He’s heard his name said so often for so long that it ought to hardly mean anything anymore, but this time it wakes him up.
“What,” he tries to say, but there’s some kind of something in the way. He gags on the whatever-it-is as more people say his name again, “Lovino, Lovino,” and all he can think is stop wearing it out. Clammy fingers pry his eyes open, and he catches a glimpse of some jackass pointing a little flashlight in his face before his lids resentfully slam shut.
“Can you see?”
“Not with you shining that thing in my eyes, jackass,” is what he wants to say, but all he can do is nod.
The jackass continues to ask yes-or-no questions that Lovino ignores, vindictively if not cheerfully, in favor of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. He’s in a bed, and there’s Feliciano, eyes wide and teary; he’s holding hands with his boyfriend, the German asshole. Both of them are wearing soiled clothes and looking years older, and Lovino wonders just how badly he’s been hurt.
There’s another guy sitting nearby who must be here for the next patient down. He’s unsettlingly interested in the proceedings, however, eyes beady and intent on what ought to be a very personal moment between an injured man and what passes for his family.
If he could talk, Lovino might say, “Take a picture. It’ll last longer.” But he can’t, and besides, the guy looks pretty pathetic: the bags under his eyes could pass for luggage.
When the nurse finally does come along to disengage the goddamned tube from his throat, Ludwig says, “Lovi, you’ve been in an accident.”
“You’ve injured your head pretty badly. The doctors were worried that you might have brain damage.”
“You’re brain damaged, potato-bastard,” he mutters.
Ludwig looks a little confused, but Feli only smiles and leans forward, trying to hug Lovino under all his tubes and bandages. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he says, and the strange glasses-guy echoes it.
“So glad you’re okay, Lovi,” he says, and Lovino’s head swivels to the right as he asks, “Who the hell are you?”
“Take a picture,” Lovino snapped. “It’ll last longer.”
There was paint on his cheek and all over his fingertips, but he wasn’t about to get bashful about it in front of some creepy guy with crooked glasses and scuffed-up tennis shoes.
“Sorry,” the guy said, and he sounded sincere but he didn’t look away. “It’s just that you’re really good. Like, that’s really good.”
“I know.” Lovino sniffed and turned back to his canvas. The only reason he was doing this out in public was because of his stupid assignment for his stupid landscapes class. He despised public painting; people always wanted to stop and stare at him like his homework was some kind of free show. And a lot of them were about to walk across the quad and see his brother’s work and forget all about his.
“I’m Alfred, by the way,” Alfred said, like it was something he expected Lovino to care about. “I’m in the medical school here. You in the art school?”
Lovino didn’t answer, letting his brush speak for itself.
It started to drizzle the exact second that Alfred said, “It’s supposed to start raining soon, you know.” As he took shelter in Alfred’s apartment, Lovino blamed him for destroying the homework assignment. And later, when they were fast friends, he took to calling him “Jinx.”
“Is that a pet name?” Feliciano asked once, and Lovino turned red and denied it even as Alfred leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
“I'm afraid we just don't know how much Lovino will ever remember, depending on how deeply his brain has been injured, and whether or not the tissue in question will heal.”
Alfred wants to scream and throw things, throw a tantrum, throw this asshole to the floor, throw up. What good is a medical degree? He’s asked himself that a lot these past few years, especially before the accident, with all the sacrifices they made. What good is a medical degree if all you can do is stand there and tell angry people, “Maybe, maybe not”?
Feliciano steps out of Lovino’s new private room and into the hallway. “He’s ready for you.”
Inside, Lovi lies on the bed and stares at the ceiling. There’s a bandage beneath the slant of his auburn hair, but it’s so good to see his eyes open again. His annoyed expression is familiar like the turn of a childhood street, like the stars after a year in the city.
All illusions of familiarity fall away when Lovino glances over disinterestedly, without even a glower of recognition. “Hello,” he says uncertainly.
He’s looking at me like a stranger.
“Well.” He fidgets with his bandage. “Feli told me that we’re living together?”
“Yup.” Alfred sits down and tells his hand not to reach out. “We moved into our apartment last year. We’ve been dating just a little longer than that.”
Lovino smirks a little. “What did I do to end up with a guy like you?”
Alfred can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a compliment or an insult. He used to know when things were a joke, and it occurs to him that this Lovino is as much a stranger to him as he is to this Lovino.
“So what…what’s the last thing you remember?”
