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At Whole Foods they’re selling rutabaga, and Harry’s always loved the sound of that word, remembers to roll around ‘rutabaga’ in his mouth, licking the consonants like tasty morsels, so he buys four and decides he’ll figure out what to do with it when he gets home.

He also adds to his basket, in no particular order: artichokes, beets, guava, lemons, kumquats, bananas. By now he’s regretting picking up a basket rather than a trolley, and also he’s remembering an article he read the other day about the benefits of eating produce in season. It was a very convincing article. There’s an app for that, he thinks absently, so he stands there in front of the kumquats and downloads it from the app store, waiting for it to load. By the time it does, he’s decided he no longer wants the kumquats.

He types slowly, laboriously into the app: rutabaga, artichokes, beets, guava, lemons, bananas. He misspells bananas twice. His phone autocorrects it to banggang. Harry’s fairly certain he’s never used the word banggang in his life. It’s not even a word, he thinks with faint outrage.

He’s been standing in front of the kumquats for so long that someone pushes their trolley into his ankles. “Ow,” he says.

“Sorry,” the bloke says, but they both know he’s not sorry at all.

Harry peeks at the bloke’s trolley because he can’t help it, he’s a nosy git. There seems to be ten emu eggs and one aubergine. Harry looks back at his own basket, which contains enough fruit to singlehandedly rescue any seafaring voyage from scurvy. He wonders if there’s a site where people upload pics of their shopping baskets, maybe with a meaningful quote or two, like Humans of New York, but for fruit. If it doesn’t exist, he wonders why not.

He manages to make it out of Whole Foods only hearing two cameras go click, which is pretty good all things considered. In the car park he shoves the brown paper bags into his already crowded boot and drives home, navigating the evening L.A. traffic with the growing ease of someone who never used to drive very much because he had drivers to do it for him, but now drives nearly every day in a city that’s terrible for it. Harry loves driving, loves the quiet of it, like being inside his own personal space shuttle, listening to himself breathe in and out.

In the driveway of his house, he parks the car and unloads the boot. There’s the groceries, yeah, but also stuff from the painting class he’d attended before swinging by Whole Foods. Harry hoists his black case with his paints, pencils, and brushes over his shoulder, tucks his half-finished canvas underneath his armpit, and uses his freed up hands to carry the groceries. They’re heavy, so he half-runs, half-crab shuffles up to his door, praying he doesn’t drop anything.

Niall’s in his kitchen, wearing his glasses and perched on a bar stool with his laptop on the counter in front of him. “Hiya,” he grins when he sees Harry lurch in.

“Was wondering who disabled the alarm,” Harry says.

“Might want to be more prepared next time, mate,” Niall says helpfully. “If I were some sort of creep, what would you have done?” He eyes the groceries. “Brain me with a banana?”

“How’d you know I bought bananas?”

Niall stares at him.

“Fine,” Harry says, “there are bananas. But don’t make fun of the power of fruit.” He shuffles past Niall with the bags and starts unloading them into the fridge. “A single piece of fruit can destroy an entire foreign ecosystem. That’s how powerful fruit is. Can knives do that? No. Can guns do that? Noooo.” He nudges the crisper closed with his foot. “But fruit,” he finishes meaningfully, turning around and trying to hide his smirk, “is the ultimate biological weapon.”

Niall’s laughing at him, eyes creased in the corners, shoulders shaking. It’s been three months and two days since Harry last saw him, and Harry wanders over to him casually, hands in his pockets, chin tilted down. Niall gets the hint, he always does, and reels Harry in for a kiss. He unhooks his legs from the stool rungs and hooks them around Harry instead. Harry immediately slips him some tongue.

“Didn’t know you were in town,” he says after biting down on Niall’s plump bottom lip like a piranha.

“Maybe I wanted to surprise you.”

“That’s what you said last time,” Harry reminds him, “and the time before that.”

“Maybe I always want to surprise you.” He can feel Niall’s smile against his mouth.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Harry says, feeling cross all of a sudden. He leans back with his hands on Niall’s hips and looks at him in time to see the flicker of hurt.

“I can leave if you want?” Niall says. “Find a hotel?”

No,” Harry says hurriedly. “That’s not what I meant. I gave you a key to my place, didn’t I? You can stay with me when you’re in town.” His fingers tighten around Niall’s hips.

What he means is, I wish you wouldn’t leave so much in the first place, but it’s not fair, quite, because Niall’s got his own plans during hiatus and none of them involve staying in L.A. for long periods of time. It’s not like Harry’s in L.A. all the time either, what with filming schedules, but he always lets Niall know where to find him, always keeps the door open no matter where he is. He only ever knows where Niall is at any given moment when he checks Twitter or Snapchat. It’s like playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego: the Sexual Frustration Version.

But he’s not going to ruin the moment by whinging about it, and he’s already talked himself out of sticking a GPS tracker secretly on Niall because that’s probably immoral and also illegal, so he kisses him on the nose and says, “You want dinner? I’m gonna make something with rutabaga.”

“Rutabaga,” Niall says appreciatively. “Nice word.”

“Right?” Harry says brightly. “Remember that time we saw Into the Woods on Broadway? There was that song, you know which one I mean, how’d it go again?”

Niall doesn’t need to ask. He searches it up on his laptop and launches into it. “He was robbing me / Annoying me / Rooting through my rutabaga / Raiding my arugula and / Ripping up the rampion / My champion!” He pauses. “What the hell is rampion?”

“It’s a plant,” Harry says. “You can put it in salads.”

“You’d know,” Niall says cheerfully, and Harry’s started flipping through rutabaga recipes on his phone, but he makes the mistake of glancing up and smiling at Niall and then it’s like he can’t stop. Three months and two days, and logically he knows that Niall won’t have changed much. Maybe his dye job’s a little fresher, maybe he’s a little more tanned, but looking at Niall’s like swimming in the ocean. You’re a little out to sea, and then whoops, you’re a lot out to sea, and there’s no more land to orient yourself by.

“Hey,” Harry says, smiling, “maybe dinner can wait?”

“But I’m hungry, Haz, just got off the plane and everything,” Niall says, ever the little shit. “Is this how you treat your guests?”

“Only the ones I shag,” Harry says, and tosses his phone onto the counter. He buries his hands in Niall’s hair, pulling at it slightly because it always makes Niall’s eyes slide shut. “Put silk sheets on my bed this time, you wanna give them a try?”

“It’s like you knew I was coming,” Niall says.

“I live in hope,” Harry says, and presses Niall against the counter to kiss him properly.

 

:::

 

They take the time to catch up in bed, after. This part’s Harry’s favourite, where they’ve taken the edge off and now he gets to slide down the sheets kissing Niall’s belly, his thighs, his beautiful twig calves, while Niall talks dreamily about the latest business projects he’s been working on.

“Proper angel investor, you are,” Harry murmurs as he tongues Niall’s surgical scar. Niall giggles at the ticklish sensation, tries to curl up into a ball, but Harry languidly pulls him back and spreads his thighs. He settles between them and starts playing Niall’s nipples like a beatbox, smiling at him — he’s not sure he’s actually stopped smiling, really. “Commanding every boardroom you’re in,” he adds.

“Nah, I’m some clueless lad who’s got to look up every other term on my phone,” Niall says. “But I’m learning, and people want my money too much to be rude about it, so,” he shrugs.

