New York, Spring 2024.
It’s a simple line drawing, a sketch really, of a nearly naked man. He has his hand all the way inside his shorts and is looking directly at the viewer, expression challenging. ‘Yeah?’ he seems to be saying.
It gives Harry a hard-on the second he sees it. It’s unmistakably Nick, but Nick as he let himself be seen by only a very few people. It makes Harry want to punch the artist as much as it makes him want to fuck Nick.
‘I think you know the subject,’ says the dealer, not unsympathetically.
Harry has to take a breath so he can respond normally. ‘Yes,’ he says.
‘I wasn’t sure...’
‘I didn’t know he’d sat for Gavin,’ Harry interrupts. ‘He never...’
...told me. Harry can’t finish without embarrassment, even though the dealer doesn’t know what Nick was to him. He never told me.
The dealer moves to turn the drawing, but Harry stays his hand. ‘No,’ he says. ‘It’s all right.’ He looks at it for a few more moments before saying, ‘Yes,’ and the dealer marks the wrapping deftly with a little red ‘sold’ sticker.
He doesn’t know why he bought it. He doesn’t hang it, it’s not even propped against the wall. It just stays in a portfolio of other drawings and etchings Harry doesn’t have time to look at. But he knows it’s there. And every time he thinks about it, Nick looking insolently at him, hand in his shorts, his only garment, Harry’s blood rushes in his veins. And in time, he works it out. Obvious really: it’s the nearest he can get to Nick; it’s the closest Harry can get to having him now.
And eventually of course, he wonders if there are more. He contacts the dealer who says he can find out.
‘Don’t mention my name,’ Harry says on impulse.
There’s a pause. ‘No, Mr Styles. Of course not.’
There are more. The dealer draws them out one by one, carefully placing them before Harry. Different poses, some fully clothed, some not. When the dealer turns over the last page, Harry says, ‘All of them,’ and the dealer nods and moves to the computer to print out an invoice.
It’s not only about possessing Nick, or an incarnation of him, he realises. It’s about keeping others from having them. These shouldn’t be seen by anyone else. These belong to Harry, even if he wasn’t in the room at the time, even though he hasn’t even paid for them yet, these were for him. He knows it.
When they arrive at his apartment, Harry takes the portfolio out of the cardboard and props it against the wall. He doesn’t take the pictures out, or even look at them. He just stares at the burgundy cover, nursing a whisky for he doesn’t know how long.
‘Somebody’s bought those drawings.’
‘What?’ Nick shouts over the din of the bar.
It’s not that Nick doesn’t hear (though the noise doesn’t help) it’s more that what Gavin says is so out of the blue, so out of context, that Nick doesn’t understand for a second. ‘Which ones?’
Even as he asks he knows the answer.
‘Those ones I did of you that summer,’ Gavin says.
‘You’ll eat next month then,’ says Nick.
‘All of them,’ Gavin says, checking for Nick’s reaction.
‘Three months then.’
‘Only the ones of you, Nick.’
‘Hey, I’ve still got it, baby!’ Nick mimes a sizzle off his hip and looks round the bar, as if checking it out for talent. But panic is curling in his stomach and he doesn’t want to look at Gavin. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Gavin shakes his head wearily.
‘Whoever bought them only asked to see the ones of you. There are a ton of drawings from those years, from that year. They only asked for the ones of you.’
‘Who was the buyer?’ Nick’s voice is small and pinched now.
Nick lets out a weird bark of laughter. ‘Fuck.’
‘I heard from James in New York last week.’
‘New York,’ echoes Nick. Doesn’t mean he’s there, he tries to tell himself. Doesn’t mean it’s him. He tries to picture Harry living in New York and can’t. Sun, beaches, cabanas, that had always been Harry’s territory.
‘Doesn’t mean he’s living there, Nick,’ Gav says, all uncanny in that way of his. ‘Might not be him.’
Nick smiles wryly. ‘You don’t think that, Gav. You wouldn’t have told me if that’s what you thought.’
‘Yeah,’ says Gavin. ‘No. I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you. Old wounds and all that.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’ Nick shrugs. ‘What am I gonna do anyway? Even if he’s there, New York’s a big place. If it’s him, then he’s welcome to them. I hope he enjoys them, whatever he does with them. Maybe he’ll make a lovely bonfire.’
Gavin offers a small apologetic smile and they talk about other things.
The problem is, Harry was so focused on getting the drawings, he didn’t spare a thought for what actually owning them would be like. Even left in their portfolio they have a presence in the apartment. Thoughts and memories of Nick visit him more often, and he finds himself going out more, and staying out longer, either with his camera or crashing at friends'. But when he comes back, his gaze is still dragged to the folder propped in the corner. He may not hang the pictures, he may not even take them out of their case, but he’s still aware of them. And as Nick becomes more real and solid to him with every passing day, he realises that buying the drawings was not the end of something, but the beginning, and the question that came to him in the gallery echoes in his head.
Why didn’t you tell me?
Harry knows down to the month when these drawings must have been made, from the memory of when they both knew Gavin. They’d both been a little in love with him, or with his paintings at least. It’s like finding out about an affair long after the knowledge can do any real damage, long after any entitlement to pain has gone. And in a way it makes perfect sense, is the kind of thing, now Harry thinks about it, that Nick would do. He danced out of Harry’s grip so often; this was another way of keeping himself at arm’s length, of saying ‘you don’t know me; you can’t have me’.
Nick’s in London, but Harry doesn’t know where. He could probably find out. Ask around. Turn up on his doorstep, or at the BBC building. But as soon as he thinks that, he knows he can’t. He can’t go back to London. Yes, it would be different now, and it’d be much easier to get lost there, but London’s still a city that finds people. Certain kinds of people, anyway, are impossible to lose there. He’s better off staying put.
So buying the drawings had been a mistake. He’s not about to re-sell them, or give them away. He just goes to his next shoot and hopes it won’t be long before he forgets about them.
‘We cannot act as vendors if you will not let us see the piece, Mr, er...’
Aimee’s looking at him from across the room.
‘Mr Phillips. Do you understand? We must have provenance, proof of purchase.’
‘Yeah, I know. I just want you to pass on a message. To the Grimshaw buyer. That I’ve got another one, but I can only meet him in person to show it.’
‘This is very irregular, Mr Phillips.’
‘I’m happy to pay any arranger’s fee you want.’
There’s a sigh. A pause.
‘Where shall I send the invoice?’
Nick gives Aimee’s address.
‘Doesn’t mean he’ll agree to meet you,’ she says when he gets off the phone. ‘What if it’s not even Harry?’
‘Well, then I’m quids in, aren’t I?’
‘You’d sell it to some rando art collector?’
Nick shrugs. ‘Maybe?’
No, he wouldn’t, but he’s so sure the buyer is Harry, it’s never going to be an issue.
When James (not his lowly assistant) calls with his offer of another drawing, Harry is ambivalent. He almost says no. But then if he doesn’t buy it, it might be offered elsewhere, and the thought of someone else having it is enough to make Harry hesitate. As if James reads his mind he tells Harry that the vendor won’t sell to anyone but him.
‘It’s not unusual,’ James goes on. ‘Sometimes vendors will only sell to true collectors, or buyers they feel will appreciate the work, rather than simply anyone who can pay.’
So the drawing would be 'safe'. But it's not enough for Harry. Just knowing this vendor - whoever they are - has it, gets under his skin.
‘All right. When can I come and see it?’
‘Ah, there’s another condition, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh, for… . What is it?’
‘He will only meet in person. At a neutral venue, not the gallery.’
Harry blows out a breath.
‘Really? James, are you sure this isn’t some nutter?’
‘No. But I promised I would pass on the information. And also, I imagine your doubts are why he suggested a public place to meet.’
‘The bar of The Four Seasons.’
Something begins to sharpen into reality in Harry’s mind.
‘Posh,’ he says lightly.
James makes a delicate coughing noise. ‘Yes, as you say. “Posh”.’ Harry can hear him holding the word away from himself like a dirty rag.
‘How did this person know the drawings had been bought?’
‘I can’t tell you that. And I say that from a position of genuine ignorance. I don’t know, Harry.’
‘How many people would have known about the sale, then? Who would have known?’
‘Well. The gallery staff here. Our London office. Harry, if you’re trying to identify…’
Harry rides over James. ‘Gavin,’ he prompts.
‘Of course. Mr McRae himself.’
‘And anyone else he told, right?’
‘I would imagine so.’
It’s possibly a bonkers fan. Harry had always been amazed at how much - and how fast - they could find out about the boys' doings. They seemed to exist in the most unexpected corners of the world, and have access to the most privileged information. Sometimes the fans seemed to know the boys' location before the boys themselves. But a bonkers fan was unlikely to suggest The Four Seasons as a rendezvous. There could be another possibility. Harry puts a teasing smile into his voice.
‘Give me a clue, James. Go on, a hint.’
‘This is not a game, Harry. I gave my word. Even if I broke it, he might have given a false name.’
‘He, you keep saying. It’s a he,’ Harry says, not put off by James' switch to snippy professor.
‘Yes.’ James draws the word out apprehensively.
‘Did you speak to him? What did he sound like?’
Harry sighs. He doesn’t know why he’s playing hard to get: the idea that Nick is the vendor has gripped him and he can’t shake it off.
‘All right, James. Set it up. ’
Harry tries to rein in his thoughts over the three weeks until the vendor is in New York (which is another clue – he obviously doesn’t live here), but in the end, he gives himself over to the idea of seeing Nick again. He imagines the meeting, what Nick might look like now, if he’s changed and how. Will they still get on? And if they do then what the fuck have they been doing for the last ten years? Then he checks himself, thinks ‘no’. Whatever happened, whatever drove them apart, was for a reason. It’s life. You lose people, you gain people. And up until a month or so ago, Harry was happy with what he had.
Anyway, it might not be Nick. Harry forces himself to think of alternatives. Maybe it is a crazy fan – an incredibly rich crazy fan. Or it could be blackmail. Maybe it’s even Gavin. But why would Gavin keep himself anonymous? In the end, Harry fails to convince himself of any of these.
They turn out to be unnecessary. He stands on the threshold of the elegant, high-ceilinged bar, and he sees Nick on his first scan round the room. He’s propped against a barstool, elbow on the bar with a half-drunk tumbler of something dangling from his hand. There’s a glint of metal around his wrist and the whole image – the stance, the grey suit, the plain white tee, a necklace – is so familiar that Harry has to pull in a breath.
Then Nick looks up.
He’s older obviously, but still with the same impish set to his face. It’s like looking into the past and future at the same time. They hold each other’s gaze as Harry makes his way over, Nick taking a sip of his drink without breaking eye contact. He doesn’t get up, stays half-sitting on the stool, until Harry’s stood in front of him. They’re both threatening to smile any second and Harry wonders who’s going to break first.
It feels like a conspiracy, like Harry buying the drawings and Nick’s mysterious offer were messages, tentative signals they sent out towards each other. Their mouths wobble into near-smiles and Nick brings his hand up jerkily to pluck at Harry’s sleeve. At the same time as Nick gets up, Harry reaches for him and says, ‘C’mere.’
