time, but he doesn’t think dogs can have apples, cuts off a few of the burnt turnover dough corners and flicks that to them instead.

“Harry!” Niall says, voice muffled from the dining room and he’s standing in the doorway of the kitchen seconds later. “These are amazing,” he says around a bite, his hair still wet and flat against his forehead, t-shirt still clinging to his chest. Harry shrugs.

“I found the preserves in your garage and figured you could use something that wasn’t a sandwich.”

Niall holds his hand against his chest in fake offense. “It hasn’t been warm enough to barbeque yet. But when it is, I expect you to take that back.”

+++


There’s a soft knock at the doorway one night and Harry looks up, sees Niall standing in the doorway holding a bottle of Concannon whiskey. Harry smiles gratefully, closing his computer. “You going to share?”

Niall laughs and tilts his head back towards the hallway and Harry follows him downstairs and out onto the porch. They drink in silence for a bit, Niall throwing the frisbee for Pollux from the porch step out into the yard and Harry working his way through his first drink before they finally get to talking.

“How’s your book coming?” Niall asks, climbing the steps to join Harry on the porch swing, Pollux and Castor fighting half-heartedly over the frisbee at their feet. Harry laughs lightly, scrubbing a hand over his face and sipping his whiskey.

“Ah, it’s coming. Kind of. Kind of hard to write every night after eight hours of field-work everyday,” he teases and Niall’s laugh rings out into the night. Harry takes a swig of his drink and closes his eyes for a long beat. “I honestly don’t know how you do it.”

Niall sighs and leans back, draping his arm over the back of the swing. “I do it ‘cause I have to. Simple enough, no?”

Harry studies Niall and Niall lets him, eyes cast down to look at his dogs. He’s got two day old scruff prickling his neck and jaw, has spent the last two days too busy shearing sheep to do much of anything else. Now is the first time in that timespan that Niall’s looked at ease, eyes half-lidded and the rest of him sunken into the dark golds and blues of the setting sun.

“Never have I ever…” Harry exhales softly and Niall’s mouth quirks up. He side-glances Harry with a look of doubt, but he raises his own glass to his chest, clearly waiting and willing to play. Harry licks his lips, lets his eyes roam the darkening property. “Never have I ever had sex in your barn.”

“I fucking hope you haven’t,” Niall snaps and Harry grins, holds his glass away from himself. Niall squints, blushes, and raises his whiskey to his lips for a sip.

“What!--”

“--The fuck kind of first question is that,” Niall interrupts Harry, shaking his head, but half-laughing in the way that Harry’s gotten so used to in the last two weeks. Niall rubs his chin. “Never have I ever had to run from the police.”

They eye each other as they both take sips and come up from their drinks laughing, “You first.”

“My friend stole--accidentally, he stole a jacket when we were in year nine, we heard the sirens and totally panicked--”

“How do you accidentally steal a jacket--” Harry laughs,

“Okay, what about you--”

“House party when I was 16, cops got called and everyone had to scatter.”

There’s a few moments of soft laughter between them, Harry sighing. “Never have I ever...travelled? Outside the country.”

They both drink and Harry raises his eyebrows, honest surprise coloring his face. “What?”

Niall laughs. “I lived in London for four years, Harry.”

Harry gawks and Niall glances at him, rolling his eyes. “What? You think I was just some sheltered country boy? I have wi-fi.” The joke goes over Harry’s head, still staring at Niall and Niall rubs his eyes. “I grew up here, lived with my Da until I was 17, and moved to London for uni. I came home with he died. He...he gave the farm to me, all of it. It was originally 250 acres but I sold a lot of it--my brother didn’t want to help, and I could only handle so much of it, you know?” He takes a deep breath, looks over at Harry with a steady face. “So yes. I am quite well-travelled.” There’s a brief but not-uncomfortable silence and then Niall draws in a breath--”Never have I ever flashed someone.”

“Jesus,” Harry laughs, and then takes a sip. The questions and explanations both devolve after that, never have I ever been naked in public, honked the horn while shagging in a car, gotten drunk and not knowing where you woke up, kissed someone of the opposite sex, kissed someone of the same sex.

