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The Years Haven't Changed You

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It takes all of about five seconds for the past four years of Louis’ life to come apart completely and, though he knew it might happen one day, he had no idea it would happen in the canned goods aisle of Sainsbury’s.

‘Louis?’

He feels the bottom drop out of his stomach as soon as he hears it and all he can do is stare wide-eyed at the tin of baked beans on the shelf in front of him. It’s been years since he’s heard that voice, years since he was listening to it and lulled by it nearly every day for ten years.

‘Lou?’

Christ, that was even worse. But he can’t turn around. It had been so long since that nickname had been commonplace and didn’t make his stomach twist into knots. At least not quite so much.

The decade of One Direction had been sweet, bitter in places, but mostly sweet, and they were still undoubtedly tied by an invisible thread that pulled them back together so they could fall into the same rhythm for a day or two. Just last week, Louis had a game of pool with Zayn – Zayn who did what Louis couldn’t and told the world one morning and curled up with Liam in bed that same night, smiling.

Louis isn’t ignorant, he knows that their revelation played a big part in what made it all so much harder for him, harder than it already was. Soon the other guys learnt that he would most likely be counted out of group meet-ups if it meant the guy hovering behind him would be there too.

It wasn’t something that was discussed out in the open and maybe that was for the better, but it was probably for the worse. Maybe they could have talked him out of it and maybe then he’d be able to just —

‘Turn around, Louis, I know it’s you.’

Part of him wants to, if just to see the face of someone who he hasn’t seen much of apart from in newspapers for years, but a much larger part of him wants to maybe just pretend that none of this is happening and walk away.

He’s just about to figure out the quickest way to the biscuit aisle when he hears a sigh as heavy as his heart feels.

‘Okay, I get it.’

Regrets lodge thickly in Louis’ throat and weigh down on his shoulders, but he can’t breathe any easier when he hears the person he never should have let walk away do it all over again.

The defeat is ringing in his ears as he spins around, stomach flipping when he sees the tall figure with his back to him. His hair is styled like he’s still in a boyband and it shouldn’t work, but on him it does.

‘Harry.’

The name is almost foreign on his tongue, but it still rolls off of it like it was waiting there all along.

One of those ridiculous boat-like feet freeze in mid-air and Louis thinks that maybe he’s going to ignore him right back and keep on walking, but that was never Harry’s style.

Instead, he slowly puts his foot back down to complete the step he had been making, because Harry was never one to start something he couldn’t finish and Louis aches a little. He then turns on the spot until they’re looking at each other for the first time in —

‘Four years.’

Harry says it quietly, almost to himself, but of course Louis hears him. He fine-tuned himself to Harry’s low and often nonsensical rumblings when he was a teenager and may he be struck down if he’d ever knocked the habit.

Louis almost wants to make up an excuse so he can get out of this, with rubbish like ‘got to get back to the office’ or ‘I have a meeting’ buzzing around his brain, but he knows Harry would see right through any of that, especially as none of them did much of anything these days, mostly just charity work and celebrity panel shows.

There are offers, of course, always offers, always something to tempt Louis back out into the world he fell in love with, the same world he wants to tell to fuck off and leave him alone.

Maybe one day, though, when they grow restless again. Louis would have his own radio show and Harry would have his own record label, but right now they’re both standing in Sainsbury’s, trapped in a situation Louis has fantasies and nightmares about.

Harry looks scared and hopeful and Louis feels scared and guilty – he could laugh because it’s just like old times, accusingly familiar.

‘Yeah.’

He doesn’t even know his mouth is moving when the word comes out, lame and empty, but it’s enough for Harry to come closer, like the word was a beckoning finger to a frightened deer. He’s still a couple metres away but it feels like he’s close enough to be stealing all of Louis’ oxygen.

The years haven’t changed Harry much. Maybe there are laughter lines around his eyes that Louis wasn’t the cause of and maybe that upsets him a little, but if Harry hadn’t been laughing then that would have upset him more.

‘How was your birthday?’

Louis surprises himself by talking again and it seems that Harry is surprised too, taking a few seconds to stare at him with those stupidly earnest green eyes before replying.

‘Yeah, it was great thanks. Shame you couldn’t make it.’ It’s added as an afterthought, Louis is sure.

He thinks of the invite tucked away in a box with those of previous years, along with the perfunctory Christmas and birthday cards Harry sent, writing inside nothing more than ‘Dear, Louis’ and ‘Love, Harry x’.

(That’s a lie though, because the first birthday card Harry sent after Louis removed himself included a desperately scrawled note asking if they could ever move past whatever it was Louis wedged between them, and the Christmas card that followed had ‘Please?’ tucked in the corner.
Louis had thought long and hard, biting so determinedly on the end of his pen that his lips had stained with ink, eventually signing off his birthday card to Harry with ‘Love from Louis x’ and leaving it at that.

