Harry has never particularly enjoyed hospitals. Except for, perhaps, all the newborn babies and pregnant women in the maternity ward, hospitals have only ever reminded him of pain and illness, of loved ones dying, of Gemma needing seven stitches in her hand when she was twelve. He hates the fluorescent lighting, the squeaky, tiled floors, the unnatural smell of chemicals and cleaning supplies that imbeds itself for days in his nose, his hair, his clothes.
He hates the waiting, hates the needles, the blood, the beeping, the hushed, nervous hospital energy, and, well, he hates it all a lot more when he wakes up in one with his brain feeling like mud and his body heavy like wet cement, no recollection at all of how he got there in the first place.
Of course, he doesn't actually realize he's in the hospital the first time he wakes up. He doesn't realize the second time either, nor the third, but on the fourth try when he finally manages to do a bit more than blink a few hazy times and mumble useless incoherences, he notices the buzzing machines he's hooked up to, the tubes draining into his arm, the thick bandage taped over his scalp, and he kind of pieces it together.
Fortunately for him, he's still too groggy, still too drugged up to panic. The nurse that greets him with a very soothing voice, which helps quite a bit. No one wants to hear, "Sir, you're in the hospital, you've been hit by a car and sustained some minor injuries," from someone who couldn't seem to care less.
It takes a few moments for the words to sink in, a few moments in which he feels warm fingers tangle with his own, realizes his mum's sitting in the plastic chair at the side of his bed, her eyes rather teary as she squeezes his hand.
"It's alright, love. You're alright," she reassures him with a watery smile.
"What happened?" he manages to mumble through the sandpaper scratching at his throat. His head feels swollen and sluggish, his thoughts weighed down by the soupy mixture of painkillers swirling through the fog in his brain. He can barely get words out of his mouth, let alone remember anything about an accident.
"You were on your bike, coming home from work," his mum tells him, her thumb brushing the back of his hand. Harry avoids looking at it, doesn't want to see the IV tubes sticking out. "It was raining and the roads were slippery. The driver took a bad turn and didn't see you, H. You gave us all a nasty scare," Anne sighs and leans in to press a kiss to the unobstructed part of his forehead. "How are you feeling?"
A bit shit, Harry wants to say. "Like I've been hit by a car," he settles on. The words come out slow and slurred and he vaguely wonders if he's even making sense until his mum rolls her eyes and pats him on the back of the hand.
"Good to know your sense of humor hasn't changed," she says and turns to the nurse before adding, "though I imagine he might want to keep his jokes to a minimum until his ribs heal?"
"My ribs?" Harry croaks, confused.
"You fractured two of your ribs," the nurse confirms, reading off the clipboard she pulls from the end of his bed. "Two fractured ribs, eight stitches for a head laceration, some cuts and bruises, a concussion, and a dislocated shoulder that the doctors fixed while you were out."
"How long was that for?" he asks and silently thanks whoever discovered pain medication. He can't feel any of those things, not the bruises, the ribs, the gash in the side of his head, just the dull ache, the weird heaviness in all his limbs, the way his tongue seems to be made of marshmallows.
"You've been out for three days," his mum says softly and Harry can tell by the dark circles under her eyes that she's been there for every single one of them. "Gemma's just grabbing a bite to eat downstairs with Robin, and your father went back to his hotel around midnight. All of your friends have come to visit too, H. Everyone's been so worried about you."
"Just a couple of bumps and bruises, mum," Harry brushes it off, trying to make her feel better. "I haven't even managed to break anything."
"Only your poor bicycle," Anne chuckles wearily. "I guess you'll have to go back to taking the tube now, won't you?"
Harry nods and goes to open his mouth to agree, but even with his brain swimming in pain meds and his thought process a little lethargic, it still doesn't make sense. He's never taken the tube to work. He's not even sure there's a line that runs from his and Louis' flat to anywhere near the bakery.
"The bus, you mean..." he says slowly, words rolling like cotton balls off his tongue. "I'd have to take the bus."
His brows furrow in confusion, a poor idea, he realizes too late, when the medical tape starts to unstick at the creases and the subsequent wincing makes his head rumble like there's a thunder storm behind his eyes.
"Of course, sweetheart," his mum says, reaching out to delicately press some of the tape back in place for him. "Take the bus, the tube, whatever you'd like. As long as you promise to never end up back in the hospital, it's fine by me."
"I'll try my best," Harry promises and gives her hand another squeeze. His throat still feels about as dry as the Sahara. "Could I get some water, please?" he asks, afraid to cough and clear it in case whatever pain he expects to feel in his ribcage later decides to make an early appearance.
The nurse happily obliges and leaves to fill the empty pitcher on the side table. When she comes back, she has the doctor in tow – this raven-haired, kind-looking woman with thick, black-framed glasses and a stethoscope hanging around her neck. She introduces herself as Dr. Hartman and takes a long look at Harry's file before giving him a more detailed overview of the hell his body's been through.
She shines a few lights in his eyes, checks his hearing, his reflexes, reminds the nurse – apparently called Amy – to change the bandage on his head once she's finished with him, and finally tells Harry how lucky he is for avoiding any serious injuries.
It all goes rather well, Harry thinks, even in his drowsy state, until Dr. Hartman tries to distract him from the poking and prodding of his ribs and other bruises by asking a few simple questions.
"So, Harry," she starts, one hand supporting his arm as her other hand presses against his side. Harry tries not to grimace. "Your mother said you were on your way home from work before the accident occurred. Where is it you work?"
"At a bakery," he answers, tilting his head back against his pillow and closing his eyes against the harsh ceiling lights. "I'm a baker," he adds sleepily.
"How long have you been a baker for?"
Cold fingers make their way down to his left hip bone, also apparently bruised, as he tries to count the years in his head. He'd gotten the job about halfway through his first term of Uni and he's just about to start his last term, so... Hang on. No, that's not right because his twenty-second birthday's already passed and he remembers Louis screaming Taylor Swift at the top of his lungs as they stumbled home from the pub. Besides, his mum said he'd been on his bike and he only really cycles to work when it's warm enough out, plus he's pretty sure he was just home for Easter hols. So that means he's been working at the bakery for about...
"About three and a half years?" he tries, suddenly very unsure of himself.
"That's quite a long time," Dr. Hartman comments as she readjusts Harry's flimsy hospital gown and gently lowers his arm back to his side. "Do you like it there?"
"Yeah," Harry mumbles easily enough. "Everyone's really nice and it helps pay for uni." He feels his mum intertwine their fingers together again and blinks his eyes open just in time to catch the worried little glance she shares with the doctor. "Is something wrong?" he asks, frowning. His mum rubs her thumb over the bone in his wrist and shakes her head.
"No, Harry, everything's fine," she says, but even Harry's drug-fuzzy ears manage to pick up on the hesitation in her voice.
"Mum?" he tries again. When he gets no answer, he turns to Dr. Hartman who's busy scribbling something on his file.
"You said the bakery helps pay for uni?" she continues, ignoring his worries as she studies him over the top of her glasses. "Where did you go? What did you study?"
Harry feels his face crumble in confusion, the tape coming off his forehead again and prompting the nurse to come bustling over to fix it. "I um. I'm still taking classes," he says slowly as she patches him up. "I'm studying music theory and I... I should be graduating in a few months." He pauses when he sees the look of concern grow on his mother's face, something like a balloon of panic starting to expand in his own ribcage, prodding at his lungs.
"I think you're a little confused, baby," his mum says softly, holding his hand between both of hers now. "You graduated almost two years ago, remember?"
Harry stares at her as he wracks his brain, his slightly-overwhelmed, sluggish, bogged-down brain, and tries to remember it, tries to picture wearing that silly gown and shaking a bunch of hands, receiving his diploma after four years of hard work. He can't, though. He can't remember it at all.
"I don't... I don't know," he says, glancing toward his doctor for support. Is he supposed to remember these things right away? He just woke up after being mostly unconscious for the past three days, surely this is normal for someone with half a thousand painkillers still burning through their veins.
"It's expected that you feel a little disoriented after you first wake up, Harry," Dr. Hartman reassures him, still taking notes. "Your body has been under a lot of stress and you're recovering from a rather serious head injury. Can you recall anything from your accident?"
He thinks about what his mum told him, about the bike, about coming home from work, the rain, the dark, the other car, and while it makes sense he doesn't remember getting hit, he can't even remember the minutes before, not the hours, not what day it was, what month. Fuck, he isn't even sure he's got the right year.
"I graduated?" he repeats, panic swelling in his throat, making it hard for him to breathe. His head is still swimming.
"Two summers ago, Harry," his mum tries to remind him. "All of us were there. We had dinner at that little restaurant near your old flat, remember?"
Harry shakes his head, regretting it as soon as the pain starts bursting like bright fireworks behind his eyes again. He screws his eyelids shut as he winces and tries to lift his hand to hold that annoying bandage in place, but his arm feels about a thousand pounds too heavy and his IVs don't exactly encourage sudden motion.
"I don't remember," he says with a small groan as he drops his arm to his side and reluctantly lets his mum help. He stares at his useless arm, frustration quickly settling in over the otherwise murky, dulled down emotions running through his mind. It's normal, he reminds himself, wishing he could take a deep enough breath to clear his head. It's normal. The doctor said it was normal.
He flexes his fingers a bit, his only means of relieving any of the tension strewn up in his stagnant muscles, and that's when he sees it – the dark, scaly pattern inked along the underside of his forearm, the tail of an apparently naked mermaid he has absolutely no recollection of getting embedded in his skin.
His heart immediately sinks into a desperate pit of confusion and drug-addled hysteria, and both his mum and doctor must notice the way he visibly starts to crumble because the next thing he knows, his mum's trying to rub soothing circles into the back of his hand, mumbling fractured promises of you're alright, Harry, and it's going to be okay, and his doctor's telling him to relax as she adjusts some of the medications draining into his veins.
It all starts to go a bit fuzzy after that, whatever new dose of painkillers steadily making its way into his bloodstream, and it isn't much longer before he passes out.
His doctor tells him it's amnesia. After twenty-four hours of close monitoring and a thousand and one questions that he only has five hundred answers to, he's diagnosed with amnesia. He can't remember anything from the past year and a half, and that, combined with the gradual decrease in his pain meds and the horrific ache that quickly fills its place, leaves him a cranky, irritable mess when he finally transfers out of the High Dependency Unit and into the General Ward.
They say he can probably go home in a few days. He just doesn't know where home is.
"You moved into a new flat after uni," Gemma tells him, pulling up photos he must have sent while furnishing his tiny space. They'd gone through others earlier that morning, the most recent from New Years and Christmas, his sister's birthday, a brunch they had together in November. That had been difficult, almost as difficult as his first good look in the bathroom mirror. Apart from the obvious cuts and scrapes up his chin and cheekbones, the yellow-brown bruise directly under his eye, it had been a shock trying to absorb all the sudden changes in his face and body that should have been barely noticeable over the slow span of two years.
For the first time in his life, he has a face full of stubble. He'd asked his mum to bring him a decent razor and maybe a pair of scissors for his hair, but he thinks he might want to keep his hair as long as it is. If almost-twenty-four-year-old Harry had liked it enough to grow it out, maybe he should keep it. Dr. Hartman said he could have a better chance of remembering things if he goes back to the life he was living before the accident. She also said his chances of fully or even partially recovering decrease rather significantly after the first few days and weeks. He hopes spending the morning looking through old photos with Gemma might spark some sort of recognition.
"It's a bit small, isn't it?" he mumbles, scrolling through the pictures of his kitchen, his living room. "Louis didn't want to keep the old couch?"
He leans into Gemma's side to get a closer look at his new seating arrangements, but his sister lowers the phone to her lap before he can, turning to him with those same sad eyes he's been getting ever since he woke up.
"You don't live with Louis anymore, hun," she says softly, linking their pinkies together on the bed. "You share your new place with Zayn."
Harry swallows hard. He doesn't know a Zayn. He knows a Louis. He knows his best friend, his one and only roommate, the bright-eyed boy who stole his heart when he was eighteen and held on even though he never knew he had it. Harry was going to tell him after graduation. He was going to plan a little road trip for the fall, a brief self-promotional tour filled with cafés and open mic nights, and he was going to ask Louis to go with him.
"Did I ever...?" he starts to ask, but changes his mind half-way through. "Zayn's not my boyfriend, is he?" he tries instead, feeling a bit dumb.
Gemma gives a slight chuckle and shakes her head. "No, H, as far as mum and I know, you haven't been seeing anyone lately," she tells him. "Sorry to disappoint you if you were hoping for a secret lover."
"I wasn't hoping," Harry shrugs and winces slightly at the dull ache in his shoulder. "I just thought..." But he's not sure what he thought. Maybe he was hoping Louis might be his boyfriend. Maybe he was hoping there would be a logical explanation as to why they aren't living together anymore.
He leaves whatever questions he has about it on the tip of his tongue and picks Gemma's phone out of her lap. The doctors gave his own phone to his mum when they first brought him in and he hasn't yet asked for it back. He doesn't think he's quite ready for the onslaught of texts and voicemails from people he might not remember, strangers wishing him well and sending their unrequited love. Besides, he'd tried reading his dad's newspaper earlier that morning, and concentrating on such fine print had started to give him a headache. He's just not ready.
"Can we go back to my graduation and start from there?" he murmurs, tucking the unbruised side of his face against Gemma's shoulder.
Gemma scratches at his greasy, long-since-washed hair and twists around to place a soft kiss to his forehead. "Sure, but I'm having mum give you a good cleaning when she gets back."
She scrolls until she finds a photo of them all – his mum, dad, Gemma, Robbin, Niall, Louis, and Liam – crowded behind him in his flowy black graduation gown, and before Harry can moan about her having to be nice to him, she starts telling the story of how he apparently tried to sneak a banana into the ceremony just in case he got hungry.
He makes it through three more months of photos, a summer full of smiles and laughter, wishful sunbathing under the London clouds, until he starts drifting off, his head still resting on his sister's shoulder.
"God, I missed you, you beautiful, curly-haired fucker. Don't you ever fucking do that to me again or I'll kill ya."
Harry shakes his head and offers the nurse an apologetic little shrug as she bustles out of the room to clear some space for his friends.
"Missed you too, Nialler," he mumbles into Niall's thick jumper, their embrace far too timid for his liking. He hasn't been able to get a proper hug from anyone in the two days he's been awake.
"It's good to have you back," Liam adds from the doorway. He smiles at Harry, and Harry can tell he's nervous just by the way he shuffles into the room. If he's being honest, he's kind of nervous about having his friends visit as well. When it's just his family with him, it doesn't matter if he falls asleep, if he gets overwhelmed, if he needs a break every once in a while just to cool his head or let out a few scared, frustrated tears. He had his first near-panic attack only a few hours ago when he went to change into clean clothes and found three other tattoos he couldn't remember on his arm. His mum had walked in on him staring at his reflection in the mirror, about ten seconds away from a sob, his right arm not even through his sleeve.
He's sure his friends would understand if he broke down in front of them. He'd just... rather not.
"It's alright, Liam, you can come inside," he rolls his eyes instead. "I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure amnesia is non-transmissible." He hopes a little humor might ease some of the tension away. He's not dying, after all.
"Sorry, you're right, I just–" Liam pauses, still too far to wrestle into a hug from where Harry's sat on the bed. "I don't know how this works with you. It's all a bit weird, isn't it? Like, the past two years of your life are just literally gone."
"Actually, it's about twenty months," Harry sighs and scoots over so Niall can fit in against the pillows next to him. "I've still got everything up until the middle of my last term at uni. If I weren't so concerned about my brain swelling or my ribs aching every time I breathe, I'd probably be freaking out over exams or something."
"That's sick," Niall says, grinning in a way Harry's not sure he likes.
"Is it?" he asks and tries raising an eyebrow. It bunches his stitches together and sends a twinge of pain through his scalp.
"Yeah, it's like hitting the reset button on life," the blonde explains. "Sure, it might suck that you can't remember it at all, but it's not like you got married or did anything crazy during those months. I mean, the biggest things that happened were you went on a road trip and met Zayn."
"We met on a road trip?" Harry asks, confused. He wonders if it was the road trip, the one he would have asked Louis to go on, the one where, if everything had gone according to plan, he should have ended up with a bit more than just a new friend, no offense to Zayn. He's sure Zayn's lovely. He just thinks having Louis reciprocate his feelings would have been a lot lovelier.
Except he's apparently single, which has him wondering if anything even did happen on that road trip, if he's just been a complete coward for the past two years.
"You met Zayn at the bakery," Niall tells him, interrupting his train of thought and bumping their legs together as he kicks his shoes off and pulls his feet onto the bed. "The road trip was a solo thing, just you and your guitar and two months of touring the country after you sold your flat. When you finally came home, Zayn overheard you at the bakery saying you needed a place to stay, so he let you crash at his until you officially moved in. He's here, you know?" Niall adds, nodding toward the door. "He's downstairs with your mum and Gemma, waiting for you to want meet him again."
Harry fiddles with the scratchy sheets pooled around his waist and nods. It's a lot to take in, a lot more than he managed to get from Gemma's photos and fun stories. He sold his and Louis' flat. He spent two months driving all over England with just his guitar – no plan, no Louis, not even a place to come back to when he decided to call it quits. He must have called it quits, right? Things must not have panned out they way they should have, or else why would he still be working at the bakery?
He takes a deep breath, as deep a breath as he can manage without garnering any sharp pains in his side, and lets it out slowly.
"I think, maybe we should wait another day," he says, voice quiet as he considers meeting a total stranger who already knows everything about him. He bends his knees and pulls his feet up so Liam can take a tentative seat on the edge of his bed, both he and Niall nodding in agreement.
"He'll understand," Niall says, looping their arms together, "though I'm not sure he's going leave until he sees you're okay himself."
"Yeah?" Harry asks, a small bit of affection blooming in his chest.
"Yeah," Niall nods. "He's great. You'll love him."
Harry has no choice but to take Niall's word for it.
"I um. I brought some get well cards, by the way," Liam tells him, twisting his rucksack into his lap and pulling out a huge stack of envelopes. "Everyone's been dropping them off with us and Zayn ever since they heard about you. There's one in there from Ed, and Nick, Jeff too. Barbara even had everyone at the bakery sign one for Zayn to bring the other day."
He passes them over and Harry glances at the couple of cards already sitting on his windowsill – one from his cousins, another from his mum's friend – and wonders if he'll even have enough room for the rest of them.
"Do I know all these people?" he asks, fanning out the cards in his lap. "I mean, will I remember all of them?"
"I think most of them you will," Liam nods. "There might be some from Zayn's friends in there, and like, I know Xander wrote one and you only met about a year ago, but most of them you should know."
"A lot of them want to come visit, too, but I think Gemma got word out to give you some space to get readjusted first," Niall explains. "You'll probably see everyone for your birthday, anyway."
"What about Louis?" Harry asks, re-stacking the cards and placing them on his side table next to a plate of gross, half-eaten, hospital sausage and potatoes. "Is he coming later or did he take Gemma seriously?"
He turns back to both of them just as Liam's giving Niall another panicked look, and feels Niall's arm tense where it's wrapped around his own. His heart plummets.
"Well, I mean, like, I called and told him what happened when we first heard," Niall starts slowly, words falling like heavy footsteps in Harry's suddenly hypersensitive ears. "I just. I don't think he's coming, is all."
Harry blinks at him, twisting slightly despite his protesting ribs just to make sure the words registering in his head are the same as the ones coming out of Niall's mouth.
"Why not?" he asks, voice straining to remain even.
Niall's the one that looks hesitant this time.
"I don't think you and Louis have actually spoken to each other in about a year and a half," he admits tentatively, like it's paining him to admit it, like he knows just how much it's going to hurt. It does hurt. Harry doesn't understand.
"None of us were ever sure what happened between you," Liam adds, setting a warm hand on Harry's socked foot. Harry nearly recoils, the weight burning through to his skin. "He took that job offer in New York just before Niall's birthday and two weeks later he was already gone," Liam explains. "There wasn't like a fight or anything, as far as we know – you and Louis never really wanted to talk about it – but I think you just lost touch with each other in the end."
"You kind of went your separate ways," Niall says, unlinking their arms. "At least, that's what I always thought happened."
Harry feels sick. He's not even hooked up to an IV anymore but his head is swimming and his heart is caving in on itself, and whatever pills they made him swallow earlier to keep him comfortable and pain-free have his entire body going rigid despite their efforts to keep him calm.
Of all the shit news he's had thrown at him these past few days, this is the first to really knock the wind out of him. He can handle a concussion, a couple of stitches, some bruises. He can relearn his memories, make new ones, cope with all the changes he went through during those missing months. But he's not sure he can do any of it without his best friend by his side.
"You alright, mate?" Liam worriedly asks after a long moment of tense silence and Harry forcing himself to take deep enough breaths. He's surprised his heart monitor hasn't crashed yet.
"He was still your best friend when your memories stop, wasn't he?" Niall realizes, a dark shadow of pity in his blue eyes.
Harry rubs at his own, mindful of the yellowing bruise above his cheekbone, and gives a small, quiet nod. "He is, yeah," he says shakily before correcting himself. "He was."
He was and none of this makes sense. He finished uni and a few months later, possibly before he even had the chance to ask Louis to go on the road trip with him, to tell him how he felt, Louis left for New York of all places. God, Harry can't remember Louis ever mentioning looking for a job abroad, let alone in New York.
He must have been devastated. If he'd still felt the same way he does now – as he did back when his memories cut off – he can't imagine letting Louis walk out of his life like that, letting him move across an entire ocean, letting them just fall apart, without something serious happening between them. It's probably why he fled, why he took two months on the road instead of two weeks, why he came back out of the blue and went to live with the first person who'd take him in.
It's all his own panicked speculation, but he knows himself – whether he's twenty-two or nearly twenty-four – and he knows it's something he'd probably do. The only person who would know for sure is the same person who hasn't spoken to him in over a year, the same person who might not even be living in the same country anymore.
"Is he still in New York?" he asks, scratching absentmindedly at the rose inked over his elbow. He wonders if Liam and Niall knew he was in love with Louis, if he ever told them. Probably not, he decides, dragging his fingers over the new mermaid tattoo. They don't look all that ready to dish out whatever extra comfort that he might need right now.
"He didn't stay very long," Liam supplies, watching Harry's long fingers trail up and down his forearm before glancing up and meeting Harry's eyes. "He moved back just after New Years, last year. Said it wasn't for him, that he hated being so far away. I suppose he just got a bit homesick in the end, especially after spending the holidays and his birthday over there on his own."
"And you're all... you're all still friends with him? You both still talk to him?" Harry asks, heart breaking, probably not for the first time.
"Yeah, we saw him on New Years Eve," Niall says. "You went out with Gemma and her friends, and me and Payno went to party at Louis' new place. It's not far from where you two used to live, actually."
He takes his phone out, whether to show Harry the place on a map or pull up photos from the inside like Gemma had of his own flat, Harry doesn't know. He stops Niall either way, shakes his head with his lips drawn tight, and tells him maybe some other time. He's not ready for the details yet, not when he still needs the full story.
"What'd he say?" he asks quietly, nudging his cold toes under Liam's thigh. "When you told him about me being here, what'd Louis say?"
"Nothing," Niall shrugs and flips his phone through his fingers as Harry's stomach drops. "He didn't pick up. I left a voice message but he never called back."
"I texted him when we found out you were okay," Liam adds. "He knows about your memory being gone and all, I just think he's a bit like us, Harry. He doesn't know what to do about it."
Harry nods and peels a bit of dead skin off his bottom lip. "Not much anyone can do about it," he shrugs and settles back against his pillows, Niall pressed against him from shoulder to hip. "Just, like. If there's anything else big like that, like me not speaking to my best friend or moving to a new flat, could you maybe tell me before I have to find out like this?"
A flash of guilt passes across Liam's face as Niall hums thoughtfully next to him.
"You kind of gave up on the whole singer-songwriter thing after your road trip," he supplies after a moment. "Not sure you've touched your guitar in over a year."
The air in Harry's throat goes dry, but other than that he hardly flinches.
"Anything else?" he asks, voice tight with dread and anticipation, bracing for the next blow.
Niall's eyebrows furrow ever so slightly – on the brink of something even more disheartening, Harry suspects – before they shoot up and his face breaks into a massive grin.
"Sorry," he apologizes for the sudden excitement. "I've just realized you get to rewatch all of your new favorite movies and TV shows for the first time again."
He leans across Harry to grab the remote by his side and flip through the TV channels, and Harry relaxes, a soft laugh bubbling out of his chest as his nerves settle back down.
"M'just glad I didn't forget you guys," he sighs, curling into Niall as best as he can. He pats the side of the bed next to him and motions for Liam to join.
"You sure there's enough room?" the boy asks, eyeing the tight space.
"He doesn't have the bloody plague, Liam," Niall scoffs. "Get your fuckin' arse up here and give him a hug before I help him remember that time he walked in on you with that–"
"Alright, Jesus, relax," Liam hastily cuts him off, face burning bright red as he climbs off the edge of the bed and squeezes himself as close to Harry as he can get without crushing him. "I'm not afraid he's got the plague, I just don't want to hurt him."
"You're not going to hurt me," Harry insists and pulls Liam's arm across his chest, giving it the best hug he can manage before dropping their hands into his lap. He feels like at home like this, squished between his two friends while Niall searches for a movie he hasn't yet remembered seeing. If he can't go back to his old flat, if he can't go back to Louis, at least he still has this. He'll just have to ask Niall about what he walked in on Liam doing later.
