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It’s half six in the morning when Harry stumbles into the little coffee shop a few blocks from campus. The puffy lettering on the storefront says ‘Temporary Fix’. Harry likes the statement. The acknowledgement that caffeine can only last so long before it wears off, that people have to come back over and over for satisfaction. Very meta.

He’s completely charmed the minute he steps inside. It’s everything a small, independently owned coffee shop should be.

The large east-facing windows let in the rising sun, illuminating the warmly decorated space with golden light. The opposite wall is decorated with a stunning mural. A whole mesh of styles like Van Gogh and Picasso and Monet, carefully mimicked with a decidedly street art feel. The menu boards are all chalk, handwritten in looping, stylized script with tiny illustrations thrown in here and there.

All the furniture looks thrifted or salvaged -- high tables with wooden tops covered in marker scribblings, low metal tables stained rusty colors -- every chair is mismatched. There’s a floral couch sat under the section of wall that looks like Starry Night, next to honest-to-god milk crate shelves that are loaded up with books and magazines.

In the back corner is a small stage made out of wooden pallets hugged by two floor standing speakers, sound equipment shoved into the corner. There’s an actual record player set up at the end of the long counter, a handful of vinyls leaning against it.

The whole aesthetic makes his fingers itch for a camera, eyes catching on the layout, mulling over the way he could frame shots and use the natural lighting. He could spend days capturing the little details and still come back for more; the penknife etchings in the countertop, the messy collages sitting in frames between the windows.

Harry’s madly, deeply in love with it.

“What’s up, mate?” someone asks, reminding Harry that he’s not just here to gawk. He startles out of his thoughts and turns his attention towards the counter, the bloke standing behind it. He looks about Harry’s age with wide hazel eyes framed by thick lashes and short, black hair. There’s a slender ring through his nostril and tattoos all over his arms. His name tag says ‘Zayn’.

Harry might be intimidated by Zayn if he weren’t as skinny as a whip and sleep-heavy around the eyes. The counter’s holding him up, he’s leaning against it so hard. It is very early.

“Do you -- uh, do you guys take donations?” Harry asks, sidling up to the counter self-consciously. There are a few people tucked into the plush booths across from the counter, but there’s no queue. Which is definitely a good thing, if this conversation ends up being as stupid as it seems like it’s going to be.

“Donations?” Zayn asks, slowly, blinking at Harry a few times. The poor guy needs a coffee, or five.

“I have like, boxes of muffins,” Harry says, with a grimace. “I need to get rid of them.”

Zayn raises a curious eyebrow at Harry, watching him for a minute. Long enough that Harry fidgets. This was a stupid idea. No one’s going to want his muffins. Not even a quaint independent coffee shop with hand painted mugs and imported loose leaf tea.

Maybe he can hold a bake sale.

“I’m going to take that as a no?” Harry says. It comes out as a question.

“I’m thinking,” Zayn says, little smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Oi! Niall!”

The name rings all sorts of bells in his head -- a classmate, maybe? Friend of a friend? Social media is strange like that, he can see a name and recognize it over and over without even meeting a person. Maybe that’s it, no --

“Wha’?” There’s a loud shout from the back and a blonde lad in a wine red apron comes out from behind the swinging double doors.

It takes a minute, but it all comes barrelling back to Harry like a bad movie montage.

Niall.

Niall from the party a couple of weeks back. Niall with the guitar and pink flushed cheeks and infectious laughter that nestled up under Harry’s skin, made him want to touch. Niall who Harry shoved into the nearest bathroom at the first chance and -- there’s a phantom ache in his knees from how quickly Harry dropped, absolutely gagging for it.

Harry’s face goes hot at the memory, heart pounding, mind veering wildly off course as Niall looks between him and Zayn, not even blinking in recognition.

Niall who let himself be tugged around until Harry found someone with a sharpie so he could write his number on Niall’s arm in big purple letters -- it was late enough that both their phones were completely dead in their pockets -- with the kind of cocky that comes from getting laid and being sure the bloke is going to call you.

But he didn’t. Call that is. Niall didn’t call.

Now, Harry’s in the coffee shop where Niall is apparently employed, stomach all twisted up over Niall’s complete non-reaction to his presence.

Harry doesn't think Niall was drunk enough to forget what happened. Harry certainly wasn’t. Harry was buzzed, nearing that happy tipsy that comes from many, but not too many, jello shots. Niall seemed to be there too, barely a slur to his words, eyes bright and engaged.

There are rules to these things, Harry guesses. Quick one-offs in the bathroom at a party are strictly under a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Harry’s not going mention it if Niall isn’t. Especially since Niall didn’t call. Harry’s lips are sealed.

“He wants to know if we accept donations,” Zayn says, gesturing to Harry with a loose wrist, forcing Harry to focus back on the present and not the memory of Niall thrusting shallowly as he came in Harry’s mouth.

Harry hopes his expression is very, very neutral as he rocks back on his heels and waves a little. This was a stupid idea. All of this was a stupid idea.

“Donations?” Niall asks, eyebrows popping up. The same expression Zayn made, really. Still nothing to suggest that he remembers tugging Harry off while he licked his own taste out of Harry’s mouth.

Harry should probably stop thinking about it.

It’s totally fine. He can do this. He can act normal.

“Had a paper due,” Harry says, glancing at the chalkboard menus behind their heads. If he spends too much time looking at Niall’s face, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. “I usually bake as, like, a timer. Prep the stuff, write while the oven preheats, pop them in, write while they cook. Repeat as necessary.”

“Sounds like loads of baking,” Niall says, leaning forward on his elbows across the counter. His biceps bulge attractively. Harry looks away.

“Been up all night,” Harry admits with a wince, ruffling his hair self consciously before pushing it off his face. He has this bad habit of hiding behind it when he gets flustered, it’s probably not polite. “I have 5 dozen muffins that I’m not going to eat.”

“Well, hell,” Niall says, with a little gusting exhale. He taps his fingers on the countertop rhythmically as if it helps him think, glancing at Zayn. Zayn shrugs. “You said donate?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, shrugging a little, fiddling with the big ring on his pointer finger. This is an incredibly awkward exchange. He feels all anxious, skin on too tight, not sure what to do. He’s usually good at making situations not awkward, but he hasn’t had any sleep in over 24 hours.

“If you’re not expecting anything for them, we’ll take them,” Niall says, after a couple more sharp taps. “If they’re good, we’ll sell them. If not, we’ll feed them to the ducks or summat.”

“Oh no,” Harry says, slowly, frowning. Everyone should know not to do that. “Don’t give them to the ducks. The bread expands in their stomach. It’s awful for them.”

Niall laughs then, a big thing that sounds like it comes from his chest, spilling out of his mouth delightedly. There’s absolutely nothing self-conscious about a laugh like that. Harry’s fascinated.

Big surprise.

“Alright, no ducks,” Niall agrees, with a serious nod. Their gazes meet for the first time since Niall came out of the back. All of the air in Harry’s lungs jumps to the top of his throat.

That’s what got him in the first place, the night of the party. Niall was outside with an acoustic guitar in his hands and a joint between his lips, strumming away in front of the firepit, and Harry couldn’t help himself, had to sit and listen, had to watch. The first time their eyes met, Niall’s were dark blue in the sharp orange light of the fire and Harry felt his world shift, altering to accommodate the magnetic pull he felt in his chest from a single look.

“Good, good -- I-I’ll get them, then,” Harry says, trying to ignore the way his brain is going all fuzzy.

This morning, Niall’s eyes are more crystal blue, brighter than anything has a right to be this early. Harry’s fingers itch for his camera again. He wants to fill up his memory card with pictures of Niall standing behind the counter, bathed in light, half a smile on his pink lips.

“Alright,” Niall agrees, easily, oblivious to Harry’s inner musings. For the best, really.

Harry stands there with Zayn and Niall’s gazes on him a minute longer, trying to figure out how he’s going to get five dozen muffins down here from his apartment. Even if he got donut boxes and loaded them up, he’d have to take more than one trip.

Not that he’s sure where to get donut boxes. Maybe there’s a bakery around here. He doubts they would let him take their boxes. He probably should have thought this out more before coming here, been ready.

“Do you know anyone with a wagon, by chance?” Harry says. Both Zayn and Niall stare at him. “I don’t have a car.”

That makes Niall laugh again, tipping his head back.

“You’re a riot,” he says, shaking his head. Harry makes an indignant noise in his throat, but he doesn’t say anything. Niall will laugh at anything, apparently. Even Harry’s muffin moving dilemmas. “I’ll give you a ride.”

“O-okay,” Harry says, staring with wide eyes as Niall disappears into the back. Oh, this isn’t good. This is the opposite of good. This is actually terrible. A ride with Niall, alone in a car together. This is going to be weird, and Harry’s going to have to restrain himself from asking why Niall didn’t call.

Harry plucks at his bottom lip with his forefinger and thumb, trying to shake off the nerves. It’s fine, he can do this. He can pretend like nothing ever happened, like he can’t perfectly imagine Niall’s O-face.

“This place is nice,” Harry blurts, once he realizes Zayn’s still standing there awkwardly. Small talk isn’t ideal, but it’s better than waiting around in silence as his palms get increasingly sweaty.

“I think so,” Zayn says, with a shrug and a small smile.

“I like the painting, er, mural,” Harry says, going with it, gesturing to wall. It is a really nice mural.

“Yeah?” Zayn asks, face lighting up. It’s like his whole body perks up at the mention, eyes getting bright. Harry cocks his head in interest.

“Did you do it?” he asks.

“I did,” Zayn says, with a wide smile. It looks nice on his face.

“Wow,” Harry says, exhaling. “That’s wicked. Art?”

“Yeah, illustration,” Zayn says, with a nod and an even bigger smile, tongue pressed to the backs of his teeth.

“Wicked, painting’s fun,” Harry agrees. It’s been awhile since he’s done it, but he was big into painting his first year. Took three classes, always smelled like turpentine. There’s still paint splatters on his book bag. He dropped it when he got more serious about photography, but there’s something soothing about losing yourself to a canvas, letting time pass as you layer acrylics together, building a story.

“You paint?” Zayn asks, looking all the more interested for it. Harry can see that spark in him, the sharp edge of creativity that Harry wants to chase with a camera flash.

“Used to,” Harry shrugs. He’s about to explain about the photography -- it’s easy to imagine Zayn working on the mural, thick tarp spread out underneath him, hands a mess of paint as he works. He’s probably the type to get all stony faced when he’s concentrating. The type to forget to eat and stay past closing to finish. It’d make a great set of pictures; an art project of an art project. Harry wants to ask about it, see if Zayn would be interested, but Niall interrupts them, jangling his keys.

“Ready?” Niall asks, with a bright grin on his face. Harry nods, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. Without the apron on, Harry can see the henley Niall’s wearing, the way it hugs his torso attractively. He’s got a snapback on, and Harry hates how much he likes the whole American frat boy look.

Harry rips his gaze away and finds Zayn watching him curiously. Well, that’s embarrassing. Harry makes a tiny noise of distress as he turns, waiting for Niall to take the lead before trailing him out of the coffee shop.

They’re silent as Niall takes him around back to the parking lot. He unlocks the passenger door of a small teal car. The car has obviously seen better days, metal door whining as Niall opens it for Harry. The whole cab creaks as Harry slides into the seat.

The warm flush under Harry’s skin gets worse as he thanks Niall, folding his hands on his lap. That claustrophobic feeling is back now that it’s going to be the two of them. Nothing between them but air and the stifling awkwardness of a belated morning after.

“Where to?” Niall asks, as soon as he’s in the front seat, starting the car up. It growls a little, but settles quickly. Niall curls his hand on the top of the steering wheel and looks at Harry expectantly.

“Uhm,” Harry says, eloquently, attempting to wrestle his brain into submission. “Sorry, I’m running on no sleep.”

“S’alright,” Niall says, with a grin. “Can’t complain, you’re doin’ us a favor.”

“Technically, you’re doing me a favor,” Harry reminds him, dragging his fingers through his hair again, wishing it parted the other way so there was some sort of barrier between him and Niall. “Take a right out of here, by the way.”

They’re silent for the short drive unless Harry’s telling Niall to make a turn. It’s more awkward than Harry would like it to be, but not as awkward as it could be. At least it’s only a couple of minutes to his place before Harry’s telling Niall to park and leading Niall up the stairs to his flat.

The front room is an absolute tip, but Harry kicks the door open for Niall anyway, inviting him in. There’s not any reason to impress him, and Harry’s one of those people who, unfortunately, inspires mess. On top of his normal clutter -- clothes and books and papers strewn about -- there’s flour and cooking shit all over the place, five racks of muffins cooling on the counter.

“Smells good,” Niall says, sniffing the air like a little puppy. Harry giggles, watching him with amusement, and Niall just smiles wide -- teeth all on display. The anxious feeling in Harry’s chest loosens a tiny bit.

