It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
~ e. e. cummings
Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see. That’s what his father always tells him with that smile of his, the one that says, I’ll tell you that much, but the rest will cost you. Harry never knew what he meant, but he gets it now that he’s sitting in the dim bar of another hotel he won’t sleep in, the ice melting in his £18 gin and tonic. He doesn’t even like gin and tonic, but it’s all part of the game. And it is a game. It has to be, because if it isn’t that means he doesn’t enjoy it and he does. He doesn’t just enjoy it, he loves it. He loves the theatrics of it, of shaving carefully and layering on cologne, something different every night – Floris on Tuesday nights, Acqua di Parma on Thursdays – and picking which suit he’s going to wear. The pinstripe one that makes him look older, maybe the black one that makes him look taller. He doesn’t care what your last name is and he won’t remember your birthday, but Harry always remembers those things, like who likes him to wear Floris. And he keeps track of the gifts as well; who gave him which watch and who gave him the monogrammed cufflinks with the wrong initials on them. That’s part of the game, too: being a different person every night. He’ll be whoever you want him to be. He’ll be your date for your cousin’s wedding and smile for photographs as he tells the story of how you met in a bookshop, reaching for the same copy of Middlesex. Or he’ll lick his lips and call you Daddy if that’s what you want. Anything so he doesn’t have to be himself. So maybe you should believe none of what you see, either.
Nathan. He didn’t think too much about it when he picked it, it was just the first name that came into his head when he was asked. He didn’t have to change his name, but when he met his first client, an overweight middle-aged man with sweaty palms, he didn’t even want him touching him let alone saying his name, so Nathan it was.
That was three years ago and he’d like to say that it’s just a name, but he knows that it’s not. When he’s Nathan, he’s a little smoother, a little more careful. He doesn’t spill drinks or babble about an article he read in the newspaper about a wristband that can tell when you’re having sex. He doesn’t say anything at all, in fact, just listens to you cry about your wife and whinge about work. Listens when your toes are on the edge and you’ll tell him anything for him not to stop, tell him every lie you’ve ever told, every secret that you’re trying to keep. You’ll tell him your fucking PIN number if he’ll keep doing that thing with his tongue. He hears it all, but he doesn’t say a word.
He never says a word.
Okay. Whatever you’re thinking is wrong. He isn’t paid by the hour and he certainly doesn’t hang around hotel bars smiling at lonely businessmen. He works for an agency that you’ve never heard of and you never will. It doesn’t have a website or a number to call when you’re tired and lonely and drinking mini-bar scotch because your hotel room feels so far from home you don’t know if you’ll ever find your way back.
The agency, if you can even call it that, is basically one woman: Charlotte Gordon a Grace Kelly blonde with a sharp tongue and an even sharper smile who works out of her house, a perfectly-balanced Georgian in Chelsea that Harry can suck dick for the rest of his life for and will still never afford. But then that’s how she earned it, she told him the first time he went there, by marrying one of her clients. She said it with a grand wave of her hand as if to say, All of this could be yours, too, Harry. And it is a fairytale, he supposes, if fairytales end with rattling around in a huge house while you wait for your husband to have a heart attack. So Harry smiled and admired the Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the garden because it was kinder than telling her that it wasn’t his fairytale. He was only doing it to pay off his student loans then to pay for his flat and now he’s only doing it until he has enough money to move to New York so he can write that book he’s been scribbling onto napkins for the last three years.
Until then he’s Nathan. Not that you’ll ever meet him. He may smile and hold a door open for you or sit next to you at a bar, smelling faintly of something expensive – something Italian, sunshine and espresso and something else you can’t quite put your finger on that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else – but you’ll never know his name. And even if he tells you – and he won’t – Nathan Styles doesn’t exist. Google him and all you’ll find is a car salesman from Chesterfield.
No. Nathan Styles meets you, if he’s interested, and he isn’t because he already has five clients – two politicians, two CEOs and a premiership footballer – and that’s quite enough, thank you. They’re each allocated one weeknight, a date they tend to keep wherever they are in the world. He’s been on business trips with clients, wandering around Brussels drinking coffee while they’re discussing the Eurozone crisis, and on holiday with them, in a room two floors down from their wives who wake up in the middle of the night and pretend not to notice that they’re alone. He even saw one client on his wedding day, the pink petals from his boutonnière falling at Harry’s feet like confetti as Harry fucked him half an hour before he walked down the aisle.
He’s seen the world, seen it all and he loves it all. Not just the breathless biting sex in hotel rooms that cost more a night than his rent, but being the one thing they can’t live without. He’ll cross the Atlantic just to spend a few hours with someone but it isn’t about seeing them – it’s never about them, not really – it’s about being wanted. About being the guy they’ll risk their careers for, their families for, because they can’t wait a week to see him. He knows all of their secrets. He could ruin them if he wanted, bring the country to its knees, but he never would. He just likes to know that he can when they can’t wait until they get to the hotel and fuck him in the back of the limo, Harry’s cheek pressed to the backseat so all he can smell is leather, or when he’s listening to another desperate voicemail begging to see him. Men like that don’t beg, but he makes them beg.
He’s not doing it right if they don’t beg.
Harry’s weakness for alpha males is well documented. He enjoys being dominated, enjoys the pull of big hands and the weight of someone on top of him, but he enjoys not giving in more, overthrowing them with a flick of his tongue and bringing them to their knees with a finger. That’s why they keep coming back. It isn’t for the sex – they could fuck any one – it’s about more than that. Not just his discretion or the opportunity to do things to him that make their hands shake as they follow him across the line they drew in the sand a few minutes before, but it’s also about giving into him. About letting go and knowing that he’ll be there to break their fall.
So the footballer he’s seeing – let’s call him Karl – is his wild card. That’s what Charlotte refers to him as, anyway, and Harry supposes he is. His other clients are older and married with children not much younger than he is. They take him to dinner at Claridge’s and watch his lips as he eats his steak and listens to them complain about the house they’re building in Umbria. But Karl is younger than him and just wants to fuck in his big white bed in his big white house that was in OK! magazine last month.
Charlotte can’t stand him. She thinks he’s vulgar, with his shaved head and Bermondsey accent. ‘He should be a plumber,’ she always says with a slight sneer when Harry mentions him, fiddling with her wedding ring, but that’s what Harry likes about him. Yes, he’s cocky, but he’s spun something out of nothing. Karl did it. He got out. He didn’t listen to the people who told him to go to university, the ones who shook their heads and told him that for every David Beckham there are three hundred other kids who end up stacking shelves in a supermarket. And guess what? He scored more last season than David Beckham did his entire career so maybe he is cocky, but he has every right to be.
He’d be stacking shelves in a supermarket if he wasn’t.
Harry can’t help but admire that. Okay, Karl’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as his mother would say, but he has a certain charm. A swagger. And he has a body that Harry wants to lick, his skin tight and tattooed and always too warm. Plus, he’s twenty-one so, without being crude, he has a lot of stamina. He’s never late or tired or distracted by his phone. He just wants to be fucked and Harry obliges, fucking him into the bed until Karl’s face is red and he’s panting that he can’t take it. But he does – he always does – and while he doesn’t make Harry’s hand shake, it’s worth it just for that, to see the look on his face when Harry takes him to the edge and dangles him off.
When he got married last month, Harry wasn’t surprised, but after their final fuck – the pink petals from his boutonnière falling at Harry’s feet – Harry indulged him in one last kiss because he’s a lot of things, but he isn’t cruel. He knew it wasn’t over, that he’d call, and when he does, two days into his honeymoon, Harry’s heart sings at the complement, but he doesn’t answer. Charlotte will turn his bollocks into earrings when she finds out, but Harry doesn’t care because there are still some lines he won’t cross, it seems, and he’s glad because he thought he couldn’t see them any more.
Before Karl got married, he referred a friend to Charlotte, let’s call him Chris. That’s how it works: Harry only goes by referrals. I think we have a friend in common, they’re supposed to say when they call or see him sitting in a bar, nursing an £18 gin and tonic, which is all very le Carré, but that’s part of the game as well. Actually, it isn’t a game at all because the whole thing falls apart if they’re not discrete. And yeah, okay, he does enjoy it – the thrill of it, the subterfuge. He enjoys the sideway glances and watching someone gradually inch towards him, waiting for whoever he’s with to go to the toilet. And he enjoys the way they say it – I think we have a friend in common – their voice shaking and their gaze darting between everything else in the room except him, but Harry knows it’s not a game because there are lives on the line. Careers and families and little girls’ hearts. Little girls who think their daddy is the greatest and Harry would never do anything to make them find out that he isn’t.
Luckily, that doesn’t happen often, but word spreads quickly that he now has Monday nights free so Harry has his pick. He manages to whittle it down to four guys and agrees to meet each one to see which he prefers. Karl’s referral – Chris – is the last. He’s also a footballer and a cursory Google search confirms that provided he doesn’t say anything too stupid, he’s going to be the one. So Harry tries not to be put off when they meet in a club in Mayfair, one of those awful places that parade bottles of vodka with sparklers shooting out of them from the bar to the VIP section, or when Chris winks lasciviously when they shake hands and says, ‘I think we have a friend in common.’
That would usually be Harry’s cue to leave, but Chris is even cuter in person and he can see the hint of a tattoo across his chest under his unbuttoned shirt, so he stays for a drink. Chris orders the most expensive bottle of champagne which Harry is neither excited or impressed by, especially when the waitress brings it over in a rush of sparks. But Harry knows that Chris is showing off and he lets him because he’s surprised he’s being so brazen. Footballers are usually so far in the closet they’ve built extensions so they want to meet somewhere quiet, somewhere discrete. Harry would have met him anywhere so he doesn’t know why Chris chose a nightclub.
‘Are you out?’ Harry asks with a frown when the waitress saunters off.
Chris looks appalled. ‘Fuck no. My Dad was a boxer. He’d fucking kill me.’
‘So what’s all this then?’
Chris doesn’t say anything, just knocks back the glass of champagne and pours himself another. Someone stops to slap him on the back when he’s putting the bottle back in the ice bucket, a huge bloke with cornrows and a cheeky smile. He congratulates Chris on his goal and ruffles his hair and Harry gets it then. Chris is enjoying it, enjoying that people don’t know who Harry is. But then that’s the beauty of footballers, they’re surrounded by so many liggers that he could be anyone, so when the guy walks away and Chris downs his glass of champagne, Harry knows what’s coming. He knows that Chris is just one more glass away from suggesting they go to the toilet. He’s probably already half-hard at the thought of it, of getting his dick sucked in the stall next to the one his teammates are doing coke in. And it’s not that Harry objects, he’s sure Chris has a perfectly lovely dick, but he can’t risk being caught. His clients wouldn’t go near him again. But that’s the funny thing about his job: his clients know they aren’t the only one, but they’d never acknowledge it. They don’t want to know if he comes harder for someone else or if he does that thing with his tongue to anyone else, so they certainly won’t want to see him on the front of tomorrow’s Mirror tangled up in a scandal with a footballer.
Besides, that’s not what this is about. He and Chris are meeting for no other reason than because Harry can. He’s graduated from overweight men with sweaty palms and while he doesn’t have to fancy his clients – he doesn’t fancy any of them, now he thinks about it – he still wants to check them out. That’s all he’s doing. Charlotte handles everything else so there’s no talk of anything vulgar like kinks or anything more vulgar like money. Chris isn’t even paying for this so even if Harry was taking him on as a client – which he won’t be, that much is clear already – he wouldn’t follow him to the toilet. That’ll cost him a lot more than a bottle of champagne.
It’s a shame because on paper, Chris is perfect. He’s tall and lean and he has that swagger Harry can’t resist, but even if he could overlook the other stuff, he wouldn’t be able to endure his company for more than ten minutes. Pretty as Chris is, he’s painfully dull and a bit stupid and while Harry doesn’t necessarily need to speculate over Edward Snowden’s future while he’s rimming someone, he can afford to be picky. So when Chris edges along the sofa, his lips wet as he glances towards the bathrooms, Harry guesses that their hour is almost up and readies an excuse. But before he can use it, a guy walks past their table flanked by a couple of blondes. He turns his cheek towards Harry and when he lifts his eyelashes to look at him, it’s enough to pin Harry to the sofa.
‘Who’s that?’ he asks before he can stop himself, but he feels more in those few seconds than he has in the last forty-five minutes with Chris.
In the last fucking year.
‘You meant it when you said that you don’t know anything about football, didn’t you?’ Chris chuckles, knocking back another mouthful of champagne. ‘That’s Zayn Malik.’
The name is familiar, but then so are a lot of things, like how to speak and how to walk, which Harry’s fairly certain he can’t do anymore without embarrassing himself.
‘He’s a footballer?’ he says, as he watches the waitress seat Zayn and the girls at the table in the middle of the VIP section where everyone can see them. A better table than they’re at, Harry notes, and Chris must too because his jaw clenches as he snatches at the bottle of champagne so suddenly the sharp swish of ice makes Harry jump.
The mood in the club changes after that. All the guys start to stand a little straighter and the girls smile a little looser. Even Chris’ bravado wilts, his eyes not as bright as he tosses a look over to the table Zayn and the girls are sitting at. Harry can’t help but do the same and when Zayn lifts his chin to meet his gaze, Harry looks away again as his heart stops dead in his chest as though someone’s kicked it.
‘I thought he was a model,’ Harry adds hoping he sounds nonchalant even though his cheeks are so hot that he wants stick his head in the ice bucket.
Chris laughs – loud and bitter – and Harry cringes because it sounds like a line – a really bad one – and almost laughs as well, but then he realises that it’s been a while since he’s needed to use a line and he can’t catch his breath.
‘Zayn’s too old to be a model,’ Chris says, sloshing more champagne into his glass and dropping the bottle back into the ice bucket without offering Harry any.
‘How old is he?’
Harry blinks at him. ‘So twenty-six is old now?’
‘To be a model,’ he says, fussing over his hair. ‘Why? How old are you?’
Chris seems surprised. ‘You don’t look that old,’ he says, shrugging in that way only a nineteen-year old can as he downs the rest of his drink.
Harry should have left half an hour ago, but Chris ordered another bottle of champagne and Harry didn’t stop him so there he is, trying to focus on Chris’ unnecessarily loud story about having a threesome with two girls from a band Harry has neither heard of nor cares about. He’s trying not to stare at Zayn but then Chris goes into detail about fingering one of them – with hand gestures and everything – and Harry’s gaze strays back to Zayn. He has to stop, because that’s the first rule: they pay for you, they get you. All of you. And even though Chris hasn’t paid, if he notices Harry checking Zayn out and tells Charlotte she’ll skin him like grape. So Harry makes himself look at Chris, at his round blue eyes and button nose as he all but stands on the sofa they’re sitting on and shouts, I’M STRAIGHT. LISTEN TO HOW STRAIGHT I AM, EVERYONE.
Zayn Malik’s straight, Harry thinks as Chris makes a point of winking at the waitress when she passes, revoltingly, hopelessly straight and Harry loves it. It’s making his heart beat a little faster as he watches how unfazed Zayn is, sipping his champagne as the girls he’s with paw at him. He has nothing to prove, no stories to tell, like Chris, no wink for the waitress or smug smile for everyone else when one of the girls draws him into a deep kiss. It’s like a red rag to a bull and Harry wants to charge over there and pull her off him, to climb into Zayn’s lap and lick his way into his mouth while his hands mess up Zayn’s perfect hair and perfect suit. He’s so immaculate – all in black apart from a diamond stud in his left ear – that Harry wants to leave creases in his shirt and teeth marks on his neck. Fucking brand him right there and then before taking him in his mouth and sucking him until he’s sweating and shaking in his Prada shoes.
‘So then she came again. I didn’t even have to touch her.’ Chris laughs and Harry wants to reach for the bottle of champagne and down it in one because this isn’t fair. He wants to be over there with Zayn, but he’s stuck with pretty but dim Chris and it isn’t fair. But it is what it is, so Harry just smiles sweetly, but when Zayn turns to kiss the girl on the other side of him, his nerves tense suddenly. He’s trying not to stare, but he must be because when they pull apart, Zayn looks at him as if he knows. Harry would normally look away, tease him a little, but he tries to take in as much of him in as he can before Zayn looks away again, his wide eyelashes, the sharp line of his jaw, the not so sharp curl of his mouth. The top button of his black shirt is open to expose an inverted triangle of skin that Harry wants to press his tongue to until he tastes salt and when he thinks about it, his heart does that thing again where it feels like it’s been kicked.
‘I’m going for a piss,’ Chris says, with a wink that is as subtle as it is unwelcome.
Harry smiles again, pretending not to see how he has to cover his hard on with his hand as he swaggers towards the bathroom. As soon as he’s gone, Harry looks at Zayn again, but he’s gone and it takes him a second to realise that it’s because he’s walking towards him. Harry holds his breath and when Zayn passes his table, he doesn’t think before he’s on his feet, following him to the bar, his legs suddenly a little weaker.
‘I’m Nathan,’ he spits out as soon as he catches up with him, not even waiting to catch his breath. It’s been a long time since he felt that – since a guy made him nervous – and he doesn’t know what he thinks is going to happen, but he likes it.
Likes how it feels in his bones.
Zayn presses his palms to the bar and turns to look at him from under his eyelashes and it makes the collar of his shirt stick to the back of his neck because it’s like being undressed, button by button. He licks his lips and it makes Harry lick his lips as well because all he can think about is kissing him. Kissing and kissing and kissing him. Kissing him like those girls just did, until Zayn’s jaw clenches and his eyelids shiver shut.
‘I know,’ Zayn says at last. ‘I think we have a friend in common.’
Harry’s heart does that thing again.
He’s breaking about seventeen rules by going to Zayn’s house. Harry doesn’t pick up guys in bars. That’s not how this works. All clients have to be thoroughly vetted and tested or, at the very least, they have to book an appointment through Charlotte. She’s going to kill him when she finds out. Actually kill him dead. Especially when she finds out that they met while he was out with Chris.
Harry doesn’t know what he’s doing, why he didn’t just give Zayn his number like he would anyone else. But Zayn isn’t anyone else and that’s exactly why he shouldn’t be going to his house. This isn’t about sex. It’s never been about sex. Control? Certainly. Money? Absolutely. But never sex. If it was Harry would have packed it in three years ago when his first client came in his hair before he’d even taken him in his mouth. But then he looks out of the window of the cab he’s in, watching as it rolls along Chelsea Embankment, past the brightly coloured barges and Albert Bridge, white as toothpaste against the black sky, and his heart hiccups at the thought of seeing Zayn again.
Three years and he hasn’t felt so much as a passing fancy for anyone. Perhaps a barista in a coffee shop with tattooed arms and a pierced lip or a guy on the tube who’s reading Gone Girl and he wants to ask him what he thinks of Amy, but no more than that. No more than a flicker that never quite catches and burns out by the time Harry walks out of the coffee shop or gets off at his tube stop. He never thinks of them again, and if he does, it’s only for a moment, remembering their mouth or their long fingers when he’s having a sleepy wank in the morning, but it’s not enough to think much more than that.
It’s never enough.
He thought it was the job, that he’d flicked a switch to be able to do it because he doesn’t feel anything any more. He does, of course, he still gets hard, still shivers when someone’s teeth catch on his nipple, but he never feels it in his bones, in his marrow. Kind of like a decaf coffee that doesn’t quite taste the same and he forgets a few minutes after he’s finished it. But then he doesn’t want to feel anything, because if he did, if he felt something every time, his heart couldn’t take the strain. That’s the trouble with Harry, he either feels nothing at all or he feels everything at once, there’s no inbetween. So there he is, fidgeting as the cab pulls off Chelsea Embankment, fidgeting like he’s on a first date. And with that he’s sixteen again, in his Topman suit and his father’s tie, on his way to pick up Emma Holland for summer prom, and his heart feels brand new.
It makes him lightheaded, the thought of Zayn, and he doesn’t know why him. He never knows why. When he likes someone like that, in that dizzying, distracted way that has him drifting away while he’s reading a book or waiting for the kettle to boil, he can never say why. It isn’t the way they look or dress or smell, or maybe it’s all of those things, but it’s something else as well, the same something that keeps him up at night and he doesn’t know why or whatever makes him listen to a song on repeat for days.
Why that song? He doesn’t know.
Why Zayn? He doesn’t know.
Zayn arranged for the cab to pick Harry up at the club exactly half an hour after he left so Harry doesn’t realise he’s heading for Cheyne Row until he sees Charlotte’s house, set back from the road with its Liberty purple front door and sash windows. Of fucking course Zayn lives there. He can’t live in Surrey like everyone else who plays for Chelsea or in a glossy penthouse overlooking the Thames with black silk sheets and a pool on the roof. No. He has to live there, across the street from Charlotte.
The light upstairs is on and Harry imagines her, sitting at her dressing table in a satin gown, brushing her hair a hundred times. He almost laughs as he clambers out of the cab, not because it’s funny, but because shit like that only happens to him. If she looked out of her bedroom window she’d see him and only he would risk something like this under her nose. But he can’t lie, the thought of it, of getting caught makes his heart beat a little harder. After all, it’s not too late. He could ask the driver to wait while he tells Zayn that they have to meet somewhere else, suggest they meet at The Gore instead. So when he presses the buzzer and the gate begins it’s slow swing open to reveal the Range Rover Zayn left the club in, Harry only has himself to blame.
Zayn answers the door looking as immaculate as he did when Harry last saw him, right down to shoes. Harry had hoped that he would have shrugged off his suit jacket, perhaps undone another button to reveal the pendants hanging from the necklace around his neck, but he looks the same. Even his hair is perfect, glossy and watermelon seed black, and Harry wonders if he fixed it while he was waiting. If he brushed his teeth or put on more cologne, and the thought makes Harry fidget again.
Zayn invites him in and Harry tries not to gasp when he accepts but he definitely stares. His house is huge, unnecessarily so, the glass ceiling three stories high so all Harry can see is stars as he tips his head back to look up at it. ‘This house is the Boo Radley of the street. That’s why I bought it,’ Zayn explains, reading Harry’s mind. Harry raises an eyebrow at the reference then swallows a chuckle when he leads him through the living room. It’s so different from Charlotte’s house it can’t be an accident. There are no pretty little sofas with delicate legs or vases of peonies, their pink petals as thin as Bible paper, and Harry realises then that it’s the house she was complaining about last year. A monstrosity, she called it when she saw that it was being built, and Harry knew it was nothing to do with how modern is was – how brutal, with its hard lines and sharp white plaster – and everything to do with the fact that she knew who’d buy it.
But Harry didn’t say anything, just commiserated with her when she was right because that’s London. He loves what a contradiction it is, how the skyscrapers stick up between the crumbling, cake coloured buildings like birthday candles, but as cosmopolitan as it thinks it is, everyone knows their place. This is Old Chelsea. People like Zayn don’t live in Old Chelsea, that’s why it took Harry so long to realise where he was. The Chelsea players live in the townhouses and apartments off Sloane Square, the ones with hot tubs and televisions that appear from the end of the bed. Old Chelsea is for old money. Lords and Ladies, not working class kids done good. No wonder Charlotte had a stroke when she realised a footballer was moving in. But Harry kind of loves Zayn for it, for sticking two fingers up at them all. Charlotte used to be a fucking hairdresser.
But while his house is nothing like hers, it’s still exactly what Harry expected: perfect, but completely soulless. Charlotte’s house is as well, but in a different way. Her house is quiet, so quiet that you realise your shoes squeak. It’s not the sort of house you want to sit down in, but then Zayn’s isn’t, either. The living room feels like an airport hanger that’s been neatly separated into four sections: one for sitting, one for reading, one for eating and one for sitting by a floating chimney breast that’s been painted a miserable shade of grey and has some sort of stainless steel fire place at the bottom.
Harry hates it. Hates it. He doesn’t need to see the rest to know that there’s a home cinema and some sort of games room with Zayn’s England and Chelsea shirts framed on the walls. There’s probably an array of cars parked somewhere and it’s all so cliché it should be comforting. It’s the sort of house footballers show off in magazines, everything white and shades of grey interrupted every now and then by a purple lamp or a wild watercolour that Zayn probably thinks will be worth something one day. But Harry can’t see him anywhere. There are no photos on the walls, no keys on the table by the front door. Anyone could live there. No one. It’s basically a seven-and-a half-thousand-square-foot hotel suite and Harry wants to run around and mess it up, to look behind the books on the shelves and down the back of the sofa, find some hint of him. A receipt from his favourite restaurant or a pack of cigarettes that he hides in a drawer.
Harry wonders what Zayn would do if he did. If he rearranged the sofa cushions or left fingerprints on the glass staircase. As he looks at it, Harry’s heart hiccups again as he realises that he wants to leave fingerprints, to leave some piece of himself behind. The thought of it, of fucking Zayn halfway up the stairs, his knees and feet skidding on the glass steps as he tries to hold onto Zayn’s hips, makes him breathless as he listens to Zayn’s shoes tapping steadily across the marble floor and tries to keep up.
Harry can’t remember the last time he thought something like that, the last time he looked at someone and wanted to fuck them. Not needed to and there’s a difference he realises as he looks at the back of Zayn’s neck, at the neat line of skin between the collar of his black shirt and his blacker hair that Harry wants to run his tongue along.
He bites his bottom lip and slips his hands into the pockets of his trousers in case he gives into the urge to, or to knock over one of the potted orchids just to see how Zayn reacts, until finally, they’re in the kitchen. That’s what Harry expected as well – more marble and stainless steel – but it’s noticeably smaller than the living room, probably because he never uses it. Harry thinks of his own kitchen then, of the empty fridge and two-day old teabags festering in the sink, and tries to picture Zayn in his, making a fried egg sandwich on a Sunday morning or coming home drunk and spilling the salad from his kebab on the marble floor, and can’t. He’s probably never even used the oven.
‘Do you want a drink?’ Zayn asks, walking around the island in the middle.
‘A cup of tea would be lovely.’
Zayn looks at him like he’s nuts and Harry has to bite down on a smile. He knew it would ruffle him, which is exactly why he said it.
‘But it’s one in the morning.’
‘Bit late for caffeine, isn’t it?’
‘Were you planning to go to sleep?’ Harry does smile then, but Zayn doesn’t let himself, the corners of his mouth twitching as he reaches for the kettle.
‘Okay. Tea it is, then.’
Harry nods and when Zayn walks over to the sink to fill it, he wanders back into the living room. He stands in the middle of it for a while, listening to Zayn moving about in the kitchen as he tries to imagine living there. He could fit his flat into a corner of it and that’s probably what pisses Charlotte off more than anything, that it’s bigger than her house. She’s probably dying to see inside, to sweep through and scoff at the coffee table of art books and the sheepskin rug that Harry wants to feel against his back. He licks his lips at the thought, Zayn breathless and heavy on top of him, his eyes closed and Harry’s name skidding across the marble floors. The thought of it makes him so hard that he has to stop and lean against the dining table as he checks whether the potted orchid is real. It is and he’s surprised, but he isn’t surprised by how new the table looks. It’s clearly never been used, probably to snort a line of coke off but no more than that. Harry doubts Zayn is the dinner party type. He can’t even picture him in a furniture shop picking it out, but then Harry’s sure he didn’t. His furniture isn’t the sort of stuff that you pick out of the Ikea catalogue and spend a Sunday afternoon putting together, harassed and hungover. It’s the sort of furniture that just arrives, Harry thinks as he wanders over to the bookcase. It was probably already there when Zayn moved in.
The books surprise Harry as well. He assumed they would be hardbacks, gilded classics like Sense and Sensibility and Great Expectations, but he plucks off a copy of Things Fall Apart, which he studied at university. It’s untouched, he notes, putting it back then running a finger along the shelf. All of them are, their spines unbroken, and Harry can’t help but push some of them in so they’re no longer lined up neatly. Then he takes Breakfast at Tiffany’s and moves it to the shelf below with a playful chuckle so it’s between The Wind-up Bird Chronicles and Pale Fire.
When Zayn comes out of the kitchen, Harry is by the sofa, turning one of the cushions around. Zayn moves it back then hands him the tea and Harry has to hide his smile behind the mug as he wonders if Zayn even knows that he’s doing it, that he’s walking around the living room moving everything back into place. Harry can see that he’s losing his temper, his jaw clenched and the skin between his eyebrows pinched as he paces back and forth. He waits for Zayn to tell him off, but he doesn’t, just turns off the lamp on the end table and straightens the framed black and white photograph on the wall behind the sofa that Harry was sure he wouldn’t notice was off kilter.
‘I like that,’ Harry says, pointing his mug at it.
‘Thanks,’ he mutters, but doesn’t look up, just walks over to the dining table and starts turning the orchid until he finds a position only he can see.
‘It’s nice,’ Harry teases. ‘Who’s it by?’
Zayn doesn’t answer and Harry kind of wishes Charlotte was there because she’d slap him across the face. He has a Helmut fucking Newton on his wall and he has no idea.
Good thing you’re pretty, Harry thinks as he watches him and God, he’s pretty, even when he’s pissed off, the crease between his eyebrows deepening as he rearranges the books with a pointed sigh. Harry would apologise if he wasn’t enjoying how much it was bothering him. He’s not usually in the habit of messing with his client’s, but he can tell that it’s been a while since someone disrupted Zayn like this and Harry wants to disrupt him, make him spit and swear as he tries to hold him down and can’t. The promise of it makes Harry’s bones shiver and he suddenly doesn’t care about his tea or about messing with him, he just wants Zayn, wants him everywhere, on the dining table and the sofa and on the middle of the floor, the black, black sky moving over them.
‘So where do you want me?’ Harry asks, walking over to the wooden chair by the fireplace and tracing the heart-shaped back with his finger. ‘This looks comfortable.’
Harry smirks. ‘Ask nicely.’
Zayn doesn’t – just looks at him – and when he tilts his head at him as if to say, Do as you’re told, Harry knows that he’s not pissed, he’s furious. He’d be lying if he said that he didn’t feel a shiver of satisfaction at doing it to him, at the thought of how hard Zayn’s heart is beating and how his hot cheeks would feel under his fingers. It makes his legs falter as he puts down the mug and walks over to where he’s standing by the sofa.
They look at each other and Harry can’t help but drink him in. He’s impossible, his face nothing but sharp lines – his nose, his chin, his jaw, his skin stretched tight over cheekbones that Harry could write sonnets about – but there’s a softness to him as well, to his eyes and the sudden pink of his mouth that balances it out, like water lilies on a pond. Harry doesn’t know what he wants more, to knock him back like a shot, bend him over the over the back of the sofa and fuck him quick and rough, or to take his time, reach for his hand and lead him upstairs, do it in the middle of his bed. So when Zayn tells him to turn around and he doesn’t, Harry’s not putting up a fight, just distracted as the knot in his stomach tightens. Not like it usually does, with that strange sense of determination, hopeless overachiever that he is. When I’m done, this guy is going to pay double. Not even with the trepidation he feels every time he sleeps with a client for the first time and he’s scared that he won’t be able to get it up. He’s nervous, he realises with a shiver when his fingers flutter at the thought of unbuttoning his shirt. He’s done this so many times that when guys touch him he can’t even feel it any more and he’s nervous.
‘I said: turn around.’ Zayn arches his eyebrow in a way that tells Harry that he won’t ask so nicely next time, and Harry feels that, feels the bristle of it against his skin as he turns around with a smile that tells Zayn he’ll do as he’s told, but just this once.
‘Put your hands behind your back,’ Zayn says and Harry’s heart bangs suddenly, like he’s turned the television up too loud, as he hears Zayn unbuckle his belt. ‘You’ve touched enough in this house tonight,’ he says in Harry’s ear, his breath hot and thick as he winds the belt around his wrists. ‘You’re not allowed to touch anything else.’
Harry wants to laugh, tell him not to be mad, that he used to tease Karl, too, tease him about the exorbitant amount he spent on neon lights for his swimming pool and on that hideous life-size sculpture of Iron Man. But Zayn’s voice is so hard that the urge to make another wry remark dies as Harry struggles to catch his breath at the thought of what’s about to happen, if he’s the one that’s going to be bent over the back of the sofa and fucked quick and rough. That scares him, not the thought that Zayn might hurt him, but that he wants him to, that he wants Zayn to bite his shoulder and call him a slut, fuck him so hard he feels it. He just wants to feel it.
‘Face me and get on your knees,’ Zayn tells him and it turns his stomach to water because it’s been a while since Harry has been spoken to like that. He’s been seeing his clients for so long that they don’t need to direct one another. He knows which of them likes him to be waiting in bed, which of them likes to undress him slowly, the tips of his fingers catching on his nipples before they skim over his hips. Maybe later, when they get into it, they’ll tell him to open his legs wider or to bend over, but they never speak to him like that, like he’s a whore, and he’s ashamed of how hard it makes him as he does as he’s told. It’s a struggle with his wrists tied, but when he loses his balance, Zayn puts his hand on his shoulder to steady him, but it doesn’t help at all, Harry’s head spinning at the fleeting moment of contact. It’s the first time they’ve touched, he realises, and it’s nothing, but he’s sure that he feels the heat of Zayn’s hand, even through his suit.
‘Don’t move,’ Zayn tells him and he sounds so sure that Harry wonders if he’s been thinking about this since he saw him with Chris in the club: how he wants him, in what position, in which room. Harry had hoped they would do this in his bedroom, that Zayn would let him see the pieces of himself he doesn’t want everyone to see, a framed photo of his parents, perhaps, a seashell from a holiday he doesn’t want to forget, the sort of things Karl had in his bedroom. If he’s honest, Harry used to get off on those things, on the smell of his fiancé’s perfume on the sheets and her hair pins on the bedside table. Once he used her hand lotion as lube and came before Karl did. But maybe they’re not in his bedroom because Zayn wants him there so that every time he walks past the sofa, he’ll think of Harry on his knees. Maybe they’ll do it against the wall in his bedroom, Harry on tip toes, his cheek pressed to the plaster. Harry hopes that he’s thought about it, that there’s a chair or rug in every room in the house that Zayn wants to fuck him on. Or maybe he’ll let Harry fuck him, slow and deep, his mouth to Zayn’s ear telling him how beautiful he looks as he shudders with delight beneath him.
When Zayn starts to undo his trousers, Harry holds his breath. They’re both fully dressed so when Zayn takes out his erection the sudden flash of skin is shocking. The head of his cock is wet so Zayn doesn’t have to tell Harry to open his mouth, his lips already parted as Zayn curls his fingers around the base and feeds it to him. Harry makes sure that his tongue catches on the tip first, licking away the gloss of precome before slowly swirling his tongue around it. It makes Zayn choke on a gasp and stop, but Harry doesn’t, his eyelashes flickering shut as he leans forward and takes him in his mouth. Zayn tells him to wait when Harry closes his mouth around him then says it again, his hips stuttering forward when Harry ignores him and sucks until his cheeks hollow. He has to pull Harry’s hair to make him stop and fuck, it hurts so much it brings tears to his eyes, but it’s worth it to see Zayn lose his cool for the first time.
‘Don’t,’ he says through his teeth, pulling at Harry’s hair again as he reaches for the back of the sofa to steady himself with his other hand. But Harry doesn’t listen, taking him in a little deeper this time, so deep that his lips are almost touching his fingers. That makes Zayn keen towards him and the sound he makes is so fucking needy he must be sweating, and the thought of it, of peeling his black shirt off later and lapping at his damp skin makes Harry’s hands ball into fists as his hips roll at nothing, desperate for relief as his erection digs into the zip of his trousers.
‘Wait,’ Zayn hisses, pulling Harry’s head back. A silver thread of saliva from the tip of Zayn’s cock to Harry’s bottom lip is the only thing still connecting them and Harry almost doesn’t take a breath because he doesn’t want to break it.
‘For what?’ he pants, tilting his chin up to look at him.
Zayn doesn’t respond, just sweeps his thumb over Harry’s mouth and he’s his then, Harry knows, his lips parting again as Zayn puts his hand on the back of his head and guides his cock back into his mouth. ‘Fuck,’ Zayn grunts, sitting on the back of the sofa, both his hands in Harry’s hair as Harry tightens his lips around him and starts sucking again. Zayn tries to guide him, tries tugging his hair to get Harry to slow down, but he can’t because that’s what Harry does, you can tie him up and tell him what to do, but he’ll still find a way to touch you in a way you didn’t know he could.
‘Your mouth,’ Zayn breathes and it makes Harry’s cheeks burn because even over his heart pounding in his ears, he can hear the noises he’s making, the steady, satisfied hum that Zayn must feel in his bones as Harry sucks, loud and greedy. It sounds so obscene in the library-still living room that he’s ready to come in his pants because he hasn’t sucked someone off like that, with such utter, shameless abandon, since the first time he did it and it felt so good – so right – that when he walked home, he cried. And he wants to cry again, his shirt sticking to his back as he listens to Zayn saying, So good over and over because he’s about to lose it, Harry knows, and that’s what gets Harry – what gets him off every time – knowing that he’s doing that to someone.
It’s the only thing he’s good at.
‘Fuck. I- I-’ Zayn pants and Harry wants to know the end of that sentence, to be in his head and hear what he can’t find the breath to say. He wonders if he’s calling him filthy, like Karl used to. ‘You filthy bitch,’ Karl spat, the first time Harry deepthroated him then came so hard his legs gave way. If Zayn’s calling him the same thing Harry wants him to say it, wants to know what he’s doing to him. But he knows, he can hear Zayn’s pants getting shorter and can feel him going slack against the sofa.
Finally, he gives into it, holding Harry’s head still with his hands and thrusting up into his mouth. It’s not something Harry usually enjoys – being so pliant – but Zayn makes the most helpless sound when his cock hits the back of his throat that Harry can’t help but roll his hips, the zip of his trousers catching on his hard on, making him gasp. Zayn winces when he does, his hips bucking so suddenly Harry gags. That makes them both shake and Harry wonders if Zayn can feel his throat fluttering around the head of his cock because before Harry can recover, Zayn lifts his hips as his hands push down on the back of Harry’s head and inches in deeper.
It makes Harry’s eyes water as the damp patch in his trousers spreads until his underwear is sticking to him and he can’t feel the bite of his zip any more, just the threat of his orgasm that’s about to spill out of him at any moment. But then Zayn pulls his hair and there’s a roughness to it, as though he’s trying to hold on more than anything, that tells Harry he’s passed a line he didn’t intend to cross. Harry’s wrists strain at the belt then because he wants to touch him, which is a strange thing to want given his cock is in his mouth, but Harry wants to kiss him, to feel the curl of his tongue and to slip his hands under his shirt to clutch his back, feel his skin and the curve of his ribs under it.
‘Fuck,’ Zayn pants, drawing his hips back, but before Harry can catch his breath, he starts fucking his mouth with short, sharp strokes that make Harry’s hands ball into fists behind his back. Then with one last thrust, Zayn cries out and unravels and it’s enough to make Harry come as well.
Come in his Armani pants like a thirteen-year old.
Harry can’t remember the last time he came like that. Not for years – years and years. He’d be disgusted with himself if it didn’t feel so good, his whole body humming like a car left idling on a frosty morning as Zayn holds his head and hisses, ‘All of it.’ But there’s no need. Harry swallows everything and even tries to tease more out of him as he closes his eyes and sucks until Zayn starts to shake and thrust into his mouth again.
When Zayn finally lets go of his hair, Harry tips his head back to suck in a deep, desperate breath, but it isn’t enough, his chest heaving. It doesn’t help that all he can think about is kissing Zayn – tasting him, letting him taste himself – about bending him over the sofa and fucking him until their calves are burning and their toes are curling in their shoes.
‘You’re amazing,’ Harry pants, head spinning, and he doesn’t recognise his voice as he peels his eyes open to find Zayn looking at him intently, his face softer. So soft.
‘You okay?’ he breathes, moving one hand to Harry’s face. Harry can’t help but press his cheek to his warm palm when he does, all but purring when Zayn wipes the corner of his mouth with his thumb then sweeps the pad of it along his bottom lip.
‘That was amazing,’ he breathes, trying to lick Zayn’s thumb and missing as he stands up.
‘The bathroom’s through there,’ Zayn says, untying the belt from Harry's wrists and nodding towards the kitchen. 'I'll call you a cab.'
When Harry walks back to the living room, Zayn is sitting on the sofa, drinking a scotch as if nothing has happened. He stands up when he sees Harry, the ice shivering in his glass, and it’s so smooth – so elegant – that Harry says a little prayer that his feet don’t fail him and he spills across the floor.
‘Alright?’ Zayn asks when he stops in front of him, and that’s kind of smooth as well, like he couldn’t give a shit. It hurts more than it should, but then they’ve only been apart a few minutes so Harry’s heart shouldn’t be beating like that, either, too fast and too hard, as if he’s just got off a plane to find Zayn waiting for him in Arrivals. And it’s kind of pathetic – kind of cliché – how his nonchalance makes Harry want him more, but it does. It makes him want to reach for him, to fist his hands in his black hair and run his tongue along his bottom lip until Zayn opens his mouth. Given what they’ve just done – what Harry does most nights – it’s such a silly thing to miss, a kiss. Childish even. But it’s all Harry can think about as they stand there, looking at one another, and he wishes Zayn would just give him that tiny moment of softness. His thumb wasn’t enough.
But he doesn’t, just sips his scotch while Harry catches himself looking for some sign that he isn’t okay, either. A ring of sweat around his hairline. A cut on his bottom lip from where he had to bite down on it. But there’s nothing. There isn’t even a crease in his shirt and it makes Harry feel like shit as he licks the last of him from his mouth.
‘Do you need me to call you a cab?’ Zayn asks flatly.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Zayn asks flatly.
Harry looks towards the door. His neck is sore but he doesn’t realise he’s rubbing it until he looks back to see Zayn frowning and there it is at last: a flicker of concern. It only lasts a second before Zayn realises and the skin between his eyebrows smoothes, but Harry sees it.
‘Okay,’ Zayn says with a shrug that doesn’t bother Harry as much as it would have a moment ago, but something in him still won’t settle.
‘Okay,’ he repeats, and that’s his cue to leave, he knows, so he doesn’t know why he doesn’t, why he stands there, looking at Zayn, like a dog waiting for a treat.
‘What?’ Zayn asks, sipping his scotch.
Harry shakes his head. ‘Nothing.’
‘Never been treated like this, huh?’
‘Like what?’ Harry tenses, lifting his eyelashes as if to say, Don’t you fucking dare.
But he does.
‘Like a prostitute.’
Zayn looks at him when he says it – right in the eye – and he may as well have thrown his drink in Harry’s face. He must see Harry’s jaw clench, because the corners of his mouth twitch as he shakes his glass so the ice rattles.
‘That’s what you are, isn’t it?’ He smiles and Harry doesn’t give him the pleasure of correcting him, just holds his gaze, his nerves tightening like piano strings. ‘And I’m the dumb fuck footballer who doesn’t know that he has a Helmut Newton in his living room.’