"Oh, this one was good," the blonde decides, stopping on a film that only started airing ten minutes ago. "You saw it in theaters with us last winter. I think you liked it."
"Think I'll like it again?" Harry asks, uncertain. He wiggles his toes back under the sheets and shifts against the mound of pillows behind his head until he's somewhat comfortable.
"Reckon you might," Niall nods.
Harry hopes he's right. He could do with a decent distraction right about now.
He listens quietly as Liam sums up the first scene as best as he can, the heaviness settling back in his chest with every slow breath he takes, with every thought that strays a little too close to the one person he wishes was wrapped around him in his stiff hospital bed instead.
He tries to focus on the film, to enjoy it like he might have a year ago, honestly, he does. It's just not the same, knowing somewhere along the line he managed to lose not only his memories, but the person that made them all worth remembering.
Liam gets up halfway through to shut the blinds and turn off the lights. He must notice the way Harry isn't exactly focused on the film, the way his thumb keeps brushing over the anchor tattooed on his wrist and the small, healing scrape next to it, across his bone. He gently pulls Harry's hands apart and twists their fingers together, squeezes with just enough pressure to remind him that he's not as alone as he might feel.
By the third day, Harry comes to regard his hospital room as his own, personal prison cell. The food is shit, the commotions in the corridor keep him up all night, he has to ask permission to use the fucking toilet, and yet, it's nothing compared to being the prisoner in his own mind. He hates it. He's tired and frustrated and bored, and no matter how many times his doctor tells him there's still a chance he might remember something, he's already starting to accept the notion that the damage might very well be permanent.
He's lost a year and a half of his life, twenty months he'll never be able to get back, not without photos or secondhand stories, all memories that won't ever be his own again, and somehow he's supposed to be okay with that.
He's not. He's really not, and the biggest part of it is all to do with Louis.
No one knows exactly what happened between them. Not Gemma, not his mum, not even Zayn. Harry makes sure to ask him when they meet, or, well, when they formally meet. He already knows Zayn, it turns out, because Zayn's that gorgeous, dark-haired, dark-eyed specimen of human whom Harry's been referring to as "two sugars and a blueberry muffin" ever since he started working at the bakery. He just never knew his name was Zayn. It also makes it a lot less daunting, to find out that the man he's been living with is the same man who's stopped by the bakery at least once a week for four years straight, always with the same order, always with that little sketchbook tucked under his arm. They've only ever had polite conversation in the past – at least, in Harry's memories of the past – but with the way he seems to get on with Niall and Liam, even Harry's own family, Harry's sure they'll get back to where they were in no time.
He just. He wishes he had some answers. He wishes he had a get-well card from his best friend. He wishes every time someone knocks on his door, every time someone sticks their head inside to pay him a visit, that it's the person he hopes it'll be, but it's not. It's never Louis and it fucking sucks.
Before his mum goes home that night – his final night in this bloody place if he has any say in the matter – Harry caves in and asks for his phone.
"Just trying to get a head start on reentering the real world," he claims when his mum eyes him suspiciously.
"You're sure you'll be alright?" she asks, unconvinced. "You've got over a hundred messages on there and I'm sure at least half of them are from people you don't know, love."
It doesn't matter. Harry only needs to see the messages from Louis and everything will be fine. He won't even bother with the others just yet.
"I'm sure, mum. This way, we can facetime at three in the morning when you're up worrying about me and I'm up, listening to the man next door moan about his swollen ankles." Harry takes the phone from her outstretched hand and pulls her in for a tight hug. His ribs are still sore but he took some pain meds with the overcooked apple pie he had after dinner, and the sharp ache he had felt a few hours ago is nothing more than a barely-noticeable throb now.
"Call me if you need anything," Anne murmurs in his ear, placing a kiss to the good side of his head.
"Of course," Harry mumbles back. He waves goodbye as she leaves, the phone in his hand feeling like a lead weight, like he's about to open Pandora's box and everything inside it is everything he doesn't want to know. He needs to know, though. If there's anything even remotely close to a diary or a journal or getting the memories back from his own perspective, this phone is his best bet.
Luckily for him, it's the same phone from two years ago, once brand new back then, now dented and scratched, the screen cracked in the top left corner. He swipes across the lock screen – a black and white photo of some abstract painting, whatever that's supposed to mean – and hesitates before entering his passcode.
It hasn't changed either, surprising to say the least. It's still his and Louis' building and flat number, 2832, and Harry doesn't know whether to find that absurd after moving out and not speaking to each other for so long, or just plain sad.
He opens his messages and ignores the count, drops down the search bar and enters Louis' name. There's only one conversation, the last message sent December 24th, 11:47 PM, nearly a month ago.
hey happy birthday .x
That's it. Three words, no response, no acknowledgements, no thank you, not even a hope everything's okay from this past week. The message above it says the same exact thing but from the year before and it makes Harry want to cry. He takes a deep, shuddery breath, lungs prickling, eyes burning around the edges. He doesn't understand. Two messages in over a year. There's nothing else, no other texts, no traces of their last conversation, nothing, as if Harry cleared them all out, as if he didn't want to see them anymore, as if he didn't want to remember. He wants to remember now. God, he wishes he could just fucking remember, but there's nothing. There's literally nothing in his head, just a hollow void that wants to be filled, an empty space that used to hold so much, and that scares the hell out of him.
Before he can stop himself, he pulls open his contacts and dials Louis' number, fingers trembling.
It rings and rings and rings, the tinny humming going on and on in his right ear, phone pressed to the good side of his head for what feels like a minute. And then it connects with Louis' voicemail and Harry knows in his current memories it's only been a week since he's heard Louis' voice, but in reality, the real Harry or modern Harry or whatever he's supposed to call the version of himself that inhabited his body right until the accident – that Harry probably hasn't heard Louis' voice in so, so long.
He hangs up before it lets him leave a message, throat too tight, chest too heavy to think of anything worth saying that won't leave him sounding as desperate and confused as he certainly feels. Louis won't want to hear that. Louis won't want to hear anything from him, not when he hasn't in over a year.
It's the first time in his three conscious days that he really lets himself cry. He shuts his phone off and drops it in the rucksack his mum brought, grabs one of his extra pillows from the foot of his bed and hugs it tightly to his chest. It hurts. His shallow breathing rattles his ribs, his head spins with every sniffle, he can't even brush away the tears from his cheeks without pressing on a bruise or dragging his fingertips over a scrape.
He wants to go home. It's only been three days, six if he counts the days he was out, but he needs to get out of there, clear his head, figure out how to be himself in this shitty world where he's managed to lose the most important person he knows.
Niall and Liam both volunteer to stay the night at his flat when he gets discharged the next day, and honestly, it's great to know his friends care so much, but he'd rather be alone.
"I'll sleep in Zayn's bed and Liam can take the couch," Niall proclaims as they all climb out of the back of a cab at Harry's new address – Harry being the last one out, gripping the door for extra support. He's still a bit uneasy on his feet, getting disoriented quite often, finding head-rushes far more common now that his brain's gone through the wringer. His stomach has been in his throat and his heart has been locked in this unrelenting vice ever since the previous night, and when he'd thought about leaving the hospital, about having to go back to a life he'd never exactly wished for, he'd nearly lost his breakfast over the edge of his hospital bed.
Now he's here, though, holding the key to a door he doesn't recognize, hands trembling, head whirling, lip worried through with the words he can't quite bring himself to say. This isn't how it was supposed to be.
Twenty-two year old Harry had wanted so much more. He was going to make it big. He'd have graduated uni, would have asked Louis to go touring with him, would have kissed him, told him he was in love with him, would have kept everything alright between them. He'd have released an album by now. Maybe he wouldn't have been radio worthy just yet, but he'd have kept working, kept fighting for his dream, kept writing and singing and playing his guitar until all his stars aligned, and that would have been enough.
He wouldn't have given up. Not on Louis, or his career. It's why he hadn't quite understood Niall when he'd claimed there was an untouched guitar sitting in his closet, collecting a year's worth of dust. He still has calluses on his fingers from playing. Nothing makes sense.
"You have to wiggle the key a little," Zayn tells him when he tries to unlock the door and can't quite turn the knob.
Harry lets out a tense breath and jams the key back in the lock, giving it a slight jiggle before twisting the knob again. It doesn't budge.
"Can you just...?" He steps back and hands the key to Zayn. "We'll be out here all day if you wait for me to get it."
He can sense the worried glances Niall and Liam exchange behind his back, but he doesn't care. He's exhausted from the walk out of the hospital, from the three flights of stairs he just had to climb, and he's already frustrated enough as it is. As soon as they get the door open, he's heading straight for his bedroom and taking a very long nap. His friends can entertain themselves, mutter about him while he's not there to listen, he doesn't care.
"Welcome home," Zayn says tentatively as he shoulders the door open and motions for Harry to step inside.
It's cold. For late January, that's pretty much expected, but the lights are all off and the heat hasn't been turned on all day, and everything just feels sort of wrong. Zayn flicks a light switch on and Harry's met with the same, clean, compact living room he'd seen in Gemma's photos. No dirty dishes or week-old cups of tea sitting on the coffee table. No lumpy, orange couch or CDs piled on each available surface. No Louis.
Harry quietly kicks off his boots onto a welcome mat – they have a welcome mat – and tries his best to look pleased when he turns back to his friends.
"It's nice," he says, voice thin around the world's most forced smile. He doesn't want to cry again. "It's, um. It's very... clean."
Zayn lets out a nervous laugh and rubs at the back of his neck. "Your mum might have stopped by last night to help me get it ready. I promise it's not normally like this."
"Proper slobs you two are," Niall says, slinking past Harry with a gentle pat on the back. He crosses the living room and opens one of the opposite doors, and Harry just manages to catch sight of the black blur that shoots past Niall's ankles before it comes to a stop at his own two feet.
"We have a cat?" he asks, peering cautiously down at the sleek, black feline twisting in and out of his ankles.
Zayn nods and bends to pick the animal up, scratching behind its soft, pointed ears. "This is Marcus. You found him behind the bakery and brought him home."
"Is he friendly?" Harry asks. He drops a timid hand to pet the top of Marcus' head, and Marcus lets him, nuzzling into his touch and purring softly.
"You're the only one he hasn't tried to bite, so..." Zayn shrugs. He slips the cat into Harry's arms and hangs his coat on a hook by the door. Harry tries not to wince at the strain the extra weight puts on his shoulder but Niall must notice because he takes Marcus back and gently sets him on the floor.
"Your room's over there," he says, pointing to the unopened door next to where Marcus had been locked away. "The cat likes to sleep with whoever will take him, but you guys usually keep him in Zayn's when you're out. Should we give you a quick tour now or do you want to get settled in first?"
Harry lets his eyes roam over the place, the tiny kitchen cut off from the living room by the breakfast bar, the bathroom to his left, the bit of Zayn's room he can see through the doorway, and shakes his head.
"Think I'm just going to check out my room and maybe call my mum," he decides, slipping his arms out of his own coat and making sure his phone's still in his back pocket. He'd gotten about fifteen new messages overnight, two missed calls, none of them from Louis, but he thinks he might try leaving a voicemail later, mood permitting.
They don't question him, don't try to stop him or convince him not to lock himself away, and for that, Harry is eternally grateful. The only one who says anything about it Liam. He waits until Zayn and Niall leave to grab drinks from the kitchen before pulling Harry aside, just outside his closed door, with a warm hand low on his back as he turns him around.
"Hey," he says quietly, worry etched in the corners of his eyes. "I just. I thought you should know, like. Your room's not like it was before," he cautions. "After you came back from your road trip, you were just, like, different, you know? When you stopped making music, everything else just got a bit quiet as well."
He glances sideways at Harry's door, and Harry's not sure what could possibly lie behind it that would require such a warning, but the distress in Liam's eyes is enough for him to take it seriously. He blinks down at the doorknob and nods, knots tightening in his stomach.
"As long as I still have a bed," he sighs, desperate for a little laugh at such a depressing time.
Liam huffs out a soft, nervous one in reply and shakes his head. "Don't worry," he says, letting his hand fall to his side. "Like I said, it's just... quieter. Like, maybe that's why it's been so weird, having the old you back these past few days. For a while it felt like maybe we lost you somewhere in those months you can't remember. And like, I know it hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows for you since you woke up, but it's nice to finally have you back."
He sounds a bit weepy about it and Harry refuses to meet his eyes. It's like hitting the reset button, Niall had said. It makes Harry's skin crawl.
"I never went anywhere, Liam," he says, exhaustion weighing on him. "I don't know what happened or why I stopped writing music, why my best friend hasn't spoken to me in over a year, but people don't change without a good reason, and maybe – I don't know. Maybe I was better off that way."
He doesn't believe it, not a word of it, but he doesn't give Liam a chance to argue before he twists the knob on his door and shuts it quietly behind him.
It's dark. That's the first thing he notices as he flicks the lock and feels along the walls for a light switch. His curtains are drawn shut and his bed is pushed into the far corner, and when he turns the light on and lets his eyes adjust, he quickly understands what Liam had meant when he'd said things had gotten quieter.
The room looks nothing like Harry's old one. Sure, it's the same bed, the same desk, the same ugly, floral lamp on his bedside table, but it barely looks lived in. It's not clean in the way the rest of the flat is spotless, dusted by his mum, tidied up for his homecoming. It's clean in the way that there's nothing there. There's no character. The walls are empty, the floor is cold and hard, his curtains and sheets and comforter are all plain, solid, boring. All the pictures he used to have, photos of friends and family, snippets of his life in London, magazine cutouts – they're all missing. He never even strung up his fairy lights.
There's just his laptop, perched on the end of his bed, a stack of old books piled on his desk, and it's like standing in a stranger's room, only the stranger is himself and he has no fucking clue what happened to him.
The phone rings four times this go around before Louis picks up, and Harry almost stops breathing.
"Hello?" Louis answers, voice clear and crisp in Harry's ear, making him just about as dizzy as the walk up to his flat.
Harry feels nauseous when he opens his mouth. "Hey. Um, hi. It's me," he mumbles before realizing with a jolt that Louis might not have his number anymore. "It's Harry... Styles," he tacks on, screwing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose. This was a terrible idea.
There's silence on the other end for a long time. Harry understands. He shouldn't have called. He tries not to let the static swallow him whole.
"I – yeah. Hi," Louis finally answers, slowly, awkwardly. "I um. Sorry. I heard about your accident. You're alright?"
Harry lets out a low breath and scrubs a hand over his face. "Not really," he admits as if Louis cares, as if he's still twenty-two and calling his best friend when things aren't okay. "I mean, I'm... I'm good," he amends, embarrassed. "I can't remember much, but I guess I'm alright? I guess I'm okay."
"Good," Louis agrees and clears his throat. "That's good. I'm glad you're okay."
"Thanks," Harry answers with a weak smile. He switches the phone to the other side of his head and leans his unstitched side against the wall. "It's been really weird these past few days, trying to relearn everything. Like, I've got all these tattoos I don't remember getting, and my hair. God, you should see my hair, Lou, it's so long. You'd hate it. And I–"
Harry shuts his mouth and tries to breathe past the lump in his throat. "Yeah?"
"Listen, Harry, I don't think this is a good idea," Louis tells him. He sounds about twenty months away and Harry doesn't want to do this again.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," Louis starts with a shaky breath, "you shouldn't be calling me. We haven't spoken in over a year, and I know – I know you don't remember it, but I don't think you'd want this if you hadn't had the accident. Two weeks ago you wouldn't have wanted anything to do with me."
All Harry can think about are those two unanswered texts left in his phone, two happy birthdays, two hopeless attempts at reaching out, and he can't agree.
"I don't... I don't think that's true," he argues. He can hear the boys watching TV and chatting amongst themselves on the other side of his door but all he can focus on is the sound of his breath, harsh and ragged, pulling at his heart.
"We're not kids anymore, Harry," Louis sighs into the receiver "I'm not going to play this game with you, not now, not considering – considering everything you know and don't know. It wouldn't be fair for you."
Harry wants to laugh. "Fair?" he repeats, tipping his head back against the wall and staring at his blank, empty ceiling. "Louis, how is any of this fair? I wake up in a hospital bed with months worth of memories missing and a best friend who hasn't spoken to me in over a year, and it's not fair for you to talk to me, to explain everything, to fill me in on what happened between us?"
"They're my memories too, you know?" Louis reminds him. He doesn't sound angry, just tired. Harry supposes they both are. "Some things are just better left forgotten."
Throat tight, Harry shakes his head. "That's not your decision to make, Louis."
He's met with static – hollow, spacey static, silence stretching from his dark, cold bedroom to wherever Louis might be, and for the first time throughout all of this, Harry feels every bit of it.
"I'm not doing this," Louis finally says. "I'm not going to argue with you, Harry. I have to go."
Harry doesn't answer. The line goes dead.
"You're sure I like this stuff?" he asks a few days later, frowning at the vomit-colored puree he's just concocted in his nutribullet.
"No idea, mate," Zayn shrugs from where he's perched on the edge of the worktop in nothing but a pair of joggers. Harry's been having a rather difficult time trying not to stare. "I never knew if you drank these because you thought they were healthy or if you did it just to spite me."
Harry leans over the open blender and sniffs. It's not a particularly bad smell. It's just. While he likes berries and bananas and spinach and yogurt all individually, he's not sold on how well they're supposed to go together. It's the spinach, he reckons. The spinach is throwing him off.
He takes the container from the blender and pokes a plastic straw right through the brownish-red mush.
"Cheers," he mutters, grimacing as he swipes the straw into his mouth with his tongue.
Zayn watches him curiously, dark eyes focused on the slush as it makes its way towards Harry's mouth, the corner of his lips quirked in an amused, little smirk. Harry doesn't trust that look. He stops sucking just before the smoothie reaches his tongue and pulls back.
"You're not taking the piss, are you?"
Zayn rolls his eyes and shakes his head, climbing off the worktop to fix himself a bowl of cereal.
"You got on this health kick over the summer," he explains, grabbing the cocoa puffs. "There was yoga and kale and you woke up every morning at the crack of dawn. We all thought you were serious about it until you got shit-faced at Niall's birthday party and killed your routine to suffer through your hangover. The smoothies were the only thing to survive."
"Sounds delightful," Harry comments as he swirls the straw through the slushy mixture. He's not sure how he even managed to think about something this unappetizing with a hangover. He takes a steadying breath and slurps a small mouthful past his lips, hesitantly rolling it around on his tongue before swallowing. "Alright. That's. Hmm. Well, it's not bad, actually?"
"Really?" Zayn asks, skeptical.
"Yeah, you want to try some?" Harry offers him the container. Zayn pulls a face and takes a few steps back.
"Couldn't get me to drink it before, won't get me to drink it now." He fills his bowl halfway and adds a splash of milk, some of it splattering over the sides.
"Suit yourself," Harry shrugs as Zayn mops up the mess.
He doesn't bother pouring his smoothie into a glass, just takes the container with his straw already in it and goes to sit on the couch in front of the TV. Zayn joins him a minute later, the two of them sharing an oversized blanket Niall's grandmother knit for Harry after his first visit to Mullingar, Netflix already starting the next episode in a long list of shows Harry fully intends to binge watch before he goes back to work. He has a week. His doctor told him to get plenty of rest, try to reacquaint himself with his routine prior to the accident, hold off on any prolonged physical activity for a while.
He's only been home for three days and he's already set on quitting the bakery and becoming a permanent couch potato, life aspirations be damned.
"That's a terrible idea," Zayn advises when Harry tells him so between episodes. "Don't do that. You won't be able to pay rent and you'll probably start to smell. I'll have to kick you out and find a new roommate."
"Hey, fuck off," Harry scowls and goes to poke Zayn with his straw. Zayn ducks out of the way and slaps his hand to the side, but not before Harry notices the odd, curious expression on his face, the look that says he's being studied, that says Zayn's trying to figure something out. He drops his hand to his lap and fidgets with the straw, feeling a bit under the microscope until Zayn shakes his head and offers an apologetic smile.
"Sorry," he says, slightly embarrassed. "I just thought... It's really weird, you know? Like, you've only been here a few days and you're already telling me to fuck off like you would have done two weeks ago. It's like, even after all that – after losing over a year's worth memories – you're still the same person."
"Well, technically I am..." Harry shrugs, folding the straw like an accordion. "I'm not, like, completely changed or anything. I know everyone keeps referring to old Harry and new Harry like they're two different versions of me, but I'm still the same Harry. I've still got the same brain in there, same personality."
"I know," Zayn nods in understanding. "I know you're still you. It's just sort of interesting how easily we're getting on again."
"We did sort of spend my entire second day home holed up in my bed together," Harry points out. "Who knew the life of a freelance internet cartoonist could be so fascinating?"
"Shut up," Zayn mutters, but he's grinning when Harry reaches out to ruffle his hair. "You were moping and needed a distraction and I thought, well, we've just spent half a week telling you about your own life, why not tell you something about myself? So I did. And you listened and got reacquainted with Marcus and now look at us."
"Best friends," Harry supplies with a mocking smile and bright, earnest eyes. He flicks his accordion straw into Zayn's lap, and Marcus jumps up between them to bat it away.
He feels like he should say something else, thank Zayn for that day in his bed, those few solid hours of quiet company the morning after his dreadful phone call with Louis, but he thinks Zayn gets it. He probably got it the moment Harry let him in, after Niall had gone to work and Liam had run off to meet his coworkers for brunch. He understood exactly what Harry needed without Harry having to say anything, and that, most of all, is the reason Harry seems to be falling right back into whatever trusting bubble of friendship they must have had before he went and got hit by a car.
Part of him wonders if that wasn't the first time Zayn had had to do that – piece him back together without really grasping the full puzzle. Part of him wonders if Zayn might already know the puzzle anyway, whether Harry ever told him or not.
"I spoke to Louis the other night," he says quietly, tucking his hands into the sleeves of his hoodie and reaching out to scratch behind Marcus' pointy ears. "It was right after we got home from the hospital and I just... this place was so unfamiliar, I think I just needed to hear from someone I could remember."
"Makes sense." Zayn nods. "I'm sure it was a lot to handle at once. How'd it go?"
"Not very well," Harry admits, throat gone a little dry. "He didn't want to talk about what happened with us. He said they were his memories to keep and then he hung up on me."
"Sounds like something he might do," Zayn sighs and stretches, leaving Harry to wonder.
"Do you know him?" he asks, curious. "Did you ever meet him?"
"Not formally, no. I've seen him at Niall's and Liam's for parties, but we've never been introduced," Zayn explains. "Everything I know about him, I know from you, and you never really wanted to talk about him at all."
"It was that bad?"
"Bad enough that you avoided each other like the plague when he moved back to London," Zayn shrugs, picking the straw off the floor and letting Marcus play with it. "Any party he went to, you stayed home. If you were there, he wasn't. And then there was Niall's birthday–"
"When I got absolutely pissed and broke my crazy health routine," Harry recounts from their earlier conversation. His memory isn't complete shit, after all. "Did he say something to me? Did something happen that night?"
"I don't think so," Zayn tells him. "As far as I know he wasn't even supposed to be there. He just showed up halfway through and it was the first time you'd seen him in a literal year and you just sort of, like, broke? I found you two hours later in the corner of Niall's bedroom with an empty bottle of vodka and took you home."
Harry's stomach turns sour. "You never asked what happened?"
"You never wanted to say."
"I was in love with him," he admits after a beat, thumb brushing over the rough scrape on his forearm. Zayn's eyes go soft and he pulls Harry's hand away.
"I know you were," he says gently, squeezing Harry's fingers. "You never told me, but I always figured."
Harry swallows hard. "I woke up still feeling like that, like it was two years ago and I was still in love with him, except so much has changed since then that I don't understand. And I don't..." He stops, shakes his head. "He's not talking to me now, so I can't even ask him about it. He's the only person who knows what happened and he won't even talk to me. It's just bullshit."
"It's fucking unfair."
"It fucking is."
"I'd say let's get plastered, but your doctor said no alcohol for a few weeks," Zayn says, earning a miserable, little laugh from Harry, who ends up clutching his ribs to stop them hurting. He hates this. Laughing hurts, breathing hurts, sneezing feels like fucking torture, and he can't even get drunk to make it any more bearable.
"Let's just watch the next episode," he sighs, pulling his hair from his forehead and securing it in a knot at the top of his head like Gemma showed him. He's decided to keep it long, let it cover his stitches and the section they had to shave down, hide whatever nasty scar he's sure to have once everything's healed and grown back. He quite likes it long anyway.
"I think this is the one where Rebecca dies," Zayn tells him as he presses play on Netflix.
Harry ignores him. Zayn's been saying that at the beginning of every episode since they first started last night and Harry's almost positive she never dies.
He pulls the blanket up to his shoulders and lets Marcus sit on his lap, and forty minutes later when the episode ends and Rebecca's lying dead on the basement floor, he can't even say he's not surprised.
He goes back to work the day before his twenty-fourth birthday. Despite every attempt not to, to lay on his bed for the rest of his life and avoid showering as much as possible, he somehow ends up dragging his arse out of the warm confines of his duvet and making himself presentable at what feels like the crack of fucking dawn. It's actually only nine and he isn't supposed to be at the bakery until at least half ten, but even then, Barbara had said she wasn't going to have him do much anyway. She loves him. She doesn't want to overwhelm him.
Still, there's this uneasy bit of apprehension curling in the pit of Harry's stomach when he steps into the shower and carefully shampoos around his stitches. He's not sure how he's going to handle being out in public around so many people who may or may not already know him, recognize him at the least. He still gets dizzy if he moves too quickly. His shoulder aches like it was only dislocated a day ago. He forgets things as simple as which drawer the utensils are in, even if he's gone to grab a fork or spoon multiple times over the past week.
