Actions

Work Header

i wonder (if some day you'll be by my side)

Chapter Text

Look, Niall’s a fan of sports. Sure, he has his favourites - footie and golf - but he likes sports in general, especially likes the excitement of watching live sports, the emotions bubbling up among the spectators. 

It’s best when he’s a fan of the team himself, but he can get swept up in the feeling of it even when he’s not, just from being in the crowd, and he loves that. Unfortunately, he’s not a millionaire so he can’t go to as many professional events as he’d like to, but he’s quickly figured out that the emotions are often just as strong when you’re watching amateur matches.

So that’s what he does on his weekends whenever he has time - find some sort of amateur sports game to go to, and yell along with the people around him, whether he understands the rules or not.

So Niall’s used to getting excited over teams he’s never heard of before, but he’s not used to being this captivated by a single player. He’s not sure what’s happening on the pitch - the ice? - and it’s not only due to the fact he’s not certain about the rules of ice hockey.

The London Raiders wear blue jerseys with a gold stripe across the chest and shoulders, and the guy with the big white 11 on the back of his jersey has had Niall’s attention ever since he skated out onto the ice at the start of the game. 

His talent probably would’ve caught Niall’s attention anyway at some point, but what he first noticed was the guy’s height - he even towers over most of his teammates - and his ridiculously broad shoulders accentuated by the shoulder pads that are in stark contrast to his curly brown hair and his downright sweet face. 

Yeah, Niall’s looked at him a good deal over the past twenty or so minutes, so what? It’s not as if he could’ve looked away after the match kicked off and the guy’s (MENDES, it says on the back of his jersey) face flushed the loveliest shade of pink that Niall’s ever seen.

“Who’s that Mendes guy?” he asks the man in the seat next to him, who seems to know a great deal more about British Ice Hockey than Niall does.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” the man asks back and Niall nods as if that’s the reason he’s asking. “He’s Canadian, only joined the Raiders at the start of this season, but he’s gonna make it far in British Ice Hockey, if you ask me. Coulda played in Canada too, I reckon, haven’t got a clue why he moved here.”

“Good for the Raiders,” Niall says as if he knows what he’s talking about.

“Right you are. You a fan, then?”

Niall’s not looking at Mendes when he says, “Becoming one.”

The man pats his shoulder and turns back to the rink, so Niall does too. He’s got a boy with sweaty curls sticking to his forehead under his helmet to look at.

~

Niall is back at the next Raiders Game. The good thing is that they play lots of games around London as he could see from their website, and Niall’s not too proud to spend an hour or more on the tube and buses to get to wherever they’re playing. He decides this while watching Mendes wipe the sweat off his brow at the end of the second game he watches. It makes his stomach flip flop in an altogether embarrassing way considering he doesn’t even know this bloke’s first name, but Niall’s in too deep already.

~

Shawn.

Niall finds out his first name on the third weekend, when Mendes scores a goal and the announcer (they actually have one at this game, for the first time since Niall’s started following amateur hockey) says, “Goal for the London Raiders by the number 11, Shawn Mendes!”

Niall cheers louder and Mendes - Shawn - turns around and fucking smiles. It’s probably not even at him, just the general area, he’s sitting in the fifth row (which is about as far away as you can get) after all, but it makes blood shoot to his face nonetheless.

~

Niall arrives earlier for the next game and secures a seat in the second row. It’s a little terrifying down there, what with the puck racing across the ice at top speed and the players regularly crashing into each other loudly, but Niall also gets to see Shawn’s face much better under his helmet, the ferocity with which he plays and the smile that still breaks out every so often. It makes him even more curious about the lad, that he seems to be made up of all these contradictions. He wants to uncover every layer, find out every side there is to Shawn, and all of that before he’s ever even heard the lad speak. There’s no way he can tell any of his friends about this.

~

Niall keeps coming back every weekend there’s a match somewhere in Greater London, and usually secures himself a seat in the first or second row. Soon, he’s got the rules mostly figured out and is starting to become an actual Raiders fan and not just a Shawn one. He’s still the one Niall focuses on, but he’s not the only thing he notices anymore.

Eventually, Niall hears Shawn’s voice too - shouting across the ice to his teammates or cheering when they score. It’s not much, but it doesn’t do anything to lessen Niall’s infatuation.

~

One Sunday, after a particularly impressive win, Shawn skates along the edge of the rink, high-fiving the people in the first row. Niall touches his hand for less than a second, and can’t stop thinking about it all week.

~

“What’s up with you?” Hailee asks him on Friday. “You’ve been weird all week.”