“I think what you’re doing is amazing,” Harry says, because Niall’s just spent the last ten minutes telling him enthusiastically about this new program he’s developing with Bressie, for kids in Mullingar to get proper involved in sports and arts programs, especially the ones who can’t afford it. That’s in addition to what seems like dozens of other projects Niall’s got himself signed onto. The golf management thing. The new Irish arts collective. The Melbourne guitar shop. Harry loves hearing about all of it.

“But that’s enough about me, yeah?” Niall says, pulling him up for another kiss. Harry melts into him, dropping his full weight on Niall and whimpering when Niall stops kissing him and starts carding his fingers through his curls instead. “Tell me what you’ve been up to. This new movie of yours going good?”

“It’s good,” Harry says breathlessly. He’s still a bit sad that he couldn’t take Niall to the premiere of his last project, but it’s alright, he got to take Anne instead. “It’s only a tiny part, and we’re in post-production, so they don’t need me anymore. Jeff’s looking for new scripts, but ‘m not in a hurry. Wanna do what feels right, you know?” He nuzzles Niall’s shoulder. “Been writing songs again.”

“Still considering that solo album?” Niall’s fingers toy with the knobs of Harry’s spine.

“In time,” Harry says.

“Alright,” Niall says easily, “and what about that painting class you been taking?”

Harry preens a little that Niall remembered, but he shouldn’t be surprised because Niall’s got a freakish memory for the lives of the people around him. Always remembered every single one of their crew’s names, birthdays, the names of their children. Not just because he needs to, but because he wants to, because he’s like that, Niall is.

“Got a room in the house,” Harry says, “that’s full of paintings of fruit bowls I’ve done.”

“Oh god,” Niall laughs, “a little shop of horrors.”

Harry laughs with him. “Gonna give a painting to each of my friends for Christmas,” he says. “You can have the one with the kumquats.” Niall elbows him in protest, and Harry licks his cheek. “Love the class,” he says finally. “Love the teacher. Love learning all this new stuff. We’re not doing fruit bowls anymore—”

“Good,” Niall snorts.

“Now we’ve been doing human anatomy,” Harry says. “You know, like, nudes.”

“Bet it takes all of your self-control not to drop trou and rush right up there to model,” Niall says, and slides his hand down to cup Harry’s bollocks, which feels — bloody fantastic, actually, and Harry squirms, feeling himself starting to stiffen up again for round two.

“Rather be behind the easel, thanks,” he says. “But don’t think I can go back to the class for the next while. Got all sorts of meetings Jeff’s set up for me, dinners with label execs and all that.” He shudders as Niall starts stroking him. “Hard to make that one window of time.”

“What about private lessons?” Niall asks, wanking him slowly.

“What?” Harry exhales a huff of laughter. “Just me, a teacher, and a nude model? Seems kind of weird, don’t it?”

“Well,” Niall says consideringly, thumbing the head of Harry’s cock and making Harry moan, “what if you practiced at home then? I could model for you.”

“You—” Harry can’t even finish that thought because Niall’s thumb is making him see stars.

“I can take off my kit as well as anyone,” Niall says, laughing. “Learned from the best, didn’t I?”

“Fuck,” Harry says, closing his eyes and pushing his hips into Niall’s hand, his precome making everything wet and slippery, “yeah, oh god, mm, okay, if — if you want to.”

“I’ll clear my schedule then,” Niall says, and says some more after that, only it’s somewhat hard to pay attention because Harry’s flexing his thighs and coming his brains out.

 

:::

 

There used to be, theoretically, a time when Harry didn’t want to get on his knees for Niall Horan every time he saw him. A time when knowing Niall was looking his way didn’t make his skin tight, his belly warm, and bring out every peacock tendency he had, like if he didn’t impress Niall with his wit, his charm, his smile, whatever, then he might as well hole up in his hotel room and sulk for hours. It’s hard, though, to remember when that time was.

Feels, most days, like Niall’s been under his skin since they first met, as if he got there before any of the tattoos did. Grinning Irish lad with the crooked teeth and the big hands Harry always knew he’d one day grow into. Harry was a smart kid, even back then. Ought to have recognized the danger and taken necessary precautions, only he didn’t, and then it was too late.

Was still smart enough not to do anything about it, thank fuck. Not when the band was together. Harry’s learned how to better control his image, how to keep parts of himself for himself, but if he and Niall had started shagging during the height of One Direction — yeah, he’s not sure either of them would’ve been able to keep it entirely secret. Someone would’ve found out, they would’ve fucked up, given something away. Look at what happened with him and Louis, and it weren’t even true.

He thinks about this, as he sets up his easel in the room of his house with the best morning light, cool and dappled through the open window that faces his pool to the east. Niall’s watching him with interest, leaning against the wall with his shoulders thrown back, and Harry takes his time about it, stretching the moment like a rubber band.

“You took a piss, right?” he asks. “You aren’t hungry or cold or summat?”

“Yes, Mum,” Niall says. “All ready for my nude modeling debut.”

They never would’ve been able to do something like this during One Direction, but then One Direction was on pause, and Harry remembers thinking there didn’t seem to be any good reason to hold out anymore, that maybe his wanting had finally reached equilibrium with his ability to handle it. Except at first Niall was off traveling the world, going ghost, making Harry wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing between them, all those times he stared at Niall only to catch Niall staring back.

Then one day, a couple months into hiatus, he’d gotten a text from Niall. hey stranger! im in yr neck of th woods, and Harry had waited five hours with his phone a ticking bomb before texting back, with shaky hands, don’t be a stranger.

Niall’d barely made it into his foyer, closed the door closed behind him, before they’d launched themselves at each other and started snogging.

Harry smiles at the memory, maybe gives Niall a less than purely artistic look from beneath his eyelashes. Niall raises his brows. “Wait, is this a painting thing or a shagging thing?”

“Painting,” Harry says firmly, arranging his charcoals on the easel. “Well, sketching first. Once I’ve the outline down, then I’ll start to paint.”

“So, should I—”

“Yeah, go ahead,” Harry says absently, finishing his setup. When he looks up again Niall’s shucked off his basketball shorts and his favourite polka dot socks, and is standing starkers with his arms crossed over his chest, looking a little self-conscious all of a sudden. He’s in front of the window, and the way the clear golden morning light’s falling over him, Harry can see the individual hairs on his arms, soft and baby fine. Harry stares because he can’t help it, and Niall’s face pinks up. His glasses are the last thing he takes off, but he stops when Harry makes an involuntary noise.

“You can — you can keep those on,” Harry says, so Niall does.

“Where do you want me?” Niall asks. He ambles over to the couch and strikes a pose, one leg up on the cushion and one arm outstretched, like he’s an ancient Greek warrior about to throw a javelin. He holds the pose for about three seconds before laughing at himself and plopping down on the couch more normally.

“Erm, well, however you’re most comfortable, really,” Harry says, feeling warm under the collar. “Like, you could lie down on the couch? Recline, yeah — like that.”

“Alright,” Niall says. “This is, um, a little more awkward than I thought. You’re staring at me.”

“I’m supposed to look at you, mate,” Harry says, “that’s the whole point of modeling.”

“Yeah, I know that, thanks,” Niall says sarcastically.

“I mean, you don’t have to do this?” Harry offers. “You’ve probably better things to do with your time in L.A.”

“No, I’m not saying I don’t want to anymore,” Niall says quickly. “Guess it just — seemed like a sexy thing to want to do, you know, gotta keep your interest somehow, right? Only now I don’t feel sexy, more like a slab of meat. Like, where are my limbs supposed to go?” He flails them like a squid.

“No, you’re, um, still quite sexy,” Harry says.

