"You going this weekend?"
Liam doesn't look up at him when he speaks, busy trying to turn the pages of his newspaper and not spill his coffee at the same time. Niall is flicking absent-mindedly through Facebook on his phone, sunlight streaming in through the cafe window to his right. Warms one half of his body, straight down to his fingertips.
"Yeah, I am," Niall replies, switching his phone off and staring out the window. It's windy outside, whipping the air, coats of people bustling past. But the sun is nice, quite bright in the partly cloudy sky. Liam keeps saying it's going to rain soon, but Niall doubts it.
"Good, because I really need those photos."
"You're coming too, though, aren't you?" Niall asks, turns his attention back to him and watches Liam burn his tongue with his coffee. After a bit of dramatic spluttering, Liam sets his coffee down and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, shakes his head.
"I'm going with Sophia to see her family, remember? I would've gone with you last weekend but you were sick."
"Right, right," Niall says, nods his head as though it isn't really a big deal. He goes back to people watching.
"Maybe you could take Harry with you," Liam suggests, as though he can sense the discomfort Niall is trying to mask, swallow down. Niall can't help but flash a grin at that.
"Imagine," he snorts. "Harry camping. I'd be better off by myself." He pauses a moment and lets them both enjoy the mental image of Harry trying to put up a tent. They're both grinning now. "Besides, he's away too. Going to some fancy art show in town."
"Oh, yeah." Liam looks apologetic. "I'm really sorry, mate, but it has to be this weekend. I need those photos for my article."
"It's fine," Niall waves him away dismissively. "I'm happy to do it, honestly."
The thing is, Niall doesn't know the first thing about camping. If he thinks about it, he's only been properly camping -- you know, with tents and everything -- twice in his life. And his dad and older brother had done all the hard stuff, putting up the tent, making dinner. Niall had just been a kid, all he did was wander too far into the woods and dibs the best sleeping spot in the tent.
Liam suggests staying at a caravan park but Niall can't afford it. And there's not any close enough to the forest he's going to photograph anyway. When Liam had written his article, something about ghost stories and conspiracy theories, he had had a specific creepy forest in mind. Bloody high maintenance, Liam is. At least he lets Niall borrow a tent and sleeping bag.
Niall drives up there on a Friday afternoon, hoping he will only have to stay one night. The weather has cooled down a bit, clouds heavier in the sky. It hasn't rained yet, like Liam had predicted, but Niall is actually starting to believe whatever strange weather predicting psychic power his friend thinks he has.
When Niall pulls up to the small carpark at the edge of Redwood Forest (or, as Harry liked to call it, Go-In-There-And You'll-Fucking-Die Forest) it's completely empty. Which is completely and utterly unnerving, despite the efforts Niall makes to reason with himself that nobody is camping because it isn't really camping weather. And, it probably is going to rain. And then finally, nobody is as stupid as he is to go into this creepy forest, yet alone camp in this creepy forest alone.
"I hate you Liam, I swear to god...If I die in there..." Niall grumbles to himself as he parks the car and tries not to look at the dark woods in front of him. He forces himself out of the car, grabs his hiking bag. Harry had loaned it to him and Niall had stared at him for a long time wondering when on earth Harry Styles had gone hiking. Well, up until he'd realized that it had never been used and it kind of made sense because Harry will sometimes buy things with a great intention, like a treadmill in his backroom that he swore was going to make him so fit, and the large amount of cook books he said were going to make him a famous chef, and then never gets around to using them.
Making sure he has his camera and his phone (though he really doubts he'll be able to use the latter), Niall locks his car and braces himself, before beginning his trek in Redwood Forest.
There's a small path he can follow, which will lead him to the camping site. And Niall sticks to it like his lifeline, feels almost as though he's walking on a tightrope. Around him, the temperature feels as though it's dropped dramatically, biting at his exposed skin. The trees have fairly thin trunks, little variation in the shape, but they are packed tightly together. It's darker, feels claustraphobic. Niall really really hates Liam.
He pauses to take a couple of photos every now and again, but though the trees prevent the majority of the sunlight from reaching him, he knows that it is still too bright. Liam wants photos of the forest at night, dark with the moon casting shadows. He reaches the little campsite within half an hour, and really it's just a large bare circle within the trees. A patch of dirt. Nothing else. Niall had been foolishly hoping for a shower.
