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we both went down swingin' and we called it a draw

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*

 

“All right, how about that one.”

Harry looks up from the muffin he’s picking apart on his plate. He’d asked for blueberry, which this is, but there’s some kind of weird nut in it too. It kind of tastes like soap. Harry never even knew they made blueberry nut muffins. Did someone actually think that was a good idea?

He looks to where Nick is nodding at a harried looking mum with a baby in a pram that she’s rocking back and forth in what Harry thinks she’s supposing is a soothing manner. There’s also a second small child hanging from one leg of her tracksuit pants. She’s got her hair in a messy bun and is managing to carry on a full conversation with the barista while ignoring the whinging of the toddler and the increasingly fretful wails of the baby.

“Covert agent, of course,” Harry says easily. “Working undercover to suss out the meth lab in the back of the kitchen.”

“A meth lab in the kitchen?” Nick’s voice raises on the last word. He’s got an eyebrow quirked up and a smudge of white icing on the corner of his mouth. He’d eaten a doughnut earlier and Harry wants to wipe the icing off with his thumb. He wants to kiss it off and then work his way to Nick’s mouth.

He looks back down at the table instead and tangles his fingers together in his own lap.

“A huge one,” Harry continues. “The police have been watching it for ages.”

“And the children?”

“Decoys,” Harry shrugs. “Throws the criminals off the scent.”

“Hmm.” Nick keeps his eyes on the mum as she pays for her coffee and takes a small brown bag from the barista. The second she hands it over to the toddler, he stops yelling and she sips her coffee and focuses on the baby in the pram. “I suppose. All right, one more.”

Harry pushes his mangled muffin away and brushes the crumbs from his fingers. He’s leaned back in his seat, legs stretched out in front of him under the table, the heels of his boots nudged up against Nick’s trainers. He’s trying not to overreact from the contact. They used to do this all the time, is the thing; the going out, the playing dumb games, the touching. There’s no reason why everything is so terrible now. Well, there is, but Harry’s ignoring it. He’s doing a piss poor job of it so far to be honest.

Nick’s glancing around the café, eyes squinted and chin resting easily in the palm of his hand. He’s got stubble on his cheeks and his quiff is drooping and Harry wants to touch him so badly he aches with it. He kicks Nick’s foot instead and whines, “Come on, pick.”

“All right, do them,” Nick says, inching his head gently to the side. Harry tries to casually stretch, arms going up over his head and feet pulling away from Nick’s under the table. He nearly knocks over his mug of tea and somehow upends the entire sugar shaker by the time he spots them, but when he does he freezes, the breath getting lodged, thick and hot in his chest.

“The two lads?”

“Yeah,” Nick nods. “What’s their story?”

Harry looks. It’s just two lads, probably his own age sitting at a table tucked into the corner of the shop. They’re sitting on opposite sides of the table but are hunched over the formica so close their faces are nearly touching. They’re smiling at each other with their heads ducked, and when Harry focuses he can see their hands curled together behind one of the coffee mugs, the one lad's thumb brushing over the other’s skin. One of them says something and the other laughs, loud and bright, clapping his free hand over his mouth as the other grins and it’s so much, it’s too much. Harry can’t do it.

He doesn’t want to make up a story like him and Nick do to pass the time. He doesn’t want to pretend they’re escaped convicts hiding out in a small town café to hide from the police, or that they’re famous movie stars in full disguise to be able to go out for a drink with the common people. He doesn’t want to pretend anything; doesn’t want to think about them at all. They look happy. Harry doesn’t want to take that from them, even in a stupid game.

They just look happy.

Harry drops his head and pulls his legs underneath him. He can feel Nick’s eyes on him and Harry meets them and right there is everything; Harry can see every single word that neither of them are saying.

“Actually, I changed my mind. I don’t really feel like doing this right now,” Harry says quietly.

Nick doesn’t say anything and Harry thinks that’s the problem right there. Neither of them know what to say anymore.

*

“I’ve brought wine!”

Harry pockets his keys to Nick’s flat and shoves the door closed with his hip. He’s got the bag with the wine bottles tucked under one arm and a box of the fancy chocolate biscuits from the posh bakery near his mum’s house in the other hand. He can already hear people talking and laughing out in the garden - Pixie’s unladylike snort and Aimee’s screeching cackle.

Nick comes into the flat, screen door banging shut behind him.

“Harold! You’ve decided to join us!”

Harry frowns. “I told you I’d be a bit late. Just going over a few things for next year’s tour.”