‘Fucking knew it was you, arsehole,’ Harry mutters into Nick’s shoulder, bunching the pale material of Nick’s suit in his fist as they hug. Nick laughs against him.
‘There were options?’ He pulls back to look at Harry. There are more lines at the corners of his eyes. Harry had always loved them. ‘Who else could it have been?’ His voice has got deeper, smokier.
‘I don’t know. Gav? I thought at one point it might be blackmail.’
‘Who’d want to blackmail you, Styles?’ Nick’s sitting back down.
‘Hey, you never know,’ Harry says, settling on a barstool, hooking his heels on the crossbar. ‘Old Wanted fans can get pretty aggressive.’
Nick laughs and Jesus, it’s that easy. Harry feels the old pleasure at being able to make Grimmy laugh. Now Nick’s gesturing to the barman and asking Harry what he wants to drink. As Nick talks to the tender Harry can’t take his eyes off him. He’s the same, but different. There’s grey hair – quite a bit of it – but obviously it looks cool on him. He’s more assured, more relaxed, and there’s less nervous energy. Even at thirty he’d been an awkward teen sometimes, which is maybe why Harry had felt so comfortable with him. But the smile he turns on the barman is exactly the same, and the way the barman returns it – surprised, helpless – is the same. He turns back to Harry.
‘Fuck, Haz. You’re here. You’re in New York, man. How did that happen? What happened to the sun-god Styles?’
Harry shrugs. ‘People don’t give a shit who you are here,’ he says. ‘I get my sun fix in Mexico. Or at Richard’s.’
‘Kept some of your flash mates, then?’
‘Yeah. The ones with their own Caribbean islands.’ They smile wryly at each other. There’ll always be a part of both of them that are pedestrians gawping at their own ludicrous lifestyles. ‘How’s London?’
‘Good, yeah. Bit quieter now. Some of the old crew have gone. One or two are still around. We’re all settled down really.’
‘Yeah, sort of.’ Nick looks down. ‘Karl. ’Bout a year now.’
‘A year? Wow, that’s practically a diamond wedding anniversary for you, isn’t it?’
Nick eyes him narrowly. ‘Stow the sarcasm, Styles.’
‘Sorry,’ Harry says with a sheepish smile. ‘Really happy for you, Grimmy.’
He thinks he sounds like he means it.
‘Thanks. What about you, anyway?’
Harry shrugs. ‘Naah. I just finished something a couple of months back. Wasn’t working. My job’s pretty busy, haven’t really got time... and... I mean...’ He falters, catching Nick’s eye. He takes a sip of his drink. Nick looks at him... he doesn’t know how Nick’s looking at him. Maybe it’s only Harry who feels self-conscious about it. Maybe Nick barely remembers that Harry never had time back then either. There were other reasons it never worked out between them, but that was one of them, Harry knows it.
‘So what are you doing now?’ Nick says gently.
‘I take pictures,’ he says. He never says I’m a photographer because he thinks it sounds wanky. ‘I do shoots for a bit of cash, and do my own stuff for fun.’
Nick nods. ‘What kind of stuff?’
He tells Nick about himself, talks a little bit about indie fashion magazines and his fascination with degraded paintwork in old buildings, and Nick talks about being back on nights and doing some music writing, and the social life that has kicked down a gear or two. It’s nice but it’s small talk, and Harry can’t help feeling a little disappointed. He doesn’t know what he expected.
‘So,’ he says eventually. ‘You in contact with Gav much?’
‘Yeah. He still lives in London. We see each other now and then. He told me about the, you know, the drawings and whatnot.’
‘Yeah. Of course.’ The drawings. The drawing. The reason they’re both here. ‘Is he well?’
Nick smiles sideways. ‘I’d say he’s doing all right. Selling his old doodles in a New York gallery to rich ex-popstars with time on their hands. Oh, I’m sorry, rich ex-popstar photographers.’
‘Fuck off,’ Harry says over a low laugh.
‘Do you want to see it then?’ Nick puts his drink down, and raises a questioning eyebrow at Harry as he reaches down beside him. Harry clocks a small portfolio on the floor, leaning against the bar.
Not really, Harry wants to say. Let’s have another drink and get lashed instead.
‘Sure,’ he says and Nick bends all the way down to retrieve the folder. The truth is, Harry hadn’t thought this far ahead. It feels weird, looking at an old picture of Nick in front of Nick himself. Nick hands it over to Harry and Harry opens it.
The drawing is different to the others. It’s smaller, bare, unmounted. It’s not been kept very well either – there are a couple of creases through it, and one of the short edges is rough, as if it had been torn from a sketchbook. It’s also fuller – Harry doesn’t know the technical term – there’s more to it, more lines, more light and shade, more detail. Harry has to turn it so he can orient the image.
Harry had been expecting another drawing of Nick, but it’s two figures, lying sprawled towards each other on a rumpled bed, naked, limbs overlapping here and there. One figure is a bit further down the bed than the other, his face on a level with the other’s middle, his arm flung out over the other’s hip. The other’s foot is lodged somewhere between the first’s thighs, and has one hand resting on the top of his head. The second figure’s head is tipped back, his mouth open, possibly snoring. It looks uncomfortable, but the two men are both very obviously sound asleep.
It’s him and Nick.
Harry’s brain billows outwards, filling his skull. He wants to close the portfolio, doesn’t want anyone else to see this private, intimate scene.
‘How did you get it? When did he... I don’t remember.’ It’s an effort to get even these garbled sentences out.
Nick is maddeningly calm. ‘Remember that time we crashed at his?’
Harry does, even though he hasn’t thought about it in years.
They’d been really drunk, the three of them out together. Gavin’s place was nearer and he herded Harry and Nick back there, putting them in his bed while he took the sofa. They’d been drunk enough first of all to try to get off with Gavin – waving him over and slurring out, ‘’Mon Gav. C’min wiv us.’ Gavin shook his head at them and said, ‘Jesus, you’re pissed’ - and then to think they could have sex with each other. It had ended in a lot of uncoordinated snogging, falling off the bed, giggling and absolutely no orgasms for anyone. They were out cold for the whole of the next morning.
Harry stares at the drawing. Their friends knew the two of them were shagging, but this? This is like Gavin saw something else between them, something neither of them even talked about. And Nick’s kept it, had it all this time. And Harry never knew.
He closes the folder. ‘How much do you want for it?’
It’s the only way he can express exactly how angry he is right now.
Nick looks at him for a long moment. ‘What a fucking awful thing to say.’
‘Why did you bring it then? Why are you here?’
‘It’s yours Harry. I want you to have it.’
‘Because you told me where you were. Don’t look at me like that, you did. You bought those drawings. You knew you couldn’t have done that without Gav knowing. And you only bought the ones of me. Jesus, you may as well have taken out an ad in The Times.’
‘You didn’t have to reply!’
Nick’s head jerks back and he looks genuinely distressed.
‘Why did you never tell me about them? Gavin drawing you?’
Nick’s expression darkens. ‘Why would I? I did it for Gavin. It was nothing to do with you.’
‘Did you fuck him?’
The shutters go down, and Harry thinks he’s about to be walked out on, maybe even get the dregs of Nick’s glass in his face. He’d probably deserve it.
‘Yes, Haz. Yes I did.’ The tension in Nick’s body uncoils and his face softens. ‘Look,’ he says, after a moment. ‘I was going to show them to you, give you one, if you wanted it. But you left and I didn’t get the chance.’
This gives Harry pause.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says quietly.
‘Fuck, why are we even talking about this?’ says Nick. ‘It’s all water under the bridge now, isn’t it?’
Harry sighs heavily. ‘Yeah.’
Neither of them speaks for a while.
Harry swirls his drink. He thinks about the drawing, all of the drawings.
‘It was weird seeing them in the gallery,’ he says. ‘Those pictures of you. Shocking, sort of.’
‘Which one did you see first?’ Nick’s finished his drink and is leaning his head on his hand, curious.
Harry half smiles to himself. ‘The one with your hand down your pants. ’
Nick giggle-snorts. ‘God, what a filthy slut I was.’
Harry thinks of the drawing, Nick’s challenging expression, his wrist disappearing under his waistband, all crude allure, and how the drawing made him hot and irrational in the cool quiet of the gallery.
‘You were beautiful.’
Nick’s laugh fades into bashfulness. ‘Thanks,’ he says, looking down, because he’s a well-raised boy who knows what to say when someone pays him a compliment. It doesn’t mean he can take them though. He never could.
God, Harry’s missed him. He feels the ache of it then, the reality of it. Not the Nick in the drawings – arching, with his hands in pants. Not the one in Harry’s head who looms impossibly large: hilarious, hot, charismatic, surrounded by others, and ultimately untouchable. But silly, shy, kind Nick. Stupid, angry, clumsy Nick. This one. This is the real Nick, and despite his earlier fury, the urge not to let him go is overwhelming.
‘How long are you staying?’ he blurts.
Nick doesn’t look at him, reaches for his drink, gives the melting ice a quick slosh around the glass and shrugs. ‘Couple of days. Till Friday.’
It’s obscenely short.
‘Let’s do something. Tomorrow. If you’re free. Are you? I mean...’
Nick looks up, the corners of his eyes creasing in a barely perceptible smile. ‘Yeah. I am,’ he says.
Harry waits in the lobby of Nick’s hotel the next morning, pacing, hands in his pockets, feeling like a teenager knocking for a girl on the way to school, waiting for shoes thumping down the stairs and a ‘Bye mum!’. But he’s in the lobby of a hotel in the Village (the Four Seasons was a red herring, apparently), and he’s waiting for a forty-year old man.
‘Hello,’ he hears. Harry turns to see Nick standing a careful three steps away, wearing a nice shirt tucked into well-cut trousers, with a casually beautiful coat over the whole ensemble. Nick was never a hair-in-place sort of person, so his hair is in immaculate disarray.
‘Hi,’ Harry says. His voice manages to break over this simple syllable, making him sound about fourteen.
‘So, what are we doing?’
‘Um, there’s a Hockney exhibition on at MOMA?’
Hockney was one of Gavin’s favourite painters and Harry doesn’t miss the shrewd look Nick throws at him.
‘All right,’ he says. ‘Lead the way.’
‘We can walk,’ says Harry. ‘If you don’t mind?’
‘I have been known to use my legs on occasion, Styles.’
Harry smiles at Nick’s sarcasm. ‘Come on then.’
It’s cold, but the sun scuds in and out behind clouds as they walk through the streets, giving them the odd patch of warmth. Nick puts on his sunglasses, but Harry resists the urge. He knows they’ll only make him more conspicuous. Nick gets a few second glances – he’s a striking figure, tall, with his grey hair and shades. New Yorkers are endlessly jaded, but Harry can see at least one or two of them look quizzical and he knows they’re wondering, ‘Is he someone? Should I know…?’. The old pride swells up in him. Yeah, he thinks, he’s someone. You should know him.
It’s a weekday morning, the exhibition is quiet and they can walk around easily, not too many heads in front of the paintings, no curious glances from gallery-goers more interested in Harry than the paintings. They drift apart, going through the rooms at their own pace. Harry thinks about Gavin, about his drawings, about what Nick confirmed yesterday, something Harry only ever wondered vaguely about. Now he knows it’s true, he can’t help but imagine them together, and a strange mixture of arousal and jealousy churns in him. His vision of them superimposes on the drawings in his mind, in turn overlaying the paintings he’s supposed to be looking at. He shakes his head to clear it, concentrates.