It takes a lot longer than he'd hoped to set up the tent, tries to remember the instructions Liam had given him, but all he can think of is how they sat in Liam's living room together and how Harry kept laughing at something that wasn't even relevant and Liam kept shooting him annoyed looks. When the tent is finally up, the sun is setting and he's starving. Also, terrified out of his mind. It's completely silent now, the air feels weighted and heavy. Every now and again there'll be a rustle of leaves, the faraway cry of a bird, and Niall will jump out his skin.
He eats a dinner of trail mix and two chocolate bars because he'd declined Liam's offer of a weird camping cooking contraption that only promised to go completely wrong and burn the demonic forest straight to the ground (which may have actually been a good thing). Then he takes more photos. Leaves the campsite, though keeps it in his sights, as he captures the shot of an extra eerie looking tree, knots in the trunk like an old gnarled face. Tries to make the silence feel peaceful instead of suffocating, and actually enjoy the time he has alone. It feels as though he's been constantly moving these past few months, always around people, working and studying. Spending hours trying to capture the perfect shot, editing it, retaking it. Reading through articles, countless books and papers. Staying up late trying to get everything done, drinking too much coffee. He should think of this time alone as a holiday of sorts, a grace period in his chaotic life.
The thought manages to calm him, and he slips into his sleeping bag later that night feeling a little more content. Blames the inability to fall asleep on the cold, and not the fact that the forest if full of strange noises. Bugs and birds and god knows what. He tries his phone but isn't really surprised when there's no reception.
"I really should have asked Liam for money," Niall mutters to himself. "I deserve to be paid for this."
Maybe he falls asleep. But mostly, he slips between a conscious and unconscious state and can't lay still. Tossing and turning, thinking he sees odd figures outside the tent and hugging his sleeping bag close to his body.
It must be the middle of the night when he hears leaves rustling loudly, too loudly. There's the sound of twigs snapping and the forest floor crunching under foot and Niall stiffens, panics. Oh shit. Something is out there. Something is definitely out there.
Careful not to make a sound, he sits up and finds his flashlight, holds it close to his chest and listens. Ready to make a break for it if need be.
The commotion is just getting louder, closer, and then he can hear something breathing heavily and he swears he can see a figure outside his tent and then holy shit something is unzipping his tent.
Fuck fuck, Niall wields the flashlight like a weapon...fuck... accidentally turns it on, oh shit, fuck... and shines it right in the monsters face.
Except it's not a monser. It's just a guy. He barrels into Niall's tent quickly, squints against the torch light.
"Who are --" Niall begins in shock. The stranger cuts him off, but Niall doubts he could have actually managed to finish his sentence.
"This forest is creepy as fuck," the guy just says, he's zipping the tent back up and Niall becomes aware that though this man isn't a monster, or creepy demonic creature, he could very well be a bloody murderer. "I swear there's a bear out there. Or some sort of alien."
He turns around and faces Niall, looking a little breathless and wild. Brown hair sticking up everywhere, eyes wide, blue and glistening in the yellow torchlight. He offers a little smile and it pulls Niall out of his stupor, like a jolt, fumbling with the torch in his hands.
"You might wanna turn that off, mate," the stranger says, nodding to the torch. "It's acting like a bloody beacon. May as well go stand outside the tent and perform a ruddy strip tease for whatever the hell is out there."
Niall just stares at him blankly, tightens his grip on the flashlight and draws it closer to his chest, like he's afraid the stranger will try and take it off him.
"I'm sorry, but who the hell are you?" Niall finally manages to find his voice and he stumbles over his words. "Why the hell are you in my tent?"
"Us campers gotta stick together, right?" the guy says, smiling falling a little at Niall's perplexed expression, starts again. "I don't know. I'm camping at the camp ground next to this one and I went out for a wee but I think I walked too far because I was so freaking tired and it's so fucking dark and then I heard this noise, and it sounded like a bloody monster, let me tell you, and I bolted."
"Stumbled here by accident," Niall adds. He's trying to get a good look at the stranger but he's wiping the sweat off of his face with the sleeve of his green jumper and obscuring Niall's view. He doesn't seem scary.
"Oh, nah, I knew you were here." He drops his arm. "Saw your car on the way in. Thought we'd be better off in numbers, you know?" He's looking around Niall's tent, seems to have spotted a chocolate bar near Niall's bag. Doesn't even ask, just grabs it and tears away the wrapper.
Niall watches him. What, so this guy is planning on eating his food and spending the night in his tent? No way. He's cute and all but.
