Liam's awake when Harry lets himself into Louis's flat. It's late—really late, almost four—but Liam is sat on the sofa with one lamp on, in a t-shirt and red checked pyjama bottoms that Harry is at least ninety percent certain belong to Zayn. He's reading something on his laptop, the screen lighting up his face like a ghostly spotlight in the half-dark, and he looks up and smiles when Harry comes in. Harry hangs up his coat and toes off his boots, and then shuffles over to the sofa and folds himself up into Liam's side.
"Were you waiting up for me?" Harry asks, tucking his face into Liam's neck.
"Mmm," Liam says noncommittally, which means he was.
"Didn't have to," Harry mutters, which Liam knows perfectly well, but needs saying anyway.
Liam closes the laptop and slides it onto the coffee table, and then turns on the sofa so he can wrap one arm around Harry's shoulders and tug him closer. Harry allows himself the one traditional moment of smug self-congratulations, that he and Louis and Zayn and Niall got Liam to the point where not cuddling was the strange thing, where it was second nature to stop whatever he was doing and let Harry curl up against his chest in the middle of the night on Louis's sofa, to thread his fingers through Harry's hair and drop a kiss on the top of his head.
"I know," Liam says. "You alright, babe?"
"Mmm," Harry says, his turn to be noncommittal. Even though he's got his eyes closed, he can picture Liam frowning, his eyebrows drawing together and his forehead wrinkling up in concern.
"How's Grimmy?" Liam asks.
Harry smiles helplessly into Liam's shoulder. "He's—good," he says, a little stifled. Nick is—good doesn't even really begin to cover it. Harry can still feel Nick's hands on him, hot and sure and just a little shaky, perfect. He wouldn't have minded bruises, wouldn't have minded if Nick had left marks all over him; but Nick was careful, surprisingly gentle, never mind how fucking desperate they'd both been for it by that point. Nick had said, "If we're actually fucking doing this, then we're bloody well doing it right, Styles," and Harry had snickered, and Nick had frowned at him and rolled his eyes and then gotten serious, all of a sudden; had pressed Harry down into the mattress and kissed him and sucked him and opened him up so, so slowly—Harry squirms in Liam's arms, and he should probably stop thinking about how great Nick is before things get awkward for Liam. Liam minds that sort of thing less, now, after a couple of years of Harry and Louis and Niall and Zayn, but it's only polite.
It's hard to stop thinking about how great Nick is, though. Harry's having some trouble thinking about anything else.
"We had a good night," he offers at last, snuggling closer until his nose is in the hollow of Liam's collarbone and he can feel Liam's middle-of-the-night stubble against his cheek. He doesn't really want to look at Liam's face.
"Harry," Liam says gently, and then tugs on his hair, less gently. "I don't want to pry, and your business is—well, it's your business, isn't it? But if you need to talk to us about anything, or talk to me about anything—or I could wake up Lou? If you'd rather talk to Louis, that would be fine. I just wanted to say, that we all like Nick very much, and—"
Harry should probably come to Liam's rescue before he talks himself sick with worry. "Everything's fine, Liam," he says, finally letting Liam pull his head up. It's been a long night, and Harry is no good at hiding things when he's this tired, when he's stripped down to essentials—never mind when he's been hollowed out and shattered and put back together again, strange and better and new, fitting all differently in his own skin. But Liam isn't Louis, or Zayn, and he might not be able to read the whole night on Harry's face like they would, and that makes it easier to meet his eyes. As expected, Liam's forehead is furrowed, but his eyes are warm. Liam's worried face is as familiar as breathing, and Harry loves him fiercely for it, loves him for waiting up, loves him for worrying about whether or not Harry is okay at four in the morning, loves him for making sure Harry knows that they all like Nick, even if Liam might not know why that matters so much.
"It's fine," Harry repeats, softer. "Only, I think I need to call a vote on something."
"Oh?" Liam asks, sounding surprised, and then, "Oh," his face shifting from worry to confusion and back to worry. "About Nick?"
Harry frowns at him, a little put out. He doesn't usually expect Liam to be this far ahead of him, not like Zayn or Louis. How obvious has he been? Okay, well, probably pretty bloody obvious, if he's honest with himself—Christmas was a bit of an epic disaster, and he still feels bad about stringing Taylor along, even if he hadn't meant to; but that whole debacle had been hard to miss. People in Antarctica probably hadn't missed it, never mind Harry's own best friends.
"It's—" he starts, and then stops. He'd been about to say "complicated," which is what it has been; but after tonight that's sort of a lie. Everything else might be complicated—will be complicated; could be awful—but how he feels about Nick isn't complicated at all. "Yeah," he says instead. "Yeah, about Nick."
Liam's eyes are still warm, patient, and Harry has to bite his lip and look away before he can say the next bit. Instead of looking at Liam, he concentrates on the soft brown leather of Louis's sofa, and breathes in like Liam and the voice coaches taught him, steady and slow. "We had sex," he says, "me and Nick." He barely recognizes his own voice.
Liam's arms tighten around Harry's back, but he doesn't say anything. "I want it to be serious," Harry continues, because it seems better to get it all out at once, to Liam, before he tries to talk to the others. "It is serious, but I won't, I won't make any decisions without the whole band. Not serious ones, not about something like this." It's the rule, anyway: no major decisions without the others, three votes wins.
"Okay," Liam says softly, "okay, Harry." Harry looks back up at him, but Liam isn't being placating at all, he's just listening. That's the best thing about Liam, sometimes. He listens, and he doesn't always get it—Harry knows he still baffles Liam, from time to time, knows he can be too weird and tangled and lost in his own head for Liam to follow—but Liam listens, and then he fixes things. "Niall's back tomorrow. Or, today, I guess," Liam adds, "so we should get some sleep. Then we can have your vote in the morning, yeah?"
"Yeah, alright," Harry agrees, breathing out, and leans in to kiss Liam's cheek. "Thanks, Liam."
Liam smiles at him, sweet and fond. "Zayn's got the spare room. Do you want the sofa, or are you coming in with me and Lou?" Harry stares at him until Liam shakes his head ruefully and grins, laughing at himself. "Right, stupid question. Come on then." He stands up and puts out a hand to help Harry to his feet. Harry hangs onto his hand and lets Liam steer him into Louis's bedroom.