That was the only contact they had, Christmas and birthday cards with empty greetings, both completely unaware how hard it was for the other to write something so little and meaningless, neither noticing how hard the words dipped into the paper, like they had pressed the nib down into the card with the weight of what they really wanted to say.)

(Louis never sends out invites for his own birthday parties because he never has them anymore.)

‘Yeah, sorry I couldn’t come.’ Louis is sorry, but maybe not for that reason. ‘How’s it feel to be thirty then?’

He could cringe. He hates small talk at the best of times and he knows that it feels no different to be thirty than any other age, but the clichés are all he can really think of right now.

‘Feels alright,’ Harry shrugs mildly. He looks down at his feet and Louis feels like he can breathe for a second before he’s looking him in the eye again. ‘So…’

‘We don’t have to do this,’ Louis interrupts quickly. He hopes this is just as painful for Harry as it is for him and he would take the offering. ‘We don’t have to talk about… well, yeah.’

Harry smiles at him then and it’s probably the worst thing he could have chosen to do because it’s everything Louis has missed from his mornings, his afternoons, his evenings, his lonely, bitter nights.

‘I was actually just going to ask what’s brought you to London. Last I heard you were still in Doncaster?’

Louis feels his face flush. ‘Urr, yeah. I was thinking of moving back here, maybe introduce myself back into the faster pace lifestyle, you know?’

It’s true, Doncaster was a great place for him to gather himself and he doesn’t think he’s ready for a new project just yet, but he’s ready to fly the nest again. The only detail that slipped his mind was the extremely high possibility of Harry being here too.

‘That’s great,’ Harry beams and it looks genuine. ‘So you’ve got a place here?’

Louis shakes his head. ‘Not yet, still in the market. I’ve been staying at a hotel for a few days while I look. I thought about bunking with Niall for a bit but he told me his girlfriend’s a screamer and I don’t think I could handle that.’ He pulls a ridiculous face making Harry laugh, and for a split second it’s like nothing has changed.

‘I heard that you and El broke up,’ Harry states suddenly. ‘Sorry about that.’

If anyone else had said that to him Louis would have thought they sounded very insincere, especially given their history, but anything that comes out of Harry’s mouth is honest and raw, like the heart he wears on his sleeve. He finds himself shrugging.

‘It’s alright. That was, what? Three years ago? Three and a half maybe.’

Harry nods sagely. ‘The papers said it was because you weren’t raking in the money anymore.’

Louis snorts and Harry’s lip twitches upward in response.

It was a ridiculous headline considering he and Eleanor had split up three times previously during One Direction as well. Those bouts of freedom had been glorious and Louis had never seen Harry look so bright, but it always ended the same way, with Louis begging for forgiveness as Harry cradled him and told him he was willing to go to the pits of hell to keep him happy and safe. Harry’s tears would drip onto Louis’ cheek, mingling with his own, and he would catch them on his fingers and press them to his lips so that he could taste Harry’s sadness, his resignation and his ever-present understanding that Louis never could comprehend.

He knew Harry disappeared to Liam’s room to cry whenever he rang up Eleanor to ask for another chance that none of them thought he deserved, but Liam once told him that Harry never placed blame on anyone.

But it was Louis’ fault, of course it was. Or maybe it was the world’s fault for setting up such a stage where you could only act a certain way else you’d be kicked behind the curtain. Or maybe it was both because some people sang their song loudly no matter what the critics said. If Louis was beside him then Harry would have been one of those people, but having someone next to him just wasn’t enough for Louis. He was still scared, still in two minds, and the pressure came in heavier from all sides when he was, for all intents and purposes, single.

Of course, the truth was that he wasn’t single, he was a double. He was part of a set, like a salt and pepper shaker, ever since he came home from a bad day with Eleanor and without thinking started kissing Harry in their kitchen because he couldn’t think of anything else he would rather be doing. It started to get complicated the second Harry started kissing back like he had been waiting his whole life for it to happen. Sweet Harry, caught in a love triangle like the scandalous Casanova the media painted him as for all the wrong reasons. And all because Louis couldn’t quite make the leap.

‘Nah, I think it was all just about change really,’ he says, dragging his thoughts away from the see-saw of a love life he had for nine years and back to the conversation with the person it revolved around. ‘The band splitting and the whole thing with —‘ he hesitates, a last thought of the nights he should have spent holding onto Eleanor instead of the almost promises he made to the guy who’s nodding again to let him know he doesn’t need to say it. Louis clears his throat. ‘Well… yeah, it just wasn’t working anymore.’

‘Some things just need to be let go,’ Harry says quietly. ‘I understand that.’

Louis doesn’t want Harry to understand that though, because it isn’t always the reason. It wasn’t the reason he let Harry slip through his fingers but he’d be damned if he knew what was.

‘Sometimes they don’t,’ he replies, just as quiet and just as laden.

