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It all starts because Harry hurts his back backstage.

Actually, it all starts because Zayn quits the band, and stands there with his eyes downcast as Harry feels his heart clench in numb shock, and Louis shouts and Niall flings himself at Zayn and Harry can't understand what the fuck Zayn thinks he's saying until it's later and Liam (Liam) starts crying when Zayn's things are gone and then they all sit and cry because it might have been getting rough but they'd never have-

(It starts with a 2 am phone call that leaves them both in tears and then radio silence for almost a year.)

Anyway. Harry's over it. He's grown jaded, a far cry from his bubbly curly haired persona in their early days; he understands that Zayn wanted to get out. (No he doesn't, because Zayn wanted to get away too, and that hurts like hell.)

So yes, it all starts with Harry's back, not Zayn's furrowed brow and painfully lowered lashes, nor Niall's uncanny silence or Louis' raging or Liam's tears. It starts because they get off stage after one of their concerts and Harry trips and stumbles backwards into the edge of a cupboard.

It hurts then, and the boys grin at his cursing, but Harry forgets about it until he has to go to bed and his whole back aches in protest when he lies down. He tosses and turns, but it's hellishly uncomfortable, and then he realizes it's been almost an hour and insomnia's definitely kicked in by now.

So it's really Harry's back's fault that he's up at 3 browsing twitter, and that he does something monumentally stupid. They'd learnt early on that fame meant saying anything opinionated was a tremendous mistake- if you were a twat, everyone would know in mere seconds, and if you slipped up once they'd be almost even more unforgiving. Harry knows this; has gotten a master at controlling his own social media, has very carefully avoided getting pulled into drama like Louis so often does.

Louis, yes. There's another thing- the thing with Zayn. Harry wishes it hadn't happened, that they'd left on a clean note and then pointedly ignored each other's existences like Zayn is so bloody good at doing. He isn't surprised, though; it's Louis. Lou gets angry when he's hurt, and he was hurt. Of all of them, more even than Daddy Direction or Nialler or Haz (not Zayn, because Zayn "never liked One Direction" and Harry tried not to read it but did and almost screamed), he's the one to whom the boys mattered the most- not just individually, but together, always. He'd been the one to glue them together first; the one who'd laughingly gotten along with Harry and Niall and dragged Zayn and Liam out of their shells. Louis took Zayn leaving the most personally, and Lou was furious. Harry had heard the crashing and swearing from his room, and found that he couldn't muster the energy to go and check.

"remember when you had a life and stopped making bitchy comments about mine?"

He'd read the laughing reactions, and had wanted to hit Zayn. Harry understood- he'd had to, would have had no choice to respond, couldn't just steer clear of this first conflict with his ex-bandmates. And yet the tone was so nonchalantly spiteful, so casually witty, that Harry found he hated him a little bit. Zayn wasn't allowed to be so careless, to say things like "he never belonged" and then hit Louis where it hurt, the "your life" and "mine" so blatantly separate when months ago they'd all been cackling with laughter on Niall's bed.

It hurts because Zayn told him that night that he was leaving because he couldn't live like this anymore, because of Perrie, because of the stress, and now Perrie's been dumped and Zayn's started a solo career and it feels too much like he's laughing at them.

So yes, Harry's stayed silent, smiling wryly in interviews and avoiding discussion, very carefully not doing anything stupid like he knows he would if he was drunk and face to face with his ex-best friend. Except when he kicks a Zayn cardboard off stage, because that he really would do if he was drunk and face to face with him.

("I've tried to reach out to a few of them, yeah," Zayn tells Billboard. "I've spoken a bit to Liam, but the others..." The interviewer talks about a "whimsical smile".)

It's just not so easy to be smart and mediatised when it's three in the morning and your eyes are burning and your phone keeps slipping from your fingers but you can't fucking go to sleep.

It's a dumb tweet.

It is, when he looks back.

"between how fast she can switch guys and how fast she can offend minorities @gigihadid is faster than my wifi"

There's pictures attached, of course: a shitpost, vague shade, a picture, the classic formula for a post to get screenshotted and put on tumblr.

So it's a dumb tweet, but Harry is exhausted and there's a nasty burn in his chest that hasn't left since Zayn did, and it makes him snort with startled laughter. He's half conscious that he hits retweet, and then his body surrenders and allows sleep to pull him down.

(If he were properly awake, he would have thought "it's been a year, almost" and left it there and maybe broken a bit on the inside, but he certainly wouldn't pick a fight.)

 

When he wakes up, Liam is watching him, and Harry mumbles a "go away" even as his befuddled brain takes in the worried look on his face. It's a familiar expression, the "the boys have done something dumb and now they're in trouble and i should've stopped them" that Liam does so well; only Harry can't for the life of him think what makes Liam turn that look on him, because he's not done anything wrong recently, not even getting caught by any paps as he walks around naked or anything.

"Haz, come on." Liam says, shaking his arm lightly. "It's late."

"Fuck off, mate." Harry yawns, and hopes the sight of his head burrowed in pillows and his curls spilling onto his shoulders will soften Liam's heart and make him go. Instead, he hears Liam hesitate almost exactly at the same moment as he rolls onto his phone.

His phone? His phone, yeah, because he was scrolling Tw-

"Shit!" Harry hisses, sitting straight abruptly and grabbing his phone. Liam's presence makes sense now.

He knows he has about a million notifications before he's even swiped down, but he still cringes when he sees the reaction- hordes and hordes of retweets and raving, and about a thousand newspapers asking for interviews. And then of course there's management, and Simon and the others, who've sent texts and emails.

Harry, you dumb shit, is what he imagines most of them are saying. Privately he sort of understands their point of view.

"It's all right, Hazza," Liam sighs, reassuringly now, and Harry feels like hitting his head against the wall. Instead he extends his arms like a child, the way he used to way back when. Liam comes easily, wrapping his arms around him, and he's solid and warm and Harry wishes he could melt into Liam and stay there forever.

"I was sleep-deprived," he says, and hates that he has to. "That was so stupid, Li."

"It's nowhere near Lou, Harry, it's fine."

"Zayn's gonna answer," Harry says, moving back so they're eye to eye. "He's going to fucking answer regardless of what I do."

He can't explain why this is so terrible, but Liam gets it. He and Zayn were the closest, maybe, and he's definitely the saddest, sort of. He and Zayn understood each other, though, a quiet camaraderie and deep bond between the both of them that had made Harry childishly jealous at times, when Liam had still been so shy and Zayn so withdrawn. So Liam ruffles his hair sadly and Harry leans into it, eyes dropping shut- it's nothing, it's everything, Harry screwed up a bit.

A bit is an understatement. They spend the day running from the flashing cameras and screaming journalists, and when they get to the office the entire company seems to be glaring at Harry, who stoops and tries to will himself to be shorter.

"Harry, really, don't you know better?"

"Damnit, Harry..."

"The mess the PR has to clean up now-!"

It's Louis that cuts off the reproaches every time, with a heated glare and an arm slung around his waist. Harry figures that's not surprising. Still, he finds he doesn't care much about the trouble he's caused- instead, his stomach remains knotted with tension all day as he reflexively checks Twitter every two seconds.

It's by the afternoon that it happens. Harry's lying on the couch, Niall by his feet, scrolling down some old tweets on Louis' account, when Gigi Hadid's name starts crowding the platform.

He thinks Niall can feel him stiffen, because he senses eyes on him as he jerkily taps the screen.

"RT @GiGiHadid did you see.../jealousy rly is one of the most saddening things, sigh"

Right. Right, yeah, that's. That's not too bad; clever on her part, the "shade but I'm just playing" little vibe, and goddamnit but does it sting. It's cool, though, Harry was expecting worse, but this he can play off if he comes face to face with her.

(Kendall might be pissed. That's a shame, because he sort of quite likes her. She's smarter than she lets on.)

It makes no sense then that his entire body remains taut with expectant anxiety, not until Zayn finally deigns to intervene. Then Harry reads his tweet and really does feel like flinging his phone out of a window.

"@Harry_Styles i hope you realize that this tweet was a joke and you don't actually need to be bitter"

Underneath is a screenshot of a tweet, that Harry already recognizes before he reads it, just because it makes sense Zayn would use that now.

"@Ellesse_Styles yeah me and harry are actually dating"

Niall is definitely watching him now, and Harry purposefully turns his head away so he won't try to talk to him. There's something dark and angry inside of him, now, and he thinks for a moment he might hate Zayn. It's playing the fans, of course, it goes with what Gigi said while still pulling the nostalgia card, but it feels like violating something untouchable. "I never really belonged," Zayn had said, and wasn't that just a dagger to the back- now he was doing the unthinkable and playing with the past. The past- the one thing he wasn't allowed to lie about, to distort, to make into something ugly.

Harry's hand is shaking, but he waits, forcing his body to relax, staying focused on the need to hurt right back as he waits for Niall to lower his guard. It takes what feels like an eternity, but eventually Niall's attention goes back to his own phone, and Harry lets his fingers dance across the keyboard recklessly.

"@zaynmalik I was going to answer but then I remembered I'm supposed to be "ignoring your efforts to reconnect" so"

He's barely sent it off that Niall goes "HARRY!" in an irate tone, and swivels around to grab his phone.

"Are you fucking serious, mate?" Niall groans, and he actually does look angry. "This is the second time in a day!"

Harry feels faintly sick, but also incredibly defensive, so he shrugs and looks away. That's a Zayn thing, isn't it?

"Haz, I'm serious," Niall snaps, and it's so out of character Harry's eyes edge back his way. "You think this is going to make things better? He quit, okay, he's done. Leave him alone."

It feels a bit like a punch to the gut, and then Harry notices how shiny Niall's eyes are even as he scowls, so he crawls upright and drapes himself over his bandmate, as Niall takes shaky breaths and unclenches his fists.

"Just leave it be, Harry, can't you leave it?"

"M' sorry," Harry whispers, even though he's only sorry Niall is upset. "M' sorry."

He knows he's gone too far already when he spends the entire night wondering if Zayn will answer.

 

Harry gets into a lot of trouble with management, unsurprisingly. Especially because he doesn't stop.

He understands, of course, that stopping is the best thing to do. The mature thing, the safe thing, the smart thing even. He gets that letting the boiling thing in his chest spill al over the Internet isn't healthy or sensible. He knows that it's causing a mess, that it's huge.

That doesn't mean anything when Zayn replies, always sounding so condescendingly amused (and it's so practiced and fake and he has no way of proving it but he knows), and tears the divide between them a little further with every tweet.

It's an actual twitter war, and it's gathering hordes of attention like they haven't gotten since Zayn fucked off, which is ironic. The press is going wild, and Harry's not even had an interview yet. It's driving everyone insane, because he listens to them and nods and shrugs and then promptly forgets all their increasingly high-pitched advice when Zayn's reply flashes up on his screen.

 

(("oH MY GOD GUYS YOURE RIPPING ME APART STOP #zarrygate"

"lmfao get wrecked #zarrygate"

"the SHADE in #zarrygate is enough to turn australia into london omgg"

"why must the boys hurt me like this???? #zarrygate"

"@Harry_Styles leave zayn alone you jealous talentless hobo"

"Can @zaynmalik go back to Pakistan and stop whining k thx bye"))

 

He realizes halfway through the week that he might actually hate Zayn. The vitriol that surges through him every time he replies isn't something he's used to; Harry's always jokingly been one the chillest members of the band when it comes to conflict, but this isn't a normal fight. This is someone he considered his brother who keeps shredding their past to pieces for the whole world to see, and Harry's there to make sure he hurts him right the fuck back.

They get Niall to steal his phone from him on Friday. He waits until the boys are asleep to take Liam's phone instead (as if he doesn't know all their codes).

"@Harry_Styles don't you have a creative pop song to be working on"

"@zaynmalik Don't you have powerpoint transitions to go use in your new music video"

It's petty, what they're doing. It's petty and stupid because it does nothing to fix the hurt in Harry's chest that wants to suffocate him every time he sees another article of Zayn dismissing them with a wave of the hand.

It's petty but it's something; it's his only way of screaming at Zayn.

He's about to go sleep and wait for the morning to bring him more reproachful glares and more tweets to answer to when Liam's phone buzzes.

"@Harry_Styles good to know you watched it mate"

Fuck, shit, Zayn is on Twitter right now and so is Harry. Harry could have stricken up a conversation, in another life, and he would've been able to see him react in time.

The thought makes him so irrationally angry that he manages to put the phone down and go to bed.

He doesn't reply to Zayn the next day, or the day after that. Management is relieved, the boys look sort of worried.

At their next interview, when the question comes up, Harry laughs and doesn't answer.

 

He would have liked to say that Pillowtalk is a terrible song, or that he didn't watch the video. It's just that he's curious, and Zayn's always been the best singer of the band, in Harry's opinion. It sounds different- sounds like Zayn would, if he was humming to himself, and it's upsetting to think that maybe this actually is better, that he actually is more himself.

Still, he watches the video and feels nauseated at Zayn's mumbled crooning and clear high notes, at the effects and the way he moves so fluidly with Gigi, at his purposefully soulful glances at the camera. It's mature, alternative, sort of RnB, everything so very Zayn and so very not One Direction.

He knows the others have watched it too. Niall sings in the shower, and Harry hears when he starts humming it only to cut off abruptly after the first line. Liam absently mumbles a lyric when an interviewer asks them about it. Louis gets angry at the mention of the words "paradise", "warzone" and "neighbours".

All this would be fine and dandy if Harry himself could stop fucking singing it.

He's always had a habit of singing to himself; has only gotten more and more used to it since joining the band. It's subconscious, he doesn't know he does it, and no one complains. Most of the time someone'll join in.

The first time he's aware of doing it, it's because Louis turns around with an irritated glare and hisses "Can you stop bloody doing that?" as they ride the train.

"What? Doing what?" Harry asks, startled awake, shaking his curls out of his face.

"You're singing." Louis states, still glaring.

"Yeah, Lou, we're in a band, if you hadn't noticed." Harry drawls, but Louis doesn't roll his eyes and grin like he's supposed to.

"You're singing Pillowtalk," Louis snaps, and it's almost funny that he says the last word as a whisper.

Harry freezes, and Louis huffs and turns around. Shit. Was he?

Unfortunately, after that, it feels like all he can sing is Pillowtalk, because he catches himself humming it all the time. It's obnoxious, and it annoys him more than the others, but it's like the song is stuck on repeat in his head.

This doesn't make him feel any more happy during the tweeting week.

Still, he supposes it's no surprise when in an interview for the Daily Mail the journalist asks them with a smile what they think of Zayn's solo music.

Louis shrugs. "'S not our kind of music, really."

The problem arises when said journalist publishes their comments along a candid video of Harry singing to himself as he changes (which he's pretty sure is illegal, but it's too late now). The sound is muffled, and Harry's face is rendered a blur of pale skin in the bad lighting, but the chorus he hums is unmistakable.

"So we'll piss of the neighbours?" is the title of the article, which makes the rounds of the Internet and gets tweeted at Harry for hours. "Months after One Direction called it quits with Zayn Malik, and little time after Zayn and Harry's now infamous Twitter row, the younger star spotted singing Zayn's single, after his band agrees that it's not their style. Is all forgiven? What is going on?"

"Goddamnit, Hazza," Niall sighs, pulling Harry in for a hug when they get back. "No chill, huh."

Harry buries his face in Niall's hair and wills himself to sleep.

 

(("@zaynmalik have you seen the video of harry?????????"

"@zaRrysgurl what video"))

Chapter Text

After the Twitter and the video, things are sort of quiet for a month or so, until Harry gets called on Jimmy Fallon for a solo interview.

Management is nervous. Harry doesn't know how he feels, but he thinks they might be right to be nervous.

He likes Jimmy Fallon- the guy knows how to play the medias, and he's decent underneath it all. So they chat for a while and Harry knows that it's coming, and when it does he's profoundly unsurprised.

"Okay, you know what's coming- I can see it in your dazzling green eyes." Jimmy laughs, and the room applauds as Harry smiles.

"Do I?"

"It starts with a Z..." Jimmy winks, laughing when Harry pretends to blink and goes "Zenith?"

Jimmy goes to answer as Harry dimples, and he's halfway through his little setup when Harry remembers that he only knows the word zenith because of Zayn. It's with that thought hammering in his skull that he startles awake to Jimmy watching him expectantly.

"Sorry, what?"

"I asked, first off, what you thought about Zayn now? Quick and honest!"

"I don't," Harry shrugs. "Think about him, that is."

Jimmy howls with laughter, and Harry lets his mouth quirk impishly.

"No, but really. What do you think of all this hype? Did you listen to his new songs?"

"I didn't hear them playing anywhere, actually." Harry says, maybe a bit smug, and everyone cheers and laughs.

"Not even when Zayn came on here?" Jimmy gasps, mock offended.

"I watch all your shows," Harry rectifies seriously, making him laugh. "How could you insinuate otherwise?"

He hears chuckles from the audience, and warily turns around to find the screen behind them replaced with images of Zayn on the show.

His unimpressed look is a practiced one.

"So what did you think of it, huh?" Jimmy asks, eager, and his eyes are observant.

Harry makes sure his shoulder raises slowly. "I mean, you know. It's very...Zayn. I couldn't understand a word he was saying, sort of? All the mumbling and whatnot, like... When he hits high notes, he’s like, waking you up?”

The crowd gasps in delighted shock, and Jimmy slaps the table. When Harry gets back his phone is on fire.

 

(( "ZARRYGATE MASTERPOST: UPDATE 5 FEBRUARY 2016: HARRY ON JIMMY FALLON
[gifs]
gUYS IM SCMREAING???? WHAT IS THIS SHADE IM GOIGN TO PUKE"))

 

The boys have a lot of radio interviews, and Zayn has a lot of them at the same time, which makes things awkward. The others seem to have given up, and the interviewers only ask Zayn questions to Harry anyway, so he gets the privilege of laughing airily or "throwing shade omfg" depending on his mood.

Harry spends more time than necessary reading the transcripts online. It's like he's in a movie and he can see the script but not the ending- he reads it like Liam reads the newspaper, all casual, over the breakfast table or hanging upside down on the sofa, except instead of smiling at some funny text someone wrote he's high on twisted adrenalin and waiting impatiently for the next chapter to settle.

[Transcript: Virgin Radio, interview with Zayn Malik, 14/02/16, 8:05]

SE: Hey, early interview, yeah?
ZM: Yeah.
SE: You fully awake yet?
ZM: [pause] [laughs]
SE: [laughs]
ZM: I'm a heavy sleeper.
SE: Oh, so that's what Pillowtalk is all about!
ZM: [laughs] You figured me out.
SE: But really, congratulations for the success, yeah? It's number one on the charts here, and elsewhere too, I hear?
ZM: Yeah- it's been really humbling, all these people liking it so much. It's different from back in the band, less easily sold, you know? So I was wondering how it'd be received.
SE: Well, I can tell you I've been playing it on repeat for at least the past few days. Driving my girlfriend crazy.
ZM: Sorry.
SE: [laughs] She'll like that! But yes, Pillowtalk aside, it's been a weird year, hasn't it?
ZM: Definitely weird. Lot of- lot of things going on. I had this sort of byronic up and down continuum, feels a bit surreal.
SE: Would you look at that vocabulary? [laughs] And as it's Valentine's day, on the topic of breakups...
ZM: [unintelligible]
SE: [unintelligible] ...For the band, for Perrie- quite the heartbreaker, huh?
ZM: [unintelligible] ...The one who broke the most hearts, really. It was tough.
SE: [coos] Bradford badboy with a heart!
ZM: Yeah.
SE: Messy breakups in some cases, weren't they? I'm sure you're sick of it, but there was that shade with Little Mix, and then all the One Direction drama...What did you think of that?
ZM: The drama or the bands?
SE: [laughs] Cheeky! No, the fighting, with people you used to be so close to...
ZM: [pause] Yeah, I mean...[pause] It's not...It's not easy moving apart.
SE: [hurriedly] No, of course! And those Twitter spars, though...
ZM: Louis' got a bit of a temper. It was nothing bad.
SE: No, I meant-
ZM: [unintelligible]
SE: [laughs] Oh, you little-! Almost had me there. But since you do know what I'm talking about, what about you and Mr. Styles, then?
ZM: [pause] It's, you know. It's all a bit childish, isn't it? The retweeting business was petty, and then I suppose I'm to blame for persisting with my replies.
SE: It's not like you were alone!
ZM: No, yeah, Harry's-
SE: Go on?
ZM: [unintelligible]
SE: [laughs] Don't say that live!
ZM: It's a tough call, is all. I hope we can move on, do something else. Being obsessed with the past isn't something you grow from; it's something that grows on you.
SE: Lovely! Who said that?
ZM: [laughs] Me.
SE: [laughs] Oh dear! Now, on the subject of romance, as it's Valentine's Day, how's Miss Hadid doing?

[Excerpt]

Harry himself gets called for a solo interview with Virgin right after the first one with Zayn, and he realizes then that management seems to have changed their tune, because no one comes to prep him about keeping mum.

He checks charts on the way there, sees the way their sales went up during his Twitter spat.

All publicity is good publicity in their business. It's cynical but true- and when he glances at Twitter he sees a trending buzz about Zayn's interview edge closer to his own dash.

Well, if Zayn's not going to let it go...

 

(("@zaynmalik what does DONT SAY THAT LIVE tell us?!!"

"#DONTSAYTHATLIVE im dying what is this"

"zayn be like: i HOPE WE CAN MOVE ON ;)"

"fuck you @zaynmalik you muslim shit dont mess with harry"))

 

[Transcript: Virgin Radio, interview with Harry Styles, 17/02/16, 19:30]

SE: [...] Aside from music, you've been causing a lot of panic at the side of your ex-bandmate, Zayn Malik.
HS: [sighs]
SE: [laughs] Yeah?
HS: [laughs]
SE: No, but really, what's the deal there?
HS: It was a Twitter spat, like. Everyone has dumb fights, just most of them aren't witnessed by millions of, yknow, other people.
SE: No hard feelings?
HS: [unintelligible]
SE: [laughs]
HS: I mean, I'd like to think I'm not that immature? It was pretty unimportant, so. People just keep bringing it up.
SE: To Zayn also.
HS: Nice for him, innit.
SE: Beg your pardon?
HS: [unintelligible] Nothing important. Just, timewise- [pause]
SE: You don't mean...
HS: All publicity is good publicity, love.

[Excerpt]

They have a meet and greet a few days later, so it's on the go that the other three corner him.

"Harry," Louis states, arms crossed imperiously, "Stop with this."

"With what?" Harry asks, not confused at all but wondering if Lou will take pity on him if he looks it. Probably not.

"This, Haz." Niall adds, dangling a magazine in front of him. It's a shoot they did a week ago, and there's the questions about Zayn under his finger.

"Management isn't mad at me anymore," Harry argues. "It's good for our sales."

"Good for our sales?" Louis barks, incredulous. "Are you hearing yourself?"

"Haz, management isn't a good point to make." Liam adds, more slowly. "You're being stupid."

"Stupid?" Harry squints, pulling himself upright. "How am I being stupid?"

"You're picking fights that should be left alone," Niall says, dropping the magazine. "Sooner or later you'll stop being passive and full on get aggressive, and then you'll start spilling secrets instead of being funny."

"You're making things worse, Harry," Liam says, sadly. It's horrible. "I know it's upsetting, but all you're doing now is ruining all the good things we had and leaving us with ugly memories instead."

Harry snaps. "I'm the one ruining the good things?! Fuck you, Li. I don't understand how you can talk to him when he spends his time mouthing us to every interviewer that so much as looks his way! He pulled the victim card with us, now he's off acting like he never even-"

"Harry, PLEASE!" Niall shouts. It shuts Harry up, and also Liam and Louis, who've been trying to interrupt for the past minute or so. "Can you both just shut up?! I don't want to know what Zayn says about us, because it fucking sucks, and the only reason I keep hearing about it all the bleeding time is you!"

Harry blinks. "Niall-"

"No!" Niall cuts him off, glaring at all of them. "You're acting like you're going through a nasty divorce, all of you! Louis with his bitching and Liam with his texting and Harry with his drama- maybe if we'd let it be for a while we'd be well on our way to awkward reconciliation, but no, you guys just can't let anything lay low for two fucking seconds!"

"Niall-" Liam tries now, but Niall raises his hands and backs away.

"I'm not saying anything else. You guys do whatever the fuck, but keep me out of it."

Being as they are, Harry knows everyone's anger by heart. Louis gets angry the most, quick and hard, and he gets mean when he is, but he also settles the fastest. Liam gets irritated when they push too far, but rarely angry- when he does, he does it in cold silence. Harry isn't one for anger, and he forgives easily, but if something does go far enough his anger consumes him whole. Niall, though, of all of them, is impossible to anger, because he's unbelievably good-natured, and besides no one ever wants to fight with Niall. When Niall does get angry, it means you've fucked up. It means he becomes terrifyingly un-Niall, his brightness dulled to a freezing chill, his shining eyes hard and intense. He doesn't let it go.

"Fuck," Harry sighs, then louder: "Fuck!" He bangs his fist against the table so hard his glass falls off and shatters, making Liam startle.

The other two turn to him, and they're joint now by Niall's anger, so there's understanding in their eyes. It stings.

"S'okay, Hazza." Louis says, and wraps himself around him. Harry tries not to clutch at him like a lifeline, but there are parts of him that remain seventeen and bright-eyed, and although Louis is a terrible rock he's a heavy comfort nonetheless.

Louis is a suffocating hugger, which Harry is totally cool with because he clings like a limpet. Liam is the one you can hold on to desperately, solid and soft. Niall gives the best hugs, lets you melt into him. Zayn wasn't a hugger, but Harry always sort of- Well. That's gone, isn't it.

The meet and greet has a lot of tense silences on Niall's part.

 

(("[gif] [gif] yall what was up tonight and why was my potato son upset"

"tfw u realize now zayns gone your band is hella ugly [gif]"

"look at liam looking over at niall in concern oMFG ITS REAL GUYS [image] [image]"))

 

Try as he may, though, it's like Harry can't actually stop. He usually avoids conflict like the plague, but somehow he can't get rid of it now. Neither the medias or management are helpful- both are overjoyed with any hint of conflict, and Harry marvels cynically at the talent the press have for turning his slightest movement into aggressive action.

He reads about their interview for Hello! incredulously, giving Louis a helpless look from where he reads over his shoulder. He wasn't even-

[Transcript: Hello! special issue 167, One Direction: the end of an era?, 23/02/16]

IL: [...] Must be very awkward to deal with all the tensions with the old member of your band, no?
NH: [snorts]
LP: Well, the press overplays it a lot. Zayn and I have talked a bit, and all- it's nothing serious.
IL: But there have been incidents with Harry and Louis, in particular?
LT: [unintelligible] That was like, two tweets.
IL: Not with Harry.
HS: [ununtelligible] Like, basically, I mean, it's been made into something very, like, dramatic? And it's, you know...I mean, it's like...
LT: Stop him before he goes on a ramble.
IL: [laughs]
[silence]
IL: I've noticed that Harry here is a lot more quiet about Zayn himself, though- what do you think about that, then?
HS: I mean- I'm not, like, his best friend at this stage, am I? He's, you know...

[Excerpt]

 

[Article: Hello!, special issue 167: One Direction, the end of an era?]

[...]
The boys stiffen when the name comes up, unsurprisingly. Their smiles grow forced, but they're well-practiced, and their faces stay friendly.

I ask them about the current situation, and Niall snorts, his eyes unamused (uncharacteristically so, if a casual exploration of his Care Bear persona is to believe). I watch him as Liam begins talking, casually, the sensible one smoothing things over.

Zayn and he have talked, he says, and I can't help but think about their enormous fanbase in the shipping area. Still, I bring up their Twitter spats, and Liam seems to concede defeat, sighing minutely. Niall's lips twitch wryly. I find I'm starting to like Niall.

It was just, like, two tweets, Louis explains, less good at maintaining a pokerface than his teammate. He looks somewhere annoyed and worried. It does not surprise me that he's gained the reputation of being somewhat of an ass.

I mention Harry, and he looks awake for the first time in the meeting. Strangely, even as his eyes pull tight, he seems reinvigorated all of a sudden, as though the fight inspires a burst of energy in him.

It's not for nothing he's the placid one in the group, I muse, as he slowly and lowly pieces the words together. By the glint in Louis' eyes, he's being purposefully obtuse, so I wait patiently for him to be interrupted before going in on the offensive yet again.

What about Zayn himself?

Harry's eyes, which are indeed very green, flash imperceptibly. At me or at Zayn? Interesting question.

I'm not, like, his best friend, you know? Harry drawls slowly, but underneath the lazy tranquility there's a ring of truthfulness to it, a bitter note of spite. I like this version of him far better.

He's, you know. Harry shrugs. I give him a shrewd look that he meets steadily, as though daring me to push, and I wonder for a moment just what he'd have to say about Zayn Malik if he'd gotten something to drink before the interview.