He's not sure how he's meant to survive a six hour shift at the bakery if he can't even function like a normal human being.
It's only temporary, his physical therapist had told him when he went to see her the day before. The nausea, the dizziness, all the physical traces of his accident and the harsh side affects of his concussion – they'll fade away after a few weeks. She didn't say anything about the memory loss or even his short term memory issues, but Harry hadn't asked about them. He'd just stood there as she rotated his arm in circles and worked his shoulder, let her poke and prod at his sides and ribs, walked in a straight line when she asked him to. He took the bus home and didn't get lost. He counts that as a win.
Everything else though, seems to be oscillating between maybe okay and not okay at all. He gets on better than anything with Zayn, he's got photos all over his phone to help put his life back in order, he's going to work at a place as familiar as anything, and yet, it still hits him like a punch in the gut whenever he sobers up, when he's alone in his room or when Zayn's at work, when he reaches for his phone like he wants to text Louis and remembers he can't.
There's just this black, gaping vortex of a hole in his brain where his memories once were and sometimes, a lot of times, it extends to his heart and settles there like a nasty reminder that this isn't the life he wanted. He doesn't know when that changed, when he gave up on everything, but it kills him more than anything else.
Perhaps that's why it takes such a tremendous effort to slip on his boots and head out for the nearest tube station when Niall comes to get him. He was never meant to work at the bakery for this long.
"Did I ever say why I stopped making music?" he asks as they emerge from the underground a few blocks from their destination. There's a busker on the corner, his fingers poking through the holes in his navy gloves while they sweep over the strings of his weathered guitar. Harry fishes around his pockets for any spare change he might have, but his past self apparently hasn't left him any surprises besides a stick of gum and a three-week-old receipt from Starbucks.
"I asked you once," Niall says, curiously following Harry's gaze. "You told me it wasn't the same anymore. Writing wasn't the same, singing wasn't the same, playing guitar wasn't the same. You said you had this moment on your road trip where all your songs sort of just lost their meaning and you couldn't keep going. You called me after playing at a pub in Bristol and got all philosophical about what's the point and maybe it's the inspiration behind the music, not the music itself, and I'm pretty sure you lost me somewhere along the line because you sounded fairly drunk, but like, I think that's what it was. You drove home the next day and no one's heard you play since."
"And I was okay with that?" Harry asks, frowning. He can't imagine any version of himself – past or present – that would call it quits without putting up a fight.
"I don't know if you were okay with a lot of things back then," Niall tells him, kicking at a bit of loose gravel. "You moved flats and Louis was gone. Uni was over and your tour didn't work out the way you had planned. Payno always had this theory you met someone on the road but I never really bought it. He said you had this broken-hearted look about you when you came back, and like... you did. I just thought it was because you gave up music."
Harry gives a thoughtful hum and shrugs quietly. "Maybe it was a bit of both," he offers, eyes dropping to his toes as he slows to a stop at the curb of a busy street.
Niall leans back against a nearby lamp post and waits for the light to change. "Could be," he agrees easily, hands stuffed in his pockets. "Have you felt the urge to get back into all that now you've gone and reset your brain?"
Harry rolls his eyes. "I haven't reset anything," he sighs. "It's hard to explain, but it's like... I know most of what's happened in the past two years and I know how I'd probably have felt about all of it, I just don't remember feeling any of it."
"So you're like a hybrid-Harry."
"I... yeah, I guess?" Harry shrugs. "And I don't know about playing again. Maybe I was on to something when I called you that night. The inspiration comes before the music, right? No one wants to hear me whinge about getting hit by a car no matter how great the hook is."
Niall snorts and shakes his head as he crosses the street ahead of Harry. "We both know that's not what you'd write about," he says, throwing a knowing look over his shoulder. "Your stuff was fucking sick two years ago. Just take whatever inspired you back then and make it work."
Harry nods but doesn't say anything. His inspiration two years ago was the person who wants nothing to do with him today. He gets it, what he'd said back when he left it all. What's the point of writing, of pouring those words from his heart onto paper and twisting them into melodies, if the person they're sung for doesn't want to hear them?
He keeps his thoughts to himself as they turn the corner and the bakery looms into view. He doesn't mention anything about finding his guitar packed not-so-neatly in the front of his closet or the calluses still healing on his fingertips. He's still not sure what any of that means, why he'd want to keep it a secret if he were still working on his music, but he isn't ready to bring it up just yet. There's so much that everyone else knows about him that he doesn't know himself – he just wants to have something of his own for a while longer.
"You'll be alright with Barbara for the next few hours?" Niall asks, apparently taking Harry's silence for nerves.
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Harry reassures him despite the butterflies fluttering around his stomach. "I survived a week with Zayn. How much worse could a couple more strangers be?"
"Not much, I reckon," Niall decides and bumps into Harry's side, looping their arms together for the remaining stretch of road. Harry allows himself to be pulled along, only stumbling over his own toes once before coming to a stop in front of the bakery and inhaling the sweet, familiar scent of frosted cakes and fruity desserts wafting through the door.
"I'm glad that hasn't changed," he notes, exhaling deeply and removing his hands from his pockets.
Niall squeezes his fingers.
"Call me if you need me," he says. "I'll see you tomorrow night, yeah?"
"You better not have a cake," Harry warns. He repeatedly told his friends he didn't want to do anything big for his birthday and yet Niall's gone and thrown together a party.
"Not everything's about you, Harry," he teases, grinning. "It's just a house party. Half the people I invited don't even know you and the other half won't know it's your big day. We just want you to come out and have a bit of fun, no worries."
"No worries," Harry echoes, trying to relax.
The door opens behind him and he hears someone excitedly call his name. He twists his head around and spots a dark-haired girl behind the counter, waving at him with a warm, friendly smile. His heart sinks a little. He doesn't recognize her.
"That's Georgia," Niall murmurs in his ear as he hooks him in for a one-armed hug. "She makes the greatest cake pops you'll ever eat. Like heaven in your mouth."
"Thanks," Harry mumbles back, trying not to feel discouraged already. "Wish me luck?"
"You won't need it," Niall answers and gives him a nudge inside.
With a fleeting glance over his shoulder as he shuffles through the door, Harry hopes he's right.
Six hours, a dozen awkward conversations, and too many pats on the bum from Barbara later, Harry finds himself utterly exhausted as he finishes ringing up his final customer and allows a short, blonde girl take over his spot at the till.
"Have a good evening, Harry," she says, twisting her hair up in a messy bun and adjusting her apron.
Harry pauses, bottom lip curled into his mouth and chest feeling ten times heavier as he tries to remember her name. He can't. He doesn't know if they've even been introduced yet or if he's already forgotten in the five minutes she's been there.
"Thanks," he says instead, rubbing a smudge of frosting off his hand. "You too."
He ducks into the kitchen, feet dragging and head aching, his ribs causing him to wince with ever breath he takes. There's a rickety wooden stool by the back door for the smokers who want to sit outside while they take their breaks, but he tugs it over to the sink and takes a seat while he washes up.
All Barbara had him do was work the till, place people's orders, answer the phone, put pastries in boxes, and yet he's still got flour in his hair and jam staining the front of his apron. He's still sore and tired and just drained from having to force and hold a smile all day. He never would have imagined interacting with all those customers and chatting with his coworkers would take so much out of him, but that constant reminder of not being able to remember, of customers greeting him and expecting him to know everything about them from the name of their first born to how they take their coffee, well... it started dragging his mood down after about the third or fourth hour.
He carefully scrubs the chocolate icing out from beneath his fingernails and shakes his hair out as best as he can without pulling at his stitches or making himself dizzy. As he pushes to his feet to remove his apron and grab his coat, he hears footsteps behind him and turns to see Barbara making her way over with a gentle fondness in her eyes.
"You alright, dear?" she asks, stopping before him and reaching up to wipe some more flour from his jaw. "You were a bit quiet out there today. It wasn't too much, was it?"
"No, it was fine," Harry lies but the words come out strained, catching in his throat. He feels like he might start crying all of a sudden, like everything's been building all day and now his eyes are starting to sting and his chest is tight and it's only a matter of seconds before the floodgates open.
He takes a shuddery breath and Barbara pulls him in for a tight hug.
"It's alright," she soothes, rubbing a hand up and down his back. "You're alright. No need to get worked up about anything on your first day back."
"I know," Harry murmurs and buries his face in her shoulder. "I know, I'm sorry, I just-"
"For God's sake, don't apologize," she scolds with a soft chuckle. "You did good, Harry. You might have sold the muffins for ten pence less than they normally go, but other than that, you did good."
Harry groans but it rumbles out with a self-deprecating, little laugh, and when Barbara pulls back to hold him at arms' length and study his face for any signs of an impending breakdown, he knows she's right. He's fine, or at least he will be. He just needs to go home and play with his cat, brush off anything that might have snuck under his skin during the day and take a nap.
"I've got something for you in the back before you go," Barbara says, slipping Harry's apron over his head and hanging it on one of the wall hooks.
She winds her way through the prep tables and shelves full of ready-to-bake loaves of bread and comes back with a small, square box in her hands.
"What's this?" Harry asks, prying open the top and peeking inside. There's a mini chocolate cake sitting in the middle, decorated with fresh raspberries and the words Happy Birthday Harry. Harry feels his heart swell with affection.
"Just a little something from all of us for tomorrow," Barbara tells him, smiling sweetly. She's got her own bit of frosting smudged on the corner of her glasses, but Harry suspects she already knows and doesn't much care.
"Thanks, Barbara," he says, closing the lid and wrapping her up in a warm hug once more.
"It's good to have you back, Harry," she says, a little teary-eyed. "Get home safe this time, will you?"
"No more bicycles," Harry promises as he pulls away. As much as he'd like to avoid doing anything crazy for his birthday, he'd still appreciate having one.
He grabs his coat off the rack and slips out the back door, not in the right mindset to have to say anymore goodbyes to people whose names he won't remember or deal with anymore customers he's supposed to know. Barbara understands. She waves him out into the last of the January air and shuts the door behind him, leaving him with nothing but his own two feet and a birthday cake he'll probably share with Zayn over a film he's already seen but can't remember.
He makes it halfway to the bus stop before he registers that he doesn't take the bus anymore and has to double back for the tube. It takes him twice as long to get home, but when he successfully jiggles the busted lock open on the first try and doesn't automatically reach for the phantom light switch that only existed in his old flat, he tries to focus on those small victories instead of letting the rest of the day get him down. He got out of bed and went back to work. He'll get the rest in the end.
"I look like a massive twat."
"Well, yeah," Zayn agrees, poking his head out of the bathroom, one hand still adjusting his hair. "You've done up all the buttons."
Harry glances down at his chest, at the ridiculous, black, fucking sheer, floral-patterned button-up he'd found hanging in his closet, and frowns. "Was I not supposed to?" he asks, long fingers hesitantly slipping the first two buttons back through their holes.
"You never do them all," Zayn tells him. "Come here, I'll show you." He beckons Harry towards him and Harry crosses the living room, kicking one of Marcus' toys out of the way and sidling up next to Zayn in front of the bathroom mirror.
"There were so many options in my closet. I thought this one was solid black with a only few flowers when I took it out," Harry explains, eyeing his reflection skeptically. "I hadn't realized it was sheer."
"It's your pulling shirt," Zayn says. He undoes two more buttons and reaches up to adjust the collar, tugging the shirt closed when one of Harry's nipples decides to peek out. Harry wants to laugh. The shirt is see-through for fuck's sake. His nipples are going to be visible no matter what.
"This," he says, waving his hands up and down his torso and raising both eyebrows, "got me laid?"
It's the first he's asked about his sex life besides the boyfriend question when he first woke up, and frankly, he's not sure he wants to know the answer.
"It worked when you wanted it to," is all Zayn says as he pats him on his good arm and spins him around to fully face the mirror.
He looks... oddly fit? Not to toot his own horn or anything, but this bizarre combination of skin and tattoos, painted-on jeans and absurdly long hair seems to work. He can see the top of his butterfly poking out through the opening, his sparrows out against his collarbones. There's still a nasty bruise by his ribs that makes him feel all rugged and whatnot, and even after spending the past bunch of days on couches and hospital beds, someone would have to be blind to not notice the definition of his abs.
If he wanted to, he could definitely pull.
As it is, his memory's thrown him back into the same mindset that started cutting back on casual hookups, the same mindset that was coming to terms with being in love with his best friend, that only really wanted sex if it was with said best friend. He wonders how long it's going to take to catch back up to his present self, the self that apparently didn't care about any of that anymore, that was able to go out and sleep with anyone, no matter who they were. There's a small, dangerous part of him that suddenly wonders if he's ever slept with Louis. He has absolutely no way of knowing.
"Ready to leave?" Zayn asks, dragging him back from his train of thought.
Harry tucks an errant curl back into place and waits for the beating of his heart to slow just a little. There's no way he would have slept with Louis without anyone else finding out. Niall would have known. Liam would have figured it out. It's... no. Harry would never have done it.
"Yeah," he nods, breath whooshing out in a rough stream. "Let's go."
They arrive at Niall's early enough that the four of them manage to sneak out onto the balcony for a quick, private toast, plastic party glasses in hands, bodies huddled for warmth against the chilly night air. Niall pops open a cheap bottle of champagne and pours generous amounts into all their glasses, skipping Harry's and letting him fill his own with some unexciting, much less appreciated cranberry juice.
"To Harry!" Niall starts loudly. He's already had a few beers, cheeks already flushed from the buzz and the cold. "To this beautiful, charming, cheeky fucker with all four of his nipples out in the middle of the fucking winter and his incredibly lame glass of fruit juice."
"Hey," Harry pouts, bumping Niall with his elbow. "M'not allowed to drink for another two weeks."
Niall just nudges him back, champagne sloshing precariously close the rim of his glass.
"Shut up and let me finish my speech," he orders before continuing as if uninterrupted. "I've known you for a long time, longer than you can remember, and I know you've had a shit couple of weeks but tonight's not about that. Tonight is about celebrating the sexy human that you are and allowing you to watch on as we all get pissed on your behalf. We love you more than you can imagine and we're beyond thankful that your brain wasn't completely knocked out by that car. Happy twenty-fourth birthday, bro. You're a fuckin' legend."
There's an echo of general agreement between Zayn and Liam, each of them chiming in with their own happy birthdays as Harry holds his glass steady and shuffles a little closer. For body warmth and all that.
"Cheers!" Niall finishes.
They clink glasses in the middle and tip champagne and cranberry juice down their throats, and before Harry has time to prepare himself for it, he gets roped in for a tight group hug.
"Thanks lads," he murmurs, smiling softly with his face pressed into someone's shoulder – Liam's by the size of it. "Love you all, too. Even you, Zayn."
"Yeah? Even after only two weeks?" Zayn asks. He's got his arm hooked around Harry's waist and Harry lets himself get drawn closer, their hips bumping.
"Of course," he laughs quietly, earning a sloppy kiss high on his cheekbone where his bruise has finally started to fade. It's the closest he's felt to normal in all the time since he woke up in that hospital bed, and yet, as everyone pulls away, as Niall pinches his bum and Liam attempts to whack him in the balls, as Zayn takes another gulp of his champagne and sets his glass aside, he can't help noticing how quiet things are without his best friend there.
"You alright?" Liam asks, watching the smile slide off his face. It's the question everyone's been asking these past few days, and Harry knows they're all just worried about him, but he doesn't know how he's supposed to answer anymore.
"There's just a lot that's changed," is all he says as he moves up to the edge of the balcony and leans his elbows on the railing. He ignores the ache of protest in his shoulder and ribs as he stares out across the dark street, the feeling that there should be a fifth person out there with them growing worse and worse with each moment that passes.
Liam doesn't say anything. He just comes up next to him and squeezes his good shoulder, rubs his back in soothing, understanding circles, and murmurs another happy birthday in his ear before leading the others back inside.
And that, maybe, is the difference between those three boys and Louis. As the door clicks shut behind them and Harry's left alone to swallow the pathetic lump in his throat and fill that tattered hole in his heart, he knows Louis wouldn't have left. Louis wouldn't have let him be alone, not on his birthday, not if he were hurting, and not if things weren't alright. He would have forced himself into Harry's space and it would have been stupid and annoying and against everything Harry might have wanted, but Louis would have done anything to get him to crack a smile. Harry would have let him.
It's just, Louis isn't here to do that now. No matter how much Harry would like him to be, he isn't, and it doesn't mean anything anymore – thinking that he would have stayed outside with him – because after everything's said and done, after being best friends through all of uni, making promises they never intended to keep, Louis did leave. He left and he stopped talking to Harry and there's nothing Harry can possibly do about it.
It's probably the loneliest he's felt on his birthday in a long, long time.
Swallowing another sip of his cranberry juice and grimacing at the tartness, he takes a seat at Niall's plastic, round table and tries to get his emotions in check. It's freezing outside, the kind of cold that burns his every breath, that settles deep inside his bones, sharp and dry and unforgiving but Harry doesn't mind. It's keeping him sober, keeping his thoughts from fogging up and getting jumbled in the mess his brain is these days. It's keeping him on his toes.
He stays out there as long as he can, until his fingernails turn blue, until the tip of his nose goes red and his eyes start to water, and just as he's about to surrender and go inside, the door slides open behind him and startles him back to life.
"Sorry mate, didn't mean to scare you," a voice apologizes, breaking the silence. "How've you been?"
Harry twists around to see a guy with blonde hair and thick-framed glasses, a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a lighter held in his hand. For what feels like the thousandth time in two weeks, his stomach drops with the realization that yet another complete stranger somehow seems to know him.
"Um. Alright?" he tries awkwardly, sitting up a bit straighter and pulling his shirt closed. "I um... sorry, I don't–"
"You don't remember me, I know," the guy says, saving Harry from having to explain himself. He offers a warm, apologetic smile, and Harry relaxes slightly.
"No, sorry, I don't."
"I'm William, I work with Niall," he introduces. "I heard what happened with you and that car, mate. That's such shit. You don't remember anything?"
"Not anything from the past two years," Harry tells him as the guy flicks his lighter and sets the flame to his cigarette. "If you told me you were my long lost boyfriend, I'd probably believe you," Harry jokes rather lamely.
William laughs at it anyway, his eyes going soft as he lowers his head and leans his weight on the back of the empty chair. He's got quite lovely eyelashes, long and dark, casting thick shadows across the flush of his cheeks. "Well..." he says with a small shrug, voice gone a bit shy. "I might not be your boyfriend, but, uh. We did sort of hook up after Niall's Christmas party this year."
He blinks up to meet Harry's eyes, and Harry feels something odd swoop low in his stomach. He's not sure what he's supposed to say to that.
"We hooked up?" he repeats stupidly because there's a new, guilty weight falling in his chest and he has to know.
"There was mistletoe and a lot of peppermint schnapps," William tells him as if that explains it all. "It was just a bit of fun after a few drinks. Nothing crazy, nothing to worry about."
Not for you, Harry wants to say. William can remember everyone he's been with over the past two years. Harry can't. He has no idea where his mouth has been, who his fingertips have touched, what hands have been on his body since his memory cuts off. The realization wraps itself around his lungs and makes it a little difficult to breathe.
"We didn't, like... how far did we go?" he asks hesitantly, sounding very unsure all of a sudden. William must notice, if the slightly worried look on his face is anything to go by.
"Well, um. You took me back to your place and we – you asked me to fuck you," he answers honestly in an exhale of smoke, a small crease forming between his eyebrows. "Sorry if that's weird. I didn't mean to like, upset you or anything. I just thought you might want to know. It only seemed fair, considering..."
He waves a vague hand around Harry's head and Harry doesn't even have it in him to be offended or put off by it. He's too busy stuck on William's choice of wording.
It's the same word Louis had used, the same excuse he had given when Harry had asked what had happened and he'd refused to answer. It wouldn't have been fair to give those memories back. And now Harry's being told the opposite – that it's only fair for him to have them.
It tears open that hole in his chest, sends his heart sinking down to his feet. His best friend, his best fucking friend couldn't find it in him to tell the truth, and yet this guy, this complete stranger whom he'd slept with has absolutely no problem filling him in because it just seemed right. It just seemed fair.
He feels William watching him, regarding him with mild curiosity, mild uncertainty, and he just. He doesn't want to be here anymore. It isn't fun. It stopped being fun when he realized the only person he needed was the one person who wasn't there and it sucks that even now, even after Louis' had time to move on and get over it and Harry had time too, it just sucks that he has to feel it all for the first time again.
"I'm sorry," he says, unsteadily rising to his feet, glass nearly toppling over on the table. William moves like he wants to help him but Harry shakes his head. "I have to... I don't know. I just. It's a lot, hearing this and not... not knowing what else there is, and I can't–" He stops, lets out a heavy breath.
"You don't have to explain yourself, Styles," William interrupts before he tries. "Honestly, I get it. You've been through a lot and I kind of sprung that on you."
"It's not your fault, though," Harry promises him. "I think I just need space, maybe. For a bit. Maybe the party was a bad idea."
"Spent one night together and you're already giving me the 'it's not you it's me' excuse?" William laments, but he's teasing, even if it doesn't make Harry feel any better. "Go on, mate," he says finally, eyes going soft when he sees the distress written in the lines of Harry's face. "Do what you need to do. I'm glad you're alright, yeah?"
"Yeah, thanks," Harry sighs and, in a sort of daze, offers a half-arsed hug on his way around the table. "It was nice meeting you. Again, I suppose."
"Again and maybe some other time," William agrees with a nod.
It's almost a pity how uninterested Harry feels about the whole thing. William's cute, he's friendly, he's nice. It's just the wrong time, the wrong place. He's the wrong person.
The music is louder when Harry slips inside. He doesn't know if his head has just gotten more sensitive after being out in the cold or if the growing crowd has somehow thrown him off, but everything's a bit disorienting without the fresh air. He doesn't want to go home, not yet, but he can't be in the middle of all of this. It's too much.
He settles for hiding out in the kitchen.
And it works, for about five seconds. Because as soon as he manages to pour another full glass of cranberry juice and stow the jug away in the fridge, someone backs into room on the tail end of a conversation and bumps straight into him.
He falls forward, drink sloshing down the front of his shirt as his left arm goes out to catch himself, and it's his bad arm, he realizes in the middle of falling. It's his bad arm and his shoulder won't be able to support the weight and he nearly brains himself on the pantry as his arm gives out and his knees hit the floor.
"Fuck," he hisses, teeth digging into his bottom lip as he screws his eyes shut and tries not to vomit.
"Oh shit," a voice swears behind him.
Harry's heart launches into his throat. He knows that voice.
There's a terrifying second where all he hears is his ragged breathing, the sound of his pulse in his ears, and then Louis drops to the floor beside him and mutters, "oh shit," again like he's just realized who he's toppled over.
"Are you – are you hurt?" he asks as Harry blinks his eyes open. Everything's spinning – the cabinets, the tiles, his knees, the puddle of juice on the floor. He shakes his head anyway, regretting it almost at once.
"I'm just really dizzy," he breathes, bowing his head and setting his cup down, all his weight on right arm. His left shoulder doesn't feel so great and neither do his ribs, but he's not hurt hurt. He doesn't need to go back to the hospital or anything.
He hears Louis let out a shaky laugh to his right, something he's known to do when he's uncomfortable and doesn't quite know what to say, and that stings a bit. Louis always knows what to say around him. There's no such thing as uncomfortable where they're concerned.
"Drunk already?" he finally asks, and Harry blanches.
"I haven't had anything to drink," he mutters, after a deep breath. "I'm dizzy," he says slowly, "because I got hit by a car two weeks ago and I'm still recovering."
He manages to open his eyes again in the few seconds he waits for Louis to respond, but Louis doesn't say anything. He just stays there, crouched at Harry's side, and Harry has to take a moment to let his vision come back into focus before he can muster up the courage to finally look at him.
When he does, Louis looks... beautiful, is the thing. Harry's breath catches in his throat and his chest tightens around his lungs, and he meets Louis' eyes and Louis is beautiful. He's everything Harry knows from memory and he's two full years more. He's scruffier and maybe a bit skinnier, his hair is relatively longer and his eyes are somehow darker, but in his loose black vest and his ripped black jeans, he still has Harry's heart in both his hands.
He also looks about as pale as a ghost, so there's that too.
"Is that blood?" Louis breathes after a moment, eyes fixated on Harry's stomach, color completely drained from his face.
Harry glances down at the dark red stain soaking the front of his shirt and sighs. "No, it's just cranberry juice. I'm not bleeding. Could you, um. Everything's sort of spinning," he explains quietly. "Could you just grab a towel or some kitchen roll for me and I'll clean this up?"
"Yeah, sure," Louis answers before pushing to his feet, still a bit shaken. He comes back half a second later and sets the roll on the worktop above Harry's head. "Your left arm is your bad arm?" he asks.
Harry nods, biting his lip, and then Louis' squatting down on his right and ducking under his good arm, supporting his weight as he lifts him to his feet and keeps him steady. He lets go as soon as Harry leans against the counter.
"Thanks," Harry mumbles, skin heating up where Louis had just been touching him. He tears a piece of kitchen roll off and starts dabbing at his shirt just to give himself something to do. Louis watches, hands clasped behind his back like he wants to say something, like he wants to leave, like he doesn't know what he wants in all of this, and Harry doesn't know either.
"I'm sorry," Harry apologizes, and he hates that he even feels the need to.
"For what?" Louis asks, confused. "I'm the one who bumped into you."