“I don’t know if they’re any good,” Harry admits, resisting the urge to poke one of the muffin tops. It’s probably against some health code for him to touch them now that they’re planning on selling them.

Niall gives them a look, hands clasped behind his back, standing on his tip toes. Harry receives a cheeky smile before Niall plucks one off the rack and takes a massive bite out of it, half the muffin disappearing into his mouth.

Harry watches in fascination as he chews, too caught up to realize he’s probably being creepy. It’s like. Weird? How someone can still be very attractive while they’re eating a too-big bite of breakfast pastry.

The whole column of Niall’s neck moves when he swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. His tongue darts out to catch the crumbs along his mouth, and Harry definitely needs to look away.

“Those are great,” Niall says, totally oblivious to Harry’s humiliating investment in his face. “I’ll bet they sell out.”

“Hopefully,” Harry says, with a distant nod, eyes still glued to Niall’s mouth. He clears his throat and twirls around, trying to think of something to put them in. There’s a big boxy thing that he usually uses to store a cake in; both the top and the bottom make good trays, fitting three dozen between them.

“Excellent,” Harry says, handing them to Niall and picking up the last two racks by their bottoms. “This’ll have to do.”

“Can you get them out to the car?” Niall asks, dubiously. “There’s stairs.”

Harry sniffs indignantly. “How do you know I’ll drop them?”

“You look like the type that falls down a lot,” Niall says, with a grin like a secret, left cheek dimpling while his right stays smooth. One dimple, that’s. Stupidly charming.

“I am not,” Harry lies. Fingers mentally crossed that that’s not a jinx while he’s attempting to lock the door with two muffin racks balanced on one of his forearms.

Luckily, the couple of months he spent serving food before he got to uni pay off. Nothing drops to the floor, and he doesn’t trip on the way to Niall’s car. Once again, Niall holds the door open for Harry after putting his own containers on the hood of the car.

When Niall gets in, he slides his containers over to Harry so Harry can hold all the muffins on his lap as they make their way back to Temporary Fix. The smile Niall gives him is soft and sweet as the little car bumps along the road, soft acoustic music playing in the background.

And this is what Harry doesn’t get. Niall certainly isn’t reserved or distant around Harry. He’s not being weird, aside from maybe acting like they don’t know each other. So, Harry can’t stop wondering why Niall isn’t saying anything about their hookup.

Of course, Niall could not be saying anything because Harry isn’t saying anything, even though Harry isn’t saying anything because Niall isn’t saying anything --

Whatever it is, it’s making Harry feel insecure. Like, maybe it wasn’t good. Maybe Niall regrets what happened. Maybe he truly doesn’t remember and Harry should start asking his random party hook ups to recite the alphabet backwards before he gives them blowjobs in strange bathrooms.

The thing is, he knows he’s overthinking it. He’s done the same thing to plenty of people before. Pretended he hadn’t hooked up with them, left before they woke up, didn’t call them even when he said he would. That’s the point of one night stands, but… Niall’s different? Maybe.

It might be silly, but this feels like something. A moment where he looks back and thinks: this is where things changed. A defining piece of his life sliding into place, all because he made too much muffins the night before.

Maybe it should have been the night he met Niall, when Niall pressed his fingers into the softness of Harry’s hips and pressed his teeth to the muscles of Harry’s neck. Maybe it would have been, if Niall had called him. That night could have been the defining moment, but Niall didn’t call.

Now, here’s a second chance all thanks to muffins. Harry discreetly looks at Niall’s profile, the sharp lines of his nose and jaw, the soft sweep of his eyelashes, the splatter of freckles over his skin -- all the things he missed in the dark of the house party, eyes closed while they kissed desperately -- and thinks, maybe.

 

 

Going back is inadvisable, Harry’s sure, but he’s free for the afternoon and his internet at home takes forever to connect. He doesn’t want to deal with that at the moment, not when he doesn’t have to. And he’d go to the library, but a drink sounds good so… why not.

The queue is longer than the other day, so he has to wait. He bounces on his heels and reads the menu. All the drinks are puns and nerdy references, of course they are -- espresso patronum, honestly -- there are a few Harry wants to try, but he’d vibrate right out of his skin if he had coffee this late in the afternoon.

Luckily, there’s a whole chalkboard dedicated to tea, more than Harry’s used to seeing at a coffee shop. Classics like Earl Grey and English Breakfast alongside more exciting teas like cacao mint black tea and imperial acai blueberry white.

Not that Harry is unfamiliar with loose leaf tea and all the fun combinations that can be created with it. It’s that he’s not used to seeing so much of a selection in a place that’s not a tea shop. Usually, it’s bagged tea and that’s that. Temporary Fix has a whole row of shelves dedicated to tea, shelves stacked with metal containers and handwritten labels.

He’s still deciding when it’s his turn. The bloke behind the counter isn’t Zayn or Niall, but he does look vaguely familiar a way that means they probably met when Harry was drunk. He’s got his hair styled up messy, deliberately windswept, eyes blue and bright like Niall’s. The tag on his apron says ‘Louis’.

“Oi, it’s Ansel Adams,” Louis says, smiling wide.

“I’m sorry?” Harry prompts, confused.

“Photographer, right?” Louis asks, raising his eyebrows. “Met you at Luke’s house party.”

“Oh, right,” Harry says, frowning, trying to remember. Most of what he remembers from that night is Niall, Niall, Niall and the overabundance of vodka shots that Liam made him do before they went their separate ways.

There are vague flashes of memory that involve talking to Louis outside while Niall strummed along in the background. Harry’s pretty sure they had a whole conversation about this term’s ongoing photography project -- how he needed to pick a theme ages ago, but still hadn’t.

Harry still hasn’t.

“Yeah, yes, I remember,” Harry says. He does, definitely. He remembers Louis being loud, shoving more shots at him, making eyebrows when Harry couldn’t stop sneaking glances at Niall. “‘M Harry.”

“I feel like I knew that,” Louis says, with a great over-exaggerated wink. Harry can’t tell if the smirk on his face is amused or condescending, so he shrugs in response. “Now, we’ve held up the queue quite long enough, what’re you having?”

There’s only one person behind Harry, and as far as he can tell, they just got there, but Harry doesn’t argue. He gets a cup of Earl Grey, opting for comfort over curiousity. He’s too anxious to try something new right now. Especially with the weird looks Louis keeps shooting him.

It doesn’t look like Niall’s around, so Harry feels secure as he wiggles into a booth and pulls out his art history homework, desperately wishing he had taken it his first year instead of putting it off. This year could have been all design and no studying if he had gotten it out of the way sooner.

Louis hand delivers Harry’s tea a few minutes later with another intense look, sliding the mug across the table towards Harry slowly. It’s almost as if he wants Harry to be suspicious of his actions. Though, Louis does seem like a squirrely type of person anyway, maybe that’s just how he is.

What Harry doesn’t expect is for Louis to slide in the booth across from him. There isn’t a queue, so he probably won’t get in trouble for it, but Harry looks around anxiously anyway.

“Alright?” he asks, curious. Not that he’s opposed to making new friends, but Louis is Niall’s friend, Louis was at the party. Harry doesn’t want to talk about the party if he can help it. He had a good time, but the whole thing is kind of bittersweet after the other morning.

“Sticking around tonight?” Louis asks, smiling at Harry expectantly.

“Should I?” Harry asks. “I don’t know what tonight is.”

“Open mic night,” Louis says, gesturing towards the stage. “Where all the hipsters gather to perform their hearts little out. Mostly for the free drinks, but some of them are good.”

“Oh, I don’t… do that,” Harry says, shoving his hair out of his face nervously. There’s a leather bound journal at the bottom of his bag that contradicts him, but Louis doesn’t know that. It’s too hard to concentrate on writing or music when he’s investing all his energy into photography.

“I mean to watch,” Louis says, then fixes Harry with a very knowing look. One that makes Harry fidgety. “Niall will be here.”

“Performing?” Harry asks, playing with the string to the tea bag for something to do with his hands. He tries his best to sound nonchalant, but he doesn’t quite manage, voice too high and quick, cheeks hot.

“Yes, Harold, performing,” Louis says, with this inflection to his voice that suggests Harry is positivity daft.

“That’s not my name,” Harry says, snorting, smile edging at his lips without his consent.

Well, I thought I would let you know anyway,” Louis says. “Get to know Niall somewhere that’s not the inside of a dirty bathroom.”

“Hey!” Harry whines, flush getting more intense. This is exactly what he was trying to avoid. Louis is terrible. “You don’t have to mention that ever again.”

“Oh, and why not?” Louis asks, propping his chin on his palm and looking at Harry curiously, eyes bright with mischief. The urge to flick him in the forehead is suddenly overwhelming.

“It’s not something that needs to be mentioned,” Harry mumbles, trying not to sound bitter. Remembering that Louis is Niall’s friend and could rat Harry out for anything he says, at any given moment.

Louis doesn’t respond to that, only hums in agreement before rapping his knuckles on the table, sharp and quick.

“Well, open mic starts at six-ish, if you’re hanging around,” he says, giving Harry another smile before sliding out of the booth and sauntering back to the counter.

It’s nearly half four now, hypothetically Harry could stay and get his work done since he doesn’t have anywhere to be tonight. Refills aren’t that expensive, and well… Niall will be there. That’s reason enough to stay.

To: Liam

Come study with me :(

From: Liam

Only if ur not at the library, I’m starving !!!

To: Liam

At a coffee shop actually. Temporary fix

From: Liam

That’s where Tommo works! I’m in

To: Liam

I’m here already, see you soon?

To: Liam

Who’s Tommo?

From: Liam

Be right there !!

Harry’s on his second cup of tea by the time Liam pushes through the door, hair wet and curling over his forehead with his gym bag banging against his side. A slow grin spreads over his face when he spots Harry, entire body perking up like Harry’s the end all and be all of things to see in this world. It’s always flattering when Liam is excited to see him, does wonders for his self-esteem.

Liam dumps his bag into the seat across from Harry, right on Harry’s feet.

“Hey!” Harry says, sitting up straight and pulling in his legs. “Had my feet up.”

“You should know not to do that,” Liam says, with a huff and a little smile. He leans over and hugs Harry quick, like he always does. “Bad manners.”

“I have excellent manners, thank you,” Harry replies. “My mummy taught me well.”

“She should’ve taught you not to put your feet up.”

“I’m going to tell her you said that,” Harry says, pouting.

“Please don’t,” Liam says, looking contrite. “It’s not her fault you’ve turned into a prat at uni.”

Harry doesn’t have a response for that, just bursts out laughing so hard he thinks he’s injured something, ribs stitching up from lack of air. Across the table, Liam looks exceedingly pleased with himself.

“You’re a wanker,” Harry says, inhaling deeply as Liam grins and ruffles his hair obnoxiously. Harry huffs and dips his head down to fluff it up, fixing it.

Louis is at his side when he picks his head up, leaning his hip against the table. Harry jumps in surprise, elbow colliding with the table so hard his eyes water.

“Shit,” he yelps, holding his arm as it goes all tingly. Louis ignores him completely and throws his arms around Liam, hugging like long lost brothers while Harry whimpers, hand still curled protectively over his funny bone.

“Payno!”

“Tommo!”

“You know each other?” he asks, curiously.

Liam launches into a whole story about Louis being on the football team and up at the crack of dawn to practice, which is when Liam goes to the gym, so they kept running across each other -- literally, they were always jogging -- so they ended up going in the same direction more often than not and became friends.

There’s not a breath between the words as Liam rattles everything off with a grin, like he does most things. What a coincidence, Harry thinks, as Louis chimes in, “the first thing he said to me was ‘your running form is kin’a shit, mate’ -- can you believe it?”

Harry can. Everyone laughs.

It’s a good distraction from the impending doom of six o’clock, minutes speeding up the closer it gets to the top of the hour. Every time the bell above the door tinkles, Harry finds himself looking, waiting for Niall to come through.

Apparently, open mic night is popular. At one point, the door stays propped open for people. Harry’s pretty happy he’s sat at a booth already; there are some uncomfortable looking chairs that are being dragged out for people to use.

“How did I not know about this?” Harry asks. Photography majors are usually deeply entrenched with hipster culture, it’s basically a given. He has enough creative writing and performance arts friends that he should have at least heard of this place before the muffin incident, but he really hasn’t.

“I told you about it three months ago,” Liam says, frowning at him.

Okay, maybe he did know.

“You did?” Harry asks, wrinkling his nose. Not that Liam would lie, but he genuinely doesn’t remember any mention of an open mic night at a homey coffee shop close to campus.

“Mentioned it when your nose was always in that damn journal,” Liam says, pushing at Harry’s shoulder fondly. It never bothers him when Harry forgets the details of their conversations, which actually can’t be said for anyone else Harry knows.

“Haven’t written in forever,” Harry laments, rubbing his finger against the seam of his jeans. “Stupid photography project.”