You know, I agree. One thing is for sure- for all One Direction's friendly image, their split with Zayn was most certainly not, and I can count at least one of the boys who would like to dig his nails into Zayn's pretty face.

[Excerpt]

 

She's twisted everything he says, and she's not alone. It's so unfair, because this time he's trying not to, and he still comes across as the furious ex. Is his anger really so transparent? He doubts it.

"Dig his nails into Zayn's pretty face, huh?" Niall says from behind him. Harry jumps about a foot in the air, hitting Louis in the jaw.

He whirls around, ignoring Louis's swearing to stare at Niall's steely blue eyes.

"Maybe do that, Haz. Might clear the air."

"What?" Harry asks, but Niall just watches him and leaves.

"What?" he asks Louis, bewildered. Louis rubs at his jaw and shrugs.

"Wisdom of the Irish, mate."

Still, Harry can't do much about it, and when he activates Twitter he finds his account has tweeted a link to the interview with the caption #he'syouknow. Management sure loves changing their tune.

 

(("@Harry_Styles wHAT DOES THIS MEAN"

"fuck @zaynmalik harry shouldve gone harder"

"prince hazza throwing shade"))

 

Zayn's responding shade to the renewal of the Twitter craziness is lowkey fucking vicious, and Harry instinctively almost laughs before he remembers that it's directed at him and actually really shitty.

 

(("@zaynmalik now that hes tryna get u arent u gonna embarass @Harry_Styles ???"

"@aMe imo he doesnt need help there"))

 

He should be really unsurprised that people schedule their interviews right after each other, but it gets borderline ridiculous when he and Zayn (alone) have interviews right after each other in the same building, and he actually catches sight of Zayn leaving the building.

He thinks he might freeze because the paparazzis seem to vibrate with frantic satisfaction, and then Zayn notices him and their eyes meet.

It's one of the most surreal moments of Harry's life, his eyes on Zayn's whiskey coloured ones, the cameras flashing and making Zayn's hair glint silver. It's like the roar is dulled as they stare each other down, and Harry wants- he doesn't know, he wants to run over and break his nose and- what had she said, dig his nails into his pretty face? He wonders what Zayn is thinking, if Zayn's laughing at him, entertained and uncaring.

It's all a spectacle, though, and Harry's a good actor, so he feels his face shift into a smirk, his lip curling scornfully, his eyes narrowing slightly.

"Hey," he calls, mock-casual. "Nice interview?"

Zayn's not one for Harry's brand of acting (or maybe he was all along and he's been lying since day one), but he's brilliant at acting the way the medias like him, so his expression barely changes, his brow raised imperiously and his lashes lowering in something you could call contempt, his pout discreet but good for the cameras.

"I'm sure you'll hear all about it in yours," Zayn replies, calmly, as though he's the mature one and Harry's a kid acting up. "Enjoy."

Harry feels like screaming, but he laughs instead, light and easy, keeping his eyes cool. Zayn's are just as shuttered, but there's a spark of life in them that makes Harry's adrenalin run high.

Zayn huffs out a breath, almost a scoff, and then he's walking to his car and Harry's being tugged into the building, the cameras going wild and pressing in behind him.

When he's out of sight, he pauses to fling himself against a wall, his knees suddenly weak.

Fuck, but he disgusts himself sometimes- when did he get this good at blatantly lying to the world?

 

(("iM [gif] LITERALLY [gif] DEAD [gif] ZARRYGATE REVIVAL YALL"

"Quote of the Year: "I'm sure Harry knows a lot about struggling to succeed in Britain. Must be tough coming from his background and all. #preach"

"nO i know were all freaking about the tea spilt in the interviews but LOOK AT THIS [picture] LOOK AT THEIR EYES [picture] LOOK AT HOW THEYRE PLAYING EVERYONE BUT THEY TOTALLY KNOW WHATS UP [gif] I SWEAR THEYRE FUCKKNG BEHIND THE SCENES [gif] look aT THE WAY THEY FOLLOW EACH OTHERS MOVEMENTS [gif]"

"my mum: did you do your homework yet
me: zayn's music is...creative"

"IS THIS THE NEW MILEY WHATS GOOD"))

Chapter Text

Things escalate rapidly from there, because suddenly Harry is crossing paths with Zayn all the fucking time. Photoshoot? He's outside the building. Party? He's been invited to play. Groceries? Probably manning the fucking till.

 

He gets annoyed and complains to management, who play innocent and send him fuming back to the flat. The boys show up at various intervals.

 

The horrible tension between them is gone, even after the split, even though the issue is still there. Louis has decided to plant himself firmly on Harry's side, and although he stays out of the drama he still talks shit when he can. Liam looks resigned and tired, but he's patient with him when he rants. Niall is still angry at him, he thinks, but he's started looking more exasperated than furious, like he's seeing something that Harry can't see.

 

It's weird, because now One Direction is officially on break, and he'd have imagined everything to stop. Instead, he still hangs around the boys- out of habit maybe- and the Zayn thing only starts taking more of his time up. When he's bored, he tweets something vaguely catty, just to hear a response and have something to do.

 

He goes on a holiday with Kendall, which is cool, except that she's best friends with Gigi, so things are weird. He expected her to be bitchy, but instead she seems to find it hilarious, and constantly teases him when he's pissed. Then he remembers that she grew up with a TV reality series in her house, so drama is probably just part of her lifeblood.

 

He thinks maybe she and Gigi have a bet going or something. He also thinks maybe she and Gigi are more friendly than they let on, but that's none of his business. It's not like he's in a position to judge sexualities.

 

Anyway, he likes Kendall, who's hot and smart and successful, and maybe a bit bitchy but in a funny way, and whose dark hair, skinny limbs and pretty eyes are a good distraction from all the inner panic he's been having about his loss of purpose.

 

The Zayn thing is sort of actually maybe a bit useful there, because it gives him something dare he say familiar to do. It's an all-day thing; replying on Twitter and reading interviews and throwing a one-liner whenever he sees him.

 

Zayn's always the same; his composure abhorrent, his stance nonchalantly graceful, his eyes piercing but not letting anything show. It makes Harry perversely proud when he manages to hurt, to see Zayn's jaw shift and his eyes darken, just so he can get a reaction out of him.

 

It keeps him going, the heavy hot anger. Harry's always tottered on a line between apathy and enthusiasm, and after everything he feels like he might shut down. Instead he concentrates all his turmoil on Zayn, because it helps and because Zayn deserves it.

 

He's halfway through an evening of making out slash watching a movie with Kendall when she makes a cautious noise.

 

"Uh, Harry?"

 

His name sounds weird in an American accent. Hayree. Not Hahree.

 

"Yeah, love?"

 

She prods him with her foot, he turns to see her squinting at her phone.

 

"You know that party you didn't want to go to but your sister tried to get you to go to?"

 

"Uhm. Yes?"

 

"And you know how you remembered you didn't want to go but you didn't remember why?"

 

"Yes?" Harry asks, slower now.

 

"I know why," Kendall says, and rolls over to show him her phone. It's the Snapchat story of the party- she swipes quickly past some B-list celebrities and flashing lights, then lets him see.

 

"Hey, it's Gemma!" Gem calls laughingly from the autographed screen. "Harry's not here cause he was being a pussy, but I'll send him your love, promise!"

 

Harry smiles half-exasperatedly, but he doesn't get what Kendall's going on about until three snaps later, when someone screams from behind the camera and flags a guy's entrance with heart-eyed emojis.

 

"OMFG ZAYNS HERE IM DEAD"

 

Harry's blood runs cold. Zayn's there- and so is Gemma. This is not going to end well.

 

"Keep going," Kendall presses. "Gets better."

 

He does, and after a few shots of Zayn and the party, muffled screams return, this time because...

 

"HARRYS SISTER AND ZAYN HOLY SHIT"

 

"iS SHE GONNA PUNCH HIM????!??!?"

 

Zayn and Gemma are conversing. In blurred small figures, in the throb of a party, but they are. He taps anxiously to see the rest, then Kanye arrives and distracts the snapchatters.

 

By the time the two pop up again, they're. Well. Laughing.

 

Gemma picks up after seven rings.

 

"Hazza! Finally got time for your only sister, huh?"

 

She's drunk. Of course.

 

"Gem, what the fuck?" Harry snaps.

 

"Oh, don't be mad," Gemma snorts. "Is this about Zayn? It is, isn't it?"

 

"Gemma, what do you think this is, a joke?" Harry hisses, and there it is, the slow build of actual earth-quaking anger somewhere in his chest. "This isn't- you can't do that."

 

"Harry," Gemma whines, half-annoyed. "He's niiiiice."

 

"He's- Gem!" Harry exclaims, and his hand is quivering with tension.

 

There's a pause. "Harry, I wouldn't, if it was bad. If it was really bad. You're not that upset, are you?"

 

"What do you think?" Harry cries, his head throbbing. "How can you not think that this is bad?"

 

Gemma makes a noise, apologetic. "Haz-"

 

"Fuck off, Gem." Harry scowls, but then she speaks up again, somehow sounding sobered.

 

"No, you fuck off. He's been a twat, yeah, but so have you, and you're both pissed so it's not like you're the sole victim here."

 

Harry blinks, staggered.

 

"HEY ZAYN!" Gemma screams suddenly, making him jump away from the phone. She sounds giggly again. Harry thinks she’s probably not as drunk as she’s been acting. "Zayn zayn! It's Hazza! Wanna say hi?"

 

He can almost imagine the eyebrow raise that ensues, hears people laughing in the background, then hears Gemma shuffle around.

 

"Gemma, don't you dare-"

 

"BYE HARRY!"

 

"Gem, that's enough. Go home, you're fucking pissed."

 

"S not Gemma talking."

 

Harry stills. Zayn.

 

"Can you get off my sister's fucking phone and tell her to stop making a spectacle of herself?"

 

Zayn snorts. "She threw her phone at me and tried to jump me. Clearly your mental prowesses run in the family."

 

Harry grits his teeth. "Just have someone take her to a cab or something, asshole."

 

"I could," Zayn agrees. Harry wants to scream as high-pitched as he can just to make his ears hurt, but then again Zayn can sing just as high.

 

In a rare bout of maturity (sort of), he hangs up.

 

Kendall is half in tears trying to muffle her laughter as he flings the phone down, her own phone out and probably filming him. These Kardashians, he swears...

 

"You okay?" she manages, and he knows it's probably funny to her but he feels faintly ill.

 

"Fuck my life," Harry says, and then her smile fades and she pats his leg. "Gemma's going to be all over the Internet."

 

"I can call a few favors," Kendall says. "Kim wouldn't mind posting a nude to distract everyone."

 

Harry gives her a look, and she shrugs. "People will still freak about your sister and Zayn, but at least no one will care about her being drunk."

 

"Kim would actually do that?" Harry asks, half shocked and half really not.

 

Kendall snorts. "Would she."

 

She would.

 

 

(("wHO TF CARES ABOUT KIM K @gemma_styles AND @zaynmalik R FRIENDS"

 

"reblog if ur team "didnt see kim kardashian's selfie because im too busy freaking about GEMMA STYLES AND ZAYN LAST NIGHT"

 

"yall tf is this,,,,what is it w zayn and the styles siblings,,,,,look at his face [gif] [gif] am i shipping this what is my life"

 

"teacher: so whats the most important event of 2016 so far

me, screaming: THE PHONE CALL!! THE PHONE CALL!!"

 

"[video] GUYS............"))

 

 

[Transcript: Video: Zayn and Harry on the phone last night]

 

Zayn: Not Gemma [someone shouting in the background #same]

 

Harry: [something??? probably declaring his love lmfao dead]

 

Zayn: [snorts] She threw her phone [something, can't hear] jump me. Clearly [something] runs in the family.

 

[DID HE JUST SAY HARRY TRIED TO JUMP HIM]

 

Harry: [probably asking if zayn complained about it]

 

Zayn: I could.

 

Harry: [???]

 

Zayn: [gives phone to Gemma, clearly thinking about makiNG SWEET LOVE TO HER BROTHER]

 

[transcript by tumblr user @pillowtalkzz]

 

 

Harry can't stay mad at Gemma, because as pissed as he is, a part of him is sort of distantly aware that he somewhat agrees with her, or at least that she's not alone in thinking so. It's not that he's suddenly stopped hating Zayn (yeah, right) but he knows that there's an undercurrent of guilt buried under his resentment.

 

Still, he gives her the cold shoulder for a few days, and she eventually gets annoyed at his behavior and tattles to their mother.

 

His mum sounds more worried than anything, and Harry cringes away from her phone call guiltily.

 

"It's just such a shame," she sighs for the umpteenth time. "You and Zayn used to be such good friends."

 

"Well, that's not the case anymore." Harry snaps, his chest going tight. Then he feels bad.

 

"It's all right, love. I just wish you boys didn't have to be so angry about it- you're both upset, darling."

 

"Zayn," Harry articulates slowly, "Is not upset. That's the whole bloody problem, because he went and left us and then acted like a twat."

 

His mother sighs. Harry gnaws at a lock of his hair absently.

 

"Just try not to be so hard on each other, will you?"

 

"I won't if he isn't." Harry mutters. His mother sighs more loudly.

 

 

After the holiday with Kendall, Harry is reluctant to leave. It's that he doesn't really know what to do with himself- he finds himself on the way to the studio; the concert; the boys'. He's glad he has a break, honestly he is, and there's so much he can do- but he's sort of lost, is all.

 

Was this how Zayn felt when he left? Harry muses, half asleep, watching some terrible romance movie on TV. Lost, anxious, wondering if he'd done the right thing? Except Zayn had been alone, and they'd cut off any contact with him, and he'd been called so many horrible things-

 

No. Harry isn't going to start finding apologies for him. Zayn didn't want them in his life, and basta. No amount of old blurry "vas happening" videos that Harry keeps finding on his computer is going to change that.

 

Their album wins some award. He watches Louis and Liam embrace and go pick it up, down to two now, and feels an absurd pain seize his heart, tears prickling at his eyes. He reaches for his phone, goes to call Niall, hesitates.

 

Niall picks up on the second ring.

 

"Hey, Harry."

 

"Hey. You see the awards?"

 

"Yeah. Yeah, it's real neat, innit?"

 

Harry opens his mouth, closes it. When have they ever been the type for small talk? It's been so little time- is this how all those years end, with small talk and awkward stilted conversation? His eyes burn again, and now he really does feel like crying. No, not again- not again, not like with Zayn.

 

"I miss you, Nialler," is what comes out instead. "I'm scared we're all going to forget how to be friends."

 

Niall's voice softens, losing the distant edge. "Aw, Hazza. We won't."

 

"But it's only been so little time, and I- it's like we're all ignoring each other, and-"

 

"And there's Zayn?"

 

Harry falls silent.

 

Niall sounds almost back to his old amused self, albeit weary, when he speaks up again. "Harry- none of us are going to leave like that. Zayn's not-"

 

He cuts himself off. Harry pounces.

 

"Zayn's not what? Niall?"

 

"I just-" Niall is biting his lip, on the other side of the line. Harry misses him terribly, all of a sudden. "I think we might've...Have you seen what people tweet him every time you fight?"

 

The subject change is abrupt, but Harry frowns nonetheless. "What, some insults and whatnot?"

 

"People are like- people are really racist, Hazza. When he left everyone was saying he joined ISIS. I mean, I know he and- I just think he has a shite time, and all."

 

"Is it that bad?" Harry asks, and then feels stupid. People had been racist as fuck even when Zayn was a part of the band, and it's not like Harry can compare. Zayn has always been awfully quiet about his issues there, but they've all heard him crack at least once, about the slurs and stereotypes and his language and family and heritage and how bloody unfair it is.

 

"I dunno, Hazza, I try not to look at your Twitters." Niall says, half bitter. Then he sighs: "All I'm saying is like- maybe tell your fans to lay off? I've just- I've been thinking of all that stuff, and like, we always let Zayn deal with it."

 

"That was management!" Harry exclaims, because it's true- management is always on their case about playing hush.

 

"Not only," Niall says, and there's something heavy in his voice. "We could've done something."

 

"You've really been thinking about it, huh?" Harry asks, eventually, slowly.

 

"Yeah," Niall huffs, and sounds tired. "I mean- yeah."

 

After that they sit in silence for a moment, and then suddenly conversation strikes up again. By the end of it, Harry is in tears laughing.

 

"I gotta go, Hazza," Niall chokes out, snickering. "No, stop laughing, I gotta go."

 

"Yeah," Harry wheezes, and then feels his laughter turn to shaky breaths. "Call me soon, yeah?"

 

"Sure, Harry," Niall says, and he sounds fond now. Harry represses the urge to ask him to pinky swear. "I will."

 

"Bye," Harry says, and then hangs up. He feels weird.

 

En lieu of having another emotional crisis, he tweets Zayn.

 

"@zaynmalik nice MOM tattoo it really helps the 2edgy situation"

 

The response comes so quickly Harry almost smiles, then realizes it would be weird and frowns.

 

"@Harry_Styles why are you looking"

 

It takes his mind of things.

 

 

The next month is strange. Harry starts to crawl out of his moody shell, starts to feel like he can breathe again, watches the trees slowly come back to life, grey tinted with bright cautious blossoms, branches brittle but hopeful. He's not breathing like he used to- not his enthusiastic gulps of life, but something more calm. It's still not- it's not good. But he's chill, happy enough. Louis' baby is cute, and Niall is golfing, and Liam is being quiet. Harry buys shoes and goes to galleries and wears the same Rolling Stones shirt for four days in a row. It's more freedom than he's had in forever.

 

Things happen, but it's less intense now that he's less raw. Someone hacks his mum's iPad, which makes him furious, and Zayn changes his hairstyle about a million times (it's all over the Internet, he can't help it), which makes him weirdly jealous of Zayn's hair. Otherwise, he seems to just float slowly through the month, almost waiting for something to perturb his chill.

 

Two things happen simultaneously on the 25th of March that completely fuck Harry over.

 

First off, Zayn's album drops. Harry doesn't even pretend not to know this- it's been on countdown all week, and even if he's not actively trying to hear about it, he's not exactly been avoiding it like he should probably be. And try as he may, it's not like he's been able to stop singing any of the dropped songs- after the Pillowtalk drama, he'd forced himself to stop singing it, only to find himself humming It's You on repeat. When that had passed, it had been Like I Do, which felt a lot like a Zayn parody of their old songs, and Harry had attempted to boycott it morally. In the end, he'd only given in to temptation.

 

"I love artists who change their style but reuse their old genre :)"

 

 

(("@zaynmalik HARRY IS SHADING U!!! SPEAK UP PAPI"

 

"@Harry_Styles and it's a shitty version of your old songs too!!! #onedirectionovernodirection"

 

"@zaynmalik ur new music sounds like the ISIS remix of One D LMFAO"

 

"@larrystyLe ur new tweet sounds like the racist remix of trash talk :* #bitterassbigots"

 

"@antisquad fuck u zayn is shit"))

 

 

Zayn replied with his usual purposeful delay, and Harry could always just imagine him blinking slowly, lashes heavy as he stared him down.

 

"Fausto Cercignani: we lean a lot from the mistakes of others, but even more from our own :)"

 

Harry had snorted. He'd been about to formulate a really fucking smart response when the activity below caught his eye.

 

He'd paused, read. Felt a bit- he didn't know. He'd always seen some shitty things in the comments; people spewing hate or people claiming absurd things. Lou and Freddie had been taking a lot of shit, recently, there's that, but then considering all the fuckery their shippers have done he's not surprised. Still, it was probably the talk with Niall, but for the first time he had noticed what makes Zayn's hate different from his. They both got the general insults, the attacks on their music, the homophobic slurs, the calls for suicide- all sort of indifferent to Harry by now, because none of it really had anything to do with him. The slurs were probably the most annoying, because he was bi, but otherwise nothing but attacks on his family got a rise out of him anymore.

 

Zayn, though- there were so many islamophobic assholes in the tag Harry couldn't believe he'd never seen it. Terrorist jokes, hating on Muslims, even slurs against other races- it was sort of really very horrendously disgusting.

 

Harry had faltered. As much as he hated Zayn now, as much as Zayn had hurt them, that was on Zayn. This, though- Harry's never had to deal with this, and the idea that his ongoing spat with Zayn is encouraging it made him distinctly uncomfortable.

 

Zayn used to say things, sometimes, wryly, as a joke maybe. They'd laugh uncomfortably as Zayn looked away, and then joked around until the sort of awkward tension vanished. It was something they couldn't share with Zayn.

 

Harry's brows had furrowed.

 

The tweet had gone viral mere moments after being posted.

 

"Fun fact: using racist BS to defend me doesn't make you a good fan, it makes you a twat. H"

 

 

(("IM SCREAMING!!!! ZARYY!!!!! IS!!!! REAL!!!! U CANNOT IN ANYWAY SAY THIS ISNT @ ZAYN HATERS IM DEAD!!"

 

"im a zayn girl forever but i fucks with @Harry_Styles now"

 

"Management put Harry up to this yall"

 

"THIS IS WHY @Harry_Styles and @zaynmalik ARE LITERALLY THE BEST OMG"

 

"will ur fave ever"

 

"today like i do dropped and also simultaneously the number of larry shippers in denial"))

 

 

Anyway. That was with Like I Would. Then there'd been Befour, and by now Harry had very reluctantly admitted to himself he probably wasn't going to dislike any of Zayn's new music.

 

So the album drops, and Harry resists for about five hours before he cracks and opens Spotify. The songs are all there, with their stupid artistically capitalized titles, and Harry gnaws on his lip and clicks on the intro.

 

Zayn's hoarse humming hits him somewhere low, and the high notes don't help. Then there are the three he knows already, and then the album really starts.

 

He doesn't want to end up listening to it on repeat, but he does, every song clawing at his insides in an irresistibly smooth beat.

 

sHe has a quick beat, a convinced tempo, Zayn's voice assured even under the mumbling tone, a hip hop outro bleeding into the next song. dRuNk is slow, poetically dropping wordplay between Zayn's low sensual harmonizing. rEaR vIeW is different again- structured but full of soft notes, joined together with warbled synths and stacked loops. wRoNg makes Harry edgy, the sexed up flirting and RnB balanced casually between the duo. fOoL fOr YoU is Beatles-esque, painting a retro ballad full of John Lennon inspired crooning. BoRdErSz is soft-funk guitar with intricately voiced runs. tRuTh is experimental neo-soul. lUcOzAdE lacks a hook, a stream of consciousness mixed with 1980s synth. TiO is sex, sex, sex, Zayn's libidinous purring enough to make him skip onwards. BLUE is ethereal, whispery, wistful, makes him want to tear up all the way into BRIGHT, with its cohesive falsettos and ornate vocals. When SHE DON'T LOVE ME fades out, Harry rips his earphones out and stares at the ceiling.

 

INTERMISSION: fLoWer is the worst. Harry is irresistibly attracted toy by the unknown language, the foreign twangs, Zayn's comfortably languid voice singing words he can't understand, but they're all like that- seamlessly connected, flowing through moods but retaining allure, experimental but purposeful. "Emotionally labile intoxicated love", yes, but also spiritual, complex, and so fucking Zayn it makes Harry want to break something.

 

He calls Liam.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Liam," Harry says, and sounds like he's whining. "Fuck my life."

 

Unsurprisingly, Liam understands. "It's good, isn't it?"

 

"So good," Harry agrees, biting at a nail irritably. "So good."

 

"Sorta you and Zayn, as well- your sorta vibe." Liam says, sensibly. Harry wishes he wasn't. "Very, like, profound."

 

"I hate it." Harry says, buzzing with tension.

 

"No, you don't." Liam confirms, and Harry groans.

 

"This is pathetic."

 

"You're not the first to call," Liam says, half reassuring. "So."

 

Harry pauses.

 

"What'd Louis say?"

 

Liam snorts. "He hates it. Went off about how utterly shite it all was."

 

"Course," Harry huffs, almost amused. "D'you think he actually hates it?"

 

"Nah," Liam says, then ponders it. "I don't know. Maybe? Louis and Zayn've always had sorta opposite tastes in music."

 

"And we became a band why again?" Harry drawls, jokingly. He realizes once he's said it that it's really not funny. Liam doesn't seem to have noticed, seemingly still thinking about their earlier conversation.

 

"You know Louis, though- if he actually hated it he wouldn't feel the need to tell me so angrily."

 

Harry laughs, shaking his hair out of his eyes. Then he remembers he's meant to be having a breakdown, and feels like sticking his tongue out at Liam for distracting him- Liam's always been good at discreetly changing the subject.

 

"I hate him."

 

"Who, Lou?" Liam plays dumb, but gives in quickly, sighing: “So you’ve said.”

 

“You don’t,” Harry points out. “Not anymore.”

 

“I never really could, Hazza.” Liam says, sounding sad. Harry feels like a shitty child who never truly appreciated the nine to five shift their single mother worked just to buy them that one set of headphones they really wanted, only to then lose interest in the headphones by the time their overworked and proud parent presented them with it. “I mean, I think- I was so upset, and then…I think we were a bunch of right miserable twats to him, to be honest.”

 

“What?” Harry yelps, betrayed beyond belief (mostly by his own brain, part of which is nodding furiously). “He’s the one who- he’s the one who left!”

 

“Yeah, and then we acted like he was an axe murderer with the Plague.” Liam replies, loudly enough that Harry doesn’t try making him flustered. “Zayn quit, but we quit him too.”

 

Harry’s pretty sure “he started it” is not an argument Liam would appreciate.

 

“But he’s the one who- he keeps going off about how much he hated us, Li,” Harry manages, because that’s what it all comes down to, in the end. “He acts like he doesn’t even care, or like we, like, like we never mattered. It’s not fair.”

 

Liam sighs. “I know that’s what makes you so upset, Hazza. I just- yeah, I mean, I know. I know it feels like shite. But we’ve done the same, haven’t we? We trashed Zayn a lot, just after. Cause we were pissed, but we trashed him. Worse than he’s done us.”

 

“We didn’t,” Harry says, slowly. “It wasn’t the same. It was because they were always- it wasn’t the same, Li.”

 

“We went on about it like it was a good riddance, though,” Liam says. “Worst he’s done is say our music was shite, which, like.”

 

“He said he never belonged, Li,” Harry pleads, and that is the main problem, isn’t it? That Zayn just negates all the- all the everything between them five, pretends he’s a new slicker Zayn, a better Zayn. The thought hits him, hurts him. “I don’t want him to be better without us.”

 

Liam makes a sound, and Harry can just see Liam chewing at his lip, brows furrowed in worry, Daddy Direction on the go. He sounds better, though, like Harry’s said something right, when he speaks up again: “Harry, I reckon- I mean, you don’t especially hate Zayn.”

 

“Of course I hate Zayn!” Harry protests, angrily, maybe a bit over-dramatically. “That’s why I bloody called you!”

 

“Yeah, but mate- you don’t hate Zayn. You hate that Zayn’s gone off, and you hate that Zayn’s not the Zayn we’re used to. Your Zayn.” Liam stresses the last point, because Liam can be really obvious sometimes, and Harry frowns in suspicion (and also so that he doesn’t have to think about that).

 

“You’ve been speaking to Niall, haven’t you.”

 

Liam makes a coughing sound, because he might be able to protect some secrets to the fucking grave like a Templar Knight, but he’s utterly transparent when it comes to the little things.

 

“No?”

 

“Liam, you tell me what that good for nothing liar said or I swear…”

 

“I can’t! I promised!” Liam yelps, and sounds a lot like his old self, awkward and stressed and scared of them. “Niall’s only told me because I sort of figured it out anyway.”

 

“Figured what out?” Harry presses, then switches tactics, making his voice wobbly: “Liiiiaaaaaam. Please?”

 

“No!” Liam squeaks. If they were face to face he would be batting Harry away, but as it is Harry just makes a whining sound. “I can’t say- it’s none of my business, it’s your problem anyway, I’ve not got anything to do with your feelings and whatnot-”

 

The good thing about Liam is that he babbles.

 

“Feelings?” Harry demands, on the hunt again. “What feelings?”

 

Liam groans.

 

“I’ll call your mum and tell her about that time in the Jacuzzi!” Harry threatens, which is a blatant lie because Liam’s mum loves him and he wants to preserve her idea that he’s a charming boy.

 

Liam goes: “Haz-” and then shows some impressive character development, because he fucking hangs up on him.

 

Liam.

 

Liam hangs up on him.

 

Harry stays frozen in shock until his phone buzzes.

 

“Sorry ;P Can’t keep a secret, me”

 

Harry stares at the text for about an hour, then screeches indignantly. Liam is not meant to betray him like this, and the only logical response is clear.

 

He tweets Niall passive-aggressively.

 

“@NiallOfficial is a twat who doesn’t deserve his cutesy reputation.”

 

Niall replies shortly, probably because he’s been texting Liam on the other side.

