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Slow Bloomers

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When Harry was nine years old they moved to the city.

“They” being Harry, his mum, and his mum’s new husband. Robin was nice enough, if slightly nervous and eager for Harry’s approval. But Harry had seen the way he would hold his mum’s hand under the dinner table, and bring her home flowers just because, and even though he was a grownup he still smiled when Harry’s mum smiled, and Harry liked the pastries he’d bring home for dessert.

What Harry didn’t like was that Robin’s fancy new job meant that he could no longer commute from Anne’s small family home to work. Which also meant they were leaving their small plot of land outside of Holmes Chapel.

Harry had truly never given London much of a thought. He’d only been a few times, most recently on an overnight trip Robin and Anne had taken him on. He’d loved the National Gallery, and the London Eye, and the specific splashiness of London puddles on the sidewalk. (He swore vehemently to Anne that London puddles were different to Holmes Chapel puddles, and she listened very indulgently while he explained in detail all the reasons why.)

But London was also very loud. Harry didn’t usually mind loud; he liked loud people, and loud cars, and loud laughs, and loud music. But London was just loud for no reason. It was all “Nothing Noise”, as Harry put it, when he told to Anne why he no longer wanted to sleep with his window open.

In Holmes Chapel he could fall asleep to the sound of a thousand crickets singing or his mum playing Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra records downstairs. It was Noise that had meaning and told stories and made Holmes Chapel his home. There were people that cared about him and told him about their day and smiled at him when he walked to school.

London however was very drab and gray, and the Thames looked dirty, and his new garden we terribly small, and one of the his kids in his science class laughed at Harry for singing to his seedling to help it grow, and the lady at the bakery didn’t even smile when Harry told her how lovely her scarf was.

Anne was suitably distraught when he told her of his woes, but she’d helped him understand that he had a very important task ahead of him: making London feel like home too. It would be up to him to find the little things that made London special.

He considered his mum’s words carefully, and thought about how he’d feel if he was a big, huge, bright, loud city and some small boy complained about how loud he was. Harry wasn’t being very fair, in hindsight, and he resolved to take this task very seriously.

London deserved just as much of his love and support as Holmes Chapel had gotten when he’d lived there, and Harry was determined to make sure London felt loved. Because, after all, how could the city love him if it did not feel loved in return? Harry felt very selfish indeed when he thought about it this way.

And so, during a long holiday weekend when his mum and Robin had woken him up early for blueberry pancakes and fresh squeezed orange juice that they even let him help squeeze, Harry sets up a “Tell Me About Yourself” booth down the lane from their terraced house.

Anne had helped him decorate his sign, sprinkling glitter on top of tracings of flowers that Harry had outlined in glue, and she made sure all the letters were straight before coloring them in with marker. Robin even cut some flowers from the garden so they could paste the petals all around the sign.

There had initially been some confusion the night before when Harry told Robin and Anne his plan to make London love him, but Harry finds that people tend to come around to his way of thinking if he just keeps talking. In the end, they agreed that Harry’s booth would indeed be an innovative way for him to introduce himself to London.

Harry figured it would be quite nice if everyone who spoke to got to leave with a present, so he puts all the extra flower petals in a bowl and brings it with him. It would be terribly impolite to send his guests off with nothing to remember him by, and Anne says that Harry grows the prettiest flowers in London.

He hopes that people will like his gift. Harry wants London to be his friend just like Holmes Chapel was, and this will be his first big impression. He’s very nervous, clammy hands straightening his houndstooth bowtie, even though Robin and Anne sit close by listening to Barcelona v. Real Madrid on a portable radio. Their attentions are mostly on the match, while also making sure Harry doesn’t wander off.

His day starts off very nice. An older woman named Madeline, with greying blonde hair and bright purple shoes that Harry thinks are very pretty, tells him that her favorite dessert is vanilla cheesecake, and that she has a hairbow at home just like his bowtie, which makes him gasp with delight. She tucks her flower petal into her purse, waving goodbye to Anne and calling Harry “lovely”.

Then there’s Lisbeth the pediatrician who has six dogs and hates limes, and Martine, a flight attendant with the darkest hair Harry’s ever seen who can speak four languages, followed by Alex, who is the height of one and one half Harrys and also collects snowglobes, and Georgina the yoga instructor with seven younger siblings.