Niall stops flailing and rubs the back of his neck, still pink in the face. Harry says, “You know what my favourite thing about bananas is?”

“I feel like,” Niall says, “I’m about to find out.”

“It’s if you put a banana next to another piece of fruit that’s ripening, it’ll actually speed up that other fruit’s ripening,” Harry says. “Isn’t that crazy? Say you’ve an avocado you want to eat right away but can’t cos it’s still too hard. You’re supposed to put it with a bunch of bananas, and the bananas will soften it right up. That blew my mind the first time I heard about it.”

Niall’s starting to laugh at him again, starting to relax on the couch. Harry plows on. “It’s to do with a hormone that bananas release. Can’t remember the name of it, but isn’t that weird? You never think about plants having hormones, but they do, just like humans and animals.”

“Banana Hormones,” Niall says. “That ought to be the name of your album.”

“It’s science,” Harry says sternly, “it’s very interesting, Niall, you should never make fun of science.” He watches as Niall adjusts his position on the couch a couple of times, pushes his glasses up his nose, and then settles into a more or less lounging pose while tucking in his cock and bollocks neatly. Harry picks up his favourite half-finished piece of charcoal and starts making small, clean lines on the canvas, using the techniques he’s learned from his classes.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Niall asks after a minute or so.

“Art,” Harry says.

Niall snorts. “Walked right into that one, I did.”

Harry’s thinking, they’ve been shagging for over a year and a half and this might be the stillest he’s ever seen Niall be. Niall’s always coming and going, blowing in and out of Harry’s house like smoke from a forest fire, Harry just one stop out of many in his high-energy, frenetic life. He’s barely arrived but already a part of Harry’s brain is counting down the days until Niall leaves, some new business venture taking him off to Asia, or South America, or wherever, until all he’s got of Niall is a handful of texts and one or two Skype sessions a month.

Harry hasn’t shagged anyone else since they started this thing. He’s not read about Niall with anyone else either. That ought to mean something. Does mean something, but at the same time he knows that Niall guards his freedom viciously now that there’s so much of it. Harry knows better than to tie him down, knows better than to ask.

It’s good like this, he reckons. Niall’s gonna leave in a day or two, he always does, but for now he’s got a beautiful boy patient and pliant, all for him. He’s not going to waste it.

 

:::

 

Niall doesn’t move from the couch but he’s still fidgety, which on a scale of one to ten in terms of how surprised Harry is by this, the answer is somewhere in the negative digits. Of course Niall’s fidgety. Niall’s never been able to sit for more than a couple of minutes without needing to do something with his hands, which is probably how this whole relationship started, because ‘doing something with his hands’ used to mean grabbing at Harry — during interviews, during concerts, on the bus — and inadvertently seducing him.

“I did not seduce you,” Niall protests when Harry brings this up two days later. “Pretty sure I didn’t grab you any more than the other lads.”

Harry makes a wounded face from behind his easel.

“Was very careful not to,” Niall says.

“Yeah?” Harry asks, peeling the wrapper off a new charcoal. “Was it cos once you started you knew you’d never be able to resist me and my amazing bod?” He flutters his eyelashes while Niall rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re fit,” Niall says, pretending to sound indifferent but not quite succeeding because his prick has been lazily half-hard for the past hour. “Tell me something new.”

“Alright,” Harry says brightly, starting to shade in the outline he finished yesterday. He’d taken his his time with it, wanted to get it right, partly because he hasn’t done a lot of anatomy sketches before and partly because it’s hard to stare at naked Niall without getting distracted. Also, Niall tends to need a lot of breaks. But the outline’s finished and he’s satisfied, and now he’s going to touch up the shadows and the depths before he gets into the oils.

“I went jogging this morning,” Harry says.

“You go jogging every morning,” Niall points out.

“Let me finish,” Harry whines. He focuses on shading in Niall’s jaw and doesn’t say anything for the next while, and then remembers they’re still talking. “Oh yeah!” he says. “So I was jogging along the beach, and there was this pavilion. Really cute, had a blue roof, I’ve run by it loads of times before and always thought, ‘hey this pavilion is cute’, but never went inside cos I didn’t need to, plus stopping would ruin my rhythm. But today there was a pebble stuck in my trainers so I did stop, and I thought, I’m going to check out this pavilion, so I went inside…”

Harry knows he’s a bit shit at telling stories, but he tells them the way he’d want to hear them, and Harry loves knowing all the little domestic details of other people’s lives, would probably lurk in his mates’ shrubbery and peek into their windows if it wouldn’t get him arrested and his arse kicked. Instead he spends hours poring over Instagram and Snapchat, fascinated by the colours of Liam’s kitchen or the frayed threads on Louis’ jacket. People are Harry’s absolute favourite thing.

Niall’s looking a touch sleepy now, not in a bad way, not like he’s actually bored, but he looks soft, comfortable, getting used to how he’s supposed to be reclining on the couch. “Mmm,” he says, “go on.”

“There was a book on a bench, inside,” Harry says, talking as he shades. “Bulfinch’s Mythology. I thought, oh, someone’s forgot it, that’s too bad, but when I flipped it open there was this message written inside. Please adopt me to a good home.” He rubs some charcoal off his hand. “And there were all these notes scribbled in the margins, like small messages to whoever picked up the book, comments about this story or that story. I thought it was cool.”

“Sounds like something you’d do,” Niall says.

“Does it?” Harry asks, moving from shading in Niall’s jaw to his shoulders. “I like the idea. Strangers sharing the stuff they love best.” He pauses. “Like, you could clearly tell this book meant something to the original owner, and now it’s mine, and maybe it’ll mean something to me when I read it. And then when I’m done, maybe I’ll pass it on to someone else.”

“Music’s like that too,” Niall says. “I mean, you don’t know who’s listening to your songs, really. Strangers. But maybe, if you’re lucky, they carry it in their hearts and when they give their heart away, your music goes with them too.”

Harry stares at him.

“What?” Niall grins. “I can be profound too. My head’s not just good for golf and year-end financial audits, you know.”

“I was going to say,” Harry says, “that that’s really sappy. Also: year-end financial audits? For, like your businesses, right? Um, tell me more about that.”

“Sure,” Niall says, and launches into an extensive description of all the meetings he’s been having with accountants lately, stopping when he sees Harry discreetly adjust himself behind the easel. “Are you — are you getting off on this?” Niall asks incredulously. Harry shakes his head fervently no, but Niall scrambles up to his knees, ruining his pose, but creating a perfect new model for if Harry ever wanted to paint ‘lad grinning with evil malice.’ “You are,” Niall says.

“‘m not,” Harry argues. “Don’t be rubbish. Why would I get off on accounting?” But even as he says it, his cock’s giving a little twitch in his trousers, and Niall’s sliding off the couch to — well, there’s no better word than prowl towards Harry. There’s nowhere for Harry to go except for the wall, and he’s not sure he can move anyway, his legs are a tad weak as Niall drops to the floor in front of him, adjusts for his bad knee, and then nimble fingers are undoing Harry’s fly with a loud zip.

“You’re just — really fucking smart. Always said you were the cleverest of us all,” Harry confesses, and Niall smiles at him like yeah, yeah, I know, you twat. That look should not be making Harry even harder, but it does. Sunlight’s soaking the freckles on Niall’s throat, and he thinks hysterically that he might’ve missed a few freckles in his drawing, which would be terrible.

“Is it time to take a break?” Niall asks, mouthing Harry’s cock through his briefs.