 

“aw @Harry_Styles don’t say that @zaynmalik won’t feel special anymore :(”

 

Harry glowers and decides that the next time he sees Niall, he’s either strangling him or replacing his dye with cleaning products. Whichever is worse.

 

Of course, because Harry’s life is bloody amazing these days, Zayn just so happens to be on Twitter when he is, so he’s barely started typing up a response to Niall when his activity explodes. It’s almost a reflex by this point- he skips over to Zayn’s.

 

“@NiallOfficial no please go ahead the more the merrier”

 

“@zaynmalik ;)”

 

Harry is going to kill him.

 

Instead of joining in, he peacefully retweets Alexa Camps’ review of Mind of Mine, which calls it "pleasure-obsessed, vaguely misogynist, and largely disposable." The fact that he got offended whilst reading the article proves absolutely nothing- besides, it’s not like anyone but Liam knows that.

 

 

((“WHAT EVEN IS TODAY IM HYPERVENTILATING”

 

“ZAYNS ALBUM AND ZIALL INTERACTION?????!!!!!! IM GONNA”

 

“@NiallOfficial I love you”

 

“HARRY SLAYED ME OMFG”

“@Harry_Styles how long did it take u to find a negative review smh”

 

“I legit started crying today what the fuck guys what the fuck”

 

“ONE DIRECTION REVIVAL”))

 

 

So Zayn’s album drops, and then the other bomb does too. Harry’s sprawled over his couch watching reruns of a soap opera when his phone rings, urgently, the Official Business ringing he’s come to fear.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Harry?”

 

The polite calm tone does not bode well.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“So, you know that interview on Ellen we’ve been talking about?”

 

Oh, it’s just a show being cancelled. That’s fine. He thinks his relief might show a bit when he waves it off.

 

“Well, we’ve got a deal with her, but she’s asked for Zayn Malik to be there as well.”

 

Harry’s blood runs cold.

 

“What?”

 

“The views would of course skyrocket, and the profit made would be very positive- your media image would also-”

 

“Zayn’s going to be there?”

 

His PR stops, clears her throat. “Well, we’ve contacted his representatives.”

 

“What did they say?” Harry asks, pulse hammering.

 

“He…He’ll be there.”

 

Harry could opt out, now. Harry could leave Zayn behind looking like a fool, and let him and Ellen joke about his absence, and stay at home.

 

“I’ll do it,” he says, nonchalantly. “When?”

 

He doesn’t tell anyone.

Chapter Text

The night of the interview, Harry feels more nervous than he has in years. It’s still a secret- Ellen’s been going on about her surprise duo, but no names have been dropped. None of the boys know, and none of the fans do- it’s just him and Zayn, waiting, silent. He could message Zayn, somehow, an inside joke of sorts- no one would know.

 

He spends ages worrying about his outfit, like it’s a date or a job interview. It’s ridiculous- he’s actually on edge, and he doesn’t know why. Yes, he and Zayn hate each other sort of, yes, it’s going to be tense, but they’ve been going at each other for what feels like eons now. Harry’s faced far worse, as interviews go, and yet.

 

His fingers tremble as he does up his laces. In the car there he stays quiet, doesn’t mind that he’s alone with security.

 

You wanted to be an actor? Here’s a role.

 

Ellen greets him warmly backstage, her cloying enthusiasm subdued as she compliments his outfit and teases about Zayn. Harry smiles, laughs, does all the right things, but their eyes meet and he can tell she knows how much shit she’s really stirring.

 

It’s meant to be a dramatic reveal, so the lights dim on set as Harry follows her to a couch. It’s dark, so he only hears the buzzing of the tech people and low humming voices, but he feels electrifyingly aware when Ellen guides a second person over to sit next to him- not close, but near enough that Harry feels his presence.

 

For a moment they sit in complete silence, the noise dimming as Harry tries to breathe normally, and then Ellen comes to check on them and he hears their voices both give the O.K. and almost pukes. That’s Zayn, next to him. He’s going to have to talk to him, with him, all night.

 

With a glaring flash of light, the intro starts. Harry hears the drumroll, and then Ellen runs on stage, the obscurity still hiding him and Zayn from the audience’s squinting. He can hear Zayn shift minutely- it takes everything in him not to turn around and stare at him, keeping his eyes fixed ahead.

 

“…You’ve all been waiting for, our guests tonight!” Ellen exclaims, as the audience rustles and the music swells. “First off, a face you’ve missed and a face I might have as a mural in my house…HARRY STYLES!”

 

Spotlight on Harry, who smiles and tilts his head, letting his long curls frame his face loosely. The audience is screaming and cheering, applause wild as Ellen beams, rocking back on her heels.

 

Harry feels the bright light on him, all the eyes on him now, faces open and excited, watching him, wanting to see more of him. It fills him with a different kind of energy, almost calming his hyper anxious nerves- Harry thrives in the spotlight, always has.

 

Ellen waits for the screams to dwindle, then clears her throat pointedly.

 

“Because one pretty boy isn’t enough, we have a second pretty boy with us on stage tonight-” screams from the audience “-yes, I know. And this pretty boy just broke iTunes’ record with his newest album- say hello to ZAYN MALIK!”

 

This time, the screams are so loud Harry almost winces, which is saying something given that he’s the frontman of a boy band. People are in hysterics, cameras flashing wildly, his phone vibrating with a passion in his pocket. He chances a look at Zayn and immediately regrets it.

 

Zayn’s there, with his eyes glinting golden in the light, his brows furrowed pensively, his cheekbones (once a source of half-joking gushing on Harry’s part) sharp in the light, his full lips quirking upwards as he smiles fleetingly. Bradford bad boy- the image had always annoyed him, but his adult edge doesn’t seem to have helped with that. His presence is overwhelming- an arm’s reach from Harry, his eyes on the audience, his body tilted towards the side of the couch, his profile carved of marble, distinctly distant but still close enough to touch, to hit, to ruin. Blood pounds in Harry’s head, a roaring ocean in his ears, and his chest is so tight he wants to claw at it.

 

It’s just when Zayn starts to turn that Ellen speaks up and Harry snaps his head away.

 

“Would you look at their faces?” Ellen coos, as the audience laughs a trifle giddily. “Don’t they look happy to see me? Are you happy to see me, boys?”

 

“Always,” Harry smiles, cheeky. Zayn snorts.

 

“Aren’t you going to try and butter me up, Zayn?” Ellen asks, mock offended. Harry very cautiously turns his eyes to Zayn.

 

“Harry’s much better at buttering up than I am,” Zayn shrugs, slowly. “Besides, ‘m not going to try where I’m not wanted.”

 

Ellen cackles, Harry glares. The audience is delighted. Zayn catches his eye for a second, and his lips twitch into a brief smirk.

 

“No, but the boys are being really polite, actually, it’s a British thing,” Ellen confides in the audience. “Did your managements put you up to this? You can tell me. Promise not to share.”

 

“My current management is more than willing to let me make questionable decisions by myself, thank you.” Zayn answers, with a light smile at the audience’s gasps. His eyes glitter in the light.

 

“Yeah, you know management,” Harry nods, with mocking wide eyes and a shudder. “Trapping us in a prison of boyband norms- me and Louis forever separated..”

 

The audience goes wild, and Harry knows there’ll be consequences, but he’s sick of tip-toeing around the bloody Larry thing, and Zayn’s presence seems to be making him reckless. Said ex-member of their band makes a suspicious noise that sounds a lot like a startled laugh, but by the time Harry gives him a practiced disinterested look, his expression has reverted to his brooding art hoe smolder.

 

“Aw, damn, there go my notes,” Ellen chuckles. “Here I was about to ask about your forbidden romance.”

 

“All those girls were hired actresses,” Harry confirms, wryly. “All of them.”

 

“That’s a big budget to blow!” Ellen laughs, as the audience chortles. Harry snickers, and then Zayn drops a calm: “Especially considering those hired for shorter time periods.”

 

“I’ve never resorted to prostitution for sex, thanks,” Harry drawls, eyes hooded.

 

“I never said prostitution,” Zayn replies, easily, their eyes steely where they meet. “But good to know that’s what you infer.”

 

“If not sex, I’d be really interested to know what shorter time periods you see girls for.”

 

“Well, Harry, usually when two people like each other, they go on dates. I know this sounds strange to you…”

 

“If your dates are that short, it’s no surprise you’ve dated two people over the course of your life.”

 

Zayn’s eyes flicker, and then the corner his mouth curls upwards in satisfaction, making Harry’s pulse speed up frantically and heat shoot up his spine.

 

“Better last a short time on a date than somewhere else, hey?”

 

The audience loses it, but Harry barely notices, too torn between outrage and appreciation at the joke and a very strong desire to grab Zayn and… He doesn’t know. Claw at his face, like a cat. Something petty and painful. Not because of the clash, no, that was witty, but because of him, because of his careful posture and confident clear eyes.

 

From there on, the evening progresses smoothly. Ellen is good in the business, makes jokes when tension builds, prods at Zayn’s cheekbones and Harry’s hair, does a stint about helping divorced couples rebuild their trust. It’s a lot like any other interview Harry’s done- a bit overwhelming, a tad suffocating, very adrenalin-boosting, vaguely intoxicating- except that Zayn is there, and he tilts the balance askew. Harry is constantly on edge, humming with pressure when Zayn as much as breathes in his direction, breath quickening when their eyes meet, every inch of his body poised for fight-or-flight when they go at each other.

 

They talk at each other instead of to each other, which is good, because the thought of talking with Zayn on Ellen makes him flashback to other interviews, eons ago, draped over Zayn and giggling into his neck whenever Niall did something silly or Lou did something mean. Harry wants to slap his younger self.

 

It’s right before break that Ellen’s eyes seem to glint with that business-like sheen that Americans in particular seem to have a lot, and Harry’s smile widens as his chest tightens.

 

“So, guys. I love me some challenges, as you know.”

 

Cue laughter from the audience, a silly montage in the background that makes Ellen grimace jokingly. Harry pretends to be even slightly amused. Zayn does not.

 

“Yeah, yeah. Challenges. So I figure, you guys are both singers, right? You should totally sing something together!”

 

Harry’s eyes turn into green slits as his smile turns sharp. Oh, the fucking snake.

 

His eyes flick to the audience, who are ecstatic, and meet Zayn’s midway- the warmth seeped out of them, replaced by something far more calculating than Zayn pretends to be. Harry wants to stab them, but also can’t seem to look away.

 

“That would be a dazzlingly original idea, yeah.” Zayn says, with acidic sarcasm, and oh, right, words, Harry can use those. How long did they observe each other just then?

 

“Maybe Zayn and I should start a band,” Harry says, sweetly. He bats his lashes for good measure.

 

“What would you call it?” Ellen grins, over the cheering. “Something about direction, maybe?

 

“That sounds terrible.” Zayn deadpans. “Who would call a band that?”

 

“We’d have to find a name, though. Not something pretentious, like, artsy lettering, but something good.” Harry muses, over Zayn’s side-eye.

 

“Yeah, yeah, enough kidding around,” Ellen interjects. “But seriously, you know, you should sing something. Would you guys want to hear something?”

 

The cries are deafening. No way out of this one.

 

“Ooh, dear. Do you guys have a suggestion for your duet?”

 

Harry’s mind races, the open invitation a very obvious lead for their power tussle. His thoughts are a whirlwind of nonsense when it hits him, not registering until after he’s thought it-

 

Oh, shit, you know what he should do? Make Zayn sing History.

 

Harry nearly jolts upright, because that’s malicious- spiteful, cruel even.

 

His heart pounds- that’s low. Lower than he thought he would’ve gone, low like Zayn’s been, low like he’s been so upset about. He could, though- that’s the thing racing through his mind like a mantra, over the sick feeling in his stomach- he could, right now. Ellen would love it. It’d be great. It’d hurt.

 

He’s halfway there, slick inky darkness in his heart, when it crashes down upon him that Niall and Liam would hate him. Liam would be heartbroken. Niall would- Niall wouldn’t speak to him again.

 

“I have got a new album out,” Zayn suggests, before Harry can recover the wreck that is his thought process. He says it modestly, a mere suggestion, even playful. It rings sincere. Harry’s pained disarray fixes on that, dislike flooding his senses until he’s stable again.

 

“Harry?” Ellen asks, delighted. Harry feels all eyes on him, stretches it out.

 

“I would, but I don’t exactly know it.” A shrug, casually graceful like Zayn is. “My bad.”

 

“That’s all right,” Zayn says, lazy sweet, eyes on Harry now for the first time, like a challenge. “We can sing something easier.”

 

Oomph. Point for Zayn. There’s an audible gasp. Harry blinks, then forces himself to have a disbelieving smile grow on his face instead of the grimace he wants to wear.

 

Young Mick Jagger, Harry, channel the Rolling Stones. Be the media. Womanizer Styles, slutty Harry. Oh, hello.

 

He blinks at Zayn, well-intended condescension dripping from his lips when he speaks up. “All right, babe, we’ll do your songs.” Then to Ellen, charming as can be: “Can I have the break to learn them?”

 

“That all right?” Ellen asks, vibrating with excitement and making the audience giggle. It’s mostly faked, but still.

 

Zayn smiles. “As long as he wants.”

 

It should not sound that much like an invitation. Harry might be having some sort of fever breakdown or something.

 

“I’m a fast learner,” Harry promises, coolly.

 

“Under all the generic pop music boybands churn out, there’s a lot of sweat and tears.” Zayn agrees, amiably. Harry almost slaps him.

 

“The words are tougher to learn,” he stage-whispers to Ellen. “Unless, you, like-” He does a mumbling slow hum that’s actually not that bad an impression of at least Befour, cracking the room up, and smirks at Zayn.

 

Ellen calls for break, and then it’s chaos, tech and backstage and costume running around frantically. Harry gets ushered off to get his hair and makeup touched up, and then someone shoves papers in his hands with the lyrics to Pillowtalk and Wrong (right, like he doesn’t know them) printed neatly, the indications underneath completely useless to anyone with a musical education and thus an offense to anyone sensitive.

 

Zayn’s somewhere else- talking to the band, he thinks, craning his neck to see and getting stabbed in the eye with a brush. He waves away the apologies with an eye still watering, can almost hear Zayn’s laugh from across the room.

 

Management had to have known about this- no way they’d let him perform anything without some form of consent. It’s mind-boggling; he and Zayn, about to sing together. To sing Zayn’s songs together. Together together, relying on each other to stay in sync, to harmonize just like that, to fall into a comfortable balance. He doesn’t know what would be worse- to find that they’ve forgotten how to fit together, or to find that they still remember how to.

 

Shit, but this is going to break the Internet. It’s not just him singing Zayn’s fucking songs, it’s Zayn and him, on Ellen, together, singing, together- god, he better be paid well for this.

 

It feels like ten seconds later that he’s been shoved back to the front, onto the couch, lyrics in hand and hair arranged in careful aesthetic fashion he’ll ruin in miliseconds. Zayn wanders over moments later, and turns to him. Are they actually talking face to face? What the fuck even.

 

“You good for the intros?” Zayn says, like they’re businessmen discussing a transaction. He’s got a pen in his hand, twirls it like Liam used to twirl his mic. “We’re cutting this in here, sorta remix. Then these. Slow, yeah?”

 

“You do know I’m not actually slow, right?” Harry echoes, although he’s actually grateful for the heads-up. For a fractional instant, there’s a spark of warmth in Zayn’s eyes, and then it’s gone, buried again under amused contempt.

 

“Right.”

 

“Ready, guys?” Ellen asks, composed and less cloyingly smiley. “You’re off afterwards.”

 

Zayn nods, Harry flashes a thumbs up.

 

“Okay- and, set!”

 

Ellen rambles through a quirky recap and plows through applause as Harry sits and contemplates his lyric sheets with a light frown. When he’s sure no one’s watching too closely, he lets his mind wander away from lyrics he already knows and to the utterly ridiculous life he leads. He’s stressed- it’s almost like he’s scared, not of looking stupid, but of disappointing Zayn. He doesn’t mean it like “aw, no”, of course, but he wants to beat him, to be up to the challenge Zayn clearly thinks he can’t meet.

 

So Zayn thinks he’s better now? Tough. Harry can do Zayn’s better, and he’ll do it just as well as Zayn himself.

 

He has to.

 

“Ready boys?”

 

Rinse, repeat. The drum starts, slow, posing a tempo. They’re doing semi-acapella. Zayn nods at the band, Harry pretends he’s checking the words with disinterest.

 

Zayn opens his mouth to sing, his posture tense, nervous. Harry recognizes his early days stage-fright, wants to cackle.

 

It’s just as Zayn croons out the first “climb on board” that they end up eyeing each other again, and suddenly his stress seems to vanish, replaced by a lowkey determination that’s half-hidden behind nonchalance.

 

Oh, he wants to play it like that. Okay.

 

They pace each other verbally, a few lines each, and when the “bodies” hit their voices hit the note together, conflict now audible. Harry’s lips curl upwards, Zayn’s eyelids lower. Retreat to “hold you close”, build up to the quick breath before the chorus.

 

“So we’ll piss off the neighbours” comes out intertwined, the harmony unfairly well-done, and then Harry drops back to let Zayn forwards, his humming following close on Zayn’s heels. “Reckless behavior” lights a spark, and then they go back and forth, voices clashing just enough for conflict but little enough for it to come out good. Harry thinks he might be leaning in from there through “dirty and raw”, because they somehow sound more sexual than originally meant, or at least more directly in-key with “warzone”.

 

He spits out “fucking” as Zayn smooths it over, smiles over Zayn’s glare at “Pillowtalk”, and they’re aligned at “enemy/ally”. “Pain and pleasure” dance along the rest of song, all the way to the “paradise/war zone” repeats, where Zayn sweeps the rug out by shifting to Wrong before Harry can read him. Harry hums his way out of it, but Zayn’s teeth flash white as he smirks through “four letters are never the question”, and when they tangle for “You’re looking in the wrong place”, it comes out much filthier than management will be happy about.

 

Harry’s more worried about the fact he and Zayn have barely blinked and/or moved away from each other, but he figures he’d rather throw them both down than get pulled himself, so when the smooth beat comes up he picks up Kehlani’s hoarse soft voice with a vengeance, rewarded by Zayn’s pupils dilating a fraction. For a moment he’s on top of it, singing alone and cocky, and then Zayn’s eyes go honey-coloured, his voice lowering to feline levels of purring, a step up your game if Harry’s ever seen one. By the time they harmonize Harry’s voice might actually be wavering a bit.

 

Zayn’s “love it or hate it” is vile, so the fall-back to Pillowtalk goes smoothly, Harry breathing more easily and transferring his glare to the fictional neighbors as they hit high. From there, their spar flows like an aggressive tango of sorts, in sync but distinct- the final note fades out with a grandiose coordination.

 

Then suddenly there’s raucous applause and spontaneous confetti, and Harry jerks back, blinking, feeling weirdly disorientated. Right- Ellen, yes, the audience on their feet and clapping, whooping and screaming from everywhere, and Zayn on the couch with far more composure than Harry but a flash of bewilderment nonetheless.

 

Under other circumstances, Harry would have grinned, eyes shining, slung an arm around Zayn, whose nose would have crinkled with laughter, and they’d have raised a hand in joint celebration. Now, having completed a duet, Harry feels their divide more strongly than ever.

 

He wants to cry.

 

He smiles and waves.

 

 

((“@Harry_Styles @zaynmalik AAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”

 

“@zaynmalik @Harry_Styles H O L Y F U C K I N G S H I T”

 

“@Harry_Styles @zaynmalik I PASSED OUT IN THE LIVING ROOM OH MY GOD OH MY GOOOOOD”

“yall I swear to god I was done w his whiteboy quarter but if Zayn ever sings like that agin I will actually combust”

 

“WHAT TEHE FUCWDKASKD”

“[gif] [gif] [gif] [gif] [gif] im hyPERVENTILATINGFG???? HIHWF”

 

“what the fuck [gif] is this [gif] why are they about to have [gif] angry [gif] wall [gif] sex [gif] on stage????? [gif]”

 

“SAME ELLEN [gif] [gif]”

 

“REBLOG IF UR TEAM ZARRY 2016”

 

“honestly im dead my soul has ascended to hell bc the sin I lived during that interview was too high”

 

“WHY IS ZARRY ACTING LIKE THAT ONE FANDOM FIC WHERE THE TWO RIVALS ARE FORCED TO COEXIST UNTIL SMUT HAPPENS OH MY ACTUAL MOTHER OF GOD”

“Hillary: babygate!! Freddie is a scam!!!

Bernie: I believe in Zarry 2016”

 

“guys I don’t even ship zayn and harry but that was the most….extra….performance of any song I’ve ever seen”

 

“team not in the one direction or zayn fandoms but suddenly really invested in their sex lives”

 

“LOOK AT HOW THEYRE WATCHING EACH OTHER JFC [gif] harry FOLLOWIG ZAYN AS HE MOVES [gif] his LIPS [gif] tHEYRE breathing in SYNC [gif] lOOK AT TEHEIR EYES IM [gif] [gif]”

 

“you remember like 2013 when we were all joking abt slutty harry and now hes almost climbing zayn on live tv good times guys”

 

“MAKE!!!THE!!!!REMIX!!!!AVAILABLE!!!!!TO ALL!!!!!!!”

 

“no but in all seriousness u can SEE them watching each other like under all the play acting theyre so AWARE of each other look at their attitudes when theyre not spotlighted [gif] they lock eyes and like [gif] [gif] [gif] joking aside im???i think they might actually end up….actually canon”))

 

 

Harry’s phone crashes on the plane. Management is practically creaming itself.

 

He scrolls through his feeds rapidly, and it’s all hysteria, even from total outsiders. He’d feel smug if he wasn’t so shaken- it’s like aftershocks, suddenly, kicking in now he’s away from cameras. He’s rarely been so glad to fly first class.

 

Louis shows up unannounced at his hotel room, which makes sense somewhere because Louis and Freddie are in L.A. too, but catches Harry unawares. He and Louis used to be in sync, completely.

 

“Uh?”

 

“Prat,” Louis says, and hits him unfairly hard on the shoulder, then kicks him in the shins. “Twat. Ass.”

 

“Ow.” Harry says, mildly.

 

Louis harrumphs and hugs him, so that Harry can drape himself over him and collapse.

 

“You stupid bean.”

 

“Mghh.”

 

“Honestly, why am I the responsible one in this scenario? You done goofed, mate.”

 

Harry snorts tiredly, and Louis pushes him onto the bed, throwing the covers over him with excessive violence before he kicks off his shoes and joins him.

 

“Where’s Freddie?” Harry mumbles, burying his face between the pillows.

 

“With his mum,” Louis sighs. “As if I’d just leave him and run off after you.”

 

“You’d take him with you if you ran off after me,” Harry argues, curling up so Louis can fit behind him better. “He likes me.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis sighs. “He likes Liam more.”

 

“S rude. I’m the best uncle he has.” Harry protests, eyes shut.

 

“Not a good life model, though.”

 

“Neither ‘re you.”

 

“Wow, thanks, mate.”

 

“Welcome.”

 

Louis huffs, twists. He’s not a peaceful sleeper, is Lou- he kicks and steals the covers and tosses all night and strangles whomever shares with him. Luckily for him, none of the boys ever cared- Zayn could sleep through an earthquake, Liam is too solid to be perturbed, Harry likes physical contact in any dose, and Niall is always comfortable.

 

“You gonna spill your heart out now?”

 

“Sounds a lot like pillowtalk to me,” Harry mutters, double-edged.

 

“Clever,” Louis snorts. He pulls Harry closer. “You looked like you were about to either kill each other or be really indecent on TV.”

 

“Because murder isn’t indecent?”

 

“Believe me, watch your own interview, and you’ll see indecent.”

 

Harry’s mind flashes back to Zayn, to singing, to gravitating nearer. His stomach jolts.

 

“Gross.” Louis says. He doesn’t sound grossed out.

 

“I didn’t do anything.”

 

“You were thinking it.”

 

“We sounded good, didn’t we?”

 

Louis stiffens, then sighs. “Very. Also really really dirty. My mum called me all flustered.”

 

“Oh, god, my mum,” Harry groans. “My sister.

 

“You deserve it, nitwit. I can’t believe you didn’t tell us.”

 

“Didn’t tell anyone,” Harry mumbles, guiltily.

 

“Well, you broke the Internet. Happy?”

 

“No,” Harry admits. “I don’t know what I’m doing. It was- like, cathartic, and then it was almost fun, and now it’s just…Messy. I’m scared. Dunno of what, but I’m scared.”

 

“Aw, Hazza,” Louis says, softened now. “Why can’t you just be a dick like me?”

 

“I wish.” Harry sighs. “But I’m being a dick either way.”

 

“No you’re not,” Louis replies on instinct. “Zayn’s fault.”

 

Harry stays quiet. Louis relents. “Okay, maybe not 100%. But not yours.”

 

“Thought I was a prat.”

 

“Always.”

 

Harry laughs. He can’t help it. Louis smiles.

 

“I feel so unsteady, Lou. Not just cause of Zayn, but like- with him it’s worse.”

 

“I’m here, if you need me, Haz.” Louis says, serious for once. “We can take Freddie and go to the beach or something. Forever.”

 

“Yeah, that’ll help. Larry settles down with baby.”

 

Louis groans, pinches him. “Fuck off. Zarry’s the next big one, just you wait.”

 

Harry sobers. “Not funny.”

 

“Why, cause it’s half-true?” Louis says, blunt as always.

 

“S not,” Harry breathes, tugging on his hair. He replays him and Zayn, on a loop.

 

“Mate, I’m not saying shit about your feelings or whatnot, but if we’re talking attraction…” Louis rebuts, dryly.

 

“Shut up, Louis,” Harry snaps. A bolt of hysteria courses through him.

 

“You shut up,” Louis answers, annoyed. “Niall and Liam have figured it out, so why can’t you? I’m supposed to be the last to figure out these emotional intrigues, not you.”

 

“Shut up, Louis.” Harry says, louder now.

 

“You’re dragging yourself down some dodgy self-destructive path. Do some soul-searching or whatever, but move on.”

 

“SHUT UP, LOUIS!” Harry shouts, ripping away, his chest heaving. He’s going to be sick. He doesn’t want to have to think about this- it hurts, it can’t be right, he’s not allowed to.

 

Louis goes quiet as Harry shakes, then cautiously pulls him back in. “Sorry. That was- sorry.”

 

Harry doesn’t answer, but he tucks himself into Louis.

 

“Check Twitter, then.” Louis says, prodding him. Harry does, slowly.

 

There’s Niall, of course.

 

“ @zaynmalik @Harry_Styles that one time the word eargasm works….lol”

 

Then Zayn, rapidly.

 

“@NiallOfficial I would say fuck off, but…”

 

“@zaynmalik HA!!!!! @Harry_Styles you get it yet??”

 

“@Harry_Styles get what”

 

Harry swears.

 

“@NiallOfficial you evil hobbit”

 

“@zaynmalik get some ;P”

 

Wait, fuck. That came over as flirtatious. He was not aiming for flirtatious.

 

Then again, better fake flirting than an emotional meltdown.

 

Niall replies with obnoxious enthusiasm.

 

“@Harry_Styles im rooting for u!! ;)”

 

Zayn follows soon after.

 

“@Harry_Styles if you needed help you should’ve asked sooner”

 

Oh, for the love of everything holy.

 

Louis snorts loudly.

 

“Stop reading over my shoulder.”

 

“How do you jump from existential crises to casual sexual advances so fast?” Louis asks, instead of answering the accusation. “Did you sort it out in the past three minutes?”

 

“No, I’m just good at delaying the inevitable.” Harry replies. What the inevitable realization is here, he doesn’t want to think about.

 

“Hazza...” Louis groans, exasperated.

 

“No.” Harry whines, and buries himself more firmly into Louis, who sighs longly and gives up. He sleeps for ages.

Chapter Text

When he gets to Kendall’s, his PR has called him about a hundred times. She opens the door too quickly, like she’s been waiting. Khloe is there.

 

“Hey,” she says. Khloe smirks.

 

“Hi,” Harry says. He ducks to avoid the low hanging chandelier.

 

“Gigi’s coming,” Kendall says, immediately, as a warning. “Is that okay?”

 

“Yeah?” Harry says, then pauses. “Wait.”

 

“Zayn’s not coming.” Khloe grins, eyeing him. Harry rolls his eyes.

 

“Can I take a call?”

 

 

PR is calling about a recording.

 

A recording with Zayn.

 

Their remix.

 

“You’re messing around.” Harry says, for the millionth time.

 

“He’s in the US right now. It’s the perfect opportunity.”

 

“You are not calling his people to beg for a song.”

 

“Then go ahead.”

 

They hang up on him.

 

Zayn picks up slowly when Harry calls him three hours later. He wonders if he still has his number.

 

“What’s this about?”