Louis is sound asleep in the dead centre of the bed with the duvet kicked half off, just like always. Harry drops his jeans and shirt and socks on the floor, and then digs his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. He has one text from Nick, just xxx and an emoji of a heart, which makes him smile stupidly in the dark room. Nick is ridiculous. talked to Liam, he texts back, vote in the morning with the rest of the guys, and then, because he can say it now and have it mean what he wants it to mean, love you x. Then he turns his phone off and leaves it on Louis's bedside table.
Louis mutters something sleepily unintelligible when Harry gets into the bed, and slings an arm and a leg over him, tugging him close. There's no escaping Louis in sleep—or anytime, really, but especially in sleep. Harry breathes in the familiar smell of washing powder and sleeping boy, and closes his eyes. He can hear Liam, going about turning off the last of the lights, and then there's the soft sound of the bedroom door closing and Liam slides in on Harry's other side, pulling the duvet back up over the three of them. He spoons up against Harry's back—always the big spoon, Liam—and reaches across Harry to put one hand on Louis's hip. "Night, lads," Liam says into the back of Harry's neck, sounding mostly asleep already.
"Night," Harry echoes. Liam and Louis are breathing steadily on either side of him, warm and safe and smelling like home. Harry misses Nick acutely—missing Nick seems like his natural state, these days—and he wants to kiss him again, and sleep next to him, and stay, even though staying anywhere for longer than a week is almost impossible to imagine; but right now, there's nowhere he'd rather be than right here.
Harry wakes up because Louis is hitting him in the face with a pillow.
"Louis," he groans, but since he's not really awake it comes out as a string of unintelligible vowel sounds that only translate to Louis's name in the language of grumpy, half-asleep best mates.
"Get up," Louis says, loudly. "Niall's going to be here in twenty minutes, and I need tea."
Harry bats ineffectually at Louis with both hands. "Make it yourself." He will never forgive whatever deity is responsible for making Louis fucking Tomlinson a morning person.
"No." Louis hits Harry with the pillow again. "You're staying at mine, so you're on tea duty. That's the rule."
Harry sighs, and opens his eyes. Louis is sitting on top of him, bright-eyed and wide awake and sporting some spectacular bed head, and he's holding the pillow like a weapon. Since the pillow is shaped like a penis—purchased expressly for the purpose of torturing Liam after that one interview—this is both threatening, and even more ridiculous than it would be otherwise. "Take your penis pillow away," Harry says, beleaguered. "I'll make the bloody tea."
"Good lad," Louis says, smugly victorious. Then he wriggles his arse against Harry's morning erection, because Louis Tomlinson is, forever and always, a dick. "I hid all of Liam's shirts," he adds, climbing off Harry with a lot more arse-to-dick contact than is strictly necessary, "and then I spilled orange juice on the one he was wearing, so if you hurry you might get to watch him make a half-naked fry-up."
"Your kinks are so weird," Harry mutters, but he kicks off the duvet and gets out of bed.
Louis and Liam are both in the kitchen when Harry comes out of the loo. Louis is sat at the breakfast bar, leaning his chin on his hands and watching Liam at the hob. Supervising, Harry thinks, and doesn't even try to hide his grin. Liam is, indeed, making a fry-up without a shirt on, which seems like it might be a bad idea when one is frying sausages and bacon, but Harry supposes Liam can make his own choices. It's all fun and games until someone gets hot grease on their nipples, anyway.
"Morning," Harry says, going around Liam to put the kettle on, and then getting out the tea things. "Tea, Liam?"
"Yes please," Liam says.
"Why can't you ever say please, Lou?" Harry demands, mostly rhetorically.
Louis grins at him, unrepentant. "Don't have to, do I? Got you right where I want you." He says it with a leer, joking in that Louis way that's half-serious at the same time, and for some reason that makes Harry's heart clench. Louis being an arse first thing in the morning, sure and certain that the rest of them will love him no matter what he says or does, is when Harry most remembers the blustery, over-the-top, uncertain Louis of the early days, uncomfortable in his own skin and flatly refusing to let anyone know it. He doesn't miss that Louis, exactly, but he loves him, and loves the echoes of him in this Louis, now, who knows better how to let himself be loved. Despite all the time he spends thinking about it—all tangled up in his own head, or in the dark on their bus, sat up late with Zayn or Liam and the two a.m. wisdom of some time zone somewhere—Harry's still not sure how they all wound up here, the five of them fitting together like some kind of miraculous puzzle of should've-been-incompatible parts. He doesn't know where they'll end up, either; but he does know he wouldn't trade this for anything in the whole world.
The kettle clicks off, and Harry busies himself making tea for Louis and Liam—too much milk and sugar for Liam and not enough for Lou, just the way they like it—and then another cup for himself. He's just setting Louis's tea down on the counter when the front door of the flat bangs open.
"Hello, lads," Niall calls from the hall, his accent even more pronounced after a few days at home. "Anyone up?"
"We're in the kitchen," Louis calls back. "Come through!"
Harry can hear Niall shut the front door, and then some clattering that sounds like he's dropping his bags in the hall, before he appears in the kitchen doorway. He looks relaxed and happy from his trip to Mullingar—although to be fair, Niall almost always looks relaxed and happy. "Do I smell breakfast?"
Harry chokes on a giggle, and Louis grins, and Liam puts down the spatula and turns around from the hob to give Niall a quick hug.
"We knew you were coming," Louis points out. "Harry, make Niall a cuppa."
"Yessir," Harry says, rolling his eyes, but he does get a mug down for Niall, because Niall is bound to want a cup of tea after his early flight; then he gets one down for Zayn, too, because it's only a matter of time. It's practically inevitable: once Harry starts making tea, nobody else will. He doesn't do anything different, or special, but for some reason all four of them are convinced that Harry makes tea better than anyone. Harry privately thinks it's some kind of weird Stockholm thing; Nick thinks it's hilarious.
Niall hugs Louis and Harry, and then he goes right over to crowd Liam at the hob. "You're doing those sausages all wrong," he says crossly, after barely thirty seconds. "What do you lads even do without me? Christ. Get out of the way, I'm taking over."