“I’m into anyone, really,” Harry admits with a shrug. He’s never had a problem with his sexuality, doesn’t exactly have a label for himself, but never felt like he needed one, either.

He can feel Niall watching him but the gaze feels soft, gentle and probing and Harry can tell the difference by now between the sharp, hot daggers of someone who doesn’t approve and someone who understands. “My first kiss with a girl I was...thirteen, playing spin the bottle, as thirteen year olds do. My first boy, I think I was fifteen? Fifteen or sixteen, and it was because he dared me to.”

Niall snorts but doesn’t make Harry ask about his own answer, just provides it with ease, “My first year at uni, our football team swept a series against our rivals. Turned to my best mate and kissed him,” there’s a pause, Niall’s teeth clinking gently against the glass neck of his bottle as he takes another sip, looks over to Harry. “We dated for, like, a month after that, before the winter hols.”

Harry hums, picking at the label of the whiskey bottle. Niall finishes off his drink but doesn’t reach for a new one, instead grabs the frisbee and chucks it out into the yard, Castor launching to his feet and jumping off the porch to chase it. “Do you get lonely here?” Harry exhales gently and Niall replies with a long inhale, leaning back and knotting his fingers in his hair.

“Yeah,” he says quietly, watches as Castor bounds back up and lays the frisbee against Niall’s thigh hopefully. “”S not so bad, though. Especially when I have good visitors.”

+++

Harry must have let it slip that he’s never ridden a horse during their drinking game because he gets woken up at 4:30 by two dogs jumping on his mattress and Niall standing in his doorway, grinning widely. “We’re gonna ride horses today!” He announces over the soft whining and licking from the dogs. Harry squints up at him.

“I have to?”

Niall pouts. “It’s that or I can have you shovel out the stables again today.”

Orion and Artemis whinny happily when Niall pulls open the barn doors half an hour later, heads peeking out of their stalls as the men approach with the horses’ tack. Niall kisses both of them on the nose before handing each a sugar cube. “You’re going to ride Orion,” Niall tells Harry with a smile, waving a hand towards the white shire horse. Harry gawks.

“He’s--Niall, he’s huge.”

Niall shrugs, heaving Artemis’s saddle and bridle onto the edge of the stall door and moving over to Orion’s stall, opening the door and guiding the horse into the aisle of the barn. “Yeah, but he’s a big softie. Plus, Artemis is more used to me. Would rather have you sitting high than getting bucked, yeah?”

Harry eyes Orion wearily but reaches out, pats the horse’s neck and he shakes his mane out in response. Niall watches fondly, grinning even wider and flushing red when Harry looks back over at him. “I’ll help you tack him up, okay?”

Orion is a patient giant while Harry adjusts the red saddle blanket about fifty times and then finally sits the saddle on his back. Niall’s just as patient, only stepping in when Orion huffs a particularly loud breath and panics Harry. They do up the saddle first, Niall passing the girth under the horse’s stomach but letting Harry do up the belts, Harry, you have to make it tighter, I promise you’re not hurting him. The bridle takes a little more convincing, Harry very unwilling to come close to Orion’s mouth and they have to compromise.

“Harry, hold your palm out flat,” Niall tells Harry, and carefully places a baby carrot in his palm. Harry wonders, for a second, how Niall always has endless horse/dog/cat/goat treats somehow on his person. “Just hold it out to him.”

Harry squints dramatically at Niall and Niall just rolls his eyes, takes Harry’s wrist and tugs it towards the horse. Orion nudges forward, lowering his head curiously to sniff at the carrot and then takes the carrot gently from Harry’s hand, fuzzy mouth nuzzling his palm as he crunches up the treat. Harry lets out a squeak of relief, reaching out with his other hand to pet the horse’s neck.

“Bridle,” Niall says before the moment is lost, shoving the reins and bit into Harry’s hands. “Reins go over his head first, so you can hold him.” Harry does so easily, holding the rest of the leather straps and waiting for the next step. “Okay. Hold the bit in your hand like you did with the carrot, and he usually takes it no problem. Take this wider opening, that goes over his ears.”