He manages nearly a whole room before Nick appears suddenly in his eyeline, passing the entrance to the next room then disappearing, not seeing Harry. Harry experiences the familiar belly-flop you get seeing someone you fancy out of the blue, and realises he hasn’t felt it in a long time. He lingers by the painting he’s looking at, giving Nick a chance to get a bit further away – he doesn’t trust himself not to stare at Nick unashamedly from across the room. He lets himself get absorbed in the picture, follows its sharp lines, the rough scrape of shade between them, the unexpected splashes of colour. Which is how Nick finds him in the last room, examining the brushwork on a painting, his nose almost touching the canvas.
‘Come on, slowcoach,’ he hears in his ear, making his shoulders jump a little. ‘You’re taking bloody ages. I’m parched.’
Harry swings round, smiling broadly, incredibly pleased with himself for having managed to forget about Nick for twenty full minutes.
They get giddy on impulsive glasses of champagne poured into pre-lunch empty stomachs. Their conversation is an excited mash of stories and disagreements and stupid jokes flipped back and forth. They have a posh ham sandwich (bread with more holes than bread, a sun-blushed summer vegetable, a shaving of Italian cured meat) from the deli-type bar to soak up the second glass of champers (they should have got a bottle, but that would have seemed extravagant and… meaningful).
Before Harry knows what he’s doing he’s said, ‘Do you want to see the drawings?’ and only too late realises how much it sounds like ‘come up and see my etchings.’
But Nick says, ‘Yeah, all right,’ on the end of the laugh from the last joke, sounding like he hasn’t given himself time to think about it. ‘Wait, you mean, you actually live somewhere? Like one place? That’s yours?’
It’s Harry’s turn to narrow his eyes at Nick. ‘Shut it, Grimshaw.’
Harry leads him towards the subway and Nick looks uncertain.
‘Are you sure? Won’t you…’
Harry knows what he’s thinking: a short walk is all right, space to get away; but the subway takes longer and you’re in a confined space, nowhere to go.
Harry shrugs. ‘It’s ok. I like to when I can. I mean, not during rush hour or anything, but now’s fine.’
And it is. Harry hasn’t been famous for years, and he knows he looks different enough for people to miss him. There are ways of holding yourself, ways of walking, that can make you if not invisible then at least less visible. Over the years, Harry’s got very good at these. He can tell Nick’s a little anxious at first, probably remembering what it used to be like going out with Harry in public, but once he realises how little attention they attract, he relaxes. They stand up, Harry leaning against the partition, Nick holding onto a handrail above his head, looming over Harry slightly.
‘Do you get pissed off sometimes?’ he says in an undertone.
‘No-one recognising you.’
Harry lets out a chuff of laughter. ‘Yeah, sometimes. But then I remember what it was like. I remember that I can get on the train like a normal person, I can walk the streets. It’s nice being able to forget myself, be the person paying attention. What? Why are you smiling?’ Harry’s mouth twitches upwards to mirror Nick’s.
Nick shakes his head.
‘Just. You’re still so... Harry.’
‘What did you expect?’
Nick shrugs one shoulder and looks away. ‘I don’t know, H. You disappeared. There were rumours. You could have become anything. Some Marlon Brando lunatic, massive, surrounded by a harem in Tahiti or something. Or in a crumbling warehouse pissing into a jar.’
Harry gives a bark of laughter, and senses a couple of faces in the carriage turn towards them. He ignores them. ‘Wow, I did a good job.’
‘No harem then? No bucket of wee in the corner?’
Nick’s wearing that sly twinkle, the one Harry didn’t see at all yesterday, teasing, flirting with him. Even though he knows it’s Nick’s MO, that it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t make Harry want to kiss him any less.
‘Are you disappointed?’
‘A bit, yeah.’
They hold each other’s gaze before Nick looks away and around at the carriage, and Harry watches him. Then it’s their stop, and as they’re going up the stairs, Harry in front, weaving through the crowd, he has the urge to grab Nick’s hand. He looks behind him, and of course Nick’s all right, hands in his coat pockets, head down, pressing through behind Harry. He’s a Londoner, or an honorary one at least, and even though he gets cabs everywhere, he knows what it’s like to move around a big city. Still, Harry lingers, waiting for Nick to catch up.
It’s a short walk to his building, a warehouse converted by an artists’ collective a few years before, the leases passed on between friends. Harry got it with his usual combination of charm and invisible persistence.
‘It’s here,’ he says, guiding Nick towards the main door.
They’ve not spoken much since they came out of the subway, and they ride up the elevator in the same quiet. It threatens to settle uncomfortably until Nick tips himself insouciantly back against the wall.
‘Come up and see my etchings, eh?’ he says.
‘Hey, it’s a classic line,’ Harry says on a half-laugh of relief. ‘How often do you think I get to use it?’
‘All the time, I’d have thought.’
Harry tips his head towards Nick with a look. The lift judders to a stop and Harry hauls open the inner gate. ‘Come on.’ He leads Nick into the apartment, chucks his keys into the glass dish on the low bookcase by the door and a noise makes him turn around halfway through shrugging off his coat. He hasn’t had anybody new round in a while, and he always forgets the effect his place has on people, even seen-it-all New Yorkers with impressive flats of their own. It takes up the top two levels of the old warehouse, floor-to-ceiling windows every couple of feet, the walls raw brick. Some of Harry’s neighbours have put in mezzanine levels for their sleeping areas, but Harry’s screened bits off. He likes the height, which he’s filled with a chandelier made by an artist friend out of a mix of beautifully blown glass and found objects. It’s impressive, even unlit in daylight.
Nick’s walking into the middle of the room, hands in his coat pockets.
‘Fucking hell, Styles,’ he says, looking up and around. ‘Nice one.’
‘Thanks.’ Harry smiles, ridiculously pleased, and goes to the kitchen area in the opposite corner by the window. ‘Drink?’ he calls over from the fridge. ‘Beer. Wine. Tea.’
Nick’s standing by the structure jutting out beside the lift. It’s a mass of MDF and duct-tape covering all the gaps and Harry knows it looks a mess. Nick eyes it.
‘This where you keep the bodies?’
Harry hands Nick a beer.
‘It’s a dark room. Me and my mate Tom rigged it up.’
‘Um, I hate to tell you this, but there are these amazing inventions called digital cameras. They like, develop your pictures for you. No muss, no fuss.’
Harry rolls his eyes. ‘I’ve got a fancy SLR that I use for jobs. I prefer analog for my own stuff. More control. A lot of photographers do.’
‘Might have known. Thought you’d have a proper dark room built though. All the latest tech.’
‘I got fed up with throwing money at stuff and having it appear. I wanted to do it myself.’
‘Carpenter Styles,’ Nick murmurs, not unaffectionately. ‘So where are these pictures, then?’
‘Er, self-obsessed much?’ Harry says.
‘I was expecting some stalker’s lair with me all over the walls.’ Nick shakes his head. ‘Disappointed.’
‘You’re an imaginative boy, aren’t you,’ Harry says, camp as you like, and Nick blows a laugh into his beer. Harry smiles along, but the truth is he’s stalling. He’s shy all of a sudden. It’s absurd. The pictures are of Nick, not him.
Nick dips his head, trying to catch Harry’s eye. ‘So?’
‘Oh my god, you are self-obsessed.’
‘Like you never knew. Come on. Cough up.’
It’s what they came here for. Harry can hardly back out now.
‘Ok,’ he says and takes another swig of his beer before going over to the dark red portfolio.
Nick takes off his coat and tosses it onto one of the sofas, appearing at Harry’s elbow as he lifts the portfolio onto one of the two long trestle tables that run the length of the room. He swings back the cover. The spine crackles as it opens and reveals the first drawing. It’s of Nick lying on his side towards the viewer, head propped on one hand, other arm draped over raised knee. Nick snorts.
‘What a twat.’
‘Yeah, you were a bit.’
It’s the ‘seduction’ pose. It was a joke, a parody of seduction, but still managed to be alluring. It was how Nick had hooked Harry the first time, across his own bed, making Harry still in the doorway, cutting off his question about where Nick kept his mugs. He’d looked up from under his eyelashes, a half-smirk playing around his mouth, but, Harry knew, deadly serious too. Harry picks up the drawing and turns it, placing it on the opposite side of the folder, uncovering the next one.
It’s one of Nick standing, facing the viewer, his bum resting against a table or a counter, hands resting on the edge, either side of his hips. He’s looking down at his crossed ankles. It’s such a Nick pose. His face is cast down, but Harry would have identified Nick just as easily from this one.
‘Boring,’ Nick decides.
‘I like it.’
‘You would,’ Nick says, rolling his eyes. ‘Next one.’
Harry turns the drawing over. It’s another of Nick standing, this time his back to a wall, looking to one side, hands behind his back, knee raised so the sole of his foot is against the wall. ‘Next,’ says Nick peremptorily, and this time it’s the hand-in-shorts one.
‘There she is,’ Nick says on a soft laugh and takes a swig of his beer.
‘Whose idea was it?’ asks Harry looking up at Nick suddenly.
Nick raises one eyebrow. ‘Who d’you think?’
Harry smiles and shakes his head. ‘I might have known.’
‘Honestly. I’m insulted you asked.’
Harry turns the page and their giggles stutter slightly.
‘Ooh, nudie!’ exclaims Nick, covering his falter. It’s the one nude in the collection. Nick is face down on a bed, head resting on his arms, one knee raised.
‘Well, I know that definitely wasn’t your idea.’ For all his shamelessness, Nick wasn’t one for revelling in his own nudity outside of sex. ‘I bet Gav had a job getting you out of those shorts.’ And then he realises what he’s said. Of course not. Not if they were shagging.
‘Or maybe not,’ Harry murmurs.
He turns the page, but it only gets worse.
It’s a profile of Nick on his knees, arching back, face up to the the ceiling (or the sky, he could be anywhere) hand clasping his ankle behind him. He’s not naked, he’s wearing the pair of shorts, and Harry has to suppress a gasp.
Nick says, ‘Oh.’ He puts his beer down on the table, keeping his hand round it. ‘I’d forgotten...’
Harry had forgotten too, even though he’s seen it much more recently than Nick. In remembering the first drawing so vividly, he’d forgotten some of the ones he’d gone through so quickly at the gallery. He’d decided early on that he was going to buy them all, so probably didn’t feel the need to look at them too closely – he knew he’d soon be able to pore over them at home.
He wishes he’d been more prepared to see this. It’s one of the rare moments when Nick let himself be exposed, the flashes of seriousness in all the larking. Gavin managed to nail them more often than anyone else, with either a camera or a pencil.