Harry nods again and this time a lock of hair falls into his eyes, and Louis wishes he could still just as easily reach out and push it back again like he’s probably done thousands of times. That isn’t his place anymore though and it reminds him jarringly of something he saw on the front page of The Sun too many months ago.

It’s something that he didn’t have the courage to bring up around the other boys and he understands why they might not have brought it up first, but right now he feels a bit bare and if he doesn’t ask now then maybe he won’t know until OK! magazine does a spread on it.

‘I saw a picture of you in the tabloids a while ago,’ he begins, rubbing the back of his neck and watching the way Harry’s eyebrow raises. ‘You had a, urm, an engagement ring?’

He tries to sound casual. The truth is that the sight of a silver band on Harry’s left ring finger had sent him to bed at six in the afternoon with a box of Celebrations and a bottle of wine that wasn’t cheap enough to warrant drinking it within the hour.

‘Oh, that?’ Harry laughs a little then which is perplexing. ‘Yeah, I was engaged.’

‘Was? So you’re a married man now?’ It really feels like there is a hook pulling his intestines out through his throat and he has no right to feel that way. ‘Congrats!’ The hollowness hurts even his ears.

Harry’s face softens into something too close to pity for Louis to be comfortable with.

‘Didn’t the lads tell you about any of this?’

He shakes his head dumbly and thinks maybe it would have been better if he had gone to Waitrose instead. ‘I didn’t really ask.’

‘Oh.’ Harry eyes him thoughtfully, before pulling his left hand out of his pocket and brushing the stray hair away from his face. No flash of gold or silver. ‘We called it off.’

Louis blinks at him a little. ‘Yeah?’

‘Mmm, I realised I was just jumping into something for the sake of it. We hadn’t been together long and it was just exciting that someone who wasn’t a crazed fan was asking for that kind of commitment to me.’ Harry probably didn’t mean it as a dig, but Louis can feel it poking in between his ribs like long fingers would. ‘I wasn’t as upset as I probably should have been to be breaking off an engagement and that’s when I knew I was making the right decision. We’re still friends and he understands.’

‘He?’ Louis shouldn’t be surprised. Just because he carried on with his charade it doesn’t mean everyone else has, a prime example being Zayn and Liam.

Harry smiles and suddenly Louis feels like he’s being felt sorry for.

‘Yeah. The press never found out that detail, but it was over before they could do much digging anyway. The only thing I was hiding was his privacy though, not myself. I would have done the same if I were engaged to a woman.’

It’s all very pointed and it prickles up Louis’ spine like a thousand allegations.

‘Yeah, I get you.’ He shuffles on his feet a little, feeling the handle of his shopping basket make impressions on his fingers.

‘Do you?’

Louis isn’t sure if he’s ready to spill every pathetic realisation he’s had over the past few years just yet, but it really doesn’t look like Harry is going anywhere. He decides to question him on that instead. It’s easier.

‘So what brings you here?’

It’s almost like Harry was expecting the conversation to flip and he edges a little closer so he can lean on the shelves of spam. Louis takes a subconscious shuffle back followed by an instinctive shuffle forward and ends up in the same place again.

‘I needed eggs,’ Harry says simply.

Louis rolls his eyes, feeling more in character. ‘I meant in London, you idiot.’ Being able to call Harry an idiot is something that Louis never realised would become a luxury and it makes Harry’s dimples show. ‘Do you live here permanently now?’

‘Yeah, not that far from Niall’s place actually,’ Harry replies, tilting his head. ‘It’s nice, but I’m up in Cheshire at least once a week anyway to see mum and everyone.’

Louis finds himself smiling and watches it reflect on Harry’s face. ‘That’s why I moved up to Doncaster after me and El split.’

‘You always were a family man,’ Harry says softly.

He makes it sound like Louis’ a childhood friend, someone who drifted away like nature and then came back years later with the next tide, half a stranger. Part of him wishes that was the truth, at least the blame wouldn’t be on him.

He sucks his bottom lip into his mouth briefly and switches his shopping basket to the other hand.

‘Yeah.’

He’s not sure he has anything left to say now. Maybe he can leave.

‘Listen, Louis,’ Harry starts, and Louis lets out a long breath. Maybe he didn’t want to leave.

‘Yeah?’ He’s a bit scared of what might come next but he feels like a crack addict reunited with his pipe after years of going sober. He’s not quite ready to part with that feeling. Not just yet.

‘I know you probably don’t want to discuss, you know, stuff, but I just want to let you know that, well…’ Harry pauses, eyebrows coming together like that time he couldn’t remember the punch line to a joke that wasn’t even funny. He looks Louis in the eye and holds him there. ‘We’re okay.’

Louis’ immediate thought is to disagree. There was a time when they’d have an argument over something that either meant nothing or everything, only to fall into each other’s arms by the end of the night and say ‘we’re okay’ against each other’s lips, and they would be because they were wrapped up in each other under the sheets. If that was their ‘okay’ then this can’t be the same thing.