“Yes?” Harry squeaks.

 

:::

 

“See, you are a vile seducer,” Harry says. “Don’t think I’m supposed to be having so much sex with my muse.”

Niall rolls off him onto the floor, but not before Harry can give his arse a good squeeze. “Just giving you some extra inspiration, mate,” Niall says. “You’re such a slowpoke about getting this painting done, not sure your heart’s in it.”

“My heart’s in it,” Harry drawls. “My dick, on the other hand, is in something else entirely.”

Niall cackles and takes the used condom from Harry, tossing it into the bin with one well-aimed shot. He picks up his phone from the ground and checks the time. “Gotta run off to a meeting now, babe, but same time tomorrow, yeah?”

Harry slides from couch to floor and stays there like a well-sexed amoeba. He waves his hand aimlessly, watching Niall get dressed and pull on his socks. These ones have tiny watermelons on them. A gift from Liam, if he remembers right. “You know it,” he says. He has his own meetings in the afternoon that he ought to shower and get ready for, turn himself into the Harry Styles the world knows and expects, but all his limbs feel like pancake batter, and even after he gets himself to the restaurant and slides in beside Jeff, hair wet and only fifteen minutes late, he’s still thinking about the morning, about Niall.

It’s only been a few days since Niall’s landed in L.A, but he’s already starting to think of mornings as their time. Used to be, before, when Niall visited him, Niall’d book morning meetings with the same aplomb as afternoon ones, or was fond of early dawn golf tee-offs with his L.A. crew. But ever since Harry told him mornings are the best time to paint, because of the light, Niall’s held off on making other plans.

Now their morning plans are: breakfast, painting, sex, rinse and repeat the next day, and Jeff pokes Harry in the cheek and says, “Are you using a new moisturizer or something? You’re glowing.”

“I’m happy,” Harry admits. “Like, really fucking happy.”

“Good,” Jeff says, “keep it up.”

Harry does about an hour’s work on his canvas each morning, which is how long Niall can stay still without his knee cramping up. When they’re not talking, Niall has his eyes closed listening to music, or sometimes audiobooks. He’s all these new business audiobooks he’s been listening to for self-improvement, and he plays them without headphones so Harry’s got to listen to them too. They’re not bad, Harry thinks, though he’s never going to get excited over things like gap analysis or free collective bargaining. Niall listens very intently, lip caught between his teeth, head bobbing along.

“When do you plan to leave L.A?” Harry asks him the day after talking to Jeff, doesn’t mean to say it so abruptly but it comes out like that anyway.

Niall opens his eyes warily. “Well, got no more meetings here I absolutely need to keep, so I reckon I could leave tomorrow if I wanted to. Got a big board meeting in Dublin coming up that I need to be in person for, but that’s not for two weeks, so I dunno.” He smiles, though even Harry can tell the smile isn’t reaching his eyes. “Why, are you already tired of me?”

“No,” Harry says, “I was just — making sure I’d have enough groceries to feed your bottomless pit of a stomach,” and it’s a lame excuse, flops in his mouth like a freshly caught carp, but it makes Niall’s shoulders relax.

“True,” he says, “I’m getting a little sick of rutabaga.”

“Excuse me,” Harry says vehemently, “you’ll eat my rutabaga and like it.”

Sometimes when he’s painting, they’re quiet and thoughtful, Harry absorbed in his work and Niall in one of his audiobooks. Other times they’re silly, like when Niall stops posing seriously and starts flexing his muscles and making deliberately stupid faces. “What about this?” he asks in a horrible French accent. “Is zis arteestic enough for you, monsieur?”

“Sit your arse down and behave,” Harry says, struggling not to laugh.

“Sexy,” Niall says, waggling his eyebrows. “You ought to do that more. In bed, I mean. Or on this couch. I’m not picky.”

“If you think I’m, like, sexually attracted to you right now, you’re very mistaken,” Harry lies as he mixes his paints. “Come on, Nialler, just fifteen more minutes. I’m almost done your jaw here.”

“You’re obsessed with that jaw,” Niall mutters, plopping his arse down on the couch. His glasses slide off his nose so he pushes them back up.

“It’s your jaw, of course I’m obsessed with it.”

“I’m just saying, you better be paying that much attention when you get to painting my cock,” Niall replies. “Better get the proportions right.”

“Sure,” Harry says, spreading his hands about three inches apart, “like this, right?”

“Oi!”

Harry ducks his head laughing. He’s wistful, sometimes, that he no longer has enough hair to hide behind, but he makes do.

“What’re you gonna do with this painting when you’re done with it, anyway?” Niall asks, settling back into his proper pose. “Besides wank all over my amazing bod, of course.”

“I’m gonna give it to your mum,” Harry says.

“Nah, she’d probably be tickled pink,” Niall says. “Give it to Louis.”

“Oh god,” Harry giggles, “I ought to.”

“We’ll sneak into his house in the middle of the night,” Niall grins. “Hang it up in his foyer. He comes downstairs one morning with Freddie in his arms, and there I am, in all my glory.”

Fuck,” Harry says, wheezing.

“No, man, I’m totally serious,” Niall says.

“Oh I am too,” Harry says. “Let’s do this. For Louis.”

Niall tucks his prick between his legs and affects a swooning motion, hand over his forehead. “For Louis.”

“So I was at a business meeting the other day,” Niall says, fifteen minutes later. It’s the first thing he’s said in a while, and Harry looks up from his paints. “Someone suggested, as a new venture idea, making a mobile game cos those are super popular these days.”

“Like a Kim Kardashian: Hollywood type thing?” Harry asks. “She made bank on that.”

“Exactly,” Niall says. “Told this developer I didn’t reckon I was interesting or famous enough to star in my own mobile game, and One Direction’s on break, but, like, you probably are, mate.” He spreads his hands. “Can you picture it? Harry Styles: Hollywood. We could make millions, invest it back into good causes. Slap your pretty face on it and the missions could be, like…” He thinks about it and starts laughing. “Eat an orange behind Rihanna, ten points.”

Harry snorts, going back to painting.

“Get another winged-animal tattoo, fifty points,” Niall says. “Flash your nipples, twenty points. Wash your hair—”

“Alright, you’re not allowed to make fun of my hair anymore,” Harry interrupts. “Cut it all off for the film, didn’t I?”

“—cut off your long luscious locks for a Christopher Nolan film, a hundred points,” Niall says. “Grab your mate’s bollocks at an awards show, fifteen points.” He’s really getting himself going now. “Have gorgeous, successful women write breakup songs about you, fifty points. Accidentally use an exclamation mark on Twitter, negative a hundred points. This could be the greatest game on earth.”

“I’ve a better idea,” Harry says. “You know that cat collector game?”

“Yeah,” Niall agrees, “Willie’s mad for it.”

“I’d make a Niall Collector game,” Harry hums. “Leave out shiny objects and wait for Niall Horans to come in and leave you treats.”

“That’s the thickest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Niall says. “You’d literally be the only person interested in that game.”

Harry beams.

“Bloody hell, listen to me natter on,” Niall says, yawning and stretching. “I got to stop distracting you from your masterpiece, we’ll be here forever at this rate.”

And Harry thinks, oh, what a good idea.

 

:::

 

The one benefit of having the reputation for being a slowpoke is that no one notices when you’re being deliberately slower than usual. Harry spends a lot of time over the next few days simply staring at his canvas dreamily, adjusting a colour here or there, making minute, fussy changes. He doesn’t do much genuine painting, and gives thanks that Niall’s art-dumb enough not to notice.