Harry turns the page to the next one. It’s the same pose but from the front. It’s a simple line drawing, not much elaboration or shading, but you can still see the strain in Nick’s thighs. The portrait is almost headless because Nick’s flung his head so far back. It shouldn’t be erotic but it is, the abandon in Nick’s pose clear from every muscle and line. Gavin is brilliant, Harry thinks numbly. Neither of them are speaking and the atmosphere has spiralled rapidly away from the cosy joking of a few minutes before. Nick seems completely absorbed and Harry wonders if he’s thinking of Gavin now, remembering him, remembering them together. He feels an awful, hot stab of jealousy.
He doesn’t know what to think, what to feel, what to say or do that won’t be wildly inappropriate. Nick’s here, beside him, solid in a way Harry had forgotten. The drawings are in front of him, showing a different Nick. He loves the drawings; he wants Nick. But the drawings are not for him, they were made by someone else. He stays silent, and so does Nick. This was a mistake, a dumb, inevitable mistake.
It doesn’t matter that when he turns the page again, the next drawing is of Nick fully clothed, sitting in a chair, legs elegantly crossed. It doesn’t matter that the drawing seems to be saying, ‘That’s your lot. Time to go home.’
Harry looks at it and wants to climb into Nick’s lap.
He turns the last page and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s the crumpled, illegitimate sibling, the drawing of Nick and Harry together. Harry forgot that he put it with the others when he got home last night.
Everybody knows you never touch a piece of art directly, that you never touch the canvas or the paper, that you hold negatives or vinyl by the edges. Nick makes a strange noise – a cough, or a groan, Harry doesn’t know what – and reaches out and drags his fingers over the surface of the drawing, following the line of Harry’s pencilled thigh. His fingers are moist from the beer bottle and they smudge the pencil, warp the paper.
‘Fuck, Harry.’ Nick’s voice comes out in a dog-whistle whisper.
Harry knows he should stop him, he feels the taboo Nick’s breaking in his gut, but at the same time it’s like Nick’s fingers are on his skin, as if there’s some weird neural connection between himself and the image of himself on the paper. The only thing Harry can do is reach for Nick, fisting his hand in the fabric of Nick’s sleeve.
Nick looks up from the drawing and his expression is … lost. But whatever he sees in Harry’s face makes him tangle his fingers in Harry’s hair, dragging him forward. Their mouths meet, open, in a desperate, messy kiss. They paw incoherently at each other’s clothes, Nick trying to tug Harry’s t-shirt out of his jeans, Harry dragging at the collar of Nick’s shirt. Their mouths slide together again, exchanging breaths, and they both go down, towards the floor, kneeling, Harry taken over by his animal brain in a way he hasn’t been since he was eighteen and fucking groupies. He nearly drags Nick off balance and Nick grabs the edge of the table to stop himself falling completely. Harry’s ankle knocks a table-leg, and Nick’s elbow bangs on the floor, but then they’re down, Nick supporting himself over Harry, both going for Nick’s belt, three hands fumbling at the buckle. Nick gives up and turns his hand to cover Harry’s crotch with his whole palm, not even bothering with the fastenings, kneading Harry through the denim and Harry pushes shamelessly into his hand. They kiss sloppily and he finally gets Nick’s trousers open and shoves his hand inside, wrapping it round Nick’s bare cock and punching a groan from both of them.
It’s clumsy but efficient, falling into the rhythm of sex with each other as if they’d last fucked yesterday, not ten years ago. Harry strokes Nick long and rough and watches his face collapse into pleasure, eyelids fluttering down, nostrils flaring as breath is pushed out of him with every stroke. His elbow buckles and he’s almost by Harry’s side now, his face in Harry’s throat as he fucks into Harry’s hand. Harry feels unhinged as they get each other off, one hand on Nick’s cock, the other pressing over Nick’s on his crotch, pushing up into the amazing, relentless weight and pressure of Nick’s hand, gripping his hip as they thrust against each other. They both come quickly, Nick’s spunk all over their clothes, Harry inside his jeans just from the friction of Nick against him.
They lie there breathing hard for a while.
Eventually Nick laughs weakly and starts to lever himself off Harry.
‘Jesus,’ he says. ‘What the bloody hell was that?’
Harry looks at the ceiling, the hard floor digging into his hip and shoulder blade. ‘I don’t know,’ he says, not entirely truthfully. It was a magnesium flare of desire neither of them had any control over. It feels like the beginning of another long lie. He wriggles up onto his elbows and sees Nick sitting loosely on the floor, hunched over his splayed legs, dragging a hand through his hair. The colour is high in his cheeks as he catches Harry’s eye.
‘Pictures of myself must really do it for me,’ he says ruefully.
Harry laughs. Nick always did break the tension beautifully. ‘Well, I didn’t like to say,’ he puffs out.
‘Probably not,’ Nick says, still breathing hard. ‘Narcissistic bastard’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?’
Harry snorts and flops back down.
‘Hey,’ he hears Nick getting up. ‘So, have you got a bathroom in this weirdo flat of yours?’
‘At the other end, over from the kitchen.’
Harry stares at the ceiling, fifteen foot above him, suspended in time. ‘Do you want me to stick your trousers in the wash?’ he hears himself say. ‘They won’t take long.’
He’s asking Nick to stay, maybe longer than he wants to, and he lies on the floor unmoving as he waits for Nick to answer. It would be so easy for Nick to make an excuse and leave. ‘Nah, I’ll get the hotel to sort it,’ he could say. ‘And that coat’ll cover a multitude of sins.’
‘Yeah, all right,’ the real Nick says, sounding taken aback. ‘Thanks.’
Harry hears the bathroom door shut.
He goes to his bedroom (a screened-off corner on the other side the lift from the dark room) and peels off his jeans and soiled underwear, shucks on some trackpants and drags out some old pyjama bottoms for Nick. He tries not to think what now? What happens now?
He’s lifting his hand to knock on the bathroom door when Nick’s voice sounds out through the wall.
‘Haz. Got any spare trousers or owt?’
Harry smiles at how stubbornly Northern Nick still is.
‘Yep, right here,’ he says. The bathroom door opens and Nick’s face pokes out.
‘That was weird. Have you been standing there like, breathing, the whole time?’
‘Just give me yours,’ Harry says, holding the pyjamas out.
‘Ooh,’ says Nick as he takes them and hands over his own. ‘Silk. This is a nice hotel.’ He closes the door and Harry puts Nick’s trousers in the washer with whatever’s already in there and sets it to run. He puts the kettle on.
‘Fancy a brew?’ he calls.
‘Fuck yeah,’ comes the response.
The familiarity and intimacy of it – calling from the bathroom, pottering around the flat, sharing clothes – gives Harry a brief mental image of a universe where he and Nick have been together for the last ten years. It’s as if he’s standing at a great height looking down. He steps back and concentrates on making tea, and a couple of minutes later, Nick emerges.
‘Something tells me,’ he announces, ‘that these did not initially belong to you.’ Nick looks down. The pyjama bottoms lap over his feet.
Harry wrinkles his nose.
‘Sorry. Ex-boyfriend’s,’ he says as he pours boiling water into two mugs. ‘They fit better than mine would though, right?’
‘Fuck, how tall was he?’ Nick’s shuffling over to the sofa where he plumps himself down and starts rolling the cuffs up.
‘Six five,’ says Harry, turning back to fish the teabags out of the mugs.
‘Ugh, bastard,’ Nick says, as Harry expected. Blokes over six foot have some weird competitive thing going that Harry has never quite got. He takes the mugs over, putting one down on the steamer trunk that serves as a coffee table. Nick’s still fussing with his pyjama bottoms.
‘It’s not Fashion Week you know. No-one’s gonna see you.’
Nick huffs and leaves them, picking up his tea. He sits back and takes a gingerly sip.
‘Lovely,’ he says, cradling it against his chest. ‘Ta.’
Harry laughs. ‘God, look at us. It’s not even four o’clock and we’re in our jim-jams with cups of tea. Ten years ago we’d have been on our third jug of cocktails.’
‘Or still fucking on the floor,’ flips back Nick.
Harry’s brain pulses. Nick doesn’t mean it bitchily, he’s just making an observation.
‘Or... yeah. Still fucking on the floor,’ he says more quietly. ‘I’m...’ he waves at the bathroom and shuffles towards it, taking his tea with him.
‘Hey,’ calls Nick after a minute. ‘Have you ever had a show? For your pictures?’
‘Naah,’ Harry calls back, squeezing out a wash-cloth into the sink. ‘Not under my name. There’d be a media scrum and nobody’d actually look at the photographs. And doing it under a fake name seems a bit wanky, so…’ Harry shrugs and realises Nick can’t see him. ‘I don’t mind,’ he says as he wipes himself down. ‘James puts them in his mixed exhibitions sometimes, under my surname. Nobody twigs. Some gallery in Sydney bought a couple, actually. Couple of months back.’
‘Well, I always did say the Aussies know fuck all about art,’ Nick says as Harry emerges from the bathroom. ‘God, Gav hated it when I said that.’
‘Well, he did sell quite few pictures over there. But he loved it actually. He loved it when you teased him. Everyone loves it when you tease them.’
There’s a little embarrassed silence of Nick failing to take a compliment again. Harry sits on the sofa next to him and rests his bare feet on the trunk.
‘I’m sorry,’ Nick says.
Harry looks over from blowing on his tea. ‘What for?’
Nick is holding his mug with both hands, looking down into it. He splays his thumbs briefly around the rim of the cup in a little gesture of open-ness. ‘For Gavin. For fucking about. About those couple of times I... you know. ’
Harry knows. He knows exactly what Nick’s talking about. Nick stood him up twice, towards the end, towards the beginning of the big tour when Harry fucked off. Properly didn’t turn up when they’d fixed dates to meet, and was unreachable when Harry rang and texted him.
Bit late now, Harry wants to tart back at him, but manages to restrain himself.
‘It’s all right,’ Harry says quietly. ‘Like you said, water under the bridge. We weren’t anything at the time, so I don’t have a righ-’
‘We were, Haz.’ Nick is looking at him, honest and open. ‘We were something.’
Harry swallows. Ten years ago, he’d have given anything for Nick to admit that. And it gives him a sort of grey pleasure even now.
‘Yeah, we were,’ he says carefully. But mostly he’s thinking, What’s the point? What good is this knowledge now?
‘So, I’m sorry,’ says Nick firmly.
‘Ok,’ says Harry. ‘Apology accepted.’ But that doesn’t feel enough somehow. It’s dishonest. Even if he doesn’t understand the point of doing this now, he at least owes Nick his own truth. ‘I’m sorry for fucking off, then,’ he says. ‘Without saying anything. I’m sorry for having to leave the country for months and months at a time. I’m sorry for all that.’
Nick leans forward and presses his mouth to Harry’s.
Harry closes his eyes reflexively, the world darkening to a point, a small circle of light around him and Nick, Nick’s mouth pressing in, gentle but undeniable. His lips are warm and sure, holding Harry still, and they fit against Harry’s like they always did.
This is the kiss they didn’t have a chance at, in all the frenzied urgency of their handjobs on the floor. He feels Nick’s fingers cradle his jaw, his thumb sweep across his cheek, making Harry strain upwards.
It’s the kiss that made him lose the ability to make adult judgements or decisions, that turned him into Snow White and Rapunzel, that made him think that The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss) by Cher was a profound insight into the human condition.