He wants to say this. He thinks he should probably say something in return soon because Harry’s getting that unsure look in his eye that Louis would catch fleetingly when another year had passed and there was still no change. So he nods.

‘Good.’ His voice catches and he hates himself. He coughs. ‘I mean, yeah, it’s good that we’re, urm, okay. We’re okay.’ We’re not okay, he thinks. ‘We’re okay,’ he repeats.

Harry smiles and there’s so much of his teenage self in that smile that Louis feels his knees go weak. ‘I’m glad you agree,’ he says. ‘And I understand why these past few years we haven’t really, well, you know. I get why you wanted space after things ended. Or like, why you’d want to make things work with El without me around.’

‘I didn’t want to make things work with her,’ Louis blurts almost uncontrollably and then his face is burning. ‘I mean, I didn’t want space so that I could, like, be with her?’ Shit. He can’t even explain this to himself so he doesn’t know how to explain it to someone else, let alone Harry.

‘No?’ Harry says quietly, shifting his weight to the other foot. His ridiculous feet. Louis loved watching Harry trip over his own feet. Louis loved watching Harry.

‘No,’ Louis repeats. He feels sick to his stomach but Harry looks like he wants answers and that was something he always fell short of in the past. When it mattered. ‘I don’t know why I carried things on with her after everything else stopped,’ he says pathetically, staring at his feet. ‘Maybe she seemed like the safest option? The only thing I had left, I guess.’

‘You could have had me,’ Harry mumbles, and Louis’ head shoots up because there’s real emotion in Harry’s voice now, the real kind that makes Louis’ chest squeeze, and he can see his face is wounded.

‘Harry,’ he starts, but then Harry is shaking his head, shaking off that look.

‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,’ he says quickly, rubbing a hand over his face. ‘Don’t know why I said that. Christ. Must be past my bedtime.’ He looks down at his watch and Louis thinks he does it just so he won’t have to look at him.

‘You’re right though,’ he finds himself saying, because why the hell not. ‘Don’t ask me why I broke up with you but I can tell you I’ve never regretted anything more in my life.’

Harry fixes him with a searching look. ‘Then why did you do it?’

Trust Harry to ask him the one question he specifically told him not to.

Trust Louis to answer him anyway.

‘I don’t know,’ he says wearily. ‘All the things I said about a happily ever after were suddenly more real when the band split and I realised that I was the same person.’ He sighs, trying to order his thoughts. ‘I guess, it was like I didn’t have an epiphany where I was suddenly okay with who I am and what people might say about it. What people might say about you.’ He can feel his hands shaking and there are tears pricking at the backs of his eyes because he feels like he’s back in the dark tunnel he lived in a few years ago. ‘I hadn’t changed. I was still scared and the difference was that this time I didn’t have a band around me to hide behind and I thought that maybe, I don’t know, that maybe if I wasn’t attached to that life anymore then I could start a new one.’

It sounds like a terrible reason and it is. And yet.

‘I understand.’ Harry is smiling again, this time it’s small, but it’s definitely there and Louis doesn’t get it.

‘You do?’ he asks disbelievingly.

‘Yeah,’ Harry says softly. ‘Lou, you’re not alone in feeling the way you did, okay? There are people who hide behind all the lies for much longer than you did. There are some people who don’t stop hiding. You were, what, 28 when the band split? Not everyone has it all figured out by that age either.’

Louis is lost for words and he awkwardly introduces a fake yawn just so he’ll have an excuse to wipe at his eyes. ‘Why are you always like this?’ he asks.

Harry blinks at him, confused. ‘Like what?’

Louis can feel himself becoming frustrated and as always it’s because of Harry, but not because of Harry at the same time.

‘Like this,’ he repeats. ‘You always seem to understand every side of the story even when you’re on the shitty end of it. Harry.’ He feels himself despair. ‘You’re always just so… so, amazing.’

He blushes as soon as the word leaves his mouth but it’s not something he hasn’t said to Harry before, but maybe it means more now.

Harry blushes too and ducks his head down bashfully. Adorably.

‘Thanks, Lou,’ he whispers. He peeks up through his eyelashes like he’s still a coy teenager. ‘You’re pretty amazing too.’

Louis scoffs and begins to protest, but Harry interrupts him.

‘No, seriously. Yes, you’ve been in some crap situations and maybe you didn’t always deal with them the best way, but trust me, please, you are amazing.’

Louis’ heart triples in size and he’s sure he’s going to drop dead.

‘Thanks.’ His voice breaks but he doesn’t actually care, not when maybe he’s starting to fix something he thought was broken forever.

Harry grins then, stretching his face out in the best way, and he’s so perfect that Louis thinks he might stop breathing. Everything is coming back to the surface and Louis either can’t stop it or doesn’t want to.