"I didn't know you were going to be here tonight," Harry clarifies. He drops his wad of kitchen roll in the sink and slowly turns around. "Isn't that how this works? We don't go to the same parties, you avoid me, I avoid you?"
"No one told me you were going to be here," Louis shrugs. He takes a step to Harry's right and hoists himself onto the worktop. Maybe he wants to talk tonight, maybe he doesn't want to run. Maybe he's already had a few drinks and doesn't realize what he's doing.
"Well, all my friends are here," Harry explains, angling himself slightly. "And like, it's my birthday right?" Louis nods, which must mean he hasn't forgotten. "So I figured I'd try a party."
"And how's that turning out for you?" Louis asks, feet dangling over the floor. He's different – quieter, more reserved – all things Louis Tomlinson shouldn't be and all things they've never been around each other.
"Honestly?" Harry asks and waits for Louis to nod him on. "It's turning out a bit shit."
"Only a bit?"
"Let's see," Harry says and starts counting on his fingers. "I can't get drunk. It's fucking freezing outside. I've just been attacked in a kitchen–"
Louis aims a protesting kick at him but Harry catches his foot, long fingers closing around his ankle and holding on for half a beat too long.
"Oi, no one's attacked you," Louis argues. He furrows his eyebrows, and it shouldn't feel so natural – clicking back into place like this – but Harry can't help himself.
"My memory's fucked but it's not that fucked," he snorts and leans an elbow on the worktop, blinking up at Louis and the sharp line of his jaw. "I might not remember the person who just admitted to fucking me at Christmas, but I can remember what happened three whole minutes ago."
He means for it to come out as a joke, but the way Louis' jaw tenses, the way his knuckles go white where they're gripping his thighs, makes him think it might have lacked the cadence he was going for.
"Sorry, I just... it's true, isn't it? You know it's like a black hole in there, right?" He cocks his head to the side as if to say his brain. "The doctors keep saying there's still a small chance I'll remember bits, but I'm pretty sure it's fucked for good."
"I know, Harry. That's not..." Louis pauses, shakes his head, changes his mind. "I know it's probably not coming back."
He slides his hand off his thigh and lets it fall a few inches from Harry's elbow. There's a new tattoo on his wrist, the card suits wrapped around it in a band, and Harry wants rather badly to reach a finger out and brush his golden skin, take his wrist and kiss the bone in it. He misses this. Whether he's going on two weeks or two years, he misses this – Louis, his voice, his face, that ridiculous, constant urge to touch him, and the sound of his breath when neither of them have anything to say. He wants this back, so much that it feels like someone's crushing his windpipe when he tries to imagine leaving this party and going back to a life without Louis. They've barely even said anything to each other tonight, and yet –
"Louis, whatever happened with us, can we just, like, move past it?" he asks softly, eyes flicking up to meet Louis'. Louis doesn't focus on him though. He stares resolutely at his feet, bare ankles crossed, a tiny frown pulling at the corners of his mouth.
"It's not that easy, Harry," he says and shakes his head.
"It could be," Harry shrugs, too much hope in his voice. "If you just told me what happened, Louis, it could be easy. You're the most familiar thing in all of this and I think if anyone could make it any easier, it would be you."
He shifts his hand along the edge of the worktop to maybe brush his knuckles against Louis', but Louis pulls away first and cards his fingers through his hair.
"Of course you'd say that," he sighs around a humorless laugh, eyes rolling up to the ceiling.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry asks. He doesn't mean to sound so petulant, he's just. Tired. Of not knowing, of not understanding, of being stuck on the outside of what feels like the world's biggest inside joke, where the only one who truly gets it is the one person who's decided to stop being honest with him.
Louis shakes his head. "Nothing, Harry. It's not supposed to mean anything."
"But it's true," Harry argues over the beat of the music coming in through the closed kitchen door. How long do they have before they're interrupted and Louis bolts? "You're still the same person from when I was twenty two. Even if you're different, a bit scruffier, if your hair's a bit longer-"
"Look who's talking," Louis says, and Harry doesn't miss the way his hand twitches like he wants to reach out and tug one of his curls.
"What I mean," he continues as if uninterrupted, "is that you're one of the few people I've wanted to see since I woke up in a hospital bed with my memories lost, and I..." he pauses, shuts his mouth, wonders briefly if he should keep it that way, and decides not to. "I miss you, Louis. More than anything that's gone, I miss you the most."
He lets it out in one breath, the words echoing between them in the silence that follows, and for a brief, terrifying moment, the only sounds that fill their space are the noises from the party, alive and bright and such a contrast to the tension wrapped around the room. When Louis finally opens his mouth, he doesn't sound nearly as convincing as he probably intends to.
"Harry, it's been over a year," he says quietly, picking his head up and finally, finally meeting Harry's eyes. "It's been a year and however many months since we last spoke, and I mean, really spoke because that phone call the other day doesn't count. And I know for you, it's only been a couple of weeks, but for me... for me it's been so much longer, and I can't – I'm not going to do this with you."
"Why not?" Harry asks, voice cracking. He doesn't want this to end the same way.
"Because what, Lou? Why don't you want to talk about this? Why won't you..." He stops and shakes his head, heart feeling a thousand times heavier. "The lads say we just stopped talking when you left for New York, but I don't believe them. I – We were best friends back then. We wouldn't have just given up on each other because of a few thousand miles."
"We wouldn't?" Louis contends and raises an eyebrow. He clicks his heels against the cabinets and Harry's chest goes tight.
He knows they wouldn't have. They... they were better than that. They meant too much to each other to do that. For four years it was always Harry and Louis and no one else against the world. No one else ever mattered as much. No one else ever stood a chance. Harry knows he would have called Louis every night, would have sung him to sleep, would have watched the stars with him from an entire ocean away if Louis would have let him. Whatever happened, it wasn't because of some absurd distance.
"You know we weren't like that," he insists weakly, hoping with everything inside of him that he's right. Louis just laughs a little, something tired, something sad, and it's enough for Harry to doubt everything he's ever really known.
"I moved to New York and you hit the road, H," Louis shrugs, as if that explains it all. "The lads had it right. We just didn't have time for each other anymore. We had other things we wanted to do and we were miles apart. Keeping in touch wasn't either of our priorities."
He hops off the worktop and forces Harry to take a step back, and Harry feels it, like he's being pushed back, pushed away, like Louis' trying to shove another three thousand miles between them.
"You were my best friend," Harry says again, desperate, searching, so fucking tired of not understanding. "I would have wanted to hear from you. I know I would have."
He shifts so that his back is pressed against the edge of the worktop, arms hugged around his middle and feeling entirely too exposed in his stupid see-through shirt and a body that he's not quite used to. He doesn't know who this person is that he's grown to become but he hates the way Louis turns to regard him, too much tension in his jaw, his lips pulled in a thin line, eyes hard, cold, cutting.
"In your head you're still twenty-two," he says slowly, words clear and sharp like he wants them to make an impact. "You're still at uni, you're still writing music, you're still trying to figure everything out. What you wanted then," he says, "is not the same as what you wanted when I left for New York. And what you wanted when I left for New York is not the same as what you want now."
He takes a step back and opens the fridge, grabs a beer from the door and wipes the condensation on his jeans.
"You have no idea what I want now," Harry says quietly, watching Louis with the full knowledge that he's gearing up to make an exit. If he was any sort of brave at all, he'd stop him, pull the beer from his fingers and pour it down the drain, grab him by the shoulders and tell him it's you, it's you, it's always fucking been you until the words make it through Louis' thick, stubborn skull, but he's not. He couldn't do it two years ago and he's not going to do it tonight. He's tired and drained, his shoulder probably needs some ice, and if Louis doesn't want to be there anymore, if he wants to leave again, it's not Harry's place to make him stay.
"You've only been out of the hospital for a week," Louis reminds him as he pops the cap off his bottle, letting it clink against the table top. "I'm not sure you know what you want yet either, but I don't think you need me around to help you figure it out."
"So you're just going to leave?" Harry asks.
Louis takes another step back. "We made it over a year without speaking to each other," he says. "I think we could do it again."
He shrugs like it's easy for him, like sixteen or so more months of silence won't kill him, and it's pathetic, really, how much Harry disagrees.
"Please, Louis," he tries, but it's feeble even to his own ears. He doesn't believe any of that bullshit about losing touch, about priorities changing and moving on, and if this... if this is the last he's going to hear from Louis about it, about anything at all, then he's not sure what else he's supposed to do.
"Go back to the party, H," is all Louis says. He takes a decent swig of beer, the long line of his throat making Harry want to push off the cabinets and pin him against the wall, kiss him hard and soft and anywhere and everywhere, but Harry can't move. He stays rooted where he is, his own throat going tight, his last words getting stuck inside it as Louis backs up to the door and pushes his way out without a goodbye.
Harry doesn't move for a very long time, and when he does it's to call a cab, to text Zayn he's going home, to slip out around the perimeter of the party without turning to look for Louis, without bothering to dry his eyes.
He goes back to his flat and locks himself in his room, curls up under his duvet and falls asleep to the sound of shuddery breaths and the broken beating of his heart.
"I didn't know he was going to be there," is the one and only thing Zayn has to say about it the next day when Harry finally gets up to take a piss at two in the afternoon.
He pulls his duvet tighter around his shoulders and shrugs, not quite in the mood to open his mouth yet and hear how raw his voice sounds. He doesn't want to talk about it anyway. Louis made it pretty clear they're to keep their distance again, fall back out of each other's orbits, move on like they supposedly did all those months ago, and Harry's meant to respect that.
Luckily, Zayn doesn't press it. He frowns – because that's what everyone does now that Harry's some tragic, hopeless mess that needs to be pitied all the time – and goes back to reading his book, eating his sushi while Harry shuts the bathroom door and tries not to drown himself in the toilet.
So this is really his life now.
If he's to believe Louis – and honestly, what choice does he have? – he's supposed to accept that he just dropped everything, gave it all up, his guitar, his music, the boy he loved, and everything that encompassed all his dreams simply for a chance at an utterly, entirely mundane life? It makes no sense. It's absurd.
He splashes cold water in his face and brushes the stale taste of sleep out of his mouth, looks, really looks at his tired reflection in the mirror and tries to understand.
What the fuck did he do to get to this point? What changed? What went wrong? How is Louis the only fucking person that knows the full story, and how is Harry supposed to trust him when he knows, he knows with every fiber in his soul that it isn't true? He can just feel it. Something isn't right. He wouldn't have just let Louis go, he wouldn't have given up. He would have fought for Louis, would have told him how he felt, would have kissed him or done something equally as reckless, would have made sure Louis knew exactly how much he meant to him before he left. He wouldn't have – he wouldn't – Fuck. He wouldn't have let him go.
Knuckles white, breathing hard, he grips the edge of the sink and squeezes his eyes shut against the overwhelming bout of nausea that suddenly claws its way around his stomach. He feels sick – the stress, the disappointment, the heart break, the frustration – it's all there, eating at his insides, scorching like acid, twisting its way into his bloodstream until he's burning up, falling to his knees and retching into the toilet.
He's not – none of this was ever supposed to happen. It's like being transported into the future and seeing everything he's worked towards go to shit. It's like waking up and finding out he's failed, that everything sucks, that he's fucked it up beyond repair, that nothing's the way it should be.
He twists his hair into a sweaty knot at the top of his head and closes the toilet lid, rests his face against the cold porcelain, and refuses to cry again.
Maybe Louis was right. Maybe he doesn't really know anything.
Maybe something happened in those months between his last memory and leaving for his road trip that completely changed him, his mind, his heart, and turned him into this long-haired, mermaid-tattooed stranger that he hasn't yet grown into. And if he never told Louis, if Louis never understood, well, maybe the truth really is that they just lost touch. Maybe no one knew what happened except Harry and now those defining memories are gone forever, lost with the rest, spilled out on that dark street corner with the blood from his head and the downpour of the rain.
He feels trapped. Like he's living in a body that doesn't belong to him, like he's stuck in a life that isn't his to live. It's probably the worst he's felt through all of this, the lowest of lows, and he knows he should get up, quit moping, should be happy he's alive and make the best of it, but he can't even bring himself to move away from the toilet. He can't. His throat is on fire and his mouth tastes like vomit, his head is a weak, disgusting sort of dizzy, and now his ribs are killing him. He has an appointment with his physical therapist the next morning and he just knows she's going to make a fuss about him not taking proper care of himself, but he doesn't even care anymore.
Because what's the point if the person your heart's beating for doesn't need to hear it beat?
It's how he felt about his music, it's how he feels about Louis.
And this – this sitting on the bathroom floor, duvet pooled around his waist, empty stomach, empty heart – well. This isn't going to get him any of that back. He knows that. He does. He's just not sure how he's supposed to change anything when he doesn't even know who he is anymore.
He waits for his head to stop spinning, for his heart rate to slow down, for his throat to stop burning and his nose to quit running, then he gets up and goes back to his room, sleeps until he has to piss again.
The bakery's quiet when Harry works his first closing shift on Thursday night. It's just him and Georgia and a man reading a newspaper at one of the small, round tables by the time they start cleaning up and preparing to close.
Georgia hasn't said much to him in the six hours they've been there together. Harry doesn't know if that's normal, if she's just a quiet girl and they don't have a whole lot in common, but he gets the feeling from the nervous glances she keeps throwing his way that it's entirely circumstantial. Perhaps she can tell he's had a bad couple of days. Perhaps she's just giving him space. Either way, it's making him feel like a bit of a pariah and he would love nothing more than to leave an hour early to just go home and be alone.
Of course, that's when Niall shows up, coat pulled high around his neck, ears and nose pink from the cold, fingers poking out from a pair of fuzzy, woolen mittens.
"It's fucking cold out there," he says, coming up to the counter and pressing his frozen hands to Harry's face. Harry manages a small, reluctrant smile as he flinches away and grabs them, holding them between his own two hands and bringing them to his mouth to blow hot air between them.
"What are you doing here?" he mumbles, rubbing warmth into Niall's knuckles. "Did Zayn send you to check up on me?"
"Why? Because you've refused to leave your room for anything other than work and doctor's appointments all week?" Niall asks, eyebrows raised.
Harry drops their hands and lowers his eyes, gives a sheepish, little shrug. "Maybe? I mean, there's not much to check up on," he says quietly. "I just haven't really felt like doing anything since, like... I guess since your party."
"Since you saw Louis," Niall corrects, and right. Yeah. Niall knows about that now – not all the fine details such as Harry being sickeningly and uselessly in love – but he knows about the talk, about Harry and Louis' brief argument, about Louis being shady and unresponsive and pushing them apart again. Harry doesn't know if it was Zayn who told him or if Louis filled him in himself, but he knows they all know, even Liam. It's probably why Harry's locked himself in his bedroom with no one but Marcus all week. He just doesn't want to talk about it.
"Would you like any tea?" he asks instead, hoping Niall takes the hint and moves on.
"Is it on the house?"
Harry glances over his shoulder to where Georgia is diligently boxing cakes to put in the freezer, and figures it should be alright.
"Yeah, sure," he sighs, grabbing a paper cup. "Strong, three sugars?"
He waits for Niall to answer but Niall just grins at him, this weird, proud, lopsided thing that has Harry rolling his eyes and taking it as an affirmative as he turns to fetch a tea bag. It's a lot like the pity face, he reckons, only the opposite. Every time he remembers some minute fucking detail about anyone or anything, whoever he's with lights up like Christmas has come early, like Harry's a walking, talking miracle. Harry thinks he needs to start making new friends.
"Relax, Niall, it's just tea," he grumbles as he sets a paper cup next to the till and waits for water to boil.
Niall flips him off and goes to take a seat at the closest table. Harry joins him a minute or two later, tea in one hand, crumbling brownie in the other. He sets them both in front of them and breaks a corner off the brownie for himself.
"Are you really here to check up on me?" he asks again, trying not to feel patronized. "You know I don't need a babysitter, right? I'm not going to, like, trip and fall or follow a stranger home or anything."
"I never said you were," Niall tells him and hooks his feet around the back of Harry's ankle, pulling his leg in. "I was just in the neighborhood, actually. Thought I'd stop by and keep you company for a bit."
"I can tell when you're lying, Niall."
"I'm not lying," Niall argues.
Harry shakes his head and gives him a swift kick in the shin.
"You're lying and you're shit at it," he accuses. He's not angry, not really. He's just a little annoyed. Not even at Niall or Zayn or anyone else who's called him in the days since his birthday, trying to check up on him and make sure he hasn't lost it. Maybe he's not even upset with anyone at all. It's just this situation that's got him bottling everything up, struggling to admit, even to himself, that quite possibly, he's not as okay with everything as he would like to think he is.
"I'm fine," he reassures Niall anyway, the words getting caught in his throat. He is fine. This is fine. It's just been a difficult few days, that's all.
"I never said you weren't," Niall shrugs, unaffected. And then, "I spoke with Louis last night."
Harry's stomach twists into a knot.
"Did you?" he asks, drumming his fingers along the edge of the table, striving for casual disinterest. He glances behind the display case and catches Georgia's eye in the hopes that she might call him back over to help, but she just waves him off like it's not a big deal. And it isn't. It shouldn't be. They're only talking about Louis.
Niall takes a sip of his tea and breaks another piece off his brownie.
"We talked a bit about you," he says around the bite. "Or, well. I talked about you and he pretended he wasn't listening. Usually, he just changes the subject whenever I bring you up, but last night he didn't say anything at all."
Harry steals another crumb from the brownie and nods noncommittally. He's not sure what he's supposed to do with that bit of information.
"I reckon he's just scared of fixing things with you more than anything," Niall continues. "It's like he knows he misses you and he knows this is his chance to make it right again, but he's too afraid to actually do it."
"What's there to be afraid of?" Harry asks, confused.
"I dunno," Niall shrugs. "Losing you? Your memory coming back? Having you realizing you don't actually want to be his friend again?" he theorizes. "I think he's gotten so used to not talking to you and not being your best mate that he doesn't know how to get back into it. He doesn't think you really want it."
"But I do," Harry argues, his heart beating in agreement. "Of course I do. How could I not?"
Niall gives him a sympathetic look and gently pulls Harry's hand away from where his fingernails are digging into the back of his wrist.
"You're a different person, Harry," he explains softly. "You're not the guy you were a month ago but you're not twenty-two anymore either. No one really knows what you want or how you feel about anything. And I don't mean to sound condescending, but I don't think you really know either, mate."
He gives Harry's hand a soft squeeze before he drops it and wraps his fingers back around his cup of tea. Harry tries very, very hard not to huff out a frustrated breath and roll his eyes.
"Why is everyone so sure I don't know what I want?" he asks instead.
It's not that difficult. He's wanted the same thing since he was eighteen, since the lovely boy with the sparkling eyes and the even brighter laugh sat next to him in his first music history course and took an entire hour to realize he was in the wrong lecture. It might have taken Harry a few years to figure his own bit out, but he knows, deep down – or not very deep at all – that it's always been Louis. It will probably always be Louis.
Niall doesn't give an answer. Harry quickly takes that to mean he doesn't have one, that no one has one, that everyone's just being completely stupid about it all.
"Right, well. If you're done checking up on me, I should probably go back to helping Georgia," he says, hating how passive aggressive it comes out but not caring enough to want to apologize as he gets up from his chair.
Niall sighs and tugs him back by the hair tie looped around his wrist before he can get very far.
"Don't be a prat," he warns and snaps the band against Harry's skin. Harry just rolls the tie off his wrist and snaps it against Niall's forehead.
"Don't treat me like I don't know anything," he counters seriously, brows furrowing in annoyance. "I'm not some naive child, Niall, I can make my own decisions and I know what I want. Just because I can't remember two years of my life doesn't mean I've lost my ability to fucking think."
"Really?" Niall asks. "Because you've been acting pretty stupid all week hiding away in your room and not picking up your phone. Is that what you want? You want to lock yourself up?"
"My best fucking friend told me he doesn't want to see me again and it fucking hurts," Harry explains through gritted teeth. "What else am I supposed to do?"
"Go after him?" Niall answers like it's obvious. "Knock some sense into him? Talk about all those feelings I know you two hate talking about. If he is your best friend, then you know how he gets. He thinks he's doing the right thing. He thinks everything is for the best. And if you disagree with him, then locking yourself in your bedroom and moping about for a week is the last thing you're supposed to do."
"So what do you suggest I do instead?" Harry huffs, sitting down in the window sill and crossing his arms. The man reading his newspaper hasn't moved in half an hour and Georgia seems to have disappeared into the back. They're basically alone with nothing but the honest truth and some pent-up frustration between them, and Harry knows he's not going to like whatever Niall has to say.
"I don't know," the blonde decides with a hard shake of his head. "I don't know what mess you knobheads have gotten yourselves into, but I'm going to need you to sort your shit out soon. United's got a Champions League game this Tuesday and we're all going to the pub to watch. If you haven't fixed this by then, so fucking help me."
He downs the rest of his tea like it's a shot of whiskey and fixes Harry a look that says he means business. Harry knows immediately not to argue.
"Why do you hate me, Niall?" he asks tiredly, slouching against the window and tipping his head against the wall.
"I don't hate you," Niall promises and gets up to sit next to him. "I'm doing this because I love you."
"Alright," Niall agrees. He takes Harry's face in both his cold hands, leans in, and smacks a very deliberate kiss right above his cheekbone. "Sort your shit out, Styles," he finishes before wrapping Harry up in his arms and throwing a leg over his thigh. Harry struggles for a moment, feigning discomfort until Niall pinches him in the side and forces him to hug back.
"Better?" Niall asks, stroking the little curls at the back of his neck, the ones that never quite reach his bun.
Harry breathes out a heavy sigh and buries his face in Niall's shoulder.
"I suppose," he murmurs, not exactly sure if it's true or not. He just feels empty. Empty and confused, like he's been drained of everything he ever was and thrown back into the world without a clue of how to handle it. "You know I'm not even allowed to drink yet, right?"
"I know," Niall tells him as he pulls away, "but you're still going to be there. You'll still figure it out. I'm not letting you and Louis ruin another year and a half of each other's lives."
"Who said we ruined them in the first place?" Harry asks. Niall doesn't answer. That probably says enough.
Six entire days pass and he doesn't figure it out. Six days of sleeping, working, scratching behind Marcus' ears, and attending physical therapy sessions, and not once does he come up with a suitable plan for patching things with Louis.
The thing is, he doesn't even know where he would start or how he would even try. How is he supposed to put a friendship back together if he can't even remember what it looked like in the moments before it broke? Is it even possible? Why is he the only one who has to put an effort in? If Niall is right, if Louis wants this too, shouldn't it be up to Louis to fill in the blanks, fix Harry's memory first then fix the rest together?
Niall reckons forcing the two of them to spend a few hours within a six-foot radius of each other should work well enough. Harry's not so sure he believes him.
Still, he lets Zayn come and collect him after his Tuesday afternoon shift and the two of them walk to Niall's favorite pub, located about fifteen minutes from the bakery.
"You don't have to do this," Zayn reminds him for what feels like the hundredth time since Niall's mentioned the game.
Harry picks a bit of cat hair off the front of his coat and gives a feeble nod. "I know," he says, checking both ways before stepping onto the street. His heart's been ready to fall straight through his stomach all day from just the thought of seeing Louis again, but at least he's not being ambushed tonight. If he really didn't want to do this, he could have just gotten on the bus and gone home.
Or the tube.
Because the bus doesn't go to his new flat and he really needs to stop forgetting that. It's been three weeks, he should have this down by now.
"If you want to leave early, let me know so I can go with you this time," Zayn adds as they step onto the next block and turn the corner, the pub looming into view.
"I'll be fine," Harry promises robotically. He's fine. He'll be fine. Everything is fine.
Zayn's forehead still creases with worry, his mouth still turns down in a disbelieving frown. "You're not just going because you think you owe it to Niall, are you? 'Cos this isn't just a friendship he thinks he's trying to fix. You're in love with Louis. If this doesn't work out between you two, you're going to feel it a lot worse than he is."
"Why's that?" Harry asks, frowning as they approach the corner opposite the pub. "You don't think Louis ever had any feelings for me?"
Zayn glances down at the road just off the side of the curb, something odd flashing across his face, and for a split, horrifying second Harry panics, imagining it's Louis stumbling into this conversation.
He checks over his shoulder and sees it's only a lad in a Juventus jersey, waiting to cross the street with them. Considering they'll all be rooting against him for United in half an hour, the look on Zayn's face makes sense. What doesn't quite add up is the hurried way Zayn takes his hand and tugs him across the intersection as the light changes, stopping just outside the pub.
"I can't pretend I knew Louis back then and I certainly don't know him now," he says as if uninterrupted. "If he ever felt anything for you the way you felt it for him, then everything that's happened with you makes no fucking sense."
Harry almost wants to laugh but he's pretty sure it would only come out weak and miserable. Nothing makes sense to him anymore. That's just his life now.
"I'm not doing this because Niall asked me to," he says just to clear the air before they go inside. "I want to, like, try to have a normal night for once, and I know – I know Louis is going to be in there and that's not normal anymore, but I would really like it to be. Is that okay?"
He squeezes Zayn's fingers, more of a reassurance for his own sake, and waits for Zayn to squeeze back.
"I just don't want you getting hurt, babe," Zayn sighs, fingers tightening around Harry's, pulling him closer to his side. "Don't let your happiness depend so much on one boy, alright?"
"What about four boys?" Harry asks as he tugs the door open, a flood of noise hitting his ears. He's glad it's busy inside, if only for the distractions everything else might offer.
"Four boys, a couple of beers, and some football," Zayn says, dropping Harry's hand and nudging him in with a few fingertips at the small of his back. "If that can't make you happy, then I don't know what will."