That hurts just as much somehow, as much as being called a whore, the thought that Zayn doesn’t think badly of what he does, but of who he is. It sends a surge of shame flooding through him and when he looks up at him, not sure if he should defend himself or plead for forgiveness, Zayn seems satisfied, licking his lips as Harry’s cheeks flare.
‘That’s how you make a living.’ He nods towards the sofa. ‘So you don’t get to come into my house and look down your nose at me, okay?’
Harry read something once about the different stages of grief. Not that he’s grieving, but the rush of emotions he feels when he leaves Zayn’s house kind of feels like he’s lost something. Not just Zayn, which he’d get over eventually with enough time and aimless sex, or even what they could have been, which he won’t let himself think about, but it’s what Harry’s lost of himself, the man Zayn thinks he is. That’s what hurts most: that he’s lost the chance to be anything other than the cocky prick who made fun of him. That he’ll always be the cocky prick who made fun of him.
Harry knows the first stage is denial, he remembers that as his cab rolls back along Chelsea Embankment. It’s not as bad as he thinks, he tells himself when he feels his cheeks flush again as he thinks of the way Zayn looked at him. Through him, actually, down to the bone. He can fix this, he tells himself when he gets home, when he’s in the shower scrubbing himself until his skin is red. He’ll go to Zayn’s house in the morning, take croissants and coffee and tell him about the time he spent twenty minutes banging on about how overrated Kate Atkinson is in class, only to find out she’s married to his professor. Tell him that he isn’t a snob, that he watches The Real Housewives of Atlanta and mixes peanut M&Ms in with his popcorn when he goes to the cinema. He’s a fucking idiot, but he’s not a snob. He’d never look down at Zayn.
He can’t sleep thinking about it, about the injustice of it. At 3 a.m. he gives up and looks it up. Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Anger hits him about fifteen minutes later when he decides to do something useful and pack for his trip to Paris. He reaches for a suit – the charcoal grey one that’s almost black but not quite – and thinks about how much Charles likes it, how his cheeks get a little pinker when he sees him in it and how, even if they’re in a ballroom full of dignitaries, he can’t help grazing the back of Harry’s calf with his foot under the table.
Charles adores Harry. He’d never talk to him the way that Zayn talked to him tonight. Never treat him like that, as though he’s nothing. No more than a mouth to fuck. The more Harry thinks about it, the angrier he gets. By 5 a.m. he’s livid and by 6 a.m. he’s seething. If he had Zayn’s number he’d call him and tell him that he’s the asshole, actually. Harry may be a prostitute (if that’s what Zayn wants to think if it makes him feel better about leaving the club to meet him when the two girls he was with were clearly up for it), but he’d never deliberately hurt someone. If he hurt Zayn then he’s sorry, but it wasn’t on purpose. Zayn meant to hurt him, though. He took aim and fired.
So who’s the asshole?
But Harry doesn’t have Zayn’s number, so all he can do is wait until his gym opens at 8 a.m. then run on the treadmill until his legs feel like they’re about to give way. That usually helps, but when he leaves, his hair still wet from the shower, he catches himself gnawing at the corner of his mouth, and it’s been a long time since he felt that, the sting of being misunderstood. It makes him feel fifteen again and hiding books from his father in case he throws them out. You read too much, kid, he used to tell him, like it was a bad thing. You should be at the park with your mates, drinking cider and fingering whatever slapper will have you. His mates agreed. They laughed at him when they were at a party and instead of getting off with a girl, he ended up holding her hair in the garden while she threw up. But then everyone thought he was weird and okay, he still is, but people laugh at his jokes now and they get his pretentious Nietzsche references. They get him, so when he sees a black cab approaching, he hails it.
‘Cheyne Row,’ he tells the driver when he climbs in the back and he’s out of his mind, he knows, because this isn’t a moment of weakness, a champagne-fuelled lapse in judgment, like last night. It’s broad daylight and Harry is horribly, painfully sober. He’s never felt more sober, in fact, as though there’s nothing left inside him, only the anger burning through him, devouring everything else until he’s shoving a £20 note at the driver and pressing the buzzer on Zayn’s gate until he can feel the hum of it in his finger.
It’s Sunday so the street is more quiet than usual, making the buzzer sound twice as loud. He’s aware of curtains twitching around him and if Charlotte looks out of her bedroom window, she’ll definitely see him, but Harry doesn’t care because Zayn isn’t a client and he never will be so fuck her. If she sees then she sees.
Zayn answers with a clipped, ‘Yes?’
‘It’s Nathan,’ Harry says, pacing on the spot.
He almost punches the buzzer. ‘Nathan the prostitute.’
There’s a louder buzz but when the gate begins to swing open, Harry doesn’t wait and pushes it, squeezing through the gap and pacing across the driveway towards the house. It looks different in daylight. Harder. Harry can see why Charlotte hates it. In a neat terrace of Queen Anne houses with their neat windows and neat window boxes frothing over with ivy and geraniums, Zayn’s too-white, too-narrow house is disarming, like a red wine stain on a tablecloth. There’s nothing soft about it, no curtains in the windows or bay trees on either side of the front door. There’s nothing even familiar about it, Zayn’s Range Rover gone, replaced by a yellow Ferrari that Harry would kick if Zayn wasn’t standing at the door watching him.
‘Isn’t this a pleasant surprise,’ Zayn arches an eyebrow at him as he approaches, gym bag bouncing against his hip. He looks so good – flawless in a dark blue suit and pale blue shirt – that it makes Harry want to throw up, but he rolls his eyes instead.
‘It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday morning,’ Harry sneers, pushing past him into the house. ‘Why the fuck are you wearing a suit?’
It isn’t the best start.
Zayn follows him in, tugging on the cuffs of his shirt as Harry stands in the middle of the living room with one hand in his hair. Harry can smell coffee and just that hint of familiarity – of home, almost – in the vast, chilly living room makes something in him soften as he thinks of Zayn with sleep-flattened hair sipping a cup of coffee as he sits at the dining table leafing through the Sunday papers. But then Zayn smirks and says, ‘I’m due in court,’ and when Harry feels the dig he remembers why he’s there.
‘Okay.’ He holds his arms out. ‘Maybe I am a snob. Maybe I judge people who spell definitely with an A and think that Fifty Shades of Grey is the best book ever and maybe I judged you based on every footballer I’ve ever met and I’m sorry.’ Harry lifts his chin to look at him, but Zayn doesn’t flinch and he doesn’t know what he was expecting. After the way he looked at him last night, he knew that Zayn wasn’t going to be gracious. And it’s not like Harry wants him to forgive him, but whatever he wants, it isn’t that. It isn’t Zayn looking at him like he’s a potted orchid that’s in the wrong position.
Harry suddenly doesn’t know why he’s there. Zayn’s obviously made up his mind about him and he’s not going to change it with an apology and an embarrassing anecdote about Kate Atkinson. Harry doesn’t even know why he cares – Zayn’s wrong, he’s wrong – but he does, his blood burning as Zayn looks him up and down, taking in his scruffy trainers, sweats and Carhartt hoodie then keeps going, looking at something over Harry’s shoulder that makes him feel like he isn’t in the room any more.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says again and he hates how it sounds, like a kid trying to avoid being grounded. Not that Zayn is even listening, his gaze dropping to his gaudy gold watch. ‘I shouldn’t have judged you, but I do that sometimes.’ Harry persists, waiting for Zayn to look at him, but when he doesn’t, it’s like a pin in his resolve. He feels tears suddenly stinging the corners of his eyes and turns his cheek, horrified. He doesn’t know where they came from, if it’s guilt or shame or he’s just exhausted from banging his head on the wall between, but everything suddenly starts spilling out of him, like a neglected bath overflowing. ‘I do it because I went to Cambridge and I was supposed to write a novel and I was supposed-’ Harry stops and shakes his head as he realises why he’s there and it’s nothing to do with Zayn, but he can’t stop. ‘I was supposed to be someone but I suck dick for a living. So maybe I’m a bit bitter about that.’ He concedes with a nod and he should probably be embarrassed but he’s never going to see Zayn again so fuck it.
‘Clearly,’ Zayn mutters, looking at his watch again.
‘But I’m not nasty.’ He points at him. ‘What you said last night was nasty.’
Zayn looks at him for the first time since he opened the front door. ‘Was it?’
He says it so matter of factly that Harry feels something in him bow. ‘You know it was, that’s why you said it,’ he says, arm dropping back to his side, suddenly not as sure.
‘Why? What did I say?’
Harry laughs, sudden and slightly hysterical, covering his face with his hands. It sounds so silly in Zayn’s painfully grown up living room that it makes Harry laugh more, doubling over as he realises what an idiot he is. He hasn’t stopped thinking about what Zayn said since he left there last night. He’s questioned what he said, what he does, who he is, picked himself a-fucking-part and Zayn doesn’t even remember what he said.
‘What?’ Harry hears Zayn say and holds up a hand.
‘Sorry. It’s not you.’ Harry can’t help but smile as he adjusts the strap of his gym bag on his shoulder and walks back towards the door. ‘I shouldn’t have come.’
‘Are you sure?’ Zayn asks when he passes him and Harry doesn’t need to look at him to know he’s smiling. ‘Seems like you have something to say.’
He does, actually, so if he’s going to say it, it has to be now because he won’t get another chance and he can’t keep doing that, he can’t keep holding stuff in because it’s easier to let it hurt him. And while it isn’t Zayn that he wants to say it to, he’ll do. That’s why he’s there – why he’s so angry – and he should have known, but it’s been so long that he forgot how this feels. So he stops when he gets to the door and looks back at the living room, at the grey sofa and grey rugs and grey chimneybreast, Zayn in the middle of it all, like a lump of turquoise in a jar of nails.
‘Fine. You want me to say it: you did it, Zayn. You’re someone,’ he tells him with one last shrug. ‘It’s not fair to remind me that I’m not.’
He’s halfway across Battersea Bridge when Charlotte calls. Harry almost doesn’t answer, but it’s never good to ignore Charlotte; she’s like his mother, she always finds out eventually. So he wipes his cheek with the cuff of his hoodie and takes a deep breath when he answers, hoping it isn’t obvious that he’s been crying for the last ten minutes.
‘Hey, Charlotte,’ he says as breezily as he can. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Mr Styles, how are you this morning?’
‘I’m good, thanks. Just picking up some stuff for Paris.’
‘Of course. The car’s coming at midday, right?’
‘I think so.’
‘Good. So you can spare me a moment.’
Harry stops walking and closes his eyes.
‘Of course,’ he says sweetly. I can spare a moment for you to crucify me.
‘Excellent,’ she says, just as sweetly. ‘By my calculations you should be about halfway across Battersea Bridge so I’ll see you in ten minutes, yes?’
Harry looks over the edge of the bridge and sighs wistfully. ‘See you in ten.’
Harry hopes that Zayn doesn’t see him walk past his house again. He shouldn’t care, but he still tugs up the hood of his sweatshirt and dips his head as he walks up the steps towards Charlotte’s front door. The housekeeper answers, a tiny, nervous woman called Marla who has soft hands and hair the same colour as Zayn, that same watermelon seed black. She’s worked for Charlotte longer than he has, although he can’t think why; she has the broken, unfocused gaze of those women you see on the news who’ve escaped after being locked in someone’s basement for ten years. This morning she’s especially fidgety, throwing herself at him and hugging him as though he’s come to save her.
‘Miss Charlotte, very, very mad,’ she whispers, when she lets go.
Harry gulps. Actually cartoon gulps. ‘How mad?’
‘Sit by sideboard.’ She grabs his arm and squeezes. ‘Use candlestick if need to.’
Usually Harry would laugh at that, but he knows Charlotte well enough to believe that this is something Marla has considered. He wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t something in every room in the house that Marla’s considered using as a weapon.
Charlotte is waiting for him in the conservatory, a large, delicate room that glints like an upside down crystal glass in the sunlight. It’s completely white – the walls, the chairs, the rugs, everything – which makes the garden look obscenely green, as though it’s been drawn in crayon. Charlotte is sitting neatly on a chair, also in white, her blonde hair pulled into a loose bun and her glasses perched on the end of her nose. ‘I can see you,’ she says in that sing songy way she does when Harry doesn’t know if she’s amused or about to go for his throat. He assumes she’s talking to him and stops, but it’s the gardener who’s outside, pruning a rose bush and has had the audacity to wander into her sightline. She rolls her eyes with a pained sigh when he scurries off, but before she goes back to her newspaper, she lifts her chin and when she sees Harry hovering, she peers at him over her glasses, pink lips pursed as if she has no idea who he is.
‘Morning, Charlotte,’ Harry says with a silly wave, pushing his hood back.
‘Mr Styles,’ she says with a frown. ‘I didn’t recognise you in-’
She trails off, waving wearily at him.
‘Gym,’ he explains, looking at his hoodie and sweats as he runs his fingers through his curls which he realises must have dried in a wild tangle.
She nods, gesturing at him to sit on the chair opposite hers. It’s so white, like the first page of a new notebook, that he’s terrified to sit on it, but when he hesitates she tells him to sit and if Charlotte Gordon tells you to sit, you sit. So he does as he’s told, eyeing the candlestick on the sideboard as he shrugs off his gym bag and puts it by his feet.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
‘Would you like some tea?’ she asks, nodding at the coffee table between them.
Charlotte is nothing if not civilised, so he isn’t surprised to find an array of pastries and fruit. She may be about to rip him a new one, but there’s no reason they can’t have tea first. Say what you will about her, but she’s an impeccable hostess.
Harry nods and Marla appears from nowhere because God forbid Charlotte lift a teapot (or maybe it’s that she doesn’t trust Harry with it) and when Marla disappears again, Charlotte picks up her cup and saucer and sits back, tilting her head at him.
‘Are you okay, Harry?’
‘Of course,’ he says, reaching for the milk jug.
‘You’ve been crying.’
His hand shakes a little as he lifts the jug. He hopes she doesn’t notice.
‘Terry called,’ he says, the lie rolling too easily off his tongue, but he can hardly tell her the truth. Besides, Charlotte doesn’t like to bother herself with nonsense like emotions so he knows that if he blames his father she won’t push it.
Harry rubs his eyes. Just thinking about him makes him exhausted. ‘He’s back.’
That much is true, at least, even if Harry hasn’t answered any of his calls.
Charlotte nods, sipping her tea. ‘Well that explains it.’
Harry shouldn’t bite, but he reasons that it looks more suspicious if he doesn’t.
‘Explains what?’ he asks, gaze fixed on his cup as he stirs his tea with the sort of focus scientists usually reserve for mixing dangerous chemicals.
‘Who’s Zayn Malik?’
Harry was about to pick up his cup and he’s glad he didn’t because the shock of it would have made him spill tea everywhere. He doesn’t, but even the thought of it, of the stain he’d leave on the white chair and the white rug makes the tops of his ears burn as she waits for him to answer. But he doesn’t know what to say, whether to make a joke or just come right out with it, because Charlotte doesn’t usually come out of the gate fighting like that. She likes to make polite conversation first, ask Harry about his day or complain about the weather, so Marla’s right, she must be furious.
‘He plays for Chelsea, doesn’t he?’ Harry says carefully, lifting his eyelashes to look at her. She smiles and sips her tea and his stomach lurches because he knows that smile, it’s her I’m going to give you one more chance smile. ‘It’s nothing, Charlotte,’ he admits with a defeated sigh. ‘We met at a club last night.’
‘While you were with Chris?’
‘After. He’d gone.’ Harry sits a little straighter, his cheeks hot. ‘What? Am I not allowed to have sex any more or does everyone have to pay for it?’
‘Of course not, Harry,’ she says, sipping her tea. He’s playing with his bottom lip and tells himself to stop as she puts her cup on the saucer and looks at him over her glasses. ‘But why did Mr Malik just call insisting that he pay for the evening?’
Harry’s stomach lurches again, so suddenly that he has to rest his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. He tells himself that it’s because Charlotte’s about to cut his heart out with a butter knife, but as he feels how hot his cheeks are against his palms, he gets a flash of the night before, of Zayn shaking his glass until the ice rattled.
‘I can explain,’ he says through his fingers.
‘You like him,’ she says with a sigh. He hears the gentle shiver of her cup and saucer as she puts them on the coffee table and when he lifts his head, ready for her to tell him off, he finds that she’s smiling kindly. ‘It was bound to happen eventually.’
Something in him relaxes. ‘Like with you and Max?’
She laughs lightly and it sounds like a chandelier quivering. ‘Oh don’t be so silly.’ She reaches for a grape and looks down at it between her fingers. ‘But there was someone else.’ She lifts her chin to arch an eyebrow at him. ‘It did not end well.’
Harry nods, rubbing his face with his hands.
‘So it is with some reluctance,’ she says with a theatrical sigh, ‘that I extend Mr Malik’s invitation to spend Monday evenings with him.’
‘What? But-’ He stops and frowns at her, his cheeks stinging as he thinks about his outburst in Zayn’s living room. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure. He just called and he’d like to see you on Monday at 9 p.m.,’ she says with a tight smile and Harry’s heart does that thing again.
Harry got his first suit when he was fourteen. He had one before then, an uncomfortable navy blue thing he only wore when he had to because the knees were worn out from skidding across the dance floor at weddings and the trousers were so short his sister, Gemma, would plead with him not to wear white socks.
It’s not that Harry hated the suit, it was that he never gave it much thought. He only wore it twice a year, if that, so it was just there if he needed it, sealed so tightly in the dry cleaner’s bag that every time he tore into the thin plastic it was like opening a time capsule. He’d find confetti in the folded up cuffs of the trousers and get a whiff of the aftershave he always nicked a splash of from the bottle his father kept in the bathroom cabinet. And Harry liked that, liked that somewhere under the heavy smell of Paco Rabanne it still smelled sweet, of marzipan and thick, white icing, even though, thinking back on it now, it probably never did. But when he put the suit on, it didn’t make him special. If anything it made him feel awkward. First it was too big, Harry swamped in it as he grinned for photographs, all dimples and teeth. Then it was too tight, threatening to tear every time he sat down or reached out to shake someone’s hand.
Not that Harry cared. He grew up climbing trees and falling into ponds trying to catch frogs so he never showed much interest in clothes. He was a jeans and t-shirt kind of a kid, and while he’d started to think more carefully about the t-shirts (the blue Jack Wills one he was given for Christmas beginning to fade he’d worn it so often) getting him in a suit was still an effort. So the morning the invitation to his cousin’s wedding arrived and his mother announced that it was time Harry got a proper suit, he didn’t get what the fuss was about. But it was a big deal, apparently, his father agreeing then handing his mother a wedge of £10 notes so thick it was enough to distract Harry from his bowl of wilting cornflakes. He’d never seen so much money, nor had he seen his mother so excited. She kept sneaking looks at him in the rearview mirror as they drove to Crewe. But halfway there, the corners of her mouth began to droop and Harry felt that stab in his stomach again, the stab he felt whenever she got that look on her face. It was the way she looked when she thought no one was looking, when she was hanging the washing out or waiting for the cashier to ring up their shopping at the supermarket. A frown that got deeper and deeper until she caught herself the way Harry’s grandmother did whenever she fell asleep watching telly and woke herself up snoring.
Harry assumed, as he always did, that it was his fault, that he should have washed up his bowl before they left or not fought her when she told him not to wear trainers because they would be a pain to deal with when he was trying stuff on. With hindsight, she was probably sad that he was growing up, her little boy suddenly not so little, or, more likely, because his father had barked at her before they left the house, telling her not to buy anything in the sale. But then that was Harry’s fault as well. As was the argument his parents had the week before when he persuaded his mother to buy his father a Martina Cole book for his birthday because he thought he would like it or the week before that when Harry forgot to tell her that he was going to the library after school. So as much as he hated his father for it, the dotted line he drew between him losing his temper and his mother frowning like that always came back to himself.
What little enthusiasm he had for getting a new suit waned after that as Harry worried about getting the right one, something his father would approve of that wouldn’t earn his mother another telling off. Gemma, must have sensed that because when they approached Marks and Spencer she shook her head and pointed at Topman saying, ‘He’s fourteen not forty, Mum.’ Until then Harry was annoyed that Gemma had come, sure that she was going to laugh at everything he tried on, but he was suddenly grateful that she was there. ‘This one,’ she told him with a bored sigh as he trailed after her, taking everything she plucked off the rails. ‘And this one. Try it on with this black shirt.’
Harry just nodded dumbly, trying not to drop the armful of clothes as Gemma put her hands on his shoulders and steered him towards the dressing rooms. It was a Saturday so Topman was packed, Harry joining the queue between a guy deliberating over two equally awful shirts and a couple bickering about what club they were going to that night. Harry hated shopping at the best of times, but as his arms ached under the weight of all the clothes and the beat of The Black Eyed Peas song punching at his right temple as though he’d said something about it’s mother, it seemed like an extraordinary amount of effort for a suit that he was only going to wear a couple of times a year. And it’s not like he felt anything when he tried the first one on, no sudden thrill at the sight of himself in the narrow mirror, at how broad his shoulders looked and how much longer his legs looked. He didn’t feel that until he walked out of the dressing room to show his mother and Gemma and everyone turned to look at him.
Harry had never been stared at before, never been the guy to make people stop mid-sentence when he walked into a room, so it was dizzying. Not in that oh-God-I’m-going-to-puke kind of way he usually felt when people stared at him because he’d tripped or said the wrong answer in class, but in a whole new way that had him lifting his chin and pushing his shoulders back. ‘Harry,’ his mother gasped, tears in her eyes as she pressed her hands to her cheeks, and he rolled his eyes, but he swore his heart doubled in size, especially when Gemma nodded. ‘Looking good, baby bro,’ she said with a slow smile that was enough to make him huff and tell her to shut up as he stomped back into the dressing rooms. He passed the couple that was behind him in the queue as he did, the guy holding up the coat hanger in his hand and staring at the jumper he’d just tried on as though he wasn’t sure if he loved it or hated it. So he didn’t see the way his girlfriend smiled at Harry – sudden and so silly that it made him blush again – and Harry had never been that guy, either. The guy who makes your girlfriend smile.
He got it then, what the fuss was about. Eleven years later and he still feels that every time he tries on a suit, that same feeling of pride, of strength, sure that his edges harden a little more each time. Even now, as he stands in front of the mirror in Dior, the heels of his shoes turning smoothly on the marble floor as he checks the back, he feels his shoulders straighten and when he catches a woman clutching a small dog staring at him, he feels invincible, like he could rob a bank with just a smile. Even his face looks different, his cheeks not as soft and his curls not as cute. He doesn’t look like himself, which is kind of the point, he realises, to be someone else for a while.
A moment before, the shop was buzzing with tourists blinking at the price tags, but now everything is still as they turn to look at Harry in the immaculate black suit, the sales assistant’s cold fingers lingering on the lapel as she tells him that it fits him so well it won’t need to be altered. Harry feels bad that he lied to Charles about his train leaving Gare du Nord earlier than it does, but as he stands there, head tilted as he assesses his reflection, he can’t care because the suit isn’t for Charles. There’s only one person who’s going to see Harry in that suit so, a few hours later, when he’s back in London, his fingers flutter as he buttons the jacket. But as soon as he sees himself in it, sees the way the cuffs skim his wrists and the light catches on the hard line of his shoulders, he feels invincible again, the suit his armour. And he’ll need it, he thinks, as the cab pulls up outside Zayn’s house and his fingers flutter again when he hands the driver a £20 note.
Zayn answers the door in a suit as well and Harry can only hope that the one he’s wearing has a similar effect on him as the sight of him kicks the air clean from his lungs. Zayn’s suit is purple, so purple it’s almost black, the colour of a bruise when it’s at it’s most painful. Everything he’s wearing is purple, in fact, from his shirt that makes Harry think of the Parma Violets sweets he sends to Gemma in Singapore every month, to the silk handkerchief folded neatly in his breast pocket, and Harry would usually comment on it, maybe sing Purple Rain, but he doesn’t dare. So he just dips his head and walks into the house with a muttered, Thanks when Zayn invites him in.
He knows he should, but Harry can’t look at him, and he doesn’t know if that’s the suit or the shame nipping at his cheeks as he remembers what happened the last time he saw him. But it’s Zayn and he isn’t fazed in the slightest, not even bothering to offer Harry a drink this time as he leads him towards the staircase. Harry has to hold on as he follows him up, his sweaty hands leaving the fingerprints on the glass that he wanted to leave behind the first time he went there, and he can’t help but wonder what Zayn will do when he sees them, if he’ll tut and wipe them away with the cuff of his shirt or if they’ll be enough to make him hard again at the thought of Harry’s fingers.
When he realises that Zayn’s leading him into his bedroom, Harry’s heart starts beating so quickly he’s sure that he’ll never catch up with it again, like watching a dog slip its leash and run. ‘Is this your room?’ he asks, something in him sinking as he looks around. He’d pictured of it, of course, he knew that it would be as glossy as the rest of the house, and it is, all glass and wood and leather with a huge bed that looks like it’s never been slept in. But that’s it. There’s no framed photo of his parents, no seashell from a holiday Zayn doesn’t want to forget, just some expensive looking pieces of furniture and a large mirror propped against one wall still wrapped in plastic.
Zayn shakes his head. ‘This isn’t my room,’ he says matter of factly and Harry’s relieved because no one can live like this – so neatly, so cleanly. Maybe that’s why they’re not in his bedroom, because Zayn doesn’t want Harry to see the half-drunk cup of tea on the bedside table or because he didn’t have time to make the bed this morning. But then, as Harry looks around the room at the spotless carpet and paper neat sheets Zayn, perfectly composed in the middle of it all, Harry knows that there’s no half-drunk cup of tea or unmade bed. Zayn doesn’t want him in there.
‘Jesus, Christian Grey,’ Harry chuckles, trying to ignore the sudden sting as he lifts his eyelashes to look at him. ‘You have a room just for sex?’
Zayn ignores him. ‘Did I tell you to get undressed?’ he says when Harry starts to shrug off his jacket. Harry didn’t realise he was and holds his hands up with a sly smile, but when he goes to toe off his shoes, Zayn tilts his head. ‘Do you ever do as you’re told?’
Harry blinks at him. ‘But what about the sheets?’
‘I don’t give a fuck about the sheets. Just lie face down on the bed.’
They look at one another, Harry’s heart thumping again, actually thumping, so loud that he can feel the throb of it in his fingers, in his bones. Zayn licks his lips, clearly unrepentant, and Harry wants to fly at him, to pin him to the floor and rip into him, tear through his clothes and bite the skin underneath. His heart thumps harder at the thought of it, of fucking Zayn until he’s stammering and shaking, so hard that he has heart-coloured carpet burns on his shoulderblades. ‘Rule number one.’ Harry arches an eyebrow at him and holds up a finger. ‘Don’t talk to me like that.’
Zayn doesn’t flinch. ‘Fine,’ he says, undoing his tie and winding it around his hand. ‘But you don’t get to talk at all.’
It’s the same every week, Harry face down on the bed, gagged with Zayn’s tie and his wrists bound behind his back with his belt. They don’t even undress, Zayn just removing enough to get inside him, and it should make Harry feel worthless, like he’s nothing, but it makes him feel like everything, like Zayn’s an alcoholic and he’s a bottle of bourbon that he can’t stop drinking. Even the next day when every bit of him his sore and Harry keeps touching the corners of his mouth to feel the sting of where Zayn’s tie cut into him, the thought of it makes him so lightheaded that he has to press his face into a pillow in case he says Zayn’s name while he’s with another client. After that, it’s the only thing that will get him off, the thought of Zayn, because no one has ever fucked him like that, with such wild, mindless desperation. He won’t even let Harry look at him, the heel of his palm digging into Harry’s cheek as he holds his head to the mattress and whimpers at him not to. The first time he did it, it made Harry think of the time he walked past his parents’ bedroom and saw his father crying. He was furious when he saw Harry in the doorway, lips parted with concern, and kicked the door shut, and that’s what it feels like when Zayn won’t let him look at him, like Harry’s seeing something he shouldn’t.
He has Zayn then, Harry knows. Even bound and gagged he owns him. He’ll inch up the bed so Zayn has to follow and raise his hips so Zayn holds him down and fucks him into harder, so hard that Harry cries out, tongue straining against the silk tie across his mouth. And there’s something almost feral about it, about how it’s all spit and sweat and swearing, Harry panting the most obscene things. Zayn can’t hear a word of it, just the muffled grunts that the tie allows, but that doesn’t stop Harry telling him not to stop, telling him that he’s the best, that he’s the fucking best. But then Zayn doesn’t say a word, either, choking it all down until he’s hissing through his teeth because he won’t even give Harry that, won’t even allow him the pleasure of hearing how much he wants him, too. But that just intensifies it so when Zayn can’t stop himself saying fuck or please it’s enough to make Harry come, sudden and fierce. Zayn always pulls out of him when he does and the first time, when Harry rolled onto his back and sat up as Zayn pulled off the condom and tugged the tie down, he didn’t need to tell Harry to stick his tongue out and look at him, but he did, eyelashes batting as Zayn came. And he sounded astonished when he did, his whole body shuddering like he didn’t know he could come like that.
He probably never had.
The truth is: Harry’s never come like that, either. He’s been doing this job for three years and he thought he’d done it all. He’s been pissed on and spanked, been blindfolded and fucked by two guys at once, fucked until he’s weeping and weak but still asking for more, and just the weight of Zayn’s hands on his hips or the tip of his nose on the back of his neck is enough to make Harry come so hard that he bucks under him.
It must be chemistry, some magical, maddening balance – or imbalance – between them, the sort of thing that people write books about and sing songs about, that sends them fucking mad. It must be because despite how deeply Zayn fucks him, they barely touch. They don’t kiss, don’t speak, don’t do anything other than react. Zayn gives Harry nothing – absolutely nothing – he doesn’t even say his name, just thrusts into him like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, like he has to, and it makes Harry come like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. Sometimes it feels like it will be, his heart beating so hard he’s sure that it’s going to come through his ribs, and it’s been so long since he felt that, since he felt the delicious agony of wanting someone so much that when he comes, he cries, not just because it’s a relief, but because it’s over for another week.
It’s all Harry thinks about now: Mondays at nine. His whole week revolves around those few moments, the dizzying high of seeing Zayn again that’s too quickly followed by the battering low of feeling his hand against his cheek when it’s over. But when Zayn asks him if he’s okay, Harry always says yes because even though he feels so far from okay it’s enough to break each of his bones, he can never find the words to say anything other than yes. So he presses his cheek to Zayn’s palm and savours the sweet second of fondness as Zayn sweeps his thumb over his mouth and it’s nothing – he knows that it’s nothing – so why doesn’t it feel like nothing?
It sounds like a strange thing to say given that Zayn has him in free fall, but if Zayn’s one thing, it’s consistent. It may not feel like it, but every week is the same: Harry arrives at 9 p.m., they exchange the same pleasantries then the same toe curling orgasm and Harry is in a cab by 10 p.m. You can set your watch by Zayn, Harry’s grandmother would say, and as much as Harry tries to disrupt him by arriving eight minutes early or not letting himself come, holding on for so long that his jaw is juddering and his shirt is sticking to his back, he can never throw Zayn. He just angles his hips in such a way that when he thrusts into him it feels like he punches the orgasm out of him then Harry’s in a cab at 9.52 p.m.
It’s driving him mad, like actually mad. Harry can feel something in him unravel a little more every time he thinks about what it would be like to kiss him, to feel Zayn’s tongue dart into his mouth and his teeth tug on his bottom lip. He’s never wanked off thinking of a client before, but he thinks about Zayn all the time, in the shower, before he goes to bed, when he wakes up in the morning, stroking himself to the thought of all the things Zayn keeps hidden, the curve of his collarbones, the endless dip of his back.
The first time he did it, Harry was watching telly. It was a Sunday afternoon and he was idly flicking through the channels when he saw that Chelsea were playing and there was Zayn. It startled Harry so much that he sat up, his head spinning as he tried to reconcile the guy running backwards across the pitch with the Zayn he knew. Smooth, elegant Zayn who never wore the same thing twice and drank a glass of scotch like Harry hoped he gave head, with slow, quiet relish. He doesn’t know how he forgot that Zayn played football, but Harry’s forgotten about a lot of things since they met, as though every time he thinks about Zayn, about the heat of his breath and the way his hands shake when he ties his belt around Harry’s wrists, it burns something else away. So as soon as Harry saw Zayn in his Chelsea kit that Sunday afternoon, he started fisting himself like a thirteen-year old who’d just found a copy of Zoo magazine at the park.
Then Harry saw them – Zayn’s tattoos – laced over skin he’d never seen, and the shock of it made him come with a gasp onto his stomach. Now it’s all Harry can think about when they’re together, the tattoos that are under all the layers of silk and cotton and it’s driving him mad. So as much as he hates it, he needs it, Harry knows, he needs it to be the same every week because that means that one of them is in control. Harry isn’t, he knows that every time he catches himself composing another 4 a.m. text asking Zayn what he’s doing. So tonight, when Harry presses the buzzer and Zayn doesn’t respond, it feels like a rug has been pulled from under his feet.
He takes his phone out of the pocket of his trousers to check the time as it rings and frowns when he sees that it’s Zayn.
‘I’m stuck in traffic,’ Zayn says before Harry can say hello. ‘There was an accident on Battersea Park Road. I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes.’
‘That’s alright,’ he says, holding his breath as he thinks, Please don’t cancel.
I can’t wait another week.
‘Where are you?’ he asks, stopping to turn the song he’s listening to down. ‘Are you at the house yet?’
‘Yeah, but it’s okay. I’ll wait in The Pig’s Ear until you get here.’
‘Or you can pop over to Charlotte’s for a cuppa.’ Zayn chuckles and Harry flushes like a schoolboy at the sudden softness in his voice.
He made a joke.
‘I would,’ Harry says with a clumsy smile, ‘but Charlotte goes to Sociopaths Anonymous on Monday nights.’
Zayn laughs this time, loud and bright, and Harry can’t believe how silly it makes him, almost tripping over himself to say something funny and make him do it again. But then Zayn says, ‘Oh wait. I’m moving’ and Harry’s smile gets a little bigger.
‘How close are you?’
‘I’m about to pull onto Battersea Bridge.’
‘The code for the gate is 165616. Go sit in the garden. I’ll be, like, five minutes.’
‘Okay,’ Harry breathes, ending the call before he tells him to hurry.
Zayn’s garden is more of a courtyard, all flagstones and white plaster with some sort of sculpture in the middle of it that Charlotte would no doubt hiss at. It’s nothing like her garden with it’s neat green lawn and ancient rose bushes with their cat claw thorns that actually smell like roses, not like the ones you buy at supermarkets that smell of nothing. But Harry likes Zayn’s garden. It’s kind of Zen. Not that it does anything to calm him down as he paces back and forth to torture the security lights that flick on and off suspiciously each time he does. He shouldn’t find it so amusing (he won’t when one of the neighbours calls the police) but he’s enjoying it so much that he doesn’t notice the ashtray until he kicks it towards a particularly spiteful looking palm tree.
‘Having fun?’ Zayn asks as Harry walks over to pick it up.
‘I didn’t know you smoked.’
‘I’m trying not to,’ he says, taking the ashtray and putting it on the table.
‘I’ve tried it twice and I almost had an asthma attack.’
When Zayn frowns, Harry wants the flagstones to part and swallow him whole as the words, I carried a watermelon? float into his head.
Harry shrugs. ‘I’ll try anything twice.’
‘Good to know,’ Zayn nods, the corners of his mouth twitching in a way that makes Harry’s legs feel a little less steady as he follows him into the house.
‘I’ve come straight from a photo shoot so I’m gonna jump in the shower,’ Zayn tells him when they get inside and he taps at a screen in the hall until all the lights in the house come on at once. ‘Do you want a brew or something? I won’t be long.’
‘Don’t shower on my account,’ Harry says, trying to sound nonchalant, but the truth is: he can’t wait, already half-hard at the sight of him in a neat grey suit.
Zayn considers it for a moment then nods. ‘Let me at least shave,’ he says, rubbing his stubble with his hand as he turns and heads into the living room.
‘Can I?’ Harry says then stops in the doorway as Zayn stops, too, spinning on his heels to look at him warily.
‘Can you what?’
Harry stares at him, mortified. What the fuck did he just say? He’s lost his mind. Zayn’s five minutes late and it’s thrown him so much that he’s actually lost his mind.
‘You want to shave me?’ Zayn pushes when Harry doesn’t answer.
‘Tea.’ He points towards the kitchen. ‘Can I make you a cup of tea?’
The crease between Zayn’s eyebrows deepens. He knows it’s bollocks, but has the grace not to call him on it for once, just nods towards the staircase. ‘Come on.’
‘I thought-’ Harry starts to say, then thinks better of it, following Zayn through the living room and up the stairs. His pulse quickens, as it always does, as they approach the bedroom door, but Zayn tells him to go in and carries on down the hall.
Harry holds his breath as he waits for him to come back, pacing on the spot in the middle of the room as he wonders if he should get on the bed. But then Zayn sweeps back in and he can’t move as he waits for him to tell him what to do, but he walks past him and opens a door on the other side of the bedroom that Harry hadn’t even noticed was there. It’s a bathroom, he realises, when Zayn turns on the light, and when he goes in and leaves the door open for him to follow, Harry can’t catch his breath.
‘Okay,’ Zayn says, stepping aside when he walks into the bathroom to let Harry see what he’s laid out on the black marble counter next to the sink. Harry looks at him, then at the neat row of things – a shaving brush, a dark wooden tub of shaving soap and between them an old fashioned razor, like the one his grandfather used to use – and his legs almost give way.
‘Sit,’ Zayn tells him, nodding at the stretch of counter on the other side of the sink as he turns on the tap and tests the temperature with his finger. Harry’s hands shake as he does as he’s told, the marble cold against the backs of his legs, even through his trousers as he watches Zayn drop the shaving brush into the sink.
‘Have you ever done this before?’ he asks, as he waits for the sink to fill, steam rising in a puff to lick against the mirror.
‘What? Shaved someone?’
Zayn nods, poking the shaving brush with his finger so it’s submerged again.
Zayn nods again, turning off the tap and shrugging off his suit jacket. When he puts it on the counter next to a glass jar of cotton wool balls Harry can’t help but stare at his shirt, which really shouldn’t turn his stomach inside out like that, but it’s more than he’s ever seen. Harry can see the shape of his shoulders through the thin white cotton, the curve of his pecks, even the outline of his small, dark nipples and when Zayn, hooks a finger in his tie and tugs it down to open the first button, it’s all Harry can do not to lean across and lick the patch of skin he exposes.
‘Here,’ Zayn says taking the wooden lid from the top of the shaving soap and handing it to Harry. Harry cups it in his hand, watching carefully as Zayn fishes the shaving brush out of the sink and lets the hot water drip from the ends. He puts it in Harry’s other hand, the wooden handle warm against Harry’s fingers, then covers Harry’s hand with his own, pressing the brush into the soap, showing Harry how to work up a lather. When he gets it, Zayn lets go and puts his hands on Harry’s knees, parting them and moving between them. The breath catches in Harry’s throat at the sudden contact and Zayn must hear, the sound even louder in the big, cold bathroom that doesn’t feel so big and cold as Zayn hands him a towel and stands between his legs.
‘Rub it in slowly,’ Zayn breathes and Harry’s arm shakes as he lifts it, his eyes almost rolling into the back of his head at the nearness of him, the smell of him, Armani Code and Polo mints with a hint of tobacco under it from the cigarette he must have had when he was stuck in traffic. Harry’s other hand fists in the white towel as he presses the shaving brush to Zayn’s right cheek, turning it carefully, as if Zayn’s skin is made of paper and will tear at the slightest touch. And he wonders if Zayn can hear how shallow his breathing is as the white foam covers the stubble on his cheeks and he works it down, down, over his cheekbones to the sharp line of Zayn’s jaw.
When the foam thins, Harry leans over to dip it into the sinkful of hot water before pressing it into the soap and lathering it up again while Zayn watches intently. Harry does the same with his right cheek, Zayn smiling when Harry stops to wipe away the soap he gets on his diamond earring with the tip of his finger. Harry can’t help but smile back when he looks up to see him smiling, and there’s something so sweet about it, like the first time Harry kissed Erica Malone in the playground and ran away.
‘Here,’ Zayn says, their fingers catching as he hands Harry the razor. It’s nickel and black and reassuringly heavy, like a decent bottle of scotch. ‘Careful,’ Zayn tells him, but he doesn’t need to because Harry has never been so careful in his life, sucking in a breath as he waits for the tremor in his hands to pass before he presses the razor to Zayn’s cheek. He’s suddenly so scared that he almost closes his eyes, but the blade moves smoothly, sweeping through the layer of soap to reveal a thick line of perfect, tanned skinned. Harry has to resist the urge to kiss it and it isn’t until he feels the stutter of Zayn’s pulse against this thumb that he realises that he’s let go of the towel and his other hand is curled around Zayn’s neck. He’s never touched him like that – never – and when he lifts his eyelashes to meet Zayn’s gaze, he looks away.
‘I’ll do the rest,’ he says, taking the razor from Harry and stepping back. ‘Go wait in the bedroom.’
When Zayn’s done, they fuck like they always do, quick and desperate, Harry face down on the bed. It happens so quickly, Zayn reaching for him then bending him over, that he’s inside him before Harry realises that he hasn’t tied him up or gagged him. He only realises when he hears himself cry out as Zayn thrusts into him and if he wasn’t already desperate to come after what just happened in the bathroom, he almost does then at the thought of Zayn not being able to wait, either, of wanting him so much that he doesn’t have the patience to take off his belt and tie. But Harry doesn’t want to remind him, so presses his face into the comforter in case he does it again, but to his surprise, Zayn doesn’t let him, putting his hand in his hair and yanking his head back.
‘What’s your name?’ he says into his ear.
This is it: the question they always ask, but the one he can never answer.
‘Nathan,’ he breathes and it’s as natural as that, as breathing.
Zayn pulls his hair. ‘What’s your fucking name?’
‘Your real name.’
‘I can’t,’ he pants and Zayn thrusts into him so hard, Harry opens his mouth to say Zayn’s name, but doesn’t make a sound.
‘I can’t,’ Harry says, squeezing his eyes shut. And he can’t – he can’t – but he can feel something in him unraveling as though Zayn has found a loose thread and is just pulling and pulling. He fucks into him again and when Zayn fists his hand in his hair until his scalp stings, Harry whimpers because it doesn’t just feel like he’s going to come, it feels like he’s going to split open.
‘Don’t you fucking dare,’ Zayn warns, grabbing Harry’s wrist with his other hand and pinning it to the mattress when he tries to touch himself. ‘Not until you tell me.’
Harry shakes his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘Really?’ Zayn breathes, easing out of him, and Harry hates the sound he makes when he does, the needy little whine that sounds like he’s about to cry as he lifts his hips off the bed.