Harry’s breath goes shallow in his chest. He’s still gripping his mug of tea against his thigh, making a hot red ring on his skin under the fabric of his pyjamas. Nick’s mouth opens against his and their tongues slide against each other, lazy and fat, Nick’s mouth hot from the tea, his fingertips cool against Harry’s cheek. Harry sinks into it like he’s going underwater, like he always did. His hand strays automatically to Nick’s thigh and slides between them, the silk enveloping his fingers and quickly making them both breathe faster.
A hot splash over his hand and he realises the mug’s slipped off his thigh and he’s spilled his tea. Quickly he shoves the cup on the trunk, wipes his hand off on the sofa and goes back to Nick, who hardly seems to have noticed. The kiss gets ragged and deep, like they’re feeding off each other until Nick breaks off again.
‘So,’ he says, his mouth only an inch from Harry’s. ‘You’ve got a bathroom in this weirdo flat. And a kettle.’ His eyes are searching Harry’s, dark, impossibly lashed, like a Disney witch queen. ‘Do you have a bed?’
Don’t you have a boyfriend? Harry thinks. Don’t we live three thousand miles apart?
But in the end Harry wants, and that’s all that matters.
‘Yeah,’ he says, the word barely more than a breath. ‘Yeah, I do.’ He gets up and holds his hand out to Nick.
Nick takes it.
They used to play this game, Harry supposes they’d have called it ‘naked chicken’ if they’d ever bothered to call it anything, where they would stand in front of each other fully clothed and see who would crack first. It was usually Harry who started tugging his t-shirt over his head or unbuttoning his shirt (if they’d been somewhere posh).
Neither of them wait now, dragging their clothes off, standing at the foot of Harry’s bed and closing on each other, naked. They don’t stay standing for long, Harry pulling Nick under the covers and pressing forward, tangling them together.
‘What do you want to do?’ Nick murmurs against his throat, tipping Harry onto his back.
‘I want to suck your cock,’ he says as Nick kisses his way over his shoulder. ‘I want to fuck you. I want you to fuck me.’
I want everything, he doesn’t say. I want you to miss your plane on Friday. I want you to stay here so I can work out whether I’m still in love with you, or if it’s just a couple of glasses of champagne and an orgasm, because I’ve always had trouble telling the difference.
‘Me first,’ Nick says and starts dragging kisses down Harry’s torso, tonguing his nipple on the way, the kisses on Harry’s hip making him jerk up, and Nick holding him steady in a gesture the familiarity of which is killing. As Nick swallows his cock, and Harry hears his own helpless whimper, he wonders why it’s not more boring. He wishes the way Nick’s tongue travels the underside of his cock was dull and predictable but it isn’t. It makes Harry fuck slowly into Nick’s mouth, and Nick sink lower over Harry with a happy groan.
It seems like all the head he’s had since he last saw Nick was filler, not because Nick’s so good at it (though he’s not fucking bad) or because some of that head wasn’t mindblowing, but just because there’s no other mouth he’d rather put his dick in. Harry holds Nick’s head and wrap his thighs around Nick’s body and rests his feet on the small of Nick’s back, toes digging into the beginnings of the soft flesh at the top of his arse, and Nick gasps a little and tries to say something around Harry’s cock which sounds a bit like ‘iffle’, and Harry guesses is, ‘it tickles.’ Harry kneads his toes further into the flesh and Nick lets out a stuttered breath over his cock which Harry knows is a laugh. Nick pinches his hip hard making Harry yelp and reach down to grab Nick’s hand and they end up lacing their fingers together, stop playing, and start doing things in earnest. Nick goes hard, bringing his other hand up to wrap around the base of Harry’s dick, milking him and Harry breathes long deep breaths, ending in a forced out groan.
He doesn’t come, he just tugs on Nick’s hair when he’s close and Nick pulls off, wiping his mouth with the heel of his hand, finding Harry’s gaze and crawling up his body to push his tongue inside Harry’s mouth. Harry pushes back, chasing his own taste until he breaks off and says, ‘Now me,’ before moving down and landing his mouth on Nick’s cock without warning, taking him in to the root, spreading his palms out over Nick’s torso. Nick cries out like he’s sprained something and tangles his hands sharply in Harry’s hair making Harry’s eyes sting and water.
They have one-night-stand sex, Sunday best sex, showing off all the things they’re good at, cramming everything in, doing it all, because they know they won’t have another chance to explore each other. Harry wanted everything and he’s getting everything.
The light’s dimming into early evening when they finally fuck, Harry riding Nick’s lap. The dying light means their faces are shadowed but Harry doesn’t want to break off to turn on the lamps. They can do it again later, in the light, see each other properly. He likes it like this anyway, the light playing tricks on him, Nick’s face seeming to change below him, flickering in and out of focus, shadows playing in the hollows of his cheeks and his eyes, making him become different people, but always settling back on Nick.
Harry comes with his arms wrapped too tightly round Nick’s shoulders, fucking himself on Nick’s cock, frustrated neighs of breath coming through his nose, biting Nick’s shoulder to cork a childish declaration of love, while Nick jacks him steadily. Nick flips them after that and fucks into him wildly, Harry completely loose, watching Nick blankly from where he’s being shoved against the mattress, his brain still shorted out from his own orgasm. When Nick comes, his thrusts slowing until the last few are several seconds apart, Harry has a memory of Nick tipping his head back under an empty wine-bottle to catch the last few drops on his tongue.
It’s almost completely dark outside when they land on their backs, and when Harry looks over at Nick, his eyelids are going. He’ll sleep now, Harry knows.
Nick’s breaths even out and Harry gets up quietly, dragging down his robe that hangs over the screen separating his bed from the rest of the flat. He putters about, lighting lamps, pouring himself a glass of wine, looking in the fridge. He doesn’t know why he bothers, he knows there’s nothing in there. They can get take-out, his favourite Szechuan maybe. They can breathe garlic and chilli at each other for the rest of the night and nobody else’ll come near Nick for at least another forty-eight hours. Harry shakes his head at his own ridiculousness.
Even though it’s the only thing he really wants to do, Harry carefully avoids going over to look at the drawings. Instead, he sits down with his wine at the kitchen end of the long table and flips slowly through the catalogue from the exhibition. He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting there when he hears a husky voice in the quiet.
Nick emerges from the gloom at the bedroom end. He’s in the pyjama bottoms and is folding his shirt around him, not bothering to button it. He comes over and nods at Harry’s glass.
‘Can I have one of those?’
‘Sure,’ says Harry. ‘Bottle’s on the side. Glass is in the cupboard.’
Nick tuts. ‘Shoddy hospitality,’ he mumbles. He comes over to Harry and bends down over his shoulder. ‘Whatcha doing?’
‘Looking at the catalogue we got,’ Harry says, nudging his face up towards Nick’s. They’re always a bit feline and clingy after they fuck.
‘See anything you like?’ Nick moves around to inveigle himself between Harry and the table. He sits side-saddle on Harry’s lap and pulls aside a strand of Harry’s hair, not even sparing a glance at the book. ‘Watcha gonna buy?’
‘Are you kidding?’ Harry slides an arm inside Nick’s open shirt and pulls him closer. ‘Out of my league, mate.’
‘I know,’ says Nick half-smiling. ‘I was kidding a bit.’ He leans forward and takes Harry’s earlobe gently between his teeth, letting it drag through them. ‘Can we eat soon please?’ he says. ‘I’m starving.’
Harry tips his face against Nick’s chest. ‘Yeah. Chinese all right?’ he murmurs into Nick’s skin, chest hair tickling his lips.
‘Ooh, with boxes and chopsticks like off of the films?’ Nick’s quiet voice rumbles under his cheek.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Just like in the films.’
‘Like we’re planning a heist and we haven’t got time to cook. Or like we’re on a date that isn’t really a date.’
‘Yes,’ Harry says, tipping his head back to look at Nick.
Yes, yes, yes, he thinks.
And Nick’s looking right back at him, soft and fond.
Harry thinks, Don’t kiss me you bastard, whatever you do, don’t kiss me, just as Nick leans down. They hold the kiss for imponderable moments and Harry wonders if Nick feels it too, this awful feeling.
Then he smacks Nick’s thigh gently and starts to get up. ‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s get food.’
They eat greedily and messily, snagging food from each other’s containers, feeding each other in a way that would have other diners looking nauseated if they were in public, until their breath is fiery and their mouths look like they’ve been playing ineptly with their mums’ lipsticks.
‘Wow, not touching you with a barge-pole for a while,’ says Nick, leaning back in his chair with his glass of wine.
Harry hisses out a breath from his open mouth.
‘You wouldn’t be able to tell anyway. Bet your breath is as honking as mine.’
Nick sticks his tongue out and tips his head backwards to rest on the back of his chair, looking at the ceiling.
‘That light really is fucking sick,’ he says, after a minute. The chandelier is lit up now, but still low on the dimmer.
‘Thanks. I took pictures of her stuff for a catalogue; she gave me that.’
‘I think you got the better end of the deal.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘You need to give me her number. I want one.’
Nick gets up and walks underneath it, looking up in wonder until he catches his foot on the rug. Harry watches as Nick wanders between the two big leather sofas where they’d kissed, the steamer trunk, and ends up by the bookshelves with Harry’s few bits and bobs and personal photos. Nick noses through them, picking things up, putting them down.
Harry rocks back his chair, keeping balance with his foot on Nick’s. He hooks a cold sesame prawn out of the box with his fingers and dangles it into his mouth.
‘You don’t have much stuff do you?’ Nick says.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Like, things. Mementoes.’
Nick’s flat was a jumble of stuff, books and pictures and curios he’d found and gifts from friends. Harry had loved it. It was like a personal museum.
Harry shrugs and says, ‘Got used to not having a base. Kept the habit of not keeping too much unnecessary stuff. “Yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream,”’ he quotes po-faced.
Nick rolls his eyes. ‘Wanker,’ he mutters and Harry sniggers.
There are a couple of pictures on the bookshelf. One is of Niall and his little boy, both grinning madly into the camera, looking windswept in macs.
‘Ah, little Niall. All grown up.’ Nick looks closer. ‘Bloody hell, his kid’s the spitting image of him.’
Harry snorts. ‘Yeah. He won’t tell us who the mum is, so we said he self-generated.’
Nick moves on. It’s a picture of Anne that Harry had taken, black and white, in her Cheshire kitchen, smiling away from the camera.
‘She still sends me messages, you know,’ Nick says, peering at it. ‘She reads my column, sometimes even listens to the nighttime show. I’m touched.’
‘She always loved you, you know. You were her favourite. Of my ...’ Harry hesitates. ‘Things.’
Nick shoots him a wry look. ‘Well. She’s a wonderful woman. With fantastic taste in … things,’ he takes a long sip of wine and turns away, carries on poking about.
‘You could have asked her where I was.’
Nick picks a book off the shelf. He doesn’t look up when he answers, ‘I assumed you didn’t want to be found.’ He puts the book back on top of the others. ‘And anyway,’ he adds, ‘How undignified? Running to your mum and whining “where’s Harry?”’
Harry hides his half-smile at the thought. He’s got his foot on the edge of Nick’s chair, tipping it towards him. He bangs it back down. When Nick doesn’t respond, he does it again. Nick turns around finally and Harry looks meaningfully at him.