He knows what Harry must be thinking, that Louis must never have loved him because, to Harry, loving is whole and forever and the concept of stopping that feeling is as alien to him as a buzz cut. But of course Louis loved him, Louis loved Harry in a kind of obvious way so that even he didn’t see it when it was hanging right off of the end of his nose, waving its little hand in front of one blinking, oblivious eye, until one day it poked him hard and suddenly loving Harry was as natural as falling asleep.

‘I’m just sorry I made it so awkward,’ Harry is saying. ‘I know I got a bit… clingy toward the end.’

Louis should probably respond to that, but instead he says, ‘I did love you, you know,’ and Harry’s cheeks are turning pink just like all the times they would when Louis assured him over and over again that it would just be the two of them one day. Neither of them knew it wasn’t the truth so they would kiss and laugh, and hold hands even tighter because maybe they did know.

Louis feels his face burn as well and stares down into his shopping basket, somewhere between the grapes and the jaffa cakes. Maybe he can jump in and hide because he doesn’t feel much better for all this chatting. Or maybe he does feel better and he’s too used to feeling half-lost to recognise it.

‘I loved you too,’ Harry says softly, and if Louis plays those words over again enough in his head then maybe that word will change to present tense and it’ll be just like old times.

Yet, Louis can see the truth of the situation, that whatever used to hold them together has decomposed like a dissolvable stitch over a cut that just went deep enough. He still has the scar though, pale enough that you can only see it in certain lights but raised enough that he can still feel it when he lets himself.

He looks up from his shopping basket and nearly drops it when he realises Harry has come a step closer.

‘You’re close,’ he blurts out, regretting it until Harry grins dopily.

‘I’ve been closer,’ he replies.

Louis knows he means it like a joke, but then his mind is filling with images that he’s tried valiantly to keep behind a door, bolted, locked and barricaded. He drops his gaze again, head clouded with memories of Harry lying beneath him, back arching and mouth falling open as Louis fills him up and bites his love into his skin. He forces a laugh, but it sounds more like a cough.

‘Good one,’ he says, and this time when he looks up Harry has taken that step back.

‘Probably a bit weird of me to say that,’ Harry admits awkwardly, rubbing his wrist where bracelets used to circle in a habit Louis had forgotten he missed.

‘Yeah, it is bit weird when a guy you used to fuck appears after four years and makes jokes about it.’ Louis doesn’t know why he says it like that, doesn’t know why he makes it sound so cheap. Harry’s face is different again, looking a little more guarded like when Louis used to shout at him for asking if he was ready to leave Eleanor when he wasn’t, not yet. ‘Fuck. Christ, Harry. Sorry.’

It’s waking up now, that monster that used to be his only confidante in the early days when he realised he had lost nearly everything. The monster that would listen when he cried and then remind him that he had promised Harry a good life after the band just so it could listen to him cry all over again.

‘It’s okay, Louis,’ Harry is saying, but now he’s sounding far away and Louis doesn’t know if it’s because he’s losing himself again or if Harry is walking away because he thinks Louis hasn’t changed.

‘Don’t,’ Louis begs, either to Harry or to himself, squeezing his eyes shut to stop the tears that always hated him. ‘Everything’s wrong.’ He can’t do any of this anymore.

And then he’s running. He’s running past Harry. He’s running past the few late night Sunday shoppers. He’s running past the security guard placed lazily by the automatic doors. He’s running past where he parked his car because if he gets behind the wheel he can’t guarantee he’ll get out again.

He can hear feet pounding the pavement behind him, knows that Harry is following because, fuck, he always followed Louis even when he didn’t think he wanted to be followed. Louis doesn’t think he wants to be followed.

‘Louis!’ Harry shouts, not sounding out of breath at all when Louis is already sure he might pass out from the exertion or from something.

Louis keeps going, though, because he’s worked so hard to keep himself together and he doesn’t know what he wants anymore when Harry’s being Harry like he was never hurt as much as Louis hurt them both.

‘Lou!’ Harry’s shouting still, voice carrying on the wind so Louis can’t miss it. He sounds more ragged now and Louis is glad because maybe he’s tired from running as well and he’s not the only weak one.

He veers off into a park that’s usually full of children in the day but looks haunted at this time of night and tries to lose Harry in the maze of climbing frames. He thinks it’s worked when he crouches underneath a slide and lets his burning chest calm down, but even when he can breathe evenly again the fire is still there. The monster is fully awake and laughing at him for letting this happen, telling him he should have grabbed the tin of baked beans quicker.

He hears wood chips being disturbed somewhere to his left and then he sees Harry’s feet from his hiding place, facing away from him but still too close for comfort.

‘Louis?’ Harry sounds broken and the monster jeers at him, makes sure Louis knows that it’s his fault. ‘Lou?’