“Hey, priorities,” Liam reminds him, this time the push against Harry’s shoulder is a fond nudge before he wraps his arm around Harry’s bicep, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Harry smiles back, reassured.

“Now, if only I can think of a theme,” Harry drawls, fishing his camera out of the bag and uncapping it. The increasingly eccentric collection of people gathering for open mic night is a good place to start. “Can I take pictures in here, Louis?”

Louis nods at him, watching with a vaguely curious expression that Harry takes a snap to test the lighting. He adjusts his apertures accordingly. It’s bright enough that the pictures won’t be grainy, warm toned from the yellowing bulbs in the light fixtures. Makes for a nice filter, really.

The next shot he gets is of Louis’ hastily retreating back.

“Spoilsport,” Harry mutters, pointing the lens towards Liam. At this point, he’s conditioned to sit for pictures. The privilege of being Harry’s close friend means that he gets a camera lens in his face more often than not. Liam keeps still, head bent over his phone like it was, but once Harry takes one picture, Liam shifts, smiling at Harry for another shot.

“What a ham,” Harry mutters fondly, checking the monitor.

“You created me,” Liam says, while Harry searches out new subjects.

There are plenty of people to photograph, people he already knows, too. He was right about the attendance of his performance and creative arts friends -- which makes him vow to pay closer attention when people are talking. There are definitely people besides Liam who would have invited Harry to come along and probably did.

He finds Perrie, Jesy, Jade, and Leigh-Anne on the floral couch next to the makeshift milk crate bookshelves. They’re all sat next to each other, legs crossed in the same direction. He takes a couple of pictures like that, then shouts so they’ll turn and look at him, flashing their brilliant lipstick smiles at him.

They shoo him away after a couple of shots, so he looks for more subjects in the eclectic mix. Groups of punk kids with mohawks and pastel hair, grunge kids in thin plaids and ripped jeans, a whole table of chicks in joggers with snapbacks sitting backwards on their heads.

Most of the pictures end up more posed than candid, groups of people grinning at him and making faces, toasting him with their handpainted Temporary Fix mugs full of coffee and tea.

Not that posed pictures are bad, but Harry usually likes to catch people unawares, likes how people act and look when they don’t think they’re being watched. It’s authentic, genuine. Basically the entire reason why he picked up photography in the first place. He wanted to capture all the in between moments, the hidden moments.

That and a narcissistic part of him wants everyone to see the world exactly as he does, on his terms.

“Wotcher, Haz.”

Harry sees Zayn through the viewfinder, all cheekbones and sharp smile, and snaps a couple of pictures before emerging out from behind it.

“Hey, Zayn,” Harry greets, with a slow smile. “Alright? Louis said I could take pictures so I’m going around.”

“Yeah, ‘m alright,” Zayn replies. “That what you do then? Take pictures?”

“S’not all I’m good for,” Harry snorts, bringing the camera back up. He takes a picture of the rainbow pin on the lapel of Zayn’s paint splattered denim jacket, his scuffed Doc Martens, the edge of his jaw and the piercings in his ears. “But s’what I’m best at.”

“Wanna send me those when you’re done? I’ll put them on the website.”

“Sure,” Harry agrees. “I won’t even charge you for ‘em.”

Zayn snorts at Harry, bumping their shoulders together before making a beeline for Louis, who’s back at the table with Liam.

“Doesn’t he have a job to do?” Harry asks Zayn, as they head over.

“I think he’s off,” Zayn says, with a shrug, hands in the pockets of his jacket. There’s an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear, a tiny diamond stud in his cartilage. He looks stunningly cool. Harry snaps another picture.

It’s pure chance that he captures the face Liam makes when he first sees Zayn, viewfinder aimed willy-nilly. The shutter closes right as Liam looks up from his phone and right at Zayn --

These are the moments he means, the in betweens and the secrets. The look on someone’s face when they fall in love immediately -- the look on Liam’s face, his mouth parted in a small ‘o’, eyes sharp and stunned all at once. The light from the low lamp above the table gives Liam all the right highlights, like he’s ascending by seeing Zayn for the first time.

Harry makes a happy noise and looks at the monitor, stroking his thumb over the picture as he sits in the booth.

“I can’t wait to frame this and give this as an anniversary present,” Harry says, mostly to himself, but Louis hears him and sidles over in a not-so-sneaky way, peering over Harry’s shoulder.

“Oh my god,” he says, low and slow.

“I know,” Harry says, with a sigh. The hopelessly romantic heart in his chest is fluttering around.

Liam’s already got Zayn’s full attention, flirty smile on his lips. Zayn’s indulging him, leaning with his forearms on the table, hand propping up his chin, whole countenance engaged and interested. His eyes are actually sparkling at Liam.

Harry takes another picture.

Nick Grimshaw’s fat head pops into view as soon as he gets it, wild grin on his face.

“Put that away,” he says, plopping down into Harry’s lap. Harry’s left arm curls around him instinctively while he shoots a wide angle of the shop out of spite.

“Leave me be,” Harry belatedly retorts. “‘M working.”

“Bullshit you are,” Nick says, leaning back into Harry’s chest, sits bones digging into Harry’s thighs. This whole bone-on-bone thing isn’t very comfortable.

“We’re too skinny for this,” Harry comments, but doesn’t make a move to shove Nick off. “And I am working. This is for the website.”

“You were already shooting,” Liam points out, reaching across the table to fist bump Nick. Their knuckles knock together enthusiastically, hands exploding out with sound effects and everything. Children, honestly.

“You hush,” Harry scowls. “Don’t gang up on me.”

“I’ll take your side,” Niall says, suddenly right next to Harry.

Harry startles, yelping and squeezing Nick’s hip so hard Nick yells and smacks him.

“Wear a bell,” Harry says to Niall, feeling himself go hot. Whether it’s from embarrassment or Niall’s presence, he isn’t sure.

As usual, Niall looks stunning. There’s no apron tonight. Instead, he’s got on a grey jumper with a wide collar that makes him look soft and touchable. Harry’s hand flexes against Nick’s hip and Nick makes an interested sound, all his focus shifting to Niall.

The grin Niall’s wearing doesn’t falter when he realizes there’s an entire person on Harry’s lap, but Harry watches his eyes trace over them both.

“Nick Grimshaw,” Nick says, sticking his hand out when it’s obvious Harry’s forgotten his manners and isn’t going to introduce him. Harry doesn’t really want to introduce them. He made the mistake of telling Nick about the party and the morning with the muffins. Once Nick realizes who Niall is… It’s going to be a disaster. Knowing Nick, Harry isn’t going to get out of this unscathed.

“Niall Horan,” Niall says, shaking Nick’s hand and smiling. Harry files away Niall’s last name for reference.

Niall,” Nick breathes, excitement evident in his voice. Harry groans. He knew it.

Niall looks at them both strangely.

Harry pinches Nick’s hip. Hard.

“Nick,” he warns, lowly, but he knows Niall caught it. Hell, Louis caught it, body angling towards them with interest.

“Heard loads about you,” Nick says, ignoring Harry completely, wicked grin curling on his lips. Next to them, Louis lets out a barking laugh. Niall’s eyebrows have climbed up his forehead.

“Alright,” Harry says, pushing Nick off his lap roughly. “I have pictures to take.”

He edges out of the booth as gracefully as he can and stands, dusting imaginary lint off his jeans. Unfortunately, this puts him close enough to Niall that their shoulders brush. He shimmies away, hoping it’s not obvious.

“What?” Nick asks, batting his eyelashes in a way that’s less than innocent. “He took your muffins, didn’t he? Five dozen bloody muffins -- I was gunna say it was a lovely thing to do.”

“‘Course you were,” Harry says, rolling his eyes. Nick gives him the most shit-eating grin he’s ever mustered. Harry takes a picture of it before turning to Niall, trying hard not to do that thing he does where he makes really intense eye contact and freaks people out a little. “Nick’s a twat, but it was lovely.”

“Like I said, you did us a favor,” Niall says, bumping their shoulders together. He doesn’t move away afterwards. He stays in Harry’s space and takes up all Harry’s oxygen. “They sold out quick as hell.”

“Oh good,” Harry says, grinning. Niall returns it, curve of his smile reaching his eyes. It’s breathtaking. Harry leans back and snaps a picture. A flush appears on Niall’s cheeks, light pink and appealing.

“I should get goin’,” Niall says, stepping back and gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. The blush stays. Harry wants to press his mouth to Niall’s warm skin; he looks down at his camera and tries to forget about the fact that he has. “Got an open mic to run.”

“Yeah, you’re slackin’,” Louis says, draping himself over Niall’s shoulders and winking at Harry. Niall stumbles back into him, laughing brightly, hand coming up to squeeze Louis’ wrist gently. Louis nuzzles Niall’s hair, absently, still looking at Harry. “Go on, rockstar.”

Smirking, Louis pushes Niall towards the stage, shooing him away from the table. Niall gives another one of his bright, explosion laughs and staggers off. It only takes two tables for someone to stop him to say hi.

“So,” Louis says, as soon as Niall’s out of earshot. His eyes are manically bright and too curious for Harry’s liking.

“Nothing,” Harry says, quickly. They might have only just met, but he can guess where Louis’ going with this whole thing.

“‘So’, what?” Zayn asks, tuning back in. Liam’s slid over so that Zayn can squeeze next to him. There’s a spot at the end of the booth that’s probably for Louis, but mostly serving as an excuse for them to sit as close as possible.

“He hasn’t said anything to you, has he?” Louis asks Harry, crossing his arms over his chest.

“No. Why would he?”

Louis stares at him.

“Why would who what?” Liam asks, raising his hand like he’s waiting to be called on.

“Niall. The party,” Nick says, raising an eyebrow.

Oh,” Liam says, drawing out the ‘o’ and nodding emphatically.

“Party?” Zayn asks.

“Luke’s,” Liam and Louis say, at the same time.

“The bathroom,” Nick says, dropping his voice dramatically.

Realization dawns on Zayn’s face so quickly, it looks like it hurts.

“I really must be going,” Harry says, picking up his camera and twirling away, feeling himself flush. He hides his blush behind his camera lense as he moves through tables, aiming and shooting all over the place until his heart rate calms down.

 

 

He manages to avoid any more Niall talk by making a point to get a picture of every single group of people, multiples even. There’s so much mingling that he doesn’t know if he manages, and he knows Louis shows up in at least five of the shots, but it’s a useful distraction from Niall setting up the sound equipment on the tiny stage -- all that bending and lifting, the way his trousers hug his thighs and his shirt pulls across his back.

The speakers screech with feedback as Niall gets the microphone set up, smiling out at all of them, and they’re off -- he introduces every act with enthusiasm, only checking his clipboard if someone hasn’t performed before. Everyone else he seems to know by name, grin stretched across his lips.

Pure magnetism surrounds him while he’s on stage, and Harry can barely keep himself from staring -- the corners of Niall’s mouth; his eyes, so blue even from across the shop; the way he rocks on his heels, bursting with contagious energy.

It’s so much worse once Niall’s the one to perform. He sits on the stool with one foot down to balance himself and cradles his guitar to his chest like it’s an extension of his body instead of a separate object, and sings.

His voice is beautiful. A little on the rough side, infused with so much passion that Harry’s knees go a little weak with it. It’s better than when Niall sang at the party. That was obviously him just messing about, drunkenly jamming out surrounded by friends. This is so much more deliberate, but still so effortless, face smooth and eyes bright as he looks over the crowd.

The back of Harry’s skull tingles when Niall hits the high notes, voice floating smoothly through the air. It’s absolutely ridiculous how a cover of Justin Bieber's “Love Yourself” can make Harry feel so warm and giddy, excited nerves curling up in his stomach, giving him goosebumps.

It’s over before Harry knows it. A blink and Niall’s dipping his head forward to say “thank you” into the microphone, light blush on his cheeks. Harry’s head feels heavy, like he’s coming out of a trance, mouth dry as he swallows and attempts to get his bearings.

Harry realizes that he stood in the same spot for the entire performance, camera a deadweight against his chest, hands curled at his sides. He fumbles with his Canon, trying to grab a picture of Niall before he slips off the stage and the spell is broken.

It’s a close call, but he manages to get a shot of Niall smiling into the microphone while he says his parting words, left hand curled elegantly over the neck of his guitar. The warmth of the coffee shop lighting wraps him in its embrace and -- Harry’s waxing poetic, but hell.

“You’ve got drool, mate,” Zayn says, once Harry shuffles back to the table, still blinking away the dazed feeling Niall left him with. He taps his knuckles lightly under Harry’s chin. It feels affectionate, but Harry swats his hand away.

“I’ve never seen you stay so still in your life,” Nick says, blinking at him, wide-eyed.

“I can’t even take the piss out you, mate,” Louis says. He’s making a sympathetic face. Harry has no idea what that’s supposed to mean. “You looked properly smitten.”

