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For As Long As I Can Remember (It's Been December)

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“How do you feel about Thai?”

Louis rolled over onto his back, stretching his legs out. He’d been almost asleep when his phone had started ringing. As usual, Niall got straight to the point. “Their fried chicken is some cheap KFC.”

Niall laughed. “That’s why I got you noodles.”

“I like those.” Louis sat up. He muted his TV. “Why exactly did you get me dinner?”

“Because I need a place to crash tonight and I’m on my way to yours.”

The usual. “Fighting with--” Louis tried to remember her name. “Susan?”

“Cindy,” Niall corrected him. “She kicked me out.”

“My guest room is yours.”

“I’ll be there in five.” Niall sounded chipper for a bloke who had just been kicked out of his flat by his girlfriend. Then again, nothing really wore Niall down.

Louis put his mobile on the sofa table and got up to go to the kitchen. He was still in his suit from work, the tie hanging loosely from the collar of his dress shirt, the first three buttons opened. Louis caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the dark floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the night lights of London.

Sometimes he had to do a double take; just to make sure it was really him being reflected there. Expensive suits, a spacious loft in London with fancy designer furniture, and a position as the youngest ever junior partner at Cowell Law LLP. That was who Louis had become in the past five years.

He’d become what people called successful. He studied the blurry reflection of his face, wondering if that was all it was. Turning away, he took off the tie and left it hanging from one of the chairs in the kitchen. While taking two beers out the fridge, he pushed the gloomy thought aside.

Of course he was successful, and of course he was happy. He had worked hard for this. For three years now, Louis had been able to help out his family financially, and make sure all of them had a secure future. He had savings accounts for all of his siblings to make sure they’d get to go to college or uni someday. The mortgage for his mother’s house was almost paid off, and Louis himself was able to afford this fancy flat, as well as a posh lifestyle.

Hard work had got him here. Hard work that he had needed to put all of his energy into after his life had turned upside down five years ago. That he had needed to distract himself from the empty throbbing inside his chest every morning when he woke up.

He had just put the bottles onto the sofa table and unmuted the TV when the doorbell rang. It cut his thoughts short, the memory of a night long ago, torn skin and bloody hands vanishing from his vision.

“I’m telling you, we’ll have snow for Christmas this year,” Niall told him as he came inside. He had his arms full with several grocery bags and his guitar case slung over one shoulder.

“Did you buy me food for the rest of the week, too?” Louis asked, closing the door.

“Just stopped by Tesco’s and bought the necessities.” Niall put down the bags on Louis’ kitchen table. “‘Cause your fridge’s always empty.”

Louis peered into the bags. “I just like eating out.”

Niall moved around the kitchen as if it was his own. He got plates and cutlery and opened a few boxes with Thai food in it that he shovelled onto the plates. “You tend to eat at work. It’s unhealthy, I’m telling you.”

Louis raised a brow. “Is greasy Thai food and beer in front of the telly healthy, though?”

“Not working twenty four-seven is healthy, mate.” Niall washed his hands and then handed Louis one of the plates. “Go sit on the sofa and relax.”

“It’s what I did before you called.” Louis went ahead to the living room.

Niall plopped down onto an armchair. “Too lazy to have dinner, though.”

“Are you my mum or summat?” Louis asked with a full mouth.

Shrugging, Niall focused on the programme on TV. He was quiet for a moment, and Louis noticed that his clothes looked wrinkled. His jeans were dirty, too.

“Why do you look like you’ve slept under a bridge?” Louis asked, frowning a little.

“Now you sound like my mum.” Niall rolled his eyes.

Louis noticed the way Niall’s cheeks turned pink, the way he squirmed a little. “Did you spend last night outside?”

“I didn’t die, did I?” Nial focused on his food.

“You should’ve come here.” Louis put down his plate. “Why didn’t you come here?”

“I gave in soon enough, didn’t I?” Niall asked, still not looking at Louis. “I can’t come to your place every time I get thrown out by another girl.”

“That’s it.” Louis took Niall’s plate from him, setting it down on the couch table. “I’m gonna find you a flat.”

“Stop it, Tommo.” Niall pressed his lips together. “You know I can’t afford a flat in London.”

He wasn’t wrong. As a singer-songwriter who wasn’t signed to any label, he couldn’t make ends meet in a city like London. “Then you’ll stay with me.”

Niall shook his head. “We’re friends, Lou. I don’t wanna use you like that.”

“You’re not using me,” Louis protested.

“I’d be living off you.” There was a stubborn tilt to Niall’s mouth. “I can’t afford to pay you even a tenth of the rent this place is.”

Louis waited a moment, going over the thoughts in his head. “You brought food tonight. I’d be perfectly fine with you doing that every once in a while as your way to pay your rent.”

Niall looked at him, smiling ruefully. “Of course you’d be. I can’t do that, though, Lou.”

“I get it.” And he did. It was Niall’s pride that was in the way of him moving into Louis’ guest room permanently. He wanted to make it on his own, carve his own way, and not rely on anyone. Louis wouldn’t have been any different.

Louis hadn’t been any different.

“But at least let me help you find a place, okay?” Louis put his hand over Niall’s knee. “I can’t bear the thought of you spending the night outside.”

“I’ll just--”

Louis lifted a hand to stop Niall from talking. “You’ll be my guest here for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I’ll get you a flat.”

“You know that’s impossible, Lou.” Niall tilted his head, a sad smile on his lips. “I can’t afford a flat with the part-time jobs I do.”

“Leave that to me. I’ll find you something.” Louis knew that the chances weren’t high, but he had connections. And he was stubborn.

“If I let you do that,” Niall said, pointing a finger at Louis, “I get to do something for you in return.”

“You brought me dinner.” Louis smiled, getting back to his noodles. “We’re even.”

“No, seriously, Lou.” In one motion, Niall unwinded his legs and sat straight. “You’ll have to change something about your lifestyle, too.”

Louis raised a brow. “Do I?”

“You’ll go on a date with that bloke you told me about last week.”

Making a face, Louis shook his head. He thought about Nathan. He had hit on Louis several times, asking him out two times already. Louis had turned him down both times. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why the bloody hell not?” Niall shook his head. “You’ve been single since we met, and never went on a date in that time. That’s more than three years now, Lou.”

Louis shrugged, looking to the ground. He hummed quietly.

“It’s just a date. You can tell me it doesn’t work out after you’ve spent an evening with him.” Niall reached out to touch Louis’ leg. “Just give yourself a chance at it.”

“I told you. With my job, I don’t have time for a relationship anyway.”

Niall pinched his knee. “Who says it’ll have to get that far? Just go on a date. Have fun. Get shagged.”

Louis laughed drily. “I’m not really looking for--”

“Shut up, Tommo.” Niall rolled his eyes. “If you want me to change my way of living, you gotta change yours, too.”

Sighing, Louis stared at Niall, trying to figure out how to tell him that Louis had gone through hell and back for a man before. He couldn’t imagine anyone else by his side than that man. Niall had no idea about Louis’ past.

“Deal?” Niall asked, tilting his head.

Louis sighed. He’d just play along until he’d found Niall a flat. He nodded. “Deal.”

+++

Going over files, Louis found himself biting on his pen. It was one of his bad habits. He had tried to lose it, but it always came back.

This case was particularly tough. He’d let one of the firm’s best paralegals look through every single file, but they couldn’t have found anything on Sam Laughlan. Yet, Louis was sure that there had to be some dirt on him.

He stumbled upon a transcript that made him falter. Marking a few words, Louis hummed when a knock at the door to his office dragged him out of it. Looking up, pen still resting on top of those lines, Louis rubbed his forehead.

“Come in.”

Cecilia, his fairly new secretary came in. “Excuse me, Mr Tomlinson.”

She had started at the firm about a month ago, and had replaced Irma, Louis’ actual secretary. Irma was on maternity leave, and Louis had never known how valuable she’d really been until she’d left.

Well, what was that saying? You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

“What can I do for you, love?” Louis asked. He knew it should be the other way around, and honestly, Cecilia should know what she could do for him without even asking. Yet, she was still so young, and Louis knew that she was still learning her way around the firm.

She touched a strand of blonde hair falling over her shoulder. “There’s a man who keeps calling for you. I threw him out of the line five times, but he keeps calling.”

Louis frowned. He leaned back in his chair. “What’s his name?”

“Bennett,” Cecilia answered. “He insists on talking to you.”

“I told him not to call the office.” Louis rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Cecilia. You’ve done everything correctly. When he calls again, put him through to me. It’s okay.”

“I will.” She nodded, turning to leave his office again.

“Cecilia.” Louis called her back, motioning for her to come over. “Can you do me a favour?”

She stopped next to Louis’ desk, tilting her head. “What can I do?”

“Can you read these two sentences out loud for me? I just wanna make sure I’m not reading them wrong.” Louis pointed at the passages he had marked in the transcript.

Looking a little confused, Cecilia nodded. Louis could smell her perfume when she leaned in to read. “It reads, I called Mr Richards that evening because I knew he’d be back from France. He didn’t pick up, though.”

“Perfect.” Louis beamed at her. “Thanks. That kinda saves our client.”

Cecilia blinked at him. “I have no idea how, but I’m happy if I could help.”

“You did,” Louis assured her.

She was about to leave when her gaze fell onto the photos Louis had placed on his desk. “Is that your family?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yeah, my mum and my siblings.”

“I didn’t know you had so many.”

Louis kept his eyes on the picture as he spoke. It showed them a few years ago. Dan, his mother’s new boyfriend at that time, had taken a family picture for them. Doris and Ernest were still babies in the picture, and Louis was sure it was around that time that he’d last seen Daisy and Phoebe without makeup on their faces. “Five sisters and one brother.”

“Must have been a loud home.” Cecilia’s eye caught the other picture and she grinned at Louis. “And that’s your boyfriend?”

Louis let his gaze wander to the second picture. He remembered that day so clearly. It’d been spring, and Harry’s hair had been just long enough to put it in a bun. Not all of it had stayed put up, but Louis had loved the single curls falling free around Harry’s face. They’d been working outside in Anne’s garden, helping her plant new flowers. Louis had dirt on one cheek and the collar of Harry’s shirt was sweaty. They had rolled around in the grass, mock-fighting over who got to eat the last of Anne’s sandwiches.

When Louis closed his eyes, he could still smell the grass, Harry’s sweat, the cucumbers on that sandwich. The flowers and the sun. It’d been such a good day.

“Yeah,” Louis said. “That’s him.”

“He’s--” Cecilia stopped when the telephone outside rang. “Excuse me.” With that, she dashed out of the office.

Louis sighed, throwing one last glance at the picture before he turned back to his work. He knew he shouldn’t have put it up in this office; shouldn't even have brought the picture with him to London. It was all he had left of Harry, though. Warm and fond memories.

With a bitter smile, Louis tried focus on the papers. It wasn’t like Harry would ever find out that Louis had a picture of him displayed here.

His phone rang and Louis picked it up, shoving the thoughts aside. “Yes?”

“Mr Bennett,” Cecilia announced. “On line two.”

“Thanks, love.” Louis switched lines, clearing his throat. “Mr Bennett. I’m delighted to hear from you so soon.”

“I make the impossible possible, Mr Tomlinson,” Bennett greeted him. He didn’t seem to lose any time. “I found four flats in your required parameters. However, three of them may be a little too far outside the radius you gave.”

Louis hummed. “What about the fourth?”

“All boxes ticked.”

“When can I have a look at it?”

+++

“Harry, we’ve got another four of the fish. Can you--”

Harry turned around to grab two more pots. “I’m on it. Leave it to me.”

With that, he got together the ingredients he needed, mind set on finishing the dish he was working on first. It shouldn’t take much longer than another two minutes. He added a few more spices, mixed in a dash of lemon juice, and then draped the pasta nicely on a plate. Sprinkling basil on top, he hit the small bell, and immediately a waiter appeared to pick up the dish and take it out to the guest in the dining hall.

Harry didn’t know all of the staff yet, since he’d only worked at this place for about two weeks. He knew this one, though. Zayn winked at him and Harry winked back.

With no time to lose, Harry started to prepare four dishes of tonight’s fish special. A creation Robert had come up with. They’d all been excited and impressed by the recipe, and Harry loved getting to cook in a setting like that.

The restaurant, Pierre’s, was a posh place. Only rich and famous people came to dine there, and for every working class person, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Some people came for proposals, if they had the money to splash out, in order to make the event something really special.