‘Don’t stop. Please.’
Zayn pulls his hair again, but Harry doesn’t give in. ‘Let me come and I’ll tell you.’
Zayn obliges, thrusting back into him with one swift stroke that makes every bit of him shake.
‘Harry,’ he cries out when he comes and he doesn’t know if it’s winning or losing.
When Harry gets back down stairs, Zayn is doing what he always does and drinking a glass of scotch like nothing has happened. He has an excuse prepared, something about an early flight to New York this time, not that he needs it because the cab’s probably already outside. But before he can say anything, Zayn nods at the coffee table.
‘You made me tea?’ Harry says, staring at the mug (on a coaster, of course).
Zayn’s never made him tea. He’s never done anything other than try to usher him out of the house as quickly as possible.
He’s standing by the bookcase and smiles smoothly when Harry reaches down to pick it up. ‘Thanks for the copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey,’ he says, holding up his glass and Harry laughs so suddenly that he almost spills the tea. ‘When did you do that?’
‘Last week,’ Harry admits, walking over to where he’s standing.
‘It’s, um, well thumbed,’ he says with mock disgust, the battered paperback like a blister in the neat row of pristine books.
‘I got it in a charity shop.’
Zayn looks so horrified that Harry laughs again and it sounds so loud in the huge living room that he covers his mouth with his hand and apologises.
‘So what’s with you and the books?’ Zayn asks, sipping on his scotch as he waits for Harry to catch his breath. ‘Every time you come here you fiddle with them.’
‘What’s with you and the books?’ Harry counters as he watches Zayn rub his thumb down the spine of one of them with the sort of fondness usually reserved for pinching a baby’s chin.
‘I was supposed to be an English teacher.’
‘You sound surprised.’
‘No.’ Harry waves his hand when he sees Zayn’s jaw clench. ‘No. I mean. No. My first y’know,’ he stops to think about it, ‘my only, I guess, was an English teacher.’
‘Yeah,’ Harry says, turning to tap the top of one of the books with his finger as he tries not to think about that morning, the morning after he and Zayn met when Harry barged into his house and sprayed crazy all over him. ‘That’s how I knew I was-’ he rubs his lips together. ‘I mean, I knew, but I didn’t know for sure until I met him. I had a girlfriend at the time, but I could only get off when I thought about him and me in the library.’
Zayn chuckles. ‘The library?’
Harry lifts his chin and grins at him. ‘Haven’t you read Atonement?’
‘No, but I think I need to.’
‘They do it against the bookshelf. It’s the hottest thing ever.’
Harry looks into his mug of tea. ‘I was so lucky that he was my first. He was so sweet and patient and-’ he stops as he feels the words line up on his tongue – What was it like for you? – but before he can say them, Zayn edges closer.
‘So did you ever do it in the library?’
‘Unfortunately not.’ Harry rolls his eyes. ‘He liked his job too much.’
Zayn licks his lips. ‘That’s a shame,’ he says, putting his glass on the shelf. Harry doesn’t realise what he’s doing until he takes the mug of tea from him and puts it on the shelf next to it. ‘Like this?’ Zayn says into his ear, standing behind him and putting his hands on Harry’s hips, turning him to face to the bookcase. Harry nods, even though it isn’t like that at all, but he’s so scared that Zayn will stop that he doesn’t make a sound, just reaches up to grab the edge of one of the shelves as Zayn grinds into him, letting him feel that he’s hard again. He does it again, nudging Harry into the bookcase, the shelves hitting his knees, stomach and chest, all at once, and knocking the air out of him.
‘Do you have anything?’ Zayn asks, his breath hot and quick against Harry’s ear.
He nods weakly. ‘Inside pocket.’
When Zayn unbuttons his jacket, Harry begins to shake. ‘Don’t let go,’ Zayn warns, Harry’s heart banging as Zayn’s hand slips under his jacket to reach into the inside pocket. He finds the small bottle of lube and the box of condoms and when he puts them on the shelf next to Harry’s right hand, Harry has to look away, staring at the copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that’s back in it’s rightful place as Zayn reaches around to undo his trousers. Touch me, Harry almost says, but presses his lips together before he can, holding his breath as Zayn lets Harry’s trousers fall and gather around his ankles before hooking his fingers into his underwear and tugging the back of them down, leaving Harry’s erection trapped under the thin black cotton.
When he reaches for the lube, Harry closes his eyes, swallowing back a sigh a moment later when he feels the press of Zayn’s wet finger. He pushes down as Zayn pushes up and it feels so good that it sounds like he’s choking as he fights the urge to gasp.
‘It’s okay,’ Zayn says into his ear, inching his finger in deeper. ‘I wanna hear.’
‘Thank you,’ Harry breathes, giving into a groan as his thighs quiver.
‘Say it again.’
‘Thank you,’ he says when Zayn crooks his finger slightly, just enough to have Harry on his tiptoes, his chin banging against the shelf.
Zayn’s never spoken to him like this – never even acknowledged that he’s there during sex – so it’s almost too much, Harry shaking as Zayn eases another finger into him and begins working it in and out. Not like he usually does, not with a hurried sigh, as though he’s waiting to fill up his car at a petrol station, but slower – so slow – as though he wants Harry to feel it and isn’t just doing it because it will make it easier to push inside him.
‘Like this?’ Zayn asks again and Harry nods, his knuckles white as he clings onto the shelf. ‘Is this what you wanted him to do to you? Tell me.’
‘Yes. Like that. That,’ Harry pants, pushing down on Zayn’s fingers until he feels a punch of pleasure so intense, he almost falls back.
‘You want me to fuck you?’
Zayn pulls his hair and Harry can’t see him, but he knows he’s smirking. ‘Ask nicely.’
‘Fuck me, please,’ Harry bites out, rubbing himself against the bookshelf. ‘Please.’
He does. He fucks Harry until he’s breathless and shaking and the spine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s goes out of focus. But again Zayn doesn’t touch him. He doesn’t kiss his cheek or nudge him with his nose, just holds his hips and thrusts into him until Harry is limp, his sweaty fingers slipping on the black lacquer as he struggles to hold on.
Harry comes first, a second before Zayn does, and he tries not to, but he gives into the weight of his head, letting it tip back onto Zayn’s shoulder as he blinks up at the glass ceiling until all he can see is stars.
‘Are you okay?’ Zayn says into his ear, fingers curled around Harry’s throat. But Harry doesn’t say yes this time, he shakes his head.
‘I think if you ever touched me, I’d die,’ he says with a tender sigh, but Harry doesn’t realise that he’s said it out loud until he feels Zayn kiss his cheek and his heart flares then burns out like a spent light bulb.
It’s nothing. That’s all he’s been telling himself since he left Zayn’s house, what he tells himself every time he touches his cheek and expects to find a mouth-shaped scar. It’s nothing.
But Harry can’t sleep thinking about it, about how Zayn reached for his hands when he came, covering them with his own as he said Harry’s name through his teeth – Harry, not Nathan – then held him until their breathing had aligned. He should have turned around when Zayn stepped back. He should have turned around. He should have just taken his face in his hands and kissed him. Why didn’t he kiss him?
Harry gives up trying to sleep just after 5 a.m. and goes to the 24-hour Tesco on the corner, suddenly desperate for a raisin croissant. He buys two and milk and when he sees that the morning papers have been delivered, he goes to grab a copy of the Guardian. He doesn’t know why he looks up, but he must have caught a glimpse of Zayn, because there he is, on the cover of OK! magazine and Harry drops the pint of milk.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ZAYN MALIK ENGAGED
tw for violence
Charlotte has a lot of first rules. There seems to be a new one every time they speak. Last month it was: they pay for you, they get you, and this week she reminded Harry not to give his number to clients. Then there’s her first rule about always using a condom and her first rule about not picking up randoms. Over the last three years he’s broken every single one of them, but the truth is, even though she insists that each of her rules is the most important, Harry knows that there’s only one first rule and he’d never break it.
‘Don’t get attached,’ she told him the first time they met, Harry sitting opposite her in the drawing room, an array of pastel coloured cakes and delicate sandwiches laid out on the coffee table between them. He was perched on a gold Louis XV chair not unlike the one his sister had in her dolls house when she was little, trying not to fidget as he listened to her well-rehearsed speech about the job and what was expected of him. ‘When you feel it,’ she went on, pausing to adjust her ring so the diamond sat neatly in the middle of her finger, ‘and you will because that’s when you know you’re getting attached, when you can feel it, you have to stop because no good will come of it, Harry.’
He agreed with a nod, but he remembers thinking that it was an odd thing for her to say given everything she had because she let herself get attached to a client. Not that Harry was worried that the same thing would happen to him. He didn’t want what Charlotte had. He was only doing it until he found a job or paid off his student loans, whichever came first. Then he was going to see the world, to climb mountains and fall in love and write a book about all of it, tell the story of how he broke his ankle in the Himalayas and broke his heart in Paris.
So it wasn’t something he worried about, falling for a client. Besides, Harry rarely gets attached to anything. He didn’t even have a favourite toy as a kid, his mother says. Where Gemma trailed her ratty yellow blanket after her everywhere she went, Harry was more fickle. He wore his Spiderman pyjamas to school every day for a week then carried his Optimus Prime around for two, but as soon as he got his bike, he forgot about both of them. Even now he either devours a book in one sitting or puts it down halfway through never to pick it up again. But if he was worried that he might fall for one of his clients, he wasn’t after the first time, when the guy came in his hair before Harry had even taken him in his mouth. Or the second time, when the guy didn’t use enough lube and Harry sobbed in the shower when he got home. Then there was the guy who always called him a fucking whore when he came and the one who got off on spanking him. ‘You’re making my dick harder,’ he told Harry every time he whimpered, slapping him again, so fiercely that Harry would find palm-shaped bruises the next day.
But, as much as Harry has learned to enjoy it, to find that line between agony and ecstasy and make sure that he doesn’t cross it, his clients have never been the sort of men he could become attached to. Yes, his new ones are kinder, they kiss him gently and undress him as though he’s as thin as porcelain and might crack under their fingers, but it’s still not enough to make him feel anything. Even later, when he does that thing with his tongue and they can’t help but pull his hair or bite his shoulder and call him a slut, he might sweat and pant and let them come on his face, but by the time he gets in the cab, it’s forgotten as he chats to the driver about the sudden sunny spell.
Not with Zayn, though. Harry’s hands are still shaking when the cab pulls up outside his flat, still shaking when he fists himself in the shower thinking about the cut of Zayn’s nails and the pinch of his fingers. And yeah, he’s too rough, so rough that Harry is sore for hours afterwards – days sometimes – but it’s a delicious sort of an ache, like touching a bruise with your finger, because every mark, every scratch, is another moment when Harry made him lose control. Mercurial Zayn who always uses a coaster and trains six days a week can’t make it through an hour with him without losing it and Harry hasn’t felt that in such a long time. Not being wanted, or even being needed, but the searing, scarring burn of something neither of them can control, something Zayn can’t gag and Harry can’t ignore when he comes so hard he has tears in his eyes.
There’s something kind of inevitable about it, but that sounds far too much like fate and that other four-letter word he doesn’t like to use. Harry laughs the first time he thinks it, and laughs the first night he wakes up panting, Zayn’s name on his lips, because he can’t remember the last time he dreamt about someone. But he dreams about Zayn every night, about his pink, pink mouth and the warm curl of his tongue. All he can think about is kissing him – kissing and kissing and kissing him. He thinks he’s going mad with it sometimes, his limbs weakening at the thought. He’s tried, his mouth grazing Zayn’s throat for one sweet second once before Zayn turned him around and bent him over the bed. But that’s as close as he’s ever come, Zayn pulling his hair afterwards, his mouth to Harry’s ear as he told him to never do it again.
So Charlotte’s right: when you’re getting attached you can feel it and Harry feels it. He hasn’t felt anything for three years, but the mere thought of Zayn’s mouth is enough to wake him in the middle of the night and keep him awake for hours. So Harry shouldn’t buy the magazine, he knows. He should ignore it, go home, make a cup of tea and eat his two raisin croissants, but he can’t. He doesn’t even wait until he’s paid for it, just tears into the magazine right there in the aisle of the supermarket, reading half of it before the security guard can remind him that it’s not a library. He reads the rest on the pavement outside, his fingers shivering as they turn each page to find another glossy photograph of Zayn and this woman – his fiancée – smiling back at him.
Her name is Coco, as in the clown, and she’s a make-up artist. They met (briefly, she insists, because she didn’t have much to do) three months ago while Zayn was at the BBC doing a recording of A Question of Sport. She’d always fancied him, apparently, so was so nervous at being so close to him that she tipped a pot of loose powder down his black shirt. Zayn didn’t bring a spare so he had to go on in one Phil Tufnell’s, an awful paisley thing that he was mocked mercilessly for throughout the show.
They didn’t speak again so she thought Zayn was furious about it, but the next day he sent her flowers. She was thrilled, she gushes, but the more she looked at them sitting quietly on the counter next to her neat row of make up brushes, the more odd she realised they were. They weren’t the grand bunch of red roses she expected a footballer like Zayn to send, rather a curious mess of several different flowers – a rose, a peony, a sunflower, a gerbera, a lily, a tulip, an iris and a freshia all held together with a Chelsea blue ribbon. She wasn’t sure what to make of the bouquet, but when she called to thank him and Zayn explained that as he didn’t know her favourite flower yet, he got her one of each, she says that she knew that he was the man she was going to marry.
Harry’s legs almost give way as he reads it, at the thought of Zayn in a florist, plucking one flower from each tin bucket – the prettiest ones, of course – then pointing to the blue ribbon, and he can’t read the rest. But it’s all he can think about for the rest of the day, their first date, Zayn agonising over what to wear then picking her up in his ridiculous yellow Ferrari. Harry’s stomach burns because he knows that Zayn spoiled her, opened her car door and pulled out her chair at the restaurant before the waiter could and he bets she loved it. Loved how everyone looked at them.
He’s still thinking about it that night as he paces around Ian’s suite at the Savoy, stopping by the window to look out over the Thames, the skyline glittering quietly along the edge of it like a row of church candles. Ian – his Tuesday night at ten – is running late and ordinarily, Harry wouldn’t mind. Given what the job entails, it’s remarkable how much time he spends alone, in the backseat of cars or airport lounges or, like tonight, in another hotel bar, nursing another gin and tonic. He’s used to it now and he even enjoys it, enjoys the idle conversations with strangers, the grandmothers off to Australia to meet their grandchildren and the bartenders who encourage him to try a different brand of gin and show off a little while they mix a cocktail. But he enjoys the silence more, the moment of quiet to catch his breath before his client gets there and he won’t be able to.
It scares him sometimes, how much he enjoys being alone, the hours he loses reading books or scribbling in his Moleskine, writing the book that becomes more of a fantasy with each passing day, a knight in shining armour that’s going to save him from it all. Living on his own doesn’t help. He tried the house share thing when he first moved to London, when he was interning at whatever publishing house would have him, working fourteen-hour days to earn his bus fare and living on the sandwiches that were left over after meetings. But when his savings ran out and his mother’s wedding got a little smaller every time she had to pay his rent, he surrendered and called the Grace Kelly blonde with the sharp smile who gave him her card at that Random House party.
After that he could afford his own place and he could never go back to sharing now because so much of his time is spent giving himself to other people that when he comes home, he doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want to bicker about who’s turn it is to take the out bins or not be able to have a shower because someone’s in the bath. So it’s a relief to come home to his still, dark flat, everything where he left it. Some days he feels like he could live there forever, board up the door and windows and live out the rest of his days reading books and eating cream crackers. But then he’s in an airport and the old lady sitting next to him will show him a photograph of a fat-cheeked baby and his heart will hurt so much that he’ll wonder how he got there. When he stopped wanting that. When he forgot about the book and the apartment he was going to rent in Paris, somewhere with flaky plaster walls and windows that rattle in the wind. It’s not too late, he thinks with a sudden shiver of hope, the promise of a new year just three weeks away. He has enough saved, he could live on it for a year, see what happens. His heart tenses at the thought, at the thought of writing all day, writing so much he can’t wash the ink off his hands and the tender dent on his middle finger becomes a permanent one.
This is why he shouldn’t be alone tonight, because he’ll start to see this for what it is, start to see himself for who he is. He looks in the mirror sometimes and he doesn’t know the guy looking back at him, the one with the smooth smile and the slick suit. And he wonders where he went, the kid with the unruly hair and the ink on his hands.
Three more weeks he catches himself thinking and Ian needs to get there soon because Harry doesn’t know what he’s going to do. Even the gin and tonic he knocked back in the bar is doing nothing to soothe him. He would have stayed for another, but there was a party in the ballroom and he couldn’t bear to watch the couples stumbling out to giggle and kiss in the quiet of the bar, all of these office romances that will probably be over by the New Year, coming to an end in a stationery cupboard somewhere with none of the tinsel and champagne they started with. The thought makes Harry’s heart itch, and when he looks over at the door and considers making a break for it, the urge to run – out, out, into the night – is so strong that he has to turn his back to it. So he decides to take a shower because Ian likes it when he can smell his soap on his skin. But as he’s unbuttoning his jacket he thinks of her again, of their first date and if she made Zayn wait, if she only kissed him and waited until their third to let him put his hand under dress. He’s sure she did. And he’s sure that she didn’t suck him off properly the first time in case Zayn thought she was too good at it, then clung to him and told him that she loved him when they finally fucked in the bed Harry will never see.
An hour later, when Ian’s there, mouth on his throat, Harry’s still thinking about it, about how surreal it was to see Zayn’s house in the magazine, his big, bright living room and that perpetually ugly chimney breast, the two of them draped over the sofa and laughing in the kitchen, her chopping tomatoes while Zayn stirred something in a steaming saucepan. Surreal and fucking painful. So painful that when Ian reaches for him, Harry has to stop himself pulling away, forcing himself to open his mouth to let Ian’s tongue touch his. His stomach lurches when it does and Harry hasn’t felt that since he first started doing this, back when the only thing that got him through it was thinking about the library at Cambridge, about the rows and rows of books and that neglected corner he would sit in, his back to the wall as he inhaled another Hunter S. Thompson book he didn’t have time to read. It’s his happy place, Harry supposes, the smell of old paper and leather calming him immediately. But tonight he doesn’t go there, he goes to Zayn’s bookshelf, to the precise line of books and the spine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that slowly goes out of focus until Harry can’t feel a thing and Ian isn’t there any more.
Three more weeks, he thinks, pressing his cheek to the pillow.
Three more weeks.
Harry dreams about Zayn again that night, about kissing him until he wakes up gasping for breath, his hands fisted in the sheets. He’s trembling so much that he can’t go back to sleep, so, just before 4 a.m., he gives in and fishes the magazine out of the bin in the kitchen and lies on his back in the middle of his studio and finishes reading the article. He can’t bear to read the bit about how they met again, or about the flowers, and skips over the part about how Zayn proposed because he can’t bear that, either. He doesn’t want to know the details, where they were and how she cried, and when she starts gushing about the plans for the wedding, Harry almost throws the magazine across the room, so he doesn’t know why he reads on, but he does and his hearts stops.
I know it’s soon, but I’ve always wanted a Christmas wedding.
Harry sits up so suddenly his head spins, his fingers fumbling as he snatches his phone off the coffee table and fires off a text to his friend, Matt. I need a favour, he types, heart in his mouth now because he can’t remember the last time he felt that.
Since he wanted to fight for something.
If he broke about seventeen rules going to Zayn’s house the night they met, then Harry dreads to think how many he’s breaking now. Charlotte will kill him in his sleep when she finds out, but he’s so past caring that when he leaves his flat and tries to hail a cab, he doesn’t notice the guy about ten feet ahead of him trying to hail one as well. So when a cab pulls up between them, Harry doesn’t think, just strides towards it. They get to it at the same time and when Harry realises what’s happening, he steps back, startled.
‘Sorry, mate,’ he says, holding his hand up. ‘I didn’t see you.’
The guy obviously doesn’t believe him, the skin between his greying eyebrows pinched as he looks Harry up and down. Harry does the same because the pair of them look so out of place on the scruffy, graffiti bruised street – him in a navy blue suit and Harry in a black one – that Harry can’t help but wonder what he’s doing there. It’s not that the Falcon Road is particularly rough, it’s just that, apart from the people who live in the various estates, it tends to attract young professionals about his age who’ve got their first real job and can just afford a studio near Clapham Junction station, not guys like that, guys in their forties in nice suits. Then Harry sees his tie, the one he almost bought in Liberty last week, the navy blue one with tiny skulls on it, and smiles.
‘‘S’alright,’ the guy says, his forehead smoothing when he realises that Harry isn’t trying to nick his cab. ‘What way you going? Maybe we can share.’
‘The Chelsea and Bayern Munich game?’
Harry nods. He wouldn’t usually be so keen to get in a cab with a stranger, but he spent so long trying to talk himself out of going that he’s missed kick off. He still isn’t sure it’s a good idea, but when he got a text from Peter – his Wednesday night at nine – to say that his train from Manchester was cancelled and he’s getting a later one, Harry took it as a sign and charged out the door. He could wait for another cab, of course, but the traffic is awful, so maybe he’s being more impatient than usual. Besides, what’s the worse that can happen? The guy’s wearing an Alexander McQueen tie.
Serial killers don’t wear Alexander McQueen ties.
‘Sorry, mate. I’m going the other way.’ The guy nods up the road. ‘Balham.’
‘No worries,’ Harry says with a smile, stepping back. ‘Have a good night, yeah?’
Luckily, he doesn’t have to wait long for another cab, although the traffic makes the crawl towards Battersea Bridge excruciating. He should have got on the tube, but he’s wearing a £2,000 Lanvin suit and doesn’t fancy sitting in chewing gum.
‘It’s almost half-time, mate,’ the driver tells him when they get stuck behind a bus. ‘Are you sure you want to bother? You’ve missed most of the game.’
Harry doesn’t look up from his phone. ‘I don’t care.’
And he doesn’t. He just wants to get in and get out and no, that doesn’t make any sense, but he isn’t going for the game or Zayn. He wants to see her.
He wants to see who he’s competing with.
By the time the cab pulls onto the Fulham Road it must be half-time because the pavement outside each pub is cluttered with people in Chelsea shirts, their breath puffing out of them like smoke in the chilly air as they laugh between mouthfuls of beer. Harry has no idea what the score is, but he guesses Chelsea aren’t losing because there’s a charge in the air, a buzz Harry can feel against his skin, even inside the cab. It makes his nerves twist suddenly as he looks up to see the stadium in the distance, sitting under a halo of white from the ring of floodlights drenching the pitch.
Harry hears a sudden roar as the cab gets closer and realises that the second half has started as he climbs out and plucks a £20 note out of his wallet. He hesitates as he folds it in half and hands it to the driver, distracted by the huge picture of Zayn covering the window by the entrance. The driver must see him staring at it because he starts muttering under his breath as he takes the £20 note from him and tucks it into the pocket of his shirt. ‘Fucking Wenger should have signed him when we had the chance,’ he huffs, pulling away and chugging back towards the Fulham Road.
Harry’s never been to a football match before, but he’s surprised by how glossy everything is. He’s always had this impression of football grounds, of meat pies and bald men in scarves huddled in the drizzle shouting impotently at the pitch. But Stamford Bridge is nothing like that. It’s more like an arena, everything spotless and in shades of blue. It’s far quieter than he expected, the vast entrance deserted apart from a few people running from the bar, beer spilling over their knuckles as they try to get back to their seats as there’s a huge cheer, so he wanders up unnoticed towards the Exec Box.
Thanks to his friend, Matt, he has no trouble getting in and when he does, he’s surprised to find that the box is nothing like the one he and Charles sit in at the Royal Albert Hall. There are no uncomfortable red velvet chairs and gold fringe, everything leather and glass, like the lounge of a boutique hotel, with one long window that looks out onto the pitch. Not that anyone looks concerned about what’s playing out below them, too distracted by their conversations and the waiters weaving between them with trays of champagne and canapés. A few people have ventured out into the cold to watch the game, though, but instead of being wrapped in blue and white scarves like everyone else on the terraces, they’re draped in fur coats that cost more than a season ticket as they cheer hospitably every time Chelsea gets the ball.
When one of the waiters offers him a glass of champagne, Harry takes one and walks over to the window. He’s surprised at how nervous he is, his jaw trembling as he brings the glass to his lips and swallows a mouthful of it as his gaze flicks across the pitch, looking for Zayn. As soon as he sees him, running down the middle of the pitch flanked by two players in red shirts, Harry feels the fizz of something in his stomach as he sees the tattoos poking out from under the sleeves of his blue shirt and almost looks away as though he’s seeing something he shouldn’t. Zayn doesn’t even have the ball, but they must know that he will soon because a second later, it’s at his feet and somehow Zayn manages to kick it between them towards the goal. Harry feels the whole stadium hold its breath as he does and when the ball hits the post, it takes him a moment to realise that he’s groaning along with them. But the attempt is enough to reignite the crowd who start chanting, Amazing Zayn as one of his teammates slaps him on the back.
That’s when Harry checks the scoreboard and he’s startled by how tightly his stomach tenses when he realises that it’s the sixty-third minute and it’s still nil-nil. Granted, he doesn’t know much about football, but he knows enough to know that they don’t have long left, and before he realises it, he’s so engrossed in the game, his heart stopping then starting again each time Zayn goes near the ball, that he forgets why he’s there. It isn’t until someone tackles him and he goes down so suddenly that Harry has to look away from the window that he sees her, on the other side of the box, turned away from the window as well, her hands over her mouth.
His eyes go straight to her ring, a surprisingly delicate diamond that sits snugly on her finger, then to the rest of her, his heart in his ears as he takes her in. Given how long he spent obsessing over the article in OK! magazine, he’s taken back by how he almost doesn’t recognise her. Maybe they styled her differently or maybe he only saw what he wanted to see – a fake-tanned, fake-boobed WAG – but she isn’t at all. She’s pale and spider thin with enormous blue eyes and a dark fringe that’s so long it keeps catching on her eyelashes. She doesn’t even dress like the other WAGs, shunning a short, tight dress for jeans and a huge Aran jumper that makes her look about six-years old.
She is, in a word, adorable and when she turns back to the window and peeks through her fingers to see if Zayn is okay, Harry suddenly doesn’t know why he’s there. He doesn’t know what he expected to find, a ditsy blonde he could sneer at? A sullen gold digger showing her ring – and Zayn’s credit card – off to anyone who’ll look? Would that make the fight any fairer? Does he even want to fight? Harry isn’t so sure if he does. Or perhaps it’s that now he’s not so sure that he’ll win.
He has to get out of there, his cheeks stinging as he asks himself what he’s doing. But as he’s draining his glass, there’s a sudden intake of breath as everyone in the box rushes towards the window and Harry lifts his chin in time to see Zayn take a free kick. There’s a second of stunned silence as the ball arc towards the goal and when it goes over the keepers fingers, the stadium erupts and Harry has never felt anything like it, this shared moment of utter joy that has everyone on the terraces spilling their beer and everyone in the box spilling their champagne. Even Harry cheers, his hand balled into a fist as he watches the other Bayern Munich players look up at the scoreboard in despair, their hands in their hair as the crowd starts roaring, You came all this way and lost.
But the excitement immediately gives way to fear as Harry looks at the clock and realises that with injury time, there’s still another twelve minutes to play. He can’t even look; chewing on his knuckle every time the ball strays into Chelsea’s half. Then finally – finally – he hears the whistle and lets go of a breath he didn’t realise he was holding onto as the man next to him, grabs him and kisses him on the cheek.
‘Championais,’ he sings as he does, and Harry has no clue what he’s talking about, but everyone else in the stadium is singing it – Championais! Championais! Olé! Olé! Olé!
‘Did we win the League?’ Harry asks.
‘The Champions League?’ He laughs. ‘Not yet, mate,’ he says, stopping to kiss his cheek again. ‘But we’re one step closer thanks to Malik!’
Harry’s giddy, his hands shaking as he looks out the window at the ripple of blue and white around the stadium. He’s never wanted Zayn more than he does at that moment, when Zayn’s grinning, all tongue and teeth, as his teammates wrap their arms around his neck and jump on his back while everyone starts singing Amazing Zayn again. Harry’s breathless with it, his eyes swimming out of focus for a second as he watches the players run off the pitch to another delighted cheer from the crowd and everyone in the box. Harry can’t help but look over at her when he hears it. She’s crying, her cheeks pink from smiling and it’s like a pin in his heart as he watches her answer her phone and squeal, ‘I know, Mum!’
‘Where you going?’ the man standing next to him asks, slinging his arm around Harry’s shoulders and pulling Harry to him when he puts down his glass and turns away from the window. ‘You’re my good luck charm, curly. I owe you a drink.’
‘I’ve gotta go. I’m meeting someone in Euston in twenty minutes.’
‘Yeah right.’ He laughs. ‘It’ll take you twenty minutes to get downstairs, curly.’
He points out the window at the stadium that is slowly beginning to empty. ‘Because of the 40,000 other people trying to get out as well.’
‘Tell me you’re joking.’ Harry stares at him. He said he’d meet Peter in Euston at ten.
‘Well, you won’t be.’ The guy laughs again and the woman on the other side of him, sensing Harry beginning to panic, reaches over to touch his arm.
‘You might as well stay for a drink, darling,’ she tells him with a kind smile. ‘The players will be up in a minute.’
That’s what he’s worried about.
He resorts to hiding in the toilet. He’s wearing a £2,000 Lanvin suit and he’s hiding in the toilet, because this is what he does now, it seems, make one breathtakingly bad decision after another. Harry has no one to blame but himself, of course, because if he had even the slightest bit of self-control, he’d be eating steak at Claridge’s with Peter and listening to him complain about his house in Umbria. Actually, he wouldn’t, because there is a God, apparently, and thanks to a signalling fault outside Tamworth, Peter’s stuck in Manchester. But that’s not the point, if Harry wasn’t there, listening to other men pee, he would be enjoying a rare night off. He could have ordered a pizza, ate in bed with one of the eighty-seven books he’s been too busy to read, but instead he’s in a toilet, hiding from Zayn. He’ll be eating pizza through a fucking straw if Charlotte finds out.
How long does it take forty-thousand people to go home? Not twenty minutes. Or twenty-four. Or twenty-seven. Maybe it’s thirty-three, he thinks as he checks again. To his relief, the corridor is deserted and when he steps out to look out the window at the gates, the mass of blue has thinned enough that he decides to make a break for it.
‘Take the north stairs,’ the bouncer standing outside the Exec box says when he sees Harry approaching. ‘They’ll be empty now.’
He nods towards the other end of the corridor and Harry thanks him with a smile before turning and striding away. When he finally makes it through the door into the stairwell, Harry goes weak with relief when he realises that the bouncer’s right – it’s empty – and thanks every God he can think of for getting him out of there before Zayn sees him as he runs down the stairs like a kid running out of a newsagent with a pocketful of sweets. He’s halfway down them when he feels his phone ringing in his pocket and when he takes it out to see that it’s Zayn, he almost drops it.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ Zayn says before he can even say hello.
Harry stops so suddenly that he almost tumbles down the stairs. ‘Where?’
‘You know where,’ he hisses.
Harry is about to plead ignorance when he hears the door to the stairwell swing open. His instinct is to keep running for the exit, but he looks up the stairs as Zayn looks down them and when Zayn shakes his head at him, Harry can’t move.
‘Come here,’ Zayn tells him.
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry says, the tremor in his voice even louder in the empty stairwell.
‘Don’t make me repeat myself,’ Zayn says through his teeth, pointing to his feet. And he’s back to the Zayn Harry knows, cool and calm in an immaculate grey suit. So Harry does as he’s told this time, his knees weak as he walks up the stairs towards him. When he stops in front of him, Zayn looks up the next flight then takes Harry by the sleeve of his black suit jacket and tugs him up them.
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry says again, but Zayn tells him to shut up as he opens the door and checks the corridor before walking back towards him.
‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.’ Harry tries again, holding his hands up as Zayn glares at him, his heart hysterical as Zayn takes a closer.
‘Damn right you shouldn’t have come. We’re through to the next round of the Champions League and all I can think about is who you’re with.’
‘No one.’ Harry shakes his head, but Zayn doesn’t believe him.
‘Of all the places,’ he hisses, fucking furious. ‘How could you bring him here?’
‘I’m not with anyone, I swear.’
‘Are you here to meet Chris?’
‘Of course not.’ Harry hasn’t even thought about him since that night in the club. He forgot they even played for the same club.
Zayn raises his finger, his eyes black. ‘If I find out that you’re here to meet Chris.’
‘Why are you here, then?’
Harry can’t catch his breath, his heart hammering. ‘Look, I’m sorry, okay?’
‘Stop saying sorry and tell me who you’re with.’ Zayn nudges him into the wall with his hip. ‘Is it Chris? Just fucking tell me, Harry!’
His name echoes through the stairwell and the shock of it is enough to make each of his bones shiver as he lifts his chin to look at Zayn. He’s so angry he’s shaking, their faces so close their noses are touching. Harry can feel his breath, too hot and too quick against his mouth, and if Harry just lifted his chin another inch, their lips would be touching. The thought makes his heart beat so hard Zayn must be able to feel it.
‘Yes,’ Harry says before he can stop himself, but it’s such a delicious lie and there’s a thrill to it, to hearing Zayn’s breath catch in his throat as his jaw clenches.
‘Yes I’m here to meet Chris.’
Zayn’s eyes light up and it makes Harry’s blood burn under his skin.
‘Have you fucked him?’
Harry nods and he should stop there, but he can’t the more angry Zayn gets the more he wants to see how far he can push him.
‘For how long?’
‘Since I met you.’
Zayn’s jaw clenches again. ‘You see me on Monday nights?’
‘When do you see him? Before or after me?’
‘Is he any good?’
Harry licks his lips and smiles. ‘Better than you.’
The blow lands and Zayn takes him by the lapel of his suit. ‘Face the fucking wall.’
Harry smiles a little wider as he does, his cheek knocking against the concrete when Zayn nudges him into it. ‘Careful. If you leave a mark, Chris’ll get mad.’
‘I’m gonna bite my name onto every inch of your skin,’ Zayn says into his ear.
‘Yeah?’ Harry asks, still smiling as he reaches his hand back to cup the front of Zayn’s trousers. Zayn’s hips stutter as he does, but Harry manages to dig the heel of his palm into Zayn’s erection for just a second before he grabs his wrist.
‘He let you touch him like that?’ Zayn asks, moving his hand away.
‘Well, I’m not as easy so put your hands on the wall and don’t move.’
‘You gonna fuck me here?’ Harry smirks, doing as he’s told.
‘This is all you’re good for.’ Zayn doesn’t ask this time, just reaches around to take the bottle of lube out of Harry’s inside pocket. ‘My spare bed’s too good for you.’
‘You gonna fuck me and send me off to him like he does to you every Monday?’ Harry asks, lightheaded at how livid he is.
‘Take your trousers off.’
Harry does, letting them and his underwear pool around his ankles then lifting his shirt to fist himself. He does it so hard he punches the wall and Zayn laughs.
‘You can’t fucking wait, can you?’
‘Just thinking about Chris,’ Harry says and when he smiles, loose and wicked, Zayn slides his finger into him so suddenly Harry’s feet arch off the floor. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ he says through his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut. ‘Please don’t. Please, it hurts.’
‘What this?’ Zayn asks, turning his hand and inching in deeper. He does it more slowly this time, Harry’s muscles surrendering to him without as much resistance.
‘Yes.’ Harry nods as Zayn begins to finger him slowly, so slowly that Harry begins to move his hips as well. ‘Like that,’ he tells him with a whimper, pressing his cheek to the wall and grinding against it, the concrete smooth and cool against his erection.
‘Is this how he does it?’
‘He uses two fingers.’ Harry can’t help but smile as he tells the lie, his mouth falling open as Zayn eases his hand back, the sudden ache of emptiness he feels making him push his hips down to meet Zayn’s fingers as he slides two into him this time.
‘Look how much you want it?’ Zayn smiles against his cheek when he does and Harry blushes, his nails digging into the wall as Zayn begins to work his fingers into him.
‘You’re the best,’ Harry breathes, and he doesn’t realise that he’s said it out loud until he hears Zayn hum into his ear.
‘Am I?’ he asks with a satisfied sigh, parting his fingers and forcing the heels of Harry’s feet off the floor again.
‘Better than him?’
‘The best,’ Harry gasps when Zayn slides a third finger into him, grinding into the wall, desperate for relief as he feels his cock, hot and wet against his stomach.
‘Does he fuck you like his?’
Harry shakes his head.
‘How does he fuck you?’
‘Slow.’ Harry has to suck in a breath, but he can only repeat himself. ‘Slow.’
‘You want it slow?’
‘Let me feel it.’
‘You wanna feel it?’
‘I want you to come in me.’
‘I bet you do.’ Zayn says into his ear, reaching into Harry’s inside pocket for the box of condoms. He takes one out and throws the rest on the floor at their feet. ‘I fucking should,’ he says, stopping to bite into packet and dropping the remains of the foil on the floor as well. ‘I should fill you up and send you off to him.’
‘Put your hand on the wall,’ he says when Harry tries to touch himself and he almost defies him, tempted to see what he would do if he did. But he might stop and when he hears Zayn flip the lid on the lube again, Harry doesn’t want him to stop.
‘Slow,’ Zayn breathes, hands on his hips as he begins to ease into him.
Harry nods. ‘Slow.’
‘Like that?’ Zayn asks, his voice breaking with the effort.
It feels like hours – days, weeks, years – but Zayn’s finally inside him, every muscle in Harry’s body sighing with relief as they give way to him. Harry waits for the first thrust, but Zayn doesn’t move, his forehead tipping forward onto Harry’s shoulder as he pulls his hips back. ‘No,’ Harry hears himself gasp when Zayn slips out of him then says, ‘yes’ when Zayn inches him into again and holds himself still.
‘Come on,’ Harry whispers, rolling his hips. ‘Fuck me.’
It’s like a starter pistol, that first deep thrust, making Harry’s knees scrape against the wall as he begs for another and another until Zayn’s fucking him so hard he can feel a wet web of cuts forming on his left cheek.
‘Have you fucked him?’ Zayn pants, one hand curled around his throat. ‘Tell me.’
Harry shakes his head. ‘Never.’
‘Fucking tell me.’
‘Never. I swear.’
‘Say that again.’ Zayn’s fingers press into him.
‘Say it again.’
‘Only you, Zayn.’
‘Oh fuck,’ he says, his voice so weak Harry can barely hear it. He’s close, Harry knows and he reaches his right arm up to curl it back around Zayn’s neck.
‘Come on,’ Harry bites out, pulling him closer. ‘Fuck me like you can’t fuck her.’
Zayn comes then, saying his name with a sob that has Harry coming against the wall.
‘Yes,’ he gasps, reaching up to grab Zayn’s hair. ‘Fuck. Yes. Yes.’
Zayn falls against him panting as he reaches up to cover Harry’s hand with his own. Harry uncurls his fingers and when Zayn takes the hint, threading his fingers through Harry’s, Harry doesn’t know how his legs don’t give way.
‘What are you doing to me?’ Zayn says into his neck, mouth against his pulse.
But Harry doesn’t answer because he was about to ask him the same thing.
They part without another word, Zayn going through one door and Harry walking down to the next. He’s so desperate for fresh air that he isn’t looking where he’s going and collides with someone at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he says, holding his hand up. ‘I didn’t see you.’
‘You will be sorry, Harry,’ the guy says, fist striking his jaw so hard he doesn’t have time to reach his arm out before he falls against the wall. He hears himself make the most miserable sound as every bone in his body knocks together at once, but before he can process what’s happening, Harry feels the next punch against his cheek and the last thing he sees before he blacks out is a navy blue tie with tiny skulls on it.
It doesn’t occur to Harry until then what a charmed life he’s led. His childhood was hardly blissful, what with his father being an asshole and the whole why-don’t-I-like-girls thing, but it wasn’t miserable, either. There were birthday parties with Pass the Parcel and his mother’s caterpillar cake (even if he found out later that she bought it from Marks & Spencer and rendered much of his childhood a lie). And there were summer holidays – Portugal with its crowded beaches and donkey rides and Cyprus with its all day breakfasts – places where the salt air made his hair frizz and the sun burnt his nose. But while the happier moments cancelled out the not so happy ones so it felt more like breaking even than winning, he still can’t say that he’s had a hard life, rather a disappointing one, if the last four years are anything to go by. And to think, when he graduated from Cambridge with youth and promise burning off him, he had the world at his feet and now he’s getting the shit kicked out of him in an empty stairwell.
So he realises that he must have led a charmed life because he’s never been in a fight before now and he’s never needed to be because he’s never had a problem that couldn’t be solved with a smile and a self-deprecating remark. If only he’d known. He would have kissed all those boys he was too scared to talk to and scratched his initials into every desk at Cambridge, every bench, every tree, every wall, left something behind everywhere he went. At least then he might be able to find his way back and he needs to because he’s so far gone that he doesn’t even know how he got here. That’s what shocks him, more than the first punch and the POP of pain that follows, the thought of why someone would want to hurt him. Charming, clumsy him, who apologises to furniture when he walks into it and has to stop if he sees a LOST CAT sign to look for it. That’s all he can think as he watches the skulls on the guy’s tie blur, the word knocking around in his skull like a pea in a whistle as he falls against the wall.
But he knows.
When he comes to, it’s slow and sticky, like waking up on the sofa and realising that he’s missed the end of a film. He has no idea where he is, but when he licks his lips and peels his eyes open, Zayn is looking down at him with a frown. He asks him if he’s okay and Harry smiles loosely, his eyelids fluttering shut again as he feels the warmth of Zayn’s hands on his cheeks, sure that he’s dreaming, but when Zayn shakes him and asks him again, Harry finally feels the foghorn of pain through the haze and groans.
‘Who the fuck was that?’ Zayn asks when Harry tries to sit up and can’t, his head spinning so suddenly it’s as though someone’s kicked in the face.
‘I’ve called the police, Zayn.’ Harry hears someone say and forces his eyes open to find a security guard standing over them with a matching frown.
Harry waves his hand. ‘No police,’ he says, trying to sit up again, Zayn’s left hand moving around to cup the back of his head when the pain punches him back down.
The security guard ignores him. ‘They’re on their way, Zayn.’
‘No police,’ he pleads, looking at Zayn who’s clearly furious, but takes the hint.
‘It’s alright, Neil,’ Zayn tells him with a sigh, reaching into the pocket of his suit jacket with his other hand to hand him his keys. ‘Just bring my car around, yeah?’
He does as he’s told and as soon as they’re alone, Zayn shakes his head at Harry.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ he asks, helping him to his feet.
‘Nothing. I’m fine.’
‘Sure you are,’ Zayn murmurs, catching Harry and curling his arm around his waist when his legs buckle suddenly. ‘Can you stand up?’