She’s leaning sideways so she can look at Niall past their computer screens from her desk opposite Niall’s. 

“I’m completely normal, thanks,” Niall protests, but he knows it’s a lie. He’s been distracted and fidgeting even more than usual, head in the clouds a little too often to get away with it. It’s a miracle no one’s confronted him until now.

Hailee just gives him a look and Niall sighs. “You’ll think I’m mad.”

“Darling, I already think that most days anyway.”

Niall laughs. “Alright, true. Don’t pretend you don’t love it, though.”

“You know you’re my favourite colleague.”

“And best friend!” Niall insists, grinning when Hailee laughs.

“Yeah, that too. So, what’s this thing that’ll make me think you’re mad and has you all distracted?”
“It’s not that I’m curious,” Maren says from the next desk over, “but if you two talk this loudly about such interesting things, I think I deserve to know, too.”

Niall laughs at her. “Come on over, then.” 

Maren cheers and hops over, sitting down on the edge of Niall’s desk. She’s so tiny her legs swing quite a few inches above the floor.

Hailee and Maren are Niall’s favourite colleagues, and he often calls them his “American girls”, a group that sometimes includes Hailee’s girlfriend Julia as well. Maren’s husband Ryan isn’t one of the girls, obviously, but he’s still good to hang out with. All of them are really into music too, so that’s cool.

“Spill,” Maren says. “You’ve barely stopped for a chat at my desk this week.”

“Sorry,” Niall winces. Sounds like it’s time to unveil his secret. “Have you ever, like, been….almost obsessed with someone even though you don’t really know them?”

Hailee and Maren look at each other and start laughing.

“Yeah, Niall,” Hailee nods. “Of course. Are you saying you’ve never been?”

Niall shrugs. “Not like this.”

“Oooh,” Maren makes, waggling her eyebrows. “Who is it?”

“Well, I went to this ice hockey match a few weeks ago,” Niall starts, and then he tells them the whole story, even though it’s bloody embarrassing, especially when he gets to the part that being one of at least twenty people to get a high-five from Shawn is the reason for his current state.

Hailee and Maren seem to think it’s more adorable than embarrassing, though, apparently.

“Well, we’ll simply have to come with you next time,” Maren says. “To see who this guy is.”

“Is there a match this weekend?” Hailee asks eagerly and Niall buries his face in his hands, laughing and groaning at the same time.

“Yeah,” he says, “On Sunday. But don’t embarrass me!”

~

On Sunday, he meets Hailee and Julia, Maren and Ryan in front of the Ice Centre the match is going to take place in. 

“Excited to see if this guy lives up to the hype,” Ryan tells him with a teasing grin when they greet each other, and Niall flushes bright red. 

“I don’t know how comfortable I am with knowing you guys all talk about my pathetic love life.”

Hailee wraps an arm around his neck and pulls him forward. “Maybe it’s not going to be pathetic forever! Onwards!”

With this many people, they don’t find seats in the first row, but they’re lucky to snag the last five seats in the second row that are side by side.

One of the mums, who’s there every weekend too, waves at Niall and he waves back a little embarrassedly.

Julia nudges him with a grin. “Really are a regular, huh?”

Niall doesn’t dignify that with a response. 

When the teams skate onto the rink and Niall points out Shawn (in his dumb blue jersey with his dumb tall self and his dumb pretty face), the girls all squeal a little, Hailee slings her arm around him again, Maren grabs his arm and Julia reaches around Hailee to ruffle Niall’s hair.

“He’s cute ,” she whisper-shouts over her girlfriend’s head, and Maren and Hailee nod emphatically.

“Looks like he could snap you in half,” Ryan says thoughtlessly and Niall blushes so furiously there’s no hiding what he’s thinking at all. Great.

That sends all of them into helpless laughter and Niall wishes for the ground to open up and swallow him whole when everyone, including the teams on the ice, turns to look at them. 

“Oh my god, Niall,” Hailee gasps, and her face is almost as red as Niall’s from laughing so hard, “I didn’t know you were into that.”

“I hate you all,” Niall says, but he knows it’s not convincing. 

The match kicks off and Niall spends so much time explaining what’s happening to his friends, that he gets to look at Shawn much less than he usually does. It’s more fun, but he still feels like he’s missing out a little bit. 

“So what’s the plan now?” Hailee asks after the first period is over. “How’re you gonna get in there?”

“Uh,” Niall makes, “Don’t have a clue, to be honest. I was just gonna keep coming to the games.”

“That won’t do,” Maren says decisively, and Julia nods in agreement.

“You have to make him notice you. Either in the audience - though that won’t be easy - or afterwards.”

