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We Could Be Enough

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It starts with a group text. Niall isn't expecting it, and he doesn't recognize at least one of the numbers on it. He's stoking the fire in the living room when he hears his message ping, and assumes it's junk from the notification on the lockscreen. He finishes up and wipes his hands off on his jeans before he finally takes a look.

24 months, lads! Has everyone hibernated long enough? Are there six more weeks of winter?

Niall grins. Liam is in New York, so the Groundhog Day reference is less confusing than it could've been, though February's a long way off yet and twenty-four months will be in December. Niall texts back right away, pulling his legs up on the couch under his blanket, knees to his chest, the fire crackling merrily now.

Youre Two months off , Payno !! it 's only October ..

It isn't long before Louis has chimed in as well, the three of them chatting idly as they haven't since the first days of their hiatus-inspired WhatsApp group. No one's used it since Sadie was born and Tommo proudly displayed over a dozen different pictures of her. They all looked basically the same and Niall had to pay twenty pounds of roaming data from his beach-side lounge chair in Tulum, but it was worth it.

Harry's commentary is conspicuously absent, but then it always has been. Niall pushes aside the pang in his chest and gets up to wash his hands.

*

They've had some meetings, mostly teleconferences where agents and managers pass along information they've been discussing in their own planning sessions and senior summits. All four of them are rarely present at the same meeting at the same time, just because of time zones and schedules. They work it out, though, and everyone's agreed that in the new year--2018, an impossible number--they'll reconvene for a UK tour, test the waters, do some appearances. No one's prepared to go full speed ahead yet, solo projects and new ventures still buzzing in the background, but it feels like time.

Niall is tending his herb garden in the flower pots on the kitchen windowsills, looking out into the dark marshlands surrounding his cabin when he gets the idea.

Boys, he types in an email, the light of the screen blue and fuzzy in the dark of his little office, space heater humming. In a mad bid to regain our lost youth and get blind drunk living on nostalgia, what do you say we all meet up in my Connemara cabin? I'll be here through the hols so you can come for Christmas or after, maybe New Years. Lou, we could do you a little birthday party sometime if you like, too. Everyone's got families to be with I'm sure, but after that? It'll be just like the bungalow. Except more booze and whatever else you want to bring with you as party favours!!

He hopes it's clear, that they'll know what he means: they need to relearn each other, make sure they still fit. They need to talk and warm up and meld in, because two years is a lot of time and a lot of career to catch up with for people like them.

Everyone gets back to him separately. Louis, of course, isn't coming until after Christmas because he's got Sadie to spoil silly. In Mid-December, Liam is going to his parents' new digs, a house he bought them that just finished construction a couple months ago. He's bringing the new girlfriend and the dogs too, but she's going to her own family's ski chalet in Switzerland for Christmas, so Liam is planning to come to Ireland and do the Twelve Pubs with Niall. No matter that there's only one pub in the nearby village, they'll make it work somehow.

Niall doesn't hear from Harry for several days after he sends the email, but finally he gets a reply. He's washing dishes, up to his elbows in warm, soapy water when he gets a text.

I'm bringing my mum's mince pie recipe. There'd better be and oven. And mulled wine. xx

Niall grins and just texts back *an with a monkey emoji.

It feels a bit like he's already had some mulled wine.

*

Liam shows up first. He's got a modest suitcase and a rental car, but nothing particularly remarkable has changed since the last time Niall saw him. It was for a game of golf a few months back when they took a meeting with the guys at the label. Niall won and Liam made a fuss over him, and it was grand.

It's only two days until Christmas, and the air is crisp and cold and the little village of Lettermore is soft and gold down the hill from Niall's cabin, though it's only about three in the afternoon.

"Nice setup you've got here," Liam says, impressed at Niall's makeshift studio in the den and the rough-hewn beams of the cabin walls, the stonework, the cast-iron stove and the big, cozy fireplace. "Mountain Man Horan."

Niall laughs, pulling Liam into big, comfortable hug. He smells like fabric softener and rental car. "I guess you could say that. Without the mountains, anyway. I came out here with the crew about a year and a half ago and loved it so much I bought it."

"You've been living here that long?" Liam asks, eyes crinkling as he smiles.

"Nah, I go back and forth. I have a place right outside Dublin, too. Gotta keep up with civilization." Niall grins, pointing at the Wifi hotspot in the corner that they'd all be lost without.

"We can go down to the town for food and stuff, right?" Liam asks, a bit wary as he peers over Niall's shoulder to the kitchen. It's a well-fitted kitchen, cozy but with all the trimmings. Cooking is relaxing and fun and one of Niall's favourite things to do when he's out here all by himself, listening to the quiet.

"We can, but it's a Gaeltacht village. Not that you can't speak English, but I dunno. Might want to bring me along with you for the Irish bits, or a translation app, just in case."

"Ooh, look at you, Mr. Linguist," Liam says, smile bright. "Always were a secret nerd, weren't you?"

"Sure look, I've had two years to learn," Niall says, laughing. "Eoghan just about forced it down me. I remembered fuck all from school, I'll tell you."

He's got a pot of mulled wine on and Liam tasked with decorating the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. They've both got Galway Bay Brewery winter ales, and Niall's box of ornaments salvaged from his mam's move last year is sitting on the seat of his favourite club chair. Buble's on and they're singing along like it's 2010, cheeks pink from how nice it is to harmonise again. He's just about to check on the wine when there's a knock at the front door.

"Ho, ho, ho!" Harry shouts when Niall opens the door, arms spread wide and laden with bags.

Niall cheers and gives him a hug right around the middle, bags and distance between them be damned. "It's Father Christmas!" Harry hasn't aged a day, it seems. His hair still hangs in long, soft ringlets, accidental stubble still more awkward than rugged, but eyes wide and bright. The coat's a fancy new one, of course, and he's wearing ridiculous boots. He looks smooth-faced and rested, cheeks and lips rosy pink with cold.

Niall pats Harry on the back and lets his arms drop, but Harry's still hanging onto him in that oblivious way he always does. He's done hugging when he's done hugging, and if anyone else feels awkward about it, that's their problem.

Niall does feel awkward about it. He stands there like a lemon and laughs, looking over Harry's shoulder, too self-conscious now to bury his face in his neck like he usually would've. "Alright then," he says through a chuckle. "You're gonna be here for ages, Styles, don't use up all your hugging now."

Harry finally lets go and dumps his bags next to the door, except for the one that clinks like wine bottles, which he gives to Niall as he surveys Niall's little kingdom. "Well," he says, smiling brightly, rubbing his big hands together. It's like Niall just saw him yesterday, somehow, even though they haven't actually been in the same room for almost two full years now. He's not even sure where Harry lives at this point, or what he's been doing, or if he's got a girlfriend.

"At sir's request, there's mulled wine on the stove," Niall says in a plummy accent, sweeping his arm towards the kitchen. "I'll have the valet take care of your things." He thumbs at himself and gives Harry a cheeky smile. "Oh and Payno's here, you should go supervise him when you've got a drink and make sure he's putting the ornaments on properly."

"No two of the same set next to each other," Harry says, laughing. "Even spread on all sides of the tree. Delicate ones at the top. Heaviest ones on the thickest branches."

"I knew I could trust you," Niall says, dropping the wine off in the kitchen and scooping up Harry's stuff to go put it in the second guest room.

The cabin isn't huge, but there are three bedrooms. Niall's got the biggest one, of course, then Liam picked out the next biggest for himself, which leaves Harry with the one that might as well have been a box room. It's a bit of a tight fit, but it'll be cozy and warm at night and it's not like he'll need to do anything but sleep in there.

What Niall hasn't yet told Liam is that by picking the second-biggest bedroom, he's volunteered himself to share with Louis when he shows up, unless someone wants to sleep on the couch or bribe Niall to share instead.