That’s why Harry put his best into every dish he created. It had been his dream to get to work in a restaurant like this for years. His way here had been long, and interrupted by unforeseeable events, but Harry had made it nonetheless. The least he could do to acknowledge how lucky he really was, was to put a bit of his heart into everything he did,

One day, he’d own a restaurant like this himself. It was easier working with an aim.

He rang the bell again when he had draped the last golden potatos on top of a lemongrass mousse. Zayn appeared again, taking three of the plates. Harry watched him disappear into the dining room, then come back to pick up the fourth plate.

“That’s it for tonight,” Zayn said. “I’m gonna have a beer at the pub later. You in?”

Harry grinned. “I’m in.”

“Can’t believe he didn’t even bother to ask me, too.”

Turning around, Harry saw Barbara standing next to him, arms crossed in front of her chest. He smiled, shrugging lightly. “He was in a hurry to get the plates out.”

“I’m coming with you.” She stretched, rolling her head a little to loosen up the muscles. “Tonight was quite the night.”

Harry hummed. “We had a full house tonight, didn’t we?”

Barbara nodded. “It’s unusual for a Wednesday.”

She’d been working at Pierre’s for over two years already. Harry new that it was quite a long time to stay at one restaurant, if said restaurant wasn’t your own. Chefs were generally advised to change jobs every year to gather as much experience as possible. Harry didn’t know what it was that made Barbara stay here for so long, but he was glad she did. She was certainly the nicest and kindest of his co-workers in the kitchen, and had helped Harry a great deal on his first few days.

“Okay, let’s get this place cleaned up.” Harry gathered some dirty knives and plates. “I can’t wait for that pint.”

+++

There weren’t many people in the pub. Music was playing, and it smelled of chips and grease. They sat in a booth, the leather of the benches ripped in several places, and the table had ominous spots and scratches.

Over the past month, Harry had become a regular there. The Anchor’s Rope wasn’t too far from his flat, the beer was cheap, and it was never too crowded.

Zayn came back from the bar with three pints, setting them down on the table before he sat. “Seriously, why do I have to be the one buying rounds every time?”

“You get more tips than we do,” Barbara argued.

“It’s because of your looks.” Harry gestured at Zayn’s face. “All these women throw their money at you.”

Zayn rolled his eyes. “They do not.”

“I wouldn’t throw money at you,” Barbara pointed out. “Only though, because I don’t have any.”

Zayn laughed. “Sorry, love, not interested.”

“In what?” Barbara frowned. “Me or my money?”

“Both.” Zayn drank from his pint, crossing his legs. “You’re missing essential … parts.”

Harry grinned at him. “Essential parts, huh?” He turned to Barbara. “Could be anything, really. Another hair colour, a lower voice, different clothes---”

“Just say cock when you mean cock,” Barbara said and rolled her eyes. “You know, you keep saying you’re gay, but I’ve never actually seen you with another man.”

“You see me with our friend Harry here.” Zayn slung an arm around Harry’s shoulders. “Never got suspicious?”

Barbara snorted. “You two have zero chemistry.”

Harry patted Zayn’s chest. “We better put the wedding off, then.”

“I’m bummed,” Zayn groaned. “I thought you wanted to date me.”

“Dream on, Zee.” Harry laughed. “I’m married to my job.”  

“As if you even dated before, Bambi,” Barbara teased him.

Harry kicked her shin under the table. Gently. “I have.”

“Up in Manchester?” Zayn asked.

Harry hummed, frowning slightly. He wondered if there had been any flings, any short affairs that he didn’t remember. “I had a boyfriend in high school.”

“Not during your training to become a chef?” Barbara moved her glass between her palms. “Have you been alone ever since?”

For a moment, Harry considered lying about it, but the decided there was no reason to keep his past a secret. “I had to start over my training actually, so I didn’t have much time for dates and such.”

For a moment, Zayn and Barbara didn’t say anything, then Zayn asked, “Why did you have to start over?”

Harry took another gulp of his beer, then lowered his gaze to the table. “I had a pretty bad accident when I was twenty-one.”

“Pretty bad?” Barbara repeated.

“Yeah, really bad.” He took a deep breath. “A car accident. A lorry had lost control and crashed right into the side of my car. I had severe injuries.” He tipped a finger against his temple. “Messed my head up.”

Zayn frowned. “How?”

“I forgot parts of---” Harry shrugged, trying to explain it right. “I’ve got amnesia. I forgot everything between eighteen and twenty-one.”

The silence was back and Harry glanced up at Barbara, trying to gauge her reaction. She looked a little shocked -- just like most people Harry had told his story to.

“Like in the film?” she asked then, blinking. “You know. With Channing Tatum.”

Harry laughed dryly. “Yeah, I’m Rachel McAdams. Except, there’s no husband trying to win me over again.”

“And everything else?” Zayn asked, leaning forwards, arms crossed on the table and eyes fixed on Harry. “Did you become different from the person you were before the accident?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Harry shrugged again. He had asked himself that question a million times. “My family says I’m not much different. I still wanted to be a chef, and I still like the same things, apparently.”

“There’s really nothing you remember?” Barbara shook her head. “It’s all gone?”

“Well, it’s complex.” Harry drank some more of his pint. “I don’t remember events and people I met in that period, but my body remembers certain things. Like what I’ve learned in training. I knew how to cut or to trim meat. My hands remember what my brain doesn’t.”

“That’s fascinating,” Barbara murmured.

Harry smiled, shaking his head a little. “It was quite difficult for me to work through. Still is, sometimes.”

“It’s pretty brave of you to come here, then,” Zayn said. “I mean, living in a strange city all by yourself.”

“I felt like I needed that. All of my family and friends were against it.” Harry frowned at his glass. “But I felt like I needed to start fresh. Do something new, you know?”

“Take a risk,” Barbara provided.

Get away from a life that he had outgrown, Harry thought. He had never dared saying that out loud. Of course, he loved his mum and sister, and they had been there for him when he’d woken up and hadn’t known what was happening to him. They had helped him with finding back into his life. That life had stopped feeling like his, though. It was the life of a man that Harry didn’t know -- who he had been, but couldn’t recall.

There was nothing from his old life here in London.

“Should we get another round?” he asked, pointing at Zayn’s empty glass.

“My turn,” Barbara offered and got up to go to the bar and order.

“I mean it, you know,” Zayn said, not looking at Harry but tracing a scratch on the table with one finger. “I think it’s quite brave.”

“Not braver than any other person who comes here to change their luck.” Harry followed the movement of Zayn’s finger.

Zayn hummed, not saying any more.

It hadn’t been a brave act, Harry thought. He had really just run away. It wasn’t like he was ashamed of that. Sometimes, running away didn’t mean you were scared and incapable of handling a situation. Sometimes, running away was just a form of moving on. Of accepting that there was nothing to be done, and that a fresh start was what you needed.

“So, Zayn,” Barbara said when she came back. “Since things with Harry won’t work out for you, tell me what your type is. I think we should get you a boyfriend.”

“Why should you get me a boyfriend?” Zayn crossed his arms.

“To stop all those elderly women coming to the restaurant lusting after you,” Harry explained. “It’s a tragedy to watch.”

“We gotta figure out your type.” Barbara drew Zayn’s attention back to her. “Tell me one celebrity you think is fit.”

Zayn seemed to think about it for a moment, then he played along. “Becks.”

Barbara grinned. “That’s something we can work with.”

+++

“I can’t believe you found this flat.” Niall turned slowly, looking around the room.

It was a small one. A one-room flat of barely twenty square metres, but it had its own bathroom. The room was just big enough for the bed and a cupboard next to the small kitchenette.

“I told you I would.” Louis leaned against the doorframe.

“Money makes everything possible, doesn’t it?” Niall asked when he turned to look at Louis.

He wasn't wrong. They said money couldn’t buy happiness, but to a certain extent, it really could. Money could buy you food, and clothes and a certain lifestyle to be secure and carefree.

“It’s actually affordable for you,” Louis pointed out. “If you keep playing in pubs and keep your side job, you’ll be able to pay the rent.”

“I hate the concept of paying rent,” Niall muttered, looking around the room.

“You need a place to stay, though.”

Humming, Niall went over to the window that overlooked the street in front of the building. “It’s just an additional burden. A responsibility I’ve never asked to have.”

“Then sleep in my guest room,” Louis suggested, furrowing his brows.

“I wish it was just me and my guitar,” Niall mused, sighing a little. “Getting on a train and going wherever life takes me.”

Louis could understand him so well. He had tied himself to a job, had tied himself to this city. It was easier, a good distraction from what he really wanted. “If you leave, who’s gonna keep me company then?”

Niall pointed a finger at him. “The guy you’ll go on a date with tomorrow.”

“What?” Louis blinked.

“I haven’t forgotten about our arrangement, Tommo.” Niall crossed his arms, standing in the middle of the small room. “I get a flat. You get a boyfriend.”

“A date!” Louis shook his head. “We talked about going on a date.”

Niall shrugged. “Well, a date. Which will hopefully lead to something more.”

“That’s nothing I want or need,” Louis argued.

“I don’t want or need a flat, but look, here I am.” Niall gestured around. “I’ll sign it. I’ll take this flat.”

“Yeah, okay.” Louis knew that it was dangerous to argue with Niall. He was a man of his word and didn’t fuck around. If Niall said he’d do something, he’d do it. “I’ll go on a date.”

“With Nathan.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Can’t it be someone else?”

“He’s been hitting on you for ages.” Niall sighed. “You gotta give him a chance, at least.”

“Nathan it is, then.” Louis took out the papers the landlord had given him when Louis had negotiated the contract with him. “You just gotta sign this, and the flat is yours.”

“Call him,” Niall said.

“Who?” Louis looked up from where he had opened the page for Niall to sign. “The landlord? Why? What’s wrong?”

Niall shook his head. “No. I mean Nathan. Call him.”

It took Louis all of his self-restraint not to pull a face. Just the thought of Nathan was somehow repelling. They got along just fine, and Nathan was somewhat kind, but definitely not the kind of person Louis wanted to date.

Still, he nodded. “Yes, I will.”

Snorting, Niall crossed his arms again. “I’m not stupid, Louis. You’re a master of getting out of a tight spot. As soon as I’ve signed this, you’ll be finding some bullshit reason not to go on that date.”

Well, Niall wasn’t wrong. That had been Louis’ exact plan. “Of course I won’t.”

“Yeah, sure.” Niall remained unwavering. “You call him right now and ask for a date or I won’t sign this thing.”

“Oh fuck you,” Louis mumbled. He took out his phone anyway. “What’s it to you anyway? You’ve got your own love life, don’t you?”

“What’s my flat to you?” Niall countered. “You’ve got your own flat, don’t you?”

Louis shot him an unimpressed look. “You’re not clever.”

“I am. Now call the guy.”

Sighing, Louis looked up Nathan in his contacts. Shaking his head, he dialled the number and raised the phone to his ear. It started ringing, and Louis felt a little sick.

“Louis,” Nathan answered. He sounded a little confused.

“Hi, Nathan.” Louis tried to make his voice sound neutral, not give away how he felt. “You have a moment?”

“Of course.” Nathan’s voice gave away exactly how he felt. He sounded excited. “What do you need?”

For you to stop hitting on me, Louis thought. He glanced at Niall, a plea in his eyes, but Niall just gestured of him to go on. “I was wondering…” Louis swallowed. “Are you free tomorrow night?”

Nathan was quiet for a moment. “I am.”

“Great,” Louis bit out. “How do you feel about dinner with me?”

“Seriously?” Nathan let out a breathy laugh. “You mean, like a date?”

Louis’ eyes stared daggers at Niall. He just smirked. “Yes. A date.”

“I’d love to.” Nathan sounded excited. “Shall I pick you up from your office?”

“That’d be great,” Louis answered as sweetly as he could.

“Great. I’ll be there at seven.”

“Perfect.” Louis rolled his eyes. “See you tomorrow at seven.”

Hanging up before Nathan could say anything else, Louis groaned. “There. I have a date with him. Now sign this bloody thing.”

Without protest, Niall took the contract and a pen from Louis and went over to the window. On the windowsill, Niall signed in all the places Louis had marked for him. Louis stood behind him, checking over Niall’s shoulder to make sure.

“There we go,” Niall said and turned around, handing the papers back. “Guess I’ve got my own flat now.”