Harry is feeling good about his endeavor now, as the Nothing Noise turns into the happy murmurs of the bright lives living in London. There’s happy people and content people and ambitious people and sunshine-y people, and Harry enjoys meeting all of them.

Hours pass, and there’s only two petals left in his bowl. Robin and Anne begin packing up their chairs and snacks, and tell Harry it’s time to head back for lunch. But he thinks it would be such a waste to not give away his last two petals, so they agree to stick around just long enough to meet two more people.

Time will distort his memory of this moment. He’ll remember a blue cloudless sky, though in reality the air was humid and the sky heavy with overcast clouds carrying impending rain. His memories will turn into feelings, less concrete fact and more fluid fondness. Eventually, he’ll settle for describing it as “the perfect day.”

The one memory that does not fade or falter is this: the two boys Harry meets next have the most beautiful Noise he’s ever heard. It’s Noise that tastes like cotton candy and is sticky and syrupy and leaves a taste of sugar on his tongue. Their noise is like looking through a telescope on a starry night and realizing for the first time how big the galaxy is.

Even in Holmes Chapel, even when they toured the Gallery, even during hot summer nights when the crickets and the wind were playing their own symphony - Harry’s never heard anything this pretty before.

Harry is wide-eyed and staring, and he barely notices his mum and Robin approaching him from behind. The two boys are chattering away to each other, and he so desperately wishes he could hear what they were saying over their Noise. He wants to be apart of whatever they are, wants to experience them, even if for just a moment.

“What’s that sound you’re making?” Harry asks, stopping them before they can walk past. The boys do indeed stop, and Anne ruffles his hair to chastise him. But Harry doesn’t mean it rudely; he’s never heard anyone’s Noise sound like this before and he just loves it.

“My sound? Or his sound?” Says the paler boy with the bluest eyes Harry’s ever seen. Harry almost doesn’t know how to respond, because usually people have no idea what he’s talking about when he asks them about their Noise. “Mine is like a guitar, kinda, but Zayn sings so nice that his sound is just his plain old voice.”

Harry had watched a documentary about Ireland in history class, and the boy’s accent sounded vaguely Irish, except not. It was like an Irish accent quite not formed, patched and filled with syllables from all over everywhere. Harry wondered where he came from, wanted to know whether it was Ireland or London or one of the stars Harry had seen through his telescope.

“It’s really pretty. You sound pretty together.” Above his head, Harry can vaguely hear his mum and Robin conversing with the adults the boys had come with, but Harry pays them no mind. “It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.”

“Yours sounds nice too,” interjects the other boy. His dark eyes are wide and serious, like one of the baby deer that used to frequent their yard in Holmes Chapel. Harry has learned that it’s not polite to pet humans like he would a deer, but perhaps if he asked nicely.

“The three of us sound good together, I like it.” And the paler boy nods.

“We came all the way over here because I knew it would sound good.”

Harry’s eyes flit back and forth between them. He almost makes himself dizzy trying to keep up with their conversation, but he manages, if just barely.

“Do you hear it?” They say together, finishing each other's’ sentences. Harry had watched a scary movie on television where two kids age had done that, but the way these boys did it was less creepy and more charming.

Harry loves being charmed.

Harry nods, listening to his own Noise that he almost never pays attention to anymore, his lonely Noise that no one but him can hear. He listens to the way it bobs and ebbs and weaves between theirs. It’s like, it’s almost like, he could almost call it -

“Music,” Harry says, with awe in his voice and something heavy and intense squeezing his chest. “It sounds like music.”

-

When Harry is twenty-two his parents move again. This time they leave him behind. Robin and Anne had grown tired of the city, and now that Robin worked from home more days than not they longed for the rural suburban life they’d left behind in Holmes Chapel.

But Harry had grown to love London and all it’s cracks and chips and beauty marks. He still carries a fondness for Holmes Chapel likes his parents do, but it’s different now. He’s built a life here. He’s become at peace here.