When Niall goes back downstairs, Harry's sipping noisily from a mug of mulled wine and standing back in a corner, directing Liam where to put each ornament as he pulls it from the box. Niall laughs and flumps bodily onto the big couch, warm in his chest. Harry's wearing a shapeless green jumper Niall's seen a thousand times before and black skinnies with his ridiculous boots. The jumper sags a bit at the neck so Harry's tattoos peek out, and there are holes ripped at the cuffs that Harry sometimes compulsively sticks his thumbs in, then pulls them out. He'd never been a fidgeter that Niall remembers; it's much more like something he'd do himself.

It's strange to see him, somehow, his presence and the air around him changed after so long. Liam is familiar still, never stopped occupying the spot in Niall's life that he always has, fresh top-ups every month or two so he hasn't slipped away from Niall or morphed into something different. Harry, though, demands that Niall takes stock of him, notice every detail and rebuild his place in Niall's heart anew, the same but disarmingly different.

After the tree is decorated, the three of them sit around with mulled wine and play a few games of poker, betting with coasters and the ornaments that didn't all fit. They talk idly about what the set list for the tour might be, what they want the vibe to be like. Harry plays back a few of their own songs on his phone just so they can remember how they even go. Liam begs off after a while to go up and call Sharice, and Niall rolls his eyes. Harry grins at him, and his gaze lingers too long. Niall rolls his shoulders under the scrutiny, and it's like two years haven't passed at all.

"I'm going outside to watch the Ursids, wanna come?" he asks after a moment, meeting Harry's eyes. He points to the ceiling. Harry gives him a confused look, and Niall laughs, jerking his head towards the door. "It'll be a laugh, c'mon."

He fills up a thermos with wine and grabs the bag from his coat closet that he always takes with him in times like these. Outside, around back, his ladder is tucked up under the eaves. "You go up first so I can hold it steady," he says, and Harry shakes his head.

"No way," he says. "You go up first. I don't know where to step up there and I'll slide off or something." He grabs the base of the ladder and holds it steady for Niall to climb, and Niall tries not to feel the burn of Harry's eyes on his back as he scrambles up.

"Not my fault you're wearing impractical fuckin' footwear," Niall says, but he holds the top of the ladder as Harry climbs up, quickly and easily. Niall just raises his eyebrows and Harry shrugs.

"I've had a lot of free time to work on my core," he says, and Niall laughs. He honestly can't tell if Harry's deadpan is sarcasm or not, and that only makes it funnier. "So what are we actually doing up here?"

"Watching the Ursids," Niall says again. "It's a meteor shower." He shakes out a thick, wooly blanket from what he thinks of as his Roof Bag and spreads it on the shallow slant of the shingled surface. He lies down on it, legs crossed, looking back up at Harry. He looks about twelve feet tall like this, silhouetted against the waxing gibbous. He's got his coat wrapped tight around him and he's tense with cold. "C'mon, we'll have a cuddle, drink some wine. You'll warm right up. If you don't, you can go back in, I won't hold it against you. Promise."

"That's a disappointing thing to promise," Harry says, and even though Niall can't see his expression, he knows it's cheeky. Harry never misses a chance to mess with him, not even after nearly two years of radio silence.

When he lies down on the blanket next to Niall, the foot or so between them feels like a football pitch. The silence isn't warm or comfortable, really, and it's a blessing when Niall finally sees a meteor streaking across the sky. "There!" he shouts, arm flinging up to point, and Harry laughs softly under his breath.

"I saw it."

Niall's quiet for a moment, until another meteor streaks by, bright and distant. "It was the best last night. Still good now, but there were a lot more. Being so far from anything is sick when stuff like this happens. No lights for miles to ruin it. You can see the whole galaxy." Niall trails off, staring at the vast expanse of the sky, the messy smear of the Milky Way all across the entire thing, the millions and millions of stars. He can barely even see two when he's in London. Showing it to someone else makes his skin tingly even in the cold, and he tries not to fidget.

"Should've come out a day earlier," Harry murmurs.

"Could you have?" Niall asks. "Christ, Harry, I don't even think I know what you're doing now. Where'd you fly in from today? Is there a yacht somewhere with your name literally on it that's going wanting 'cause I threatened to make you mulled wine?" He passes over the thermos, and Harry takes a grateful slurp. They're both a bit tipsy by now, probably, what with all the beer and the few bottles of wine they polished off with Liam.

The lights of the village down below them line Harry with twinkly gold thread when Niall tips his head to the side to look at him. Harry's silent at first, but Niall can see his chest move from the glint of the moon off his coat buttons. It looks like will-o-the-wisps, the bog lights Niall's seen down in the wetlands on the darkest of nights. "LA mostly. You did know that, though. It's where I'm almost always calling from in the meetings." Niall shrugs. "I have a place in the Hamptons, now. No yacht, though. Don't really need one since I know enough people who'll let me borrow one for free." They both laugh.

"How's the album?" Niall asks, treading lightly.

It's Harry's turn to shrug. "Fine, I guess. I don't know. I just can't quite get it right, somehow."

"Too much freedom?" Niall asks, wry. "That's always my problem. Without limitations, I'm basically useless. I don't know how to work unless I'm under so much pressure and don't-do-thats that it's back to the way things used to be."

Harry laughs, lets out a relieved breath, and a few of the rough pieces sand down and slot together. Niall scoots a bit closer to Harry's heat. "Fuck. That's part of it. Spoiled for choice." Another meteor shoots by, and Niall just catches it out of the corner of his eye, too busy looking for Harry's eyes in the moonlight. "I'm happy though. Sleeping. Working out."

"Dating?" Niall asks in a smarmy American radio DJ voice. Harry laughs, but doesn't say anything. Niall's not sure why he's disappointed.

They lie there in silence for what seems like ages, meteors tapering off and the cold burrowing too close inside their jackets, mulled wine thermos empty and useless for keeping their blood warm. "I'm much drunker than when I came up," Harry says, each word deliberate. His voice is lower and syrupier.

"I'll go down first and catch you if you fall, then," Niall says, merry himself but adept by now at getting down the ladder after he's been drinking up here.

"I'd crush you. Your tiny delicate bird bones would be snapped like twigs," Harry says. Niall punches him in the shoulder.

"Fuck off, wanker," he says. "You're a fucking delicate bird. Surprised you didn't die from the cold up here, you and your weak constitution."

"I'll probably be sick for a month," Harry agrees, laughing. "And it's all your fault. Hope your sky rocks were worth it."

"They were," Niall says after a moment, and it feels important. Harry just sits there looking at him, stars tangled in his curls.

"Alright then," he says finally, his smile glowing. He shuffles down the ladder after Niall.

Niall banks the fire in the hearth and goes around turning out all the lights, tidies up the kitchen. Harry leans against the stone wall watching, feet astride the line where the wood floor of the living room turns to the wide porcelain tiles of the kitchen. "What?" Niall asks. Harry's still got his coat on.

"I almost didn't come," Harry says, voice a bit rough, eyes heavy with encroaching sleep.

Niall stops scrubbing the countertop and bites at his lip. "Yeah?" He's not sure what else to say, something in his belly going sour and worried.

"I'm glad I did, though." Harry goes upstairs before Niall can think of an answer to that, and it's probably better he does.

*

Niall wakes up to clattering in the kitchen, his heart racing painfully, breath catching in his chest before he remembers he has house guests. It's Christmas Eve.

Merry Louismas !! can ' t Wait til you get your arse out here .. he texts Louis, complete with a birthday cake and a Christmas tree. He sends a tweet as well, never one to skimp on being demonstrative over social media.

There are smells wafting up the stairs, breakfast and the Christmas tree and the fireplace. Niall's tucked under his duvet, belly down on the warmth of his electric blanket that he stretched over the mattress on top of his sheet. He tucks his head down against his chest, off the pillow, so he can rub his cheek against the soft warmth of it. Getting up is always the hardest part of the day, here in the cold wet of the bog.

He manages it, though. Someone's cooking in his kitchen and it smells delicious. It could be either Liam or Harry, but he'd put money on Harry. Liam's more of a roast dinner man, and Harry's always been prone to whipping up eggs and rashers of thick glistening bacon. Niall's mouth is watering by the time he trundles downstairs, flannel pyjama bottoms and thermal henley wrapped up in his plush warm dressing gown. He's got his old bus slippers on, a souvenir from their past that's stood the test of time.