“And I’ve got a date,” Louis mumbled, somehow feeling defeated.

“Always a pleasure doing business with you.” Niall grinned, nudging Louis’ shoulder.

Shaking his head, Louis walked back to the door. “Make yourself at home. I expect to be invited to a housewarming party sometime soon.”

“Guess we can do that.” Niall waved at Louis. “You can get me a second duvet as a housewarming gift.”

Louis frowned at him, tilting his head.

“Now I can let girls sleep over and kick them out when I’ve got enough of them,” Niall explained.

Rolling his eyes, Louis took the door handle. “You’re so petty.”

“Gotta make the best of having a flat now,” Niall just said.

“You could just say thanks,” Louis suggested.

“Thanks,” Niall said softly. He smiled at Louis. “Text me about that date.”

Louis laughed dryly. “You won’t hear the end of it.”

+++

Harry whistled when he came back home. He’d worked an early shift, so he actually had a bit of the day left to get some of the things done he hadn’t got to in the past days. When he worked late shifts, he usually just slept until noon and then rushed over to work. That meant that his flat wasn’t cleaned during those days and that he usually just dropped everything he brought home on his kitchen table. That included groceries, take-outs, his mail as well as his mobile phone. Harry hadn’t replied to text messages in days.

He’d had a pretty good day at work, so he was in high spirits to get shit done today. They had added one of his creations to the menu. Well, okay, the dish had been on the menu before. Yet, Harry had suggested some changes to it and the restaurant’s owner, a pretty strict and humourless woman in her forties named Margaret, had tasted it today. She had been impressed by what Harry had made of the Beef Bourguignon they used to serve.

It was just another step to making a name for himself and getting to be one of the most well-known, prestigious chefs in the country someday. Someday.

He stopped when he noticed that the door to the flat next to his own was open. Music was playing and Harry recognised that it wasn’t coming from some record. Someone was playing the guitar. He curiously stepped closer and peeked into the flat.

There was a young man with brown hair sitting on the window sill, staring outside and lazily playing a soft tune on his guitar. He had a strong jaw, pale skin and skilled fingers. Harry leaned against the frame, keeping his eyes on those fingers. He wished he had his camera with him. It was a nice picture.

The boy turned his head as if he felt that he was being watched. He stopped playing instantly.

“Sorry,” Harry said immediately and took a step back.

He kept watching Harry as if he needed to decide what to make of Harry’s presence. After a moment, he hopped from the window sill and set his guitar aside.

“I take it you’re my neighbour?” he asked with a smile, holding out his hand.

Harry shook it, nodding his head. “I live right next door. Harry.”

“Niall. You good with the music?” the man asked, gesturing at his guitar.

“Love it,” Harry replied. “Are you a musician?”

Niall nodded. “Better get my signature now. It'll be worth millions in a few years.”

“Maybe you could sign my guitar,” Harry suggested.

“You’re a musician, too?” Niall’s face lit up, and Harry decided that he liked the guy. From the dialect, Harry could tell that he was Irish, which was just another giveaway that he had to be nice. Harry had never met an Irish person who hadn’t been lovely.

“No, not at all.” Harry laughed. “Just playing for fun.”

“Cool. You could play me some songs, now that we’re neighbours.” Niall gestured to the wall and back.

Harry smiled. “I’d love to. So, you’re officially moved in?”

“Yup.” Rocking back on his heels, Niall looked around the room. “I got my friend a date in exchange for it, so I guess it was worth it.”

“What?” Harry tilted his head, frowning slightly. “You got a flat because your friend goes on a date?”

Laughing, Niall gestured to the small table in the kitchenette area. “Want a cup?”

For a moment, Harry hesitated. This was strange. He had known this man for a bare three minutes, but for some odd reason, he felt completely comfortable around him. Not in the sense that sometimes you met people and you felt like you’ve known each other for a lifetime. More like the kind of person you meet and instantly hit off with.

“Why not?” He looked around. “Do you even have tea?”

“Oh.” Niall frowned. “True. I haven’t really moved in, have I?” He checked the cupboards in the kitchen. “I do, however, have cups.”

Gesturing at the door, Harry shrugged. “How about we have tea at my place? I was about to make dinner. Care to join?”

“Really?” Niall dashed out of his flat. “I’d never say no to a free meal.”

Grinning, Harry followed him, letting Niall into his own flat.

+++

Half an hour later, Harry knew that Niall was, indeed, Irish; from a small place not too far from Dublin, actually. He was twenty-seven, so just about the same age as Harry, and had dropped out of uni when he had realised that music science had actually only very little to do with actual music playing.

The flat next door was actually Niall’s first flat, since he’d lived with the women he slept with until now. He’d made it a point to Harry that they hadn’t been girlfriends. He apparently didn’t like to tie himself to anything.

Except for friends. He kept mentioning friends.

“So, I knew he had a point,” Niall said now while Harry was putting a plate of spaghetti in front of him. “But I couldn’t just agree with him, could I?”

Harry shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Well, it’s only fair he’s making changes to his life, too.” Niall closed his eyes after taking the first bite. “First warm meal in days.”

“You don’t cook for yourself?”

Niall shook his head. “Sometimes. I just don’t get it right, you know? So, I’ll rather have takeout or ready meals instead.”

Harry crossed his hands in front of his chest. “No ready meals.”

Laughing, Niall kept eating. “Anyway, to get back to my story. So, I told my friend that he’s gotta change something about his life, too. I’ve known him for almost four years, and he’s never went on a date even once during that time.”

Harry hummed. “Well, maybe he’s not interested in dating.”

“As if.” Niall rolled his eyes. “I suspect there’s an ex he can’t get over. He never told me, but there’s something there.”

That was certainly something Harry couldn’t relate to. He’d never had to get over anyone, and if he had, he couldn’t even remember it. “If you say you’ve known him for years, then it may be time to move on, yeah.”

“Exactly. It’s what I thought.” Niall was almost finished with his plate, so Harry got the pot from the cooker to place it on the table. His flat wasn’t any different from Niall’s. With the salary he got at the restaurant, it was just enough to afford this tiny space. Harry wondered how Niall even made ends meet. “I told him I’d only sign the contract if he called up this guy and asked him on a date.”

“And?” Harry asked.

“They’re going on a date tomorrow.” With a smirk, Niall got a second portion of the spaghetti.

Grinning, Harry shook his head. “Well played.”

“I’m certainly the winner in this whole deal,” Niall agreed. “I got my own flat and I got my best friend to go on a date. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be best man at their wedding.”

“I’ll take care of the catering.” Harry laughed.  

Niall’s eyes landed on something on the other side of the room. His features lit up. “That your guitar?”

Harry turned and nodded. “Yeah. Had it for ages. You wanna give it a go?”

“Absolutely.”

It was both funny and endearing, the way Niall completely forgot about his food and focused on the instrument instead. He grabbed it and sat down on Harry’s bed without asking, fingers immediately strumming the strings.

Harry smiled, watching him from the kitchen table. Niall was a little like a whirlwind, just barging in and taking everything with him. It was a nice feeling, and Harry hoped that a friendship could form from this.

“Mate, this pearl is quite out of tune,” Niall told him and got up, carefully placing the guitar on the bed. “Let me get my stuff. I’ll fix that for you.”

“You don’t have to.” Harry bit his lip.

Shaking his head, Niall made for the door. “I do. It’s my way of paying back for the meal, okay?”

Harry took a deep breath, the smile coming back to his lips. “Yeah, okay.”

He watched as Niall disappeared into his own flat before he started clearing the table. He washed the dishes and they spent the next twenty minutes without exchanging a word, as Niall carefully tuned Harry’s guitar.

There was something familiar about it that Harry couldn’t quite grasp, but didn’t want to let go.

+++

Louis couldn’t believe he was nervous.

For one, it wasn’t really a date. He was just doing this so Niall would finally stop bothering him about it. Once Louis had been on this date, he could tell Niall that he was even more sure now that Nathan wasn’t really what he was looking for. Niall would understand and Louis could move on with his life as he had before.

Second, Louis wasn’t ever nervous before dates. If this were a date.

Fuck , he thought and ran a hand over his face.

The thing was, Louis wasn’t very experienced in this whole dating business. He’d gone on dates before, but the ones when he was sixteen hadn’t counted and after that, all the dates he had gone on had been so easy.

His eyes instantly fell onto the picture of Harry he had on his desk. Harry had made the dating ordeal pretty easy. He had been sweet and responsive and so, so easy to court. Louis grinned a little at the memory of Harry actually giggling when Louis had brought him a flower for their first date.

They had been so young. And so stupidly in love. Louis had been crazy about Harry from the first minute, from the get-go. There had never been a single doubt for him that Harry had been his one. It. Forever. Whatever people called it these days.

Sighing, Louis tore his gaze from Harry’s beaming face. He had changed since those days. They both had.

Louis knew from all of Liam’s social media. He was aware it was a bad idea, but since Liam had been Harry’s best friend since childhood, he was still in Harry’s life. Sometimes, Liam would post the occasional picture of himself with friends from home, which always included Harry.

His hair was shorter, had never grown out as long again as he had worn it at twenty-one. He was thinner, much thinner. Louis remembered love handles and a baby face. All that had turned into lanky limbs and a sharp jaw.

He looked handsome in those pictures.

Cecilia came into his office, looking a little taken aback. “Mr Tomlinson, there’s a Mr Cornell. He says he’s here to pick you up for dinner.”

Louis got up from his chair, closing the file he had opened on his desk. “Thanks, Cecilia.” She frowned a little, and Louis remembered the photo. What he had told her. Shit. “He’s a friend.”

Nodding, she followed him outside his office. “Should I send you a reminder for your meeting tomorrow at eight?”

“That’d be lovely.” He spotted Nathan, forcing himself to smile as he approached. He looked handsome in the dark navy suit, his blond hair combed back neatly. “Thanks, Cecilia. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Have a good night, Mr Tomlinson.” She smiled, waving them off.

Nathan put a hand on the small of Louis’ back, leading him to the lift. “Nice suit.”

“Thanks,” Louis said, focusing on breathing evenly as he stepped into the lift, away from Nathan’s hand. “Thanks for picking me up.”

“Of course.” Nathan pressed the button for the ground floor. “I hope you’re hungry.”

“I am,” Louis confirmed. “Haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“Busy day?”

He nodded. “Yeah, we’ve got trouble with an overseas client. It’s complicated with the different time zones.”

“Where are they?” Nathan asked when they left the lift.

Louis pressed his lips together, throwing Nathan an apologising glance. “Sorry, can’t say. Confidential.”

Nathan laughed. “I should’ve known.”

Louis knew that as the owner of one of the biggest trading firms in Great Britain, Nathan had some idea of legal issues. He was actually quite good at it, and Louis had been pleasantly surprised about his knowledge when they had started working for Nathan’s business.

He was intelligent, charming, rich -- and just a little too slick for Louis’ taste.

“I reserved a table at Pierre’s,” Nathan said when they were in the car. A black Porsche, of course. “I hope that’s okay with you.”

“Yeah, absolutely.” Louis watched the houses slowly drifting by. He preferred taking the tube, because London streets were always packed. “It’s one of my favourite places, actually.”

Nathan grinned at him. His clear blue eyes were sparkling in the pale winter sun. “I knew you had good taste.”

Louis smiled weakly. It was a widely known fact that the Pierre’s had the best chefs. “Guess we’ve got that in common.”

They arrived at the restaurant and were immediately shown to a table at the window, a little isolated from the hectic dining room. Louis’ gaze was caught by a waiter on the other side of the room. He had dark hair and cheekbones like a greek god, capturing Louis’ attention for a moment. He was gone when Louis blinked once.

Their waiter, however, was a pretty average-looking guy with brown hair and pale skin. He was well-trained, though; Louis noticed that all of his steps and motions were routined and skilled.

“We’ll have your best red,” Nathan ordered, “and the Beef Bourguignon for both of us. Thank you.”

The waiter excused himself, and Louis had to hold himself back from rolling his eyes. He didn’t appreciate other people making choices for him. For the sake of Niall leaving him alone about this, though, he decided to not say anything and just play along.

“It’s their best dish,” Nathan said. “And I wouldn’t want you to have any less than the best.”

Forcing himself to smile, Louis avoided making eye contact. “I think the hake is pretty good, too.”

“Should I change the order?” Nathan already raised his hand.

“No,” Louis stopped him, waving a hand. “The beef is just as good. I like it, too.”