“Shut up,” Harry mumbles, grabbing sugar packets out of their little metal holder and chucking them at everyone, sparing no one. “You’re all dead to me.”

“At least you’ll have Niall,” Liam says. Harry makes sure to throw the packet particularly hard at that, making Liam giggle and yelp, not looking threatened in the least.

“Have me for what?” Niall asks, popping up again. Harry startles so hard his hips hits the table, sending a sharp pain through his bone. He sinks into the seat next to Nick in an attempt to cover up the fact that it hurts.

“Great performances like that,” Nick lies easily, slinging his arm over Harry’s shoulders. Harry bites his lip and gives Niall a thumbs up, still wincing.

“Harry was beside himself, poor lad,” Louis adds, which isn’t helping. Harry flips him off over the table, making Zayn cackle in delight.

“Yeah?” Niall asks, turning his bright gaze to Harry, all piercing and perceptive and other ‘p’ words that fly out of Harry’s head the minute their gazes lock. “Better than drunkenly singin’ Wonderwall?”

Harry gasps.

“So you do remember that night!” he says, attempting to point an accusatory finger at Niall, only to hit his knuckle on the table. He retracts it with a hiss and lets Nick pet over it. Niall’s eyes get comically wide, biting into his lip while everyone else explodes in laughter, one big boom that makes everyone else in the shop go quiet for a heartbeat.

“I never said I didn’t,” Niall pouts, cheeks red, eyes darting all over Harry’s face like he’s afraid Harry’s going to make a scene. Harry isn’t. He wouldn’t. It’s nice to know that Niall does remember though. Enough to bring it up, no matter how accidentally.

“You just never called,” Liam says. He’s got his concerned Dad eyebrows on. Harry hits him in the forehead with a sugar packet.

“Remember when I said we weren’t talking about it?” Harry says, feeling himself go red. Everyone at the table looks at him, then Niall. Sharks waiting for blood to bait the water, honestly.

“You said that?” Niall asks. Now his eyebrows are starting to look concerned.

“Might’ve,” Harry mumbles, ruffling his hair as he looks away. The table is silent. When Harry finally looks up, Niall’s watching a fixed spot over Harry’s shoulder with the determination of someone deliberately avoiding eye contact. Harry sympathizes.

This is definitely the wrong time to have this conversation, so Harry diverts the topic by shoving his camera into the middle of the table and letting everyone look at his shots in the monitor, playing up how much he likes them to draw everyone’s attention away from the aborted conversation. Relief ripples through the table as Harry rambles on.

Zayn has mercy on Harry and takes over to talk about the website -- how having higher quality photos will give it a more professional look -- while Harry slumps back against Nick and deliberately ignores the way Niall slides into the booth next to him, leaving enough space between them so that their shoulders don’t brush.

 

 

The pictures come out spectacularly, full of warmth and light, atmosphere of the night perfectly captured in genuine smiles and the lines at the corner of people’s eyes and the coffee rings left on the tables by countless mugs.

Harry sends the ones that he thinks capture Temporary Fix best to Zayn’s school email happily. He can’t wait to see the website when they’re all up, proud of how good they feel, like he’s sinking into the moment, living in it.

He decides to sort through the pictures and find more to set aside for prints, wondering if they’d want to hang any up. It’d be wicked to find mismatched frames for them and put them up on the walls, scattered or grouped together. He sends Zayn a message with the idea and puts them on a USB, just in case. It’s not his call to make, but it’d be cool. Definitely cool.

The memory card he has in is nearly full, so he goes through more of the pictures. All the ones that are poorly framed or out of focus or badly lit get trashed, which brings his count down quite a bit. Harry likes to pretend he’s the master of the camera, but in reality, it takes a few shots to be truly satisfied with a picture.

He pauses over a few badly lit ones, recognizing Luke’s backyard. He forgot he had his camera with him at the beginning of the night. The tipsier he got, the more concerned he was with it breaking, so he ended up stashing it in a closet until they left, but there are pictures from the beginning of the night that he double clicks to enlarge.

Most of them are grainy, but there are a few that he managed to get the aperture setting right on. Harry finds pictures of the backyard, and his heart jumps a little in anticipation. He forces himself to go slow, like he’s trying to convince himself he doesn’t want to rush through and see if he got pictures of Niall from that night.

It takes a half dozen more pictures, but he definitely, definitely did. There’s a few, actually. Some blurry, some grainy, but one -- the lighting is perfect, flash filtered down so that Niall can be seen, but he’s not completely washed out.

He’s sat at the end of one of the couches on the patio, guitar in his lap. Harry got a perfect shot of him mid-strum so his right hand isn’t blurred, fingers of his left hand taunt as they pin down a chord that Harry can’t identify. There’s a dopey smile on Niall’s face as he looks down at his hands, cheeks flushed, lips red. His hair’s all swept forward, curling over the nape of his neck, and --

A warm feeling creeps into Harry’s chest slowly, making his face go hot. He remembers the feeling he had when he took the picture. It was a lightheaded euphoria, a dizzying giddiness that there wasn’t any reason for. Niall hadn’t even looked at him yet, but Harry wanted him to -- he really, really wanted him to --

And then Harry thinks, oh shit.

 

 

“Back again,” Niall says, as Harry comes through the door. There’s a grin on his face as usual, and Harry thinks of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square and sunlight creeping over the horizon and fireworks on holidays. A little sigh escapes him, he hopes Niall doesn’t hear.

“Can’t stay away,” Harry replies, letting it be easy between them, like his epiphany the other night hasn’t been plaguing him constantly. He has to act normal, for his own sanity.

It’s been over a week since open mic night, and he’s been coming in everyday since. He can’t avoid the place if he tried. If he’s not swinging by with Liam to see Zayn, Louis needs him for something, or all of his friends are suddenly hanging out at the shop like it’s the hottest place to be on a Wednesday afternoon when they all need to be studying.

He’s bought more coffee and tea than he ever has in his life. Which isn’t too terrible considering everyone gives him the employee discount on Niall’s orders. It might not be possible to overstay a welcome in a public place, but his constant presence feels excessive until times like this -- Niall smiling at him widely, like some personification of the sun.

Harry beams back at him and ambles up to the counter to lean his hip against it. Not as graceful as it could be -- his boots slip a bit and his jeans slide against the edge -- but he rights himself and crosses his arms, hoping it looked deliberate.

“Got nowhere useful to be?” Niall asks. He’s wearing glasses today, black plastic frames that somehow make his eyes look more blue.

“Are your glasses fake?” Harry asks, deflecting. He leans forward to poke at one of the lenses. When his nail makes contact, it makes a distinctly plastic-y sound. Niall swats his hand away, adjusting them.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“You didn’t answer mine,” Harry snorts. “Besides, even if I did, isn’t it better that I’m here? Helping with service and all that, demanding strong teas and whatnot.”

“Maybe,” Niall says, with a thoughtful expression, humming a little. He taps his finger against the dimple on his chin. Harry wants to press his thumb to there, then to the dimple on his left cheek, just to feel.

Maybe?” Harry asks, mockingly affronted. “Maybe I’ll take my business to Starbucks. They’ll value my money, I’m sure. Besides, their frozen dough tastes better than yours.”

Harry turns as if he’s going to leave, and Niall’s hand snakes out quickly, wrapping around his wrist, tugging him back to the counter again. The edge of it bangs against Harry’s hip, but he’s too caught up in the fact that Niall’s fingers are pressed against his pulse for it to hurt properly.

All the air in Harry’s lungs is doing that thing where it pushes up to the top of his throat, making it hard to breathe again.

“I was kiddin’,” Niall says, quickly. “I appreciate you. Don’t give your money to those corporate assholes.”

“Fine, you win,” Harry relents, not putting up much of a fight. He lets himself enjoy the way Niall smiles at him winningly. Harry would never go back to Starbucks now that he has Temporary Fix, but he doesn't mention that to Niall.

“Coffee or tea?” Niall asks then, leaning back, away from Harry. It’s easier to breathe when he does that, when his attention is on something else, something not Harry.

“Coffee,” Harry shrugs, ignoring the jittery feeling underneath his skin. Caffeine won’t help his nerves, but he knows once he leaves the shop and is a good distance away from Niall, he’ll calm down. That’s how it is.

It’s getting ridiculous, he knows, and the whole crush thing is kind of knocking Harry on his ass. He’s one of those people who passes through infatuation all the time. In and out of love in a heartbeat, and it’s not bad -- he’s never seen it that way -- he enjoys new things, new people; doesn’t want to sit still, doesn’t want to settle into a routine quite yet.

But, maybe he’s getting there with the coffee shop. Coming in regularly, chatting shit with Zayn and Louis, having a regular tea and coffee order. Maybe he’s getting there with Niall. Friend groups all tangled together as everyone gets to know each other.

Last night was their second open mic night, same as the first. Harry, Louis, Liam, and Zayn all piled into a booth and heckled Niall while he hosted. This time they were joined by others here and there, but the four of them were central, watching Niall and cheering him on.

Harry might have missed it at the time, but there was another one of those moments where everything shifted into place. One of those defining moments that Harry probably won’t understand until later.

It was between sets, during a break, so Niall was there pressed up against Harry’s side and -- Harry had hooked his ankles around Zayn’s under the table, watched as Zayn’s fingers tangled with Liam’s. Liam talked to Louis with a hand on his shoulder and a terribly serious expression. Without thinking, Harry wrapped his hand around the back of Louis’ neck and pressed his thumb to the pulse point behind Louis’ ear. And, they were all touching, all five of them.

It felt deeply profound for a couple of seconds, all of them so close when they were strangers a couple of weeks ago. Linked physically and metaphorically by a weird accumulation of events that led them to this exact moment.

When he let go of Louis’ neck and pulled his feet back in, Niall was watching him with a thoughtful expression. It made Harry feel strangely exposed, as if Niall caught him in the midst of an embarrassing moment, so he squirmed and shoved him camera in Niall’s face to make Niall laugh.

The thoughtful expression dissolved into a grin, big laugh booming from Niall’s chest, and all was right with the world once again.

Thinking about it now, Harry knows he’ll come back to open mic night every week for as long as he’s around, to be the with boys. It’s strange, how everything slots into place effortlessly.

Like how Harry hasn’t ordered, but Niall’s pushing a large cup of his regular in front of him anyway, teeth biting into his bottom lip. How Niall seems to know Harry without knowing him. Easy, without complication.

“On the house,” Niall says, when Harry reaches for his wallet. “I haven’t seen you around, so I didn’t get a chance to give it to you earlier, but. Yeah. Least I can do.”

“For what?” Harry asks, pulling the cup towards him, running his finger along its warm side. He knows his cheeks are flushed, but he can’t will it away, not with Niall watching him.

“The muffins, the pictures. Take your pick.”

Harry laughs at that, a surprised hiccup that bursts out of him quickly.

“Both,” he decides, meeting Niall’s eyes. He manages to keep all the air in his lungs this time, but it’s a close call. The blush is still sitting heavily on his cheeks, he can feel it, but he keeps looking anyway, since Niall is letting him.

With satisfaction, Harry notes that Niall’s own cheeks are getting ruddy and red. If he pressed the back of his hand to Niall’s skin, it would probably feel warm.

“I, uh, gotta run to class,” Harry admits, glancing at the clock on the wall. The moment breaks. Niall blinks rapidly. “I’ll see you around?”

“Okay,” Niall says, tilting his head. He frowns a bit, bites at his lip. That’s enough to make Harry pause and wait for him to say something. It’s funny how he knows that cue, even though he barely knows Niall.

“I don’t usually call,” Niall says, something like determination on his face. Harry’s hands go clammy.

“Oh, it’s not --” a big deal, Harry wants to say, but Niall’s interrupting him.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to call,” he says, in a rush. “I just usually don’t so I didn’t think about it when I washed off your number.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Harry mumbles, wishing he had something to properly hide behind, thumb flicking nervously against the edge of the cup’s plastic white top.

“When I realized I did want to call, I couldn’t remember your number,” Niall says, fingers circling Harry’s wrist like before, a gentle pressure against the thin skin above his veins.

“Okay,” Harry says, unsure what he’s supposed to do with this information. The whole Niall-touching-him thing is making Harry’s brain go staticy with white noise. It’s hard to process.

“I wanted you to know,” Niall says, releasing Harry and looking unsure for the first time since, well, since Harry met him.

“That’s good,” Harry says. It comes out too flat for his liking. He clears his throat. “It is. Good, I mean. Good to know.”

“I guess it’s a good thing you stress baked those muffins,” Niall says, face sliding into a smile like it was never gone, sunshine in the corners of his mouth. Harry wants to kiss the look off his face, and lets himself feel the desire without pushing it away.

“Guess so.”

Harry wonders if he should ask Niall out now, offer him his number, but he doesn’t. He really does need to get to class, so he nods and finally moves away from the counter, letting his feet take him towards the door.

