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Dancing On My Own

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Maybe I would have been

Something you'd be good at

Maybe you would have been

Something I'd be good at

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

You are cordially invited to the wedding of Liam Payne and Danielle Peazer.
July 27, 2013.

 

Harry, Niall and Louis are almost late for Liam’s wedding. It’s all Niall’s fault because it was his idea to have midnight breakfast, which threw Harry off his stride and made him forget to set his alarm because he was too full of bacon and pancakes to be able to think straight. Niall and Louis never set their alarms at the weekends. They rely on Harry to wake them up. It’s an onerous burden but until today he’s been able to shoulder it pretty well.

He says grimly, from the back seat of Louis’s car, “I’m going to buy you both alarm clocks.”

“I wouldn’t need one if you weren’t so crap!” Louis shouts, as they hurtle down the motorway. The car’s making frightening, sad noises.

“You had one job,” Niall says, eyeing him in the rear view mirror. Usually Niall’s the nice one. This is awful. Harry bristles and stares darkly out of the window until Louis swerves off the motorway at junction eleven. There are more country roads then, lots of fields, probably lots of birdsong too if Louis wasn’t so intent on stabbing at the car radio and swearing at it until it blares Usher as the car swerves from side to side.

“Do you remember when Liam said he proposed?” Louis says, when they’ve got eleven minutes to get there and Niall’s struggling to get into his tie.

“And we said, ‘ha, ha, funny joke’?” Niall says.

“Yeah.” Louis is silent for a moment. Usher’s silent too, and then Justin Bieber starts singing. “Twat,” Louis says, and smacks the radio off. “They’ll be okay, right?” 

“I think so,” Harry says, pushing his face into the gap between the two headrests. “Once you’re married, you can’t split up.”

“There’s this thing, young Harold,” Louis says, “called divorce. It might be too modern for you so I’m not sure you’ll have heard of it.”

“Liam tries really hard at stuff,” Harry points out. “He won’t want to get a divorce.”

“No one wants to get a divorce, Harry. When was the last time they broke up?” Niall asks.

“Four months ago,” Louis says absently. None of them mention that night in the pub last week when they all did too many shots and Liam cried in the taxi on the way home and wouldn’t tell anyone why, before cleverly distracting them by getting out of the car to be sick by the side of the road. Harry's pretty sure they're all thinking about it, though.

“I reckon they’ll just be happy forever,” Niall says, too brightly.

Louis snorts as he twists the car wildly into a car park. “Told you I’d get you there!” he crows, gesturing at the sign that says Chipping Norton Country Club as he tries to park and almost reverses into a Volvo and then an angry looking white-coated man who looks like he might be a caterer.

"To be fair, you did almost kill us a few times on the way here," Niall says, and Louis says "My car, my rules. If you annoy me I'm allowed to kill you," very viciously.

They all pile out of the car, and Harry and Niall have to wait for a few minutes while Louis puts on real trousers and a shirt, jacket and tie instead of his red and blue plaid pyjamas. Harry hasn’t bothered with a tie. He’s just wearing his long black jacket and his favourite black and white silky shirt. It’s got flowers all over it – it’s brilliant. Louis does his hair with a handful of wax, squinting at himself in the car window, and then looks over at Niall and Harry with his best critical scowl. “Tuck in your shirt,” he says to Niall, and then sighs at Harry. “There’s nothing to be done about you, Hugh Hefner. Now come the fuck on.”

“Heeeeyy,” Harry says plaintively as he follows them up to the club.

*

They’re actually not late in the end. An usher shows them to their seats, which have been saved two rows behind Liam, who's standing at the front. He turns around and does something strange and wobbly with his eyebrows when he hears them come in.

“Sorry,” Harry mouths, and smiles at him as calmingly as he possibly can. It’s tempered by Louis making a wanking gesture at Liam and Niall making a ‘v’ with his fingers and sticking his tongue out between them. Sometimes Harry has no idea why he’s still friends with such uncouth ruffians; he shoves Niall a bit to make him stop, but he doesn’t, because he’s horrible. He's also giggling far too loudly for someone who's about to witness one of his best friends probably having a mental breakdown, judging by Liam's face.

Once he's regained control of his face, Liam finally rolls his eyes at all three of them, very severely. He looks a lot paler than Harry’s ever seen him look before. He’s dressed as a cross between a fancy waiter, a penguin, and someone who might be about to perform a very intricate tap dance. In the front row, Harry can hear that Liam’s mum is already crying. There isn’t long before the ceremony’s supposed to start, so Harry takes the opportunity to look around. It’s actually really impressive. It’s a huge room, very formal and very beautiful, and it’s pretty much filled with flowers, cream roses and white lilies, which explains why his nose has started to feel a bit itchy. There are about a million people there, which makes sense because Liam has spent many a night whining into his pint and wondering aloud why Danielle has to invite everyone she's ever met, including her old hairdresser, her penpal from when she was seven, and her weird cousin who no one ever talks to because they think he might be the sort of person who'll end up killing someone one day. Next to Liam, a dark-haired guy turns around to glance around the room, and – oh. Right. God. Well, that is absolutely not the weird cousin. Somehow, Liam has managed to convince a Greek god to show up at his wedding. 

“Why are you dribbling?” Niall whispers at him, too loudly.

“I’m not dribbling!” Harry hisses, and wipes his chin just to make sure.

“You like what you see?” Niall says, following Harry's gaze to the Greek god, and wriggles his eyebrows lasciviously.

“Shut up,” Harry tells him. “Louis, will you hit Niall?”

“What? Why?” Louis asks, and does it anyway.

Niall whimpers, sounding aggrieved. "That was so uncalled for," he tells anyone who'll listen, which is probably no one.

Harry thinks fast. The Greek god is clearly Liam’s best man, who is Zayn from Liam’s old school. Harry’s never actually met him. Apparently they were best friends all through secondary school after Zayn moved from Bradford to Wolverhampton and then lost touch a bit through uni, which is when Harry and the boys met Liam. Even still he’s enough of a best friend to be Liam’s best man. It’s also probably partly because Louis hilariously pushed Niall in a canal to prove that he loved Liam most, and Niall got some sort of bug from the dirty canal water and had to go to hospital because he couldn’t stop shitting. After that, Liam decided they weren’t responsible enough to look after the rings and that if he chose any of them they’d make a best man speech that would alienate most of his family. It was a fair shout.

Liam's mentioned a few things about Zayn. He likes art. He doesn't like phone calls. He loves tattoos, and took Liam to get his first ever one. However, Liam's neglected to mention that Zayn has cheekbones that could cut diamonds, eyelashes that a Kardashian would probably like to steal, and the sort of lazy, chilled out posture that makes Harry want to rumple his suit and mess up his hair and beg him to come on his face.

“Your breathing's gone weird,” Louis tells him. As usual, he sounds as though Harry’s asthma is more of an amusement than a concern.

“It has not!” Harry says. Zayn’s looking at Liam, smiling in a way that’s probably making Liam want to rip off all his clothes and have sex with Zayn instead of getting married. Zayn’s a terrible choice of best man for that reason alone. Somehow, Liam manages to restrain himself, because he is ridiculous, and also superhumanly straight. Harry knows because he spent a term at university trying to test him. Liam even manages to resist giving Zayn a tiny kiss when Zayn leans in to whisper something in Liam’s ear, and from what Harry can tell, he hasn’t inhaled Zayn’s scent at all. Harry tries really hard not to be a massive creep or anything, but he's pretty sure that Zayn smells like heaven. He’s got a sharp, intelligent face. He looks like the sort of person that Harry could be interested in.

“You’re doing your serial killer face,” Niall tells him resignedly.

“I don’t have a serial killer face! I wish you’d stop telling me I’ve got a serial killer face,” Harry says crossly.

“You definitely do,” Louis says. “Your eyes go all googly. Who are you planning to kill and cut up into little pieces this time, Harry the Cheshire Ripper? The Camden monster. The--”

“Shut up,” Harry says. It’s not the best comeback of all time but most of the time nothing's going to stop Louis when he's in full 'Let's make fun of Harry' flow.

The music starts, and everyone gets to their feet. Zayn reaches out to touch Liam’s back, and there’s a hushed intake of breath from everyone in the room as the doors at the back swing open and Danielle walks in on her dad’s arm. She’s wearing blinding white, probably because of the patriarchy, and it’s sort of tight-fitted with a bigger bit of stiff frothy lace at the bottom, and she’s also got on a veil that trails behind her towards her three bridesmaids, two little girls and one older girl with long brown wavy hair. Danielle walks slowly, and she looks – Harry catches a glimpse of her face as she goes past, and she doesn’t not look radiant. But she looks afraid as well, which makes sense, because this is a really big deal. It’s something that’s supposed to last you your whole life. It’s a love that’s supposed to encompass you and to keep you safe and warm, to be the only point of certainty in an uncertain world. He hopes that Liam and Danielle can be that for each other.

*

“You cried!” Louis says gleefully afterwards. “You always cry at weddings!”

“Well, I’m not made of stone,” Harry says in his best steadfast voice. As it happens, he’s still feeling quite emotional. It's good, to cry at things. His mum once told him that, and then she hugged him too tightly and said "You've got such a big heart, my lovely little angel." He prefers to focus on the first part of that sentence.

“Also he cried because weddings are nice,” Niall says. “And Liam looked chuffed. Right?”

“Mmm,” Louis says, sounding slightly sceptical. “Did you see that bridesmaid? She was fit. The one with brown hair?”

“Well, I didn’t think you meant one of the other two,” Harry says, “seeing as they were about four.”

Louis laughs his deranged lunatic laugh. “Still not a paedo.”

“Shagged a fifteen year old,” Niall points out.

“She said she was nineteen,” Louis says through gritted teeth. “And I was only eighteen! We’ve been through this.”

“You should be on some kind of register,” Harry tells him solemnly, and Louis makes a disgusted noise and stamps off ahead of them. Harry and Niall have a good laugh at his expense as they follow him over to the huge white marquee where the food and dancing’s going to be. Harry spots Zayn standing at the head table, looking a little bit lost and alone as he stares down at his place card. He’s only been looking at him for half a second before Zayn glances up and over at him, like he can feel the weight of Harry’s gaze already. His lips lift at the corner in a tiny smile, and Harry grins back, wide and natural, not the sort of face he usually gives someone he wants to sleep with, more open and happy, not sexy at all. But it seems to work, because Zayn’s smile turns into a proper one before he looks away again like he’s embarrassed.

“That’s Zayn,” Niall says, callously butting in. “Lives in New York, but he sounds like a good guy. Apparently Liam’s been keeping him away from us in case we scare him.”

“We’re not scary at all,” Harry says, trying not to worry about where Louis is and how many people he’s currently alarming. “Is he easily scared?” Like a gentle yet elegant baby deer, he thinks to himself. Zayn’s probably a thoughtful poet. That’s where he gets his big eyes and sense of brooding from. He’s undoubtedly a certified genius and a tortured soul. Maybe Harry could help put his shattered pieces back together, and mend his broken wings with the healing power of his cock. Then Zayn can write several volumes of poetry about how lovely Harry is. He can be Zayn’s muse. He can recline on sofas while Zayn observes the depth of thoughtfulness in his eyes and writes sonnets about how Harry's the most charming and kind person in the world, while Harry says 'Oh really, I'm not,' and secretly preens. Maybe Zayn can occasionally paints life size portraits of him too. That would be acceptable.

“Nah, he’s all right, just a bit moody,” Niall says, with a flagrant disregard for whether or not he’s shattering Harry’s delusions. “Oi! Tommo!” He goes scampering off ahead to where Louis is pointing wildly at a table, and Harry follows him more slowly. When he’s reached his place and Louis is whispering fiendishly about how much place card swapping he had to do to get the three of them near each other, Harry takes a glance back. Zayn’s looking at him again, but he doesn’t look away this time. Instead he just grins, half curious and half… Harry doesn’t even know. Predatory, maybe. Harry’s about to go over to him when Louis tugs on his arm until he sits down. He cocks his head at Zayn like he’s saying Later, and Zayn’s grin turns in at the corner, presses deeper like he’s agreeing.

*

The speeches are good, particularly Zayn’s. He’s soft-spoken and he’s still got a Bradford accent, despite Wolverhampton, despite New York, but he’s clear and dryly funny too, runs through a slideshow of pictures of Liam as a toddler in a fireman’s helmet, Liam as a baby in his mum’s arms, Liam glazed over and drunk in a pub as Zayn looks confused and pretends there’s something wrong with the presentation, Liam messily kissing a girl with his hand up her skirt as Zayn looks horrified and apologises, Liam with his eyes half closed and his finger pointing in the air, Liam wearing a Batman costume and striking a pose on the edge of a balcony, Liam jumping naked into a pool, and they’re all laughing now, everyone in the room, Danielle’s shoving Liam lightly and giggling as he snorts into his hands, eyes crinkling. Liam with a cigarette in his hand as Zayn pretends to look aghast and says “It was the one time! The only time, Karen!” to Liam’s mum, Liam passed out with a dick drawn on his forehead, Liam as a chubby twelve-year-old with a tiny dark-haired boy who must be Zayn, Louis licking the side of Liam’s face, Niall downing shots with him, and Harry feels his smile widen even more as Zayn flicks through a picture of Liam and Harry, arms stretched out towards each other like they’re robots. Finally Liam and Danielle, caught mid kiss. They look like the perfect couple. They look like the happiest people in the world.

The slideshow ends, and the whole room breaks into applause. Zayn’s blushing as he sits down, and yeah, okay. Yeah. Harry thinks that maybe one day, he could like Zayn a lot.

*

Louis manages to charm the dark-haired bridesmaid into dancing with him almost all night, because he’s good at hiding the fact that he’s a terrible monster until at least the fifth date. Niall dances with pretty much everyone there, because he makes friends faster than anyone else Harry’s ever met before. Harry dances with the two tiny bridesmaids, picks them up and whirls them around until they giggle, and with Liam’s sisters, and Danielle’s mum. He dances with Danielle too, once; he does the Pulp Fiction dance and makes her laugh, and then the music switches to a slower song so he puts his arms around her and they sway awkwardly instead. “I liked your first dance with Liam,” he tells her, even though he’s not sure that he did. It was very choreographed, painstakingly so, and Danielle looked irritated whenever Liam got a bit wrong.

“Thanks!” she says. Her hair's scraped tightly back off her face. It looks painful. “Liam wasn’t very good at the footwork, was he?”

“He did okay,” Harry says loyally. “You happy to be married then?”

She swallows, eyes glittering, and Harry feels her fingertips dig into his shoulder. Then she says “Of course!” too brightly. After that he dances with Niall, dips him and almost drops him before ending up in a tangled heap with him on the floor. He dances with Liam’s mum too, and his nan, and a blonde girl who keeps touching his arse, and then he sees Zayn. He’s been looking for Zayn on and off through the evening, but it seems like he’s been in demand. He’s the only person who’s danced with the dark-haired bridesmaid other than Louis, and he’s talked to a lot of Liam’s family, laughed with his sisters, sat with his dad, spent a lot of time with a group of guys that Harry vaguely recognises from pictures that were up in Liam’s room at uni. So maybe making eye contact with a fit guy at a wedding doesn’t automatically lead to a hook-up. Harry is a rational adult; he’ll be strong and deal with that.

That doesn’t stop him following Zayn when he sees him heading outside with a cigarette in his mouth. I’m not a stalker, he counsels himself as he slips out of the marquee. I’m just friendly. That’s probably the sort of mentality that leads to arrests and restraining orders, he thinks miserably, and tries to put it out of his mind.

The slight shadow of Zayn is a few metres away, cigarette already glowing orange, the smell of smoke mixing with freshly cut grass and the expensive champagne Danielle’s dad bought for the day. He’s lit from behind by the rosy light from the marquee, and his tie is loosened, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He’s got a lot of ink, Harry realises. Intricate designs, a million different things, the outline of a bird in flight on his hand. Harry wants to touch them. “Hi,” he says, a little inanely.

Zayn exhales and then he says, “Hello,” right back. There’s a moment of silence, and it’d be awkward if Harry couldn’t feel Zayn looking at him, sizing him up, summing him up. “You enjoying yourself?” he asks then.

“Yeah. Food was great. I liked your speech a lot,” Harry offers.

Zayn exhales a little laugh, shaking his head like he’s glad it’s over. “It was okay, yeah?” He narrows his eyes as he looks at Harry. “I hate that, getting up and talking in front of people. I was dead nervous.”

“Definitely okay. Better than that. Made me laugh,” Harry tells him.

“Good. Well, that was the aim. You’re one of the uni friends, yeah? One of the mental ones?”

“The least mental one,” Harry tells him, not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, or even if it’s true. “Do you really live in New York?”

Zayn makes a little face and then says, “No. I lied to Liam. I actually live in Cockfosters but he was making too many demands on my time. It was either this or fake my own death.” Harry raises an eyebrow at him and then he says: “Yes. I really live in New York. I’m an artist.”

“I knew it!” Harry says delightedly. Maybe Zayn really is a tortured genius. Maybe he also writes blank verse and spends a lot of time sitting on fire escapes looking thoughtful and being inspired by things like clouds and snow and pigeons. Maybe he'll do a painting that's the art world's equivalent of Green Eyes by Coldplay, which Harry sometimes pretends was written about him. 

“Did you?” Zayn says. “Did Liam tell you?”

“Yes,” Harry says, because that’s less creepy than saying ‘I figured it out because you seem quite quiet and I decided you were probably very contemplative and clever. If you like, you can quote Shakespeare at me while fucking me with your hand over my mouth and not letting me come until you say I can. Then we can discuss Rembrandt and you can jizz all over my face.' He’ll save that for another time. In ten minutes, maybe.

“Cool. So, where are you staying tonight?” Zayn taps the ash off his cigarette and gives Harry a sideways look. There’s something about his face that makes it quite hard to read. Harry isn’t sure if it’s because he’s so good-looking that it’s blinded him to whatever Zayn might actually be trying to express, or if maybe he’s just really, really good at keeping his thoughts inside his head. None of Harry’s friends are any good at that. Louis just shouts about whatever he’s thinking, Liam’s a great fan of thoughtful group discussions, and Niall always calms down if you give him some carbohydrates.

“A B&B. The Old Rookery?” Harry says,

“I’m there too,” Zayn says, after a tiny pause. “It sounds kind of like somewhere you’d go to get murdered, right?”

“Well, we’ll try not to,” says Harry, and laughs in a way that sounds a bit like a jolly uncle. Sometimes he hates himself.

Zayn tilts his head and smiles at him, slow like he’s still trying to figure Harry out, and then a black-haired guy sticks his head out of the marquee and says “Zayn! Where’s the shaving cream? We need to write on their car!”

“For fuck’s sake, Danny,” Zayn says, and grinds his cigarette out on the ground. “It’s in Eleanor’s bag.”

“Who’s Eleanor?” Harry asks as Danny disappears and Zayn straightens up. He can see the gloss of alcohol in Zayn’s movement now, that pleasant treacly haze you get after an afternoon’s steady drinking. It's nice. He's languid and moves thoughtfully, as though he's stepping through water with ease.

“The girl who’s letting your mate Louis touch her arse,” Zayn says. “Shame. I’m the best man. Thought I was supposed to be the one who got off with a bridesmaid.”

“Never mind,” Harry says. He swallows, feels the snap of it in his throat, and reaches out to touch Zayn’s waist as he passes in front of him. “You might still get lucky.”

Zayn’s hardly breathing, and his side is taut and warm under Harry’s hand. “Yeah?” he asks.

Harry shrugs, smiles his slow smile that always, always works.

“Room twelve later,” Zayn says, and disappears back into the party.

*

At the end of the night everyone gets in a circle so they can sing New York, New York and kick their legs in a glorious uncoordinated drunken dance. One of Eleanor’s heels flies off mid-kick and almost clocks Liam’s little cousin in the face, and once she’s finished apologising she disappears off with Louis, probably so they can do something scandalous on the grass outside. Liam and Danielle drive off in a car that’s half covered in shaving cream and has about forty empty cans rattling on the back, and Harry is happy, mostly. More and more of his friends have been getting married lately, and he’s started to get a sort of weird feeling in the pit of his stomach at the end of the weddings. A sort of… not yearning, exactly. He just sees them all getting on with their lives, he sees people putting down deposits on houses and doing jobs they love and making lifelong commitments, and then he thinks about his own life, which is a little more empty.

He loves living with Louis and Niall but that can’t last forever, and he doesn’t hate his job as a legal assistant too much but it’s not the most interesting thing in the world. It’s definitely not what he dreamed of when he started his law degree. He wanted to make a difference, to change the world, but now he's older he knows that you can do that a million little ways every day of your life, no matter what your job is. He spends every day bored. That was never the intention. Also, his office is starting to make rumbling noises about how he should cut his hair. He really, really doesn’t want to cut his hair. He’s got a line of ex-girlfriends and boyfriends that’s getting longer and longer, and he doesn’t know how to find the right person. He doesn’t understand how to know when you have. He just knows that sometimes when you see a face, you want to look at it for longer, its high cheekbones, its cut-glass jaw, its long eyelashes and its funny, sweet way of smiling. You feel admiration and then you see them blush and you feel affection too, warm and adoring. That’s all he knows. It’s so not enough but it’s all he’s got to offer. He watches Liam and Danielle drive away, he hears her laughter on the night-time breeze, high and joyful, and he thinks, unaccountably, of Zayn.

*

Niall probably isn’t sober enough to drive them to their hotel, but he does it anyway. Harry sits in the front with him and so he can warn him if he’s about to run over any badgers, and meanwhile Louis and Eleanor are kissing in the back seat. Her bridesmaid’s dress is rumpled now, her shiny dark hair’s messy and her makeup’s smeared but she looks painfully happy as she stands tucked into Louis’s side, out of breath and giggly, when they collect their room keys from the disapproving-looking hotel owner who’s clearly had to stay up late for them.

Harry’s in room six. It’s nice, small, with pretty flowered wallpaper and soft plush carpet along with a low window looking out onto miles of fields that he can only barely see in the dark. It reminds him of home, in that half-hearted way where everything that isn’t London reminds him of home. He splashes water on his face and looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, and thinks Zayn, Zayn, Zayn. He really wishes Liam had thought to mention that his old best mate was blindingly fit before, because it feels like he's been hit with a sledgehammer.

He has to go down the corridor and up some stairs to find room twelve. From behind door nine he hears laughter that sounds like Louis’s, and then a girl giggling; he accelerates a bit, mostly because he’s already overheard Louis having sex way too many times for comfort, and there’s no reason to add another bit of mental scarring to the already long list of reasons he’ll probably need therapy one day. The stairs are steep, and the air’s musty. At the top of the stairs there’s a row of doors. The carpet’s thicker up here, trodden on by fewer feet, and Harry can feel himself moving more slowly now, nerves coiling in his stomach. He’s had plenty of one night stands before, he reminds himself; there’s no reason that this one should be different. It really isn’t. But God, for some reason it feels that way.

He knocks and waits for a few seconds that are excruciatingly, interminably long. Then there are footsteps behind the door and his heart does something strange and he tries to force his face into something that looks normal, relaxed, not nervous, not afraid. Sex is sex. He’s good at fucking and getting fucked, even if it is with Liam’s best mate. Liam would probably prefer Harry to stay away from Zayn, but it was the happiest day of Liam’s life today so honestly, fuck what he thinks.

Zayn opens the door with a lazy smile. His tie’s undone now, hanging around his neck with a sort of accidental elegance that Harry would probably never quite manage. He’s spent most of his adult life looking like a mess on purpose. It makes girls want to fix him and it makes boys want to ruin him, so it’s working out well so far. Zayn smiles his model smile and holds up a bottle of Tesco’s own brand vodka. “Nightcap?” he asks, and then laughs at himself.

“Hmm.” Harry steps past him into the room, takes the bottle out of his hands. It’s warm around the neck, where Zayn’s been holding it. God, Zayn’s hands, Zayn’s hands, Zayn’s fucking hands with his bird tattoo and his thin wrists and his soft touch. “As much as I like drinking paint thinner…”

Zayn closes the door, leans against it. “I can’t believe you’re one of the ones Liam told me to stay away from. I think he thought you’d be a bad influence.”

“I think you’re probably more of a bad influence than I am, actually,” Harry tells him, and Zayn shrugs a shoulder, deliberately uncaring. His white shirt is still crisp, its thick expensive material folded up carelessly at the sleeves, half untucked from his trousers. Harry wonders what other ink he’s got. He wonders why Liam’s kept him hidden away all this time. He wonders if he could get Zayn to kiss him. He puts the vodka down on the small dressing table, which is pretty in a sort of repulsive old ladyish way, a small hand mirror resting on a doily and delicate curlicues carved into the drawer handles. The bedspread is floral, the curtains are edged with lace, the carpet is dusty pink and green. Zayn in this room makes no sense. Zayn is a flash of steel curling through old pine, bitter whisky in warm chocolate, a jolt of the unknown in a world Harry’s used to. He’s had so many girlfriends, so many boyfriends, so many fucks in between. For once it’s nice not to be able to understand the expression in someone’s eyes.

He toes himself out of his shoes, discards his jacket onto the green velvet armchair. “So,” he says to Zayn, half a challenge, sitting down on the edge of the bed. It sinks down maybe too much, and he feels his eyes widen as he rights himself, momentarily off balance.

He didn’t even realise how tense Zayn was until his shoulders loosen and he laughs, straight white teeth, the faint hint of stubble on his jaw, pink lips waiting to be bitten. “Oh, Harry,” he says, and comes to stand between Harry’s legs, nudging them open, looking down into his face. He puts a finger underneath Harry’s chin and makes him look up at him, and then he leans down to kiss him. His lips are dry and he moves his hand, cups Harry’s jaw, kisses him like he means it, tongue sliding into his mouth. He’s cherries, vodka, cigarettes, sex, and he pushes Harry back onto the stupid floral bedspread, runs his hand down his chest. “Why is your shirt basically totally open?” he whispers against Harry’s neck. “Today was supposed to be a family occasion, you slag.”

“Wanted to get my butterfly out,” Harry says, out of breath, sliding his hands down over Zayn’s sides and getting his sharp hips, running his hands around to the slight, firm curve of his arse.

“I really hope that’s a euphemism,” Zayn says, teeth scratching over Harry’s throat and he wants to laugh but he can’t help but moan instead, bucking his hips up into Zayn’s, feeling completely ridiculous with want. Zayn looked skinny earlier but he doesn’t feel it; he’s all coiled muscles, wiry strength. Harry’s got a couple of inches on him, probably a few pounds too, but he feels like Zayn could pin him down if he wanted to. He likes that.

He opens Zayn’s shirt, accidentally ripping off one of his buttons. Zayn laughs as it hits the floor, lost amid thick pink carpet, and rolls his eyes at Harry. Harry strips his shirt off his shoulders, and yeah, he’s got a lot of ink. Harry could look at him for days, the tiger on his arm, the coiled snake on his shoulder, the elegantly drawn gun on his waist. Why does he have ‘Friday?’ on his collarbone? There’s a pair of lips in the centre of his chest and Harry jabs them gently with his forefinger. “Are these, like, directions? Telling me to kiss there?” he asks.

Zayn half-laughs, sliding down, getting started on Harry’s belt buckle. “They can be if you want.”

“Nah,” Harry says, being annoying on purpose, and Zayn rolls his eyes at him before dragging Harry’s trousers off unceremoniously and settling between his legs. The light from the pink flowery lampshade above them is warm and rosy, and Zayn’s all sharp angles, collarbones and cheekbones and heavy brows and soft swoops of black hair, the line of his hips and the black slashed tattoo across his right arm. He’s got a dark heart tattooed on his stomach that looks a lot like the one on Harry’s arm, and something that looks like Arabic over his collarbone and a ridiculous skull smoking a joint on the top of his arm. Harry fucking loves that, he loves people who tell their stories on their skin. Harry’s got a tattoo from every time he’s been in love, every friend he’s ever felt sick at the thought of losing, every family member that ever extended a security net for him when he needed it the most. Zayn’s covered in stories too. He likes it so much, so acutely, that he smiles, pushes up and flips Zayn onto his back.

Zayn’s not quite coordinated, still a little drunk, but Harry’s not sober either and coordination’s never been his strong point, so he’ll count it as a win. Zayn blinks up at him half-shocked, big eyes fringed by long lashes, and his hands are on Harry’s shoulders as Harry leans down and presses his lips down onto the red tattoo in the centre of Zayn’s chest. His mouth fits there for a moment and Zayn huffs out a laugh, cards through Harry’s hair with surprisingly gentle fingers, and Harry shifts sideways, lets his teeth graze Zayn’s nipple. He’s actually got great nipples, and Harry almost says it aloud before remembering that every time he’s said ‘nipple’ aloud during sex before he hasn’t got much of a reaction other than a bit of a giggle, so he just mouths at it instead, feels it peak under his tongue and tastes his skin. He kisses down, across Zayn’s chest and his flat stomach, feeling it quiver slightly under his touch, the just about defined muscles, the valley between hip and stomach, the line of soft hair below his bellybutton. Zayn’s not particularly vocal, apparently, but he touches Harry’s hair, strokes his forehead when Harry looks up at him, runs his thumb over his cheekbone. The way Zayn concentrates on him is heady and intoxicating, and Harry moves further down, mouths at his hard dick through his smart suit trousers.

The fabric’s thin and he can feel the heat of him, the hardness. He’s a good shape as far as Harry can tell, long and thick but nothing too eye watering, and Harry sucks through the soft cloth, wet and sloppy and enthusiastic. He looks up at Zayn and lets the corner of his mouth quirk into a smile, and Zayn’s grip in his hair gets harder. “Harry,” he says, like a warning, and Harry pulls back, opens Zayn’s trousers slowly like it’s Christmas and he’s opening his favourite present ever.

“I feel like your dick’s my Buzz Lightyear,” he says.

Zayn looks down at him as though he thinks Harry's very strange, and says: “What?”

“You know.” Harry edges Zayn’s trousers down to his knees and Zayn obligingly wriggles a bit before kicking them off. “Everyone wanted them for Christmas one year.”

“Shouldn’t you call it my Woody?” Zayn says, and he’s grinning now despite the fact his hard dick’s pretty close to Harry’s face. By this point in similar situations other men have been pressing their boners pointedly against Harry's nose in an attempt to get them into his mouth, or dicksmacking him vaguely across the face. 

Harry blinks up at him. Bad jokes and politeness. There’s a chance he might be in love. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t usually nickname things I haven’t actually seen.”

“We’d better do something about that,” Zayn says, fake serious, his smile turned into something more bare and tender as he touches Harry’s face, curves his hand around his jaw, and then he lifts his hips and lets Harry pull his pants off, which, yes, please, Harry’s a big fan of that. He leans forward then, puts his hands around Zayn’s hips, thumbs spanning the shallow hollows beside his hips, and just – Harry really likes dick. There’s no way around it. He loves going down on girls too, nuzzling between their legs, the soft flesh of their thighs, the way they taste sweet and salty, he loves wet-faced kissing afterwards, but honestly, there’s part of him that thinks that if he did fall in love with a woman one day and stay with her forever, he’d miss sucking cock until the day he died. The weight of it on his tongue, the feel of a man’s hands in his hair like Zayn’s are right now, moving through it, deep and certain. The bead of precome on Zayn’s slit, the way he can flatten his tongue against Zayn’s shaft and take him deeper, sucking hard until Zayn makes a noise that sounds like it was tugged out of his throat and his fingers tighten in Harry’s hair, pinpricks of pain darting through him like electricity. He can smell Zayn too, whatever he used in the shower this morning, faint sweat, faint musk too; he smells good, like if Harry pressed his nose against the back of his neck in the middle of the night he’d like it and stay there without moving. He’s so tired of wanting to leave before dawn.

He sucks deeper and feels the tip of Zayn’s cock hit the back of his throat. He’s wide, and Harry’s jaw’s almost aching. He wants Zayn to fuck his mouth and make his eyes run, he wants Zayn to bend him over the edge of his bed, he wants Zayn to sit astride him and slide down onto his cock, dark eyelashes beating shadows onto his cheeks. He grips harder on Zayn’s narrow hips and Zayn swears under his breath and lets his legs fall open more. Harry likes the hardness of his bones under his hands, the tautness of his muscle. He likes glancing up at him and seeing Zayn’s eyes on him, intent and focused, a black lick of hair falling onto his forehead.

He wants to push a finger inside him. He wants to flip Zayn onto his front and press his tongue into him, or fall onto his back and beg Zayn to fuck him as hard as he can. He wants to do a million things. What he actually does do is remove his shirt – Zayn watches him, chest heaving just a little. “Good plan,” he says, and Harry grins at him. He knows he looks good without his shirt if you’re into tattoos, which Zayn obviously is. He loves being naked, but he loves being naked with someone else even more. He’s kind of into breaking down boundaries between people. He feels like maybe life’s more fun that way.

He reaches sideways for his trousers, finds the wallet he always carries in his back pocket. He’s slow, because slow is fun. Slow is deliberate, slow means that Zayn’s looking at his hands, slow means that he doesn’t make any mistakes, doesn’t drop anything, doesn’t fuck it up. He finds the sachet of lube, tears it open so carefully, kneels with his knees apart. He likes it when Zayn looks at him, at his hard dick between his legs, at the splatter of ink over his arm and shoulder and chest. “I need to ask you what some of these mean,” Zayn says, half sitting up, touching the ship on Harry’s arm, the anchor on his wrist.

“Friends, mostly,” Harry says, with a little shrug. He slicks up his fingers, hears a snap in Zayn’s throat as he swallows, and then Harry spreads his thighs a little more, presses a finger slowly into himself. Sometimes it’s easier to open himself up, but mostly he just likes having a captive audience. He knows how to do this, anyway, he’s done it a million times before, but he can’t stop himself sighing, back arching, and he hears Zayn say, “Fuck, Harry,” throaty and deep, like he can’t help himself.

“Wouldn’t mind a hand,” Harry says, with his best smile, and Zayn’s finger alongside his own is even better. So fucking good, as Zayn kisses him hard, Harry’s lip between his teeth, a vibration of laughter as Harry lets out a noise that’s almost embarrassingly close to a squeak. Finally he fumbles for a condom and sinks down onto Zayn’s dick, desperate now but trying to go slow, hands on Zayn’s chest, Zayn’s hands on his hips, steadying him, setting the pace. Harry grinds down and Zayn feels so good inside him, full, the slight ache of that. Harry doesn’t mind; he’d like to keep this for tomorrow, the way that Zayn’s looking up at him, like he’s just seen his first sunrise. The part of Harry that usually likes to put on a show seems weirdly quiet tonight. He doesn’t want to perform, for once in his life. He just wants to get fucked. He likes Zayn’s gaze on him though, heavy and velvet, so he leans back, moves his hips, lets Zayn touch him, hips and stomach and chest, Zayn’s fingers lingering on his nipples and—

“Yeah, I’ve got extra ones,” Harry says, half out of breath, when Zayn’s hands stay in the same spot for too long.