“Great.” Nathan touched his tie.

Giving himself a push, Louis laced his fingers on the table. “So, how was your day?”

Nathan started talking, and Louis got distracted again when he saw the pretty waiter coming back out of the kitchen. He had two plates, serving a table. His smile was friendly, but reserved, definitely not genuine. For some odd reason, that person seemed completely misplaced in the restaurant.

“... so I had to fire him, obviously.”

Louis zoned back in on Nathan. He had no idea what he was on about. “Obviously.”

“I mean, what else could I do? Not that I’m asking legal advice or something.” Nathan raised his wine glass, leaning closer to Louis over the table. “That’s not what we’re here for tonight.”

Louis swallowed, taking his own glass to cheer to Nathan. “Absolutely.”

Nathan kept talking, and Louis kept watching the interesting waiter. In his head, Louis made up stories of what had happened that the man had stranded at this job. He had an interesting face, and certainly, he had worked as a model before. There was no way he hadn’t.

“Excuse me.”

Louis was distracted from him when their waiter placed the plate in front of him. Louis noticed that the dish looked different from usual. He thanked the waiter with a smile and glanced at Nathan before he picked up his cutlery.

“It’s different,” Nathan said after the first bite, looking displeased.

Louis frowned after taking a bite. It did taste different from how it usually did at this place. His stomach turned a little, throat going tight, as he recognised it. That taste, it was almost like--

“Waiter,” Nathan called out, and Louis snapped out of his thoughts. “Waiter!”

Their waiter hurried over, expression stricken. “Sir?”

Nathan pointed at his plate. “This doesn’t taste as usual.”

“Sir,” the waiter started, looking uncomfortable. “We’ve changed the recipe lately.”

“Why would you ruin a perfectly fine dish? I want an explanation.” Nathan shoved the plate away from himself.

The poor waiter glanced at Louis, and they briefly bonded over how much they both hated  Nathan right now. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with---”

Nathan sighed. “Well, that’s your job. II demand to see the chef, then.”

“Of course, sir.” The waiter nodded, bowing his head, and then made for the kitchen in long strides.

“Nathan,” Louis whispered, trying to ignore that everyone else in the restaurant was staring at them. Even the pretty waiter. “I don’t think that’s necessary. It’s different, but it’s good.”

“It’s not. It’s absolutely disgusting.” Nathan threw his napkin on top of the dish. “I refuse to eat that.”

The waiter came back with a chef in tow. Louis lowered his gaze, trying to pretend he wasn’t there; wasn’t part of this.

“A new chef, I see,” Nathan snarled. “Didn’t they teach you their recipes? This dish is a disaster.”

“I’m sorry. The dish will be prepared by a different chef immediately, of course.”

Louis blinked when he heard that voice, heart skipping a beat. When he raised his head slowly, eyes falling onto the chef standing at their table, time felt like it was moving in slow-motion. He couldn’t breathe for a moment, taking in the man in front of him: pale skin, big hands, a white kitchen uniform, the hurt and shame in his green eyes. Short hair, the curls only a hint in the wavy strands.

Louis stared at him, and it all came crashing back.

+++

“Lou, hurry up,” Harry yelled from downstairs. “We’ll be late.”

Louis ran a hand through his hair, glancing at the mirror one more time. Grabbing the car keys, he left the room and dashed down the stairs.

“How did you wanna leave without these?” he asked, dangling the keys in front of Harry.

Grinning, Harry snatched them from him, leaning in for a kiss. “As if I’d leave without you.”

Louis followed him outside, listening to Harry musing about Liam’s new boyfriend. He’d been Harry’s best friend since primary school, and tonight was the first time that Liam decided to introduce a boyfriend to him. To them. To anyone of his family and friends, really.

It was Liam’s birthday, and he was throwing a big birthday bash. The weather was good, so they could have a BBQ in the garden at Liam’s parents’ place. Harry and Louis had helped setting everything up earlier this morning.

“Did you think of the fajitas?” Louis asked as he got in the passenger seat.

Harry quickly glanced at him, grinning. He steered the car onto the street. “Took care of that while you tried on your third outfit.”

It wasn’t like Louis hadn’t seen the look on Harry’s face when he had come down the stairs earlier. “But, man, do I look good today.”

“You do.” Harry reached out to put a hand over Louis’ knee. “Gotta have to fend off all the boys tonight. Make sure they know you’re mine.”

Louis snorted. “Maybe I don’t want them to know and watch them trying.”

“Maybe they’ll try hit on me, instead.” Harry tucked a curl behind his ear. “They fall for the curls. Always.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Louis said, smiling to himself. He had fallen for those curls; so fast, and so hard.

Harry turned right at an intersection. “I’ll remind you next time you---”

Louis’ heart skipped when he noticed the lorry on their side of the street. “Harry, watch--”

It happened all too quickly. Harry turned around the wheel, the car spinning around left, and the next thing Louis felt was his body being jerked around, a deafening sound, Harry screaming something.

A second later, everything was quiet.

Louis couldn’t see. Everything in his vision was black, and in his ears, a white noise overlay the silence. He couldn’t breathe, and his legs hurt, the seatbelt was cutting into his stomach too tightly.

Slowly, he blinked his eyes open, realising that everything had been black because his eyes had been closed. He saw a tree a few metres away, a pavement, and realised their car had come to stand in the middle of the street, facing sideways.

“Haz,” he tried to say, but only a gurgling sound came out.

There was a man coming up in front of the car, one hand on his face, the other holding a mobile phone to his ear. He was talking, looking at Louis, coming closer. Turning his head, Louis watched him come to the window, his lips moving, but Louis couldn’t hear a word.

Instead, he turned away from the strange face to ask Harry what the fuck was going on.

He stared at the picture in front of him for a moment, not realising what he actually saw . There was blood, so much blood. Harry’s curls were drenched in it. His head was lowered, his lips slightly opened, a cut on his bottom lip bleeding. He was still, completely still, and his eyes were closed.

Panic spread through Louis’ chest. He blinked, looking past Harry and seeing the car window was broken, the door damaged completely. From the front of a lorry that had crashed right through it.

Into Harry.

Louis’ breathing started to get out of rhythm, making it hard to suck air into his lungs. He reached out one hand, touching Harry’s arm.

“Baby,” Louis said, voice broken, throat hurting. “Babe, look at me.”

Harry didn’t move.

Tears welled up behind Louis’ eyes. His fingers dug into Harry’s arm. He almost lost his grip, his fingers slippery with blood. “Harry. Cut the crap. Come on.”

A drop of blood dripped from Harry’s chin. Louis’ own blood ran cold.

“Can you hear me?” Louis’ attention was turned from Harry, another man having opened the car’s door on his side. “Can you understand me?”

“Harry,” Louis said to him. “Harry.”

“Is that your name?” he started touching Louis, hands wandering everywhere. “Are you Harry?”

“No, I’m---” Louis looked back at Harry, his heart dropping to his stomach when he realised the picture in front of him was real. Harry wasn’t conscious, blood dripping from his chin. “He’s not--- He’s---”

“You have to calm down.” The man somehow moved Louis, dragging him out of the car. Louis screamed at the pain in his hip and legs. “Can you tell me your name?”

“No.” Louis reached out for Harry. “I gotta--- Harry!”

“You need to let go. We’ll take care of Harry.” The man dragged Louis away, his body hitting a soft surface, and immediately, more hands were on him. It hurt, the pain burning and ripping through Louis’ body, making the tears spill from his eyes.

Louis tried slapping them away, but he felt his arms getting heavy, his strength leaving him. Yet, he fought back with everything he had. He had to get back to Harry, had to make sure he was okay, was just messing with Louis. Was alive.

“Stop it! Harry! Harry!” Louis yelled, his chest tight, his throat hurting, his vision blurry from tears and lack of oxygen.

Harry’s small frame, hunched over in the driver’s seat, hand fallen off his lap into the passenger seat where Louis had been just a moment ago -- it was the last thing Louis saw, before everything around him went black.

+++

Louis’ surroundings came back into focus, and he noticed that everyone was staring at him. Nathan frowned, the waiter looked curious and Harry-- Harry was looking at him with worry in his expression, clear and distant.

“Are you okay?” Nathan asked, reaching out for Louis’ hand on the tabletop.

Louis pulled it away, eyes fixed on Harry. He couldn’t have another man touch him in front of Harry . Skin prickling, fingers itching to reach out, Louis couldn’t tear his eyes away, not even when Harry tilted his head, throwing a glance at the waiter, as if he was looking for help.

“I gotta--” Louis swallowed the words, voice shaky. His knees were wobbly when he stood up abruptly, pulling out his wallet. He threw a few twenty pounds notes onto the table. “Leave.”

Nathan said something, but Louis didn’t hear it. Instead, he made his legs move, tearing his eyes from Harry’s face. He had his head tilted, frowning slightly at Louis.

He stumbled through an aisle between tables to make it to the door. When he reached it, the pretty waiter from earlier was there. He looked at Louis curiously, but opened the door for him, saying something that Louis didn't even hear.

Outside, the cold December air hit him and Louis tried to breathe, get some of it into his lungs that felt like they were stuffed. He yelped a little, running towards the taxi stand at the end of the road.

His mobile rang when he got into one of the taxis, telling the driver his address. Checking it Louis saw Nathan's name flashing on the screen. He declined the call and leaned back, staring at the ceiling of the car.

His heart wouldn't calm down. Louis was afraid it was going to beat out of his chest. He closed his eyes and immediately saw Harry again; soft, green eyes looking at him in a way they never had before. Distant. Without attachment.

Blood running down Harry's cheek, dripping down his curls flashed through Louis’ vision, and he opened his eyes, holding back a whimper.

“Sir, are you all right?” the driver asked, glancing at Louis through the rear-view mirror.

“I'm afraid I'm not.” Louis took a deep breath. “Just need to get home.”

“I'll take the fastest route,” the other man promised.

Louis managed a weak smile. “Thanks.”

As the London lights flashed by, Louis was grateful that he didn't live far away from the restaurant. At this time of night, the traffic wasn't as busy either, so he'd be home soon.

His mobile rang again, and once again, Louis declined Nathan's call. Instead, he pulled up a different number. He paid the taxi driver, giving him a generous tip, and called that number when he left the car and walked towards the door of his apartment building.  

It rang twice before someone picked up.

“A bit of a heads up would have been nice, you know,” he said.

“Lou,” Liam answered, sounding confused. “What do you--- oh no.”

“Oh yes,” Louis replied, laughing bitterly.  

“There’s like a million trillion people living in that city.” Liam sounded offended - as if he had anything to be offended about. “How did you even manage to run into him?”

Upstairs, Louis unlocked his door, throwing the keys onto the shoe dresser when he walked in. He switched on the lights. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty for that?”

Liam sighed. “No. Sorry. Of course not.”

“Good, because I just had a bloody meltdown in a restaurant while being on an actual date.”

“You’re dating again?” Louis could almost see the surprise and happiness on Liam’s face just from his voice alone.

“Thought I should give it a try.” Louis swallowed thickly when he thought of Harry’s face. Actual Harry standing in front of him. His knees got a little weak and he sat down. “Look how that turned out.”

Louis had no idea how he had ended up in this mess. He had decided to go on a date for the first time since he had given up on Harry. Even if Louis hadn’t really wanted that date, it still had to mean something that Harry had showed up at that moment; in this night of all possible nights. It was like Harry didn’t want him to be with anyone else. As if fate had decided that they belonged together and that there was no one other in the world for Louis than Harry.

Not that Louis wanted anyone else but Harry.

The whole thing was just a little more complicated than that.

“I’m sorry, Lou.” Liam said quietly. “I should’ve told you. Gemma and I discussed it when he decided to go to London, but then…” He sighed, obviously searching for the right words. “We thought, it’d be best for you not to know.”

“You thought I’d go looking for him.”

Liam didn’t have to answer to confirm it.

Louis felt anger well up inside of him. “I think I made it clear I’d stick to the agreement when I left his city, didn’t I?”

“You left, but you never truly gave up hope, Lou. Which no one blames you for,” Liam was quick to add.

For a moment, Louis stayed quiet. He looked around his flat, blinking his eyes tiredly. It seemed cold, with the city lights streaming into the half-lit living room. “I guess it’s time to give up hope.”

Liam didn’t say anything; probably not knowing what to say.