Louis holds his breath. If he lets it out then it’ll be a sob, that awful ugly sound that brutalised his ears those nights when his bed was empty because he had lost the one he loved and the one he pretended to love had lost him.

And then it all comes to a head when Harry drops down so he’s sitting cross legged on the wood chips, long fingers raking through the dirt like he’s trying to dig his way into something. Louis is momentarily terrified that Harry will see him, but all of a sudden that doesn’t matter when Harry says three words that he never said when it could have made a difference, three words Louis knows Harry never let himself speak, three words Louis knows Harry tried to say through the way he clung to the front of Louis’ tear-stained t-shirt and the way he kissed him too hard for it to mean anything other than what he wasn’t saying out loud.

‘Don’t leave me,’ Harry whispers, choked.

Sometimes Louis thinks that’s all he would have needed to hear and then maybe he could have kept his promise, but other times Louis knows that he can’t blame Harry for not telling him something he already knew.

Louis has held Harry through enough homesickness and heartbreak to know that what he’s hearing now is crying and even though he’s crying as well, he sticks his hand out from underneath the slide and hopes Harry recognises it.

He lets out a tattered breath of relief when a hand that grew larger in his by the day finds him, and he pulls gently until they’re both sat with their legs folded underneath the slide. Their knees are touching and Louis feels like a child again, except he’s in his thirties and in love like he’s a teenager.

‘Louis,’ Harry breathes, squeezing his hand around Louis’ fingers and using the other to wipe away the tears Louis once tasted on his lips. ‘I thought you left.’

‘I did,’ Louis says, not bothering with clearing the tracks from his own face. He feels disgusting on the inside so he may as well look it too. ‘I did though. Harry.’ He doesn’t think he can make sense so he just clings onto Harry’s hand. It feels bigger. ‘Four years, Harry.’

Harry’s shoulders shake like he’s laughing but fresh tears appear on his cheeks that he doesn’t wipe away. ‘Haven’t seen each other in four years and we both end up crying in a kids’ playground, Lou.’

‘Not before we spent a good half hour in Sainsbury’s,’ Louis mutters shakily, trying to sound like he used to, like he – just – managed to sound these past few years.

‘It never was simple for us, was it?’ Harry asks sadly.

Louis can’t answer him so he asks a question instead. ‘Why are you crying?’ because he’s genuinely curious.

Harry’s hand goes a little slacker in his so Louis compensates by holding harder. ‘What?’

‘You’re crying,’ Louis says. ‘I thought you were happy.’

Harry says, ‘I am happy,’ but his head ducks down and all Louis can see is a seventeen year old boy who’s learning to understand why he’s being kissed by a boy who still kisses his girlfriend.

‘I treated you so badly,’ he says. ‘Both of you really.’

He can’t ignore that, even though his relationship with Eleanor had boiled down to nothing more than hand-holding and barely-anything-kisses within the year, he had effectively cheated on her as well. He had to question why she hung around for as long as she did, but, then again, he did as well.

‘I didn’t deserve either of you. Especially not you.’ He looks into Harry’s eyes, wet and wide, and his lips are still pink like his memory, but they’re trembling as he sucks in haphazard breaths. Louis feels frenzied all of a sudden and gets to his knees, hunched slightly so he won’t hit his head, and lets go of Harry’s hand so he can grab his shoulders. ‘Why did you stay?’ The monster is showing him where his insides have turned black from all the pain he caused, and he crowds in close to Harry so he can’t not answer him. ‘Why didn’t you find someone else?’

Harry isn’t reacting to the way Louis’ nails are digging into his skin through his clothes, instead he’s looking at Louis like they’re young again and he’s confused as to why Louis doesn’t want the pancakes he made him.

‘Because you promised me,’ he says and another tear trickles down his face. ‘You promised me that you would be all mine and that I just had to wait. I waited, Lou.’

Louis shakes his head vigorously, refusing to accept what he always knew, that Harry trusted him with his whole heart when he shouldn’t have. ‘No. No, Harry. You can’t have believed me. Years, Harry. It was nearly nine years of leading you on. Harry, no.’

‘You weren’t leading me on,’ Harry insists, sounding like he’s convincing himself as well, and Louis wonders if he’s had this conversation with himself before. ‘You loved me, you said you loved me just now, you said it. You weren’t leading me on.’

‘But I never left her!’ Louis’ starting to yell now and suddenly there’s no air so he crawls out to stand next to the slide rather than under it. ‘And when I did leave her I still went back! Harry, I was so selfish. I promised you everything but gave you nothing.’

Harry scrambles out after him, looking almost as wild. ‘Gave me nothing? Louis, you fucking changed my life. I was never happier than when I was with you. It was no secret that you looked miserable as fuck when you were with Eleanor in comparison to when it was you and me.’

Louis’ chest is heaving but he’s listening so Harry continues, looking desperate.