"Hey," Liam protests, "you just got in, mate, come on—"
"Out of my kitchen, Payne," Niall orders, "you're a menace to sausages everywhere." He snatches the spatula out of Liam's hand and brandishes it until Liam backs off, hands raised in the universal signal for placating a mad person. Niall is more sane than most of them, usually, but he's mad about some things. Mostly breakfast.
"Oi," Louis says, "technically, it's my kitchen."
"Don't even get me started on you, Tommo," Niall says scathingly. "You couldn't handle sausages if your life depended on it."
"He's not that bad—" Harry protests, because he taught Louis how to cook, and Louis may not be great at it, but he does try, just as Louis says, "That's not what Liam said last night."
Niall just rolls his eyes, but Liam goes a bit pink.
"It's too early for sausage jokes, Lou," Harry tries, which only makes Louis scoff at him. Harry's not sure why he's bothering, honestly; it's never too early for sausage jokes.
"Right," Liam says, "well, in that case, I am going to wake up Zayn. Zayn is better than all of you." Nobody denies this, since it's categorically true. Harry finishes making Zayn's tea—the mug says, "I ♥ Little Mix," and has been Zayn's since the day Louis bought it—and hands it off to Liam. They all have their own ways of getting Zayn up in the mornings: Niall shouts, and Louis pokes and tickles and hits people with pillows. Harry's own preferred method has always been to make out with Zayn's face until he wakes up, which has a better than average success rate. Liam favours tea and a cuddle.
Liam smiles at Harry when he hands over Zayn's tea, a sweet, private smile that confirms what Harry was already mostly sure of: that Liam hasn't told the others, and won't say anything until Harry wants him to; that he's got Harry's back. Harry ducks his head, smiling his thanks, and Liam reaches out and ruffles his hair before going out of the kitchen.
Harry sips his tea and leans back against the counter. Niall and Louis are bickering happily while Niall cooks, so Harry leaves them to it and goes back into Louis's bedroom to get his phone. When he turns it back on, he has six texts from Nick.
Good mooooorning the first one says, and there's a blushing emoji smiley face and then a winking one and then a heart. Harry grins. The second text—and Harry can see Nick very clearly, sending the first one and then second-guessing himself—just says, no regrets? Both of those are timestamped just before seven, and it's a Sunday, so Harry has no idea what Nick was doing up that early when it'd been almost four before Harry'd left; he hopes Nick slept at least a little. Then there's a two hour break, and at 9:12, barely half an hour ago, and just when Louis was waking Harry up, Nick sent, So listen, do MY friends get a vote? because this seems a bit unfair, and on the heels of that text, you do realize your band is very codependent, right?, and then, with a photo of the rumpled sheets of Nick's bed, nm, just stroppy because I wish you were still here, and last of all, love you too x.
Harry's not sure what to do with any of that. He slides down to sit on the floor with his back to Louis's bedside table, knees drawn up to his chest, and rests his forehead on his knees for a minute; then he bangs his head against the bedside table a couple of times, until his brain stops feeling like it's leaking out his ears. He wants this so much, wants Nick so much, but there's no getting around how hard it's going to be. He wants Liam and Louis and Niall and Zayn to tell him yes, wants them on his side, because there's no way he can possibly do this without them. And then, at the same time, if they tell him no—well, it would be easier, wouldn't it? No secrets to keep—at least, none like this—no lying, no sneaking around. And no Nick. It's an impossible choice.
No regrets, he texts back, finally, because it's true. Then, with that bit said, he sends, Your friends can vote if they want!! But I think they like me best.
Well, you're a catch, Nick texts back, before Harry can send anything else. Nick's said it before—it's an Aimeeism, and Nick always says it in his worst American accent—but Harry doesn't know if he really believes it. He likes himself perfectly well, and if he was just him—but he's not just him. He's him plus a hell of a lot of baggage, and four best mates who do get a say in everything he does, because they're his rock, his family; because they're the only other people who get how absolutely fucking mad his life is, who carry the same baggage he does. Nick saw what happened with Caroline, but seeing it is different than living it, and Harry's not sure Nick really understands how bad it could be, or how scary, or how hard. He's not even sure he understands. This is uncharted territory for them both.
A catch like seafood? He sends, because they can at least pretend today is a normal day.
Nick replies with an emoji of a fish and You know what I mean.
You're a mystery to me, Harry replies, and then briefly considers quoting his own lyrics just to annoy Nick. He's not actually sure he wants to annoy Nick today, though; especially not after telling him point blank that he couldn't—well, couldn't date him, or whatever it was they were going to do that was serious and meant something and involved lots more sex—without asking the rest of his band. "We vote on everything that matters," he'd said, naked and sticky and oddly bashful at half two in the morning, "and this matters." They voted on lots of things that didn't matter, too, but that wasn't really the point.
Nick had looked at him for a long moment, and then said carefully, "I don't actually want to date the rest of your band, Harry."
Harry had looked away, plucking at the sheets. "Yeah," he said, "but the thing is, I come with them. So, you sort of—we're kind of a package deal. Is that—is that something you can live with?"
Nick was silent for long enough that Harry started getting worried, and dared a glance back up at his face. He was frowning, but he didn't look unhappy, exactly, just a little unreadable. "That depends," Nick said finally, and then there was a hint of a smile around the gorgeous corners of his mouth. "What sort of package deal are we talking about, here? Because that Zayn Malik is a very beautiful man."
Harry laughed, breathless and relieved and a little hysterical, and tackled Nick back into the pillows. "Not that kind of package deal," he said. "Can you live with that?"
"If I get you," Nick had said, smiling for real, with his whole face, and so open and honest that Harry's breath had gotten all caught up in his throat, "I think I can live with most things."
It was still a lot easier said than done.
Harry's phone buzzes in his hand again, bringing him back to the present. I'm really not that mysterious, says Nick's text. I like bad telly, and good music, and talking on the radio, and cute dogs, and Harry Styles.
Harry thinks he might be blushing. Harry Styles likes you too, Nick Grimshaw, he texts back, and then he puts his phone down on the floor before he can do anything else incriminating.
It's lucky that Liam sticks his head around the bedroom door right then. "Harry? Breakfast's ready. Niall says if you don't hurry he'll eat all your toast."
"He's a blight on society," Harry says automatically, which makes Liam look confused and amused at the same time, which is one of Harry's favourite Liam expressions. "I'll be right there, just have to send a text."