“Oh and Haz,” Niall calls out across the coffee shop, making Harry’s heart skip rope in his chest. Harry turns, arching his eyebrows. “You wouldn’t have to worry about our frozen dough if we had some fresh baked goods.”

“I’ll think about it,” he promises, laughing, as if there’s any question he’ll do it. Of course he will.

“Good,” Niall says. Harry keeps the image of his big, big grin tucked in the corner of his mind all day long, wishing he had gotten a picture of it.

It doesn’t occur to him until halfway through his lecture that he’s never actually ordered his regular from Niall before.

 

 

The next paper is a way bigger deal than his last, worth nearly a quarter of Harry’s grade. He hates it. Absolutely loathes it. Everytime he sits in front of his laptop to do work, his brain starts buzzing with static. He can’t concentrate. At all.

He needs to bake, he knows he does, but he’s out of ingredients. If he stops working on the paper to go grocery shopping, that’s even more time lost, but. Staring at his laptop screen not writing or researching isn’t any better.

It’s nippy out, so he tugs on a coat before slipping on his boots and grabbing his keys from the table by the door. Times like these, he really does wish he had a wagon. Carrying flour a couple of blocks might not sound like a task, but his arms are noodly.

When he gets to the store, he heads straight to the baking aisle, plucking at his bottom lip with his forefinger and thumb, trying to think of a way to make this easier on himself. He has sugar, at least, but he needs flour and vanilla extract and -- he’s not even sure what he’s making. Maybe scones? Would Niall like scones?

Harry’s stomach does that silly swooping thing it always does when he thinks of Niall, and he spares a thought for how ridiculous his little crush is before letting it go. It’s been a couple of weeks, he’s come to terms with it.

Having a crush of this caliber is honestly tiresome. It’s like Niall’s taken up residence in his skull. Every thought somehow revolves around Niall.

Harry listens to a song and thinks about whether or not Niall’s heard it. He grabs something to eat and thinks about how Niall would probably like it, considering Niall eats everything. Even his lectures turn into a hunt for information he can tell Niall later. Just like right now, completely spaced out in the store, thinking about what he should make, what Niall might like the most.

Exhausting.

“Haz?”

“Speak of the devil,” Harry mutters to himself, turning to face Niall with a grin. Niall’s wearing a snapback and a bright blue shirt that makes his eyes look like the fragile shell of a robin’s egg. Harry’s heart flops around like a dead fish in his chest. “Hello, Nialler.”

“What’er you doin’?” Niall asks, eyebrows raised curiously. He comes to a stop next to Harry, closer than most people would. From so close, he seems a lot shorter than he usually does from a distance. Harry forgets that he could use Niall as an armrest, if he wanted.

Not that he wants to. His mum taught him manners.

“Baking,” Harry mumbles, pulling at his lip. That silly blush is creeping up his cheeks as Niall stares at him with wide, earnest eyes.

“Got a paper?” he asks, with a happy laugh.

“Exactly! Dunno what to make though,” Harry admits. “Like, I made muffins last time, y’know? Need to change it up.”

“What about scones?” Niall asks. Harry isn’t even surprised by the suggestion, considering how Niall lives in his brain.

It’s self-actualization. The secret to the universe. Projecting thoughts and desires into the universe so that the universe can provide for them and fulfill them. Sometimes Harry wonders if he’s actualizing Niall. Every thought about Niall in Harry’s lizard brain is projected into the universe, then project onto Niall, and then he pops up in Tesco and talks about scones.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Harry says, with a nod. “Didn’t want to carry all that flour back, but ‘s inevitable, really.”

“I’ll give you ride,” Niall says, with a smile easy as pie.

“Where’d the saying ‘easy as pie’ come from?” Harry wonders out loud, for something to say. Niall, who wasn’t in Harry’s brain when he thought of it, blinks confusedly. “Like, making pie isn’t easy. Crusts are tricky as hell.”

“Oi, I know this one,” Niall says, stepping forward to grab up a bag of flour since Harry still has yet to move. He inspects the label, then tips it towards Harry for approval. Harry nods at him. “Means eating pie, not making pie. ‘Easy as eating pie’.”

“Well, shit,” Harry says, blinking. “My whole perspective on life has shifted.”

Niall laughs his big belly laugh and looks at Harry fondly. That type of look makes Harry’s stomach go all twisty. It’d be really easy to lean down and kiss Niall on the mouth right now. Harry can’t stop thinking about it. A light kiss, nothing hard or demanding. A chaste kiss, if you will.

He doesn’t. Despite desperately wanting to, he doesn’t know if Niall would want him to. Sure, Niall said he had wanted to call after the party, but calling a bloke whose dick you touched and getting kissed with shopping for baking ingredients all domestic like are two entirely different things.

Niall, completely oblivious to Harry’s internal crisis, is grabbing another bag of flour.

“What else?” he asks, and Harry leads him to the vanilla extract.

They load up the groceries into the bed of Niall’s car, and Harry doesn’t have to give Niall directions to his flat at all, Niall remembers. Soft indie music plays on low in the cab, and Harry can’t stop sneaking looks of Niall, one arm propped up on the wheel, the other one loose and comfortable on the gear shift.

It occurs to Harry that this is the first time he’s seen Niall in a not-coffee shop capacity since the party. Sure, he sees Niall in civilian clothes on open mic nights, but this is different. This is Niall in the wild, Niall in his natural environment. For some reason, it feels significant -- Significant. Capitalized for significance.

“What’er you lookin’ at?” Niall asks, smile curving around his lips. It’s not fair how much Harry wants to kiss him when he looks at Harry like that.

“Your face,” Harry says, poking at his cheek, the little dimple by his mouth. “Did you know you only have the one dimple?”

“I do?!” Niall asks, incredulously, hand flying to his face. Their fingers tangle together. Niall doesn’t let go. He flings their hands around dramatically. “You mean I lost the one?!”

“Maybe a gnome stole it,” Harry says, stifling his laughter into his shoulder, heart pounding harder and harder the longer Niall holds onto his hand. He can’t make himself to be the first to pull away.

“Dimple stealing gnomes, I’ll be damned,” Niall says, with a snorting laugh that makes Harry burst out giggling. Their fingers shift more comfortably, sliding together so they’re less knotted and more hold-y.

Niall’s eyes widen. He glances at Harry’s face before he slips his fingers out from between Harry’s, easy as anything and fiddles with the radio, cheeks flaming red.

“A gnome for everything,” Harry says, nonsensically, so things don’t get awkward. Niall doesn’t want to hold his hand and that’s fine. Totally fine. Normal, even. “Treasure collecting gnomes. Are dimples treasures?”

“You would know,” Niall says, glancing over at Harry long enough to poke his dimple quickly before he puts both hands on the wheel. Harry’s face flushes so hard he might pass out. All the air is pushing up again, until Harry’s dizzy.

“I have dimples for days,” Harry agrees, flexing his fingers discreetly to get rid of the buzzing under his skin. One moment of prolonged contact and he’s practically incapacitated. This is awful. “I’m practically gnome bait.”

“And they still stole my dimple instead of yours,” Niall says with a grin, as he pulls up to Harry’s flat. He throws the car into park and tugs the keys out of the ignition. They smile at each other for a second before Niall’s clearing throat, face slipping into a more neutral expression as he pushes his door open.

Harry feels like he missed something, but he follows, sliding out of the seat to join Niall and grab the bags. Stairs are always a pain in the ass when his arms are loaded up, but they make it inside, dumping the bags on the table. His laptop is still open on his desk, taunting him.

“I really don’t want to write this paper,” Harry groans, ruffling his hair before pushing it off his face. He slides his coat off and chucks it in the direction of the couch.

“Homework is important,” Niall says, hands in his front pockets. His posture is relaxed, surveying Harry’s flat. It’s probably cliche to say, but Harry likes the way he looks in it. Like there’s so much potential. “I’d offer to distract you, but you have to write that and make scones for me to sell tomorrow.”

“How do you know I was going to give ‘em to you?” Harry snorts. He definitely was, but Niall’s still assuming here.

“Had a feeling. Are you?”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Harry says, waving his hand dismissively. “I’ll need your help again.”

“Perfect,” Niall says, stepping closer. “You can call me in the morning, I’ll pick them up.”

“Oh -- I, uh, don’t have your number?” Harry says. The irony of the situation is not lost on him. Niall blinks at him slowly, before the realization dawns. Harry can practically see the light bulb turning on.

“Oh right,” Niall says, with an explosive laugh. The apples of his cheeks are getting more and more pink by the second. “I can give it to you.”

“Good idea,” Harry says, with a giggle of his own, tugging his phone out of his jeans to hand it over. When he gets it back, Niall’s put in his number and name with a four leaf clover emoji. “Predictable.”

“That’s me,” Niall agrees, with a wide grin. The blush on his cheeks is a pretty pink and Harry wants to kiss him again, lost for words while they stare at each other.

Kissing him might be inappropriate, so Harry walks Niall to the door instead, teeth biting into his bottom lip, wishing he could figure out how to engage Niall without feeling silly.

“Thank you for driving me and my flour home,” Harry says, shyly. He rocks back on his heels when Niall turns towards him, giving himself breathing room.

“Anything for your baked goods,” Niall says, with a sideways smile.

“I’ll text you,” Harry says, quietly, and Niall nods, saluting him on the way out. As good of a goodbye as any. Harry takes care not to slam the door, sliding it shut before leaning against it heavily, exhaling.

Baking and paper writing goes as well as it can when he’s procrastinated everything except for his outline. Prepping gets him a good headspace to write, so he crams his headphones over his curls and doesn’t even bother looking at his work until he’s done with that.

As the oven preheats, he pulls up the necessary research links, getting flour on his keyboard and mouse. A messy work station is a sacrifice he’s willing to make at this point. He's stood at the breakfast bar writing, hips rocking from side to side as he listens to music.

“Love Yourself” comes on as the preheat timer goes off, and Harry takes a well deserved break to dance around the kitchen, heart giddy with the memory of Niall singing his lungs out on the makeshift stage at Temporary Fix. Harry makes a mental note to go through the photos of the first open mic night again, wants to see if it’s as magical as he remembers it being.

Scones don’t take much time to bake, so Harry ends up taking more time in between batches to work on his paper. If he shoved batch after batch in, he’d have a ridiculous amount before he was done with his paper. Dozens and dozens, probably. And while that would draw a good profit, Harry doesn’t have that kind of time.

As it is, he ends up with seven dozen scones cooling over basically every available surface and a finished paper around 3am. He passes out on the couch, unwilling to shuffle into bed.

 

 

A light series of pokes to his face wake him up. He comes out of it slowly, mind trying to put the pieces together. Why’s he on his couch in the clothes he wore yesterday? Why’re there dish towels covering his baking racks? Why’s Niall perched on his coffee table, poking at him?

“Wha’?” Harry asks, blurrily.

“Liam let me in,” Niall says, far too loud for the time of morning it is.

“I have a baking hangover,” Harry groans. Every muscle in his body is protesting. His arm hurts from stirring the batter -- since he won’t inherit his mum’s Kitchen Aid until she dies, and he’s too poor to afford his own -- upper arm and forearm. His legs hurt from writing at the breakfast bar wearing his damn boots because he didn’t even think to take them off. His back hurts from bending in front of the oven and making the terrible mistake of sleeping on the couch.

He feels like a hot mess, probably looks one too.

“Is that a thing?” Niall asks. Another poke.

“It is,” Harry says, batting at Niall blindly, head tucked into the crook of his own arm in an attempt to block out the light. “Wha’ time’s it?”

“Half six,” Niall says, nonchalantly. That’s the worst thing Harry’s ever heard. Niall just laughs at him when Harry tells him that.

“Not a morning person?” Niall asks. It sounds sympathetic, at least. For some reason his fingers are sliding through Harry’s hair, nails scratching along his scalp. Harry keeps his eyes closed, feigning a sleepiness he no longer feels so Niall won’t stop.

“Not particularly,” Harry admits. Once he’s up, he’s up, but forcing himself into alertness is always a chore.

“I can come back later,” Niall says, pulling his hand back. Harry blinks his eyes open.

“No, you’re here now.”

“Alright,” Niall says, skeptically, while Harry gets up and stretches a little bit. Not enough to tug his back, but enough to get the circulation flowing. He staggers to his feet like an old man, feeling every unhappy muscle, mentally cursing himself and the couch for the damage.

Once he takes a piss, brushes his teeth, sprays his hair with dry shampoo, and gets dressed, it’s close to seven. Regardless, Niall is as patient as ever, watching Harry move about the kitchen with a small smile on his face.

“You just gunna watch?” Harry scowls, gesturing to the scones. Niall leaps to his feet like all he was waiting for was Harry’s permission. Knowing Niall, that’s exactly what he was waiting for.