 

It’s uncomfortably close to vas happening. Harry shudders.

 

“I’ve been told to arrange a recording session.”

 

A pause. “For the remix?”

 

“No shit.”

 

“No.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s my music. Fuck off.”

 

“Are you fucking- get the stick out of your arse!”

 

“My sales are doing just fine, thanks. No need for a remix.”

 

“It’s not need, it’s opportunity! Do I have to bloody beg?”

 

Zayn exhales. “Go ahead.”

 

“…You’re serious.”

 

“No.”

 

“I swear-”

 

“Tomorrow, mine, seven. Bring Kendall.”

 

Harry hates him again. All is well.

 

 

He and Kendall get papped like crazy, and Zayn’s flat is plagued with hordes of cameramen screaming at them from all sides, for angles and smiles and PDA. Harry nudges her through them and thanks heavens above for sunglasses, especially the expensive kind.

 

When they arrive at the door of the (edgy modern muted grey that makes Harry feel claustrophobic) apartment, Gigi kisses him on the cheeks, looking resplendissant, then kisses Kendall and drags her off. They’re wearing complementary shirts and shoes, he notes as they turn the corner and cast him a wry smile. Harry feels underdressed.

 

Zayn’s in a loose grey sweater, which is offensive to Harry's well-being, and he looks about as enthused as Harry feels. They ride the cab to the studio in stony silence, although Harry glances at him every two seconds, and when they get there Harry already knows it’s going to be a disaster.

 

They fail at cohesion of any kind. It sounds horrible. Harry starts too early, Zayn goes too slow, they clash over notes, the harmonies are atrocious. The director is in tears by the end of the first hour.

 

“Okay, okay, break. What is wrong with you two?”

 

“It’s hardly going to sound good if one of us is trying to sabotage the other, is it?” Harry says peevishly, glaring at Zayn, who seems just as irritated.

 

“Maybe you just can’t sing this kind of music.”

 

“You’re not fucking Mariah Carey, Mr. artiste, I think I can manage,” Harry hisses, leaning forwards. Zayn stays right where he is, but his jaw sets.

 

“Explain why it only sounds terrible now you’re here, then.”

 

“Well, we all know you’re not a good team player,” Harry sneers, his mouth dry. Would he get in trouble for throwing his water bottle in Zayn’s face? That’d certainly get him hydrated efficiently.

 

“Or maybe you just can’t function without being babied.” Zayn retorts, icily. Harry inhales sharply.

 

“And from the top!” the director exclaims, loudly, sounding cheery all of a sudden. Harry’s about to protest when the music starts up and he hurriedly gets ready. He wants to concentrate on the song, but he’s too annoyed to do so- he spends his time glaring daggers at Zayn, whose eyes are closed, and distantly registering he’s singing.

 

About halfway through the song, Zayn’s eyes open, piercing, and that makes it awkward because Harry’s been staring. He’s basically got a millisecond to cover up, so he does his default HARRY STYLES: HEARTBREAKER media thing and smirks. Zayn, predictably, is unimpressed.

 

There it is, under the smirks and intense eye contact: Zayn Malik is possibly the worst enemy Harry could have ever made himself, because Zayn knows him. Harry can act up with most everyone on the planet, except his family and the boys, or maybe even less with the boys. But Zayn used to be one of them, one of the boys- he sees through the bullshit, and Harry doesn’t know what he sees underneath it. It’s not a fair fight, really- Zayn’s far better at watching than Harry is, is far harder to read. Zayn’s both more open about himself and more of a puzzle, and the resulting enigma that is Zayn Malik can’t just be observed- he needs to be studied.

 

They’re not on equal footing.

 

His inner deconstruction is rudely interrupted by the director gleefully shouting “OKAY!” at them, and Harry’s voice stopping abruptly. He’d sort of forgotten about the singing.

 

Zayn does a thing- a tiny twitch of the head, like he’s just woken up from a slow slumber. It makes Harry’s stomach jolt in recognition. For a moment he imagines vas happening spilling from his lips, then he shakes it off.

 

“Playback,” the director orders. Oh, right, music. Harry’d forgotten. Harry forgets a lot when he has to remember Zayn.

 

The playback begins, so Harry listens.

 

It doesn’t sound like their Ellen performance. That’s the first thing that registers, after the weird disjointed feeling of hearing him and Zayn sing together- it doesn’t sound like their Ellen performance.

 

It’s less, he doesn’t know. Zayn would have a word for it, some fancy Cambridge lit student thing that they’d never heard of before. There’s less heat to it, maybe- they sound less like they’re about to jump each other for one reason or another, and more like they’re pacing. He thinks it sounds better, for recording purposes, but more cutting. Less snarling, more showing teeth.

The song is good, though. That hasn’t changed. The song is good, and though Harry’s a strange contribution, it sounds really good. Better than a lot of Zayn and Harry’s old collaborations in the band. Which is saying something, because Zayn and Harry used to sing so easily, and-

 

Yeah. It’s really fucking well done.

 

“Brilliant!” someone exclaims cheerily, probably the director, who’s just made a year’s worth of paycheck. Harry stays blank, feeling lost.

 

He wishes Louis were here again, to make fun of the sound guys’ ugly vests, or to point out some dumb innuendoes. Niall, to laugh at some pun he’d thought of so loudly that Harry joined in. Liam, to offer the solid comfort of his presence and some wise words. He misses his boys.

 

Zayn, across the table, makes a soft sighing noise. In the harsh lights of the studio his cheekbones look knife-sharp; his tattooed hands are drumming against his knee. For a glimpse of a moment, Harry wonders if he misses the boys too.

 

“I’ve got to go,” he hears himself say. “Thanks.”

 

Zayn doesn’t look up, but he can feel his eyes follow him out the door when he abruptly leaves, feeling as though he’s suffocating under layers.

 

“Going home, hope ur ok at Gigis. H” he texts Kendall, having all but forgotten about her in the last hour, as he climbs into a taxi and slides low on his seat. When he gets to his hotel room he strips off as fast as possible and throws himself into the too small bath, knees up to his chest.

 

It’s only then he feels himself stop breathing too fast.

 

In the end, he calls his mum.

 

 

[Transcript: MTV news, Harry Styles and Zayn Malik drop a bombshell, 11/04/16, 14:30]

 

Guys, we are freaking out.

 

After their (dare we say) heated performance on Ellen the other day (yes, we also screamed when we watched it), Zayn Malik and Harry Styles have hit us with yet another surprise attack of the feels by dropping a single today- and you’ve guessed what it is.

 

Yep, the ex-bandmates turned Internet divas came together today in secret to record their duet from Ellen, a remix of Zayn’s Pillowtalk and Wrong, now available on iTunes and soon on Spotify.

 

We listened to it. We’re still attempting to regain our bodily functions. No, but seriously, if you thought their other performance was good, listen to it- it’s officially going to be MTV HQ’s new doorbell, just so we can listen to it even more.

 

Now if only they could release a music video…Maybe Harry could replace Gigi in the next vid? Just our suggestion!

 

ZAYN/STYLES: PILLOWTALK RELOADED is available on iTunes here.

 

 

[Transcript: The Independent, Music of the Week, 13/04/16, 8:40]

 

[Excerpt]

 

Having listened to ZAYN MALIK’s debut album Mind of Mine with unexpected enjoyment and approval, the news of his sudden collaboration with old bandmate Harry Styles left me rather surprised and somewhat intrigued.

 

As one of my points for praise was the way Malik left his ex-band in the dust in all areas (including his stunning vocals), this renewal of a bond better left in popstar memory came as a strange decision, and one that I most definitely do not believe Malik himself was behind, given his recent criticism of One Direction’s musical endeavors. Still, the huge buzzing about the duo after an Ellen show I didn’t watch (talk shows aren’t my style of entertainment), I decided to give in to curiosity and give the two a listen.

 

I found myself pleasantly caught off guard. PILLOWTALK RELOADED is still very much a Zayn song, and Styles hasn’t attempted to pull it back into bubblegum pop territory. In fact, much of what makes this duet so easy on the ears is the fact that Styles has made the effort to integrate Malik’s style without much of a struggle, regardless of the clear divide between the two.

 

What makes it an interesting song, in my opinion, is the fact that the two clearly dislike each other- it’s audible even through their frankly harmonious singing. It’s obvious that Malik and Styles work well together, after all the years, but even without seeing either of them and without the aggressivity of their on-stage act, their voices do not cooperate willingly but rather seem to be sparring vocally. Although Styles lacks the propensity to follow Mind of Mine’s vocals like its author does, he seems determined to chase after Malik nonetheless, forcing Malik out of his whimsical bubble and into rougher places. The end result is something original, fresh, and frankly special.

 

I have no idea what bad blood was spilt between Styles and Malik, but one thing is for sure-the resulting music is something I wouldn’t complain about seeing more of.

 

 

((“GO SUPPORT ZARRY NONSENSE BY STREAMING PILLOWTALK RELOADED HERE AND BUY IT ON ITUNES HERE

 

“meanwhile in the other bandoms……..”

 

“ONLY THIS COLLAB COULD PULL ME THROUGH THE END OF HOMESTUCK THANK U LORD AND THANK U ZAYN AND HARRY”

 

“i cant listen to this…..what the fuck…..i died the first time I heard it I cant deal with this much energy flowing thru my deadass soul……”

 

“DROP!!!!THE!!!!!ALBUM!!!!!!”

 

“zarry collab cleansed my skin, watered my crops, gave birth to my son, made me see the light”

 

“Imagine trying to drop something this week like….[image]”

 

“I A M D E C E A S E D”

 

“@Harry_Styles @zaynmalik I LOVE U GUYS SM OH MY GOOOOD”

 

“@zaynmalik U SHOULD HAVE LEFt 1D SOONER IF IT WAS TO MAKE THIS OMG”

 

“ok I never listened to one direction but these two dudes sound p fucking good @zaynmalik @Harry_Styles”

 

“@itrinsiczarry AMANDA I AM IN TEARS!!!!!!”

 

“@zaynmalik and @Harry_Styles be fucking w us like they fucking each other”

 

“@onedirectionofficial WHAT SAYS MANAGEMENT ABOUT THIS!?!?!?” ))

 

 

Harry’s mum seems happy to hear from him, but also careful. His mum always knows what’s up. She doesn’t talk about the song. She doesn’t bring up the band. She doesn’t mention Zayn. She just chatters, lets Harry go on long rambling stories about nothing in particular, gossips a bit about life at home, asks him about recent news. Harry feels soothed.

 

“Are you coming home anytime soon?” Anne asks, when Harry starts falling asleep in the tub. She sounds hopeful but understanding. “We’d like seeing Kendall again, if she wants to tag along.”

 

Harry feels his mouth dry. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to explain to his mother that celebrity romances aren’t like everyone else’s, that Kendall isn’t his girlfriend at all. Maybe even isn’t his friend, really.

 

“Yeah, maybe. I’ll ask.”

 

“Gemma’ll be home for a bit, you could drop by then?”

 

Harry hesitates, stares up at the hotel bathroom ceiling, all clean and white. “I’ll see, yeah.”

 

“Love you, Harry.”

 

“Love you too, mum.”

 

It takes him a while to get out of his bath.

 

 

The week is hectic as expected. Fans are going crazy, and Harry finds himself stalked wherever he goes by a horde of people the likes of which he hasn’t seen post-break. It’s confusing but also exhilarating. Harry forgot how high on energy he gets when they’re like this, mobs of people screaming his name, eyes wide with hysteria, hands reaching for him like he’s salvation.

 

Everything’s positive, the reviews and the Internet and management, and he’s up there for a while. Only there’s Zayn, is all.

 

He and Zayn have been quiet, on Twitter. Harry thinks Zayn is being moody, probably, but he doesn’t know what to say to instigate something. It feels too late to prod at their collab, so he has nowhere to start off.

 

Hey Zayn, remember how the crowds used to love us? Throwback, am I right?

 

Instead of saying anything, Harry goes out to clubs, stays in to watch Netflix, and stalks his friends and Zayn on social media. He even ventures to go on Gigi’s Insta, back to the recording day, where he snorts at her picture.

 

There’s her and Kendall, finger guns out and pouts cranked up to a hundred, with the caption “Girl time xo”. The next picture has Gigi pointing at his and Zayn’s retreating backs with an exaggerated O shaped mouth- “Boy time???”

 

His smile fades when he sees it, right amongst the newest comments.

 

“louist91: lol”

 

Louis is a rat-faced traitor who deserves nothing good in life. Harry is going to kidnap Freddie and raise him to be a much cooler, better-dressed child with great hair.

 

“@Louis_Tomlinson and @NiallOfficial having betrayed me, Liam is now my only friend. H”

 

“@Louis_Tomlinson is doing right! Good job lads haha” Niall replies, followed by a slightly bemused Liam.

 

“@Harry_Styles Probably won’t be for long if they’re having so much fun, though. Sorry?”

 

 

\

 

“Don’t make me move this somewhere private, Styles!” Louis retorts, ignoring Liam completely.

 

“What, like the group chat with your nudes as a profile?” Niall asks. “@Louis_Tomlinson I’m still scarred for life….”

 

“@NiallOfficial I’m not the bloody group manager, am I??? Just that irresistible” Louis snarks, and Harry feels the giddy laughter bubbling in his chest come to a halt. Yeah, Niall is the group manager, and he hasn’t touched the chat in over a year because Zayn quit the band.

 

His phone vibrates, and then Whatsapp flashes up.

 

“Paynos perfect pecs: Nialler is typing

 

“yall gotta be shitting me” Louis says, later, when he finds the chat back up. Niall sends a picture of him in suspenders and a button-up to smooth his entry in.

 

Maybe they’re moving on, after all. Harry tries not to think about how he definitely hasn’t.

 

 

((“ONE DIRECTION INTERACTION THIS IS NOT A DRILL REPEAT THIS IS NOT A DRILL”

 

“I go to sleep for like one second and then Beyonce announces a new album, One Direction starts talking to each other, Frank Ocean comes back to life….”

 

“MY BOYS!!!!!!!!! MY!!!! BOYS!!!!!!”

 

“guys [pic] guys [pic] gUYS [pic] GUYS [pic]”))

 

On Saturday Zayn posts a picture of an electricity box in a non-descript street. Harry spends longer than usual staring at it, which is saying something, because he already spends a ridiculous amount of time glaring at all of Zayn’s posts with a boiling pressure somewhere deep in his chest. Still, there’s something weird about the picture- he wonders if it’s the graffiti, of some guy with a phone, looking somehow desolate.

 

He gets his answer later when he scrolls through some tweets and has someone scream at him about “HIS POST IN 2013”. When he digs deeper, sure enough, there’s the same bleeding box amidst his own pictures, without the figure and with a bright pink dripping heart spray-painted smack in its middle.

 

Harry stares.

 

Then he gets extremely, senselessly angry, and pulls on his most horrendously mismatched outfit to find someone to sleep with. He’s not in the mood for staying at home.

 

On the way there, he gets papped, people asking enthusiastically about his projects and his songs and the band and fucking Zayn Malik. He gives them a quirked lip and a sway to his hips.

 

The girl in the bar is pretty, green-eyed like Harry with long dark curls and thick lashes, with a throaty laugh and artist’s hands. (It's got nothing to do with him. Nothing at all.)

 

They converse together in the corner of the room, pressed close to hear snippets of conversations over the generic thrumming music.

 

“I paint,” she tells him, over the bass line. “Crappy artist studio.”

 

“That’s fucking ace,” he tells her, in the slow grumbly way that makes girls laugh.

 

“Are you an artist?”

 

He doesn’t know if she’s genuinely lost his face in the crowd’s energy or if she’s toying around, but he answers with the same amount of nuance.

 

“I try.”

 

“My name’s Sasha, what’s yours?”

 

“Harry,” he answers, and her eyes sparkle. “I’d love to see your crappy artist studio.”

 

Sasha laughs some more, pulls him by the wrist, acts like she doesn’t notice the camera flashes catching up with them in the taxi.

 

Her studio is tiny, crammed with canvasses and copies of weird neo-gothic art next to Warhols and something Harry thinks might be an actual stolen Monet. There’s a dark-skinned guy passed out on the couch, turquoise curls hiding most of his features as he lays spread-eagled, and a girl with square shoulders and an artfully messy bun emerges from what Harry’d honestly believed to be a closet when they arrive.

 

“Sasha, thank fuck, Jake’s used up all the fucking wine again for his cake and now I’m dying of thirst- Oh, hello.”

 

“Hi,” Harry nods. “I’m Harry.”

 

“He’s Harry,” Sasha confirms. The girl squints. Harry notices now that her legs seem to be painted green.

 

“Right. Do you guys have booze?”

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be working on that assignment for tomorrow?” Sasha questions.

 

“I am. I’m going to get trashed and film myself talking about art while covered in paint. The prof is a pretentious arse, he’ll love it. I’m calling it art exposed, a baudelairesque insight to the relations of the inhibited mind.”

 

Sasha whistles. “Brilliant. You’re a genius, Vi.”

 

“I know,” the girl apparently called Vi says. “But I need booze.”

 

“I’ve got some of that weird vodka Caspar’s fuckbuddy left last time?” Sasha says, more of a question than a statement. “Might be poisoned though.”

 

“Whatever the fuck. Sounds good.” Vi shrugs. “Caspar’s out, so the bed’s all yours, by the way. Harry here is too tall for the couch.”

 

“Ta,” Sasha says, then goes: “Be right back, I’m going to find the booze.” She slips out of the room apologetically.

 

“It’s all right,” Harry replies, amused. “Who’s Caspar?”

 

“Our fourth roommate,” Vi answers, rubbing at her forehead. “He’s an existentialist.

 

“Oh?” Harry says, like he knows why she says it like Caspar is the reincarnation of Lucifer himself.

 

“He specializes in wearing black turtlenecks, smoking like a chimney, and staring moodily out of windows.”

 

Oh. Sounds charming.”

 

“You have no idea,” Vi grunts, shaking her head. “Between him and our resident Coachella frat boy…”

 

“Don’t call Jake a frat boy, you’ll get a lecture on gender politics again,” Sasha calls, as she enters the room with an admittedly very dodgy bottle of vodka in tow. “You’re so judgemental- just because he likes posing nude a lot and prefers Balloon Dog to The Marble Polisher…”

 

“He once told me sincerely that he believed art to be, and I quote, our way of getting stoned in the time before pot.” Vi retorts, with a disgusted look. “I thought he was joking until he put it in his next portfolio report.”

 

“Right,” Sasha says, putting the bottle in her outstretched hands. “Now if you’ll excuse us…”

 

“Good luck with your painting,” Harry calls, as they move towards the bedroom.

 

“I’ll need it,” Vi answers, staring morosely at the bottle.

 

 

Harry gets caught in the morning as he sneaks out by the two guys- Jake the Coachella fratboy is perched on the counter eating Froot Loops, and a person that Harry guesses is Caspar the existentialist is reading Zweig with a cup of coffee in his hand.

 

“Hullo,” he says, nodding slowly. “I’m on my way out. Tell Sasha I left my number on her phone.”

 

“What the fuck,” Jake says. “Are you Harry Styles?”

 

Caspar looks up at that, brows raised in scorn. His lip curls when he sees Harry.

 

“I might be,” Harry agrees. “Won’t intrude much longer, though.”

 

“Sasha slept with Harry Styles,” Jake repeats, numbly. “What the fuck.”

 

“Bye,” Harry says, waving amiably. “See you around.”

 

He’s pretty sure Jake manages to Snap him before he gets out, but oh well.

 

 

The next week or two are a whirlwind of news. Prince dies, and Beyoncé drops Lemonade, and Harry is torn between two moods right up until he gets the role in Dunkirk.

 

Harry heard the news before everyone else, of course, had felt his heart bound excitedly with mirth like it hasn’t in a long time. When he reads the text, his entire body does a thing, like it had when One Direction had been called back on X-Factor, like it had for their first show, like it had for their first award, like it has so often over the course of the past five years.

 

“u got the role in Dunkirk congrats”

 

He’s gotten it.

 

He’s gotten a role in a Christopher Nolan movie. A Warner Bros movie. A movie with Tom Hardy. A serious thing, a Second World War story. He’s impressed them, genuinely so, with his readings. He hadn’t realized how important the role had became to him, a sign that he really had something that made him worth all of it, a new way to climb higher rather than drown in uncertainty.

 

Harry screams, runs around his apartment, throws himself on his bed. Then he feels dumb for doing it, but he’s still smiling wide when he texts back.

 

“tell them I’m ready whenever they are!”

 

“don’t come off as too eager, or anything…”

 

Harry laughs.

 

The Internet reacts as expected- people doubting his acting capacity, people screaming about his face, people complaining about him stealing Lou’s dream job. He almost links that in their newly active group chat, only Louis does get jealous easily, so maybe not.

 

“CONGRATTTTSSSS MATE!!!!!” Liam says, the first to hear the news.

 

“thanks,” Harry answers, playing it cool. “I’m really hype.”

 

“lol u say that and yet!!!” Niall juts in, followed by a meme of Harry doing a really overexcited hop sometime in 2013. “jkjk good job though hazza!! Cant wait to go laugh at you acting dramatic”

 

“Haz is already a drama queen,” Liam approves sagely. “Natural talent.”

 

“Oi!” Harry protests, mock offended. “We’re supposed to be being nice to me. For once.”

 

“Poor baby Styles L” Louis drops, as an introduction. “r ur feelings hurt?”

 

“Sod off, Lou!”

 

“You better invite us to the premiere, and my mum too” Niall adds, cheerily. “She called me to gush about you.”

 

Harry beams.

 

“bet u harry’s the one who gets killed at the end” Louis says.

 

“bet you he asked to die so he could crank up his angst skills” Liam agrees, the traitor.

 

“Stop back-stabbing me, I already get shot at enough” Harry complains, then promptly gets a flurry of memes thrown at him. “U guys are just jealous of my good looks”

 

In the end their conversation spans over an hour, and Harry feels like it’s 2011. He feels like he could run to his mum and jump into her arms, like he and the lads are starting an adventure, like it’s all begun anew. Perhaps the cold seeping into his bones isn’t permanent; this thaw an awakening.

 

Harry’s been called the sunrise often, bright and lively, still soft enough to be deceitful, cool to the touch but warm inside, floral prints and coughing around a mouthful of smoke. He feels himself, now, more than he has for a bit.

 

Of course, even as he sits cross-legged on his stool, eating peaches mostly to enjoy spitting the pit out with pin-point accuracy, Purple Rain playing softly in the flat, he wonders.

 

This radio silence from Zayn should be a reprieve, a breath of relief, freedom from their “toxic exchange”- instead Harry’s felt hollow, craved the drama and the communication. He’s not an idiot, Harry- he knows he’s been hanging on to this more than is good for him, but it’s not like he chose to do so. And he knows, too, that it’s not been toxic for quite a while, that it’s edged dangerously close to banter quite a few times, that he’s caught himself flirting with danger and with Zayn more than once. He doesn’t know what to make of it, to make of himself really, but he misses it when it’s gone.

 

It comes halfway through The Best Of Prince 1988-2008.

 

“RT// @zxrryismylife “Have u heard about…” yeah i heard lol”

 

Then, right afterwards: “why pay to see @Harry_Styles be angsty on screen when u can get it for free? Wont say anything about streaming though…”

 

Harry’s eyes widen. He thinks he might blush, somehow.

 

Won’t say anything about streaming though. Won’t say anything about streaming though.

 

God, it feels good to be Harry Styles.

 

 

((“year 2016 of our lord…..the people stir……the zarries lie on the floor crying for mercy…..zayn and harry laugh at us……. “no u fools…..the gay will never end……it is eternal…..” they wont ever let us live…”

 

“@Harry_Styles ARE U MORE HAPPY ABOUT UR ROLE OR ABOUT ZAYNS TWEET BC ME ITS DEFS THE SECOND”

 

“I lived more drama in the five seconds of reading that Damn Tweet than I will during the entire film I stg”

 

“@zaynmalik WHAT DOES THIS MEAN????WHAT”



“@zaynmalik and @Harry_Styles are a better soap opera than I’ve seen on any season of Eastenders”

 

“BEYONCE BLESSED US W AN ALBUM AND ZAYN BLESSED US W HIS WORDS TODAY WE RISE BROTHERS AND SISTERS”

 

“what a time to be alive. What a time.”))

Chapter Text

 

“Aren’t you glad to see your favourite sister?” Gemma asks, after Harry opens his door. It’s four in the morning.

 

“It’s four in the morning,” Harry tells her, in case she hasn’t noticed. He can dream.

 

“Exactly. What a time to be awake.”

 

Harry blinks, yawns. Stretches. Gemma waits.

 

“The hell are you here for?”

 

“I was in the area.” Gemma says, waving him away. Then she slips in under his arm and kicks the door shut, leaving Harry to stare bemusedly at the door.

 

He turns around at the tell-tale thump.

 

“You have suit-cases?”

 

“Well, you don’t have guests over, do you?” Gemma harrumphs, crossing her arms. Then she softens. “I thought I’d stay a few nights, if you’re not busy”

 

Harry shakes his head dazedly, his hair falling in his eyes, waking up at last. It’s been eons since he’s seen Gemma, really seen her- he wants to hug her, all of a sudden.

 

“M never busy,” Harry lies, instead, smiles soft.

 

Gemma smiles back, eyes crinkling. “Liar.”

 

“You’re busier than I am, from all the writing and stuff.”

 

Writing and stuff-typical, Haz.” Gemma says, with an eyeroll, her blonde locks swishing as she cocks her hip. “I know you’re a popstar, but don’t act like one.”

 

“Hey,” Harry protests, weakly.

 

“I bet it’s hanging out with the Kardashians that dumbs you down.”

 

“I like Kendall,” Harry interjects. “She’s smarter than she acts.”

 

Gemma snorts. “Smart businesswoman, maybe, but not exactly the next Isaac Newton.”

 

Harry laughs, begrudgingly.

 

“Come here, you absolute muppet,” Gemma concedes, opening her arms. Harry hugs her, snickers when she pinches his sides. He’s missed his sister, doesn’t think he’ll ever fully grow used to being taller than her. Gemma’s always been so together.

 

His music is still faintly playing; he has moods where he hates silence.

 

Sitting in my kitchen, hey girl- I’m turning into dust again…

 

 

“You know,” Gemma sighs, later, when they’re curled side by side on his atrocious couch watching Geordie Shore. “I was listening to music the other day, and I somehow ended up on bloody What Makes You Beautiful. It was a sad moment.”

 

Harry snorts. “Excuse you.”

 

“You sound like prepubescent choir boys high on sugar.”

 

“Oh, only that?” Harry asks, raising a brow. “That’s awfully nice of you.”

 

Gemma laughs. “If your movie career isn’t too time consuming, you could put out your own stuff.”

 

Harry stops, a little. He’s considered it, of course- talked about it seriously and all. It’s just that it feels so wrong, like he’s cheating, to even imagine a future in which the stage is his alone. He likes singing- loves it, lives off it- but he doesn’t know if he’d be good, alone. He’s scared, he thinks, of doing badly- of facing a silent crowd.

 

“I don’t know what I’d put out, though.”

 

Gemma shrugs. “Only if inspiration strikes, I mean. Zayn did brilliantly, for one.”

 

Harry glitches, jerks his arm accidentally and hits her. Nathan on telly announces that “the only balls he knows how to handle are attached to a body”, and Gemma makes a weird noise that could be a reaction to either.

 

“I’m not Zayn, though, am I?”

 

Gemma makes a noise that’s definitely a reaction to him, this time. “Aw, Haz, you’re joking.”

 

What?” Harry sputters, having 0 clue as to what he’s done wrong now.

 

“I though you were done with all this,” Gemma groans. “You’ve been going at it fine online, lord.”

 

“Done with what? Being pissed at Zayn?” Harry demands. He can feel himself closing off. “That’s not going away anytime soon.”

 

“It has with the others.” Gemma says, dry. “All buddy-buddy now.”

 

Harry’s throat is dry. He can’t put into words the fact that what the other three have is fragile, dangerous, something no one wants to think about because it’ll just plunge them down to where Harry is, jagged and ragged and somehow still not really open.

 

“It’s not the same.”

 

Gemma turns to him, then, eyes piercing. “No, it isn’t, but you know exactly what it is.”

 

“No, I don’t,” Harry snaps, retreating.

 

“Really, Harry? You don’t know why Zayn’s like the weird safety rope you have? You don’t know why you’ve gone from being so impossibly angry to being so impossibly twisted up and lost? You don’t know why the fans are screaming constantly when you interact?” Gemma retorts, losing her patience. “You need someone to spell it out? I’m good at writing. Maybe I should.”

 

“How would you fucking know?” Harry says back, eyes blazing. “You don’t understand shit about being famous! It’s not the same with us!”

 

“With you? Who do you think you are, Beyonce?” Gemma laughs humorlessly. “You think you’re too good for your family? Wow.”