“Ahh yes, that’s right. I’d nearly forgotten.” Nick’s rubbing his chin and pretending that he doesn’t care at all that Harry’s going to be leaving in the next year for six, eight, ten months at a time. Maybe he doesn’t care, actually. Harry thought he did, but.

“Might have to find myself a new friend to go out with,” Nick says, taking the wine from under Harry’s arm and sniffing at the closed box of biscuits. “Are these the fudgy almond things--”

“From my mum’s, yeah.” Harry fiddles with the watch on his wrist. “And it’s not that big of a deal - the tour I mean. I mean, I’ll be back to visit, and--”

Nick cuts him off with a sound kiss, pressing their lips together and nearly knocking the breath from Harry’s lungs in the process. Harry reaches up, flits his fingers over the edge of Nick’s collar, slides them over the back of Nick’s neck and into his hair.

Sometimes he feels so much for Nick he expects his chest to explode from it, not used to having so many feelings pressed inside all the time. He doesn’t know what to do with them all; never knows what to say, so he just kisses Nick back and tries not to think about a time when he won’t have this. When he won’t have Nick’s hands on his waist, his fingers pressing against Harry’s skin. When he won’t have the sound of Pixie and Aimee and Ian laughing at them from the opposite side of a screen door, or be able to smell the chocolate hanging in the air from the box of biscuits Harry’s let go of and dropped to the floor.

*

It’s the end of summer when Harry gets back, time for t-shirts and shorts and walking around in the park in Primrose Hill, eating ice lollies and lounging in the grass. Harry’s missed Nick’s birthday and all it makes him do is think about Nick’s birthday last year; going out at night, the day in the park. He knows people were watching them then, he’s seen the pictures to prove it. He wonders why this year it’s so different; why this year means so much.

“I’ve been ringing you,” Harry says over dinner. They filmed the Breakfast Show earlier in the day and when Harry heard Nick was going out with friends he invited himself along. He’s sure Nick doesn’t mind, exactly. After all, this was Nick’s idea to begin with, this whole being friends nonsense.

“I’ve been calling you from near every state to try and say hi,” Harry says again. He picks at the food on his plate. It’s some kind of fish with a wine sauce and vegetables. Nick got a pasta dish. A year ago Harry would have leaned over and scooped half of Nick’s food onto his own plate without even thinking about it. It would have been completely normal, no one would have thought anything of it at all.

Tonight he just puts his fork down and pushes his dinner away. He’s not got much of an appetite anyway.

“Nick,” Harry says flatly.

Nick drops the fork he’s holding against his plate and huffs. “What--”

“I just don’t understand,” Harry says. He runs a hand through his hair, frustrated. This wasn’t what he wanted to have happen tonight at all. “You said we would always be mates at least. I was there, I heard you. But whenever I try, you blow me off.”

Nick bites his lip and glances up toward the ceiling. Harry watches him swallow. The tips of Nick’s ears are red and he’s got his hands folded together tightly and resting on the table. Harry loves him so much he can barely breathe.

“It’s just hard, Harry, yeah?” Nick says sadly. Harry opens his mouth to do something, say something, but Nick shakes his head sharply and Harry stays quiet. “Turns out the whole being mates thing is a bit easier said than done.”

Harry glances at the rest of the table but no one’s paying them any attention. He reaches out slowly, trying to touch the top of Nick’s hand, but Nick pulls his hands away, tucks them in tightly against his lap.

Harry sighs. “Then let's be more,” he says quietly. Nick looks at Harry and huffs out a short laugh before he looks away. “It was never my idea to be just mates in the first place.”

Nick’s silent for so long Harry wonders if he’s ever going to say anything at all. Their server comes over and clears the table of their plates. He drops off a dessert menu but Harry doesn’t touch it. He’s almost afraid to move.

In the end Nick just shakes his head. “No, Harry,” he says softly. Harry’s stomach balls into ice; the back of his eyes prickle hot with tears. “It wasn’t your idea. It was mine.”

*

It’s late at night and Harry thinks he’s possibly going insane doing what he’s doing. He’d had to promise his mum he’d be back as early as possible the next day and Gemma rolled her eyes and took the piss so hard when she heard what Harry was planning that he’d had half a mind to return every single one of her Christmas gifts to the shops first thing in the morning.

In the end he didn’t care though, not really. Let everyone at his mum’s house poke fun of him all they want. Harry knows what he’s doing.

The roads are near empty this time of night and Harry makes the trip from Cheshire to Oldham quicker than he’d expected. He’d made a playlist specifically for the trip and he’s not even three quarters of the way through when he spots the turnoff for Nick’s parents' road, flicking his blinker on and taking the turn carefully. It’d not do him well to crash the truck up less than ten minutes before getting to see Nick again anyway. Talk about putting a damper on his plans.