"Morning," Harry says, smiling over the pan of eggs sizzling in front of him at Niall. There's onion bits and grated cheese remnants on the cutting board next to him, and sure enough, Niall's packet of bacon from the fridge is popping and hissing happily on the stove. Harry nods at a mug of coffee next to a stack of dishes warming on the hotplate, set up on the counter under the cabinets by the fridge. "Made you coffee. Well, you or Liam, wasn't sure who'd be up first."

Niall takes a sip. "Mmm." Mark and Basil always said Harry's coffee was the best in London, and Niall rolled his eyes and made a wanking gesture at them all without fail. They're maybe not wrong, though. "Would've wrestled Liam for it," Niall says.

Harry laughs. "I lied, it was really for you." Niall smiles into his mug, fingers clutching it tight. "Liam would want tea anyway. He can make his own."

"I missed your coffee," Niall says, light and airy. Harry doesn't say anything, just gives Niall a long, unblinking look. Niall fidgets. Harry's always a bit strange, but it feels heavier, somehow. "Alright, well. Let me know if you need any help or anything. I'll go, um. Make sure the fire's tended to."

*

"Twelve Pubs of Christmas, right boys?" Liam says, clapping his hands and rubbing them together as he bounces on the balls of his feet. He's got a tea towel over his shoulder from finishing the washing up, all the breakfast dishes put neatly away at Niall's behest. He's still in joggers and a worn blue jumper, socked feet slippy on the tile, though Niall and Harry have both showered and dressed. Niall let Harry go first since he cooked breakfast, and Harry was courteous enough to be quick so Niall at least got a bit of hot water.

"I think you'll find we're a few pubs short of a pub crawl," Harry says from the couch. He's curled up with his phone, and Niall valiantly doesn't look over his shoulder to read his texts or figure out who he's talking to.

"You're a few pubs short of a pub crawl," Liam says, laughing. He claimed he didn't mind a cold shower. Does wonders for the muscles, he said, which is good, because while Niall's water heater is generally pretty robust, he's not sure how well it will live up to a house full of guests.

"There's one pub," Niall says, sheepish. "We could go to Galway, it only takes an hour to drive. Although the three of us going out there is going to be a circus. No one'll care if we stay here."

Liam shrugs. "I don't mind a bit of a production. It's not as bad as it used to be, and we'll--I dunno. Wear hats. When Tommo's here we can go to the one in the village for his birthday and make arses of ourselves."

Niall laughs. "Not too arsey, though. Some of us have to live here and show our faces in the shops every now and then."

Niall ends up driving Liam's rental to Galway, Harry riding shotgun. "I've got longer legs," he said, and Liam twisted his nipples mercilessly but didn't argue.

Harry tries to navigate, doing fairly well until he gets hopelessly confused around Bealadangan. Luckily, Niall knows the way and it's more funny than annoying. He looks across the console at Harry's scrunched face and the tendrils of hair escaped from his bun and gone frizzy around his temples. He grins helplessly as Harry types and re-types in Google Maps. Liam snapchats in the back seat and calls Sharice, asking her to put Watson on the phone.

They're tipsy by the second pub, drunk by the sixth, singing and pushing each other out of the way to take pool shots by the ninth, and they never make it to twelve. They do take dozens of blurry selfies with and accept far too many drinks bought for them by other drunk revelers, though. Everyone is happy and rosy with Christmas cheer, shouting carols whose melody gets lost in the din.

At the best of times, all three of them are fairly reasonable drunks. Tonight, whether it's Galway or nostalgia or Christmas, they're wrecked as a unit. Niall almost pisses himself laughing when Liam manages to somehow go into the men's toilets, disappear for twenty minutes, and come out of the women's. Harry has permanent marker tattoos drawn on him: NIALL written letter by letter on the fingers of his left hand, and ivy leaves scrawled up his right arm. His teeth and tongue are purple from wine, and he has tinsel stuck in his hair, though Niall's not sure if he knows it or not. Everything around them looks far away, like a warm Christmas scene in a movie, or maybe a memory, smudged with gold and red and green.

Niall manages to tuck himself into a corner quiet enough that he can phone The g Hotel and try to get them rooms, but it's still hard to hear what the receptionist is saying, and booking on Christmas Eve for three people is a bit of a gamble at the best of times.

"Well," Niall says, dropping heavily onto a barstool next to Liam. "We have someplace to go at any rate. Who knows what the rooms'll be like."

Liam shrugs amicably and shoves a handful of crisps into his mouth.

*

It turns out to be room, singular. "The who suite?" Liam asks, looking vaguely like he may pass out at any moment. They're around back at the service lift in the hotel, room keys clutched in their hands, concierge shuffling back down the hall to the front desk. Harry's leaning tipsily against a wall, hair lank around his face. Niall feels a bit ill just looking at him.

"Linda Evangelista, she said," Niall mumbles. "The Linda Evangelista Suite." Apparently it's just the one, and Niall should never book rooms while plastered in a pub ever again. There's only two floors in the hotel, but he's not taking his chances trying to get all three of them up the stairs in their current states.

"D'you know her, Styles?" Liam asks, slurring. "You and the older lady models. Cindy Crawford. Naomi Campbell. Probably made eggs for this one at some party in the middle of the night with Stephen Hawking, or--someone?"

Harry just groans. "That was Chelsea Handler. Wait, no. Kathy Griffin."

"Oh, of course, excuse me," Liam says, then burps expansively. Finally the lift dings and Niall shoves the other two in.

It's only one suite, but it's enormous and ridiculously opulent. "Coffee, thank Christ," Niall says, falling on the Nespresso machine with a relieved sigh. "Who wants some?" Liam's face-down on the huge velvety couch already, and Harry's wobbling towards the bedroom. "Just me then."

By the time Niall's gulped some coffee and sorted himself out in the bathroom, Liam's properly snoring, spread-eagle on the couch, and Harry's a lump in the middle of the bed under the huge poofy duvet.

"Harry," he grumbles. No response. "Harold," he tries again. Nothing. "Budge up, you fuckin' bastard." With no little effort, he yanks the tucked-in sides of the duvet out from under the lump and knees up onto the bed. "I'm not sleeping in a chair, I'll be a mess of aches tomorrow. So you have to move." He shoves at Harry's side, though he's a bit sweaty and apparently not wearing a shirt. With a grumble, he finally stirs, and Niall keeps pushing rather than lose the momentum. Harry's not wearing his jeans anymore, either, just pants, hair loose, skin tacky and warm. Niall clears his throat, irritated, and wriggles down under the duvet.

"Sorry," Harry mumbles. "I'm tired."

"Me too," Niall says. It's close and smells a bit boozy under the duvet, which Niall has pulled right up over their heads. He's still wearing all his clothes, but after a moment he squirms until he can kick his jeans off, their combined bodyheat and the impressive central heating in the room making it uncomfortable. They lie in silence for a while, Harry taking deep, sleepy breaths just on the verge of snoring. "I didn't think you'd come, either," Niall says, the words slipping out of him in the looseness of their quiet cave.

"I'm here," Harry murmurs. He turns to face Niall, a black outline and fuzzy grey in the dark.

"You weren't, before." They didn't speak at all, really, not for the past two years. It wasn't too surprising. Harry hasn't spent time with Niall outside of work for four years at least. Niall always chalked it up to a kind of aloofness, Harry compartmentalising work and his real life. That's just who Harry was, and Niall understood that. Or so he thought. "I didn't blame you."

This isn't something they talk about, but it's happening now, around the damp breaths between them in Linda Evangelista's bed, drunk and exhausted and confused. "I missed you," Harry says, and Niall blinks at him.

"Why?" Niall asks, and it comes out a surprised croak.

Harry shuffles like he's about to turn over again, but he doesn't. He kisses Niall, lips at the corner of his mouth, awkward and tight in the confines of the duvet. His bare chest slides against Niall's forearm, the rabbit-pulse in Niall's wrist pressed against Harry's heart. Niall's brain tries to chug into gear, sluggish and half-gone already. The moment snaps and Harry does roll over, then. Niall's staring at the expanse of his back, shadowed and shifting with his heavy breaths.