“Reporting for duty,” Niall says, bumping their hips together.

They make quick work of the getting all the scones into containers. Harry’s more prepared now. After the muffin incident, he dug up all his tupperware and matched up the lids in case he needed it later. The planning was worth it. All seven dozen scones stack nicely in their containers, easy to transport.

The coffee shop is dark when they pull up, a small group of disgruntled looking people hanging around outside the doors.

“Were you supposed to open?” Harry asks, eyes widening.

“Yeah,” Niall says, with a shrug. “Da’s not up to it, ‘n’ Louis couldn’t make it.”

“I’m so sorry, I wouldn’t have taken so long if I knew!” Harry feels awful, hands tightening on the containers in his lap. Niall shakes his head and puts his hand on Harry’s shoulder reassuringly.

“‘S alright,” he says, in a soothing tone that absolutely shouldn’t work, but somehow really does. “They can wait. I left a sign and everything.”

Harry makes a skeptical face, but decides not to argue with him. It’s probably no use anyway. If Niall isn’t fazed, Harry shouldn’t be fazed. It’s not his shop, or his responsibility, but he still feels guilty.

Harry sticks around even though he doesn’t know how to do any of the opening duties. Niall tells him to get the scones in the display and make sure the little machines are plugged in before asking Harry to lift the window shades for the day. He manages pretty well with Niall’s instructions, actually.

It’s nearly time for his morning class once Niall’s got the crowd sorted out and there’s no more line. Despite the dreary faces Harry saw outside of the doors when they first arrived, everyone had a pleasant demeanor. Harry supposes that’s all Niall, with his sunshiney attitude and contagious smile.

“Shit, I gotta go soon,” Harry says, once he realizes what time it is. There’s still time to grab his things and walk slowly to campus, but he enjoys having time to spare. Rushing makes him all flustered and throws him off. “Tell me how the scones sell, yeah?”

“Wait! Can I make you tea? For the road?” Niall asks, already dragging out the bins of Harry’s usual morning combination, so Harry lets him. He has time.

Niall’s fingers brush Harry’s when he passes the cup, and Harry’s cheeks warm up, like his body’s waking up at the touch. Their first two fingers are sort of hooked together, and Niall lingers there, watching Harry with that unidentifiable look in his eye before he shakes his head and turns to put the bins away.

“You should bake here,” he says, after the counter is clean and they’ve let the silence sit for far too long. Harry frowns at him.

“What?”

That pretty pink flush is back on Niall’s cheeks, different than when he gets red from being too warm or laughing too hard. Harry waits. Niall fidgets, looking at his shoes before looking back at Harry.

“I was thinking you could bake here?” he finally says. “If you wanted?”

“You -- what?”

“We have an oven,” Niall says, rocking on his heels. He’s close, close enough for Harry to count his freckles and his eyelashes. Niall’s reaching out again, brushing his knuckles against Harry’s like a reassurance. For who, Harry doesn’t know. All he’s trying to do is keep his brain from getting sidetracked by the touch.

“Oh, you do?” Harry asks.

“Yeah, here.” Niall tugs on Harry’s arm and gestures to the double doors with his head. The bright, expectant grin on his face is so lovely. Harry spares a thought the unattended counter, the patrons still lingering in the shop, but he doesn’t care enough to mention it.

“Okay,” Harry agrees, nonsensically, letting Niall lead the way. For no reason at all, he’s blushing so hard he can barely feel his face.

“Here,” Niall says, again, once the doors swing shut behind them and they’re in the backroom. It’s way bigger than he expected. Boxes line the wall, bits of inventory and storage. There’s a couch against the far wall, one way more broken down looking than the one out in the shop, with a pile of backpacks next to it and, weirdly, an acoustic guitar.

Niall shrugs. “We don’t have a break room.”

“Right,” Harry says, and then gasps out loud. There it is. A beautiful, chrome, single-door industrial oven on four legs. The perfect height to slip trays into without bending over. He walks towards it slowly, drawn by its shimmer. It’s all polished up and barely used. “Why do you have one of these in a coffee shop?”

“Oh, I, uh --” Niall shrugs, eyes on Harry’s fingers where he’s touching the dials reverently. Harry hopes he’s not being creepy, but he doesn’t really care. “Mum used to bake a lot. We’d sell fresh pastries every day, but, uh, she’s not around anymore. I’m useless with it, s’too fancy for me.”

“Oh,” Harry says. He wants to say he’s sorry, but Niall will probably tell him it’s not his fault and it will be awkward, so he doesn’t.

“So, yeah,” Niall says, looking at Harry again. They’re standing so close. Which seems to be a thing they do without realizing. Or, at least, Harry doesn’t usually realize until he thinks about the fact that Niall’s close enough to kiss, and well... “You could bake here.”

“Exploiting my coping mechanisms?” Harry asks, squinting. They’re moving away from each other again. Harry doesn’t know how to feel about this tense dance they do, like neither of them really know what do with the other.

“Maybe I like havin’ you around,” Niall says, shyly. His cheeks are even more pink than they were, nearly red as his cherry red mouth. Harry’s pulse is roaring in his head, and this would be the perfect time to just kiss already --

The bell on the counter rings shrilly, cutting through the tension.

Niall blinks and steps back, steps away from Harry, and the moment is well and truly dead. Buried six feet underground, even. Disappointment makes Harry’s gut sink. It takes everything in him not to pout, to smile when Niall shrugs a shoulder at him and walks back through the double doors.

Harry takes a moment to collect himself, leaning his knuckles on the long wooden table that would serve as a prep table if he did decide to cook here. He breathes, trying to rid himself of whatever the hell that was, before taking another look around the backroom.

It’s a decent space, is the thing. The oven has three wide racks for multiple baking sheets. There’s a full size fridge and freezer combo, tall racks for cooling and storage -- it’s better than his apartment, that’s for sure. There’s enough room to move, he’d be able to make more than one batch at a time.

It’s so damn tempting, he thinks, as he makes his way back up front. Niall’s preparing an espresso for a lone customer, so Harry slumps into the high stool behind the cash register to wait.

Apparently, he’s going to skip class today. It’s already too late to run back to his place and grab his bag before heading to the lecture hall. Technically, he could sit in on the class and get notes later, but he’d rather play hooky and watch Niall’s hands while he works.

“So, that oven,” Harry says slowly, once the customer has left with a relieved smile.

“Could be yours to use,” Niall says, grinning down at Harry as he stands next to the stool. From this angle, Harry can see the sharp cut of Niall’s jaw, the tiny patch of dark beard he missed while shaving.

“What do I get out of it?” Harry asks, thoughtfully. There’s no way he’s going to deny this glorious chance to use a decent kitchen, but he’s also not going to deny the opportunity to argue with Niall, even if he’s doing nothing more than teasing.

Niall laughs lightly. “The use of an industrial oven, the employee wifi password, as many free beverages as you can possibly drink, and my amazing company.”

“Well, that’s good enough for me,” Harry says, biting down on his grin. Definitely good enough for Harry.

 

 

“What are you doing?” Louis asks, bursting into the back room with a bang like a shotgun.

Harry startles so hard his elbow smacks the bag of flour to his right. He grabs it around the middle and pushes it to the center of the prep table, eyeing the bit that fell on his forearm and onto the floor.

“I’m baking! What are you doing?” Harry asks, wrinkling his nose. He was enjoying the quiet. Not that he doesn’t enjoy Louis’ company, but. The quiet.

“Why are you always baking?” Louis asks, sounding exasperated. Harry isn’t 100 percent on what he did wrong. “You know you don’t actually work here, right? We don’t need your pastries every single day.”

“Might as well,” Harry mumbles, tipping his chin up defiantly. It’s the only way to get Louis to back down most of the time. Don’t budge, don’t show weakness. He’s like a small child that way, he can smell fear and he’ll exploit it. “I like baking.”

Yeah, he doesn’t have any papers due any time soon, but baking is still his hobby -- always has been. He’s a stress baker, but he’s also a for-fun baker; having access to a large oven reminded him of that. Plus, if he’s going to hang out at the coffee shop, he might as well put some things in the oven while he’s at it -- and prep the dough for tomorrow and make sure everything he needs is on the inventory order.

It keeps him busy. He likes being busy.

“I know you like baking,” Louis says, rolling his eyes, sauntering forward until he’s at the prep table. He leans his hip against it and crosses his arms. “You like hanging around here too, right? The shop, I mean.”

“Obviously,” Harry says, with a shrug. It’s nice to have some place to do work that’s not his flat. Liam’s usually here, anyway, and the wifi is way better. Plus, he gets to use the oven and, well...

“You like hanging around because of Niall, right?”

“I like hanging around because of everyone,” Harry replies, flushing and busying himself with measurements. He wasn’t going to make another batch, but he’s not going to get grilled by Louis and not have anything to do with his hands.

“But mostly Niall, right?” Louis looks like he’s getting frustrated, mouth pressed in a thin line.

“I -- I mean, I wouldn’t be here as much if Niall didn’t offer to let me use the oven,” Harry says, quickly, trying not to fidget. No fear, none at all. “I’d hang out at the shop with you guys, though.”

“Of course,” Louis says, with a great big eye roll that he somehow manages to use convey with his entire body. “All the lads, right.”

“What is your point, Lou?” Harry asks, turning to Louis so he can fully convey his exasperation by putting both hands on his hips, flour be damn. Louis frowns at him.

“My point is you need to get your shit together.”

“My -- what?” Harry asks, confused.

“Your shit, your Niall thing,” Louis explains. “I’m tired of you guys circling each other. You need to do something about it, it’s killing me.”

“‘My Niall thing’,” Harry echoes, trying to sort out what Louis means. Okay, he’s obvious with his crush, he knows that -- Liam and Zayn have both mentioned that -- but he didn’t think it was something that needed to be resolved immediately. “I’m taking it slow.”

“You’re… taking it slow,” Louis asks, flatly.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Harry says, staring Louis down. Show no fear. Don’t give him an inch.

“Except that Niall doesn’t know you’re taking it slow,” Louis says. “I’m all for the rom-com hilarity, but the whole ‘oblivious idiots’ thing you two have going on isn’t going to get either of you anywhere.”

“So you’re interfering?” Harry asks, squinting at Louis. “What do you mean he doesn’t know?”

Harry figured it was obvious with all the moments between them. It’d be hard for him to make up the stifling UST that happens when when they’re around each other. Not to mention Harry’s been subtly throwing himself at Niall lately. No one else follows Niall around like a lost puppy when he’s in the shop.

“He doesn’t think you’re interested past the --” Louis makes a jerk off gesture in his crotch region -- “since you told your one friend not to talk about the party, and didn’t say anything when Niall said he had wanted to call you, and haven’t made any advances besides baking all damn day.”

“I -- oh.” Harry deflates. Niall not knowing he’s interested is a major flaw in the whole ‘slow build’ plan. Not that there was much to the plan besides ‘get Niall to the point where Harry can make him breakfast and kiss his face all the time’, but they can’t get to that point if Niall doesn’t even know they’re aiming for that point. “Well, shit.”

“Yes, so, if you’re going to continue on this path of wooing Niall, young Harold, I suggest you make it clear that’s what’s happening.”

“Right,” Harry says, frowning and plucking at his lip in concentration. His fingers taste like flour. He makes a face. “Gross.”

“You’re a dreamboat,” Louis says, looking amused while Harry wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, probably smearing more flour on his face in the process. Whatever, he already smells like a grain mill.

“Well, thanks for telling me,” Harry says, attempting to shoo Louis away without… shooing him away. Harry’s acutely aware of the unmixed ingredients behind him and how weird that conversation was.

“I like being right,” Louis says, with a sharp grin, finally pushing off the prep table. “And you guys are my friends, I can’t let you be dumbasses.”

“Aw Lewis, you do care!” Harry says, launching himself at Louis. Harry means to hug him, but Louis a defensive fucker, so he ends up getting elbowed in the stomach. He’s trying to wrestle Louis into a headlock when the doors swing open.

They untangle themselves enough to see Zayn’s head poking in.

“Shit’s a mess in here,” he says, in a bored tone.

“Yeah,” Harry admits, bending and looking between his legs, arm still around Louis’ shoulders so Louis has no choice but to bend in half. Everything might be upside down, but there’s no mistaking the giant pile of flour on the floor.

“I’m not cleaning that up,” Louis says, wiggling out of Harry’s grip. “I’m going to make tea for everyone.”

“‘Everyone’?” Harry asks. Last time he checked, it was after close. He figured Louis was still here cleaning up.

“Oh yeah,” Louis says, rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. “The reason I came back here in the first place was to tell you we’re having a painting party, and you’re invited.”

“Oh, it wasn’t to tell me off?” Harry asks, shoving his hair off his forehead. The bun’s come undone; he searches around for the hair tie, untangling it from the middle of his hair. There’s flour on his hands, sweat at his hairline. He’s a hot mess.