Nick’s parents' house is dark but Harry knows Nick’s still awake. He’d texted Aimee earlier in the night and she told Harry she’d do her best to ply Nick with alcohol and sweets to try and keep him from falling asleep as long as possible. He’d not heard from her since so he’s assuming everything is all right.

He knocks quietly on the door and rocks back on his heels, hands shoved deep into his pockets. When Nick answers he’s not even looking outside, head turned around to finish whatever conversation he’s having just past them and into the house, and by the time he’s turned around to check Harry’s grinning brightly at him, laughing at Nick’s shocked expression.

“Happy Christmas,” Harry says beaming cheekily. Nick blinks and looks past Harry and over his shoulder. “Um, hello?” Harry waves his hands around in front of Nick’s face. “Right here, Grimshaw.”

By the time Nick looks back his expression has softened, eyes crinkled gently and his head tipped to the side. He’s got on a horrendous green sweater with white reindeer stitched across the front and a pair of red flannel sleep pants. His hair is loose and floppy and he looks badly in need of a shave.

He’s possibly the most beautiful sight Harry’s ever seen.

“Henry bleedin’ Stars,” Nick finally says, voice soft. “I thought you had plans today. Had to be at your mums, or summat.”

Harry shrugs. “I did,” he says. “I was there before and now I’m here.” He waits another minute, hoping that he made the right decision. Things have been slightly off with him and Nick lately. They’ve not seen each other all that much so when they do things start off slightly awkward and stiff. Harry’s not sure where his boundaries are supposed to be. He’s got no idea how to do any of this at all. All he really knew was that it was Christmas, and he missed Nick so he went to see him. Harry doesn’t understand why it needs to be any more difficult than that.

“Um,” Harry says, biting down on his bottom lip. “I hope that’s ok?”

“Yeah,” Nick says and shakes his head. He steps back and Harry follows him in, the air around him warm and sweet. “Yeah, it’s great, Harry,” Nick says, and shuts the door, closing the cold night air and dusting of snow behind them.

*

Harry knocks on Nick’s door, then waits approximately three seconds before leaning on the bell. He’s still got his key, strung low on a chain around his neck and hidden behind his shirt but it doesn’t feel right to use it considering. Earlier in the evening Nick had waved down the waiter at the restaurant so quickly Harry barely even realized what was happening and the next thing he knew Nick had paid and was kissing the side of his cheek and bustling off, claiming he had to make it an early night because he needed to be up at five in the morning for work.

Which is fine just. Well.

Well fuck that, really.

Harry leans on the bell again and Christ, honestly, if Nick doesn’t answer soon his bloody neighbors are going to call the police. “I know you’re in there, Nick,” Harry says. He kicks the door with the toe of his boot and frowns. “I can see the lights and I know you’re home. Just open the fucking--”

“Dammit, Harry.” The door comes swinging open and Nick...does not look pleased. Harry pushes past him and into the flat. Tonight maybe he just doesn’t care. “I think I said that I--”

“I don’t care.” Harry stalks into the flat and yanks his jacket off. He tosses it onto the arm of the sofa and Puppy must have been sleeping under it because he hears a yip and a short bark and then sees her scurrying off down the hall and into the bathroom. “Shit. Sorry,” Harry says, because he feels bad. He never meant to scare Nick’s dog, Christ. “I just. I want to--”

“No.” Nick is shaking his head and waving his hands in the air. “We’re not going to do this again; we’re not.”

“But, Nick, tell me why--”

“Because we’re not, Harold,” Nick says. He stops walking and plants his hands on his hips. He’s just in front of Harry, close enough to touch, but Harry won’t do that, he can’t, not until he knows Nick wants him to again. “We can’t keep doing this time after time.”

Harry feels the back of his throat burn and ache. His face is hot and he’s dangerously near to tears already, chest hitching and eyes wet. “I miss you, though,” he says. His voice comes out soft and thick. The words break as they leave his tongue and fall into the air, shattered and rough. “I miss you so much.”

Nick closes his eyes. He presses the heels of his hands against his forehead and cringes. “I miss you too.”

“Then why do you keep pushing me off?” Harry sniffs. He rubs his wrist across his eyes and ignores it when the skin comes back damp with tears. “I don’t understand. I’ve never understood.”

“Perhaps if the situation were reversed you would," Nick says, frustrated. "Perhaps if it were me leaving you behind to pine while I went and did exciting things, you'd understand."

"That's not fair," Harry says, softly like he doesn't want to argue. "I don't complain about you getting up early in the mornings, do I? I’ve never done that. And anyway, who says I don't pine for you while I'm away?" He puts one hand over his heart when he says this, for emphasis.