“That book you found in the pavilion,” Niall asks sleepily, turning off his audiobook. “You ever start reading it?”

“Mm, yeah,” Harry replies, picking up a brush and then setting it back down, as if he’s changed his mind. “Bulfinch’s Mythology. It’s this collection of, well, myths. From around the world. Neat stuff. There’s this one,” he says slowly, “that I really like.”

“Go on then, Styles,” Niall laughs, “tell me a story.”

“Alright, so,” Harry says, not even bothering to paint as he talks. “Cupid and Psyche.”

“Wait, like, fat-bottomed baby Cupid?”

“Nooooo,” Harry says. “Cupid is the Roman god of love, son of Venus, and he’s this buff lad. Not a baby at all. Don’t know where that image came from, but trust me. Cupid’s well fit.”

Niall makes a doubtful sound, but Harry continues anyway. “Once upon a time,” he says, “there was a king and queen with three daughters. The youngest daughter was named Psyche, and she was so beautiful that people made offerings to her instead of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Which makes Venus all jealous, yeah?”

“‘Course,” Niall yawns, “‘s like winning a Grammy. Can only be one.”

“So Venus sends her son Cupid, whose arrow can make you fall in love with the first person you see after being hit by one. The plan is, like, for Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with someone totally awful,” Harry says, “but Cupid messes up and accidentally pricks himself.”

“What a prick.”

“Shush, you,” Harry says. "He pricks himself on an arrow and falls in love with Psyche. Anyway, at the same time, Psyche’s parents are freaking the fuck out because Psyche’s beautiful, but can’t seem to find love, and they figure, she must have angered the gods.”

“Well, she did, sort of,” Niall points out, “by being so hot.”

“Yeah,” Harry laughs. “They consult an oracle, who says that the reason Psyche can’t find a human husband is cos she’s meant to marry this monster that even the gods fear. So she’s dressed up and dumped on this cliff, where the wind carries her up to a beautiful house with magical servants, all Beauty and the Beast style.”

“Be my guest, be my guest,” Niall starts to sing, but Harry talks over him.

Anyway,” he says, “she goes to bed that night, and her husband comes to her for the first time. He’s this shadow in the dark, she can’t see him, but they, like, immediately start banging.”

Niall smirks.

“This is totally a shagging story,” Harry grins. “But that’s what happens. He visits her every night in the dark, and they fall in love. He always leaves in the morning though, never stays very long, got better places to be, I suppose,” he adds, purposefully glancing away at this part. “Also he tells her she’s forbidden to look on his face, and she figures it’s because he’s, you know—”

“—a beast,” Niall offers.

“Right, but then one day when Psyche’s sisters visit her, they get mad jealous of her beautiful house and her fantastic new life and her sex maniac husband,” Harry continues, “that they put doubt in her mind. They convince her to look at her husband’s face even though she promised him not to. So that night, after they—”

“—bang— “

“After they bang,” Harry agrees, “he’s asleep beside her and Psyche brings out an oil lamp. But when she casts the light over his face, instead of a monster, it’s Cupid. And he’s, like, the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.”

“Aww,” Niall says, “not a monster, what a happy ending.”

“No,” Harry says, “cos he wakes up, freaks out, and flies away, and she has to go through all these dangerous quests to prove herself worthy and see him again. Then it’s a happy ending.”

“Why’d she have to go on all these quests?” Niall asks, confused.

“Cos he’s not supposed to be in love with her,” Harry explains patiently. “His mother would be pissing mad, remember? Also, he made her promise not to look at his face, and she did. That’s a violation of trust.”

“I dunno, mate,” Niall says. “When your boyfriend’s this mysterious shadow who only visits you once in a while, and is all, don’t look at me sweetcheeks, it don’t seem like the greatest relationship to begin with.”

Harry’s lips are dry. “Husband.”

“What?”

“He was her husband,” he says, “not her boyfriend.”

“Whatever,” Niall says, blinking, “just seems to me like they both could’ve done better, tried harder.”

Harry remembers that he’s supposed to be painting, or at least looking like he’s giving it a good go. He busies his hands with picking up tubes of paint and squeezing out fresh dollops onto his palette. It’s easier than looking at Niall, feeling the weight of Niall’s gaze as Niall no doubt puts two and two together and realizes that Harry wants more from him than he can give. Fuck these Roman gods, Harry thinks viciously. Why’d he think telling that story would be a good idea.

“Haz,” Niall says softly, like he means to say something, but Harry cuts him off.

“Oh shit, I don’t think I’ve the right colour for your hair,” he says. “Suppose we can’t do anymore for today. We’ll stop here, yeah?” He starts throwing Niall’s clothes at him, while Niall looks more and more confused. “Pick up again tomorrow.”

 

:::

 

“The light’s no good today,” Harry says.

It’s exactly the same as yesterday.

“Makes you look spotty,” Harry says mercilessly, and Niall lifts his hands to his face to check if there are any new spots before shrugging and dropping his hands.

“Sure,” he says, “wanna watch telly instead?”

 

:::

 

“I think this easel’s broken,” Harry says. “It’s all wobbly now, I can’t work like this.”

Niall gets up and comes over to take a look. “You’re right. This pin’s come loose here, see?” He wiggles it. ”Nothing that can’t be fixed with a screwdriver, but huh, how’d that happen?”

“I think this house is haunted,” Harry says, “by ghosts who really don’t appreciate art.”

 

:::

 

“I don’t feel so great today,” Harry says.

“I told you not to eat so much rutabaga!” Niall says. He throws a flannel blanket over his shoulders and pads over to Harry, where he tucks Harry under the blanket too, like they’re two boys at a sleepover. “Poor Hazza,” he says, nuzzling his nose into Harry’s shoulder, “want me to make ya some chicken soup?”

“Yes please,” Harry nods, and follows Niall to the kitchen.

 

:::

 

“Aren’t you cold?” Harry asks.

Niall looks like he’s thinking about it. “Nah,” he finally says, “think I’m fine.”

“You look cold,” Harry decides. “Let’s stop for today.”

 

:::

 

Niall’s not daft, he’s got to know that Harry’s making up half this shit, but he doesn’t call Harry out on it, which only makes Harry braver and more reckless. He tells Niall one day that he’s run out of yellow paint — “yellow for your buttercup hair” — and Niall points out, very reasonably, that they could go to the store for more, there’s still time, and doesn’t mention that Harry just the other day got some new yellow paint because he didn’t have the right shade.

Harry, who would’ve been completely joyful if they never went to the store at all, says sure. They go to Artist & Craftsman Supply together, Harry driving because it’s his car, and also Niall hates the way Americans all drive on the wrong side of the road, can’t get used to it. From the passenger seat, Niall sings along to the radio and the new James Bay song.

Harry, who thinks James Bay is fit, talented, has dazzling hair, and stands way too close to Niall in Instagram photos, drives a little faster than he ought to.

In Artist & Craftsman, he spends a lot longer looking at oil paint than he strictly needs to, but Niall don’t seem to mind. The store is crammed full of interesting stuff, the kind of place where he and Zayn might’ve chilled together once, maybe after sharing a blunt. But even Niall, who doesn’t have much of an interest in visual art, seems entertained just going through the bins and reading the labels on shelves. He spends a lot of time in the kids crafts aisle, looking for things to buy for Theo, and Freddie when he’s older.

“Did you ever collect stickers as a kid?” Niall asks, finding Harry again. His basket’s full of sticker sheets. “These are bloody adorable, look. Cats, and giraffes, and whales, and dinosaurs.”