The bit is the hardest part and Niall has to nudge the horses’ mouth open gently, but once it’s in Harry does up the nose and throat latches without a hitch. Niall’s smiling and leaning against Artemis’s stall, where the mare is nibbling impatiently at the brim of Niall’s baseball cap. “That’s it. He’s ready to ride.”

“Really?” Harry asks doubtfully. It took them twenty minutes to get Orion ready, but it still feels like not enough, just a rope and leather seat keeping him on and in control of the horse. Niall gives him a half-reassured noise as he leads Artemis out of her stall. He tacks the painted Palomino up in under ten minutes and takes both horses by their reins out of the barn and into their paddock, Harry trailing behind. “Okay--wait,” Niall stops abruptly when they’re outside, like he’s remembered something, “Hold them.” He thrusts the reins into Harry’s hand and jogs back into the barn, emerging a minute later with a velvety helmet under his arm. He smiles and holds it out to Harry in exchange for the horse reins.

“Wait,” Harry asks as he plops the helmet on, fastening it under his jaw, “How come you aren’t wearing one?”

“Because you’re the one riding the 18-hands-tall-Shire and you’ve also never ridden a horse before. And it’s my farm, so I can do whatever I want. Now, I might need to give you a boost up.”

Niall instructs him to put one foot in the stirrup and Harry steps into Niall’s cupped hands to get up the rest of the way, swinging his leg over into the other stirrup and Orion moves a little underneath him, getting used to the new weight. Harry must have some kind of expression because Niall laughs, moving to mount Artemis with ease and Castor and Pollux circle the horses once, tails wagging eagerly but they both droop when Niall tells them strictly to stay.

Walking isn’t so bad, Harry kicking Orion gently in the sides and the horse respond with ease, the two of them marching forward. “Orion is technically my draft horse,” Niall explains as they move deeper into the fields, “My plough attachment rusted up about three months ago and I haven’t been able to get anyone out here to fix it yet, so we do it the old fashioned way. I’d trust that horse with my life.”

Harry feels better after that, Niall showing him how to trot and Harry just watches him and Artemis for a while. Niall rises and falls into the saddle with ease, picking up into a canter for a short distance before slowing and circling back to Harry.

They ride for an hour, Niall eventually showing Harry how to position himself in a trot and Orion trots them about ten yards before Harry stops him, brings him back to a walk along the fence. They do a few laps around the largest paddock before Niall steers Artemis back towards the concrete patio behind the barn. He helps Harry dismount and Harry detaches the helmet from under his chin, chucking it to the ground and Niall starts grinning slowly, starts laughing when Harry asks, “What?”

“You--helmet hair,” Niall laughs, gesturing to Harry’s head and Harry makes a face, flips his hair upside down and gives it a few good shakes.

Niall explains the process of grooming the horses after a ride, pulling a garden hose from the side of the barn over to the patio. He and Harry unsaddle and unbridle the horses, which is a much easier process, and Niall slips their halters back on, clipping them on long leads to the barn wall. Harry leans against the barn while Niall hoses down Artemis, explaining over the spray of water that the white foam coming off the horse is mostly salt and sand, and how important it is to wash a horse after a ride. He finishes quickly, holds the hose out to Harry as an offer and Harry takes it, stepping towards Orion.

It turns out it’s harder than Niall made it look, being able to rinse a horse off without getting water absolutely everywhere. Harry moves up to the horses’s neck, but the spray from the nozzle only hits half of the horse, the rest going over the back of Orion’s neck straight into Niall’s face.

“Oh, my god,” Harry blurts, pointing the hose to the ground and trying to contain his laughter, “I’m so sorry--”

“Just rinse the horse!” Niall barks but he’s smiling as he lifts his shirt to wipe his face. Harry takes the moment to squirt the hose at Niall’s exposed stomach. Niall squawks and ducks under the horse, grabbing a section of the hose and yanking it towards himself, but Harry keeps a firm grip on the nozzle and sprays Niall’s head again. Orion side-steps the two of them, moving towards Artemis while the two men wrestle for the nozzle, Niall eventually getting a hold of it and twisting Harry’s wrist to soak his own torso. Niall’s got a strong grip, somehow gets a hand around Harry’s forearm and his strength is surprising and jarring enough that Harry drops the hose head. Niall gets it, whipping it forward and spraying Harry square in the back as he makes a run for the faucet above the hose stand, twisting it until the water eventually ceases.