“Cos you’re special,” Zayn agrees, and Harry laughs, throws his head back, moves faster. Zayn fucks into him harder now, shifts his hands back to his hips and holds him there so he can thrust deeper, control the pace, and Harry likes that, being told what to do. He likes the sharp hit of Zayn’s fingernails pressing into his skin and the way he shifts angles just a little so Harry can hear himself moaning, these needy little gasps he’s too far gone to be embarrassed about, and Zayn says, “Look at me,” so Harry does. His eyes are direct and his mouth is red and bitten and there’s a bruise blooming faintly on his neck from Harry’s mouth and his skin is gold mixed with cream and there’s a black eyelash on his cheekbone that makes Harry’s world tilt sideways. His thoughts are a jumbled mess but he still thinks, Make a wish.

He ends up coming without Zayn touching his dick once. It’s the angle of it, the way they’re kissing now, Harry’s heels digging hard into the bed, Zayn’s mouth hard and urgent, his dick so good, the stretch so sweet, the friction the best thing Harry’s ever felt. Zayn’s hand’s twisted in the back of his hair, holding Harry in place, slick foreheads pressed together, and Harry panting against Zayn’s mouth as he comes, hot and hard between them onto Zayn’s stomach, onto his own. He feels half dizzy for a moment and then he realises Zayn’s coming too, hissing “Jesus, fuck, Harry, fuck,” tensing up. Even his come face is beautiful, Harry realises hopelessly, which means he's entirely sunk here. He puts his arms around Zayn’s neck afterwards, fingers on the knot of bone at the top of his spine, and they kiss slowly, more deliberate now, before Harry flops off him, onto the sheets beside them that are, somehow, cool and almost unrumpled.

“I honestly thought I was just getting a blowjob,” Zayn says to the ceiling, and Harry reaches over to hit him on the stomach. Zayn laughs, which makes Harry realise that his eyes do a very terrible and very wonderful crinkling thing sometimes – his nose too, little furrows on the sides. Maybe that’s when he’s especially happy. Harry would like to think that. He’d like to think he makes near-strangers at friends’ weddings especially happy with blowjobs and fucking. “I wouldn’t have been disappointed though,” Zayn clarifies after a moment. “It was a really good one.”

“Thank you,” Harry says. His stomach’s sticky with cooling come and he’s all wet with lube and sweat. He’s not complaining or anything, but he doesn’t want Zayn to whinge about it either. But he doesn’t; he just gets up, wanders into the bathroom, movements slow, like he’s wading through syrup, and he comes back with a roll of toilet paper, which he throws at Harry.

“Didn’t have any tissues,” he says, swiping at his own stomach before lying down next to Harry again, folding himself under the covers this time, eyes already closing. “Come on.”

“I haven’t brushed my teeth,” Harry says, and Zayn opens his eyes at that, looking faintly stunned. “Dental health is important to me,” Harry clarifies.

Zayn stares at him for a moment, and then he laughs, deep and incredulous and sincere.

They brush their teeth side by side in Zayn’s tiny bathroom, Zayn with his toothbrush, Harry with his finger. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do for the night. When they’re done he curls his hand around Zayn’s shoulder and makes him face him, Zayn steady-eyed but a little quizzical. Harry presses his fingertip to his cheek and comes away with that single fallen eyelash. “Make a wish,” he says, aloud this time, and he actually thinks Zayn obeys him, eyes squeezed shut for a second before he blows it away, breath warm on Harry’s fingers.

*

Harry sleeps in, mostly by mistake. When he finally opens his eyes Zayn’s coming out of the bathroom, wearing black jeans and a white t-shirt that dips at the neckline, the tattoos on his collarbone edging out of it. His hair is wet and slicked back and there are black studs in his ears that Harry only barely noticed last night, and there’s a packed suitcase standing just next to the door. His eyes widen when he sees Harry and he says, “I was going to wake you up.”

“Of course you were,” Harry says, a little raspy. He’s not being sarcastic or anything; why wouldn’t Zayn have woken him up? He’s not a monster. But Zayn looks weirdly guilty, standing there all freshly showered, deliberately and cruelly wearing clothes. “I don’t suppose I could ask you to come back to bed,” Harry says, mostly hoping that he’ll smile.

“Well,” Zayn says, looking like he wants to crawl out of his skin or maybe the nearest window. “I wish. But I’ve got a flight to catch. New York’s calling.”

“I feel like New York probably has quite a sexy voice,” Harry says, mostly because he isn’t entirely sure what to do or say.

Zayn shrugs. “That’s why I’m going,” he explains, almost gentle.

“Right.” Harry sits up, yawns, flicks his hair out of his face, and Zayn comes to sit by him. Harry suddenly remembers waking up at half past four in the morning and seeing Zayn’s face right next to his, his pale pink mouth, the peace in his restfulness, but how his face was blank and closed off even in his sleep. Zayn puts his hand on Harry’s leg over the duvet, just above his knee. He says, “Last night was fun.”

“It was,” Harry says. “I would say, let’s do it again sometime, but: New York.”

“New York,” Zayn agrees, a little sadly, or maybe that’s Harry’s imagination. He leans in to kiss Harry, long and soft and deep. He tastes like mint, but Harry can’t bring himself to be self-conscious about his own morning breath when Zayn’s leaning back a little to look into his eyes before kissing him again. Finally he says, “See you then, I guess.”

Harry nods, watches Zayn stand up. He looks thinner when he’s wearing his normal clothes, slight and young as he pulls a beanie down over his hair, unplugs his charger from the wall and winds it into his bag, finally zips everything up before looking back at Harry. “Bye,” he says, and then grins. “Honestly, Harry – it’s been nice meeting you.”

It’s easier to smile properly back at him then as he leaves, to lift up his hand for a tiny wave of goodbye, but it’s strange after that, when he’s by himself: to be left in Zayn’s hotel room without Zayn, pale morning sunlight streaming in through the gap in the curtains, the air around him still and dusty, as if the previous night had never happened at all.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louis Tomlinson and Eleanor Calder would like to invite you to the most brilliant day of their, and indeed anyone’s, lives.
July 20, 2014.

 

The morning of Louis and Eleanor’s wedding, Harry, Niall and Louis have a final lads’ breakfast around the kitchen table. If anyone had asked Harry a year ago if he expected Louis to get married in the near future, Harry would probably have laughed in their face, but the truth is that today seems right in a way that’s surprising and yet not at the same time. Since Liam’s wedding, Eleanor’s been around all the time, and it’s good. She’s funny and kind and clever, and she seems to like Louis a lot too, which is an added bonus, because people sometimes go off him after a while. She’s moved in with them, so they can split their rent four ways now, which is an additional fantastic thing about her. These days their bathroom has a lock on the door, and it smells nicer than it used to, and sometimes there are bras and pairs of tights hanging on the living room radiator to dry, but other than that life hasn’t changed much. Eleanor has the same laissez faire attitude towards washing up as they all do, and Harry’s seen her look furtively around before kicking a dust bunny under the fridge, so she isn’t too annoying about stuff being clean. She’s a good flatmate, even if she does keep accidentally spilling nail polish on the sofa, and she and Louis are the sort of couple who manage not to gross people out. Harry feels like Louis might just have found his person. He’s mostly just relieved that Louis has realised it too and that he’s tying her down legally before she realises what an idiot he is.

Louis doesn’t even seem nervous. He’s putting butter and marmalade on his toast with absolute aplomb and with no shaking hands at all. It’s not like Louis doesn’t get nervous, because he does, Harry’s seen it. He’s a drama teacher and on the days he has observations at school he’s bouncing off the walls, jittery and loud and a little more unpleasant than usual, but today he’s not even trying too hard to be funny in that desperate way he has; he’s just passing the butter to Niall and sniffing the milk to see if it’s gone off in a completely normal way. It’s the first day of the summer holidays and usually Louis is hyperactive with the possibilities that a few weeks off can offer, but instead he’s pursing his lips and running through a list of things that should be ready and, somewhat improbably, actually are.

“When the fuck is Liam going to be here?” Niall asks, through a mouth of cereal.

“Whenever Dani lets him out of the house,” Louis says and holds his hand up for a high five from either of them. Niall half smiles but Harry rolls his eyes, and Louis sighs a bit. “I know that ‘my wife’s a crazy bitch’ jokes are kind of horrible,” he says, sounding almost tired now, “but with those two…”

“She’s not crazy,” Harry says. “She’s just…”

“She’s just trying to make it work,” Niall supplies. “And sometimes it’s hard. Anyway, El likes her, doesn’t she?”

Louis nods, looking more cheerful, because as a general rule he tends to agree with whatever Eleanor thinks about most things. “That’s true. And she has impeccable taste.”

“Except in men,” Harry points out.

“Well, yeah,” Louis agrees. “She’s making a terrible mistake but I’m hoping she won’t see the error of her ways for a few years.”

“I give it six months,” Harry says sagely, and carefully avoids Louis’s hand when he reaches out to give him a slap.

“Watch it, Styles,” Louis says in his best ‘I rule the roost’ voice. “Now I’m almost a married man I’m even more better than you than I was before.”

Harry makes a face. “Can you be more better? Is that grammatically feasible?”

“Shut your face,” Louis says, with a hint of warning in his voice. Maybe Harry was wrong to think he wasn’t nervous; there’s a distinct hint of insanity in his eyes. “Are the buttonholes ready?”

“They are,” Niall says patiently, not for the first time. “And Harry’s speech is in his pocket. And so are the rings.”

Harry makes another face, this one a bit more screwed up and less disdainful. He has complicated feelings about giving a speech. He likes it when people look at him, but he’s been told that he speaks quite slowly, and he doesn’t want them to get bored. Also, Louis is one of the funniest people he knows, and Harry is – he’s not unfunny, but he’s not sharp and witty, not in the same way. Being Louis’s best man is daunting. It’s like being Steve Brookstein, and opening for the Rolling Stones. “I should probably go and have a shower,” he says agreeably, knowing that Niall will finish his bacon for him. His shower turns out to be longer than usual, because he spends a while pressing his forehead against the wall and saying “Don’t fuck up,” firmly to himself. Louis starts hammering on the door and shouting “Are you wanking in there?” after ten minutes, so Harry crawls his way to his feet from the shower floor and decides, dripping, that he should probably get on with his day.

*

By the time Harry’s put on his suit and looked at his hair, wondering whether or not he should brush it and eventually deciding that he shouldn’t, Liam’s arrived. He’s wearing his nice suit and shiny shoes and his hair’s neatly styled, all slicked and tidy with a quiff at the front that makes him look a bit like an Elvis tribute act. Louis comes in the kitchen wearing his nice shirt and his socks and says “Uh huh huh!” and swivels his hips violently, because Louis is even more of a monster than usual when he’s nervous.

With great calm, Liam rolls his eyes, and stops twiddling his wedding ring. It’s something he does a lot, Harry’s noticed. Sometimes when they’re at the pub he takes it off after his third pint and leaves it on the table in between Louis’s cigarettes and Niall’s fifth crisp packet. It’s probably not a good habit, but they’re all too tactful to mention it, which is funny because tact has never been a strength of any of theirs at the best of times. “I’ve come here to give you some advice about being married,” he says, very seriously, and then grins when their faces all fall. “Not really. I still don’t know anything. Except that you should wear trousers to do it. You should definitely put on some trousers.”

Louis rolls his eyes, as if Liam is inexplicably asking far too much of him. “If I must,” he says huffily, and stamps out of the room.

“Dani’s meeting us there,” Liam explains to Harry and Niall. “So’s Zayn.”

“Excuse me?” Harry asks, slightly jerky. His heart’s doing something strange. If he passes out right before Louis’s wedding, Louis will absolutely kill him for stealing his thunder, so he takes a couple of deep breaths.

“Harry had a crush on Zayn,” Niall tells Liam, as though that’s all, as though that’s it entirely. Probably it is, to Niall, because Harry didn’t actually tell his friends about spending that night with Zayn in that strange small floral hotel room. He doesn’t usually tell them all that much about his hook-ups, because they’re all nosy bastards who relentlessly make fun of him, and the whole thing was – not special, not exactly. That makes it sound like way more than it actually was. Harry’s had a lot of nights of sex before; there’s no reason to make a big deal out of this one. But he’s thought about Zayn since then, the way his nose crinkled when he laughed, the quietness of his voice, the way he treated Harry like someone who was a little bit breakable and a little bit ridiculous at the same time. It was nice. He liked it. And maybe today he can – he can touch him again, press his mouth against the kiss-shaped lips on Zayn’s chest, slowly undo his trousers, run his fingertips along his hipbones.

“Well,” Liam says, and raises his eyebrows at Harry. “Keep it in your pants for once--”

“Rude,” Harry says reprimandingly.

“-because he brought a date,” Liam says.

“Bad luck,” Niall says briskly, and adds more cornflakes to his cereal bowl.

Harry grins, shrugs. Maybe it is bad luck. But a date is just a date, it’s a temporary hurdle, a five second barrier to leap. And Harry’s always liked a challenge.

*

Louis and Eleanor have booked out a big room near Richmond Park. The sun is bright and warm, hanging high in the clear sky, and when Harry ducks inside, into relative darkness, the first thing he notices is the sweet scent of roses. Flowers are everywhere, twined over the arch at the end of the aisle, over the end of each row, bouquets of them by the main door, in all different shades of purple and pink and blue. It looks like someone’s stood by a hedgerow and gathered it up and somehow made it prettier, tucked roses in with buttercups and sweet peas and forget-me-nots.

“Do you think you’ve got enough flowers?” Liam asks Louis, pretending to be earnest.

Louis socks him in the chest, and says absently, “Her dad’s mate runs a florist. We got these pretty cheap.” Harry knows for a fact that they got everything pretty cheap, that Eleanor’s dress was second hand, that the room was a last minute booking, that Louis’s mum and sisters made the cake and all the cupcakes too, that Danielle knows the DJ for the party later so they got a good rate, that Eleanor’s mum’s friend’s doing the catering. It’s nice. Warm. A proper family thing. Harry likes it. The sun’s peering through the stained glass windows at one end of the room, throwing coloured shapes onto the floor, and now his eyes have adjusted it’s light inside, the ceilings high and the walls pale cream. Louis’s family is there already, his mum and her husband and the babies and his sisters, and he can see people who are probably Eleanor’s family on the other side of the room.

He can’t help himself. He looks for Zayn, for broad shoulders in a dark jacket, big dark eyes and a lick of black hair falling over a forehead somewhere in the crowd, but there’s nothing, no faces that stand out; there’s just Niall behind him and Liam next to him, and Louis next to Liam, his face just a little guarded, the way it always is when he’s afraid.

“Are you okay?” Harry leans over and whispers when they reach the front of the room.

“Yep.” Louis squares his shoulders, not looking particularly okay at all.

“Good,” Harry says. Usually it’s best not to question Louis. Instead he just reaches out and grips onto his shoulder for a moment, as though there was a way to draw tension out of Louis’s body and into his own, just to hold onto it for a moment, for safekeeping.

In the end, he doesn’t need to. In the end, Louis is absolutely fine. The music starts, a song that sounds like summer rain and the exultation of love for the first time and running through windswept streets for the one thing you refuse to let go of, and Eleanor walks down the aisle. She hasn’t got any bridesmaids, but she’s holding onto her dad’s arm, which makes Harry think of his own dad. Gemma’s said that if she ever gets married, which she probably won’t, she claims, but if she ever does, she wants Harry to walk her down the aisle because she doesn’t know how she could choose between their dad and Robin. He gets that. Their dad is their dad, but Robin’s the one who helped her with her GCSE coursework and taught her to drive and sat up with her all night when she got mega drunk for the first time and couldn’t stop being sick and crying. So he thinks of that as Eleanor walks down the aisle, her dark hair crowned with flowers, purple and pink and blue, a thistle tucked in there to match the thistle in Louis’s buttonhole. Something soft, something spiky. Her eyes are luminous and her face is bright. She’s wearing something cream and silky with thin straps, almost her whole back bare, and flat brown sandals, her toenails painted bright, vivid blue. Harry glances at Louis, and there’s something on his face that makes Harry’s chest ache for just a second. It looks like a sort of coming home for him, a sort of joyful inevitability. He’s never seen Louis look that happy before. It makes Harry happy too.

*

After the wedding, there’s champagne and orange juice in the room next door. Now it’s all over, now Louis is officially a married man and he’s someone else’s problem permanently, it’s time to relax. Harry still has to do his speech, but he’s looked around now and everyone there seems nice – the warm, welcoming faces of their university friends and Eleanor’s family. There aren’t too many people there – less than at Liam and Danielle’s wedding, fewer acquaintances and more actual friends. Harry mingles, keeps his eyes wide open, looks for the sharp edge of Zayn’s jaw, his broad shoulders, a hand with a bird tattoo. He talks to Louis’s mum, takes Doris out of her arms and gives her a cuddle and tickles her until she giggles, talks to Danielle, who seems sort of frayed at the edges, not quite happy or comfortable, so he deposits her back into Liam’s arms and makes a getaway to down champagne with Niall.

“So why do you think Zayn’s here?” Harry asks, fishing in his glass to get the raspberry out so he can eat it. “He’s not actually friends with them.”

Niall throws him a curious look. “You’re such a massive stalker,” he says.

Harry crumples up his face and starts to object, but Niall interrupts and says, “He’s over visiting his mum, and he was staying with Liam for a bit, and Louis just asked him to come too. You know what he’s like.”

Harry does know what he’s like. Despite the fact that Louis is arguably a terrible human being, he’s also extremely hospitable, extends parties to absolutely everyone he knows, is unfailingly generous with his money and his time. Maybe he’s not such a bad person after all.

“That’s nice,” he says slowly, and then he feels his heart do something strange when he catches sight of Zayn. His face is slightly thinner, and his hair is a fraction longer, combed back off his face, almost but not quite neat. He smiles when he sees Harry, just a bit, and it’s weird when Harry remembers looking at him, the tattoos over his chest and arms, how Zayn looks so buttoned up and tidy right now but he’s got a gun tattooed over his hip and dug his fingers into Harry’s hips so tightly that he had bruises for days afterwards.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Niall says significantly, and drifts away in that way he has, finding someone to latch onto almost immediately; Harry hears him laugh even before Zayn’s there next to him, shaking Harry’s hand, his smile widening a bit, still hesitant, just slightly. That’s okay. Harry’s going to divest him of his date, whoever he or she is, he’s going to mess up his hair and pull off his buttons in his haste to get Zayn’s shirt undone, and he’s going to stay until morning again, and hope that this time Zayn stays too.

“Hi,” Zayn says, and reaches up to pull one of Harry’s curls. “Your hair’s got longer. You trying to be a rockstar?”

“I’ve always been a rockstar,” Harry says, “on the inside.”

“Aren’t we all?” Zayn says. He sidles slightly closer, and Harry gets a whiff of whatever aftershave he’s wearing. He smells the same as he did last year, spicy and sweet but without that tinge of alcohol and sweat from a day’s hard drinking in the sun. This is Zayn less lazy and drunk, this is the Zayn who’s buttoned up and neat ready to meet the families of friends of friends he barely knows at all. He wants hotel room Zayn again, with curses on his lips and his eyes on Harry’s mouth and his cock hard between his legs. “I don’t really know anyone here,” Zayn says, like he’s confessing something. “Liam invited me – you know what Liam’s like. He said your mate Louis wouldn’t mind.”

“He doesn’t,” Harry assures him. “He likes meeting new people.”

Zayn wrinkles his nose a bit. “Really? I hate it.”

“You’re very sociable,” Harry tells him sarcastically, which makes Zayn laugh a bit. Then Harry nudges him gently and says, “You didn’t seem to mind meeting me.”

Zayn looks at him properly then, head tilted just a bit. It’s that same expression he made last year, when he seemed to be trying to figure Harry out. Harry’s glad he hasn’t managed it yet. “You weren’t so bad,” Zayn says, a smile hovering on his mouth, halfway making it. He’s so pretty that Harry might be sick on himself.

He manages not to do that. Instead he grins and says, “I was the best,” and reaches out to toy with the bottom of Zayn’s tie, which is deep blue and probably borrowed from Liam. Zayn’s body curves into his, somehow, like he’s leaning into him, as though they’re drawn together by some sort of fantastic magnetic impulses. God, Harry is so into him. He doesn’t even know anything about him other than the fact he’s an introspective antisocial poetic artist, all of which are things he’d usually object to, but when those things come with a winning smile and killer cheekbones and a dry sense of humour, apparently he likes them. He’d like to know Zayn better. He’d like to know what makes him tick. He’d like to figure out who his date is, so he can convince Zayn to shake them off for the evening, and come back to his instead. He can imagine Zayn at his kitchen table first thing in the morning, rumpled black hair and sleepy eyes, greasy morning skin and bags under his eyes because they’ve been staying up fucking all night. Is it true, that when you know, you know? Harry’s always believed in love. He’s not insane, this isn’t love yet, but it’s the sort of thing he’d like to try to turn into love, one day.

“So what are you doing after this is all over?” he asks, quieter, letting his voice drag in that way that people seem to like, for some reason. “We could…”

He actually sees Zayn’s shoulders tense up, sees him flinch slightly. Harry lets go of his tie and Zayn reaches up, straightens it a little, clears his throat. “I’m actually…” he begins, swallows. He smells faintly of cigarette smoke too, underneath his cologne. Harry isn’t sure why he didn’t notice that before. “I’m actually…”

And then there’s a girl standing beside them, with a big smile and a bright purple dress and hair the colour of pale pink candyfloss, and Harry thinks, Oh.

“Pez!” Zayn says, which isn’t even a name, in Harry’s opinion. He feels as though someone’s reached into his chest and rearranged his lungs and then reached out again without telling him. “Harry,” Zayn says, something terrible in his eyes. There’s pity there, and an apology. Harry hates it. “This is Perrie,” Zayn says, “my fiancée.”

“Oh,” Harry says. His voice doesn’t even sound like his. It sounds strangely sarcastic, as though he doesn’t quite believe Zayn, as though he’s a bad actor. “Oh, wow. You’re engaged? That’s so cool.”

“Hooray,” Perrie says, and waves her left hand at him, matter of fact like she’s done it a million times. There’s a rock on her fourth finger that glitters a bit, catching the light, before she puts her hand down again. “He managed to tie me down, lucky bastard.” She’s not even American. She’s not even some snobby American, someone tall and narrow-hipped and smooth-haired, the sort of New Yorker that Harry imagines whenever he thinks about what New York is probably like; her accent sounds more Newcastle than anything else, and her pink hair’s piled on top of her head haphazardly and she’s wearing too much mascara and he can see one of her bra straps. None of that is a bad thing, but it does mean that he can’t dismiss her the way he’d like to, as someone who cares more about appearances than what’s inside, or someone who’s shiny and vacuous and cold; and anyway, Harry likes Zayn. Aside from wanting to fuck him, he thinks Zayn’s a sound person. He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t want to marry anyone awful. “So who are you?” Perrie demands happily. “The best man, right?”

Harry nods, not trusting himself to speak for a moment. Then he gets himself together, bundles up all the loose ends of miserable thoughts like he’s bagging up dirty washing on his way home from a holiday, and smiles at her. She deserves that, right? She’s someone that Zayn wants to marry, so she deserves him being nice to her. Everyone deserves kindness. “Yeah,” he says, his usual slow drawl, so carefully, specifically normal. “I’m the best man. I was at uni with Louis. And me and Zayn met last year at Liam’s wedding.”

“Oh, lovely,” Perrie says. She’s holding Zayn’s hand now, and touches his chest with her other hand. “I couldn’t make it to that one. It sounded really nice, though.”

“It was,” Harry says. Zayn is slowly turning a dark, terrible shade of crimson, which is totally deserved. Perrie lets go of him and says “I’m just going to go and get us a drink,” and dashes off, a small pale pink blur of prettiness and bubbling laughter, and Harry says: “Wow.”

“Me and her were weird then,” Zayn explains, a little unhappily. “We’ve been off and on, and—”

“Actually,” Harry says thoughtfully, “I don’t really want to know.”

Zayn’s silent for a second, and then he says, “That’s fair.”

Harry nods. He isn’t totally sure why this is so rubbish. He wants to get away from Zayn into his own little corner, to paw over his thoughts until he can get them into a semblance of something that doesn’t claw at the inside of his chest so much. He doesn’t know what he was hoping for. He doesn’t know why he’s so disappointed. He thinks of Zayn with his wet hair that morning and his white t-shirt, tattoos stark on his arms, and thinks, You got out of bed with me to fly home to her. Zayn’s an artist, which means he must know how to tell a story, through colour and shading and nuance. He knows how to tell his own story. He’s chosen his ending, just like Louis and Liam have. Harry should be happy for him. “I’ll see you in a bit,” he says, and throws Zayn a smile that he thinks looks a lot like his usual one.

Zayn shrugs a bit, and smiles in return, helpless, still apologetic. Harry’s got him fooled. Good.

*

There’s no seating plan, thank God. Instead they all mingle round, take paper plates and pile them with chicken skewers and smoked salmon sandwiches and carrot sticks and hummus and cheese and onion crisps. There’s a little stage at one end of the room where the DJ has set up his decks for later, and after a while Liam pushes Harry up onto it so he can make his speech. He taps on the microphone and politely says “Er, excuse me,” six times until everyone’s paying attention to him. He clears his throat and looks out over the swarm of people. He likes it when people look at him; he always has. He likes showing off during sex, he likes feeling appreciative eyes on him. He’s not so good at doing it with his words, that’s the thing.

“First of all,” he says, “let’s raise our glasses for Louis and Eleanor.” Everyone does, obediently. It’s nice to have this much power over a room of people. He considers making an orgy joke but decides against it because Louis’s nan is sitting quite near the front. “Love is a many splendored thing,” he begins. No one laughs. “Er – anyway. I want to say congratulations to my best friend and the girl he’s somehow convinced to marry him. El, you’ve been living with us for a while and you’ve probably seen the worst of him by now, so I think we can safely say this one’s for keeps. The thing about Louis is that he’s a bit awful-”

Everyone actually does laugh at that, because they all know it’s true. Louis pretends to look outraged and shouts “Simmer down!” at the top of his voice. Eleanor gently bats him away from her, probably so he doesn’t puncture her eardrum.

“--But he’s still ours,” Harry continues. “And El, now he’s yours too. He doesn’t care what we think – he loves you so much he would have married you anyway even if we’d hated you, but actually you’re lovely, you just go around making everyone else’s lives better – and Louis is lucky to have you. But he’s great, and he’s my best friend, and you’re lucky to have him too.” Harry clears his throat again, looks out over the crowd of people. Liam and Danielle are standing by a wall, and there’s a look in Liam’s eyes that Harry doesn’t quite like; it’s sad, empty. Longing, somehow. Niall’s grinning next to a girl with long dark hair, because he always knows how to fall well and truly on his feet. Perrie’s pink hair stands out to Harry’s left, and he can see the beacon of Zayn shining beside her. He feels his heart do something strange.

“Love is a funny thing,” he says, more quietly. “You guys met at a wedding, and by the end of the night you knew that was it, you’d found your person. Finding your person in this world is a privilege. Not everyone gets to. Not everyone gets to hold onto them.” He can feel himself getting maudlin, which is upsetting. Louis is staring at him like he’s mental, which isn’t particularly abnormal. Harry throws a glance to his left; Zayn’s wide-eyed, gazing up at him. Despite the fact Harry usually likes people to look at him, this doesn’t feel as good as usual. He goes on, quickly. “We’re all so happy for you. El, he loves you more than the Rovers. He loves you more than video games. I think he might actually love you more than he loves me, and that’s a really big deal. I’m looking forward to being your friend for a long, long time and coming to your fiftieth wedding anniversary.” He leans forward a bit. “Also, you aren’t allowed to move out. Me and Niall can’t afford the rent without you.” Another laugh, and Harry can feel himself sweating a bit, glad he’s at the end, glad he can step off the little stage and back into the crowd. “Let’s have another drink in honour of Mr and Mrs Tomlinson. Thanks, guys.”

He leaps down, almost trips, but Eleanor steadies him, kisses his cheek, whispers “Thanks,” in his ear, and Louis shakes his hand and then gives him a long hug. Things are changing; they’ll have to change. But Harry wants to keep this for as long as he can.

*

The day fades into night, and the music gets turned up, Take That and Rihanna and Blink 182 and Eminem. It turns out that Zayn knows all the words to the Fresh Prince rap, which makes Harry appreciate him even more. Perrie dances, wild and happy; Harry can see why she’s someone you might happen to fall in love with. More people arrive, people from uni and the school where Louis works and Eleanor’s colleagues and old friends from sixth form, and the older relatives start drifting out and home. Harry’s just on his way to the loo when sudden disaster strikes, and he sees Taylor, who’s his ex-girlfriend. They went out together for almost a year. She’s tall and slim and she’s got dark blonde hair that falls over her forehead, and a very unimpressed smile forms on her face when she catches sight of him.

“And here I was hoping I could avoid you all evening,” she says, not completely unpleasantly.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, a little horrified.

“Louis asked me. I didn’t want to be the only teacher who didn’t show up, just because my ex-boyfriend’s a pain in the ass. You’re not going to dictate my life.” She shrugs, bare shoulders in her dark blue dress, all creamy skin and elegant lines. Her legs are absolutely endless. That was one of Harry’s favourite things about her. He liked her a lot, as it happens. But it didn’t work and he could feel it not working, because their senses of humour didn’t quite line up, and she wanted to get serious more quickly than he did, and so one day he didn’t call her back. One of the problems about liking to be nice to people is that Harry has a problem saying things that they might not want to hear, such as “I don’t want to go out with you anymore.” She’s one of the music teachers at Louis’s school, and apparently that was awkward for a while. Harry felt bad about that for a bit, but Louis has made so many situations horribly, painfully awkward for him that he thinks he actually deserved it.

“Fair enough,” Harry agrees, and tries to walk past her towards the bathrooms. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is over. Maybe he’s paid penance for what happened between them, and he can move on. But then Taylor says from behind him: “You didn’t call me back. Why was that?”

He turns around, looks at her properly. “I…” he begins, and isn’t sure what to say. I got scared. I thought you wouldn’t really mind. But those things aren’t even all that true. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want you to be cross with me. But she was cross with him anyway – maybe more cross, because he wasn’t honest with her. I didn’t want to hear you being cross with me. That throws up a few things about himself that he isn’t all that fond of.

“It really hurt me,” she says to him, completely direct, completely honest. He feels like he should appreciate that, but he mostly just wants to curl up into a ball and roll quietly away down the corridor. “I thought you were a nice guy, but that was really not a good move on your part. I mean, after a year? A whole year of my life? I was like, what did I do wrong? Did I text him too much? Did I talk too much? Did I mention feminism one too many times? What did I do to make him think I was such a psycho that he couldn’t even call me to break up with me? And then I thought about it for real, and I got so pissed at you for making me question myself.” She takes a breath, shakes her head a little.

Harry blinks at her. He feels a little drunk now, his reactions delayed by a fraction of a second. After a moment he says, “I’m sorry.”

She shrugs a shoulder. “Okay. Fine. I hope you mean that. I’ll see you later.” Then she flicks her hair off her forehead and goes inside, head held high. Harry watches her go, mostly to hurt himself; she’s beautiful, and it wasn’t like he didn’t like her at all. She’s clever, creative, thoughtful. Gemma liked her. Fuck. He takes a breath, squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, and when he opens them he feels a bit better. The urge to wee has been shocked out of him, it appears, and so he just hovers in the corridor for a moment, hearing the thumping music from inside, giving himself a second before he goes in, before he has to paste on a smile.

The door at the end of the corridor swings open then, and of course it’s Zayn, bringing cool air with him and the smell of cigarette smoke. Part of Harry wants to tell him to sod off, and the rest of him wants to touch the hollow of his throat where he’s loosened his tie and undone his top button. “Hey,” he says, and Zayn smiles at him, tentatively, raised a hand in greeting.

“I’m sorry about before,” Zayn says. “It was awkward.”

Harry shrugs. This is easier than it was with Taylor. He feels less wrong-footed. At least this one wasn’t his fault. Maybe this is the price he has to pay for upsetting a nice girl last year some time. “It’s fine. Perrie seems nice.”

“She is nice,” Zayn agrees. He leans against the wall, next to the door to the room where Louis and Eleanor had their ceremony. Beyoncé’s pounding through the walls now, Crazy In Love, and Zayn traces the pattern on the carpet with the toe of his shoe. “She’s, um – she’s actually left now. She’s getting the last train down to Eastbourne to see her mum.”

“Oh,” Harry says, his stomach doing something insane. “Right.”

Zayn nods, slow, deliberate. He looks so in control until he looks up to meet Harry’s eyes and can’t quite do it. “We could…” he begins, and cuts himself off. There’s a faint blush spreading up his neck and over his ears, like he doesn’t know how good-looking he is, like he doesn’t realise that anyone with a face like his can have absolutely anything he wants. Maybe he hasn’t always got what he wants. That would be weird.

“Yeah,” Harry says, making what he knows is probably a terrible decision, and not caring at all. “We could.”

Zayn smiles, nose crinkling like he can’t believe his luck. Then he reaches forward, tries the handle of the door in front of him. It turns, and he gestures Harry inside.

*

Harry sits on the piano stool and Zayn sucks his dick, after pulling at Harry’s trousers with shaky fingers, like an extra five seconds was too long to wait to get his hands on Harry’s cock. The room is dim, the only light streaming in through the stained glass windows, and they’re half hidden by the piano, just in case someone walks in. They kissed first, sloppy and desperate, Zayn dragging him in close, Harry’s hand moving through Zayn’s thick hair, which felt silkier than he remembered. Zayn’s thinner than last year, the angles of his chest and his hips, the sharpness of his cheekbones and jaw, but it suits him somehow, makes his eyes even bigger. Harry wants to touch every bit of him but he settles for touching his hair as Zayn sucks his dick, looking at the skin on the back of his neck, pale in the coloured light. He can see the crescents of skin behind Zayn’s ears in front of his hairline, and it makes him feel – not protective exactly, but something close to that. Zayn’s good with his mouth, despite warning Harry “I haven’t done this for a while,” as he sank to his knees. He’s enthusiastic, sucks Harry down as far as he can, pays attention to when Harry accidentally lets out a soft, choked-off gasp and does the exact same thing again. And, God, it’s the fact of it – in the dark, surrounded by roses, as their friends sing along to Green Day next door. It’s the fact that Zayn’s choosing this even though he’s got a fiancée, it’s the fact that Harry’s been thinking about the gentle firmness of Zayn’s hands every time he’s got himself off in the last year.

He’s so, so almost there when there’s a sudden clatter from outside and the door swings open. A giggle and a thud, and Zayn’s pulled back, is looking up at him with big panicked eyes shining in the moonlight. Harry shifts to the floor as quietly as he can, Zayn scrabbling backwards as whoever’s in the room starts kissing someone else loudly. Someone says “Oh, shit,” and—

Right. No. Is it completely unacceptable to ask Louis and Eleanor to wait until they get to the bridal suite later? Because Jesus Christ, really now.

“It’s Louis and Eleanor,” Harry whispers, mouth so close to Zayn’s ear that Zayn’s stubble tickles the side of his chin, and Zayn exhales the faintest laugh, breathes “Want me to finish you off?”