“Super adorable,” Harry agrees.

“Find your yellow paint yet?” Niall asks, resting his chin on Harry’s shoulder. It’s somewhat awkward since Niall’s not as tall, but Harry feels his face warm up at the thought of Niall standing on his toes to reach him.

“Trying to decide which one to pick,” he lies.

“Well, which one did you use last time?” Niall asks.

“Can’t remember,” Harry says.

But of course Niall remembers. “Think it was this one,” he says, reaching over to point at the shelf. “Been watching you fondle your paint for days on end now, so ‘m pretty sure.”

“Pretty sure it wasn’t,” Harry says.

“Oh no, babe,” Niall says, laughing into Harry’s neck, “have you fallen down somewhere and hit your head? Got some kind of brain injury?” He messes up Harry’s hair. “Cos I’m positive it was.”

“Fine,” Harry says, long-suffering, and tosses the tube of yellow paint into his basket. “Say I believe you.” He realizes they’ve no more reason to stay in the store, casts around wildly for something to say. “Hey, look, they’ve a sculpting section,” he exclaims. “Always wanted to give sculpting a try.”

Niall goes with him to take a look. Harry, who knows literally nothing about sculpting, bestows upon everything on the shelves a pensive stare. Niall seems less interested in going along with the ruse that Harry knows anything about sculpting and seems more into draping himself over Harry and kissing the spot behind his ear. “Niall,” Harry hisses, because they’re in public, technically, even though the shop’s mostly empty and they’re nowhere in the cashiers’ line of vision. There are store cameras, though, and Harry’s always paranoid about this sort of thing. So’s Niall, usually.

But it’s like Harry’s dumbass plotting is rubbing off on them both, because Niall just laughs and sticks his hands in the pockets of Harry’s skinnies. It’s a tight fit. “Don’t let me bother you,” he says.

“You are the biggest bother,” Harry says, but can’t bring himself to throw Niall off, not when Niall’s such a pleasant weight against his back, with his stubble grazing Harry’s throat, the frames of his glasses digging into Harry’s jaw, and his fingers stroking Harry’s arse.

“I know this is, like, really hard for you, Haz,” he says casually in Harry’s ear, “but if you could hurry up, the sooner we can go home and fuck.”

Harry fumbles the package of polymer clay in his hands, drops it on the floor.

 

:::

 

The next day Harry’s excuse withers and dies on his tongue when he sees Niall emerge from the shower in one of Harry’s oversized Elder Statesman jumpers, black briefs, and not much else. His bare legs are pale and coltish, and Harry is just kind of — overwhelmed by it all, wants to lie on the floor and study Niall’s anklebones for hours.

Out loud he makes a sound that’s halfway between choking and the cry of a dying duck.

“Ready to get some painting done today?” Niall asks, wandering through the kitchen, grabbing a banana from the fruit bowl and peeling it. He stuffs it into his mouth in mostly one go, and grins at Harry with rodent cheeks, chewing obnoxiously.

Harry leans against the counter for manful strength. “Actually,” he says sheepishly, remembering his excuse, “can’t seem to find my brushes.”

“Your brushes?” Niall swallows his banana and his brows narrow, meeting at the top of his nose. “The ones you were using yesterday, you mean? Didn’t you leave them on the easel?”

“That’s what I thought too!” Harry says. “But they’re not there anymore. Did you move them?”

“Nah, why would I?” Niall says. “Maybe Ludmilla did?”

“She doesn’t clean that room, knows it’s where I paint.”

“Well then, let’s retrace your steps,” Niall says. “The brushes gotta be somewhere in the house. You probably carried them with you and put them down somewhere random.” He aims a kick at Harry’s arse, but Harry’s quick enough to dodge him. “Chop chop, time’s a-wasting. This good light ain’t gonna wait for no one.”

Niall heads back to the room where they’ve been painting and starts searching it up and down for the brushes. There isn’t much in the room to hide behind, though, just the easel and the couch, so he gives that up and starts looking in the next room instead. Being Niall, he’s quite thorough. Harry follows him in a slow meander, eating his own banana. He makes sure to linger behind Niall at all times so that he can stare at his legs. His stupid sapling legs, Harry thinks with the resignation of a soldier who’s seen the end of the war and knows his own defeat. His stupid legs, his stupid pert arse, his stupid goddamn freckles.

It’s no hardship to move slower than usual when painting, not when he only needs to take one look at those freckles on the bridge of Niall’s nose, across his throat, over his shoulders, before his mind’s useless for anything else. The other day Niall told him, point-blank, the way he was staring, he looked less like a focused artist and more like a bug-eyed psychopath.

Harry’s still a little offended by that. Anyway, if he’s going to descend into psychopathy, it’s all Niall’s fault.

While Niall’s searching the guest rooms upstairs — jesus, why does Harry have so many rooms, he’s not sure what he even does with them all — Harry quickly sneaks downstairs to the kitchen and peeks under the sink where he’s stashed the brushes. He throws some recycled flyers on top of the brushes so they’re even less visible, and then rejoins Niall, who’s starting to look less patient and also seriously questioning Harry’s ability to remember things.

“I just don’t know,” Harry says lamely. “Whatever, man. Let’s call it quits.”

“We called it quits yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that,” Niall says. “Haz, let’s be real.”

Harry stiffens.

“—if you don’t wanna finish painting me, just say so. I promise I won’t be offended,” Niall says. He chews his lip. “I know I’m not, like, an actual model,” he finishes, and Harry can tell he’s thinking about all the models Harry’s dated in the past.

“What, don’t be fucking ridiculous,” Harry snaps. “Art models aren’t supposed to be model models, they’re supposed to be regular people with regular bodies.” He tugs at his hair, forgetting it’s not long anymore, surprised by how far up his hand has to go. “Which isn’t you anyway, cos, you know, you’re anything but regular. I love looking at — your face, and, um, your body.”

Niall coughs and looks away, but he’s smiling slightly.

“You’ve nothing to be insecure about,” Harry says, “trust me.”

“Have you met me and my low self-esteem before?” Niall asks dryly.

“Come on,” Harry says, “forget the brushes, forget the painting. You know what we’ve not done yet since you got here?” He grabs Niall’s hand and starts tugging him out the veranda. “Swim in the pool.”

“‘m not dressed for it,” Niall complains, but he goes along with Harry and is maybe a little too trusting, because when they’re at the edge of the pool contemplating the temperature of the water when it’s a relatively cool morning in L.A, Harry hip-checks him in. Niall shrieks as he falls into the deep end, swearing loud enough to carry across the entire yard when he breaks through the surface, gasping and sputtering. “Fuck!” he says, grabbing the railings and hauling himself out. “Isn’t this a designer jumper or summat?”

“Got more where that came from,” Harry shrugs.

“Listen to you, you posh prick,” Niall says, shaking his head so that he sprays everywhere. He rips the water-logged jumper off him and tosses it to the ground, and then wriggles out of his wet briefs too. “Hope none of your neighbours are watching us right now.”

“Mmm,” Harry says, settling back on a pool chair and enjoying the view. Niall comes over and sits on top of him. “Oof, you’re heavy and you’re wet,” Harry complains, but then he rears up and licks one of the freckles on Niall’s jaw. Niall starts tickling him, breaking Harry’s single-minded mission to eat up his face, before rolling off and heading back inside the house.

“Hey, where you going?” Harry calls after him. “Come back!”

“Grabbing some dry clothes, is all!” Niall shouts.