 

“That’s not it!” Harry grits out, hands curled into fists. “You bloody well know I wouldn’t- you just don’t get it, okay? You’re not part of the band, you didn’t- You don’t get it!”

 

“I get you!” Gemma exclaims, furious. “I get you well enough to know what’s going on- most people with eyes can see what’s going on!”

 

Most people make it too bleeding simple, then!” Harry cries, feeling sick. They don’t fucking get it, even though they think it’s that easy, that he’s just…He’s not- it’s not.

 

Gemma makes a long, annoyed sound, familiar from way back when Harry wasn’t Harry Styles, international celebrity, and just Harry, Gemma Styles’ annoying younger brother. It’s the sound she’d typically make before a slammed door occurred, her newly streaked hair flying behind her in outrage as Harry got a stern telling off from mum for whatever slight offense he’d perpetrated. In Harry’s defense, sixteen year olds were very melodramatic.

 

“Harry, I’m trying to help you.”

 

I don’t want your help!” Harry shouts, stomach churning. “I’m doing perfectly bloody fine on my own, or at least I was until you showed up!”

 

Silence falls. Harry flips his hair out of his eyes and looks away. Gemma stays put, in stony silence.

 

He’s not easily angered, is Harry. He doesn’t like conflict. Prefers to let it blow over, prefers to let it sink in slowly until it simmers and fades.

 

He’s wishy-washy, whimsical, doesn’t always like being reminded that he’s just a person; the Zayn thing took him off guard, a fish out of water, a bird grounded. It’s a deep clawing monster that came to life in his chest, venomous and spiteful- and even then, even now, it’s not the same. He’s not angry anymore. He’s something, he’s still something bad and painful, but it’s not anger, it’s not what he felt sinking him below ground into a nasty place.

 

Thing is, he can’t place it. Never felt this way, just like he’d never felt that rage, the resentment. It’s all new, from the moment Zayn broke away, nothing Harry’d had a chance at testing before. At first it made him horrible, but viciously satisfied, then it made him important, then it made him stable, and now…Now he doesn’t know. Now he doesn’t know what it’s come to, what’s driven him through resentment and betrayal, sadness and nostalgia, excitement and amusement, even something like lust.

 

He thinks, whatever it is, it’s been a long time coming.

 

He thinks, whatever it is, it’s very tremendously large.

 

He knows, whatever it is, it’s something he’s horribly scared of.

 

Harry knows what the others think, the fans and even the boys; that it’s funny, some UST, to be resolved quick and messy in a bathroom stall then forgotten. But it’s not, is it, not really, it’s messy but it’s not quick, and it’s complicated.

 

Pause, rewind, playback.

 

Wish we could turn back time; to the good old days, when our mothers would sing us to sleep- but now we’re stressed out….

 

Gemma gets up, blanket draped around her shoulders, rummages through his disorganized DVD basket. The look she gives Harry is part apology part challenge. He squints past her, has a moment of doubt, then swallows.

 

He hasn’t watched their movie in ages.

 

At the start, when it’d just came out, Harry watched it on repeat for ages- with his family, on his own, with the boys. They’d sit together the five of them, make fun of themselves, tousle hair when it got emotional, imitate various voices during the thing, point excitedly at this or that. Harry realized then, fully, just how much of a celebrity he was- he’d had a movie, made about him and the lads, just that.

 

Still, there’s only so much fun in watching a documentary about yourself. He’s left it in the basket, untouched, for quite a bit now- it’s boring watching it alone, and narcissistic at best to pull it out when there are guests.

 

Hey, want to watch a movie about me? I’m cute in it, I swear.

 

Now, though…They’re so young, still, when it happens. Puppy fat, long hair, cases of the giggles. Terrible fashion choices, too. Harry knows it’ll hit like a free-loader, the nostalgia, knows it’ll sting like a bitch. He’ll probably cry. He used to cry easily, back then; the boys would all make fun.

 

Liam would quiet down first, guilty, offer a hug, tell the others off, Daddy Direction at work. Louis, hyperactive, was a whack on the back, a tug at his curls, a kiss on the nose. Niall would make him laugh until he was crying again, offer a hug to melt into. Zayn…Well, that was then.

 

It’s a test he’s meant to fail. Harry shrugs, languid, repositions himself on the couch.

 

The narration begins, as do the flashbacks.

 

He’s not going to last long.

 

 

((“@Harry_Styles and I are rewatching his fetus self embarrass us all on the big screen haha”

 

“@GemmaAnneStyles that’s hardly fetus content get your facts right”

 

“@Harry_Styles @GemmaAnneStyles OMFGGGGGGGGG”

 

“Gemma and Harry r watching This Is Us,,,,,,kill me”

 

“harry is so Extra,,,,,,,,if this isn’t a zarry moment I don t know what is….”

 

“Harry be like yeah just watching this throwback movie w my sister…nothing to do w zayn….zayn malik who???? [gif]”

 

“What the f u c k”))

 

 

He and Gemma are both bent double in hysterics by the time the movie’s barely started. Harry doesn’t know what makes it funnier- Gemma’s commentary, or the sheer absurdity of what he’s seeing.

 

“Are-are you wearing a leather shirt?” Gemma chokes out, sputtering with laughter. “Oh god, is that DOUBLE DENIM?”

 

Harry, shaking with silent laughter, almost dies when he and Louis turn up in suspenders.

 

“I forgot- about- the suspenders,” Gemma wheezes, then starts anew. “Look at Liam’s hair, oh my god!”

 

“Look at our skinny jeans,” Harry manages, in tears. “We’re wearing matching skinny jeans.”

 

“Why is Zayn wearing all these hats? Where do they come from?” Gemma coughs, face scarlet from laughing too much. “Is this when he was wearing those snapbacks? I can’t live through that shame again, Harry. Not the fratboy phase.”

 

“The wife-beaters,” Harry gasps, fanning himself. “Remember those?”

 

“Hang on, did you just say that was snazzy? Who says snazzy?” Gemma demands, so outraged that Harry starts off once more, his stomach aching. He feels sixteen again, twelve, seven, three, watching something with Gemma and finding everything so funny, so hilarious, moreso because Gemma did too.

 

Of course, the good mood can’t last forever. After a while, too tired to laugh, they watch in silence, as the five boys climb all over each other, giddy and excited and so constantly glued together it makes Harry’s stomach hurt.

 

He remembers that; how could he forget? The days in which every breath they took was in sync, every touch spoke a million words, every look exchanged was an entire conversation; the days where the five of them were unbearably close and yet never drifted, sharing every little thing and every little moment, constantly riding on the high of some joke shared between them. He remembers the dumb car ride with Niall, the lumberjack tentative with Louis, fishing with Liam, and Zayn.

 

Zayn’s the worst part, unsurprisingly.

 

He misses the five of them with a deep ache, misses the boys to the point of tears, but he knows he still has them, will always have them, even when it doesn’t feel like it. He knows he can grab his phone and send a long rant and they’ll be right there to laugh at his way of putting things. He knows even if they feel like they’re leaving, they’d all beat his skinny arse if they found him moping like that.

 

He doesn’t have that with Zayn.

 

Zayn’s not that Zayn to him anymore, not the Zayn who’d laugh when Harry made an atrocious joke, not the Zayn who’d wrap an arm around him on stage just cause, not the Zayn who’d get called out on his bad dancing with him. Not the Zayn Louis’d ask to wear a paper bag over his head because “his face was distracting”, not the Zayn Liam would judge the room with, eyebrows raised in sync, not the Zayn who’d team up with Niall to wreck havoc on their rooms. Gone is the bandmate Harry called best friend, brother, anchor, and more. He doesn’t have that person anymore, and he doesn’t know what to make of this one.

 

Gemma notices when the quiet changes, because Gemma’s smart and his sister.

 

“You know, he’s still the same person.”

 

He’s not, Harry attempts to communicate. I’m not either.

 

“People change, Haz,” Gemma says, wise beyond years. “But they don’t become someone else entirely.”

 

She purses her lips, eyes flicking down to her phone, stops. “Some of…some of all this, since the split- it sounds just like you two used to be. You’re still Harry and Zayn.”

 

“I don’t know how to be,” Harry says, like a confession. “We can’t just go back.”

 

On-screen, Zayn’s mum is crying on the phone, about the house Zayn got them, because Zayn is a family person who loves his mum and sisters and a complete sweet-heart according to Harry’s mum. Zayn’s sitting bunched up, in a bubble like he always is when he’s on the phone, looking through the window into the distance like the poetic asshole he is.

 

“Well, get off the phone then before I start crying,” on-screen Zayn says, soft and lovely, smiling in that open way he gets when he’s talking to his mum. Trisha laughs wetly, eyes shimmering.

 

Harry misses him.

 

“I don’t know,” Gemma sighs, offering her shoulder for him to lie against. “I don’t know, Harry.”

 

The call comes later that evening, when Gemma’s typing up some article and Harry’s reading Malraux.

 

“We’ve got an interview with BBC1’s Dan and Phil. Zayn’ll be there.”

 

“Sure,” Harry says, suddenly wide awake. “Yeah, can do.”

 

“Right.”

 

 

[Transcript: BBC Radio 1, interview with Harry Styles and Zayn Malik, 30/04/16, 09:00]

 

DH: [...] I mean, we did see the band, like, a while back? Uh, when you were still a band, I mean- well, you still are. Not all of you.

PL: Dan means well.

HS: [laughs]

DH: But basically, wow, you guys have done so well since last time we saw you. I mean, One Direction’s won a bunch of awards, and Zayn, wow, you’ve been doing really great too.

ZM: Thanks, yeah.

PL: So Harry, you were watching your movie the other day, just like Dan and me.

DH: We clearly watch it every day before breakfast.

HS: Yeah, my sister showed up to, well, make fun of my wardrobe.

DH: Ah, yeah. Old embarrassing videos of yourself. Who doesn’t love them?

PL: [laughs] So I’m guessing it was a surprise visit?

HS: Gemma showed up randomly, like, at 3 am, and I was still asleep, sorta? And then, like, I hear this… this weird noise, only originally I thought it was the people that live next door, because they tend to have weird music choices- like, this one time I got home and the guy was playing drums on the porch, so it was weird. Um, where was I? Oh, right, so I continued sleeping, only then I realized the noise was a lot more insistent than usual, so I figured it was someone knocking, except it was really early, right?

[pause]

PL: Yes?

ZM: [laughs] [unintelligible]

HS: Right, so then I got up, but it turned out that like, it was Gemma, which I, um, I guess I should have known because she knocks really weirdly. Anyway.

ZM: [laughs]

HS: What?

DH: Have you watched the movie recently?

ZM: No, I can’t say I have. I don’t like looking at old things a lot.

PL: Why’s that?

ZM: I dunno, I guess I’m not someone who likes staying lost in the past. I find that if you look back too much, it sorta renders it impossible to coexist mellifluously with your future.

DH: Fancy.

ZM: Thanks.

PL: Speaking of movies, Harry…

HS: Yeah! It’s so exciting.

DH: So I’m sure it’s like, super secret and all, but can you tell us anything about the movie?

HS: Um, I got the script, and it looks really good. I mean, there’s a lot of movies in the genre, yknow, it’s a historical occurrence that’s profoundly engraved in the collective memory, but I think it definitely brings some innovative insight to the period.

PL: Do you think it’ll be better than This Is Us?

HS: [laughs] Difficult to achieve.

DH: Okay, also, Zayn, your music video for It’s You made Phil cry.

PL: I was sick!

ZM: [laughs] I’ll take that as a compliment.

HS: It wasn’t that bad, was it?

DH: Very aesthetic. I want to print it as my wallpaper.

PL: You’ve already gotten the bed-sheets.

DH: [coughs] So, what’s the inspiration for the video? Please don’t tell me Zigi is going through some movie drama.

ZM: No, not at all.

HS: If it was, you’d have heard of Zayn becoming a terrorist and Gigi being an undercover prostitute from the Daily Mail by now.

ZM: They’re such a good news source.

DH: Did you know Harry was tied up with Prince’s death, according to DM?
PL: Oh, I thought he was Becky with the good hair.

ZM: That’s rude.

HS: What, because you’re better suited in the hair department? Don’t be jealous, Zayn.

DH: Don’t make me choose between your hair!

ZM: Actually, I just meant Beyonce had better options, but…

PL: Ouch!

HS: Oh, that’s how it is, huh?

ZM: [laughs]

HS: Zayn’s actually really petty, he just acts like he’s mysterious and shady when he’s really the guy who’ll save all the receipts and send them to your mother.

ZM: Implying your behavior wouldn’t impress your mum?

HS: I’m a well-behaved young man.

ZM: Mhm.

HS: Zayn doesn’t think I’m well-behaved.

ZM: I’m just saying, I’m not the one with the rock star lifestyle.

HS: Right, you’re so very disciplined.

ZM: I never said disciplined.

HS: [unintelligible]

ZM: Save that for somewhere else, rock star.

HS: [mock growl]

DH: Oh my god.

[Excerpt]

 

 

[Transcript: WE INTERVIEWED ZAYN AND HARRY, danisnotfire, 01/05/16, Youtube.com]

 

Dan: [...] So me and Phil got to the studio the other day, and the guy who works there was like-

Phil: [low voice] Uh, guys, so, Zayn and Harry are going to be on the show.

Dan: And we were like, sorry, what? Zayn and Harry, like, Zayn Malik and Harry Styles? Like, from One Direction?

Phil: [mock whisper] Dan is in love with Zayn.

Dan: Okay, that aside, the guy was just like “yeah is that a problem?” and we just gaped like idiots.

Phil: [nods]

Dan: Of course, we’ve barely started the interview, and, being the functioning human being that I am, I immediately make things possibly more awkward than with Jennifer Lawrence-

Phil: I doubt that’s possible.

Dan: -And promptly ask these two people, who very distinctly have been in a fight for months now, and are tense about their old band, about back when they were a band. Slow clap for me.

Phil: To be fair, it was pretty funny. They weren’t angry.

Dan: That is not the point, Phil!

Phil: It was really cool, though, I was freaking out! And they were really nice about being a lot cooler than us.

Dan: A lot.

Phil: They didn’t seem to get on that badly, to be honest. You can tell they were friends.

Dan: Stop dreaming about being invited to a zarry wedding, Phil, god.

Phil: It’s real, Dan!

Dan: Okay, in Phil’s defense, even my socially awkward ear could detect that as somewhat flirtatious.

Phil: Exactly!

Dan: But then again they’re Zayn and Harry, so they could be, like, drinking acid and make it look flirtatious.

 

[Excerpt]

 

 

((“DAN AND PHIL MET ZARRY AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”

“phan confirmed for zarry shippers……”

 

“WHEN WILL UR FAVES EVER HAVE A MEETING AS EPIC AS THIS ONE”

 

“I cannot even function [gif] [gif] [gif]”

 

“do u guys REALIZE in ten years when baby malik-styles will be baptized dan and phil will be there as godparents like ‘lol yeah we were there’ im SO”

 

“im so emotionally compromised,,,,all my sons in one room,,,,,,,,,what is love,,,baby don’t hurt me,,,,”

 

“LEAK THE VIDEO FOOTAGE”

 

“@Harry_Styles and @zaynmalik met @danisnotonfire and @AmazingPhil WHO AM I MEANT TO BE JEALOUS OF”))

 

 

Dan and Phil are nice. Harry likes them more than he expected to, but then he remembers them a bit. Introverted, obviously, but that’s not a big deal, contrarily to what most would imagine. Harry’s an extrovert, sure, but he’s got a lot of introverted friends. Zayn used to be one of them.

 

The interview is fun, mostly. The duo are inquisitive and friendly, but nowhere near professional, which means they don’t try and dig in. Harry feels like he’s just chatting with them, watches them complete each other’s sentences and laugh at themselves when they mess up. It reminds him of the band, a bit, so he feels weirdly fond of them.

 

The element of surprise, comme tojours, is Zayn. He’s wearing a leather jacket and a loose, possibly Kanye-issued shirt, coupled with illegally tight trousers and highly expensive shoes, newly short hair giving his cheekbones an unfair edge and adding frankly absurd amounts of highlights to his features. Harry only notices he’s giving him a once-over when he catches Zayn giving him a weird look.

 

They’re sitting side-by-side. It’s definitely strange.

 

Last time that happened was on Ellen, and- wow, is it getting warm here? Yeah. The tiny studio doesn’t have much on Ellen’s stage, and there’s no audience to act for. Harry feels vulnerable.

 

Zayn settles slowly, a low hello to the boys, a tilt of the head for Harry to try and figure out. He looks quaint; somehow- Harry realizes after a few ill-hidden glances that he’s barely awake. It makes his eyes a lot more maudlin, somehow, dreamy. It makes Harry’s insides sticky like a half-melted popsicle, this side of Zayn- he almost prefers when he’s actually on the aggressive.

 

It’s not like on Ellen, though, not when Harry was talking to the crowd and attaching Zayn- when he talks to Zayn, he does it face to face, legs jigging nervously every time he gets confronted with his direct stare. They quip at each other, mock too gently for Harry’s sanity, give syrupy compliments that are more insulting than the quips, and end up looking at each other a lot more than at the other two.

 

It feels like a proper conversation. Harry hates it.

 

He doesn’t know what Zayn is doing, because Zayn is so much more controlled than Harry is, less facetious and fickle. Zayn probably doesn’t spend a moment of his day wondering about Harry’s bizarrely coquettish hatred.

 

In the end, Phil greets him with a birthday wish for Gigi, whom Zayn’s meeting later. Zayn’s debonair grin shatters their weird friendly truce with a colossal blow, making everything sunset-soft in Harry’s being go suddenly heavy and heated. Fuck Zayn, with his new life, who ruined fucking everything and now gets everything back intact.

 

Harry watches Gigi’s Snap, then gets glimpses of Zayn escorting her out of a bar, her eyes crinkled with laughter, his lips quirked upwards, fond and long-suffering.

 

Beyonce, always wise, leaves a cryptic bit of advice as he searches for inspiring life guidance- Middle fingers up, put them hands high, wave it in his face, tell him boy, bye….

 

He feels reassured and justified up until Love Drought rolls in and Are you aware you’re my lifeline, are you tryna kill me becomes too uncomfortable to listen to.

 

God, Harry groans, muffled in a pillow as he throws himself on his bed. He likes the expensive deep aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean he wants to actually live through the emotional turmoil of an Emily Brönte novel. This is supposed to happen during his mid-life crisis as his son runs off to live with his bitter yet successful mother, whom Harry somehow still pictures as Taylor.

 

It’s been a while since people have tried to stir up some old flame between them, actually. That’s been good.

 

 

Harry calls Taylor.

Chapter Text

Harry calls Taylor.

 

In retrospect it’s a pretty terrifically bad idea on his part, but then again even as he dials he’s aware of how bad this idea is. He doesn’t know why he does it. Maybe he’s in self-destruct mode lately.

 

“Hello?” Taylor sounds wary. It’s weird hearing her voice.

 

“Hi,” Harry says. The line goes silent.

 

“Harry?” Taylor asks, an odd mix of distrust and disbelief.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Why are you calling me?”

"Honestly? I have no clue."

 

"Are you drunk?" Taylor asks. Which is fair, but also reminds Harry of why he broke up with her. Taylor's too sharp- not smart, he means, although she is that too, but too slick and professional, always playing her cards just so and always aware of her image. Harry gets it's harder for a girl, understands why she's so precise, but he's not meant for that kind of schedule. It's not even his rock and roll lifestyle (which, in all seriousness, doesn't exist nearly as much as the medias say), more his mindset. He's an old-school romantic soul.

 

"No," Harry says. "Just self-destructive."

 

"Right," Taylor says. He can almost hear her calculating how much of her agenda she's willing to clear for Harry Styles: professional disaster. In the end she surprises him by sighing, allowing weakness: "So?"

 

"Dunno, really. Thought maybe you'd shout at me and enable my self-pity party." Harry says, which isn't a planned answer but works well enough.

 

Taylor snorts. "So in character. You've been watching too many parodies."

 

"I laid off those after my double sucked Simon's dick in one, thanks," Harry answers mildly. "Their stock material is really dwindling."

 

"Tell me something I don't know," Taylor sighs. "Is this about the band splitting, your new movie, or Zayn?"

 

It's abrupt, but then again she doesn't owe him much sympathy.

 

"All of the above?" Harry tries, unruffled. "Mostly Zayn."

 

That's an euphemism if he ever saw one.

 

"You know Gigi is bi, right?" Taylor says, pointedly, after a moment.

 

"No?"

 

"So's Kendall." Taylor says, slowly. Harry frowns.

 

"Okay?"

 

"Make of that what you will," Taylor says, then huffs when he doesn't add anything.

 

"I heard you!"

 

"God, why are guys so obtuse?"

 

"There, now you're in character."

 

Taylor is not amused. Harry sort of is. The boys would have been.

 

"I gotta go, Harry. Calvin's downstairs."

 

"Have fun," Harry says. He wonders if she's name-dropped her boyfriend on purpose. Maybe.

 

"Look, just- maybe stop listening to other people about this one, and just listen to each other," Taylor rushes. "That's all I have."

 

"Thanks," Harry says. "For not hanging up."

 

Taylor hesitates, then answers in an almost friendly tone: "Yeah. See you around."

 

"Bye," Harry says. She hangs up.

 

Taylor’s a cool person, he thinks. Fake as hell and a huge bitch, perhaps, but also genuinely nice and smart. Judging people is difficult in the realm of fame. She’s definitely a pro artist, though, and competent. Devoted to her music.

 

Sometimes Harry wishes he’d been less complicated, that he and Taylor had settled, gotten a nice minimalist yet cosy flat with her cats and his music records, gotten married at thirty and lived together making easy millions. He thinks he could’ve, probably. Doesn’t know how happy he would’ve been, but then again he rarely knows if he’s happy nowadays.

 

He and Taylor are too radically opposed, though, too intrinsically different at the core. It would have exploded into screaming fits and cheating spouses, if they’d bothered trying outright honesty. The alternative is worse.

 

Still, no use dwelling on things forgotten, although Harry (unlike Zayn) quite likes to do so. (It goes like this: Zayn remembers but does not dwell, and Harry forgets but daydreams.) Taylor has Calvin, who seems just fine and whom Harry has never spoken to, and Harry has girls and boys with smiles and promises.

 

Calvin had drama with Zayn, at one point, over Taylor. Or rather over what he thought was Taylor but wasn’t, and then Zayn had told him to “calm his knickers before them dentures fall out”, and there Harry loses track because drama is so commonplace round here. He knows Louis went and did some dumb shit, though. Faved a tweet or something.

 

Louis is unbelievably petty. Harry knows it’s a token of how long they’ve been friends that he finds it both ridiculous and hilarious.

 

He wonders, abruptly, how Perrie Edwards is doing. Little Mix is doing well, probably, he doesn’t know. They’re nowhere near the boys, which makes him a tad perversely happy. It would have sat wrong with him, he thinks.

 

Still, Perrie. She was Zayn’s big thing. Zayn’s not Harry’s sort, or Louis’, even Niall’s. For all that people love going on about the “Bradford Badboy”, Zayn’s pretty tied to monogamy. He’d had a girlfriend before, sort of, and then it’d basically just been Perrie, for so long the boys had come to forget about a time where Perrie wasn’t with Zayn. They’d teased him about being settled so young, about his early wedding; when he’d gotten engaged they’d been wide-eyed, moreso than with others. Zayn was serious when he did big things. If he’d proposed, well, they’d be married a while after.

 

When Zayn split with them, Harry’d felt it poetic justice that he split with Perrie soon after, but he’d never believed the cheating rumors. He’d wanted to, out of spite- maybe Zayn was just a complete asshole, in the end- but it was so jarringly out of place that he never had. Still, it was cold, worse on Perrie than on them, and Zayn had seemed (as always as always) so horribly, cruelly composed and cool while Perrie cried onstage and Jade fumed.

 

He read, somewhere, that she’ll be sharing a stage with Zayn, in London. He read that Zayn had left a thing, because she’d been there, before. The article said because he didn’t want people to focus on his past love-life, which sounds like a Zayn thing to do, but Harry thinks he might also just not wanted to see Perrie. Zayn is the type not to like messy forced nostalgia or dramatic emotional stunts.

 

Harry could potentially be classed as either of those.

 

He thinks, as he lets out what could be called a hysterical chuckle, that he really did not sign up for this.

 

((“GUYYYYS @zaynmalik told me he was feeling QUIXOTIC today OMFGGGG WHO RU ANGEL”

 

“@zaynmalik carries an Oxford dictionary in his pocket so as to seem smart when he meets people, don’t be fooled. H”

 

“@Harry_Styles would know, he just googled quixotic to see what it meant”

 

“@zaynmalik how positively machiavellan”

 

“@Harry_Styles that doesn’t even make sense given context”

 

“@zaynmalik half your song lyrics don’t even make sense given context”

 

“@Harry_Styles says the creative genius behind where do broken hearts go….smh”

 

“@zaynmalik You weren’t much better, ‘here we go again another round for all my friends’…”

 

“@Harry_Styles yeah coz we all know how much my writing was valued in 1d”

 

“@zaynmalik Aw but you were so enthusiastic”

 

“@Harry_Styles now you’re just being tumultuous”

 

“@zaynmalik to prove I’m right, I put it, in a so-o-ong”

 

“besides acting and singing @Harry_Styles is also a master of having his jokes fall flat #funhstylesfacts”

“@zaynmalik is unsurprisingly a sore loser ;P H”

 

“@zaynmalik I don’t know why, you’re being shy”

 

“@NiallOffical what the fuck mate”

 

“@NiallOfficial @zaynmalik Hah yes good thanks for the support Niall”

 

“@Harry_Styles @zaynmalik how could I forget our best song!!!hah”

 

“@Harry_Styles @NiallOfficial @zaynmalik BABY YOU LIGHT UP MY WORLD LIKE NOBODY ELSE”


“okay i saw that one coming”

 

“@Louis_Tomlinson @Harry_Styles @zaynmalik THE WAY THAT U FLIP YOUR HAIR GETS ME OVERWHELMED”

 

“@zaynmalik @NiallOfficial @Louis_Tomlinson BUT WHEN YOU SMILE AT THE GROUND IT AINT HARD TO TELL”

“@Louis_Tomlinson @zaynmalik @NiallOfficial @Harry_Styles YOU DON’T KNOW OH OH YOU DON’T KNOW YOURE BEAUTIFUL”

 

“@Real_Liam_Payne YESSSS BOY”

“@Real_Liam_Payne fantatic mate haha”

 

“@Real_Liam_Payne xx”

 

“@Real_Liam_Payne @Louis_Tomlinson @NiallOfficial @Harry_Styles…. duffah oja”

 

“@zaynmalik rude”))

 

 

Liam calls them all out on the group chat, later.

 

“Now tell me that wasn’t banter…..”

 

“Mate ive been living the bants since I could lol u guys are pointlessly thick” Niall answers, smug little shit. He’s far too smart under his dorky sunshine cover.

 

“I was just playing along w Harry and Niall” Louis defends, immediately on edge. Lou doesn’t like making nice after a fight.

 

“Besides its whatever not like it happens often.”

 

“I thought it was fun,” Liam adds, with a sighing emoji. Payno is typing. Pause. Payno is typing.

 

“It works better at five.”

 

Nialler is typing and Tommo is typing both halt.

 

“I was just edging on,” Harry drops, unhelpfully obtuse. “Leave me out of this.”

 

“HARRY” Louis writes, irate (the hypocrite).

 

“Suuuuure Hazza” Niall adds, a few smirking emojis in tow.

 

Liam just puts a zoomed in picture of him squinting at a phone.

 

Harry conveniently forgets to answer.

 

 

((“THE BOYS ALL TALKED TOGETHETR IM CYRING SO LOUDLY THIS IS HONESTLY THE BEST MOMENST OF TH EYEAR IM SO EMOTIONAL GUYS THIS COULD MEAN NE W FRIENDSHISS???? IS THS REAL IM”

 

“team ot5 forever”

 

“2012 revivaL!!!!MY SOUL!!!! HAS REBORN!!!!”

 

“yall im not even in the one direction fandom but this drama is currently on some kardashian level shit man im so invested rn I need to know what happens next will the boys and zayn reconnect will 1D perform w him suddenly will harry and zayn have sex backstage stay tuned for more….”

 

“beyonce be backstage surveying this like [pic]”

 

“the amount OF EMOTIONS IVE BEEN THRU AS A DIRECTIONR!!!”

 

“slowclap for us one d fans for not having an aneurysm anytime this past few months….”

 

“as a panic at the disco veteran it pains me to admit that the one direction fandom is probably going through more fucking existential torment than we did back when [picture] god save us all”))

 

 

Harry puts on one of his old headbands, the day it rains. He finds it whilst rummaging for shirts; feels something irrepressible bubble in his veins, looks up to find his reflecting looking at him with coquettish joie-de-vivre. He misses performing, how alive he feels on a stage with screams accompanying his every move, the spotlight glowing on his skin, voice ascending to something more than words can.