For a second, Harry seriously considers it. But this isn’t a house party when they were nineteen. It isn’t Harry on the bed with a boy from his property law lecture and Louis on the floor with a girl from their halls who he’s going to have to have to avoid for the rest of the year. He’s not going to get sucked off while Louis gets laid on the other side of the room, and—yeah. Yeah, he can hear Louis now. Rhythmic grunts, and Eleanor making little squeaking noises that are, sadly, all too familiar, because their flat has thin walls. Zayn makes a face at him, screws up his nose, white teeth showing as he grimaces. The rest of a blow job seems out of the question. He’s half soft now anyway, and Perrie’s gone for the night, maybe they can – maybe they can finish this up elsewhere. Maybe they can carry on.

And so, instead of the blow job, they kiss. Harry leans in first, and Zayn meets his mouth, half-fumbling in the dark, the tips of their noses bumping into each other. Harry can feel a smile on Zayn’s mouth as they kiss, close-mouthed to begin with, lips sliding over each other’s like they’re teenagers outside a school dance, kiss after kiss after kiss. Zayn touches the side of Harry’s face, fingers in his hair, thumb stroking over his sideburn again and again, so soft and so certain at the same time. He licks inside Harry’s mouth finally, slow and sweet. He tastes like cigarettes and JD and coke and a little like Harry’s dick, but it isn’t unpleasant. It’s just – it’s fucking intimate, that’s what it is. It’s been a long time since he kissed anyone like this. He remembers being fifteen and kissing his first girlfriend over and over on her bed, hand up her t-shirt, resting on the curve of her stomach and her ribs, fingertips pressed against her soft cotton bra, stroking over soft skin and desperate to be allowed to touch more and more. This is nothing like that. Zayn needs to shave so his face is rough and he bites Harry’s lip and hums happily when Harry’s breath hitches in his chest. It’s half gentle and half not and he can’t figure out what’s what. He just wants to carry on kissing and kissing, the deliberate lick of Zayn’s tongue and the catch, the smack of spit as they switch sides, kiss more deeply, Zayn’s hand on his neck now, thumb right on his pulse, which is probably rocketing, sky-high, although he’s exactly where he wants to be.

They kiss and they kiss, and Harry touches the pointed lapels of his shirt, runs his hands down Zayn’s chest, feels his dick get harder when his thumb snags over Zayn’s nipple through thin cotton and finds a piercing there that must be relatively new, Zayn making the faintest of high noises when Harry lingers there, presses the pad of his thumb against it. They kiss some more, and Harry doesn’t want it to end, but it does, when Louis and Eleanor’s weird little noises get faster and faster and then they suddenly finish. Then there’s a loud, abrupt slapping noise that echoes through the air and Zayn breaks away from Harry, raises his eyebrows and widens his eyes like he’s asking What the fuck was that, and Harry can’t help himself: he laughs.

It’s not loud, it’s not a big deal, but it’s enough for Eleanor to say, “Oh my god, is there someone in here?”

“Idiot,” Zayn says, sounding panicked, digging his fingers into Harry’s ribs before shuffling away, tucking in his shirt and straightening his hair, and Harry rolls his eyes, feeling oddly cold.

“No one here,” he says, louder, so Louis and Eleanor can absolutely hear him. “Absolutely no one. You didn’t hear us and we didn’t hear you. Deal?”

There’s a slight pause and then he hears Louis laugh, low and happy. “For fuck’s sake, Harry, is that you? You’re such a perv. Yeah, it’s a deal. Come on, babe.” There’s a rustle and a smacking noise as someone kisses someone else on the cheek, and Zayn hovers next to Harry, still and uncertain until the door opens and light cracks into the room for a second before it closes again.

There’s a moment of quiet and then Zayn says, “Maybe I should go. I’m supposed to be staying with Liam tonight.”

Harry shrugs, half wondering if it’s possible to get high off kissing. He feels like it might be. He reaches out to Zayn and laces their fingers together. Zayn looks down at their entwined hands like an alien contemplating Planet Earth and not quite understanding it, but he doesn’t let go. “I think you should come back to mine,” Harry says.

“I’m engaged,” Zayn says, slowly.

Harry shrugs. “If you want I’ll keep my hands to myself.”

Zayn actually laughs at that, and somehow manages to get to his feet without letting go of Harry’s hand. “All right then, Curly. Let’s go home.”

*

They don’t touch much in the back of the taxi. Halfway there Harry gets a text from Niall, who’s apparently going home with someone called Barbara. “We’ve got the place to ourselves,” he says to Zayn, and wriggles his eyebrows meaningfully until Zayn grins at him and calls him ridiculous. The air is thick and hot, and the streetlights make Zayn’s face sharper, the tip of his nose, the shadows of his cheeks, the staccato breath of the stubble on his cheeks and chin. Harry will die before he stops looking at him. The roads are dark and empty, lamp posts casting golden pools and arching shadows on the pavement, and halfway there Zayn reaches out to touch Harry’s leg. It’s something and nothing at the same time, the way his fingers curve over Harry’s thigh, almost like he’s staking ownership. The cab teeters to a halt outside their flat in Camden, and Zayn follows him up the dark stairs, his footsteps slow and doubtful. Harry leaves the lights off when they get inside, because the kitchen is full of their breakfast plates and the living room floor’s cluttered with the white boxes their buttonholes came in, and it’s a bit embarrassing. It backfires when he almost trips over Niall’s trainers in the hallway, but Zayn reaches out, catches him around the waist, leans in to kiss the back of his neck. Harry’s knees do something pathetic and melting.

When they get to Harry’s room he feels – not exposed, exactly, but something similar to that. He clicks on the corner light so buttery yellow light spills across the room, and it’s like – he wonders what it looks like from Zayn’s perspective. He’s a real adult – he’s got a job he actually likes, he’s getting married, he lives in a whole other country where he can’t force his mum to visit him every time he gets a cold and feels sad. Harry’s walls are covered with throws from Camden market – one wall’s blue and white tie dye and the other’s a purple elephant edged with golden thread, and his bed’s only barely made. His hardly ever used guitar takes up the whole of one corner and he wishes suddenly that he had more books, because his little bookcase is packed but it’s only small. Zayn goes over to it, bends down a little so he can see the titles. “Never go home with someone who doesn’t have any books,” he says vaguely, and then, running his finger across a couple of titles, “You like Charles Bukowski?”

“Well, yeah. Do you?”

“He’s kind of misogynistic.”

“Oh.”

“He’s not bad though.” Zayn’s knees click as he straightens up. “Pez is like… I love her, obviously—”

“Obviously,” Harry agrees, facetious, and Zayn rolls his eyes.

“Shut it. But she just doesn’t read anything except magazines and I don’t get it. How do you learn stuff about stuff?” He’s loosening his tie more, grimacing a little, shaking his head. “Like, about people. How do you work out, ‘hey, these people have felt the same as me, so maybe I’ll be okay in the end’? It’s just… oh.”

He stops, as Harry leans in, undoes and removes his tie with careful hands, pushes his suit jacket off his shoulders. “You’ll be okay in the end,” he says, “I promise,” and leans in to kiss him again. Zayn’s still for a moment and then he melts against him, arms coming up around Harry’s neck, fingers tracing the hair on the back of his neck. Harry wraps his arms around his narrow waist, draws him in closer. Outside there are people winding their way home; it’s too late for the pubs to let out so they must have been at a party, happy, raucous, singing through the streets. Harry wants to strip off every item of Zayn’s clothes slowly, wants to look at every part of him: the heart on his stomach, the arch of his foot, the soft skin behind his knees. He pushes him over to the bed, presses him down onto his back, and starts to undo his shirt. The third button down is different from the others, subtly, and he pokes it with his index finger.

“I sewed that on myself,” Zayn says, sounding inordinately proud. His hair’s standing out around his face like a hedgehog. “You ripped the first one off last year, remember?”

“Right,” Harry says, vaguely remembering. God, the same shirt. He remembers his hands full of crisp white fabric last year, loving the contrast between it and the tattoos underneath. Last year, in that funny little flowered room, and now Zayn’s in Harry’s actual bedroom, where he had a wank last night over a vintage J-Lo video and where he’s got his teddy from when he was five in a box under his bed. Having sex with someone who’s getting married is probably a really bad idea. He wished he cared more. That probably makes him a really bad person, and he prefers by far to be good. He peels off Zayn’s shirt, takes a moment to look at his pierced nipple, because God, it’s fit. Zayn tugs him down by his tie and then undoes it, throwing it onto the floor, undoes his top two buttons and then drags Harry’s shirt off over his head, not particularly carefully. “Nnff,” Harry says, as it catches on his nose, and feels Zayn shake with laughter underneath him.

Harry finally gets it off, situates himself firmly between Zayn’s legs, slides his hips against Zayn’s. “You know,” Zayn says, contemplative, hands on Harry’s shoulders, “I really miss getting fucked. Perrie’s got a strap-on but it’s not the same as an actual cock.”

Harry stares at him. Blood’s pounding through his ears. He thinks of that pink-haired girl lining herself up behind Zayn, and he wishes he could summon up some jealousy, but all he thinks is mostly, I would watch that porn for the rest of my life.

“Have you short-circuited, robot Harry?” Zayn says. He slaps Harry’s face gently. “Snap out of it so we can have sex.”

Harry absolutely does not need to be told one more time. He reaches down, opens Zayn’s trousers and then his own, and they both wriggle out of disobedient layers of fabric until they’re naked. Zayn traces a finger over Harry’s arm, his wrist, and says “Who did you get the padlock for?”

“A friend,” Harry says. “Who did you get the heart for?”

“Covered up a Chinese symbol. Thought it was a little bit too Sporty Spice circa 1996.”

Harry laughs, presses his forehead against Zayn’s, feels the faint batwings of Zayn’s eyelashes as he blinks close to Harry’s cheek. “Can’t imagine you doing a backflip.”

“I can do anything, Harry. You just wait.” Zayn arches an eyebrow. He’s good at looking matter-of-fact, even when he’s naked with someone kneeling between his thighs. Harry would like that skill too; he feels like he usually looks unkempt and breathless and flushed in these situations.

He leans down and kisses him, deep, one hand beside Zayn’s head, the other on his cheek. Harry’s got big hands – “You look like Frankenstein’s monster,” Louis once told him, sounding awed – and he can rest his thumb on Zayn’s cheekbone while his fingers stretch out over his face and the delicate whorls of his ear into his messy hair, which feels a little strange, shiny and stiff with hair products. Harry wants to get him in a shower, rinse it off, see shining rivulets of water twine themselves down his face and chest, pooling in his collarbones, droplets clinging to his eyelashes and the tip of his nose. He could spend a long time just kissing Zayn, as long as he did earlier, the way he touches Harry’s neck and shoulder and reaches down to grip his arse to bring him in closer, the way he curls his body up to meet Harry’s, ankles twined around his. The press of his lips, the lick of his tongue, the casual way he uses his teeth to graze against Harry’s lip, a sliver of the sort of bright pain that Harry likes, sometimes. He lowers himself, slides his hips against Zayn’s, enjoy that sweet, delicious friction that sends electricity through his spine, through his whole body, feels Zayn gasp a little against his mouth.

Harry’s hand makes its way down, fingers stopping over that warm metal biting through Zayn’s nipple, twists it lightly until Zayn makes a noise that sounds slightly desperate and presses his hips up into Harry’s with a force that’s almost painful. He touches the cover-up heart, the gun, the hard ridges of his ribs and his slightly softer belly; Zayn is narrow, all angles, and there’s a playing card etched on his side. Luck of the draw. Yeah, Harry can understand that. He wraps his hand around Zayn’s dick, rubs his thumb over the head, moves his fingers. He’s circumcised, so Harry brings his hand up again to lick his palm before wrapping it around him again, watches as Zayn’s eyelids flutter shut, lips opening just a little. Harry draws back, kneels between his legs, nudges so Zayn spreads them further. He likes that Zayn isn’t self-conscious, despite the fact they’re barely drunk, that he hasn’t been with a guy in a while, that they hardly know each other.

He sort of wants to burrow his face between Zayn’s legs, but he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Turn over.”

“Turn over?” Zayn raises an eyebrow, sits up on his elbows, before shrugging a shoulder just barely and flipping onto his front. He’s got a nice back, with an elegant tattoo on the nape of his neck, a bird and a branch, and he’s muscled too, nice and light, nothing too extreme. His narrow waist tapers into almost more narrow hips, and he’s got a nice arse, pert and gently rounded, despite the fact that in trousers it isn’t much to write home about. Skinny legs. They’re sweet. Harry takes hold of his hips, manhandles him gently until he’s on his hands and knees. Zayn throws a smile over his shoulder, arches his back like a cat, and Harry presses forward, spreads his arse cheeks, fingertips digging into his soft flesh, firm but not firm enough to leave marks. Zayn’s ring is tight, puckered, the colour of pale caramel, and he sighs a little, half shivers when Harry’s hair falls against his arse cheek, tickling him. “Watch it,” he says, voice tight, and then he looks over his shoulder. “I haven’t showered since this morning, you know.”

Harry shrugs a shoulder. There’s something about getting down and dirty in sex that fascinates him. He likes people who take days and days in between hair washes, girls who don’t mind fucking with a full bush and lightly stubbled legs, guys whose balls don’t smell like scrubbed shower gel and soap. He likes the smell and taste of people, of their bodies. The chemical tang of perfume on a collarbone or inner thigh does nothing for him when he touches it with his tongue. He remembers getting half hard when he was sitting on the tube on his way home from a date, and feeling come and lube slowly and gradually seeping out of his arse. He likes getting messy. He likes resting his face on someone’s chest and getting a whiff of dark woodiness from their armpit, the scent of the top of someone’s unwashed head, wearing a t-shirt that someone he likes has been wearing to bed for a week. Maybe it’s weird, maybe it’s not. But the point is, he has no objection at all to putting his mouth on an arsehole that hasn’t been showered for twelve hours.

“If you’ve sucked a dick on the last day of Leeds festival you can do anything,” he says, and leans forward to lick him. He doesn’t feel like teasing him; he doesn’t know if Zayn’s that kind of guy. So he just licks, a wet stripe from the top of his crack to below his hole, rougher skin and smoother skin and then the pucker, the flat ring of muscle, and he doesn’t taste bad, not at all, so Zayn doesn’t have to worry about that. Harry kisses, sloppy and wet, using his lips, his spit, fingers biting into Zayn’s arse as he turns his head, sucks, kisses harder. He only faintly hears Zayn’s moan, feels it shudder through his body, his calves tensing, his hole tensing too before relaxing a fraction. He eases up, lets him relax, notices his toes flexing into the duvet. He seems a little desperate. Harry likes that. “What do you want?” he asks, before blowing lightly, lips a neat ‘o’, cooling the wetness from his mouth on Zayn’s skin, making Zayn shiver.

“God, Harry. Your tongue, yeah?” It sounds like it’s a wrench to get the words out.

“Inside?” Harry asks. He shifts one of his hands, presses a fingertip to Zayn’s rim, presses inside just a few millimetres. Zayn makes a noise that he’ll take as a ‘yes’, so he lowers his mouth again, licks, kisses, deeper this time, and then he presses his tongue inside him. He’s slow, deliberate, measured, and he wishes he could smile when Zayn moans, low and heartfelt, arches his back so he can spread his legs more, so he’s wider for Harry, so he can take more of him in. Harry knows what it’s like, to be this sensitive and to have a mouth on you; that blend of deep, terrible self-consciousness, that feeling of Is this wrong, the more serious side of you telling yourself that it’s not, that it never could be. There are some things that Harry would do in public, in sex clubs, in particularly dark alleyways. This isn’t one of them, but God, he fucking loves it, both ways: he loves a man between his legs, the ache and scratch of stubble against his thighs, friction burns and wet heat, the burning in his face too and the way that gasps are choked out of him, slow, desperate, the way he hears himself pleading. Zayn isn’t pleading, he’s not that type, but his hands are fisted in the bed covers, and every time Harry fucks into him with his tongue his head dips, shifts up again, he gasps, his breath shudders in his chest, he’s helpless. Harry sees him reach beneath himself, hears the rhythmic slap of hand on cock.

He pulls away, says, “Can I fuck you?” and Zayn barely lifts his head as he nods. Harry shifts, finds a condom, finds lube, and says, deliberately casual, “Does Perrie do that for you?”

“Fuck you,” Zayn says, head down. His eyes are probably burning holes through Harry’s sheets. He slaps Zayn’s arse lightly, as a little apology, and rolls a condom down his dick, slicks himself up. He presses two fingers inside Zayn too, although he’s already more loose, more relaxed. Harry presses a third finger inside, right down to his knuckle, moves them, and Zayn makes another one of his noises, this one more convulsive, and then says, half disbelieving, “I almost came!”

Harry laughs, pulls out, slowly, gently. “Good,” he says, and lines himself up, presses the head of his cock against Zayn’s hole. Zayn feels more relaxed now, like he’s on more familiar territory. Harry thinks, his head swimming for a fraction of a second, of pink-haired fiancées wearing strap-ons, and pushes inside him, slow, slow, hands on his hips, slow and steady wins the race, slow and perfect, until he’s fully inside him. He loves the way that Zayn’s back looks from above, the sweaty strands of hair curling on the back of his neck, the playing card that curls halfway around his ribs. He’s not as skinny as he looks. A lot of him is just hard, lean muscle. He likes it a lot. He pulls out, pushes in again, hears Zayn say, “Yeah, yeah,” and shift his weight forward a little before fucking himself back onto Harry’s cock. He feels so, so endlessly good – tight, hot, perfect. There’s something about the aesthetic of looking down and watching yourself fuck someone that Harry loves, a bit, watching his dick sink deep inside. The Spice Girls knew what they were on about when they wrote 2 Become 1.

He goes faster, harder, and Zayn says, “Yes, fuck, yeah, yeah, like that,” because he’s a backseat driver, and he’s still wanking himself off. Harry grips onto his hip, wanting, irrationally, to bruise him, although he knows that not everyone likes being left with marks afterwards as much as he does. He likes someone slipping their hand onto someone else’s fingerprints, he likes being a slut who got fucked the previous night too. It’s a persona he likes to slip on and off. He thinks of it as a little bit like a silk dressing gown – something pretty and fragile that you wouldn’t wear for just anyone. He doesn’t feel like Zayn has any other personalities, though, no one else he likes to try on for an evening. He’s just here, him, brusque yet eloquent, puts up with no shit. Good at rapping, not a terrible dancer even though he thinks he is; artistic, clearly. Doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, because Harry’s looked. Gentle, when he wants to be. Cheats, even though Harry doesn’t think he’s a bad person. Someone whose layers Harry is slowly, piece by piece, peeling back.

He feels like he’s got a good chunk of Zayn tonight. He feels like not many people get Zayn like this, in the palm of their hand. Harry was wrong about him not being a pleader, because he’s begging for more. He says, “Please,” and Harry feels like some sort of threshold’s been crossed. He fucks into him still harder, thighs slapping, the sort of sound that would be stupid if it was overheard but he loves it right now, wants there to be more noise, wants to have to stifle noises in case the neighbours hear, in case they bang on the floor or the walls. He wants to crash through the floorboards into the flat below and gesture at Zayn to Mrs Overman, who’s probably asleep in bed right now in the room below, he wants to gesture at Zayn to her, and say, “What a marvellous specimen,” and he wants her to agree, and to congratulate him for being the person that Zayn chose for tonight, and once before too. He wants to say to her, “And he’s clever,” with pride in his voice, “and funny, too.” Beautiful, clever and funny isn’t a combination that’s happened for Harry as often as he would have liked it to.

“God, Harry,” Zayn says, “please, can you,” except he leaves that sentence unfinished. Harry pauses for a fraction of a second, digs his hand into Zayn’s hip harder, changes his angle just a little, and Zayn comes. He comes hard, his whole body stiffening, almost shaking, vibrations that go through Harry’s dick and balls and through his whole body, and somehow, somehow, Jesus, he finds himself coming at almost the same time, like he’s been pushed over the edge of a cliff in the most catastrophic and euphoric way, like he’s flying and falling, like—

“You’re heavy,” Zayn says, muffled and disapproving, and Harry straightened up, kisses Zayn’s skin, the knob of bone at the top of his back, the gentle, sweet, vulnerable line of his spine.

“You’re like a triceratops,” Harry tells him, and Zayn says, “What?”

“I think I meant a stegosaurus,” Harry says. “With the, with the bones, and the—”

Zayn laughs. Harry’s still inside him, soft now, and it’s a very strange feeling. A slight, happy vibration. “I should be insulted, but I’m not,” he says. “Can you get off me now, please?” Despite his mildly confrontational tone, he sighs, sounding sadder than he probably means to, as Harry pulls out.

They flop onto their backs, side by side. Harry turns his head to look at him, and kisses the end of Zayn’s nose. It’s a bit pointy, like a cartoon character. In return, Zayn slaps a handful of come onto Harry’s stomach. “Did you actually just…” Harry begins, and Zayn’s laughing, wriggling away from him, and Harry rolls over, fast as lightning, smacks his whole body down on top of Zayn’s. “It’s on you now too,” he tells Zayn, pleased with himself.

“You’ve actually winded me,” Zayn says, not sounded very winded at all, and then he says, “Ugh, oh my God, I think the condom’s on my leg. It’s all slimy.” He starts laughing then, his nose doing that crinkling thing, tipping his head back into Harry’s pillows before putting his arms around Harry’s neck, one of Harry’s curls falling onto his forehead. They’re still then, for a moment, and Harry looks at him carefully. He’s got a scattering of pale freckles across his nose, and his lower lashes are just as disproportionate as his top ones. His bottom lip’s slightly bloody, as though he was biting it when Harry was fucking into him. “What you looking at?” Zayn asks, and Harry can see pink spreading over his face, slow and delicate.

“Nothing,” Harry says. “You, maybe.” And they kiss again, and they kiss, and they kiss.

*

He falls asleep, and then he wakes up hours later when the sun is barely starting to rise and Zayn’s creeping back into bed beside him. “Hiiiii,” Harry whispers in the dark, and Zayn curls up closer, so close that Harry can feel his eyelashes on his chest when he blinks. His hair’s in Harry’s face, but he’s not complaining or anything.

“Sorry I woke you up,” Zayn murmurs. “You’ve got a nice bathroom.”

“Eleanor,” Harry says by way of explanation, and Zayn mmms in agreement. He shifts, bony arms and legs everywhere and getting in Harry’s way, moves backwards a bit, ankles still tangled with Harry’s, just about far away enough that they can look at each other without having to cross their eyes. “You staying this time, then?” Harry asks. “Until I wake up?”

“You woke up last time,” Zayn says, and laughs when Harry arches an eyebrow. “All right, all right. I’ll wake you up before I go, on purpose this time.”

It’s a prime time to start humming Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, but Harry manfully does not. Zayn does though, for a few bars of Wham! shaped bliss. Harry thinks, vaguely and yet not for the first time, that he might be in love. “Whose are the law textbooks in the hallway?” Zayn asks. “I almost fell over them.”

“Mine,” Harry says, “Sorry.”

“Are you a lawyer?”

Harry laughs. “God, no. If you want a sugar daddy, I’m absolutely out of the question.”

“What do you even do?” Zayn asks, tracing the ship on the side of Harry’s arm with his fingertip.

“Legal assistant,” Harry says, wrinkling his nose.

“With that hair?”

“I’m not in a customer facing role,” Harry tells him, and Zayn laughs, a low, pleasant hum in the dim light. “They’re still not happy though. You know, I’ve had this job for five years now and they still haven’t promoted me?”

“Why not? Have you asked to be promoted?”

Harry makes a face.

“That’ll be why,” Zayn says, which, yeah, Harry’s mum’s said something similar. That you have to go after what you want, that you have to believe you deserve it.

“Well, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. That was why I took this job – they said I could have got a training contract after a bit. Not many training contracts around, and it’d be twenty-five grand or something if I did it under my own steam. So…”

“So you just didn’t?” Zayn asks. He doesn’t sound judgemental, just interested.

“No. I’m not that into it,” Harry admits. He doesn’t usually talk about this stuff. If he’s honest, the lads don’t really ask. They talk about most things, and they do talk about important stuff sometimes, but he gets the feeling they think this might be a sensitive subject for him. In fairness, they’re right. He doesn’t mind this, though, talking quietly to Zayn about it under cover of darkness. “How’d you get into your job?”

“Well. “ Zayn half frowns, considering. “I like drawing, and I’m all right at it. You don’t actually need to be any better than all right. I’m not – you just need to know some people and understand your brief. I did an art foundation course, did design at uni, did some internships – paid ones, I’m not made of money – and then I got a job. Worked my way up, did all of that stuff. Went freelance for a while, went back to work at Polygon for a bit. Then they offered me a role in the New York office.”

“Do you like it there?”

“Mmm.” Zayn shrugs a shoulder, the one with a snake tattooed on it. “It’s all right. We’re going to move back soon, though. It’s time.”

That ‘we’ cuts through Harry, as though someone’s thrown cold water all over him. Perrie. Right. Perrie with her strap-ons and her big laugh and her candyfloss hair. “How’d you meet Perrie?” he asks, softer now.

“She’s a makeup artist,” Zayn says. “I was interviewing someone on a shoot. Love at first sight.”

The words are sweet, and Harry feels like they should be another punch to the gut, but somehow they’re not quite. They sound tired, as though Zayn’s pulled them out a hundred times before. Harry wonders, vaguely, what he’d do if he met the love of his life, and got engaged to them. Would he cheat, like Zayn has? He wonders if he does it all the time, if Harry is part of a habit, or if this is a one-off. He wouldn’t mind feeling special. He’s always liked that. “That’s not a good thing to say to someone who’s just fucked you,” he says reprimandingly, and Zayn laughs, leans in to kiss him quickly. “Go to sleep,” he says, stroking the side of Harry’s face, and somehow he obeys.

*

The next morning is quiet. Zayn stays for breakfast, and they eat toast and cereal and finish the dregs of the orange juice, the bottom of the carton that’s all pulpy and gross. Zayn smokes quietly, frowning over a copy of Time Out that Niall left on the table some time midweek, tipping his ashes into Louis’s Doncaster Rovers mug, still half-full of tea from the previous day. Harry kicks him lightly under the table, tangles their legs up until he sees a reluctant half smile teasing the corners of Zayn’s mouth.

“You’re so annoying,” Zayn says, his eyes screwed up a little. “It’s like being around a big kid.” He says it fondly, so Harry isn’t worried, but then he gets to his feet and Harry feels his heart plummet in his chest like a stone off a cliff. “I need to go,” Zayn says, and Harry can’t tell if he sounds regretful or not. “I need to get my stuff from Liam’s. I’m going to see my mum and my train goes at ten past two.” He squints at the time and then frowns with the vague uncertainty and mistrust of someone who doesn’t quite understand the London transport system. “I’ll get there on time, right?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Harry says, He feels like he’s already carved out a little space in his heart that’s all Zayn’s, completely by mistake. It’s terrible. He wants everything to be okay for him. He’d probably fling himself over some train tracks and let Zayn use his prone body as a footbridge if he asked nicely.

Zayn nods, and lights another cigarette. They don’t usually let anyone smoke in their flat, because Harry’s ever so slightly asthmatic, but Zayn can be the exception to that rule. He looks across at Harry, eyes narrowed against the smoke, sighs a bit, and says “Look, you do know I’m still getting married, don’t you?”

Harry nods quickly. “Yeah. Of course.”

Then Zayn completely blindsides him and says: “Do you want to come?”

“What,” Harry says.

“Do - you – want - to - come?” Zayn says, enunciating more carefully, because he’s a sarcastic bastard.

“That’s weird,” Harry says. He picks up one of his toast crusts and starts smushing it into the table, because he isn’t sure what else to do or where to look. He doesn’t know what to say either. Yes, I would love to watch you betroth your life to someone you cheated on with me. He can’t say that. He can’t say no, either; there aren’t any good reasons to say no, really. No matter what comes out of his mouth, it’ll make it sound like he cares more than he should do. So he just says, “Okay then,” as amiably as possible.

Zayn’s focusing hard on something just behind Harry’s head. “I’d like us to be friends,” he says, almost through gritted teeth.

This time it’s easy to be honest, even if really it’s nothing, not nearly enough. “Me too,” Harry says, and reaches over, touches Zayn’s hand, lets his fingertips dance over his bird tattoo like a promise.

*

Harry takes him to Camden Town tube station. He’s got to go into town to meet his mate Ed at a music shop, but he’s going on the Charing Cross branch to Tottenham Court Road and Zayn’s got to change at Kings Cross, so they have to get different trains. Harry goes down to the Bank branch platform with him, because Zayn isn’t a Londoner and he’s got that flustered, cross-eyed look when he looks at the tube map that tourists always get. Zayn’s wearing Harry’s clothes, skinny jeans that are only barely skinny on him and a red flannel shirt that’s straining across the shoulders, his nice wedding suit balled up in a Tesco’s carrier bag at his side, and his hair still wet from his shower. They showered separately, which was a shame; Harry would have liked to see him gleaming and wet. He half thinks that last night’s spell is broken, but then the platform announcer says “The next train to arrive at this platform will be in two minutes,” and Zayn’s suddenly kissing him again, one of his hands in Harry’s hair, the other over his shoulder, his whole lean body pressed against Harry’s, chest to knee. Harry puts his arms around his waist, drags him in tighter, imagines that he can feel Zayn’s heart beating, kisses him back. He kisses him for what he wishes was hours and hours, the taste of mint and cigarette smoke on both their tongues now. The train comes with a whizz of hot air, and Zayn breaks away from him at the last moment, a few seconds after the doors have opened. For maybe the first time, his eyes are unguarded. “See you, Harry,” he says, takes a couple of quick steps and he’s away, jumps up onto the train, and the loss is already aching, building in Harry’s lungs and stomach and at the top of his nose and in his throat, where it always hurt when he cried when he was little. Zayn doesn’t look back at him once he’s sitting down on the train; he looks down at his hands instead, his messy black hair shining in the fluorescent light of the train, the girl next to him looking out at Harry, her mouth slightly open, her eyes questioning and amazed. I know, Harry wants to say. I know.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zayn Malik and Perrie Edwards request your presence at their wedding on December 20th, 2014.

 

“Fuck my actual life,” Harry says, and throws the invitation down onto the kitchen table. It lands with one corner in the butter, slicing through it like a guillotine, and staying improbably upright. The urge to smash his head face first into his toast and marmalade is almost overwhelming, but with a superhuman effort he manages to keep himself upright. He is so strong. He is Harry Styles, champion of the world. He will get through this. He’ll just get Zayn’s excellent jawline tattooed on his chest as a little keepsake, and then he will be one hundred percent over the most ridiculous two night stand of his life.

“What?” says Niall, and grabs the invitation to have a look at. “Oh, your man’s getting married. The pretty boy?”

So pretty,” Harry says. “Oh, for God’s sake. Why?”

“Mmm.” Niall shakes his head. “This is a sad day for mankind.”

“It’s a sad day for me!” Harry makes an exaggeratedly sad face, and Niall laughs over at him. It’s easier to react to the whole thing this way, actually, with a bit of humour. As far as his friends are concerned, he and Zayn hit it off at Louis’s wedding, and spent the night in the flat getting drunk and having deep chats, with no funny business whatsoever. They know that Harry thinks he’s superhumanly beautiful, because he’s got drunk and told them so a few times, but they don’t know that they’ve had a couple of rounds of really great sex. That’s probably for the best. He hasn’t heard from Zayn since he went back to New York, and that was just over two months ago now. These days the nights are getting darker and the days are drawing in, and September is about to fade into October; winter is coming, and so is the disastrous, catastrophic hellscape of Zayn Malik’s wedding. Everything is horrible. Maybe Harry will be masterfully adult and skip work and go back to bed. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“I’ve got one too!” Niall says, waving a thick envelope over at him, and everything seems slightly less horrible. He watches, smiles a bit as Niall rips the envelope open and sticks the corner of his invitation into the butter next to Harry’s. “Perrie was nice,” he says, and starts vigorously scraping his knife around the Nutella jar to get out the last of it. “I liked her. They’re a good pair.”

Harry nods, because yeah, actually, they are. They really are, and it’s dreadful, and he hates it; the thing is, there’s a big part of him that just wants Zayn to be happy, and he thinks that somehow, strangely, he must be.

*

Harry’s never been the most coordinated of people, but everyone’s still pretty surprised when he knocks over his full pint right after Liam says, “Oh yeah, Zayn’s moved back to London.” They all spring into action – Liam goes running to the bar for a cloth, Niall rescues phones and crisps and wallets off the table, and Louis starts alternately castigating Harry loudly and shaking droplets of beer off his trousers. Everyone smells faintly like Becks when they’re all sitting down again, and Liam says: “As I was saying.”

“I have literally no idea what you were saying,” says Louis, sounding world weary.

“About Zayn,” Liam says.

“Oh, your other friend,” Louis says, “your secret one. I know your game, Payne.”

“He’s not a secret,” Liam points out practically, using his ‘Louis is a recalcitrant child’ voice. “You’ve all met him twice now. Harry even had a very deep overnight chat with him.”

“I still don’t like it when you have friends that aren’t one of us,” Louis tells him. “We need to vet him to make sure he’s good enough for you. And you know that Harry never has deep chats. He’s too busy trying to remember whether or not he was wearing a hat that day to actually get on with telling the story.”

“Hey,” Harry says, but not very vehemently, because it’s true. He thinks it’s nice to set the scene when you’re telling a story, and he’s never understood why other people don’t seem to agree.

Liam rolls his eyes. “Anyway. Him and Perrie are renting this nice little place in Ealing, they just moved in there. You’re all coming to their wedding, right? I’m best man!”

They all nod dutifully, and Liam’s face does something that’s a strange combination of inordinate pride that his friends are all coming together, and incomprehensible fear that it might become a big, disastrous thing that he will some day have to fix. “Excellent!” he says, sounding as cheerful as possible because he’s Liam Payne and a fountain of eternal sunshine, and then he says: “Oh my God, where’s my ring?”

In the end, they don’t find Liam’s wedding ring, despite combing through a number of bins and crawling over the entire floor. Harry apologises about a million times, because he was the one who caused all the uproar by spilling his beer, and then Niall apologises about a million more times, because it was him that collected all the stuff off the table, where Liam had left his ring for the time being. Louis mostly just looks smug, because for once he hasn’t done anything wrong. Liam gets on the night bus looking pale and miserable, and texts them all a string of sad emojis in their Whatsapp group later. A couple of weeks later, he still hasn’t replaced the ring.