Lovino scowls, but not at Alfred. At himself. “I don’t know, it’s kinda mixed up in my head. It’s hard for me to figure out which memories are more recent than others. But I remember enrolling in art school. And I remember taking a few classes.” The door opens, but Alfred’s gazed is fixed on Lovi’s thoughtful expression. “Last thing I remember, I think, was Dad kicking me out so I had to go live with Feli and the asshole German.”
“Lovi,” Feliciano breathes from Alfred’s back. “I don’t think…I don’t think you ever really talked to him about Dad.”
Alfred can’t look up from his white knuckles, afraid to see the man’s detached guilt, the regretful expression of someone who’s just trod on a stranger’s toe. Instead he wonders why Lovino—his Lovino—would have kept something like that a secret.
He might never get a chance to find out, and he reflects that it’s an odd thing to mourn somebody sitting right in front of you.
“Sorry,” Lovino says. “I don’t know why… I’m sorry.” The clock ticks over what should have been Alfred’s response. “So…am I done with art school yet?”
More ticking. Finally Alfred admits, “You actually dropped out last year.”
“What? Why the hell would I do that? It’s the only thing I ever really…” He squeezes his sinuses between a finger and a thumb in a familiar gesture, and Alfred can’t bring himself to admit that Lovino dropped out to help Alfred through medical school.
Alfred’s heart twists with the motion of Lovino’s head as it turns to address his brother. “Are you still in school? It’s only been…two and a half years, right?”
“Yes,” Feliciano says, and Lovino doesn’t look at him like a stranger. So Alfred listens to the two of them talk about paint and sculptures and canvas as he sits back in a hell of heartsick guilt.
Really all that’s relevant to Alfred is that Lovino had a life before they dated, and of course everybody knows that about their significant other, but nobody quite knows it the way Alfred does now. For example, Lovino used to bite his fingernails, call Ludwig “potato-bastard,” drink gallons of coffee, and about two and a half years ago he was really into Italian opera: all fancies which he’d fallen out of by the time they met.
But there are some things that have apparently been the same all his life, for example the fact that he drives like he’s trying to prove a point about mortality.
“Okay,” Alfred says nervously, “you’re going to take a left up at this traffic light—“
“Get out of my way, you red-assed sisterfucker! Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, that’s right, you turn there—why do they have to turn so slow, Alfred?”
He glances in the rearview mirror. “I think you lost Ludwig.”
“Good. I never liked him much anyway.”
Alfred doesn’t mention that Ludwig and Lovi had become friends these past couple years. The opera sings on, some tragedy of miscommunication and lies.
“Which way is the bathroom?”
Alfred points it out with that gutted expression, and Lovino locks the door against his disappointment.
He feels like a time-traveler, an interloper. Everything is just a couple years different: the clothing styles, the length of everyone’s hair. Even his own face is gone, replaced by an eerily similar imitation. He has a new mole on his jaw and a new wrinkle at the corner of his mouth.
It’s only been two years. You’re imagining things.
Somehow he keeps expecting everything to be exactly as it was, like the world—knowing that he would one day forget it—had just stopped and held still, held itself like a breath, waiting for him to come back to himself.
Alfred offers to sleep on the couch.
A new mole, a new wrinkle, a new boyfriend. Alfred seems nice enough, a little too clingy, a little too familiar with his touches and jokes. (Of course, in Alfred’s mind, he is a best friend and a lover and a long-time roommate; Alfred, for his part, forgets that Lovino met him just last week.) His body is certainly attractive, but Lovino is uncomfortable to imagine that he’s been in any way acquainted with it.
Sometimes Alfred looks at him with these wide, utterly tender eyes, and Lovino could almost fall in love with how much this guy obviously loved him. But the love isn't for him, not really. And he can't return it, because he doesn’t have any fucking clue who this guy is.
At night Lovino stares at the ceiling of a bedroom he’s never slept in, and nothing jogs his memory. "None of this is mine,” he tells the empty room. And what was his is gone.
“He hates me for it. I can tell.”
“Alfred, he doesn’t. He just doesn’t understand that he loved you more than his work. He’ll remember why.”
Loved, past tense. “But what if he doesn’t? What if he doesn’t remember?”
Ludwig claps him on the back, heads for the door, and doesn’t answer.
“Thanks for coming over,” Alfred murmurs to Feliciano. “He really…he really loves seeing you two.”