They jump at the sound of a bird cawing.
"Shit," the guy laughs. He speaks through a mouthful of chocolate. "I feel like I'm gonna die here."
"I'm Louis, by the way."
"Niall." Niall still can't really grasp the whole situation, but Louis seems to have settled in fine. He's sitting comfortably right at the front of the tent, finishing off his chocolate bar and poking around Niall's things. Niall watches as he spots Niall's camera and that's it. No more. He needs to leave.
But it appears that just as he opens his mouth, Liam becomes a viable psychic, because there's a roaring noise of water hitting the tent, and it begins to rain.
Louis glances up at the roof of the tent, watches the way water hits it, looking amused. Doesn't seem to notice the way Niall's face twitches in annoyance, or the way he pushes his camera as far away from Louis as possible.
"What a great night for camping," he says sarcastically, giving Niall a smirk. "Hey, can I ask why you're camping here anyway?"
Niall shrugs, gestures at the camera. "I'm taking photos for an article my friend wrote. He's into paranormal things and all that...really wanted to have some pictures of this forest," he finishes off with another shrug.
"Where is he, then?" Louis asks. "Just left you for dead?'
Niall gives a small laugh. "Pretty much."
Louis grins, shuffles a bit then lays down so their bodies make a bit of a T shape, with him at Niall's feet.
"What are you doing here, then?" Niall asks. Well, if it looks like Louis is going to stay then he may as well run with it.
"Got kicked out of the house," Louis replies nonchalantly, hands behind his head.
"Girlfriend?" Niall questions.
"Nah. It would be pretty cool if she was able to kick me out, actually, considering she doesn't exist," Louis answers and it makes Niall laugh. "Nah. It was my flatmate and his girlfriend. I don't really like her and we had a bit of an argument about it, and then he invited her over for the night and I think it was just to piss me off. So I just left."
"And you came here?" Not exactly the first place Niall would pick for refuge. Louis seems to read his thoughts.
"Yeah, I know, I know. Not exactly the place you'd expect to find a guy like me, look like the type of guy that lives in a penthouse and owns a yacht and everything, I know. And it's completely true. But you know, Niall, sometimes I think it's nice to try and live like the poor and unfortunate. Put yourself in someone else's shoes." He puts on a funny voice, airy and posh. Niall doesn't even know why he's laughing so hard.
"Right," he says, glad they're laying down on their backs so Louis can't see the huge, stupid grin he's suddenly got plastered on his face. "But seriously."
"Seriously. It was late and I live close by and I didn't really have anywhere else to go. And I was feeling a bit adventurous. Kinda forgot that I don't know the first thing about camping. Didn't know how to make my dinner or anything."
"It took me around an hour to put up my tent," Niall says in agreement, affirmation.
"Well, that's actually really quite disappointing, Niall," Louis says, and though he sounds very serious, Niall can somehow tell that he's just joking with him. And it's funny. Louis is funny.
Somewhere in between their chatting, as Louis tells Niall he's studying to become a drama teacher at Uni and Niall tells him he's majoring in photography, Niall decides that spending the night with Louis wouldn't actually be all that bad. His sides hurt from laughing, cheeks beginning to ache from the smile stuck to his face, but being with Louis is fun. Though it's cold and rainy and the wind is beginning to pick up, the night all the more eerie and unbearable, Niall is actually enjoying himself. He's camping and he's enjoying himself. He can already see Liam and Harry laughing at him.
"So what about you, Niall?" Louis asks, tugging one of Niall's jackets on with a short look like what? I'm cold. "You got a girlfriend or anyone?"
"No," Niall replies, picking a loose thread on his sleeve. He hates how deflated he sounds, doesn't want to leave it there. "I got a cat, well it's not really mine but it comes over to my house and I give it food. Sometimes it lets me pet it, but most of the time it bites me."
"Hm," Louis says. "Pretty sure that was how my ex use to describe me."
Niall laughs and Louis smiles at him, a real nice smile that makes the edges of eyes go all crinkly.
"So you're single, I'm single, you got a cat, we're both in the middle of this creepy ass forest, maybe we are meant to be. Or, maybe we're both complete idiots and destined to die here. Hey, you got any more food?"
They fall into silence as they listen to the loud patter of rain and Louis picks a small bag of trial mix. Louis begins to hum a bit, Niall grins a little when he recognizes the tune as Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl. Then his smile drops and he sits upright quickly, a thought hitting him right between the eyes, almost gives Louis a heart attack.