Harry nods, even though he’s pretty sure that he can’t, but he needs to get out of there – and away from Zayn – before the security guard comes back with his car.
‘I’m okay,’ he says, which isn’t as convincing when he has to stop and reach a hand out to steady himself on the wall. He winces when he does, yanking his hand away and frowning at the rough gash on the heel of his palm. There’s one on his left palm as well and when he catches himself looking at the stairs, he touches the tender spot on his cheek as he remembers how the second punch sent him falling back onto them. As soon as he thinks it, the small of his back throbs and he can’t help but reach back and rub it with his fingers, sure that he already has a line of bruises from the edge of the step.
‘You sure?’ Zayn asks, the crease between his eyebrows deepening.
‘Where you going?’ he asks when Harry begins walking towards the door. He has to stop after a few steps, every muscle in his body screaming, and when Zayn reaches for his elbow, he’s suddenly so exhausted that he has to stop himself leaning against him.
‘Harry, you can’t even walk.’
‘I’m fine. I just want to go home.’
‘I’ll take you home. Just wait for Neil to come back with my car.’
Harry shakes his head so furiously that he almost loses his balance again, his heart hysterical at the thought of Zayn in his flat, seeing the drying teabags in the sink and his unmade bed. Then he thinks of Zayn on his back on it, the sheets leaving pink creases in his skin, and Harry’s heart starts to beat even harder.
‘What if someone sees us? Just go back to-’ He tries to say her name but can’t.
‘Like fuck am I leaving you in this state.’
‘I’m fine. I’ll just jump in a cab.’
‘You’re not fine,’ Zayn tells him, not letting go when Harry tries to pull away. ‘And if even if you were, no cabbie is going to take you when you’re pissing blood.’
Harry feels it then, the wetness around his nose, and wipes it with the back of his hand. Touching it just for that second hurts so much it makes him gasp and when he looks down at the blood, too bright and too red against his pale skin, he gasps again.
‘Let me see,’ Zayn says, putting his hands on his shoulders.
‘It’s only blood.’
Zayn doesn’t listen, turning him so his back is against the wall and taking his face in his hands, tilting it back. ‘Stay still,’ he hisses, when Harry turns his cheek away.
‘I told you, I’m alright.’
‘Does your neck hurt?’
‘Everything fucking hurts.’
Zayn holds up three fingers. ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’
‘Eleven,’ Harry says with a theatrical sigh then rolls his eyes and regrets it as a sharp pain stabs at his temples.
‘Well your sarcasm is still in tact, so that’s something.’
‘What are you doing?’ he mumbles when Zayn turns his face to one side then the other to check his ears then starts rooting through his curls to inspect his scalp.
‘You’ll live,’ Zayn tells him, stepping back to look at him. ‘You’re welcome, by the way.’ He plucks the striped handkerchief out of his breast pocket and hands it to him. ‘If I hadn’t stopped him, fuck knows what he would have done to you.’
‘It was nothing.’ Harry dabs at his nose and winces.
‘Nothing? I thought he was going to kill you. Who the fuck is he?’
‘Dunno.’ Harry shrugs, looking at the blossom of blood on Zayn’s handkerchief in case his cheeks look as hot as they feel. ‘He just jumped me from nowhere.’
Zayn puts his hands on his hips. ‘You’re a shit liar, you know that?’
Harry almost laughs because he is. He wears his heart on his face, his mother always says, but it never occurred to him until he met Zayn that it was a bad thing.
Zayn insists on driving him home, an offer Harry refuses several times, every bit of him aching as Zayn literally shoves him into his Ferrari. ‘Just drop me at Clapham Junction station and I’ll walk,’ Harry mutters miserably, the cuts on his palm stinging as he tugs on the seat belt. A request that is roundly rejected as Zayn gets in and turns on the sat nav, threatening to call Charlotte if Harry doesn’t give him his postcode.
They drive in silence, Harry leaning against the window and trying to avoid eye contact with the people who turn and stare as Zayn’s ridiculous yellow car roars down the Fulham Road, the engine so loud, Harry can feel it in his teeth. It’s a strange car for someone as guarded as Zayn to drive, but then Harry doesn’t know this Zayn, the Zayn who lights up at the roar of a crowd and holds his arms out to them like a fucking king. Actually, maybe he does know that Zayn, Harry thinks as he watches his hands wringing the steering wheel, the collar of his shirt sticking to the back of his neck at the thought of his fingers. He’s the only man he’s met who’d have him on his knees with a look.
Zayn speaks first for once. ‘Who is he?’
‘No one.’ Harry closes his eyes.
‘An old client?’
‘No. Nothing like that.’
‘So he’s someone, then?’
‘He’s no one. Just some nutter.’ Harry sniffs, not realising that he’s still holding the handkerchief until his fingers fist around it. When he sees the blood, he feels a fresh shiver of panic and he’s glad then, that Zayn’s with him, shivering again when he thinks about what he’ll find when he gets back to his flat.
‘Nice suit for a nutter,’ Zayn mutters under his breath but lets it go as they pull off Wandsworth Bridge onto the York Road.
The silence resumes, Zayn fussing over his hair and tugging on the cuffs of his shirt every time he has to stop at a traffic light. At first Harry thinks he’s mad, but when he watches his gaze dart in all directions, he realises that Zayn’s nervous, no doubt terrified that someone will see him with a bloodied Harry and wonder what’s going on. So Harry slumps into his seat and props his elbow up on the door to cover the left side of his face with his hand as he wonders if Zayn’s regretting the ridiculous yellow car now.
‘You can drop me here,’ Harry tells him as they approach the 24-hour Tesco at the top of his road, but Zayn keeps going and turns onto his road.
‘Which number is it?’
‘The one with the white door,’ Harry sighs with defeat as Zayn pulls into a space.
‘Do you have a first aid kit?’ he asks, turning off the engine and panic punches at Harry again.
He’s not coming in. He can’t come in. What if they’ve been to his flat, too?
‘Look, if you want a blowjob for the lift, I can give you one here,’ he says with a shrug he hopes is nonchalant.
Zayn ignores him, climbing out of the car. By the time Harry follows – with a whimper, every bit of him aching – Zayn’s taking a green box out of the boot.
‘You’re not coming in,’ he tells him, but Zayn just gives him that look, the one that always makes Harry turn around and put his arms behind his back.
Harry holds his breath as he opens the front door, wincing as he bends down to pick up the mess of envelopes and pizza menus that has doubled since he charged out earlier. He drops them onto the bottom stair, reaching for the banister as he walks up them gingerly, his back throbbing. He can hear Zayn behind him, his footsteps a little lighter as Harry suddenly regrets his decision to rent a flat on the top floor. He never normally notices the three flights of stairs, glad not to have anyone living above him and grateful to have as much space between him and Mrs Burton’s television as possible. Harry hears a tinny round of applause as they pass her door and he can’t help but wonder what Zayn is thinking. He must be appalled by the shabby hall, the wallpaper peeling and the carpet so worn it’s balding in places. Harry feels a burn of shame when he thinks of Zayn’s house, his hand shaking as he puts the key in his door, sucking in a breath before he turns it, terrified of what he’s about to find. If there’s anyone waiting for him, or if they’ve already been, turning his flat over like they did last time, his clothes spilling out of the open drawers and the sofa stripped off its cushions. But he still goes in first, making sure Zayn is behind him as he opens the door and stands in the doorway.
Harry has to stop himself closing his eyes as he turns on the light, his heart hammering as he looks at his tiny, untidy flat. It’s as tiny and untidy as he left it, the tie he almost wore then thought better of, still slung over the sofa, and lets go of a breath.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ he says with a bitter smile as he walks in, tossing his keys onto the side table by the door. ‘It’s the maid’s day off.’
Zayn doesn’t respond, just kicks the door shut behind him and follows Harry as he heads into the bathroom and shrugs off his suit jacket. Even that hurts, Harry wincing as he tries to avoid looking at the mirror over the sink, hoping that his face doesn’t look as bad as he thinks it does, his stomach tensing at the thought. Zayn must know that because he stands in front of it and tells Harry to sit on the edge of the bath.
‘Have you got a flannel?’ he asks, putting the first aid kit on the edge of the sink.
Harry nods up at the blue face flannel drying on the shower rail and when Zayn reaches for it, he cups his right shoulder with his hand, wincing again as he tries to turn it. He doesn’t know what it is, whether it’s Zayn being there, the skin between his eyebrows pinched as he turns on the tap and waits for the water to warm up, or being in the sanctuary of his flat, in his always cold bathroom that still smells of the Tom Ford aftershave he splashed on before he left, but Harry suddenly feels better. Safer.
‘Is it just your nose and hands?’ Zayn asks, wetting the face flannel, and while his back and shoulder are killing him, Harry nods, fairly sure that they’re just bruised.
‘Careful,’ he hisses when Zayn touches his nose with it.
He arches an eyebrow at him. ‘Are you always this whiny?’
Harry huffs, trying to keep still as Zayn wipes at the tender skin around his nose again. He cups his chin with his left hand, tilting his face up towards him, and as soon their gaze catches, Harry has to look away, his heart suddenly beating so hard that his cheeks flush because he knows that Zayn can feel his pulse under his fingers.
‘I can do it,’ he says, taking the flannel from him.
When Zayn turns and walks out of the bathroom with a sigh, Harry curses himself. The last thing he needs is Zayn wandering around his flat unattended, but when he stands up with a tender groan and forces himself to look in the mirror he doesn’t care as he looks at his face. His shoulders fall as he realises that it doesn’t look as bad as he thought. He’s sure it will look much worse in the morning, but for now he just has a cloud of bruises on his jaw and left cheek, the web of cuts he got when he and Zayn fucked against the wall, just above it. His nose isn’t bad either, a red stripe darkening across the bridge of it and his nostrils rimmed with dry blood. His shoulders tense again as he dabs at it with the flannel. He only remembers the guy hitting him twice – first on his jaw, then his cheek – so he must have punched him again after he blacked out. Why? he wonders, his stomach lurching so suddenly at the thought that he has to reach for the sides of the sink with his hands, sure that he’s going to throw up.
‘Who doesn’t have peas in their freezer?’ Zayn mutters as he sweeps back into the bathroom and takes Harry by the sleeve of the shirt, leading him back to the bath. Harry doesn’t resist this time, his hands still shaking as he sits on the edge again, the enamel cold against the backs of his legs, even through his trousers. ‘Edamame beans will have to do,’ Zayn says, rolling his eyes and pressing the bag to Harry’s face.
‘They’re good for you,’ Harry explains, his eyelids stuttering shut at the sweet relief of the frozen beans against his too hot skin.
‘Let me see your hands?’ Zayn asks, taking the first aid kit off the edge of the sink and unzipping it.
‘They’re alright.’ Zayn ignores him, putting the open first aid kit down and reaching for Harry’s left hand. ‘They’re alright,’ he tells him again when Zayn turns it over and inspects the gash on the heel of his palm.
‘This is going to sting like fuckery.’
‘What is?’ Harry frowns then yelps and yanks his hand away when Zayn sprays antiseptic onto his broken skin. ‘You did that on purpose!’
‘Show me your other hand,’ he says, shaking the can.
‘No.’ Harry pouts. ‘It would hurt less if it fell off.’
‘It will fall of if you don’t clean it. That stairwell is full of beer and piss.’
Harry thinks about what he and Zayn did against the wall and holds out his hand.
‘Holy Mary, Mother of Cock!’ he says through his teeth when Zayn sprays his other palm, gasping when Zayn waits a second then does it again.
‘That’s for showing up tonight, you impetuous little shit,’ Zayn tells him when Harry pulls his hand away, balling it into a fist and pressing it to his chest. ‘If you ever do anything like that again, you’re getting this up your arse.’ Harry can’t help but smile wickedly when Zayn points the can at him. ‘The spray not the can,’ he adds, an eyebrow arched as he puts it on the edge of the sink and reaches for the box of plasters.
‘I can do it.’ Harry snatches the box and opens it.
‘Okay.’ Zayn turns to open the cabinet over the sink and roots through it. ‘When you’re done take two of these,’ he says, putting a box of ibuprofen on the edge of the sink and walks out.
When Harry’s palms are patched up and he’s done as he’s told and taken the painkillers, he takes a deep breath and walks out of the bathroom to find Zayn standing in the middle of the living room. His cheeks flush as he watches him look around, taking it all in. The thin curtains and ugly brown sofa that were there when he moved in then at the bookcase that wasn’t. Harry spent a Sunday afternoon putting it together, harassed and hungover, his books the only organised thing in the mess of dirty mugs and piles of discarded jeans and t-shirts that he never seems to wear outside of the flat any more.
Harry’s sure that Zayn’s closets are bigger than his flat, everything almost within touching distance. Harry could jump from the sofa to the bed if he wants, then from the bed into the bathroom. And yeah, of course he misses his flat in Maida Vale, the one with the stripped floors and the little balcony he would drink a cup of tea on every morning, but he’ll never be able to afford somewhere like that again. He didn’t think he cared, that he wasn’t in the flat enough to be ashamed of it, but with Zayn there, he suddenly sees every scuff, every crack, and he wants to tell Zayn that it isn’t him, but maybe it is now.
‘I was going to make you a cup of tea, but you don’t have any. If you fancy a mug of hot water, I’d be happy to oblige, though,’ Zayn says picking a Pink Floyd t-shirt from the arm of the sofa and holding it up.
Harry walks over and snatches it from him. ‘I know what you’re thinking.’
Zayn turns to look at him, eyebrows raised. ‘What am I thinking?’
‘What’s someone who earns as much as me doing living in a shithole like this?’
‘That bloke,’ Harry pauses to throw the t-shirt back on the sofa. ‘It isn’t what you think. I’m not a drug addict.’
‘Drug addicts don’t tend to eat edamame beans.’
Zayn glances down at the bag of frozen beans that he’s still holding and Harry rolls his eyes, pressing it to his cheek again. ‘Can you not?’ he says with a long sigh.
‘Pretend to give a shit.’
Zayn licks his lips and tilts his head at him. ‘Is that what you think?’
‘Just fucking stop.’ Harry holds up his other hand. ‘I don’t want to do this.’
‘Just stop,’ Harry sneers, and as soon as he does, he stops and presses his lips together, determined not to lose his temper. But there Zayn is, looking at him like he’s mad, and suddenly they’re back in his living room the morning after they met, Harry spraying crazy all over him, and something in him buckles. ‘I don’t want to do this.’
‘Bond. I don’t want to stay up all night talking, tell you why that bloke gave me a kicking, about what a hard life I’ve had and how I’m only doing this to pay my way through med school, make you feel better about the few quid you throw me every week to come in my mouth. Because the truth is: I’m a nice boy from a nice family. My mother just got married and is living in the South of France and my sister works for PwC and lives in Singapore so you can stop fucking looking at me like that.’
‘Like you feel sorry for me. I do this because I like sucking dick. I fucking love it.’
Zayn looks away and Harry should be pleased, because it’s what he wanted – to shake him up – but when he does, he still feels it like a punch.
Harry waits for Zayn to smile tightly and tell him that he has to go, but he reaches down and picks his Moleskine off the coffee table. Of all the things for him to pick – all the things – he had to pick up that and when Harry catches himself asking if perhaps Zayn does know him, he has to snatch it from him as well.
Zayn doesn’t flinch. ‘What are you writing about?’
‘The Art of Fellatio.’ Harry smirks, but something in him softens when Zayn licks his lips, the corners of his mouth twitching playfully. ‘How did you know I write?’
‘Sometimes you have a dent here.’ Zayn rubs the edge of his middle finger with his thumb and Harry’s heart turns inside out.
‘Yes. Well, it doesn’t matter, does it? No one will ever read it.’
‘Because unless I’m going to write Homme de Jour no one’s going to give a shit.’
‘You can write whatever you want, Harry.’
‘Can we not do this, either?’ He throws the notebook on the bed and presses the bag of edamame beans to the top of his head as it starts throbbing. ‘I’ve done this with every client I’ve ever had. You’re not going to save me, Zayn. You can put me up in a nice flat and dress me up in whatever you want but I’ll never change.’
‘I wouldn’t want you to change, that’s the point.’ Harry can’t look at him, the tops of his ears burning at the compliment. ‘You’re the one letting your job change you. If you want to write a book, write one. How you choose to make a living doesn’t define you.’
Harry shakes his head, telling himself to take a breath, but he can’t. ‘You’re so full of shit.’
Zayn blinks at him. ‘Am I?’
‘Yes,’ he snaps, throwing the bag of edamame beans on the coffee table. ‘You read Chinua Achebe and Truman Capote, but you ponce around in Prada suits and live in that stupid fucking house because you’re trying so hard not to be gay that you think that if you drive a yellow Ferrari and marry a pretty girl no one will notice.’
‘Ah.’ Zayn nods, exhaling through his nose. ‘So that’s what this is about.’
‘Were you going to tell me?’ Harry huffs petulantly.
‘Why would I?’
‘And I’m back to being a prostitute.’ Harry shakes his head.
That’s what hurts most of all, more than Zayn giving him nothing or being too scared to touch him, how Zayn makes him feel like he can do anything in one breath – that he can write a book, write a hundred books, touch the fucking sky if he wants – then makes him feel like nothing the next. Karl used to do the same thing, he used to kiss him like he couldn’t stop one moment then called him a slut when he came. But it was easier that way, Harry knows now, for Karl to blame him for leading him astray.
‘I’m confused.’ Zayn frowns. ‘I thought you didn’t want me to save you?’
‘Then what do you want from me?’
‘Nothing!’ Harry snaps, looking away as tears burn the corners of his eyes. ‘I don’t want anything from you! I just want you to stop touching my shit.’
Zayn looks at him for a moment, and when he begins to walk towards the door, Harry’s about to turn and apologise when Zayn stops in front of the clothes rail by the bed. His suits are the only other thing in his flat that are organised, each one hanging neatly on a wooden hanger, his shoes lined up underneath them. Harry thinks that Zayn’s admiring them, perhaps thinking about the black one he bought in Paris, even the one Harry wore the night they met, but of course Zayn reaches for the green box on top of the dresser next to it and Harry’s heart stops. He doesn’t know how Zayn knows that Karl gave it to him, but it’s moments like that that make him sure that Zayn does know him.
‘Put that down,’ Harry snaps, walking over and taking it from him.
‘Don’t tell me,’ Zayn says with a smile. ‘Never forget.’
Harry’s fingers curl around the box as he thinks about the words engraved on the back of the watch. Don’t forget me, Karl told him when he gave it to Harry the morning of his wedding. I can live with never seeing you again, just don’t forget me.
Harry stares at him. ‘How did you know that?’
Zayn holds his right arm up and lets his jacket sleeve fall to reveal his watch.
Harry almost drops the box. ‘You and Karl?’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘How do you think I knew that you were going to be in The Mayfair that night?’
Harry’s heart starts to beat very, very slowly. ‘I don’t believe you.’
Zayn shrugs, taking the lid off one of his bottles of aftershave and sniffing it.
‘How long for?’
He picks up another bottle and inspects the label. ‘Forever.’
‘What do you mean forever.’
‘Five years. As long as I was at Man United.’
‘Five years?’ Harry asks and he doesn’t know how because he can’t catch his breath.
He doesn’t respond, just takes the lid off the bottle of aftershave and winces.
‘Are you still seeing him now?’
Zayn shakes his head. ‘Not since he met you.’
‘I just-’ Harry says, putting the box back on the dresser. As soon as he does, Zayn straightens it so it’s in line with the edge. ‘You’re gay.’ Harry presses his hands to his face. ‘How did I not know that you were gay?’
‘I’m not gay.’
‘Fucking another man for five years is pretty gay.’
‘I’m not,’ he insists, tugging on the cuffs of his shirt, his back a little straighter. ‘I like girls. I always have. I like the way they smell and when their eyelashes catch in their fringe.’ Harry knows that he’s talking about her and feels it like a splinter in his heart. ‘But sometimes I meet someone and I know we’re not friends, you know?’
Harry has to lean against the chest of drawers.
‘I thought it was the football thing,’ Zayn says when he does. ‘I’ve never been good at making friends. It’s my dad’s fault. As soon as I could walk he taught me how to kick a ball and when he realised that I was good at it, he made me try out for any team that would have me. All I did was play football. I fucking hated it. I just wanted to sit in my room and read comics, but everyone kept telling me that I was wasting my talent.’
‘I had no idea you didn’t enjoy it,’ Harry tells him as he watches Zayn open another watch box and run a finger over the gold strap. ‘You looked so happy tonight.’
‘I do now.’ He shrugs. ‘But when I was a kid, I was miserable. I had no friends and the only girls who were interested in me were the ones who’d heard that I was probably going to sign to the England Under-21s. And it was such hard work, getting up at six every morning to practise and the games in the rain, but playing was easy. It’s the only time I don’t think. I just kick the ball and most of the time it goes where I want it to go.’
Harry nods. He gets that. He feels the same way about writing sometimes, how the words just seem to knot together. The next day he reads it back and can’t believe he wrote it.
‘Plus it made my dad so happy and I’d do anything to make him happy. He cried his eyes out when I signed for Man United,’ Zayn admits with a smile.
‘And that’s when you met Karl.’
His smile gets a little looser, but he catches himself and closes the watch box. ‘I love football but I hate footballers. Most of them are assholes.’ He sighs wearily. ‘All they care about is cars and bucking birds so I didn’t fit in at all. My first couple of months were fucking miserable. I almost quit.’ He rubs the back of his neck with his hand. ‘But one afternoon, we were in the showers and I saw that Karl had a POW! tattoo on his arm.’ Harry’s surprised by the sudden twist he feels in his stomach at the memory of it, this splash of yellow and red at the top of his right arm that Harry would drag his teeth across sometimes. Then Zayn reaches down and starts stroking his arm and Harry wonders if he even realises that he’s touching his ZAP! tattoo.
‘We started talking about comics and I dunno.’ Zayn sighs deeply, his shoulders falling as he exhales. ‘It was so easy. We started hanging out more and one night we got wasted and-’ He stops to trace the box of Karl’s watch with his finger. ‘We didn’t talk for weeks afterwards. Then the next time we went out it happened again and we didn’t talk for two weeks then it happened again and we didn’t talk for a week.’ He shrugs. ‘I don’t even know what it was. When I’m with a girl, we kiss and giggle, but with him, it was like this thing that neither of us had any control over. It was rough and painful but so amazing. But then it stopped. He transferred to Arsenal, met a girl. He was so happy.’
Zayn stops to press a finger to the gold crown on the top of the box and Harry wants to tell him that he wasn’t, that they started to see each other a few weeks later, but he doesn’t know if that will make him feel better or worse.
‘So I decided to do the same thing,’ Zayn goes on. ‘I transferred to Chelsea, met Coco, started again. But a couple of months ago, he called me while he was on his honeymoon and it turns out that he wasn’t as over it as I thought he was.’ Harry starts playing with his bottom lip as he wonders who Karl called first, him or Zayn. ‘That’s when he told me that he was seeing you. Said it helped to channel it, you know?’ He scratches the back of his. ‘He said it would help.’
‘And has it?’ Harry asks, even though he knows the answer.
‘We just went through to the next round of the Champions League. I should be licking champagne off a stripper, but I’m here with you so what do you think?’
‘Maybe you should go, then,’ Harry says, licking his lips.
Zayn bites down on his. ‘I know I should go.’
But he doesn’t move.
‘Did you love him?’
Zayn looks at the watch box again. ‘I think I did.’
‘Was it always rough?’ Harry asks, edging a little closer so their shoes are almost touching.
‘Like with me?’
‘Did you even kiss?’
He shakes his head.
‘You know that what we do isn’t sex, don’t you?’
Zayn turns to him with a frown. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s sex, but it could be so much more. It could be everything you have with-’ Harry almost says her name, but can’t, ‘with a girl.’
He looks down and shakes his head. It hurts more than it should.
‘Do you know it hurts,’ Harry says instead, ‘when you fuck me like that?’
Zayn looks up again. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Because I don’t care,’ Harry tells him, rubbing his chin with his fingers in case Zayn sees the tremor. ‘I’d let you do anything to me.’
Zayn lifts his eyelashes to look at him and Harry has to look away. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ he says, blinking away the tears before Zayn can see them as well. ‘You know that, Zayn. You know exactly what you’re doing to me and it’s not fair because I feel like a vase of flowers that’s dying and you can see me dying and you’re just letting me.’
Zayn reaches for his hand and Harry steps back.
‘Don’t be nice to me. I can deal with it when you treat me like I’m nothing because guess what? I am.’ Harry holds his hand up before Zayn can correct him. ‘Don’t.’
Zayn reaches for his hand again.
Harry doesn’t pull away this time, and he doesn’t stop him when Zayn threads his fingers through his, but he manages to shake his head. ‘Zayn, we can’t.’
‘We already are.’ Harry makes himself look at him then and as soon as he does, Zayn puts his hand on the small of his back, pulling Harry to him so their foreheads are touching, the sudden press of skin on skin, making them both shiver. ‘But you’re going to have to kiss me first.’
He says it so quietly that Harry isn’t sure that he hasn’t imagined it, but then their palms touching as well then their noses and when Harry feels Zayn’s breath on his mouth he can’t – he can’t – because he wants it so much that he wonders if the ache of wanting it could ever feel as good as actually kissing him. So Harry waits, their lips almost touching, but not quite, because he wants it to perfect. Not for himself, rather for Zayn, because it feels too much like proving himself, like competing with every other girl whose gone before him with their soft mouths and sweet skin. Harry will never have either of those things but he still tilts his head because Zayn’s right there and he has to. That’s the way it will always be between them, Harry thinks, as soon as they get into each other’s space they’re done for, like jumping off a bridge and giving into the fall.
Their lips catch and the shock of it is enough to make Harry pull away and press his fingers to his bottom lip. But then Zayn lifts his eyelashes to look at him and as soon as their gaze meets, Harry takes his face in his hands and leans in again. Zayn hums when their mouths meet, this low, satisfied hmmmmm that makes Harry press his fingers into his hot cheeks as he kisses him again, just once, a gentle little kiss that’s barely long enough to feel the heat of his mouth, but still long enough to make his heart slam into his ribs as he leans in to kiss him again. He lets his lips slide against Zayn’s for a second longer this time before he pulls away, but it’s enough to make Zayn make that sound again, his eyelashes fluttering open to look at Harry, his eyes blown black so they look like they’re ringed in gold.
He wants it to be like this forever, Harry thinks, hazy and floaty, the pair of them shivering with the promise of it. But it will never be like this again and the thought makes Harry’s heart hurt. They will never have another first kiss, never want each other as much as they want each other now and Harry almost doesn’t want to give into it because as soon as he does, everything will change. They’ll never be able to pretend that their fierce Monday night sex is enough, that they don’t know what it’d be like if Zayn didn’t tie his hands and let Harry touch him. And with that it’s over, Harry knows, because he’ll never be able to compete with those other girls, the ones with the soft mouths and sweet skin – the one – but he still has to try.
He has to try.
So he presses his mouth to Zayn’s again and when he runs his tongue along his bottom lip, Zayn takes the hint, letting Harry part his lips with his. Zayn’s hands fist in the back of Harry’s shirt when he dips his tongue into his mouth, pulling him closer so their chests are touching, their hips, their legs.
The tips of their tongues catch first and Harry’s sure he feels a spark, then another as his tongue slides over Zayn’s. It’s not as steady after that, everything breathless and blurry as they melt into it, Zayn’s mouth warm and unbearably soft, so soft that Harry wants to cry because it is perfect. Of course it’s perfect. Then Harry is aching in another way, his cuts and bruises forgotten as he holds Zayn like if he held his first fountain pen, with a mix of fear and awe that makes his hands shake. But after two months of grabbing at and biting each other, Harry suddenly doesn’t know what to do with them, his fingers fluttering against Zayn’s cheeks as he holds his face and kisses him deeper. If the plasters on his palms are rough on his skin, Zayn doesn’t seem to notice as Harry teases another hum from him that Harry feels in his teeth this time as Zayn moves his hands down to cup his ass, pulling Harry closer and grinding into him.
Harry can’t help but reciprocate and when he does Zayn gasps into his mouth. Harry swallows it with a sigh, his eyelids shivering as he finally lets go of Zayn’s face and reaches down to unbutton Zayn’s suit jacket with an adolescent impatience that makes him feels eighteen again, in Peter’s office at Cambridge, the edge of his desk digging into the back of his legs and the smell of pencil shavings in the air as they have that first kiss that’s enough for them to risk everything they have. And Harry catches himself hoping that Zayn feels it as well, that he’s confused and comforted, all at once, as all of those pieces of himself that he never understood quietly begin to make sense.
If Harry had any intention of stopping, he can’t then, his hands pushing the jacket over Zayn’s shoulders then reaching for his tie, unknotting and tugging it off without breaking their kiss. But then he has to as he undoes the top button of Zayn’s shirt and his fingers finally find skin – warm, tight, delicious skin – and he peels his mouth away, teeth nipping at Zayn’s jaw then his neck. Harry can’t help but smile as he feels Zayn’s pulse hammering against his mouth and laps his tongue against it until he feels it quicken and his heart does the same. He can’t get Zayn’s shirt open quick enough, popping buttons in his desperation to taste him, mouthing every patch of skin he finds – his neck, his shoulders, his collarbones, the wings tattooed under them that Harry didn’t even know where there – until they’re both shaking and rubbing against each other.
Zayn keeps murmuring his name, his hands still fisted in the back of Harry’s shirt, and when Harry feels him leaning into him as though he can’t trust his legs, something shifts between them as Harry turns him and pushes him onto the bed. Zayn lands on it with a bounce that sends his Moleskine fluttering to the floor, his eyes wide as he watches Harry fight with his own shirt. He’s never seen him naked, Harry realises as he parts the white cotton to reveal his chest. As soon as he does, Zayn sits up and grabs Harry’s hips with his hands, his mouth going straight to Harry’s left nipple. His teeth catch on it before he licks it, the tip of his tongue circling it before he drags his mouth across to Harry’s other nipple. Harry arches his back as he does, pulling on the bruises that he suddenly doesn’t care about as he fists his hands in Zayn’s hear and guides him lower, his tongue skidding down Harry’s chest before it stops to lick a line across his stomach, just above his trousers.
Zayn’s hands are on them before Harry’s are, tearing into them and tugging his underwear down to free his erection. Harry sucks in a breath when the cold air hits his skin, the tip of his cock obscenely wet. He knew it would be – he could feel it soaking through his underwear when they were kissing – but it’s still a shock, how easily Zayn palm slides easily over the head when he reaches for him.
‘Did you do this with him?’ Harry breathes, a hand in his hair, ruining his carefully styled quiff as Zayn starts to stroke him with a defiant frown.
He nods, but doesn’t look up, utterly rapt as he watches his hand.
‘Show me what else you did,’ Harry says, his hand on the back of his head now.
Zayn doesn’t hesitate, just closes his eyes and takes him in his mouth and while Harry’s pretty sure nothing could have prepared him for it, he wishes Zayn had given him some warning before he started sucking because it makes his whole body shudder.
‘Fuck,’ Harry says through his teeth, throwing his head back and grabbing Zayn’s hair with both hands. It’s happening. He can’t believe it’s happening. As always, it’s rough and kind of clumsy, but Zayn’s desperation to please him is enough to have Harry thrusting into his mouth. As soon as he does, Zayn stops, staying still so that Harry can do it again, and it makes Harry’s hand shake as he pushes him back onto to the bed.
‘Gonna show me how you can take it?’ he mutters, one hand behind Zayn’s head, holding it up as he lies on his back, Harry following and straddling him, his knees on either side of Zayn’s chest as he thrusts into his mouth again. Harry has to lean down and press his palm to the bed as he draws his hips back and does it again, his cock sliding over Zayn’s tongue to hit the back of his throat.
‘Gonna do this to you,’ Harry closes his eyes and licks his lips, his hand fisting in the sheet as he pulls his hips back and fucks into his mouth again. ‘Are you gonna let me do this to you?’ Zayn’s fingers dig into Harry’s hips and he loses it, pushing too far and too deep. But to his surprise, Zayn’s shoulders rises of the bed to meet him, his eyelashes fluttering as he deepthroats him.
‘Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck,’ Harry spits out when he does, looking down at his hands in Zayn’s hair and the muscles in Zayn’s shoulders tensing as he holds still before Harry lets go of him and lets him fall back onto the bed. ‘Open your mouth,’ Harry pants, fisting himself furiously, but Zayn lifts his shoulders again and when Harry feels his mouth on him he comes with a helpless gasp, so hard that he thinks that his spine’s going to snap in two and it’s all Harry can do not to collapse onto him.
‘Are you okay?’ Harry pants, when he pulls back and sits on his chest.
Zayn nods again.
‘That was amazing,’ Harry blinks, sweeping the pad of his thumb over Zayn’s mouth when his eyes come back into focus. ‘You’re amazing.’
‘You’re not so bad yourself,’ Zayn tells him as Harry rolls off him and lies on his back next to him, looking up at the water-stained ceiling.
‘Thank you.’ He pretends to doff his cap then frowns when Zayn sits up. ‘Where you going?’
Zayn smiles and leans down to press a kiss to his mouth. ‘Let me get cleaned up.’
Harry holds his breath until he comes back, sure that Zayn’s going to emerge from the bathroom fully dressed with an excuse about needing to go. But he walks back towards the bed a few minutes later still topless, his feet bare now and his trousers undone to reveal a patch of dark hair that has Harry on his knees and reaching for him. They’re kissing again before Zayn can kneel on the bed in front of him, Harry’s hands on his face as he licks his way back into his mouth. Zayn groans, his teeth nipping at Harry’s bottom lip when he slips his hand into his trousers and curls his fingers around him. Harry still can’t believe that after everything they’ve done, he’s never touched him like this, never felt the heat of him against his palm, and he can’t help but stroke him eagerly.
But it isn’t enough. ‘Lie down,’ Harry breathes, pulling his mouth away and tugging down Zayn’s trousers as he does as he’s told, lying back, his hair shockingly black against Harry’s white pillow. He smiles slowly when Harry climbs off the bed to pull off his trousers with no finesse whatsoever then giggles as Harry struggles with his own, hopping from foot to foot as he kicks off his shoes and takes off his socks.
‘Sexy.’ Zayn grins, all tongue and teeth, when Harry almost falls over.
‘Shut up,’ Harry sneers, crawling on top of him and biting his nose.
Zayn bites him back then they’re kissing again, slow and deep, Zayn’s thighs hooked on his hips as Harry’s knees dig into the mattress as he thinks how he’s never wanted him so much. He can’t wait to watch him smoke a cigarette afterwards and find one of his black, black hairs on his pillow tomorrow, wants it so much that he can’t bear to stop, but when Zayn grinds into him so they’re cocks catch, Harry is kissing down his chest before he can remind himself to slow down.
‘Lube,’ he says into his skin as he licks between his abs. ‘Bedside table drawer.’
He can hear Zayn rooting through it and when he says, ‘What the fuck?’ Harry looks up to find him holding up one of his vibrators.
‘That’s a bit ambitious,’ Harry grins, bending down to drag his teeth over his hip.
‘Why is it green?’
‘It’s called The Hulk,’ Harry explains, dipping his tongue into Zayn’s bellybutton.
‘Great,’ he mutters. ‘I’ll never look at Mark Ruffalo the same way again.’
‘They make these things for boys?’
Harry looks up with a frown. ‘You’ve never used a vibrator?’
Zayn looks appalled. ‘No way!’
Harry sits back on his heels and holds his hand out. ‘Give me it.’
His eyes widen. ‘You’re not sticking this in me.’
Harry smiles sweetly. ‘There are many ways to use a vibrator, Mr Malik.’ But Zayn shakes his head, eyeing the vibrator warily. Harry smiles a little less sweetly. ‘Or would you rather I use the Loki one and make you kneel before me?’
Zayn hands him the vibrator, blinking when Harry turns it on and it buzzes loudly. Harry can’t help but giggle and roll his eyes. ‘Open your mouth.’
Zayn arches an eyebrow. ‘Is that clean?’
It is, but Harry still puts it in his mouth, making a show of sucking on it theatrically before leaning over him, one hand in Zayn’s hair and the other guiding the vibrator into his mouth. Zayn looks startled when he does, the skin between his eyebrows creasing, but when Harry tells him to tighten his lips around it, Zayn gives into it, closing his eyes as Harry works it in and out of his mouth.
‘This is what I want to do to you,’ Harry leans down and whispers in his ear. ‘Like this.’ He stops to kiss Zayn’s ear. ‘Nice and slow. Make you feel me.’
Zayn licks his lips and opens his eyes with a gasp when Harry takes the vibrator out of his mouth and drags it down his neck. He giggles, covering his nipple with his fingers when Harry touches the vibrator to it, but the corners of his mouth start to fall as Harry moves it lower, Zayn’s jaw falling open when he presses it to his stomach.
‘Feels good, doesn’t it?’ Harry breathes, and when Zayn nods, Harry imagines the way his muscles are fluttering like they probably never have before. Maybe when he was a teenager and the shudder of the bus would give him a hard on or when he realised how nice it felt to press himself against the washing machine.
Harry wonders if that’s what Zayn’s thinking about as he moves the vibrator lower, tracing one side of the V over his hip bone, careful to avoid Zayn’s cock, which is now hard and heavy on his stomach, the tip mouth-wateringly wet. Harry licks his lips, his mouth dry at the sight of Zayn, naked and shivering under him, as he does the same on the other side before running the vibrator along his inner thigh, from Zayn’s knee down, down, then stopping. Zayn says his name, back arching off the bed, and it’s cruel, Harry knows, how he chooses that moment to press the vibrator to his perineum and holds it there until Zayn is bucking, his hands clawing at the sheet under him. And it’s also cruel how Harry takes him in his mouth then, sucking on him with as much spit as he has the patience to muster as he presses the head of the vibrator between the cheeks of his ass and pushes carefully. Zayn comes, loud and fierce, as soon as he does, his heels digging into the mattress as he unravels in Harry’s mouth.
If he can feel Harry easing the head of the vibrator into him, Zayn doesn’t stop him, just pants desperately as Harry keeps sucking him until he’s shaking, the familiar lines of his face – his nose, his jaw, his cheekbones – silver with sweat. But he notices when Harry takes the vibrator out, whimpering softly then whimpering again when Harry stops sucking on him to suck on his middle finger instead, cheeks hollowing with the effort before licking his lips and easing the tip of his finger inside Zayn.
‘Harry,’ he hisses, closing his eyes and thrusting his chin towards the ceiling.
‘That good?’ Harry asks, lying on his side next to him and peppering his jaw with kisses.
‘Can I be your first?’ Harry says into his ear, pushing his finger in deeper.
Zayn bites down on his bottom lip, his eyelids wet with sweat as well now.
‘You gonna let me be your first?’ Harry asks again when he’s knuckle deep inside him, moving his finger in a circle until Zayn’s hips rise off the mattress.
‘Yes,’ he says through his teeth, mewling pitifully when Harry eases his finger out of him and kneels on the bed between his legs. Zayn strokes his cock as he watches him lean over to the still open bedside drawer and take out the lube. ‘Condom,’ he murmurs as Harry flips the lid and squeezes some into the palm of his hand.
‘I was tested like week,’ he says between sighs as he rubs the lube into himself.
Zayn shakes his head. ‘Please.’
‘It’s okay.’ He smiles groggily.
‘No.’ Zayn reaches up to press his hand to his stomach. ‘Not without a condom.’
Everything in Harry sags like someone’s stuck a pin in him. ‘I would never hurt you,’ he says, cheeks stinging, but when Zayn shakes his head, he sits back on his heels and looks down at him, his chin shivering. ‘Why do you always do this?’
Zayn frowns. ‘What?’
‘Make me feel dirty.’ Zayn reaches for his elbows, but Harry pulls away. ‘I always use a condom. Always.’ Zayn reaches for him again, but Harry climbs off him.
‘Well, I don’t.’
Harry stares at him as he realises what he’s saying. ‘You’re sleeping with her.’
‘Of course I’m sleeping with her,’ Zayn says, suddenly livid. ‘We’re engaged.’
Harry presses his hands to his face and laughs.
Of course he’s sleeping with her, they’re engaged.
‘Don’t fucking look at me like that,’ Zayn spits, sitting up and propping himself up on his elbows. ‘Where the fuck are you sticking your dick, Nathan?’
It would hurt less if he punched him in the face.
‘I’m sorry,’ Zayn says, grabbing for him and missing.
‘Get out!’ Harry stands over the bed, pointing at the door.
‘Harry, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that.’
‘No.’ He steps back before Zayn can reach for his hand. ‘You don’t get to come into my flat and lie in my bed and call me a whore. Get out!’
Harry can’t look at him, charging towards the bathroom and kicking the door shut behind him. He turns on the shower, tears spilling out of him as soon as the spray hits his face. He stands under the water shaking, shaking and waiting for Zayn to come in, to climb into the tub behind him and wrap his arms around him, kiss his shoulders and tell him how sorry he is. But when the water goes cold and Harry clambers out of the shower, still shaking, he walks into the bedroom to find that Zayn’s gone.
When Harry was seven, he wanted to be a policeman. It was only for a few weeks, some time between wanting to be an astronaut and a superhero, but he was besotted with the idea. He even had a police badge, a gold plastic thing that he would flash at his sister when he was told to call her for dinner or when he caught her standing on the kitchen counter trying to reach the Parma Violets their mother had hidden at the back of the cupboard. (Actually, the first – and only – time he did that, Gemma was so startled she fell and broke her arm. Something Harry still repents for by sending a pack of Parma Violets to Singapore every month with a note that reads, Eat them all before dinner – H x)
It was so easy back then. All he needed was the right costume and he could be whoever he wanted to be. His mother would spend hours indulging him. She would use up the tin foil so he could be a robot and cut eyeholes into old sheets so he could be a ghost. He just had to say it – I want to be a pirate – and a few hours later he would be one, his voice rough from singing Drunken Sailor and his eyes stinging from the black eyeliner he made his mother put on him. Now it’s a lot harder. He doesn’t even know what he wants to be. Actually, he does, he just doesn’t think he can be, and he doesn’t know when that changed. When that restlessness – that insatiable curiosity to be everyone he wanted to be – was sated and he became content to be no one at all.
Or maybe it isn’t sated. It doesn’t feel like it sometimes, when he loses an afternoon writing in his Moleskine, or when he reads a poem so beautiful he can’t catch his breath. It’s moments like that that make his heart itch, that make him want to pack a bag and run. To where, he doesn’t know. Maybe that’s the point, though: he’s not supposed to know. Perhaps that’s why he wanted to be a policeman when he was a kid – and an astronaut and a superhero and a ghost and a robot and a pirate – because he didn’t know what he wanted to be. Now he does and he supposes he should be happy. Some people never know and while away the rest of their lives daydreaming in meetings and stacking tins of beans in supermarkets. Harry did that when he moved to London, he worked in a pub at night and in publishing during the day, photocopying and reading manuscripts so awful he had to give it up otherwise he would never have written again. Not that he’s written much since, but there's the rub. When he didn’t know what he wanted to be, it was fun. He could be anything, but now he only wants to be one thing, what’s he got without it? At least now he has hope, but if he tries and fails, where does he go from there? How can he go back to pulling pints and reading other people’s manuscripts?