Nick blinks at him, languid. ‘All right,’ he says, before meandering back to Harry. He brushes Harry’s feet off the chair and sits down, and Harry puts his feet in Nick’s lap.
‘More,’ Nick says, holding out his glass, fist around the stem like a child. His other hand is warm on Harry’s instep, thumb stroking the sole. Harry reaches for the bottle and re-fills Nick’s glass and puts a splosh more into his.
‘I’m a bit miffed with Gav,’ he confesses. ‘Never showing me that drawing. And he gave it to you. Felt like you both sort of ganged up on me or something. Did something behind my…’
Harry trails off because Nick’s looking at Harry with a weird expression and his hand has stilled on Harry’s foot.
‘What is it?’
‘Um,’ Nick says. ‘Gav didn’t give it to me.’
Harry’s eyebrows go up. ‘What does that mean?’
‘I nicked it.’
‘Tore it out of his sketchbook. He doesn’t know I’ve got it.’
Harry lifts his feet off Nick’s lap, sits up straight and surprised in his chair. ‘Nick.’
Harry wasn’t mad about his first idea, but this is something else.
‘It wasn’t his,’ says Nick defiantly. ‘It was mine. Ours,’ he adds quietly.
Harry tries to think good, moral thoughts about art and friends and how stealing is bad, but in the end his heart turns over at the quietness of that ‘ours’ and it overrides every other thought. It makes him think of Nick at that time, taking the picture, Harry not having any idea. Nick wanting the picture enough to steal it from a friend.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
He’s not just talking about the drawing. Nick looks at Harry sympathetically, the same look he gave him yesterday when he was telling him about Gavin.
‘How could I?’ he says. ‘I couldn’t. What if I had? “Here’s a picture of us together, asleep. Gav did it. Pretty isn’t it? Look at us, together. Oh, and by the way, I pinched it.” It would have been …’ Nick stops, straightens in his seat. ‘We never talked about what we were, Haz. Right or wrong, we didn’t. And I would have felt like I was imposing something on you, ok? I didn’t want to do that. This was … just for me.’ Nick’s head jerks down. He can’t look at Harry.
‘Fuck, Nick,’ Harry breathes. He takes a long gulp of wine that burns on the way down. He leans his forearms on his thighs, letting the glass dangle from his hand. He looks down at the splintery floorboards and thinks absent-mindedly that he really should get round to sanding and varnishing them properly one of these days. ‘Fuck.’
He hears a movement and Nick’s bare feet appear on the floor below him. One of them moves forward to cover Harry’s own. It’s rough against Harry’s.
‘I’m sorry,’ Nick says. ‘Forgive me?’
Harry puts his glass down and raises his head. Nick looks forlorn. Harry reaches for him, hooking his hand round the back of Nick’s thigh, drawing him forward and looking up at him. ‘It’s not me who needs to forgive you.’
‘I know,’ says Nick, stroking the hair back from Harry’s forehead. ‘I’ll tell him when I get back.’
When I get back.
Friday. Friday’s tomorrow, now.
Nick’s leaving tomorrow.
Harry drags down the waistband of Nick’s pyjamas, exposing his hip, his v-line and places an open-mouthed kiss over it, tracing the tip of his tongue in the crease. He runs his hands down the back of Nick’s thighs and sucks a bite into Nick’s skin. He lets one hand drift over Nick’s cock, finding it hard, and he folds his hand over it, holding it as he sucks the skin. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ he murmurs eventually, because it seems like the only thing they can do.
Afterwards, they have a cup of tea at two in the morning and it’s as if his apartment has become like the Tardis, or the house in The Wizard of Oz, something detached from the world, not subject to its ordinary laws of mealtimes and bedtimes. Champagne for lunch, sex for dinner, and morning tea in the middle of the night. He wonders if between them they’ve made it like this on purpose. That if they’re outside time, this doesn’t ever have to end.
Later, Harry gets his wish too. He fucks Nick slow and reverent in the low lamplight, getting to see his face, tipped back, eyes closed. Nick opens them at one point and laughs softly.
‘God, stop looking at me like that,’ he says.
‘Like what,’ says Harry on a forced-out breath, his elbows either side of Nick’s head, circling his hips, loving the heat of Nick around him.
‘All, I don’t know,’ Nick lifts his knees higher, tipping his head back and closing his eyes again, letting Harry inch deeper inside him. ‘Like I’m Macchu Picchu and you’re having some mystical fucking experience.’
Harry digs his elbows into the pillow, giving him the leverage to pull out and fuck back into Nick hard, pushing his hips up with the momentum, making Nick – to Harry’s huge satisfaction – release a little groan.
‘Shut up, Grimshaw,’ he growls in Nick’s ear. ‘And let me have a mystical fucking experience if I want to.’
‘What are you doing today?’
Harry knows he’s breaking a rule of one night stands, but he asks it anyway. He’s lying on his front, turned away from Nick, his face pushed into the pillow. Morning light streams through the muslin hung above the window. Harry’s apartment has landed back in the real world.
He hears Nick stretch and yawn before saying, ‘Having lunch with a label.’ There’s a growling ‘Hmmmm,’ before Harry feels a touch on his hip, a kiss on his shoulder; Harry squeezes his eyes shut, red then black behind his eyelids.
‘What about later,’ he says.
There’s a very noticeable pause before Nick answers, and when it comes it’s carefully neutral.
‘Having drinks with Johnny.’
He doesn’t say ‘why?’ or ‘what are you up to?’ or ‘fancy joining us?’ He doesn’t say anything.
‘Come back here,’ says Harry. ‘Doesn’t matter where you’ve been, how late you stay out. Come back here afterwards. Before…’ He swallows. ‘Before you go.’
‘Haz.’ It’s Nick at his absolute softest and sweetest. It’s unbearable. ‘This can’t…’
‘I know. Shut up. Come back tonight. Promise me.’
A hand on his head, stroking his hair.
‘Promise,’ whispers Nick.
Harry spends the day out with his camera, the lazy ache of sex in his limbs. By the time he gets back home, the lack of sleep has him wishing he hadn’t asked Nick back. He clings to the idea that Nick won’t keep his promise. He’d been desperate this morning, trying to find some way, any way, of getting more time with him, but in the end, he’s only dragging out the goodbye. It was foolish.
But Nick does keep it. Harry doesn’t know what time it is when he buzzes him in. He hears the lift start its clanking journey upwards and goes back to bed, flops back onto his front, tangled in the sheets, and waits, a little irritable at having been woken up. The gate creaks as it opens, Nick’s soft tread pauses by the end of the bed, where he stands for such a long time Harry’s about to turn around and tell him impatiently to come in if he’s coming in.
There’s a breathed out ‘Jesus,’ and a moment later the sheet’s being torn away from Harry’s body and Nick’s crawling over him, fully-clothed, sliding his arms over Harry’s, lacing their fingers together and pressing him into the mattress. Nick speaks low and harsh, right in Harry’s ear.
‘You ruined my night,’ he says. There’s no trace of laughter or joking in his tone. ‘I couldn’t think about anything else when I was out, except coming back here.’
He shoves himself between Harry’s legs, spreading them apart, his knees sliding under Harry’s thighs, pushing Harry’s arse up and against his crotch.
There’s rough jeans against his soft flesh, Nick’s cold metal fly against the tender skin of Harry’s balls. Harry’s breath is careful and shallow, his heart beating powerfully. He has gone from half-asleep and grumpy to every nerve zinging with electricity in the space of seconds.
‘I want to fuck you like this,’ Nick murmurs into his ear, soft breath sending a shower of sparks through Harry’s body. ‘With my clothes still on, dry. I want you to remember me inside you for days.’
Harry finds his voice from somewhere. ‘Do it,’ he says. ‘Fuck me.’
One hand disappears from beside Harry’s head as Nick gets his jeans open, dragging them down and his cock slides between Harry’s arse cheeks, a little slick of pre-come easing the way. This is going to hurt, he knows, he’s done it before, and with the right person he loves it, loves the way it makes his breath stop in his throat, the way he can feel it behind his eyes when he’s entered.
Nick nudges at his hole, careful, belying his rough tone and Harry lengthens his back, raises his arse a little to give better access, slutty, loving the helpless little ‘oh’ from Nick as he starts to edge inside. As he pushes in, there’s no slide, no give, Harry’s hole resisting, despite his need. Nick pulls back and Harry’s ring clings to his cock, but on his next thrust Nick manages to edge in a further rough inch, the first jaggy moment of real pain making Harry cry out a little. He starts to breathe deep, trying to relax.
‘Oh fuck,’ Nick whimpers, panting. ‘I’m sorry. Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ Harry gasps out. ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ And he circles his hips, letting Nick in further, making them both cry out, and reflex tears spring into Harry’s eyes.
Nick starts to fuck him with careful, short little thrusts until Harry’s hole finally relaxes, widens and Nick can move freely, fucking him deep and long. Nick’s jeans rub against the backs of his thighs, his coat flops around them, his shirt-buttons dig into Harry’s back and Harry comes against the sheets without touching himself. It’s only a little while before Nick follows, silently, pressing himself right against Harry so Harry is sure Nick’s balls are brushing his.
When Nick pulls out he seems to disappear, not touching Harry at all and Harry turns around groggily to see Nick sitting back on his heels, his face covered with his hands, taking deep shaky breaths.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers from behind his hands. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know anything anymore.’
‘Hey,’ Harry says. He takes hold of Nick’s wrists gently and pulls his hands away. ‘No, hey,’ he says, gathering Nick to him. ‘It’s all right. It’s ok.’ He puts his arms round Nick and Nick rests his forehead against Harry’s collarbone. ‘Don’t,’ Harry says. ‘Please don’t. I wanted it. It’s all right.’ He rocks them both until eventually Nick calms and his breathing goes back to normal.
Nick pulls away, swiping the heel of his hand over his damp cheek. He gives Harry a rueful smile. ‘You make a mess of me, Harry Styles,’ he says.
Harry laughs miserably. ‘Well, we’re quits then. Come on,’ he tugs at the lapels of Nick’s coat. ‘Let’s get these off you.’
Nick sighs, ‘Yeah,’ and lets himself be undressed.
They lie down and he curls against Harry, his face in Harry’s throat, and Harry wraps himself around him.
When Harry wakes up, he’s gone.
Harry gets up almost as soon as he wakes. The first kick of loss when he realises Nick has left is terrible, winding him, and Harry knows he’ll be drained by it if he stays in bed. He moves around automatically, making coffee, drinking it standing up, listening to the city wake. For a while it even seems as if Nick leaving like this is easier. It makes his night visit feel like a dream, or that he was a kind of incubus, a mad projection of Harry’s own brain.
But the emptiness of the apartment creeps into Harry despite him. He tries to do some work, using the kitchen table, unable to bring himself to clear the drawings off the other table. He can’t touch them, can’t look at them. When he gets up from his work and looks over at the screen hiding his bed, his gut plunging for the third time that morning, he realises he can’t stay here.
He packs a small rucksack, hires a car and drives upstate, turning up on Maya and Chris’s doorstep unannounced, apologetic. He must look awful because they hold out their arms and take him in, sitting either side of him on their couch before giving him their cats and babies to play with.