"I don’t like the person I am when you leave,” Nick finally says. “I'm horribly depressed and out of sorts and who has time for that?" Before Harry can offer up another protest, Nick continues. "Look, if this were less--if it were casual between us. If it meant less than it does, it might be easier. I'd be up for a shag here and there when you were free. But it's not like that. Not for me anyway. And you’re going to keep leaving, Harry. That’s not going to change.”

Harry is quiet for a long moment, shaken. “It means a lot to me as well,” he says after a beat too long. "You mean a lot to me. I--that's why I don't want to let this go." He needs to make Nick understand this. He doesn’t know how else to say it that he’s not said a thousand times over. “Sure I go away, for work, but I come back, Nick. I always come back.”

Nick just shakes his head, same as he does every time. “That's not enough.”

The words rattle around in Harry's brain, making him ache. It hurts that they're not on the same page, that Harry would happily spend one day per year with Nick if that's all he got, and yet somehow he's not enough for Nick.

"I'm here now," Harry says, holding his hands out. "Does that count for anything?"

*

Nick barely waits for the candles to be blown out on Harry’s birthday cake to try and tell him he thinks they should see other people while Harry’s away on tour. Harry can hardly process anything; he’s never been more hungover in his entire life. It’s possible two night long parties in a row was maybe too much celebrating.

It’s late in the morning and Nick greets him with a steaming cup of coffee and a tired smile. He’s already dressed for the day and Harry’s got no idea where any of his own clothes are. He’s tucked under Nick’s bedding, the pillow pushed deep into the groove of the headboard, and when Nick sits down on the edge of the bed and folds his hands in his lap Harry knows something is up.

“Should I put some pants on for this conversation?” Harry asks jokingly. Nick doesn’t laugh though, and Harry frowns at the silence. Suddenly nothing about this seems very funny at all. “Um. I was kidding.”

“No, I know,” Nick rushes to say. He rubs a hand over his mouth and then looks down, pulling at a string hanging from the bottom of his t-shirt. Harry was with him when he bought that shirt. They’d gone shopping and then out for sushi and then Harry stayed over while they watched Bake Off, legs slotted together on Nick’s couch. That was a really good night. “I just. I think it’s time maybe you started staying by your own flat a little more than mine is all.”

Harry blinks. He sips his coffee and tried to understand what Nick’s saying. “Why? Most of my stuff is here anyway.”

Nick laughs sadly. “God, Harry. That’s part of the problem right there.”

Harry frowns. “What problem?”

“You’re leaving,” Nick says. His voice is short, frustrated. Harry puts his coffee down on the nightstand and starts rooting around on the floor for his clothes. Somehow he feels like this conversation is heading to a place that he’d be smart to be wearing pants for. “You’re going off on tour in a month and you’ll not be back till next year or summat.”

Harry huffs. “Well now you’re just exaggerating.” He finds his pants and yanks them on and then stalks around the room looking for his t-shirt and jeans. “I’ll be in the UK for a while and then away and then back again. I told you I’d give you the exact travel dates. I don’t get why you’re making this into a bigger deal than it has to be.”

“Because you’re touring the world, Harry!” Nick sounds frustrated. He gets up from the bed and paces the short distance of his room back and forth. “You’re going to be going off and seeing all sorts of people and places and just. You don’t need to be worrying about things back here. People back here.”

“But I’m not going to be worried.” Harry feels his eyebrows scrunch together. None of this makes any sense. “Just because I’m going to be away doesn’t mean anything has to change, Nick, really.”

“But Haz--”

“No. Ssh.” Harry takes Nick’s arm and pulls him to a stop in his pacing. Nick stops short and Harry yanks him in closer, their chests brushing together, Harry’s heart tripping out a fast rhythm, trying to find Nick’s to beat against. “You’re being a twat. Nothing’s going to change.”

Nick shakes his head. “You don’t know that.”

“But I do,” Harry insists. He kisses Nick then, just a press of his lips against Nick’s. “Now stop trying to break up with me on my birthday.”

Nick is quiet for a second, but then he shakes his head and looks down at the floor. Harry can see he’s smiling though, just a little, just the corners of his mouth twitching up. “It’s not your birthday anymore, Christ. How long are you planning on dragging this out for? The two night long parties weren’t enough?”

Harry laughs and drags Nick back to bed and they stay there for the rest of the morning, any talk of not seeing each other anymore or staying at his own flat effectively shut down.

*

When Nick doesn't answer, Harry drops his arms and chews on his lip. "Should we not even see one another, then? Should I not have come?"