Harry could argue a few dozen other things that would make him happier, but any retort he has dies on the tip of his tongue as he catches sight of Louis with his back to the door, pushed into the far end of a booth with Liam at his side.
His steps must falter, his heart finally settling in his stomach after making the descent for the past few days, because the pressure of Zayn's hand lets up and suddenly Zayn's mouth is by his ear.
"It's not too late to bail," he whispers, sending chills down the side of Harry's neck. Except it is, because Niall spots them in that exact moment and waves them over, prompting Liam to turn around, and all that's left is Louis and Louis doesn't even move. Harry watches the muscles in his shoulders tense under his flimsy white t-shirt, the way he continues staring resolutely at the plate of chips in front of them, and he knows at once that this was another terrible idea.
"I can't - I don't–" Harry turns to Zayn with wide eyes, words stuck in his throat, fight or flight instincts kicking in.
Before Zayn can offer any more reassurances, though, Niall's at their side, throwing a rough arm around Harry's shoulders and dragging him toward the table. He stumbles a bit over an uneven section of the wood floor and hears Liam let out a nervous sound of disapproval.
"Niall, be careful with him," he chides as Harry winces at the discomfort in his shoulder. "He's still healing."
"He's still bruised," Zayn echoes behind them, pinching one of Harry's hips, teasing, trying to settle Harry's nerves by pretending it's just another night out with some of his mates. Harry takes a deep breath and tries to do the same but it's not so easy with Louis right there, throwing half a glance at the hand on his hip before staring resolutely at the battered table.
Harry sits down across from Liam, sandwiched between Niall and Zayn.
"Have you two met yet?" Liam asks, bumping his elbow against Louis'. "You and Zayn?"
Louis blinks up at him, knuckles white around his nearly empty glass of beer, and shakes his head. "I don't think so," he says, wracking his brain. "Maybe at one of Niall's parties?"
"Yeah, maybe not sober," Zayn agrees and offers his hand to shake. "Nice to meet you, mate."
"Cheers," Louis nods and catches Harry's eye as he turns away. He looks about as anxious as Harry feels, trapped in this booth, wishing he were anywhere but this dingy pub, scared. Harry doesn't want him to be afraid of this, of them, of piecing back together everything they had. He fixes his face into a weak sort of smile and hopes it's enough of a peace offering after the way their last encounter ended.
"You ready for the game, Harry?" Niall asks, drawing Harry's attention away as he points to the screen above the bar. "United's been having a hell of a season so far. Beat Chelsea three-nil last weekend. Did you watch?"
"I um..." Harry stutters, briefly scanning over the names in the starting lineup as they flash across the screen. He only recognizes a third of them. "I haven't really been following football," he admits quietly. "I don't even know who half these people are."
"Bunch of dirty, cheating divers, they are," Liam answers for him. He turns to Louis, expecting a retort from the biggest United fan of them all, but Louis just shrugs.
"It's a game, Liam. What do you expect?"
"Maybe some decent, honest football?" Liam tries, and Harry waits for the tension surrounding them to swallow him whole, drag him beneath his seat and leave him to die. This was a terrible idea, he thinks again. If he wanted normal, this is the furthest thing from it.
"I'm gonna grab a few drinks," Zayn murmurs in his ear before excusing himself for the bar.
Harry tries to relax as he follows Zayn's retreating figure, but all he can concentrate on is the low rumble of bickering across the table.
"At least United's not dead last on the table," he catches Louis mutter.
"West Brom's in tenth, Lou."
"Might as well be last."
"What's crawled up your arse and died tonight?" Liam says with a frown that makes him appear genuinely hurt. Harry goes to steal one of Niall's chips, not having eaten much apart from a banana muffin all afternoon, but Niall slaps his hand away and pops the chip into his own mouth first.
"Get your fuckin' own," he warns.
Harry doesn't know why he ever agreed to this.
"If it's too much having me here, I can always leave." He doesn't mean to sound so melodramatic about it but if this is too weird, if his presence is just going to throw everything off tonight, then he doesn't want to be a part of it. He can always watch the game at home.
When he picks his head up, three pairs of eyes are staring at him and Louis' is the first he meets. Neither of them say anything but it's with some unspoken sort of truce that Louis relaxes his tight jaw and slides his basket of crisps to the center of the table.
"Sharing is caring," he mutters as though he hasn't said it a hundred times to Harry before. Harry tries not to think about all the cold nights where Louis would sneak into his bed, all the jumpers Louis used to borrow, that day by the river where they only had enough money for once ice cream and it definitely wasn't a date. Sharing is caring, Louis would say as he crawled under Harry's duvet, stole a shirt from his wardrobe, pried the plastic spoon from Harry's fingers. They haven't shared anything, let alone five feet of space, in over a year.
"Thanks," Harry mumbles as he tentatively reaches for a particularly well-seasoned chip. He pretends not to hear the tiny sigh of relief that slips from Liam's mouth or notice the way Niall tries to hide the pleased smirk that stretches across his face. Louis rolls his eyes and goes back to finishing his first beer, and Harry silently munches away until Zayn rejoins them with five more glasses wedged between his hands.
"Just drink it," he mutters to Harry as soon as Harry starts to protest the beer in front of him. "I'll look out for you, don't worry. You just look like you need it."
Harry nods, doesn't need telling twice.
With the game about to start, they fall back into casual conversation, going over match predictions and recent injuries, all the January transfer rumours that never amounted to anything. Harry attempts to follow along as he sips his drink and wills the alcohol to calm the frantic beating of his heart, but he gives up and loses the plot when Liam mentions some Tottenham scandal that Louis – for some reason – knows entirely too much about.
"You're not a Spurs fan now, are you?" Harry finds himself asking after Louis valiantly debunks Liam's nonsense claims.
Louis shakes his head and drums his fingers along the edge of his glass. "Not really," he says, playing with the condensation. "I just have to have my facts straight, you know?"
Harry doesn't know. He's realizing now, sitting across from Louis and trying to weave their separate lives back together, that he doesn't know very much at all.
"Right," he agrees, though he's not sure why. Zayn gives his knee a gentle squeeze under the table and Harry can't help the sinking feeling in his stomach that says this is all too forced, that none of this is coming naturally, easy.
The game kicks off a minute later and Louis goes back to bantering with Liam while Niall stubbornly takes Juventus' side, swearing in Harry's ear every time United slips into the box. Whatever remnant of chemistry Harry might have felt around Louis in Niall's kitchen – before Louis dropped his version of the truth, before he left Harry behind again – well... Harry can't feel it at all now. He knows it's there, buried under Louis' hard, persistent barriers, he just doesn't know Louis well enough to break them down anymore.
He watches the way Louis teases Liam, the way they bicker and bounce off each other, the way Louis giggles and buries his face in Liam's neck once he's pleasantly buzzed and Liam makes another stupid joke. He knows that's what they used to have. He knows Louis used to curl into his side and tell him what an idiot he was, snort at his dumb comments and play with his curls. That used to be their thing – so much so that Niall and Liam would relentlessly tease them about it – and now it's not, hasn't been for a while, and out of everything Harry's been through, that's the one thing he can't seem to shake.
He can take the headaches, the bumps, the bruises, the lingering twinge in his ribs when he sneezes or laughs. He can swallow the irritation that creeps under his skin when a customer gives him a difficult time, when he can't remember a coworker's name, but this? Louis' apparent indifference toward him? Harry doesn't know how to get used to that.
He finishes off two pints before the first half ends, and it's certainly not enough to get him drunk but it does leave a sad sort of fog around his brain.
"I thought you weren't allowed to drink yet," Louis comments when halftime rolls around and he notices, probably for the first time, the empty glass in front of Harry.
Harry stops pulling absentmindedly at his bottom lip and shrugs, a little caught up by the sudden interruption.
"Zayn figured I might need it tonight," he explains, cocking his head in the direction of the toilets where the aforementioned traipsed off to as soon as the whistle blew.
"Is that a good idea?" Louis asks, eyeing him with uncertainty.
"Beer is always a good idea, mate," Niall remarks. Harry ignores him.
"Why does it matter to you?" he asks, feeling rather petulant. It's not like Louis wants him to think he genuinely cares, and if he does, he's doing a shit job of letting him know. "You don't have to worry. I've got Zayn to take me home later. He'll make sure I don't wander off or get hit by a car."
He doesn't miss the way Louis flinches.
"Well, that's good of him," he says, despite his knuckles going white again around his own drink. "Does he do all your thinking for you now?"
"Louis," Liam warns.
Harry huffs out a bitter laugh and pushes his glass to the center of the table. "Again, why does it matter to you? You don't want anything to do with me." It's as blunt as hammer to a nail. It's a fact that Louis made damn-well sure he knew, and he has no problem reminding any of them of it.
That still doesn't stop the hurt from flashing across Louis' face.
"I – okay," he stutters, taken aback. "I get why you might think that."
"Am I wrong?" Harry asks, daring Louis to contradict him. Louis doesn't say anything, and that's all Harry needs. "I didn't think so," he sighs and rolls his eyes. He's not even disappointed anymore. He's just sad, sad that it's come to this, that Louis can't even be honest with him, that Louis needs to pretend to be interested in the problems of someone he doesn't give a shit about just because he can't sit there and keep his mouth shut. Harry doesn't want to deal with that. He doesn't have to.
He refuses to meet Liam's pleading, panicked stare, brushes off Niall's hand when it starts closing around his wrist, and gets up from the table for some air outside.
Of course, Louis follows him, climbing over Liam with a frustrated sigh and reaching for his arm on the back swing.
Harry shakes him off.
"Don't what, Louis?" he snaps, rounding on him in the middle of the pub.
"Don't – don't get upset with me," Louis pleads, putting on the breaks in front of him. "It's just difficult, alright? Being around you is difficult. You haven't been in my life for over a year, and I know you don't get it, but this isn't something I can just jump back into. It's weird. It's really fucking weird for me."
He fixes Harry a look that says he, of all people, should understand where he's coming from, but Harry doesn't. Talking to Louis isn't weird for him. Being in the same room as Louis isn't weird for him. Where he's from – and God, that makes him sound like a fucking alien – Louis isn't some foreign being that he has to get comfortable with seeing again. The only weird thing about this is the part where he has absolutely no idea what Louis is thinking, no idea what monstrosity he's battling in his head, why this can't just work.
"You're giving me very mixed signals. You know that, right?" he says, backing away toward the exit, away from any nosey pub patrons, including his own two friends. "You can't tell me you don't want to go back to being friends and then act like you actually care when I drink too much, when I'm hungry, when I bring a new mate to the pub. Even someone without brain damage would find this confusing."
"Stop saying you have brain damage," Louis mutters, following him to the front of the pub. "You're not lying around in a coma."
"There's more than one type of brain damage, Lou," Harry points out. He holds the door open and sighs when Louis shoves his coat into his arms. Of course Louis would think to grab it on his way out.
"Alright, well I don't like when you call it that," he shrugs and continues past Harry onto the cold street corner, tucking his hands into his hoodie pockets and glancing wearily down the side of the building.
"What else am I supposed to call it?"
"I don't know," Louis huffs. "I don't know and I'm sorry if I'm confusing you. I honestly don't mean to, I just." He lets out another weighted breath and tips his head back as if the stars might hold all his answers. "You're not the only one who's confused," he admits with a groan as he straightens out and catches Harry's eye. "I didn't think I'd see you after you called that first night, but I did, and now I'm seeing you again, and I – God. It would be so much better if we could stop spending time around each other."
"Better?" Harry asks with a grimace.
Louis cringes. "No, not... not better. Easier, perhaps?" he tries, and that's good. That's a bit less disheartening. "I don't know, Harry." He scrubs a hand over his face. "I don't know what I'm doing with this either. There isn't exactly a guide on how to deal with your ex best friend's sudden memory loss, is there?"
He frowns at Harry, helpless and unsure, searching for some sort of understanding they might be able to come up with, and Harry can't help but give in. He wants Louis to have time for this, time to weed through all his issues, muddle through their past and decide what he wants to do. It's shit that he doesn't know what that past is and it's fucked up that he's being blindly dragged along through the decision-making process, but if Louis is considering changing his mind about everything, then Harry isn't going to give him shit for it.
"There isn't a guide," he agrees quietly, the noise from inside the pub just a distant buzz. "No one's here to tell us what to do, Louis, but I'm not asking you to sign your life away or pack your things and move back in with me. We were friends and I miss that, and if distance was the only thing that drove us apart, then I don't see how any of this could be so difficult."
"Because it wasn't just distance," Louis lets slip, his eyes downcast.
The words sit foreign in Harry's ears for a second before an odd chill ripples down his spine.
"What – what do you mean?" he asks, heart punching at his ribcage.
Louis takes a step back and rolls his eyes. "Don't play daft, Harry. I know you knew it was more than that."
And he did. He does. He knew he wasn't getting the entire truth the moment Niall told him what happened. He just hadn't been expecting Louis to admit it like this, not after their previous conversation, not right now. And if he's being completely honest, learning he was right all along isn't nearly as satisfying as he thought it would be.
"So you lied about it," he says evenly, as though his head isn't burning with this tiny sliver of truth. "Why does it matter if I knew already? What difference does it make when you still won't tell me what actually happened?"
"God, you're still stuck on that?" Louis groans, and that's. Christ. Harry can't do this.
"Louis, do you know why I'm out here right now?" He untangles his fingers from where they're pulling at his hair to gesture down the empty street. "Do you know why I bothered to stick around even though I'm having such a miserable time? Why I'm drinking when I'm not even supposed to?"
"Well, I did try to ask you but you–"
"It's because of you," Harry cuts him off, breathing hard. Louis' face goes pale, his eyes go wide, and Harry doesn't care. "It's because the last thing I can remember about you before everything cuts off and it all goes to shit is that you were my best friend and I could trust you with my fucking life. And it's so utterly insane to go from that straight to this," he motions between them, to the clear rift that's taken place, "that I can't just relax and have a night out with a few mates. I can't just – I can't–"
"You can't what?" Louis asks, taking a step forward. His eyes drop to Harry's lips for a fraction of a second, and Harry doesn't know what possesses him to move forward as well, whether it's pure adrenaline or guts or the fact that he's so sick and tired of keeping all this inside him, but suddenly he's staring at Louis with his heart in his throat and he doesn't want to hold back anymore.
"Fuck this," he mutters before he takes Louis' face in both his hands, tilts his head to the side, and kisses him square on the mouth.
It's almost as if Louis had been expecting it, with the way he barely reacts. He steadies himself with a careful hand on Harry's waist, parts his lips as Harry nudges closer, and lets himself be kissed. It's stiff and stilted and not at all the first heated snog Harry had always imagined for them, but as he runs his soft fingertips over the rough angles of Louis' jaw and presses his nose into the scruff of his cheek, he feels Louis start to relax, start to kiss back.
It doesn't last for long, though.
As soon as he swipes his tongue over Louis' bottom lip, he feels a firm hand push at the center of his chest, Louis ducking his head as he puts a generous space between them
"Harry..." he murmurs, unable to meet his imploring gaze.
Harry's heart sinks down to his feet. He feels sick.
"You can't keep doing that," Louis sighs and shakes his head as he turns away, a hand coming up to rub at the corner of his mouth.
"Doing what?" Harry asks, his voice tight, straining against every emotion threatening to overwhelm him. He's just kissed his best friend and his best friend doesn't seem all that surprised. His head doesn't know what to do with that; his heart doesn't understand.
Louis doesn't budge.
"Nothing," he mutters, leaning against the brick wall. "Forget it."
"Already done that."
"You know what I mean," Louis sighs and straightens out. He finally meets Harry's eyes and Harry manages to catch the exact moment he drops whatever stubborn streak he's going through, his jaw unclenching, eyes sagging, mouth turning down, and his whole body sort of deflates as the seriousness of what they're going through finally settles in. "Fuck," Louis mutters, lowering his gaze and pinching the bridge of his nose. "I really have no idea what I'm doing here."
Harry takes a quiet, deep breath, lungs expanding and straining under his nearly healed rib. "Do you think you could figure it out?" he asks slowly, mouth still fuzzy from the kiss. They're playing with fire now.
Louis opens his mouth like he wants to argue and Harry can hear the it's not that simple, it's not that easy getting ready to roll off his tongue before any words even slip out. It could be easy and it could be simple if Louis could just stop locking himself up in his head and open up about everything. The look on his face, though, says it isn't going to happen tonight.
Harry doesn't even bother waiting for a response. He knows he won't want to hear it anyway.
"I'm just gonna – I should get going," he sighs, gesturing past Louis toward the door. "I haven't followed football since the accident, and everything before it is... I can't remember it."
"You're going to leave just because of me?" Louis asks.
Harry frowns at him, something sad, a little broken.
"What else am I supposed to do?" he asks, arms rising briefly at his sides. He doesn't fit in this world anymore. They're two halves of a Venn diagram that share friends but not much else. They found ways to survive without each other long ago – one more night shouldn't kill them.
Louis' jaw twitches, chewing back words he doesn't want to say. He swallows them before they leak out, but not before Harry catches sight of the storm raging in his head.
"Louis..." he tries, heart beating helplessly.
Louis turns away from him, fingers dragging along the brick wall before he comes to a slow stop a couple feet away. "I don't know what I'm doing, H," he repeats, voice small. His eyes squeeze shut as Harry steps up beside him, and Harry doesn't know what he's doing either. He doesn't have any other words to say, nothing that could make a difference, sway Louis in one direction or the other. Louis knows what's on the table now. It's his choice to make.
"Could you please just figure it out?" Harry says again, so low it almost comes out as a whisper.
He doesn't wait for Louis to respond. With another soft press of his lips to the corner of his mouth, he slinks past him and back through the pub. When he comes back out five minutes later – Zayn quiet at his side, Niall and Liam no doubt disappointed at the turn of events – the street corner is empty and Louis is no where to be found.
Manchester United lose three to one. No one's really surprised.
Days pass and Harry doesn't hear a word from Louis. Not a single text or phone call, nothing to indicate that he's thought about him or the kiss at all. It's unnerving.
It's just... there's nothing for Harry to hide behind anymore. Louis knows how Harry feels, or at least he should since it was made quite obvious by the fact that their lips were plastered together, and it's all out in the open, all on the line now. It's both liberating and fucking terrifying, something Harry should have done a long time ago, but with each consecutive day that passes without anything from Louis, it starts to feel more and more like a mistake.
They haven't been around each other in over a year. If Louis had been at all romantically interested in Harry when they were still friends, what on earth made Harry think he'd still be interested now? So much time has passed. Louis could be seeing someone for all he knows – it's not like he stopped to ask before he went in for the kiss. Niall or Liam wouldn't have casually dropped that tidbit when he woke up in the hospital. There was no reason for any of them, including Louis, to bring it up. None of them knew about Harry's feelings.
But he kissed Louis. And for the most part, Louis kissed back. That has to hold at least a little weight, doesn't it?
Harry runs his fingertips over his lips where he's sprawled on his bed, the feeling of Louis' pressed softly to his burning a hole through his broken memory.
He needs to get up. He needs to take a shower and go to work, needs to stop overanalyzing or he'll drive himself insane. His memory's been bad enough lately, he doesn't need the worry to distract him and make it worse.
"Need any help?" Georgia asks eight hours later when it's just the two of them working the counter at night and Harry's managed to royally fuck up the till. Again.
He pauses, one finger hovering over the escape key, the other hand clutching the fiver his customer gave him two minutes ago. The woman's been patiently waiting for her change and thankfully, thankfully not making a fuss over his ineptitude.
"Yeah, I – sorry, I think I pressed the wrong button," he explains, stepping aside, tired and embarrassed. "I can't get the drawer to open."
"No worries," Georgia says brightly, as if this isn't the fifth time in the past two hours that something's gone wrong by Harry's doing. She taps the screen a few, rapid times, fingers flying over buttons Harry can't read fast enough, until they're back to the beginning and Harry can start all over.
"Sorry," he apologizes again as he reenters the woman's order and counts her change from the till. "Two fifteen is your change," he tells her. "Have a lovely night."
He shuts the drawer and hands the money over, biting his bottom lip and barely meeting the woman's eyes. She takes it without offense, wishes him a nice night as well, and retreats for the door.
"Hey," Georgia murmurs, still at his side. She puts a hand on his shoulder and gives a gentle squeeze. "What's going on with you today? You okay, hun?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Harry sighs and turns around so he's facing her, screwing his frustrated, little pout into something less depressing. He knows exactly what's happening. He hasn't been able to concentrate all day and it's messing with his head. He just can't shake the dread growing in his chest from everything with Louis, and every time he messes up, every time his memory slips again, he feels himself sink even further.
"I need you to smile for me, alright?" Georgia asks, sweet and sincere.
Harry forces the corners of his mouth up into the worst fake smile he's ever attempted. Georgia snorts.
"Keep trying, love." She prods a finger into his cheek for encouragement and pokes, pokes, pokes at his missing dimple until his face starts to hurt and a low laugh finally rumbles out of his chest. Satisfied, she pats his cheeks and grins. "Much better."
Someone clears their throat behind Harry and startles them both. The reluctant smile slides right off his face as he sheepishly twists around and sees it's a customer from earlier, this burly, greying man in a navy turtleneck, watching them with poorly disguised aversion.
"You put sugar in here," he says at once, tipping his uncapped coffee cup towards Harry and letting him peer inside as if he'd actually be able to see the crystals floating about. "I specifically told you no sugar."
He sets the cup down with a bit more force than necessary, coffee splashing over the edges and causing Harry to flinch.
"I'm sorry, sir," he apologizes, sopping the mess up with a few napkins, knots twisting in his stomach. He really doesn't need this right now, not after the day he's had. "I can make another for you if you'd like. I just need your order again."
"I was in here four minutes ago. You can't remember it?" the man asks, voice gruff, disbelieving. Harry feels his face heat up, remaining confidence draining out of him like flour from a ripped bag.
"No, sir, I can't," he answers, trying his best not to get flustered. "We serve a lot of customers and I can't remember every order. If you could just repeat it, I'll–"
"It was four minutes ago," the man snorts harshly and turns to Georgia. "They'll put just any idiot behind a counter these days, won't they?" he asks her as if she'd agree.
She doesn't, and she doesn't seem too keen on jumping in to help Harry with this one either, which... Well, it's understandable considering it's completely Harry's fault and she's been cleaning up after him all evening.
"What was your order, sir?" Harry asks again, ignoring his previous comment.
The man mutters something about Harry being a witless lowlife before rattling off his coffee preference, emphasis on the no sugar, thanks. It's an embarrassingly simple order, actually, something Harry should have remembered without a problem. Biting his lip against his sinking heart, he scribbles the request on the back of an old receipt, hands shaking as he writes because he can't remember even the easy things today and it's all a fucking mess.
It's the fastest coffee he ever pours and he forces the lid on with only a small struggle.
"No sugar," he murmurs as he slides the cup across the worktop and into the man's meaty paws.
Without a word of thanks, the man grabs his coffee and stalks away, bringing the paper cup to his lips and hopefully burning his entire throat as he takes his first sip.
Harry's fine. He's so fucking fine that he definitely doesn't slip into the kitchens for a five minute break as soon as Georgia starts cleaning up. He definitely doesn't contemplate screaming, doesn't hug his knees to his chest as he sinks down the refrigerator door, breathing, breathing just trying to fucking breathe.
He's twenty-four and still works at the bakery. He doesn't write music anymore and he can't remember what he did two months ago. He kissed his best friend and his best friend still wants nothing to do with him. He has no idea how he got here. He hates it.
"You can go home, Harry," Georgia tells him, eyeing him sympathetically as she carries a stack of boxed cakes into the kitchen. "I can finish the rest on my own, it's not a problem."
Harry shakes his head and wipes his face on his sleeve. "I'm alright, I can stay," he promises as he pushes to his feet. She doesn't believe him.
"Honestly, you look miserable," she says. "There's not much left to do. I'll be fine. You go home and get some sleep."
She sets her stack of boxes on the table outside the walk-in fridge and waves him on. Harry heaves a worn-out sigh and begrudgingly starts untying his apron.
"Sorry I was such shit to work with today," he murmurs, slipping the neck strap over his head. "I guess I'm just feeling overwhelmed."
"You don't have to explain yourself, babe, I get it," Georgia smiles sadly, yanking the fridge door open. "Two years ago you never imagined this would be your life, but it is. You can still change it. Go home and get some rest and maybe I'll see you tomorrow, yeah?"
She moves the door out of the way so he can hang up his apron and grab his coat, catching him in a one-armed hug as he passes by.
"Thanks," Harry sighs, lazily squeezing back.
He tries to keep his chin up as he sneaks out the door a moment later, but it's tough when it's raining and it's cold and his heart still feels as heavy as an anchor, dropped a hundred miles beneath the sea.
Without thinking, he gets on the bus. He gets on the bus and takes a seat near the back. He fights off sleep the entire way home, head pressed against the rain-splattered window, arms crossed around his middle to keep from shivering. He doesn't even realize he's made a mistake, that something's gone wrong until he's trudged through the puddles on the way home from the bus stop, until he's walked up the three steps to his front door, until he pulls out his key and tries to jam it in the lock, fingers trembling, water dripping down his neck, and the key doesn't fit.
He blinks up at the black door in front of him and freezes. It's not his home. It isn't his home and it hasn't been for over a year and he's so, so fucking tired.
He rests his forehead against the door and takes a deep, shuddery breath, hands balled into fists at his sides as the rain drips off the end of his chin.