It’s his business though, his and Danielle’s; Harry doesn’t have time to ask. When he’s with Liam all he has time to do is listen for news of Zayn, just tiny things, little mentions, absolutely anything; it’s torture, but it’s also strangely exquisite. It’s all kind of a mess, but he’s thought back carefully and he doesn’t think he’s ever felt like this about anyone before. He’s kind of relieved that finally it’s happened. He likes knowing that he’s capable of that. Maybe someday he’ll feel like this about someone else, and it’ll work out, and he’ll spend the rest of his life being happy and eating roast dinners and having four children and reading bits out of the newspaper for everyone to marvel at. He sends back his RSVP in response to the invitation, saying he’ll be coming without a plus one – Niall does the same, thank God – and gets nothing in response. Liam mentions Zayn occasionally, says he and Dani visited them in Ealing, that their flat’s tiny and they haven’t got room for a sofa, says Zayn’s doing occasional shifts picture editing at the Mail Online to make ends meet and he hates it and he feels like he’s gone over to the dark side, says that they’re excited about their wedding, that it’s got a Christmas theme, that Perrie’s got her dress already and that Zayn is, as ever, woefully underprepared. Harry listens, aches, listens some more. Remembers every detail, despite the fact he’s forgotten the key code to get into the work toilets three times in the last two weeks.

Zayn sends him a somewhat unexpected text about a week after that. Two texts, to be completely accurate; the first says Hey, Harry. Back in London. You free next weekend? and the next one says This is Zayn btw aha :). Harry has to go into the toilets at work and pace around for several minutes while trying not to give into any stress-induced nausea, before attempting to respond like a normal person, which is harder than he was anticipating. It takes him ten minutes of ignoring his boss’s glares to compose a message that says I am. What would you like to do?.Then he has to go into a meeting that he hasn’t prepared for at all, and sweats more than usual the whole way through.

He meets Zayn on a cool Thursday afternoon midway through October. He has a few days off, holiday that he’s accidentally saved up without really thinking about it, because he’s too skint to go anywhere but he keeps thinking that maybe, a few months into the future, he won’t be. He takes the tube from Camden to Tottenham Court Road, and then deeply regrets all his life choices as he plunges himself through about a million people to get to Topshop at Oxford Circus. It takes longer than he remembered, and it’s so packed, and three people hit him with their handbags without apologising even though he does, and he’s still so sad that HMV and Borders aren’t there any more because of the recession, and a small child starts to spew orange vomit the second that Harry accidentally makes eye contact with him. When he gets there Zayn looks just as flustered as Harry feels, curled into a corner next to the entrance, eyes down on his phone like he’s avoiding as many people as he possibly can.

It’s nice in a way, that Zayn’s being his usual antisocial bastard self; it means that Harry gets to unashamedly stare at him for a moment, at the black hair falling across his forehead – it’s even longer now, messy and shiny and soft-looking – and at his pointy nose and his jaw, which was presumably carefully chiselled by the hands of angels right before they moved onto his perfectly crafted collarbones. He looks up, looks right into Harry’s eyes, and smiles, tongue behind his teeth, nose doing that stupid crinkling thing that Harry’s had multiple dreams about, and he lifts his hand slightly like he’s giving Harry the world’s tiniest wave. Harry hugs him hello, slings one arm around his shoulders and curls his other hand around his hip; Zayn hugs back properly, really leaning into it, chin on Harry’s shoulder, stubble scratching his cheek. They pull back, look at each other, and Harry remembers him on all fours suddenly, open and asking for it.

“Cheeky,” Zayn says lightly, like he knows exactly what Harry’s thinking, and Harry feels himself flush, dips his head. “I need to find a suit,” Zayn goes on, sliding out from between the wall and Harry, disappearing into Topman. “I know it’s boring and shit, but it won’t take long.”

They weave their way through green handbags, stands of lollipops, huge lilac woollen scarves, gigantic ugly furry slippers that Harry considers buying for Gemma because he knows they’ll make her laugh, and they go upstairs on the escalator. “It’s for the wedding,” Zayn says over his shoulder, mildly apologetic.

“I thought you had a suit already,” Harry points out, thinking of pushing dark fabric off Zayn’s shoulders not once but twice.

“I did, but then I got drunk and burned a hole through it with a cigarette end. Also, Pez thought it’d be nice, y’know, to get a new suit for the wedding.” He shrugs, half defensive, as he steps off the escalator. “Black’s a bit funereal, but I think it’d be fine. So long as I don’t have to wear tails like Liam did, that poor fuck.” He frowns, looks back at Harry as he starts moving through stands of ugly t-shirts that Harry really wants to own and wear constantly. “How is Liam?” he asks.

“Fine,” Harry says, a little rattled. “Isn’t he?”

“Hmm.” Zayn shrugs a shoulder as they reach the racks of suits. He starts flipping through hangers, and he’s fast, clearly just wants to get it over with, finds his size in a few jackets and some black trousers and starts to head off to the changing rooms before Harry calls him back again. He picks out a nice white shirt even though Zayn objects, says he’s got one already. Harry grabs a waistcoat too, dark velvet. It’s strange, to do this and to know what it’s for, and to help anyway, and it’s strange to see Zayn slightly wrong-footed, disconcerted by these rows of clothes and the other people browsing. He acts as though other people are constantly in his way and he has to spend most of his life politely telling them to move, moving through the shop with agonised courtesy.

They go through to the changing rooms, which are blissfully empty, and Zayn disappears behind a curtain. It doesn’t quite stretch across the cubicle and Harry leans against the divide, throws a glance in, sees Zayn taking off his jeans and pulling on a pair of smart trousers, huffing and then discarding them, pulling on different ones instead. Tucking in the white shirt, thick expensive material. Regarding himself in the mirror, one lapel stuck up in the air like a deadly weapon, the other folded flat where it’s meant to be. Harry hears and sees him sigh, and then Zayn turns around and says: “What do you think? I know you’re looking, you perv.”

“Put on a jacket,” Harry tells him, skilfully avoiding Zayn’s acknowledgement of his alarming peeping tom tendencies.

Zayn does as he’s told, shrugs one of the jackets on. It’s too tight across the shoulders so he goes for another one, which is too baggy around the waist, makes him look concave and slightly ill instead of quite slimly built. Zayn studies himself for a moment, toes wriggling in his bright green socks, and says, “Yeah. This’ll do. I can get it altered.”

“Try on another one,” Harry says. “And skinnier trousers.”

Zayn scowls darkly. “It’ll take so long,” he says obstinately.

“We have time,” Harry says.

Zayn huffs and puffs like a recalcitrant teenager, but he finally finds a jacket that fits, and Harry manages to convince him to put on the velvet waistcoat too. He edges into the cubicle with him, smooths down his collar and jacket lapels, looking down into his face, Zayn’s breath a light warm puff on his cheek, the presence of him so close that Harry can’t think about it too hard in case his dick does something involuntary and embarrassing. “I’m borrowing a tie from Liam,” Zayn says after he’s pulled away, surveying himself nervously in the mirror. “Red. Because it’s Christmas themed.”

“Mmm.” Harry nods, allows himself to feel a single pang of pain as he shifts so he’s behind Zayn slightly, so he can see his whole body in the mirror. “Sounds nice. You look nice.”

“Thanks.” Zayn shakes out his arms, makes sure his cuffs are long enough, inspects himself. He’s wearing rings, a whole bunch of them; a skull, a sun cradled inside a sickle moon, something that looks almost but not quite like a claddagh. They don’t go with the new, smart suit at all, but Harry likes that.

They’re silent for a moment, both surveying their reflection together in the mirror, the sharp shininess of Zayn’s new, unbought clothes; Harry’s old shirt, undone to his butterfly, skinny jeans, his favourite old brown boots. “Why’d you ask me along today?” he asks, quiet now.

“I wanted us to be friends,” Zayn says, and meets his eyes in their reflection like he’s acknowledging that maybe it’s going to be harder than that, that he’s going to have to do more than just want it. Harry smiles at him, wraps his arms around Zayn’s waist, nestles his chin into his shoulder, and Zayn lifts up a hand to touch Harry’s hair, frowning at their reflections as if they’re the first thing he’s ever seen and he can’t begin to understand anything that’s happening today.

Harry leans in, can’t resist, smacks a kiss onto Zayn’s neck before pulling away again. “All right, Malik. You’re buying this one,” he instructs him, hands still on his hips. He squeezes them lightly before letting go and pulling away, slipping out of the booth again. He doesn’t look in as Zayn’s getting changed again, but it’s a relief to see him again in his scruffy black jeans and flannel shirt that’s twisting across his shoulders as though it’s just a little too small for him, his suit a puddle of black fabric in his arms. Not a best man, not a guest, not a bridegroom just yet, only a friend, and Harry will absolutely take that.

*

They fight their way back down Oxford Street. There are less incidences of violence and vomiting this time, which Harry is grateful for, and they stop off at a coffee shop and buy sandwiches before winding their way through to Soho Square. It’s mostly empty, because it’s an overcast day and lunchtime is well past, so the commuters are holed up in their offices again. Harry feels a sudden wave of pure, sweet delight that he isn’t inside and working, and throws a smile at Zayn that he looks half surprised by, half charmed, smiling right back. They sit on the grass, which is cool and ever so slightly damp. Zayn lies right back without even looking for dog shit on the ground – a courageous move – and looks up at the sky, sighs happily, before rolling over onto his stomach and propping himself up on his elbows and starting to eat his sandwich. Harry lies next to him, kicks Zayn’s foot, which earns him a reprimanding glance, but then Zayn tangles their ankles together so Harry thinks that really he won that one.

“Do you like London?” he asks. Sometimes Harry doesn’t; he likes Camden, where he lives, except for at the weekends, when it’s unbearable because of all the tourists. Their flat is really small and the rent’s really high, but he likes being somewhere that’s faintly central. The city itself is – it’s difficult. People are mean sometimes, on the tube especially, and it’s disconcerting when Harry finds himself acting like everyone else, shouting “Can you move down please?” during rush hour and feeling a bit annoyed when someone’s wearing a rucksack and it gets in the way. He never thought he’d be that sort of person. But he likes that you can go to a free art gallery whenever you like, he likes that he can kiss a boy in the streets and no one will care, he likes that there’s always something happening, a constant thrumming under the streets as though there’s a heart beating, a dragon belching fire somewhere deep in the depths of the city.

Zayn considers it, looks down at his sandwich, makes a face and picks a bit of rocket out before dropping it onto the grass, which is a shame because Harry would absolutely have eaten that for him. Maybe he still will. “I like the anonymity of big cities,” he says slowly. “I like that you can do what you want and no one will care, you know? It was the same in New York. Like, Bradford and Wolverhampton, they’re not small, but I still felt like people knew what I was up to. Couldn’t do what I wanted without someone finding out about it.” He thinks about it for a second. “Does that make me really selfish?”

“Maybe a bit,” Harry allows, but he knows what Zayn means. It’s nice to go out with people without having to parade them in front of his mum for her approval, it’s nice to go out with his friends without Robin telling him his mate saw them in the local and said they were ‘making a bit of a scene’. He said worse than that when Louis came to visit, actually, but that was definitely deserved.

Zayn shrugs. “I don’t really mind that much. I respect selfishness. I like it when people take what they want.” He looks down at the grass and then back at Harry, and Harry kisses him, because of course he does, that was basically a command, right? That was Zayn telling him what to do, to take what he wants, to be who he wants to be, to assert the fact that yes, fuck yes, Zayn is exactly what he wants. Zayn is exactly where he needs to be. But Zayn just kisses him back for a moment and then draws back, frowning a bit. “I said we should be friends,” he says to his sandwich crust, and Harry’s heart does something odd, sinks to somewhere it probably shouldn’t be, biologically speaking. He’s always loved Soho Square, the threadbare grass, the relative quiet, the strange little black-and-white house in the middle, and he thinks, possibly a little melodramatically, that it really sucks that it’s going to be associated with Zayn telling him no. In a surprise to absolutely no one he knows, Harry is not great at being told no. There’s a reason he doesn’t usually ask for things.

*

After that they go to the pub, which is probably their first mistake. They both order doubles and stow Zayn’s Topman bags away under the table. It’s funny how spending time with him makes his face more normal; to begin with, Harry was blinded by his eyelashes and jawline, but he’s got deep shadows around his eyes, and cracked lips, and a little hanging-off piece of skin on his thumb that he keeps worrying at with his teeth. It’s a bit gross, but Harry doesn’t mind; he’d definitely still go there, despite the fact that apparently they’re just friends now. He’s given friends blowjobs before. Maybe they can do that. They down their drinks and then they buy more drinks, and then crisps, to circumvent the too-soon swirling of their heads. Harry realises, belatedly, that he hasn’t eaten anything today except half his sandwich, and that piece of Zayn’s rocket that fell on the grass, and earlier two slices of Niall’s wafer thin ham hurriedly out of the packet before he had to run fast to the station or be late.

They drink some more, four drinks, five, and across the table Zayn’s eyelids get heavier, his mouth gets more inviting; it’s like he can do this thing, he can make his smiles wide and friendly, or he can let them caress his lips as though he’s making promises he’ll never keep. Right now he’s doing the latter, and Harry doesn’t even know if he’s doing it on purpose. Probably not. It’s terrible. His life is a trial. Zayn smiles his sleepy-eyed smile across at Harry, the one he did in Harry’s bed across Harry’s pillows when they were both naked and streaked with lube, and says, “So, how’s work? Have you handed in your notice yet?”

Harry blinks at him. “Er, no? I quite like being able to pay my rent.”

Zayn makes a face. “Nah. Overrated.”

Harry laughs, reaches across to touch his hand. He flips over Zayn’s wrist so he can see the underside of it. He’s got nice wrists, half delicate, but not in a breakable way. He can see faint, bluish veins beneath his skin, faint lines on his palm, a scar on the inside of one of his fingers. “How’d you get this?” he asks, touching it, touching his warm skin.

“Cutting open some mozzarella. Middle class problems,” Zayn says, snapping his hand shut like a crab’s claw and holding onto Harry’s finger.

“You’re not middle class,” Harry says, although he isn’t totally sure. He doesn’t even know what ‘middle class’ actually means.

“I’m pretty white collar these days,” Zayn says, and releases Harry’s finger. “My old friends think I’m a proper dickhead.”

“Maybe that’s not your job,” Harry says. “Maybe it’s your personality.”

Zayn laughs, reaches across to slap Harry on the cheek, once, then again, the first time gently, the second one less so. Blood immediately starts making its way downwards to Harry’s dick, and he can feel himself flushing. “If you just want to be my friend, you probably shouldn’t do that,” he says, meaningfully, and Zayn raises an eyebrow, looking like he’s storing that away for future reference, except he can’t be, because they’re friends now, and that’s it. Harry shifts under the table, reaches down to rearrange himself slightly, and Zayn says, “You need to leave your job. You’re old enough to make your own decisions, you’re young enough to change stuff completely. You need to do it, Harry.” His words are slightly slurred now, but only a little; he sounds more Bradford, less like he’s pronouncing things carefully and specifically to distance himself from who he’s been in the past. Harry wants to know who he was, who he is, who he will be. There’s a chance he’s a bit drunk. “Okay,” Zayn says, focuses hard on Harry’s face. “So what do you want to do? What do you like? I know some things. Funny shirts. Fruit. Rimming.”

“I wonder if I could combine them,” Harry says, pretending to be thoughtful, and Zayn honest to God giggles. Harry is going to catch that up and put it in his pocket and glue it in a scrapbook and keep it until he dies, and then he’s going to demand that his body should be burned on a funeral pyre with it so they can go to Valhalla together. There’s a chance that he, like Zayn, is a bit drunk. He frowns, tries to take this seriously. Zayn would probably like it if he took this seriously. “I also like music,” he says. “I like fashion. I like… I like poetry. I like… watching TV and listening to the radio.”

“Do you like Radio Four’s afternoon plays?”

“So what if I do?”

“I knew it,” Zayn says gleefully. He holds up one of his hands and slaps it with the other one. “Self five!”

Harry laughs then, laughs so much he feels sick and his sides hurt and somehow his forehead is on the table, which is sticky and smells like old beer. Zayn’s hand is in his hair, stroking as he says “Poor Harry’s gone mad,” and Harry sits up again. His eyes are teary. Zayn’s face is all blurry round the edges, and his eyes are unfathomably dark but so, so pretty.

“I think you should be a model one day,” he tells Zayn earnestly.

“Oh, Harry,” Zayn says, so Bradford and so sincere. “Go back to sleep on the table.” He tries to shove Harry’s head down but jerks away when Harry snaps his teeth at his wrist. “Animal,” he says, pretending to nurse it, and then says, “I think you should do something you like. You’re an interesting person, you should be at least a bit interested in your job, even if there are shit parts.”

Harry narrows his eyes. “Aren’t you working for the Mail Online?”

“Touché, you little prick,” Zayn says. “On a freelance basis! Two days a week!” He sounds like he’s had to defend himself for it a lot, which is fair because the Mail is terrible and Zayn is better than that.

“You’re better than that,” Harry tells him, aloud as well as inside his head, because that’s something that is apparently important, to say things with your proper voice as well as your inner voice. He used to do that when he was younger all the time – not volunteer an opinion so he could stay pleasant and neutral at all times, but apparently his face would go through all the emotions anyway, scrunch up and open out like a thoughtful concertina. He’s okay at looking neutral now, and only a little less than okay at voicing what he’s thinking. Alcohol helps. Alcohol helps everything.

He looks at Zayn more closely, and hears the words, I like it when people take what they want. He says, “I really like you. I like you a lot. I wish we could go out,” the words coming out of him like they’re crushing each other, painful and pressing, and Zayn looks at him like he’s humouring someone sweet and silly and stupid. He says, “Harry, babe, you don’t even really know me. And I’m getting married in two months.” He gets up, stretches, turns his head from side to side. “Cigarette time,” he says, and wanders outside, and that’s somehow – that’s it. Somehow, that’s it.

*

They end up kissing, because of course they do. They realise they’re both completely hammered at around nine-thirty. Zayn blinks blearily at him and says, “Ah, fuck, Pez is gonna kill me.” He tries to throw back the rest of his drink and almost chokes to death on an ice cube, and then they decide it’s probably best to leave. They wander back through Soho Square again, and Harry discovers that the myth that cool night air sobers you up really is just a myth. Zayn’s clutching his Topman bags to within an inch of their lives, because apparently Perrie will also kill him if he loses his new suit. That’s fair, in Harry’s opinion. Zayn is a funny, sweet, strange drunk. He smokes a lot, and tells meandering stories, and uses his hands more than usual, and watches Harry to make sure he laughs at his punch lines. Outside he walks carefully, and he’s better at walking in a straight line than Harry, although he does sway more. Harry thinks they’re just about even.

Soho Square is dark and moonlit and damp, because rain fell when they were inside the pub. There are brown leaves on the ground, clotting in the drains, slippery underfoot, and they’re careful as they retrace their footsteps back to Oxford Street, where they wind through crowds of tourists and people in suits and slim girls with sleek blonde hair and golden tans who probably, in Harry’s opinion, work in PR. The underpass to the station smells a bit like wee, and it takes Harry a very long time to find his Oyster card in his pockets. Zayn just waits as he looks, patient, not worried. Other people would have been bouncing off the walls, Harry thinks: Louis, Taylor, Niall. Even Liam would have suggested retracing their steps by the time he extricates it from a hidden pocket inside his bag. They go down the escalator – “This is my favourite station,” Harry explains, waving his arms at the coloured mosaics on the walls, “because it’s, like, artistic, right, it’s all – pretty, right,” and Zayn nods, knowledgably – and they stop at the bottom, where Harry goes left to the Northern Line as Zayn goes straight ahead to the Central, all the way to Ealing or wherever.

“See ya then,” Harry says, and Zayn says, “All right.” He swishes his Topman bags thoughtfully, and then he reaches up for a hug. He’s slow, less precise than usual, tugs a hand through Harry’s hair – Harry’s starting to figure out that Zayn actually likes his hair – and smiles at him, and so of course they kiss. Harry’s not even sure who starts it; he just knows that they’re kissing, mouths pressed together, nothing sweet or slow about it, messy and a little sloppy, Zayn’s hand tightening in his hair, a soft ache of pain, teeth bashing together a bit as they both try to get in closer at the same time. Harry wants to get inside his skin. Not in a serial killer way, or an Atticus Finch way; he just wants to be as close to him as possible, he wants to straddle him in bed, chests pressed tight together, Zayn inside him, filling him up, arms around each other, so totally there, so totally right there together, so close, and then Zayn breaks away from him.

He smiles, laughs a bit, squeezes Harry’s shoulder. Their bodies become extricated from each other, and Harry has to grin at him, at the way he looks so different from usual – mischievous, almost, like a teenager who knows he’s fucked up but knows he’ll be forgiven time after time after time. “That was a friend kiss,” Zayn says, decisive, and he walks off in his careful straight line, one arm gently outstretched towards the handrail, in case he’s somehow unbalanced. Harry watches him, the slender line of his back and his skinny legs and the fact he looks like he hasn’t got any arse, none at all despite the fact Harry knows very well that he has, knows it’s a nice one too. His slightly rumpled shirt, his hair too long and messy on his neck, his swinging carrier bags with his wedding suit inside. Harry looks for a moment longer, a moment too long, and then he goes home.

*

Harry doesn’t see him again before the wedding. Zayn invites him to his stag night through Liam, but Harry decides that a better use of his time would be lying in his bed, telling everyone he has the flu, and staring at his ceiling for two days straight. He’s not usually someone who wallows in any kind of negative feelings: he’s usually very positive and cheerful about things, he’s lucky, he was just made that way, so it feels very strange to be physically incapable of doing things because he feels so miserable. After that he decides he’s going to change his life, so for three days he eats only raw foods – assuming McDonald’s milkshakes count – and takes up running. He runs until he has to retch into a hedge – the McDonald’s milkshake – and then decides that perhaps he would be more naturally suited to swimming. But there isn’t a swimming pool nearby, so he’ll have to wait for that one. It’s a shame but really there’s nothing he can do about it.

So he gets really into Pablo Neruda and gets ‘eso es todo’ tattooed on his ribs, and then he watches all of Sherlock and starts to understand what the rest of the world sees in Benedict Cumberbatch, and then he decides that what he really needs in his life is some violently coloured sweatshirts, so he buys some, along with a pair of neon pink trainers. One of his new sweatshirts has a large green parrot on it. In that moment, life is sweet.

Zayn’s wedding is on a Saturday. It’s a cold, bleak morning when Harry wakes up. The sky is thick and heavy and grey, and snow is ‘threatening’, whatever that means. Zayn and Perrie are getting married in a registry office near their flat in Ealing, because apparently they couldn’t decide between Bradford, Wolverhampton, Newcastle or Eastbourne so they just thought ‘Fuck it’ and went nearby instead. Louis drives them because none of them can be bothered to deal with last minute Christmas shoppers on the tube. He’s slightly green and hungover, because it was Taylor’s leaving do last night; apparently she’s becoming head of music at a school just down the road. It’s a tough school, like a lot of schools in inner London are, but when Louis mentioned it he just shrugged and said “But Taylor’s tough too, so she’ll be fine.”

Eleanor’s next to him in the front; she’s wearing a long green dress and looks like a woodland creature, in a good way. Every time she gets ready for something that’s more special than work or going to the pub, she turns their bathroom into something that smells of heaven and has little bits of shimmery stuff all over the sink and shelves; it’s really nice, although at the back of his mind Harry is dimly aware that it’s actually just dropped bits of makeup. She and Louis are starting to talk about moving out of the flat, although Harry doesn’t like to think about that too hard because it makes his chest clench sadly, and his stomach flip miserably inside him. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do without Louis in the room next door to him. It’s been that way since the first day of university. Even now he’s married, he still likes to lie on the living room sofas with Harry until 4am and talk about their thoughts and feelings, in the early morning moments when Louis’s sharp edges are blurred and his kindness comes to the surface more than usual. It’s always there, Harry knows that better than most people, but sometimes he doesn’t quite let it out.

They park outside the registry office, in a car park that’s sort of grey and concrete and dreadful. They’re on time, comfortably so. Zayn is about to get married, Harry tells himself for the millionth time, and still can’t quite believe it. Perrie with her candyfloss hair, who Zayn chose multiple times over Harry; Perrie, who’ll fuck him with a strap-on, who paints people’s faces for a living, so that probably means she’s artistic, creative, thoughtful, just like Zayn. He wonders what sort of couple they’re like. There’s Eleanor and Louis, who communicate using their eyes, most of the time. Louis can raise an eyebrow and Eleanor will laugh for about ten minutes. It’s annoying some of the time, but they usually explain their strange little inside jokes if you’re confused, so Harry doesn’t mind too much. There are a lot of things that they’re not very good at, including throwing dinner parties, remembering to take oven pizzas out on time, playing board games – they both get scary and competitive and violent – and getting up on time to book gig tickets, but mostly they’re a good laugh to hang around with.

Liam and Danielle are the other married couple that Harry’s seen in action. Unlike Louis and Eleanor, they’re very good at dinner parties. They have centre pieces and candles and five courses and homemade custard. They have a spare bedroom and accent walls and matching chairs and a dining table and insurance policies and ISAs. They have a wall calendar with separate columns, which Liam is shit at filling in because he wrote ‘Boys’ night’ on it at least three times when it wasn’t actually happening. They own vases to put flowers in, instead of using pint glasses, and they’ve got a little shower caddy to hold their shampoo instead of having about twenty mostly empty bottles lined up around the bottom of the shower. But last time Harry was over there they had an argument before dinner, so it got awkward, and sometimes Liam doesn’t seem as happy as he used to be. It’s like they’ve got everything and it still hasn’t quite clicked into place. Zayn and Perrie are probably more like Louis and Eleanor, although Harry isn’t all that fond of that idea.

“So,” Niall says cheerfully, “an Indian wedding. Is that, like—”

“He’s Pakistani,” Harry says. It’s one of the many things he’s picked up from Liam after earwigging mercilessly every time he hears the word ‘Zayn’.

“Ah, fuck.” Niall winces, looking guilty. “Was that racist of me?”

“No. Don't worry. It’s just a bog standard wedding,” Harry says. He cracks open the door, starts to unfold himself from the car. “Just like all the other weddings you’ve ever been to,” he continues, even though no one’s listening to him anymore, Eleanor muttering something to Louis that makes him laugh, Niall stretching out delightedly.

It isn’t normal, not really, he thinks, as he makes his way up to the entrance. Or maybe it is for the others, but it definitely isn’t for him. He just feels so – not great. He isn’t used to feeling not great on days that should rightfully be celebratory. But it’s winter, and he’s been worrying about getting home on time for the second half of Christmas Eve for weeks because work doesn’t let him out until half twelve that day, and Zayn’s getting married, and tomorrow is the shortest day of the year so there’s barely ever any daylight at all these days. It’s hard, that’s the thing. Sometimes things are hard even though their lives are pretty sweet on the whole. He thinks it’s okay to acknowledge that, even though there are starving children in the world. Niall catches up with him, bumps their hips together, slings an arm around Harry’s shoulders. Harry appreciates that.

The registry office is nice. There’s a little hallway with tubs of poinsettias and a big display of holly and evergreen leaves and pinecones that have been spray painted gold, quite recently from the smell of them, with a picture of Zayn and Perrie stuck in the middle. Harry and Niall take seats about halfway down the room, smile politely at the people already there. There’s a group of people with dark hair and dark skin and dark eyes near the front of the hall, on one side, clustered together in a group of seats, that Harry would assume is Zayn’s family. An older guy, about the same age as Harry's dad, who looks a lot like Zayn around the eyes, and a white woman wearing a pale purple dress, and two girls with sheets of long dark hair shining on their backs. One of them half turns and Harry sees eyes that he recognises. Zayn’s sisters. Right. There’s part of him that wants to go over there, to listen, to know them and to know his family, but the rest of him is also extremely aware that that would be very creepy. The younger sister laughs at something her mum says, throws her head back. Her nose is doing the same crinkly thing as Zayn’s. Maybe it was a mistake to come here today.

Zayn comes in about five minutes later, after Louis and Eleanor have clattered in too, after Danielle’s come in and seen them and grinned and slipped in beside El, after the two dark-haired girls have run off together to rearrange some flowers by the entrance. He’s talking to Liam as he walks up the aisle, eyes intent and serious, and he looks nice. He’s wearing his Topman suit, and the waistcoat that Harry made him choose, and the dark red tie he said he was going to borrow off Liam. His hair’s shorter and he’s clean-shaven, which makes him look oddly older and younger at the same time. It’s strange that Harry knows so much about him and at the same time not much at all. He doesn’t know his sisters’ names, he doesn’t know what his favourite colour is, he doesn’t even know what sort of music he likes except for the Fresh Prince rap, which to be fair, Zayn seems to like a lot. Harry has no claim over him, other than faint Do you remembers, and that’s not nearly enough to break up a wedding day. Also, Harry isn’t that sort of person – even Rachel from Friends couldn’t bring herself to do it, and she was way more assertive than Harry is.

Zayn and Liam stand together at the front, heads bent together. Zayn says something and Liam pats his pocket, because maybe that’s where the rings are? Wedding rings right there in Liam’s pocket, for Zayn and Perrie. An unbreakable vow, like in Harry Potter, only slightly less extreme. He thinks of the way Zayn pressed himself against Harry right before he got on his train, the way his hair fell over his face, how urgently he kissed him. Harry watches, and Liam grins at Zayn before jogging towards the back of the room, and Zayn takes a breath, glances at the ceiling, and then disappears back into some kind of doorway at the front of the room. And – this is it, right? This is it.

“I’m just going to the loo,” Harry tells his friends, and hears Louis say “What is wrong with your bladder? You spend half your life pissing,” as he makes his way up the aisle, makes a left into the – what is it? It’s a bit like an office, whatever it is, this room backstage at the registry office. There’s a filing cabinet and a couple of half-drunk mugs of tea on a table and an untouched packet of chocolate digestives and Zayn too, Zayn standing in the middle of the room and looking over at Harry with wide, surprised eyes.

“Hi,” Harry says, and then: “I just wanted to say—”

Don’t do it, he almost says, and then Be with me.

He says neither of those things. Instead he says, “I wanted to see how your suit was.”

Tension goes out of Zayn’s shoulders, almost imperceptibly, and he starts to smile, holding his arms out to admire himself before smoothing down the jacket. “It’s all right, isn’t it?” he says.

“Yeah. It’s really nice.” Harry’s throat feels tight. “You look really nice.”

His voice half cracks and Zayn’s face does something sympathetic and worried. “Ah, Haz,” he says, and comes over, and touches Harry’s elbow. “You all right?”

“Yeah, of course,” Harry says. Everyone knows he’s a big crier, so having slightly damp eyes really isn’t a big deal at all. “I just wanted to say – no worries, okay? What you said about being friends. Let’s – let’s do that.”

“Okay,” Zayn says, eyes on him, still concerned and careful, hand on Harry’s arm, curled around his bicep now. It’s the hand with the bird tattooed on it and there’s a smear of gold paint next to the bird and Harry can’t stop feeling the pressure and the warmth of it like a buoy in the ocean, a beacon in the night. He leans forward, helpless, and puts his head on Zayn’s shoulder, turns his face against his neck. He’s fragrant, clean, smooth-skinned. Harry wants to push him backwards onto the table and stand between his legs and hold his face in his hands and kiss him until they’re both miraculously naked. Instead he just feels Zayn put his arms around him, gentle like he isn’t completely sure what he’s doing. He’s so fucking certain in bed and so tentative in real life that it makes every single part of Harry hurt.

He doesn’t know how long they stand like that for, tangled up, almost as together as when they were lying in Harry’s bed with the smell of sex thick on the air and a bruise forming slowly on Zayn’s shin from Harry’s stack of law books in the hallway. All he knows is that it’s broken by a noise in the doorway, and he looks up to see Liam there, frowning, deep lines cutting between his eyebrows. He holds up his phone and says, “Sorry to interrupt. Jesy just texted – Perrie’s on her way. We should…” He clears his throat, nods back into the main room as Zayn blinks, slow, as though he’s breaking the surface of a lake and crashing back into the real world, or waking from a deep sleep.

“Sorry,” Harry says, smiles at Zayn, fake and bright. “Good luck.” He leaves then, avoiding Liam’s worried eyes and the weight of Zayn’s eyes, slips out of the room and back to his seat next to Niall. Niall raises his eyebrows like he’s asking if he’s okay, and Harry nods, smiles again, and he must look strange because Niall frowns almost as sharply as Liam did. Harry does his best not to acknowledge it, just looks at the front of the room where Liam and Zayn are emerging from the back room, makes his face as steady and certain as it will go. Friends. They’re friends now, and this is what friends do.

*

The ceremony is brilliant. It’s not like Harry’s obsessed enough with Zayn to be able to deny that the service is gorgeous and that Perrie is beautiful and that everyone seems extremely happy. Perrie’s hair isn’t pink any more – it’s pale golden waves, streaming down to below her shoulders, and her dress is part silver, layers of white and layers of silver as though she’s half medieval princess and half snowflake. Her brother does a reading, the How do I love thee? one that Harry’s heard at a whole load of weddings before, and Zayn’s voice is strong and confident when he speaks his vows, and their kiss at the end looks like the kiss at the end of a fairy tale, when everything’s in its place and the hero and heroine have found their happiness and all the monsters and the people who don’t belong there are packing up to go home.

Harry doesn’t pack up to go home. Instead he piles back into Louis’s car, stares out of the window as Louis turns a fifteen minute drive into ten because he’s a dangerous maniac, hurtling to the pub where the wedding meal – people call it a wedding breakfast, and even Harry is too literal to understand why – is going to be held. It’s a pub, a nice pub, with a big Christmas tree in one corner and arcing loops of colourful paper chains pinned to all the walls. They follow the arrows towards the back room, which is strung in fairy lights, hung with garlands of holly and mistletoe; it smells like Christmas, like pine needles and mulled wine. If Harry starts to hate Christmas after this, he has nobody but himself to blame.

Louis and Eleanor start poking around, find their places at one of the tables, and Niall starts chatting happily to Liam and Danielle, so Harry takes his leave of absence, his and Niall’s present for Zayn and Perrie under his arm. It’s about twenty seasons of The Simpsons on DVD; basically it’s the most sick wedding present in the world. He goes out into the pub, orders a pint and a shot and then another shot, as people in their smart wedding gear stream past him from the entrance to the reception room. He knocks back his drinks one after another and feels them warm him up inside, from his mouth to his stomach to deeper inside his gut, and he thinks: I can do this.

The stream of people slows to a trickle, although he barely notices, buys another shot, knocks it back and tries not to wince. Feeling like you’ve lost something is particularly strange when you’re also aware that you never really had it at all. He stands up, not quite drunk; it wasn’t enough to get him drunk, but it also hasn’t really hit him yet. He’s looking forward to getting suddenly and abruptly dizzy halfway through his starter. Just as he’s about to go back into the reception room there’s a clatter and the door swings open. In a flurry of cold air and white and silver, Zayn and Perrie whirl in. There’s a smile on Zayn’s face that hurts Harry’s chest so much that he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget it, and Perrie’s laugh is high and sweet, sleigh bells in the winter air. They don’t even look sideways at Harry as they cross the pub to the reception room. When they spill inside someone booms “Raise a glass for the new Mr and Mrs Malik,” and everyone cheers, and Harry – Harry just orders another beer. He’s going to need it.