“Are you telling me I should stalk him?!”

“It’s not stalking if you go up to him to tell him you admire his...talent,” Hailee says, and Maren snorts.

“Among other things,” she giggles, and Niall pushes her away.

“You’re all menaces and I won’t listen to anything you say,” he says, and turns his head towards the rink again to watch as the second period starts.

~

He keeps thinking about it, though. Hanging around after a game, walking up to Shawn, talking to him. What if he just does it? Shawn would probably be flattered to have a fan, seeing as he still plays amateur ice hockey, and Niall would get closer to him than he’s ever been.

He’s just not sure he can. If high-fiving Shawn basically knocked him out for a week, what would talking to him do to Niall?

The decision is pretty much made for him when Louis corners him in their kitchen on Wednesday evening. 

“So,” he says, and Niall turns around from where he was doing the dishes. 

“Hm?”

“You know, you’ve been suspiciously busy most weekends recently. You’ve always got at least one day blocked for something that’s not us and not chilling at home. Are you keeping a secret?”

“I’ve got other friends than you and the boys, too,” Niall protests.

“Oh yeah? Cause I ran into Laura the other day and she says she hasn’t seen you in weeks.”

“Other friends than the LIC too!”

“So you’re spending all your weekends with your American girls now?” Louis asks, eyebrows raised sceptically. 

“Well, no,” Niall admits, because Louis would either see right through him anyway or find out another way. It’s never a good idea to lie to Louis when it’s this easily verifiable.

Louis’ eyes narrow. “So what have you been doing then, lad?”

Niall groans. For weeks he’s been getting by with this, and now suddenly two of his friend groups find out at once? Just his luck.

Louis’ even more gleeful than Maren and Hailee were, if possible, after Niall has told him about Shawn. He thought about acting as if it’s his newfound love for ice hockey that makes him see a match every weekend, but he doesn’t think he’s that good of a liar. 

“We’re coming with next weekend,” Louis announces once Niall’s done, not a question but a statement. 

“Are you sure?” Niall whines. “Zayn’ll hate it and none of you even care about ice hockey-”

“Ah,” Louis interrupts him. “No discussion. We’re coming.”

~

Predictably, Zayn looks like he’d rather be anywhere else when they meet up on Saturday.

“He better be as pretty as Louis says you say he is,” he grumps, and Niall glares at Louis.

“I’m not making anyone come! I’d rather you didn’t actually.”

“Oh, but Niall,” Harry says, “We want to know who’s caught your attention! Make sure he’s good enough for you and everything.”

“How would you- I don’t even know him!”

“Clearly you still developed an opinion on him,” Louis says haughtily, “So why can’t we?”

Zayn squeezes Niall’s upper arm in silent support, and Niall sends him a grateful smile.

“We’re just curious, Nialler,” Liam says apologetically. “Do you really mind that much if we come along?”

Niall sighs. “No, suppose not. Just don’t embarrass me too much.”

“We’d never,” Liam says, and Niall knows he’s gonna regret this.

~

“I can’t even really see his face under that helmet,” Harry complains.

“Good strong jaw,” Zayn says, making an exaggeratedly impressed face at Niall who cuffs him ‘round the back of his head.

“He’s got good hair too,” Liam adds. “From what I can see.”

“Nothing!” Harry says. “Nothing, Liam.”

They start bickering and Louis rolls his eyes fondly at them, then turns to Niall to say, “Why’s he so tall? That’s just stupid.”

Niall doesn’t say anything to that, wouldn’t know what to say because a), he doesn’t think it’s stupid at all and b), Louis probably doesn’t either and just couldn’t find anything else to dislike about Shawn only from looking at him.

Predictably, Louis has the time of his life once the game starts and ropes in Liam. They start cheering obnoxiously every time Shawn so much as gets in the vicinity of the puck or the goal and shrug Niall off whenever he tries to stop them. He resigns himself to his fate eventually and just sits between them, face hot and probably beet red. 

Then Shawn scores, Louis and Liam jump up to cheer and maybe it’s that their constant enthusiasm is contagious, but suddenly Niall’s standing too, and on Liam’s left so are Zayn and Harry.

Heads turn their way again, mostly amused, and Niall’s just about to become embarrassed when Shawn turns around on the ice, grinning, and lifts a hand at them in thank you.

By the time he’s gained control over his body again and waves back, Shawn’s already skated away again and the game is in full swing. Louis cackles and pats Niall’s shoulder before he sits down again. 

Thank god Shawn wasn’t looking anymore, Niall thinks.

~

He’s alone again the next weekend, with strict instructions from all of his friends to finally find a way to talk to Shawn.