"Fuck," he swears, screwing his eyes shut to the prickling sensation behind them. He doesn't want to cry. He's so tired of crying. He's tired of feeling like this, like he doesn't know what he's doing, like he doesn't belong here. He's tired of trying to be this person he doesn't know. He's tired of feeling so fucking lost.
He doesn't know what to do. It's late and he's wet and cold and his umbrella is sitting in the corner of his bedroom because he's forgotten that, too. And that was the last bus. It drove away and the walk to his other flat – his only flat, he reminds himself, staring blankly at the all-too-familiar door in front of him – would likely take over an hour. He can't do that. He doesn't want to do that. He wants – Christ.
He wants things to go back to normal, he wants this to be his home again, he wants to remember what it was like to unlock the door and go upstairs, to find Louis waiting inside, waiting for him. He's never wanted anything so much in his life as he wants that right now but he can't have it because somewhere along the line he fucked it up or Louis fucked it up or maybe they both did, and now it's gone. It's so gone, so beyond lost that Harry actually feels like his heart's being crushed behind his sternum when he sits down on the wet stairs and struggles to fight off the tears burning the back of his eyes.
He's pathetic, is what he tells himself as he digs into his coat with shaking fingers and pulls out his phone. He shields the screen from the rain and opens his contacts, massive lump falling into his stomach and filling him with dread as he realizes the one person whose voice he really wants to hear tonight is the one person he can't seem to hold onto anymore. Before he can over-think it – because really, how much worse could he possibly make things at this point – he scrolls until he finds Louis' name and jabs a soggy finger over the call button.
The line rings once, twice, three, four times, and Harry's about half a second away from a sob when Louis finally picks up, voice slow and unsure as he answers.
"Hey," he says quietly, like he's just woken from a nap. The last time they spoke, Harry kissed him. "Everything alright?"
Harry clears his throat, takes a deep breath. "Not really," he croaks, words strangled, strained. He sniffs hard, wipes his nose on his sleeve, and tucks his ear into his shoulder to keep his phone dry.
"Hey," Louis says again, softer. "What's wrong? What's going on?"
"I'm at our old flat," Harry explains, blinking miserably at his wet boots washed out against the wet steps. His shoulders shake with the effort to hold down another sob, and Louis must hear the rattling breath he takes, with the way he sighs worriedly down the line.
"Oh, Harry..." he murmurs, doing nothing to ease the weight in Harry's chest. "What are you doing all the way over there?"
"I forgot," Harry admits with a helpless shrug, rain seeping in through his coat. "I just... I don't know, Lou. Work was shit and I wasn't thinking. I guess it's just habit."
"What, getting on the bus?"
"Wanting to go home and thinking of here," Harry answers, hugging his knees to his chest and trying to stop his shivering. It's been such a long day and he just wants his bed, some dry clothes, a nice sleep. He rubs at the corner of his eye, lashes clumping together with drops of water.
"I don't live too far from there," Louis tells him, and Harry knows. He remembers Niall mentioning it in the hospital and for some reason it stuck. "If you don't want to wait for a cab, I could be there in ten minutes."
Harry sniffles into his wet sleeve, wishing he could curl inside his coat and stop his heart from aching.
"You don't have to do that," he insists, even though he knows that's why he called. It could have been anyone else, even a cab, and he still chose Louis first.
"It's fine. Don't worry about it," Louis promises. "I um. I sort of wanted to talk to you anyway. About the other night. If that's alright?"
His voice wavers down the line and Harry wonders if he'd even have brought it up if Harry'd never called, if they'd never spoken again.
"You don't have to do that, either," he mumbles, resting his forehead on his knees, letting his sopping curls fall and stick to his cheeks.
"I do, Harry," Louis sighs, tired. "This time I do."
Harry inhales a shuddery breath, bones heavy, weighed down by everything he's been through this past month, everything that's just started crumbling and cracking on top of him. Louis wants to talk and Harry wants to listen, just. Not now. Not tonight. Not after the day he's had. If he can hope for anything, he can at least hope Louis lets him down easy. There's no sense in twisting the stake after it's already been driven in.
"Okay," he murmurs, resigned.
"Good," Louis concludes. "I'll be there soon."
He hangs up without another word, once again leaving Harry alone in a place he used to be able to call home.
Waiting, he tugs his soaked-through coat higher up his neck while he sits on the front steps, the rain a steady downpour against the black night's sky. He'd been doing fine – or as fine as can be expected after falling into such a situation – but these past few days, this entire week has absolutely taken its toll on him. He hates that he needs Louis to come fix it. He hates that he needs fixing at all. He's not broken. He doesn't want to be. They're just memories, they shouldn't matter so much, he should still a whole person without them. Only maybe he isn't. Maybe he won't be until he knows everything that's happened, until he figures out how to become this new version of himself that's nothing like the person he always thought he would be. Maybe only Louis can fix that.
In the time it takes Louis to find him, he contemplates everything from hiding in a nearby bin to making a run for it and having Gemma come get him instead. He doesn't want to be seen like this, a useless mess, red-eyed and soggy, holding onto his past so tightly that he's ended up on its literal fucking doorstep.
But Louis shows up anyway, parking along the side of the street and slipping out into the rain even though he doesn't need to. Harry can get off his sorry arse and climb into the passenger seat all on his own.
Before he even moves, though, Louis is standing in front of him, hood pulled up over his hair, rain dripping off the end of his nose as he huddles against the wind and eyes the door before him. He doesn't look for very long, almost like he can't look at all, like the familiarity of it hits too close to something Harry can't explain but completely understands, and then Louis ducks his head and takes the seat next to him, lets their knees and thighs, elbows and shoulders bump, and forces another lump into Harry's throat.
"I used to do this all the time," Louis says quietly over the soft jingling of his keys where they're hanging off his little finger. "When I came back from New York, I was just so homesick I'd leave the office and all I could think about was going home and ordering in, spending a lazy night on the couch with a beer and my Hazza, and I'd end up here."
He turns to glance behind them at the front door again and Harry instinctively hides his face to the side, sniffling into his shoulder around the shuddery aftershocks that threaten to overwhelm him.
"It still looks the same," Louis comments, eyes roaming the entrance, the paint chipping around the corners, the brick facade crumbling near the bottom. "It's a bit strange, innit?" he asks. "Like, you've gone and grown up and I've changed too of course, but this... this looks exactly the same as it did two years ago."
He slowly twists back around and Harry braces himself against his oncoming stare, but all Louis does is tuck his hands further into his sleeves and wipe the rain off his nose.
"I probably should have brought an umbrella," he sighs, wrapping his arms around his knees and hugging them tight. It's apparent he's not planning on leaving anytime soon, not until Harry is ready to get up and get in his car.
Harry slowly blinks at Louis through the drops of water caught in his eyelashes and frowns.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks, confused. It's not as though he thinks there's some ulterior motive, not sure what it would even be, but he can't handle Louis treating him like this, like he cares, not if he doesn't really.
"I know what it's like to come back here," Louis shrugs after a thoughtful moment. "I know what it's like to sit on this step and feel a bit lost, and I know what it's like to want nothing more than to have your best friend by your side again."
He meets Harry's eyes with a new flush to his cheeks, and for the first time throughout all of this, he looks so open and honest, like he genuinely means what he's saying, that it tugs at Harry's heart, leaves him inexplicably teary-eyed and feeling all sorts of broken all over again.
"Louis," he breathes out unsteadily before he's choking on a sob and trying to cover his face with his sleeve.
Louis hurries to soothe him but it's too much, and if Harry were a near mess before, having Louis gently pry his arm away to pull him against his chest has him dissolving into a broken puddle of hurting, trembling boy.
Within two breaths, he feels every bit of the last month come crashing down on him in this heavy wave, toppling over him, filling his lungs with everything but the air he's been so desperate to breathe. He hadn't thought he'd been bottling anything up. He'd thought he'd been managing just fine through everything, but god, with the way he buries his face in Louis' neck, the way he just shudders and shakes and falls apart, he realizes he hasn't been doing nearly as well as he'd imagined.
He hates this. He hates getting things wrong, getting confused, hates not knowing how he felt a month ago, why he's here, why Louis will only hold him when he's fucking shattered and broken. He hates the way his brain works now, hates that he even had an accident, that he's let things fall so far down, so far from his dreams that he's woken up in a life he can't seem to get used to.
"I don't want to do this anymore," he sobs miserably, the hand stroking the back of his head pausing for just a fraction of second in response.
"I know you don't, Harry," Louis murmurs in his ear. "I know, but it's... there's nothing we can do about it. It is what it is, yeah?"
Harry goes to agree but stops himself, knowing it isn't true. It might not make things any easier, but if he just knew what happened, the whole story, if he could just connect the dots from twenty-two to twenty-four and just make sense of everything, he could at least come to terms with it all.
"Louis, I'm sorry if I did anything to stop us being friends," he apologizes frantically, lifting his head and gulping down air between words. "I'm sorry for whatever it was that drove us apart. I'm sorry if I hurt you, if I said anything wrong, if I made you think I didn't care about you. I'm sorry I kissed you."
He uncurls an arm from around his middle and wipes the rain off his face, not daring to meet Louis' eyes and see all of his worst fears confirmed as he feels the other boy stiffen at his side.
"You don't have to apologize," Louis says then, a little breathless, confused. "For any of that," he adds, but doesn't elaborate.
He wraps an arm around Harry's shoulders and tugs him back to his side for a second, rubbing at his shoulder and watching the rain fall down around them.
"Come on," he says after a quiet moment. "Let's get you out of this weather and then we can talk."
Harry's not sure how much talking he'll be up for but he doesn't want to put up a fight. He keeps his words to himself and lets Louis play with his wet hair until he calms down enough to get in the car.
"Do you need the address?" he asks weakly once they've settled in and Louis has the radio turned on to a station he likes. Harry still can't catch a full breath, his little, snuffly exhales fogging up the rain-splattered window where his head is resting.
Louis lets out a quiet laugh. "If you think I'm driving halfway across London at this hour, I suggest you get your head checked again." He pulls onto the road, turning back in the direction he came from. "It's late and I've got work in the morning. You can sleep on my couch and I'll drop you off on my way to the stadium tomorrow."
Harry twists his head to the side and rubs at his reddened nose. "The stadium?" he asks, confused.
"Yeah." Louis nods. "I um. I do some behind-the-scenes work for Sky Sports. It's a lot of fact checking and taking notes for the commentators, but it's a lot better than that shit I was doing in New York."
"And what was that?" Harry asks, curious. He doesn't know anything about Louis these days.
"Um, well. It was a lot of coffee runs and missing home," Louis answers vaguely. "A lot of listening to Americans argue over a sport they'll never understand." He shrugs as if it's not such a big deal that he spent a few not-so-great months so far away, and Harry's heart breaks, wishing he could have been there for him.
"M'sorry it didn't work out," he murmurs, watching a drop of water roll down the corner of the windscreen. He flicks his eyes back to Louis as Louis gently shakes his head.
"Don't be," he says around a quiet, tired laugh, fingers tapping against the wheel. "God knows you tried everything you could to convince me to stay."
He keeps his focus on the slippery road, and Harry can't even begin to imagine what that could have been, to what extent he would have gone to keep Louis from leaving. He has no idea what Louis knew about his feelings for him back then. He has no idea how much he would have admitted to if he knew Louis wanted to go.
"It wasn't enough?" he asks, chancing another glance at the boy next to him.
"It was always enough," Louis answers as he reaches for the radio dial. "That's what the problem was."
He turns the music up, an obvious diversion tactic, and while it successfully deters Harry from trying to continue down a path of conversation he knows will probably hit too close to the root of the problem, he can't help the way those pieces of information settle like rocks in his stomach.
They park in front of a narrow building not three minutes later, an empty flower pot at the side of the door, a single streetlamp casting shadows through the car windows. From the outside it looks nicer than Harry's own flat – in a better neighborhood, closer to the shops and markets. He supposes Louis can afford it, though, working for a huge company like Sky instead of selling pastries in a local bakery.
His fingers are still trembling when he fumbles with his seatbelt. If Louis notices, he doesn't comment. It's because he's cold, Harry tells himself. He's cold and he's been crying. It has nothing to do with nerves or the fact that he's spending the night at Louis'. It's not because he's about to see the other end of the spectrum, the end where Louis moved on without him and got everything he ever wanted.
"It's nothing fancy," Louis tells him as he unlocks the door, hood back up, head bent to keep the water out of his eyes.
Harry takes his word for it, slipping off his boots as soon as he walks in. It takes a second for his eyes to adjust to the light and when they do, the first thing he notices is just how much this new flat reminds him of their old one. It's not even that they look alike – because they don't, they're completely different – but there's just so much Louis engrained in every surface, each wall, each misplaced coaster and crooked picture frame that Harry feels like he's gone back in time.
It's as much Louis as Harry's own flat feels nothing like himself.
"Are you sure this is alright?" he asks, feeling even more out of his depth than usual.
"If it weren't, you'd be the first to know," Louis answers, slinking out of his wet hoodie and heading toward what Harry can only assume is the bathroom. "You can hang your clothes to dry in here and I'll, um. I'll let you borrow some of mine to sleep in if you'd like."
They both know how Harry usually doesn't sleep in much at all, but neither of them bring it up.
"There should be extra blankets in the closet," Louis continues, flicking on the bathroom light and throwing his hoodie over the curtain rod. Harry sheds his coat and does the same, ignoring the glimpse of red-rimmed eyes and matted hair that he catches in the mirror. "I think Lottie brought them last time she came to visit. She said she missed our knit blanket."
"My knit blanket," Harry corrects and averts his eyes as soon as Louis goes to remove his damp t-shirt. "Niall's gran made it for me the first time I went to Mullingar, remember?"
"No, but I'm surprised you do," Louis says, teasing. He squeezes past Harry where he stands in the doorway, through the living room and inside another open door, giving him an eyeful of his bare chest and back as he goes.
Harry tries his hardest not to stare.
He tugs his own shirt over his head and carefully drapes it over the edge of Louis' tub, shivering a bit as he starts trying to shimmy out of his soaked jeans. Louis comes back moments later with a towel and a set of comfortable clothes just as he's trying to fit the cuff around his ankle. If his eyes rake down Harry's goosebumped torso and thighs before he drops the bundle next to the sink, then he's much better at playing it off than Harry is.
"You alright, there?" he asks, watching Harry struggle.
Harry closes the toilet lid and takes a seat. "I'll get it eventually," he sighs, fighting to keep the heat from flooding his face.
"When you're ready." Louis pats the t-shirt and joggers he set aside. "You might also want to let that bloke you live with know you're here. Don't want him worrying you've ended up in the hospital again."
"Zayn?" Harry assumes. "Yeah, I'll text him or something."
With a final tug, his foot comes free of his jeans, leaving him embarrassingly out of breath, elbows on his knees.
"Well done," Louis claps and throws the towel at him.
Harry flips him off as he shakes out his hair, a residual sniffle sneaking in to remind him just how otherwise shitty his night has been. When he picks his head up, Louis' gone, leaving him alone to dress in private – a simple white t-shit that smells like the other boy, a pair of joggers that barely reach his ankles. He ties his hair in a bun, washes his face in the sink, exits the bathroom to find Louis sitting on the armrest of his couch, a pile of blankets and pillows behind him, head bent over his phone.
"Hey," Harry says carefully, dropping sideways into a squashy armchair and pulling his legs up, sockless feet resting on the seat. Now that they've rid themselves of distractions – the rain, the radio, the imminent threat of tears – there's not much left to hide behind. It's just the two of them, wounds open and raw, everything that's broken between them lying thick in the air.
Louis clicks his phone off and eyes Harry's change of clothes.
"Sorry the bottoms are a bit small," he comments about the joggers.
Harry shrugs, unbothered. "They're fine," he says, playing with the elastic cuffs. "Toes are freezing, though. Could do with some socks."
"Good luck finding any in this place," Louis says and glances down to where his bare feet are pressed against the rug.
Harry just crosses his arms over his bony shins and tries to rub some warmth back into his toes. "You wanted to talk?" he offers, not sure where Louis intended to go with this. There's just so much they could possibly discuss – from the kiss and their recent squabble to those two years of missing memories and Louis refusing to share them.
"I, um. Yeah," Louis nods, less sure of himself than he'd sounded half an hour ago. "I wanted to apologize, actually, for the other night. I'm not sure why you thought you needed to, but I definitely do, and I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry."
He fidgets with the sleeves on his new, dry hoodie, stretching them down over his hands, his face a tired mix of honest and open, maybe even a little nervous.
"Yeah?" Harry breathes, surprised. He would really love to believe him.
Louis nods. "Yeah," he exhales around a shaky huff of a laugh. "You told me I needed figure it out, and I know I'm nowhere near there yet, but I also know I wouldn't have gone to the pub if I didn't care. I wouldn't have answered your phone calls and I wouldn't have bothered talking to you at Niall's party if there wasn't a part of me that still wanted us to be friends."
He runs his sleeve-covered knuckles along the front edge of the couch, and Harry regards him curiously, a decent amount of the dread he'd been feeling slowly sinking out of him and being replaced by warm relief.
"Thanks," he says quietly after a moment. "For um, for letting me know," he clarifies and clears his throat. "I know I haven't really made things easy for you, but like. I care about you, too, you know? Quite a lot, as a matter of fact," he adds with a sheepish, little shrug. "I don't know if I made that clear or not the other night, but it's true."
"You did," Louis confirms with another breathy laugh. "Believe me, I got the message. It's just... It's complicated, H, in ways that you wouldn't really understand. I'm still working on it. I'm still trying to figure out how to do this with you," he repeats. "Is that okay?"
"I – Yeah, I guess," Harry murmurs and tucks his toes between the cushion and the armrest. "But why wouldn't I understand?" he asks then, blinking up at Louis. "I'm not a child. You don't have to treat me like one."
"I know you're not," Louis sighs, "but you can't help me get my head squared away when you're still sorting your own out."
"You are, though," Louis interrupts and crosses his arms. "You wouldn't be here tonight if you weren't. If everything was alright, you'd have never gone to our old flat. You'd be home with Zayn, and I'd be passed out in front of the telly."
He fixes Harry a knowing stare, and Harry wishes he could just keep his mouth shut and agree to disagree for once, but he can't.
"The only thing holding me back is us," he sighs and watches Louis deflate a little, sinking against the couch. "You know I just want answers and yet you can't even talk to me about anything that happened. How can you expect me to move on when I don't even know how I got here in the first place?"
"I said I was working on it," Louis answers, voice thin, fingers twisted in the hem of his shirt.
"I get that," Harry reassures him and tries to offer up a small smile that comes out more sad than anything. "I know you're trying. I just. I don't think you know what's best for me."
He doesn't think anyone does. Not Louis, not Niall, not Liam, not Zayn. The only one inside his head is himself, and no one else seems to want to listen to him. No one wants to help.
"I'm sorry," Louis finally says, wrapping his arms around his middle, looking smaller than ever. He can hardly meet Harry's eyes. "I don't know how to stop disappointing you," he says and shakes his head. "I don't know how to not hurt you anymore."
He scrubs a hand over his face and Harry has to force himself to stay sunk in his chair, to not cross the space between them and swallow Louis up in his arms.
"You're not going to cry too, are you?" he asks tentatively, heart frozen in his chest. He can't remember Louis ever crying in front of him. The thought alone is enough to set him on edge.
Louis blinks his eyes a few times, though, and shakes his head. "Not at the moment, no," he answers, clearly determined not to. "You've just really thrown me for an emotional loop these past few weeks, Styles." He sniffles, rubs at the side of his nose, and Harry's heart melts into his stomach.
"I didn't mean to," he apologizes because it's the sad truth and he can relate. They're both falling apart, just trying to stay afloat. Maybe if they could only throw each other a paddle, they'd make it out alive. God knows Louis threw one by answering Harry's call tonight. Now it's Harry's turn. The ball's in his court.
"Hey," he says quietly when he realizes they can't do this to each other anymore. He slowly pushes to his feet and pads over to the couch, stopping just short of Louis to keep from touching him. Louis doesn't seem to mind, though, handing him the pillow off the cushion behind him before sliding off the armrest and onto the seat. Harry hugs it to his chest and sits down next to him, their knees almost bumping.
"I'm so tired," Louis says, and he sounds it.
"I'm sorry for dragging you into this mess," is Harry's response. Louis tilts his head to the side to look at him and Harry has to ignore whatever urge he has to scoot closer, to turn and face him as well. "We don't have to keep talking about it," he offers instead, squeezing the pillow to his chest. "Not tonight, not when we're both all, like... weepy and stuff."
"I haven't wept yet," Louis contradicts him.
Harry rolls his eyes and nudges him in the arm. "You know what I mean," he sighs but doesn't move his elbow away. "I think we've done enough damage to ourselves for one night. Maybe we should just give it a rest and go to bed."
"That sounds wonderful," Louis agrees easily. If his arm sags against Harry's just a fraction of a second, neither of them are brave enough to react. "It wasn't all damage, though, was it?" he asks, then, eyes flickering back to Harry's face. "There was a little fixing in there, too, wasn't there?"
Harry nods, and finally, because he can't keep resisting, lets himself relax into Louis' side. Nobody says a word about it. Sirens don't start blaring in the distance. It's just warm and comfortable, the way it used to be.
Harry wishes he could stay here forever.
"Thanks for coming to get me tonight," he murmurs, about five breaths away from letting his head fall onto Louis' shoulder. He could probably fall asleep like that if he wanted to, if Louis would let him, if he wasn't so afraid of waking up alone.
"Don't worry about it," Louis shrugs and shifts against him. "And don't, like. Don't apologize, either."
"For dragging me into this," Louis repeats Harry's sentiment from earlier. He blinks over at him, eyelids drooping and in need of a few hours of sleep, but they're not quite as dark as they were before. "Maybe having you back in my life isn't such a bad thing after all," he admits quietly, like he's just now realizing it.
Harry thinks he might be right. As he feels Louis extricate himself from the couch and leave his side cold and lonely, as he says goodnight and watches Louis slip off into his bedroom, he thinks it might not be the worst thing after all.
It's the smell of burnt toast, his name murmured in his ear, and the painful throbbing of his injured shoulder that wake him in the early hours of the following morning. Wincing slightly, he rolls onto his back to find Louis kneeling at the side of the couch, fully dressed for work in a jumper and smart trousers, a plate of eggs and toast on the coffee table behind him.
"Hey," Louis whispers, pushing off his knees to sit on the edge of the table. "Sorry to wake you so early, but we have to leave in ten."
Harry blinks at him, a little disoriented by the foreign setting, by Louis being there at all, and frowns. "Minutes?" he asks, voice low and throaty, his mouth tasting rather stale.
"No, hours," Louis mutters under his breath, rolling his eyes. "Yes, you loon. Minutes. Time for you to wake up and eat the sad excuse for a breakfast I made you."
He takes the plate from behind him and waits until Harry's pushed himself into a seated position before trying to pass it over. Harry doesn't immediately take it though, grimacing instead at the pain in his shoulder.
"You alright?" Louis asks, hesitating, holding the plate back.
"S'just a bit sore," Harry mumbles and takes the food from him with his other hand. "Must have rolled over on it when I finally fell asleep."
He'd tossed and turned for a good portion of the night, too many worries on his mind, not comfortable enough, too tired to sleep.
"That's from the accident?" Louis asks, words quiet and soft like he's not sure if it's okay to ask these things. It definitely is. Harry wants him to ask anything and everything. He'll talk about anything and everything if it's with Louis.
"Yeah," he nods, wondering vaguely if anyone ever told him the full extent of his injuries. "I dislocated it," he explains and swings his arm a few more times, testing it, stretching it across his chest the way his physical therapist showed him. He lowers it to his side and chomps down on the corner of his toast.
Louis watches him chew for a bit, mouth drawn in a slight bow, before he tugs the sleeves of his jumper down over his hands and rests his elbows on his thighs. Harry doesn't miss the way his eyes droop a little, dark circles standing out in the shadows beneath them.
"You sleep okay?" he asks between mouthfuls of eggs. They're a bit runny, but he's had worse.
"Yeah, of course," Louis answers too quickly. He's lying, but Harry doesn't push it. After last night, he doesn't want to argue anymore.
He gulps down the rest of his breakfast while Louis finishes getting ready for work. With his clothes from the night before still a bit damp, he hesitates on getting changed until Louis slips into the bathroom behind him and tells him not to bother. He can wear the joggers and the t-shirt home, return them once they've been washed. That's promising, at least. That means they'll have to see each other again.
Together, they mosey out the door and back into Louis' car, Louis blasting the hot air as soon as the engine starts just to keep Harry from shivering in his thin clothes. It's still early and Harry's still half asleep, so they keep their mouths generally shut. Harry just steers Louis in the right direction while Louis makes comments about the traffic or the songs on the radio. It doesn't feel quite like the calm after the storm, the breath of fresh air after the bursting of the dams. It's not as bad as it was before, but they're both still noticeably on edge. Perhaps it's just the eye of the hurricane. They aren't out of this yet.
"This is it," Harry says as they approach his flat. He gathers his wet clothes from the space around his feet and unbuckles his seatbelt.
"Look's cozy," Louis comments, peering through his window even though they both know he can't actually see enough to judge.
Harry digs his keys from his coat pocket. "It's alright," he says, but what he really means is it's not home. "I'll see you around?" he asks as he reaches to open the door.
He gives Louis a tentative look, blood thrumming in his ears and making him feel more anxious than he has in weeks, and Louis nods, hesitant and not altogether convincing, before he lifts his gaze to meet Harry's.
"I think we should probably try," he decides, and it's more than Harry could have expected, a hopeful contrast to the previous times they've said goodbye. Even with only a few hours of restless, puffy-eyed sleep, Harry feels a tiny piece of the enormous weight fall away from his chest.