Liam nods and goes out, and Harry picks up his phone. Time for breakfast, he sends Nick, getting up off the floor, then I'll talk to the lads. Wait for me?
Yes comes Nick's instantaneous reply, I'll be here, and that's really all anyone could ask for, isn't it? Harry takes a deep breath, and leaves his phone on Louis's bedside table again, and goes back out to join his boys for breakfast.
With the knowledge brought by a couple of years of living in each other's pockets, Harry knows to wait until after everyone has finished eating before bringing up any topics that require real discussion. But when the breakfast dishes are stacked in the sink and everyone's gone into the lounge to lie about like over-fed whales and vaguely contemplate a round of FIFA, Harry catches Liam's eye and gives him something halfway between a shrug and a nod. Now, I think? the shrug says, and Liam nods back, confirming.
"Lads," Liam says, quiet but commanding, and Niall stops rifling through Louis's case of DVDs on the floor, and Zayn stops telling a story in the middle of a sentence, and Louis leans forward in his armchair, suddenly focused. "Harry's got a vote for us."
"I thought there was something," Louis says, in his serious grown-up voice. Louis likes to pretend he doesn't have a serious grown-up voice, but they all know better. "Harry?"
Harry sits down on the end of the sofa opposite Zayn and folds his hands together in his lap, tapping his foot absently against the floor. He's not nervous, exactly—there's no reason to be nervous with his band, because they love him. They might all be watching him closely, now—Niall sat up from his sprawl on the rug, and Liam perched on the arm of Louis's chair, and Zayn turned toward Harry on the sofa—but scrutiny from Zayn and Niall and Louis and Liam isn't like any other kind of scrutiny in the world, because they know him better than anyone. He just always feels a bit strange, when there's something about him they don't know.
"Yeah," he says, a little hoarsely. "So I—well, the thing is, Nick and I—" Just fucking say it, Styles. "We fucked."
Nobody says anything for a minute, but when Harry glances up under his eyelashes, tearing his gaze away from a truly fascinating study of his own knuckles, nobody looks precisely surprised, either.
"How was that, then?" Niall asks, before the silence can get too uncomfortable.
"Uh," Harry huffs, caught off-guard into a breathless laugh. "Well, actually, it was really—great?" He can feel himself starting to smile without any allowance from his brain, because just thinking about it—it really was great; it was sort of incandescently great, better than he'd known sex could be, and it wasn't like he hadn't enjoyed sex an awful lot before. "It was pretty wonderful, actually."
"Happy for you, mate," Niall says easily, and leans over to pat Harry's foot. Harry wriggles his toes, and Niall smiles up at him, entirely unbothered by Harry liking sex with a bloke; so that's something. Niall's a good egg. Not that Harry thought the bloke thing was going to be a sticking point, but—
"So we're to take it this is something you want to do again," Louis says, interrupting Harry's thoughts. He doesn't sound upset, but his eyebrows are raised in that pugnacious Louis look he gets when he's about to cut something off at the pass. It's not actually a question, so Harry doesn't answer; the Louis train is clearly on the tracks. "Because," Louis goes on, "if you just wanted to tell us that you and Grimmy fucked, then there's no need for all these dramatics. You can put your dick where you like, Harry, we don't care."
"That's not entirely true," Niall puts in. "We want Harry's dick to be in safe and happy places, don't we, lads? Especially with all those girls after him, and him so obliging to the people."
"I'm not that obliging," Harry protests, "that's you, Niall Ladies Man Horan, come on—"
Louis is talking over him, though, so nobody pays Harry any mind. "Yeah, fine," Louis's saying to Niall, and he's starting to sound a little cross. "Whatever, my point is, Harry can fuck who he likes—girls, boys, sheep, squid, I don't bloody care, and I don't think you do either, Niall, but if he wants us to vote, then this is bigger than just a fuck—"
"I don't want to fuck any squid," Harry says, and then, louder, finally giving up and shouting over Louis and Niall, "I don't want to fuck any squid."
There's a pause. "Well," Liam says mildly, "I suppose that's a relief."
Harry glares at Louis, feeling a little nettled. "What do you mean you don't care if I fuck a sheep, Lou? That's disgusting."
Louis narrows his eyes. "Why don't you get to the point, then?"
"Lou," Liam says, putting a hand on the back of Louis's neck. "Give Harry some space, yeah?"
Louis rounds on Liam, clearly about to light into him; only then they do their weird married eye contact thing and Louis visibly unwinds, his shoulders relaxing under Liam's hand. "Fine," Louis says to Liam, "but I would like to go on record as pissed right off that anyone here ever thought we might need to vote on who Harry can fuck."
And that's—that's Louis in a nutshell: prickly and difficult and a pain in the arse, and so bloody defensive of the rest of them that he cuts himself on his own sharp edges. Of course Louis would get pissed off with Harry because he thought Harry'd thought the rest of them might get upset about him fucking a bloke. Even after everything, this is Louis's first line of defence: that no matter what, being who they want to be, being themselves, is non-negotiable. Harry really loves him.
"No," Harry starts, "that's not what I meant, Louis, honest—I didn't even really think I needed to, like, come out? To you all? I don't—" He meets Louis's eyes, which are softer than they were a moment ago. "I don't want to fuck sheep. Or squid, what the fuck?" He shakes his head, trying to clear it of that image, and then gets on with the harder part. "I guess I'm pretty sure I don't want to fuck—women, either, though." He trips over that, because it's still an uncertain thought. He loved being with Caroline, and he's liked getting off with other girls, too, likes—has always liked—snogging just about everyone, at every available opportunity, regardless of whether he has any intention of taking it further than a snog. It's just that now, and for months now, Harry in actual fact doesn't even really want to think about fucking anyone but Nick, so the whole thing is sort of pointless and irrelevant.
"I think labels are kind of—shit, actually," he says, "but I guess if you have to be defined by the person you want to sleep with, then I could be? Gay, I mean." It doesn't sound like him, exactly, but neither does the ubiquitous "bisexual" that the gossip mags thrown around. Lou's bisexual, and so is Gemma, so there's nothing wrong with it, he just doesn't know if it's him. He doesn't know what he is; he wishes people were less obsessed with this question.