The weather over the weekend is shitty, but he still goes out with his camera, taking pictures of the choppy grey sea, and he goes running along the beach with Maya in the cold, the splattering of rain against his face sharp and cleansing. He eats well and doesn’t drink much. When he gets back to the city on Monday morning he doesn’t feel quite so much like he’s held together with sellotape and string, his stuffing leaking out of his sides.
He strips the bed, putting the sheets in the washer with the most obnoxious biological detergent he can find. He tidies away the drawings, his eyes focusing somewhere beyond them so he has enough vision to see what he’s doing but not the drawings themselves. He puts the portfolio behind a stack of others, out of sight. He remembers the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark being hidden in a labyrinth of packing crates, and giggles madly into the quiet of the empty apartment.
He’s got a shoot tomorrow that he has to prepare for.
Summer, the same year.
He powers through his days, not thinking, a low white noise where Nick might otherwise be. He takes on more jobs than usual, networks more aggressively, makes sure his name is out there in a way he hasn’t bothered with before, partly because he was fine with the ambling pace of his life, but also because he didn’t want his name to become currency again. Nick was right. He didn’t want to be found. Now he doesn’t care.
And as it turns out neither does anyone else. They want a professional who does the work they’re hired to do. They only care about knowing his name because it means they can call him again. Whether or not he’s some reclusive ex-popstar is of no interest.
After a particularly long and complicated job with fun and dedicated people, Harry gets drunker than usual on the last night. A couple of drinks in, one or two of them ask questions about Harry’s past. Usually, he’s safe from stuff like this because showing an interest would be so uncool, but the drinks have loosened them all up and he’s known them long enough they feel they can ask. He’s happy to talk about it at first, telling stories, making people laugh, but by the end of the night, a fatal combination of memories and alcohol unlocks a sluice gate that lets Nick in, a trickle then a flood. At some point, maybe it’s 1am, he can’t be sure, he suddenly can’t wait to get home.
He hauls the lift open weakly, stumbles through, forgetting to close it and bats through the stack of folders, till he finds the burgundy portfolio he wants. It’s awkward to handle but he manages it, plumping down cross-legged on the floor and opening it in front of him. He takes out all the drawings at once, pushing them out of the folder, spreading them around him.
Then he looks and looks and looks.
He ends up on his hands and knees over them so he can examine each one closely, follow the lines and shading, each hollow and curve of Nick’s body.
Then he flops back down onto his arse, leans on his elbows and cries – great jagging, painful sobs because his famously easy tears dried up at some point in his early twenties and he’s out of practice. He’s forgotten how you breathe and what noises you make, hiccuping through it, his face wet.
He lets himself sink into a swamp of Nick-thoughts, lets them trap him, wallows. He remembers him here in New York: the hotel-bar drink, the gallery, back here at his apartment. He remembers Nick’s face, laughing or thrown back in ecstasy, or quiet, not looking at Harry, in shadow, or asleep. He thinks about his body, wrapped round Harry’s, rough, warm, strong, and lets himself feel its absence, missing Nick like a lost limb. He lets himself wonder what he’s doing now, if he’s happy, who he’s with.
And he realises that it’s late and Nick’s probably on the radio. Harry may as well go the whole hog, torture himself with Nick’s voice as well, drive himself completely mental. He gets up clumsily and wanders off to find his laptop, bringing it over and settling down with it amongst the drawings. He searches and scrolls and finally finds the right page and is baffled to find the early evening show playing. He scrolls up and down, pages back and forth, and is stumped, and crashingly disappointed, like those times Nick stood him up.
Out of the fog of grief and liquor comes the memory of time-zones. He was always crap at those. Then he remembers there are archived shows, and doggedly goes back to scrolling and paging, finds Nick’s page and taps the play button on a show from a couple of nights before. He’s expecting some music at the beginning, but oh god, there it is, Nick’s voice, coming out of his shitty laptop speakers, telling listeners about his day. It’s warm, funny, and so dear and familiar Harry wraps his arms around his chest, leaning over as if he’d just been kicked. He listens to the end of the story, laughing a little over the beginning of the record Nick’s playing, the laugh warming him. He palms the last of his tears from his cheek, picks up the laptop and takes it with him to bed. He lies down with it open on the mattress next to him and listens until he falls asleep.
He wakes up to the sun streaming in, a hangover and a dead battery.
He’s surprisingly ok. Tender and a little frayed, but ok.
He gets up and makes tea. The sun sparkles through the windows, impossible to deny, like a child smiling. Then he brings himself to go over to the drawings scattered over the floor, and it’s ok, he manages not to disintegrate all over them. He gathers them together and is going through the familiar motions of putting them back in the folder and he’s tired of this all of a sudden. He decides to hang one of them. It’s pointless keeping them locked up under cover all the time. They’re beautiful things and they were made by a friend of his. Apart from anything else, it seems rude to Gavin to keep them hidden.
He picks out the one of Nick in the chair, in his suit trousers and shirt and bare feet. He’ll need to get it framed before he can hang it properly, but for now it can be propped on the books on the shelves lining the long exterior wall of the dark room. He’ll see it as he leaves the house, and he’ll be able to see it if he glances up from the tables or when he’s leaning against the countertop in the kitchen drinking coffee, but it won’t dominate the room. He knows from experience that he’ll eventually become blind to it, that he won’t see it anymore. And he realises that this is the best thing he can do, this odd kind of goodbye.
He knows he’ll always love Nick. It doesn’t matter if they don’t see each other again, if Harry meets someone tomorrow who he ends up having babies with and staying with for the rest of his life. He’ll never really let go of Nick. He feels sorry for his future imaginary partner. Nick’s ruined him for anyone else, he thinks, smiling at his own melodrama, then takes one last look at the drawing before turning away.
‘New sounds from Tiny Goat there. LOVE that record, been listening to it literally. All. Day. Still not tired of it. Unlike producer Javed who looks like he wants to cry. Do you want to cry, Javed?’
‘A little bit, yeah,’ Javed says, ducking his head to the side to speak into the mic. He’s not Nick’s regular producer and he’s not too keen on being on air, but Nick can bully him into it every now and then. Nick’s never liked it being only him on the radio. He’s always roped in producers and assistants and tea-boys and passing dogs to be co-presenters.
Apparently it’s not enough for the bosses though, who want Nick to make a ‘major overhaul’ of the show. They want him to change the format, jazz it up, they don’t know how, they’ll leave that up to him, but they need suggestions, stat. Nick’s already joked lugubriously to Pix that ‘major overhaul’ means ‘DJ removal’. She nudged him gently and told him to shut up. Pix hates it when he’s like this.
The break-up with Karl hadn’t helped his mood either. Poor Karl. He’d kept mentioning that Nick hadn’t been the same since New York. He can’t have known what his needling would do eventually. He probably thought it might trigger some final emotional outpouring from Nick that would bring them closer together, ‘stronger as a unit’.
‘I fucked Harry, ok?’ Nick snapped finally, after another roundabout attempt to get him to talk.
Karl’s face was terrible, a cartoon of shock. Nick hadn’t told him he was meeting Harry in New York, only about the label and Johnny.
‘I tracked him down through the gallery, and we met, and the inevitable happened, and now I feel like shit. That’s why I’ve been “weird”, Karl,’ he says, making aggressive little bunny ears around the word. ‘Happy?’
‘Inevitable? Really?’ Karl choked out. ‘Even now Nick? It’s been ten fucking years. You’re still hung up on some twink you had a fling with in 2012? Grow up.’
Nick tried to feel sympathy, he really did, but in the end, it wasn’t pretty, as break-ups go.
Anyway, he’s had an idea for the show. A proper good one. He hopes the bosses will bite.
When Nick pops up on his phone, Harry doesn’t answer it. And he doesn’t answer it. And he doesn’t answer it.
Six missed calls, no messages left and a week go by, and then it rings again. The phone’s on the table and Harry goes over to it and stands there, watching as it rumbles against the surface of the table, the knife from chopping veg still in his hand. He waits until the ‘Answer? Cancel?’ buttons stop flashing impatiently at him before he goes back to the countertop. Thirty seconds or so later, it lets out a little fart indicating someone’s left a voice-mail. Harry finishes the veggies, tucks them round the chicken, sticks the whole lot in the oven, (Veronica – of chandelier fame – and a couple of others are coming round later) and wipes his hands on a towel. He sits down with the phone, takes a deep breath and listens to the message.
‘Will you answer your fucking phone, Styles?’ says Nick’s voice through transatlantic crackle, sounding genuinely irritated. ‘I’m not ringing for a chat. I’ve got some news. I…I want to tell you something. Ring me back? Please? Or next time I ring, like, answer?’ Nick lets out a blowy sigh. ‘All right. See you later. Bye.’
Harry’s still sitting there with the phone in his hand when it rings again, making him jump. Nick flashes up at him. Before he has time to think he presses his thumb against the ‘Answer’ button.
‘Jesus, Styles, I was beginning to think you were dead.’
‘No,’ he says carefully. ‘Not dead.’
‘Fucking glad to hear it. That would have thrown a spanner in the works a bit. Hey,’ he says, calming. ‘Hey.’
‘Hi. How are you?’ Not, Good to hear your voice, even though it is. It is so good.
‘I’m all right, yeah. Good, thanks.’
‘What was that about a spanner?’
‘Um, I don’t know? What did I just say?’
‘You said if I was dead it’d throw a spanner in the works. What works?’
‘Yeah, it would. I’m, er...’ Nick pauses. He seems to have lost the momentum of a few moments ago. ‘I’m coming to New York again.’
Harry’s gut turns over. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, he thinks. I can’t. Please don’t do this.
‘What?’ he says over the panicked shouting in his head.
‘I’m coming over there. For work. It’s only gonna be...’
‘I can’t,’ Harry blurts. ‘Please don’t, Nick. You have no idea what it took to get over you this time.’ He can’t believe what he’s saying, but all he knows is, he can’t do it again. ‘I don’t know how often you come to New York, but delete my number. Anything. I don’t...’
‘Haz,’ Nick breathes out over Harry’s babbling. ‘Haz, mate. Lovely boy. Stop. Listen to me. I’m not popping over. I’m not visiting. I’m trying to explain to you. I’ve managed to convince people that it’d be a really good idea to do my show from New York. I don’t know how I did it. I think it was the offer to pay my own air fare.’
There is a comedy pause while Nick waits for the laugh. Harry doesn’t know what to say.
‘Harry, love. Speak to me. Say something.’
‘How long for?’ he says blankly.
‘Six months. Trial period. I thought, if Mike used to do his show from LA, why can’t I do mine from New York?’
‘But that’s because Mike lived in LA, Nick.’ They used to have these work conversations all the time and apparently the habit of arguing with Nick when Nick was obviously wrong had become ingrained. ‘He had his own show there,’ Harry explains patiently.