It breaks his heart to even suggest it, but he's not going to harass Nick any further if he's made up his mind.

Nick looks up, wipes at his face. "That depends," he says quietly. "Why are you here?"

If Nick's face was blank, if he sounded tired and over it, Harry might make a different decision. He might leave, give Nick some space and time before trying again. But that's not what he sees. There's a spark in Nick's eye that looks hopeful, something that spurs Harry on to press just that last bit harder.

"I'm here because you're brilliant and clever and fit and on my mind always," he says simply. "And I'd quite like to kiss you."

Nick laughs, eyebrows raised like Harry is ridiculous, and that's fine. Harry will be ridiculous for Nick, if that's what it takes. "Oh, well, if that's all," Nick jokes, and there it is, his opportunity.

He steps closer, grinning. "That's not all, actually." Nick lets him get nearer, not stepping away, and yes, that's--that's brilliant. This thing between them, it's more than sex. But talking about it is obscuring everything, like trying to apply logic to magic. If he can just get Nick to kiss him, touch him, remember what it's like when they're closer than close, wrapped up in each other, maybe Nick will stop trying to end something that's just beginning. So he pushes. "If we're being honest," Harry says, lowering his voice even though it's just the two of them there. "I should tell you that I'm going to get off thinking about you tonight, even if you turn me out."

Nick laughs again, shaking his head. "How are you so shameless?"

Harry shrugs, taking another step forward. "I'm predictable, I suppose. You're all I think about when I get off most nights." He trails a hand down Nick's arm, touching lightly at his wrist. "Your fingers, usually." One more shuffle forward and then they're close enough for Harry to rest his face against Nick's cheek. "And your mouth," he murmurs, nuzzling into Nick's neck.

"Harry," Nick warns, but his hands slip onto Harry's hips, so Harry counts it as a win.

"I'm going to do it anyway," Harry says again. "Even if you turn me out. I'm going to think about you fucking me." He smiles into Nick's neck when he hears the shuddery inhale of breath. "Be more fun in person though."

"You're a menace," Nick says, voice rumbling into Harry's hair. "You're every bad decision rolled into one, d'you know that? You're the eighth mojito, followed by sweet corn pizza and a Jesus tattoo. On a Tuesday evening."

Harry smiles wider, presses closer. "I love it when you say sweet things to me," he whispers, pressing his mouth to the skin behind Nick's ear, grinning as Nick tilts his head to give him access. He slides a thigh in between Nick's legs, presses up and in, grinding their hips together. "Gets me really hard."

When Nick’s hands slide up under the hem of Harry’s shirt, he calls it a victory, even if Nick does say, "You're a teenager, everything gets you hard." He's smoothing his hand up Harry's spine and it makes Harry shiver, makes him burrow closer to Nick.

"Not like this," Harry says, rutting in slow, steady circles against Nick's hip. "It's the best with you. S'why I want you so much."

It's half a lie. The sex between them has always been brilliant, from that first shaky touch to the now-familiar taste of Nick's skin, but that's not the only reason Harry wants Nick. He wants Nick all the ways, all the time, and he knows that Nick wants him like that as well. This is just the easiest path around this stupid barrier of Nick's.

"Harold," Nick starts, but Harry's had enough. He tilts his head up and catches Nick's mouth with his own, lips soft and warm.

It’s so good--everything with Nick is always so bloody good. Nick’s mouth is warm and wet and Harry makes a desperate sound against Nick’s lips, slips his tongue into Nick’s mouth and tries to let Nick know from his kiss alone how much Harry’s missed him, how much he needs him. It takes a moment but Harry can feel the second that Nick finally gives in; his touches go from soft to firm, the fingers he’d gently laid over the curve of Harry’s waist dig into his flesh, fingertips pressing hard enough to hurt.

Harry wants it. He wants the pain and he wants Nick to give in. He wants Nick to take him, to stop thinking about all the reasons why they don’t do this anymore and fill his senses with nothing but Harry instead.

“Bedroom,” Harry says. He pulls back and finds Nick’s face flushed, his eyes hooded and dark. Harry wants to strip off and then get Nick naked as well. He wants them to fall begging and desperate onto Nick’s bed. Wants to twist his hands in Nick’s white sheets, set his teeth into the side of his arm as Nick fucks him harder than he ever has before. “I mean, unless you want to do it right here,” he adds, kicking off his boots and starting to yank the shirt off over his head. Harry’s not fussy. He’ll take Nick however he can get him. “I’m ok with right here.”