"I'd really like it if we could," he agrees and offers his best half-smile as he steps out into the cold. Before he shuts the door, though, he peeks his head back in and gives another thanks. "For everything," he says, genuinely meaning it despite the tension between them. Louis purses his lips like he doesn't want to believe it. "Really, Louis," Harry insists. "I know I was a wreck last night, but you – you were there when you didn't need to be, and it really means a lot. Really."
"Really?" Louis can't help but mock.
Harry sighs and drums his fingers on the frame of the door. "Yes. Now get out of here before you're late for the game."
He closes the door as Louis waves him off, before either of them can get another word in, before they can start bantering in a way that feels too close to normal.
Zayn's waiting for him in front of the television when he finally slips into their flat, shooting Harry a look as he drops his stuff by the door that says it all well enough, eyebrows raised, lips curling into a smirk, judging, judging, judging.
Harry realizes that wearing Louis' clothes and having huge bags under his eyes as if he hadn't slept at all – because he hadn't – might misconstrue some thoughts, but honestly –
"Nothing happened," he sighs, his voice all sorts of raspy. He needs something warm to drink, a hot shower, his own clothes, his own bed.
"I'm not saying anything did," Zayn comments, throwing his hands up in defense. "I just thought the two of you weren't even talking. Last I remember, you stormed out of that pub because Louis was being a dick."
"I didn't storm out," Harry grumbles.
"And Louis wasn't being a dick?"
Harry rolls his eyes and flops over the side of the couch next to him, curling up with his head in Zayn's lap. "I'm not going to answer that," he mumbles, letting Zayn brush the hair out of his eyes. "He was there when I needed him last night and he wasn't a dick. Not at all like before."
"Do you think he's starting to come around?" Zayn runs his finger over the scar at Harry's hairline and Harry's eyes flutter shut.
"I don't know," he murmurs because he doesn't. He has no idea what Louis was thinking last night, not even this morning while they sat together in sleepy but mostly comfortable silence, the radio humming between them in the car. It wasn't at all like the night before, definitely not that same level of open and intimate, but Louis hadn't tried to blow it all off as anything fleeting, anything in the moment, and that, well... whether they want to admit it or not, they both know last night probably changed something for them. Harry's just not sure what.
"We talked a little," he admits quietly, heart tugging in his chest. "He wanted me to know that he 'cares,'" he says, making little quote marks with his fingers.
"Of course he does, he was your best mate," Zayn replies and catches Harry's hand so he can absently play with his pinkies. "That's all he said?"
"He, um. It wasn't much, but he mentioned a bit about, like... before."
"Only that I really didn't want him to go to New York," Harry tells him. He feels Zayn tug gently on his ring finger and peeks one eye open to watch. "He said I tried everything I could to get him to stay. He just didn't say what."
Zayn considers it for a moment, flexing Harry's fingers back, stretching his tired and weary joints. "You reckon you told him how you felt?" he asks.
Harry wants to say yes. He wants to think he wasn't enough of a fool to hold all that inside him, not with Louis ready to fly across an entire ocean. But was that all he would have tried? How much further would he have possibly gone if Louis had nothing to serve but a swift rejection?
It was always enough, Louis had said though, and whether that refers to Harry's feelings for him or something he else he might have offered, Harry hasn't let himself think too much on yet. All he knows is the words sure find a tight grip on his heart whenever he does and he's not yet ready to let that go.
"I don't think it matters much now," he decides and lets his hand fall gently to his chest before shifting his head in Zayn's lap. "I kissed him that night at the pub."
Zayn's thumbs freeze where they're getting ready to pinch his cheeks. "You what?"
"I kissed him," Harry repeats, quieter, like finally admitting it might somehow make it worse, even more awkward for him and Louis.
"How did it go?"
"Terribly," Harry sighs, shaking his head. "I mean, I think he kissed me back, but then he stopped me and said we couldn't, so. I don't know. We haven't talked about that part yet, but the rest – he obviously knows I have feelings for him now – but it's complicated. At least that's what he told me last night."
"Did he say why?" Zayn asks, finally pinching one of Harry's cheeks and poking the spot where the dimple should be in the other.
Harry shakes his head, shaking him off. "I think we're stuck waiting for two different things," he tries to explain what he'd felt night before. "He needs me to settle into myself, into this new world with these new memories before he can bother trying to fix things with us. But I'm – I can't settle until I know how I got here."
"And if you never find out?" Zayn asks softly, squeezing Harry's face together, forcing his lips to pucker.
"Then I'm fucked," Harry manages to get out before making an obnoxious kissing sound while Zayn drops a quick peck to his forehead.
"Sorry, we're closed," Harry calls over his shoulder as soon as he hears the bell jingle above the bakery door later that night. He forgot to lock it before he started cleaning. It's the first time he's forgotten anything all day and he knows that's a huge improvement from the past few nights, but the thought still irks him.
He sweeps some stray crumbs off the worktop and drops them in the bin before shutting the leftover pie box he's been working on and setting it with the rest. There are only a few unsold items left for the day, cakes and pies they'll sell at half price in the morning, and Harry almost adds one to his tab to take home for him and Zayn, but he's interrupted by sound of footsteps approaching the counter.
He turns, expecting to have to deny someone a last minute profiterole, when he's met with the sight of Louis, soft and tired, shuffling up to the front of the till and biting his bottom lip like he's not sure he's allowed to do this anymore. He's not. Technically only employees are allowed in after hours, but Barbara's already gone home and she's always turned a blind eye to Louis being there anyway.
Harry's heart thuds obnoxiously hard beneath his ribcage. His stomach swoops with nerves.
"Hi," he says slowly, halfway through wiping his hands down the front of his apron. "What are you doing here?"
A flash of apprehension flickers across Louis' face and tugs down the corner of his mouth. Harry immediately wants to swallow his words and bury his own face in a pie.
"Not like that," he amends, cringing at his ineptitude. "I didn't mean it like that. I just. You visiting me at work is basically the last thing I would have expected right now, so I... I'm just a little surprised."
"I know," Louis murmurs, a hint of apology brewing behind his lowered gaze. "I know and I should have warned you before just showing up like this at the end of your shift, but I knew if I'd told you I was coming, I wouldn't have been able to chicken out at the last minute."
He takes one hand out of his pocket to play with the cake-pop display at the front of the till, and Harry doesn't know what to think.
"Why would you chicken out?" he asks, confused. "It's just the bakery, Lou. The door's not going to hit you on your way out."
Louis rolls his eyes and Harry's stomach flutters.
"The door might not," he says, "but I can't guarantee you won't once I've finished telling you everything I want to tell you."
He meets Harry's eyes and Harry realizes after a quiet moment that he's serious. This is serious. It isn't just Louis showing up out of the blue to grab some biscuits and make sure he's okay after his breakdown less than twenty-four hours ago. This is Louis tracking him down after work and wanting to tell him everything.
"You want to talk?" Harry asks, throat sticking.
Louis runs his finger down the side of the display case and nods. "I think so," he admits quietly before glancing up. "I reckon it's about time I let some things out, don't you? And it's not, like. I'm not here because I think I owe it to you or anything," he defends himself, color rising in his cheeks. "I just don't like thinking that last night was because of me, that you're hurting or sad or can't move on because I can't work up the courage to tell you the truth."
"I'm not sad," Harry sighs, leaning against the table opposite the worktop. Louis throws him a skeptical look and Harry half-heartedly shrugs. "Alright, I'm kind of disappointed?" he tries again. "It's like I've woken up with this life that I'm not at all happy with and I don't understand it, I don't enjoy it, and my best friend isn't even here to make it better." Louis winces and Harry wants to apologize but he doesn't. "I'm just having a hard time wrapping my head around everything, especially that," he says, "but I don't think it's your fault. For all I know, it could be my own, and I don't–"
"It's not," Louis cuts him off, and Harry stills, letting his mouth fall shut after a quiet breath.
"Sorry?" he asks, waves of something unknown and scary rippling down his spine and setting off all sorts of alarms. He feels a bit light-headed.
"Us not talking?" Louis says and points a finger between himself and Harry. "That's entirely my fault, Harry. I did this to us," he admits. "And if you'll let me, I think I'd like to try and explain myself."
He regards Harry with weary eyes, his fluffy fringe falling across his forehead after a busy day at work, and Harry wants this. He wants the truth, he wants an explanation, he wants to finally, fucking finally make sense of how he got from twenty-two-year-old, big-dreaming uni student to this life of pastries and monotony and being lost without his best friend. This is what he's been waiting for.
"If I go put these pies away and lock up in the back, will you still be here when I come out?" He reaches around to start untying the knot at the back of his apron, fingers fumbling slightly.
"M'not going to run away." Louis rolls his eyes again. "C'mere," he adds and beckons Harry toward him, drawing a tiny circle in the air to prompt him to turn around.
Harry does as he says, backing up to the counter, a tiny flush spreading over his cheeks as Louis gently tugs his hands away from the bow and helps work the knot open.
"Thanks," he murmurs before turning back around.
"Go finish cleaning up," Louis replies.
With his apron hanging loosely around his neck, Harry nods and grabs the remaining pie boxes, the feeling of Louis' fingers on his wrists lingering as he tries to regain his composure in the kitchens.
Right, so this is happening. Whatever can of worms Louis' been sitting on is about to be opened. And it hasn't just been closed since Harry started prying after his accident, it's been sealed shut and buried under months and months of not speaking to each other, of not discussing what happened, of lying to family and friends because the truth of whatever really went on was far too much for either of them to handle.
Harry hopes he can handle it tonight. There's a part of him that's buzzing with anticipation, desperate for the truth, but there's also a massive part that's completely terrified of what Louis might have to say. He doesn't want to be let down. He doesn't want this to split them further apart. He doesn't want to prove Louis right and be so crushed by the truth that he won't want to face him ever again.
No wonder Niall thought Louis was scared. Now that they've finally reached this point, even Harry can't stop the fear from gripping his lungs and getting under his skin.
He sets the pies in the refrigerator and makes sure the door clicks shut on his way out. Barbara had already taken care of everything in the kitchen before she left, so all Harry has to do is hang up his apron, wash the flour from his hands, and lock the back door.
When he flicks the light off and steps back into the shop area, he finds Louis seated at one of the round tables, elbows on the surface, shoulders tense like he's stealing himself for this. He lifts his gaze as Harry rounds the display case and instinctively pulls his arms in, folding his hands in his lap instead.
"I figured we could do this in here?" he says, kicking out the chair across from him, voice soft, unsure, lacking so much of his usual confidence.
Harry pulls his phone from his coat pocket and checks the time. "The alarm sets in fifteen minutes," he notes. "We could go for a walk after if you'd like? It's not as cold out as it's been recently."
"Yeah, alright," Louis agrees as Harry drops into the other seat. There's a brief moment where neither of them says anything and Harry isn't sure whether he's supposed to prompt Louis or not – it's not often he has such serious chats with his mates – but then Louis clears his throat and sets his fidgeting hands back on the table. "So, like, there's a lot I should probably explain first," he says, focusing on the cuffs of his sleeves, eyelashes dark against his cheekbones. "I'm just not sure where to start?"
He glances up, timid and tense, and it takes an inordinate amount of strength for Harry not to reach across the table and take hold of both his hands.
"The beginning's always a good place," he offers instead, curling his fingers against the wood. "I usually like to start there."
"Yeah, that's – That's good," Louis nods with a quiet laugh and exhales a heavy breath before meeting Harry's stare. "Okay, so. Um, do you remember that night Barbara let you put on that little gig in here?" he begins slowly as if Harry could ever forget. "I think it was just after Spring started because the flowers were on all the trees and your hayfever was driving you mad, and like, literally everyone you knew showed up to hear you play?"
"Yeah," Harry says carefully, a bit confused already. "You weren't there, though," he reminds Louis. "You had a footy match with the lads from your internship and didn't come home till late."
"Right, well... I actually skipped the game because my best mate was playing at the bakery and I needed to support him," Louis reveals, much to Harry's surprise. "Only, when I got here, you were over in that corner," he points over Harry's shoulder, "already playing your guitar and singing some soppy love song I'd never heard you play before. It was good. Like, all of your songs were good, but this one was different. I don't know what it was, but I just remember standing by the door, listening to you play, and thinking whoever you wrote it for must have been one lucky person."
He pokes a narrow finger out from his sleeve and traces a couple of random letters scratched into the table. Harry watches him but doesn't say anything. He can't. He already knows who all of his songs were for.
"There was this one line that really stood out for me, you know?" Louis continues after a quiet moment. "I can't remember the exact words you sang, but it was something about wanting to tell someone how you felt but always getting cold feet, and isn't that unfair when they're the one who never wears any socks?"
Harry blushes, remembering that line and how he thought he was being so clever. He'd never play it around Louis, though. He'd change the lyrics or pretend he forgot them, just hum over that line for the sake of appearances. "I wanted to use ironic but I wasn't sure if it was grammatically correct," he admits quietly.
"Ironic or unfair, it probably wouldn't have mattered," the other boy shrugs with a faint smile. "My best mate was singing about how he thought my lips might taste, and I was standing a crowd away, sockless and dumbstruck and wondering how it had happened that I'd managed to fall in love with him and not even realize it."
He stops tracing the carvings in the table and Harry stops breathing.
Louis was in love with him. That's. Oh.
"I didn't know what to do, Haz," Louis says, shaking his head before Harry can say anything. "Suddenly I was in love with you and you were in love with me, and the thought of that was absolutely terrifying."
"Did you ever tell me?" Harry asks, voice thick as his words struggle past the lump in his throat. That gig was within a month of his memories cutting off. If Louis ever said anything about it, if anything ever happened, he'd never be able to remember it.
"I couldn't, Harry," Louis says, and he's both apologetic and pleading, begging for Harry to understand or at least let him explain himself. "I had no idea what it would mean for us," he tries. "I ran out of the bakery that night and locked myself in my room until you forced yourself in the next morning, and all the while I was in there, a million different scenarios played out in my head and each of them ended with us loosing each other."
"They didn't have to," Harry whispers, heart on a wire. "We could have figured something out."
"I know," Louis sighs, like the regret has haunted him ever since. "I know, Harry, but at the time, you were about to graduate and launch your music career and I was nearing the end of my internship. Everything always seems like the end of the world in the moment, right? How could I have been with you if you were touring all over England while I was stuck in an office in London? I know it might not make any sense looking back on it now and it was so stupid of me, but at the time, I couldn't see it working."
"And you didn't even want to try?" Harry asks, deflating.
"You never said anything," Louis tells him. "I was scared and you never said anything, so I left it at that. I thought I could treat it like a phase. If I just backed off, if I pretended it wasn't there, that I didn't have feelings for you. I'd get over it and you'd get tired of waiting and that would be it. No harm done, no ruined friendship, no inevitable breakup looming over our heads and threatening to split us for good. Then you graduated and everything changed," he finishes, feet pulling back from where his toes had bumped into Harry's, his fingers retreating into their sleeves.
The only recollection Harry has of any of this story is his own point of view where Louis never came to see him play and nothing happened afterwards. In the month between the gig at the bakery and his last few memories, he never picked up on any subtle changes in Louis' behavior, he never suspected even in the slightest bit that Louis knew. This is all such a strange concept to him.
"What happened?" he asks just as his phone buzzes against his thigh. He digs it out of his pocket and turns off the warning he'd set, frowning apologetically as he checks the time again. "Sorry," he mumbles. "Alarm's going to set in two minutes. We can go somewhere else if you'd like?"
Louis hesitates, fingers frozen on the zip of his coat until he pulls it up and nods. "There's um. You know our favorite pub a few blocks away?" he asks dryly, following Harry's lead and getting up from the table. "We could grab something to eat there if you promise not to yell at me again?"
Harry manages a weak laugh, pulling his coat higher around his neck and fishing his keys from his deep pockets. "I didn't yell at you," he sighs, shaking his head. "I just had a lot of words that needed to come out. But it's on my way home, actually."
He tucks his chair in and waits for Louis to finish bundling up.
"I know," Louis nods. "That's good. When I end up drinking away all these feelings, I can crash on your couch tonight."
"Whatever you want," Harry offers and flicks the lights off. Louis holds the door open for him and waves him through.
He stands off to the side as Harry locks up, shuffling his feet to keep from getting cold, both of their breaths puffing out in clouds of white mist. Harry's heart hasn't slowed since Louis' admission, this solid and steady thud, thud, thud reminding him that he wasn't alone, that it wasn't one sided, that, well, despite all that, it still didn't end well and they still ended up losing each other. There's still more to this story that he has yet to hear.
"So I graduated from uni," he prompts as they start off down the dark and empty street towards the distant pub. "What changed?"
Louis twists his head to check for any cars before crossing the intersection.
"It stopped being easy to pretend," he says. "It was like you were gearing up to tell me or something, the way you'd just stop in the middle of us playing FIFA or eating breakfast or just mucking about, and you'd look over at me and your eyes would light up like I was your entire fucking world. I couldn't be that for you, Harry." He shakes his head. "I was afraid you'd put me on this impossible pedestal and I'd never live up to your expectations or you'd never live up to mine, and then you'd leave to play gigs in Manchester or Birmingham or Leeds, wherever, and it wouldn't work. We wouldn't work and we'd fight or argue and then we'd stop being best friends."
"You don't know that." Harry frowns. "You never even gave us a chance."
"And if I had and it had turned out I was right?" Louis slows a bit, turns to Harry with a raised eyebrow.
"Then we'd have worked through it," Harry answers. "I mean, we stopped being friends anyway. How much worse could it have gotten?"
"Right, well I know that now," Louis drawls, continuing on half a step ahead of him. "I'm just trying to explain to you where my head was through it all. Maybe if you can understand what I was thinking or what I was feeling at the time, maybe you might hate me less when I get to the end of it."
He jabs his finger into the crosswalk button at the next intersection, and Harry wishes he could take Louis' hands where he's shoved them under his elbows and just hold them, unfold his arms.
"Lou," he says instead, stopping in front of him and cutting him off from the street they're waiting to cross. "I could never hate you," he promises. "Unless you've gone and murdered someone or, like, drowned a puppy, you know I could never hate you. I just want the truth for once. No matter how bad you think it might be or how upset you're afraid I'll get, I just want to know what happened."
He sees the little man above Louis' head turn green but neither of them move.
"I didn't kill anyone," Louis says eventually.
Harry removes his hands from his pockets and reaches out to unwind Louis' from under his arms. "Good," he says and links their fingers together despite his previous reservations. He checks over his shoulder for any oncoming cars. "Tell me what happened next," he encourages as he starts walking backwards across the street, Louis following along.
"You know, it's no wonder you got hit by a car," he comments, squeezing Harry's fingers. "Your regard for traffic safety is atrocious."
Harry pouts. "It was raining and the driver was going too fast around the corner. Not my fault. Finish the story."
"Alright, alright," Louis indulges him. He keeps hold of one of Harry's hands when they reach the other side, and they continue down the road with their fingers twisted together.
"When did you start thinking about New York?" Harry asks.
"When I started noticing those looks you were giving me," Louis answers. "It wasn't always New York. It was just... I needed a change in scenery, you know? There was no way I'd be able to get over you if we kept on living together in that grungy flat of ours."
"I liked that flat," Harry pipes up. "It felt like home."
"I know it did, H, but I couldn't stay there with you." Louis squeezes his hand again, his smile a bit sad. "I applied to a few jobs, one in Sheffield and a few in Manchester. There was even one in Paris for like, an English-speaking consultant for international sports, but I knew I wasn't ever going to get it. And then there was the internship in New York. I applied on a whim, thinking why not, what's the worst that could happen, and the next thing I know, they're calling me for an interview and telling me I got the job."
"And you took it? Just like that?" Harry asks and Louis nods. "How did I react? What did I do when you told me?"
Louis looks down at his feet, his grip on Harry's hand loosening over the next few steps.
"I didn't tell you," he says quietly, grimacing as though the memory still haunts him.
Harry drops his hand and slows to a stop only a few blocks from the pub. "You didn't tell me?"
"Not for a while, no," Louis admits. "You didn't even know I was applying to anything. There were five weeks between when I found out and when I had to leave, and I knew if I'd said anything to you at all, if I'd have told you I was headed for the States, you would have told me you loved me or tried to stop me or gone with me or all of the above. I knew I wouldn't have been able to deal with that."
"So you just left?" Harry asks. He doesn't mean to sound so annoyed, so disbelieving, but he can't help it.
Louis purses his lips and forces them to keep walking.
"You see that cafe on the other side?" He points to a quaint, little restaurant across the street, windows dark for the night, forest green awning stretched across the entrance.
"Yeah, I used to go there all the time," Harry says, not quite understanding where this is going.
"A week before I had to leave, you took me there for lunch and asked me to go on your road trip with you," Louis tells him. "You didn't say anything about how you felt or how you thought I might feel about you, but like, I could tell you were nervous about it, that it obviously meant more to you than a little drive around the country with a friend."
"And you told me no?"
"I told you no," Louis nods, that pained look back on his face. "I told you that I couldn't go and that I had other plans, and you were devastated, H. You tried to keep your disappointment hidden, but I knew you and I could tell you were upset, and there I was, still sitting on the news of my upcoming departure, like the giant coward I was.
"When you asked me what my other plans were, I was fucked," Louis continues around a bitter, breathy laugh. "I knew I'd fucked up, that I should have told you weeks ago, that I never should have dropped it on you like that, but it was too late and I had to do it. You didn't speak to me my entire last week here, not until the night before I was meant to leave. It was the night of Niall's birthday and we all went out for drinks, which brings us to here." He stops at the corner opposite the pub but doesn't cross the street.
Harry doesn't say anything, heart in his throat.
"That spot over there?" Louis points to the brick wall outside the pub where a few blokes are huddled in their coats, having a smoke. "That's where you kissed me, Harry, the night before I flew to New York."
He tilts his head to the side to catch a glimpse of Harry's face, and Harry blinks at him, hurt and confused, his lips tingling with the ghost of a kiss he'll never remember.
"That's where I kissed you last week," he says, voice thick, brows furrowed.
"Yeah," Louis says around a breathy, disbelieving laugh. "Bit of a shock, that was."
Harry remembers the look on Louis' face after they pulled away that night, the way he seemed less surprised and more resigned, like he'd expected it, like it had happened before. You can't keep doing that, he'd said. It all makes sense now.
"You never told anyone?" Harry asks then, memories of a real kiss mixing with phantom one until he has a better picture in his head.
"No one," Louis confirms, "and I don't think you did either. You were so pissed at me that week and none of the boys even noticed anything was off between us. We showed up separately, had a few pints, then Liam made some stupid comment about you having to find a new roommate, and your face just crumbled, H. It was like all that anger and outrage at me just melted into heartbreak and sadness, and suddenly it was like you'd just realized that I was actually leaving for good and you couldn't do anything about it."
"Yeah, I can imagine," Harry says, emotions taking an oddly similar turn to those of his past self. He feels a bit dizzy, like he should sit down, like he needs to take hold of Louis' hand again and pull him close, make sure he can't leave him like that again.
"You alright?" Louis murmurs, softly bumping Harry's hip.
Harry lets out a noise somewhere between a choked whimper and a watery laugh, rubs the side of his nose. "Yeah, I'm fine," he promises.
Louis takes his hand again anyway.
"I went out to have a smoke not long after," he says softly, setting the scene again. "I was outside all of ten seconds before you burst through the door behind me like a bat out of hell. You didn't say anything," he recalls, thumb brushing the back of Harry's hand. "You didn't have to. I dropped my cigarette on the ground and you pulled me in by the waist, and that was it. You kissed me, and I kissed you back, and I knew I had to leave it at that or else I'd have never flown to New York the next morning."
"Was it worth it?" Harry croaks, his palm getting hot in Louis' grasp.
"What, staying away from you?" Louis clarifies. Harry nods and bites his lip. Louis' eyes track the subtle movement. "No," he says, shaking his head. "Up until four weeks ago, that was the last we'd ever spoken, and still, still after all that time..."
He cuts off in faint disbelief, shaking his head again and laughing miserably at the dark sky above them.
"Louis," Harry breathes, everything inside of him aching. It would be so easy to take the one step forward and cup Louis' chin, tilt his head towards his and press their lips together. He could do it all again, not thirty feet from where they first kissed, where they kissed last week, but he doesn't.
"Before we go inside, there's one more thing," Louis says, tugging Harry toward the corner of the intersection, stopping with his heels hanging over the road.
"You haven't finished yet?" Harry asks, worried that there's more he won't want to hear. A car rounds the corner behind Louis and they both wince at how close it comes to the pavement.
"I don't think anyone's told you this," Louis says once it's safely passed, "but this is where it happened." He glances toward the ground behind him. "This is, um. Liam said this is where that car hit you."
He squeezes Harry's hands tighter, holding him steady, and Harry feels a bit queasy all of a sudden.
"Here?" he breathes, eyeing the corner, the road, the broken bits of cobblestone by his feet. He's shaking; Louis can probably feel it.
"When I first heard, I thought maybe it had something to do with this place, with the kiss, with us, but this is just the route you took home every night," Louis tells him, his own voice catching. "I didn't, um. It's not like, part of our story or whatever, but, like. When Niall called to tell me what happened, I didn't know what to do, Harry. I listened to his voicemail and I thought I might throw up. I felt so sick, I couldn't stomach the thought of you lying broken in a hospital bed, but I was too scared to go visit you or even call to make sure you were okay. I was afraid you wouldn't want me there."
"I always want you there," Harry promises, instinctively pulling Louis away from the road.