"Happy Christmas," he murmurs, but Harry's already fallen back asleep.

*

Niall wakes up with a wicked dry mouth and a pounding headache, and it takes long, agonising minutes to remember where he is. Only after he's retched twice does he realise Harry's in the bed next to him, and that it's Christmas. "Jesus fucking Christ," he says, laughing ruefully.

"Everything we do," groans Harry, his face smashed into his pillow still. Niall can hardly understand him.

Laughing turns out to be painful, so Niall sits up instead, the duvet pooling around his waist. The room isn't cold, but it feels cold compared to the oven of their duvet cave. "I wonder if Santa came," Niall says, voice gravelly. He rummages around in the nightstand and pulls out two bottles of water, sliding Harry's into the smooth curve between his neck and shoulder where he's barely poking out of the duvet.

"We were definitely on the naughty list after all that," Harry says, turning his head to nose helplessly at the water bottle.

Niall opens it for him and puts it back, guzzling his own. "You kissed me," he says. He didn't mean to say it, and even though he immediately snaps his mouth shut with a click and his cheeks are on fire, it's too late to take it back.

Harry doesn't say anything for an agonizing moment, occupying himself with trying to drink his water without sitting up. Niall tears his eyes away and gazes out the window instead, pretending as hard as he can that he said it on purpose, that it was a casual observation, that everything's fine and he doesn't feel like crawling under Linda Evangelista's bed and never coming out. "I always get a kiss goodnight from my mum on Christmas Eve," Harry finally says. "You're the next best thing."

Niall laughs as his chest crumples in on itself, stomach leaden. At least he didn't deny that it happened at all, although Niall's not really sure what he'd prefer instead, everything a painful and confusing mess. "I'll take that as a compliment," Niall says, managing to sound only a little strangled. He puts on an exaggerated northern accent. "Anne's bang tidy."

Harry punches him weakly in the thigh, and it's like 2010 all over again. It hurts.

*

Liam is still dead to the world by the time Harry and Niall shuffle out into the living room of the suite. He's on the couch where he passed out last night, fully dressed, and his face is in a fairly impressive splotch of his own drool. "Liam," Harry whispers, jiggling him gently by the shoulder. "Liam!"

Liam jerks awake with a comedic snort and falls off the couch. Niall laughs even though it hurts and it makes it hard to concentrate on what he's doing at the Nespresso machine. "Happy Christmas," Harry says, and smiles innocently down at Liam. He's wearing a hotel dressing gown over his pants, at least.

"It's a Christmas miracle you're not naked, Styles," Liam says. He doesn't actually look all that peaky. "Also I don't actually want to die right now." He shakes his appendages, checking for damage. "I also don't remember anything after we toasted to absent friends, though."

"That was our second drink," Niall says, lining up three coffees on the counter. Harry slumps over to one of the bar stools and slurps at the one on the left before wrapping his big hands around it gratefully. "Sorry I'm not Harry-level magic with a coffee maker," he says, mostly to Harry, "but I think these'll do."

"I feel like we should be exchanging gifts," Liam says, properly stretched out on the floor now, like that's where he'd meant to end up the whole time.

"We never exchange gifts," Niall says.

"Next time, maybe," Harry says. "All I brought was that wine."

"I brought my charming presence," says Liam. "I just meant, you know, it's Christmas morning and round about the time my family would all be on the floor ripping through the presents."

Niall gets an idea, scooting to the bathroom to grab three of the little boxes from the vanity. He chucks two of them at Harry and Liam. "Happy Christmas, lads," he says.

"Ooh, I've got a body bar," says Harry, dumping the posh little soap out of his box.

"Mine's a--sewing kit?" Liam says, laughing as he unfolds one of the ends of his packet to dump some buttons, needles in a little matchbook-type thing, and cards with thread spooled around them onto the carpet next to him. "What'd you get, Nialler?"

Niall eyes his little box, popping the end open. "Fancy toothpaste," he says.

"An embarrassment of riches," Harry says, polishing off his coffee.

*

They're showered, dressed, and back on the road by two in the afternoon, feeling alive and full of far more holiday spirit than when they first woke up. Niall may have puked a bit of bile in the sink when he was brushing his teeth, but Harry and Liam certainly didn't need to know that, and he felt much better afterwards.

He'd planned to have Christmas dinner well started by now, but with two seasoned helpers and no extended family to please, he's not too anxious about it. Liam got shotgun this time, and Niall tries not to stare in the rearview mirror too often, Harry sprawled out in the back seat, shirt rucked up around the lap belt across his hips.

By evening, the roast is in the oven and Liam's tending to the mash on the stove, Harry's wine doled out and everyone merry and bright as if they hadn't woken up miserable at all. Niall goes upstairs to grab his slippers just as Harry's coming out of the guest room. "Hey," Harry says, quiet and conspiratorial. "C'mere for a minute?" Harry ducks back into his room and Niall follows, curiosity peaked.

"Planning an ambush on Liam?" Niall asks, grinning. "He'll probably let you lick the potato masher if you just ask."

"I kind of lied when I said I didn't bring any presents," Harry says, looking contrite. "I just didn't--bring enough for everyone."

Niall straightens up. "So you've got me one then?" Harry shrugs, suddenly bashful. "Because--I maybe got you one too." They've always given each other things, though Niall was never really sure why they managed to do it but they didn't so much with the others. His favourite shirts and jewelry and candles are all from Harry, spur of the moment I saw it and thought of you gifts.

Harry laughs, and Niall moves to wrap him in a solid hug, can't help himself. The months fall away and it's like tour again, no excuses for why they're in each other's orbit, quiet together in a changing room or screaming together chucking fruit at the stage crew. Harry hugs back instantly, with his whole body, and Niall tucks his nose into Harry's neck, smells his shampoo and Tom Ford.

"Let me go get the thing I have for you," Niall says, cheek brushing Harry's ear like they're back on stage. Even the little thrill in his chest is the same. "Come to my room."

Niall's room feels much smaller with the two of them in it, though it's still neat and airy, and Harry looks comfortable and at home just as he does everywhere else. Niall pulls his present for Harry out from the top shelf in his wardrobe, wrapped in the brown paper and string from when he first bought it. He wasn't expecting to give it to Harry just now, but the timing couldn't be more perfect.

Harry's gift to Niall is a journal, new and fancy and leather-bound, not unlike the ones Harry always has on-hand but a bit bigger. Niall's already thrilled with it, that Harry was thinking of him and of his songwriting, but when he opens the front cover, Harry's done a painting on the first page, too. It's a stylised landscape of what looks like Lettermore, with the hill and the bog and the glowing will-o-the-wisps like fairies in the shadows of the island. "I maybe brought some paints," Harry says. "Not just the wine. I've been learning, you know."

"Harry," Niall starts, but nothing else comes. He just stares, first at the little painting, then at Harry.

"I was gonna copy out some of a Thomas Moore poem at the bottom there in white," Harry says, starting to ramble, "but then I thought that was probably too much, it'd clutter the page, and anyway my handwriting is awful chicken scratch, you know that as--"

"Harry," Niall says again. He just gives Harry his present rather than trying to come up with anything to say that won't be wildly embarrassing.

It's a small framed Basquiat sketch he picked up in New York when he was there in November seeing his family. He wandered through a contemporary art auction, more out of idle curiosity than anything else. Jean-Michel Basquiat always makes Niall think of Harry. The piece is actually two little drawings, a front view and a top view of a clavicle bone, stark and cartoonish in white on black paper. Basquiat labeled it as well, in blocky letters not unlike Harry's childish scrawl. Of course it would bring to mind Harry's collarbones, the tips of the wings just touching their edges. "Sure you have loads of bigger, better stuff he's done, but I just saw it and thought of you." The same magic line they always use to explain their indulgences, what they say to present their tokens. "Even though we hadn't talked in so long, I thought maybe I'd see you sometime to give it to you. And if not, then I'd get to keep it and, you know. Have a reminder, or whatever."