“Anytime.” Feliciano smiles vaguely and follows Ludwig outside. The apartment is quiet in the lonely way that Alfred used to associate with Lovino being off at work. He’ll ask him if he wants to go to the Redbox down the road, find a shitty horror movie to make fun of…
He hears a sob from the other side of the door, and he lets his hand curl into a fist and drop to his side.
Alfred sits on the floor in front of what used to be their bedroom, trying to make sense of what they’ve become, and hating himself for being too scared to face Lovino and his stranger’s stares.
They go to their favorite restaurants, revisit old date sites, look through photo albums. All in vain.
Once, as Alfred leans over to point at a picture of when Feli convinced Ludwig to grow a beard, Lovino's hair tickles his face. Curling and drying from a recent shower, it smells like it always did back then, and without thinking Alfred turns his head and breathes in.
Lovino pulls away.
"Alfred," he says. "I–Please. Don’t."
Alfred jerks back reflexively, as though scalded by the words. "Sorry," he says.
After a moment he collects their coffee cups and sets them in the sink, before locking himself in the bathroom.
It’s too hard, being in the same room as Lovino.
"I know it…it was a different you. Who chose to not talk about it. I understand that you can’t really defend yourself.” Putting his fork down, he grits out, "But you didn't have to lie to me. I know you can’t speak to it, but…I wish you hadn’t lied to me."
I’m sure I had my fucking reasons, you overbearing psychopath, Lovino nearly snarls before remembering that Alfred probably has never had to live like that, has never known what it’s like to be cast out by the people who are supposed to be biologically obsessed with you. Alfred doesn’t know what it’s like to be unwanted, and to be ashamed of being unwanted, and to want to hide it in case everybody else will think it over and realize, Oh, maybe his parents had the right idea after all. It seems that Alfred doesn’t understand Lovino Vargas’ world because he knows nothing about Lovino Vargas.
But one day, it isn’t so bad.
“What?” Lovino asks innocently.
“I know that grin. That grin's gotten you kicked out of six bars in this city alone.”
That grin grows wider. “Sounds like a story you’ll have to tell me sometime.”
“Six stories. What’s it about today?”
“I just had the shittiest coffee at the joint down the street. And I was thinking to myself: they’ve got the right equipment. They’ve got at least mediocre supplies. How could they possibly be coming up with glorified brown water every single time?”
“And so I thought to myself, why don’t I show them the right way?”
He unplugs his espresso machine and raises an eyebrow. “Coming with?”
It’s getting easier to ignore Alfred’s longing lovestruck gazes, or maybe he’s just starting to understand them a little bit better. For the first time Lovino thinks he can feel the scar tissue that covers his memory of Alfred. It seems sentient somehow, almost malicious.
That evening they kiss with all the lights off when they make their goodnights , and it feels habitual and sweet and shadowy somehow. It isn’t clear who started it, or what it’s supposed to mean. Lovino leans up on his toes, starts a second kiss, thinks, I’m not the one he wants anymore.
His lips are softer than Lovino imagined.
"I've missed you, Lovi.” Alfred isn’t talking to him, but he’ll kiss back anyway, because Alfred is attractive and so obviously in love, and Lovino is guilty for being around all the time and reminding him.
They stop at the threshold to Lovino’s bedroom. “Alfred…”
“Two years ago,” Alfred says, sleep-slurred and unguarded, “you called me Al.”
Alfred takes him to the doctor for his weekly check-up. They shine more lights in Lovino’s eyes and ask the same questions over and over:
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“My father kicking me out. Moving in with my brother. Painting. None of them are particularly vivid memories. Well, besides that first one.”
Today they say: “You’re so lucky. You must be very lucky, to have been in an accident like that and lived to tell the tale.”
Lovino doesn’t remember the tale to tell it. He smiles wryly and drawls, “Yeah, apparently I’m just full of luck.”
The doctor chuckles; Alfred does not.
It was the asphalt that did it, he’s told. He was on his Vespa (“I had a Vespa? Seriously? God, I wish I could remember that.” Alfred just said, “If you think I’ll let you get another one, you’ve got another think coming.” Controlling bastard.) He was driving it—too fast, probably, though nobody wants to say it—at night, and didn’t see the open manhole or asteroid crater or whatever-it-was in time. He flipped and hit his head on the asphalt, or was it the corner of a building? Or maybe a telephone pole. The police know, and the doctors know, but Lovino doesn’t want to ask. He only thinks that the world ought to be softened or baby-proofed or something. It’s a hard world that would take a man’s memory and so much else.