“Well, if you find my brushes along the way—”

“Doubt a SWAT team could find your brushes at this point,” he hears Niall mutter, and Harry laughs and flops back into the chair, feeling loose-boned and satisfied. It’s going to be a gorgeous day, he thinks, checking the temperature app on his phone. Sometimes it’s still hard to translate Fahrenheit when he’s so used to Celsius, so he checks both, and besides, he can see the sun peeking out of the clouds already.

Niall comes back in a Ramones t-shirt and mesh shorts, and throws himself on a second pool chair. He’s carrying his laptop with him. Harry rolls over and stares at him peaceably while Niall boots up his laptop. “Got some emails to reply to,” he explains. “Stop staring, you’re not painting this, are you now?”

“I could,” Harry says. “Could turn this into an entire line of paintings. Niall Horan in all his elements.”

“And you’d be finished by the time you’re eighty, you mean,” Niall says.

“Don’t mind that,” Harry says, and then wishes he hadn’t said that out loud. Niall clears his throat and looks down at his laptop intently, cheeks a little red, or maybe that’s from the sun coming out. Jesus, his pasty Irish skin. Harry slithers off his chair and goes into the closest bathroom to search for some sun cream so that Niall doesn’t burn to a barbeque crisp. Can’t have that on his conscience.

It’s a slow, drip-drop morning, minutes stretched across the frame of hours, not so different from ones where Harry paints, really. Niall’s preoccupied doing his own thing, answering emails and looking over the latest reports his business partners are sending him, while Harry’s doing his own thing too, reading pages of Bulfinch’s whilst scrolling through messages on his phone and figuring out which ones he needs to reply to. “Liam’s gonna be in town soon,” he says, sitting up. “Next week, actually.”

“Yeah?” Niall asks, glancing over the rims of his glasses.

“And Louis’ already here, so we could get the boys together,” Harry says thoughtfully. “Been a while, hasn’t it? We could invite them over for dinner, it’d be a laugh. What’d you think?”

“Dunno,” Niall says.

“What, you don’t want to see them?” Harry frowns. It’s a bit of a strange feeling, being the one who suggests getting the lads back together because that’s Niall’s job, usually. Niall’s the one who’s always been easy and open with his affections, even after the break. Sending off postcards from his travels, firing off I-miss-you-lads texts in the group chat, dropping by for impromptu visits. Harry’s the one who’s kept his distance from the band, afraid to fall into old routines, get stuck in old grooves. But it’s been long enough, he thinks.

“‘Course I want to see them,” Niall says. “Reckon I’ve seen them more often than you have in the past year.” Harry shrugs, accepting that. “It’s more—” he hums. “Dunno if I’ll still be in L.A. when Liam gets here.”

“Thought you said your Dublin meeting wasn’t for another two weeks,” Harry says, stomach lurching.

“It isn’t,” Niall says, “but I could squeeze in a quick trip to Melbourne, couldn’t I? See Deo and the lads, and check out how the guitar shop’s doing, before flying back.”

You just got here, Harry thinks. But that isn’t quite true either. Harry’s scheming has already managed to keep him for longer than he ever has in the past. Niall’s never stayed longer than a week with Harry before, and never spent so much time in the house, not when there’s UFC matches, hockey games, and training sessions with pro athlete friends stealing his attention. They still could. Harry suddenly doesn’t feel very loose-limbed anymore.

“Sure, tell me what you end up deciding,” he says, and stands up. “I’m gonna do some laps around the pool.”

“Hazza,” Niall says, “I’ve not actually decided yet, not when—”

“Well, you ought to,” Harry interrupts as he shucks off his own shirt and saunters towards the pool. “Time’s a-ticking.”

 

:::

 

Harry would never say that what he does next counts as moping. Moping is what they do on rom-coms, and Harry’s love life is obviously not a rom-com, it’s a tragedy. If he just so happens to develop a penchant for sighing loudly, draping himself bonelessly over pieces of tasteful furniture, and glaring at Niall at inopportune times, well, he’s just exercising his right to be a temperamental pop star slash rising Hollywood actor.

Now that it’s confirmed Niall’s probably going to jet off any moment now, two things happen: he starts to wake up in middle of the night to check that Niall’s still there, and drapes himself over him like Niall’s his favourite piece of furniture. Two: he figures there’s no more reason to dally with the painting. It was getting a bit ridiculous anyway. He pretends to find his brushes in his laundry hamper.

“Can you hold still,” Harry says crabbily when he’s trying to finish Niall’s feet. “Your moving around all the time is distracting me.”

“Sorry,” Niall says guiltily.

Harry responds by attacking the canvas aggressively.

“You seem a lot more inspired,” Niall offers. “Don’t think I’ve seen you paint like this, since, well, ever.”

“Just want to get this done,” Harry says. “It’s been taking too long.” And they both know whose fault that is, but Niall doesn’t say anything, just nods and settles back onto the couch. He stares off into the distance, looking at something out the window, even though there’s nothing there but yard and clouds.

“It’s alright to take your time,” Niall says after a few minutes of silence. “I was doing some reading the other day, and did you know Michelangelo, when he painted the Sistine Chapel—”

“I did know that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, yeah,” Harry says. “Everyone knows that, Nialler.”

He’s being a twat, but Niall lets it slide. “He took forever to get it done,” he says. “Four years, in fact, and it was so bloody awful that he complained about it every single minute. He wrote a poem about how awful it was, even. It gave him a goiter, supposedly.” He glances up to see how Harry’s taking this. Harry’s staring at the canvas, stone-faced. “Not saying that my skinny naked arse is the Sistine Chapel,” Niall says, “but art is hard, mate, I get that.”

Harry presses his lips together.

“Can I see?” Niall asks.

“You never asked before,” Harry says, which is also a twattish thing to say because it’s him who’s paranoid about covering the painting after every session, not showing it to a single soul until it’s ready. He’s the same way about songwriting too, don’t like people to see his rough edges until he’s gotten the chance to polish them down. But he sighs, “fine,” and moves over so that Niall can take a look.

“It’s good,” Niall says, gazing at the painting. “You’re really talented, Haz. You can totally tell it’s supposed to be me.”

“It’s alright,” Harry shrugs, because it is. He’s an amateur with an interest and a small amount of training, not a professional, and it’s good for what it is. He can do better in the future with more practice, he knows, but standing side by side with Niall, looking at the painting, a soft hurt enters him right below his ribs, because it’s an alright painting, but it’s also of Niall, and even if Niall can’t see what Harry was trying to do, Harry knows what went behind every stroke, what was in his head as Niall lay on that couch like Psyche waiting for her husband to come home, freckles and all.

“Think this’ll really make Louis lose his shit,” Niall grins.

“Yeah,” Harry says, though the idea doesn’t make him as gleeful as it used to. He reaches out and thumbs a corner of the canvas, where the paint’s mostly dried. “Just the background left to do, I think. Then we’re done.”

“What a ride,” Niall says, but then his mobile goes off. He glances down at the number. “Ah, bloody hell, I ought to take that, it’s my Dublin partners.”

Harry shrugs, go ahead, and starts cleaning his paints, figuring they’re done for the day as Niall slips out into the hallway. He can hear him through the open door, though, can make out Niall’s careful murmur as he says, “Yeah, my schedule’s pretty booked up right now. No, don’t worry, I’ll definitely be there at the board meeting, can’t miss that. But — got some personal stuff to take care of before Dublin.” There’s a pause, and Niall says, “No problem, Skype meeting’s fine with me, let’s conference call, just send me an invite for when it’s best for you, I’ll make it work.”