Harry sits abruptly on Niall's bed, both hands clasped around the silver frame, staring down at it, just as Niall had done. It tickles him, that they've given each other art, that they're this in tune even after so long relegated to radio silence. "Everything we do," Harry says, sincere this time, tilting his face up with the sweetest smile Niall's ever seen. He puts the frame down just to twist his fingers into the front of Niall's fair isle jumper and tug, unbalancing Niall until he tips closer, their shins bumping together and Niall's hands going to Harry's shoulders. Harry doesn't let go--in fact, he tugs again, this time not stopping until his mouth is on Niall's. It's not a fumble in the dark, not a cheek kiss that missed, or a goodnight kiss. There's no mistletoe. Harry tastes like wine and his lips are cool and a little chapped, but Niall doesn't want to stop.

"What are you doing?" he asks, breathless. He has to look down into Harry's face, Harry peering up at him from his seat on the bed. Niall's first sick thought is that Harry's teasing him, that he's going to laugh. His belly flips and it could be excitement or fear or everything at once.

"Saying thank you," Harry says, mouth brushing against Niall's as he speaks. He doesn't laugh.

"What--" Niall starts.

"Where the fuck are you two?" filters up the stairs from down in the kitchen. "Niall your goddamn roast is spitting and there's a pot of something about to bubble over on one of these burners and--"

"Shit," Niall says sharply, pulling away, hands still tight in the fabric of Harry's shirt right over his collarbones. "I'm--we're." He sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and bites at it, harried and confused. "That happened," he starts, the words tumbling out. "No one's forgetting it and there's--I'm not. Done yet." He's stammering, cheeks hot, and Harry laughs, but it's the bright kind, not the mocking kind. Niall runs out of the room more exhilarated than mortified.

Christmas dinner is delicious and goes off without a hitch, although some of Niall's sides aren't quite as piping hot as they should be because of the Harry-shaped glitch in his prep timeline. "God bless us, everyone," says Liam, and they clink festive glasses of Prosecco over the roast. After dinner is Irish coffee in the living room with the Mrs. Brown's Boys Christmas special. Niall breaks out his guitar once everyone's called their families, and the three of them harmonise as if they'd never been apart.

The fire in the fireplace dies down, no more than soft glow and a whispering crackle. Niall ends up with his thigh pressed to Harry's on the couch, one arm along the back so Harry's hair brushes the soft inside of his elbow, and Liam's too comfortable and merry to notice.

*

St. Stephen's Day passes in a haze of video games and leftovers, Niall never quite getting a chance to talk to Harry alone as they all go for a shop together, pile together on the couch, do some setlist discussing together. It's fun and relaxing and Niall's not entirely sure how he managed living alone out here for so long. Having people around again sets him at ease, even with the shivering cord of tension strung between him and Harry.

The next day, Louis arrives. "Ah, he's landed," Niall says over a bowl of porridge, checking his texts. "Finally. Galway Airport. Flew private."

Liam's sat on the counter, glass of orange juice in hand, heels knocking rhythmically against the lower cabinet doors as he swings his feet. "I'll go fetch him," he says, and jumps down.

"Do you know the way?" Niall asks, skeptical but pleased he won't have to go out.

"I have a GPS like any normal person, thanks," Liam says, shrugging on his anorak.

Niall's sat at the kitchen table with his new journal and his laptop when Harry shuffles in later, bleary and tousle-haired. "Where's Liam?" Harry asks, heading straight for the coffee pot, pyjama bottoms barely clinging to his hips and obviously not wearing pants. His eyes are slitted, one cheek still has a pink pillow-imprint on it. Niall's belly squeezes and the room feels brighter.

"Out picking Louis up from the airport," Niall says, and the quiet emptiness of the rest of the house is palpable. It's just the two of them in the kitchen, the warm heart of the cabin.

"Alone at last," Harry says. He's joking, but Niall's heart still thumps in his chest and he curls his toes inside his slippers.

"He's been gone ages already," Niall says as casually as he can, closing his laptop with a snap. "Should be back in a bit." Harry doesn't say anything, just hums and pours milk in his coffee, then pops two pieces of bread in the toaster. "Sleep okay?" Niall asks to break the silence. They're teetering on the edge of something.

"Yeah, brilliant," Harry says. "A little cold, maybe."

"Sorry. I think I have another space heater we could hook up in--"

"I wasn't cold on Christmas Eve." He raises his eyes over the rim of his coffee mug, and Niall blushes.

"We were in a hotel on Christmas Eve," Niall says, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. Harry's in one of Niall's thermal pyjama tops, and Niall doesn't ask where he got it.

"C'mere," Harry says, and Niall gets up like he's on autopilot, leaning against the counter next to where Harry's stood. Harry's poker-faced, but he reaches out and digs his fingertips into the soft of Niall's belly, tickling him until Niall can't help squirming, a laugh surprised out of him. He grabs Harry's wrist and holds his hand away, panting.

Harry's eyes are so green, staring into Niall's. He's not smiling but somehow Niall can still see a smile in the corners of his lips. "You're fuckin' mental," Niall says, and it comes out on an incredulous laugh.

"Probably," Harry says, and puts his mug down with a thunk, eyes never leaving Niall's. Niall can tell, this time, that Harry's going to kiss him.

He still tastes like coffee, lips warm and soft against Niall's. Niall lets go of his wrist and Harry gathers him up close, a hand sliding up into Niall's hair at the nape of his neck and the other wrapping around his waist, drawing him. Niall goes pliant against him, arms around Harry's ribs, fingers splayed over the muscles of his back, then pushing up his sides. "Harry," he says, eyes closed and heart racing.

Harry turns them, pressing Niall against the counter, the edge of it digging into the small of Niall's back. Niall doesn't even care, his feet sliding on the floor, thighs parting around where Harry's hips are hitching against him. He loops his arms around Harry's neck, tilting his face up as Harry leans over him, eyes open this time. "Fuck," Harry says, kissing Niall again through a smile. "You taste so sweet."

"Orange juice," Niall breathes.

"Not a half bad snog, either."

"Flatterer." Niall tips back, focusing on Harry's kiss-slick lips and intense gaze. His mouth is buzzing, his skin feels too tight. It's all so surreal, like he fell asleep with his head on the kitchen table after Liam left and the whole thing's a dream.

A clattering from the front walk filters in through the haze, and Niall has just enough presence of mind to shove Harry towards the sink before the door flings open. Harry's eyebrows shoot up but he doesn't say anything, just picks up a mug and starts washing it.

Louis's head pokes into the kitchen. "The party's arrived, lads!" he crows.

Niall's still flushed all down his neck, but he shouts and jumps up, arms in the air. "Tommo!" He gives Louis a massive hug, rocking them back and forth. Harry meets his eyes over Louis's shoulder, and winks.

*

Louis takes great pleasure in regaling them all with stories of Sadie's second Christmas and the Terrible Twos, while Niall plies him with snacks and sambuca. Liam and Harry ooh and aah over the pictures Louis casts to the TV, and Niall bungs a cracker crown onto his head with a hearty laugh.

"We're going to the village for your belated birthday party," Niall says. "Get your pregame on and you won't mind it so much." He grins and slaps Louis manfully on the back.

"Shut it, Niall," Louis says, making a dismissive gesture as he laughs. "It'll be brilliant and I already love your little town."

"Drinks are so cheap we could probably buy the whole place out for you," Harry says, joining in. "That's all that really matters." Niall plies Louis with another shot and it's dark by the time he starts rounding up coats and wellies so they can make the trip down the hill to the village.

The one pub, Tigh Plunkett, isn't as much of a hole in the wall as Niall expected it to be when he'd first got here. It's clean and neat with framed ads for Irish liquors hanging straight on the walls and a fair number of people scattered around--not just a handful of little old men in farmer hats. It smells like moss and hops and the lights are low, shadows collecting in the dark panelled wood of corners and alcoves. There's clear area off to the side where a stage slots in for live music some nights. A man with a fiddle and a woman on a bodhrán are setting up, and Niall's pleased that there'll be some tunes for Louis's approximation of a party.