It was a harder place he left, though, two and a half years ago. He remembers feeling cold and alone a lot. It was hard, being unwanted. He guesses maybe that’s why he got with Alfred. Maybe Alfred made him feel better, but he’ll never know.
They leave the hospital, having determined that the scar in his head is not swelling and slowly killing him from the inside. Lovino folds his arms against the cold, lets Alfred kiss his temple, and hopes the world has grown softer in his absence.
"You told me that you were afraid of never being satisfied with yourself.” They’re drunk, and neither of them will remember how or why this conversation started. But they’ll both remember the words, and it will feel nice, selfishly and guiltily nice for Lovino, who is so used to remembering nothing.
“I didn't think I'd ever meet anyone who'd understand." Alfred looks over at him, love and pain helplessly clear on his face.
Lovino looks away.
“You’re so good at this, Lovi,” Alfred says, standing on the threshold of what used to be their bedroom. Lovino has turned it into a studio: pushed the bed against the wall, dragged the dresser into the walk-in closet. Sheets cover the floor.
“I haven’t even painted anything yet, dumbass.”
“I know. It’s just that you’re really good. I remember that, and I’ll bet you do too.”
“I am pretty good.”
Alfred knows that he’s wasted a lot of things that weren’t his to waste: Lovino’s time, his money, and his talent too. Alfred’s Lovi gave them willingly, but seeing this new (well, old) person has given Alfred reason to suspect that it was some kind of accidental treachery. That he tricked Lovino into wanting to give everything away. Kindness, after all, works the same as trickery. Love swindles everyone involved, fools us into believing that we want to give.
This Lovino doesn’t love Alfred.
He’s free. He could get out of this right now and go back to painting. He could take back his life and never know that he’d once given it away. Or at least he’d never understand the reasons.
Alfred considers. The paintbrush touches blank canvas.
“I made lunch.”
“Be there in a sec.”
It’s a lie. Once Lovino gets into his flow, he’ll just keep going until the work is done. So Alfred says, “I think you should know something about us.”
The words register and Lovino sets down his paintbrush. “Okaaaaay.” He arches his back and it crackles like the poppers they’d played with last New Year’s.
Alfred leads them to the kitchen where he’s fixed macaroni and cheese. Suddenly the strength drains from his legs and he has to sit, like his body is refusing to stand for this. His hands tremble and he clasps them in front of his stomach.
“Where’s the water?”
“Top shelf on the right. In that blue pitcher. Will you get me the milk?”
“Milk with mac and cheese? Too much dairy. Lunatic.”
Alfred fails to smile, and they eat in silence.
“So what exactly is it that you wanted to tell me?”
Lovino has blue paint on his cheek, and Alfred tries to memorize the exact pattern, like teardrops running over the mole on his jaw.
And then he cuts the leash. “Before your accident, we were…not doing too good. You were talking about wanting to move out.”
Lovino stares him down, expression unreadable.
“I’m sorry. It was selfish of me to not tell you before. I hoped…well, I hoped that this might be a second chance.” This isn’t fair. “It wasn’t fair of me, and I’m sorry. But I think you should move back in with Feliciano, maybe go back to art school.”
There’s a choking lump in Alfred’s throat, like the lie doing its dirty work, and tears prick in his eyes because he doesn’t want Lovino to think badly of him. It hurts that this is destroying any chance he had of reconstructing his life, and even if it hurts for the right reasons, it hurts and hurts.
But what really breaks his heart is that Lovino doesn’t even look angry. Only relieved.
The knock comes in the dead of night, when Alfred is studying for a pathology exam that’s going to kick his ass come morning. It takes him a minute to hear, because the rain has been pounding on the tin roof so long that he’s forgotten what it sounds like, and everything else is smothered and muted.
“Just a minute,” he calls, and the reply is, “Hurry up, asshole.”
On his doorstep stands Lovino, drenched and dripping on the welcome mat that he himself had bought a year ago.
He looks down at it and says, “I bought this for you a year ago. You lying bastard.”
“Lovi,” is the only word Alfred’s lips can form.
“Take a picture.” Lovino swallows, glares at his feet. “It’ll last longer.”
The world seems somehow softer now, blurred by tears and rain. Alfred blinks, saying, “That was the first thing you ever said to me.”
“I know,” Lovino says. “I remember.”