“He looked at me, Li,” Louis whispered, closing his eyes again. “He just stood there, looked at me and apologised like I was a stranger.”

To him, you are. Neither of them said it out loud.

“How did you meet him?” Liam asked instead.

Louis rehashed the whole story to him, from his deal with Niall, to how Nathan had kept hitting on him, to how he just knew when he tasted the meat. “It was his speciality when he started training,” Louis said, remembering how proud Harry had been of his creation and the reactions it had received. “He had perfected it. I don’t know how many times I had to eat it.”

Liam laughed a little. “So, to find out if it’s really him, you asked to see the chef?”

“No. Nathan was displeased with it.” Louis shook his head to himself. “He wanted to complain.”

“Ouch.” Liam hissed on the other line. “Poor Harry.”

“Yeah, please feel bad for him. He’s had a rough night.” Louis kept his tone dry.

“You know what I mean.” The pout was evident in Liam’s voice. “As if you didn’t feel sorry for him.”

“I did.” Louis relived the moment for the millionth time since he’d left the restaurant. “Until he stood there and didn’t recognise me.”

Liam was quiet again. “You always knew he wouldn’t.”

He had. Louis bit his lip, taking in a shaky breath. Of course he had known. He had been a coward, a lame excuse for a boyfriend when he had decided without facing Harry. Properly, at least.

“I know,” he replied, trying to get his voice under control. “I just never expected us to meet again like this.”

In his head, there were countless scenarios of how their reunion was supposed to go. In one, Harry showed up on his doorstep in the middle of a stormy night, out of breath, cheeks flushed, having travelled across the country to see Louis, because he finally, finally remembered. In another one, Louis was in a park, and when he turned his head along to a soft spring breeze, his eyes locked on Harry’s. Time stopped for a moment, and recognition bloomed on Harry’s face before he strode over to Louis to wrap him up in a tight hug, tears falling from both their faces.

“Lou,” Liam said calmly. “You were not supposed to meet again at all.”

The bubble burst again, and suddenly, Louis was back in his dimly lit living room. “Yes, I know. It’s what I meant.”

“It’s not.” Liam’s voice was full of sympathy.

“I hadn’t given up,” Louis repeated Liam’s words from earlier. “I had hoped.”

He heard Liam swallow and taking a deep breath. “There’s none left. His last tests showed he’s not going to recover, Lou. The doctors said his memory won’t ever come back. It’s been too long.”

There was a hollow in Louis’ chest that somehow widened with those words. A space that’d been empty and dark for years and now threatened to take over. Tears burned behind his lids and Louis forced himself to hold them back.

He had known it all along. He had been prepared for this.

“You decided he should live without you,” Liam reminded him. “You left, Lou.”

He knew Liam wasn’t trying to make him feel guilty. It was the truth. “I know.”

“Don’t mess it up now.”

“I won’t,” Louis replied.

“Just avoid that restaurant, okay?” Liam asked.

Louis nodded, then he remembered that Liam couldn’t see it. “I will.”

“Louis.” Liam was quiet again, his voice still so full of sympathy. “I’m sorry that happened.”

“I just--” Louis blinked his eyes open, watching the lights outside. “I just miss him so much.”

“I know you do.”

“And it doesn’t stop.” Louis inhaled. “I just can’t get over him.”

Liam was quiet again, and Louis fell quiet, too. They stayed on the line, and Louis felt comforted just from knowing Liam was there; that he understood.

+++

“That was wild,” Zayn commented when they dashed back into the kitchen.

“What was?” Barbara asked, stirring carrots in a pan.

“Poor Andrew just had to serve the craziest guests,” Zayn explained.

Andrew shook his head. “Guest, actually. His date was so embarrassed for him.”

“He was,” Harry agreed. “He just upped and left.”

Barbara gasped. “A real drama scene?”

“Pure drama.” Zayn put a hand over his heart. “Like, his date didn’t wanna be there to begin with, if you’d ask me. He was checking me out from the moment they entered.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Everyone’s checking you out.”

“True,” Andrew agreed. He turned back to Barbara. “That prick didn’t even let his date order. He just ordered for both of them. I should’ve known then that it wasn’t gonna go well.” He made a dramatic pause. “So I serve them, and a second later, he calls me over, demanding to speak to the chef.”

“What did they have?” Barbara asked.

“The beef,” Harry supplied. “I made it myself, so no doubt it was on point.”

Barbara rolled her eyes at him. Harry bit back a comment about how no one else in the kitchen could make the dish quite like him yet.

“I go and get Harry, and he complains about how it doesn’t taste as usual,” Andrew went on, gesturing wildly, “and Harry tries to explain, but in that moment, the prick’s date goes all pale, breathing heavily.”

“He was so embarrassed.” Zayn laughed. “Like, out of his mind embarrassed.”

Harry frowned at him. “For a second there, I thought he had a panic attack.”

“Then he just gets up, throws money on the table and runs off.” Andrew was holding his stomach, falling into Zayn’s laughter.

“Guess he won’t go on a second date,” Barbara supplied. “Shame I missed that.”

Harry hummed, turning back to his own spot in the kitchen. He grabbed one of the orders from the counter to get started on it. For some odd reason, he just couldn’t find it all that amusing and laughable as Zayn and Andrew did.

The poor sod had looked so out of it; Harry had felt so sorry for him. He had looked right on the edge of breaking down right then and there, and when he had spoken up, his voice had been all kinds of broken and stricken and Harry had felt like all he needed was someone to hug him and tell him he’d be okay.

He knew that it was quite a strong reaction to an embarrassing situation; that the bloke had just overreacted. Yet, Harry couldn’t help but feel for him. He’d always take the victim’s side, and in this case, it was clear who the victim had been.

Harry just hoped he’d be okay eventually. Maybe next time he’d come back with a much nicer guy to date.

“Harry, we have another four,” Andrew said from the door. “Gotta step up your game a little.”

Nodding, Harry shoved all of his thoughts aside and got into his mindset for work.

+++

Louis knew he was awake, even though he couldn't open his eyes. His eyelids were just so heavy. Distantly, he heard someone call his name, and he wanted to reply, but it felt like his brain was just so slow to make his lips move in time.

There were hands on him, touching his chest and arms, and some strange noises added to the voice talking to him. His mum, Louis realised. That voice was his mum’s.

He concentrated on it, following it, and a moment later, he managed to open his eyes. He blinked against the shrill lights, squinting his eyes.

“Lou,” his mum said again and again, close to his face. Louis looked at her, taking in her greasy hair and pale face. Tears. “Baby, are you there?”

There were more people, the ones touching his body. They pressed buttons on monitors around Louis and wore green scrubs. One of them filled an injection up, checking its function. Louis’ eyes turned back to his mother when he realised that he wasn’t home.

He was in a hospital.

The sounds around him suddenly intensified and got louder when he remembered. The lorry, Harry hunched over in the driver’s seat, the airbag deflating, blood dripping from that stray curl over Harry’s face. So much blood.

“Mum,” he croaked out while strange hands pressed him down onto the bed. He couldn’t say more, didn’t get out any more.

“Shhh,” she hushed, gently stroking his face and hair. “You need to stay calm.”

Louis blinked at her, trying to do as she said. He looked around the room again, trying to find Harry. He was alone in the room, though. There was no second patient. Tears welled up behind his eyes as he realised what it meant. There had been so much blood on Harry’s face.

“Mum,” he whispered again, locking eyes with her. “Is he…?”

She immediately shook her head, and Louis felt relief wash over him. “You’ll both be fine.”

Louis let the tears fall as he closed his eyes. His mum took his hand and Louis squeezed it, linking their fingers together. He tried to control his breathing, but it came in rasps, short little hiccups.

He felt his body go weak with it, losing grip on his mother’s hand. She kept whispering reassurances; soft encouragement for Louis.

When Louis woke up a second time, his head felt a little clearer. He was confused again, but the room around him was quieter and it only took him a short moment to remember. When he turned his head, he saw that his mother was still there. She was on her phone with one hand, the other loosely resting on Louis’ hand. He moved his to signal her he was awake.

“Baby,” she said, dropping her phone. With a relieved sigh, she scooted closer, taking his hand between hers. “How are you feeling?”

“Banged up,” Louis admitted, blinking several times.

“You are pretty banged up,” she said.

He noticed the window, the sun setting down or rising; Louis wasn’t sure. “How long was I out?”

“Almost two days.” Jay’s voice broke a little. “Forty-two hours.”

Louis wanted to stretch, but it was like every one of his muscles was sore. That was when he realised he couldn’t move his legs. His stomach dropped and his heart took its place.

“Mum,” he started, staring at the duvet covering him from the waist down. “Mum. Am I paralysed?”

She sighed again, lifting the duvet for him. “Fortunately not.”

Louis looked at his legs, both wrapped in casts. His head started swimming a little.

“You’ve broken nearly every bone possible in your right leg. Your left’s got a broken calf and dislodged kneecap.” She lowered the duvet again.

Louis swallowed. “What else?”

“A splenic rupture, but they fixed it.” She squeezed his hand again. “You were lucky.”

It’s her tone that made him fear what was to come. His voice was shaky, but he still asked. “I need to know, Mum.”

She hesitated, and it was the worst because Louis knew what it meant. “They put him in an induced coma. His head..” She bit her lip and looked at their hands. “His right leg and arm are broken. Dislodged shoulder. Ruptured lungs.”

Louis felt tears coming again. He needed to see Harry; right fucking now . “I need to see him.”

Jay shook her head. “I know, love, but you can’t leave the bed.”

“There has to be a way.” He looked around again, trying to come up with ideas. “He needs me.”

“He’s in a coma, Louis.” Jay held his hand, lifting it to her mouth to kiss it. “It’s--” She stopped again, shaking her head.

That’s when Louis realised that she hadn’t told him everything. That she had withheld something from Louis. “What, Mum? What is going on?”

“His head, Lou,” she whispered, eyes gleaming with tears when she looked at him.

Louis remembered the blood dripping from Harry’s face. His throat went tight.

“It’s severe,” she went on, still not looking at him. “There are swellings they need to get under control, or else--” She didn’t finish the sentence.

Or else , Louis thought, staring at the duvet. He could hear his heart beating in his ears, feel it in his veins, but something about it felt odd; not right. There was that odd feeling it wasn’t even his own.

“How good are his chances?” Louis asked, trying to focus.

Louis took the hesitation as a bad sign. “They need to get it under control within the next eighteen hours to avoid any permanent damage.”

It looked bad, Louis decided, glaring at his legs. Harry was somewhere close, in the same building, fighting for his life and Louis couldn’t even be with him. It tore him apart, and he was too weak, unable to hold it in when the tears finally fell.

Jay kept his hand between hers, comforting him, but there really was no comfort for what Louis was feeling.

+++

It had felt like the worst news of his life. Louis had never felt as helpless and useless as in that very moment. He still wanted to scream just thinking of it now; thinking of how powerless he had been in all of it.

There had been banter, a secret smile shared between them -- and in the next moment, everything had been destroyed and Harry’s blood had been on Louis’ hands. It had been just a second, just a moment of distraction, and their lives had been turned upside down.

Louis stared out of the window, watching as lights turned on and off in the buildings around. Most of them were dark at this hour. Everyone was sleeping, except for the taxis, the clubs and a few offices that were lit because someone had to meet a deadline and couldn’t afford the luxury of sleep.

And then there was Louis. Awake because he had met a ghost from his past today. Awake because he was stuck in the past. Awake because he had been thrown back into memories he had tried so hard to forget.

Waking up in a hospital, unable to move, drugged and wired had been one part of it. Getting through the next eighteen hours praying that Harry would make it had been the other.

He had thought he’d been going through the most acid test of his life.

Louis had not had a single clue then that it had been about to get even worse.

+++

Harry paused the video playing on his laptop when his mobile vibrated next to him. He munched on his sandwich, swallowing quickly to pick up as he saw his mother’s name flash on the screen.

“Hi, Mum,” he greeted with his mouth still a little full.

“Hi, my love.” Anne’s voice was a little hushed. “I haven’t heard from you in a while.”

Harry rolled his eyes a little. He knew it was love that made his mum call to check up on him. She had been a little overprotective ever since the accident five years ago. It wasn’t like he was annoyed by it -- Harry wouldn’t say it like that. Yet, she had only just stopped calling him every day about a week ago. Instead, they had moved on to texting.

It’d been nice to live without the constant reminder for a little while.