He grabs the table under the big Tullamore Dew poster so they'll be able to see properly and starts the lads off with a round, greeting just about everyone in the place on his way up to the bar. He comes here a fair amount himself, and knows most of the usuals by name. "It's my boy Louis's birthday," he says to Aoibheann, the sweet middle-aged bartender. She has mousy brown hair with a thick fringe and loves to ply Niall with chips he didn't order. "Let's treat him right, shall we?" He grins at her and she gives him conspiratorial nudge over the bar.

"Nothing less than the best," she laughs. Niall gets them all whiskey and Guinness to start with.

"I'll have yours, don't worry, birthday boy," he says to Louis, sliding him a rum and Coke instead. "And after, I'm switching to a vodka orange so you won't have to be a loser all by yourself."

They get pleasantly sloshed and commandeer the sound system, Liam putting together a Louis-tailored party playlist with the help of Donal, one of the lads running things in the back. Harry gets the rest of the pub involved, and the whole place is absorbed into Louis's party, dancing and hollering the same way everyone does when Harry shines at them. Niall and a few of his neighbours end up playing a game of darts with Louis, and on the other side of the room Harry's got into the trivia night cards with Liam and a gaggle of ladies from down the road.

Once the duo's set their instruments up and gotten some drinks, Donal switches off "Kathleen" piping in over the sound system and they start to play. Niall passes off his handful of darts to the next player and heads over to watch, clutching his drink. He's a bit unfocused but not legless, and he concentrates wholly on the music, on the memories of folk festivals he went to as a kid, all the Christmas pub crawls of years past, the warm comfort of being here, feeling like he belongs, sharing it with his brothers.

"You okay?" Harry asks, lips brushing just behind Niall's ear, voice low and throaty. Niall's belly clenches hot and he nods, turning before Harry does so his own lips graze Harry's hair. Harry looks a little buzzed himself, lips slack and breath heavy between them, body pressed close and warm to Niall's side. The pub seems tiny, now, and packed, and Niall's guts lurch uncomfortably.

"Just feeling a bit crowded," he says, and Harry's hand closes around the soft of his waist just above his hip where he's sat on the barstool.

"Come with me," Harry says, eyes gentle and concerned, steering Niall off his seat. He links their fingers together and tugs Niall to a back corner, dark and secluded next to an ancient cigarette machine.

"I'm fine," Niall says, protesting weakly. "I'm in pubs constantly, Styles, I can handle it."

Harry doesn't let his hand drop, just props Niall so his back is against the wall and Harry's turned to face him, their shoulders touching and the front of Harry's hip pressed to the side of Niall's. "Maybe I just wanted an excuse," Harry says, head tipped down until his forehead touches Niall's temple, and Niall's arms shiver into goosebumps. Harry nudges his nose into Niall's hair, lips brushing over his ear, rubbing gently through his fine sideburn, ghosting along his jaw.

Niall breathes raggedly, hands in tight fists at his side. Louis and Liam are way on the other side of the bar, out of sight. He squeezes his eyes shut tight, tips his head back against the wall as Harry's mouth drifts down over his neck. "Jesus," he breathes, and he can feel Harry smile even though he can't see it. "What's with you?" He tries to sound incensed but it just comes out shaky and overwhelmed. Niall's blushing, breathing shallow, probably looks in a right state.

Harry straightens up, shrugging, and for a split second he looks unsure. Niall tucks his fingers into the front pocket of Harry's jeans, a connection to keep him from haring off, from thinking Niall doesn't want to see this thing through to wherever it's going. "I dunno," Harry says, slow and deliberate, brow creased like he's thinking hard. "I just--want you, I guess." As if that explains anything. "I missed you and I want to…" He trails off as he leans in again, kissing Niall with boozy lips and pushing his hand deeper into his pocket as he shifts closer. He starts sweet and soft but soon he's kissing Niall deep, harder, their mouths fitting together and sliding with wet noises, Niall's whole body lighting up with it, dick twitching in his pants as he tilts his head up, Harry making him feel open and desperate.

"Shit," Niall says, pulling back, startled at the intensity of it. "Not here, fuck."

Harry's grinning dopily at him. "It's good, though," he says.

Niall laughs, pulling his hand out of Harry's pocket and rubbing at the back of his own neck, self-conscious, trying to put space between them so he doesn't do anything stupid. "Really fucking good."

He's messed around with guys before, but almost entirely anonymous ones who didn't even know who he was. He's never explicitly told anyone, either, and the fact that Harry would just sweep in like this makes him paranoid that he's obvious, somehow, that he's putting off a vibe he can't control. Not being in control of how people perceive him is his worst anxiety, the sick curdle in his stomach and what makes him sweat at night when he can't sleep.

He's been single for the past two years, never more than friends with benefits for as long as he can remember and usually not even as far as that. Casual has always been the name of his game, and with the gentle touch of Harry's fingers and the soft curl of his smile, it's clear that he's treading on dangerous ground.

Harry's still got a hand at Niall's waist, though, his thumb smoothing back and forth over the side of his belly. It's just on the edge of tickling, and it's driving Niall crazy, hips trying to pull away from it and push towards it at the same time. He's warm and syrupy all over, Harry's grin and body heat making him drunker than the whiskey did. "Later, then," Harry says, and makes his way towards the crowd around the musicians, aiming a meaningful look back at Niall. Niall just nods, rubbing his tingling lips together, trying to get his bearings in a world that's gone distinctly off the rails.

Donal and Aoibheann keep the pub open far past usual hours to accommodate the party, until eventually it's just Niall, Harry, Liam, and Louis sat at the bar in a row finishing off pints of water and bags of crisps while they argue good-naturedly about football and late-night telly. "I think we've about done all the damage we can do," Niall says, exerting rather a lot of effort to make sense. "Ushered you into twenty-six with style, Tommo."

"With Styles," says Liam, laughing messily to himself.

After heartfelt goodbyes to the staff at the Plunkett, they stumble back up the hill to Niall's cabin. They howl like idiots and fall over as they're never able to in London or LA or New York, and it's the early days again, their club gigs, getting drunk off clandestine beers and pissing in bushes back when no one cared and they were laughing in the face of uncertainty.

*

At the house, Niall forces another round of water down everyone, doing his drunken best to prevent any puke stains on his belongings. "Louis, you're sharing with Liam," Niall says. "He picked the big room." Louis blinks at him like he's not speaking English. "Liam, show--take him--" Niall waves vaguely up the stairs and Liam at least seems to be able to process it, grabbing Louis's sleeve and hauling him up to their room.

"Bit selfish," Harry says, half hanging off the couch, peering up at Niall from upside down. He sounds sly. "Keeping the master bedroom all to yourself and making them share. Shouldn't you be sharing? One of them's the birthday boy."

Niall opens his mouth to protest but just snaps it shut again after a moment. He doesn't have any arguments. "Oh," he says, frowning. "I'm a twat." Harry laughs as Niall trips up the stairs to redirect Louis to his own room. "I was told off," he says by way of explanation, turning down the bed for Louis and grabbing his bag from a confused Liam. "Happy birthday. Be comfortable. Enjoy not having to wake up at four AM to feed a baby or whatever."

"She's two," Louis says, blinking unevenly.

"Sure," Niall says. "Whatever. Happy Christmas."

"Thanks," Louis says, grinning as he bounces his bum on the mattress. "Nice."

"I try." Niall laughs and refills the glass of water on his nightstand, closing the door behind him on his way out. Liam hasn't moved from the landing, brow furrowed like Niall's an impossible puzzle. "Go to bed, Payno," Niall says, and he feels wise and sober until his socked feet slip on the stairs on his way back down and he almost brains himself on the bannister.

"Woah," Harry says, appearing on the stairs coming up, the blanket from the back of the couch wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. He lurches forwards with his arms out, but Niall catches himself, and Harry's hands just hover ineffectually around his thighs, eyes wide. "Alright?" he asks, voice cracking a bit.

"Fuck," Niall says, catching his breath, muscles taut. "Yeah, sorry, I--bit slippy--"

"Did you hurt yourself?"