They stand squinting at each other from across the patio for a long minute before Niall takes off his baseball cap slowly and wrings it out in front of him, water dripping onto the concrete. Harry laughs, gathering the hem of his own t-shirt up in his fists and wringing it out, too.

They lead their horses back in the barn where it’s warmer and Niall disappears into the tack room, emerges with two worn, scratchy towels. He comes up behind Harry and hesitates for a moment before he drapes the towel across Harry’s shoulders and Harry backs into him, his damp back sticking to Niall’s chest for a moment before he moves away again.

They don’t talk about it when they go inside but Harry doesn’t feel like they have to. Niall gestures for Harry to go upstairs and shower first and when he comes back downstairs there’s two plates of pancakes on the dining room table and Niall’s singing softly in the kitchen.

+++

Niall mostly has Harry working in the barn everyday cleaning out stalls and he gets quite accustomed to the official and unofficial animals of the building. There’s a raccoon that gets into the garbage cans every night and Harry screams the first time he sees it, Niall coming out of the tack room to see Harry wielding a broom at the barn door.

“There’s a raccoon in your trash!” Harry hisses, not looking away from the creature that’s sitting calmly on the lid of the trashcan eating half of a strawberry.

Niall isn’t alarmed at all. “Yeah, that’s Louis. He’ll leave you alone if you leave him alone.”

That seems to be the policy for all of Niall’s unofficial barn animals, the cats and crows that creep around the rafters usually ignore Harry as long as Harry ignores them. But there’s one particular cat who’s taken a liking to Harry, mews and twists between his ankles every time he comes into the barn. It only takes a week of treats and careful persuasion and cooing before the cat lets him pick her up.

Harry names her.

“What--Harry, is that one of my barn cats?”

“Her name is Beatrice,” Harry says aggressively, hugging the calico closer to his chest. Niall pinches the bridge of his nose and looks down at Castor.

“Can’t say I’ve ever had any of those cats let me pick them up, honestly,” he finally admits, squinting at Harry.

Niall’s only rule is that Beatrice can’t come in the house, but Harry quickly establishes a small homebase for her in the barn’s tack room, a nest of blankets and t-shirts and a few food dishes for her and the other cats. It makes working in the barn at 7:00AM less painful, having the cat’s company. Harry catches Niall watching him on a few occasions and the first couple of times Harry mistakes his staring for annoyance, Niall assuming that Harry’s not working hard enough, but it’s soon evident that that’s not his intention at all. Niall seems to get a kick out of it, will usually stop his own work to watch Harry scratch and coo at the cat. “You can keep her,” Niall speaks up softly one day. “Take her back to London with you, I mean.”

“Niall, I--”

“--Harry, I probably have, like. 53 cats in this barn. You can take her.”

Harry doesn’t know how to say thank you so he hugs Niall instead.

+++

The coals in Niall's’ barbeque have dried enough from the rain to finally have a proper dinner. Harry meets Liam, Niall’s neighbor--though neighbor is used loosely, he lives five miles away but he’s the closest other human to me, so--who owns a dairy and meat farm. They’ve known each other for years, Niall swapping preserves or firewood with him for fresh butter or, in today’s case, burger patties.

 Liam rolls around in the yard wrestling with the dogs while Harry lounges on the porch with his laptop, a few glasses of sangria deep into his writing. For the first time he isn’t writing bullshit about sunsets or fresh grass, but about the work that goes into maintaining a farm, nothing sugar-coated or poetic about having to wrestle sheep or shovel out dirty stalls. It might be the best he’s ever written.

Niall guards the grill with his life, fending off Castor and Pollux and Liam with his spatula on multiple occasions. Harry eventually gets tasked with distracting them all while Niall finishes cooking their burgers. He and Liam alternate between setting the picnic table next to Niall’s fire pit and throwing the frisbee for the dogs, Liam able to throw the frisbee halfway across the yard, so far that it takes the dogs a solid minute to retrieve it and bring it back. Liam’s sweet, ends up back in the grass with Castor draped over his lap and a beer in one hand, telling Harry about the new piglets just born on his own farm, how his sister always comes to help out in the spring and name all the new baby animals. 