 

It’s raining, outside. He’s got an interview scheduled later, but he’s got nothing on all morning, and he’s aching with wander-lust. If this was a book he’d be running off to the countryside, meeting a mysterious yet tranquil young woman with a tragic past, a roller-coaster ride of maladroit statements and effervescent sentiment. Instead, he puts on his worn-in boots, the same old Rolling Stones shirt he’s worn since 2013, ties his hair messily with the floral band, and indecisively throws on about six different bangles.

 

His reflection is a strange creature, caught between a glimpse of the past and a shot at the future. Harry nods to him, then grabs an overly large coat he digs out from under piles of untouched clothes and is pretty sure belongs to Liam, slips his keys in his back pocket and heads out into the rain. The nearest Underground isn’t that far, and besides he likes walking on days like these.

 

The nasty weather is no deterrent either to the paparazzi or to Harry, but he shakes them off purely by dawdling. He knows this part of London like it’s home, the indie artsy hipster shops with their dusty doors and crowded bookshelves, the old punk record stores with older owners, the weird junk collectors and the pretentious art galleries. He blends, mostly, at ease chatting up the artists and hipsters alike, comfortable lounging in the rickety chairs, fine with staring at a broken fan and being told just why Adam from Nightfall had ran off from Bristol even though all his family had done engineering there.

 

It’s rejuvenating, hearing snippets of other people’s lives. Harry loves it, lives for the flashes of life he gets to steal from others’ hearts, licks up every bit that various strangers drop from their lips, is addicted to exploring the world through someone else’s mind. He’s a thought-junkie, sort of, thief of feelings and memories, absolutely adores when people look at his bright eyes and broad, steady smile and can’t help but admit some random thing to him that’s been plaguing them lately.

 

“I just don’t know what I’m doing on this planet, you know?” Sarah sighs, pushing a stray curl behind her ear. Harry nods at the piercing in her stomach, under her black croptop and above her orange skinny jeans. “There’s a lack of purpose. I’m so restless, all the time. So I think, maybe, like, I can fuck myself into oblivion, and then I’ll find some quietude.”

 

“White people don’t get it,” Jerome tells him, over a cup of bitter coffee. “No offense, but you really don’t. My skin is a brand on me alienating me from my own country. I couldn’t keep going at Oxford, not where money carries you so high. I paid my rent and ran away to here. Now I paint. It’s nice. I have a cat, my brother visits often. I;m saving up to go live by the sea.”

 

“There’s so fucking much out there, right?” Seb rushes, dimples flashing. “So fucking much I can still see.” He huffs out a breath of smoke, cross-legged on the floor, then shakes his head. “I’m going to make enough money off this DJ-ing job for me to travel, and then I’m going to fucking rockstar this world.”

 

“My grandma used to do crochet, actually,” Dani agrees, teal nails hammering against her wrist. “She died when I was a kid, but I remember that cause her house is my aunt’s now, and there are these patterns everywhere. She hated tattoos, so she probably wouldn’t be very impressed by the inspiration, but yeah. That’s where I started getting into it.”

 

“What’s it like, being Harry Styles?” Eli questions, in his Kanye issued sweater, Nikes on the footstool. “I can’t imagine it. Must be wicked weird, mate.”

 

Harry listens to them all, answers as best he can, still easily distracted. Some laugh, some frown, no one asks him to speed up. It’s unfamiliarly comfortable.

 

“I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s just like being Eli Kent, only everyone knows you’re Eli Kent, and when you speak you hear it reflected back at you, distorted in varying degrees by a crowd of faceless people. It’s invisible glittery hands prodding at you as you go along with life. It’s losing yourself in London, but only til five, because then it’s time to go look pretty for someone who probably hates you.”

“Sounds shit,” Eli says, after reflection. “Tough.”

 

“Nah,” Harry shakes his head. “It’s not all bad.”

 

Eli looks at him, shrewdly. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

 

[Article: TIME, 09/05/16, Harry and Zayn: Bandmates to bad dates]

 

[…]

 

Styles and Malik are certainly no strangers to the interviewee’s couch, and by this point they’re quite familiar with the questions we’re eager to ask. I catch them sizing each other up; it’s a fascinating process. Neither seem prepared to engage in open contact, preferring stolen glances, but their bodies betray their awareness of one another, taut with tension, moving imperceptibly in sync with the other.

 

We sit. I apologize for the cramped seating.

 

“It’s quite all right,” Styles says, flashing me his dimples straight off the bat. He’s in a flirtatious mood. I look away to avoid falling into the trap that are the ‘emerald orbs’ he calls eyes. “Zayn and I have survived worse.”

 

Malik rolls his own heavily lashed eyes, in a more brooding set of mind today.

 

They have been exposed to quite the number of forced reunions, I confirm. Things have certainly changed since those first bitter exchanges on Twitter.

 

Both stiffen at that, Styles’ expression very “deer caught in the headlights” before he regains his blinding smile, Malik’s brows lowering into a calculating frown. They have surprisingly powerful looks, for ex-boybanders in their early twenties, a far cry from both their in-band personas and their media portrayals.

 

“Hopefully,” Malik enunciates, in his delightfully authentic mumble, “The change is for the better.” Then he gives Styles a pointed once-over: some people certainly don’t change for the better.

 

“Zayn is all about change,” Styles agrees pleasantly, “From music to hairstyles.” It’s not as cruel as it could easily have been, surprisingly, almost more teasing than harsh, and even Styles seems to be taken aback by his own tone.

 

Malik gives him a very long, heavy pause in return. I clear my throat.

 

So, who here has seen Captain America: Civil War, I ask, knowing full well that Styles saw it the day preceding our meeting.

 

Malik lights up, features morphing with easy grace into an open enthusiasm that renders him horrendously attractive in yet another way. I am not alone in noticing the change- Styles tugs at a loose curl, falling silent for a moment.

 

“Yeah, I saw it,” Malik nods, with a flash of a bright smile. “Bloody brilliant. Not as big as Deadpool, not as good as Winter Soldier, but brilliant. The whole dichotomy in it, the fragility yet the inherent strength of Steve and Bucky, all the fucking amazing fights, it’s just... Marvel, you know.”

 

Styles and I both nod, although I’m mostly sure both of us are lost.

 

“I liked the helicopter scene,” Styles says, almost shyly. It’s ridiculously endearing, considering that I’m a happily married man. He catches himself, lips stretching wider: “Chris Evans isn’t hard on the eyes either.”

 

Malik is undeterred, however, actually openly focusing on his companion for the first time as he grins. “That scene, man.” Turning to me: “Symbolically, and just emotionally and shit- that scene is so huge. Loved it.”

 

I feel compelled to agree with Malik on whatever he says as long as he keeps smiling at me so sincerely, but Styles seems to have mastered the art of self-control, because he merely snorts.

 

“There isn’t much you won’t like about a movie if it’s got Marvel written on it.”

 

It comes out pointlessly derisive; I frown curiously at Styles, who seems mysteriously spiteful all of a sudden. Malik grows nebulous, drawing back, a half-lidded look of contempt replacing his enthusiasm.

 

“Funny how branding can make people appreciate even shit content.”

 

Ouch, I think. Styles’ jaw clenches.

 

I do not understand how these two function.

 

[…]

 

Both seem even younger to my senior eye when the baby is brought up, faces losing some of their cool edge in genuine sentiment, far more subdued with Malik but still evident in the quirk of his lips.

 

“I love Freddie,” Styles gushes, “Although I’ve never met him face to face. He’s so cute, and he looks just like Lou, as well! The nose thing he does, like...” He scrunches up his nose. Malik stops himself before he laughs.

 

Styles beams. “I’m the favourite uncle, definitely. I’m the coolest one. Niall is too bland and Liam is too dull, and Louis is just annoying. I’m the only option Freddie has.”

 

Malik snorts. “Poor kid.”

 

Styles gives him serious side-eye, but there’s no heat behind it. “Stop being so horrendously jealous, god.”

 

“Of Freddie’s uncle choices? Fat chance.” Malik answers, easy, leaning back into the couch. His one arm is slung over the back, folded awkwardly to avoid hanging around Styles. It’s clearly something he forgot to watch out for.

 

“No, of the baby being cute.” Styles quips, before tilting his head my way. “He’ll steal your small children.”

 

My daughter is six, I say. She loves Zayn.

 

Malik smiles, with no pretense of modesty but genuine fleeting pride. Styles pulls a face.

 

“I like kids, yeah,” Malik admits. “Not my sisters, though. They were just bratty.”

 

An obvious lie, which Styles doesn’t let slip.

 

“Yeah, course, Zayn. Not a family person at all. In no way besotted with all his sisters, at all.”

 

Malik shrugs in admission, and Styles snickers, briefly. It makes his hair fall into his eyes, and for one monumental millisecond I am convinced I see Malik give him a smile that he returns sheepishly.

 

“I like your sister.”

 

“She likes you, too,” Styles mutters, sourly. By the crease in his forehead I assume Gemma Styles is a sister much like my own.

 

“Doniya and Waliyha told me I was a spoilt twat when I decided to go solo, so.” Malik says, with an almost mischievous look to his composed attitude all of a sudden. Styles grins.

 

“I like your sisters very much, as you already know.” And then, as an afterthought, reminiscent of the sixteen-year-old bakery shop worker he once was: “And your mum and dad are lovely too, course.”

 

There’s something absurd about watching these two “mortal enemies” make polite small talk about their families, but it’s bizarrely charming nonetheless.

 

“Don’t get my parents started,” Malik huffs, craning his neck back. “They’re still half convinced they can get me to star in a movie now you’ve done it.”

 

Styles thinks of something; his eyes glitter, then he smoothly says: “Oh, really?” in a completely innocent voice. Malik squints at him, but Styles gives him a toothy grin instead of cracking, turning to me instead.

 

“So how’s your family?”

 

Malik snorts. I respond that we’re all doing perfectly well.

 

[…]

 

 

((“LINKS TO THE INTERVIEW ARE HERE

 

“omfg,,,,,,,that shoot,,,,,,,,,what are ovaries”

 

“SO MUCH ATTRACTIVENESS CONDENSED IN THREE PHOTOS”

“where is all the unused material???? @obama see what happens when u leave”

 

“wHO IS THE FANFIC WRITER POSING AS GOD WRITING THE SCRIPT FOR THES E BOYS?????? THIS CANNOT BE FORREAL”

 

“okay but harry says it ‘almost shyly’ more like stab me right now in the face GOD”

 

“ZAYN IS MY NERD SON LOOK AT THIS DORK GUSHNG ABOUT CACW IM SO EM OTIONAL”

 

“literally this interview surpassed any expectations I could have had and rocketed off into fucking outer space”

 

“@KyleMarsh_TIME THANK U FOR GIVING US THIS MASTERPIECE OF AN ARTICLE”

 

“@KyleMarsh_TIME is the KING OF ZARRY”

 

“@zaynmalik ships stucky confirmed…”

 

“@zaynmalik @Harry_Styles Wow…u both love kids huh??? What about…adoption…together…..get married is what im saying #dadzarry”))

 

 

Harry goes to a Dior event, in May. The weather is spectacular, in true anti-London sentiment, and Kendall’s there with her entire klan, so Harry steers clear of them. He can stand her, not the whole lot of the fucking Kardashians.

He’s seen the pics of Zayn at Valentino, which is probably the most high-fashion thing he’s seen in his entire life, so it should come as no surprise that Zayn is dressed to the bloody nines here. Hell, so’s Harry, his hair in billowing waves, recently cut, patterned shirt and cropped coat with striped trousers and expensive leather shoes (and when he says expensive he really means it). Still, Zayn shows up when Harry’s climbing out of his own cab, his regrown silver hair shimmering in the flashing lights, his coat just that tint of mauve, his jeans fitted to perfection, and when he turns for the cameras, Gigi on his arm, Harry notices the glasses.

 

God, fucking glasses. Harry detests them.

 

Zayn notices him, flicks his gaze up and down, nods. Harry feels faintly dizzy. The fucking glasses. He wasn’t expecting those.

 

He remembers, abruptly, a memory of early on in the band, when they were barely on the X-factor, still tentatively trying to figure each other out, walking into the room Zayn shared with Niall at that point. It’s one of those insignificant memories you have no reason to remember but always remember at poignant moments.

 

He’d had trouble with Zayn, at the start. Louis and he got on like a house on fire from day 1, youthful and mischievous and brilliant, and Niall was funny and friendly and could play guitar, and even though Liam was painfully shy, Harry’d started getting to him, so that Liam no longer went stiff if Harry draped himself over him, and even joked along sometimes when Louis made a dirty joke.

 

Zayn, though…He was different. Sort of weird. Really introverted, but not shy like Liam, or at least he didn’t act it. It wasn’t fair, really- he and Liam got along really well, unsurprisingly, and he and Niall were somehow thick as thieves, but he hadn’t taken to either Harry or Louis so far, and even then he seemed more inclined to laugh at Louis than to acknowledge Harry.

 

People liked Harry, usually. He wanted Zayn to like him, too. Zayn was weird, all quiet and pouty, like he was in on some bigger secret they couldn’t see, sometimes smiling at them in a way that felt like he was laughing at them. He was fit, too, knew it. When the girls were around he’d stare out into the distance a lot more, just so they’d see his dumb sexy squint thing. Harry didn’t know anyone like Zayn.

 

He’d not meant to intrude; he was looking for Niall.

 

“Oh, sorry!”

 

Zayn’d turned, fluttered his lashes sluggishly. Zayn had long, girly lashes. Harry’d noticed that first, on him- Liam had a strong jaw, Niall had cute crooked teeth, Louis had a funny nose, and Zayn had really girly eyes. He seemed to be permanently unhurried, too, leisurely as he moved along, half-asleep still. Harry was always full of unbridled energy; he couldn’t relate.

 

“S fine.”

 

“I was looking for Niall?” Harry tried, hating his tentative tone. He always sounded like a kid around Zayn, which was dumb because he was sixteen, not twelve, or else he overcompensated by coming off a bit dickish.

 

“He’s out with Louis,” Zayn said, listlessly. Harry frowned. He’d not noticed, cause of the dark, but-

 

“You wear glasses?” Harry blurted out, tactlessly. He couldn’t imagine someone as unapproachably cool as Zayn Malik, Bradford bad boy, wearing glasses. Now that his eyes were accustomed to the dark, he thought Zayn might have been using them for reading, too, which was even weirder.

 

Zayn froze, face losing its withdrawn look and going alarmed for a moment. He didn’t look happy.

 

“Yeah, so what?”

 

Harry fumbled. Shite. “Nothing! I just- I mean, they look-”

 

What?”

 

“Different, is all!” Harry protested, hands raised. “But a good different. I swear.”

 

Zayn squinted. Harry felt the need to elaborate.

 

“Like, you know, when you get a Cadbury’s surprise box for Christmas, and you think you’ll find a chocolate button, but instead it’s a caramel toffee, and you don’t realize because your sister’s been talking about her gift so you weren’t looking, and when you taste it you’re weirded out because it’s not a chocolate button but then you realize it’s toffee and toffee’s pretty nice so, um.”

 

Zayn was openly staring now. Harry felt his cheeks heat up. Gemma always said he rambled too much.

 

“I’m Muslim,” Zayn said, slowly. “We don’t have Christmas.”

 

“Oh!” Harry said, cursing the high pitch of his voice. “Right! Of course!”

 

“I do like toffee, though.”

 

“Toffee’s good,” Harry agreed fervently.

 

“Just not chocolate buttons.” Zayn continued, watching him. Harry bit his lip.

 

“Um.”

 

Then, suddenly, Zayn snorted, loudly. Harry went wide-eyed.

 

“Sorry, I just… You’re really weird.”

 

“Wh-what?” Harry sputtered, offended beyond belief. “Coming from you!”

 

Zayn wasn’t even looking at him, now, too busy laughing. Harry watched him with open surprise, then felt something warm in his chest, like he’d felt that first day when Louis had offered him an eager handshake. Maybe Zayn Malik wasn’t so bad, in the end.

 

“Bloody chocolate buttons,” Zayn snickered, nose crinkled with laughter. His eyes were remarkably shiny. Harry’s insides squirmed with pride.

 

“I like chocolate buttons,” was all he said, before dissolving into giggles himself. Zayn in glasses was a good look on him. He was a lot more attainable with glasses.

 

He told Zayn so, half-embarrassed half-amused at himself. Zayn’s eyebrows shot up.

 

“Right. Well, ah, thanks?” Then a smile, genuine, traced itself on Zayn’s unfairly cheekbone equipped face: “You know, I like you a lot better when you’re not acting up.”

 

“I don’t act up!” Harry gaped. “You’re the one who’s always being aloof and cool.”

 

“I’m not aloof,” Zayn protested, brows furrowed. “I’m bloody anti-social, you idiot.”

 

“Well, Liam’s really shy, and he doesn’t act like you.”

 

“Well, Niall’s really extroverted, and he doesn’t act like you.”

 

Harry huffed. Damnit.

 

“Well, you still act cool.”

 

Zayn gave him a look, slow, until Harry started squirming. He wasn’t used to people taking their time so much.

 

“Maybe I just am that cool.”

 

Blink, blink.

 

Then, delightedly: “You’re so full of it!”

 

Zayn had laughed, continued laughing when Harry tackled him with renewed enthusiasm. As it turned out, Zayn was ticklish, which was good because Harry was too and he had a feeling he’d be victimized by the older boys sooner or later.

 

He decided, with a profound and newfound satisfaction, as he sat atop a squirming Zayn, glasses askew, that he and Zayn Malik would be best friends just like the others. And win the X-Factor.

 

 

Harry thinks of that, now, and doesn’t break contact as Zayn watches him watching Zayn, doesn’t know a word to describe what’s going on in his head, thinks Zayn might. He’s always been the poet, really. Harry should’ve guessed, after none of his songs got taken up, that he’d be gone soon.

 

Artiste.

 

The cameras flash excitedly as he falls into step with his ex-best friend turned worst enemy turned something uncomfortable, long legs useful for once. Gigi gives him a knowing smile. Harry almost rolls his eyes at her.

 

“Hey.” Zayn says. Like it’s no big deal for him.

 

“Hi.” Harry says back, looking away because it’s easier to look indifferent when you’re not sweating nervously.

 

When they walk through the doors Gigi slips away, whispering about Kendall, leaving them alone, amidst a huge throbbing crowd of socialites but still somehow isolated.

 

“I like your glasses,” Harry says, not on purpose, half in a dream of days long gone.

 

Zayn looks up, guarded, and for an instant Harry’s sixteen and anxious to be liked. Then he sighs, eyes almost butterbeer light in the angry fluorescents of the hall, shattering the illusion.

 

“Thanks.” It’s dry, deadpan, probably because Harry’s previous comment was weird.

 

Zayn’s just rolling with Harry’s moodswings, by now, has been since the start, somehow, which is vaguely impressive for various reasons.

 

Their seats are next to each other, of course.

 

Harry doesn’t know if he should weep or laugh.

 

“How coincidental,” Zayn murmurs, unperturbed, as he sits. It’s the first time in a while Harry’s seen his hand tattoo this close up. He forgot how nice is was. Harry’s own tattoos are a jumbled, disjointed mess, just the way he likes it, laid out with chaotic intent. Zayn’s are precise, assured, meant for the place they’re laid out on. He wonders if he could pull a good metaphor out of that. Maybe even a lyric.

 

They’ve got a lot of matching tattoos, between them. Harry wonders if Friday? is still there. If the screws are still there. Don’t think I won’t…Might as well…

 

He lets out half a laugh. Jesus.

 

Zayn’s smiling, not looking at him, but Harry knows.

God, he’s in a mood today- he should’ve stayed at home.

 

He gets so clingy sometimes, needy, affection-starved; good for encouraging himself to get laid, nothing good for meeting the person you were once glued to the hip with. If Zayn doesn’t do something horrible soon, Harry’ll end up middle-aged parenting him and going full-out “remember the good old days”.

 

And then he’ll go hang himself with his luxurious belt.

 

“Less shine here than at the Met,” Zayn remarks, airy.

 

“I saw the metal arms,” Harry affirms, not mentioning the rest of his outfit nor the joke Niall’d made about Bucky.

 

“They weren’t exactly hidden.”

 

“Fair.”

 

No one speaks again until the show starts, and then Harry’s attention is divided between the models, the model right next to him and Kendall waving at him from across the walk. The clothes are interesting, too chic for Harry, too formal mostly- France’s fashion has always rung a bit too heavy for his tastes. Still, Harry’s an art connoisseur if only because he likes the beautiful things in life, so he watches with muted admiration as the aggressively bony young women smolder their way down the catwalk, their matte-coloured clothes hanging purposefully from their delicate frames.

 

Zayn makes a sound of muted protest, and to Harry’s inquisitive glance actually bothers to answer: “Gigi.”

 

Oh, right. She and Kendall are whispering and laughing, shooting them weird looks.

 

He thinks back to Taylor.

 

Well.

 

“Are they…?” Harry ventures, somehow, as if that’s a thing he’d ever ask Zayn Malik.

 

Are they… Like it’s even something that’d crossed his mind until right this very moment.

 

“Yeah, sorta,” Zayn answers, as if he was expecting it. “Not highkey.”

 

Right.

 

So, that’s different.

 

Harry watches them, superficial model girls he quite likes but never more, “girl pals” supreme, and feels tired.

 

“Ever thought of being a farmer?”

 

Zayn snorts. “No.”

 

“I could be a farmer.”

 

“No, you couldn’t. Liam, maybe. Niall.”

 

Their names in his mouth sound surreal. Liam, Niall. When’s he last heard that? He can’t think. Keep talking, I beg of you.

 

“I’m capable of dirty work, thank you.”

 

“Yeah,” Zayn says, pointed. “I’m not saying anything.”

 

Harry smiles sharp.

 

“You could be a nude model, or something. Laze around naked.” Zayn offers.

 

“I thought you were going to say for my impeccable physique.”

 

“Cosmo voted me ahead of you, actually.”

 

“You read Cosmo?”

 

“I read.”

 

Then there’s applause, and Harry acts like he gives a single fuck about Dior’s summer collection 2016 in the moment where everything was briefly healthy and good in the world.

 

 

((“zayns outfit at the met slayed me but this!!!! What even”

 

“[pic][pic][pic]….no words”

 

“look at them GOD [pic] u wanna talk fucking body lge??? []pic] look at zayn’s face [pic] look at their SMILEs [pic] [pic] [pic] kigi is RIGHT THERE and they just [pic] [pic]”

 

“RAW ME [pic]”

 

“I am d on e with this nonsense I cannot. I’m done. I’m moving to the Nicki Minaj fandom. She’s in control of her life. I trust her.”

 

“harry sees those glasses and then look how glassy his eys go that is the face of a man who knows Want”

 

“I LEAAVE THIS TRASH SITE ONE MINUTE N IN THAT INSTANT HARRY N ZAYN SIT TOGEHER FLIRT GET MARRIED ADOPT CHILDREN BUY A HOUSE AND FOUND A DYNASTY WTF”

 

“reblog for zarry dior, ignore for zigi met”

 

“ZAYN W GLASSES!!! JUST!!!! FUCK!!!! ME!!! UP!!!! [gif] [gif]”

 

“how long until im free”))

 

Chapter Text

After that, Harry goes home.

 

Home to his mum, who screams in surprise when he pokes her shoulder from behind, then clasps him to her and tears up.

 

“I’ve missed you so much! Oh, Harry! Oh, Harry…Look at you!”

 

“Mum, come on…”

 

He sleeps in his old bed, too small now, the room seemingly diminutive from what he remembers, his mum’s eyes so bright and happy he feels terribly guilty for not visiting more often. She cooks him a huge meal everyday he can’t refuse on a clean conscience, and Harry laughs along and tells her all kinds of crazy stories that he purposefully loses track of halfway so she’ll fondly call him a scatter-brain.

 

It’s good.

 

It’s time, too. He has to think proper, or rather just cut the chase. He’s gone from being so self-assured to only blocking out what he thinks is true, all because he’s scared of himself. And he is, in the end, scared. It’s huge, all this, now. It’s of a magnitude that makes him panicky, because he doesn’t do well with all consuming.

 

He breaks it to himself, pausing for air everyday, allowing a break, for his brain to shut down and refuse further confession, for his body to get hot and cold and shaky.

 

Thing is, right. He’s known since the start, but he’s never known.

 

Harry Styles, heartbreaker. Irony, noun, definition.

 

He rewatches old YouTube videos. All pressed together on a couch, looking eager and friendly and cohesive, him and Zayn on opposite ends, waggling brows at each other and laughing.

 

That’s what no one’s gotten, isn’t it? That it’s not the new thing that bothers Harry, renders him nauseated and panicked, not the cliché development of his furious barbs, but what lies before. He can’t measure how far back it goes- it spans eternal.

 

His mum watches him with worry as he stresses and cries and shouts and throws a fit, but she doesn’t tell what she thinks. Harry’s pretty sure Gemma’s told her everything in detail, and even if she hadn’t his mum would’ve found a way. The Internet would have willingly given her a book’s worth of writing on his supposed liaisons.

 

(The paradoxal thing is that he spends all his free-time online bantering with Zayn.)

 

Harry stays home a good two weeks, and then Niall is in London throwing a party, and the boys are all invited. The way Niall says the boys makes it obvious.

 

He’s not ready, really. Hasn’t pushed himself properly, not at home when he’s been coddled, not when he so very dearly hates confrontation, not when he’s Harry who’s always gotten away with playing safe simply by being reckless, not when he knows Zayn but doesn’t anymore. He’s half-way there, in a perpetual state of maybe, but it’s a good enough start for someone who so often relies on improvisation to get through life.

 

Harry puts on his Pink Floyd shirt and some tight skinny jeans, feeling as though he’s allowed to indulge in a bit of nostalgia for tonight. Then he spends half an hour obsessing over his hair, which is ridiculous given that it’ll end up a mane of physics-defying tangles no matter what he does.

 

His mum gets teary-eyed when he leaves.

 

“Oh, Harry. You’re still so young.”

 

“Mum…”

 

“You know, I sometimes just think- if I hadn’t made you audition, you’d be so much happier….”

 

“I’m doing what I love, mum. Of course I’m happy.”

 

“But you’re not!” Anne says, then fans herself. “I just…I want you to be happy again, like you used to be.”

 

Harry pauses.

 

“I’m not going to be sixteen again, mum. I’m different now.”

 

“As long as you’re happy, I don’t care,” Anne sighs, miserably.

 

He swallows. “I will be. Promise.”

 

She nods, hand to her throat. “Oh, I’m sorry, love. You know how emotional I get when I see you go.”

 

“Yeah,” Harry says, apprehensive again. “It’s all right.”

 

 

The party is in a massive old building in central London, some place that used to be a mansion or a courtroom or a palace or something sortlike.

 

There are many spots like that around- places that have lost everything about their original function, except the shine and glamour. Lights are already flashing rhythmically inside when Harry approaches, bright against the night skies; the paparazzi crowding the door comes to life eagerly.

 

Inside, the mood is different. The place is thankfully not trashy, or at least not in comparison to some of the places he’s been with Lou and Niall, but it’s heady with thrumming music and buzzed up energy, the desperate vitality of the socialite crowd, live fast die young the unofficial motto of any such a place. The party is going full-scale, the rooms all crowded to the max, and Harry’s fashionably late- enough so that some couples are already going at it with added coquetries and that some people are already in that wild stage where they’ll wake up to the taste of regret.

 

It’s a good party. Harry can feel it instinctively.

 

He tries to spot the boys, first, going through a handful of drinks as he recalls ways to track them down.

 

Lou thrives like Harry does in these places, desperate to hook on the vibe, reckless and crackling with electric presence; he’s sure he’ll find him somewhere in the center of the room, doing some crazy shit everyone will forget to film just this once. Niall is probably in the midst of a gaggle of people, just as lively and liked in a suffocating crowd as he is one-on-one, could be dancing carelessly in some fluorescent room to the newest pop hit. Liam, if Harry knows him (he does) is away from the core of the party, holding a conversation over a drink, maybe sitting on a couch and making some inquisitive souls roar with laughter.

 

Events like these were never Liam’s thing. He’s evolved so much, since his panicked and shy teenaged self stuttered out excuses to every mild thing the rest of them did, gained the careful confidence he’s always had and matured into a quietly sure presence that’s at ease commanding the room. Still, Liam doesn’t like the nights where everyone is out to start a mess, nor is he a fan of being crushed by a swarm of sweating bodies. It was always a Zayn and Liam thing, that- being dragged along to parties, asking to stay and watch a movie instead.