“Bed, Harold,” Nick says, rolling his eyes. He’s pretending to be frustrated but Harry can feel how badly Nick wants this, how much he needs Harry now and maybe it’s not forever but it’s at least for tonight. It’s not everything Harry wants but he’ll take it. He has time to try for everything again tomorrow.

“Then come on,” Harry says and holds his hand out. Nick hesitates again, but Harry wiggles his fingers and catches Nick’s eye and grins. Nick smiles back at him, just a little bit, but he does take Harry’s hand, fingers twisting together between their bodies. When Harry tugs him toward the bedroom Nick follows.

*

The first show of the tour goes off without too many hitches. Harry missed his cue in the beginning of Rock Me and Liam’s voice cracked once during Over Again but Harry doesn’t think either of them were noticeable, really. Definitely not over all the screaming that had been going on.

It’s just - it hits him then how much he missed this. He’s been so excited during rehearsals that he thought he would be ok when the show actually got here but the fact is that Harry wasn’t really ready for this again - not at all. It’s like a bone deep joy that starts from his toes and races all through his body before exploding out of him, and nothing he’d ever done before can ever compare to the feeling that he gets when he’s onstage. Not a bloody thing.

Backstage is mad. Everyone is overly excited and loud after the show. Harry knows they should all be resting, there’s still another show to do left today and then again tomorrow and the day after and after that and, well, he gets it, he does. But he’s still feeling pretty damn excited and that only intensifies when he sees Nick shouldering his way into the backstage area, head ducked down, smile flitting upwards quickly when he bumps into anyone he knows.

Harry can’t help himself. He jumps up from the speaker he’d been sitting on and crosses the room quickly, wrapping his arms around Nick’s middle and squeezing tightly.

“I’m so glad you came,” Harry says. He pulls back and beams at Nick. “I saw your cheeky sign, mate. Nice touch.”

Harry doesn’t add how it made him smile the entire show through. How every time he looked up and caught Nick sitting there with a Rock Me Harry sign he’d nearly doubled over with laughter right there on the stage. The last thing Nick ever needs is Harry to encourage his ridiculous behavior. Christ. “So hey, I don’t have a whole lot of time but I was thinking if I can maybe sneak out of here for a bit we can--”

“I can’t, Harry,” Nick says quietly.

The words die out on the tip of Harry’s tongue. It hits him then how quiet Nick’s been since he came backstage, how quiet he’s been the past few days, actually. Something deep inside him shakes. Suddenly he’s nervous and he’s got no idea why.

“Oh,” Harry says. He bites his lip and frowns. “All right. Maybe later then? I don’t know when I’ll be done here for the night but I’m sure--”

“No, I mean I can’t.” Nick’s voice is tight. He screws his eyes shut and sighs. “I can’t do this tonight or tomorrow or anymore, Harry. I just. I can’t. This is where this stops.”

Harry’s stomach drops and his ears start ringing, a steady pulse of no, no, no rattling around in his head. He glances quickly around the room. Niall is watching them both and Louis has zoned in on Harry’s distress from the other side of the hall like a fucking beacon. Harry shakes his head and grabs Nick’s wrist. He can hear Nick protesting but he just glares and drags him down the hall until he finds a somewhat empty supply cupboard and tugs Nick inside.

“Nick, what are you saying?” Harry bangs his hand against the wall a few times until he finds the lightswitch. He flicks it on and the cupboard is filled with a harsh glow. Nick blinks and takes a step back, nearly knocking into a cabinet filled with flyers and posters for the arena. “I don’t get it. Tell me what the fuck you’re going on about.”

“Harry, please.” Nick tips his head back and swallows. It’s daft but Harry wants to kiss him even now. Even when Nick is so intent on breaking Harry’s heart instead. He steps closer and drops his hand on Nick’s waist, trying to pull him in, but Nick shakes him off.

“Don’t,” Nick says. His voice is so quiet, so soft in the sudden stillness of the room that Harry freezes. His body flushes with heat and then instantly goes ice cold. He thinks he might be sick.

Nick’s never turned him away before. Not until now.

“Why?” Harry asks. He has to clear his throat. His chest has already gone tight and achy. Harry’s a crier at the best of times. He doesn’t hold a hope in the world that he’s not going to cry now. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because you’re leaving,” Nick says simply. “And I can’t be the one who sits at home and waits for you.”

Harry sniffs. He wipes a hand over his face, leaving his palm covering his eyes. “You don’t have to be. I mean. I’m not asking you to. Not really.”

“I can’t have that hanging over my head though,” Nick says. Harry shoves his hand through his hair and yanks on it until it hurts, the pain grounding him just a bit. Nick is looking down but then he finally raises his eyes, looks at Harry straight on and Harry’s breath catches in his chest. Nick looks like he’s already made his decision. Like nothing Harry can say will change his mind. Harry’s never felt so helpless.