"You don't have to have a label, though," Zayn says softly, finally joining the conversation. He's been listening intently all along, but that's Zayn—always letting Louis and Harry and even Liam talk themselves in circles, and then chiming in at last with something essential and necessary, something none of the rest of them quite knew how to say. Harry looks over at him, grateful, but Zayn is looking at Louis. "We've always rejected that, haven't we? Trying to make us be, like—"
"Bradford Bad Boy," Louis supplies, nodding at Zayn.
"Right, exactly," Zayn agrees. He turns back to Harry, reaching out and taking one of Harry's hands and winding their fingers together. "You're just Harry. You don't have to be anyone but Harry, not with us."
"Well, but—" Liam starts, and then abruptly closes his mouth.
"What, Liam?" Harry asks, before Louis or Niall can start in again.
Liam shakes his head, and then sighs. "It's just—it's not just us, though, is it?"
"Thank you, Liam," Louis says, patting Liam's knee. "That's just what I was going to say. What are we really voting on, here, Harry?"
Harry bites his lip, and glances over at Zayn. Zayn gives him a little smile and rubs his thumb over Harry's knuckles. Go on, the smile says, we're listening.
"It's just—" he says, mostly to Zayn, "I'd like to, well, keep seeing Nick. Properly. It's so new, but I love him, so I want—well, you know." The words keep coming, choppy and uncertain-sounding, even though he means them. Zayn's hand is like an anchor. "I want to go out with him, I think? I don't want last night to be a one-time thing, I want it to be an all-the-time thing."
There's another silence, and then Louis says, "It's not that new."
Harry blinks, surprised. "What?"
"No, Louis's right," Niall agrees. "I mean, I believe you—the fucking, that's new, but you and Nick have been going strong for months. I actually tried to bet Zayn—when, Zayn? Last summer? But he wouldn't go for it."
"I don't bet on my mates," Zayn says. Then he looks Harry over with his assessing artist's eyes and adds, just a little smugly, "I think I'd've won, though."
"You always win," Niall complains.
Zayn shrugs, and then tugs on Harry's hand until Harry tips over on the sofa, his head landing in Zayn's lap with enough force that his breath goes rushing out of him. Zayn manhandles him into a more comfortable sprawl, with his legs up on the sofa and his head pillowed on Zayn's thigh, and then brushes Harry's hair back from his forehead with his long fingers. Harry blinks up at him, dizzy from the sudden perspective shift. "You want us to vote on whether you can date Grimmy?" Zayn asks him.
Harry nods, although it comes out a bit sideways, since he's lying down. "Yeah," he says. "It's a big deal, like—a major decision. And—"
"And we voted on me and Perrie," Zayn finishes, and then frowns down at him. Upside down, it looks like an accidental smile. "It's not the vote that makes me and Perrie work, though," Zayn says seriously. "We talk all the time, and we have all our rules." Zayn and Perrie's rules are legendary. "We have to be really careful, too—and even then, sometimes things happen, and finding any time when we're both in the same place, it's not easy. The vote helped, like, knowing you all had our backs; but it's not everything."
"I know that," Harry says, affronted. "You think I don't know it's work, dating somebody? It's just, we voted on Zayn and Perrie, so we vote on me and Nick, too. That's the rule."
"Voting on Zayn and Perrie was a bit different, though," Louis says, sounding adult and practical and tired in the way Harry likes least, because it means Louis's gone all serious and contradictory and started thinking about their image and their marketing team, and how they sometimes do have to compromise just being themselves. "We already knew Perrie," says contradictory, soul-crushing, grown-up Louis, "and the rest of the girls, and Zayn and Perrie are so bloody charming and in love that P.R. ate it up with a spoon. It wasn't a hard sell."
"We know Nick, too," Niall says mildly, "and you can't tell me he doesn't love Harry. You've seen how they look at each other, right? It's pretty bloody charming."
"Oi," Harry says, rolling onto his side and almost falling off the sofa, before Zayn catches him with an arm around his waist. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here."
Niall ignores him. "Listen, Lou, you don't object to Grimmy, do you? Because twitter thinks you hate him."
"Is this what happens when you leave us?" Louis demands. "You start believing everything you read on twitter?"
"Answer the question, Louis," Niall says steadily.
"I like Grimmy fine," Louis snaps. "I think he's funny, and he's great on the radio, and I like his taste in music, and yes, Niall, I have no fucking doubt that he's bonkers about Harry. Nick is lovely, can we move on? You people are worse than twitter."
"Lads," Liam cuts in, gentle but firm. "Can we get back on track, please?" Harry turns his face into Zayn's thigh, stifling a giggle, because of course Daddy Direction would come out at time like this, trying to wrangle them all into order. If Liam ever actually learns anything about how people are supposed to vote on things, they're all doomed. "Harry," Liam says, once they've all stopped grumbling and giggling, "you want us to vote on whether you can date Grimmy, then? Like we did for Zayn and Perrie? That's what I thought you meant, last night."
Harry struggles back up into a sitting position, folding his legs under himself on the sofa; Zayn helps, slinging an arm around his shoulders and leaving it there. "Yeah, that's right."
"Okay," Liam agrees, "but what do you—I mean, what do you want to—"
"What Liam is trying to say," Louis says, putting a hand over Liam's mouth to stop him talking, "is that we can't vote on you and Grimmy if we don't know how you want this to go. Because with Zayn and Perrie, it was—well, it was simpler, wasn't it? It was different, Harry. If you don't want to come out about Nick, or if you do, that's complicated."
"I don't want it to be complicated," Harry says. It comes out sounding horribly petulant, and he looks away from Louis and Liam, down at the blue and brown weave of Louis's carpet. Zayn's arm tightens around his shoulders. "I know it is," he says finally, "but I just—I just want to be with Nick, is all. Can't it just be mine, for now?"
"I don't know," Louis says softly. "That's a lot of lies."
"Not to the important people," Harry protests, but he knows better.
"The fans are important," Louis says. "I'm not saying you can't keep secrets, love, we all keep secrets, that's the way this goes. There are parts of our lives that don't belong to anybody but us." Louis, of all of them, is the most aggressively protective of the parts of his life that belong to him. Harry's never been as good at that, though; he'd rather just—be an open book, if he can. Everything he's feeling always shows right up on his face. "But," Louis continues, "there's that, and then there's you having a secret affair with Nick Grimshaw, Harry, and that just—it needs, what's the word, Zayn—"
"Contingencies," Zayn supplies.