‘Yeah, well,’ Nick hedges. ‘I’ll be doing the same but for the East Coast. Living there.’ The phrase hangs in the air between them, like a promise. ‘Haz, I’m not expecting us... I don’t want to take anything for granted.’ Nick stops and sighs. ‘Actually, fuck it, you know what? I am expecting stuff. I’m gonna be all up in your grill. I want us to go on dates, like normal people. And I want you to come and see me in the studio. Throw things at me. Fuck with my mic. Take pictures of me. Whatever. ’
‘I don’t do portraits,’ Harry says, a smile beginning to twitch.
‘Take some arty pictures of the faders, then, I don’t care. Just come.’
About a week after Nick starts his show, Harry arrives unannounced at the station and hovers outside the studio looking in through the glass. Nick’s sitting next to someone Harry assumes is his producer, and it looks like they’re going over a show schedule. A record’s playing and Nick has his headphones round his neck. He looks up and sees Harry. He grins instantly, hugely, and lifts the phones over his head before getting up and skipping over to the studio door to drag it open. They stand in front of each other, looking ridiculous. Nick is practically bouncing in place.
‘Hi,’ Harry says.
‘Hi,’ Nick returns. ‘Y’all right?’
‘Yeah.’ Harry can’t stop smiling like an idiot. ‘Hey,’ he says finally. ‘Wanna go for a drink after the show?’
‘Depends,’ says Nick, grinning too.
‘Will it be like, a date?’
‘Then yes,’ says Nick. ‘Yes, I fucking well do.’
And Harry’s heart is knocking against his ribs because they’re really going to do this. They’re going to go on an actual date, maybe have sex (Harry hopes they have sex because god-in-fucking-heaven he’s missed Nick) and maybe they’re going to do it again. And possibly another time after that, until they’re like, actually dating, like normal people, like Nick said.
Nick’s producer raps on the glass making them jump, and Nick tugs Harry in after him and introduces him round.
Of course they have sex, Harry didn’t know why he had any doubts. They go back to Nick’s (an apartment in now fully-posh Brooklyn that Damien from the station had found for him) and try to take each other’s clothes off at the same time as stumbling to the bedroom. Somehow they manage it and fall naked and slightly painfully onto the duvet, a tangle of digging knees and elbows and accidentally knocked foreheads and laughed-out apologies, and they fuck, a we-don’t-care-what-the-neighbours-say fuck: urgent and breathless and loud.
They’ve never done it like that before, Harry realises. Even when there was no chance of anyone hearing them, or when they were out of their minds with lust, or just plain drunk, they never made much noise. It was like, if they kept quiet they could pretend more easily that nothing was going on. Pretend to each other as well as everyone else. Idiots. They were such fucking idiots.
They’re lying on their backs, breathing into the post-shag quiet. Harry is a bit further down the bed, and Nick’s fiddling with Harry’s hair when Nick speaks.
‘I mean it,’ he says quietly, as if he’s continuing some conversation from earlier. ‘I want us to do this properly, Haz. I don’t want to pretend that we’re not shagging, or whatever daft fucking thing it was we used to do in the old days. I want to be grown-ups.’
Harry tips to one side a little and nuzzles Nick’s hip. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Me too.’
They lapse into silence again, and Nick’s fingers draw gently through his hair. ‘Scary though,’ Harry mumbles into Nick’s skin.
Harry thinks it’s because he can’t see Nick’s face that makes him say what he says next. ‘You can hurt me so badly,’ he whispers. ‘I was a mess when you left last time.’
Nick’s fingers pause in their movements for a few seconds. Eventually Harry feels a sharper tug on his hair and Nick murmurs, ‘Come here.’
Harry shuffles up the bed so he and Nick are face-to-face. ‘And you think I wasn’t?’ Nick says, looking at him searchingly. ‘You can hurt me too, you little shit. But we’re not going to. We’re going to do this, Haz. It’s going to be ok.’
And for some reason, Harry believes him.
[scroll down for hidden track]
‘Is it on?’
‘Of course it’s on. Look at the light.’
‘Well why is it not...’
‘Hang on a sec...’
Harry fiddles with something and the screen comes to life.
‘There we go,’ says Nick as he and Harry peer at the screen together. It shows a fridge in the background and the edge of a kitchen table (that the computer at the other end must be sitting on), a mug and a packet of Drum tobacco.
‘Where is he?’ asks Harry.
Obligingly, a jumper-clad torso comes into view, sitting down in the chair, and a craggily handsome face is visible on screen.
‘Gav!’ Harry practically squeaks.
‘All right, lads,’ says Gavin, sliding the tobacco towards himself.
‘Where d’you get to?’ asks Nick, trying to sound put out but failing to hide how pleased he is.
‘You lot were taking ages so I went for a wazz.’
Harry says ‘Gav’ again in a stupid voice. It’s so nice to hear his Glaswegian rumble and see him rolling a fag as usual.
‘Rude,’ says Nick. ‘Haz couldn’t find the “on” switch it would seem.’
‘Heyyy,’ says Harry without heat.
‘Y’all right Gav? You missing us?’
‘You wish,’ he says, looking amused and licking along the Rizla before deftly rolling it under his thumbs. ‘How’s the large fruit treating you?’ His accent somehow makes his jokes sound dryer and sharper than other people’s.
Nick starts talking about New York and the show and Harry watches as Gavin smokes his cigarette and listens. He was always a big guy, taller than Nick, and now a shaved head only adds to his presence. But the minute he opens his mouth you realise he’s the gentlest man. Nick’s talking about his not-so-stellar ratings.
‘It’s early days yet though, eh?’ Gav picks a stray bit of tobacco from the tip of his tongue and reaches for his mug.
‘’Spose so.’ Nick shrugs. ‘To be honest I don’t actually care that much.’
‘Aw, don’t say that,’ says Gav, and Harry slides his folded arms into Nick’s in a sympathetic nudge. Nick’s talked about this before.
‘Not like that. Not in a bad way. I’ve actually been talking to the guys at the station here, where we’ve been using the studio. They’ve been on the look-out for a new evening guy themselves.’
Harry pricks up his ears at the same time as Gav says, ‘Oh yeah?’
‘They’ve made an, um, tentative offer’. Harry looks at Nick in surprise. ‘Shh,’ Nick says glancing briefly at Harry. ‘We’ll talk about it later.’
‘Sounds like good news for Hazza,’ Gav murmurs and his gaze slides over to Harry. ‘Kiddo,’ he says, taking a puff of his cigarette and regarding Harry through the elegant ribbons of smoke. ‘Long time, no see. You’re looking well.’
‘Thanks. I feel pretty good,’ Harry says beaming.
Nick takes the opportunity and starts to push his chair back. ‘Listen, Gav,’ he says. ‘We’re not just ringing to chat. We’ve got a bit of a confession to make.’ He touches Harry’s shoulder as he goes to the other end of the table.
‘Where’s he off to?’
‘You’ll see,’ says Harry. It turned out that Nick hadn’t talked to Gavin when he got home after all, and this Skype was partly a result of Harry’s gentle bullying. ‘How are you?’ Harry says, leaning forward into the screen. ‘You look... even more like an Easter Island statue than you used to.’
Gav laughs and lifts a hand to rub it self-consciously over his head.
‘’M all right. Yeah. Good. Selling pictures. Got a nice lady too.’
‘Sick. What’s she like?’
‘Dumpy and ugly. Bit like you.’
Harry hears a distant ‘oi!’ from somewhere in Gavin’s flat. Gavin smiles.
‘Aw Gav, you’re all in love.’
‘Yeah. What about you, eh?’ he says as Nick comes back, carrying something flat and square.
‘Yeah,’ says Harry. ‘I’m... yeah.’ He and Gavin share a glance before Gavin is distracted by what Nick’s brought over.
‘What the hell is that?’ he says, peering through the screen. Nick’s propping the drawing up in the chair beside Harry. It’s not framed yet, only mounted on some good quality card. ‘Oh my god,’ says Gavin, recognition slowly dawning.
‘Well, when I say “we’ve got a confession”, Gav. It’s mostly me, really,’ Nick says, leaning against the back of Harry’s chair and resting his chin on the top of Harry’s head. ‘This one had nothing to do with it.’
But Gavin’s fixated on the picture. ‘I thought I’d dreamt that,’ he breathes, sounding almost awed. ‘I honestly thought I was going insane and was inventing pictures I’d never even fucking done.’ He looks up at them. ‘I was doing a lot of drugs at the time.’
They laugh and Gavin’s gaze flicks from Harry to Nick and back again. He shakes his head and looks back at the drawing, assessingly this time. ‘To be honest, mounting’s too good for it,’ he concludes after a minute, squinting through a puff of smoke.
‘Heeey,’ says Nick. ‘That’s my arse you’re talking about.’
Gav shoots him a heavy-eyed look and raises one eyebrow. ‘Now that was worth it.’
A blush heats Harry’s cheeks.
‘God, Gav, shut up,’ says Nick.
‘Yeah,’ mumbles Harry. ‘I’m gonna get jealous.’
‘Oh, love,’ says Gavin, his gaze swinging over to Harry. ‘I’m no threat to you. I never was. Never had a chance.’
The blush floods up into Harry’s face and he looks down. There’s a bit of a silence.
‘You’re not gonna frame it are you?’ he hears Gav say, getting them all back on track.
‘Probably,’ says Nick.
Gav laughs properly now. ‘God, you flaming eejit. I was going to give it to you anyway, you know.’
Nick lets out a gurgle of laughter. ‘What?’
‘Yeah. I felt so bad when you woke up and caught me, I was going to give it to you. Then I couldn’t find it and thought I’d imagined the whole thing.’
They’re all giggling a bit now.
‘Look at you both,’ Gavin says when they subside. He leans forward, big hands around his mug, looking into the screen. ‘I’m really glad you kids got your shit together. You deserve it. It’s great to see you.’ Harry had forgotten that for all his piss-taking, Gavin could blind-side you with his sincerity sometimes.
‘Thanks, Gav,’ he says.
‘When are you coming to see us please?’ says Nick bossily, never comfortable with more than thirty seconds worth of heartfelt emotion.
‘Yeah,’ says Harry. ‘You’ve got to bring your lady too.’
‘You must be joking. Inflict you people on her? I’ll come do a recce first. Make sure you’re presentable.’
After exchanging a few more insults, they say bye and hang up. Nick slides his arms all the way round Harry and Harry rests his hand on Nick’s forearm and they’re silent for a minute.
‘That was ok,’ Harry says eventually.
‘Weird. But ok.’
Nick nods, chin digging into Harry’s shoulder.
‘We’re good, aren’t we? I mean, with him.’
‘Yep, he still loves us,’ says Nick. ‘Come on babes, let’s make dinner.’
‘Ok,’ Harry says, leaning forward to shut the laptop as Nick goes over to the kitchen. ‘Bagsy pouring wine and watching you.’
‘Child,’ mutters Nick over his shoulder.
Later, leaning against the countertop, chatting while Nick cooks, a glass of wine cradled against his chest, Harry catches sight of Gavin’s sketch, still propped on the chair where Nick left it.
They were so young then, he thinks. Or maybe not young – it was only ten years – but stupid, definitely. Nick is turning the meat carefully in the pan and he looks up, catching Harry watching. He sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes. They’re a lot less stupid now.
Maybe Gavin will be up for doing a new portrait when he comes, now that they’re older and greyer. Now that they’re wiser too.