*

Harry’s pleasantly, foggily drunk by the time dinner is over. Perrie’s dad’s given a speech about what a wonderful son in law Zayn’s going to be – which Harry has to do his very hardest not to laugh at, because really – and Liam’s spoken from his heart about both Zayn’s amazing attributes as a best friend and all the ridiculous things he did when he was younger, which include almost smashing his nutsack in half after skateboarding down a banister and dating two separate teachers’ daughters at the same time. Then he talks about how happy Zayn is with Perrie, and Harry carefully doesn’t listen.

The first dance is to I Believe In A Thing Called Love, which is somewhat unexpected because Harry doesn’t think he’s heard a song by The Darkness since about 2005. Zayn looks sheepish and Perrie plays air guitar and headbangs, and then everyone else joins them on the dance floor. The DJ, Harry has to admit begrudgingly, is good. He finds himself dancing, because sometimes even when he’s sad because the fittest guy he knows has married someone else, he likes to enjoy his life. He spins Eleanor and almost drops her, he waltzes gently with a myriad of Zayn’s little cousins, and then realises with no small degree of alarm that one of Zayn’s sisters is flirting with him, the one that looks a lot like him, with the same wide, slanting dark eyes and quick, flashing smile. For a moment, he’s actually tempted, because she’s pretty and he feels like maybe he could have liked her under completely different circumstances, but he manages to extricate himself after a couple of minutes.

It’s a good party despite the fact that every time Harry thinks about something other than dancing to Paint It Black or Teenage Dream he starts feeling pathetic and weepy. But they play Bon Jovi and Journey and David Bowie, and he dances with Perrie’s nan when Nat King Cole comes on, leads her gently around the room and then deposits her back in her chair at the end of the song. He goes outside with Niall during Saturday Night because they only dance in lines to the Macarena and even then sparingly, and when they come back in Perrie points an accusing finger at them and shouts “Mistletoe!”

When Harry looks upwards, there’s a sprig of mistletoe pinned neatly over the doorway, clearly there to terrorise innocent people such as himself. Really, as if he needs complicated relationships with anyone else he knows when he’s already got intense and angsty passion for Perrie’s new husband lingering on the back burner. “Oh,” he says, and Niall says, “Ah, for fuck’s sake,” and leans up to kiss him, dry-mouthed and quick on the lips.

“Call that a kiss?” Perrie’s friend Jade bellows at them, so Harry grabs Niall again, and slips him the tongue this time. Niall shoves him off and Harry loses his balance, probably partly because of the alcohol, so they topple over onto the floor. When they finally extricate themselves they’re laughing, and Niall finally rolls to his feet and extends a hand to help Harry up too. They go back in with their arms around each other’s backs; when he looks over at Zayn he sees him frowning just a little, as though he’s trying to cover it up and not quite managing, looking over at Harry and Niall like he’s a bit curious. Harry leans into Niall and whispers “If that happens again I’m going to spank you,” just to make him laugh again, just to make Zayn wonder a bit, just because he can. It’s pathetic, but he’ll take absolutely anything he can get.

He’s on his way to the loo when he finds Liam’s phone sitting on a table, shamelessly discarded because Liam’s a total idiot, even though most of the time he pretends not to be. Harry considers putting it in his pocket so he can give it back later, but if he does that, he’s pretty sure that a Cary Grant-esque series of ridiculous events will unfold and his jacket will get swapped with forty others and he’ll have to go on a big adventure to get Liam’s phone back, possibly accompanied by Katharine Hepburn and a leopard. So when he sees Danielle, he just goes over to her and hands it over.

“Thanks! He’s so silly,” she says, bright, turning it over vaguely in her hands. She’s flushed and a little shiny, probably from when they were all dancing vigorously to Blame It On The Boogie. “This is a lovely day, right? Oh my God, they’re so sweet.”

“Teeth-rottingly so,” Harry agrees politely.

She looks at him askance, and then the phone in her hand buzzes.

It’s in that moment that Harry discovers what it’s like to watch someone’s life falling apart in less than a minute. She looks down at the phone, where the screen’s lighting up with a message, and her smile completely falls off her face. She swipes at the phone, types in a code that Harry would swear on his life Liam is unaware she knows, scrolls, eyes locked on the screen. It’s like she’s completely forgotten that Harry’s standing right there in front of her, that seconds ago they were having an entirely normal conversation.

“Dani?” he asks, carefully soft, and she looks up at him.

She doesn’t look like she’s about to cry or anything, but her face is strange, as though her skin has been tightened and it doesn’t quite fit her any more. She’s still a little flushed, but in a different way, burning on her cheeks, on her suddenly too-pale face. She swallows visibly, and then says “I’m leaving. You give this back to him,” and fumbles to get the phone back into Harry’s hands.

“Danielle,” he calls after her, but she’s too busy walking away.

It takes him too long to find Liam after that, faces blurring into each other and looming around him, so long that Danielle’s already gone. He draws Liam into a corner and says “You got a message. Danielle saw it. She looked really upset,” just laying it out there, as cleanly as he can, and Liam’s face does the same thing that Danielle’s did; he looks drawn, older suddenly. Afraid.

He takes the phone out of Harry’s hands, opens whatever it was that Danielle saw, and then he says: “Oh, fuck.”

“Liam?” Harry asks, because Liam’s face is gradually crumpling, as though it’s turning inward, as though something is slowly breaking. “Come on. Let’s go for a cigarette.”

He leads Liam outside, and – and honestly, he’s not sure what to do. Of the four of them, he and Liam have never been particularly close, especially not recently; they don’t quite understand each other, and Harry’s not sure that they’d be friends at all if they didn’t want to get on so badly, if they didn’t like each other quite so much. They definitely don’t have all that much to talk about when they’re together. But Liam sits down on a little wall and lights a cigarette with shaking hands, and then after about a minute of silence, of cold air pinking up his cheeks and nipping at Harry’s ears, Liam admits, “I met someone else.”

It feels as though the ground has shifted abruptly under Harry’s feet. He sits down next to Liam, slow and thoughtful, pressing their sides together, partly for warmth and partly so he can says, Hey, I’m here, and I’m on your side, without having to say it aloud at all.

“Her name’s Sophia,” Liam admits. “I met her at a work thing. She’s – God, Harry, you’d bloody love her. She’s funny. And she’s so nice to me.”

Harry isn’t sure how to respond to any of that. He wants to ask him if Danielle was nice to him, because from what Liam’s saying it sounds like she wasn’t. He wants to ask if that makes it okay to have an affair, but then again Harry still wanks himself off thinking about rimming a man he knew was engaged, so that would be insanely hypocritical. The future spins out abruptly in front of him: Eleanor torn between her friendship with Danielle, and Louis’s friendship with Liam. A rift in their strange little group of friends? Harry can’t handle a rift right now. Or ever, really, if he’s honest. He doesn’t like arguments. Doesn’t react well to them. When his parents split up he remembers that Gemma was pretty amazing through the whole thing – took him for walks in the rain when they were arguing, distracted him with sweets and turning up the volume on her Busted albums so high the floor was shaking, and making him dance around with her. But Gemma’s not here right now, and maybe it’s time to figure things out for himself.

“Are you two splitting up?” he asks, tentative, trying so hard to be sober and probably failing miserably.

Liam laughs, without much humour behind it. “Now? Yeah. I’d imagine so. Me and Sophia were texting earlier, you know – she wants me to try to come over on Boxing Day, meet her family, finally. I said yes. That must have been what Dani saw. I think – I think she knows it hasn’t been right for a while.”

“I think we all know it hasn’t been right for a while,” Harry says, slowly. Liam – God, the most steadfast out of them, the most reliable. The one who was going to make the best husband in the world. The one who cried before he got married, and wouldn’t tell anyone why. The one who didn’t seem all that bothered about losing his wedding ring. Things are clicking into place.

Liam nods, pockets his phone slowly, as if it weighs more than it usually does. Above them, the sky has dimmed from pale grey to heavy grey, the air bitingly cold. Harry can’t feel the tips of his fingers. “I can’t believe I’m going to get divorced,” Liam says, wondering, as though it’s an actual surprise to him.

“I can’t believe Louis’s done better at being married than you. He doesn’t even throw any dinner parties. I thought that was pivotal,” Harry tells him.

Liam tries to shove him off their little wall, and almost manages it, but Harry is tenacious and clings on. Liam inches closer to him and says into the night, “I feel freer now.” Harry’s in the middle of pretending he’s Buddha and nodding sagely when Liam suddenly swings round to face him and says, “What the fuck’s happening with you and Zayn?”

“Stop trying to deflect from your affair, Liam,” Harry says with as much dignity as he can muster, given the fact that his stomach’s suddenly doing its best to make it out of either his mouth or his arse with immediate effect. Liam doesn’t glare at him, not quite. Instead, he looks disappointed. Harry tries to remain steadfast, but after about fifteen seconds of Liam’s special patented sad puppy face he relents, “We slept together.”

“When? I was only out of the room for a moment!” Liam looks aghast.

Harry laughs, but Liam continues to look horror stricken, so apparently he was serious. “No,” he explains. “This summer. And last summer, after your wedding.”

Liam looks like he’s in the middle of getting the worst migraine of his life. “This is why I didn’t want to introduce him to you lot,” he says with absolute finality. “I knew you’d ruin his life. Except I didn’t think it would be you. Honestly, I thought it would be Louis. I thought they’d get arrested together or something, and I’d have to bail them out.”

He looks so disappointed that it’s almost catching. Harry makes an apologetic face at him and says “He wants to be friends, though. I mean, it’s going to be weird, but…” He looks down at the pavement, scuffs the toe of his boot along the line between two paving slabs. “I don’t know. You don’t have to have sex with someone just because you like them, do you? And I like talking to him. I think being friends with him would be worth it.”

Liam stares at him, eyebrows furrowed, and then he says, “You actually really like him, don’t you?” and yeah, yes, Harry actually really does, so he just shrugs, and looks down at the pavement again. Liam slings an arm around his shoulders, the weight of it companionable and warm. Even still there’s nothing Liam can help with here, although Harry knows that if he could, he would do his best.

*

Liam has to leave relatively early because apparently he ‘can’t focus on enjoying himself while Danielle’s upset at home’. Louis shouts at him and calls him a spoilsport, and Niall gestures at him to go home and fix his life. Harry’s on Louis’s side there. So Liam vanishes into the night, and Niall finds a pretty girl and starts kissing her, and Louis and Eleanor start having one of their quiet, intense, giggly conversations. Harry is at a loss, which doesn’t happen all that often, so he goes outside to ring Gemma. She’s cool, because she can always tell when something’s up with him, but she never makes him talk about it unless he brings it up first, so instead they discuss her dissertation – she’s doing a PhD, because she’s freakishly clever – and the fact she thinks her flat might have damp, and how her flatmate keeps finishing off the milk and not buying any more because he’s a prat, and then she says, “Grandma’s not very well.”

Today is basically a series of catastrophic events, but Harry thinks this is probably one of the less dreadful ones. Their grandma is usually ill. She’s got dementia and she’s been in and out of hospital for ages now, years and years, because her heart keeps going a bit funny. He says vaguely, “Yeah? Dad didn’t say,” and wonders whether he has to send a card of his own or if Gemma can just sign his name on hers. He doesn’t know where he’s put his grandma’s address. That’s going to be a pain in the arse to find.

“Yeah,” Gemma exhales. “I think it’s all right, but – Harry, I can hear music. Where are you? Are you at a party?”

“Maybe a wedding,” Harry says shiftily.

“Go and get drunk,” she tells him. “You sound sad. You deserve it. Love you, bye!”

She hangs up immediately, because she’s his sister and she knows when he’s about to start stalling for time. He tucks his phone back into his pocket and sits down on the little wall where Liam told him he was having an affair, feeling a little strange, a little odd, a little empty. As though he closed his eyes for a second and everything changed. He needs to – do something. To look for a new job, maybe, to find himself someone to like who isn’t married. Someone who doesn’t have this effect on him, someone who doesn’t strike him dumb and make him lovestruck and stupid. He thinks of Zayn saying Harry, babe, you don’t even really know me, and he thinks, But I do. The feeling when you look into someone’s face and you like them immediately and you want to unravel them slowly. It’s only ever happened to him with Zayn. He liked Louis when he first met him at university; they were on the same floor, liked the same things, shared Harry’s single bed occasionally and talked until dawn started to streak delicate rays through his window. And sure, it was a crush; Harry won’t deny that, it was an instant connection that’s still there now, but nothing happened, and he was fine and he moved on and now Louis is just his ridiculous friend and that’s absolutely it.

He doesn’t know if the ‘just friends’ thing with Zayn will work out. He doesn’t know if he can do that, if he can see Zayn with his wife and feel the selflessly happy way that he does when he sees Louis and Eleanor together. He supposes he’ll just have to try, and find someone else in the meantime.

He’s about to stand up and go back inside when the doors swing open and Zayn and Perrie stagger out. Her back’s to Harry and her arms are twined around Zayn’s neck and he leans down and kisses her, just kisses, holds onto her as though she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever known, and Harry just – he thinks about going back inside and persuading Louis and Eleanor and Niall to leave, but he doesn’t want to sit in a car with them for ages; he thinks about going inside and dancing and pretending to be happy and being a normal person, but he isn’t sure he knows how to do that. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get this strange. He knows what Zayn feels like, that’s the thing. He knows what his mouth is like, and the way his body moves, and the way his face goes when he’s turned on, or tender, or trying not to upset you, or not bothering to be kind because he knows you’ll like him anyway. He knows exactly what Perrie’s got, and what Harry now has to struggle to find in someone else. The person who fits against him in the exact right way. The person who thinks his hair’s stupid, and runs their fingers through it anyway.

So Harry just leaves. It’s as easy as that. He turns and he walks away, he walks two miles to the tube station and gets on the train and changes once and gets off at Camden Town. Louis, Eleanor and Niall end up getting home before he does, which is typical of today. They’re in the living room and Eleanor’s in the middle of undoing the tiny buckles on her strappy heels and Louis is making tea and Niall is opening a packet of Tesco Value custard creams, which are everyone’s favourites. Harry only realises how cold he is once he’s in the warmth of the flat and the feeling starts to flood back into his fingers. He looks down at them, red and white, and flexes them and says, “Ow,” and Eleanor’s lips turn down at the corners. She comes over and puts her arms around him, and then Niall does too, and Louis comes out of their tiny kitchen and sees them.

“What’s all this about?” he asks, more gentle than normal. He comes over and studies Harry’s face, and then he says, “Oh, Haz,” and hugs him too. Harry feels better after that, just a bit.

*

It’s actually not such a bad evening in the end. They end up staying awake pretty much all night, all sprawled on the sofas, Louis with his head in Eleanor’s lap and Niall with his legs draped over Harry’s knees. They talk, and Harry tells them what happened with Zayn, the first time and the second time, and how he helped pick Zayn’s suit for the wedding, and Eleanor says, “Well, you did a good job,” which is nice because even though he’s sad, he’s pleased that his sartorial tastes are being admired. He tells them that he really wishes Zayn was single, that he’d like to go out with him, and they look at him with mingled sympathy and pity. He can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, and although he’s usually annoyed by pity, this time he takes it as they intend it: with kindness.

Liam arrives sometime around three because Danielle’s kicked him out, looking exhausted and pleasantly surprised that they’re all still awake. He lies on the living room floor and explains it all to them slowly, how he felt like he should marry Danielle because they’d been together forever, but he was never sure, and he just thought everyone felt that way—

“I was sure,” Louis says, vehemently, and Eleanor nods.

“That’s the thing,” Liam says, cigarette smoke spiralling towards the ceiling. They’re letting him smoke inside for once, because he’s pathetic and sad and half his possessions are heaped by the door in rubbish bags. Loki’s pattering around too, because really he was Liam’s dog and not Danielle’s. He’s already disappeared under the sofa and retrieved one of Niall’s gym socks, which has been under there for months because they were all too lazy to bend down to get it, so clearly he’s going to be a valuable addition to the household. Harry approves. “I didn’t realise that until I looked at the two of you together and thought, right, that’s how we should be. I’ve never – I loved her, but I didn’t love… I don’t think I loved her enough.”

He sighs, and Loki comes over to him, curls up beside him, licks the side of his face. “What about Sophia?” Eleanor asks, like she’s reserving judgement on it so far, like she hasn’t quite made up her mind about whether or not she should be angry. She probably should be, really. Even Harry’s a bit annoyed with him. He feels like you should try harder to be nice than that.

“Sophia’s great,” Liam says, his face doing something vulnerably happy. Loki licks his nose and he laughs, sits up, Loki clambering into his lap, all long puppy legs. “I want you guys to meet her. I just – I can’t – can I stay here for a while? I know I’ve been pretty awful, but—”

“Everyone fucks up,” Harry says. “We love you.”

For a horrible moment Liam looks like he’s about to cry, but then he says, “You can talk,” because he’s the worst person in the world.

“Shut up,” Harry says. He grabs Niall’s gym sock off the floor and throws it at Liam’s head. “I’ll be fine in the end.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, looking at him thoughtfully from across the room. “I reckon you will.”

*

A lot of things happen after that, very quickly. Harry goes home for Christmas, and makes it home early enough on Christmas Eve to help his mum finish making a Yule log for the next day. He and Gemma see their mum and Robin on Christmas day, and then they go to their dad’s for Boxing Day. They go to see their grandma too, and in the car park afterwards Harry says “Well, thank God that’s over,” and Gemma laughs and shoves him so hard he trips onto a Mercedes and accidentally sets off its alarm.

Zayn and Perrie move into a proper flat way down in south London, in Wimbledon, which means that as adopted north Londoners, Harry, Niall and Louis don’t ever have to see them, because no one ever crosses the river if they can help it. Harry is grateful for that, because when he thinks about it, he hurts somewhere deep down inside his chest. Liam and Danielle break up for real and start all the legal proceedings, and it’s as painless as possible, given everything that’s happened, and everyone meets Sophia. She is nice, actually. Too good for Liam, as Louis points out about twenty times, but she’s beautiful and funny and clever, and she’s good fun to have around. It takes Eleanor a while to warm up to her, because Danielle was her friend before any of the rest of them were and there’s a lot of solidarity there, but everything’s okay after a couple of weeks. “Really,” she says to Harry one day when everyone else has gone to work and they’re lingering at the kitchen table over their toast, “Sophia’s so lovely. And sometimes things just don’t work out, right?”

She and Louis move out at the end of January. It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth, even though Harry has to admit that he knew it was going to happen sooner rather than later. They find a little one bedroom flat a ten minute walk away, and Liam and Loki move into their room instead of sleeping alternately on the couch and on Niall’s floor. It’s nice. Maybe a little quieter, but sometimes it feels like nothing’s changed; Louis and Eleanor are still over there half the time anyway, and it isn’t far to get to their new flat when Harry feels the need to see them, which is embarrassingly frequently.

And then, all of a sudden, Harry’s grandmother dies. It’s odd, because she’s been slowly dying for a while now, little bits of her memory, day by day. The last few times Harry’s seen her, she’s insisted on calling him either Gemma or Des, and she’s also stridently refused to be corrected, which Gemma persists in finding completely hilarious. He hasn’t seen her all that much in the last year or so, because it’s weirdly upsetting missing someone who’s still there, but when his dad phones to tell him she’s dead, he wishes he had. He wishes he’d gone there every Sunday. He wishes he’d sent her cards and flowers, he wishes he’d gone to see her on her last birthday, he wishes he’d let her lean on him and hobble over to the Starbucks opposite her nursing home. He wishes he had been a good grandson and a better person. He thinks of going to her house when he was younger, he thinks of the little fairy cakes she used to make specially for him and Gemma, the orange squash she used to buy just for them, the dish of jelly sweets on the mantelpiece that she used to let him pick all the lemon ones out of, to put in his pocket and take home. The letters she wrote him when he started university that he barely ever replied to, the missed calls that he ignored all the time. He thinks of saying Thank God that’s over, the last time he saw her, and regrets it so bitterly that he can’t even say it aloud to his friends, can’t admit this terrible thing that he’s done.

Louis arranges to come with him up north to her funeral. He tells school and everything, writes special lesson plans to get his classes covered. Liam has to go on a work trip to Glasgow and Eleanor’s about to start a new job at Karla Otto and Niall is in Ireland, because it’s his nephew Theo’s birthday. Because they’re three of the nicest people in the world, they check with Harry about a million times before they make their final arrangements to leave. He doesn’t mind at all; they stayed up with him that night after his dad’s call, when his eyes were bone-dry with grief and guilt and he couldn’t stop his hands from knotting together over and over again. He doesn’t want to disrupt their actual lives or anything, just because his grandma’s died and they think he needs someone to hold his hand at the funeral. As it happens, when Louis says he’s coming, he feels a knot slowly unravel inside his chest, warmth slowly enveloping him. Relief sinking in, deep into his bones. He doesn’t like being alone.

They book train tickets, and arrange to meet at St Pancras one Thursday night after work, the day before the funeral. They’re staying in a Travelodge, which feels slightly pathetic, but Harry’s dad’s house is full of people already, Harry’s aunts and cousins, and besides that, it never felt like home anyway. His relationship with his dad hasn’t always been easy. Gemma isn’t coming up until the morning – she’s at Manchester University so she’s just going to drive, and it’s harder without her too: she was always calmer, more detached, more reasoned. Harry was the one who always got upset, and she always calmed him down. Making arrangements is a whole lot easier than actually thinking about anything, Harry finds; he emails his dad ideas for songs that can be played at the funeral, he picks out the flowers he wants on the casket from the florist’s online catalogue – yellow roses, because they were her favourites – and borrows Liam’s smart suit jacket instead of his own longer one, and Niall’s black tie.

The thing is, Louis doesn’t show up at the train station. It’s about half an hour before the train is supposed to go, and Harry’s nursing a Costa smoothie and waiting for their platform number to be announced, and Louis calls him and says, “Harry, I’m so sorry.”

He knows from then that his trip’s totally sunk, that he’s by himself, that he’s going to spend a long, lonely night in a Travelodge room thinking about his dead grandma and his stupid family, but he just listens carefully as Louis explains that they’ve got a surprise school inspection, that Ofsted are going to be in in the morning and Louis is the second in the whole of the performing arts faculty now since Taylor left so he can’t just not be there, and—

“It’s fine,” Harry says, and then repeats, “It’s fine,” when Louis says, sounding upset, “I’m so sorry,” again.

It – it’s not really fine, actually. He doesn’t feel all that fine at all. He finishes his smoothie and can’t find a bin to put the empty cup in, so he has to carry it onto the train along with his little suitcase and his backpack with his laptop in it. He lumbers down the train and gets in people’s way, and a middle aged lady tuts at him and he almost falls over a toddler, and finally he finds his seat. It’s by the window in a set of two, which – thank God he doesn’t have to make eye contact with anyone for hours, and he sits down, curls himself into it, puts his earphones in, blasts some Kings of Leon and pulls his hat down over his eyes. His throat is starting to swell, half grief and half self-pity, eyes stinging, and he has to bite his bottom lip and force himself to focus on that slight physical pain instead of the images swimming through his mind unbidden: sepia-tinted summer days in his grandma’s tiny back garden, birds diving sweetly from tree to tree, picking seed out of the feeders she’d hung for them, dipping their brightly coloured heads in the bird bath she filled every morning when the days were long and the weather was hot and dry. Christmas and the smell of lavender, the Yardley talc and soap his mum had helped him choose for her almost every time, the Smarties Easter eggs she’d buy for him every year. Even last year, presented to him in May by his dad, saying gruffly “That’s from your gran,” although Harry hadn’t really known how much she’d had to do with it. They’d all split it one night in the flat when they were watching Jurassic Park because somehow Eleanor had never seen it – they’d had nachos and beer and then Harry’s grandma’s Easter egg, Smarties clutched in his hand and staining his sweaty palm rainbow colours. The good luck cards she’d sent him for everything, the two piano exams he’d got through and end of year tests and moving into his first student house; he hadn’t got a card from her before his third year university exams and he remembers not particularly worrying, not particularly noticing, but in hindsight maybe that was the first sign. Maybe it’s good she’s gone now. Maybe it’s good she’s at peace. Maybe he won’t end up crying into his jumper sleeve on a train full of people. He doesn’t think he’s brought any tissues with him.

The train starts to move, a slow shift out of the station into the dark blue night ahead, and someone slides into the seat next to him. He half wants to point out the reserved ticket on the back of it so he can have space to himself to host his very own private pity party, but whatever. Louis isn’t showing up to sit in it, and whoever it is deserves a seat. The person puts a hand on his arm, their touch soft and barely there, and Harry pushes his hat up, turns and—

“It’s you,” he says, and makes a loud snotty sniffing noise that he doesn’t even curse himself for. “Hi.”

“Hey,” Zayn says, eyes big and nervous, and – he shouldn’t be nervous, not at all. Not when he’s here. Not when he’s come for Harry. “Louis gave me his ticket, he said you were – he said it was hard for you.”

Harry nods. He feels like he should dispute that, but it is hard. He feels so sad that it’s a bit pathetic; it’s even more pathetic that the knowledge he won’t be by himself tonight and tomorrow is one of the best things he’s ever heard. “Thanks,” he says, his voice sounding funny, his nose blocked up.

Zayn shrugs a shoulder. He’s holding a backpack and a bag that looks like it’s probably holding a suit on his lap, and his hair is a little longer than it was the last time Harry saw him, when he was kissing Perrie outside a registry office as though his whole life had been leading up to that moment. He’s wearing a wedding ring on his fourth finger, silver and smooth, and he looks – actually, he looks well. His face is a little fuller and the shadows around his eyes have receded, and he looks like everything Harry’s wanted for the last year and a half. “Of course I came,” Zayn says, getting comfortable, looking down into his bag, finding his phone and earbuds before standing up to throw his stuff into the overhead racks. “Louis said you needed a friend. We’re friends, right?” He looks down at Harry before sliding back into the seat next to him. Harry gets a whiff of him then, coffee, mint, cigarettes, the faint underscent of cologne he probably put on hours and hours ago. He wants to put his head down onto Zayn’s shoulder and fall asleep and wake up in two days’ time.

“Yes,” he says instead, watching Zayn’s hands as he wraps his earphones around his phone, the little bird on his hand. Hey, little bird. He wants to reach out and touch it, but he doesn’t, because that would probably be odd. “We were always friends.”

Zayn doesn’t say anything to that, but he does look at Harry and smile with absolute sincerity, like he’s honestly happy that Harry agreed to that. Over the last few months they probably haven’t been great friends: barely talking at the wedding, kissing drunkenly at the tube station. Those things definitely aren’t what epic friendships are made of. Harry smiles back at him, and then he reaches down and takes hold of Zayn’s hand, lacing their fingers together, thumb stroking over his little bird. Friends probably don’t do this either. Harry doesn’t particularly care.

*

They share a room in the Travelodge. There’s a double bed and a sofa bed, which has a stained back and suspicious lumps on the mattress; Zayn frowns at it before kicking it until it’s folded up again and saying “We’re sharing the bed, but no funny business.”

“It’s the night before my grandma’s funeral,” Harry says, very softly, looking as hurt as he possibly can. “Do you really think that little of me?”

Zayn stares at him, his smile slowly slipping off his face. “Sorry, that was a bad joke – I – sorry, Harry…”

“Kidding.” Harry grins, sits down on the edge of the double bed and kicks off his boots. “Well, it is the night before the funeral. But – you know.”

“You are such a massive arsehole.” Zayn shakes his head, but he’s relaxed now, picks up a pillow and whops Harry over the head with it. It’s late, they’ve eaten some pretty rubbish burgers at the Travelodge restaurant for dinner, and it really should be time for bed. Harry’s totally aware of that. And he’s still sad, he is; it’s gnawing inside his chest, it’s blurring his vision every time he remembers that his grandma isn’t coming back. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make jokes, it doesn’t mean that nothing will ever make him smile again. He’s not heartbroken the way he’d be if a younger person had died. And so it’s easy to flop backwards onto the bed and laugh when Zayn smacks him with the pillow again, it’s easy to flail a bit and grab onto Zayn’s wrists. He’s got that combination of wiry and strong going on; Harry likes it a lot, likes feeling strength thrum beneath his skin despite the fact his wrists are slim and slightly bony. He feels like Zayn would be able to pin him down, if he wanted to. Harry wants him to. But he’s married, he’s got Perrie at home and an album full of Christmas themed wedding pictures, so really this is nothing.

They settle down on the edge of the bed, TV on, leaning forward to hear it properly because the hotel’s a total bastard and the TV’s fixed so you can’t put the sound up too high. Harry is very aware of the fact of Zayn next to him, in his black jeans and his t-shirt with a picture of a cartoon character Harry doesn’t recognise on it and with his hair spiking up at the back like a little boy’s. They click the TV off after the news, shift gently around the room like two friendly ghosts passing each other by as they get ready for bed. They brush their teeth, settle into bed together; Zayn’s kept his t-shirt on but Harry can still sense him there, the warmth of him, the fact of him so close, his face across the pillows. He remembers falling asleep beside him twice before.

“Are you okay?” Zayn murmurs, shifting. Harry can smell mint and hotel soap.

“I think so,” Harry says. He pokes around inside his head gently, tries to sort out his feelings. Seeing all his family tomorrow, Zayn by his side; drinking bad wine with Gemma at the lunch after the funeral – God, the funeral itself. He’s got to read out a fucking poem, part of Shelley’s elegy to Keats, and he doesn’t think any of his relatives are going to understand it even though he does, deep in his heart. He hath awaken’d from the dream of life; he hath outsoar’d the shadow of our night. She’s slipped the bonds of earth, she’s free at last. He’s got to say goodbye to his grandma; finish saying goodbye, at any rate. He thinks the goodbyes started a long time ago. That first missed letter. That first forgotten name. “Shit,” he breathes, the word cracking in the dark air, and Zayn reaches out for him, shifts closer, pulls Harry’s head down into his shoulder, strokes his hair. It’s not even – Harry doesn’t even get hard from it. It’s not like sex, it’s not like anything they’ve done already. It’s just comfort in the dark, between crackly old sheets, on top of too-hard pillows. It’s Zayn being strong again, a different sort of strength than the strength that could pin Harry against the off-white wall or pound into him until he forgets his own name. He allows himself to be held, to be warm and safe. And somehow, he sleeps.

*

They’re up early the next day, shuffle into their suits. Harry realises, suddenly, that Zayn’s wearing his wedding suit and his nice white shirt with the mismatched buttons; he wants to run his hand over Zayn’s chest and to feel the lean muscle underneath the white cotton, but instead he just focuses on stealing as many mini croissants as he can from the breakfast buffet. The taxi arrives to collect them, and outside in the pale grey light Harry realises Zayn looks tired, his eyes a little puffy. “I’m shit at early mornings,” he explains, and Harry thinks: Another thing you’ve done for me. Such a tiny thing, so not a big deal: coming up north with him, giving up a day’s work; getting up early, struggling into a tie and shirt at 9am when you don’t even want to be awake. The list of kindnesses Zayn’s done for him will probably grow, Harry realises.

Throughout the day, it does. Harry sits with his dad on one side and Zayn on the other, Gemma and her boyfriend on his dad’s other side. His dad is subdued and upset, which is strange because he usually seems jocular, merry even when he shouldn’t be. It’s been frustrating in the past. Harry feels cruel and sick and guilty for being glad that for once his dad is quiet. The service is – it’s okay, considering. It’s not so bad. There’s this shit funeral dirge that’s being played at the beginning, and there isn’t any coffin carrying, which Harry’s pretty glad about. He hasn’t been to all that many funerals but he’s seen them on TV, seen flushed upset faces pressed to the side of coffins, inches away from dead people, and he doesn’t really want that to be him. He reads out his poem about five minutes into the service. He’s mostly okay, pretty much because he’s been studiously not listening to anything, and focusing on this little fuzzy bit of hair that’s sticking out from the side of the vicar’s face, and bobbing in a way that’s somehow indecorous and inappropriate. It isn’t so bad; he enunciates carefully, sees his dad’s face crumple, sees Gemma biting her lip so she doesn’t cry. Sees his auntie crying into a hankie. Sees Zayn with his big dark eyes, focusing on him with the sort of steadiness and seriousness that’s everything Harry needs. He touches Harry’s hand when he goes to sit down again, throws him a comforting smile.

Gemma’s up next. She talks about the robin who used to follow their gran around when she worked outside, talks about the way that she used to pretend there were fairies living at the bottom of her garden to make the two of them laugh when they were little, talks about the stories she used to make up to send them to sleep whenever they slept over. She talks about how loved she felt. She talks about how proud their gran was of Harry, and that – it comes as a shock, actually. It comes as a big shock. She says, “Our grandma used to have a picture of me and Harry on her bedside table, and right up to the end she used to tell the care assistants that this was her granddaughter the scientist and her grandson the lawyer. And—”

Harry doesn’t know what she says after that, because something inside his chest is tangled but it’s trying to unwind itself, choking him all up through his throat, aching agony inside his nose and his throat and his chest, and somehow he’s crying, quiet but crying nonetheless, hot painful tears falling down his face and dripping off his chin. He thinks I never went to see her, and She loved me anyway, and She was proud of me. Zayn takes his hand, strokes cool fingertips over the back of his knuckles, tangles their fingers together. It helps.

*

“I just need to do something with my life,” he tells Zayn in their room that evening. They’re staying for one more night, because their train tickets home are booked for first thing Saturday morning, ‘just in case’. In hindsight, Harry isn’t sure why he and Louis made that decision, but he’s happy about it now, sitting cross-legged across from Zayn on their bed, a half-eaten packet of cookies between them, two bottles of Ribena – one original, one strawberry – and two empty, greasy McDonald’s bags. He likes this, he likes talking and feeling Zayn listen, with his cool, considering gaze and his clever, thoughtful face. All day he was by Harry’s side, all day; smiling at his relatives, perfectly sympathetic, introducing himself as Harry’s friend, here for a bit of moral support. Gemma grabbed Harry’s arm, her eyes tear-lit, her nose stuffy from crying, and said “He’s cute, Harry. He’s nice, too.” He is nice. Harry knows that now. And more importantly, he’s kind; it doesn’t take all that much to be nice, just throwing a few smiles at someone, a couple of minutes. But kindness means thoughtfulness, it means generosity, reaching out without moving on right afterwards. Maybe kindness fits more with him.

“What exactly do you need to do?” Zayn asks, only sounding a little bit like he’s humouring him.

“I don’t know, but I definitely need to do something. Actually become a lawyer, maybe,” Harry says, wide-eyed. He’s had a lot of wine. Wine sometimes turns him into a bit of a maniac. It’s not always the best idea.

“Do you want to be a lawyer?” The slant of Zayn’s eyebrows implies that he’d be surprised if Harry answered in the affirmative.

“I don’t know! I don’t know. But I need to change. I can’t just… I need to make people proud of me. And I need to do something.” He feels as though he’s grasping for it, as though there’s something beyond his fingertips. His eyes feel bone-dry and his throat is still tight and scratchy, and he feels bruised somehow, deep inside his chest, like someone’s reached down his throat and punched him. He feels like he needs people to know that he can be better than this. He feels like he needs to let himself know he can be better than this.

“I think you’ve done plenty to make people proud of you,” Zayn points out staunchly. “I think you’re a good person. You make people feel good about themselves. You’re kind. You’re—”

“Shut up,” Harry says, and instantly feels bad. “Oh God. No, I didn’t mean – thanks. That’s nice, but I just – I haven’t done anything. I was going to do so much. I just… oh, that was really rude, wasn’t it?”