"Wait," he breathes. "Did you say bears?"
Louis has spilled trail mix all over himself, and presses his hand to his heart quite dramatically, breathes heavily, mutters Jesus under his breath.
"Sorry," Niall says sheepishly, watches Louis dust himself off. "Didn't mean to scare you. But you said bears, right?"
Louis gives him an odd look.
"I'm quite sure I have said 'bears' before, yes." Now they are both giving each other strange looks. "I'm sorry but I'm really lost. Is this some weird attempt at flirting?"
"W-what? No. Before, you said you heard a noise and you thought it was a bear. There aren't bears in this forest are there? Aren't we suppose to tie our food up in bag and hang it from a tree a couple of metres away? You know, so we don't draw them to us with the scent?"
"I also said it could be aliens," Louis points out. "So I don't think whatever I said before is very trustworthy." He settles back comfortably, folds his arms behind his head, Niall continues to stare at him. He has a very nice jaw, Niall decides, not sure when his thoughts shifted from bears to that but now he's noticing Louis's cheek bones and the slight stubble on his chin.
"I have to admit, I'm impressed with all your bear knowledge," Louis says. A pause. "That was a weird attempt at flirting, by the way." Then he looks straight at Niall with a grin, like he notices the way Niall is staring at him. Niall blinks and looks away hurriedly and goddammit he's going red.
"So there's no bears in this forest?" Niall asks, slightly flustered. He's got a cute boy in his tent wiggling his eyebrows at him, honestly he's surprised he's made it this far without making a complete fool of himself.
"Just one," Louis replies, and then he pulls his arm out from under his head and flexes his muscles and Niall is laughing way too loudly.
"Oh my god," he says through his laughter, head thrown back. "Are you sure that's not why your flatmate kicked you out?"
"That's why he lets me stay." More suggestive eyebrow wiggling. Niall is loosing it. Louis grins.
"You know, Niall, I'd think you'd like him. Maybe you should meet him sometime."
Niall calms down a little, though the smile is painted permanently on his face, matches the one crinkling Louis's eyes at the sides.
"More weird attempts at flirting?" Niall asks, can feel his blood boiling beneath his skin, wipes his palms on his sleeping bag.
"I may or may not be asking you out on a date," Louis shrugs. "Some may say I am moving too quickly, but we've been through a near-death experience together, Niall, I feel like we'll be bonded with that forever."
Niall's reply (which was probably going to be no more than word vomit) gets caught in his throat as the forest falls completely silent and the two boys lift their heads simultaneously, meet each other's gaze quickly.
"The rain's stopped," Niall states, though it's obvious.
"Bout time," Louis says, pulling himself into a sitting position. "Now I can finally get out of here. If I had to look at your cute face for any longer I think I'd go mad."
Niall grins, watches as Louis fumbles with the tent's zip, before pulling it down. He turns back to him before he leaves.
"Thanks for not being a murderer, by the way," Louis says with a nod. "I mean, I know I could've taken you easily if you had tried to kill me but it would've made the whole flirting bit rather awkward."
"Thanks for eating my chocolate bar," Niall replies. He offers Louis his torch. "Take this in case of aliens."
"Good idea," Louis answers, takes the torch from him. "I'll return it tomorrow. Unless, of course, the bear aliens get to me first." He clutches the torch to his chest and puts on a brave face.
"Well, it'd be good if they didn't. You're wearing my jacket and I want my torch back...and, you know, I wouldn't mind meeting your flatmate..." Niall trials off pointedly.
"Or just seeing my flat," Louis suggests. "My bed is quite nice."
And he just grins at the way Niall turns red, words stuck in his throat as he watches Louis wield the torch like a weapon, tumble out of his tent with a war cry and disappear into the forest with thudding footsteps.
It's actually quite ridiculous how long Niall sits there grinning like an idiot, staring at nothing. Only when he hears the loud squawk of a bird does he break from his thoughts, settles back into his sleeping bag. But he's still grinning. Because the squawk had been followed by a terrified shriek, then a "shit, fuck!" then a "I'm fine!", and finally, "fucking scary as shit bird..." and he can hear Louis running through the forest, footsteps quick but slowly becoming quieter.
And it's actually quite funny as he snuggles into his sleeping bag and closes his eyes and thinks of wild blue eyes and listens to the soft sounds of the forest smoothing over after the loud disruption and he thinks, that honestly, he may very well like camping.