“Hey,” Niall says when he pads back into the room, watching Harry clean his brushes. “You wanna go out for dinner tonight?”

Before you head out to Australia, you mean, Harry thinks, and a part of him wants to say no, wants to show that Niall’s got no power over him, but his mouth says yes before his brain kicks in. “As long as I get to pick the place,” he adds, and Niall rolls his eyes but goes along with it.

 

:::

 

He finishes the painting in no time at all, doesn’t really need Niall to model for him anymore now that he’s only working on the background, but he doesn’t tell Niall this, and Niall doesn’t ask to leave. Niall’s fallen asleep on the couch, knackered from his early-morning Skype meeting with the dreadful time difference, when Harry finally leans back from the easel and exhales a shaky breath. Niall does look cold, he thinks, so he goes over and covers him with the flannel blanket.

“Mm, what,” Niall slurs, waking up as Harry’s tucking him in. “Oh, are we done for today then?”

“Reckon we’re done, period,” Harry says, hovering over him.

“You breaking up with me?” Niall asks, sliding up into a sitting position, cracking his spine with a satisfied yawn. “Let me put some clothes on, at least.”

“No, you wanker, I meant the painting,” Harry says.

“Ahhh,” Niall says, still stifling a yawn. “Congrats, mate! Let’s take another look at it.” He swings his legs over the couch and tucks the other end of the blanket over Harry’s shoulders, as is his habit. They wander over together to the easel like a two-headed blanket beast. Harry chews his lip. He’s not nervous, not when Niall’s seen the painting only yesterday. But it’s done now, and looking at the painting with Niall’s thigh pressed against his, warm and solid, the only things he feels are frustrated and upset.

He can’t hide it from Niall for long. “Shit, you alright?” Niall asks, tucking one of Harry’s curls behind his ear. “I know it ain’t perfect, but it’s not supposed to be. I love it, Louis’ gonna piss himself laughing, you did good here.”

“Didn’t do this for Louis,” Harry says roughly.

“Nah, then, we don’t have to give it to him,” Niall says, wrapping an arm around Harry’s waist and squeezing him soothingly. “I’ll take the painting. It’d be an honour. A Harry Styles original.”

“You can have it,” Harry says. “I don’t think I want it.”

“You sure?” Niall asks. He takes a step back so that he can look into Harry’s face properly, which means he also drags the blanket off Harry. Harry misses the weight as soon as it’s gone. “Okay, I didn’t want to say anything about it because I didn’t want you to rip my head off, like, but I’m worried about you. You’ve been really bad-tempered lately, acting all sorts of odd. Are you — is it something I did?”

“I hate this painting,” Harry says instead. “Fuck, just look at it. It’s rubbish. It doesn’t even look like you. It could be any blond lad. I can’t believe—” he steps towards the painting, except Niall blocks him. Harry glares, both at the painting and Niall. “Can’t believe I spent days and days of my time on this stupid shit, could’ve done so much else with that time, fuck, I’m an idiot.”

“Haz, what the fuck?” Niall asks. “The painting’s fine.”

But Harry’s angry now, genuinely angry, angry at his own bullshit and yearning and the way he’s managed to tie up his own insides like this, looped his guts around his heart and roped the whole thing around his lungs. He’s been miserable the whole time he and Niall have been hooking up, and he’s sick of it. “Take it then,” he says, “take it to Melbourne with you. Give it to Deo for all I care. Or — or hang it up in the guitar shop. It’d be a right laugh.”

“I’m obviously not gonna do that,” Niall says. “I’m not going to Melbourne either.”

“Why not?” Harry says coolly. “You seemed so eager to.”

“I couldn’t care less about going to Melbourne,” Niall says. “I only said that because — I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, like.”

Now it’s Harry’s turn to stare. Niall tugs at the blanket uncomfortably, but meets his eyes, is always the brave one when he says, “Look, I know I don’t got any claim over you, so I don’t want to be here when you get sick of me but you’re too polite to say so.” He shrugs. “Might as well leave before that happens, right? Spare us both the awkwardness. That way, when I come back, it’s fresh and new.”

“Fresh and new,” Harry says slowly, “what, like a piece of organic produce?”

“Cos you get bored—”

“I do not!”

“You do!” Niall says. “I’ve seen it so many times before. You get bored of hobbies, you get bored of cities, you get bored of relationships. I’ve seen enough girlfriends work themselves to knots trying to keep your attention.” He looks away, grimaces. “Always felt sorry for them, before, but truth is, don’t think I could stand it — think it’d gut me, if you ever — if you ever got bored of me.”

“Oh my god,” Harry says, and Niall flinches. “I never realized you were so dumb. It’s the glasses that tricked me, I think.”

“I know it’s dumb, okay, you don’t got to say it,” Niall hisses.

“No, I mean,” Harry cups his face between his hands, feels how Niall trembles. The words start tumbling out of him, he’s so relieved. “You’re so fucking dumb cos you think I’ll get bored and bin you, when I’m, like, arse over tits in love with you. God, even before we started having sex. For years now. I’m a pathetic mess when you’re gone for a single second, never mind months at a time, you twat.” He’s shaking too, fingers pressed tight against Niall’s jaw, looking into Niall’s painfully blue eyes. He can be brave too, he thinks, he can spit it out. “You’re always leaving me,” is what he finally says. “I fucking hate it.”

“Oh my god,” Niall says.

“What?” Harry asks, starting to panic. “Pretend I didn’t say any of that, then. We can go back to normal! We can pretend none of that ever happened.”

“No, it’s just—” Niall buries his face in Harry’s chest, still clutching the blanket to him because he’s naked underneath, a fact that has not escaped Harry’s terribly insistent emotional boner. “No one’s ever said shit like that to me before. I got a little light-headed.”

“In a good way?” Harry asks tentatively, wrapping his arms around Niall. “Or in a get me away from this knobhead before he ruins our friendship kind of way?”

Niall lifts his face up to Harry’s, nearly goes cross-eyed, so takes a step back and tries again. “A good way,” he says, smiling, and then wreaks havoc with Harry’s thoughts by standing on his toes to kiss him. Harry moans into the kiss, then mouths his way up Niall’s nose, pockets his glasses, and becomes obsessed with kissing Niall’s eyelashes, until Niall shoves him aside, laughing, because he’s going to have no eyelashes left by the time Harry finishes accidentally ripping them off with his clumsy mouth. When really it’s his own fault that his lashes are so brittle, he needs to use serum on them or summat. Harry’s got options for him to choose from. He’s happy to share.

“Stay,” Harry confesses, pressing a kiss into Niall’s temple. He should have said this that very first day, he thinks, that very first day Niall landed in L.A. after One Direction went on hiatus, and crossed the floor into Harry’s house, full of nerves and anticipation. He should have said it then, should have said it a thousand times.

“Stay,” he repeats, and Niall lets go of a breath, like he was only ever waiting to be asked.

“I do need to go to Dublin for that board meeting,” he says. “And it might actually be a good idea to drop by Melbourne for a bit, to check up on the shop.” Harry’s already frowning, but Niall spreads two fingers over Harry’s mouth before he can complain. “But I’ll be back after that. Or, you could come with me. We could make a proper trip out of it,” he says, flushing, “you and I.”

“I’d like that,” says Harry.

 

:::

 

They’re halfway to Melbourne, shagging in the airplane loo, when Louis swears eternal vengeance upon them both.