 

Zayn, unlike Liam, never seems discomfited on the spot. Winding his way through wide-eyed party-goers, murmuring in a victim’s ear with a slight smirk, swallowing drinks with precise intent, luring someone home- that’s all an easy snap of the fingers away. He just doesn’t like it, is all, does Zayn, always the first to slip outside for a smoke, stargazing through a haze of billowing white, to take it to the bedroom away from the masses, to stand looking aloof when he’s really just being quiet. It’s a mix of vague pretention and steady introversion.

 

He gets spotted first, by Liam, who claps him on the back with his solid hands.

 

“Hey, Harry.”

 

Harry’s face brightens on instinct, because he’s missed Liam, and he’d not realized just how much until he had him there. An undercover wallflower, is Liam.

 

“Payno!”

 

He folds onto him, making Liam laugh and hold his drink high. Liam never stumbles back.

 

“I’m glad to see you here,” Liam says, once he’s been released, over the thump of the bass line. “It’s been a while since I saw all of you. You and Louis especially.”

 

“All the kids in the same room, huh?” Harry laughs, squinty-eyed.

 

Liam does something weird, a little sheepish. “Yeah.”

 

Harry follows his train of thought, feels his stomach do a flip. All of them.

 

“I’m not going to shout at you for saying his name, you know. This isn’t Harry Potter.”

 

“Don’t mock art, Haz,” Liam reproves, but he’s relieved, his warm brown eyes softening. “You’re just bitter about being the lesser Harry.”

 

Oi,” Harry argues, then gives up. “Yeah, no, fair.”

 

He follows it up by a: “How’s the girl, then?”

 

His friend smiles, half-blushing, searching her out in the crowd. “She’s lovely, honest. I know you guys are all cradle-snatcher on her case, but she’s really…She’s summat special.”

 

It’s tooth-rottingly sweet. Louis would have retched. Harry coos.

 

“Aw, mate. I wouldn’t judge, you know me. I’d be really hypocritical if I went around, like, judging people’s life choices. Specially where romance is concerned.”

 

Liam glows, and Harry feels like a good friend.

 

“When does the filming begin?”

 

“Um, soon-ish,” Harry says, hands in his back-pockets. “It’s due 2017, so, like, I’ve read the script and started learning and all. Maybe you could come see a rehearsal, like, if you’re not busy?”

 

“We’d be delighted,” Niall announces, coming up behind Harry. His cheeks are rosy already, hair ruffled and eyes too shiny- he’s clearly been going at it for a while now, but, in true Irish fashion, lacks proper alcohol reaction time, unlike their poor lightweight Payno. “What did I just agree to?”

 

“Coming to watch my practice so you can carry my stuff for me.” Harry says, but he’s grinning at Niall already, out of habit. Niall chuckles, swings himself from Harry’s back to his side, slips an arm around his waist.

 

“I can’t reach where you can, mate. Ask Liam.”

 

“Liam’s going to be carrying me,” Harry protests. “Honestly.”

 

They all snicker, pulling aside as a very drunk girl pulls her friend after her to the kitchen. Of course, because the notion of soft bullying is practically defined by his name, Louis Tomlinson stumbles out of the kitchen mere moments later, stubbly and drunk looking even though he’s probably very sober.

 

“Oh, so that’s how it is now? Secret congregations behind my back, lads?”

 

“We weren’t plotting your imminent demise,” Niall says, immediately, in an overwhelmingly suspicious tone.

 

“Not at all,” Harry agrees, with exaggerated care. “That’d be mean.”

 

“We love you too much,” Liam finishes, in a complete dead-pan.

 

Louis gives them a moment, then lets out an aggravated: “Well, that’s just unfair.” that cracks the whole lot of them up.

 

“You can’t just all unite against me, that’s not how it works!”

 

“Yeah, cause you’re so fair yourself,” Liam teases. Louis huffs.

 

“My tyranny was a just one- Oi, stop shouting! It was!”

 

The ensuing clamoring is enough to set them all off again. When they quiet down, Niall hiccupping with giggles, Harry’s whole body light with mirth, the party suddenly roaring with sound now that they’re not shouting over it, Harry leaning into Niall who’s pulling a face at Liam, he realizes they’re having a moment.

 

“We’re having a moment,” Louis announces. “I want you all to look sufficiently ecstatic for me to have a good flashback montage when I’m old and bitter.”

 

“I always look like a million bucks, you know me,” Niall says, stealing his drink and downing it. “Eugh.”

 

“This is so gay,” Louis sighs, tipping his head back. “And yes, I did take into account that none of us is straight.”

 

“Um,” Liam says.

 

“What?! Have you forgotten our romance already?” Harry exclaims, mock offended. Niall gives a scandalized gasp.

 

“All those nights in the shower, Payno!” Louis adds, heart-broken. Liam turns red.

 

“Guys, my girlfriend is right here.”

 

“OH, LIAM,” Louis screeches, above the music. “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU-mfmfgfff.”

 

Niall, cackling with laughter, almost topples over with Harry in tow, as Louis remains caught in a headlock.

 

“I’m gonna go find a drink,” Harry says, flipping his hair so that it sticks less to his neck. It’s always so warm in these places.

 

“Cheers,” Liam nods, as Niall slaps him on the arse and lets him go. Harry winks at Louis, who glares, then loiters off.

 

He’s been so distracted by the banter between them that he’s forgotten his ennui. It’s the craic he misses, most of all, even more than the softer moments between them, because it’s that safe-sure thing that cemented their friendship. Oh, there’s another word- craic’s Irish, from Niall’s mouth before it was a trend. Harry misses this.

 

The rooms are a maze, difficult to navigate for someone who takes up as much space as Harry, with his gangly limbs and long hair a peril to himself and those nearby. Harry gets lost halfway and only remembers what he went to do when he somehow ends up on the balcony, where the cool air hits him like a slap to the face. He’s a bit tipsy, maybe.

 

He inhales sharply, to clear his head, closes his eyes so that all he’s aware of is the muffled beat of the music and the smell of cool air and clouds of smoke.

 

Smoke.

 

He halts, turns slowly.

 

Zayn’s watching him, smoke billowing around him, features half-hidden in the dark. The flashing lights paint him kaleidoscopic, too much for Harry to pinpoint, all smoke and mirrors.

 

He’s so unfairly beautiful, Harry thinks, face smoothed of any pretense, the cool air and smoky lights too soft and poetic to be disrupted by any of that tired old routine. Zayn with his strange modest vanity, the Renaissance-level of symmetry in his face, the perfect mascara advert piece of art that are his eyes, his full pout that somehow looks good even when Harry makes fun of it, the chiseled cheekbones and jaw better suited for some Greek demigod in a museum…It’s always been an inside joke, in the band, that they’re all aware that Zayn’s face is angelic, that Zayn should stuff a paper bag over his head so as to not cause accidents, that Zayn himself is aware enough to hog the bathroom for longer than even the other boys’ hair takes.

 

They leaked the original selling cards for the boys, a while ago. The fans had been scandalized, some justifiably horrified. Harry'd been very much unaffected- it's not like the boys hadn't been aware of their marketing images. Still, "adorably slow" had sat badly with him, mostly because it rang too much like a referral to mental issues that should not have been used to make him look "adorable".

 

He'd gotten off lightly, mostly. Niall was the one who got stripped of any character bar "happy", Liam the one relegated to "the serious one", and Zayn the one that had made Harry squirm with discomfort.

 

The lady-killing, bad boy part hadn't surprised him, as it was old news, even though the perception was as off today as it had been then (Zayn, the edgy bad boy? Please.) It had been the other two adjectives that had given Harry pause- "vulnerable", "the black sheep". It was no wonder, an irate Twitter user denounced, that Zayn had quit first given that he'd been singled out from the very start, probably because of his fucking origins. Black sheep...Zayn'd never been that to the rest of them, not until later. As for vulnerable, well, that made him profoundly uncomfortable. How could you market someone as vulnerable? Put him in situations where they knew he’d react badly? Harry didn’t want to think into it.

 

Still, here’s Zayn Malik, in front of him, lady-killing bad boy in a cloud of smoke, the black sheep indeed, vulnerable perhaps. Harry’s heart does something painful.

 

“Um,” he begins, falters. Shit. He doesn’t know how he could start. He shouldn’t have had all those drinks, earlier, small though they were.

 

“Fuck off, Harry,” Zayn says, sharply, looking away. It takes him aback, the tone- it’s harsh, like it hasn’t been for months, more than it was even at the start.

 

“I- what?”

 

“I said fuck off,” Zayn repeats, putting out his cigarette with a crushing movement against the wall. His body is tilted away from him, jaw set. He sounds tired, half-exasperated. “I’m done with this shit.”

 

Harry doesn’t quite know how he reacts to that, but the entire world seems to stop spinning for a moment, the deafening music dulled to a mumble, the lights blurred and the night air freezing him to the core.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Zayn shrugs, a movement that could pass as uncaring but that Harry reads easily for the tense energy it reveals. “I’m done with whatever the fuck game you think you’re playing, okay?”

 

“Game?!” Harry croaks, bowled over.

 

Zayn whirls around, and if looks could kill Harry would have been bloody cremated, a terrible crackling anger bursting at the seams of Zayn’s composure. He’s scary- he’d forgotten that an actually angry Zayn is a terrifying wrathful creature that makes temperatures drop and storms unfurl.

 

“Yeah, Harry, whatever you want to call this thing where first you act like I never existed, then you hate me, then we’re suddenly not only the best friends but also somehow flirting,” Zayn growls, lowly enough that Harry gets goosebumps. “I really have no fucking clue what this is to you, but it’s not anything I’m interested in going along with.”

 

“This isn’t a game!” Harry exclaims, a strangulating twist of outraged panic choking his words. “I didn’t- I wouldn’t make a game of it!”

 

Wouldn’t you?” Zayn says, a clap of thunder. “You’re not half the person you think you are.”

 

“What, because you really think so lowly of me?” Harry asks, cynical but also not, somewhere between drunk and sober. “Your own behaviour’s been brilliant, has it?”

 

"You don't need to concern yourself with that," Zayn answers, coldly. “Seeing as any interaction between us will not be happening.” He's regained control; closing in on himself, turning his fiery rage into cutting detachment. It's a lot worse on Harry, who has to fight himself to believe he does care.

 

He does. He has to. Harry knows it.

 

“Zayn, listen,” Harry says, more forcefully than he’s ever heard himself. It’s mature, convinced, urgent. Nothing Harry often feels. “Don’t just- I never meant for it to go this way either, all right? This isn’t my doing anymore than it is yours.”

 

Zayn glowers, a derisive sneer cutting sharp on his features. “Yeah, sure, Harry. Because I haven’t heard that shit enough from the medias. Edgy Zayn trashes old band, who feel so betrayed. Zayn, the intolerable asshole, dares say something negative about our favourite white boys. It's so fucking easy to make the Pakistani Muslim guy the bad guy, isn't it? I quit the band, yeah, sure, and then what? I got shit on for fucking months by every single person alive, is what. You went on and on about being betrayed, but you know what betrayal feels like? Having people spew hate at you non-stop for every move you make while your friends leave you alone against the world."

 

Harry wants to be an actor, maybe, thinks he's rather good at it already- he's not sure, though, that he'll ever be able to imitate the array of emotions he's just fought off.

 

Zayn looks so upset, even now, even begrudgingly, so very truthful when he lashes out. When he bites out friends it's horribly bitter, like the notion doesn't interest him anymore. He must've been so scared, when he quit, worried and nervous and vulnerable but never expecting that it would go like it had.

 

Harry's being silent, stunned into losing his words, which Zayn takes as an unintended goodbye, pushing away from the bannister as if to head inside.

 

"Wait!" Harry shouts, and grabs his sleeve, heart thumping like crazy. He's not touched Zayn since the fiasco- he himself looks up from his arm to Harry with vague incredulity, and Harry's fingers burn.

 

"You left,” Harry manages, because words seem to have failed him, here on the verge of destruction. His pulse is hammering inside his skull so loudly all he can hear is a thumping rush of blood. “It’s because you left, and I…You weren’t supposed to leave.”

 

He’s still holding on to Zayn’s wrist, who studies him briefly then shakes his head.

 

“The others seemed to have dealt with it fine.”

 

“No they didn’t! Did you see what went on with you and Louis?” Harry argues, even though that’s really not the most important thing, because he doesn’t get why Zayn is so bloody insistent about the fact that Harry is the one to blame, to hate.

 

“That was expected,” Zayn grits out, finally. “You- you were supposed to understand.”

 

Oh. Oh right, oh right okay.

 

Harry’s my rock,” Zayn had said once, dead serious, to which Harry had escaped to ruffle Liam’s hair sheepishly, feeling a tad flustered. “He’s always the first to ask if I’m all right.”

 

Harry feels ill, now, dizzy to the core of his soul, because he can feel the words dripping off his tongue, the phrases pushing forward to be heard, the fissure rapidly making its way through that which he’s not allowed to escape since the very beginning of this. He feels hot and cold, hyper-aware of his hand still clutching Zayn like a life-line, and Zayn’s cutting stare, Zayn watching Harry struggle with hooded eyes.

 

It takes Zayn’s scoff and the disparaging shake of his head to breaks Harry’s reserve completely. He cannot let Zayn leave- not again, not because of him, not forever. He’s not the sort to live in the past, not the sort to dwell on his mistakes; if he lets Zayn go here he’ll never get him back.

 

“But I didn’t,” Harry chokes out, suffocating. “I didn’t understand, okay? I didn’t understand, because we were supposed to stay together, all of us, and you and me.”

 

He makes a weird noise, like he can’t breathe. He thinks he might be hyperventilating slightly, because it feels like the lights are boring into his skull, and the golden glint of Zayn’s eyes overwhelms him every time he manages to look him in the eye.

 

“I didn’t- I didn’t know why I was so- but it wasn’t you, it was just- you.”

 

He clutches at his chest mildly, with his free hand, but his grip must tighten because Zayn’s eyelashes flutter with something he wishes was concern. Is this a panic attack? He can’t remember ever having one of those, but he must’ve, at some point. Before a show or something. What is he talking about?

 

“Harry,” Zayn says, a voice to hold on to, clear through the haze. It’s the first time in eons he’s heard his name said like that, like it matters.

 

“No,” Harry gasps, firmly, shaking his head. “Let me finish, I have to do this, I can’t let you leave again.”

 

Zayn’s expression shifts, but he’s Zayn, so he understands like he always did, like only he can, and he purses his lips and listens.

 

“I’m sorry for being an asshole. I am. I only- I didn’t want to- I wasn’t ready to explain to myself why I felt like I’d been so badly fucked over,” Harry says, stumbling over words like he never has, a pace too rapid for him to reflect upon. “God, Zayn, you have to understand that I’m fucking terrified of you.”

 

Zayn looks like a dormant god of old times in the still smokey glittering lights, every part of him a bronze outline, his focus painful. Harry’s chest is heaving, and all he can do is stare.

 

“Why?” Zayn asks, soft, half-dreamlike, unguarded like Harry remembers him when he was sleepy and touchable, not so far above. There’s an insistence to him, though, and he realizes with shattering certainty that Zayn’s unsure, waiting, hanging on to the nonsense spilling from Harry’s lips.

 

“I’m-” Harry tries, blinking to stop the world from swaying so hard, digging his nails into Zayn’s arm, grasping at his chest again. Jesus. Has speaking always felt like swallowing thorns?

 

Harry,” Zayn pushes, a demand and a request all in one.

 

Harry’s such a coward, deep down, scared of confrontation, most of all with himself. He’s been running from this since Day 1, pulled screaming and kicking towards Zayn without being able to hide, and now he knows if he says it it’ll be true, his take-backs unable to protect him any longer. He’s never had a fear this colossal, a feeling of this magnitude, never had anyone who broke him down this badly without even knowing it.

 

For a moment, Harry inhales, and everything clears, the feeling of lifting a burden off his shoulder making him light enough to fly. If he’s going to fall, might as well take the leap.

 

“I love you,” Harry says, and it’s three easy words that have completely and utterly ruined him, three words that overwhelm him the moment he says them, no longer afraid but drowning in clarity. “I really, really fucking do, and I’ve never felt this scared of anything in my entire life, cause you just don’t even know what you do to me, and it’s so- it’s so much more than I can handle, Zayn, I’ve never had to deal with this before, and it hurt all the time, and the worst thing is it’s not even like everyone thought it was, that it only happened after, it’s that it’d happened way before you’d gone and I didn’t even know-”

 

He takes a deep breath, because he’s running out of air, closes his eyes to find his thoughts, swallows and begins again: “I’d sort of always- I’d never thought I’d have to think about it, and when you left I couldn’t even deal with myself because I didn’t know why I was so upset, and I’m really not, um, good with this at all, even though everyone thinks I am, and I’ve just- I just wanted you to know, because I really can’t have you leaving again.”

 

It strikes him, when last words tumble out of his mouth, that he’s never even really been aware of how much this fierce denial of his has weighed him down until now, because some coiled spring buried deep seems to have loosened at long last, and the quaking world seems to steady.

 

Still, though, he’s talked- spilled his guts out, left his exposed secrets and organs in Zayn’s delicate musician’s hands, so easily destroyed. His throat is dry again, now that it’s bled out everything he had to say, aching for a glass of shitty beer.

 

He always forgets how much taller he is than Zayn- Zayn just has the sort of presence that makes him feel so very tall. Right now Harry feels weightless, fizzing with nervous energy, his heart beating so fast he almost feels like one of their own cliché songs.

 

And (ow!) you're givin' me a heart attack /Lookin' like you do-ooh…

 

“So, yeah.” Harry breathes, almost sheepish, broken glass. “I’m, um. Very in love with you.”

 

For a moment, there’s just the muffled shouts and music, the night sky opening wide.

 

"You're-" Zayn begins, tentative, and then curses in a rumbling soothing language Harry suddenly bitterly wishes he understood. For a moment he just stares, swaying lightly, then he blinks. “Jesus fuck. I quit, and you- it hurt. I was doing so badly, Harry, I was... If you’d only just…”

 

He seems rueful. "You are one strange person, you know that?"

 

There's an incredulous teasing lilt to it; Harry's heart does an acrobatic pirouette flip.

 

“So I’ve been told.”

 

Zayn’s eyes flutter shut, lips tilting upwards, and when he looks at Harry again it’s open. Still a complete mystery to Harry, but open nonetheless, like Zayn and he are okay, like they’re backstage before the show and Harry’s winked at him to soothe his nerves.

 

“You’re a self-centered twat,” Zayn informs him, “And that’s coming from me.”

 

Hey-” Harry protests, but there’s absolutely no heat in it, because Zayn could probably tell him he should jump off the balcony and he’d agree. “Okay, no, fair enough. Although to be…uh.”

 

He trails off because Zayn’s moved closer, in a graceful dancer’s movement that belies what a terrible rhythm he has, and Harry can feel blood rush to his head. He’s never been the blushing sort, but if he isn’t turning rosy tinted…

 

He’d forgotten he was holding onto Zayn, but he’s being forced to fold his arm back in an involuntary retreat- his legs are refusing to move, so he’s basically just leaning backwards in an increasingly panicked excitement.

 

“Sorry, did I interrupt you?” Zayn questions. He almost passes for sincere, mostly just seems feline, testing him.

 

“Go ahead,” Harry whispers, eyes wide but something like a grin dancing on his lips. “It wasn’t anything important.”

 

“Sure about that?”

 

Very.”

 

“One hundred percent?”

 

“Oh, just kiss me, you prat!” Harry exclaims, as Zayn laughs, before adding a polite: “Please.”

 

Zayn’s still smiling when he folds, an almost eager look under the confidence that’s impossibly cute, moves his patterned hands up to Harry’s shoulders, dives in to press their lips together. Harry makes a muffled surprised noise, which is ridiculous because he’s definitely kissed the most people out of all of them, and then feverishly sends mental thanks to Zayn for holding him upright because his legs are patently useless all of a sudden.

 

It’s- new. Harry’s kissed hundreds of people (slut, Louis would say fondly), but he’s never kissed Zayn except for a few times when they were drunk and it didn’t count. He thinks it’s good because they’re good, probably. And he knows they are, because they've held proper officiated competitions between the boys when Louis got bored and wanted to get them all in trouble. He also thinks that it could well be the worst kiss in all of existence and he still wouldn't notice, because his brain sort of left him to die when Zayn. Kissed. Him.

 

The miracle that just occurred is not something Harry will ever forget. He thinks he might become devout overnight, go to church. Or to a mosque, if Zayn wants. That'd be cool.

 

Still, his reflexes haven't abandoned him quite yet, and so he loops his arms around Zayn's waist like he used to do all the time, lets his eyes flutter shut, parts his lips and tilts his head just so, and it's pretty much the best kiss of all time.

 

It probably lasts all of a few seconds, because Harry didn't have the time to inhale or anything and he probably would have died before letting go if Zayn wasn't responsible enough to expect Harry to suffocate mid-kiss, but it feels like it goes on for years. Harry wishes it would, because he loves kissing and he loves Zayn and it doesn't take great mental prowesses to deduce that he loves kissing Zayn, and also because it sets his entire being alight like even the triumphant high of a concert hasn't ever done.

 

Zayn pulls back with dilated pupils and eyes sparkling like the champagne Harry feels drunk on, not moving back any further than the bare minimum, and Harry could cry for joy because he's not leaving.

 

"Hey," Harry says, accidentally in his low seductive mumble, but it only makes Zayn crack a real amused smile, which is basically the best thing Zayn could have done except maybe like kiss him again or offer sex.

 

"Hey," Zayn parrots, in his own imitation of Harry's voice that definitely makes Harry wish the offered sex thing was on the table.

 

Still, he's well aware of how much of a big deal this all is, so he shakes it off and tries to slow his thudding heartbeat.

 

He might've been Zayn's rock, somehow, a function he pretended not to know about because he was meant to be perpetually floating and couldn't possibly ground someone else, but Zayn had always given him a real tangible substance; a drive he lacked. Fragile and giddy and vaguely hysterical though he feels, he recognizes that same sense of purpose now, even with all his fragments of self-protection lying at his feet.

 

"So, there's, like...A lot of things to be talked about here," Harry says, trying his damnedest to find his business mindset, all media and PR and relations. "I mean- Gigi? You have- I'd understand if..."

 

Zayn gives him a look like he's the most bewildering creature he's ever met, and then runs a hand through Harry's hair.

 

"Or we could just not give a fuck, for once."

 

Harry likes the sound of that, even though it's ridiculously reckless. He gives it a thought, thinks of the fans, the media, the world. Generally speaking he thinks it'll go down rather well, and non-generally speaking he thinks he has Zayn and his family and the boys on board so he honestly couldn't care less.

 

"Since when are you so bold, poetic soul of ours?" Harry inquires, teasing but delighted.

 

"Haven't you heard my bad boy rep?" Zayn replies, easily. "I'm a real danger."

 

Harry throws his head back and laughs, his stomach aching with it, eyes turned to green half-crescents. It's not even that funny- it's just that he's a bit drunk on life and Zayn and feeling like he's about to set the world ablaze just for the pretty colours.

 

"A public health hazard, maybe," Harry giggles, once he's stopped wheezing. "You make people lose ten years of their life. I never asked to be an awkward sixteen year old again."

 

"That's all on you," Zayn says innocently, his eyes glittering. "Besides, people like de-ageing. Look at the money to be made in the plastic surgery industry."

 

"They don't have a dumbass sixteen year old self, then," Harry argues, dimpling even as he does so. "Unlike me."

 

"What, because you've evolved so much since then?"

 

"Excuse me, I've learnt a great many things," Harry states, then smirks. "And several useful life skills."

 

Zayn's nose crinkles.

 

"I bet you have."

 

"Wanna find out?" Harry offers, with his filthiest smile. Still, it's Zayn, so he gives him a warning glint of white teeth and ignores the proposal completely.

 

"I'm starting to get the idea that you're a lot more trouble than you're worth, Styles."

 

Okay, so that's never been a thing for Harry, but it definitely is now. He really has to stop by that mosque later. Cleanse his soul from impure thoughts.

 

"Don't fight me on this, Malik," he replies, savoring its taste on his tongue. "I'm a lot bigger than you."

 

Zayn raises a brow and then flicks his eyes downwards, which is such a Zayn thing that Harry cackles and  -in a fit of spontaneity- kisses him again.

 

This time it's a lot less explosive and a lot more languid. Harry meant it nicely, all romantic and such, but it just figures that when he tries to be careful Zayn ignores that and bites his lip. Which is just cheating, in Harry's opinion.

 

When they resurface, they're a lot more disheveled. Harry feels like he's just a marathon, which is funny because he's never ran a marathon in his life and doesn't intend to do so, ever. He's also conscious that he probably looks half-wrecked, judging by the way Zayn looks at him like he wants to eat him. Harry gets it, because his mind is going places that his future mosque is most certainly not going to approve of.

 

“Do Muslims have, like, a confessional?” Harry asks, pensively. Zayn makes a choking noise.

 

“What?”

 

Harry’s forgotten how often he thinks out loud around Zayn. Small miracle that he hasn’t deemed him a lost cause by now.

 

“Um, I- you know what, I think my explanation’s going to take another hour.”

 

“That’s some character development for you,” Zayn smiles, faintly nostalgic. He’s so pretty- surreal, as always, but gentle, like the soft glow of the sunset rather than the striking violent light of the midday sun. “Not so sixteen anymore.”

 

“What do you say we get out of here?” Harry asks, and when Zayn nods he can’t help but laugh again, just out of staggering joy. “I’m supposed to be deep and soulful, Zayn, god, look at me being a mess.”

 

He exhales longly, feeling somewhat ridiculous but not bothered in the least, shakes his hair out, out of habit. He’s Harry Styles, international super star, professional heartbreaker, art hoe supreme, and most of all he’s Hazza, top of the world and really rather terribly besotted.

 

“Hey,” Zayn says, when Harry wakes from his day-dreaming, kicking his shins lightly so Harry’ll bend down towards him. He used to do that all the time, at concerts- Zayn wouldn’t get on his tiptoes for anyone, and Harry was more than happy to let him whisper conspiratorially at him. “This isn’t as dramatic as your version, and fairly parsimonious, but- I love you. And when we’re less emotionally compromised and whatnot, I’ll probably be monologuing about it to you, so heads up.”

 

“Oh,” Harry says, cheeks aflame. If he passes out now, he’ll be mortified for life, but it’d be fairly funny to tell to the lads. He’s so- he didn’t expect being in love to be this much of an emotive rollercoaster, but it hurts in the good way.

 

Parsimonious. “I can’t believe you’re a real person that exists,” Harry confesses, and Zayn snorts. “No, but really, you’re straight out of an Austen. Parsimonious? What am I then? Flabbergasting?”

 

It’s one of his favourite things in the world, has been since the very start, hearing Zayn’s rough, charming Bradford accent roll over the fanciful words he uses.

 

“That too,” Zayn concedes, then gives him his pouting face, thinking. “No, I’d say probably…effulgent.”

 

“That sounds bad.”

 

“Maybe it is.” Zayn smiles, all smug, and Harry wants to jump him. “Who knows?”

 

“Zayn Malik, if you don’t tell me what it means…”

 

“Obnoxious,” Zayn says, serenely. “Intolerable. A bit thick, sorta.”

 

“Fuck off,” Harry protests. “It doesn’t. It doesn’t!”

 

“It means radiant,” Zayn allows, from under lowered lashes. “Who is there that with unwinking eyes may gaze into the effulgent brilliancy of the perfect angelhood? And so forth.”

 

Harry can’t compete with that. God, how the fuck they didn’t let Zayn write from birth he doesn’t know. Effulgent… He’ll remember that. Find something for Zayn, too.

 

“Effulgent,” he repeats. “Jesus. And they think I’m the romantic hero.”

 

“You have the hair for it,” Zayn says, kindly. Harry kisses him until he’s batting him off, breathlessly laughing.

 

“What was that for?”

 

“I am so glad you’re secretly really into drama,” Harry says. “Want to go gross Louis out?”

 

“Oh, my god,” Zayn snorts. “They have no idea. No one does. The power is all ours.”

 

“We could make some grand romantic gesture, get a bunch of views.” Harry suggests, reaching out spontaneously to twine their hands together. “Or we could just fuck with them.”

 

“Fuck them over for once, see how they like it.” Zayn agrees, a sly grin playing on his lips.

 

“First, though, let’s get out of here,” Harry suggests, and the lights flash in approval as the night breeze lifts his hair to curl wildly around his face, like a frame on some edgy Renaissance painting.

 

“Don’t want to spend some time getting to know the crowd?” Zayn asks, leaving their hands together as he turns to Harry, who shakes his head mutely.

 

“Rather spend some time getting to know you again,” Harry confesses to the universe, and the way Zayn looks at him after that is enough to kill a man.

 

“Lead the way, then, Harry Styles.”

 

“Just don’t let go,” Harry says, holding on. “Ever.”

 

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

 

Chapter Text

 

"Hey! Ignoring our old friends, are we?"