"Yes," Louis finishes, "contingencies. Lots and lots of fucking contingencies. So it can't just be us, anyway, you'll have to tell Simon, not to mention Paul and all the guys, and management, and what's that bit about two people keeping a secret if one of them is dead? Well, we're not even two people, we're a whole bloody parade."
Harry bites his lip, worrying at it with his teeth, and Niall gets up off the floor and sits down beside him on the sofa, crowding him in so Harry's tucked up between him and Zayn.
"Louis's right," Liam says, removing Louis's hand from his mouth. "I like Grimmy, too, Harry, and if he makes you happy—but I don't like the idea of you having to keep such a big secret. If you love him, you shouldn't—I don't want you to have to sneak around." Liam looks so sad, big brown puppy eyes turned on Harry, and fuck, Harry hates making Liam sad.
"Liam," Zayn says warningly.
Liam shakes his head. Even his eyebrows look sad. "I don't—things are hard enough, aren't they? I want you to be happy, Harry, I do, I just—this would make things even harder for you than they already are, wouldn't it?"
"Liam," Zayn says again, sharper. "Isn't that Harry's decision to make?"
"Well," Louis says, "he did call a vote, so, no, actually, it's not. It's everybody's decision to make."
There's another silence. Harry worries at his lip for a moment longer, and then he takes a slow breath, in and out, steady. "I can't even think about doing this without the rest of you, though," he says, because it's true. "It's not just my decision. We all said—we're in this together, yeah? So, I love Nick, and he makes me happy, and I want to try it, with him, but I don't want to tell the whole world, I'm not ready for that. I might not ever be ready for that." He takes another breath, a little shakier this time. "I guess it does make things harder, but I'd still want it, even if—only I won't do it, if you say I shouldn't, because this isn't just about me, you'd all have to—we're a team, so—"
Niall puts a hand on Harry's jaw, tugging his head around until he's close enough for Niall to lay a smacking kiss right on his mouth. "Shut it, Harry," Niall says, not unkindly. "We get it. We vote yes, and you and Grimmy go ahead, and you don't want to tell the whole world, then we'll all have to cover for you. Conspiracy, right?"
"Now who's been reading the dictionary?" Liam says, not quite under his breath. "Conspiracy, Christ."
"You shut it too, Payne," Niall says. "The point is, whatever we vote, it goes, with all that comes with. No matter what, we've got your back. Right, lads?"
"Yes, of course," Liam says immediately. He's still got his worried face on, but he looks less sad, like something Harry'd said in all his tangled half-sentences had helped. Harry mentally pats himself on the back, even though he's not sure what it was. Sometimes Liam can look sad for hours, or days, and then they all go around in various states of horror and misery and scheming until someone—Louis—gets that look out of his eyes. Under ten minutes isn't a record, but it's better than the alternatives.
"Yeah," Zayn says, resting his chin on Harry's shoulder and taking his hand again.
Harry looks at Louis, who is frowning; but it's a thoughtful frown, and his eyes are warm when he meets Harry's. "Always," he says, easily. It's not easy, Harry knows—maybe especially not for Louis; but then, one of the best things about Louis is that Harry is absolutely certain that they'll always be alright, and they'll always be them, best mates in the face of all obstacles.
"Okay, then," Niall says, turning away from Harry to look at Liam. "Liam, call it?"
Liam bites his lip, and then nods. "Anyone need to say anything else? Harry?"
Harry thinks about it for a minute, and then shrugs; his shrug gets stuck on Zayn and Niall, both of them with their arms still around him. "I said it, I think?"
"Okay," Liam agrees, looking around the room. "All in favour?"
Zayn raises the hand that isn't holding Harry's. "Me," he says. "If that's what Harry and Nick want, then they should go ahead."
Niall props his elbow on Harry's shoulder and puts his hand up, too. "Aye aye."
If Harry votes yes, that's the three votes to win; he doesn't say anything, though, because he's looking at Louis. Liam is looking at Louis, too—and Liam can make up his own mind perfectly well, has voted against Louis on loads of votes, big and small, but it's still the moment when nobody knows whether Louis and Liam will split their votes that they all wait for. What will the parents say? Harry thinks, and then rolls his eyes at himself.
Louis is watching Harry steadily, still frowning, but then all of a sudden he seems to come to a decision, because he shakes his head and throws his hands up in the air, and the corners of his mouth finally quirk up, even the smallest smile lighting up his face like the sun coming out. "Fine, alright," he says, sounding exasperated and fond and a bit like he wants to laugh, "I say yes to your bloody stupid secret romance, too, Harry."
"And I," Liam says softly, holding up his hand.
Harry breaths out. He's not sure what he's feeling, exactly—relief, probably; a bit of dread, too, if he's honest, but—he told them, and they said yes, and that means he can do this, that means it's possible to do this, that means he's never going to have to do this alone. "Yes," Harry says, putting his hand up to join the others, and then it's unanimous.
"Well, then," Liam says, smiling at him. "There you have it, Harry. Feel better?"
"I—" Harry starts, only then the whole thing is actually just suddenly hilarious, and he starts to laugh. "Yeah, I—thanks, lads," he gets out between giggles, turning his face into Zayn's chest while Niall pats him resignedly on the back.
"This is like a year's worth of prank material," Louis says dreamily, which just makes Harry laugh harder, and then a familiar weight settles on top of his legs—Louis must've abandoned his chair for the sofa.
"You're bloody heavy, Lou," Niall complains, "get your arse out of my face," which is so perfectly ordinary and normal that Harry's breath hitches, his laughter tapering out into damp chuckles against Zayn's shoulder. At some point, there are a lot of people he's going to have to call; but right now Zayn is petting his hair, and Louis and Niall are wrestling on top of him, and Harry couldn't actually get up off the sofa even if he wanted to.
"I'm putting on a film," Liam says loudly, and a minute later the opening theme of Avengers starts up in the background.
"Shove up, Harry," Zayn murmurs into Harry's hair, and Harry folds himself forward to make room for Liam to get between Zayn and the arm of the sofa, and then they're all tucked up around each other, legs and arms in a messy tangle on a sofa that's not really big enough for five—not that that's ever stopped them before. Louis and Niall are between Harry and his view of the television, but it doesn't matter. He already knows all the words.