Niall finally arrives at the picnic table with a plate of burgers and another plate of buns and condiments and they dig in, two patties for the dogs because “it’s a party!” Niall exclaims when Liam tries to complain about the waste of meat. It’s odd but refreshing to see Niall with another person, another farmer. They drink and curse and tease each other about everything, Niall begging Liam for the secret family recipe seasoning on the burgers that Liam refuses to give up, their tone suggesting this isn’t the first argument about it.

Harry’s content to sit back and watch them talk, occasionally sneaking bits of cheese under the table for the dogs. He gets caught red-handed at one point, Niall reaching over mid-story with Liam about some nightmare-renters he had a few months ago and he lays a hand on the back of Harry’s neck. Harry jumps at the contact, flushing pink and looking up at Niall who squints, clearly a look that says stop feeding the dogs. Harry raises his hands above the table innocently and Niall gives him a curt nod. He lets his hand slip down a few notches of Harry’s spine before he lets go, raising his elbow to rest on Harry’s shoulder instead.

+++

Harry’s most excited about helping Niall start planting. Mid-March is carrots and onions and peas and Niall’s given Harry permission to join him in the garden this morning, slapped a pair of gardening gloves on the coffee table that afternoon and let Harry follow him outside.

Harry’s put in charge of the baby onions, five egg-cartons of tiny sprouts ready to be planted outside that he picks out individually, holds them carefully in his palms. Niall explains patiently how deep to plant them and how far apart, watches Harry place five before he lets him continue on alone. They move along each tilled aisle of dirt on their hands and knees, passing each other in the middle. Harry continues with his onions and Niall planting carrot seeds, digging a shallow hole with his fingers and placing the small seeds before moving on, fluid and consistent with each movement.

They pass each other for the third time, both glancing up to smile but Harry laughs, this time, gesturing to Niall’s cheekbone. “You’ve got dirt,” he says. Niall reaches up with his bare hand and brushes at the spot, only staining his skin more and Harry shakes his head, takes off one of his gloves and hands it to him to use. Niall swipes again and the dirt smudge grows. Harry shakes his head, holds out his clean hand. “Can I?”

Niall hesitates for a moment and then nods carefully, eyes cast downwards as Harry reaches out, brushes the dirt off of Niall’s cheek. He wants to kiss him. He pulls his hand back, placing it into the dirt beside him and then Niall looks up, cheeks flushed pink. “Harry,” he breathes, “Can I kiss you?”

Harry nods, doesn’t move until Niall does, leaning forward and Harry meets him halfway. Niall’s mouth is soft and dry, but he’s a good kisser, slow to slot his mouth just right against Harry’s. It’s brief before they pull apart, Niall watching Harry steadily now as they separate. “Alright?” Harry whispers and Niall nods, grinning widely before he ducks his head down against his shoulder, “Back to work, Harry.”

+++

“Can I ask you a question?” Harry asks over breakfast one morning, a rare Saturday where Niall sleeps in because of a rolling thunderstorm outside. He made breakfast, just eggs and toast and bacon, but Harry was grateful, hasn’t realized how much he missed eating breakfast with company until now. Niall nods around his mug of tea. “Why all the Greek animal names?”

Niall smiles to himself, finishing off the crust of his toast before answering. “I knew about them as constellations at first,” he admits, “Pollux as one of the brightest stars in Gemini and Castor as the second. My Da had this book about space that I loved as a kid. I was really into it around the same time I got the dogs, and Castor was smaller than Pol as a puppy.” He shrugs. “Orion just seems to suit him though, dun’nit? And he and Artemis got along as soon as I brought her home.” He pauses. “Can I ask you a question?”

Harry waves a hand and nods, digging a thumbnail into the skin of his banana while Niall asks, “Are you enjoying your stay here?”

There’s a flicker of real concern that flits across his face and Harry nods quickly, “Yes, yes. It’s everything I was hoping for.”

Niall smiles around an orange wedge before taking it out of his mouth, “Good. Thank you.”