Zayn doesn’t look insulted, thank God. He’s smiling instead, a little reluctant. His white teeth are so even. Louis’s teeth are like that, a bit, but they’re pointy, it gives his smiles a bit of menace that Zayn ultimately lacks. Zayn wears leather jackets and he has lots of tattoos and big soulful eyes, but he’s got the soul of the sweetest little jelly baby. Harry thinks for a moment of that little bowl of gummy sweets on his grandma’s mantelpiece, the thick dusty blue carpet on the floor, the electric fireplace. The display of pictures of him and Gemma. Gemma’s gone back to university, after asking Harry about a million times if he minds if they don’t spend the evening together. The thing about asking people if they mind something is that you’re secretly desperate for them to say No, I don’t mind, I’m fine, don’t inconvenience yourself, so Harry did. He’s fine here anyway with Zayn and his stomach full of McDonald’s and Maryland cookies, his greasy fingers and the sight of swirling tattoos on Zayn’s collarbone, his loosened, rumpled shirt.

“Friday,” Harry says. “Why do you have Friday tattooed on you?”

Zayn shrugs, so delicate, so angular. Harry wants to touch every bit of him. He wants to beg Zayn to destroy him. “I don’t know. I love a Friday.”

“Today’s Friday,” Harry points out inanely.

“Maybe today wasn’t a shining example of the best Friday of my life,” Zayn says.

Harry laughs, the sound too jagged. “Maybe we could make it better,” he says. He wants to be better; he wants to make Zayn like him more. He wants to click his fingers and make the ring on his finger disappear. He wants to make Perrie want to leave. He wants to be a ghost and drift through their lives, and see what a thousand incidental breakfasts look like at their house. Who does the shopping, and who does the vacuuming. Who washes, and who dries. If Perrie touches the piercing through Zayn’s nipple with her fingers and her mouth. If she still fucks him with a strap-on dick. If Zayn still longs for a real one.

“How are we going to do that?” Zayn asks, cautious now, and Harry shrugs. It feels loose, uncontrolled. He wants to bite Zayn’s bottom lip too hard, and draw blood. He wants to fuck a married man, and to make a married man fuck him. He wants to do everything horrible and cruel, that he was told he should never do. He wants to come inside him and press his tongue into him and then kiss him, hard and painful. He wants to make Zayn hit him hard across the face, to taste the metal tang of blood in his mouth, to smile pink-toothed at Zayn. He doesn’t want him to apologise for it. He wants to take that force and to put it into every part of his life, to bleed through everything. He wants to care so much he could scream with it.

“Fuck me,” he says, and Zayn says, “What?”

“Please,” Harry says, and lurches across the bed, kisses him, and it’s not – it doesn’t feel right. Zayn’s slack-mouthed, and Harry feels his eyelashes prickling against his cheeks as he blinks, feels his hands against his chest. For a second they cling, they wrap around Harry’s shirt and his jacket and they draw him in, they hold him so tightly, as if he’s everything that Zayn needs. His fingertips skate across skin, across Harry’s chest and collarbones and then Zayn’s wriggling backwards, the kiss is broken, and – actually. Actually, everything feels broken, and he feels like he might be dying, and he knows that’s probably an exaggeration but it’s as though something’s snapped, Zayn’s thrown all his shutters back up, Harry doesn’t understand his face any more. He thinks, suddenly and wildly, Who is this person?

“Harry,” he says, “You can’t just – you’re upset, you’re grieving. I’m…”

“Married, I know,” Harry says, feeling like he’s going to choke on it. “I know. Fucking married.” He sits back onto his heels, fists his hands, presses them into his eyes until rainbows flood behind his eyelids. When he was little he used to do this, and dream that the strange shapes he saw made up secret cities hidden in the clouds. Today it’s just a blur and he can hear Zayn’s breathing and he wants to go home. He wants to put his head in Louis’s lap and maybe cry a bit, and he just—

“I thought you were my friend,” Harry spits out. It still hurts. He feels like such a fuck-up. He feels like he’s never done anything that anyone wants him to do. He feels as though any hope that anyone had in him has already been vanquished by his apathy, his ability to wander happily from day to day and to not care. He feels as though he’s a walking gap in the world, a face without any substance, a life without any meaning.

“I am your friend,” Zayn says. Harry hears shuffling, the bed sheets rustling, and then there’s the warmth of Zayn there beside him again, drawing him in. He remembers the bite of Zayn’s hands on him the night they first fucked and wonders how the same hands can be so gentle and so soft now. “Come on, Harry,” he says, and draws Harry’s head down onto his shoulder, hand tangled in his hair so tenderly it feels like Zayn cares in that moment, like he really sincerely cares. Zayn puts his other arm around him and holds him like he’s making a promise. He’s always going away, Zayn; onto planes or trains, vanishing down tunnels or into the night, but right now he’s here, and it’s enough, it’s everything. Harry breathes him in and knows, the fact of it so certain it’s as though candles are lighting his way to it, that in this moment Zayn is the best friend he’s ever had.

*

Harry’s tried to change his life before now, but this time it’s for real. He and Zayn get back to London halfway through Saturday afternoon, and break apart at Kings Cross. Despite everything it was an okay night, and in the morning he could sense Zayn being careful not to make things awkward, being so painfully kind, doing it thoughtfully as though it didn’t come naturally to him, even though Harry knows it does really. Zayn ducks outside for a cigarette at Kings Cross and Harry gets on the tube going north to Camden. It’s a short journey but his head is thudding and he just wants to get home and crawl into his bed and sleep, and forget things for a bit. He forgets that Niall and Liam aren’t going to be in the flat when he gets home, so it’s colder and emptier than it’s probably ever been before. It’s the saddest flat in the history of sad flats. He turns on the heating and stands there feeling pathetic and shivering for a while. Then he texts Louis a string of sad emojis, and he and Eleanor are there in fifteen minutes, bearing a carrier bag of Jaffa Cakes and tea bags and milk and bananas. They come bearing hugs, too. That’s the best part.

He spends Sunday by himself for once. Does some thinking. Quits his job on Monday morning. That makes it sound a little extreme; really, he just pops into his boss’s office and hands in his one month’s notice. Then he starts looking for new jobs. It’s not easy, mostly because he has no idea what the hell he wants to do. He thinks of the things that people say he’s good at: he’s friendly, he’s fairly personable, he makes a good cup of tea, he’s got nice legs, which might not fit in anywhere on his CV but might, he feels, help him out if he gets any interviews. It’s difficult because he’s not like anyone he knows, really; he’s not musical like Niall, who’s a session guitarist, and he’s not practical like Liam, who works in engineering, and he might be good with people but he’s certainly not good enough to corral teenagers into performing West Side Story like Louis is. Eleanor works in fashion PR, which sometimes used to make her come home crying because “everyone’s a fucking arsehole, Harry, that’s why I’m bloody crying, can you please pass me that wine, thank you, Jesus Christ, people are so dreadful,” and Zayn and Perrie are clearly both artistic in a cool, visual way, which isn’t like Harry at all. He can look at a painting and he knows that he likes it and why, but it’s not as though he can recreate it in any way at all.

Seeing as he hasn’t got any talents, he thinks he’d probably better find out what he loves, and to do that instead. Do what you love, and fuck the rest, he once heard. It sounds like quite good advice. He thinks he might just take it. He makes lists of things he loves: Bananas. Writing on bananas with biros. Cheerful indie rock. Interesting hats. The Pyramus and Thisbe scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gaps in between people’s two front teeth. Louis’s pointy incisors. The bird tattoo on Zayn’s hand. The word ‘equilibrium’. Calling people ‘pal’ instead of ‘mate’. After a while he realises his list is going absolutely nowhere, and decides to go in a different direction. Helping people. Making things run smoothly. Cheering people up. He makes a list of industries he’s interested in: TV, radio, tattooing, books. Anything that isn’t law. He’s really had his fill of contracts by now.

He meets Nick and Matt mostly by chance. He’s at the pub one Friday night with Niall, Liam, Louis, Eleanor and Sophia, and Niall comes back to their table with a slightly alarmed man in a headlock.

Louis frowns a bit and says, “Niall, you do know this man, don’t you?” He cranes his head so he can make eye contact with headlock man, who’s flushed and slightly miserable looking. “Is my friend assaulting you with hugs?”

“No!” headlock man says, and then: “Well, a bit.”

“Niall,” Harry says reprimandingly. “Get off him.”

Niall’s already releasing him. “C’mon, Matt,” he says to headlock man. “It’s like you’re allergic to joy sometimes.”

“Oddly enough, you’re not the first person to have said that.” Matt’s smiling slightly now, the flush receding. He’s got a thin, solemn face, although it’s the sort of face that looks as though it can break into cheerfulness pretty quickly. Harry likes it. Matt smiles round at them, proffers his hand to shake everyone else’s, and doesn’t even wince when Louis does his patented Knucklecrusher shake.

“I met Matt at Radio One,” Niall explains happily, sitting down again and retrieving a pint that may or may not be his. “You know, when I played with Paolo Nutini?”

“Yes, yes, you play with celebrities,” Louis says. “Simmer down, Mr Bigshot.”

Niall grins. “Matt produces one of the night time shows there. One of the music-y ones.” He’s making strange motions at Harry with his eyebrows. He keeps frowning furiously, then raising his eyebrows and glancing frantically towards Matt.

“Are you okay?” Liam asks, sounding concerned. Sophia rolls her eyes and elbows him gently.

Niall sighs, as though everyone’s very dense, and then says, “Matt here was telling me about an internship at the station.”

Harry’s head shoots up. “Really?” He reaches across the table towards Matt, who shakes his hand for a second time, looking politely puzzled. “Harry Styles. Recently unemployed. Nice to meet you.”

As it turns out, Harry gets the internship, because sometimes in this world, things work out for the best. When he was younger, he usually got what he wanted – girls, boys, jobs, courses. It’s only been recently that that stopped happening – when he was looking for a job after uni and got rejected from all of the places that sounded half decent, and then later, when he met Zayn. When he grew up, if he’s honest with himself. He starts working with Matt and Nick, who hosts the show. Harry’s actually always liked the show; he listens to it in the evenings when it’s his turn to do the washing up, and wanders round the kitchen dancing a bit. Sometimes he’s in the studio, he learns about producing and he makes cups of tea and he does challenges when Nick makes him, like skipping for ten minutes and trying to fit fifteen marshmallows in his mouth at once. It’s all a really good laugh. They’re all good people. He isn’t in the studio every day, though – it’s a bit of an A&R thing too, he goes to showcases and gigs and gives them ideas about up and coming acts with EPs coming out who could be featured on the show, he gets plus ones and takes Louis, who makes fun of everyone, or Niall, who criticises their guitar techniques, or Liam, who thinks everyone is “so talented, Harry, really, they’re brilliant. I think you should have them all on the show.”

One time he takes Zayn to a gig with him. It actually turns out to be embarrassingly bad. The frontman’s so drunk he forgets a lot of his lyrics and almost trips off the stage, which seems like something Harry would do sober, and the drummer’s out of time for most of the set. Afterwards Harry can’t stop apologising, and Zayn laughs at him and says, “It’s okay. Really, it’s okay. It was just nice to see you again, to be honest.”

They’re walking down the road in Hoxton, towards Old Street station, so Harry can get the Northern Line home. It’s late April and the air is cool and crisp. For the first time in a few months, he isn’t wearing a jacket. He feels good about it; he feels as though spring’s well and truly here, as though the darker time is over. He feels like things are getting better for the first time in a while. Zayn says, “So the job’s going well? You’re going to be famous soon, probably.”

Harry laughs, bumps shoulders with him. They’re walking just a fraction closer to each other than he does with any of his other friends, but then again their friendship is a work in progress, it’s not a fully formed thing yet. He doesn’t know if it ever will be; he doesn’t know if it will work in the end. All he can do is hope. “Hardly. But yeah, it is going well. Nick’s really nice.”

“He always seems like a bit of a knob. Just likes being famous.”

“It’s actually not like that,” Harry says, thoughtfully. “I think, like, Kate Moss is just friends with him because she likes him. She sent him a picture of her tits the other day so he could assess for her whether or not they were going south.”

Zayn laughs. “And are they?”

“Even if they were, would you tell Kate Moss she’s getting saggy?”

“Fair point.” Zayn grins, pulls his cigarettes out of his pocket. Harry has a terrible problem in that whenever he smells cigarettes now, he tends to think of Zayn. It’s fine, but Niall chews spearmint gum all the time and whenever Harry smells spearmint he doesn’t feel like someone’s instantly punched him in the guts. Memories that come with smells are difficult because they’re so intense and so visceral; it’s not like he imagines Zayn in his mind, he doesn’t see his dark hair or his good bone structure or anything. He sees the curve of his throat, hears the crackle of his laughter. It makes things harder. Makes getting over his most irrational crush the hardest thing in the world.

They’re almost at the station now. Harry lingers with him so he can finish his cigarette outside, smoking quickly, the cool breeze getting to both of them now that they’re standing still. He asks, voice carefully controlled, “So how’s Perrie?”

“Fine, fine.” Zayn’s face is unreadable, the way it always is if Perrie’s name comes up. On the way back from Harry’s grandma’s funeral he asked about Perrie, and Zayn’s face did the same thing. Harry thinks that maybe Zayn’s trying to protect him from it, from getting sad or being reminded that Zayn’s with someone else so has effectively rejected him. It’s nice of him and all, but Harry’s a big boy. He can take it. And anyway, it’s been months. Four months since Zayn got married, almost exactly. And it’s still a bit painful, he still wishes that things had happened any other way, but it’s not the end of the world. Or rather, it is, but it’d be nice to think other people don’t still think he’s a sad obsessed weirdo. Zayn exhales smoke and then says, thoughtfully, “It’s strange, right, because it’s different in London. I dunno why. I think it’s because our friends are back in New York. It’s nice here because we’ve got Liam and Sophia, but…” He shrugs, looking pensive.

“You can always hang out with us if you want,” Harry offers magnanimously.

Zayn grins, white teeth, crinkled nose. It’s like he’s not even trying to make Harry stop fancying him. Maybe if he wore a bag over his head, or made a concerted effort to stop moving his hips when he walks. “Fucking north London wankers? No thanks, mate. I’ll make an exception for Liam, but…”

“We’re all Northerners in the end,” Harry reminds him, “except for Niall,” and Zayn nods sagely at that. He opens his mouth like he’s got something else to say but then Harry hears someone saying his name, so he turns, and—

Oh, wow.

“Hey, Taylor,” he says, because somehow she’s right there, blonde hair soft around her face, all red lipstick and pretty eyes and green dress swishing softly around her knees. “How are you?”

“In all the gin joints in all the world…” she says, and looks at Harry like she’s expecting him to finish her sentence.

If Harry looks as blank as he feels, he probably looks braindead, which is unfortunate.

“Casablanca,” Zayn supplies helpfully, and holds out his hand to Taylor. “Hi. Harry’s friend Zayn.”

“Hey, Harry’s friend Zayn,” Taylor says. “I’m Harry’s ex-girlfriend, Taylor, so as you can see, this isn’t uncomfortable at all. I was on my way home from dinner. What about you boys?”

“We’re off home too,” Harry says. “I’m Northern line, northbound?”

“That’s me,” she nods, and right, that makes sense; Harry remembers going to stay with her in Hampstead, in her tiny, perfectly tidy flat. It was like walking into the most beautifully colour coordinated place in the world. She had a lot of cushions, and a soft blanket over the back of her sofa, and a little grey cat snoozing in a basket in the corner, and pots of different coloured pens on her perfectly arranged desk, and shelves and shelves of books that were in the exact right state of disorder. He wonders if it’s still like that. It’s the sort of place that you walk into with the firm knowledge that if you’re there for long enough, you will absolutely be presented with homemade cookies.

Zayn looks from Harry to Taylor and then back to Harry. “I’m going south. You guys go,” he says. He’s smiling, a little lopsided, a little awkward. “I’ve still got this.” He holds up half a cigarette.

“Are you sure,” Harry begins, and doesn’t manage to finish his sentence because Taylor’s linking arms with him and walking him into the station, throwing a cheery wave at Zayn over her shoulder. He makes a helpless face, and Zayn just laughs at him, the arsehole. So – right then. This is, apparently, happening. He’s so excited about the next twenty minutes of his life. He doesn’t want to curl up in a ball and roll down the stairs like a hedgehog to escape in the slightest.

“I thought you were angry with me,” he says when they’re on the escalators.

She laughs. “Furious.”

“Really?”

“No. We broke up a long time ago, Harry.”

“Oh.”

“I’m more mature than that. Come on. I’m a grown woman. I’ve had boyfriends since you. You weren’t so bad after all.” She throws a ‘would you believe it’ look over her shoulder at him. “Anyway, I told you my piece last summer, at the wedding. I got it all out of my system. I’m refreshed now. Ready to take on the world. After I’ve finished grading my year eleven coursework, that is.”

“How is work? Is teaching still the hardest job in the world?” he asks.

“Harder.” They step off the escalator, and somehow as they’re walking towards the platform they’ve linked arms. Her arm’s resting through his, and it’s like – it feels good. He remembers this. When they first started dating he remembers looking sideways at her and thinking Wow. Does she really want to be with me? and being astonished by how lucky he was, by the choices she’d made, being with him when she was so pretty and so clever that she could have anyone she wanted. “It’s exhausting. But I love it, because I’m crazy. What about you?”

“I’m working at Radio One,” he says, and is rewarded by a big smile, her eyebrows shooting up, and a yelped “Congratulations!” before he goes on, “Yeah, yeah, it’s cool. I was interning on Nick Grimshaw’s show and now they’ve hired me as a production assistant. It’s – it’s good, actually.”

“Good. Good for you, Harry. I’m so pleased for you.” She squeezes his arm, looking delighted, and right then – that’s how it begins. That’s how his second relationship with Taylor starts. She looks up at him with the biggest smile in the world, generous and sincerely taking pleasure in good things happening to other people, even her idiot ex-boyfriend, and he likes her. He thinks that she’s probably a good person, kind and sweet and decent, and he thinks that maybe – just maybe something could happen here. Because he’s older now and he knows what he wants, and he knows what it’s like to be made miserable by someone you can’t have, and if you can have someone nice instead, what’s the point in not going for it? He’s got his job sorted now, he’s got friends he loves and a family he phones and sees the appropriate amount of times per month. But Louis is married and Zayn is married and Liam’s so serious about Sophia that they’re pretty much guaranteed to get married sometime soon, and Niall’s started hooking up with Eleanor’s friend Barbara on a pretty regular basis, so just – maybe. Maybe he should try to make something work for himself.

By the time he gets off the train they’ve arranged to have coffee the next Saturday morning. Coffee turns into a walk around the British Museum, peering at the ancient books, the high glass ceiling, going upstairs to look at the Ancient Egypt display, fighting their way through crowds of tourists. Taylor’s animated, and she knows a lot, can reel off facts and then she looks confused about where she learned it, as though knowledge just springs into her head, as though she doesn’t have to try to be clever or funny. Harry has to try to be clever and funny. He has to try really hard, actually. “Maybe on the Discovery Channel,” she’ll say, or, “I think I just read it somewhere.” She must read a lot. Harry is duly impressed. He walks her right up to her front door at the end of the day, and she lets him kiss her good night. Her red lipstick’s worn off by then and her lips are smooth and warm. She kisses the way he remembers she always did, which is nice.

It’s all nice, actually. He takes her to his favourite little Italian place nearby and she comes back and they drink red wine on the couch and eat chili chocolate until Niall comes home drunk and lies down on the floor with his head half underneath the coffee table and tells them every single thing that happened in that night’s Derby match. They go out for dinner with Louis and Eleanor, and when they split off from each other at the end Louis raises his eyebrows in a way that means Well done, lad, and Harry smiles and holds Taylor’s hand more tightly. He sends her flowers at school and apologises when she tells him off for embarrassing her; he comes over with a takeaway after her year ten parents’ evening, when all she wants to do is lie on her bed and talk to him about how much she hates fifteen year olds for two hours, and she says “You’re my favourite person,” and eats six wontons and half a bag of prawn crackers in less than five minutes. She comes to the radio station with him and smiles at him from across the room as he darts around making coffee for Nick and doing little bits of research and opening emails, and she comes to some gigs with him too. As it turns out she’s good at giving him advice – this band’s a little rough but they have an interesting sound, this singer will never be able to sing on key, this group have tight harmonies but they’ve obviously never even considered writing original music. She knows her stuff. It’s – again, it’s nice. He’s not delirious with joy all the time, but he’s happy enough. Maybe that’s all he ever needed.

*

He goes out one night with Nick and Matt, who Harry’s now allowed to call Finchy because they’re actually friends. They go to Proud Camden, which Nick denounces as “full of horrible people,” and then he makes a spectacle of himself by finding some neon sunglasses somewhere and dancing with anyone who’ll let him. Matt sinks back into their little stable booth and sucks down Budweisers and narrows his eyes at Nick from across the room.

“He’d kiss you if you let him,” Harry tells him equably.

“Oh God, please shut up,” Matt says, and goes to order some shots.

It’s a beautiful night and he’s with nice people, and also the floor is cobbled so he gets to watch lots of drunk people almost falling over, so there’s an element of good old-fashioned slapstick in there as well. It’s the sort of night where it’s easy to be happy, although he finds that most of the time. Since his grandma died he’s had moments of the most intense grief that knocks him sideways, but he’s getting better now. He thinks it’s the sort of thing he can use as an inspiration for the rest of his life: to be kinder, to do better. To treat people well, and to make them smile when he can. It’s not rocket science, but it’s still the kind of thing that needs working on every day.

He dances, because he always dances if there’s an opportunity. That’s another life lesson he’s going to pass down to his children one day in the future: be kinder, dance more. Long hair, don’t care. That’s going to be on his grave stone, because fuck you, law offices. He drinks and he dances and he laughs with Nick and teases Matt. Nick manages to get behind the decks and the music switches up a gear, gets poppier and heavier at the same time, if that’s even possible, Sigma and Rihanna and an intense Amy Winehouse remix, because they’re in Camden so they’re hellbound to honour her memory. Nick jumps and the whole room jumps, shudders, sweats all together. Harry loves being in the middle of the crowd. It can be the loneliest place in the world, if you don’t know anyone, but it can be the most freeing feeling as well.

Nick hands over to someone else at about midnight and Harry goes outside with him so Nick can smoke, Harry beside him, rocking his sweaty neck back onto the cool stone wall. The security guard’s looking at them with badly disguised disdain, so Harry smiles at him until he smiles back. It looks very reluctant, but Harry will absolutely take what he can get. Take what you want. A million miles away, a million years ago.

Just as he’s thinking that his phone buzzes in his pocket and he has to wriggle to get it out, his jeans are so tight. Like a bad penny Zayn’s shown up again, Harry opening a message from him as Nick cackles and says “Is that the ladyfriend?”

“No,” Harry says, reading it, suddenly mad, desperate for anything Zayn’s willing to give him. In Kentish town, can be at flat in 10mins – u up xx it says, and Harry texts back, See you then. “I’ve got to go,” he tells Nick, who raises his eyebrows and looks pleasantly intrigued but not personally interested, which means that Harry’s hasty exit will probably slip his brain in a matter of seconds. Nick is good like that; he’s intrusive but he never means it. He knows where the line is, and he doesn’t cross it. Harry appreciates that.

He escapes, heart pounding in his chest as his feet pound on the pavements. It’s astonishing how much quicker he can run when he’s kind of drunk. He gets back to his road in nine minutes exactly, and wheezes outside his flat for a moment, wishing he’d brought his inhaler. The thing is, there wasn’t anywhere to put it in his skinny jeans, and Nick said “Are you having a laugh?” when Harry suggested putting it in his mini rucksack. After a moment he’s okay again and his brain is completely free to focus on the married man who may or may not be about to come over to his flat to fuck him.

God, Harry hopes that’s why he’s coming. He hopes that Zayn will lay him down in bed and finger him gently and maybe lick him out a bit and then fuck him, long and slow. He wants the stretch and ache, he wants to wake up with the smell of Zayn’s cologne and sweat on his skin and Zayn sleeping like a baby on the pillow next to his. He wants to feel Zayn’s arm across him, flung over his waist in the dead of night, he wants to feel Zayn nose at the back of his neck first thing in the morning, ready to fuck him all over again. Upstairs he can see some lights on, and the window’s open. He hears Niall laugh, bright and staccato on the still night air. Maybe he can parade Zayn past them on the way to bed as though he’s a prize Harry’s won, or maybe they’ll perform an intricate pantomime to get him into Harry’s room without being noticed. Harry doesn’t care. He just wants to see Zayn again, and this is different from the casual times they’ve had a drink in the evening or they’ve gone to a gig together. This is past midnight on a Friday and Zayn’s probably been out all evening, and they’re at their best together when they’re a little drunk and their inhibitions have been lowered.

He thinks momentarily of Taylor, and then he thinks of Perrie, and then he decides to dismiss them. Maybe this can be his goodbye to Zayn. Maybe it can be their farewell. Maybe he doesn’t give a fuck, so long as Zayn looks at him with lazy, heavy-hooded eyes and smiles his slow smile that goes right to Harry’s cock.

He waits for a moment longer and then he sees Zayn, a dark figure in the night, his cigarette glowing cherry-red in the gloom. He passes under a streetlight and Harry sees him nod his head in the tiniest acknowledgement. Harry feels like his chest is filling up and on the verge of exploding. He feels like his smile might dance off his face and across the street. He wants to crawl all over Zayn and inhale him and tattoo him on his skin, wants Zayn on his breath and his tongue and burned across his body. He wants to feel those scars in the morning. He leans against the wall outside the house where his flat is, and tries to look alluring.

It’s not quite working because Zayn’s smiling as he crosses the street, a strange quirk of a smile, half tense and half amused. “Hey,” he says, “I hope you don’t mind…” He waves a hand, artlessly graceful. Drunk, Harry realises. Not quite slurring, but almost there. “I was just in the neighbourhood and I thought fuck it, you know? Fuck it. Thought I might fuck you.”

He takes a drag on his cigarette, eyes narrowed against the smoke. Stands back, peers up at the house. “Someone there?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, his voice working, somehow. “Niall and – I don’t know. Liam, maybe?”

“Liam?” Zayn’s face twists, and he looks up at the flat again, considering, maybe a little disappointed. “He’ll kill me.”

He had an affair,” Harry points out.

“Because he fell in love,” Zayn counters, childish and petulant.

There’s a heavy silence after that, and Harry feels emptier, somehow. Zayn flicks his cigarette onto the pavement and it skitters along still burning; Harry dashes forward so he can stamp it out. He can feel Zayn’s eyes on him, slitted, cool and considering.

“Look,” Harry says, turning back to him. “I just – it’s been a while for us. No one needs to know. We could just…”

He slinks closer, and Zayn looks at him, lips parting a little. He lets out a breath, shaky, and Harry suddenly realises that Zayn wants him, maybe as much as Harry wants him right back. “Shit, Harry,” he says, and Harry smiles slowly, runs a hand through his hair, shirt rising just enough to show the bottom of one of the laurels on his hips. Zayn looks at the bare skin and then back at Harry’s face, and Harry takes a step further and leans in to kiss him.

Zayn kisses him back, immediately hard, tongue pressing into Harry’s mouth, fingers gripping his sides, digging into the flesh above his hips, hands moving down, pressing under his shirt, over bare skin, and Harry presses himself into the kiss, one hand on the side of Zayn’s face, kissing him so hard it almost hurts. He can hear them kissing, can hear little breaths and the slick slide smack of spit, feels Zayn grab his hips so he can angle him right to grind their cocks together, running a hand down to touch Harry’s dick through his jeans, not gentle, but it’s not too much either. He knows what he’s doing as he bites Harry’s lip and reaches up to touch his hair, tugging on it, one of his rings catching on a lock of it and yanking so hard that Harry yelps. Zayn doesn’t apologise, just pulls away and snaps, “Inside.”

Harry finds his keys, opens the downstairs door with hands that can barely get the key in the lock. There’s a staircase up to the flat from here, a front door that leads to the downstairs flat, which belongs to the Overmans, a couple Harry’s only met a few times and who are rarely in. It’s all dark and quiet, and Zayn looks around sharply before nodding, apparently deciding it’s okay, that they’re fine right here. Harry presses the door shut behind them and then Zayn’s on him again, kissing him hard, pressing him up against a wall. Harry remembers hypothesising once upon a time that Zayn was lean but strong; he’s pretty delighted to discover it first hand, to feel his shoulders smack against the wall in the sweetest way, pain glancing through him like a benediction. The hallway is tiny, dark, cool, illuminated only vaguely by shafts of golden light from the flat upstairs, which glance off the sharp planes of Zayn’s face like a search beam shining on him from far away. He tastes like rum and Coke and he feels half desperate. He fumbles at Harry’s t-shirt, reaches up so he can run his palms over Harry’s chest, squeezes his nipple sharp enough to make Harry gasp. “I can’t stop fucking thinking about you,” he spits out, and shoves Harry against the wall, just enough to push his shoulder blades against it. “You want this?” he asks, mouth glistening red in the faint light.

“Yes,” Harry gasps, because God, fuck yes, he does. He loves that he’s making Zayn lose control, even if maybe a night of drinking did that as well. He loves that when his inhibitions are lowered this is what Zayn thinks of. He doesn’t go home and beg Perrie to fuck him with a strap on, or to bend him over her lap and spank him and tell him he’s a naughty boy. He’s come here to Harry to punish someone, although God knows if that’s Harry or Zayn himself.

“You want me?” Zayn asks, and there’s more unsteadiness in his voice now and he’s almost dodging away, looking down to unfasten Harry’s belt and jeans, starting to shove them down with barely gentle hands, making an effort to be careful, not quite managing it.

“Of course,” Harry tells him, and Zayn looks back into his eyes with difficulty, so guarded, so unsure. He nods, the faintest twitch, and then he says, “Turn around.”

Harry does. Zayn pushes his jeans down to his ankles, and his pants too, kicks them so they’re on the floor, and he feels like he should – like maybe he should have a problem with being half naked in his hallway, but he doesn’t for some reason, not at all. Zayn pushes at his hips until his legs are more spread, presses his thumb to the top of Harry’s crack, and Harry’s so hard now that it’s almost painful, his hands braced against the cool wall. God, he’s probably about to get fucked over a heap of untouched junk mail with his friends metres away at the top of the stairs, and he’s so into it that he could cry with want. He presses his forehead against the wall and hears himself groan, high and faint as Zayn slaps his arse, sudden and slicing. He mutters out “Yeah, yeah, yeah, again,” and Zayn says “Yeah?” his voice cracking, and Harry says, “Please.”

A second and then another slap, harder this time, the sound echoing through the hallway. Harry’s knees are weak. He wants Zayn to do it again and again, he wants to give himself over entirely. He wants to look at himself in the mirror tomorrow morning and to see handprints on his arse, stained faint pink. Maybe bruises, even. Physical reminders of some sort that Zayn was there, that for a while Harry was his.

But Zayn’s pushing his legs apart, and Harry feels his finger, slick with something, spit probably. He presses his arse backwards, spreads himself more, and Zayn’s finger circles his hole, presses lightly before pushing inside him, and he’s not gentle the way some men are, the boring ones, the ones who are too tentative for Harry to bear. Harry chokes in a breath at the suddenness of it, and Zayn adds a second finger. Sweat’s beading on Harry’s brow and he has to reach down, grip the base of his cock, calm himself down, doesn’t want to come on the wall just because it’s hurting a little bit more than usual. Zayn says, “You like that?” and Harry nods, breathes out. “More, please.”

“You don’t have to say ‘please’,” Zayn says, “but I like it,” and he’s slower as he works the third finger in, Harry letting out a sigh. He feels as content as a cat arching its back, pressing his arse backwards, Zayn moving his fingers inside him, leaning in to kiss Harry’s neck, his shoulder where his t-shirt’s slipped, a slide of teeth and lips. “Is it too soon to fuck you?” Zayn asks in his ear. His accent’s more pronounced when he’s drunk and turned on, and Harry wants to bathe in it. He shakes his head and says “No,” and makes a peevish noise as Zayn withdraws his fingers. He repositions his hands on the wall, tries not to think about the sudden, horrible emptiness, hears Zayn’s fly going down, hears the faint rip of a condom wrapper. Then he feels the delicious nudge of Zayn’s cock against him, sliding against his arse, one of Zayn’s hands wrapping coolly around his hip, fingers digging in like teeth pressing against his bottom lip.

He holds Harry exactly where he wants him to be as he presses into him, and it’s almost too much, but not quite, just about teetering on the edge. Zayn’s not slow exactly but he’s steady and somehow he seems to know how Harry’s body works, sinks into him until he’s so deep that Harry could cry and then he stays still for a moment so Harry’s okay, so he can adjust. Harry gasps in a breath, feels Zayn’s mouth on the back of his neck. Zayn murmurs, “All right?” and Harry says, “Yeah,” and he is, the ache is it, the ache is everything. The ache is fuck you, you’re cheaters, and it’s also here’s something to remember him by. The ache is what he’ll remember in lonelier nights to come.

Zayn starts fucking him for real then, pulling out and slamming back in again, hard and certain. It’s fireworks exploding behind Harry’s eyelids, it’s his feet planted on the floor and his hands braced against the wall, it’s everything he needs. He hasn’t been fucked in months. He doesn’t know how he survived without it. Zayn pounds into him, fast and powerful, hands on his hips, Harry exactly the way he wants him. Every time Zayn moves it’s the best friction in the world, it’s heaven on earth, and he can hear himself making breathy little noises, he can hear Zayn saying “Fuck. Fuck,” behind him, gritted through his teeth like he wants to keep himself quiet but he can’t quite manage it.

“Harder,” Harry says, and adds, “please,” and Zayn breathes out a laugh, moves faster, shifts his angle and Harry sees stars, his knees almost buckling. Zayn’s hands are the only thing keeping him upright and tied to this earth. Zayn reaches round, hand curved over the laurel on Harry’s stomach, pushes down, wraps a hand around Harry’s dick, which is hard, almost aching. He wanks him off as he fucks him, bites his shoulder, blows on it to soothe it right afterwards. Harry tightens around him on purpose and Zayn moans, something wordless and desperate, and Harry’s so close, so fucking close. Zayn’s hand on his cock is so in time with the shifts of his hips that it’s like a clock ticking towards a destination that’s getting closer and closer and Harry’s so desperate for release, so desperate to feel Zayn coming inside him. He wants Zayn to fall apart, the way Harry’s going to, tonight, tomorrow morning, every time he remembers the lightning ache of Zayn fucking him a little too soon and a little too hard.

He comes maybe too quickly, hard into Zayn’s hand, slumping forward, almost knocking himself out on the wall. It’s fireworks again, always fireworks with Zayn, white hot and all consuming, like his whole body’s been put through a wringer. Zayn stills, almost out of respect, and then he starts moving again. It’s so sensitive, too sensitive, and Harry says, “Oh,” and Zayn gets it, stills, his hand still on Harry’s cock, wet with come.