“Not at all,” Louis replies, with a sharp grin. “Zayn said you paint, so we’re recruiting you.”

“‘Recruiting’ me?”

“I’ve been meaning to touch up the mural,” Zayn says. “Liam and Niall volunteered to help, and Louis always helps. Thought you might want to help?”

“Oh yeah, that sounds brilliant,” Harry says. Any excuse to hang out with the four of them, really. Besides.... Harry looks at the mess on the flour, scowling. “Need more flour, anyway.”

He has no idea why that makes Louis double over, clenching at his sides while he laughs violently, but it does. Harry has to wait out the fit before he manages to bully Louis into cleaning up while Zayn wanders away to set up paints, presumably.

Harry relents and sweeps while Louis gets all the odds and ends, and shoves the dishes towards the dishwasher to be loaded up in the morning.

“Teamwork,” Harry says, pumping his fist. Louis scowls at him, but it’s half-hearted, practically a smile. Harry grins at him and slings his arm over Louis’ shoulders, pulling him out of the backroom so they can finally join the others.

The machines are still up and running, so Louis wiggles away again to skip over, grabbing cups for himself and Harry -- at least, Harry hopes it’s for him, it’s been far too long since he’s had caffeine.

Liam’s EDM is playing through the speaker system, and all the shades are drawn, giving them a semblance of privacy, even though Harry knows it’s easy to see in when it’s dark outside and the shop lights are on. It’s enough to block out distractions, at least.

All the furniture is moved away from the wall, shoved towards the middle of the floor, and there’s a large paint-splattered tarp spread out with paint strewn about. There’s... so much paint. House paint, acrylic paint, spray paint. Harry recognizes a brand of oils shoved in the corner next to giant plastic trays that are, presumably, for mixing paint.

“Quite a spread,” Harry says, surveying the whole thing with amusement. Zayn grins, shaking his spray can so the marble rattles around wildly inside.

“I’m the only one who can spray paint, so we improvise,” Zayn says, stifling a giggle when he sees the state Harry’s in.

Harry took a glance at himself on the way up front. It’s worse than he thought. There’s flour streaked on his skin and in his hair. He would wash up, but he’s a messy painter anyway, it’d be pointless.

“I thought you were supposed to bake, not roll around in the dough,” Liam says, poking at Harry’s cheek. Harry swats at him and scowls.

“It’s a process,” he says, with a sniff. Niall’s grinning at him from behind Liam’s back, and affection surges in Harry’s chest, reminding him of everything Louis said. He lets himself feel it in ways that he usually doesn’t; lets it spread to his fingertips, make his cheeks flush. He gives himself over to the giddiness that he usually gets when he sees Niall, grinning back.

“You seem happy,” Niall says, once Liam’s scooted away towards Zayn. Harry sways into the pull of Niall’s gravity, still dimpling.

“I am,” he admits. Niall’s smiling too, soft and curious, and Harry wants to explain that he’s an idiot, that he should have been properly forward from the beginning, but Louis is shimming between them, thrusting a cardboard cup into Harry’s hands, and Harry figures it can wait.

“Alright, gentlemen!” Louis says, hip checking him over so there’s more room for Louis between him and Niall. “Zayn, do you have a vision for this lovely piece of wall? We are yours to command.”

Liam stifles a giggle into his shoulder while Zayn rolls his eyes.

“I dunno,” he mumbles, gesturing to the wall with his spray can, marbling sliding around loudly. “Like I was thinking about just touching it up, uh, I think we should expand it. ‘Cept like, no offense, but you lads aren’t that artistic.”

“So we’ll do touch ups while you expand it,” Louis says, with a firm little nod. Zayn shrugs, shoulders jumping up skeptically.

“We could change the color palette,” Harry volunteers, dragging his hair back into a tight bun so it doesn’t get paint in it. Chances are good it will happen anyway, but he likes to pretend he has control over the messes he makes. “Like make everything neon, or pastel, or inverted colors -- shake things up a bit.”

“Wouldn’t that take a while?” Liam asks, wrinkling his nose.

“Zayn’s painting a whole new bit, and that’ll take awhile, might as well keep busy.”

“Smart,” Niall says, leaning forward so he can look past Louis and smile at Harry. That warm feeling burns hotter in Harry’s chest.

“Gross,” Louis says lightly, stepping back until there’s empty air between the two of them. Harry wiggles sideways, letting their shoulders press close. Niall’s still smiling. “I do like pastels though.”

“The shop is, like, red and brown, though,” Niall says, gesturing around loosely. “I’m not an expert, but I’m sure that clashes. Besides, da’s not a fan.”

“Gotta keep the old man happy,” Zayn says, offhandedly.

“Wait, why?” Harry asks, feeling like he missed something. Louis looks at him and bursts out laughing, coming back so he can sling an arm around Harry’s shoulders and tug him close.

“Did you somehow miss the fact that Bobby Horan owns this place?” Louis asks.

“He does?” Harry asks.

“What you thought you got employee discounts because you’re cute or summat?” Niall asks, looking affronted. And okay, there was that time when Niall mentioned his dad wasn’t around to open -- and the time with the oven when he mentioned his mum, but no one ever said anything about Niall’s family owning the place.

“Well, yeah,” Harry says, with a shrug and a cheeky grin. It’s enough to get Niall to laugh, bent over double as he tries to breathe. Harry smiles wider, pleased with himself.

“Even I knew that, Haz,” Liam says, rolling his eyes affectionately. Harry sticks his tongue out at him.

“You do spend more time around here than I do,” Harry reminds him, raising his eyebrows and looking between Liam and Zayn. Both of them get sheepish looks on their faces. Liam pouts.

“Not true!” Louis shouts, in Harry’s ear.

Harry shoves him away, scowling. “Shut it, Lewis.”

“Alright, alright,” Liam says, coming to stand between them. Harry slips an arm around his waist and presses in, sticking his tongue out at Louis from around Liam. It’s nice that the Dad Friend is on his side most of the time. “The wall, lads.”

“We could make it warmer,” Harry suggests, as Louis scoots closer and reaches across to pet his shoulder like an apology. “Maroon, gold.”

“Browns,” Zayn says, nodding, knuckles knocking into his bottles of spray paint. “Sunflowers?”

“Van Gogh,” Harry agrees, twisting free of Liam and joining Zayn at the paints so he can help pick out some colors. Zayn watches him and pushes away what he doesn’t like, nudging Harry in the direction of better colors. It’s been so long since Harry’s painted that his technique is probably sloppy, but if Zayn doesn’t care then he’s not too worried.

“Do you know how to spray paint?” Zayn asks, handing Harry a pile of thick face masks. Harry pulls one over his head, letting it fall around his neck, before he tosses the rest to the boys.

“Nope,” Harry says, grabbing some of the plastic trays.

The large buckets of interior paints are all neutral colors, which will be good for mixing. The consistencies of the paints are all so different, it’s definitely going to be… interesting. His old art teacher would shit herself if she could see this sacrilege. Harry loves it.

“Do you want to learn how?” Zayn asks.

“Nope,” Harry repeats.

“I do!” Liam says, popping up between them. It takes everything in Harry not to scream and fall over. Instead, he rocks a little with the momentum of his surprise.

“Wear a bell,” he says. Everyone needs to stop sneaking up on him.

“S’not my fault you’re oblivious,” Liam states, very matter-of-factly.

“That he is,” Louis says. It sounds fond. Harry chucks a paint brush over his shoulder. It hits Louis in the knee. “Christ. I meant it nicely.”

“Statement of fact,” Zayn agrees, giving Harry a cheeky smile. Harry would tell them all to stop ganging up on him, but Niall’s looking around lost, and Harry doesn’t want that conversation to come up too soon on accident. All in good time.

“Sunflowers,” Harry reminds them, which sets them off nodding all seriously like that’s what they were thinking all along. Harry decides to take the far end, the bit that’s Picasso influence, but better than Picasso.

He grabs a few large containers of acrylic and some brushes and sponges, stacking them all on the tarp where he plans to start. Niall joins him quietly, face mask strapped on his head at a jaunty angle like a party hat.

“I hate Picasso,” Harry admits, pouring out some colors.

“I’m indifferent to Picasso,” Niall says, surveying the wall. “Might need a stool.”

“I’ll hold you on my shoulders,” Harry says, standing up and back so he can look at it too. If he stretches, he can reach most of the painting, it only extends two-thirds up the wall.

“That’s a safety hazard,” Niall says, with a bright laugh.

Harry’s dying to make some sort of comment about having Niall’s thighs wrapped around his head, but he figures he should warm up to that, so he shrugs instead and agrees.

“Probably.”

Louis ends up with the stool, since he insists on painting the highest point of the starry night section of the wall. Zayn decides he wants the blues deeper and the stars fading from metallic gold to pale, pale yellow. Liam’s mastered the spray can well enough to work on the hills in the darkest green Zayn can scrounge up.

It’ll look great when it’s done, Harry decides. With the warmer colors on the end he and Niall are working on, moving into the cooler colors, and then connecting with the big sunflowers Zayn’s adding. It’s more fluid than it was… More cohesive.

“Shit’s pretty,” Niall says, in a really good American Southern accent. Harry laughs, delightedly.

“Damn right,” Liam says, standing back to admire it, shaking his can up.

It’s an accident, Harry knows it is, but it happens anyway -- Liam’s finger presses down and paint spits out from the can, right onto Louis’ trousers. Harry’s own life flashes before his eyes as Louis realizes what just happened.

“Payno!” he cries, flinging his own paint-soaked brush at Liam. Gold rains down on Liam from above, splattering his hair and face and t-shirt.

A war cry peels through the air as Liam grabs the back of Louis’ shirt and yanks him down. The tray Louis was using comes with him, a mess of flailing limbs and acrylic, dropping paint all over Louis and Liam before it hits the ground.

Louis ends up sweeping Liam’s feet out from under him, and they go down with a shout. It looks like Zayn’s attempting to pull them away from each other, so Harry tries to help, boots slipping in the paint as he tugs at Louis’ shoulder. Yellow smears all over Harry’s hand and arm as he yanks Louis back so hard Louis bangs into his chest, getting paint all up his front.

Zayn’s got Liam and Harry has Louis.

That should be the end of it, but Zayn swipes his hand through the thick layer of paint on Liam’s shirt and smears it over Louis’ face -- a gesture of solidarity, maybe -- and Louis tears out of Harry’s hands and tackles Zayn, upending a tray of brown onto the tarp that they promptly roll through.

A solid weight hits Harry’s back and Harry just knows what’s coming next -- a wad of paint flies over his shoulder and hits Liam square his crotch, so hard he doubles over. Harry can feel Niall’s laugh against his back.

“Felt left out,” Niall says, pressing the words right into the skin behind Harry’s ear. Harry resists the urge to shiver and shoulders Niall off his back, putting some distance between them. There’s red paint coating Niall’s hand and forearm, and Harry doesn’t want any of that on him.

Niall’s not paying attention to him, though, not when Liam jumps at him with blue hands and smears it all over his neck and cheek. Niall giggles and squeaks, twirling away with Liam after him, but Louis’ hand shoots out -- a swirl of yellow and brown on his skin -- and Liam’s down for the count, Louis and Zayn leaving streaks of paint all over him as they wrestle across the tarp like puppies.

Harry watches in fond amusement for a moment before Niall pops into view, glint in his eye. Harry takes an involuntary step backwards, elbow hitting the top of the stool.

“You look too clean,” Niall says, grinning wickedly. He pulls a wet paintbrush out from behind his back and flicks it at Harry.

The paint is cold and wet when it hits Harry’s face. He blinks rapidly in surprise and grabs Niall’s wrist when he goes to do it again, closing the space between their bodies so Niall can’t fling any more acrylic at him -- purely so Niall doesn’t have leverage, but --

The skin of Niall’s wrists is slippery with paint, tacky where it’s drying. The smear of blue on his face is making his eyes look like a palette of cerulean in impossible shades, contrasting sweetly with the pink creeping up his cheeks.

Oh, Harry thinks, feeling the heat between them and the heaviness in his chest and the way Niall’s frozen too, gaze locked with Harry’s.

“Oh,” Niall says, a simple exhale, and --

Harry wraps his arm around Niall’s waist and pulls him in by the small of his back and presses their mouths together hotly, letting his wrist drop so he can slide his free hand along Niall’s jaw and cradle it in his palm.

Niall lets the paint brush fall and kisses Harry back hard, maneuvering them past the stool so he can press Harry into the wall. The paint sticks to his shirt and hair where it hasn’t dried, but Harry doesn’t give a shit, shifting so Niall can slide his thigh between Harry’s legs.

He digs his nails into Niall’s lower back and groans when Niall retaliates by sinking his teeth into Harry’s lower lip. Harry’s head is reeling, body thrumming with warm energy that sparks out from his fingertips as he clings to Niall, unwilling to let him go.