Later, after they've watched the movie, and Niall's fallen asleep on the floor, and Zayn's taken himself off to call Perrie, and Liam and Louis have gone into the dining room to write, heads bent together over a shared notebook, Harry goes back into the bedroom. His phone is right where he left it, and he picks it up and turns it over in his hands. He wants to call Nick, but he's got one more thing to do first.
His mum answers on the third ring. "Hi, sweetheart," she says. "How's the week off?"
"Hi, Mum," Harry says. "It's been really lovely—me and the lads are round at Louis's, today. Liam tried to make a fry-up, but Niall threw him out of the kitchen."
His mum laughs. "That sounds like Niall. Did you have to make all the tea?"
"Obviously," Harry grumbles, and his mum laughs again, probably at his expense. "But listen, Mum," he says, trying to sound like a grown-up, and not like he's ten years old and totally accidentally and through no fault of his own set fire to the garden shed. "I actually have some news."
"Oh?" His mum sounds wary. "What's that, love?"
"I, um," Harry starts, and then his voice gets caught in his throat, which is ridiculous. He's not usually this bad at talking to his own mother. "I've started seeing someone?"
"Ah," says his mum. "Is that a question?"
Harry runs a hand through his hair, tangling his fingers in a knot of curls, and sits down on the edge of Louis's unmade bed. "No," he says, "it's not a question. I—the boys and I talked it over, this morning, and they're alright with it, so I'm going to go ahead and date—this person."
"Harry," his mum says, gently, "is there a reason you're not saying Nick's name? Because if that's something you're worried about telling me, you can stop. Leave the worrying to me, and Liam. You're not made to be a worrier."
"Oh," Harry says helplessly, and then starts to laugh. His mum is right; he's been doing a lot of worrying, in the last twenty-four hours—well, really, in the last several months—and he is really, really crap at it. It'll be nice to stop, for a while, and just see what happens. "Sorry," he says, when he's stopped laughing and can say it as contritely as he should, "that was stupid of me, sorry. But it's really alright with you? Me and Nick?"
"You said it's alright with the boys?"
"Yeah," Harry confirms, smiling down at his bare knees. "We voted and everything, so—they're cool."
She makes a thoughtful humming noise. "Have you talked to anyone else?"
"No," Harry says quickly. "Nick, obviously, but—we're not going to, I don't think? Except for family, and friends, and the people who need to know. We just," and saying it like that, to his mum, with the we, makes Harry warm down to his toes, "we just want to keep it quiet, for now. There's a lot to think about, and we have to see how it goes." He pauses, thinks about the question his mum might really be asking, "I don't want to come out or anything, not right now. That's just—it's too much. And," he shrugs, even though she can't see him, "I wouldn't know what to come out as, anyway. I just know I want to be with Nick."
"Alright, love," his mum says, sounding relieved. "That all seems—wise, if it's what you want. You just let me know what you need. If you need anything—" If you need to fall to pieces Harry hears, If anything goes wrong, If this backfires horribly, "you let me know, and I'll take care of it." Harry loves his mum, loves how well she knows him, loves how much she doesn't need to say. "And I know you can take care of yourself," she adds, "so don't bother telling me. I will just remind you that that's what mums are for."
"Thanks, Mum," Harry says, meaning it. She's the best, his mum.
"Don't think you're off the hook, either," she continues, more sharply, "next time I come down to London, I'll want to see Nicholas."
His mum knows Nick. "You already know Nick, Mum."
"Yes," his mum says, in that patient impatience tone that mums everywhere have mastered, "but he wasn't your boyfriend the last time I saw him, was he?" Boyfriend, fuck. Harry's having some trouble breathing.
"No, I—suppose not," he says, a little strangled. "Okay, I—that's. Great, okay. I have to go, Mum." He does have to go; he has other calls to make, but mostly he needs to not die of embarrassment and feelings on the phone with his mother.
"Mmm," says his mother, sounding amused. "Alright, love. You're going to call your sister?"
"Yes, of course," Harry agrees, because Gemma is at the top of his list, once he starts making those calls. There are a lot of those calls. Louis's not wrong about the parade, but Harry's—well, he's going to try not worrying about it, maybe; going to try giving it his best shot, with the guys behind him, and seeing if they can make this work.
"Alright," his mum says again, peaceably. "Talk to you soon, then, and give my love to the boys," she pauses, and he can imagine her smile, "and Nick."
"I will," Harry says, echoing the smile he can't see. "Love you, Mum."
"You too, darling," she says, and hangs up the phone.
Harry looks down at his phone for a moment, scrubbing off the screen with the edge of Louis's sheet, and then he shakes his head at himself and calls Nick.
"Hey, hi," Nick says, answering before the phone has even rung a second time. He sounds exactly like himself, not panicked, not anxious, not running for the hills, just—Nick.
"Hey," Harry says softly, "so, um. Good news?"
"Does that mean I won?" Nick asks. "I did, right? I won? Is there an award? Like, 'voted acceptable for dating' by One Direction? That could be a Teen Choice Award, girls would go wild. Boys too, obviously."
"Nick," Harry says, laughing, "it's not, like—I don't think it's a thing you win, not like that."
"I think it is," Nick murmurs, dry and a little dirty, and Harry can feel himself flushing, his face going hot. He draws his knees up and scoots backwards on Louis's bed, until he's curled up against the headboard. "Seriously, though, Harry," Nick adds, "everything's alright? With the boys?"
"Yeah," Harry says, "unanimous vote and all, so. Everything's great."
"I wasn't even worrying about it," Nick says, all in a rush, "because honestly, Harry, who has their mates vote on who they can date, do you even realize how fucking bizarre you all are?" Harry frowns, starting to bristle, but then Nick says, "Only then I thought, I don't know—I did get worried, because it's actually really—sweet. Weird, okay, but sweet, and I guess I don't always appreciate how much the five of you really are a, a unit, so—I'm glad. I'm glad you have them, and I'm glad they think I'm worthy, or whatever. Of you."
"Oh," Harry breathes, and then he wraps his free arm around his drawn-up knees and puts his head down, so he can bury his ridiculous smile in his arm. Nick never stops surprising him. "Yeah?"