"No, I'm fine, I just--"

Harry's hands are on Niall's thighs, now, fingers tight and pressing into his muscles. "Are you sure?" he asks, and there's a glint in his eye. Niall grins as Harry pushes his hands up under Niall's shirt, cold against the sensitive skin of his sides. Niall hisses, and Harry says, "I should check. Thorough examination."

"Christ, Harold, your hands are fuckin' freezing," Niall says, keeping his voice down but laughing all the same, exhilarated. Louis and Liam are only feet away. "Get off me."

Harry pulls back, looking mock-offended. "So ungrateful," he says. "After all I've done for you." Niall covers his mouth with his hands as he laughs, this time, and Harry pushes past where he's sat on the stairs, disappearing up into his room with a dramatic huff.

Niall scrambles up and goes after him, still grinning, belly fluttering and skin tingling. He pushes into Harry's little room and closes the door, Harry standing under the round window, looking up at the sky like someone brooding in a period drama.

"I am grateful, you know," Niall says, and he can't keep the smile out of his voice. "That you're here. That you didn't forget me."

Harry turns around, and he's gorgeous in the dark. It's always been a fact that Harry's good-looking, that something in his strange face just works. Niall ignores it for the most part, or used to, the planes of it so familiar to him, but he can't now. He can't when he knows what it feels like to kiss him, to have those lips on his neck, those eyelashes brushing against his cheek. He's never been able to ignore Harry's body, and it's better now than it ever has been, tight from years of focused training and good food and enough sleep. His white shirt is practically sheer over his chest, pulling over his pecs, and Niall swallows, mouth dry. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Harry says. "That I'd be able to forget you. Or want to."

Niall just shrugs and moves into Harry's space, backing him slowly against the side of the wardrobe at the foot of the bed until their mouths are a breath apart. "I would've said you kissing me was the stupidest thing I've ever heard," he murmurs.

"I wanted to," Harry says, kissing Niall closed-mouthed gently between his words, "for ages. Before the break."

Niall tugs him to the bed, starting to shudder in the cold by the window. He scootches next to the wall, bundling Harry up next to him, and Harry follows, happy to stretch out along Niall's front, facing each other on their sides.

"I've imagined it before," Niall says. "Being with you. You made it hard not to, all those times you were--the way you were. Never thought you really meant it, though. I figured you were just having a laugh or whatever."

"Niall," Harry says, and his voice is so tender it hurts somewhere between Niall's ribs. "I was always laughing with you, you know. Not at you." He kisses him again, just a soft brush of lips. "I didn't think you wanted me to mean it."

"What a pair of sorry idiots," Niall says, not much more than a breathy laugh. He traces the jut of Harry's collarbone from the open neck of his shirt, smooth warm skin lit by the moon streaming through the high round window. "You never wanted to hang out when we weren't working." It sounds petulant, now he's said it, but it's too late to take it back. It's important for Harry to know why he didn't try harder over the past two years, that he would've if he thought it would mean anything to Harry.

Harry looks down, goes quiet. "It was just easier." He runs one big hand through Niall's hair, and Niall pushes into it a bit, can't help it. "Work needed to be just work, for me. Doesn't mean I didn't miss you. Think about you. I always knew I'd see you again when we had to get back to it, that I'd be spending every day with you again soon enough. Seeing the world with you." Harry tilts Niall's face up with a finger curled gently under his chin. He smiles, a real smile, wistful and lovely, and there's a lump in Niall's throat. "I got so lonely, sometimes," Harry says, words slow and measured, a thumb brushing over Niall's jaw so softly it makes him shiver. "It didn't feel right, just texting you to whine about it, alone in my house. Not after so long. We just don't do that."

Niall hums, not wanting to crumple so easily, but his heart pulses forgiveness into the very tips of his fingers. He threads them together with Harry's, hands palm to palm. Their ankles are tucked together, knees rubbing over each other's on the tiny little bed. Each creak of the headboard is another reminder of where they are, that Harry came back. That he was always there, somewhere, and Niall could've been braver.

"Maybe we should," Niall says, pushing through the brush of Harry's hand to his lips. He kisses him, deep and thorough. This time he puts every lonely day into it, every time he almost replied to the mass number-change texts with something inane just to try and start up a conversation again. He kisses Harry for every pap picture he saw on Twitter that made something heavy and painful scratch at his insides. He kisses him for every time he thought about asking if Harry liked guys, too, but was too scared to get the words out.

Niall holds Harry's hands, firm between them, until he has to let go to touch Harry's hair. It's soft and spilling over Niall's neck as Harry kisses him back, breath audible through his nose, body taut and straining towards Niall.

The slow softness burns away as Harry wraps an arm around Niall's back, hitching him close so they're pressed together from chest to thighs. Niall's dick chubs up and he hisses against Harry's lips when Harry shifts them, rutting his hips against Niall. "Oh Christ," Niall murmurs, humping helplessly against Harry. Harry's body is hard under his clothes, muscles and smooth skin and a fine tremor like maybe this is as big for him as it is for Niall.

"I didn't even know you did this," Harry says. "Wish I had. I would've--god, so long ago."

Niall nods, but he pushes Harry away, sitting up with his lip between his teeth. Harry looks wrecked, face wide open and devastated. "No, just--" Niall starts, twisting to pull off his shirt. "Can we--let's do it properly."

Harry kicks into gear then, sliding off the bed to strip down, helping Niall undress with quick hands, too. "I can't believe this is happening," Harry says, and Niall shoves all their clothes off the bed, getting under the duvet with a wriggle.

"Me neither," he says, and holds out a hand to keep Harry from getting in with him just yet, wanting to see. Harry's trembling, belly tensed and dick hard and bobbing under its own weight. Niall's never seen it like this before, thick and long and straining, foreskin pulled back over the plummy head of it, slick with precome. Harry has a hand pressed up under it, so it rests in the vee between his thumb and fingers, balls tucked behind his palm. He's neatly groomed, the hair from his navel to his groin shaved so his lower belly is smooth between the laurels. Harry's cock twitches as Niall stares, slit flexing around an obscene blurt of precome. "Jesus," Niall whispers, mouth watering, and Harry huffs a laugh.

"Sorry," he says, sheepish. He pushes his hand up to trap his dick against his belly, half covering it, and Niall almost groans at how far up it reaches, how fat the girth of it is against Harry's narrow hip. "You just--really fucking turn me on."

"Get in here," Niall says, his own cock hard and wanting. It's insane, that he never knew this, that he could've had this. Harry crawls in under the covers with him, their bodies sliding together in the sheets, already warmed from where they were lying on top of them. Harry wraps his arms around Niall's back, holding him close as he rocks their hips together, their cocks slipping between their thighs, uncoordinated but so good. Niall presses sucking kisses to Harry's collarbone, his neck, under his ears, tasting him and sinking into it and wishing he could make up for lost time.

Finally Harry gets a hand around their dicks, wanking them slowly, firmly, and Niall gasps, eyes rolling back for a second as his thighs spread and his back bows, heat curling at the base of his spine. Harry's cock is huge compared to his own, and Niall's foreskin is tight and doesn't slide as easily as Harry's, but Harry makes it work, clever fingers and big hand slimy in the sluice of their combined precome. "Look at you," Harry says, gasping as his hips hitch against Niall, fucking both their cocks into his fist. "That blush, all the way down to your chest. God, your body, Niall. Your arse--" he grabs a handful of Niall's arse, fingers sliding in the crease, catching on the rim of his hole.

Niall moans in the back of his throat, opening his mouth against Harry's neck where his lips are pressed, sucking in shuddering breaths. He shuts his eyes tight and whimpers as Harry holds him spread, thighs opening farther, feeling slutty and embarrassed at how much he wants it, how much he'd be willing to do for Harry.

Harry bends to kiss him. "Christ, I wanna fuck you," he says, voice deep but barely above a whisper as Niall pants into his mouth. Harry rolls Niall onto his back, propping himself up on an outstretched arm, long hair falling softly around them, brushing against Niall's cheeks. His eyes are bright and his lips shine with spit, plump from kissing, from Niall nibbling at them.