So he’s decided that it’s better not to try because the next time someone comes in his mouth without warning him or pulls his hair hard enough to bring tears to his eyes he can tell himself that it isn’t forever, that one day. He catches himself writing it across his forearm with his finger sometimes – one day – when he can’t sleep because the night feels too long and his bed feels too big. Last week he wrote it across Charles’ back in small steady letters and now he thinks it as he bends down to pick his Moleskine off the floor. One day, he thinks as he sits on the edge of the bed and looks at it, at the thin strip of black elastic wrapped around it, straining to keep the pages together, the leather cover warping around the beer mats and napkins that he’s stuffed between the pages. He almost opens it, almost lets it all spill out of him, the wonder of that first kiss, Zayn’s eyelashes catching with his a second before Harry tilted his head, followed by the agony of Zayn calling him Nathan. But he doesn’t and it’s not just that he can’t, that he’ll never find a word big enough – brutal enough – to describe how he’s feeling, but because he doesn’t want to commit it to paper forever. He won’t need to remember that feeling; he feels it every time he looks in the mirror and hears that small voice ask, Is this it? Because that’s worse than never being who you want to be, he knows.
No one letting you be.
When Harry hears the knock on the door, his heart stops. He stands up and looks across at it, his fingers curling around his Moleskine. He’s been so careful, not even turning on the light in case anyone is watching and has been wandering around in the near dark of his flat all morning with only the murmur of light falling between the gap in the curtains to guide him. His toes curl in the rug when he hears a second knock as he looks desperately around his flat for something to defend himself with. He’s eyeing a hefty looking hardback of The Hobbit that could probably do some damage if flung when he hears his name and paces over to the door, opening it to find Charlotte arching a perfectly plucked eyebrow at him.
She doesn’t say anything, just gives him a look that tells him to get out of the way, then sweeps into his flat. When he closes the door and turns to face her, she’s standing in the middle of his cluttered living room with her back to him.
‘How long have you been living here?’ she asks, turning smoothly on the ball of her feet to face him.
Harry puts his notebook on the side table by the door. ‘About six months.’
‘What happened to your place in Maida Vale?’
‘I had to let it go.’ He shrugs then looks at his feet as he thinks about his old flat with its stripped floors and the little balcony he drank a cup of tea on every morning.
‘It’s a long story.’
‘I have time.’
‘I fancied a change. And you know what they say about the dirty south.’
He winks at her, but Charlotte doesn’t flinch, clasping her hands together and lifting her delicate chin to look around the flat. Even with the light off and the curtains closed he can see what a state it is, the furniture looking even more miserable in the dull, grey light. She must think so, too, because she walks over to the floor lamp by the sofa, heels tapping smoothly on the scuffed floorboards as she does. But when she turns it on, the flat looks even worse in the unnaturally white light, exposing the cracks in the walls and the mousetrap in the corner. He watches as her flicks between each of them, her frown deepening when she looks up at the water stain on the ceiling over the bed.
‘A change?’ she says then nods carefully. ‘I think you’re forgetting something, Mr Styles: I know how much you earn. I’m probably one of the only people who does. And while I’m well aware of your weakness for Lanvin suits, you still earn more than enough to rent that flat in Maida Vale. So why on earth are you living here?’
‘It’s nothing.’ Harry rubs his forehead with his hand.
‘Please don’t confuse my interest with concern, Mr Styles. I haven’t come here to make you a cup of tea and make sure that you’re okay.’ She gestures at his face. ‘I’m here to make sure that I am, that my clients are. So I suggest you tell me what’s going on.’
‘It’s fine. You’re safe. You’re clients are safe.’ Harry starts playing with his bottom lip and she gives him a look that tells him to stop.
‘Who did this to you?’
‘I was mugged.’
‘Why were you at Stamford Bridge?’
He has no idea how she knows that, so he relents with a sigh. ‘It’s Terry.’
Her smile slips for the first time. ‘Your father did this to you?’
‘No. Whoever he owes money to this time did.’
‘I thought you weren’t going to help him any more, Harry?’ She straightens and he’s never seen her so angry, her mouth a hard line as she looks across the flat at him. It’s enough to send a flurry of goose pimples rushing across his arms. ‘You said that you weren’t going to help him after what happened last Christmas.’
‘Yeah. Well,’ he shrugs, itching to defend himself and tell her that he didn’t have much choice after that bloke cornered him on his way out of Claridges in the New Year. He should have told her when it happened, he knows, but he was with Charles so he didn’t want her to know that his father’s ‘associates’ knew what he did. So he told the bloke that he had no idea who Harry Styles was, hoping that would be it, but he came home that night to find his flat trashed and his mother’s address written across the wall.
‘I told you, Harry,’ she hisses then catches herself, biting her lip and fiddling with her wedding ring. ‘My ex husband was a gambler. They never change.’
He looks at his feet again. ‘I know.’
‘Is that why you didn’t move to Paris in May?’
‘How much have you given him?’
‘I’ve stopped counting.’
‘How much does he owe this time?’
Harry considers lying, but knows it isn’t worth it. ‘Last month it was ten,’ he admits, looking at her and shrugging again. ‘But he thought he could double it.’
She arches an eyebrow. ‘Did he?’
‘Of course not.’ Harry chuckles bitterly.
‘So how much does he owe now?’
She presses her hand to her chest. ‘Thirty thousand pounds?’
‘What are you doing?’ he asks, walking towards her when she reaches into her handbag.
‘Need I remind you?’ She points her cheque book at him. ‘I know how much you earn and there’s no way you have that sort of money and even if you do, you’re saving it for a reason and you can’t give it to him.’ She shakes her head once. ‘You can’t.’
‘Charlotte, no,’ he says, covering her hand with his when she opens the cheque book. She looks at his hand then covers it with her other one and squeezes.
‘I know what you did to earn that money, Harry.’ When she lifts her eyelashes to look at him, he looks away. ‘Besides,’ she adds, her voice suddenly cooler as she lets go of his hand. ‘I’ll lose much more than thirty thousand pounds if they break both your legs. You’ll be out of commission for weeks.’
She tries to pull her other hand away so she can write the cheque, but Harry won’t let go. ‘Please, Charlotte.’
‘It’s only money, Harry,’ she says with a softness that makes him want to sob.
‘It’s okay. He says he’s sorting it.’
She eyes him warily. ‘When did you speak to him?’
‘About an hour ago.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much.’ Harry puts his hands on his hips and he almost laughs. He hasn’t spoken to Terry for a month, but his father made no effort to even feign concern. He didn’t even ask how he was. ‘He just told me to get out of London until it’s sorted.’
‘Good.’ She nods, dropping the cheque book back into her bag. ‘He’s a big boy. He got himself into this mess, let him get himself out. In the meantime.’ She stops to take out a set of keys. ‘Here,’ she says, taking one off the ring and pressing it into his palm.
Harry looks at it. ‘What’s this?’
‘The key to our house in the Cotswolds.’
She holds her hand up. ‘If Terry says he’s sorting it, then let him sort it. It’s nothing to do with you so just do what he says and get out of London until the dust settles.’ She waves her hand at him. ‘Take a few days off. Play with Alfie. It’ll clear your head.’
‘Our chocolate brown Lab.’
Harry blinks at her. ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’
‘We don’t. He came with the house and he’s so ancient that we can’t bear to move him to London. Besides, he has a very nice life, being fussed over by the housekeeper and everyone in the village. He even has his own seat at the pub. Actually, it’s a pillow.’ She waves her hand again. ‘But he’s good company, even if he snores like an old man.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ll text you the address and tell Anna to expect you.’ She squeezes his arm and he fights the urge to hug her, unsure what she’d do to him if he did.
‘Well, you’re of no use to me here, are you? Not with your face like that.’ She points at him, then arches an eyebrow. ‘We can discuss Mr Malik when you return.’
‘What do you mean?’
She nods towards the window and Harry paces over, opening the curtains just enough to see that Zayn’s Ferrari is still parked across the street.
‘I suggest you use this time to consider your options on that front as well.’
She sweeps out again in a blur of sanctimony and Chanel and Harry can only stare at the door as it closes behind her. He shouldn’t be surprised when he hears the knock, but he still is, almost dropping the key she just gave him. He has to knock a second time before Harry can gather his wits and walk over to the door, opening it without looking at him, then striding back into the living room and tucking the key into the pocket of his jeans.
‘Are you alright?’ Zayn asks and he sounds exhausted, his voice rough and weak, all at once. Harry hates himself for the pinch of worry he feels when he hears it, ignoring it – and him – as he walks towards his clothes rail.
‘Your face,’ Zayn says, lifting his hand.
‘Don’t.’ Harry pulls away. He’d almost forgotten about it, but as soon as Zayn mentions it, the raw bruises on his nose, cheek and jaw begin to throb again.
‘Please, Harry,’ he says, his voice even weaker, but then it raises an octave when he watches him bend down to pick up his leather holdall. ‘What are you doing?’
‘What does it look like?’ Harry mutters, trying not to wince as he drops it onto the bed, the bruises on his back beginning to throb now as well.
Harry shakes his head as he walks over to the chest of drawers and opens the top one, the bottles of aftershave on top of it shivering as he does. He can’t even think about what he needs to pack, not with Zayn standing so close, his cheeks rough with stubble and his suit creased, and just grabs at handfuls of socks so he has something to do with his hands that isn’t shoving Zayn and calling him an asshole.
‘Is it because of what I said?’ he asks, babbling breathlessly as Harry walks back to the holdall and stuffs the socks into it. ‘Because I didn’t mean it like that. I know you’re careful. I was trying to protect you because I don’t always use a condom and I know I should, but I don’t always think. If I thought about it, I wouldn’t do half the shit I do. I mean, the night we met I was with two girls so I’m hardly a virgin, am I? But-’
‘I know it was nothing to do with me!’ Harry interrupts, turning to face him, his hands balled into his fists at his sides. ‘It was to do with you and how not gay you are and how guilty you feel about cheating on your fiancée, but that’s the point: you can’t keep taking that out on me! I haven’t done anything wrong! You came looking for me!’ Harry slaps his chest with his hand then points at him. ‘You started this, Zayn! You don’t get to call me a whore when you’re the filthy cheating bastard who came looking for me a month after you met your fiancée!’
Zayn steps back and stares at him and Harry should stop, he knows, but he can’t.
‘Did you fuck me to get back at Karl?’
Zayn doesn’t flinch. ‘Yes.’
His honesty winds him. ‘Jesus Christ. I’m such an idiot.’ Harry has to lean against the bed as he rubs his face with his hands. ‘I’m a fucking idiot.’
Zayn reaches for him, but Harry pulls away. ‘No! I thought!’ he spits, charging over to the chest of drawers and slamming the drawer shut sending bottles toppling and a pile of loose change spilling off the edge. ‘It doesn’t matter what I thought!’
When he turns around, Zayn’s there. ‘Listen,’ he says, pinning him to the chest of drawers with his body when Harry tries to wriggle away. ‘Look at me.’ He waits for Harry to lift his chin to look at him, but when he does, he can’t hold his gaze. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry for what, Zayn?’
Harry manages to pull away. ‘No you’re not!’
Harry spins around to face him. ‘Do you even love her?’
Zayn holds his palms out. ‘I want to.’
‘You want to?’
‘Yes! I want to because she’s sweet and funny and kind and she makes me want to be a better person.’
‘It’s working!’ Harry laughs, putting his thumbs up.
‘This isn’t funny, Harry.’
‘No it isn’t! It’s so far from fucking funny I want to vomit.’
‘Stop laughing, then.’
When Zayn glares at him, Harry throws his hands up. ‘What do you want?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Yes you do!’
‘What do you want me to say, Harry?’
‘I want you to be honest with yourself.’
‘Fine.’ Zayn holds his arms out as well, his cheeks red. ‘You, okay? You! You! You! Fucking you! You’re all I fucking think about, Harry!’
He has to stop himself running to him. ‘But you’re still going to marry her.’
‘She’s good for me.’
‘Good for you?’
‘Yes! She’s salad and you’re chocolate cake. You’re all I fucking think about, but you’re no good for me, Harry. Look at us! All we do is tear chunks out of each other.’
Harry has to turn away from him then, opening another drawer and taking out a handful of t-shirts, because Zayn’s right, he thinks as he walks back to the bed. From the moment they met, they brought out the worst in each other and it shouldn’t be this hard.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
‘Why does it have to change?’ Zayn says softly, coming to stand next to him again as Harry puts the t-shirts in his holdall. ‘Why can’t we carry on doing what we’re doing?’
‘Because I’m not a car that you can keep running while you nip into the shop for twenty Marlboro Lights,’ Harry tells him with a sniff, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. ‘I’m a human being, even though you don’t treat me like one sometimes.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It means that if you just want a hole to fuck,’ he says, walking into the bathroom. Zayn follows, watching as he snatches his shampoo bottle from the edge of the bathtub and follows him back into the bedroom. ‘I’m sure Charlotte can recommend half a dozen guys who would be quite happy to let you tie them up and stick it to them. But if you wanted that you wouldn’t be in my flat right now, would you?’
Zayn goes rigid. ‘Don’t fucking flatter yourself, Harry.’
He points at the window. ‘Did you even go home last night?’
Zayn turns to walk over to the coffee table. ‘When are you going to acknowledge the huge fucking elephant in the room?’ Harry asks when he does. ‘You’re gay or bi or whatever the fuck you are and you can’t keep taking it out on me! It’s not my fault! You can’t fuck it out of you. You can gag me and tie me up and tell me not to look at you, but you can’t control it. This is the one thing in your life that you can’t control, Zayn. I am not part of your routine, like going to the gym. That’s not how this works. You can’t just be gay on a Monday then be happily married for the rest of the week, swaggering around in your stupid fucking house and driving around in your stupid fucking car. It isn’t you!’
‘And this is?’ Zayn roars pointing at the clothes rail of suits, then turning to pick up Harry’s Pink Floyd t-shirt, which is still on the sofa. ‘This is you!’ He holds it up then waves his hand at the bookshelf. ‘Do your mum and sister even know what you do?’
‘This is nothing to do with me!’ Harry hisses, striding over to him and snatching the t-shirt from him. ‘Don’t try and turn it around!’
‘And don’t you fucking judge me for not being honest about who I am when you’re not either.’
‘How is it different?’
‘I’m not engaged!’
‘I love her!’
‘No you want to love her, there’s a difference!’
Zayn slaps his chest with his hand. ‘I treat her like a fucking princess!’
‘What? So she gets the best of you and I get this? She gets the flowers and the dinners and I get fucked in a stairwell because that’s all I’m good for?’ Zayn won’t look at him. ‘Okay. Well if that’s the case then you owe me for last night.’
‘Yeah?’ Zayn walks over to him and takes his wallet out of the inside pocket of his jacket. ‘Here,’ he says, opening it and taking whatever is in it and tossing it at him.
Harry takes a swing for him and he doesn’t know how it happens, but the next thing he knows they’re kissing. Harry falls back onto the bed, his hands fisted in the front of Zayn’s jacket, taking him with him. Harry manages to turn him, kicking the holdall off the bed as he does, and when Zayn is on his back, Harry straddles his waist as Zayn takes his bottom lip between his teeth and pulls. Then it’s a mess of mouths and hands as they rip into each other’s clothes and bite at the skin they find.
Zayn tries to rise off the bed, but Harry pins him down with his hips, panting against his mouth as he grinds into him. Zayn gasps as he does, copying him until they’re breathless and hard and kissing clumsily. Harry doesn’t know when he took his t-shirt off, but he can feel Zayn’s nails on his back, catching on his bruises as they lick and bite each other.
‘Harry,’ Zayn gasps into his mouth and when he does, Harry wants to turn him over and fuck him until it’s the only thing he can say, until it’s the only word he can remember. But then Zayn reaches for his belt and Harry stops him.
‘Don’t,’ he pants. He rolls off him onto his back, but Zayn follows. ‘Stop,’ Harry tells him again, putting his hand on his chest and pushing him back.
‘What?’ Zayn breathes, looking at him with a frown.
Harry covers his face with his hands. ‘I can’t.’
‘I can’t keep doing this.’
‘Harry, don’t.’ Zayn kisses his jaw, but he pulls away.
‘Harry, please don’t make me choose.’
‘No. I am,’ Harry tells him, climbing off the bed.
Charlotte was right, getting out of London clears his head immediately. At least until Zayn texts when his train is pulling out of Oxford and texts again as he’s getting off at Kingham. Harry ignores him and after a few hours, Zayn resorts to calling, leaving a string of voicemails that are so desperate Harry has to hide his phone in a drawer in case he gives in to the urge to call him back.
That’s how the week goes, his lazy days of reading books and walking Alfie on the village green punctuated by the skip of his heart each time Harry checks the drawer to see if Zayn has called. He shouldn’t, he knows. He should give his phone to the housekeeper, Anna, ask her to hide it, but he’d be lying if he said that it didn’t make his heart sing when he saw that he had another voicemail, the sound of Zayn’s voice – quick and weak – echoing the sound Harry’s heart makes when he hears it.
Perhaps it would help if there were something to do in Kingham, but the village is tiny with just one shop and one pub where Alfie does indeed have his own pillow. It kind of reminds him of home, though, the way that people say hello when they pass him in the street and dote over their gardens. Not that he has a home any more, the house he grew up in now home to another family who probably fight with the back door when it’s too hot and get a Chinese every Saturday night from Fortune City. But every time he passes the Christmas tree in the middle of the green, he can’t help but think of it, of their tree with the awful ornaments he and his sister made as kids that his mother insists they put on it every year. The Santa he made from a spent toilet roll when he was five and Gemma’s angel that always takes pride of place on the top of the tree even though most of the glitter has come off. He knows that his mother took them with her to Limoges and pictures the tree in the corner of her big living room that looks out onto nothing but green. Green and green and green. He wonders if she’s bought a wreath yet. Every year she buys a fresh one so when Harry sees them hanging outside the shop, their tartan ribbons fluttering in the breeze, he can’t help but buy one for Charlotte’s house, Anna utterly bewildered when she walks into the hall to find him hanging it on the front door.
So Harry blames it on nostalgia, that moment of weakness, nostalgia and too much mulled wine, everyone at the pub making as much fuss over him as Alfie. A writer! they say every time he tells them what he does and when their eyes light up, it makes his chest swell with pride, which he hasn’t felt for a very long time. So perhaps that’s why he answers his phone that night, because he’s starting to feel like Harry again – the Harry who had nothing to be ashamed of – his pulse skipping at the thought of what Zayn’s going to say. That he’s sorry. That he loves him. That he’ll do anything. But Zayn doesn’t say a word and Harry just sits there, listening to him breathing and the lazy beat of the song Zayn’s listening to, before he hangs up. So when he calls again the next night, Harry almost doesn’t answer, but it’s 3 a.m. and he can’t sleep, either.
‘Are you going to say anything?’ Harry asks, the music louder tonight. Closer. He’s in a club, Harry realises when he hears a sudden cheer, and he can’t help but think of the night they met, a hand to his chest as he remembers the way Zayn looked at Harry when he told him that they had a friend in common.
‘Are you coming back?’ Zayn says at last, his voice slow and sad.
Harry closes his eyes. ‘Maybe.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Before,’ Harry holds his breath when Zayn hesitates, sure that his heart will stop if he says it, but he says, ‘Christmas?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Where are you?’
‘Where are you?’
Zayn chuckles. ‘At my bachelor party.’
He can’t help but chuckle back. ‘You sound like you’re having fun.’
‘Where are you?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Wherever you are, I’ll come.’
‘That’s what I’m worried about.’
‘I’ll ask Charlotte.’
‘You wouldn’t dare.’
‘So she knows where you are, then?’
Harry starts playing with his bottom lip. ‘Zayn, don’t.’
‘But we need to talk.’
‘We are talking.’
‘No talk talk.’
‘There’s nothing left to say.’
Zayn’s quiet for a moment, then he says, ‘Don’t say that.’
‘You’re drunk. Go home and sleep it off.’
‘I will call Charlotte, you know.’
Harry chuckles again when he hangs up. He almost hopes that Zayn is stupid enough to call her because it’s 3 a.m. He’ll be sobbing by the time she’s done with him. But sure enough, a couple of hours later, Harry’s woken by Alfie barking and when he hears wheels on gravel he sits up, his head – and heart – spinning.
‘He wouldn’t,’ Harry mutters, kicking away the duvet, but when he gets down the stairs and opens the front, Zayn’s in the driveway waving off a black Mercedes. And Harry curses his traitorous heart, but even in the dark Zayn is beautiful, everything around him glittering with frost so he almost doesn’t look real.
‘What are you doing?’ Harry hisses, but before he can respond, Alfie bounds out of the house and Zayn’s face lights up.
‘Hey, boy!’ He grins, bending down to meet him and giggling when Alfie jumps all over him, licking his face and shivering with delight when Zayn tickles him.
‘Et tu, Alfie?’ Harry mumbles, taking him by the collar and pulling him off Zayn. He had hoped for some loyalty after all the hours he’s spent walking him and telling him about how Zayn broke his heart, but apparently not.
‘Alfie?’ Zayn cackles then starts singing, What’s it all about Alfie? letting Harry know that he’s shitfaced.
‘Will you shut up,’ he says through his teeth. ‘You’ll wake the whole village.’
‘Sorry.’ Zayn rolls his eyes and walks unsteadily past him towards the house.
‘Um, where do you think you’re going?’
Zayn ignores him, shrugging off his black coat. He leaves it where it lands, much to Harry’s horror as he bends down to pick it up and follows Zayn into the hall.
‘This is alright, innit?’ Zayn nods, swaying slightly as he looks around. ‘It’s like something off the front of chocolate box. It has a thatched roof and everything.’
‘It’s five o’clock in the morning,’ Harry reminds him, whispering fiercely. ‘Can you at least try and lower your voice before you wake up the housekeeper.’
Anna doesn’t even live there, but Harry feels the need to tell him off. Zayn rolls his eyes petulantly when he does, unbuttoning his suit jacket as Harry pats Alfie and sends him off towards kitchen, his claws clattering on the tiles as he goes.
‘What are you doing?’ Harry frowns when he turns to find Zayn’s suit jacket gathered around his feet, bending down to pick it up. Zayn ignores him, untucking his shirt and unbuttoning that as well as he walks towards the stairs. ‘Don’t,’ Harry warns, but Zayn ignores him, peeling off his shirt and throwing it over his shoulder at Harry as he follows him up the stairs.
‘Which one is yours?’ he asks when he gets to the top of the stairs, but doesn’t wait for Harry to respond, heading straight for the only open door.
When Harry follows him in, Zayn is in the middle of the room, kicking his shoes off, Harry’s heart stopping when one narrowly misses a vase of roses.
‘Oops.’ Zayn giggles and when his hands go to his belt, Harry snaps.
‘If that’s what you came for,’ he hisses, throwing his clothes at him. ‘You can fuck off.’
Zayn looks stunned as they bounce off him and land at his feet. ‘What?’
‘You drove for two hours to get your dick sucked? Surely one of your teammates could have obliged?’
‘I didn’t come here for that. I told you: we need to talk.’
‘Well, put your dick away, then!’
Zayn looks down at his trousers. ‘It is away.’
Harry almost smiles because he looks so confused that it’s kind of adorable, which is a word he never thought he’d use to describe Zayn Malik. But he catches himself before he does and holds his arms out.
‘So come on, then. Talk.’
‘Come here,’ Zayn slurs, pointing at his feet.
‘No. You come here.’
They look at each other for a moment longer than is comfortable, then meet halfway, Zayn reaching for Harry’s hands as soon as he’s close enough. Harry almost pulls away, not sure what he’ll do when they touch each other again, but he can’t resist the press of his palms and the catch of his knuckles as Zayn’s fingers slide between his.
‘Hey,’ Zayn says with a silly smile and it’s so sweet that Harry can’t help but reciprocate.
He dips his head and nudges Harry with his nose before pressing his forehead to his. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, so quietly Harry almost doesn’t hear it.
‘Everything.’ Zayn nudges him again and when he lifts his chin to look at him, Harry softens because he’s never seen him like this before, all big eyes and eyelashes, one corner of his mouth tipped up into an uneven smile.
‘How much have you had to drink, Mr Malik?’
‘A lot.’ He grins. ‘Like, a lot a lot. I burnt my hair on a flaming sambuca.’
When he reaches up to grab the front of his hair, pulling it down to inspect the ends, Harry rolls his eyes and sighs theatrically.
‘Alright, let’s get you to bed.’
Zayn doesn’t budge. ‘No. No.’ He shakes his head. ‘I have to talk to you.’
‘About things,’ Zayn says, suddenly very serious.
‘Ah yes.’ Harry nods. ‘Things.’
‘All the things.’
‘All the things.’ Harry tries to steer him towards the bed, but he’s surprisingly steady.
‘I meant it, you know,’ Zayn says, squeezing his hands.
‘What I said.’
‘You said a lot of things, Zayn.’
‘Yeah, but I didn’t mean any of it. Just that.’
Harry stops and looks at him, his heart suddenly in his throat. ‘Me?’
Zayn nudges him with his nose again. ‘You.’
‘Don’t.’ Harry tries to pull away, but Zayn doesn’t let him, closing his eyes and pressing his forehead to his again as he squeezes his hands.
‘I can’t stop thinking about you,’ he whispers and Harry can’t breathe because there’s nothing melodramatic about it, nothing desperate. He isn’t breathless. He isn’t grabbing at Harry and trying to kiss him. This isn’t something he’s been rehearsing since he left London, the perfect, charming speech the guy makes at the end of the film when he finds the girl in the airport. It’s uncertain – reluctant – the words a little wobbly, like the last thing you can’t stop yourself saying before you cry. So that’s why Harry kisses him, because Zayn means it. It’s the first time he’s ever been absolutely, unashamedly honest with him and that’s all Harry has ever wanted, for Zayn to let him see him – really see him, not his house or his car or his suits, but see what he’s hiding under it all, his secrets and scars, the things he thinks no one will love – even if it’s just for a second.
Zayn kisses him back with such adolescent eagerness it has Harry tripping over his feet as they stumble towards the bed, Zayn’s hands somehow on his face and in his hair and on his waist, all at once. He tastes of cigars and whisky, of the old clubs at Cambridge with their wood paneled walls and green leather chairs. And with that Harry is twenty-one again and about to graduate, his life brimming over with all the promise of a new book, and that’s what Zayn makes him feel. Not just that that he can write a book – write a hundred books, touch the fucking sky if he wants – but that he can start again and that’s all Harry has ever needed.
‘Don’t you ever leave me again,’ Zayn tells him between kisses as he lies back on the bed, his hands on his face again as Harry straddles him and sits in his lap. ‘I’d die.’
It’s so breathtakingly candid that Harry sits up. ‘Okay. How drunk are you?’ he asks, looking down at him warily.
Zayn thinks about it then props himself up on his elbows. ‘Drunk enough that I know I want to do this. Not too drunk that you should feel guilty for taking advantage.’
‘Well that’s the perfect amount.’ Harry smirks, pulling off his t-shirt.
He takes Zayn’s face in his hands this time, his thumbs sweeping back and forth over his cheeks as they kiss again. As soon as their tongues touch, Zayn makes that sound again, that low, satisfied hmmmmm he made the first time they kissed, so Harry kisses him a little deeper. He does it again, and when he does, Harry can’t help but roll his hips, his teeth nipping at Zayn’s bottom lip then running his tongue along it.
‘I’ve missed you so much.’ Zayn breathes, nudging him with his nose as his hands slip under the elastic of Harry’s sweats to cup his ass. ‘I thought I was going mad.’ He squeezes, pressing a kiss to Harry’s throat. ‘What are you doing to me?’
Harry likes drunk Zayn, he thinks with a smile as Zayn squeezes his ass again. He can’t help but giggle into his neck when he does, dragging his front teeth down it to nip at his collarbone. He wants to do more than nip. He wants to bite, leave a mark. Fucking brand him. But he stops himself, only allowing himself to apply enough pressure to leave red lines that disappear a few seconds later as he inhales, drinking in the smell of him – tobacco and soap and that aftershave Harry caught himself sniffing the last time he was in Harvey Nichols – until he feels a little drunk as well.
‘Want you so bad,’ Zayn murmurs when Harry’s teeth nip at his other collarbone, his finger pushing between the cheeks of his ass. The shock of it makes Harry gasp, his hips jerking forward so he can feel how hard Zayn is as well.
‘Yeah?’ Harry purrs contently, his back arching as he traces the outline of one of the wings tattooed across his chest with the tip of his tongue.
‘All I’ve thought about,’ Zayn admits, pressing the pad of his finger against him. It’s only for a second, but the promise of it is enough to make Harry shudder.
‘You need to drink sambuca more often,’ Harry grins against his skin.
‘And you need to get these off,’ Zayn tells him, rolling Harry onto his back and tugging at his sweats. Harry laughs and grabs the edge of the bed with his hand as they almost tumble off, laughing again when Zayn mutters, ‘They’re so ugly they’re killing my boner’ and pulls down his sweats. Then Zayn’s hand is on him and it isn’t funny any more, Harry’s hips rising off the bed as Zayn strokes him, stopping to coat his palm with the smear of precome that has left a wet patch in his sweats.
‘You been thinking about me?’ Zayn hums, fisting him again.
Harry closes his eyes and sighs. ‘All the time.’
‘Yeah? What you been thinking about?’
‘What?’ Zayn asks, his thumb sweeping over the head of Harry’s cock.
His back arches off the bed. ‘You,’ Harry says with a gasp.
‘Been thinking about you, too.’
Harry feels the mattress shift under him and he peels his eyes open as Zayn straddles him, a knee on either side of his hips. He licks his lips and looks down at him, his eyes half closed as he continues to stroke Harry steadily.
‘I've dreamt about you nearly every night this week.’
‘Yeah?’ Harry pants, reaching up to undo his trousers. Zayn looks down and sucks a breath in through his teeth as Harry slips a hand into his underwear, then throws his head back as Harry takes his cock out and begins to stroke him as well.
‘Look at me,’ Harry tells him and Zayn lets his chin drop, his eyelids even heavier as their hands move in unison until they’re both open mouthed and panting, the old iron bed creaking under them. ‘That good?’
‘You miss this?’
‘You miss me?’
‘You’re so fucking beautiful,’ Zayn tells him, his strokes suddenly not as steady.
Harry can’t resist batting his eyelashes a little. ‘Yeah?’
‘I went to The Mayfair that night to fuck you. Was gonna follow you to the toilet. Was gonna fuck you,’ he breathes, his pupils blown black as he gives Harry’s cock a swift stroke. ‘Fuck you and take a picture. Send it to Karl.’ Harry’s heart tenses at the mention of his name, but Zayn’s whole face softens, his eyes suddenly wet. ‘But you were so beautiful. So fucking beautiful. I saw you with Chris and I couldn’t.’
‘Does he know?’ Harry holds his breath.
He shakes his head. ‘I swear. I haven’t even thought about Karl since I met you.’
Harry tugs on him harder than he means to. ‘Tell me the truth.’
‘I swear.’ Zayn whimpers, his hand stilling as he grinds into Harry’s palm. ‘I didn’t think about him until I saw that watch in your flat.’
‘Because you’re all I think about.’
‘Yeah? What do you think about?’
Zayn closes his eyes and gives into it then, letting go of Harry’s cock to lean down and press his palms to Harry’s chest. ‘Let’s run away,’ he says, rolling his hips.
‘I don’t care. Anywhere. Let’s just go.’
‘Yeah. We can just get in my car and go.’
‘Drive until we run out of road?’
‘Are you close?’
‘Where do you want to come?’
‘On your face.’
‘Come on, then.’
Harry lets go of him, licking his lips as he watches Zayn reach for his erection, his hand shaking. He presses his hand to the bed next to Harry’s head as he begins fisting himself, the sound of skin on skin deliciously obscene.
‘Open your eyes,’ Harry says when Zayn gives into the weight of his eyelids, telling him to watch as with one last stroke, Zayn comes with a delighted gasp, his eyes wide as the first stripe land on Harry’s cheek. The second lands across his mouth and when Harry licks his lips then rubs them together, Zayn grunts, his hips bucking as he catches Harry off guard with a final spurt that lands between his eyebrows.
‘So beautiful,’ he pants and Harry can’t help but smile.
‘Wanna send a picture to Karl?’ Harry asks, making a show of licking his lips again as Zayn takes him by the hair and tells him to open his mouth. He does and when Zayn thrusts into it, Harry knows that he’s thinking of Karl because Karl loved getting his face fucked. He could get off on that alone, on Harry telling Karl to look at him while he deepthroated him, and it shouldn’t turn him on as much as it does, but when Zayn tells him to look at him, Harry reaches behind him for his own cock.
‘You’re the fucking best,’ Zayn pants and the look on his face is enough to make Harry come, sudden and messy, over his knuckles.
When Harry walks out of the bathroom, Zayn is sitting on the bed, smoking a cigarette. He’s bollock naked, which is distracting enough, but when he holds up a red plastic bottle of lube, Harry almost trips on the rug as he walks towards him.
‘Look what I bought,’ Zayn says, looking at it with a proud smile. ‘I’ve never bought lube before.’
‘You’ve never bought lube?’
‘I made the driver stop so I could get fags, and there it was.’
‘By the till?’
‘No.’ Zayn chuckles, letting Harry know that an orgasm has done little to sober him up. ‘Down the lube aisle.’
‘There was lube aisle? Sounds like my kind of shop.’
‘Strawberry? What are you? Fourteen?’
‘I hope it tastes like Starburst,’ Zayn says flipping the lid and sniffing it.
‘That’s not how you taste it,’ Harry tells him with a smirk, taking it from him.
Zayn smiles back – a bit looser and a bit sillier – then leans over to drop his cigarette into the mug of cold tea on the bedside table as Harry tells him to hold out his hand. When he does, Harry squeezes some of the lube into his palm and gestures at him to rub it in. Zayn doesn’t hesitate, reaching for Harry’s cock. Harry laughs as he does, putting his hands on his shoulders to steady himself, but before he can tell him to slow down, Zayn starts fisting him and it feels so good that he can’t catch his breath.
‘You gonna get hard for me?’ Zayn asks, looking up at him, his lips parted.
‘Keep doing that,’ Harry breathes, his nails digging into Zayn’s shoulders.
‘This?’ He strokes up and twists his hand, making his cock twitch gleefully.
‘Oh God yeah. That.’
‘Come on.’ Zayn does it again and when Harry’s toes curl in the rug, he can’t help but wonder if he learnt that move from him.
‘Thought you wanted to know if it tastes like Starburst?’
Harry grins and Zayn doesn’t hesitate then, either, dipping his head to swirl his tongue around the head of Harry’s cock. If he wasn’t hard before, he is then, even when Zayn stops to tell him that it tastes like Haribo. Harry laughs, his head swimming dreamily, like something from a cartoon. He should have bluebirds flying around his head, he thinks as he moves his hands up to Zayn’s hair. Hearts popping from his eyes.
‘That’s it,’ Harry reassures him, pulling at his hair gently to slow him down as Zayn sucks him off, eager and sloppy. Zayn takes the hint, his fingers curling around the backs of Harry’s legs as he lets himself relax into it, taking him in a little deeper each time until he gags. He sits back on his heels with a gasp when he does, a thread of saliva still connecting them as he coughs then leans down and takes Harry in his mouth again.
‘Gonna come,’ Harry warns him, his back aching from the effort of not holding his head and fucking into his mouth until he comes. But Zayn still isn’t used to it, Harry knows, his teeth catching every now and then and his breath puffing out of his nostrils in frantic bursts that tickle Harry’s pubic hair. So he doesn’t direct him, just lets him enjoy it. And he obviously is, Zayn’s right hand between his legs now, pumping at his own hard on, as he works Harry with his left.
‘Can I come in your mouth?’ Harry asks. He nods and Harry steps back and tells Zayn to stick out his tongue. He does, and the sight of it, of Zayn’s pink pink tongue and pink pink cheeks, has him unraveling at the same time as Zayn, the pair of them groaning with sudden, absolute satisfaction.
Harry must have fallen asleep because he wakes up on his back in the middle of the bed, the room brighter as a line of sunlight cuts through the gap in the curtains to stripe across his chest.
‘How long was I out?’ he asks as Zayn kisses a line along his jaw.
‘Few minutes.’ Zayn nips at his chin with his teeth. ‘While I was in the bathroom.’
Before Harry can catch his breath, Zayn is on top of him, tongue sweeping along his bottom lip. Harry smiles slowly, opening his mouth with another sigh, letting his tongue flick out to meet Zayn’s. As soon as he does, Zayn makes that sound again and they melt into it, Harry wrapping his legs around his waist as they kiss lazily.
It’s sweaty and sticky, their skin catching as they explore one another, Harry’s finger running up and down the seam in Zayn’s back as he tells him to lie down. Zayn surrenders with a soft mewl, letting Harry push him back onto the bed, his body twisting as Harry straddles him and leans down to lap at his nipple with his tongue. He does the same with his other nipple, moving between each one over and over until Zayn is groaning and the skin around his hairline is wet.
He moans Harry’s name, wriggling underneath him when Harry takes his left nipple between his teeth and pulls. Harry guesses that Zayn didn’t know he liked that because his eyes fly open and his head lifts off the bed to look at him, his head falling back again when Harry does the same with his right one. Harry rolls his other nipple between his forefinger and thumb as he does, which makes Zayn bite out his name as Harry feels Zayn’s cock twitch against his thigh.
He moves his mouth lower then, tonguing each of Zayn’s tattoos tenderly before kissing a line across his stomach. Zayn lifts his hips with a moan when he does and Harry can’t bear to tease him any more, taking his cock in his hand and stroking him. Zayn responds immediately, his cock twitching again as Harry feels him begin to get harder and harder under his fingers until that first pearl of precome emerges. Harry licks it away, listening to him groan as he takes him in his mouth. Zayn fists his hands in Harry’s hair again as he does, sighing his name as Harry curls his fingers around the base of his cock and starts to suck him off, slow and smooth, working his hand and mouth at the same time until Zayn’s other hand is pulling at his hair as well.
‘Don’t stop,’ Zayn pants, reluctantly letting go as Harry moves between his legs. Harry just smiles as he lies on his stomach in front of him, hooking Zayn’s thighs onto his shoulders then guiding his cock back into his mouth with his hand. Zayn murmurs contently when he does, his hands reaching for his hair again as Harry sucks on him lazily, as though he’s a truffle he’s trying to savour the taste of. And it works because Harry can feel him melting, Zayn’s body going limp until his eyes are closed and Harry can feel the muscles in his stomach tensing and releasing under his palm as he sucks him in as deeply as he can. Zayn stutters a string of fucks when Harry deepthroats him, his own cock getting hard at Zayn filling him up until he can’t hold his breath any more.
Harry comes up for air with a desperate gasp, a strand of saliva falling across his chin as he does. He wipes it away with the back of his hand before closing his eyes and taking Zayn in his mouth again, sucking a little harder this time, hard enough to make Zayn hiss and pull at his hair. When Harry stops, Zayn lets out a long sigh as he leans down to lap at his balls and starts stoking him idly with his hand. Harry can’t help but smile as he does because it’s never been like this, both of them giving into it, hands skimming over hips and nails catching on skin with an ease they’ve never allowed themselves before, Harry’s head bobbing eagerly between his legs in time with his hand – up, twist, down, up, twist, down – again and again until Zayn is shaking beneath him.
‘Fucking take it,’ he says through his teeth when he comes, holding his head still. And while it’s never been the most pleasant sensation – a guy coming in his mouth – Harry swallows greedily, his cheeks hollowing until Zayn is whimpering at him to stop. He does, but only for long enough to suck in a breath and wipe his mouth before lifting Zayn’s cock with his hand and licking under it, from the tip to the base. Zayn’s hands tug at his hair when Harry takes his balls in his mouth, his ass rising off the bed, and while Harry’s sure he doesn’t mean it that way, Zayn gives him such a perfect view of his perineum that he can’t help but lick it.
‘Has anyone ever touched you here?’ Harry asks when Zayn shivers. He shakes his head and Harry rises up from between his legs to frown at him. ‘Never?’
He tries not to smile when Zayn shakes his head again.
‘What? Not even a finger?’
Zayn smiles clumsily. ‘Just The Hulk.’
‘He doesn’t count.’ Harry chuckles, looking around for the lube and twisting around to grab it from the end of the bed. ‘Besides, I barely got the head in you.’
‘That was enough.’
‘Oh, Mr Malik.’ Harry smiles smugly as he sits back on his heels and flips the lid on the lube. ‘You don’t even know.’
Zayn looks worried. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Just trust me.’
He clearly doesn’t, his lips parting as he watches Harry rub some of the lube into his fingers and tells him to relax. ‘Not until you tell me what you’re going to do.’
‘I’m going to make you come so hard you’re gonna pass out.’
‘What?’ Zayn gasps then tenses when Harry puts his hand between his legs.
‘I can’t relax,’ he says through his teeth. ‘You’re trying to stick your finger in me.’
Harry bites down on a smile. ‘I’m not going to hurt you, I swear.’
‘It’s gonna feel so good.’
‘It doesn’t feel good.’ Zayn winces when Harry starts to ease his middle finger into him.
‘Close your eyes.’ Harry stops to press a kiss to his mouth. ‘Deep breaths.’
Zayn does as he’s told and when he does, Harry kisses him again then kisses a lazy line down his chest before taking him in his mouth again. Zayn’s limp and probably still tender from his last orgasm, so Harry sucks him gently, just enough to make Zayn’s shoulders fall with a deep sigh, before trying to ease his finger deeper into him. Zayn goes rigid and Harry stops, pressing kisses to his stomach until he relaxes then tries again.
‘You’re doing so good,’ Harry says before taking him in his mouth and sucking until Zayn settles enough to push the tip of his finger into him.
‘Fuck, Harry,’ Zayn chokes out as he does, his jaw clenching.
‘So good,’ he reassures, licking the length of his cock then taking his balls in his mouth. That works because as Harry tongues them, Zayn gives into him a little more, letting his finger inch in a little deeper. And Harry’s relieved, unsure how much longer he can do this, the tendons in his hand straining with the effort of going slow.
‘I know,’ he purrs, turning his hand so that he can stroke the skin stretched tight over his perineum with the pad of his thumb, a move that makes Zayn shudder.
‘That’s-’ Zayn stops to gasp as Harry’s finger disappears deeper inside him, deep enough that he’s almost in to his knuckle, Zayn’s muscles fluttering around him.