“Niall, thank you.”

+++

They don’t talk about it, but nothing changes between them, Harry still stumbling out to work around seven every morning and Niall still teaching Harry new things, showing him new parts of the farm. Harry hasn’t touched his book, tried reading it back all the way through a few nights ago and almost deleted the entire draft, feels like bullshit now. None of the research Harry had done a month ago for this book was at all close to what it’s actually like and he feels like he can’t do it proper justice. Feels like what Ireland has here, what Niall has here is too special to just expose to the world, feels like it has to stay hidden, preserved just for the people who seek it out. Feels like he’s being selfish.

He’s chewing on his knuckle in the dining room one night, contemplating what the fuck to tell his editor when his eyes stray to the window, a clear view of the still-lit barn. Niall’s usually inside by now but it’s almost nine and they haven’t come inside yet. Harry texts him, Artemis didn't kick u in the head or something, right? And Niall answers two long minutes later, one of the sheep sprained their leg

Curiosity eventually gets the best of Harry and he steps into his wellies and draws his blanket tighter around his shoulders before shuffling quickly across the dewy grass and into the barn.

Pollux and Castor swarm him as he comes inside. It’s warm enough that he can let go of the blanket, draping it over one of the stall doors and continuing down the barn aisle in just his pajama pants, t-shirt and rainboots. Niall’s leaning with his forearms against the stall door of the large sheep enclosure looking down at the animals.

“Hey,” Harry says softly and Niall seems to snap out of it, rubbing his eyes and looking over at Harry. “You alright?”

“I don’t have…” Niall sighs angrily, ducking his head and knotting his fingers in his hair. “I’m not sure if the splint I made is going to work, and this one is a cranky prick who won’t let me near him.”

Harry comes to stand next to him. The injured animal is blocked off into a smaller, temporary pen in the corner from the rest of the sheep, one of its front legs wrapped clean and tight with a home-made splint and gauze. Harry can practically feel the tension rolling off Niall in waves, hasn’t seen the man this worked up the entire time he’s been here.

“Hey,” Harry tries again, softer, reaching out to lay a hand on Niall’s shoulder. He digs his thumb into the tense muscle there and Niall relaxes into the touch a little bit. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. You don’t seem like the type of farmer who loses animals easily, right?”

Niall huffs a soft laugh, glancing over at Harry. “I wouldn’t be so pissed if he hadn’t tried to kick me in the face.”

They stand for a while, Harry letting his hand inch from Niall’s shoulder up to the crook of his throat, cupping the side of his neck, “You going to come inside soon, then?”

Niall exhales a silent laugh, “Why? Getting lonely?”

Harry bites his lip. “No. More worried that you won’t be inside to protect me when Louis breaks into the house and eats me alive.”

Niall rolls his eyes and when he looks up he stares steadily at Harry, ghost of a smirk creeping at the edges of his mouth. “Nah, Louis wouldn’t do that.”

Harry hums, can’t tell if it’s him or Niall that’s been tipping their head closer but they’re only inches apart, now. Harry leans in before he can lose his nerve, curious to see if he can kiss Niall for more than a few seconds. Niall falls into the kiss easily, turning fully to face Harry, raising his hands to Harry’s hips. Harry opens his mouth tentatively but Niall follows with ease, tongue warm and chasing contact with Harry’s mouth, turning the two of them until Harry’s back is pressed against one of the wooden barn columns. Harry cups the back of Niall’s head, working his fingers through the short, sweaty hair at the nape of his neck but he gasps when Niall’s hands slip under the hem of Harry’s t-shirt, his rough palms sliding against Harry’s hips.

“Never have I ever,” Harry breathes into Niall’s mouth and Niall’s laugh thrums through both of them.

“Shut the fuck up.”

+++

Harry’s time on the farm is almost up and Niall’s let Harry’s workload slip away. Most days are just Harry fucking around, bothering the chickens in their coop or hijacking Niall’s golfcart and making the dogs chase him. It’s strange to think that after his month here he’s going to go back to London and Niall’s going to keep doing what he does every day, prepare for whoever the next lost soul is that’s going to book a room. Might stay in Harry’s room. It keeps him up at night, now, wondering how many other people have stayed here, how Niall acts around other renters.