“Let me…” Harry says, shifts a hip, and Zayn pulls out, and it’s like – it takes him a lot of self-discipline, that’s obvious, standing there, hard dick nudging against Harry’s arse, his breathing ragged, and Harry turns, drops to his knees. He peels the condom off Zayn’s dick, flings it on the floor. “Fuck my mouth,” he says, and Zayn says, “Yeah?” and Harry says, “Make me hoarse tomorrow,” and smiles up at him, sweet as pie, a total angel, the perfect boy.

“Fuck,” Zayn says. He shakes his hand, licks his palm, and Harry thinks That’s my come, and half thinks he’s about to get hard again and be up for a second round. Then Zayn tangles one hand in Harry’s hair – the other one, thank God – and presses his cock into Harry’s mouth. It tastes like latex, which is a little gross, and pre come, which isn’t at all. Salty, almost sweet, and Harry opens his mouth wider. He’s always been good at this; he hasn’t got much of a gag reflex and he loves cock so it’s a winning combination. Zayn’s dick is a particularly good one, heavy and wide, surrounded by the perfect amount of dark pubic hair. Harry wants to press his nose into it, but this is potentially not the right time or place. Zayn fucks his mouth, gentle at first, letting Harry do most of the work, his hand tightening in Harry’s hair every so often. Harry loves it when he does that, that bright twinge, loves how deep Zayn’s fingers are tangled in his hair, the way they brush against his scalp. Zayn fucks him harder and it doesn’t quite hurt and it’s not quite uncomfortable; Harry takes it, closes his eyes and enjoys it, sucks hard, flattens and curls his tongue to make Zayn’s breath catch in his throat in that way he has. He looks up into Zayn’s eyes quickly and they’re almost glazed over; the corner of his mouth curls into the tiniest smile when they make eye contact before he closes his eyes again, fucks Harry just a little deeper.

“Haz,” Zayn says after Harry doesn’t know how long, and then Zayn’s coming, hot sweet pulses into Harry’s mouth, and he swallows, feeling greedy for it. He pulls back when Zayn’s done, licks his lips, the slight trickle of come on the corner of his mouth. Zayn looks down at him with hooded eyes, hauls him to his feet by the neck of his t-shirt and kisses him hard. Harry clings to it, half dizzy, arms around him, pressed so tight together. He wants to say Don’t go, but Zayn breaks away from him too soon, of course. He’s moving slowly as he pulls his jeans back up, adjusts himself, tucks himself away, looks down at his sticky hands like they don’t belong to him. Harry pulls up his jeans too, wriggles into them. His phone’s on the floor, he realises dimly, must have fallen out at some point. The screen isn’t cracked though, thank God. He can’t believe he’s thinking about his phone screen right now.

“Thanks,” Zayn says finally, looking at Harry, before shoving his hands into his back pockets and bringing them out again, turning them over like he’s wishing they were cleaner.

“No problem?” Harry says. He doesn’t know why it comes out like a question. “You can…” He nods upwards at the flat.

“Stay? No.” Zayn swallows. He looks so flushed and so messy and so pretty. Harry feels like he’s ruined him, like they’ve ruined each other.

“Okay,” Harry says. He thinks nonsensically, I should text Taylor. Zayn’s wedding ring is glinting on his hand, the one he jerked Harry off with, the one he licked come off.

“See you, then. I… sorry,” Zayn says. He leans in and kisses Harry on the mouth for the last time, soft and sweet, like he’s saying goodbye. A moment later Harry realises that he really was saying goodbye, because he pushes his way out of the front door and shuts it behind himself quietly. Harry looks at the stairs, at the faint light from his flat, where his friends are, and wonders why he wants to follow Zayn out into the night so badly. It doesn’t seem rational. It doesn’t seem right.

*

The next morning he gets a text from Zayn: We gd? X

Harry studies his phone, runs his finger over the screen before wiping away the smudge. He wonders if the dirty condom’s still downstairs in the hallway. Probably. He texts back and says We’re cool x.

Then he waits for a few hours. Nothing. That seems about right. So he calls Taylor instead and they meet up for scones at a teashop near her flat. His arse is aching and his bones are weary, but he feels good. He feels alive.

*

Spring bleeds into summer, the nights get even shorter and hotter and Harry stays at Taylor’s place most of the time. Her skin is still cool even during the sweatiest, muggiest nights; she has an aura of cleanliness that not even actual physical weather events can penetrate. They go to farmers’ markets on Saturday mornings, and she takes him to the Globe to see Much Ado About Nothing. They stand in the pit, right at the front. She rests an elbow on the stage and looks up at the actors completely spellbound, the planes of her face so smooth and so pure, the curve of her lips so red, like sweet little rosebuds. Then they walk along the South Bank to Gabriel’s Wharf, enjoying the warm night air, the lights glancing off the surface of the Thames, and share a Hawaiian at a little, shitty pizzeria there. Harry privately thinks that pineapple has no place on pizza, but who’s he to complain? She knows what she’s doing. It’s so relaxing to be around that kind of certainty. She knows what she wants, she never falters from being true to herself. If she has a doubt, she just looks inside herself and finds the answer. He admires her. Also, she doesn’t mind explaining the plot of Much Ado to him, which is helpful because he only understood maybe sixty percent of it.

They have dinner with Liam and Sophia, and Sophia and Taylor get along well; they make plans to go shopping the following weekend, and Liam looks across at Harry in an almost paternal way, pleased and proud, as though he’s finally getting something right. As though he’s finally settling down. Harry supposes that in a way he is. Work is going well, work is going excellently, and once he can get Nick and Matt to stop sniping at each other and kiss instead, it will probably go even better. The thing with Taylor isn’t so bad either. She’s good company, particularly during the summer when she’s got extra time on her hands because of the school holidays, so she’s relaxed, more willing to be ridiculous with him: to walk the city late at night, to go out to watch the sunrise just because they can. At the end of dinner, as Taylor and Sophia are exchanging numbers and talking about Uniqlo jumpers and whether or not Sophia should get a pet rabbit, Liam says casually, “Now we’re all sort of seeing someone, we thought we might meet up and bring all the girls along. You in?”

Harry nods, because seeing his friends is something he will automatically agree to, no matter what. “Yeah. Sure. Niall and Barbara too?”

Liam grins. “Yeah. Apparently he doesn’t want to introduce her to us in case we mess it up for him.”

“Fair enough. Look what happened when you finally let Zayn meet me,” Harry says, and smiles right back at him, wide and broad. Throwing things like that into conversation makes them easier to deal with. It means they’re less of a taboo subject, something that needs to be danced around in case he ends up with his feelings hurt. He’s glad that he told his friends about the Zayn thing, because he’s rubbish at keeping secrets and they make him feel lonely, but on the other hand it’s not great that everyone he knows is totally aware that the only person he’s ever liked enough to hurt and ache over didn’t like him back nearly as much.

Liam laughs, a little hollow, and he claps Harry on the shoulder before pulling him into a hug. “Absolute fucking disaster, mate. Both of you mooning around like absolute idiots. Most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Both of us?” Harry asks, but Liam’s already pulling away, picking up Sophia’s cardigan for her, smiling politely over at Taylor. He imagines for a second what his life would have been like if Zayn had ever felt that way about him, the way that Liam accidentally implied for a moment. But Zayn is married; Harry made it completely clear to him that he was there, if Zayn wanted him. That he was a choice that Zayn could make. And he chose Perrie, he chose the life that he has now. Harry’s happy for him, almost.

The weeks go by like someone’s leafing through a calendar: calm, measured, considered. Harry takes steps forward through his life, Taylor’s hand laced in his. He goes to the Dublin Castle with Niall and they get too drunk and commandeer the jukebox for the whole night before staggering home. Late summer in London is beautiful and tinged with something that makes Harry sad, as though the people laughing outside pubs are trying too hard to hold onto something that’s almost gone. Sophia and Taylor go shopping one Saturday and they drag Eleanor along too, even though she’s got a nasty wine hangover and isn’t really in the mood. She and Louis come over that evening to lie on the less threadbare sofa and watch Friends for eight hours and she says, “She’s really, really nice, Harry. We really like her. I know it ended badly before, but—”

“That was my fault,” Harry says. He’s been trying to throw peanuts into Niall’s mouth for the last half hour but Niall keeps dodging them and complaining about how he’s afraid Harry might send them down his windpipe and he’ll choke to death. Harry thinks Niall is massively overestimating his ability to aim at things. “I know,” he goes on, and hits Niall on the tip of his nose with a peanut. “It was my fault,” he says, as Niall scrabbles for the peanut, finds it amongst the sofa cushions and eats it with great satisfaction. “I broke up with her. I didn’t call her. I know. I get it. I won’t do it again.”

“Mind you don’t,” Eleanor says, surprisingly severe for her. “We want you to be happy.”

*

That resonates with Harry for a while. We want you to be happy. We want you to be happy. He wants to be happy too. And generally as a rule he is. He loves his life, particularly his new job. He likes sitting in a studio with Nick and Matt, he likes going out and coming back with a really good band who might want to come in to perform a live song, likes being instrumental in giving someone their big break. He likes it when Nick says, “Oh my God, Harry, bless your heart, you’re a lifesaver,” whenever Harry does the smallest thing to help, and he likes sorting through demos that get sent in so they can find that song, that one song, so they can give someone some exposure, someone who’s worked hard, someone who deserves it. Record companies are tough these days and it’s hard to get a deal. He likes the idea that he can help in some tiny way.

We want you to be happy, Eleanor told him, and he thinks that he is. There’s a sort of ache inside him and he doesn’t know what that is, but he thinks that maybe everyone has it. And anyway, it’s only there some of the time. He goes running with Liam and he helps an old lady find an earring on the street and Gemma comes down to stay for a few days and Louis tells Harry, softly, that he and Eleanor are thinking about having a baby, and they’re all good things, they all add up to a life that he likes the sound of.

Summer turns into autumn and somehow he’s still with Taylor. She goes back to school in September and he helps her paint her classroom pale blue, shifting all the keyboards into the middle of the room, the old battered timpani and the big boxes of cowbells and tambourines. He paints the walls the colour of the sky on a cold day and she paints the radiators and edging bright sparkling white, her blonde hair held back with a bottle green scarf, her sleeveless denim shirt tied at the waist, a thin sliver of skin showing every time she raises her arms. When they’re done they survey the room and he holds her from behind, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the side of her neck, and she laughs at him and wriggles out of his grasp. Later that day he goes to work with blue paint still on his hands and Nick laughs at him for “getting all domesticated”. Matt says, “He’s not a wildcat,” and Nick says, “He is with all that hair.”

And then at the back of it all is Zayn, because apparently all roads lead back to him. It’s dreadful, it really and sincerely is. They sometimes see each other when Liam has a thing, never by themselves any more, and they act all casual as though they’ve never sucked each other’s dicks, as though this friendship they’ve talked about so much is a real thing. It’s nothing like what Harry’s got with Louis and Niall and Liam, though. It’s more raw, and he second-guesses himself all the time. Half of the time Zayn’s a mystery and Harry has absolutely no idea what he’s thinking, and the rest of the time he’s this – God, he’s sweet when they’re accidentally left in the corner of the pub by themselves. They actually get on with each other. Zayn talks about comic books with real sincere enthusiasm, he tells Harry about his sisters and how much he wishes they’d move to London, he tells him that he still feels bad for Danielle almost a year down the line. Says that being cheated on isn’t any fun, and then he’s silent for a second and half winces, eyes crinkling at the corners, and Harry grins at him and shakes his head a bit like he’s telling him not to worry, and he just – he wants him, still. It’s not the smartest thing he’s ever felt, but he’s never been known for his rationality. He just wants to touch his skin again and to wake up beside him, to look at him asleep, tousled black hair and long, long lashes. He wants to tangle himself up in him, and make him laugh. It’s hard to deal with. Harder than he’d anticipated.

But he’s got Taylor, who Zayn never asks about, and Zayn has Perrie, who Harry tries to pretend doesn’t exist. He feels guilty about that because she seemed so nice, but he’s not a miracle worker. Sometimes he thinks he needs to let himself be selfish. Sometimes it’s the only thing he can really manage.

*

Sophia and Liam move in together just before Christmas, so Harry and Niall are left together in their flat. Barbara’s there half the time now, and Harry’s at Taylor’s a lot as well, so it isn’t too bad. Liam and Sophia aren’t living too far away anyway, and they come over all the time, although they don’t eat all the food in the fridge the way Louis and Eleanor do every time they’re over. Taylor flies back to America for the two-week Christmas break that she gets from school, and Harry misses her more than he’d thought he would. He feels almost proud of himself, that he’s got someone to miss, that he actually finds himself caring that she’s not there.

It’s Louis’s birthday on Christmas Eve, which is four days after Zayn and Perrie’s first wedding anniversary, not that Harry’s counting. He debated texting Zayn to say congratulations, but decided in the end that it might seem both insane and insincere. Louis and Eleanor have a party in their flat on the 23rd; Harry and Niall get there early to help them decorate and to bring over about fifty cupcakes Harry made, just in case. “I forgot you bake!” Louis says brightly, already several sheets to the wind, and then dances away across the empty room, already eating one of them. Eleanor rolls her eyes fondly at him and carries on pinning a BIRTHDAY BOY sign to the wall.

Liam and Sophia arrive, and then some people from Louis’s school, and then Nick, who managed to wrangle himself an invitation after Harry mentioned he was going to a party and Nick thought it was “high time I meet some of your little friends, young Harold.” Finchy arrives after that, looking embarrassed and a bit shifty because he doesn’t know many people there, and gives Louis a toy dinosaur with a bow around its neck because according to him, everyone likes dinosaurs. To be fair, he’s right. Zayn arrives not long after him. He’s wearing a dark green jumper and black jeans and heavy black boots and a leather jacket and he’s shivering a bit as he comes in, sticks his hands under his armpits and looks around like he’s trying to find someone he knows.

Harry can feel himself smiling. It’s a bit ridiculous; it just spreads across his face and he can’t really help himself, he can’t help this stupid liking that happens every time Zayn’s near him. There’s no Perrie, for some reason, which Harry is somewhat grateful for, and Zayn looks at him, smiles back, slow and thoughtful. An old Nicki Minaj song is blaring from the speakers and there are people dancing, jumping; it turns out that Sophia’s a pretty horrible dancer, which Harry likes, because she’s usually so sleek and elegant, like a well-groomed cat. It’s nice when people aren’t much good at something, but they do it anyway. He likes that a lot.

Zayn winds his way through the crowd towards him. His black hair’s a little messy and from a distance he looks almost clean-shaven. It’s only close up that Harry can see the faint shadow of dark stubble, only as Zayn leans in to hug him that he can smell, vaguely, alcohol, on his breath. “Harry,” Zayn says, leans back, holds Harry’s face in his cold hands and smiles into it. “Hey, Haz.”

“All right, Malik? Where’ve you been?” Harry asks. He thinks of that night in his hallway, when it was warmer and when they still pretended they were friends, give or take a few fucks, and then he puts it out of his mind. This is a new night, right? A new life. Something like that, anyway.

“Work party. Thought I’d come here after. Make an appearance.” Zayn settles by Harry’s side, exuding cold from his jacket, from his hair, from his skin. Harry leans into him, lets himself just stand with him for a moment, enjoying his presence. For the last few months it’s been harder with him; they haven’t seen each other all that much, their vague friendship has faltered, Zayn’s been busy or awful at responding to messages. But here he is, raising his eyebrows at Harry and mouthing “See you later,” before loping off to fling his arms around Louis and wish him a happy birthday. Harry watches as he hugs Liam, Sophia, says something to Eleanor that makes her laugh. Alcohol makes him loose and lazy when he moves and Harry can’t help but watch until Niall and Barbara appear beside him.

“Shots?” Barbara asks, her eyes sparkling, and Harry nods, lets her pour them out, throws a couple back. He thinks Get as drunk as him and anything could happen, and then he thinks, Taylor. He thinks of her in America, and then, catastrophically, he forgets where she is. Nashville? New York? Where did she say her parents lived? He’s momentarily stunned by the knowledge that she’s told him something so basic and he hasn’t bothered to remember it, that he smiled and nodded when he should have been thoughtfully considering. Where’s Zayn from? Bradford, but he moved to Wolverhampton. Lived in New York, moved back to London. Lived in Ealing for a while; now lives in Wimbledon. Might need somewhere to stay tonight, because it’s a long way home.

Louis plays Green Day and the Killers and Fatboy Slim and Ellie Goulding, and Harry – Harry just enjoys it. He doesn’t think about his early train home the next morning, he doesn’t think about splitting his Christmas between his mum and his dad, he doesn’t think of Taylor drinking eggnog on the ranch, or whatever it is that she’s doing right now. He doesn’t think about the huge pile of work he’s got to do when he gets back from the Christmas break, or the fact that Matt and Nick disappeared a while ago. He thinks about the way that Liam’s showing Sophia big fish, little fish, cardboard box, the way she’s giggling, drunk and happy with her long hair falling over her face as she tries to do it and fails miserably, where once Danielle might have pulled Liam into position, and made him dance the way that she wanted him to. And that wasn’t bad, she wasn’t a bad person; she wasn’t bad at all, Harry thinks, filling his glass with half vodka and half diet coke, but she wasn’t right, and that’s it, that’s the thing: you need the right person, not just a good person. Across from Liam and Sophia, Niall and Barbara are attempting to dirty dance. It’s going horribly.

Harry dances too, a little, with Eleanor and then with both Niall and Barbara at the same time, which is both alarming and slightly illuminating. At the side of the room Zayn talks to a girl with long dark hair, listens intently to what she’s saying, his eyes trained on the floor. Laughs at her jokes. Rests his hand on her waist, turns to murmur in her ear. The girl is pretty, Harry notices, mostly by accident. Zayn catches him watching him, and his lips quirk upwards in a half-smile. It’s not quite humourless, but it’s definitely not the happiest Zayn’s ever looked. He says something to the girl, comes over to Harry instead. Harry looks down, sees his wedding ring on his finger, so flatly silver; he says, “She looked nice.”

“She was,” Zayn agrees. He’s leaning in close, because the music is thumping. Harry can smell whatever aftershave he’s wearing, low and sweet under the tang of booze and smoke. “What are you doing now?”

“I am…” Harry looks over at the clock on the wall, continues, “I’m waiting for Louis’s birthday. And then I’m… I don’t know.”

“Going home?” Zayn asks, and Harry nods, his gaze tugging gently on the pink curve of Zayn’s bottom lip. Zayn asks, “So where’s Taylor?”

“America,” Harry says. “Where’s Perrie?”

“Eastbourne. Went down to see her mum for Christmas.”

“You’re not going?” Harry asks.

Zayn shrugs, long and thoughtful. “I wanted to see my sisters. So I’m going up north. Getting the train tomorrow morning.”

“Me too.” Harry turns a bit so they’re almost chest to chest. Miraculously, Zayn doesn’t move away. Harry feels something in his chest, some kind of hope. It’s like there was a candle burning in there and it’s so low now, there’s nothing to it, there’s hardly anything left, but it’s burning anyway, such a tiny flame that half the time it’s not noticeable. But there are visions of other lives that are still close to his heart, things that could have been, if he was a better and more interesting person. If Zayn had made different choices. If he was the one who’d decided to reach out and take what he wanted, instead of Harry’s stupid, doomed decisions.

“You going home tonight?” he asks, and Zayn shakes his head.

“Nah,” he says, so carefully offhand. “Got my bag outside. Might be staying with Liam.”

“Might be?” Harry asks.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Zayn says. “Might stay with another friend instead.”

“A friend?” Harry asks, wriggling his eyebrows.

Zayn laughs, grabs a handful of Harry’s shirt, pulls him into a corner, where it’s darker. He leans in, whispers “You fuck my head up every time I think about you,” hand resting on Harry’s upper arm, and then Harry feels the smooth glide of his lips on his neck. His legs are jelly and his brain’s about to fall out of his ears and then even more lights suddenly go off. Harry thinks, Oh good, more dark corners to do awful things in, but then there’s the golden ghost of candles and birthday cake and Eleanor carrying it, lit up like an angel. Zayn lets go of him, shoulder resting against Harry’s as they all start singing Happy birthday, Louis grinning, so bright and so wide. Above him, the clock has ticked its way to midnight, and he’s another year older, and he’s got – Harry catches a glimpse of Eleanor’s face, her pink cheeks and her smile, so effortlessly happy. Louis's got everything, except for maybe a functioning moral compass.

Louis is drunk now, his face sweet and soft, the way it gets when he doesn’t have the time or he’s too pissed to guard it as carefully as he usually does. He beams round at everyone and blows out the candles and kisses El, and bellows “Thank you! I am fucking ace! And fucking old!”

The music goes back on but the lights stay low. Eleanor cuts the cake, passes it round. Harry goes to get some for himself and Zayn and they eat it in their corner, half facing each other. Harry can feel the hard warm press of Zayn’s hip against his. There’s a tiny bit of white icing caught on Zayn’s upper lip and the poignancy of it, as Zayn smiles without knowing it’s there, could make Harry weep. He focuses in on that tiny piece of icing and thinks For better, for worse, nonsensically.

They leave soon after that, after finding their friends and saying good night and merry Christmas, Niall hissing a promise to go back to Barbara’s place instead. She’s flying to Ireland with him early afternoon, cutting it fine before Christmas, the first time she’s going to meet his family. Niall seems nervous, but happy too. It’s extremely nice to see. And then they peel out onto the streets. It’s still icy cold, and Zayn’s trundling a suitcase behind him, the sound of the wheels on the pavement a rude interruption in the night air. The stars are just about out, gleaming from between patches of heavy cloud, which is rare for London, and the bars and pubs along Camden high street are busy, thrumming, people dipping in and out of pubs. Holly is strung up from doorways, fairy lights twinkling in half-frosted windows, steamy from body heat inside, paper snowflakes blu-tacked sadly to walls, baubles hanging conspicuously from door handles. The street is lit with Christmas-coloured light, red-scarved snowmen dangling from streetlights, golden streams of fairy lights stretching across the street in the air. Everything smells like hot cider and new years and resolutions that will be forgotten too quickly, and it’s snow-heavy the way it was outside Zayn’s wedding last year. Zayn’s wedding; God, a married man, Harry’s fucking a married man again, and Taylor in the States, saying – what, exactly? Telling her family she’s got a new boyfriend, eight months now, someone she’s happy with? Harry knows her better than he’s ever known Zayn, he knows what her hips feel like under his hands. It always looks strange: her snow white skin and his hands with his slightly ragged fingernails and the cross tattoo and the calluses on his knuckles, here and there. He feels like he’s ruining her, despite the fact he knows that Taylor would never let herself be ruined unless she wanted to be.

It’s not long to Harry’s flat, their breath puffing out in the air, delicate white steam. They’re quiet as they walk and Harry can’t – he can’t stop thinking about him, about the way he tasted, the way he felt. Just as they turn into Harry’s road the first snow begins to fall. It twists its way down from the dark sky as though a cloud has released a breath, and Zayn says, “Hang on a second,” even though he’s shivering in his jacket.

The snow falls, a little and then a lot, thickening but barely sticking on the roads. Zayn’s more gorgeous than Harry’s ever seen him before, the tip of his nose pink and his eyes like stars in his face as he looks up into the sky, a snowflake clinging to his dark hair. Harry thinks, I could kiss him in the snow like this was a book or a film, a bad one, with a cheesy ending, except then Zayn kisses him instead. He kisses him, slow and gentle, and he tastes like icing now, sweet like spun sugar, his hand so cold as he brings it up to touch Harry’s face, fingers icy on his cheek as though they’ve never quite touched him before, as though Zayn’s exploring him just a little. Then he leans in more, hooks an arm around Harry’s neck and it turns into something else deeper and dirtier, slush in the gutter, alcohol on both their mouths.

Harry has to break it so he can fumble his keys out from his pocket and let them in. They’re somehow laughing as Harry helps Zayn lug his suitcase up the stairs, thumping gently each time, breathless, as though something is hung in the air between them. That mistletoe from Zayn’s wedding, making them do this. That night in the hallway that left fingernail indentations on Harry’s hips for days. Harry lets them into the flat itself and it’s cold too; he flips on the heating, starts to divest himself of clothing, his hat, his scarf, his coat; Zayn takes off his jacket and throws it onto the sofa. Harry’s hands are numb and red and Zayn takes them, holds them in his own, blows on them gently to warm them up.

“Did you hear that story,” Harry asks, “about how humans are, like – how we’re inconsistent, right? Because we blow on things to make them warm, and we blow on them to cool them down too, like soup or – or cheese on toast, or…”

Zayn’s looking up at him, eyes infinitely patient and fond, Harry’s hands still cradled in his. “Keep going,” he says.

“Nah. That was pretty much it.” Harry exhales. “You know I have a girlfriend, right?”

Zayn’s eyes cloud over for a moment and he frowns, just a little. “Married,” he says, holding up his left hand, and – yeah. That reminder. That, right there.

“I don’t cheat,” Harry tells him, mentally adding except for last time, and Zayn says, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it, did it really fall?”

“What?” Harry asks, because seriously now.

“If no one knows there’s no one to hurt,” Zayn says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, but he swallows, unconfident, like he hasn’t quite convinced himself.

“Right,” Harry says. He feels like adding, But we know, and what if we get hurt, because it seems useless. What if I get hurt, he wants to say, again?

He doesn’t. Instead he lets Zayn kiss him, lets himself relax into it. It’s like getting home after a long, hard day. He hears himself moan, almost a sigh, the sort of sigh you feel deep in your bones when you’re on the sofa with a blanket and it’s raining outside. The I’m lucky to be here, and I’m so comfortable, and Let’s just stay like this forever. Zayn kisses him and walks him down the corridor to his bedroom, and then it shifts and they’re pressing against each other and so apparently this, this is Harry’s reward for a long, hard few months of not sleeping with Zayn. It’s the best Christmas present ever. Zayn drags at Harry’s shirt and accidentally scratches his chest with his nails and mutters “I can’t believe you still don’t do up your fucking shirts properly. No one wants to see that fucking moth,” and Harry laughs, bites Zayn’s lip, presses the heel of his hand against the bulge in Zayn’s jeans until he gasps in a breath and starts shoving Harry over to the bed.

He’s not gentle at all, which is good. He pushes Harry down onto the bed and says, “Take off your shirt,” and watches as Harry does it, breath coming a little heavily, just standing there, his eyes on Harry, almost weighted down; he watches as Harry undoes his buttons, just a little more slowly than he needs to, shrugs it off. Harry can feel Zayn’s eyes on his shoulders, his chest, his stomach, his arms, hungry for more. Zayn says, “Jeans,” and Harry just does it, flips the button open and wriggles out of them. He has to twist his hips in a way that probably makes him look like he’s having a seizure but Zayn doesn’t seem to care; he just watches still, eyes raking over Harry’s thighs, stopping a little when he sees the tattoos on Harry’s ankles. “What do they…” he begins, and then half smiles. “You are so, so fucking weird.”

“Guilty feet, they got no rhythm,” Harry sings, and Zayn laughs and climbs on top of him. His jeans are rough on Harry’s bare thighs and Harry puts his arms around him, pushes his green jumper off. Bare chest, broad shoulders, slim torso. Not skinny, not quite, but Harry could run his fingers up his sides and feel hard muscle and bone. Harry feels the same urge that he felt so long ago, to lay Zayn out and to read him, to run his hands over his ink and to get to know him that way. He wants to figure out if he has any new ones. There’s the one of Perrie on his arm that Harry’s going to ignore until the day he dies. A pirate’s life for me, his side says. It reminds Harry of the ship on his own arm. Setting sail for a new land, a new vision. A new life. He kisses Zayn’s neck and presses his hands down the back of his jeans as far as he can, between stiff denim and warm, soft cotton. Zayn reaches down behind himself and wriggles, pulls his socks off. Harry says, “What?” and Zayn says, “Socks and no trousers would make your boner disappear faster than anything else in the world,” and Harry says, “A nuclear explosion couldn’t make my boner disappear,” and Zayn laughs into Harry’s neck, shoulders shaking, arms around him like Harry’s all he needs. After a moment he says, his voice small, “Could you fuck me, please?”

Harry kisses the side of his face, the part of his cheek where his beard meets smooth skin, and says, “Anything for you.”

He turns Zayn onto the sheets, undoes his jeans, pulls them off one leg and then the other, Zayn lifting his hips before curling his legs around Harry’s waist and pulling him in and down so they can kiss, long and heavy. Harry thumbs the ring through Zayn’s nipple and Zayn groans, helpless and turned on, pressing his hips up into Harry’s. Harry fists his cock, slow and lazy, kissing him deeply.

Finally Zayn’s spread out beneath him and it’s perfect, it’s the best Harry’s ever seen him, all gold skin against white sheets, like something out of the best porn film in the world. One of his legs is balanced on Harry’s shoulder and he’s got a pillow under his arse so he’s tilted pleasantly upwards and Harry’s hand is working between his legs, pressing inside him. He’s tight and hot and gorgeous and he’s moving his hips and grinding down onto Harry’s fingers like he can’t help himself as Harry stretches him gently, just enough, just enough. Zayn balls his hands over his eyes, black hair falling over his forehead before he heaves out a breath and stares upwards at Harry. And he’s so focused, so fucking focused on him as Harry adds a third finger, watching Zayn’s lips part in a wordless sigh. Harry watches as he curls his toes and grabs onto the duvet, twisting his fingers into it. Harry knows how he feels – like they might lose grip on reality, like they might float up to the ceiling, high on each other.

When Harry finally sinks into him it’s slow, blissful, and he’s bent over Zayn, faces as close as they can go, Zayn craning his neck up for a sloppy kiss. Harry can feel the strain in his muscles, through his back and his legs, Zayn groaning against him as Harry moves into him again and again, Zayn reaching up to push sweaty hair off Harry’s forehead, thumbing over his temple and his cheek. He’s not using a condom this time; he fumbled for one but Zayn made him stop, just wanted – just wanted this, actually, just wanted to feel him. That’s what Harry thinks anyway, that Zayn trusts him. Harry trusts him right back. He doesn’t remember the last time he didn’t use a condom. He doesn’t remember the last time it was like this, skin on skin, the slick of sweat, the movement of Zayn’s hips finding the perfect rhythm as he meets Harry. Harry leans in to kiss his neck, teeth grazing his skin, the low scratch of Zayn’s stubble, the sweet sharpness and the power of it, the pressure. Harry fucks into him harder now, sees Zayn reach down and wrap a hand around his dick as he starts to wank himself off. Harry touches him too, rubbing his thumb over the slick precome, half blind with Zayn, with need and want, pushing into him as Zayn reaches up and drags Harry’s face down, kissing him again, messy, tongues and teeth and spit. Harry fucks into him even faster, more shallow now, hearing himself slap against Zayn, and then he feels Zayn tighten around him, feels his fingers dig in, hears him curse under his breath as he comes hot and wet on Harry’s stomach and hand. Harry comes not long after that, feeling like he’s falling apart, shattering into tiny pieces that only Zayn might know how to put together again.

It’s still after that, silent in the room. Zayn pulls Harry’s face down and turns into his neck, burying into him, the prickle of eyelashes against Harry’s skin, the press of his nose, the softness of his mouth. Harry touches his hair, feels Zayn put his arms around him, and then they can just – they can be there, together, for a moment, Zayn breathing heavily, Harry inhaling the scent of his shampoo, and sweat and sex on top of that.

They fall asleep together, Zayn’s head pillowed on Harry’s shoulder so he wakes up abruptly at half two and has to stretch out his numb hand as Zayn yawns out an apology and curls into the pillows again, pulling Harry’s arm over his middle with a satisfied sigh. Harry looks at his face, the simple fact of it right there and he doesn’t know if what he’s feeling is joy or pain. He smudges kisses over Zayn’s cheek and his jaw and Zayn rolls onto his back so Harry can kiss his mouth too. He even kisses him back too, sleepy and sweet. At around four, Harry gets up to go to the loo and he looks out of the window, at the still drifting snow. It’s probably the only thing in the world that can make London look fresh and new again.

*

In the morning, the unholy white light that snowfall always casts is shining in from the crack where Harry’s curtains don’t quite meet. Zayn says “Fuck, our trains,” his voice croaky, and they somehow roll out of bed and spill themselves into the shower. They find time to wank each other off in it, Zayn stroking Harry’s dick and reaching round to finger his arsehole, kissing him slowly like they’ve got all the time in the world. They get to St Pancras station probably too early, and survey the electronic noticeboards with bleak despair that turns to reluctant hope when it turns out that actually their trains aren’t as delayed as they might be. They stand there together, Zayn all messy hair and yawns, wearing the same clothes as last night, and he leans his head on Harry’s shoulder for just a moment. It feels anonymous there, surrounded by so many people who don’t know who they are, so Harry takes the opportunity to slip his arms around Zayn’s waist and pull him against him. Maybe it’s because he’s awful in the mornings, tired and pliable, but Zayn leans into him, snuffling out yet another yawn. Harry’s suddenly hit with the knowledge that to everyone else there they just look like a normal couple, boyfriends going home for Christmas, and Zayn looks puzzled and annoyed when Harry carefully detangles himself.

Harry’s platform is finally called after they’ve been waiting for about half an hour, which isn’t so bad. He half wants to kiss Zayn goodbye but it seems weird and wrong like this in the daylight, as though Zayn might pull away. Zayn does it for him, says “See ya then,” and leans in, casually kisses him with dry, closed lips like they’ve been doing it for years and years. Then he says, “Give me a ring when you get back to London, yeah?” and Harry nods before peeling himself reluctantly away. When he gets twenty metres away he glances back; Zayn’s still looking at him, and he raises a hand in farewell. Harry mouths, Merry Christmas back at him, and Zayn smiles, bright and happy. He must be looking forward to getting home. Harry certainly is.

*

Christmas is fine, but January in London is the fucking pits. He feels like he should call Zayn, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to. It was a nice night, and he’d quite like to leave it at that. He doesn’t want to get himself all fucked up again, when he’s got a girlfriend and a life he’s finally starting to be happy with. Taylor is enough, or Harry thinks she is, anyway. She feels safe, as though he can leave his heart in her capable hands and she won’t drop it abruptly on the floor, like Zayn might. They stay in and watch films and drink wine, and she takes Harry to meet her friends, and Harry starts bringing her along whenever his friends have things too, like when Louis and Eleanor attempt to hold another ill-fated dinner party – nothing thaws out properly and they have to order curries – and when he and Niall have a film night. The rule is that everyone can pick a film. Niall picks Anchorman, Harry picks Amelie, Barbara picks Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Taylor picks something called The Tree of Life. Niall corners Harry in the kitchen and says, desperate-eyed, “Barbara will fucking kill me if she has to watch that film,” so they pretend to be too sleepy after Harry Potter. He isn’t sure if Taylor’s fooled or not. Probably not. She’s never fooled unless she thinks it might be fun.