He’s got a somewhat useless degree in botanical and plant sciences, and somehow managed to land a summer internship at Kew Gardens. In the fall he’ll start working on an even more useless Masters in agricultural molecular biology, which when he explains to people he elaborates upon by saying he likes growing really fancy plants.

He’s got his garden that he sings to every night, and a neighborhood cat named Lily that greets him on his way to work, and a bakery down the street where everyone knows his name and favorite order.

London is finally the home that he’d been searching for all those years ago. He can’t just leave it behind now. London loves him, and he loves the city back.

His first night alone in the flat rolls around, and the low hum from the ceiling fan is the only sound. There’s no Duke or Frank or Elvis to lull him to sleep, no Robin shuffling around on socked feet listening to an audiobook about the life of Winston Churchill, no faint but recognizable argument about the latest footie match.

As Harry lays in bed, window open and listens to the car tyres of strangers sloshing over wet asphalt, with no Mum to attest to Lionel Messi’s superpowers, and no Robin to profess his undying devotion to Cristiano Ronaldo, and no heartbeat in the flat but his own -

Harry starts to feel lonely.

The deep, empty kind of lonely, where your head is too quiet and too loud at the same time, and all he wants to do is curl up and sleep, maybe for a million years, but the exhaustion only feels bone deep, and so he remains very much awake.

He’s watching a video on YouTube as a man with very nice forearms teaches him how to make yellow spongecake when his phone rings.

Surprisingly, and yet not surprisingly at all, It’s Niall.

“What’s wrong, petal?”

Harry can hear the crinkle of a bag, probably Doritos (Niall’s favorite flavorite is Cool Ranch, but lately he’s been partial to the salsa flavored ones), and he crunches in Harry’s ear while he eats.

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“Normally I’d humor you, do a little back and forth to get you to spill your beans, but Zayn says he’s got a paper due in two days and that your pity party is distracting him.”

There’s a scuffle followed an indignant squawk from Niall, a few curses and a thumping noise, and then Zayn is on the phone.

“I do have a paper due in two days, and you are kinda distracting me, but Niall wasn’t supposed to say that.” Harry smiles, imagining the way Zayn probably swats again at Niall, and the way Niall will throw a Dorito at him in return.

“So,” Zayn continues, probably curled up on the couch with his feet underneath his bum, a comfy sweater on to combat the air conditioning that Niall never turns off, and his hair loosely tied up on his head, “What’s wrong?”

“I bet,” Harry starts slowly, picking at a loose thread in his blanket, “You only called me to get out of doing your paper.” Harry doesn’t want to be the friend that only ever has problems. He wants to be the Cool Friend like Niall or the Artsy Friend like Zayn. Not the Problem Friend.

Zayn hums lowly, crunching his way through some Doritos that were no doubt aimed at his head, but doesn’t confirm or deny. He just lets Harry’s deflection hang in the air, and Harry sighs. Zayn knows that Harry will fill the silence sooner or later.

“The flat’s really quiet,” Harry says begrudgingly. He’s spent many years with his quirks, and many years with Zayn and Niall fondly witnessing his quirks, but it still takes a moment to admit something as silly as ‘I’m lonely in the dark’ while remembering that they won’t laugh at him.

“You know, you could just ask.” There’s a humorous lilt to Zayn’s voice now, like he’s trying to soften a blow for Harry, but isn’t willing to beat around the bush. That’s another thing about Zayn and Niall that he still hasn’t gotten used to - how straight to the point they are.

“I dunno what you -” Harry starts, but he’s cut off by Niall shouting from somewhere in the background.

“Just ask already! The Rams are playin’ in thirty minutes!”

“Niall’s gonna want salsa tonight, I think. He’s been on a crisps binge lately.” Zayn says softly, gently prodding Harry in the direction he wants him to go.

“Please tell me you got guacamole.” Niall shouts, and there’s another scuffle as Zayn shushes him, and another thump as something hits the ground.

Harry sighs. For a moment he’s glad there’s no one here to see him blush in the dark. The combined forces of Zayn and Niall can be very… insistent, but Harry gets a sickly flutter in his tummy when he thinks about imposing on them and forcing them to hang out with him.

“I don’t… you guys have your own lives, I don’t expect you to -” He tries to say, but he’s cut off again, this time by Zayn.