"Yes," Nick says firmly. "Tell them I said so, if you want."
"I suppose we could come up with some kind of award," Harry offers. "If you wanted. Limited edition. Special issue."
"I'm sure we can think of something," Nick says, very dirty this time, and Harry bites his lip, thinking about that. He can think of lots of things.
"I can think of lots of things," he tells Nick. "Most of them are naked."
Nick laughs. "Yeah, I kind of figured." He sounds like he's smiling, too, and Harry can picture him, on his sofa in his flat, all lit-up and grinning, tangling a hand in his own hair while he laughs.
"So," Harry says slowly, drawing it out, "are you free later?"
"Yes," Nick says immediately, "come over?"
Harry is still smiling stupidly—he can tell, because his face hurts, but he also can't seem to stop. "Yeah," he says, wondering if he could get away with legging it over to Nick's right now, but—"Maybe not for a bit, though? I think the guys have plans, and Niall just got back this morning. But later, yes."
"Come for tea," Nick offers. "I hear that people who are going out together sometimes eat meals."
"My mum called you my boyfriend," Harry blurts, and then winces and bangs his head on his knees.
"Oh, Jesus," Nick says, laughing breathlessly. "Is Anne going to kill me?"
Harry rolls his eyes. "She's not going to kill you, Nick, god. She likes you," and then, in the interests of honesty, "Although she did say something about needing to see you the next time she's in London? But she also sent her love, so I think it's fine. It's probably fine. You already know each other, how bad can it be?"
"Sure," Nick says, "but I wasn't your boyfriend before, so—that might change some things."
"That's what she said," Harry says, a little outraged. Clearly Nick and his mum are going to be fine. Then, when Nick starts laughing in earnest, Harry replays his own words in his head and giggles. "Seriously, you arse, that's actually what my mum said, so clearly you two will be fine. I'll just make sure I'm in Australia or somewhere, shouldn't be hard."
"Traitor." Nick sighs, mournfully. "You are a traitor of a boyfriend, Harry Styles. What did I ever do to deserve you?" He's joking, but the second part—the bit about deserving—sounds serious, awed, like the fact that they got here at all is something precious and surprising and a little bit magic. Harry knows how that feels.
"Hey," Harry says, pleased. "Boyfriend?"
"Well," Nick says slowly, "given that your band approves, I think—why not?"
There are a thousand reasons why not, thousands and thousands of reasons; but everyone who gets a say has had theirs, his band and his mum and Nick, and at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is that the reasons why are bigger than the reasons why not. "Yeah, okay," Harry agrees, "why not?"
"Well," Nick says again, his voice going soft and sweet and intimate, "alright, then."
The bedroom door opens, right then, and Louis comes in. He takes in Harry, tucked up at the head of his bed with the phone between his ear and his knee, and raises both eyebrows. "If you're having phone sex in my bed," he says, "I get to watch."
"That is not a rule," Harry says automatically. In his ear, Nick sounds like he's choking on a laugh.
Louis smirks. "Well, it could be a rule. We could vote."
"You have more phone sex than anyone else in this band," Harry says, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
"That might not stay true," Nick points out, on the phone. "Say hi to Louis for me."
Harry grins. "Nick says hi," he tells Louis. Louis rolls his eyes, and then gives an adorable, exasperated little wave at the phone. Harry tilts his head at Louis, questioning, and Louis shrugs and opens his hands. I won't rush you the gesture says, but I did come in here to talk, not just be annoying. Harry nods. "I should go," he tells Nick, "but—later?"
"Yes," Nick says, all promise, "later," and then hangs up before Harry can say anything else. Harry tries to will his blush down to reasonable levels. Later, god. Later had better be soon.
Louis sits down next to him on the bed and leans his shoulder into Harry's. Harry puts his phone down on the pillow and leans back, and Louis says, "Okay, listen, I'm not going to lie and say I'm not still worried, because honestly, Harry, there's a lot to worry about—like, a lot, even if we're all agreed that we're going to worry about it together. But," he shakes his head ruefully, smiling—and it's his realest smile, Louis with his edges softened by affection—"but I want you to know, I'm absolutely bloody thrilled that you're so happy, and that Nick makes you happy. Just—in case you didn't know that."
Harry blinks. "Thanks, Lou," he says, suddenly a little choked up. "I—thank you, that means a lot."
"I know," Louis says cheekily, "obviously. I am the most important member of One Direction."
Harry punches him in the shoulder, and then ruins it by tucking his head down and landing a kiss on Louis's cheekbone. "Yeah, well," he says, not denying it, even though Louis never, ever means it, "you're my favourite."
"Lies," Louis says, turning his head to grin at Harry. "Niall is everyone's favourite."
"Is he still asleep on the rug?" Harry asks. "Because Niall snores, so I don't think he should get to be anyone's favourite."
"He was making noises about lunch, actually," Louis says, "you know how he gets. Are you leaving us, this afternoon?"
"Oh," Harry says, flushing again. "Yeah, in a while? I think I'll spend the night at Nick's, he asked me over for tea, and I—" Louis's grin has widened, and he's looking at Harry like Harry is some kind of small adorable animal, which is just not on. "Shut it, Lou," Harry groans, even though Louis hasn't said anything. "Anyway, whatever, I'm going over later. I thought I'd stick around with you lot for the rest of the afternoon, god knows why."
"You love us, really," Louis points out, which is undeniable. "If you're not leaving straight away, you should come help Niall figure out lunch. Apparently the contents of my kitchen are a horror never before seen by the eyes of a poor Irishman."
Harry snickers. "Yeah, okay."
Louis gets up and puts out a hand to haul Harry to his feet. "Also," Louis says, not letting go of his hand, "me and Liam were talking, and when you're ready to talk to everybody that needs to be talked to, we'll help you make the calls."
Harry squeezes Louis's hand, and then hugs him. "Thanks," he says, muffled into Louis's shoulder, and Louis hugs him back, arms tight around him and one hand curled in his hair.
"Any time," Louis murmurs, and then he steps back, quirking an eyebrow at Harry. "I mean, obviously, Harry, we're not about to let you do this alone, where have you been?"
Harry smiles at him, feeling warm and loved and sort of stupidly happy. "Right here," he says, and lets Louis drag him back out into the kitchen, where the others are waiting.