‘You like that?’ Harry asks, holding his hand still, letting him get used to it.
‘How about this?’ he asks, hooking his finger up until he feels his prostate. Zayn bucks on the bed as soon as he does, spitting out his name as Harry presses his left hand to his stomach, holding him still as he carefully moves his finger from side to side.
‘Harry,’ Zayn pants, his ankles on Harry’s shoulders now. ‘Fuck.’
‘Do you want me to stop?’
‘Don’t you fucking stop,’ Zayn tells him, eyes closed and his top lip sweating.
‘Like this?’ he asks, continuing to massage him gently.
‘More?’ Harry asks, applying more pressure until Zayn whimpers. He doesn’t tell him to stop, though, so Harry pushes up higher and presses the pad of his finger to the tight bulb of tissue until Zayn is muttering nonsense, his arms limp at his sides.
‘Roll over for me,’ Harry tells him, easing his finger out of him and wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. Zayn whines when he does, his chin tremoring as he reluctantly peels his eyes open and turns slowly onto his stomach.
‘Why’d you stop?’ he asks, his voice brittle as he palms his cock.
Harry doesn’t respond because he doesn’t want to stop, but he can’t hold on, his cock leaking as he tries to resist the urge to palm it as well. ‘Get on your hands and knees.’
Zayn does as he’s told, looking over his shoulder at Harry as he rubs more lube into his hand – his left one this time – then leans down to part the cheeks of his ass.
‘What are you doing?’ he pants, but when Harry presses the pad of his thumb into him, Zayn pushes his hips towards him. ‘Oh fuck.’
Harry holds his thumb still for a moment, waiting until Zayn shivers, before moving it away and licking around him in a slow, wet circle. He can feel his muscles pulsing under his skin as he does, throbbing like a fresh bruise as Harry works his tongue until Zayn’s arms give way and he presses his face into the pillow. Harry can’t hear what Zayn says after that, sure that it’s gibberish anyway as he works his tongue until Zayn’s thighs are shaking and his hands are clawing at the pillow.
‘Oh Jesus, Harry,’ Zayn lifts his head for long enough to pant before giving into the weight of it again, letting out a long, muffled moan as Harry dips his finger into him then eases it out to lap at him again. So good. Harry hears him groan when he does, and Zayn keeps groaning it – so good – over and over until Harry can’t take it any more.
‘Wanna fuck you so bad,’ Harry murmurs between licks, hand on his cock.
‘Do it,’ Zayn tells him with another weak groan.
‘Did you buy condoms as well?’
‘Don’t have any,’ Harry says licking around him again and he wants to cry. He doesn’t go to the bank without condoms, but he left London in such a rush that he forget to pack them.
Zayn arches his back towards him. ‘Don’t care.’
‘Suck me,’ Harry breathes, so close that it feels like he’s about to split open.
But Zayn doesn’t move. ‘Fuck me, please,’ he pants, looking over his shoulder at him.
‘But I thought you said-’
Zayn shakes his head. ‘We’re good.’
‘What do you mean?’ Harry realises what he’s saying and blinks at him. ‘Did you get tested?’
Zayn reaches back for Harry’s hand and when their palms touch, Harry’s sure that he does split open.
He wants to ask him if he’s sure, warn him that it’s going to hurt, promise to go slow, but Harry can’t say a word as he fumbles for the lube and rubs it into himself. He doesn’t have to tell Zayn to take a deep breath this time, he already knows to as Harry kneels behind him, Zayn’s head dipping down as Harry begins to ease into him.
‘Slow, babe,’ Zayn says with a rough groan as he does.
Babe. It makes Harry shake so much that he has to stop, his cheeks stinging as he leans down to kiss Zayn’s shoulders and the hot skin on the back of his neck.
‘I love you, Harry,’ Zayn whimpers when he does, hands reaching forward for the iron headboard, his fingers curling around it as Harry eases deeper into him. He says it like he did earlier, the words a little wobbly, as though he’s about to cry, and it’s enough to bring tears to Harry’s eyes as he pulls his hips back and fucks into him again. Zayn says it again, says it over and over, after each thrust, each kiss, his cheek pressed to the pillow as it all finally spills out of him – I love you, Harry. I need you, Harry. You’re all I want, Harry. Let’s run away, Harry – and Harry hears it all, but he doesn’t say a word.
He never says a word.
When Harry wakes up, he’s surprised to find Zayn still there. Except, he’s not, not really, the skin between his eyebrows creased as he lies on his back, looking up at the ceiling.
‘What time is it?’ Harry asks, his voice ruined.
Zayn doesn’t look at him. ‘You should tell your family now.’
‘You should tell your family what you do now before they read it in the paper.’
Harry rolls onto his back with a tender sigh wondering how long he’s been awake worrying about this.
‘I’m just saying.’ Zayn puts his hand behind his head. ‘My family’s used to it now, but you should warn them. It isn’t fair.’
Harry yawns, copying him, his other hand slipping under the duvet to rub his stomach. ‘Alright.’
‘And you should warn Charlotte.’
‘She’ll skin us both with a butter knife.’
‘I don’t blame her. She’s gonna lose everything. They’ll out all of your clients as well. I hope they don’t mind.’
‘Oh they won’t mind about being outed in a national newspaper.’
Zayn shrugs. ‘I’m just saying.’
‘What exactly are you just saying, Zayn?’
Zayn doesn’t look at him. ‘That teacher at Cambridge, he’s gonna lose his job.’
Harry kicks back the duvet and climbs out of the bed. Zayn calls after him, but he doesn’t acknowledge him, pacing over to the bathroom. He tries to slam the door shut, but Zayn is there, following him in and looking at him, all big eyes and eyelashes again.
‘I’m not doing this again,’ Harry tells him, reaching into the clawfoot tub to turn on the taps. The old pipes groan grumpily as he does, the cold bathroom immediately filling with steam as Harry rips back the shower curtain. Zayn reaches for his wrist, but he pulls away. ‘No!’ he roars, spinning around to face him. ‘I can’t.’
Zayn frowns. ‘Harry, please.’
‘I knew you were going to do this!’ He has to turn away from him in case he shoves him. ‘I knew you would.’
‘No. I get it. I’m chocolate cake.’
‘No, Zayn.’ He shakes his head. ‘I know what you’re going to say.’
‘No you don’t.’
He turns to face him. ‘I’m sorry, Harry.’ He counts off each thing on his fingers. ‘I didn’t mean for this to happen, Harry. I don’t want to hurt any one, Harry.’ He smiles bitterly, his heart splitting anew as he remembers having this same conversation with Peter before he left Cambridge. ‘And my personal favourite: I love you too much, Harry.’
He looks away and Harry does shove him then. ‘You asshole!’
Zayn staggers back then covers his face with his hands. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Do you even know what you want?’
‘I just want a quiet life!’
‘So do I!’
‘You don’t understand, I want this!’ Zayn throws an arm up. ‘I want a house with a dog and a couple of kids running around. I want to dance with my mum at my wedding and watch my dad carry my daughter around on his shoulders and I know,’ he stops to put one of his hands in his hair. ‘I know that I can have all of that with you but I just want to be normal for once. I just want to do something without it being a grand statement. I was the first Muslim to play for England. I can’t be the first gay man as well.’
‘Bollocks, Zayn.’ Harry hisses, tempted to throw something at him.
‘You don’t know how hard it is, Harry!’
‘I was at the game the other week, remember? Everyone loves you!’
‘Because I scored!’ Zayn steps forward and points at him. ‘I’m a prince when I score and a paki when I don’t and now you want me to be a faggot as well?’
‘I don’t want you to do anything!’ Harry says so loudly he can hear Alfie barking in the kitchen. ‘You came here last night. You’re the one throwing the word love around!’
Zayn steps back again and shakes his head. ‘I know.’
‘So don’t you fucking put this on me! This is you!’
Zayn doesn’t deny it.
‘So come on! Just say it!’
Zayn won’t look at him.
Harry shoves him again. ‘Fucking say it!’
‘It’s too hard!’
‘Because I’m not brave enough!’ he says at last, hands balled into fists at his sides, but all Harry hears is, Because you’re not enough.
tw for suicide
Harry met Ash on his first day at Cambridge. With hindsight, they didn’t so much meet as collide. It was a few hours after Harry’s family left, albeit reluctantly, Gemma repositioning the furniture before Harry had even put down his suitcase while his stepfather, Robin, checked the lock on the window with a frown. But to his surprise, it was his mother who was the first to say that they should leave him to it, telling Gemma that Harry was perfectly capable of deciding which drawer to put his socks in.
They were all stunned, but in the end, she was the one who hugged him for the longest, so tightly she left creases in his t-shirt. Harry almost asked her to stay, but just let her hug him until she could let go before rolling his eyes when Gemma reminded him to turn off his charger when he wasn’t using it. His mother rolled her eyes, too, but Robin nodded solemnly, much to Gemma’s satisfaction, telling them about a story he read in the paper about a family dying in a house fire after leaving their mobile phone charger plugged in, which left them all a little paler.
‘Um, cheers, Robin,’ Harry mumbled as his mother and sister wandered into the corridor, but before Robin followed, he pressed a folded up fifty pound note into Harry’s palm. He tried to give it back, but Robin shook his head and squeezed Harry’s shoulder with one of his big hands. ‘You can pay me back when you write that book,’ he said with a smile and of all the things, that’s what made Harry cry. Not the thought of sleeping in that strange bed in that strange room in that strange world he had wanted to be a part of so much but was suddenly terrified of, but that he had never said it out loud – I want to write a book – and Robin knew. Robin who takes the bins out every Tuesday night and sings Jumpin' Jack Flash when he’s drunk, knew before Harry did.
His eyes were still stinging an hour later when he was unpacking the last of his boxes and humming along to Iron & Wine. Harry was being ambitious and trying to carry an armful of books that were so heavy they almost made his knees buckle when Ash charged in. Harry didn’t know him then, though, so almost lost his grip on the books. ‘Hide me!’ Ash gasped, diving under the desk and pressing a finger to his lips. A moment later, the door swung open again and when it hit the wall (hard enough to leave a handle-shaped dent in the plaster) the shock of it made Harry lose his grip on the books.
‘Where is he?’ a girl asked as the books flew up into the air and hung there for a second before falling around him like confetti. He recognised her, but he was so bewildered that it took him a moment longer than it should have to remember that he’d helped her up the stairs with a battered leather trunk earlier that morning.
‘I know he’s in here,’ she said with a wild smile, her cola coloured curls shivering as she ran into the room, shaving foam melting into her denim shirt like clumps of snow. ‘Where’s he hiding?’ Harry put up his hands as she pointed the shampoo bottle she was holding at him, but before he could respond, she was gone, the sound of her trainers squeaking on the parquet floor in the corridor fading as she ran towards the staircase.
‘Thanks, man,’ Ash said, crawling out from under the desk holding a can of Gillette. But again, before Harry could respond, Ash clambered to his feet and frowned at him. ‘What the hell are you listening to? I almost slipped into a coma down there.’
‘Iron & Wine,’ Harry muttered, still unsure what was going on.
‘Well it’s fucking depressing. I want to kill myself,’ he said with a theatrical sigh.
Harry told himself not to stare, but Ash was everywhere, this blur of eyelashes and fidgety fingers as he paced around Harry’s room, sniffing his deodorant and tearing into one of the bananas Gemma had warned him not to leave in the kitchen. Looking back on it now, Harry can see the resemblance. Ash and Zayn are around the same height, both lean and broad with the same colour hair, that watermelon seed black, but Ash’s skin was slightly darker. Not by much but by enough for someone who has stared at it as much as Harry has to notice. But where Zayn is smooth, everything he does from checking his watch to licking his bottom lip done with a quiet elegance that Harry could never hope to imitate, Ash was restless, like a dog that needs a walk. But before Harry could gather his wits and ask him what he was doing there, he was in front of him again.
‘You what? Kate Atkinson?’ He picked up one of the books at Harry’s feet then tossed it over his shoulder. It was one of those perfect, perfect moments, like something from a movie, the book arcing out of the open window, pages fluttering like a bird about to take flight. They heard a yelp a few seconds later and ran over to the window. Ash got there first and hung out of it, apologising to the girl rubbing her arm.
‘Kate Atkinson? You could have hit me with Raymond Chandler,’ she told them with a furious frown. It was the most teeth achingly pretentious thing Harry had ever heard that he couldn’t help but laugh, imagining how bewildered his mother would look if she was there as she asked herself what was wrong with Kate Atkinson.
Nothing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Kate Atkinson, Harry knows now. But back then he was eighteen and reading English at Cambridge. His world revolved around black coffee and Murakami and for the first time in his brief, bright life that was okay. So when Ash laughed, too, his hand on his stomach as he rolled around on the rug Gemma got him from Ikea, Harry should have known then. But he was just so relieved to be somewhere where he wasn’t the most pretentious asshole in the room that when he collapsed onto the floor next to him, he wanted to cry.
Ash was the first man Harry ever loved. He didn’t know it at the time, he just did what he always does and let himself become consumed by him until it was too late and all of that harmless, easy affection became something much deeper. More rooted. Not that he could have stopped it. Everyone loved Ash. He would be in class, ranting about how annoying Holden Caulfield is or in the pub, losing a game of darts to impress a girl, and Harry would see everyone around them slowly soften until they were rapt. Harry would watch them with a smug smile because they all wanted a piece of him, to touch him until they’d rubbed away a little of his shine, but Harry had him. He knew all of Ash’s secrets. He’d seen each of his scars and knew the story of each one.
They were inseparable. They read the same books and ate off each other’s plates and slept together. Slept in the sweetest, most innocent sense, the pair of them tangled up on Harry’s single bed. He wonders sometimes if it was as blissful he remembers, those long sunny afternoons and longer winter nights, or if it’s smeared with nostalgia because his life is so the opposite of blissful now it warrants a new word because miserable just isn’t enough. Probably. But it’s still the happiest he’s ever been. Everyone shared bicycles and left their doors unlocked and shit, he sounds like an old man, reminiscing about the olden days, but it really was like that. Everyone did share bicycles and left their doors unlocked, but he and Ash shared everything. They didn’t spend a night apart from the moment they met, yet it was always Harry waiting for him. Waiting for him to wake up or to knock or to get out of class. But that was Ash, restless, fearless Ash, wayward as smoke, always moving this way or that until Harry was dizzy. He would make him skip class so they could doze like cats on the lawn in Scholar’s Garden, hidden under the green umbrella of the weeping willow. Or he’d take Harry’s hand and make him jump off Clare Bridge into the River Cam, the shock of the wintry water making Harry’s heart stop then start again so quickly he was sure it would never recover.
They even shared gloves – one each even though Ash reasoned that he should have both if Harry had a scarf as well – and made plans for the New Year. They were going to stay in Ash’s family’s apartment in Paris, get wasted on absinthe and kiss girls that smelt of cigarettes and Chanel. But on the last day of term, when Harry was packing and realised that both his gloves were missing, he went across the hall to tell him off. It was the first night they’d spent apart since they’d met because Harry had a third date with a sweet girl called Millie that concluded with quiet, clumsy sex on the floor of his room. He knocked for Ash after he’d walked her back to her room. There was no answer, but when he knocked again that morning, he heard music. Iron & Wine, to be precise, which made Harry very smug as he swept into his room and pulled the duvet off him.
‘Wakey wakey! Hands off snakey!’ Harry sang, but Ash didn’t stir, his hand on his stomach and his hair shockingly black against the white pillow. Harry nudged him, but he was weirdly still. He didn’t groan, didn’t fling an arm out and tell him to fuck off. That’s when Harry saw it – the empty paracetamol bottle on the bedside table – and everything stopped. He couldn’t hear the comforting lull of the music drifting out of Ash’s stereo any more or the steady trickle of the River Cam through the open window because Ash had to sleep with the window open, even in deepest, darkest December so Harry always woke up with a cold nose. He couldn’t even hear the heavy tick of the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs that had become like a second heartbeat, this unbroken tick tick tick that was the last thing he heard before he fell asleep and the first thing he heard when he woke up. Harry could hear nothing at all and in that moment, the world stopped then started again without Ash.
He didn’t leave a note and Harry will never forgive him for that. But he did find something a few days later, while he was packing up his room so his mother didn’t have to. It was nothing, just something scribbled into the corner of one of his notebooks, but Harry knew. If I was brave enough, I’d jump. Give the river a kiss. So maybe it’s not Ash that he’ll never forgive, but himself because of all the secrets he knew about, he didn’t know that and it broke him. Broke him in an unspeakable, unreachable way that will never heal.
The fucked up thing is, they got Ash to the hospital in time to pump his stomach, but because he’d taken paracetamol, he fucked his liver so needed a transplant. The doctor was surprisingly chipper about it. ‘It’s Christmas,’ he said with a nod as Ash’s mother held Harry’s hand like she may never let go. ‘There are more suicides at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Then there are the drunk drivers.’
That’s what Harry’s thinking about as he gets off the train at Paddington and sees the Christmas tree, the thing he’s thought about every Christmas since then. He’d never say it out loud, of course, not when he’s at home and they’re sitting around the table, Gemma complaining that there isn’t a hat in her cracker while Robin carves the turkey. But he thinks about it a lot, about all the people who don’t have that. The lonely ones. The quiet ones. The not so quiet ones, like Ash, who talked and laughed and sang.
No one killed themselves that day or got drunk enough to drive their car into a tree, but after, when Ash was gone and one of the nurses came into the toilet to find him, she held Harry and told him that perhaps it’s what he wanted.
It started snowing outside Charlbury, so thanks to the British rail network being unable to cope with even the slightest fluctuation in weather, Harry’s train is an hour late into Paddington. He should have listened to Anna and got the earlier one, but he couldn’t bear to leave the quiet warmth of Charlotte’s house, the frost catching in the corners of the windows like cobwebs while Alfie snored in his bed by the AGA.
He’s going to be late to meet Charles at seven, he realises as he checks his watch. He wouldn’t be if he didn’t have to go back to his flat and change (a pointless ordeal given that he won’t be dressed for long), but Charles is a creature of habit. He likes Harry in the black Prada suit, likes him to wear Floris and the cufflinks he gave him with the wrong initials engraved on them, so he won’t approve of his skinny jeans and jumper.
It’s almost six o’clock so Harry needs to move his arse, which won’t be easy. Trying to get out of Paddington in rush hour is impossible at the best of times, let alone two days before Christmas. But Harry manages to maneuver his way through the clumps of giggling friends in Santa hats and the grey looking businessmen sneering at them with Scroogian contempt. He even has time to call his mother. Actually, he doesn’t, but he’s aching to hear her voice so when she answers, the bells on her Christmas earrings shivering as she does, Harry smiles for the first time in days.
‘Sweetheart!’ she sings and he can almost smell the mulled wine.
‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m back in London and it’s snowing.’
‘Typical!’ She tuts. ‘As soon as I leave the country, there’s a white Christmas.’
Harry never thought about that and his heart does that thing again, where it stops dead in his chest as though someone’s kicked it. Not because he’s thinking about the things he should be thinking – snowball fights with Gemma and building a snowman in the garden with a red chili mouth – but because he’s thinking about Zayn’s wedding. Until then he thought getting married on Christmas day was a ridiculous notion, the sort of thing little girls daydream about as they twirl around with pillowcases on the back of their heads. But as he walks towards the exit and sees the soft flutter of snow in the distance, he can’t help but think how beautiful it will be, Zayn in his tux with snowflakes in his eyelashes. And the thought hurts, hurts so much that he misses a step, because as if she didn’t already have it all, now she’ll have snow as well.
‘It won’t last until Wednesday,’ Harry says, stepping around someone with a trolleyful of luggage. ‘It’ll be gone by tomorrow.’
‘What do you care? You’re not here to see it.’
‘And neither will you.’
He can see her wagging his finger at him and that makes him smile again.
‘I’ll be on the first flight out of Stanstead tomorrowmorning, I promise.’
‘Promise promise,’ Harry says and he means it. He’ll fucking walk to France if he has to. There’s no way he can be in London for the wedding.
‘You’re not going to get too drunk with your editor tonight?’
His stomach twists painfully. ‘Of course not.’
‘Because I’m thrilled that you sold your book for that much money, but I don’t want you doing an Ernest Hemingway on me!’
She laughs, but Harry can’t. ‘Don’t worry, Mum,’ he says, forcing himself to laugh in case she notices, but it sounds wrong – broken – his stomach twisting again at the lie. ‘With all of this crack I’m doing, I don’t have much of an appetite for booze.’
‘You’d better be joking, Harry.’
He laughs for real then. ‘See you tomorrow, Mum.’
Harry’s hopes of getting a cab are dashed when he finally makes it outside to find that the snow is heavier than he thought, the traffic on Praed Street slowing to a chug as it comes down in fast, meaty chunks. He has to get the tube – in rush hour – which slows him down even more, the soles of his deeply impractical Converse skidding so many times on the wet floors and escalators, he doesn’t know how he doesn’t break his neck.
By the time he gets back to his flat, he’s exhausted. His curls have wilted and his toes are so cold, it’s a struggle to walk, but for a swift second he’s glad to see his front door, the promise of a hot shower and dry socks making his shoulders fall. But as soon he opens the door he hears Mrs Burton’s television and his heart sinks to the doormat.
With that, every nerve that had settled back into place after the last week, jumps back up again as he bends down to pick up the mess of envelopes and pizza menus. But as soon as he does, he’s aware of someone behind him and just like that, he’s back in that stairwell at Stamford Bridge, his heart hammering hysterically.
‘It’s just me.’ Zayn rears back when Harry turns to face him with his hands up.
‘Jesus!’ He presses a hand to his chest. ‘You scared the life out of me!’
‘What are you doing here?’ Harry asks, his head is spinning as he steps back to let Zayn come in from the snow.
‘We need to talk.’
‘About everything,’ Zayn snaps, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Harry looks at the pile of post in his hand, furious at himself for how hard his heart is beating at the sight of him, snowflakes melting into his hair so he looks like someone from a black and white movie. But Zayn, ever the contradiction, manages to look soft and rough, all at once, and it’s almost shocking. Harry has never seen him like that – so untidy, so disarranged in jeans and a hoodie, his jaw rough with stubble – that he can’t help but hope that he did it to him. That he fucking broke him.
‘You’ve cut your hair,’ Harry says with a bored sigh, hoping Zayn assumes his pink cheeks are due to the cold.
‘My stylist is trying a new look for the wedding.’
‘What?’ Harry doesn’t look up as he sifts through the envelopes in his hand to see if any of them are for him. ‘Straight?’
Zayn ignores him as Harry puts the pile of post on the first step and heads up the stairs. Mrs Burton is watching It's a Wonderful Life, he can hear Jimmy Stewart’s voice from there, and it makes him so homesick that if Zayn wasn’t there, he’d cry.
‘I don’t know where you think you’re going,’ he tells Zayn as he trots after him.
‘We need to talk, Harry.’
‘I think you’ve said more than enough, don’t you?’ he tells him, raising his voice over the sullen twang of violins as he passes Mrs Burton’s door.
‘That’s just it,’ Zayn says and he sounds out of breath as he follows Harry up the final flight of stairs, reaching for the sleeve of his coat as he approaches his front door.
Harry stops and turns to face him. ‘What’s just it?’
‘What I said-’ He stops to frown, his eyes suddenly huge. ‘It came out wrong.’
Harry feels himself soften as he looks at him, and when Zayn’s fingers curl in his sleeve, he feels a dizzying surge of hope as he wonders if this is it. If this is the speech, the chase-the-girl-through-the-airport-at-the-end-of-the-film speech that he’s been practising for the last three days. Harry wills him to say it, waits until he can feel his jaw shivering and tears pushing at the backs of his eyes, but Zayn just looks at him.
‘Are you still getting married the day after tomorrow?’ he asks, and he wishes his voice hadn’t shaken, but when Zayn doesn’t look at him, he knows it doesn’t matter because he won’t be seeing him again. ‘Then what more is there to talk about?’
Harry tries to shrug him off, but Zayn won’t let go. ‘No.’
‘Yes,’ he hisses, yanking his arm away. ‘I told you: I’m not doing this.’
‘Just listen,’ Zayn says, reaching for the front of Harry’s coat and fisting his hands in it. Then he’s so close that Harry can feel the warmth of his breath against his mouth and the cold tip of his nose and he suddenly can’t remember why this is a bad idea.
‘Listen to what?’ Harry asks, careful not to look at him.
‘This can’t be it. There has to be a way.’ When Harry shakes his head, and tries to pull away, Zayn holds on tighter. ‘There has to be. I’ll talk to Coco. Maybe we can come up with some sort of arrangement.’
‘What? Like a rota? I get you for half the week and every other Christmas?’
Harry laughs sourly, but Zayn looks so desperate that the sound dies in his throat. The fucked up thing is, she’d probably agree to it. Harry will, too, in the New Year when he hasn’t seen Zayn for weeks and he’s clucking like a heroin addict. He’ll agree to anything. Which is why, if Zayn can’t stop, he has to. But when Harry lifts his eyelashes to look at him and their eyes meet, it’s all he can do not to hold him and not let go.
‘I don’t want to be your bit on the side,’ he says, making himself take a breath so his voice is steady this time. ‘I know you don’t think so, but I’m worth more than that.’
‘Is that what you think?’ Zayn shakes him, shakes him so hard the strap slips off Harry’s shoulder and his holdall hangs heavily from his elbow. ‘Is that what you think?’
Harry manages to wriggle away and shoves him. ‘You chose her!’ He says it so loud even Mrs Burton must hear it. ‘You want your quiet fucking life. Go fucking live it!’
‘You think I can control this?’ Zayn steps forward and shoves him back. ‘If I could control this, do you think I’d be sitting in my car in the fucking snow for six hours, waiting for you? I’ve never felt for anyone what I feel for you!’ He jabs his temple with his finger, his pupils blown black. ‘I don’t know what to do. It’s fucking me up!’
‘What do you think it’s doing to me?’
‘I don’t know because you never fucking say anything, Harry!’ He throws his hands up. ‘I tell you that I love you and you don’t even acknowledge me! Do you know how hard that was? I’ve never said that to a bloke and meant it!’
Harry rolls his eyes. ‘It doesn’t count if my dick’s in you!’
‘Fuck you!’ he spits, shoving Harry so hard he staggers back and hits the wall. And that’s it he knows, when Zayn turns and walks down the stairs.
But he still shrugs off his holdall and goes after him, grabbing his arm. ‘What do you want from me?’
‘Nothing!’ Zayn says, pulling away. ‘Fuck all!’
‘Good! Bye!’ Harry calls after him when he turns and runs down the next flight of stairs towards Mrs Burton’s door. ‘Enjoy your quiet fucking life! Buy a fucking Volvo!’
The shot lands and Zayn turns and runs back up the stairs. Harry holds his breath as he watches him, reaching for the banister as he comes to stand in front of him again.
‘What do you want from me, Harry?’ he asks and that thing, whatever that thing is that hasn’t allowed him to find the words, suddenly gives way.
‘Pick me!’ he finally says, holding his arms out. And it feels like the first time Ash took his hand and made him jump off Clare Bridge. There was a moment, just after he jumped and he looked down at the River Cam, when Harry was sure he was going to die, and it was the purest, sweetest thing he’d ever felt. A moment of absolute, unshakable abandon when he just said fuck it and let God or fate or whatever decides these things, decide what was going to happen. And that’s how he feels when he holds out his arms to Zayn and says it again, ‘Pick me! Loud, complicated, inconvenient me!’
There’s a long moment where everything stops, just like it did the first time he jumped off Clare Bridge, where Harry and Zayn just look at one another and it feels like forever. Like a moment longer than forever. The silence is agony. Harry can hear himself panting and Jimmy Stewart pleading with Henry F. Potter as his heart slows to a dull throb as he realises that Zayn isn’t going to say anything.
‘That’s what I thought,’ he says, bending down to pick up his holdall.
When he turns to face his front door, Zayn reaches for his sleeve again, but when he tugs his arm away, Harry sees that the door is ajar. Zayn must too because he’s suddenly there, pulling Harry back so he’s behind him.
‘Careful,’ he warns, trying to keep Harry back.
‘I can take care of myself, thank you very much,’ he hisses, but Zayn isn’t listening as he edges the door open with his other hand and gasps.
Harry knows, before he follows him in, knows what he’s going to find, but the shock of it still sobering as he walks into his flat to find it trashed.
‘What the fuck?’ Zayn says under his breath, then turns to point at him. ‘Stay there. They might still be here.’
Harry ignores him, walking into the living as Zayn checks the kitchen. It’s a mess, the sofa and coffee table tipped over and the floor covered in books, the ones they didn’t sweep off the shelves striped with red spray paint. Everywhere is, he realises, as he turns on the spot, the walls, the curtains, even his clothes rail of suits, an angry red line sprayed along the row of them, catching each sleeve.
When Zayn comes out of the bathroom, Harry is heaving his typewrite off the floor, his fingers worrying over the old metal keys as he puts it back on the desk.
‘I’m calling the police,’ Zayn says, taking his mobile out of the pocket of his jeans.
Harry shakes his head, standing the floor lamp back up. ‘It’s alright.’
‘Just leave it,’ Harry tells him with a weary sigh as he walks over to the sofa.
But Zayn stops him. ‘Don’t.’ he hisses. ‘There might be fingerprints.’
Harry doesn’t listen, tipping the sofa back up. ‘It’s fine.’
‘Fine?’ Zayn looks at him like he’s mad, waving at the disarray. The crease between his eyebrows deepens when he sees the line of red paint across his suits, but when he walks over to the clothes rail and inspects one of them, Harry goes rigid because it’s the suit he bought in Paris. He’s sure it’s just a coincidence, but he can’t stop his heart from galloping as Zayn rubs the black material between his finger and thumb.
‘Don’t worry about it. I-’ Harry starts to say, but Zayn doesn’t let him finish as he looks at the chest of drawers.
‘Hold on,’ Zayn says, walking over to it. Harry’s heart does more than gallop as Zayn picks up the nearest green box and opens it, but resists the urge to charge over and snatch it from him as his gaze narrows at the watch. ‘This is a £10,000 Rolex and you have four of them.’ He puts it down and reaches for a red box, opening that, too. ‘These cufflinks are Cartier,’ he tells Harry, as if he didn’t know. ‘There must be at least £50,000 worth of stuff here. Why would they leave this and-’ he starts to say then stops and covers his mouth and nose with his hand. ‘What the fuck?’ he says through his fingers, walking over to the bed. ‘Did they piss on your sheets?’
Harry is so embarrassed he almost throws up. ‘Zayn, will you just go?’ he snaps, trying to pull him away from the bed.
But Zayn doesn’t budge. ‘What’s going on? Why would someone this? Is this something to do with that bloke?’
Harry can feel the panic building, catching like a fire and spreading and spreading as Zayn looks at him, waiting for him to respond. But when he doesn’t, Zayn takes a step towards him. ‘Tell me.’
‘Just go, okay!’
‘What the fuck is going on?’
Harry sees the note on the bed then and bites his lip. He tries not to look at it, but he must, because Zayn turns around and reaches down to snatch it before Harry can.
‘323 Barts,’ he reads aloud. ‘What does that mean? Is it an address?’
Harry’s stomach turns so suddenly he feels lightheaded. ‘Give me that.’ He tries not to lose his temper, but when Zayn won’t give him the note, his cheeks flare.
‘323 Barts,’ Zayn repeats, then blinks at him. ‘Barts like the hospital?’
Harry’s heart stops dead in his chest. He hadn’t considered that, just assumed it was some sort of coded message he was too panicked to decipher. ‘Just go,’ he tells him, managing to pull the note out of his hand and tucking it into his back pocket.
Zayn follows as he heads towards the front door. ‘Like fuck am I leaving you.’
‘I’m alright. Just go,’ Harry tells him, which isn’t so convincing when he trips on his laptop – what’s left of it, anyway – and goes flying. Zayn manages to catch him, though, grabbing the top of his arm and asking if he’s okay.
‘I’m fine.’ Harry shrugs him off, continuing towards the door.
Zayn goes after him. ‘How are you going to get to the hospital?’
‘I’ll get a cab.’
‘In this weather?’
‘I’ll get the tube, then.’
‘Let me drive you.’
‘In that ridiculous yellow thing?’ Harry scoffs. ‘I’m better off walking.’
‘I brought the Range Rover.’
That explains why he didn’t notice him when he walked up the street earlier, Harry thinks as he ducks out the door and heads for the stairs. Trying to outrun a professional football player is kind of futile, though, because Zayn catches up with him easily, pleading with him to let him give him a lift. But Harry doesn’t acknowledge him, panic licking at his palms as he opens the front door and charges out into the snow. He hears the door close a moment later, the letterbox rattling, but Harry just stuffs his hands into the pockets of his coat and walks towards the main road.
It’s still snowing, the cold flakes on his cheeks and ears a relief until Harry realises that it’s snowing so heavily he can hardly see the main road ahead of him. As he gets closer, he can make out the shape of a bus rolling slowly through the flurry, and Harry’s shoulders sink as he realises that he’ll be lucky to make it to the station.
As if on cue, Zayn pulls up beside him in his Range Rover.
‘Get in.’ Harry doesn’t acknowledge him, but Zayn is undeterred, crawling along side him up the road. ‘Get in the car, Harry.’
He shakes his head, hands balling into fists in his coat pockets.
‘It’s just a lift, Harry.’
‘It’s not, though, is it?’
Zayn slams his palm against the steering wheel. ‘Just get in the fucking car!’
Harry ignores him and lifts his chin serenely, as if he’s oblivious to the fact that he’s ankle deep in snow.
‘I’ll just drop you at the hospital, I swear.’ Zayn sighs, the Range Rover panting as he follows Harry up the street. ‘I won’t even get out of the car.’
Harry doesn’t flinch, smiling smugly. Until he gets to the top of the road, that is, and finds that it’s deserted except for a couple of people walking with their heads dipped, their scarves wrapped around their faces. He’s never seen the Falcon Road so quiet, everything suddenly still and sugar white. It’s beautiful. That’s not a word he thought he’d ever use to describe Clapham, but it is, everything coated in white and the bare branches of the trees heaving under the weight of the snow that is falling and falling so the street looks like the front of a Christmas card.
Suddenly, Harry sees a black cab approaching, his trainers slipping as he runs towards it, but the driver shakes his head. Luckily, he’s going so slowly Harry catches up.
‘I’m heading home, mate,’ he tells Harry, lowering the passenger window.
‘What way you going?’
The driver shrugs. ‘Opposite way, mate.’
‘Don’t worry.’ Harry nods, sweeping his wet hair back with his fingers. ‘Take it easy.’
When the cab rolls away, Zayn whistles at him.
‘Oi!’ he says, brow furrowed. ‘Will you get in the fucking car.’
Harry admits defeat with a huff, stomping towards him and clambering in without looking at him. ‘Just drop me at the station. I’ll get the tube.’
Zayn doesn’t, of course, despite Harry’s threats to open the door and jump out. Zayn dares him to as he peers out at the flurry of snow that’s so thick they can only see a few cars ahead of them. But Harry calls his bluff, jumping out as soon as they stop at a traffic light, promptly landing on his arse when he skids of a patch of black ice.
‘You alright?’ Zayn asks when he climbs back in.
‘Yes,’ Harry snaps, clutching his right elbow.
He doesn’t say another word until they approach the hospital, and even then he only grunts and points at the entrance to A&E. But Zayn ignores him, pulling into the underground car park without warning. Harry is furious, demanding to be let out of the car like a petulant toddler as Zayn pulls into a space and turns off the engine. Harry tries to open the door, but Zayn flips the central locking and turns to face him with a frown.
‘Who’s in there?’
Harry’s so angry he can’t even look at him, let alone speak.
‘I can sit here all night.’
Harry crosses his arms. ‘Me too.’
‘You’re such a stubborn asshole, you know that?’
‘I’m a stubborn asshole?’ Harry turns to stare at him. ‘Who sat in their car in the snow for six fucking hours?’
‘That’s you!’ Zayn taps his temple with his finger. ‘You make me crazy.’
‘You’re already crazy.’
‘Just tell me!’ Zayn spits, grabbing the steering wheel with his hands.
‘My dad, alright?’ Harry spits back. ‘It’s my fucking dad!’
There’s a painful moment of silence as the sound of Harry’s voice fades when he wants to get out of the car and run. But to his surprise, Zayn flips the central locking. Harry turns to look at the door as if it’s a trap, but before he can ask him if it is, Zayn opens his door and jumps out.
‘What are you doing?’ Harry gasps, doing the same.
‘You’re not going in there on your own.’
‘I’m not on my own.’ Zayn ignores him, turning to press something on his key that makes the Range Rover’s lights flash, all at once. When he starts walking towards the lift, Harry grabs the sleeve of his hoodie to make him stop. ‘Fine. I’ll call someone.’
‘Who?’ Zayn shrugs. ‘Your mother’s in France and your sister’s in Singapore.’
That hurts more than it should because he could deal with this if Zayn thought he was just a trick, but he remembered that.
Why does he remember that?
‘Why are you doing this, Zayn?’ Harry asks, suddenly exhausted.
Zayn points towards the lifts. ‘Do you know what you’re going to find in there?’ When Harry doesn’t answer, he shakes his head. ‘I can’t let you go in there on your own.’
He shakes his head again, his eyes wet. ‘You shouldn’t be on your own.’
‘But I am.’ When Harry shrugs, Zayn takes a step back as though he’s been punched. ‘Please, just go.’ Harry nods towards his car. ‘I’ll be alright.’
Zayn can’t look at him, his head dipped as though he can no longer support the weight of it, and when he turns and walks back to his car Harry has to remind himself that it’s what he wants because it doesn’t feel like it at all.
Harry doesn’t go straight to room 323 and wanders around for a while, walking up and down the long white corridors until he’s so tired that he has to fight the urge to fold to the floor and press his cheek to the bleach clean lino. Mercifully, he finds himself near the hospital canteen and buys a cup of tea that he stirs until it goes cold.
He can’t help but think of Ash then, of the hours he spent going back and forth between the ICU and the canteen, bringing Ash’s mother cups of tea and plastic packs of sandwiches as though it could make up for not noticing that her son was so miserable that he had to swallow a bottle of pills. It was when he was deliberating between a ham sandwich and an equally miserable looking cheese and pickle one that he saw Peter sitting at one of the tables. He’d never seen him outside of Clare College and the shock was the same as seeing any teacher somewhere unexpected. Peter must have seen him, too, because he stood up and there was something kind of flustered about it – kind of formal, like a scene from a Jane Austen novel – that made Harry’s heart skip in a way it never had before.
Harry had noticed him, of course, but not in the way he’d noticed Ash. Peter was a teacher and even though Harry called him by his first name and nodded if they passed one another in the courtyard, it was still with some restraint. Harry might smile, but never enough to pull at his cheeks and Peter might smile back, but it would never quite reach his eyes. But Harry had noticed him, noticed the sharp sweep of his jaw and the gold threads in his dark hair that always made him think of the edges of the elderly leather-bound books in the library. But then that was Peter, he wasn’t old – in his mid- thirties, Harry guessed – yet there was something kind of old-fashioned about him. He was the sort of man Graham Greene would have written about, the quintessential English teacher in his tweed jackets and glasses, but not, his hair only just the right side of tidy and his eyes bright with something Harry could never quite put his finger on. So when he stood up, Harry didn’t think, just walked over to him.
‘I had an altercation with a bread knife,’ Peter explained, holding up his bandaged hand. ‘There’s an hour wait at the pharmacy so I thought I’d get a cup of tea.’
Harry nodded, but when he looked at him, a jumper that was far too big hanging off him, the cuffs almost at his knuckles, he looked so young that Harry felt something in him begin to bow, his ribs suddenly straining like an overstuffed suitcase. So when Peter asked him if he was okay, it all spilled out of him, about Ash and the transplant and how fucked up it was that they were sitting there, waiting for someone to die. Peter reached for his hand and that’s how it started, in that hospital canteen, over a cold cup of tea. And that’s another thing Harry will never forgive himself for, not just for being able to love someone other than Ash, but for doing it so quickly. The guilt still scrapes at him. He can feel it rusting his insides, sometimes. Usually at night when he can’t sleep and he wants to reach for his Moleskine and write it all down but he’s terrified of what will come out.
This time Harry is on his own. He doesn’t have to be. He could call Zayn, make him sit there and watch as Harry stirs his tea as though it’s the only thing holding him together and if he stops, he’ll unravel. But he can’t because he can’t do this again. He can’t keep relying on people, hoping that they’ll fix him, because they never do.
They never do.
There’s no need for Harry to leave the hospital via the car park, but maybe it’s a test, a test Zayn passes, because his Range Rover is still there. Harry hates the way his heart sings when he sees it and how he starts to walk a little faster, but before he can stop himself, he’s knocking on the window of the passenger door. Harry hears a thunk and when he opens the door, Zayn looks so wrung out he almost hugs him.
‘Do you live in your car now?’ Harry asks, climbing in.
‘Apparently,’ Zayn says, rubbing his face with his hands.
‘Have you been sitting here the whole time?’ When Zayn nods, Harry blinks at him. ‘You’ve been sitting here for three hours?’
‘How’s your dad?’
‘He’s in surgery,’ Harry says as breezily as he can. He even manages to shrug.
‘Is he okay?’
‘I don’t care.’ He shrugs again. ‘I hope he dies.’ Harry feels Zayn stiffen next to him and it makes the tops of his ear burn, but he lifts his chin. ‘I do. I hate him.’
‘You don’t know!’ he roars suddenly, so suddenly it makes his hands shake as he dumps the grey plastic bag the nurse gave him with his father’s belongings at his feet. There isn’t much, just whatever his father had on him when the paramedics found him. Not that Harry has checked, but the bag feels light and as it settles on the floor of the car, he can hear the rattle of keys and realises that he doesn’t even know where his father is living now. That should make him sad, but it just makes his cheeks burn as well as he wishes he’d never agreed to take the fucking bag because now he needs to come back. He didn’t want to take it, but they don’t have anywhere to keep it in the ICU and furious as he is, he still couldn’t bring himself to tell the nurse to chuck it out.
‘You don’t know,’ he says again, his voice lower but twice as hard with the effort of not losing his temper again. ‘You don’t know.’
‘What happened?’ Zayn asks carefully, as though Harry’s holding a gun to him.
‘He was beaten up.’
‘By the same guy who beat you up?’
‘Probably.’ Harry stops himself when he realises that he’s touching his chin. The bruise is long gone but he’s sure it still hurts, as though there’s something there, under his skin, that will never fully heal.
‘What’s going on?’
Harry turns his cheek away, letting his head tip against the car window and closing his eyes as his temple presses against the cold glass. He can feel Zayn looking at him and he can’t catch his breath because it feels like he’s running around, closing windows and doors as a storm approaches, but it isn’t enough.