She makes dinner for him some nights, and he makes dinner for her the rest of them. In February she bakes him a birthday cake and it’s beautiful, with strawberries and cream in the middle and his name in red icing on the top. This is it, he’s starting to realise. This is life. It’s not waiting around for something to happen. Something is finally actually happening, and he needs to – he needs to grab onto it, or something. Taylor’s perfect. She’s clever and she’s always got facts ready to tell him about everything, and she likes to rake her fingernails down his back while they’re having sex, and she can play the guitar and she says she’ll teach him how, and she never even seems to have morning breath. She’s a medical miracle.

Zayn texts him, sometimes, just to say hey I’ve got a xmas present for u! xx or Long time no talk, drinks? Xx except after a while he kind of stops. It might be because Harry hasn’t replied to him since Christmas Eve. In fact, that’s almost definitely the reason. He hasn’t been at Liam’s any time that Harry’s gone over there either, and Liam stops mentioning him after Harry starts developing selective deafness. He knows that maybe he’s not being fair, and being unfair hurts him, it sincerely does, but he doesn’t know what else he should do. He needs to make a life for himself and he can’t do that if he accidentally falls on Zayn’s dick when he sees him sometimes, if he might start cheating on his girlfriend more and more frequently. It’s hard because when he sees Zayn it’s hard to remember the reasons he’s annoyed with him. Even when they’re not together, he can’t think of all that much. The main one is that he’s married. It’s a pretty significant reason though, in Harry’s opinion.

Marriage is starting to sound more and more like something he should do. Years ago, his mum gave him a ring that used to be his great grandma’s. He feels like maybe that should be macabre but it doesn’t feel that way – it’s pretty, diamonds with a big onyx in the middle. Not very traditional, but if he ever gets married he doesn’t want it to be to a traditional person anyway. It was after he was out to her, so she just said “This is for the lucky girl or boy you meet one day who you want to be with forever,” and he’s still got it balled up in some sports socks in his underwear drawer. He thinks about it more and more, and then Liam and Sophia go on holiday to Mauritius and get engaged, which kind of steals his thunder. It’s nice, though. When they get home Sophia can’t stop smiling and Liam keeps looking at her like he doesn’t know how he got so lucky. Harry would agree with that statement. Sophia’s pretty great.

They schedule their wedding for October, because Sophia likes the idea of doing it when the leaves are turning red and brown, so they can get pretty pictures taken outside. Harry thinks about getting married and one night when he’s lying in bed beside Taylor, after she’s made an entire Sunday roast including parsnips despite the fact she isn’t even British, he realises that he will never, ever meet anyone who’s better than she is, so he’d better get it all official and tied down.

It’s their anniversary in April, one year of being together, of cooking together and sleeping in the same bed and having discussions about articles in the Guardian together. He takes her to the British Museum, like he did on their first date, and they go upstairs to look at the mummies again, and at the big galleries on the bottom floor, and the displays on health and medicine on either side of them. Then, holding hands, they wander out to the main space, next to the Reading Room, the central arena with the huge domed glass roof. It’s sunny outside today, and blood is thrumming excitedly through Harry’s veins. Here’s to the rest of my life, he thinks, starting right here and now. Taylor looks extra pretty, in a navy blue spotted dress and a bright red jacket with lipstick to match, her blonde fringe swept to one side. He wants to remember this moment forever. He wants to remember her right before they decided to spend their futures together.

He actually feels quite nervous, which is probably why he feels so nauseated. “You’re all clammy,” Taylor remarks, dropping his hand. They’re almost halfway across the space now, almost at the gift shop, and God, he can’t propose outside a gift shop. He fumbles in his pocket, finds the ring, and says, “Taylor?”

She turns around, and he drops to one knee. A group of French tourists starts gasping and taking pictures; Harry thinks that he’s going to have to get their email addresses so they can send the two of them pictures to remind them of their beautiful day.

“Will you marry me?” he asks, looking up into Taylor’s face. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want—”

“No,” she says. She’s gone remarkably pale, but – she actually sounds quite certain.

There’s an excruciating pause. Then Harry says, “Sorry?” He feels like he might be about to be sick on the floor.

Taylor’s eyes are wide and for the first time, for the first time since Harry ever met her, she looks flustered. “Oh my God, Harry. Will you please get up?” She reaches down, tugs at his arm, and then shrieks, “Will you please stop taking pictures?” at the French tourists. They carry on, which is typical of Harry’s life.

She strides over to a bench and sits down on it; Harry wanders after her, still manfully managing not to be sick anywhere despite the fact that he feels like his head might be about to fall off his shoulders with humiliation. An old lady makes a sad sighing noise at him as he goes past and he throws her a look that means That was very rude of you, but she doesn’t seem to be able to interpret it very well.

“God, Harry,” Taylor says. Her head’s in her hands now. “I can’t – I can’t do this.”

“Right,” he says, sitting down beside her. He wants to be reasonable about this very much, but he isn’t sure he’s going to manage it. He actually isn’t sure he’s going to be able to stop himself from crying. “Is there – did I do something?”

“I don’t think I love you,” she says into her hands.

There’s another pause. This one is potentially even more excruciating. And it’s strange, because Harry’s sad, of course he is. He likes Taylor a lot, he – except ‘likes’ isn’t the same as ‘loves’, and maybe he’s lucky that she seems to have figured that out before he did. He puts an arm around her, feels how tense her back is, feels abruptly guilty that he might have made her feel like that. Then, irrationally, he feels guilty for ruining the British Museum for her. She’s never going to enjoy coming back here. It’s a big shame. “Right,” he says again. “I just – it was worth a try, wasn’t it?”

Taylor laughs, a sort of choked up noise, almost like she wasn’t expecting to. “It was,” she says, looking up at him, finally. “I thought we could make it work,” she says.

“Make it work?” he asks. “I thought it was working.” All the dinners, all the dates. All the conversations about maybe getting a dog one day. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? He doesn’t know what else a relationship is supposed to be like, but then – he thinks of Liam and the way he looks at Sophia, and Louis, and how he just needs to quirk his mouth to make Eleanor laugh, and the soft way that Niall touches the bottom of Barbara’s back, as though he’s only just getting used to having someone to love.

Taylor sighs, sounding almost frustrated. “You were so much fun, okay? I’m not just saying that. But I want – God, I need – I need that person who’s everything. I need excitement, you know? I’m still young. I don’t want to marry someone because I’m afraid of being alone.”

“I’m not afraid of being alone,” Harry points out, and it’s true, but right now what he’s afraid of isn’t losing Taylor: it’s his support system being withdrawn from beneath his feet, it’s going to see his friends by himself when they’ve all got girls they love. It’s knowing that Zayn and Perrie are happily ensconced in their flat in Wimbledon, and knowing that he needs to start all over again. He could have loved Taylor enough, maybe. They would have been happy enough.

Taylor shrugs a shoulder. She looks awkward, which is rare for her, scrunching up her face as she stares off into the distance. “Me neither. But I admire people who don’t settle. I want grandeur. I want greatness. I want someone to knock me off my feet. I want wars to be fought over me, you know? I want to feel like Helen of Troy. I want to miss someone so much it hurts, and to love someone so much that they could break my heart. Did I just break your heart now, saying no to you?”

Harry thinks for a moment, tries to unfurl his feelings like a scroll, tries to read himself. Embarrassment. Fear, maybe, for the future. Disappointment. Shock, as though a rug’s been pulled from underneath his feet. Heartbreak? Not really. “Yes,” he says mutinously.

Taylor laughs, and touches his cheek gently. “Oh, Harry,” she says, with utter fondness. “Can we be friends?”

He nods, thinking that maybe they’ll do a better job of it than he and Zayn did, at least. Then Taylor leans forward to hug him, presses herself against him. She was sweetness and light, a bowl of strawberries in summer, fresh lemonade and the smell of crushed mint leaves. Harry closes his eyes and inhales her hair, and says goodbye to another part of his life.

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liam Payne and Sophia Smith would like to invite you to celebrate their wedding on October 24, 2016.

 

Liam and Sophia get married on the last warm day of the year, in a little church on the outskirts of Leamington Spa. Louis drives up in his old shit tin bucket of a car. Eleanor manages to shotgun the front seat next to him because she’s two and a half months pregnant and is occasionally violently sick without much warning, although halfway there she still hasn’t gone pale and started waving at Louis to swerve over or reached for the emergency carrier bag, so Harry will count it as an absolute win. She has to go and quietly throw up in the toilets at the Little Chef where they stop for lunch after she gets a whiff of Niall’s all day full English breakfast, but nothing's perfect in life.

Their hotel is small and pretty and taken over almost entirely by Liam and Sophia’s families and friends. Louis comes to sit on Harry’s bed and says sadly to the ceiling. “This is Liam’s second wedding and he still hasn’t made me best man. Isn’t that unfair?”

“Extremely,” Harry says cheerfully, investigating the mini kettle in the corner. He always wishes there were more teabags, and fewer packs of instant coffee, but there’s a mini packet of shortbread, so that's another massive win. “Lucky Zayn, making a second speech.”

“You managed to say his name without crying,” Louis says. “My little boy’s growing up.”

“As much as I enjoy you practising for fatherhood,” Harry says, and watches Louis’s face do the amazing terrified melty thing it always does whenever the baby is suddenly mentioned, “I’m actually sane, so I don’t do that.”

“Sure you don’t,” Louis says, recovering quickly from the abrupt reminder that he’s going to have an actual baby in a matter of months. “What if you freak out and fall over when you see him? I’d pay good money to see that. Actually, I probably won’t have to, because I’ll be there.”

“Sod off,” Harry says, tiredly. He’s actually been thinking about that a lot since Liam told him, gently, that Zayn was going to be his best man again, and he entirely understood if Harry couldn’t make it to the wedding, and really, as if Harry’s not going to go to see one of his best mates get married because of a reason like that. He’s not completely emotionally unstable.

“You are all right with it though, aren’t you?” Louis asks, sitting up. His hair’s sticking up on the back of his head and it looks insane, but life’s probably too short to tell him about it. Harry reaches over and messes it up more instead, and Louis rolls his eyes viciously before fixing him with a concerned look. “Harry?”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry says. He really does feel very weary at the prospect of seeing Zayn and Perrie. Something he wishes a lot is that he hadn’t liked Perrie when he met her. Sleeping with a married man is morally horrible no matter what way you look at it, but liking the wife and doing it anyway? There’s even less moral justification. He’s absolutely going to hell.

“Good,” Louis says, and then his phone buzzes. “All right. El’s out of the shower, it’s my turn. I’ll knock on your door before we go, all right?” He stands up, fixes Harry with a careful look, and Harry does actually feel a bit like crying then, and even more so when Louis leans in to hug him tightly and kisses the side of his head. “This is going to be all right,” he says, with absolute certainty, and releases Harry with a clap on the shoulder before going out of the room.

Harry waits there for a moment, waits for the aching in his temples to subside, and then he sticks his head out of his door and says “Hey, Louis? You’re going to be a great dad.”

Louis turns; his faces does something vulnerable and soft before he manages to cover it up again with a smirk, shrugging a shoulder. “Obviously,” he says, before disappearing around the corner towards his own room. After that, Harry really does feel a little better.

*

At the church he sits between Barbara and Louis. The pews are a bit uncomfortable, but it’s still nice: there are so many flowers, fiery red and orange and yellow, perfect for an autumn wedding, for the hazy sun outside. He can feel himself tensing up whenever he sees someone with dark hair, and it’s hard because he really wants to focus on Liam and Sophia, on their happy day or whatever, but it’s difficult when he knows that Zayn’s probably going to show up some time soon. There’s no sign of Perrie in the church anywhere, which is good because Harry doesn’t have to feel flushed with guilt yet; all he has to worry about is Eleanor covering her mouth at the end of the aisle and saying “These flowers are going to make me fucking throw up, please, someone, please swap seats with me.”

Harry duly does so, because he’s a prince and a warrior and also because vomit during a wedding is the absolute opposite of ideal. Just as he’s about to sit down again he glances idly into the aisle and his heart almost jumps out of his mouth, because God. God. Zayn. And he’s looking good too, carefully neat hair, not too short, not too long, those big dark eyes – oh God, his bloody, bloody Topman suit. Harry remembers smoothing his lapel for him in that dressing room, remembers trying to kiss him and getting told no. He remembers Zayn kissing him in the snow and the moonlight, and feels his knees weaken just a little.

“Hey,” Zayn says, looking worried, and Harry says, “Hi.”

It’s acutely horrible, actually. It’s really, really shit, until Louis bobs to his feet and says, “Hey, Zayn!” and Zayn finally remembers how to smile and starts saying hello to everyone and doling out hugs. It doesn’t seem like he’s seen them lately, which is good because otherwise Harry would be forced to feel strange and sad and left out. When Zayn’s finished attempting to steal Harry’s friends he hovers for a moment at the end of the aisle, eyes on Harry’s. He doesn’t look entirely happy, but he doesn’t look pissed off or anything, just sort of sad, a tilt to his eyes that makes Harry want to reach out and touch him.

“It’s really nice to see you,” he says, leaning into Harry, and Harry carefully leans away from him, nods, mumbles “You too,” before sitting down again. The sad tilt to Zayn’s eyes gets even worse, and the smile he gives Harry then is both heartbreakingly beautiful and also just plain heartbreaking. If it was anyone else, he’d absolutely be in there with a hug, but it’s just too fucking complicated. He’d be down on his knees sucking Zayn’s dick in no time and that’d be inappropriate with Liam’s little cousins just over the other side of the church.

The ceremony is beautiful. Sophia’s dress is cream and gold and she looks radiantly happy, and both she and Liam well up when they’re doing their vows. Harry feels himself getting choked up too, pulls out the tissues he put in his pocket just in case. Louis nudges him and Harry thinks he’s going to start making fun of him right here in the middle of Liam’s wedding, but instead he reaches for a tissue himself and starts drying his eyes. Eleanor reaches out and grabs onto Louis’s hand, fingers laced together, and Harry feels a sort of yearning for something like that, a deep ache. A love that he’d fight battles for, like Taylor wanted. A love that he’d hold quietly in his heart in the dead of night, a constancy in his life: not making it, but strengthening it. He looks at Liam and Sophia, he looks at Zayn’s profile as he hands the rings over, he looks over the crowd for Perrie one last time, and doesn’t see her anywhere.

After the ceremony, when Louis is letting out a deep emotional breath and Eleanor’s saying “There, there,” Niall leans over everyone else and says, “Oi, Haz? Did you notice Zayn wasn’t wearing a ring?”

And just like that: Harry’s back in the game.

*

The reception is down the road, in a room on the ground floor of the hotel where they’re all staying, which is handy. It’s nice, hung with gold drapes, orange roses edged with red on all of the tables, but it’s smaller than some of the other weddings Harry’s been to. He supposes that makes sense, considering the inauspicious start to Liam and Sophia’s relationship. Really it was sad, that they had to fall in love that way, that they’ve got such an awkward story to have to tell anyone who asks, but it all seems to have worked out for the best now, and nobody’s perfect anyway. Probably in years to come they can sugarcoat it, and Danielle will be a footnote to Liam’s story instead of a sad, slightly misery-inducing inkblot.

Harry looks around the room, finds his seat next to Niall and Eleanor, looks at the place settings, the gold wine glasses and napkins, the bright white plates, the little gold gift bags full of what looks like – “Sick,” Harry says fervently, and shakes two conkers on gold string out of the bag.

“I’ll fight you,” Louis says immediately, taking his out too, and Harry grins at him, shrugs a bit, and says, “Fight Niall instead. I’m just going to…” and nods around the room. Louis raises an eyebrow, grins like a cat, lets Harry go. It’s been over three years now since he met Zayn for the first time, three years since they fucked in a tiny floral hotel room, three years since he accidentally started to love thin, inked wrists, thoughtful eyes, the way that Zayn’s mouth curls into itself at the corner when he’s trying not to smile but desperately wants to. Three years since he watched Zayn go back to America; two years since he watched him get married and felt like he’d never be happy again. Ten minutes, since possibilities started to bloom again like strange, rare flowers.

Harry loiters by the entrance like a massive weirdo. He gets a couple of odd looks from Sophia’s nan but he isn’t too worried about that, although it does make him think of his own grandma. Sometimes when he remembers her, the pain of loss is crossed so fiercely with the joy of knowing she was proud of him that he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s another thing that helped him grow up. Another thing that showed him who his true friends are. Another thing that led him to where he wants to be, the right place to be.

A car pulls up outside; it’s not the cream vintage one that was waiting for Liam and Sophia outside the church. This one is small and plain and dark blue, which means it probably holds someone else. Zayn, maybe. The door opens. Liam’s sister gets out of the back and then his other sister, and then Zayn gets out of the front. He’s smiling, a laugh fading from his face, his eyes crinkled up the way they always are when he’s sincerely happy. Harry doesn’t know how he got to know his face so well. Through intense study every time they saw each other, probably. God, he’s such a creep, but he’s starting to think that maybe Zayn doesn’t mind his many and varied weaknesses and weirdnesses. He thinks of the look in Zayn’s eyes when he took Harry’s hands in his and warmed them with his breath, he thinks of the way that Zayn held him after his grandma died and cold-edged devastation was cutting him through like a knife. He thinks of Zayn drunk and upset, his eyes glittering, fucking Harry too hard in his hallway and apologising afterwards. They’ve seen each other at their worst. He thinks they’re probably still waiting to see each other at their best.

Zayn turns, and their eyes meet. Harry smiles, kind of, and he feels like he should be nervous but he just isn’t. He just thinks, There he is, Harry’s future standing right there, and Zayn grins over at him, slow as a sunrise, and then he walks over. Liam’s sisters go giggling into the hotel and Zayn stands next to Harry, not quite close enough.

“Hey,” Harry says, and reaches down and takes Zayn’s hands in his, tangles their fingers together. Looks into his eyes. Smiles, a bit. “Are you still married?”

“No,” Zayn says. “Do you still have a girlfriend?”

“No,” Harry says. He bumps his hips against Zayn’s. His brain is starting to hurt, in a brilliant way. “I’m starting to think that maybe Liam’s been withholding information.”

Zayn laughs, and it’s the best thing that Harry’s ever heard. “Maybe he has,” he agrees, and leans in, breath ghosting over Harry’s lips. “If it wasn’t his wedding day we’d probably have to kill him.”

Harry presses the tip of his nose against Zayn’s. He has to bend his head down just a little. A sort of peace is overtaking him, running through his veins like caramel. “I remember the first time I saw you,” he says, “at Liam’s wedding. I knew right from then—”

“That I’d fuck up your life?” Zayn asks. He lets go of Harry’s hands, twines his arms around his neck instead.

“That you’d make my life more interesting,” Harry tells him, and that’s – that’s better, really, isn’t it? There’s this old Chinese curse, May you lead an interesting life, that he once heard, but surely that’s bullshit. He’s with Taylor on this one. It’s no curse. He wants love that could break his heart. He wants love that could make it into history books, and that wars could be fought over. He’s been repeatedly punched in the face by love, and now he’s going to make it work, after all this time. He puts his arms around Zayn’s waist and doesn’t kiss him, not quite. He looks down at his shirt and feels a sort of ridiculous intense emotion when he sees the subtly mismatched buttons. The shirt that Harry ripped off him, so long ago now. He says, “You once told me that you like people who take what they want. So do I. Do it now, please, for me.”

It’s almost awkward for a second, in the grey October air as Zayn kisses him, as though Zayn’s asking a question and not quite getting an answer. Harry kisses him back then, pulling him in closer. Yes, he’s saying, wondering how it can feel so much like the start of something when it’s been three years since they first met. Zayn touches the ends of Harry’s hair, runs his hand down his chest to rest on his butterfly. Only the antennae are peeping out of Harry’s shirt, but Zayn breaks the kiss, looks down, undoes one of Harry’s shirt buttons. “I missed this little guy,” he says, his index finger light and tickly over the butterfly.

“I feel like you once called it a ‘fucking moth’,” Harry tells him, laughing into his hair.

“Maybe,” Zayn says, looks down, unwinds himself from Harry a bit. He pushes up his left jacket sleeve, undoes his shirt button, folds back the material to show Harry a little butterfly perching next to his yinyang, on top of the ornate, beautiful design on his wrist. “I didn’t mind him too much, though.”

Harry feels irrationally as though he’s about to explode. He pulls Zayn’s wrist up to his mouth, kisses that little butterfly, feels Zayn’s pulse fluttering underneath his fingers as though the butterfly’s wings are beating slowly. He looks Zayn in the eye and says, “Let’s do this properly.”

“I’m in,” Zayn says, eyes sparkling as though he’s accepting a challenge, which really, he kind of is. Harry has never once claimed to be an easy boyfriend. But Zayn’s not easy either, all sharp edges and hidden vulnerability. Harry wants to get to know him better, to learn how to navigate him and to love him exactly right. The fact that he’s allowed to do that now is almost too much to get his mind around.

Liam and Sophia’s car is pulling up and Zayn starts detangling himself reluctantly. “I should…” he begins, and Harry says, “Yeah. Sure. Go on.” He leans in to kiss him one more time. His face is already aching from smiling, and Zayn’s flushing a little, shoving Harry away. “Go and sit down! Be a normal person for once!” he chides, and Harry laughs, runs inside, finds his place between Niall and Eleanor. He feels flushed, elated, as though he could run to the stars.

“All right, smiley,” Louis says, because he’s a sarky bastard.

“You sorted it out then?” Niall asks, starting to grin, and Harry just – he’s overflowing in his chest, he’s too happy, he doesn’t know what to do with it, so he just shrugs and feels himself blush and looks down at his place setting. Yeah. They’ve sorted it out. He still can’t stop smiling. He’ll fight anyone who tries to make him.

*

It’s hectic after that. They eat – even El does, she’s feeling better now, although she complains vociferously about being the only person who isn’t allowed to drink. Liam and Sophia come over so they can glow happily and thank them for coming and arrange a board games night once they’re back from their honeymoon, because somehow when Harry wasn’t looking, his group of friends have turned into the sort of people who get excited about Monopoly. That’s okay. He likes it too, although not if he has to be the Banker, because that gets upsetting and violent way too quickly. Zayn gives his speech and it’s short, sweet, to the point. He’s got this tiny smile all the time, like he can’t quite help himself, and he keeps making eye contact with Harry and then getting flustered and losing his place. It’s the best thing Harry’s ever seen. He thinks I want to keep him forever, and then realises it’s actually a possibility. Then he makes the sort of face that makes Louis say “Harry, did you just come in your pants?”

“So what if I did?” Harry asks defiantly, and Louis guffaws.

The music starts and Harry’s whirled away on the arms of friends, grandmas, sisters. Liam’s mum tries to show him how to waltz and then she tears up when Liam and Sophia trip by, despite the fact that Sophia’s saying agitatedly “I wish you’d let me lead, I hate not knowing where I’m going,” as she almost trips over a bridesmaid. Liam just leans into her and murmurs something into her ear and she laughs, relaxes, leans against him, allows herself to be wrapped in his arms. It’s insanely adorable. Harry would want to be sick on the floor, if he wasn’t so suddenly happy himself.

When the Black Eyed Peas are being played, it seems like it’s time for a break. Harry looks around for Zayn, but he can’t see him anywhere, so he follows the faint scent of cigarette smoke to the patio doors, and sure enough Zayn’s out there. It’s dark now and Zayn’s standing there in the glow of a patio heater, the light outlining him as though he’s a silhouette drawn on black paper with a silver pen. The edges of his hair are gleaming and when he turns his head to smile at Harry it looks like he’s been carved from gold. His tie’s undone and so’s his top button, in that artless way that Harry’s always loved. He throws his cigarette away and holds out a hand and says, “Dance with me, babe.”

“Tonight’s gonna be a good, good night,” Harry says, fistpumping vaguely to the music inside, and Zayn laughs, his nose crinkling at the sides.

“You’re such a dick,” he says, so fondly, and Harry tells him, “Takes one to know one.”

Zayn smiles, lets his eyes linger on Harry. Then he holds out his hand and raises his eyebrows like he’s saying I mean it this time, and Harry steps towards him and takes it. Zayn looks at their clasped hands and he draws Harry into him, holds their hands against his chest and rests his other hand on the back of Harry’s neck. Harry slides his arm around his back, holds him close, and – yeah. This is it. And somehow, they’re dancing. Inside the music ends, slides into something slower, a song that Harry doesn’t know. That’s okay. He’ll find the beat. Zayn leans into him, dips his head to rest it on Harry’s shoulder, face curled into his neck, and Harry bends over him. He can see the nape of Zayn’s neck, the short hairs there. They’re very slightly uneven and it makes Harry feel helplessly, furiously protective. He tightens his hand around Zayn’s.

“This marriage thing,” Zayn says, when the song sounds like it might be drawing to a close. “You thought of trying it one day, then?”

“Yeah. Asked Taylor. She said no,” Harry admits.

“Good for her,” Zayn says. “Leaves more for me. Perrie left me.”

“Probably because you’re such a twat,” Harry tells him.

Zayn laughs, shoulders shaking. “Probably. It was a long process. It was…” He takes a breath. “Tough, at times. You might have taken the brunt of that, last summer.”

“That was actually really fit,” Harry tells him, with absolute honesty.

“Oh my God. I was worried I might have hurt you.”

“You did, a bit. Not physically,” Harry hastens to add.

“Well, you never texted me back.”

“I thought you were married.”

“Not since December. It was different when we moved to London. We were different.” Zayn lets out a tiny breath, bites his lip before going on. “I got you a Christmas present and everything.”

“A good one?”

“Not really.” Zayn’s fingers are in the back of Harry’s hair, tugging gently, carding through it. He leans back, looks into Harry’s eyes. “I’m serious about this, you know.”

Harry clears his throat. “Me too.”

“So we can… be official or something?” Zayn’s eyes are big, and wide, and honest.

Harry’s throat is aching. He manages to say: “Yeah. All right.” They’re still dancing somehow, swaying in time. The two of them, so perfect in place in the slightly damp, cool air, the music from inside, their friends in the next room. Something beginning, or ending, or carrying on. He tells Zayn, “I really liked you. From the moment we first spoke.”

“I knew it was you when I first saw you,” Zayn tells him. “I knew you’d be special. Liam told me, Louis’s the evil one. Niall’s the Irish one. And Harry’s the sweet one. I saw your face and I was like, oh, shit. Liam was right, he is sweet. I knew I liked you.”

“I’m a very likeable person,” Harry says loftily, and Zayn laughs and punches him on the arm before resting his face on his shoulder again. He shifts in, kisses the skin just under Harry’s ear with a hum of contentment, and Harry realises suddenly that somehow, God, somehow, he’s got exactly what he wanted all along.

*

They dance inside after that, and Eleanor calls them adorable. Harry beams proudly at her and Zayn goes red and tries to hide behind him, but Harry won’t let him. He’s going to show Zayn off, now that he’s got him. They eat wedding cake and they play with their conkers from their little gift bags – Louis wins, because he’s willing to be vicious and he doesn’t mind the prospect of accidentally having someone’s eye out – and Liam and Sophia have their last dance before escaping into the night and off to their honeymoon. The dance floor starts to thin out, aunts and uncles going up to their rooms, little cousins falling asleep on the floor under tables. Louis and El are slow-dancing and whispering to each other, and Niall and Barbara are eating cake and kissing in the corner. After Wonderwall finishes Zayn squeezes Harry’s hand and says, “Let’s go upstairs.”

Harry wriggles his eyebrows meaningfully so Zayn laughs and says, “Not like that, God, you sex crazed maniac.” Then Harry wriggles his eyebrows some more until Zayn says “Maybe a bit like that. Come on,” and takes Harry’s hand and leads him out of the room. They take the stairs, stopping off to kiss whenever there’s an alcove, wherever Harry can press Zayn up against the wall. Zayn’s room comes first and he opens the door slowly, Harry behind him, and it’s just – he can reach out and touch him, he’s allowed to do that, to wrap his arms around Zayn’s waist from behind and kiss his neck and stroke his stomach, Zayn leaning back into him, lifting a hand so he can touch Harry’s messy hair as he opens the door with his other hand.

They go inside, Harry slamming the door after them, and for a moment it’s awkward, Zayn standing next to the dressing table and looking over at him as though he’s not sure what comes next. Harry doesn’t know either. Usually the kissing comes next but today’s different. Today’s a fresh start, the best surprise of Harry’s life. Zayn swallows and then he says, “I got you something,” and goes over to his backpack. Harry even likes the way he bends down, the movement of his hands as he unzips the bag and shifts around a couple of things before taking out a flat gold-wrapped box. It’s got a red ribbon wrapped around it, curling at the top, a little crumpled but still good.

“My sister helped me wrap it last Christmas,” Zayn explains. “Like I told you before, it’s really shit.” Harry’s still caught on the idea of Zayn asking his sister to help him do something like that, to make something nice for Harry. It makes his chest squeeze almost painfully as he takes the gold box out of Zayn’s hands, unties the red ribbon carefully. He wants to put it in his pocket so he can keep it, but really that’s ridiculous when he gets to keep Zayn instead, so he just drops it onto the dressing table. Then he unsticks the tape, folds back the paper, opens the box inside. There’s a picture frame, small and rectangular and black, and inside there’s a small portrait of Harry.

“Oh,” he says, feeling as though he’s been punched in the best possible way, and Zayn says, “It’s not very good.”

“It’s great,” Harry says. It’s not a big picture, but it’s hand drawn, careful and loving, on creamy white paper, as though by a hand that knows his face well. “Did you do this?”

Zayn nods, a little jerky. “I’ve done other ones too,” he says, and then adds, faltering, “I wanted you to know that I’ve always been thinking about you.”

It’s such a good picture. He’s got Harry’s nose all right, that’s the first thing that Harry notices, and the way his eyes are spaced far apart. He bends to look at his reflection in the mirror, and yeah – it’s him. It’s him right there on the page, inked carefully, his eyes sea green and his hair a tumble of brown and chestnut and even dark red in there, somewhere. The way his lips are curved in the picture makes it clear that Zayn’s spent a long time thinking about his mouth and the way it moves when he’s happy. He thinks, I wanted you to draw me back when we first met, and somehow Zayn has. Multiple times, apparently. A love that wars would be fought over. An inspiration for art, for sitting at a desk under a light with watercolours and inks open, painting a faint flush onto the cheeks of a boy you’ve slept with and half-loved, hazily at the back of your mind for years. He can tell from this picture, somehow, that Zayn likes his face a lot. Maybe as much as Harry likes Zayn’s.

“Did you do this from memory?” he asks, and Zayn nods, shy, looking away, hands knotted in front of him.

“Put it down,” he says, and Harry tells him, “I don’t want to,” and Zayn laughs, less awkward now, just plain happy. Harry looks up from the picture in time to catch the tail end of the laugh, the way the brighter smile fades and the smaller one takes its place, the one that will stay on Zayn’s mouth now, curled into the corner of his lips. On the bottom of the picture Zayn’s scribbled something, a quote from somewhere, probably: We must risk delight.

Yeah. That seems important. That seems like something Harry would like very much. They’ve done it all this time, hurt each other for their brief moments of joy. Loved other people, and thought long days of steadiness would be better than something that knocked them off their feet. Risking delight seems to be the only option left.

“I think this is it,” Harry suddenly realises aloud. He puts down his picture, but only so he can go and wrap his arms around Zayn’s waist.

Zayn grins, sudden and wicked, and suddenly he’s the boy who wants to get lucky again, instead of the quiet man who’s made some mistakes and is only now learning how to make up for them. Harry gets that. Nobody’s perfect. He certainly isn’t. “You ready, Styles?” Zayn asks, so close that Harry could kiss him.

Harry meets his smirk with one of his own, and says, “Always.”

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re getting married on June 17, 2018, and we’d love to see you there.
Zayn and Harry x

 

The morning of their wedding, Harry wakes up late, because he forgot to set the alarm, and obviously Zayn refuses to wake up, because he always refuses to wake up. To be fair to him, it’s been a hectic few weeks because of the whole wedding thing, so he’s probably pretty tired. But they’re getting married in five hours and Louis has already texted Harry eight times in progressive stages of insanity, starting at 5.47am, and really, Harry knows that Louis has a lot of early starts now he and Eleanor have Olivia, otherwise known as the cutest baby in the world and the apple of everyone’s collective eye, but he doesn’t think there’s any reason he has to involve the rest of the world in them. Even still, he’s vaguely aware that if they don’t text back soon, Louis and Liam will probably be over and banging at their front door to make sure they haven’t gone off to Gretna Green. They’ve threatened to do that a few times now. Weddings, as it turns out, are actually quite a lot of hassle.

“Zayn,” he says, shoving gently at Zayn’s stomach and then pushing a lock of hair off his forehead, and Zayn frowns in his sleep, reaches up to grab Harry’s hand.

“Fuck off,” he says, and Harry says primly, “Is that any way to talk to the love of your life?”

“It definitely is when he’s being annoying,” Zayn mumbles. His eyes are still shut but he’s running his hand up Harry’s side, warm and reassuring and slightly tickly. The diamond and onyx ring that Harry gave him six months ago is on its chain around his neck, exactly where it always is, resting in the cool gold hollow of his throat. “Why are you waking me up at the arsecrack of dawn?”

“It’s half ten,” Harry tells him.

“Oh.” Zayn actually does open his eyes at that, half sitting up. His eyes crinkle at the corners as he takes Harry in and smiles slowly. It’s a brilliant thing, Harry thinks, to be able to wake up and smile immediately. It’s been almost two years of doing it now. Zayn says, “You look all messy,” and rumples a hand through Harry’s hair. “You gonna brush your mop?”

“Nah. I like it when it looks like things might be living in it.”

“Me too.” Zayn messes with his hair for a moment, scrapes it all up on the top of Harry’s head, fingers scratching gently against his scalp, before letting it fall down again. It falls in front of Harry’s face and Zayn mms out a laugh. “You’re better looking now your face is covered.”

“You’re very mean.” Harry pushes it out of his face and lays his head down on Zayn’s chest. He can feel the thump of his heart, low and regular and reassuring. “We’re getting married today,” he says softly. The rest of his life laid out like that. Zayn in the mornings and evenings, grumbling over coffee and cuddling into Harry so close in bed that his hair gets in his mouth, always and annoyingly. The minutiae of everyday life, shared with someone else. Someone to make sure he never feels lonely in the middle of a crowd again.

“I know.” Zayn touches his cheekbone and kisses his forehead. “We have to get up, babe. It’s getting late.”

“Are you happy?” Harry asks, although he knows the answer already, and Zayn doesn’t even hesitate before he says “Yes.”

“Me too,” Harry says, and Zayn wraps his arms around him, tight and secure.

From outside, the pale morning light is filtering through the gap in Harry’s curtains. Camden market is in full bloom down the road, tourists pushing and bright and happy on this almost-summer day. Ten minutes down the street, Louis and Eleanor are feeding a pouting baby who has, regrettably, inherited her father’s temperament, and Liam and Sophia are at their favourite café and basking together in the sunshine, and Niall and Barbara are starting to rummage around for food in the kitchen down the hallway. Harry closes his eyes for a moment and inhales the familiar scent of Zayn’s skin and realises, This is it. This is everything. I’m there, and then Zayn nudges him until he rolls over and gets out of bed, which is fine. It’s good. It makes sense. They’ve got a wedding day to be getting on with.