“I can’t just sit at home and wait for you,” Nick says softly. His voice catches and Harry meanly thinks: good. Let him be as sad as he’s making me. “I can’t always be wondering where you are and when you’re coming home, and if we leave things the way they are now that’s what I’ll do and that’s not fair. That’s not what I want.”

“That’s stupid,” Harry says quietly. He clears his throat. “I think you’re wrong. I think you’re being stupid.”

“You’ll be fine, Harry, yeah?” Nick’s grin is shaky. His voice wobbles. “You’ll have a great time on tour and you can ring me from the road if you’d like. We’re always going to be mates.”

Nick starts fumbling with the doorknob and Harry wants to stop him, he needs to stop him, but he’s frozen in place. Polarized by everything that’s happening. He’s just went from the best feeling in all the world to the worst and he has no idea what to do to change it.

The light from the hallway finally spills into the room and Harry reaches out, his fingers brushing Nick’s sleeve. This is it. Nick’s leaving and Harry has no idea how to stop him.

“Nick,” Harry says. Nick turns away from the door. Harry waits until Nick looks at him - really looks at him - and then says, “I love you. In case that matters at all.”

Nick doesn’t say anything but he doesn’t leave either. Harry’s got the slightest flicker of hope that sparks in his chest, but then Nick’s pulling away and Harry’s hand falls down. He curls his fingers into the palm of his hand and rests it against his thigh.

“I’ll speak to you soon,” Nick says, and walks away.

*

When Harry wakes in the morning the bed is empty. He’s not surprised. Staying in bed until Harry gets up and spending time together isn’t something he and Nick do anymore, not on mornings like this.

Harry’s gotten used to it in the past months. In the beginning it made him sad, but now he expects it. He doesn’t actually know what’s worse.

He sits up and stretches, raising his arms up over his head and feeling all the muscles in his back and thighs ache. He’s got a smattering of bruises bitten into the side of his ribs, purple and red marks in the shape of Nick’s mouth decorating the inside of his thighs, the curve of his hip. Harry presses his thumb into one and winces when it aches, a smile curving his lips. He wishes he could keep his bruises forever. At least then Nick would stop being able to deny that anything’s been happening.

It’s the same every time, is the thing. They’re not supposed to be together, not supposed to keep doing this, but Harry keeps coming home and they keep falling together, time and time again. Harry doesn’t want it to stop. He wants more actually, wants everything, but Nick’s been intent on shutting him out after every time.

Today is going to be different. Harry’s going to make it be different.

He takes a fast shower and dresses in one of Nick’s favorite concert tees and a pair of flannel pants Nick’s had for longer than Harry’s known him. He makes it clear that he’s not going anywhere. Maybe if he doesn’t wander into the kitchen with his foot already half out the door Nick will realize that Harry’s staying. That Harry wants to stay.

Harry follows the scent of coffee and burning toast and when he gets to the kitchen he finds Nick already sat at the table scrolling through his mobile with a bored expression on his face. He’s wearing his glasses and his hair is falling messily over his forehead. He’s got stubble on his cheeks and when he looks up at Harry he smiles for the quickest second, eyes bright and happy and it’s just like it always was. Just like it had always been between them and Harry misses him. He loves Nick so much he aches with it.

Nick puts his mobile down and clears his throat. The blank expression is back but Harry’s seen through it already. When Nick tries to blow him off today Harry’s just not going to let him. That’s the plan.

“I made you a coffee,” Nick says. He gestures toward the counter where a bright orange coffee mug that says I love cats is sitting. Harry ignores him and sits in the chair across from Nick’s. He stretches his legs out and rests his feet on Nick’s lap. Nick looks down at the feet on his lap and blinks. “Um…”

“So I’ve decided I’m not leaving,” Harry says flatly.

Nick looks up and stares at him. “Excuse me?”

“Here. Now.” Harry waves his hand around. “Your flat, your life. Everything. I’m not leaving this time.”

Nick snorts and rolls his eyes. “Ever?”

He’s meant to be saying it as a joke but it’s not funny when it comes out, the words turning serious and sad when they’re set loose into the air. Harry straightens his back, puts his feet on the floor and waits until Nick looks at him, until he’s holding Harry’s gaze and then Harry says, “Maybe. If you’ll let me stay this time.”

Nick laughs quietly, shaking his head and running a hand through his hair. “Harry. Come on.”