“Been busy at work,” Harry explained. “How are you? How’d the meeting at work go today?”

Anne laughed a little. “A complete mess. You know Deb. She just can’t have a civil conversation.”

“I can imagine.” Harry glanced at the screen, at the paused scene. He wasn’t really in the mood to talk, just wanted to spend his off day watching Netflix and stuffing his face with unhealthy food, as well as catching up on all the sleep he’d lost over the past week.

It was rare that Harry got the weekend off. Not that he really had the weekend off, but not working on Friday and Saturday was nice.

“So…” Anne started, and Harry dreaded the worry in her voice. “Is everything good?”

“What wouldn’t be good?” Harry asked. “I’m busy, but fine.”

Anne hummed. “Nothing out of line happened?”

Harry frowned. “What’s that about?”

“Just wondering.” Anne laughed a little, but even through the phone Harry could tell that it wasn’t genuine. “I’m just worried, you know.”

“Everything’s normal, mum,” Harry assured her. “No accidents, no further memory loss, no regaining of any memory either. Everything’s normal.”

For a moment, she was quiet. “Good. Okay.”

A knock on his door made Harry turn around on his bed. “Mum, I gotta run. Text you later, okay?”

“Text me,” she said, and then added, “love you.”

“Love you, too.” Harry hung up on his way to the door.

“Good morning,” Niall greeted as Harry opened the door. He leaned against the frame, checking Harry from head to toe. “Day off?”

Harry nodded. “Morning. And yes.” He gestured to his bed, unmade, laptop open and still on pause. “I’ve got today and tomorrow off.”

“Perfect, because I decided to have a housewarming party tonight, and everyone who’s got time is invited.” Niall beamed.

That actually did sound nice. Harry had to leave his flat at some point to socialise. Also, he hadn’t made many friends outside of work, and that would be a nice opportunity to get to know people. He was sure Niall knew a lot of interesting people. “Yeah, I’d love to. When should I come over?”

“Right now.” Niall’s grin widened.

Harry blinked at him. “Now?”

“Help me prepare?” Niall attempted a puppy face. If he knew Harry had grown up with a certain Liam Payne, he’d have known that there was only one person in the world who had perfected the puppy look. Details Niall couldn’t know yet.

“Doesn’t work on me,” Harry informed him. “I only respond to one person’s puppy look in this world.”

Niall tilted his head, pouting his lips. “I thought you were single?”

Laughing, Harry went over to his bed to turn off his laptop. “I am. My best friend perfected the puppy face, though. I’m completely immune.”

“Okay, but still.” Niall crossed his arms. “How can I bribe you into helping me?”

Harry threw on a jumper. “No need to. I’m a nice person, so I help without being bribed.”

Beaming, Niall held the door for Harry. “That was easy.”

“Sometimes, life’s just easy like that,” Harry agreed.

+++

Louis was grumpy when he made his way over to Niall’s. He had a long day, and Niall’s invitation had come out of the blue at noon. Insisting that Louis had to come by all means, Niall had texted and called non-stop until Louis had picked up and promised he’d be there.

“Don’t forget my duvet,” Niall had reminded him before hanging up.

So, after a busy day at work, Louis had rushed to one of the home interior shops on his way over here to buy Niall a second duvet. Seriously, Niall owed him. Not to mention that Niall had no idea what he had actually initiated when he had set Louis up on that date with Nathan.

All Louis had told him had been that it hadn’t gone well and that Nathan had seriously embarrassed Louis with that stunt he’d pulled in the restaurant. Niall had agreed it’d been a dick move, so Nathan was off the table.

Yet, Niall didn’t know about Harry. Louis was aware that Niall suspected that Louis’d been in a relationship that had ended so bad he now carried a heavy weight and an even bigger and heavier fear of commitment with him. What Niall didn’t know was that Louis had watched Harry almost die, and that he had made the decision to leave without even properly facing the mess he’d been in.

It wasn’t like Niall needed to know. It was a part of his life that Louis had left behind. Mostly.

Except for how he had thought and dreamt of Harry all bloody week. He couldn’t stop thinking about Harry, now that he had seen him again. Louis was sure it’d take another year again. Just that one minute of seeing Harry standing right in front of Louis, actual Harry in the flesh. The realisation that Harry hadn’t recognised him. The awareness that for Harry, Louis was just another stranger.

The confirmation that, despite everything that had happened in the past five years, Louis wasn’t over Harry a single bit. His heart was still aching, and definitely still bleeding love for Harry.

Which was -- to put it nicely -- unfortunate.

Louis walked up the stairs to Niall’s and frowned when he saw Niall coming out of the neighbouring flat. He carried a plate with cheese and berries on it.

“Did you switch flats?” Louis asked in lieu of a greeting.

Niall saw him and his face lit up. “Tommo! You’re first!”

Louis lifted the bag with the duvet inside. “Like promised.”

“You’re the best.” Niall set the plate down in his kitchen and came out of the flat again before Louis could follow inside. He threw his arms around Louis’ neck and jumped a little. “And no, as you can see, this is still my flat. My neighbour helped preparing.”

“That’s nice,” Louis hugged him back. “It’s good to see you’ve settled in.”

“Where have I never not settled in easily?” Niall asked, and Louis knew it was rhetorical.

“A duvet? That’s pretty straight-forward.”

Louis almost jumped. The comment came from behind him, but he didn’t have to turn around to know who’d said it. He’d recognise that voice in every world, every universe, every situation ever possible.

How even was this possible?

Niall chuckled. “I actually asked for it as a housewarming gift.”

Louis slowly turned around, eyes landing on Harry standing in front of him. He wore tight blue jeans and a grey jumper. He still had dimples when he smiled, was the first thing Louis noticed. His hair was a lot curlier than last week. Just as curly as it had been when he’d been nineteen and Louis had managed to convince him to grow his hair out.

“Harry’s my neighbour,” Niall explained.

“You’re Louis, aren’t you?” Harry asked, and the dimple deepened when he smiled cheekily.

Louis’ heart threatened to beat out of his chest. Harry knew his name. How did Harry remember his name? “I’m-- How do you know my name?”

The grin turned a little bashful when Harry seemed to realise that Louis didn’t recognise him in return. How the hell did Harry recognise him?

“Sorry,” Harry said, moving the plate he held from one hand to the other. “I thought you’d know me, too.”

“I--” Louis started, about to drop to his knees. Harry knew him. Harry knew him and remembered , apparently. Louis’ head started swimming, his vision going a little blurry and his breathing became heavy.

“Niall’s talked a lot about you, of course,” Harry explained, without waiting for what Louis was about to say. “And, um. Liam Payne? You went to uni together. I’m friends with him. Saw you in some photos. He talks about you when he goes to London sometimes.”

Louis’ heart dropped. Of course. It had been one thing to disappear from Harry’s life, but another to disappear from Liam’s. So, to Harry, they had agreed that Louis was nothing more than a friend of Liam’s from uni who he sometimes met up with when he went to London.

“He’s got pictures of you on his fridge,” Harry added, as if he had to explain himself any further.

“Harry,” Louis said, trying to make it sound casual and not give anything away. God, how was he supposed to handle this? “You’re Liam’s friend from home. Right?”

Now, Harry beamed again. “Exactly!”

Louis wondered if Harry had recognised him in the restaurant last week as well. Since Harry didn’t bring it up, Louis decided not to, either. He smiled instead, trying to ignore how his heart tried to beat out of his chest. “There are pictures of you on his instagram.”

“Yeah, a few.” Harry shrugged. “We’ve been friends since primary school.”

“That’s so cool.” Louis almost jumped again when Niall spoke. He had completely forgotten he and Harry weren’t alone. “What are the chances of you two meeting like this?”

What were the chances, indeed. Louis wondered about it, too. What had he done to deserve any of this? Hadn’t fate been cruel enough to take Harry from him in the worst possible way? Hadn’t life been hard enough to him when he had to learn to go on and live without Harry?

As if to spite him further, Harry hadn’t even turned into an obnoxious asshole Louis could only be happy not to be affiliated with. Of course he looked beautiful, worked hard and treated people with the same kindness he’d always had.

Louis watched Harry, his heart still racing. He handed Niall the plate, following inside the flat, probably telling Niall about Liam.

Everything had changed, and yet, Harry seemed to be who he’d always been. He looked like a completely different person, but he was still warm, charming, cheeky. A little flirty.

It made Louis’ heart ache.

He stayed outside the flat, debating whether he should just turn around and run. In some ways, this felt like a bad dream and if he tried hard enough, he would wake up any minute. In other ways, it felt like this was some kind of chance, some kind of sign.

Louis shouldn’t engage. He knew he shouldn’t. This was Harry, and he had been warned about what he could do to him if he stayed in Harry’s life. There was a risk of Harry losing it, of Harry being unable to process finding out about Louis. Louis hadn’t just been any person in Harry’s life. He had been the most important person in Harry’s life. No one could possibly tell Harry as much about those years he’d lost as Louis could.

There were so many memories only Louis could give him back.

And yet, Harry wasn’t supposed to ever have them back.

“Are you coming?” Niall asked, appearing back at the door. He frowned at Louis.

“Yeah, sorry. Of course.” Louis followed him inside.

The only way to get through this was to pretend. Louis would feign tiredness tonight and excuse himself early. After that, he’d be careful not to meet Harry again. Now that he knew, Louis could come up with ways to avoid Harry.

He had managed that before.

+++

So that was Louis.

Harry watched him as he talked to some girl he apparently already knew. Harry didn’t know anyone besides Niall. And Louis.

Well, he didn’t really know Louis. That wasn’t quite right. But Harry felt like he did. Probably because his was the only face among Niall’s guests that wasn’t completely strange to Harry. He had seen Louis’ face before, even if it had only been in pictures.

Liam loved him. That much Harry knew about Louis. Whenever Liam had gone down to London for business or holidays, he’d always told Harry about meeting Louis. They had met in university, and apparently, they had hit it off straight away. Harry still wasn’t sure how they had met exactly with Louis in law school and Liam in economics, but he figured they’d just run in the same circles.

Louis laughed at something the girl said and lifted the bottle in his hand to his mouth. Harry wondered why exactly he felt attracted to that. He couldn’t remember ever being attracted by that gesture with any other man.

Another thing he wondered about was whether he should tell Louis that today wasn’t the first time they met. It had taken a second, but Harry had recognised Louis as the bloke from last week who had been on that terrible date in their restaurant. He hadn’t recognised Louis then, mostly because of the suit. He looked a lot more like in the photos tonight. Dark jeans, a thin jumper with a nonsense print at the front and old Vans.

Somehow, Louis’ reaction from earlier told Harry he probably shouldn’t. He had looked like a deer caught in headlights when Harry had said he knew him. It wasn’t that much of a deal anyway.

“Hey, who’s made these snacks?” the girl Louis was talking to asked, looking around.

There were probably ten or twelve people crammed into the small flat, all paying attention to her. Harry immediately made himself small, not sure if she had good or bad things to say.

“That’d be Harry here,” Niall said, throwing an arm around Harry’s shoulders. “He’s the most amazing chef in the neighbourhood.”

The girl hummed. “This is the best thing I’ve eaten in my life. What is it?”

Harry shrugged. “Pretty simple, actually. Puff pastry filled with curry, ham and dried tomato cream cheese.”

“Very simple,” the girl repeated flatly. “Will you marry me?”

“You should probably go on a date first,” Niall commented.

Louis laughed drily. “Dates are completely overrated.”

“You would know.” Niall dragged Harry along as he joined Louis and the girl whose name Harry still didn’t know. “Tell you what. Louis’s been on the worst date of dating history last week.”

Harry glanced at Louis, seeing him blush. Niall wasn’t wrong.

“Is that so?” the girl asked. She had long, blond hair and a nose ring. “What happened?”

“I have to admit it was partly my fault.” Nudging Louis, Niall finally let go of Harry. “I set him up with the guy. Turns out, he’s a complete prick. They went to a fancy restaurant and all, you know, proper posh. The bloke doesn’t let Louis order his own choice, and when the food comes, he demands to speak to the chef to complain. Proper mess.”

Harry knew he had to do something. Louis would figure it some other way and then it’d only get even more embarrassing.

“That was you?” Harry asked, voice an octave higher than usual. Just for good measure.

Niall, the girl and Louis all stared at him.

Then, something in Louis’ expression changed. “That was you?” he asked back; just as incredulous.