‘You’re making it out to seem like you were running back and forth between hotel rooms fucking us both in the same night, but it wasn’t a thing like that, Lou. For fuck’s sake, remember!’

And Louis does remember.

He remembers waiting until Eleanor had fallen asleep, safely restricted to her side of the double bed, so he could sneak into Harry’s room and press in close to him on the single. He would hold him and tell him how much he loved him and how much he wished it didn’t have to be this way and how he wished he wasn’t so scared.

He remembers Eleanor joking about Louis seeming more like Harry’s boyfriend than hers and not bothering to reassure her any different, instead just laughing and pulling out his phone because it reminded him that he hadn’t texted Harry good morning yet.

He remembers only inviting Eleanor out on tour when he was reminded by the man upstairs that they hadn’t been seen together for a while, something to keep the rumours at bay even though both sides of the argument were technically true.

He remembers thinking some nights, when Harry’s sleeping and mumbling nonsense words cutely, that maybe he could end things with Eleanor and just be happy with the boy who's lying in his arms. Then morning comes and it’s all in a different light and he kisses Harry awake with another promise that one day, one day…

‘I didn’t keep my promise.’

‘I didn’t care, not then,’ Harry says. ‘I was just so happy that I had you, I knew I didn’t just have part of you, I had all of you even if you had to disappear sometimes.’

Louis is so tired. He drops down onto a swing. ‘Harry.’

‘I only cared when you said you were done.’ A strange noise escapes Harry then, something like a groan and breaking. ‘The band was over and then you said we were too and yeah… that’s when I reacted.’

Louis finds his lips curving up on one side into a reluctant, self-indulgent smile. ‘My arms bruised from how hard you held onto me.’

Harry sits down onto the swing next to him. ‘I only let go because you said we’d still be friends.’

‘Cliché, wasn’t it?’

‘It worked for a bit,’ Harry says. ‘I tried and it was almost okay, but then...’ He sighs and it’s sad, but his tear stained cheeks go into small bunches in a happy smile, but it’s not for them.

‘Zayn and Liam,’ Louis finishes and Harry nods. ‘They weren’t together for half as long as we were and yet they did it. It was like looking into some kind of twisted crystal ball.’

‘As long as I get to be Zayn,’ Harry jokes, or at least tries to, but his voice is so cracked that Louis wonders just how much of those four years Harry spent getting over everything and if he did it quicker than Louis had.

Louis humours him though. ‘Are you kidding? I’d be Zayn and you’d be Liam.’

Harry shrugs easily. ‘Means I get the ten inch then.’

Louis rolls his eyes and it hurts because they’re sore but he does it anyway. ‘We both know he is nowhere near ten inches.’

Harry snorts. ‘I can’t even remember how that rumour got started.’

‘How do any rumours start?’ Louis says, pushing with his feet so he swings gently. ‘Sometimes it’s just a crazy made up story and sometimes…’ He turns and catches Harry’s profile in the orange glow of a nearby lamppost. ‘And sometimes people just make observations and come to their own conclusions.’

‘Sometimes they’re more right than they know they are,’ Harry adds, gazing out over the playground.

Louis hums in response, still tracing the line of Harry’s face. He loses his breath when Harry turns to face him. It’s all so familiar.

‘You haven’t changed much, you know,’ he says quietly.

Harry smirks. ‘It’s only been four years.’

‘No, I mean, since forever,’ Louis explains impatiently. ‘Since I first met you. You’re still you, you know?’

Harry’s expression turns soft and he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t interrupt when Louis carries on.

‘Your smile is still the same. Like, you have different smiles but the best one hasn’t changed one bit. It still does the same things to your eyes and your cheeks and it’s just, it’s just the best thing, you know?’ He’s glad it’s dark because he’s not sure he could say this in a brightly lit supermarket.

‘And you still move the same. You’re a bit lollopy, you know that, right? Your feet look too big but they look just right at the same time, and you still sit the same way kind of hunched a bit so that your back is curved.’ He doesn’t know what he’s doing as he does it, but he pulls a hand out of his coat pocket and runs it down Harry’s spine. He hears Harry hold his breath, but his muscles relax and Louis feels like he’s gone back in time.

‘You still talk the same too,’ he continues, barely above a whisper. ‘Your voice was always low but then it got really low and you’d tell stories that seemed pointless and you’d tell them so slowly that I thought there must be a good ending but it was usually some mundane crap.’ His hand is still resting at the small of Harry’s back, arm stretched across the space between their swings. ‘But I still loved hearing them and taking the piss out of you afterwards because then you’d smile really big like your face might split in half.’

‘Do you still think about all that then?’ Harry asks. He sounds almost timid and Louis thinks he should move his hand because the position is a bit awkward, but he’s touching Harry and he just can’t stop now.

‘Every day,’ he admits, looking up at the stars. It feels like they’re staring at him.