Louis gives him a broken look and shakes his head. "You wouldn't have wanted me there if you'd never lost your memory."
"And you wouldn't have known what I'd have wanted if you hadn't spoken to me in over a year," Harry reminds him for what feels like the thousandth time. "Listen to me, Louis. I'm serious. Listen. You keep insisting that I wouldn't have wanted anything to do with you a month ago, but like, you're wrong. I know you are."
"And how's that?" Louis challenges him, eyes gone a bit misty. "If it's your birthday texts to me, they don't count. You send those to everyone you know, even Stan."
"I know when I'm happy, Lou," Harry answers, lifting a hand to brush his thumb beneath Louis' eyelashes. "I know what I do. I know I write music. I know I go out. I see my friends, I take pictures, I print them for my walls, and I know I haven't done any of that since you left. The minute I walked into my new flat I knew something was wrong, that I hadn't been happy for a long, long time."
"If your point was to make me feel even more like shit for breaking your heart, then congrats, you've done it," Louis huffs, rolling his eyes and pushing Harry's hand away as he turns to keep walking.
Harry grabs him by the shoulders, though, holds him steady in front of him. "That's not my point."
"Then what is?"
"My point, Louis, is that you're wrong in thinking I didn't want anything to do with you," he reiterates. "My point is that I have always, as long as I have known you, wanted everything to do with you."
"And I'm supposed to believe you?" Louis asks quietly, staring up at Harry, his shaky breath fogging the space between them. "After everything I just told you? This isn't just twenty-two-year-old Harry trying to live out his dream?"
"I'm twenty-four, Lou. I'm not him and I'm not the person I was a month ago. I'm just me, and I'm not trying to live out anything," Harry breathes, close enough to count the hidden freckles on Louis' nose. "I'm just in love with you."
He watches Louis' eyes dart to his lips, and for a moment, he holds his breath hoping Louis might go on and kiss him, third time being the charm, but Louis doesn't.
"I tried for two years to get over you, Harry," he says, voice almost pained as he lowers his gaze even further to where their toes stand, nearly touching. "I know you think you have, too," he says and brings his eyes back up, "but you can't remember it, and I wasn't there to remember it for you. Please don't make me regret this," he whispers, and then he uncrosses his arms and in one, easy motion, pulls Harry in by the front of his coat and presses their lips together.
He kisses like he knows he's breaking the rules. This shouldn't be happening, they stopped speaking to each other, the universe split them apart. The only reason it even is happening is because Harry just happened to pedal his bike around the wrong street corner at the wrong time. Wrong. It's all so wrong, but they're getting away with it and Harry never wants it to stop.
It's nothing like their last kiss. There's no hesitation, no freezing up, no great surprise or regret, no pulling away. It's just Louis – his fingers gripping Harry's coat, his mouth parting when Harry swipes his tongue over his bottom lip, the two of them pressing closer and closer on the cold street corner until Harry starts to feel Louis everywhere – from his toes to their chests, to the chills that ripple down his spine when Louis sighs against his lips and licks straight into his mouth.
Suddenly there's too much space between them, too many layers, too many clothes, and all Harry wants to do is touch Louis everywhere, feel him under his fingertips, kiss every inch of him, map him out with his hands, his tongue, his body.
Louis tastes like coffee. Harry didn't even know Louis drank coffee these days.
He cards his fingers through Louis' hair, kissing him with purpose, with intent, his other hand splayed firmly over the small of Louis' back, drawing his hips in, not wanting to let him go. Someone wolf-whistles from the entrance to the pub and Louis starts to pull back.
"Can we go back to yours?" he whispers, breath ghosting across Harry's parted lips. His fingers are still twisted in the front of Harry's coat.
Harry nods shakily, catching Louis' lips once, twice, three more times before pulling back for good. "Yeah," he breathes, feeling even more lightheaded. "Yeah, we can do that."
Normally, the walk from the pub to Harry's flat would take ten minutes. Tonight it takes twice as long with Louis stopping every couple of blocks to back Harry up against the nearest wall and reacquaint himself with his mouth.
"Sorry," he apologizes the third time it happens, after he gets a little too into it and ends up wedging a thigh between Harry's legs, grinding up against him. The only reason he even stopped was because Harry started making these desperate, little whimpering noises, too turned on to even care how he sounded.
"Don't apologize," Harry mumbles against the side of Louis' neck, burying his face into the dip of his shoulder to hide the flush creeping over his skin. He noses Louis' collar out of the way and drops a kiss to his neck, sucking lightly, biting down just a bit before coming back up and meeting Louis' hooded gaze. He can't believe this is happening. "I'm so in love with you, you have no idea."
"I kind of do, though," Louis counters, his elbows hooked around Harry's neck. "Just don't forget that when you realize I'm two years older than the person you fell for."
He bumps their foreheads together and leans in so Harry can feel his breath against his lips. Harry closes his eyes.
"Don't want to forget anything ever again," he murmurs and catches Louis' mouth.
They eventually make it to Harry's flat, Harry tugging Louis up the stairs with both hands held behind his back, spinning him against the outside of the door with his key still in his back pocket. Now that they're there, his heart's gone a bit wild in his chest, his stomach fluttering anxiously with the thought of taking Louis inside, allowing him to see the stark contrast between this life and the one they both knew.
"Hey, it's alright," Louis gently promises, hands running up and down the arms caging him in, sensing Harry's apprehension. "You don't have to let me in if you don't–"
"No, I want to," Harry assures him, shaking his head. "I want, like, every part of you."
"Bit presumptuous that I'm going to give it to you, Harold," Louis smirks, eyebrows raised.
Harry chuckles quietly and steals another quick kiss. "You didn't let me finish."
"Go on, then," Louis encourages as he slips his hand into Harry's back pocket and fishes around for the key.
Harry bites his own lip and lets Louis fondle him for a bit. "Just... It's like I said," he tries to explain while ignoring Louis' fingers on his arse. "It's not like our old flat in there. I could tell I wasn't happy, Lou. It's not like how you'd imagine it."
"Okay," is all Louis says as he pulls the key out and tries to jam it in the lock without breaking eye contact. "I mean, I hope you'll keep me distracted enough that I'm not so focused on your home decor, but like, it wouldn't matter either way."
He lets his gaze drop to Harry's mouth, visibly swallowing as his eyes rake down the long column of his throat, his chest, lower.
"Do you need help with that?" Harry breathes, not exactly trusting his voice to remain steady anymore.
Louis slides the key in the slot and jiggles it around a bit. "Nope," he says, popping the 'p,' his eyes still fixed on Harry's crotch.
He finally gets it open, one hand twisting the knob, the other quickly tugging Harry inside by the front of his coat. The door swings shut behind them and Harry silently thanks whoever's been looking out for him lately that the lights are off, that Zayn's room is unoccupied, that they're alone.
"Which room is yours?" Louis asks, backing up into the middle of the dark living room and glancing over his shoulder as he brings them to a stop.
Harry stumbles over the carpet, his hands finding Louis' hips to keep from falling. They fit perfectly under his palms, his fingers squeezing slightly. He'd forgotten how nice it'd always felt to touch Louis, how natural.
Instead of answering, he ducks down and slots their mouths together, lets his hands wander until they're just under Louis' bum, and hoists him off the ground.
"The one on the left," he murmurs, working them towards it as Louis wraps his legs around his waist. "Don't scream if there's a cat inside."
He feels Louis' answering laugh against his mouth more than he hears it. And then he feels Louis strip free of his coat, feels his fingers work at the buttons of his own, hears the heavy fabric drop to the living room floor before he finally reaches his room.
There's no cat inside when he opens the door and cracks an eye open to peek around. Marcus must have run off to hide in Zayn's room when he heard them going at it against the door.
Carefully, and with a decent amount of groping, he lowers Louis to his feet and locks the door behind them. He doesn't bother with the lights. He can already see the perplexed look on Louis' face as he takes in whatever he can of the bare walls, the empty shelves, the difference between this bedroom and his pervious. If Louis wants to say anything about it, though, he doesn't. He just slowly turns to Harry, finding his eyes in the dark, and Harry knows, then, that it really is okay. He's going to be okay.
"Come here," Louis says, backing up and motioning for Harry to follow him onto the bed.
Harry does, lifting his flour-dusted t-shirt over his head and untwisting his hair from its bun. He crawls up the mattress, curls falling in his eyes, until Louis stops him near the headboard and nudges him over, onto his back.
"So demanding," Harry mutters, even though he's absolutely alright with it. He cranes his neck to catch Louis' mouth, and draws him down with an arm around his shoulders, moaning quietly when Louis straddles his waist and he can feel how hard he is against his own cock.
"M'not demanding," Louis protests, licking the saliva from the corner of Harry's mouth before stringing a line of kisses down his jaw. "I just know what I want."
Harry hums softly, fingers dancing over the knobs in Louis' spine. "You've finally figured it out, then?"
He rolls his hips up in search of friction but Louis pins them down, teeth nipping the skin at the juncture of his neck. "You sorted it all for me, actually," he mumbles and flicks his tongue over the spot.
Harry bends his leg and slips it between Louis' thighs. "How so?"
"Don't like seeing you miserable," Louis answers. He lets Harry's hips free, trailing his hands up Harry's sides, a tiny moan escaping his parted lips as soon as Harry grinds against him. "I realized," he continues, voice hitching slightly, "that I needed to tell you the truth. Even if it meant you might hate me."
Harry frowns, lifting Louis' head from his chest and ignoring the sight of his own nipples, embarrassingly hard and even more pert than usual. He watches Louis' eyes fixate on them, watches his tongue flick hungrily over his bottom lip, and gently tugs Louis' hair to divert his attention back up.
"Lou, you were young and scared," he says, thumbing at Louis' jaw, his lower lip. "It's all in the past now. If you haven't noticed yet, I clearly don't hate you." He wiggles his hips so Louis can feel how hard he is, and Louis rolls his eyes.
"Having a massive boner and not hating someone aren't the same thing, babe," he sighs and presses a kiss right over Harry's sternum.
Harry shakes his head. "But having a massive boner because I'm so in love with you is pretty close," he argues.
Louis squeezes an arm between them and starts fumbling with the button on Harry's jeans. "I should have been at the hospital," he mumbles.
"You're here now."
"You could have died." He slips a hand down the front of Harry's pants and takes hold of his cock.
Harry huffs out a breath, lets his eyes briefly flutter shut. "But I didn't," he points out. In fact, tonight he feels the furthest from death he's ever felt. Which is to say very much alive.
He wriggles his trousers down past his bum and kicks them and his pants off while Louis slowly works a hand over his cock. When he meets Louis' eyes again, Louis' pupils are blown, his hair's a mess, and it's about a thousand times hotter than any scenario Harry's ever wanked to since Louis first popped up in his wet dreams.
He fucks up into his loose fist a few lazy times before simultaneously scooting down the bed and pulling Louis back on top of him to suck on his tongue and rid him of his trousers as well.
"Want you to fuck me," he breathes against Louis' mouth as he frees his cock and pushes his jeans down his thighs. He gives Louis a few experimental strokes, loving the way his breath hitches, the way he starts squirming atop him. God, if he's like this now, Harry can't imagine what he'll sound like later.
To make his intentions clearer, he spreads his legs and lets Louis slip between them, bends his knees and lets Louis' cock slide between his cheeks.
"Alright, alright, I'm getting there," Louis laughs breathily. The tip of his cock nudges against Harry's hole and Harry whines, high and desperate, blinking up before lowering his gaze to his own cock, trapped between them, dribbling precome against his stomach. "Condoms?" Louis asks, then, kissing Harry a beat longer before sitting up and giving his nipples a good tease.
"I think I saw a box in the bottom drawer," Harry says, cock twitching when Louis squeezes his left nipple. He swats Louis' hands away and turns his head toward his bedside table. There wasn't much in there when he came home from the hospital. Just a few dusty books he'd read in uni, some pens, his phone charger, condoms, half a bottle of lube, paracetamol, et cetera.
He grumbles at the loss of contact as Louis clambers off the side of the bed to fetch what they might need. He's seen Louis naked a handful of times – mostly by accident and once when they went streaking across the football pitch after midnight and Harry couldn't not look – but never like this. Never with goosebumps raised across his skin, never with his lips swollen and wet, and never with his cock standing thick and hard between his legs.
"Fuck, you're gorgeous," Harry groans and digs his knuckles into the corners of his eyes as if rubbing at them might make staring at Louis any easier.
Louis just snorts and shakes his head. "You do talk some shit sometimes," he says as he squats at the bedside table and pulls open the drawer, fishing around a bit before lifting the box of condoms out. "Jesus, H," he mutters, and Harry tentatively cracks an eye open. "Had enough sex lately? You're sure you were still hung up on me before you went and got yourself amnesia-ed?"
Harry sits up too quickly, all the blood in his dick rushing back to his head and making his vision swirl. "What?"
Louis holds up the condom box and shakes the last one out onto the duvet.
"Alright?" Harry furrows his eyebrows. "There's only one left. Make it count?"
Louis pelts the condom at Harry's forehead. "Harry."
"What do you want me to say?" Harry gripes, rubbing the space between his eyes. He's so tired of this argument. "I had my needs, too, Louis. Maybe when you're still in love with your ex best friend, you get a little lonely."
"A little?" Louis gapes at him. "This was a box of twenty and there's only one left." He shuts the drawer with a bit more force than necessary and flops backwards onto the mattress, cock still curving obscenely toward his stomach.
Harry stares at it, mouth watering.
"Why does it matter, Louis?" he asks before he spits in his hand and takes hold of Louis' cock, drags the foreskin down and tightens his grip on the upstroke. "I told you I'm not that person. Whether I had a lot of meaningless sex or not, I'll never remember it. I'm just me, yeah? Can you be okay with that? Can you trust me?"
He climbs on top of Louis' thighs and sits there, stroking him with intent, waiting for an answer.
Louis reaches down and squeezes to fleshy part of Harry's hips, biting his lip, debating. He tugs Harry closer until he's nearly folded in half, their faces inches apart.
"I can be okay with that," Louis promises seriously, staring straight into Harry's eyes. "Just don't bump your head again and change your mind, Styles."
"I don't plan on it," Harry grins, his heart racing as he captures Louis' lips in a kiss that's sloppy and sweet and everything in between.
Louis smiles into it, hands finding their way to Harry's arse. "Good," he says, squeezing one cheek and playfully smacking the other. "Now get off me so I can fuck you like I've wanted to for the past two years."
Harry doesn't argue. He rolls off Louis and up the bed, flips onto his back and lets Louis take care of the rest.
It's well after midnight the next time Harry looks at the clock.
"Do you have work in the morning?" he murmurs, breath ghosting across Louis' neck, his lips pressing slow, lazy kisses from his jaw to his throat. He grazes his teeth just over Louis' pulse point, not biting or sucking, just teasing, and feels the beat of Louis' heart there. He wants to feel that forever.
"Not till the afternoon," Louis answers, dragging his fingers through Harry's tangled curls and tugging just lightly enough to get him to lift his head. "What about you?"
"What about me?" He meets Louis' gaze in the flickering light of the candles he dug up between the first round of sex and the two bonus blowjob rounds, and Louis rolls his eyes, his smile going fond and soft and altogether lovely in a way that makes Harry want to kiss him again.
"Come here," he mutters, drawing Louis into his arms, their legs tangled in the sheets. Louis comes easily, shaking his hair out of his eyes as he lets Harry pull him closer and seal their lips together. He tastes like mint ice cream, like chocolate, and the red wine they've been working on, and sex, and Harry never would have imagined in the six years of knowing this boy, that kissing Louis would make him feel like this.
"Do you have to be at the bakery in the morning?" Louis tries again, hands splayed across Harry's chest.
Harry wants to say he doesn't but he wracks his brain for some sort of confirmation and nothing comes up. It's still a black hole in there. Louis must notice his hesitation.
"Where's your phone, love?" he asks quietly, rubbing circles with his thumb over Harry's heart.
"My coat pocket," Harry mumbles, sighing into his pillow.
"I'll be right back."
Before Harry can whine and protest, Louis' up and out of his arms, tip-toeing bare-arsed into the living room and hurrying back with both of their coats. He drops his on the back of Harry's chair, fishes the phone out of the other, and sits down next to Harry's head with his legs crossed and the sheet draped over his lap. He enters the correct passcode without Harry having to remind him.
"My schedule's in the notes," Harry says tiredly.
Louis taps away with his thumb, his other hand coming down to play with Harry's curls.
"Oh," he says after a moment, soft smile creeping over his face. "Tomorrow's Sunday. The bakery's closed."
He clicks the phone off and sets it next to their empty wine glasses, shifts around a bit until he gets Harry's head in his lap.
"Can I ask you something?" he starts, massaging Harry's sleepy cheeks, pulling and pinching his face the same way he used to when they still lived together. Harry's pretty sure there's still a bit of Louis' come dried to his chin, and he tries to rub it off instead of acknowledging the sickly weight that drops in the pit of his stomach at those words.
"Yeah, sure," he replies anyway.
"Why do you still work at the bakery?" Louis frowns. "Why aren't you selling out arenas and topping the charts. Why aren't you staring back at me from the cover of Rolling Stone like you swore you would be? What happened? Why'd you stop?"
He lets go of Harry's cheeks to run a finger over the scar at his hairline, and Harry hopes he doesn't notice the way his face suddenly heats up.
"I don't know," he shrugs half-heartedly and turns away into Louis' thigh to avoid his gaze. "I think a lot of things just went wrong." Louis' fingers pause in his hair. "I'm not, like, I'm not going to blame you," Harry clarifies quickly before Louis starts up again, "but like, you moved halfway across the world, Lou. I'm sure it broke my heart more than I'd like to think about, and you know me. I'm stubborn. I do things without thinking them through. I've always let stuff consume me. It probably wasn't easy going on tour without you, and like–"
"If one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong?" offers Louis, a sad, little tilt to his mouth.
"Yeah." Harry nods and sits up. "Niall said I couldn't see the point anymore. It wasn't making me happy. It wasn't enough."
"What about now?" Louis asks, finding Harry's fingers in the sheets and playing with them without actually linking their hands together.
"Do I want to play again?" Harry asks, meeting Louis' eyes.
"Yeah. Do you want to pull out your guitar and have another go?"
He squeezes Harry's fingers and Harry releases an uncertain, breathy laugh, watching his line of sight shift to his closet where he knows his guitar's been packed away.
"What? Like, right now?" he asks, bemused. "You want me to play right now?"
Louis shrugs, pulling Harry's hand into his lap. "I've missed the sound of your voice. I know you miss it too."
Harry's heart gives a nervous tug. Louis can probably feel the icy prickles that run down his skin at the thought of going back. His guitar hasn't been touched since he came home from the hospital, since he found it abandoned next to a box of old textbooks and a pile of dirty trainers at the foot of his closet. It's not that he doesn't want to take it out, let his fingers run wild over the taught strings, play till his nails chip and his calluses rip open. It's just. For some reason, that first time feels bogged down with so much significance. For no reason at all, it's daunting.
"I don't know," he mumbles, brain already forming excuses. "It's late, Lou. We should really go to sleep. Zayn might come home soon, and I can't–"
"Please?" Louis tries, lifting Harry's hand to his mouth and kissing his knuckles. "If we do this, I don't want to be the only thing that makes you happy."
He holds Harry's fingers to his lips and stares at him from beneath his eyelashes, and Harry's heart flutters. If they do this. Right. Because this is now a thing that is happening.
"If we do this," Louis continues, "you have to promise me you'll get out of that bakery and focus on something you really like."
"But I like the bakery," Harry protests weakly.
Louis drops his hand and shakes his head. "Put that pout away," he orders and leans in to kiss it off his face. "I know you like the bakery, H, but you've always liked music more." Harry doesn't even try to deny it. "You can't be afraid of doing what you love."
"Says the man who took two years to get me in bed," Harry huffs.
"Which is all the more reason for you to trust me," Louis counters, eyes going wide and desperate. "Please, Harry? For me?"
It's not much of an argument, but Harry immediately feels his resolve, his apprehension, start to crumble. God knows he's done stupider, more terrifying things on Louis' behalf. Like the streaking. Getting his kit off had been the easy part. Risking arrest for public indecency, however? That had required a few batted eyelashes, a few more 'Harry, please's.
In the end, though, he sighs and heads for the closet all the same.
"I'm a bit rusty," he mutters, swinging the door open and grabbing his guitar case. Despite whatever stubborn fight he tries to maintain, he can't deny the twinge of anticipation now buzzing under his fingertips. In all honesty, he really has missed this.
"I'm sure you'll sound lovely," Louis encourages, lying back against the pillows with an awfully smug look on his face.
Harry sits down next to him and carefully flips open the case onto the duvet. Even in the flickering candlelight, his guitar is a sight for sore eyes. It's his baby, his first true love. He can't believe he kept it locked away for so long, not when just the sight of it has him feeling oddly emotional, a lump forming in the back of his throat, his eyes burning like he might just cry.
"God, your face," Louis breathes, slightly mocking, slightly astounded, "it's like you've just returned from war."
"Shut up." Harry shakes his head with a watery laugh. "You're right, okay? I missed it. I missed it an awful, awful lot."
He doesn't wait for Louis to take the piss out of him again. Instead, he cradles the neck of his guitar in one hand and lifts the body from what was basically its grave, pulling it into his lap with all intents and purposes of giving it a good hug. Something catches his eye, though, in the bottom of his case – a leather-bound notebook with tattered pages, one Harry has absolutely no trouble remembering.
"What's that?" Louis asks, tracking Harry's eye movement. "Is that a journal?"
He sounds excited, like maybe he thinks its the diary Harry's been hoping for, the one that gives away all the secrets of the past two years.
"It's my notebook," Harry corrects, shooting that theory down at once. "I only ever used it for songs I was working on. There's quite a bit in there about you."
"Only good things, I should hope," Louis teases. He props himself on his elbows, the sheet slipping a fraction off his waist. "Can I read some of them?"
"Read all of them if you'd like." Harry shrugs. "Just remember I was eighteen when I first started writing." He passes the notebook over. "It's all a bit literal when you're young and falling in love. Maybe read it backwards?"
Louis grins like the cat that caught the canary. "Absolutely no chance in that," he laughs and promptly flips to the first page. "You can't expect me to miss out on hits like Where Do Broken Hearts Go?," he reads, and Harry watches the way his eyebrows quickly furrow, confused. "Broken Hearts?" he repeats, frowning at the page. "I thought this was about falling in love. What kind of broken heart did you have at eighteen?"
Harry opens his mouth, ready to ask Louis what he's on about because he's never written a song with those words in it in his life, but Louis figures it out first.
"Shit, H," he breathes, voice suddenly serious enough to have Harry panicking. He fans through a few more pages before beckoning him closer. "Come look at this. Look at these dates."
Slowly, almost robotically, Harry rests his guitar back in its case and crawls, light-headed, to where Louis' now sitting up.
"This first one's only from last October," Louis says quietly, pointing to the date scrawled at the top corner of the first page. "They're all from the past few months. Have you been writing this entire time?"
"What, in secret?" Harry asks, dumbfounded. He hooks his chin over Louis' shoulder and glances at the book in his lap. It's definitely his handwriting. Those are definitely his doodles in the margins. He just... doesn't understand. "Why wouldn't I have told anyone?"
"Maybe you didn't want to?" Louis suggests, jumping a few pages ahead. "Maybe you didn't want to make a big show of it. Maybe you just did it for you. Like therapy or something."
It explains the calluses on Harry's fingers when he first woke up. It doesn't explain much else.
"I don't... I don't know if we should read these," he decides after a long moment. His arms wrap around Louis from behind, his hands covering the smaller ones holding his notebook.
Louis twists his head to meet Harry's eyes.
"Are you sure?" he asks softly, not pushing, not trying to convince him. Just asking. "You're okay with not knowing?"
And after everything they've been through, after a month of fighting for answers, after tonight, Harry's sure. He doesn't need to know. He knows enough and he knows what's in his heart. The only answer he's ever needed is sitting right next to him, looking just about ready for another kiss.
"I'm sure," Harry promises and lifts his chin to press his lips to Louis'. He shuts the book in Louis' lap and gently pulls Louis into his own instead, holding him close, memorizing the taste of him against his mouth. That's something he'll never allow himself to forget.
"We should go on that roadtrip," Louis murmurs, then, resting their foreheads together, hands splayed over Harry's butterfly tattoo.
"Right now?" Harry asks stupidly. His head's gone fuzzy from all the wine, all the snogging, all the sex.
"No, you knob. In a few months," Louis laughs and shakes his head against Harry's. "Once the footy season's over and I have time off. Once you get back into your music and want to play again. We can do it for real this time. I want to go with you."
"You want to be my roadie boyfriend?" Harry grins, nipping at Louis' bottom lip again. Boyfriend. What a strange concept. A day ago they were hardly even friends.
"I want to be there when you make it big, Harry Styles."
"So you're just in it for the money, then?" Harry raises an eyebrow.
Louis shoves him back into the pillows.
"Play me a song," he demands, bare arse still situated over Harry's limp dick. Harry grabs two handfuls of it and hoists Louis up and off him, missing the warm weight almost at once.
"Alright," he says, sitting up and reaching for his guitar again. He takes a deep breath before giving his first experimental strum, only releasing it when he notices every string sounds generally in tune. If he needed any further proof that he'd been playing longer than he'd admitted to, that was it.
"Anyway," he says and sets his fingers in place. He catches Louis' eyes. "Here's Wonderwall."
Louis punches him in the dick. Harry doesn't need to remember the past two years to know that this is what love should feel like.