“Wait.” Niall looked between the two of them. “You mean Harry was that chef?”

“Unless stories like that happened in a lot of very posh restaurants around London last week, I’d say Louis was that prick’s poor date last week at the restaurant I work at.” Harry shrugged, hoping no one would notice.

“What did he complain about?” the girl asked.

“The Beef Bourguignon usually isn’t marinated with apples. They’ve changed the recipe.” Louis said it as if it was clear as day.  

Harry frowned. “You actually tasted that?”

Again, Louis looked caught. “Um, yeah. I mean. I had the dish before. At Pierre’s, I mean.”

“Whatever,” the girl interrupted. “What did you do?”

Louis shrugged. “I got up and left. Texted him next day that I didn’t wanna have anything to do with him anymore. Everyone was staring at us. It was so embarrassing.”

“For me, too,” Harry mumbled. Louis’ gaze lingered on him for a second before he quickly looked away, taking a gulp from his beer again. Harry watched his adam apple bob as he swallowed.

That really shouldn’t make his blood run warmer.

“I’m gonna get some more of those snacks,” he said as the girl started telling one of her own embarrassing dating stories. “Niall, could you help me?”

At that moment, someone knocked at the door and Niall glanced at Louis. “Can you help Harry? Gotta say hello to these guys.”

Louis seemed hesitant, but nevertheless smiled and nodded. “Sure.”

He followed as Harry went over to his own flat. “I think I’ve made too much again,” Harry said to keep up a conversation.

Louis looked around the flat as if he wanted to swallow up every detail of it. “You tend to,” he murmured, eyes stuck on something across the room.

Harry turned to him, tilting his head. “How would you know?”

Blinking, Louis looked at him, cheeks going red once again. “I mean. In general. You know. People tend to make too much food for parties.”

“Oh, yeah.” Harry opened the fridge, not sure why Louis was so jumpy around him. “Never been to a party where there wasn’t enough food.” He put two plates on the table and got the other two. With his hip, he closed the fridge again and swirled around.

He found himself almost chest to chest with Louis, only a breath of air between them. Louis looked up and their eyes locked. For a moment, everything went still, completely still and Harry’s breath got caught in his throat.

The moment was broken when Louis leaned sideways to take the second plate from the table. He turned around and went ahead back to Niall’s flat.

Harry wondered if he had felt any of the tension, the sparks between them, too. Louis had stared back for a moment; those pale blue eyes going just a little bit wider, his brows knitting that tiny bit together. It had been there. For a split of a second.

Maybe it was just all in Harry’s head.

+++

He couldn’t do it. Louis had lost count on how many times he’d slipped up in the past hour. He didn’t even dare have anything more to drink than the one beer he’d been nursing since he’d arrived. If he lost just one tiny bit of control, he was sure he’d end up making a huge mistake.

Like pouring his heart out to Harry. Or just reaching out to hold. Because all Louis wanted to do when Harry had turned from the bloody fridge and had suddenly been so close, was reach out and hold him and touch every part of him, just to make sure Harry was whole and in one piece and safe and--

Fuck. Louis tore his eyes from Harry sitting all by himself at the other side of the room and released his breath.

There had been photos on Harry’s wall. A bunch of photos covering a huge part of the wall behind Harry’s bed. Louis had wanted to know what was in them. They probably showed Gemma and Anne, Liam, maybe Matt and Aiden. People Harry had had in his life since forever.

Not like Louis, who had only had him for some measly two years. Only to be forgotten.

God, he really needed a drink right now. A proper drink. One that would make him forget, just for once. Yet, Louis had been there, tried that. He knew it wouldn’t change a single thing in the long run.

He tried to focus on the conversation going on around him, but had lost track completely. Instead, his gaze landed on Harry again. He was still on his own, isolated on a chair with a bottle of beer in his hand, eyes fixed on the ground.

It wasn’t like Harry. He’d always been the centre of attention. Whenever he came into a room, people just got fascinated by him. When he talked, everyone was hanging on his lips. Louis couldn’t imagine that that had changed. Harry was one of those charismatic people, radiant with energy, magnetic in the way he moved and talked.

Sighing, Louis got up and approached Harry.

“You want another beer?” he asked, gesturing for Harry’s empty bottle.

Harry seemed to contemplate that. “Not really.”

Suddenly, Louis felt an unexplainable tension. This wasn’t his Harry; the one that wanted Louis’ company at all time. This Harry didn’t know Louis and probably just wanted to be left alone. It was a rather sobering feeling to realise and be hit by the truth over and over again.

“Sorry,” Louis mumbled. He should just go. He’d extended his stay for far too long, anyway.

“Did you just apologise for being nice?” Harry smiled at him. He got up from his chair, suddenly being so close to Louis again. Louis could smell some kind of soap or maybe cologne on him. He wasn’t sure. He wanted to know. “I’d like to go out for a minute, though. Get some fresh air.”

Louis nodded dumbly. He couldn’t think of anything else than how close Harry stood, how he had leaned in a little, so Louis could understand him. “All right.”

“Join me?” Harry asked, his lips a delicious shade of pink.

“All right,” Louis said again, feeling even dumber. God, he had to get a hold of himself.

Harry grinned a little, the dimple denting his cheek again. Apparently, He didn’t mind Louis being dumb. On the contrary, he seemed to like it a little. He squeezed past Louis to the door and held it for him to step outside first. In silence, they walked down the stairs and Louis let his eyes roam over Harry’s back.

The line of his neck was something Louis hadn’t admired and appreciated enough when he’d still had it. Louis had been so in love with Harry’s long hair that he had never noticed what a delicate neck Harry had. He should have paid more attention to it.

“Thanks,” Harry said when they got outside into the crisp December air. “For keeping me company.”

“You don’t like gatherings like that?” Louis asked.

Harry shrugged and tugged his sleeves over his hands to warm them. Louis wanted to take them into his, kiss them warm. “I do, usually. It’s my first gathering like that since I’ve moved here. Maybe I’m a little nervous.”

Louis smiled, pretending he didn’t have a clue when they started walking. “You haven’t been in London for long?”

“Just about a month,” Harry said, watching the ground. “I’ve started working at Pierre’s the beginning of December.”

Fate hadn’t wasted any time in letting them meet again, Louis thought. “You gonna get time off for Christmas?” he asked instead, keeping the conversation light.

Shaking his head, Harry briefly glanced at Louis. “Don’t think so.”

“Won’t you be homesick?” Louis asked before he could think better of it.

“Probably.” Harry shrugged. “But it’s all part of the experience.”

Louis frowned, not quite sure what Harry meant.

He seemed a little hesitant, pressing his lips together in thought. “Has Liam talked about me sometimes, maybe?”

Louis looked away, watching his shoes. The air was misty from the last time it had been raining. This was about the amnesia. Louis wouldn’t have thought Harry took talking about it so lightly. To Harry, Louis was a stranger after all.

“A little,” Louis lied. Harry was everything they ever talked about when they’d met over the past five years. “Just that you’ve been friends since childhood. A few of your escapades when you were young. Stuff like that.”

Harry had told him about those. Dozens of times, again and again. Fond memories that he had wanted Louis to be a part of. Even though Louis had acted it back then, he’d never got tired of Harry telling him about those times. He had wanted to know every little detail about Harry, every little thing that’d made him him . All of it had made him Louis’.

“Oh, okay.” Harry was silent again. “Well, let’s say it this way. I’ve been living quite sheltered. I’ve wanted to break out of that, take a few risks. Live my own life for a while.”

Louis didn’t dare look up at Harry. Wasn’t it ironic that Harry’s attempt to escape his past had led him right to Louis -- the one thing from his past he couldn’t remember?

“That’s good, isn’t it?” he said, not sure what else to say.

“It was about time.” Harry sighed a little. “Anyway. That’s how I ended up here. But. Can I tell you something?”

Louis swallowed thickly. “Of course,” he said.

“Don’t tell Liam, okay?” Harry smiled a little when he glanced at Louis. “It felt really good to see a familiar face today.”

Louis felt the words go straight to his heart.

“I know we don’t really know each other. But your face is the first in a month that isn’t a completely new one.” Harry looked a little sheepish when he lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “It’s comforting, in a way.”

He knew. Louis knew that Harry didn’t mean it like that. Yet, he couldn’t help feeling like a weight was added onto his heart, making it even heavier than it had already been. He forced himself to smile.

“Glad I could be of help.”

Harry smiled back, the sparkle in his eyes genuine. “So. How about you, Louis? Will you get time off for the holidays?”

Keep it light , Louis reminded himself. He should’ve gone home an hour ago, saving himself from this experience. “Yeah, I’ll head home to visit my family.”

“Where is home?” Harry asked. “I mean, I know you’ve studied in Manchester, too. I have no clue where you’re actually from, though.”

“Doncaster.” Louis thought of his family home. Of how he had brought Harry back there for the first time. “Not very fancy.”

“I’ve never been.” Harry frowned slightly to himself. “I think.”

With any other person, Louis would tease them about it. You think ? With Harry, it only made his throat go tight. Of course Harry couldn’t remember. Louis knew that, and yet, it felt like a stab to his heart all the same.

When Harry stopped, he stopped, too, finding they stood in front of the building again. “We should go up again.”

Louis watched Harry take out his key to open the door. “I think I’m gonna head home.”

“Oh.” Harry turned to him on the threshold. “Already?”

“I’ve got an early meeting in the morning.” It wasn’t even a lie. When did he ever not have early meetings? “And my flat’s all the way across town.”

“I can walk you to the tube,” Harry offered, already turning back around.

“No need to.” Louis gestured for Harry to go back inside. “It’s cold. You should go inside.”

“You sure?” Harry frowned a little. Harry knew that cease on his forehead. It always appeared when Harry was unsure of something.

“‘Course.” Louis waved at him and turned. “Tell Niall to bring my coat next time he comes to visit.”

“I will.” Harry hesitated before going in. “Hey, Louis.”

Louis looked over his shoulder, seeing him still holding the door. He wondered if this would be the last time he’d ever see Harry. He should commit the picture firmly to his memory. The wild curls, the snuggly jumper, pale lips. A soft smile.

“It was nice meeting you,” Harry said and went inside.

Louis stood for a moment longer, staring at the closed door. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard Harry say that.

+++

“Can you believe they’re blocking that table when it’s only two of them?”

Louis followed Luke’s gaze to the table he was talking about. There were two blokes sitting and chatting, their glasses almost empty. They’d been almost empty for the past twenty minutes.

“That table is big enough to fit at least six more people.” Louis took a gulp from his own pint.

“They’re clearly not waiting for more people.” Luke snorted. “Rude.”

“Why don’t we just ask them if we can join their table?” Chris suggested. He was leaning against the bar counter, foot tapping along to the music playing.

That was an option. Louis considered it. He liked having his own table, and standing at the bar all night definitely definitely sounded less attractive.

“You ask,” Luke said, pushing Louis forwards.

The perks of being the newbie. Louis sighed and went over to the table.

He was in his first semester at law school. Luke and Chris were in their third, so they helped Louis out a lot. They also let him know he was their junior any chance given. It wasn’t like Louis minded it, though. It was all in good fun.

“Um, hey guys,” he said, approaching the two blokes. “You got a sec?”

They both turned to him, and Louis’ attention got stuck on the younger one. He was around Louis’ age, had a cute face and dark curls around his ears. A dimple appeared on his cheek when he smiled at Louis.

“Yeah?”

His voice was deep. Louis licked his lips, trying to ignore the instant pull towards the boy.

“You’re occupying quite the big table here. My friends and I,” he said gesturing to Luke and Chris at the bar, “were wondering if you’d mind if we sat here.”

“Not a problem, mate,” the other man said. He looked slightly older, had short dark hair and huge hands as Louis noticed when he gripped his pint. “There’s enough space here.”

“I would definitely not mind,” the boy said, gesturing for Louis to sit in the chair next to him.

Louis signalled Luke and Chris to come over and took the invitation to sit down.

“Much better. Well done, Louis.” Luke grinned when he sat down. He lifted his glass to the two other men. “Cheers.”

“I’m gonna get us a new round,” the older man decided and got up to go to the bar.

“So, as I was saying,” Chris picked up their conversation from earlier. “Higgins is gonna kill me if I don’t hand in that paper by Friday.”

“You have to call work and tell them. Uni should be your priority.” Luke’s tone made it clear that there was nothing to discuss.