“He doesn’t have guacamole,” Zayn says, words muffled as he turns to shout at Niall.

“I’ll forgive him if he’s got cake.” But honestly Niall would forgive just about anyone if they had cake, so Harry doesn’t place too much stock in that answer.

“Do you?” Zayn asks, returning his attentions to the phonecall.

Harry can’t help but smile, because of course he picks up a lemon and cream shortcake (Niall’s favorite) whenever he sees one in the market, and of course he also grabs a bag of gummy bears (Zayn’s favorite) when he passes the candy aisle.

“Yes, I have cake.” He always has cake, and he always has gummy bears because Niall and Zayn like cake and gummy bears, and Harry likes Niall and Zayn, and honestly the math speaks for itself.

“Alright then. Ask.”

Harry sighs again, fondly and longsufferingly and appreciatively. They always say Harry needs to ask for what he wants, but half the time he isn’t even sure what he wants, and the other half of the time what he wants seems preposterous. But he asks for this anyway, despite the Rams playing in thirty minutes, and despite Zayn’s paper, because once in awhile Harry Styles likes to impose upon the two people who aren’t his parents that he loves most in the world.

“Would you and Niall fancy a sleepover?” His smile feels wide happy, and his heartbeat is thundering in his ears, but already the loneliness is gone. It’s been replaced by the knowledge that there’s two people in this city who will take his offer of cake and candy and curl up on the couch with him and watch footie matches and listen to old records.

Zayn chuckles in his ear, low and soft and sleepy sounding, probably from all the late nights he’s been taking in the art studio. Harry can already hear Niall in the background rushing him to get his coat on so they can leave, and Harry honestly can’t wait to see them.

“Thought you’d never ask, babe.”

-

Harry is (still) twenty-two when Zayn and Niall move in.

His parents end up being much more comfortable with the idea of Harry living in a bachelor pad with his friends than the thought of him living alone for the first time. Since the flat is already paid for, and Anne and Robin don’t anticipate them destroying the place, they set the rent for the three of them obscenely low, make spare keys for the boys, and have them sign a lease that says “Anne and Robin are great and we promise not to mess up Anne’s beautiful buttercream walls.”

Harry moves to his parents’ old bedroom, because why not, and Niall and Zayn drag all their belongs from their cramped uni flat into the floor below. Their room doors are situated directly across from each other, and a small, needy part of Harry wishes there were a third room on the floor so there’d be a space for him too.

While Louis and Liam don’t officially pay rent or stay in the flat, they come and go as they please. The pair never stay long, preferring to check in on Zayn and Niall when they see fit, crash in the attic for a few days, and then traipse back off to wherever Louis and Liam go when they leave.

None of them have ever brought up why Louis and Liam haven’t aged a day in the thirteen years Harry’s known them, or why Harry’s seen pictures and heard stories and chatted on FaceTime, but never met Niall or Zayn’s families in person. At this point Harry feels too awkward to ask about it, so he lets it be.

And anyway, Harry’s got bigger things to worry about. He doesn’t necessarily think they’re keeping something from him, and they aren’t secretive per se, but sometimes even in this flat, living with his best friends in the world, who think Harry doesn’t know they share a room some (most) nights -

He’s reminded sometimes, that Niall and Zayn existed before Harry came along. Were friends before Harry came along. They have stories and memories that don’t involve Harry at all. The way they look at each other, like they know everything about each other but still ask ‘How was your day?’

Harry wishes someone could look at him like that.

He’s happy for Zayn and Niall. Confused but happy, Harry thinks, as he walks by Zayn’s closed bedroom door that night, the emptiness of Niall’s room taunting him, And still kind of lonely.

-

Despite the truly complicated feelings Harry harbors, he still thinks it’s nice to have someone to come home to again. It’s with this lone thing to look forward to, after a long day where even singing wasn’t enough to save some sick saplings at work, that Harry walks through the front door.

It’s not that he’s necessarily trying to catch them in the act of something, but he might have potentially “accidentally” forgotten to text them that he would home early. The scientist in him is burning to test his hypothesis, and the busybody in him is dying for answers.