"Do it," he murmurs, canting his hips to press his arse against Harry's hand, needy.

"I didn't bring anything," Harry says, already rutting into the cut of Niall's hip. It's jarring, makes Niall's body shake, and he groans, thinking what it'd be like to have that inside him instead.

"Lotion in the drawer," Niall says, breathless.

"Condoms?"

Harry works a fingertip slick with precome against Niall's hole, pressing in, and Niall makes an embarrassing noise, whining for it before he cuts himself off, swallowing it so no one will hear through the wall. "I--I don't have any," he manages.

Harry looks at him, wide-eyed. "Niall," he starts.

"Jesus, Harry, I don't care. Unless--"

"No, I'm good. I'm clean. I just--"

"Just fuck me," Niall says, and Harry works a second fingertip into him, gaze hungry as Niall moans against his chest, pushing back against them, trying desperately to get more. There's no one he trusts more, no one he'd rather have like this.

"Oh my god," Harry says, awed, and then he's rummaging for lotion, the duvet a tent around the stretch of his body towards the nightstand next to the small bed. Niall presses a hand over his own dick, gritting his teeth together and trying to calm himself down. It's been a long time since he's had sex at all, and even longer since anyone's fucked him. Every nerve in him is screaming for it, and it's all he can do to keep his cool, to keep quiet. He's strung so tight that every tiny sensation is magnified, and he'd be begging if he could find the words for it.

"Please," he says, strangled into a half-whimper. "Fuck, Harry, please just--"

Harry kisses him, nodding at the same time so their mouth rub together, awkward and hot as he hitches one of Niall's legs up. "I got you," he says, fingers slippery now and pushing into Niall's hole with a nasty squelch. Niall's cheeks flame but Harry just groans, fucking his fingers into him deeper, twisting them until Niall gasps, his body curved and hips humping back against Harry, everything in him craving his cock.

Finally the fat head of Harry's dick presses up against Niall's hole, and Niall bites his bottom lip to keep from crying for it, eyes wide and searching Harry's face. Harry looks back at him, doesn't even blink as he curls his hips under and fucks into Niall's body, cock huge and heavy and shoving the breath out of Niall's lungs. "Holy Christ," Niall says, mewling as Harry's hair trails over his skin, Harry's arms working on either side of his shoulders, the inexorable push of his dick exhilarating, unbelievably hot. There's no room inside of him for anything else, just Harry, Niall's thighs straining to spread wide enough, his back arching up off the bed.

"Fuck, you're gorgeous," Harry says, and Niall puts his hands over his face, crying out muffled into his palms, everything too much, the feeling of Harry inside him, the look on his face, everything he's saying. Harry's hand wraps around his wrists after a moment, though, pulling his hands away. Niall looks up at him, and Harry shakes his head, just barely. "Please," he says, and Niall nods.

Harry starts fucking him in earnest, then, deep and hard until Niall's got his hand pressed over his mouth instead, struggling to be quiet. It's insane, like he can feel Harry in every cell of his body as Harry pounds him, not so hard it hurts, but not treating Niall like he's breakable, either. It's unreal, like sex Niall's only ever imagined before, both of them using their whole bodies, sliding together sweaty and hot and fitting just right. Harry's got one hand down between them, feeling where his dick is holding Niall open, bare. He's never been fucked without a condom before and it feels so good he can't believe it, Harry's hot, smooth skin and the beat of his heart and ooze of his precome jammed up inside Niall until he's tearing up from it. "You feel so fucking good," Harry breathes, half kissing Niall, half just panting into his mouth. "God, so hot, so fucking tight. You fucking love it."

"Yeah," Niall groans, fucking his hips up, wrapping his legs around Harry's waist. The change of angle is perfect, Harry's cock shoving incessantly against that spot inside him, flooding his pelvis with heat, his balls drawing up tight and his own dick thickening between them. "Mm, c'mon," he says, voice wrecked, "I'm gonna--I'm gonna--"

"Do it," Harry says, echoing Niall. "Wanna see you come so bad. Wanna see you come on my cock." He rocks into Niall, then, jarring him up the bed, and he's bringing a hand down to wank Niall's dick when Niall just loses it, untouched. He grits his teeth as he keens, whole body curling into it, the hot pulse all down his spine. He comes so hard he's shaking, dick flexing against his belly as Harry fucks him through it, impossibly big inside him, impossibly hard, like Niall's cored out and drained. Slick globs of jizz drip down his belly and chest as Harry pants above him. "Fuck, fuck," Harry says urgently, leaning down to kiss Niall hard.

"Come in me," Niall manages, a leg pressing Harry deeper.

Harry moans into the kiss and his hips pump erratically, dick jerking inside Niall as he comes. It's messy and hot and utterly filthy, and Niall's never felt sexier. "Niall, oh god," Harry says, mumbling against Niall's neck as he twitches and rides out the aftershocks.

They lie there together, exhausted and sated, Niall with a thigh over Harry's hip so he can't pull out. "Don't," he says, when Harry tries to get up.

"I just want to clean you up," Harry says, a tired smile tugging at his mouth.

"You can't," Niall says, smiling back. "Too dirty."

"Too right," Harry says, and holds Niall tighter, warm and comfortable even in the tiny bed.

They'll deal with showers and laundry in the morning.

*

The next three days pass in a blur of cooking, drinking, music, and long walks around the island, all four of them learning each other again, Louis clicking into place like the missing piece. He brought a fair amount of weed with him as well, and they all take part, letting each other's company wash over them, remembering what it's like to be a unit through a pleasant haze in the comfortable isolation of Lettermore.

New Year's Eve is cold but bright, and while they spend the day together at Niall's with the fire blazing and making a head start on champagne, they're back down at Tigh Plunkett for the countdown. Louis and Liam are already packed, ready to leave on the first, knowing they'll be too tired and emotional tomorrow to do anything useful.

The locals know the four of them, now, even the ones who hadn't got roped into Louis's birthday party. Liam and Louis are playing poker with two of them, another pair of blokes, at one of the high tables in the front, feet wrapped around stool rungs and already shouting. Niall's messing about with Donal on his guitar, trying to sort out Auld Lang Syne in Gaelige. Harry's at the taps talking to Riley, the grizzled older man on bartending duty.

They've got a projection screen up on one wall of the pub to show New Year's Eve Live, Kathryn Thomas and Keith Walsh going through act after act until it's finally approaching midnight. Niall's keyed up this year in a way he hasn't been in a long time, anticipation making him feel bright and ready. "Thirty seconds," says a quiet voice in his ear, and of course it's Harry, one hand tucked in the back pocket of Niall's jeans.

Niall turns his head to the side, a small smile at the corner of his lips. "You do love a New Years countdown, don't you," he teases.

"Shut up," Harry says, but he's smiling too, pulling Niall back over to the corner where they kissed at Louis's party. They're less out of the way now, but everyone's watching the screen and all Niall cares about is the weight of Harry against him, how good he feels when Harry's looking at him, touching him.

"Five," Niall says. "Four. Three." The chorus in the room grows louder and louder. "Two." Harry tilts Niall's face up, an arm around his waist, holding him up on his tiptoes like it's nothing. "One."

They kiss, warm mouths and slick tongues, smile pressed to smile as the room erupts in cheers and bangers and the clink of glasses. Niall's never felt safer or happier or more at home, here on an island in a pub with Harry's hands in his hair and their hearts thudding together.

When they part, everyone's singing, and they sing along as well, until Harry trails off, just looking at Niall with soft eyes. "I know I said it already, but I'm really glad I came."

Niall laughs. "I don't think this could've happened any other way. It's like a different world out here," Niall says. "Like nothing's really real."

"This is real, though," Harry says, barely above a whisper. He kisses Niall again, soundly. "You could come back to London with me when I leave day after tomorrow. We need to get ready for the tour anyway. It would be real there."

Niall nods, holding Harry's hands tight in his. There's a comforting weight of certainty in his chest, like he's standing on solid ground. "Let's do it," he says, and smiles.