‘He’s a gambler,’ he says, unable to shut that last window in time.
Zayn doesn’t flinch. ‘How much does he owe?’
‘I can have it by morning.’
Harry shakes his head. ‘I’ve got it.’
‘You have £30,000?’
‘I’ve been saving up.’
Harry sits up and rubs his mouth with his fingers. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘I was going to move to Paris.’ He shrugs. ‘Write a book about the art of fellatio.’
He smiles but Zayn doesn’t. ‘I can have it by morning.’
‘It’s not even about the money.’ Harry sighs, letting his head tip back against the headrest. ‘I don’t care about the money.’
‘How long has this been going on?’
‘For as long as I can remember,’ Harry says, giving into it and wallowing in the satisfaction of finally being able to say it out loud. And in the end, he’s surprised how easy it is; he thought he’d be mortified, but the relief is exquisite. ‘When I was six, I saw him taking money out of my piggy bank,’ he goes on, and he hasn’t told anyone that, not even Gemma, but he can’t stop himself, like a pan boiling over. ‘I didn’t say anything, but two days later, the money was back so I didn’t think about it. I just thought that’s what parents did. So on my seventh birthday, when my godmother put £10 in my card, I was beside myself because I’d never had a £10 note before. So I turned to my dad and said that when he puts it back in my piggy bank I want a £10 note not two fives.’
Harry chuckles as he thinks about the look on his father’s face and the sharp silence that followed as everyone in the living room turned to look at each other. ‘I didn’t know what I’d done wrong,’ Harry says with a sniff. ‘But I went upstairs to apologise and he was in my parents bedroom. I’ll never forget it because he was sitting on the bed with his head in his hands, crying like a baby. I’d never seen him like that before. He’s my dad, you know?’ He turns to Zayn. ‘He was Superman.’ Zayn nods. ‘I didn’t know what to do, but then he saw me and walked over and kicked the door shut and-’ Harry stops to lick his lips. ‘He left the next day and for ages I thought it was my fault. That it was what I said that made him leave.’
‘Yeah, but it wasn’t. You know that now, right?’ Zayn says quietly.
‘Yeah, but then.’ Harry looks at his hands. ‘He came back a couple of weeks later, but it wasn’t the same. He was there, but he wasn’t. He came and went. Came and went.’
‘That isn’t your fault, either Harry.’
‘Yeah, but he missed it all. Every nativity play, every birthday party, every school dance. He didn’t even come to my graduation ceremony.’
Harry hears Zayn shift in his seat and tilts his cheek to find him turned towards him, his cheek on the leather headrest, watching Harry play with his bottom lip.
‘I don’t want him to die,’ Harry admits, and his voice sounds weak now, like a song fading out. ‘But he can’t keep coming and going.’ Zayn doesn’t say anything, just waits for him to catch his breath. ‘If he’s going to go, then I just want him to go.’
‘Have you told him?’
‘He doesn’t care.’ Harry laughs, pausing to chew his knuckle. ‘I gave him ten grand last month and he didn’t even ask where I got it.’
‘He does care.’
Harry wants to laugh – to shout, to scream – but he can’t breathe for the lump in his throat. ‘Don’t.’
When he closes his eyes and shakes his head, he feels Zayn’s hand on the back of his neck, pulling him to him until their foreheads are touching. And as soon as they do, something in him finally snaps. ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ Harry sobs and the sound he makes is terrifying, as though he’s splitting open. ‘I went to bed when I was told and ate my peas and did my homework. I didn’t even tell anyone I was gay until I was eighteen in case he never came back.’
‘Sssh,’ Zayn says into his hair, kissing the top of his head.
‘I did everything I was supposed to. Why wasn’t it enough?’
Zayn wraps his arms around him and pulls him closer as though there’s too much space between them and he needs to fill it until their chests are touching and he can feel Harry’s heart.
‘Why wasn’t I enough?’ Harry says into his neck and when he feels Zayn shiver, he should stop, but he can’t. ‘Why am I always the one left behind?’
They drive back to Harry’s flat in silence. He tells Zayn that he doesn’t need to come in, but of course he does and Harry’s so exhausted that he doesn’t have the energy to walk up the stairs, let alone fight him. But as they finally near his front door, Harry stops, remembering the state his flat was in when they left and rubs his forehead with his hand.
‘It’s alright,’ Zayn soothes, rubbing Harry’s back with his hand, then taking a set of keys out of the pocket of his jeans. Harry’s too tired to register what he’s doing until Zayn opens the door and hands him the keys. Harry looks down at them in his palm for a moment – too bright and too silver – then lifts his chin to blink at him.
‘You changed the locks?’
Zayn nods and when he walks into the flat, Harry frowns as he follows him in to find that it’s spotless, everything back to where it should be. Harry turns on the spot, his eyes wide as he wonders if he imagined what he saw earlier. But then he smells bleach and when he sees the gleaming floorboards and the clean patches on the wallpaper where the spray paint had been, he realises that someone’s cleaned it.
‘You did this?’
‘My housekeeper sorted it,’ Zayn says, tucking his hands into the pockets of his hoodie.
‘She did all of this by herself?’
‘She had help.’
‘Where are my suits?’ Harry asks, frowning at his bare clothes rail.
‘The dry cleaner,’ Zayn tells him, then gestures at the bookshelf that isn’t as cluttered as it usually is. ‘Amazon can’t deliver until the 27th. If you’re not around, I can arrange for someone to be here to sign for it.’
‘You did this?’
‘Go take a shower. You’ll feel better.’ Zayn nods at the bathroom door.
Harry nods back even though he’s sure nothing will help; he feels so hollow it’s as if someone has taken a spoon and scooped out his insides. But he’s too stunned to do anything else, padding off to the bathroom then standing under the spray of the shower until he’s gathered enough energy to climb out of the tub again.
When he walks back into the living room, Zayn is sitting on the sofa, flicking through a copy of Granta. Harry’s heart stops, hoping it isn’t the issue with his short story in it. He doesn’t know why it bothers him, given everything they’ve done, but the thought of Zayn reading it makes him feel so vulnerable, he blushes.
‘Feel any better?’ Zayn asks, standing up when he looks up to find Harry in front of him, rubbing his hair with a towel.
‘No,’ he smiles, then nods at the door. ‘But you’d better go. It’s past one.’
Zayn sits down again. ‘I’ll kip here.’
‘I’m kidding.’ Harry stops drying his hair and tilts his head at him. ‘I’ll be alright.’
‘I’m sure you will, but just humour me, okay?’
‘I don’t have a blanket,’ Harry tells him when he starts adjusting the cushions.
‘Can’t be worse than my car.’
‘Fine,’ Harry says, giving his hair one last rub then hanging the towel on the radiator under the window by the bed. He looks out at the street as he does, at the black black sky and white white snow, and it surprises him how much it soothes him, the muscles in his shoulders relaxing as he turns to face the bed. He flings a pillow at Zayn, who catches it with a yawn, then throws the duvet back, the smell of fabric conditioner making his eyelashes flutter as he climbs into the bed and turns off the lamp.
He lies in the dark for a while, listening to Zayn trying to get comfortable on the small, lumpy sofa and it’s strange, Zayn there, in his flat, on his sofa. Good strange. Distracting strange. But there’s never been this much distance between them before.
‘Are you really going to sleep there?’ he asks, sitting up turning on the lamp.
Zayn holds his hand up and blinks at him. ‘But you-’
‘Get in here,’ Harry snaps, ripping the duvet back.
Zayn does as he’s told, albeit groggily, standing up tugging off his hoodie. Harry hears a crackle of static as he does and when Zayn emerges from under the black cotton, his hair is sticking up in a hundred different directions. It looks so weird – so unlike him – that Harry wants to touch it, this new, short hair that he’d struggle to find a handful of.
Zayn hops from foot to foot as he struggles to take off his jeans and Harry can’t help but giggle when he almost falls over. ‘Sexy!’
‘Shut up,’ Zayn sneers, crawling onto the bed and biting his nose.
That’s strange as well. Harry usually sleeps in the middle of the bed so it feels like there isn’t enough space. But then he feels the heat of Zayn next to him and there’s suddenly too much space, Harry sliding closer so their hips touch. Zayn looks at him when they do and for the first time since they met, they don’t do anything. They don’t grab or lick or bite, they just look at each other and Harry aches – actually aches – because he’s been desperate to kiss him from the moment he saw him and he’s sure that if he doesn’t he’ll disintegrate, just disappear in a puff of smoke. But then Zayn dips his head and when their lips touch, Harry doesn’t disappear at all. He’s suddenly, absolutely, completely there and aware of every inch of his body. His heart and his blood and his skin, his hard, white bones under it all, stronger than they’ve ever felt. And as they kiss softly, forgetting to turn off the lamp and close the curtains on the world turning on without them, Harry can’t remember the last time he felt like that, felt whole.
He doesn’t think he ever has.
There’s always a moment, right before Harry wakes up, in that blurry halfway point between the end of a dream and opening his eyes, when everything is slow and sticky and heart meltingly quiet. Harry loves that moment. He could live out the rest of his life in that moment, climb mountains and jump into rivers and fall in and out of love in the time it takes for his brain to flick back on. Because in that moment when he’s not quite awake and not quite asleep – not quite Nathan and not quite Harry – he’s nothing.
Not yet, anyway. Later, when he’s shaving carefully and layering on cologne he will be. Until then it just feels like floating, like when he was four and he went to Cyprus. He wouldn’t go near the sea, running back to where his mother and Gemma were sitting on the beach whenever he got close enough to feel the tide nipping at his toes. It’s one of his earliest memories, his mother scooping him up and carrying him towards the water, his hand fisted in her necklace as he looked out at the endless stretch of sea. Gemma skipped after them, leaving footprints in the wet sand as she told him to stop being such a baby and Harry remembers trying, remembers lifting his chin defiantly, but as soon as he felt the splash of the first wave against the soles of his feet, he yelped.
‘Don’t be scared, little one.’ His mother smiled, poking his orange inflatable armbands that she’d gone cross-eyed blowing up. ‘There’s so much salt in the water that you’ll float.’ Harry didn’t believe her, kicking his legs furiously when the water began to swallow them up. He only calmed down when his mother promised not to let go, her hands under his armpits as she held him until his legs settled. But of course she did (a trick she employed again when she taught him how to ride a bike) and when the horror of it passed, Harry realised that she was right, he was floating. He’d never felt anything like it, shivering with delight as he lay there, his arms out and his legs open, the surface of the sea holding him up towards the sun as though he were on a silver platter.
That’s what that moment feels like – the one before he wakes up – like he’s floating. Like he isn’t there, just a breath. A sigh. A curl of smoke that gets thicker and thicker until he’s aware of the pillow under his cheek and the ache in his stomach. Most of the time he doesn’t even know where he is. He spends so much time in strange beds, swaddled in strange sheets, that he could be anywhere. Sometimes he’s sure he’s at home or even back at Cambridge, his eyes sore from working on an essay he hopes will make Peter think of him as more than the kid with the unruly hair who always has ink on his hands. It’s usually a disappointment to find that he’s in his flat, his arm curled around a pillow that can’t possibly smell of home, but does. It’s been four years and he’s sure it still smells of the washing power his mother used to use – the one with the baby on the box – and Gemma’s shampoo, which he wasn’t supposed to steal. Some far off place he’ll write about one day, his heart hurting as he describes his bedroom and compares the colour of the slate roof when it rained to salmon skin. But this morning his bed smells of something else, of Zayn – cologne and chewing gum and the secret cigarettes he tries to disguise with them – and Harry isn’t disappointed at all.
The lamp is still on and the top of it is projecting a circle of white light onto the ceiling that makes Harry think of Cyprus again, of floating on the surface of the sea, blinking into the sun. He should probably turn it off, but he can’t bear to move, not when Zayn’s spooning him like that, his leg hooked over Harry’s hip and his arm around his waist, holding him so close that his breath is tickling the hair on the back of Harry’s neck. It feels so good that Harry’s too scared to move in case he wakes him up, so he settles for looking at his hand, flat on Harry’s stomach, at the deep creases in his knuckles and his smooth, almond shaped nails. Harry wants to turn it over, to trace the lines across his palm and compare their love lines, but then Zayn mutters something and pulls him closer and it’s so possessive that Harry can’t move for a moment.
Harry’s sure he won’t be able to sleep after that, but he must because he wakes up with a start. For a second he doesn’t know where he is, Zayn’s breath on the back of his neck making him think that he’s in his room at Cambridge, he and Ash wedged into his narrow, single bed. But then he looks at Zayn’s hand on his stomach and gives into the weight of his eyelids with a smile. He can feel sleep tugging him under again when he hears it – a knock – and goes rigid, his pulse quickening in that dizzying way it does every time someone knocks on his front door now and he asks himself if this is it. If they’re going to kick it in this time. But then Zayn stirs and Harry tells him to leave it, but before he can reach for his hand, Zayn rolls away from him.
Harry tries to stop him but he isn’t quick enough, Zayn kicking back the duvet and climbing out of the bed before Harry can turn and tell him to ignore it. Whoever it is knocks again and Harry sits up, panic chasing away the last clouds of sleep so that he is suddenly and painfully awake. ‘Just ignore them. They’ll go away,’ Harry says, wincing at the sound of his voice as Zayn bends down to pick his jeans off the floor. It’s ruined from yesterday, the words so rough that Zayn frowns sleepily at him as he tugs on his jeans.
Harry tells him to leave it as he pulls on his hoodie and walks towards the front door, but Zayn ignores him, disappearing around the corner to answer it as Harry wills his rusty limbs to move quicker. He shuffles off the duvet but as he’s about to climb out of bed, he hears the door shut and Zayn reappears unscathed. The relief makes his head spin so suddenly that Harry almost laughs as he rubs his face with his hands and asks himself when he became afraid of his own front door.
When he looks up again, Zayn is standing at the end of the bed and everything about him is so soft, from his black hoodie to his fluffy hair that he tries to tame with his hand but can’t, that Harry can only gaze at him with a dopey smile. Given everything they’ve done, it shouldn’t feel so intimate, seeing him like that. He isn’t even naked, but Harry has never seen so much of him. He looks so vulnerable that Harry can’t help but feel lucky to see him like that, without his car and suit and over-rehearsed smile. So when he drops the holdall he’s carrying onto the bed, Harry doesn’t care enough to ask what’s in it, figuring that he asked someone to bring him a change of clothes. His housekeeper, Harry assumes. Given the miracle she worked on his flat while they were at the hospital yesterday, he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a full English breakfast in it as well.
‘Please tell me there’s bacon in that,’ Harry says with a long yawn.
‘Unfortunately not.’ Zayn chuckles. ‘But you can buy a lot of bacon with it.’
It takes Harry a moment but when he realises what he’s saying, he sighs and shakes his head. ‘Zayn.’
He holds his hands up. ‘Just listen, okay?’
Harry doesn’t. ‘I really appreciate it, but it’s fine. I called the bank from the hospital yesterday. I’m going to collect the money later.’
‘But it’s Christmas Eve.’
‘My branch is open until midday.’
‘Okay.’ Zayn nods, putting his hands on his hips. ‘But just hear me out.’
He looks so nervous, standing there with a determined frown, that Harry can’t help but smile. ‘You’re so sweet, but it’s fine. I-’
‘I want you to take the money.’ Zayn interrupts.
Harry shakes his head again. ‘I can’t. I-’
‘Go to Paris,’ Zayn spits out before Harry can get the rest out.
Harry stares at him, the words withering in his throat, and for a moment he wonders if he heard him. If he missed the Let’s at the beginning of the sentence. But then he says it again – Go to Paris – and Harry’s heart stops. Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe he just can’t feel anything other than the shock stinging his skin like frost.
‘You’re going to marry her, aren’t you,’ he says, but it isn’t a question.
Zayn holds his hands up again. ‘Just listen.’
He can’t and when Harry gets out of the bed it’s so instinctive that it reminds him of something he read once about the fight-or-flight response and how, when animals are presented with a threat, they either stay and fight or run. In that moment, his instinct is to run, his legs shaking with the need to put as much distance between them as possible as he walks towards the bathroom. But Zayn is quicker and puts his arm out to stop Harry slamming the door in his face as he follows him in.
‘Will you calm down?’ he hisses, as though Harry’s being unreasonable and embarrassing him with the messy splash of emotion. Perhaps he is being unreasonable because the fucked up thing is: Harry knew he would do this. He knew Zayn would marry her, but he thought that he would want Harry as well, his getaway car if it all went wrong. And while he would have put a fight, told Zayn that he was worth more than that, he isn’t, so he would have taken anything Zayn gave him.
‘Listen to me.’ Zayn reaches for his wrist, but Harry pulls away, suddenly aware that he’s naked. His cheeks flush as he reaches for the bathrobe on the back of the door, a white fluffy thing his mother gave him for Christmas last year that he’s only worn once because he’s never at the flat long enough to lounge about in a robe. He feels like a kid in it, the thick cotton swallowing him up and the sleeves hanging down to his knuckles as he turns to face the sink. He catches his reflection in the mirror and has to look away because he doesn’t look like a kid at all. He looks old – worn out – the skin under his eyes purple from four hours sleep and his bottom lip bitten red raw.
‘Harry.’ Zayn reaches for the sleeve of his robe, but he tugs his arm away.
‘What was yesterday? I told you-’ Harry has to stop and press his palm to his forehead, his stomach turning inside out as he thinks about what he said in the car. Things he’s never said out loud.
Things you should never say out loud.
‘And what’s that?’ He turns to gesture at the door. ‘Are you trying to pay me off?’
‘Of course not!’
‘I’m worth more than thirty fucking grand.’
‘I thought that’s what you wanted, Harry.’ Zayn holds his hands out. ‘To move to Paris and write a book. I thought that’s what you’ve been saving up for.’
He looks mortified, but Harry can’t look at him. ‘Go fuck yourself,’ he spits, turning to tug the shower curtain back. He does it so violently the metal rings scrape along the shower rail, putting his teeth on edge as he leans down to turn on the taps. Harry doesn’t even test the temperature when they splutter on, just pushes the handle and steps back to glare at Zayn as the shower hisses. ‘This is nothing to do with me and everything to do with you shipping me off so you never have to see me again!’
Zayn shakes his head at him and when he takes a step back, Harry takes a step towards him. That feels instinctive as well, as though the two things are somehow connected, and he wonders why it always has to be that way between them. Why one of them pushes while the other one pulls.
‘Is that what you think?’ Zayn frowns.
‘What the fuck am I supposed to think?’
‘Why do you always think the worst of me?’
‘Because you do shit like this!’ Harry snaps then stops to close his eyes and suck in a breath. When he opens them again he’s suddenly so tired that he doesn’t have the energy to be angry any more, his shoulders slumping as he tucks his hands into the pockets of his robe. ‘You can’t keep coming and going like this. If you’re going, just go.’
Zayn shakes his head and sighs. ‘Are you even talking to me, Harry?’
There’s a long moment of silence after he says it when all Harry can hear is the shower beating down on the chipped enamel tub and it sounds like white noise as he lunges forward and shoves Zayn into the doorframe. He’s so angry he can’t speak, the betrayal blowing a hole through his heart as he pushes past him into the bedroom.
He hears Zayn follow and swats at the tears burning lines down his cheeks with the sleeve of his robe before he sees them. ‘Get out.’
‘I am not your father, Harry.’
His head spins as he turns to face him, grateful that the bed is between them because he doesn’t know what he’d do. ‘No. You’re worse.’
Zayn looks stunned. ‘How am I worse?’
‘Because my dad only cares about himself. You actually think that you’re doing the right thing.’
‘What is the right thing, Harry? Tell me because I don’t have a fucking clue!’ Zayn says through his teeth and Harry knows him well enough now to know that he’s about to lose his temper. The threat of it makes Harry’s heart throb as he considers pushing him like he used to, pushing him until Zayn grabs him and bends him over the bed, fucks him until they’re shaking and sweating and can’t let go of each other, but he’s tired.
‘Just go, Zayn.’
But he doesn’t, his hands on his hips as he glares at Harry across the bed with mock confusion. ‘Seriously. Tell me because I know I fucked up, I fucked up so bad that I don’t know how to fix it. So fucking tell me. Tell me what to do.’
Harry nods towards the front door. ‘Go.’
‘Fine,’ Zayn says with a shrug, striding over to the sofa to pick his trainers off the floor. ‘When you’re ready to talk about this like a grown up, I’ll be at The Dorchester.’
Harry laughs, loud and bitter. ‘And you’re just the epitome of mature, Zayn. You can’t even admit that you like sucking dick.’
‘I don’t know who I am, that’s the fucking point! I am so fucked up that I missed my rehearsal dinner last night to sit outside a hospital waiting for you!’ Zayn’s hand shakes as he points a trainer at him. ‘I’m fucking everything up because I don’t know who I am or what I want, but you know exactly who you are, Harry. And you know what you want but you won’t even try!’
‘You know fuck all about my life!’ Harry’s hand doesn’t shake when he points back. ‘So get off your high fucking horse and stop judging me.’
Zayn shakes his head as he sits on the sofa and tugs on his socks. He won’t look at him and Harry knows that he’s thinking about the night they met, about the Helmut Newton, and his cheeks sting at the memory.
‘I didn’t know,’ Zayn says, unlacing one of his trainers. ‘I had no idea how unhappy you were. I thought I could help because thirty grand is nothing to me. I earn that in a day and it’s not fair that you have to keep doing something that you don’t want to do because your dad can’t sort his life out. But you know what?’ He stops to put the trainer on. ‘You’re right this isn’t about the money. This is about you, Harry, and how fucking scared you are to even try and be who you want to be. You’d rather put on a suit and call yourself Nathan because you’ll be anyone else but yourself.’
It hurts so much that Harry can only stare as Zayn puts on his other trainer and stands up. ‘But that’s fine. Keep blaming me and your father and you know what?’ he says with a sigh as he buttons his jeans. ‘We are to blame. I know I fucked up and that’s something I have to live with, but you can’t blame me for what you do next. That’s up to you. If you want to write a book, write a book. I mean, how hard is it? Once upon a time, some shit happens, the end. Here.’ He walks over to the desk, grabs a pencil and scribbles something across a Post-It. ‘There you go.’
He holds it up and when Harry sees that he’s written Once upon a time… he turns his cheek away. ‘You don’t need to go to Paris. If you want to do it, just do it.’
‘Yeah, 'cos it’s that easy.’
‘Actually, it is.’ Zayn shrugs. ‘When you want to do something, you do it. Do you think I want to be called a paki terrorist every week? But I do it because I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s the only fucking thing I’m good at.’
Harry can’t look at him. ‘Just go.’
‘You can’t even hear what I’m saying, can you?’ Zayn chuckles sourly. ‘This is the problem: you never listen, Harry.’
He doesn’t just step on a raw nerve, he kicks it and Harry loses it. ‘Get out!’
Zayn stares at him, his lips parted, clearly clueless as to what he’s said to send tears suddenly spilling down Harry’s cheeks. ‘I’m sorry. I-’ he starts to say, but Harry turns to face the window, looking out at the snow as it all comes back to him in a rush – Ash and all the times he wanted to skip class or asked to crash in Harry’s room when his was just across the hall. It never occurred to Harry to question why. He just thought that was Ash, but maybe he didn’t know him at all. Maybe he just knew the Ash he wanted him to be, the wild, wicked-witted Ash who made him jump into rivers and hang Santa hats from the Clare College gate. Whose restlessness made Harry itch as well.
But maybe he didn’t sit still because he couldn’t and Harry was too busy looking for his copy of Paradise Lost or trying to find the perfect song to play to notice. He’s replayed every conversation they had over those few months and stared at every photo looking for some sign, some sadness in Ash’s smile or at the corners of his eyes because it was there. It had to be and he’ll never forgive himself because people don’t kill themselves for no reason. They kill themselves for a hundred reasons that they live with and live with and live with until one day they can’t any more and Harry wasn’t there. The one time he wasn’t and he can’t even remember the last thing Ash said to him because he was late to pick up Millie.
Because he wasn’t listening.
When Harry walks out of the bank he has £7.86 left in his account, which won’t even cover his cab fare to the hospital. Not that the bank manager was in any hurry to let him withdraw it, babbling about interest rates and ISAs for ten minutes before relenting and putting the neat stacks of £50 notes into the fraying backpack Harry handed him. So he has to take it on the tube, which he can’t help but smile at because only he could be carrying around £30,000 and still not have enough money to get a cab.
His phone rings as he’s trudging towards the station, his feet crunching in the snow. It’s Christmas Eve, but despite the festive music spilling out of the shops and the sad little tree in the window of the chemist, you wouldn’t know it. But that’s one of the benefits of living in London, no one gives a shit. Not in Clapham, anyway. If he was back home, every door on his street would have a wreath on it and the neighbours would be coming and going all day, bringing Christmas cards and plates of mince pies. But here it could be any other day and he’s glad because he can’t contend with that as well. With missing the quiet comfort of home while he’s about to deliver a backpack full of cash to a man who hasn’t wished him a happy birthday since he was fifteen. So when Harry takes his phone out of the pocket of his jeans, he’s sure that it’s mother, checking to see if he’s landed yet, and his shoulders slump because it’s unforgiveable. He should have called and told her that he wasn’t coming, but he was sure that if she heard his voice, she’d know. Or maybe it’s that he didn’t want to hear her voice in case he told her everything.
Either way, he’s not taking the risk.
He’s about to reject the call when he sees that it’s Charlotte.
‘Mr Styles,’ she sings when he answers. ‘I’m not interrupting, am I?’
(Which is Charlotte for: Don’t tell me otherwise.)
Harry plays along. ‘Of course not, Charlotte.’
‘Good. I was hoping now would be a good time to have that chat about Mr Malik.’
Harry stops walking and closes his eyes.
As always, her timing is impeccable.
‘I’ll send a car.’ She says before he can object. ‘This weather is frightful.’
Half an hour later and Charlotte’s housekeeper, Marla, answers the door looking more frantic than usual. She takes Harry by the arm and literally pulls him inside, the wreath banging against the door as she shuts it and looks over her shoulder at the staircase. Harry holds his breath, expecting to see Charlotte sweep down the stairs with a tight smile, but the house is perfectly still except for the idle flicker of the church candles dotted around. He shouldn’t be surprised by how festive it looks, but it makes his stomach twist. The house is always beautiful, but today it’s particularly so, the hall looking like something from a BBC period drama with it’s clumps of candles and ivy garlands. It even smells like home, which it never does, of oranges and cloves and sticks of cinnamon. It makes him think of his mother again, of her standing at the cooker fussing over a stewpot of mulled wine, and he suddenly doesn’t know how he got there, to Charlotte’s grand hall with a backpack full of money.
‘How is she?’ Harry whispers when Marla turns to look at him again.
‘Very, very bad.’
‘Worse than last time?’
‘She sing.’ Marla nods solemnly. ‘All morning. Sing like bird.’
Harry’s heart starts to throb. ‘Oh Jesus.’
Marla makes the sign of the cross then leads him into the drawing room where Charlotte is sitting quietly, her eyes closed and her knees turned towards the fire as she listens to Handel’s Messiah. There’s a tree in the corner, a lavish spruce that looks like it should be in the lobby of hotel. It’s so perfectly balanced with it’s matching gold and glass baubles and delicate white lights that it couldn’t be more different from their one at home with it’s trails of tinsel and Gemma’s balding angel.
Charlotte would be horrified.
‘Mr Styles,’ she smiles serenely, eyelashes fluttering as she opens her eyes to look at him. ‘Thank you for coming to see me at such short notice.’
She looks him up and down as she always does, starting with his unwashed hair and moving down to his coat and jeans before stopping at his feet. He waits for her to look up again, but when she doesn’t he looks down and bites his lip when he sees the snow rimming his Converse like salt around a margarita glass.
‘Do you want me to take them off?’
Charlotte waves her hand. ‘No. No. Of course not.’
But he does, his toes curling in his damp socks as Marla bends down to pick them up. She scurries off and returns as Harry is shrugging off his coat and backpack, taking those too as Charlotte gestures at him to sit in the chair opposite his.
‘Would you like some tea?’ she asks and suddenly Marla is there, pouring them each a cup before retreating from the room with all the grace of a ninja.
In a break with tradition, the delicate petit fours and sandwiches she usually serves at this time have been replaced with mince pies and some sort of cheese board. Harry doesn’t even like cheese that much, but as soon as he looks at it, he realises that he hasn’t eaten yet and would quite happily eat the round of brie whole – rind and all – if he thought that Charlotte wouldn’t have him committed. So, as usual, everything goes untouched as she holds her cup and saucer and looks at him from under her eyelashes.
‘How are you, Harry?’
He isn’t brave enough to pick up his cup yet, his hands shaking as he grips the seat of his chair to stop himself from playing with his bottom lip. ‘Alright, thanks.’ He nods then shakes his head. ‘I’m so sorry about yesterday.’
‘Harry, please. There’s no need. I’m just glad you’re okay.’
‘Is Charles pissed off?’
‘He’s anxious. It’s been two weeks since he’s seen you. But that’s your own fault.’ She arches an eyebrow at him. ‘He wouldn’t hear of me sending someone else.’
Harry stares at the mince pies.
‘You look much better.’ When he looks up again, she’s pointing her teacup at his face. He touches his chin. ‘I take it the time away helped?’
‘It did.’ He nods. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘My pleasure. Anna says that you were a delight.’ She pauses to sip her tea. ‘Apparently Alfie has been sulking since you left.’
Harry smiles for the first time that day, but then the corners of his mouth fall as Charlotte puts her cup on the coffee table and sits up.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ he says, suddenly breathless as he tries to get in before she does.
‘Oh you do?’
‘Zayn and I-’
She holds her hand up. ‘Let’s not.’
‘I’m not angry,’ she says and he believes her, which unsettles him more because he has no idea what she’s going to say. ‘I told you this would happen, if you recall.’ The tops of his ears burn at the memory, sitting in her bright, white conservatory the morning after he met Zayn. ‘So I’m not surprised in the least by this recent turn of events. What did surprise me, however, was how upset I was when I saw you last week.’
She sits a little straighter and he stares at the mince pies again. ‘I’ve always liked you, Harry.’ She goes on. ‘But I’ve always thought you too delicate for this job. That’s another thing that surprised me, that you’ve persisted with it for so long. I thought you would have given up long ago, written that book.’ She stops and waits for him to look at her again. ‘To be honest, I thought it was the job. I know the things you have to do to be able to do it, the ways in which you harden, so I always felt rather guilty. Although not guilty enough to tell you so in case you left.’ She flashes him a wicked smile. ‘But now I know that you’re only doing this to finance your father’s gambling habit-’
‘I’m not,’ Harry snaps and he doesn’t mean to, the sound like breaking glass in the too-still house. He makes himself take a breath. ‘I love this job.’
‘No you don’t.’ Charlotte chuckles. ‘Nobody loves this job.’
‘Well, I do.’
Harry doesn’t know why he’s being defensive and wills himself to shut up as she considers it, then reaches for her cup and saucer again.
‘When you were a child did you dream of being a prostitute?’
His heart clenches like a fist. ‘Did you?’
She nods as if to say, touché. ‘I dreamt of living in a house, not a flat that I had to walk up eight flights of stairs to get to when the lift wasn’t working on an estate where my best friend was raped on the playground.’ She sips her tea slowly then licks her lips as she puts the cup back on the thin saucer. ‘I dreamt of having my own bedroom with a door I could lock and as much food as I could eat in the fridge. Of not having to wear the same pair of shoes every day and making sure I had change for the electricity meter. I have all of that now and I did what I had to do to get it. The question is why you are?’
‘Why am I what?’
‘Why are you doing this job when you don’t have to?’ It’s so brutal it winds him, his eyes swimming out of focus for a moment as his chin drops as though he can no longer support the weight of his head. When he doesn’t look at her, she says, ‘It’s time to move on, Harry.’
He looks at her then, his eyes wide. ‘Are you firing me?’
‘I prefer to call it a gentle nudge.’
‘I know that you think I don’t I understand, that I married for money, and I did.’ She shrugs elegantly. ‘But if I could have had both, don’t you think I would have? So if you can be happy, Harry, do it. If Zayn makes you happy I encourage you to pursue it.’
He stares at her. It’s everything he wanted to hear, three hours too late.
‘Yes, well.’ Harry says, sweeping his hair back with his fingers. ‘It’s a bit late now. He’s getting married tomorrow.’
‘It’s never too late, Mr Styles.’
Harry lifts his eyelashes to look at her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Men like Zayn Malik don’t react very well when presented with these sort of dilemmas. They need more than a gentle nudge.’ Harry eyes her warily, but she just smiles. ‘You and I have very different ways of approaching these things. You’re patient and seem content to let fate decide, where I prefer a more direct approach.’
She produces a large envelope from the side of the chair and Harry’s heart throws itself at his ribs. ‘I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that I’m a deeply suspicious person, Mr Styles, but it seems that on this occasion my suspicions were correct.’
Harry can’t catch his breath as she holds the envelope out to him.
He reaches for it, his hands shaking as he opens it to find a stack of photographs. They’re all of he and Zayn and his eyes swim out of focus as he looks at them – Harry getting into Zayn’s Range Rover yesterday, Zayn following him into his flat half an hour before, Harry crying on Zayn in the hospital car park – but when he gets to one of them in the stairwell at Stamford Bridge, he stops and covers his mouth with his hand.
‘Where did you get these?’
‘As I said, I knew this would happen so I’ve been keeping an eye on things.’
Harry’s stomach lurches. ‘You had me followed?’
‘I was protecting my interests and it seems that now I can protect yours.’
‘I have a friend at The Mirror.’
The Mirror. He almost laughs. The thought of Charlotte even reading a tabloid like that is ridiculous enough but he can’t imagine how she’s friends with someone who works there. What do they talk about? The football and the bloke who hasn’t stopped hiccupping for a year? Then he realises what she’s suggesting.
‘You want me to out him?’
She doesn’t flinch. ‘Sometimes you just have to rip off the plaster, Harry.’
‘He’s getting married tomorrow.’
‘What fortunate timing.’
Charlotte smiles sweetly and he laughs. ‘You’re fucking nuts.’
‘Maybe so,’ she concedes with a nod. ‘But the fact remains: if you want him to pick you, you have to remove his other options.’
The logic is chilling.
‘But he’ll never forgive me.’
‘He’ll never know.’
‘How?’ Harry holds up the photographs. ‘He’s going to know it was me.’
‘Why? You have as much to lose here.’
‘I don’t want my mum finding out what I do in a newspaper,’ Harry hears himself say and it shocks him. He can’t believe that he’s actually considering it.
‘Call and tell her now, then.’
‘But what about you? About your clients?’
‘It wouldn’t be in my friend’s interests to connect this with me.’
Harry nods. So he’s that sort of friend.
Mercifully it knocks some sense into him.
‘I can’t.’ He puts the photographs back.
‘Just think about it.’
He looks down at the envelope in his hands. ‘I’ll lose everything, Charlotte.’
‘Or you could get everything you want, Harry.’
It’s getting dark when Harry finally gets to the hospital, his heart still spinning at what Charlotte said. He demanded that he keep the photographs, but when she didn’t put up a fight, he didn’t bother to take them because he knew she had copies. The thought makes his heart spin again as he imagines the front page of The Mirror.
MALIK AND THE RENT BOY.
He has to stop halfway across the Square leading to the hospital entrance and suck in a breath as he thinks about it, his breath clouding in the cold air when he pictures his mother trying to hide from his grandmother and the crack in Gemma’s voice when she asks him why he didn’t tell her. Then he thinks of Zayn and what it would do to him, of the weeks he’d be on the front and back pages of the newspapers, his whole life splashed across them for everyone to read. Harry’s too. Every bloke he’s spoken to for more than ten minutes selling his story to pay for a trip to New York. And he realises then that Peter was right to end it when that girl saw them kissing around that not-so-quiet corner because she’ll sing like a canary. He’ll lose his job three months and he just had a baby (not that Harry’s checking Facebook to keep track of these things) and he can’t.
But then he thinks of Zayn, of waking up next to him this morning, his breath on the back of his neck, and it’s all Harry can think about. It’s all Harry thinks ever about, Zayn. Zayn. Zayn. Zayn. The curl of his mouth and weight of his hands and the way he says his name, like he’s trying to learn it. And he can’t, but it’s not fair.
So he doesn’t go up and see his father and sits in the canteen until he’s the only one left in there. Then it’s so quiet, the only thing Harry can hear is the hum of the fridges and pages turning as the woman behind the counter reads a Catherine Cookson novel. So when a nurse rushes in to grab a can of Diet Coke, the sleigh bells on her Santa hat jingling as she does, it sounds almost sinister in the deserted canteen, like something from a horror film. But then she’s gone and it’s so quiet again that he it reminds him of the poem his mother used to read on Christmas Eve.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The thought of it, of he and Gemma putting a mince pie by the fireplace for Santa (and a carrot for Rudolf) then fidgeting with excitement when their mother came to tuck them in, makes him smile. But then it fades as he thinks of all the children that will wake up here tomorrow, their stockings hanging from the ends of their beds by their charts and their parents bringing them toys they won’t be able to play with until they get home. Then he thinks of Ash and has to press a hand to his chest as he remembers leaving the hospital without him. He didn’t want to leave him there by himself and stayed long after his mother left, wandering from corridor to corridor as though he might find Ash at the end of the one of them, flirting with a nurse. But he didn’t and now Harry needs to leave someone else.
At least he can say goodbye this time.
Harry paces back and forth for a while before he finally takes a breath and goes through the double doors towards the ICU. The waiting room is busier than it was yesterday and that’s where everyone is, he realises, with their loved ones, not sitting in the canteen staring at a cup of tea.
He has to wait to use the phone, but when he asks if he can see his father, he’s surprised at how the muscles in his shoulders relax when the nurse tells him that he’s been moved to a ward. It takes Harry a while to find it, though, convinced that she told him the wrong one until he’s told that the man in the bed by the window is Terry Styles.
Harry approaches him with the sort of caution usually reserved for trying to lure a cat into it’s basket, trying not to stare as he looks for some trace of his father under the mess of cuts and bruises. But his face is so swollen, the right side of it so purple he can’t even imagine how much it hurts, that Harry is sure it isn’t him. It can’t be. He isn’t even wearing his St Christopher, the chain of which Harry snapped dozens of times as a child grabbing at, and his father never takes that off. Never. Even in the shower.
‘Terry?’ he says but even as he’s saying it, Harry knows it isn’t him. His father is a great Oak of a man with big hands and a bigger laugh, not this broken little man with swollen eyelids. But then he opens them and when Harry sees a familiar flash of blue, his heart hammers.
‘You alright, kid?’
Harry bites his tongue before he can ask if he’s okay, ignoring the tug of worry he feels as he puts the backpack on the bed. ‘Here you go.’
Terry looks at it then nods. ‘Is it all there?’
Harry shouldn’t be surprised, but he still is, worry giving way to annoyance as he puts his hands on his hips and stares at him. ‘Aren’t you even going to ask how I got it?’ When he doesn’t answer Harry shakes his head. ‘That’s thirty grand in cash.’
‘I’ll pay you back.’
‘Do you even care, Terry?’
He clearly doesn’t, his eyes on the backpack, and Harry gives up.
‘I’m a prostitute,’ he says at last. He’s never said that out loud before and he thought it would be more of a relief, but it feels more like letting go of a balloon and watching it float away. Even the sound of it, the syllables rubbing together so they come out with a hiss and a spit, is enough to turn his stomach, so he shouldn’t be offended when his father turns his face away, but it hurts more than any punch.
‘I know this is what we do.’ Harry walks around the bed to face him. When he turns his head the other way, Harry does it again, his hands balled into fists at his sides as his father gets the message and lifts his chin, even if he doesn’t quite look him in the eye. ‘I know this is what we do, pretend not to see stuff, but I need you to see this. I need you to take one last look at me because that thirty grand is how much this costs.’ Harry points at the space between them. ‘Because I am done. I know I say that every time, but I mean it this time. There’s nothing left.’ He presses his hands to his chest. ‘I have nothing left for you. I can’t keep waiting for you to call or to remember my birthday. And I can’t be any more than I am and if that isn’t good enough for you, then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t love you any more or any harder and I’m done trying to.’
When Harry stops to suck in a breath, he can feel everyone on the ward looking at him, but he doesn’t care because that is a relief, saying it at last. But as he’s about to turn and walk away, Terry lifts his chin and looks him in the eye for the first time.
‘Did you know that you were two weeks early?’
Harry rolls his eyes and sighs because he knows this story. How the car broke down on the way to the hospital and he’s named after the paramedic with the steady hands and calm smile who delivered him and wrapped him up in his father’s jumper.
‘From the moment you were born, I couldn’t keep up with you.’ Terry chuckles and it sounds so genuine that it makes something in Harry soften. ‘I struggled with Gemma, but you.’ He shakes his head and suddenly he isn’t there any more, the corners of his mouth drooping. ‘You wouldn’t stay still when I changed your nappy or I’d put you on the sofa and you’d roll off and have a nasty bruise on your forehead for weeks.’
Terry stops and when he looks at him again, his eyes are wet. ‘Do you remember when you fell in the pond at the park?’
Harry frowns at him. ‘When?’
‘When you were four. I don’t even know how it happened. I was talking to our neighbour, Mrs Lawlor. Do you remember her?’ Harry nods. She was lovely but mad as a box of snakes. She used to walk to the supermarket in her pyjamas. ‘She was crying about losing her dog. She didn’t even have a dog, but I was trying to calm her down and you were right there, I swear. Then you weren’t and I heard this woman screaming and all I could think was, Please don’t be Harry. Please don’t be Harry. But it was you.’
‘I don’t remember it at all.’
‘Your mum was so mad.’ He chuckles again, but it’s sharper this time. ‘She kicked me out. Took you and Gem to Cyprus. Told me she wasn’t coming back.’
Harry notes the change in his tone and his spine tightens. ‘How is that my fault?’
‘I never said it was.’ He frowns then winces as it tugs on the stitches laced across his left cheek. Harry steps forward to do something, but doesn’t know what. ‘It was my fault,’ he admits, gingerly touching his cheek. ‘I’m a terrible father. Always have been. You’re better off without me.’
‘Is that what you think?’ Harry asks, the floor under his feet not as steady.
‘Robin’s a good man. He’s the father you should have had.’
Harry steps back and shakes his head. ‘The last time I saw you.’ He stops, to take the words wobbling as he remembers Terry counting through the holdall of cash he gave him and holding up one of the notes to the light as though he was at a till at Tesco. ‘You said you never wanted to see me again.’
‘I didn’t. I can’t fucking bear to look at you.’
‘But why?’ Harry can’t stop the tear that skids hot and fast down his cheek. ‘What did I do?’
Terry smiles for the first time. ‘You grew up to be a better man than me.’