Niall and Zayn’s rooms are on the second floor, but as soon as he opens the door he can hear them; Niall’s guitar and Zayn’s honeyed voice mingling together. The whole flat smells like strawberry lemon cakes, and Harry wonders if they’ve been baking without him.

He follows the sound up the stairs, but it doesn’t get louder. Even though he’s getting closer it stays the same mellow tone, floating around in his head like a puffy pink cloud, stuffing him up full of air made of candy floss.

When he pushes the door to his mum’s old sewing room open, it’s just Zayn and Niall sitting on Niall’s bed. Zayn’s leaning against the headboard, singing with his eyes closed, while Niall hums and strums along. They’re harmonizing, meant to be like the way the sea and sand are meant to be, weaved together like an amalgamation of peace and love and sweet things.

The whole scene is so beautiful that Harry almost doesn’t notice that the walls are glowing like there’s an rose-colored Aurora Borealis taking place from within the drywall.

“Pink’s my favorite color,” Harry says, for want of absolutely anything better to say. His mouth is kinda dry and he thinks maybe he should sit down, but his feet are stuck to the floor. All he can focus on is the two of them, and how much he never wants to stop looking and hearing and witnessing.

“I know, petal.” Niall says, fingers never slowing over his guitar. His hair’s messed up, brown and unstyled and falling onto his forehead. Harry wants to touch it, like he has a million times before, but he bets it would feel different this time.

“Can I join?” Harry asks, voice a low whisper as Zayn keeps singing. He looks very pretty like this, pink light bouncing off his cheekbones, the same light that’s turning Niall’s hair the most perfect shade of fuschia.

“We’ve only been asking for absolute years,” Niall scoffs. He waves his hand to beckon Harry over, but the guitar keeps going without him touching it, and that ought to be strange, but really it’s not, because if Harry thinks about it the guitar has always been like Niall’s third arm, and -

“For Christ’s sake shut your brain up and get over here.”

“When did you get so rude? You’ve been visiting Louis too much.” Zayn’s soft voice overlaps with… Zayn’s soft voice. Like an echo but not, vocal fractals bouncing off the walls and crisscrossing until Harry can barely tell what’s coming out of Zayn’s mouth and what isn’t.

“Come sit,” Niall beckons again, and this time Harry trails over. Niall points to a piece of sheet music, and Harry’s never really been musically literate but this doesn’t look like any music he’s ever seen before. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve been hearin’ it for years. It’ll come to you this time, I think.”

“But, how do you - ” and just then Harry remembers late nights when they would sing to him in the darkness, expectantly and hopefully, that this time was ‘it’. Harry was never sure what ‘it’ the two of them were waiting for, but they assured him there was plenty of time.

A “slow bloomer”, they’d called him.

“Do you hear it then?” Zayn asks, and his eyes are so wide and earnest, just like the first time they met, and Harry could just cry right here and now. He actually does cry a little, but when he looks down at the teardrop that’s fallen on his hand it’s pink, and Zayn’s eyes are pink, and the music is pink, and he feels so very pink inside.

“Pink’s my favorite color,” he says again. Niall chuckles, ruffles his hair, and all at once Harry can feel how very blue Niall is compared to Zayn’s gold. He’s very warm inside. Overwhelmed and warm, and Zayn tuts that he’s getting too worked up, and maneuvers Harry’s body so his head is in Zayn’s lap.

“We’re like the prettiest beach sunset,” Harry slurs, but he doesn’t remember drinking. It just feels like it. Feels like he’s drunk on color and sound and light and Noise.

“Yeah,” Zayn says indulgently, petting his hair, and Harry gets the sense that Niall’s laughing at him. But Niall would never laugh at him, so Harry laughs along too, because Harry loves all of Niall’s jokes, and Niall is the funniest person in the whole world.

“D’you fancy a sleepover?” Harry asks, eyes lidded and falling shut until the only lights he can see are the ones shining behind his eyelids.

Zayn’s voice is close but far away, and Harry can feel the bed shuffle as Niall lays down next to him and rubs a hand down Harry’s back. It feels really nice. Zayn and Niall always make him feel nice. The nicest. Like floating on cotton candy clouds.

“Thought you’d never ask, babe.”