 

Liam pauses mid-stride, and turns to where Niall is beaming from the end of the street, hand raised in greeting.

 

"Niall," Liam says, grinning back. Niall may have grown stubble and a jawline, but his impish eyes and ruffled bleached hair haven't changed. He's missed him.

 

"Liam," Niall mocks, jogging over to fall in step with him. "Am I early or are you late?"

 

"A bit of both," Liam admits, laughing when Niall does, and then asking jokingly: "Don't suppose Louis'll be there yet?"

 

"Lou's always either three hours too early or too late," Niall says, with mock pedantry. "Maybe having a baby makes you more responsible."

 

There's a beat, and then Liam snorts.

 

"Yeah, right."

 

Both of them start snickering with great maturity, and Liam forgets that he's closer to thirty than he is to twenty, and feels like a nervous X-factor contestant hesitantly laughing along to the Irish kid's infectious humor, or a boy band member on stage giggling about inside jokes.

 

"Louis's spoilin' him rotten," Niall says, still smiling. "Freddy's gonna end up a total brat."

 

"Runs in the family," Liam says, fondly. Then he adds: "Besides, we all spoil him just as bad."

 

"Reckon Hazza and Zayn are the worst, though," Niall says. Then he winces. "I hope they're not ever having kids, or it'd be a disaster."

 

"What, like they'd be bad parents or we'd spoil them to death?"

 

"Are you kidding? Have you seen Zayn and Harry with kids? I mean we'd make them into little monsters."

 

They're almost at the house, the streetlights flicking on with an audible hum now that sunlight is fading fast. Liam's glad there's no paps around yet- probably when they leave there will be.

 

Zayn and Harry's London "house" is really just a converted apartment building, all a mix of Victorian class and minimalist decor. It must've cost a fortune, but then again none of them are exactly short on money, and Harry's just landed himself a movie role.

 

"Nice place," Niall comments. "I'm not surprised it's Zayn and Harry's."

 

"So dramatic," Liam laughs. "So artsy."

 

"Remember Harry's scenes in Perfect, though?"

 

"Oh my god."

 

Their laughter slows as they reach the gate, left open. Liam peers up the second floor balcony, then halts.

 

"Wha-" Niall begins, when Liam slaps out an arm to stop him, then follows his perplexed glance upwards.

 

"Louis?"

 

There's a scuffling noise, and then Louis's ruffled hair and disgruntled face appear over the balcony railing.

 

"What the hell are you doing up there?" Niall asks, amused.

 

"They wouldn't open, and I couldn't bear looking at them anymore, so I got bored and climbed up."

 

"Were you sleeping?" Liam asks, reproachful.

 

"I would have been, if you hadn't come and woken me up," Louis retorts, huffing.

 

"And broken your neck if you woke up and stood too quickly?" Liam says, dryly. Just thinking of Louis sleepily tottering over the railing makes his blood run cold.

 

"I wouldn't have done that," Louis reassures, waving his hand. "Don't worry so much, Li."

 

"Yeah, and then you break your neck and how am I supposed to feel about it?" Liam grumbles.

 

"Uh," Louis says, for some reason glaring at Niall, who seems supremely entertained. "You- don't you say a word."

 

"What?" Liam asks, confused now.

 

Niall smiles broadly. "Louis and I had a nice eye-opening chat the other day."

 

"Shut the- shut up." Louis yelps, and then clambers over the side of the railing.

 

"Louis!" Liam warns, before he does something stupid and jump down.

 

"I'm not gonna scale the wall," Louis argues. "It's not that high a drop."

 

"Louis," Liam sighs.

 

"Liam can catch you," Niall suggests. Louis' eyes flash. Liam frowns, because that is definitely not a good combination for his future sanity.

 

"Fuck off," Louis says proudly, then jumps. Liam grabs him halfway down, grunts at the impact and sets him down heavily.

 

Why these boys, he doesn't know.

 

"Not on my watch."

 

Niall is pissing himself silent laughing, and Louis seems somehow three shades redder than before. Liam decides he doesn't want to know.

 

"Wait, so why did they not let you in?"

 

Louis pauses in his attempt to discreetly strangle Niall to pull a face.

 

"They're busy."

 

"Ew," Niall says, sounding chuffed. "Can I see?"

 

"Niall," Liam groans.

 

"Not like that, you perverts," Louis says, cringing. "I mean they're- oh, go see for yourselves."

 

Niall and Liam look at each other and shrug.

 

Louis follows them reluctantly to the door, where Niall knocks several quick beats before shrugging. Liam goes next, a loud bang that shakes the door but gets no response.

 

"See?" Louis says, hands in his pockets. "Go see the window."

 

The window is a bit high, but on tip-toes even Niall can see through.

 

"It's sickening," Louis groans, once they're all watching. "I know these people."

 

Liam smiles, slowly. Harry and Zayn are not, in fact, making out loudly in some obscure corner- far worse, in Lou's eyes, is the domesticity of the scene.

 

Harry's in the kitchen, earphones plugged in, singing loudly along to what Liam is pretty sure is Nicki Minaj, hips jutting out to hit the cupboard shut as he dances around the room, completely immersed in his own bubble.

 

Something's in the oven; something baking that explains the haze of flour Harry is spinning in, like fairy dust around him in the kitchen's soft glow. Liam feels hungry and immensely fond all in one, which is a strange mix of emotions that he doesn't want to think through.

 

The baby of the group.

 

Harry's hair is so short- even after seeing it in pictures, it's jarring, makes him lose five years, makes his dramatic twirling a lot more heart-clenching and nostalgic.

 

"Okay," Niall says, breaking the silence. Liam looks back at him, and at Louis, who's hastily pretending he hasn't been looking at Harry's dancing with endeared eyes. "So Hazza's busy, but where's Zayn?"

 

Louis points.

 

"That is pretty domestic," Liam has to admit. Louis gives him a look like I KNOW, RIGHT?

 

Zayn is fast asleep on the couch in the sitting room, face burrowed under pillows, his currently bronze hair in soft curls, a blanket half-draped over him. Liam has a fierce envy to pull him to his chest and ruffle his hair.

 

His arm is dangling off the sofa, and Harry's taken his book from where he presumably dropped it and set it down next to him. Between Harry singing cheerfully in the kitchen and Zayn sleeping deeply on the couch, the scene hits Liam's admittedly soft heart like a freight train. He's not surprised Louis ran away.

 

"Well, waking Zayn is impossible," Niall sighs. "We'll have to get Hazza's attention when the music fades."

 

“Why did it have to be Harry and Zayn,” Louis sighs. “They’re horrible. I bet you they’re going to be the couple with the romantic drama lifestyle movie. No, I bet you they’re going to get married in like a year, then divorce, then marry again. Actually, they’ll just be the people in The Notebook.”

 

“Because you’ve watched The Notebook?” Liam asks, eyebrow raised.

 

“I’m just saying,” Louis says, loudly, “Harry and Zayn are the worst.”

 

“Oh, yeah, maybe we should have had another One Direction couple,” Niall grins. “What about you and- mghdfhf.”

 

“You two keep going on like that and I’m going to start thinking Larry was real or something,” Liam sighs. He has an inkling of what’s going on, but he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.

 

Both Niall and Louis pull the same face of distaste, ending their brief scuffle. Both have flushed cheeks and ruffled hair- it’s cute. Everyone is being cute tonight. Liam sighs.

 

“Maybe we can throw Niall through the window,” Louis suggests.

 

“Maybe Liam can kick the door in,” Niall says, eagerly.

 

“Maybe we can just knock on the window,” Liam counters. And he does. Continuously.

 

Harry pauses mid-twirl, looking around in confusion, and then his eyes go to the window and he beams. Liam waves.

 

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Louis groans. “I did that about fifty times.”

 

“You’re too petite to make an impact,” Niall says, cheekily.

 

“I’ll show you petite,” Louis retorts. Liam grabs them both before they can go at it again. Niall and Louis reunited always ends up in a giggling bunch of teenagers.

 

The door opens with an enthusiastic bang, and they all scurry back to find Harry giving them a huge dimpled smile, eyes crinkled with excitement.

 

“Hey!”

 

“Harry Styles,” Louis says, prodding his chest with vigor, “I have been standing outside contemplating your disgusting domestic lifestyle for half an hour, and I am profoundly upset.”

 

“Aw, Lou,” Harry laughs, not guilted in the least, and hugs him. Louis ruffles his hair with purpose, causing the baby of the band to jump back and yelp.

 

“Heya, Styles,” Niall grins, exchanging a complicated handshake and uncomfortably long hug with him before Liam finally gets his turn to have Harry wrap himself around.

 

“Oomph.”

 

“Hi, Payno,” Harry snorts, then releases them. “Sorry for the wait, I was baking.”

 

“So he gets an apology and I don’t? Nice.” Louis bitches. Harry winks. “You’ll have apology enough later, Lou.”

 

Louis’ lips twitch. “Yeah, I better.”

 

“Oh, shit,” Harry says, smacking a floury hand to his forehead suddenly. “Zayn’s still asleep. He’s going to murder me.”

 

He spins on his heel and gestures them in, leaving Liam to shut the door as Harry sprints towards the living-room and comes to a screeching halt close to the couch, padding his way closer to- his boyfriend, Liam supposes. Oh, that’s still weird to think of. Not in the sense that he’s surprised, or anything- they’re all horribly close, but Harry and Zayn have always been each other’s special people. Both too sexual and too sweet to be just that.

 

Harry bends over to crouch by the couch, carefully shakes Zayn’s shoulder- so soft and gentle Liam’s heart squeezes and Niall latches onto his arm exaggeratedly.

 

“Shut up,” Harry mumbles, without having turned. “”M just trying not to get my arse beat.”

 

“You have no arse to beat, Harry,” Louis laughs. Niall makes a whip sound.

 

Harry gives them both the finger, then prods Zayn.

 

“Zaaaaayn. I’m going to sit on you.”

 

"M awake," Zayn says, eye cracking open. His words are slurred with sleep, and Liam barely stops himself from scooping him into his arms and cooing.

 

"How is it," Niall sighs dramatically, "That you look really sexual even when sleepy and not all there?"

 

"That's Zayn on a daily basis," Harry snickers. Zayn just gives them all a lazy once over with the one whiskey-coloured eye visible from the pillow he's buried his face in, radiating vague satisfaction like a cat being petted.

 

"Get up, lazy arse," Louis grins, "Else I'll fuck up your hair."

 

Zayn's eye goes wide with alarm, and he jerks upright just before Louis can grab at him, cheeks still flushed pink with sleep and lacking a shirt.

 

Liam diverts his eyes. He's only human.

 

His bandmates lack his decency- Niall takes it in happily and winks cheerily when Zayn finally stops glaring at Louis (also distracted by his obnoxiously attractive friend), and Harry is shamelessly ogling him, which Liam supposes is fair and also nothing new.

 

"Food?" Liam suggests, meeting Zayn's discreetly smug amused glance.

 

Harry seems about to make a very inappropriate comment about a different meal option, so Louis smacks a hand across his mouth and gestures for Zayn to get moving.

 

"Ugh," Zayn groans, eyes still half closed as he stretches slowly. "You guys have no right to force me up. You woke me in the first place."

 

"Are you telling me you've been awake since I arrived HALF AN HOUR AGO?" Louis asks.

 

"Mhm," Zayn shrugs.

 

"Food," Liam repeats, firmly throwing an arm around Louis and reeling him in as Harry and Niall giggle hysterically.

 

Louis shuts up. Liam could almost swear he's blushing.

 

Zayn looks supremely entertained, all of a sudden. The look he exchanges with Niall does not bode well for anyone. When Zayn teams up with one of their mischief-makers, it spells devastation.

 

Harry hauls Zayn to his feet and lets him almost automatically wrap an arm around him (isn't that a familiar sight) before leading the way to the kitchen.

 

"C'mon, babe, don't bully poor Lou."

 

"I do no such thing," Zayn mumbles, smirking over Harry's shoulder at Louis, who flips him off.

 

"I'm starving," Niall announces. "What are we eating?"

 

Liam can't help but laugh at that. It feels like 2013.

 

By the time Harry's brought them all their shepherd's pies, Zayn's mildly alert, and Louis and Niall are roaring with laughter about some charity football game they went to. The table applauds Harry's cooking ("If I didn't cook, we'd starve"), and then the meal actually starts.

 

It's not- different. Liam was wondering, not overtly, but wondering, because it's the first time they're all five together again after the split.

 

Since Harry and Zayn have become a Thing ("Feckin' finally!), they've all sort of met up by twos and threes, but it's the first time they've all managed to be there at the same time, in between Harry's movie and Louis' baby and everyone's hectic lifestyles.

 

Liam had wondered if it'd have changed inherently since their old days, but it hasn't. They have, of course, there's a definite shift in all of them, but it doesn't feel off.

 

Niall and Louis joke around, and Louis mocks, and Niall stuffs his face, and Liam gets teased and replies with a dead-pan teasing, and Zayn and Harry flirt, and Zayn is pretty and Harry is charming and it's all the same.

 

"Remember Zayn in drag?" Louis says, nostalgically, swirling his spoon around. "Those were good times."

 

"For some of us more than others," Niall grins, filthily, eyeing the hosts.

 

Harry's eyes go glassy. Zayn bats his eyelashes at them, the toothy smile he gives enough to make Liam cough loudly and stare at his empty plate attentively.

 

"Wonder what Zayn would look like in drag now?" Louis asks, snickering as Zayn winks. "Huh, Hazza?"

 

"Bit stubbly," Liam mutters, thinking of holy things and dead babies. Slow breaths.

 

"Where there's a will, there's a way," Harry breathes, cheeks dusted with pink, eyes still blank and glittering. Liam doesn't know if looking at him or Zayn is worse.

 

Niall loses it, suddenly, throwing his head back to cackle loudly, and Louis follows soon after, Zayn's snort making Liam follow suit. Harry only shakes himself awake when they all stop laughing, stare now sharp and decidedly inappropriate every time it edges towards Zayn.

 

"Jesus," Niall wheezes. "Liam's gonna die. You guys are terrible."

 

"Liam's fine," Louis stresses, then nudges him. "Right, Payno?"

 

"I'm not that prudish anymore," Liam complains. He regrets it the moment four pairs of suddenly lit eyes bore into him. "Okay, okay, a bit, don't-"

 

"Really, Liam?" Niall asks, purring exaggeratedly. "Not prudish, are we?"

 

Liam jumps. Louis blinks innocently at him, but he knows that was his hand.

 

"Oi!"

 

"What?"

 

"That's so interesting, Liam," Harry says, languid. His eyelids have lowered like they do when his seductive mind-games kick in. "I'm sure we're all so glad to know you're okay with a little more...adult things."

 

Niall whistles. Harry cracks half a smirk.

 

Zayn, Liam notes, looks somewhat proud, which says something.

 

"Aw, guys, we shouldn't tease," Louis sermons, which is both ridiculous and hypocritical, given his current hand placement.

 

"Fuck off," Liam grumbles, ears red. "You know what I meant."

 

"He's made a lot of progress," Zayn agrees, patiently, scooping a spoonful of mousse. "We should encourage Liam."

 

There's a pause. Liam waits, because he knows Zayn Malik, and he's an arse. Zayn taps his spoon thoughtfully.

 

Louis' eyes are sparkling with mischief like he hasn't seen them in years, and Niall's already half giggling, and Harry's face is a disturbing yet endearing mixture of excitement and smugness. Liam is torn between being very worried for himself and very amused.

 

"Isn't that right, Li?" Zayn asks, voice like honey, and then licks his spoon off purposefully.

 

The entire table has a mild aneurysm. Louis' hand on Liam's leg jerks away, and Niall chokes on his mousse. Liam buries his face in his hands.

 

"I hate you so much, Zayn."

 

Zayn laughs, and then laughs and laughs like he's surprised himself, and though it takes a while for the other four to frantically attempt to rid themselves of Bad Mental States, his laughing is so giggly it eventually sets Harry off too.

 

Liam tears up a bit, but he doesn't mind being teased about it. He's missed them.

 

By the end of the night, Liam, Louis and Niall are spread on top of each other on the sleeper, somehow comfortable even if Louis’ bony knees are digging into Liam’s side and Niall is basically lying on his face, making loud sound-effects every time Harry and Zayn’s whispers reach them from the other couch.

 

It’s not weird, somehow, even when Harry starts laughing really noisily and then kisses Zayn all over his face while Zayn bats him off half-heartedly. They were always big on PDA, anyway.

 

“Isn’t it weird how not weird it is?” Liam whispers, lowly, when everyone is quiet and Niall’s snoring softly into his shoulder.

 

Louis shifts uncomfortably. “Yeah.”

 

“Lou?”

 

“It’s nothing,” Louis grumbles. Then he relents: “They- aw, fuck. They’re really- I can’t say this shit.”

 

Liam waits him out, then Louis reluctantly goes: “They’re really in love, you know? It’s…I’m happy that they’re so happy. And it’s, like…They’ll end up married sometime, and they better fucking make me best man.”

 

He makes an embarrassed noise, almost like he’s sniffing a bit. Louis is a huge softie under his assholery. Liam smiles in the dark, reaches out to tug him in.

 

“Yeah. And make Freddie ring-bearer.”

 

Louis nods silently against his chest. Liam’s heart clenches.

 

“THANKS, LOU!” Harry hollers, making them both jump and Niall almost tumble off the couch, still fast asleep. “LOVE YOU TOO!”

 

“YOU LITTLE SHIT!” Louis screeches, only held back by Liam’s arm as he attempts not to laugh. “You don’t deserve ANY of my fucking kindness, I swear to god-”

 

“Harry, shut up,” Zayn mutters, face pressed to some part of Harry’s freakishly tall body. “Don’t make me report this to the Larries for posterity.”

 

Louis and Harry both shudder in unison- Liam catches Zayn’s eyes glinting conspiratorially at him from across the room and grins. He’s forgotten how much he likes having Zayn play with him against the others.

 

“Can’t help it if everyone loves me,” Harry mumbles, half dryly. Then: “ZAYN, OH MY GOD, STOP.”

 

There’s a bout of shuffling and then Zayn makes a strangled noise of protest and relents in whatever he was doing.

 

Louis grimaces. Liam pats his head.

 

He’s got his boys back.

-

-

 

 

 

Harry tries his damnedest to convince Zayn to come along to his first day on set, but he's forgotten how annoyingly stubborn his long-time best friend is. Behind the casual, uncaring exterior, Zayn's probably as bad as Louis.

 

"There's no way I'm getting up at six, in any universe." Zayn says firmly once Harry's resorted to whining. "You'll be working on this for ages, there's no bloody reason for me to tag along now."

 

"But it's my first day," Harry pouts, only to be met by Zayn's very unimpressed look. He sighs, giving up on the puppy eyes. "Can't you just sleep before and get up early?"

 

"No."

 

"I can keep you up," Harry suggests then, lips curving up. He likes that plan too.

 

"That'd only give me more reason to sleep in afterwards," Zayn says reasonably. He looks amused. Harry's not on board with that.

 

"Fuck you."

 

"No, it's my turn, I think." Zayn says, with a shrug. Harry kicks him.

 

"You're not getting a turn if you're being a dick."

 

"Do we really want to discuss matters of support during solo careers?" Zayn asks, shrewdly. Their eyes meet.

 

"At least I told you," Harry says, then stops himself. Not worth it.

 

Zayn seems to decide the same, because he puts down his book with a sigh. "I'll wear that hideous thing you wanted me to wear, but I'm not getting up early."

 

"Oh, seriously?" Harry says, excitedly. He didn't really care that much about the movie thing anyway- this is much better. "It's not hideous, it's nice, anyway."

 

Zayn gives him a shrewd look. "I just played myself, didn't I."

 

"Yeah," Harry smiles, complacently. "Fraid you did."

 

"Twat."

 

"Arse."

 

Zayn rolls his eyes and laughs. Harry thinks he smiles at him like a dumbass for a beat too long, because then they make eye-contact and he has look away rapidly. This blushing thing is highly unfortunate.

 

"Where did you even get the shirt?" Zayn asks, doubtfully, after a hesitant look at it.

 

"Well, like," Harry begins. Zayn looks very pained for an instant. "Um, basically, the other day, I went...I went to Camden- not the old Camden, obviously, cause it's closed down, but like, the new one- although it was, um...It was a lot cooler there before it shut down. Anyway- right, yeah, so I went to the thrift store place, and then-"

 

"Shut the fuck up," Zayn groans. "I can tell when you do it on purpose."

 

Harry grins, smug. He's forgotten his own long limbs, because then Zayn gets a determined glint in his eye and the next thing he knows he's no longer perched on the couch but in Zayn's lap, the breath knocked out of him for a moment as he blinks at him.

 

"Oi!"

 

"Shhh," Zayn says, and kisses him till he shuts up.

 

Harry doesn't mind. He likes kissing.

 

"You're not actually upset about the movie thing, are you?" Zayn asks, once they're both a lot less presentable and panting. "Because if you really are, I'll come with."

 

Harry considers it. "Nah. I mean, I'm a bit nervous about it, and all, but I'll just text you."

 

"You don't need to be nervous," Zayn says, with a shake of his head. "You've performed in front of billions of people."

 

"Yeah, only these are like, serious professionals, not screaming fans," Harry replies, reaching for curls that are no longer there. Zayn catches the movement half-way to twine their fingers. It's awfully nice of him.

 

"I can act. I just want to be excellent."

 

"You're so lowkey ambitious," Zayn snorts, which is highly hypocritical. "You'll be brilliant, Hazza." His gaze turns vaguely sharp. "After all, we both know you excel at acting."

 

"Yeah," Harry exhales. Only that was exhausting and existential-crisis inducing. Out loud he says: "But I couldn't do it twice."

 

Zayn reads between the lines.

 

"It turned out for the best, though, innit?"

 

"Gross," Harry groans, burying his face in Zayn's hair just to mess it up a bit and also to hide his face. "You're so sappy."

 

"Get off my hair," Zayn says, mildly irritated. "Hypocrite."

 

When Harry's obeyed, he gives him a piercing look.

 

"You're sure you're good?"

 

"Mhm," Harry confirms. "Besides, you're a right miserable person when you're tired. I don't need you sulking and snapping at everyone all morning."

 

"Fuck you," Zayn says, pinching his sides.

 

"Sure," Harry shrugs. "It is your turn, after all."

 

 

The next morning, Harry jolts out of bed far too early. When the band has just started, he used to be a morning person- like all of them, that trait vanished during their first tour. Still, although he and Zayn are certainly in accord over the merits of sleep, when he's got a project like this, he regains his morning adrenalin.

 

He's dressed by five thirty, them changes his outfit five times. His newly short hair disturbs him, but he looks like someone who could plausibly be acting in a big movie. Zayn's still fast asleep when he peers into the bedroom a last time, feeling weirdly affectionate, like a soldier actually heading to war. Harry hovers by the door and looks at his sleeping form for what could not in any way be considered a non-creepy amount of time, then runs over to kiss his forehead before he stumbles down the stairs.

 

He's glad they've been staying in Paris, because flying over to Normandy every day would be annoying. It's nice watching the Paris landscape fade into countryside.

 

In the car, Harry contemplates his life. Louis would say he's an overly philosophical drama queen, which is 100% true, but it's also his #aesthetic, so he indulges his fancy.

 

The movie is less awe-inspiring than it is exciting. Harry knows there's a lot to live up to- Christopher Nolan took a big gamble picking him, but he saw something there. Harry wants to prove him right- lowkey ambitious indeed. It's a new chapter of his life- he's been so fucking lucky all the way up to here. It's new. He likes having drive again.

 

Still, if he's always strikingly confident, it doesn't mean he doesn't get stressed. So his leg jiggles all the way up to the set, and he sort of regrets not dragging Zayn along just as a distraction. Even moody Zayn is better than no Zayn.

 

He's not Harry Styles, international superstar, anymore. Here, the people give no shits about his image and his feelings- they need him to work. Tom Hardy, Christopher Nolan, Christ, that's Oscar material. He's got to ace this- he will.

 

When the car slows, Harry ponders on just how weird it is so start something this big when it feels like there are four people missing.

 

 

By the end of the day Harry's forgotten his nerves. He's been busy- he's tired, actually, forgotten a bit about tight schedules and proper work. Everyone is perfectly nice, and all, especially Harry's crew, who are all lovely, but they're busy too. Nolan is a serious, very intelligent man, but exceedingly quiet- Harry's a bit tense around him, never sure what he's thinking. He thinks he handles it well, though; he's had his experiences with the quiet type. Tom Hardy's there by the afternoon, smiles and shakes hands and seems like the type of dude who owns a lot of dogs. He reminds Harry of a weird mix of Niall and Liam.

 

Still, it's going well. Harry's been working hard, and working harder to look like he's not. He makes a good impression, though, he can tell- "not the rock and roll child star" some had expected, as one woman says when she thinks he's out of earshot. It's not hard to accomplish, frankly- all he has to do is not act bratty. Still, he thinks Hardy quite likes him, and he's a lad, so Harry's glad.

 

They're reading through a scene with the writers when a slow hush falls in the room. Which is weird, because although volume magically drops when the actors talk, there's always a background hum. Harry finishes his line, peers over his shoulder, and sees Nolan looking back with an amused smile on his face.

 

What-?

 

"The other way," Hardy says, amiably. He gestures to behind him. Harry squints at the suspiciously giggly crew, and then spots him- Zayn's standing by the door, near the back, arms crossed over the artfully large black sweater Gigi had gifted him on their latest day out.

 

He's obviously just trying to see what's going on without his glasses (Zayn is very vain, although Harry isn't one to judge), but the result is so close to his smolder that a number of the crew near him are fumbling with their equipment distractedly instead of working. Harry gets it- his own pulse jumps for a beat just from seeing him on a regular basis.

 

The moment he spots him, Harry beams. It's not purposeful- he's just caught off guard, and tired, and he'd been thinking about the long drive back, and now Zayn is here and he'd told him he was busy, the filthy liar, and he's... He's happy to see him.

 

In the split second that Zayn smiles back, half sheepish, looking faintly embarrassed by the amount of attention he's getting (which is, frankly, very dumb), Harry drops his text, hops over the couch, and dashes over to him, Notebook style. Or it would be Notebook style if it was in slow-motion and everyone wasn't snickering in the background, and if Harry had caressed Zayn's face longingly instead of picking him up and crushing him.

 

"You came!"

 

"Oh my god, Harry, no, stop, these people will hate me forever, let go," Zayn hisses furiously, because he's a huge introvert underneath his suave exterior. Harry's too tall for him to escape, though.

 

Harry releases him still grinning. "I can't believe you lied about having a studio recording."

 

"I didn't," Zayn says, shifting so none of the giggling crew can spot him from behind Harry. "I just did it all really early so I could get here."

 

"You got up early, didn't you?" Harry asks, glowing. "You totally did."

 

"Early-ish," Zayn admits. He looks somewhere between begrudgingly sheepish and vaguely proud.

 

"You're so cute," Harry tells him, somewhat smirky. He resists the urge to ruffle his hair, because he'd get kneed if he did.

 

"Get back to acting, Di Caprio," Zayn says, with a scornfully raised brow.

 

Oh, shit.

 

Harry turns slowly, then makes an apologetic face. The entire set laughs under their breaths.

 

"Sorry," he calls. "That was unprofessional."

 

Nolan smiles vaguely. "Get back to the set, Mr Styles."

 

"Be right there," Harry says, relieved but passing as friendly. Zayn's looking very endeared, which, yknow, score for Harry.

 

"Thanks for coming."

 

"I wasn't just going to let you wreck havoc on the entire movie, was I?"

 

Harry snorts. "I was doing perfectly fine until you showed up."

 

"Mhm." Zayn says, a tad too smug to pass as apologetic or even surprised.

 

"Cocky shit."

 

"Go," Zayn laughs, then bats him away when Harry kisses his cheek. "This isn't the Notebook, gerroff."

 

"I'll make you watch that sooner or later!" Harry threatens, jogging backwards so he can look him in the eye. Zayn gives him a very challenging purse of the lips.

 

He'll succeed sooner or later. Zayn Malik has too many sisters for his own good; they like Harry too much not to help sabotage him.

 

He clambers back over to stand next to Tom Hardy, who is looking more and more like a friendly lumberjack by the minute. How he keeps getting cast as a gritty badass Harry can't fathom.

 

"Sorry," Harry whispers. Sort of.

 

"No worries, kid," Tom Hardy says, pleasantly, handing him his script back. Then, louder, to Zayn: "Hey."

 

Zayn nods, gives half a wave, looking like he wants to vanish into the shadows when everyone takes this as a prompt to shout greetings at him. He's such a nerd.

 

An intimidatingly good-looking nerd.

 

Harry firmly rips his eyes off whatever unfair things the shadows are softening on Zayn, and shakes his head. Okay. War.

 

"Ready?" Nolan calls.

 

"Yeah," Harry says. And he is.