It’s snowing again when he leaves the hospital and Harry stands in it for a while, feeling the flakes melt into his hot cheeks as he summons the energy to walk to the tube. There’s a man in a dressing gown out in it, too, a IV stand at his side, and Harry figures that he’s doing the same thing, that he’s relishing the small moment of quiet. Then Harry sees the cigarette between his fingers and usually he’d be disgusted, but he thinks of Zayn and realises that there are worse things to be addicted to. So when he switches his phone back on to find six voicemails from him, Harry’s heart sings. He says the same thing in each one – he’s sorry, they need to talk, he’s staying in the Park Suite at the Dorchester – and Harry doesn’t know if it’s seeing his father or hearing Zayn’s voice get weaker and weaker with each message, but before he can stop himself, he walks towards the road and hails the first black cab he sees.
‘The Dorchester,’ he tells the driver when he climbs in, hoping he has enough in his wallet to get there. He does – just – and when the doorman in the bottle green jacket and top hat opens the door of the taxi, Harry smiles.
‘How’s it going, Ted?’
‘Good evening, Mr Styles.’
‘Very. Thank you, Mr Styles,’ he says with a gracious nod, opening the door. ‘Merry Christmas. I hope to see you again in the New Year.’
Harry nods back and walks into the polished lobby. The Park Suite was Karl’s favourite, too, and Harry’s stomach knots as he wonders if that’s why Zayn booked it. His legs shake a little at the thought as he walks towards the lifts, but as he’s approaching them, he sees someone coming towards him struggling with a huge vase of flowers.
‘Nope,’ she says and he lunges forward in time to catch them. He almost doesn’t, his fingers slipping as water splashes out of the vase onto his hands and through his Converse to soak his already wet socks, but he manages to hold on.
‘Oh my God! Sorry!’ he hears the woman say as he gets a faceful of pink roses.
He can’t help but laugh as he does, steadying himself and the vase. But when he looks up to tell her not to worry, his heart stops.
‘Are you okay?’ she asks, eyelashes catching in her fringe.
Harry can’t move as he stares at her, his fingers almost slipping on the vase again. She looks younger than he remembers – fresher – her hair pulled up into an untidy bun on the top of her head and her eyes so blue it makes him yearn for summer.
‘Careful,’ she warns looking down at the puddle of water at their feet as she tries to take the vase back. She can’t hold onto it, though, her little hands slipping and spilling more water over them. The concierge rushes over to help.
‘Miss Price,’ he gasps. ‘Let me. I would have brought these up.’
Now all three of them are holding the vase and Harry should let go, he knows, but he can’t. His gaze still on her as she insists that she’s fine.
‘I needed to get out of the room, Mark. I’ve been stuck in there all day,’ she says with a melodramatic sigh, blowing at her fringe.
‘Allow me,’ the concierge says, trying to take the vase, but Harry smiles sharply.
‘I’ve got it.’
The concierge shakes his head. ‘Please, sir. I’m happy to.’
‘I said I’ve got it,’ Harry says more firmly this time.
The sudden edge in his voice surprises him as Coco peers at them over the bouquet. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but she’s there. Her. The woman Zayn loves more than him and he wants to know why. He has to know why her and not him.
The concierge steps back. ‘As you wish, Sir.’
‘You’re a bit intense. Should I be worried?’ she asks, eyeing Harry through her fringe as they continue towards the lifts, his arms already aching under the weight of the vase. ‘You’re not going to kill me, are you?’
Harry’s startled. ‘Yes,’ he says, trying to fight a smile and failing. ‘I’m going to murder you and steal your flowers.’
‘You heard that, right?’ she says to the woman waiting for the lift, who has the sense to edge closer to her husband when it arrives.
‘This might be the last time anyone sees me,’ she tells them pointing at Harry as he follows them into the lift. ‘Remember that face.’
The couple are clearly terrified and exit swiftly on the second floor, muttering something in Italian. Coco laughs as soon as the doors close then turns to look at Harry who’s beginning to sweat as he wishes that she was on the third floor, not the top.
‘Are you dying?’ she asks, tilting her head at him.
Harry smiles tightly, his arms throbbing now. ‘Not at all.’
‘So you don’t mind if I press all the buttons?’ She does and when the panel lights up and Harry’s eyes widen, she winks. ‘I won’t think less of you if you put it down.’
‘Thank you.’ Harry lets go of a breath, putting the vase on the floor at his feet.
‘Sorry.’ She giggles when he straightens and rubs the small of his back with his hand. ‘My aunt went a bit overboard. She can’t make it to my wedding tomorrow so she’s compensating with roses. Everyone is. My room’s full of flowers.’
‘The snow. My fiancé’s from Bradford and I’m from Wiltshire so half our friends and family can’t make it now.’
Harry hadn’t considered that and it unsettles him how bad he feels.
‘Yeah, but think how pretty it will be,’ he says and he doesn’t know why he’s trying to comfort her. He should be thrilled. ‘Like Doctor Zhivago.’
‘That’s the theme!’ She grins, her nose wrinkling. ‘Everything’s white.’
‘See? You can’t do Doctor Zhivago without snow.’
‘I know.’ She nods sadly when the lift finally gets to the top floor – via every one inbetween – holding the doors open as he bends down to pick up the vase. ‘It’s our own fault. We thought we were being so crafty.’
She nods to the left, taking her key card out of the back pocket of her jeans. ‘We both wanted a small wedding but my finance has a lot of, how shall I put this delicately?’ She pretends to think about it. ‘Acquaintances who are more concerned with the free bar than the boring wedding bit. But we couldn’t not invite them so we figured that only the people who really love us would come to a wedding on Christmas Day.’
‘That is crafty,’ Harry says, heaving a sigh of relief when she finally stops at one of the doors.
‘But then the snow came.’
She sighs and when she opens it, he takes a step back as the smell of flowers hits him. She’s right, her suite is full of flowers, vases and vases of them on every surface, and as he follows her into the sitting room to find even more, something in him sags as he realises how many people won’t be coming to the wedding.
‘Half,’ she says when she sees Harry staring at them. ‘A white Christmas, who knew? We haven’t had one for years.’
‘It’ll be okay,’ he tells her, walking over to the dining table and putting the vase down next to an elaborately wrapped fruit basket.
‘I know, but my grandmother can’t come and I’m wearing her dress.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She looks so sad that he finds himself resisting the urge to hug her, but then she lifts her chin to look at him from under her fringe.
‘For a serial killer you’re alright.’
He laughs suddenly, his chest warm. ‘Thanks.’
‘But I’m trying not to think about it because there’s nothing I can do, right?’ She holds her hands up and takes a deep breath. ‘Besides my fiancé says that he’ll get her here and he’s scarily determined when he sets his mind to something.’
Harry can’t look at her, his heart beating so hard he wonders if she can hear it. ‘Yeah?’
‘He’s not so good with the words. If I’m having a bad day, all he says is, It’ll be alright, babe,’ she mimics his Bradford accent perfectly, ‘and kisses me on the forehead. Which is fine because I talk and talk and talk.’ She tilts her head from side to side. ‘So we balance each other out. You know?’
‘And he’s better with practical things. He might not know what to say, but he always knows what to do. He’ll rub my feet or run me a bath. So if he says that my grandmother will be at the wedding tomorrow, she’ll be at the wedding tomorrow.’
Harry smiles carefully. ‘I hope so.’
‘Oh my God. I’m sorry. Do you see what I mean about the talking thing?’ She points to her mouth. ‘But I’m going stir crazy in this room by myself.’
Harry looks around. ‘Shouldn’t you have a gaggle of bridesmaids around you?’
‘I stupidly thought it would be a good idea to spend tonight alone and get my head together. But I’m just wandering around the hotel talking to serial killers.’
He smiles as she starts fiddling with her necklace and when he does, she catches herself and apologises again. ‘I’m Coco, by the way.’ She shows him the silver bean pendant and Harry’s nerves twist as he wonders if Zayn bought it for her. ‘My dad got it for me,’ she says and Harry lets go of a breath and smiles a little wider. ‘That’s my nickname, Bean. You know, like cocoa bean. Most people think I’m named after the clown, but my mum was so addicted to Dairy Milk when she was pregnant with me that my dad was sure I’d come out wrapped in purple foil!’ She presses her finger and thumb to the pendant. ‘He died last year.’
‘It wasn’t me.’ Harry laughs then flushes, the tops of his ears stinging as he asks himself why the fuck he just said that. Mercifully, she laughs as well. ‘Who’s going to walk you down the aisle?’ Harry asks, moving on as swiftly as he can.
‘My little brother.’
‘I know it’s not the same, but as a little brother myself, it would be an honour to walk my sister down the aisle.’
She smiles and it startles him how good it makes him feel.
‘I’d better go.’ He thumbs at the door.
‘Thanks for not killing me.’
He tries to smile but he can’t.
As soon as he’s in the corridor, Harry closes his eyes and asks himself what he’s doing.
As if on cue Charlotte calls.
‘Mr Styles,’ she says smoothly when he answers. ‘How are you?’
He ignores her for once, too panicked for pleasantries. ‘What have you done with the photos, Charlotte?’
‘What would like me to do with the photos?’
He turns to look at the door to Coco’s suite and he feels doubly betrayed because she was supposed to be nasty and shallow and only marrying Zayn for his money. But in the end, as he thinks of her in her suite full of flowers, it makes the decision easier.
Charlotte waits a moment then says, ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. Just get rid of them, please.’
‘You must love him very much.’
He almost laughs because of all the people to know that, he never thought it would be Charlotte.
‘If I loved him wouldn’t I want to do what I could to get him?’
‘That’s the thing, Harry,’ she says, and he pictures her in her grand drawing room, the fire flickering, and it’s almost enough to make him smile. ‘When you love someone, really love them, you care about their happiness more than your own.’
‘You’re right,’ Harry tells him when Zayn opens the door to his suite. ‘I wasn’t listening.’
Zayn’s face lights up, then it falls when Harry doesn’t smile back. ‘Don’t.’
‘Don’t what?’ Harry asks when Zayn steps back to let him in.
Zayn ignores him, walking over to a sideboard and pouring himself a drink from one of the decanters. He knocks it back in one then pours himself another before turning to hold the decanter up to Harry. He refuses, too distracted by the suite. It’s gorgeous and almost the opposite of Coco’s. Where hers is delicate with chandeliers and painted wallpaper, his is wood panelled with a vast view of Hyde Park, which, even in the dark, looks utterly magical in the snow. But that’s not why he’s distracted as he watches Zayn down the second glass of scotch. He fucked Karl over that sideboard, so hard the decanters shivered, and on the dining table and over the arm of the sofa, and Harry suddenly feels sick as he wonders if Zayn did, too.
‘This is a £3,000 a night suite. Why are you staying here when you live ten minutes away?’ Harry asks and he doesn’t mean it to sound as bitter as it does, but he can’t stop thinking of Zayn and Karl, in here, fucking under Egyptian cotton sheets.
‘My parents were supposed to stay here,’ he explains, pouring himself another drink. ‘But they can’t come because of the snow. It seemed a shame to waste it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry says, guilt nudging at him.
‘Before you say whatever it is that you’re going to say.’ Zayn turns and points the glass at him. ‘Can I just say one thing?’ Harry really doesn’t want him to, terrified that he’ll lose his nerve, but Zayn doesn’t wait. ‘I know I fucked this up. I fucked this up so bad and I don’t know how it happened.’ He puts his other hand to his chest. ‘I swear. I didn’t mean for this to happen. If I had any control over it, I would have stopped it.’
Harry feels it like a needle in his throat.
‘I don’t know how this happened,’ Zayn says, his voice a little higher. ‘When I moved to London everything was perfect. And Coco.’ He stops to rub his forehead with his hand. ‘She was so sweet and funny and kind and I remember, about a month after we met, we were sitting on her sofa.’ He smiles suddenly, his gaze flicking to the window and when he goes on, his voice is softer – looser – as something in him is unraveling. ‘Always her sofa because she hates my house. She says it’s like an airport hanger and compared to her flat, I suppose it is.’ He tilts his head then catches himself, turning to look at Harry again. ‘Yeah. So we were sitting on her sofa watching a film, eating Ferrero Rocher, because they’re her favourite chocolates. Not the ones I had imported from Belgium that she said tasted like medicine, but the £10 ones I bought from a fucking petrol station.’
He stops and when he looks into his glass, Harry wants to tell him to stop because he can’t bear it, but he’s never heard him say so much. ‘Anyway. So we’re eating Ferrero Rocher and watching this shitty Mark Wahlberg film I made her watch in exchange for the chocolates, and I remember turning to her and thinking, why does no one love this girl? This sweet girl with the fringe that she can’t see for and the chipped yellow nail polish.’ He shrugs. ‘I must have said it out loud because she asked me the same thing and I was so stunned because no one has ever asked me that. People think that everyone loves me, but they don’t. They love Zayn Malik, number 17. They don’t love me, you know?’
He lifts his eyelashes to look at him and Harry nods.
‘So I thought, okay, it’s not perfect, but it’s enough.’ Zayn smiles to himself again. ‘So I made her this ring out of one of the gold wrappers and stuck the little Ferrero Rocher sticker in the middle of it and I thought it would be one of those stories we told, you know? When people asked, we could tell them about the ring I made her out of a Ferrero Rocher wrapper. And for a second, I was so happy. I don’t know how he knew.’ He shakes his head and sighs bitterly. ‘But Karl called that night and well, here we are and I’m sorry.’ He shakes his head. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Me, too.’ Harry nods, putting his hands on his hips and looking down at his feet. ‘But it’s not all your fault. I’ve been a pain in the arse. You’re right: I wasn’t listening this morning. You’re not trying to get rid of me. You want me to go to Paris because it’s what’s best for me, not you.’
Zayn’s shoulders fall. ‘Yes.’ He takes a step towards him. ‘The thought of never seeing you again makes me sick. I can’t even think about it. But I’m being selfish. I want both of you and why should I have it all when you get nothing? That isn’t fair.’
Harry looks at him for a moment as though he’s trying to memorise everything – the pink of his mouth, the curl of his eyelashes, the tiny mole on the bridge of his nose that looks like a dot of ink – but he knows that he’ll never be able to remember it all, that Zayn will always be this unknowable, untouchable thing he will spend the rest of his days writing about.
So Harry shrugs. ‘I guess that’s it.’
Zayn looks into his empty glass. ‘So are you gonna go?’
‘I don’t need to go to Paris to write a book. I can write one anywhere. It’s not that hard, apparently. Once upon a time, some shit happens, the end.’
Zayn laughs, his eyes suddenly brighter. ‘Whoever said that is very wise.’
‘I think it was Kafka.’
Harry waits for Zayn to laugh again, but when he doesn’t, just continues to gaze into his empty glass, he walks over to him and presses his forehead to his. The sudden shock of skin on skin is enough to knock the air right out of him, but when Zayn nudges him with his nose and says, ‘This can’t be it’ Harry’s sure he’ll never breathe again.
‘I know,’ he says, taking Zayn’s face in his hands and lifting his chin to look at him. ‘But the thing is, even if you chose me, I don’t think I could make you happy. I can’t even make myself happy. There was this guy-’ Harry starts to say, but has to stop as tears gather at the corners of his eyes. ‘Please be happy. That’s all I want. So if you think this is enough, do it. Get a house and a dog and a Volvo and be so happy that you can’t remember why you ever thought you’d be better off with me.’
Harry looks at him one last time then kisses him and when Zayn holds him, he thinks that he won’t let go. But he does, and that’s the last time Harry sees Zayn Malik.
THREE YEARS LATER
I will remember the kisses, our lips raw with love,
and how you gave me everything you had
and how I offered you what was left of me.
~ Charles Bukowski
Harry wonders if he’ll ever get used to this, to seeing the words that were once scribbled into his Moleskine committed to paper. He almost doesn’t recognise them, the neat black letters somehow not his any more, like passing a friend he hasn’t spoken to for years in the street. But they are his, even if they don’t look like them. It’s only when he reads them aloud that they become his own again. When he hears himself saying each sentence and remembers why he had to write it down. That’s something only he will know. And while his editor will shuffle them about and the reviewers will look under them for things that aren’t there, only he knows what each one means.
So he doesn’t need to read from the book, but that’s something he still isn’t used to, either, to reading to a roomful of people. Maybe it’s a crutch, the perfect paragraphs steadying him when his heart gallops and the words wobble. Or maybe it’s something to look at so his gaze doesn’t wander, looking for a flash of black hair, because there never is. Harry was sure that he’d hear from Zayn when the book came out, that he’d see the review in the Guardian or see it at an airport as he was killing time before a flight. But then Harry was sure that he’d hear from him when he got injured, then after the divorce, then when he moved back to Bradford to start working with the kids from his old neighbourhood. He never uses his real name, but every time he talks about the book, he’s talking to Zayn, talking to anyone that will listen in the hope that it will somehow get to him, a message – a novel – in a bottle. But it hasn’t and it’s a terrible thing, to write a book because you can’t move on, while the person you wrote it about does.
So it’s an exquisite torture, talking about it every day, but as each one passes and the memory of Zayn gets a little blurrier, the book reminds him that it did happen because sometimes he’s not so sure. The funny thing is, he wanted to forget. At first he forgot just enough to get him out of bed in the morning – the smell of him, the soft hair on the nape of his neck, the tiny mole on the bridge of his nose that looks like a dot of ink. Then, when that wasn’t enough, it was the little things, his shirt that was the colour of Parma Violets and the pendants on his necklace that Harry would press between his finger and thumb when they kissed. Finally it was the big things, the things only Harry knew, like the way he said his name. But now, when he lies in the middle of his bed, staring into the dark, Harry wants it all back. He wants to remember everything, because to forget, to feel anything other than the unreachable pain in his chest that can’t be written away or kissed away or fucked away, would be a betrayal. He wants to wrap each memory in tissue paper and put it in a drawer so on those nights, when he’s mad with it, when his heart won’t settle as he pictures Zayn, sleeping soundly, he can take them out and look at them. Turn over each one in his hand until he’s assured that it happened. That for those few months, he was loved. That’s why he wrote the book. Not just because he had to, because those things are all he has left, but because he wants his happy ending.
Even if he has to write it himself.
‘Hello, I’m Harry Styles,’ he says with a small wave, trying not to look too closely at the crowd huddled in front of him. ‘Thanks for coming. I’m going to read to you from my book, Paper Hearts, but my French is appalling so I’ll stick to English, if you don’t mind.’
There’s a polite chuckle and when Harry stops to lick his lips, his heart is beating so fast that he feels almost superhuman, like he can hear a hundred different things at once. The chatter floating up through the open window from the street below, the wooden stairs groaning grumpily as people go up and down the staircase with handfuls of books, the boats chugging along the Seine as the guide points out Notre Dame and tells the story of how it was rededicated to the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution. He’s even sure he can hear the pink geraniums in the window box swaying idly in the breeze, but he can’t, of course. All he can hear is his heart in his ears and the shuffle of shoes as more people squeeze into the tiny back room.
He’s sure it’s just curiosity, the tourists lingering to see what’s going on as they take photos of the sign over the door. Harry took a photo of it as well – BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE – the first time he came here, the summer before he went to Cambridge when his heart felt brand new, like a new pair of shoes he was yet to wear in. He checked where his book would sit on the cluttered shelves (between Darin Strauss and William Styron) and sure enough, there it is. It’s moments like that, when his heart sheds its skin so it feels brand new again, that Harry feels like he can do anything. He doesn’t know when he forgot that. When he stopped checking bookshelves to see where his would sit, but maybe Zayn didn’t break him after all. Maybe he showed him a way to make the broken bits of him fit back together. Perhaps that’s love, fighting the urge to fix someone because they have to fix themselves.
‘I wonder if this is growing up,’ Harry reads aloud, the words swaying slightly as he stops to lick his lips again. ‘Waiting until I’m home to press my cheek to the bathroom floor and cry. For the first time in a long time, I don’t shove or shout. Don’t try to leave a mark. But I hope I do. I hope that there are nights when he can’t sleep and he doesn’t know why. That there are songs that he finds himself listening to on repeat at 4 a.m. when everyone else is asleep and he’s smoking a cigarette he makes last until he feels the burn of the filter. That’s where I am. Not in any photographs. Not in a shoebox of things he can’t bear to throw out. Things other couples have – cinema tickets and seashells. I am a name it hurts to hear. A bruise that will never heal. And I know this is growing up: being kind enough not to remind him.’
The applause is warm, his agent beaming as someone issues directions on where to buy a book if they want it signed. It’s all a little overwhelming. This is something he isn’t used to, either. Every book he signs is different – sometimes he signs it Harry, sometimes Harry Styles, sometimes just HS – because he never thought to practise it. He wonders if he ever will. If in five years he’ll be so blasé about it that he won’t even think, just write a squiggle before reaching for the next book. And he isn’t used to the photographs, either, people wanting to pose with him as though he’s a pop star. Today it’s a couple who can’t be much older than he was the first time he came to Paris that summer before he went to Cambridge.
‘We couldn’t get tickets to see you at the Edinburgh Festival,’ the taller guy explains. ‘So we decided to come here. Make a weekend of it.’
They exchange a glance and Harry has to look away because it feels like he’s intruding.
‘I made my mum read this,’ he goes on, clutching the book to his chest. ‘She cried and said that as long as he,’ he nods at his boyfriend, who rolls his eyes theatrically, ‘loves me as much as Damien loves Rav, she’s happy.’
‘Thanks.’ Harry smiles clumsily, so stunned he doesn’t know how to respond.
But then the guy smiles knowingly at him. ‘I hope you find your Rav.’
He means well, but Harry still feels it like a punch, smiling kindly as he signs the book. His hand shakes as he gives it back and it shakes for the rest of the signing, his signature messier than usual as he fights the tears needling the back of his eyes. But he holds it together, smiling for photographs and not spelling anyone’s name wrong until the crowd thins and his hand begins to ache.
As usual, it’s a blur, Harry barely looking up, so he sees his hand first. Sees the deep creases in his knuckles and his smooth, almond shaped nails, and he’s scared to look up in case it isn’t him. But he does and it is and Harry almost laughs.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asks, staring at him as though he’s devouring him, gobbling him up in case this is all he gets. These few minutes. He looks the same, but different, all at once. He’s thinner, his cheekbones sharper, but he somehow looks softer, too. All big eyes and eyelashes.
‘It wasn’t enough,’ Zayn tells him with an elegant shrug and Harry’s heart does that thing, the thing it does every time he looks at him.
He almost drops the book when he takes it from him. He must have seen the dedication – This isn’t about you – at least a hundred times, but at last, under it he can write, Maybe it is. Because it’s just like Harry to say in eighty thousand words, what he could have said in three.
Once upon a time there was a boy with curly hair who thought anything was possible. A cardboard box could be a robot. A stick a sword. A sheet a ghost. He grew up with paper cuts on his fingers from reading books that told stories of faraway places. Of hobbits and talking dogs and boys who liked to pretend they’ve been shot. But his father said he read too much, that he was missing things, as though what was happening beyond the edges of his page was better than hobbits and talking dogs and boys who liked to pretend they’ve been shot. But then his father left so he read another book because in life people leave, but they never do in books. So he was never alone because he had so many friends. Friends with paper hearts and the smell of ink on their breath, who made him laugh and cry and want to fly. And that’s all he wanted, to be in a book. To live forever on someone’s shelf until they pick him up and let him tell his story.
Once upon a time there was a boy with black hair who thought anything was possible. A pebble could be a football. An alley a field. A garage door a goal. He grew up with paper cuts on his fingers from reading comic books that told stories of heroes. Of bravery and justice and bones that can’t break. But his father said that he read too much, that he was wasting his talent, as though the world beyond the edges of his page could be any brighter. But his father was right. And while he can’t save damsels in distress or leap tall buildings in a single bound, when he kicks a ball he’s invincible. So when he meets a boy with curly hair who’s forgotten that he’s invincible, too, he reminds him, because there’s more than one way to save someone.
Once upon a time a boy with curly hair met a boy with black hair and they lived in an untidy house with a very old dog called Alfie. They slept until noon and read to each other in bed and even though they argued about everything, they lived happily ever after.
This ending is shamelessly sentimental and I make no apologies for this whatsoever. Much love to all of you who have taken the time to read/rec/rebog this. You’re so kind. If you’ve been in touch here or at tumblr, I really appreciate it. I'm going to miss you yelling at me and sharing your theories on what you think is going to happen next. I hope these two have the ending you were hoping for. xx
[ETA: I'm never sure what the etiquette is when replying to comments, but please know that I cherish every one. If you have any questions, or if you just fancy a chat, you're always welcome at my tumblr. I may even make you a cup of tea! xx]
Chapter 10: Keep the Sleigh Running
tw for use of homophobic language
FIVE YEARS LATER
‘Don’t get mad, okay?’ Harry says, walking into the bedroom with his hands up. Zayn’s heart stops, of course, because even though he’s known Harry for five years, he still never knows what he’s about to do next. And while that’s what he loves most about him, his ability to constantly surprise him, to make his cheeks burn and his hands shake, it’s not always good for his heart.
‘What did you do?’ Zayn asks, holding his breath. His hands still, his shirt half buttoned as he waits for Harry to tell him. Then Talia totters in, and the edges of his heart soften like they always do when he sees her. Later, when she asks how she ended up in their untidy, slightly chaotic house full of books and stray animals, Zayn will tell her about that rainy night in January when the social worker turned up with this bundle and handed it to him, telling him the story of how she’d been left under a bench outside the Royal London hospital with a note that read, I love her so much, but it’s not enough in Urdu. Zayn still has the note. He almost had the words tattooed to across his chest – over his heart – but they’re too precious to be mixed in with his other tattoos. Skulls and snakes and red lips that he’d never regret, but were from a sillier time.
Besides, he doesn’t need to get it tattooed to him to remember that night. How he pulled back the blanket wrapped around her as though he was unpeeling an orange to find this little face, her right fist raised and her fingers uncurling when Zayn said, Hello as if she was saying hello back.
Two years later and he loves her even more somehow – somewhere inside him, in his bones, his marrow – as if each day it digs in a little deeper. He loves her in a different way than he loves Harry. Bright, beautiful, brilliant Harry who always makes him feel like he can’t catch his breath. Like he’s falling. He often thinks that falling in love with Harry wasn’t something that happened once, that night in the club, Harry sitting there like a gilded first edition in a basketful of paperbacks, but something that happened again and again. The first time he smiled. The first time he flew through his front door uninvited and showed himself to Zayn, like a red rag to a bull. The first time they kissed. The first time Zayn saw him cry. It’s something that keeps happening. That never ends. Just when he thinks that he loves Harry with every bit of him – with his heart and his hands and his fucking fingernails – Harry will do something to make him feel like he’s falling again.
But with Talia it’s the opposite. Zayn loves her in a way that is immovable, unshakeable. It’s a love that will never waver, that he will never doubt. There is nothing she can say or do that will ever not make him love her. The way his father loves him. So when she follows Harry into the bedroom, all big eyes and cola coloured curls, it’s all Zayn can do not to scoop her up and bite her cheek, but he feigns indignation.
When Zayn puts his hands on his hips with a sigh, Harry holds a finger up. ‘Wait!’ he says then nods at Talia who twirls. She looks so cute that Zayn has to fight a smile when he arches an eyebrow at him.
‘Is that the Vivienne Westwood dress we said we weren’t going to buy her because she’ll have grown out of it by the end of the evening?’
Alfie pads in then, tail wagging. ‘Don’t,’ Zayn tells him as he heads for the bed, but the dog ignores him, jumping up on it and promptly falling asleep.
Zayn throws his hands up. ‘Does anyone in this house listen to me?’
‘Don’t be mad. Look,’ Harry says, nodding at Talia who twirls again, fluffing up the layers of taffeta with her hands with a mischievous grin that’s not unlike her father’s.
‘It’s tartan.’ He points at the dress. ‘It’s Christmas. Tartan is festive.’
‘But we said-’
‘Twirl for daddy, baby. Show him your pretty dress.’ Harry claps. Talia does and Zayn wonders how long they’ve been practising this routine.
‘I know I promised, but don’t be mad,’ Harry whines when Zayn strides over to the wardrobe and opens the doors. He jumps back as Zayn flings a purple bag at him. He catches it and when he recovers, he scowls across the bedroom at him.
‘You bought it for her as well?’ Harry holds up the bag shakes it. ‘You promised!’
‘I was going to give it to her for Christmas.’
‘What are we going to do with two of them?’
‘I dunno,’ Zayn mutters, reaching into the wardrobe. ‘She may as well wear the shoes I promised not to buy her in Milan as well.’
He throws the box at Harry and he catches it with a chuckle. ‘Your father has no self control,’ he tells Talia, picking her up and carrying her over to the bed. Alfie doesn’t flinch when he sets her down, her little legs hanging off the edge.
‘Well, you’d know that more than any one,’ Zayn murmurs, finishing buttoning his shirt with a smile that’s enough to make Harry’s cheeks pink.
‘Tonight’s a big night for daddy,’ Harry reminds Talia as he takes one of the shoes out of the box and slips it onto her foot. ‘He’s getting an award.’
She lifts her little chin defiantly. ‘My ‘ward.’
‘Yes, your award.’ Harry nods, putting the other shoe on her. ‘But also daddy’s award for being Manager of the Year.’
Talia holds up her hand and Zayn leans down to high five her, then picks her up and kisses her warm cheek. ‘You wanna help daddy pick out a tie, meri jaan?’ he asks, walking back across the bedroom to the wardrobe. She points to the brightest one, of course – the red and yellow Ferrari one that Harry bought him last Christmas as a joke – but when he goes to tug it off the rack, Harry stops him.
‘How about this one, baby?’ he suggests, reaching for a pomegranate coloured one that goes better with his suit. ‘See? It matches your dress.’ Harry holds it up with that sell-ice-to-Eskimos-smile of his and it happens again; Zayn loves him so much that he doesn’t know what to do with it, like a milk pan boiling over.
Of course Talia nods and points at it. ‘That one.’
‘Thank you,’ Zayn mouths when he takes the tie from Harry, leaning over to press a kiss to his mouth.
‘Meray baba jaan!’ Talia hits Harry’s cheek and Zayn can’t help but chuckle, thrilled to be her favourite this week. Harry blinks at her then takes her hand and puts it in his mouth, pretending to eat it. She shrieks with delight and Zayn can’t help but kiss him again. The fact that it earns Harry another slap merely a bonus.
Harry’s quiet on the drive back to Kingham. Zayn tells himself that it’s because he’s tired. He is too; it’s been along day, what with the drive into London in Friday afternoon traffic then the award ceremony and the dinner they didn’t eat because so many people came over to congratulate him and fuss over Talia. Even Alex Ferguson was besotted with her, complimenting her on her tartan dress then asking if she minded having her photo taken with him. She agreed with a shrug, the memory of it making Zayn smile until he sees Harry sneak a look over his shoulder at her in the back seat, fast asleep in her favourite skeleton pyjamas.
‘She’s still there,’ Zayn tells him when he turns back to look at the motorway, the headlights from the Range Rover rolling out ahead of them like two white carpets. But Harry doesn’t answer, just starts chewing on the skin of his knuckle.
‘The solicitor says it’s a done deal,’ Zayn says, his voice too high as he tries to sound nonchalant even though he feels anything but, the thought of something going wrong making his stomach lurch. ‘The paperwork will be sorted next week.’
Harry turns his cheek to look out the window. ‘What if it isn’t, though?’
He doesn’t say it, but Zayn still feels it. ‘That was different,’ he says, fingers tightening around the steering wheel. ‘Will’s mum wanted him back.’
‘Yeah. When she found out who you were.’
Zayn’s stomach lurches again so suddenly, he’s sure he’s going to be sick. ‘We won’t have that problem with Tal,’ he says, his voice still too high with faux cheer as he looks in the rear view mirror at her as Harry looks over his shoulder to do the same.
‘I hope not,’ he says when he turns back. ‘’Cos I can’t do that again.’
Zayn bites down on his bottom lip because what can he say? This is his fault. They could have adopted like every other gay couple, but after he got injured, swiftly followed by the divorce when Coco suggested it was the perfect time to start a family and Zayn had to admit to himself – and to her – that she wasn’t the one he wanted to start a family with, he went home to Bradford. Without football, he had no idea what to do with himself, and ended up teaching the local kids how to play. That became a youth centre, then an academy and before he knew it, he was rolling out similar programs across the country, which is how he ended up back in London, managing West Ham. So yeah, he and Harry could have adopted, but he’d come into contact with so many kids who needed a home over those three years they spent apart that he wanted to foster. They knew it would be painful, but nothing can prepare you for Social Services coming to take the kid you’re a week away from adopting because his mother thinks that she can make a few quid selling her story to the papers.
‘Well, I think this is the,’ Zayn stops and pretends to count, ‘only time being a gay Muslim man in a mixed race relationship will work in my favour.’ Harry tries to hide his smile behind his hand, but Zayn sees it, even in the dark of the car. ‘There will be an uproar if our adoption application is rejected. Even the Daily Mail is behind us. Look at the shit they gave me when I came out. How long did we hide at your mother’s? A month?’
Harry chuckles at that. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle!’ he says, sneaking one last look over his shoulder at Talia before reaching for Zayn’s hand across the console.
By the time they get back to the cottage, it’s almost one in the morning so Zayn’s surprised to see Mrs Dickson running up the driveway towards him in her dressing gown.
‘You okay, Sarah?’ Zayn asks with a frown, gesturing at Harry to take Talia, who’s still fast asleep and clinging to Harry like a pyjamaed starfish, inside.
She smiles sweetly and he relaxes. He’ll admit that when Harry suggested they buy the cottage from Charlotte, he laughed, sure that the prim residents of Kingham would be appalled at the gay couple moving in. He knew they’d accept Harry, the Cambridge graduate who’d been nominated for the Booker, but a half-Pakistani former football player? Especially after everything that happened in London. (The Daily Mail didn’t bother to contain their glee when he was arrested for knocking that bloke out in Waitrose.) He knew it would be hard, but he wasn’t expecting that, to be called a faggot while he was deliberating between a raspberry and a strawberry yogurt. But then, he would never have won Manager of the Year if he hadn’t been asked to leave West Ham, the players more concerned with leaving dildos and lube on his desk than listening to his strategy for that weekend’s game. Because if he hadn’t left West Ham, he wouldn’t have spent the last two years managing Fulham out of relegation and onto winning the FA Cup for the first time ever.
It’s funny how these things work out. Kingham’s the same. Zayn was sure they’d be run out of town, but to his surprise, they’ve been nothing but kind. The butcher even going out of his way to find the name of a halal one in Witney, ten miles away.
‘Sorry to call around so late,’ Mrs Dickson says, out of breath. She’s clutching a bouquet of flowers and hands them to Zayn when she reaches him. ‘These came for you when you were out.’ The hair that has escaped her rollers flutters in the breeze. ‘I’ll be at my sister’s all weekend so I thought I’d better bring them now.’
‘How is Alice?’ Zayn asks with another frown, taking them from her.
‘Better.’ She nods, sadly. ‘It’s her last session of chemo.’
‘Do you need a lift to the station in the morning?’
‘No it’s okay. Katherine will take me.’
‘Do you need us to feed Smudge?’ Zayn asks, taking Talia’s nappy bag off the back seat and slinging it over his shoulder.
She looks mortified. ‘That’s not why I came.’
‘I know.’ He smiles, locking the car. ‘But it’s no trouble. Tal loves her.’
‘I’ve left her plenty of food, but if Talia wants a cuddle, she’s more than welcome.’
Zayn nods and holds up the flowers. ‘Thanks for dropping these off.’
‘No trouble.’ She waves her hand and turns to head back down the driveway. ‘Congratulations, by the way,’ she says over her shoulder, and Zayn’s about to thank her again, but is distracted by the card attached to the flowers, the petals from one of the roses fluttering to his feet as he suddenly struggles to keep hold of the bouquet.
He doesn’t want Harry to know he’s upset, so he takes a shower as soon as he gets in. He lingers in it for too long, the sound of the spray and the old pipes quietening the roar in his head as he waits for the water to go cold.
When he walks into the bedroom, Harry is sitting up in bed reading a book.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, the skin between his eyebrows creasing.
‘Nothing,’ Zayn says, dipping his head as he goes to check on Talia. She’s sleeping soundly, Alfie curled up at the end of the bed, and watches her for a while, his wet hair dripping down his back, until he’s too cold and is forced to go back in the bedroom in search of clothes. He had hoped Harry would be asleep, but of course, he isn’t.
Zayn rips away the towel that’s tied around his waist and tosses it into the laundry basket. ‘Nothing.’
‘Who are the flowers from?’
‘No one,’ Zayn says under his breath, tugging on a pair of sweat pants and pacing across the bedroom to the chest of drawers.
‘No one? But-’
‘Will you just leave it?’ Zayn snaps, pulling the top drawer open so suddenly the bottles of aftershave on top of it shiver.
‘No I will not leave it,’ Harry snaps back, closing his book and when Zayn tosses a filthy look at him across the bedroom, there he is, the Harry who doesn’t let him get away with a thing, who’d follow him off the edge of the Earth if Zayn asked.
‘Fine,’ he says, striding out the bedroom and down the stairs. He snatches the card off the kitchen table and runs back up, handing it to Harry, who’s still sitting up in bed, looking bewildered. He frowns at Zayn, then frowns at him again when he reads the card aloud.
Congratulations, Mr Manager. Can’t wait to see you, Harry and Tal in the New Year.
– Coco xoxo
‘This is bad how?’
‘She sent me flowers.’ Zayn stands at the end of the bed and puts his hands on his hips. ‘She’s about to give birth any day and she sent me fucking flowers, Harry.’
He gasps. ‘The bitch!’
‘It’s not funny.’ Zayn snatches the card back when he laughs.
‘What?’ Harry says, making the word sound about a minute long as he crawls down the bed towards Zayn and kneels in front of him. ‘Isn’t it a good thing that we’re still friends? She didn’t even key your car.’ He winks. ‘I would have keyed your car.’
‘Exactly!’ Zayn says, finally lifting his chin to look at him. ‘I fucked her over and I fucked you over.’ He looks down at the card and sighs. ‘I fucked everyone over.’
‘Zayn,’ Harry says softly, putting his hands on Zayn’s bare shoulders. When he doesn’t look up, he curls his fingers around the back of Zayn’s neck and sweeps his thumbs back and forth across his cheeks until Zayn lifts his eyelashes. ‘You weren’t the only one to make a mess of this. There were two of us fucking in stairwells, remember?’
He smiles, but Zayn can’t. ‘Yeah, you and me. Not her.’ He looks down at the card again. ‘Look what I did to her and what?’ He meets Harry’s gaze and shrugs. ‘I get the happy ending – the kid, the car and the cottage in the country. That doesn’t seem fair.’
Harry tilts his head at him, hands still on his face. ‘I know, but Coco’s doing alright. Have you seen her husband?’ Zayn scowls at him. ‘I’m just saying,’ Harry shrugs, ‘he looks like Idris Elba.’
‘He’s not that good looking.’
‘Yes he is.’
Zayn arches an eyebrow at him. ‘Oh he is, is he?’
‘Oh yeah.’ Harry grins, loving every minute. ‘I would.’
‘Would you now?’
‘Until he couldn’t remember his name.’
Zayn swallows back a laugh, pretending to be pissed off when Harry tries to pull him into bed. ‘Come on,’ he says, teeth nipping at Zayn’s jaw. ‘If I close my eyes, you could be him.’
Zayn shoves him, then giggles when Harry grabs his face and peppers it with kisses. ‘I promise not to say his name,’ he says into Zayn’s neck and Zayn can’t help but throw his head back and laugh, giving him another shove before hugging him tightly.
They stay like that a while, until the giggling subsides and their breathing realigns, but when they pull apart, Zayn reaches for Harry’s hands.
‘Wait. I need to tell you something.’
Zayn ignores him, a pearl of guilt suddenly lodged in his throat. ‘About that night,’ he has to stop and catch his breath, and when he does, Harry shakes his head.
Harry interrupts him again. ‘No. I know what you’re going to say and no.’
‘Listen.’ Zayn pulls him closer so their stomachs touch. Harry’s skin is warm – familiar – what Zayn misses the most when he’s on the road, eating another club sandwich in another hotel, unable to sleep without the heat of Harry next to him.
Harry shakes his head again. ‘It’s easy to look back now everything is settled and we have Talia and this place and a sensible car,’ Harry nudges him with his nose, ‘and regret those three years we were apart. But we were so unhappy. Do you remember how unhappy we were?’ He presses his thumbs into Zayn’s cheeks until he looks at him. ‘All we did is fuck and fight. And I know what you’re going to say, that you should have fought for me, but we would have killed each other if we’d gotten together then. I had to deal with all that shit with Ash and you had to come to terms with liking it up the arse.’ Zayn growls and bites his nose, making Harry giggle and bite him back. ‘We were both fucked up.’ He whispers this time, forehead against Zayn’s. ‘We had to sort ourselves out before we could be together so don’t, okay? Don’t you dare apologise.’
He tries to pull away, but Zayn doesn’t let him, holding onto him a little tighter as his heart begins to beat slowly. ‘I wasn’t talking about the night before the wedding.’
Harry blinks at him. ‘What night were you talking about, then?’
‘The night in the stairwell at Stamford Bridge.’ Harry grins and Zayn rolls his eyes. ‘Not that. After that.’ Harry’s face changes at the memory and Zayn pulls him closer. So close that he feels the stutter of Harry’s heart. ‘You never asked how I found you.’
He leans back to look at him warily. ‘What do you mean?’
‘When we left each other, I went back through the door to the Player’s Lounge and I found you on the next floor down. Didn’t you ever wonder why?’
Harry considers it for a moment, then his lips part. ‘You went after me.’
‘You went after me.’
Zayn nods again.
‘I dunno.’ And he doesn’t, just that when he got to the door of the Player’s Lounge, he turned around and headed back to the stairwell, hands shaking at the thought of seeing Harry again. ‘I don’t know why I did half the shit I did when I met you but from the second I saw you, in that club, in that suit. The Burberry one,’ when Harry smiles, Zayn knows that he remembers, ‘with the little corsage on the lapel.’
Harry nods, the corners of his mouth tipping up. ‘I remember that suit.’
‘I thought I’d hate you, after Karl. I thought I’d want to punch you in the face. But it was the opposite. It was like there was too much space between us, you know?’ Zayn waits for Harry to look at him again. ‘There always too much space between us.’
‘How about now?’ Harry leans into him so their chests are touching. He feels the stutter of Harry’s heart again and it’s so comforting that something in him settles, like when Talia can’t sleep and he sings her Bulbul Ka Bacha until she does. But Zayn shakes his head. ‘How about now?’ Harry inches closer so Zayn can feel the curve of his hipbones, his collarbones, the press of his forehead, but it still isn’t enough. Until Zayn kisses him that is. And when Harry kisses him back, it isn’t just enough, it’s perfect.