“No, Nick, hear me out.” Harry takes a deep breath and holds it. He tries to get his thoughts into some kind of order, tries to corral them into a cohesive argument, but in the end it’s too much. He can’t think clearly with Nick this close to him; sitting in a chair across from Harry but keeping close to himself So no part of his body comes into any sort of contact with Harry’s. All he can think is that he loves Nick, and he’s tired of doing this. He just wants to be happy again. He just wants Nick to be his.

“Do you love me?” In the end it’s the only question Harry can ask. Nick stares at him, mouth parted and eyes shocked wide.

“What?”

“Do you love me,” Harry repeats. He looks down and fiddles with the bottom hem of his shirt. His fingers are shaking. Harry twists them together and squeezes, trying to calm himself down. “After everything that’s happened that’s the one thing you’ve never said. Do you even love me at all?”

Nick’s quiet for so long Harry’s convinced he’s not going to answer. That he’s going to blow Harry off again, tell him all the reasons why they can’t and shouldn’t and won’t be together after this morning. He’ll kiss Harry on the cheek and pat him on the back as Harry’s leaving, but he’ll still shut him out, he’ll still send Harry on his way with a wink and a promise that this was it, the last time, that they can’t do this again.

The worst part is that even if Nick does that Harry will accept it. He’ll accept it and the next time he’s home he’ll come see Nick again and he’ll try his best another time. Harry knows by now that he’ll take whatever it is that Nick decides to give him. He doesn’t think he knows a way not to anymore.

Nick sighs. He closes his eyes briefly and when he opens them he almost looks sad. “I love you more than anything.”

“Then why do you keep doing this?” Harry asks. “Why do you keep insisting we not be together?”

“Not like it’s working,” Nick mutters quietly, and Harry smiles thinly. “I just. I thought it would be easier,” Nick says, “Because it would be too hard when we were apart.”

“Well it’s not easy. It’s not fun and it’s not easy and we can’t keep away anyway when I’m home,” Harry says. He drags his chair closer, sliding one knee between both of Nick’s and laying his hands on the tops of Nick’s thighs. “I’m never going to stop wanting you, Nick. I’m never going to stop loving you.”

Nick looks upward and blinks at the ceiling. Harry watches him swallow. Nick’s shoulders are shaky and his fingers are curled together in his lap. “Nick, just. Just trust me. Stop pushing me away and let’s try and do this for real.”

Nick doesn’t answer. Harry waits and waits - he thinks he would probably wait a thousand years if that’s what Nick wanted - but he never says anything. In the end though he reaches out and puts his hand on top of Harry’s. Harry turns his over and slides their fingers together; presses his palm against Nick’s and breathes.

It’s enough. For now it’s enough.

*

The sun is warm in Nick’s garden and Harry’s so happy he thinks he might burst. He’s tipsy from wine and stuffed full with food and the sunshine is making him warm all over; the back of his neck and the palms of his hands and his toes where they’re curled bare into Nick’s grass.

He’s got Nick on top of him, his fingers in Harry’s hair and his mouth against Harry’s, soft and wet. Harry can barely remember who kissed who first but it doesn’t matter, not really, because he’s smiling and Nick is smiling and when they separate it’s only to laugh quietly, a short puff of air between their mouths.

“You ambushed me, popstar,” Nick says. He’s grinning, mouth wide and eyes crinkled. He’d gotten home from work late last night and Harry was already waiting for him in his flat, sleeping on the sofa from when he’d drank half a bottle of Nick’s good wine and passed out while watching Bake Off. They spent the day together lounging around and watching the telly and eating takeaway and drinking out in the sunshine.

“‘S’not an ambush if you kissed me back,” Harry says.

Nick smiles and he’s beautiful. He’s beautiful and he makes Harry happy and that’s all that Harry cares about, really.

“You sure about this?” Nick asks. “After all, who knows. In a year from now you might be jet-setting off touring the world and where will I be then? I’m not in the mood for your love ‘em and leave ‘em routine, Styles.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Ha,” he says quietly. “Ha ha ha. I’m not going anywhere.”

Nick quirks an eyebrow and Harry sighs. “You know what I mean. I want this,” he says, voice serious. He bites his lip and pulls Nick down, kissing him softly again and again, until his lips start to go numb from the scratch of Nick’s stubble. “I want you, Nick. We’ll figure it out, yeah?”

Nick doesn’t answer, just lowers his chest to Harry’s, threads his fingers back into Harry’s hair and tilts his head so he can kiss him better, his tongue sweeping into Harry’s mouth and licking all the words out that Harry had been planning on saying.

It’s all right though. Words will keep. This is the beginning of something, Harry thinks. His music is taking off. His career. Nick.

Maybe it’s the beginning of everything.

 

-end-