‘Me too,’ Harry whispers and Louis’ heart is thudding so loudly he’s sure Harry must be able to hear it too.

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah,’ Harry nods. ‘I think about that floppy fringe you had and those ridiculous red trousers and how you always wanted to shower first in hotels. I think about how, despite being a millionaire in a boyband, you would nick all the little bottles of shower gel like we would ever be in a crisis where we had none.’ Louis can feel Harry’s eyes on him, but he’s still got his head tilted up toward the sky because he might cry if he looks at Harry. ‘I think about making you eggs when we lived together and how I have no one to make breakfast for anymore.’

‘Harry,’ Louis breathes, and then his hand slips away but Harry catches it and he’s warm.

‘I think about how hard you would hold my hand underneath tables during interviews,’ he says, squeezing Louis’ to make his point. ‘I think about all the time we used to have together.’ The swing creaks. ‘And I think about when we had none.’

Louis squeezes his eyes shut because he’s sure he’s about to hear about how much Harry was hurting and he doesn’t think he can manage that.

‘And I think about how I don’t regret any of it,’ Harry finishes softly, and, even though Louis is sure he is numb everywhere, he can feel Harry’s thumb stroking in his palm. ‘Not even the worst parts.’

‘Really?’ Louis asks, or croaks.

‘Really,’ Harry confirms. ‘Lou?’

Louis makes a noise in his throat that he hopes is enough to continue the conversation.

‘Are you still scared?’ he asks unsurely. ‘About people knowing who you really are?’

Louis’ voice and heart seem to have swapped places, one stuck in his chest and the other lodged in his throat. He shakes his head, because he’s not scared anymore. He went to dark places in the past four years and he’s more scared of returning there than admitting the truth.

Harry’s thumb is still circling in his palm even though Louis can feel it starting to sweat.

‘Do you remember what the fans used to say? About how weird it was that we were at the same concert and getting put into a band together and all that stuff?’

Louis finds his voice in a chuckle. ‘They used to say it was fate.’

‘And we used to say that we didn’t believe in fate, that it was all just how it happened and that it was supposed to be that way.’

Louis nods, feeling the night pressing down on him. ‘Which is what fate is I guess.’

‘But we didn’t like that word,’ Harry continues. ‘Because it sounds too much like lovers doomed from the start.’

‘Makes you think of tragedy,’ Louis whispers. ‘Guess they were right then.’

‘Were they though?’ Harry asks, and his voice is lighter and Louis finally turns to look at him again. His eyes are wide and bright and beautiful and everything Louis loves about them.

‘What do you mean?’

Harry lets go of Louis’ hand and gets up from his swing so that he can sit on the ground in front of Louis’. He looks so childlike, nothing like a thirty year old man who has already lived a lifetime’s worth of stress.

‘Maybe we needed to grow up first, Lou,’ he says, fingers reaching out to curl around Louis’ again.

Louis stares down at him, not letting himself understand just yet. ‘What…’

‘Think about it. Maybe this is all just part of it too,’ Harry says, and his voice is fringed with excitement that Louis has missed.

Louis shakes his head, but his fingers clasp onto Harry’s tighter. ‘You mean, you still... Do you?’

‘Look at me, Louis,’ Harry says firmly. ‘I could have said “hi, how have you been?” and been done with it, or I could have just walked right past you and pretended you weren’t there. Instead, I’m sitting on stale chewing gum in front of you after having chased you down from the supermarket just so that I could maybe, just maybe, get this,’ he squeezes Louis’ fingers, ‘back in some way.’

Louis blinks at him in shock. ‘After everything,’ he says, dumbstruck.

‘We’ve had time, Lou. We both made mistakes and I’m not saying I’m clearing you of all charges, but I understand why you did everything, okay? We’ve had space to get to know ourselves away from each other and the band, but there’s always been one thing that never changed for me. Even when I was engaged I knew that there was something off, and not just because it was so rushed.’

Louis slides off of the swing and Harry scoots back so that they’re sitting cross-legged in front of each other again, knees touching.

‘So… yeah?’ he asks pathetically.

Harry shrugs, lacing their fingers together properly. ‘I think it was always meant to be me and you, you know, in the end.’

Louis feels like he’s in a dream, one of the dreams he’d wake up from in a fleeting moment of ecstasy before reality came crashing back down on him and sent him back under the covers until evening.

‘I’ll never put you through any of that shit again,’ he promises.

Harry leans over the legs slightly. ‘I know,’ he whispers.

‘Worst thing I did,’ he murmurs, feeling himself tilt forward as well.

‘Be worse if you don’t kiss me,’ Harry breathes, so close that Louis can feel the air move against his chin.

‘I love you,’ Louis sighs, eyes fluttering closed.

‘I love you too,’ Harry replies. ‘Never stopped.’

They kiss like it’s their first, and this time Louis knows he’ll do everything right.