He’s still up at his desk, digging his pen tip into the wood of the desk when he hears Niall and the dogs coming upstairs. Harry almost trips flat on his face in his rush to catch Niall before he goes into his room, tries to casually wrench open his door to see Niall in the hallway. “Woah--you alright?” Niall laughs, arms coming up as if he was going to catch Harry as he trips into the doorway.

“Yes. Yes. I…” Harry’s courage leaves him in a heartbeat and he drops his head to the side, resting it on his doorframe. “Just wanted to say goodnight.”

Niall’s mouth twitches and he frowns for a second before shrugging, smiling. “You too, Harry.”

Harry nods and Niall nods and then the man turns to his bedroom door and Harry’s determination rushes back, “Are you going to be okay? Like.” he shifts his weight when Niall looks back at him with raised brows. “Like, when I leave. You’re really not lonely here?”

Niall’s half-smile shrinks and he shoves his hands in his pockets. “I mean. Yeah, I will be. I will. But…” he raises his palms, now, like what can you do and Harry frowns.

“I don’t want to leave,” he admits in a laugh, a leap of faith. It’s quiet for a long time.

“You don’t have to,” Niall finally says back, staring down at his boots. When he looks up his cheeks are pink. “If you want to stay, you can stay, I mean. If you want to come back, you can.”

Harry’s heart is clawing its way up his throat and it takes all his strength to stay rooted to the spot, not to cross the threshold and kiss him.

“I really like you,” Niall blurts and Harry’s willpower evaporates and he steps forward, smiling widely at the man and kissing him soft and quick, “I really like you too.”

+++

There’s a basket on the dining room table the morning that Harry’s meant to leave for London. Harry pokes at it curiously. There’s jars of fruit preserves and a bottle of Concannon whiskey, a small ball of yarn from Niall’s sheep. Niall stumbles down the stairs as Harry’s examining it and Harry turns to him, “What’s this?”

“For you,” Niall grumbles. He’s still half-asleep, t-shirt and hair rumpled and he looks so warm and the dogs are yawning at his feet and Harry doesn’t want to leave.

Niall cooks them a huge breakfast, pancakes and bacon and eggs and beans and it feels natural, like they’re both not waiting for Harry’s cab to pull up. They’re quiet when it does, car engine on the gravel outside sounding alien to the two of them and they don’t notice it until the dogs start barking. Panic seizes in Harry’s chest but Niall doesn’t let it get much further, pulling Harry into a tight hug, cupping the back of his head.

“You can come back,” he says, lips against Harry’s neck and Harry nods into Niall’s shoulder, says it back, “I’ll come back. I just have to sort out my London life and I’ll come back.”

They pull apart and Niall’s smiling as warmly as he did the day he first met Harry, grips his hand in a firm, steady handshake. The car honks and it jumpstarts them both into movement, Harry scooping up his bags and Beatrice and following Niall out the front door, onto the porch.

The cab driver takes Harry’s bags for him and then that’s it, Harry wearing his ridiculous button up and suede boots and feels like they’re not even his clothes anymore. Niall hasn’t stopped smiling, watches the dogs swarm Harry, whining high in their throats as he lingers on the porch steps.

Harry gestures for one second at the driver, gathering his cat into his arms and walking back up to the porch, dumping Beatrice in Niall’s arms. She hisses but Niall doesn’t drop her, just stares at Harry.

“Keep her until I come back,” Harry clarifies. His nerves settle the longer Niall holds the calico, like solid proof that he’s not crazy, that he really can come back. Niall nods, pulling Harry forward into a one-armed hug with Beatrice and the dogs crammed between them. The moment is what Harry came here to write about and now he feels like he doesn’t have to.

“Be good,” Niall laughs when they finally pull apart and Harry makes his way down the porch steps towards the car, throwing Niall a salute as he opens the door.

“I’ll see you soon,” he calls once he’s in the car, rolling down the window as the driver revs the engine. Niall tells the dogs to sit, stay while Beatrice gnaws on his arm and he waves from the porch.

“I’ll see you soon, Harry.”