“But I’ve already---”

Louis lost track of what Chris was saying when the boy next to him cleared his throat quietly. He turned to look at him, and found that he was already being watched.

“You okay?” Louis asked.

“My throat is a little dry,” he answered, touching his chest.

Louis smirked. “A drink could help.”

“Mine’s empty.” The boy gestured at his glass, a cute pout on his lips.

“Good thing your … friend just went to get you a new one.” Louis took a sip from his own pint.

“His name’s Nick,” the boy clarified.

Louis hummed, moving his glass between his palms. “But he’s your friend.”

Their eyes met and Louis noticed the boy had a light eye colour. He wanted to get closer to see which colour exactly it was. The boy smiled bashfully.

“Just a friend, yeah.” He gestured for Louis’ pint. “What are you drinking?”

“Cider.”

“Let me have some.”

Louis tilted his head. “Why would I do that?”

“Because I’m thirsty and Nick is flirting with some bloke at the bar and won’t be back in ages.” The boy smirked slightly, bringing out the dimple again. He talked kinda slow. “Also, I’m cute.”

“I may be willing to share my cider with you.” Louis leaned a little closer. “One condition.”

The boy looked interested, leaning closer as well. “That is?”

“Your name,” Louis said. “I want to know at least who it is I’m sharing my drink with.”

“How about you guess?” the boy asked, now full on grinning.

Louis drank from his pint again. “I’ll have this finished before I get it right.”

“Great. You can buy me a drink when you get the next one.”

Louis laughed, briefly glancing at Chris and Luke who were still deep in one of their arguments. They bickered like an old married couple sometimes. “Okay. How about this. You buy the next rounds if I get your name right.”

The boy pursed his lips. Pretty lips, Louis had to admit. “I get to drink from your pint first.”

Louis gently pushed the glass over. “Sharing is caring.”

“And charity starts at home,” the boy added before he drank. He smirked when he handed the glass back over to Louis. “Okay, take your guess, Louis .”

For a moment, Louis was confused. Then he remembered that Luke had used his name earlier. They exchanged a quick look, a brief lock of their eyes, in which they communicated without even speaking. It was a good excuse to look at the boy more closely. Louis leaned in even closer. His eyes were green. He let his gaze roam over the boy’s face, then to his chest. He wore an old Rolling Stones t-shirt and dark jeans, as well as faded red chucks. Or maybe, they were pink. Louis couldn’t tell in the dim light of the pub.

He looked the boy in the eye again and said the first name that came to his mind. “Harry.”

Grinning, the boy took another drink from Louis’ glass. “How many guesses do you even have? The magical three?”

“Of course,” Louis replied. He pursed his lips, as he studied the boy’s face. “Ed.”

A shake of the head and another drink from Louis’ pint. “Do I look ginger to you?”

“Shut up.” Louis took the glass to drink a bit of what was still left himself. “Voldemort.”

The boy barked out a loud laugh. He covered his mouth quickly, but his eyes were still sparkling with joy and amusement when he looked at Louis. “Looks like drinks are on you.”

“Looks like it.” Louis wanted to get up when the boy’s friend suddenly came back.

“No time for another drink,” he said gripping his jacket from the chair next to Luke. “We gotta hurry if we wanna catch the last bus, Harry.”

“Your name is Harry ?!” Louis asked incredulously at the same moment the boy said, “is it that late already?”

He jumped out of his chair as he checked his watch, putting on his jacket.

“Hey.” Louis couldn’t follow. He didn’t want to just let the boy go. He needed to know more about him. See him again. “You owe me a drink, you cheater.”

Harry grinned, checking if his mate was waiting with a glance over his shoulder. “Meet me here? Tomorrow at seven? Drinks are on me.”

“They better be.” Louis watched him hurry out of the door and shook his head to himself with a fond smile tugging on his lips.

When he turned away from the door, Luke and Chris both grinned at him. Louis was fully aware of what would come now. It had been worth it, though. Definitely worth it.

“Hey, Louis!” He turned around again, just to see Harry back in the door frame, hair dishevelled, cheeks rosy. “It was nice meeting you.”

Louis smiled, winking at him. “Ditto, Harry. See you tomorrow.”

Harry’s grin was instant and wide. The door slammed shut behind him when he dashed off again.

+++

Louis looked up to the window that he knew was the one in Harry’s flat. There was no light, no sign of movement. In Niall’s flat, on the other hand, was a lot of commotion. Louis imagined it, the people mingling together in the room, someone catching Harry’s eye, getting to talk to him.

Someone being as fascinated by Harry as Louis had been the first time they’d met.

It felt like lifetimes ago. As if Louis was stuck in some weird afterlife, where every event in his life was determined by only one factor. Before and after Harry.

Sighing, he turned away to get to the tube station. A slight drizzle picked up again and Louis lifted his shoulders, hunched down a little to protect himself from it. The station wasn’t busy, but there were a few people waiting on the platform with him, having escaped from the rain outside.

A couple stood closely together, lost in themselves, eyes locked and secretive smiles playing around their lips as they whispered words to each other. Louis watched them for a little while, jealous of what they had without even knowing what it was they had.

He couldn’t see Harry again.

It wasn’t even a question. He had made the decision to stay out of Harry’s life five years ago, and he had to stick to it. Harry had a lot on his plate without having to feel bad about not remembering Louis. Without having another person demanding him to remember what he could’t in his life.

Louis would treasure this meeting, though. For one last time, he’d got to see Harry with his own eyes again, got to see how well Harry got on with his life without Louis. It was a good thing to move on from.

Louis didn’t have to wonder anymore if Harry really was doing as well as Liam always told him, or if he really wouldn’t recognise Louis if he saw him. The doubt had always lingered beneath -- the doubt that Louis had made the wrong decision and that maybe, probably, spending time with Louis would get Harry’s memories back.

That obviously wasn’t the case. Harry hadn’t recognised Louis as anyone otherthan Liam’s uni friend.

He had to face it. Afterlife had taken him over, and Louis had to embrace it and move on and forget what had happened five years ago. Just like Harry had forgot everything that happened, Louis had to find a way to do the same.

He had to forget Harry.

+++

“How were your days off?”

Harry lifted his head when Zayn came into the kitchen. They still had an hour until they opened, but the kitchen staff was already busy preparing for the night. Waiters started a little later than they did, because setting the tables never took as long as preparing meat, soups and sides.

“Pretty good,” Harry replied as he added red wine into a pan. “I binge watched all of Jane The Virgin.”

Zayn leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. “I take it you liked it?”

“Team Michael forever.” Harry grinned at him briefly before starting to cut a carrot.

“I wanna binge watch shitty shows on my days off, too.” Zayn whined a little.

Harry lifted a brow. “What keeps you from that?”

“Gotta earn some extra cash.” Without paying much attention, Zayn threw the cut carrots into the pan for Harry. “So, you know. Working.”

“What kind of side job do you have?” Harry kept an eye on Zayn’s hands. “I didn’t know you had one.”

“Well…” Zayn stirred in the pan lightly. “Just. You know.”

Harry turned to him fully, putting his knife down. “I don’t, no.”

“I work as a model sometimes.” Zayn rushed the words out, so they sounded slung together.

“I knew it!” Harry pointed at him. “I knew you made money off that face.”

Zayn rolled his eyes. “Don’t judge.”

“What’s there to judge?” Harry resumed cutting his vegetables. “You’d be stupid not to.”

Instead on saying any more about the matter, Zayn simply watched on for a while as Harry prepared the gravy.

“I was at a party on Friday,” Harry said then. He wasn’t sure why he’d mentioned it, but somehow he felt like Zayn was the right person to talk to about that.

Zayn looked genuinely surprised. “How did you end up at a party?”

“I’ve got a new neighbour.” Harry kept his hands busy. It helped him keep up the pretense of being nonchalant about this. “He had a housewarming party.”

“That’s nice,” Zayn said. “So, you get along with him?”

“He’s cool. A musician.” Not sure why exactly he was talking about Niall when he really wanted to talk about something else, Harry stuck to it for the time being. “He’s very easy going. A nice chap. You should meet him sometime.”

Zayn was quiet for a moment. “Anything interesting happened at that party?”

There it was. Anything interesting? Harry wasn’t yet sure about that. He hadn’t made up his mind what to make of that night.

“Somehow, yes,” he settled on.

“Any one interesting?” Zayn specified his question.

Anyone, yes. Harry kept cutting, thinking about what to say. He hadn’t even been as far as admitting it to himself, so he wasn’t sure he should admit it out loud in front of Zayn. Louis had definitely left an impression. There was something about him that had kept him on Harry’s mind ever since Friday.

“Kinda,” Harry replied. “It’s complicated.”

“How?” Zayn asked. “Now you’ve got me curious.”

“You remember the disaster date we had in last week?” Harry asked, prodding the topic slowly.

“Not that easy to forget.”

“So, the prick’s date. He was there?”

Zayn lifted a brow, looking genuinely surprised. “Doesn’t seem like his neighbourhood. I mean, if he goes on dates here.” He gestured around as if to make a point.

“I know. He’s friends with Niall. My neighbour,” Harry added as clarification.

“Did he recognise you, too?”

Harry set his spoon aside and turned back to Zayn. “He’s not exactly a stranger. We haven’t met before, but we have a friend in common, so we kinda know each other. From pictures and social media.”

“I see.” Zayn tapped the countertop with his fingers. “He’s familiar.”

“There certainly was something familiar about him.” Harry wished he could express it a little more clearly. He couldn’t find the words for it, though.

“And you don’t know if that’s the only reason you felt attracted to him.” Zayn stole a slice of the tomato Harry had cut.

Harry released his breath. “Yeah.”

“There’s only one thing you can do.” Zayn took another one and Harry decided to let him. He could take the whole tomato if he kept sharing his wisdom with Harry. “You need to see him again.”

Harry sighed. That was how far he had come himself. What he was stuck at. “You know. I’m not really experienced with that.” He tugged his bottom lip with his fingers. “How do I do that?”

Zayn wiped his hands on one of the towels. “Your neighbour’s friends with him, you said.”

“I can’t just go to Niall and ask him to set me up on a date with him.” Harry felt horrified just from the thought.

“Of course not.” Zayn smirked a little. “But I’m sure he’ll come over to visit your neighbour again. He’s a musician, you said? Go to one of his gigs. It’s likely that his friends show up there.”

That was… not a bad idea. Harry let go of his lip. “I could try that.”

“Having the same friends definitely helps,” Zayn pointed out. “I mean, it’s more likely that you guys will have some things in common. More importantly, though…”

Harry tilted his head, waiting for Zayn to continue.

Zayn shrugged. “Is he hot? Or are you just looking for a friend?”

“I wouldn’t do this if I was just looking for a friend.” Harry crossed his arms. “There’s something about him that makes me want to see him again.”

“Oh, love at first sight.” Zayn grinned and sang the words ridiculously out of tune.

“I shouldn’t have said anything.” Harry rolled his eyes and got back to work.

Zayn nudged his shoulder with his fist, then he went back to the door leading to the dining room. “Being infatuated with someone from the first minute is always a good sign, Haz.”

Harry glanced up at him. “It’s what I thought.”

Zayn smiled and left to get his own work done. Harry looked at the door for a moment longer, pursing his lips in thought. The busy atmosphere around him hadn’t changed, but he had managed to tune it out for the conversation with Zayn.

He really hoped he wasn’t wrong about it. There had been something there between him and Louis; an instant pull, something clicking into place. That familiarity. It was something too rare to just let it go and pretend it hadn’t meant anything.

Harry just knew that it did. And he was almost sure that he wasn’t alone in this. Louis had felt it, too. He’d been on the same page as Harry when they had walked outside. There had been those little signs.

Louis had fisted his hands, as if to hold himself back when Harry had tried to warm his own hands with the sleeves of his sweater. He had always glanced for just a second too long at Harry, as if he’d been unable to tear his gaze away.

He had left his jacket. Harry blinked, looking up from his work, staring at nothing in particular- Louis had left his jacket, and he had asked Harry to make sure he’d get it back.

Had that been some kind of code? Had that been Louis’ way to subtly give them a reason to meet again?

Biting his lip to hold back a smile, Harry got back to his potatoes. Maybe Louis really had done that on purpose. Maybe Niall was going to take Harry along when he’d bring that coat back. Maybe they’d go to a pub and meet Louis there.

However way it would happen, Harry got excited with only the prospect of it happening.

He was going to see Louis again.

===