Niall seems to feel the same way, pressing closer, hands on Harry’s hip now, pinning him down like a butterfly on display and all Harry can think is, fuck yes --

“Guys?” Zayn asks.

Niall jerks away, eyes widening. His cheeks are deep red, lips swollen and slick. Harry’s tongue darts out to lick his own mouth, watching Niall’s eyes track the movement.

“As much as we’re enjoying the show --”

“We’re not,” Louis interjects, cuffing Niall on the back of the head. Niall steps back fully, leaving Harry’s front cold.

“Sorry,” Niall says, with a self-conscious shrug. He should be smiling. After a snog like that, Niall should be smiling.

“Not sorry,” Harry says, voice rough and a little shaky. He clears his throat and beams. “Totally not sorry.”

Niall looks at him with that soft, curious smile again and ducks his head after a moment. “Alright.”

This is another one of those moments where everything shifts, Harry’s sure it is. He can tell by the way Niall can’t stop sneaking glances at him, the way their eyes keep catching shyly before sliding away. The way a smile hovers around his mouth, and the blush on his cheeks stays for ages even as Louis comes between them like he needs to keep them from mauling each other.

Harry slips away to get his camera, hiding behind the lense and taking pictures of the aftermath while the others clean up the remnants of their paint fight. There’s splatters on the wall from where they missed each other, creases in the paint from where Niall pressed against him.

Louis and Niall tote the tarp away while Zayn stands back and takes it all in, soft look on his face. Harry snaps a picture of that, smiling down at his monitor.

Well, he knows what his photo project is going to be.

 

 

“I’m such a cliche,” Harry laments, letting Liam drag him into Luke’s house. The front room is packed with people, stereo bass making the walls rattle, smoke lingering in the air from the hookahs on the coffee table. Harry holds his breath while they pass, like always. Usually the back door is open so the kitchen will be aired out.

The tight feeling in his chest isn’t really the smoke’s fault, anyway.

It’s been a few days since the night they painted the shop, and he hasn’t really seen or talked to Niall in that time. Not that he’s avoiding Niall. He’s had to put together his project. Which meant a lot of photo sorting and editing and reconsidering shots and not baking.

Harry doesn’t bake when he’s doing photo stuff, there’s not any time. Photoshop is a blackhole of focus-suckage, sometimes he doesn’t surface for hours. No Temporary Fix, no fancy black teas, no Niall.

But, Niall’s going to be here. Harry is rightfully nervous.

“You are,” Liam agrees, tightening his arm around Harry’s shoulder like he’s afraid Harry’s going to bolt. Not a thought Harry had up until this moment, but it doesn’t sound half bad. As much as he wants to kiss Niall again, the nerves are eating him alive. “A hipster cliche with a camera and a crush.”

“You should do spoken word,” Zayn says to Liam, coming up on Harry’s other side, sliding his hand around Harry’s waist. Harry gladly accepts being the middle to their little sandwich. It’s comforting. “That was clever.”

“Alliteration,” Harry agrees, trying to shake the butterflies in his stomach.

“I got a C in English,” Liam says, with a shrug, unbothered. “But, you got an A!”

“That I did,” Harry agrees, tightening his grip on the satchel thrown over his shoulder. He usually doesn’t bring a bag to parties, but he’s got his camera and his wallet and phone and a folder with his project inside. To show Niall.

If he doesn’t pass out first.

“In English?” Zayn asks, raising his eyebrows.

“On his photo project,” Liam corrects, steering them towards the kitchen. They march through the crowd, a daisy chain of long skinny limbs. “Probably English, too.”

“Congrats,” Zayn says.

“Cheers,” Harry replies, reaching for the closest bottle of alcohol and a couple of the plastic shot glasses. “I got a B in English.”

“Irrelevant,” Liam says, waving it away.

“Nice word, Payno,” Louis says, sliding in next to them, fingers wrapped around a red cup of amber liquid. Louis’ one of those drinkers who will take whiskey straight and cry about his hangover the next day while demanding hashbrowns. Harry likes to dilute Louis’ drink with Coke when he’s not paying attention.

“Shoulda got an A,” Liam says, cheekily, nudging a shot towards Harry.

“Where’s Niall?” Harry asks, once they’ve all taken their shots, peering around Louis like maybe Niall will pop up and surprise them the way he usually does.

“In the back,” Louis says, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “Entertaining the masses.”

“As always,” Harry says, trying not to sound despondent about it. This means he needs to get Niall away from everyone and do it with some sort of tact. Not just come with me so I can kiss your face for awhile. Ugh.

“It’ll be okay,” Liam says, big hand wrapping around the back of Harry’s neck. Harry makes a noise of distress, but doesn’t argue, filling up his shot glass one more time before he lets the boys lead him to the back.

He can do this. He can do this. He can --

Niall must have a sixth sense, picking his head up right when Harry steps away from the door, grin already on his lips. Their eyes meet over the heads of the people around him, and Harry feels warm all to his toes, a stupidly delighted feeling bubbling in his chest.

He can definitely do this.

There’s barely any room next to Niall, but Harry wiggles between him and the arm of the patio lounge anyway, pressing in as closely as he can with the neck of the guitar in his way. Niall looks at him, eyes bright and amused as Harry greets everyone around the unlit fire pit.

“How’d your project go?” he asks. He’s thoughtful like that, observant. Harry bites down on his smile.

“Good,” he says, slowly. “Got an A.”

“Brilliant!” Niall congratulates him, holding his hand up for a high five. The angle is terrible, but they manage, fingers tangling together the tiniest bit before their hands drop. “Will you be back then?”

“To the shop?” Harry asks, skull tingling with nerves. “Yeah, ‘course.”

“So, you’re not avoiding me?” Niall asks, voice pitched low so no one else can hear them. The look on his face is guarded, looking at the ground and his hands, but not Harry. “After the other night?”

“Oh, no,” Harry says, shaking his head. He fiddles with his rings and pushes back his hair, quick and obviously nervous. “I was busy. With the project.”

“That you got an A on,” Niall says, with an easy smile, like he wasn’t even worried that Harry might not come back.

“Yeah,” Harry says, ducking his head. “I want to show you -- later, though? Later.”

“Sure,” Niall agrees, watching Harry with an intensity that crawls under Harry’s skin and makes him shiver. Then he’s strumming a tune like nothing happened, and Harry’s leaning back so he has enough room to play, watching the way he plucks at the strings before settling on a song that Harry doesn’t recognize.

They stay like that for awhile, chatting shit with everyone around them. Louis and Liam and Zayn end up in a pile at the other end of the lounge they’re on, half in each others’ laps. Louis reaches out to pluck at Niall’s strings when he thinks Niall isn’t paying attention until Niall hands the guitar over to Harry and jumps on the three of them, knuckles finding their way against Louis’ head.

Harry strums a few shaky chords before someone gives him an unimpressed look across the unlit fire pit until he stops. Niall rocks back into his space after Louis’ shrieked himself silly trying to uncle out of the abuse, fitting into Harry’s side.

“No one’s impressed with my playing,” Harry says, handing the guitar back to Niall. Niall promptly hands it off to someone Harry vaguely recognizes from open mic night before he sticks his face close to Harry’s.

“You were going to show me something,” he says, quietly. Liam pokes his head around Niall’s anyway.

“Yeah, Harry, show him,” he says, with a thumbs up.

“Show him, show him!” Zayn and Louis chorus, fists pounding on their laps, making Harry’s face blaze hotly.

“Shuddup,” he says, ruffling his hair before pushing it off his face. “You lot are hopeless.”

“Oh no, that’s you,” Liam says, with a wide smile, while Harry scowls at him. He gestures between Niall and Liam loosely. “Case and point.”

“I resent that,” Niall says, not sounding resentful at all. “I have no idea what’s going on.”

“That’s the problem,” Harry says, with a sigh. He stands and grabs his bag, slinging it over his shoulder before he holds his hand out for Niall to take. The look bewildered look on Niall’s face is adorable. “C’mon.”

“Okay,” Niall agrees, taking Harry’s hand and letting himself be pulled up. Harry tugs him close and doesn’t let him go after he’s standing, fingers tangling together comfortably as Harry pulls him to an unoccupied corner of the patio.

Harry takes the portfolio out of his bag carefully, trying not to be get too flustered from the way Niall’s watching him curiously. Now or never.

“So like, my project,” Harry says, handing the whole thing over before folding his arms to his body tightly, biting lightly on his thumbnail.

Niall opens it slowly, looking inside. The photos are in page protectors, glossy from the light of the patio. It’s easy to flip through, no chance to mess the photos. The first page says, At First Sight, and Harry feels nauseated all of the sudden, very aware of just how obvious he’s about to be.

But, that’s the point, right?

Harry’s heart pounds as Niall’s eyebrows furrow in concentration, fingers sliding along the outside of the page as he flips it.

There’s only a handful of pictures. Despite how much Harry was whining, it wasn’t a long or particularly difficult project, he just put it off for too long. Now, he’s thankful he had. It feels like he earned that A finding the theme that was perfect for this exact moment in time.

The first picture is a sunrise, vibrant and bright. It took him two weeks of waking up at the ass crack of dawn to get the shot, but it was worth it. A warm and refreshed feeling comes over him when he looks at it. It’s a good shot.

The second is a picture of Louis behind the register at Temporary Fix. A rare morning where he opened for Niall. He’s leaning against the counter, eyes shut in bliss, with his first cup of tea that morning.

The next is Liam’s face when he first saw Zayn, the softly stunned look of it, awe obvious. It’s one of the most vulnerable surprises Harry’s ever managed to capture, probably one of the best shots he’s ever gotten.

The next picture is of Zayn on the night they touched up the mural. Post-paint fight, streaked with yellow and brown and blue. He’s stood back from the wall like he’s appraising it, satisfied smile on his lips. There’s a glow around his profile, the soft slough of his shoulders. The first time Harry reviewed it, he thought, this is what an artist looks like.

The last is the picture of Niall from the first night they met. Harry’s looked at it countless times and it takes him by surprise every time. This time is no exception. Harry wonders if Niall can tell, or if it’s a feeling that’s exclusive to him since he took it.

“Oh,” Niall says, in a hushed voice.

“I, uh, yeah,” Harry says, eloquently, gesturing to the photo. He has the overwhelming urge to snatch the book away from Niall, but he twists his rings around his fingers instead, distracting himself. “It’s not like. Love. At first sight. The project, I mean.”

Niall looks at Harry then, eyes wide, cheeks pink. Harry’s own face is outrageously hot.

“It’s something at first sight, though,” he continues, looking at the ground. “The sunrise, like you think ‘this is a good day’. Or Louis with his tea, that’s a, uh, good feeling for him. And like, well, for Liam it might have been love, but --”

Harry coughs, trying to keep himself on track. Niall’s staring so intently, Harry thinks his heart’s going to leap right out of his chest and tap dance across the patio.

“But I think you can’t love someone without knowing them,” Harry says, voice dropping. He meets Niall’s eyes and tries not to lose his breath completely. “Infatuation, maybe -- something that feels important and good, earth shattering even.”

“Earth shattering?” Niall asks, little grin curled around his lips. His fingers track the fret of the guitar in the photo, skimming over his own profile.

“Yeah,” Harry says, with a firm nod. “And -- sometimes you look at someone and know --”

“That they’re important,” Niall says, grinning now. The portfolio closes in his hands and Harry wants to open it back up again so there’s something between them other than all this vulnerability.

“Sure,” Harry agrees.

He doesn’t know if Niall really gets it -- the magnetism Harry felt when he first saw Niall, the way Harry couldn’t keeps his eyes off him -- but he must get it a little because he’s closing the distance between so they’re pressed together, portfolio trapped between them in one of Niall’s hands.

The other comes up to curl around the back of Harry’s neck. They stand there staring at each other. Harry can feel Niall’s breath over his cheek, and his lips are tingling with how much he wants to kiss him.

“I saw you around, like, before the party,” Niall says, biting his lip hard. “Taking pictures a few times and walking across campus. The first time I saw you I felt like I was gunna see you again.”

He pauses and takes a deep breath, “when I saw you starin’ at me at the last party I decided to go for it. Then, I had your number and I wanted to call, but I freaked ‘cause, uh, I knew it’d turn into something? And I’m not used to that.”

“It turning into something?” Harry asks, when Niall trails off. His cheeks are so red now, his whole face, but his eyes are bright and it’s hard to breathe, Harry thinks.

“Wanting it to turn into something,” Niall says, with an embarrassed shrug. “It worked out ‘cause you came into the shop with those muffins, like, the universe kept shovin’ us together until we got it right.”

“Do you think we got it right?” Harry asks, genuinely curious.

Niall smiles, all one-thousand watts of brain-melting goodness, and presses impossibly closer, like he wants to mold into Harry on an atomic level. He presses a sweet kiss to Harry’s mouth and says, “yeah, yeah, I think we did.”