“We made sure he’s seen you,” Louis told him over breakfast before Niall left for the game, “Now it’s your turn.”

Niall didn’t tell him that he doesn’t think Shawn will remember him from their group. 

He’s back in the first row now that it’s just him, and more people than ever smile at him in hello. Well. His embarrassing friends sure got him attention from the rest of the spectators.

And then the teams skate out onto the ice, right past Niall, and Shawn looks directly at him, nods at him with a crooked grin. Niall just stares.

It doesn’t happen again and Niall keeps wondering if he imagined it, that little nod of recognition. A very vivid daydream, maybe.

~

“No, that means it worked!” Maren says excitedly at work on Monday. “He’s seen you, he remembers you!”

“You know what the next step is, right?” Hailee smirks.

“I’m not stalking him!” Niall protests. “And don’t try to tell me waiting for him after the game isn’t stalking. It’s strange, I’ll scare him off.”

“But you need to talk to him eventually to get anywhere. What’s your alternative?”

Niall doesn’t have one except pining pathetically from a distance, and he’s glad when Hailee’s work phone rings and interrupts their conversation. 

To distract the girls, he engages Maren in a conversation about this folky Americana band they saw at a pub night a few weeks ago, and avoids the topic of crushes for the rest of the day.

~

Once every couple of months, Niall, Louis, Harry, Liam and Zayn go out to the pub they used to go to when they were at uni, mostly for nostalgic reasons. It’s been almost two years since the last of them graduated, but it’s not like they’re suddenly too old to go to a pub just because it’s near their old uni. It used to be their favourite pub due to the convenient location and cheap beer, and there might be better ones out there, but this is tradition.

It’s crowded when they get there on Friday night, but they find a table for five anyway.

“First round’s on me tonight,” Harry announces, getting up from his chair and turning towards the bar. He freezes halfway there and sits back down hurriedly, leaning forward and saying in an urgent whisper, “Actually, Niall should really get the first round.”

“Why?” Niall asks. “Did you forget your money again?”

“No, no,” Harry says, then stops, patting the pockets of his jeans. “Alright, so maybe I did, but I genuinely didn’t even realise until just now. Could’ve sworn I grabbed it on the way out, I wonder where it’s gone-”

“Why should Niall get the drinks, babe?” Zayn interrupts calmly.

“Oh! Well, because Shawn Mendes is the bartender.”

An eerie hush falls over their table and then Niall chokes out a, “What?”

“Yes, he’s right there behind the bar! You should go up and have a chat.”

Liam seems to be the first to catch himself and nods wildly. “Go up there, Nialler!”

“Bloody ‘ell,” Louis says, grinning broadly. There’s a glint to his eye Niall doesn’t particularly like. “It must be a sign. Now don’t chicken out, lad, get in there!”

Niall looks towards the ceiling for a brief moment, then to Zayn for help. But Zayn just smiles mildly, says, “Go on then, Nialler, you can do it.”

His legs feel like pudding when he walks up to the bar, which is absolutely ridiculous. He’s 25 years old, he can go up to a boy he fancies and order a few pints from him, no problem. 

“Five pints, please,” he croaks once he’s reached the bar, hoping his face isn’t as red as it feels.

“Hey!” Shawn says. “You’re the guy from the audience!”

His speaking voice is lovely, soft and a little higher than Niall expected, his accent clearly Canadian (or well, North American at least) and he remembers Niall.

“Oh,” Niall makes, tries to act surprised. “You’re one of the hockey players, right? I only ever see you with helmets on. Uh...Mendes?”

“Shawn,” Shawn says with a grin, stretching his hand across the bartop to shake Niall’s. Niall grabs it and desperately hopes he gets the timing right, because as soon as his hand touches Shawn’s, he forgets everything he knew about handshake etiquette.

“‘m Niall,” he introduces himself. “Nice to meet you, mate. Didn’t think you’d remember me.”

“You’re one of the only people to show up regularly except for some of the parents,” Shawn shrugs. “And you bring some memorable friends, sometimes.”

Niall laughs. “That was a good day for them. So, do you go to uni here or…?”

“Yeah, and I help out here sometimes. Usually try to get weeknights ‘cause of hockey, but well…” He shrugs again. “Do you go here too?”

“Not anymore,” Niall says. “But we still come here sometimes even though we’ve all graduated.”

“That’s cool,” Shawn nods seriously, and Niall is stupidly endeared. “So why have you been coming to every game lately? It hasn’t been very long yet, has it?”

“Nah,” Niall says, embarrassed now but trying very hard to hide it, “I went one day just for fun and then I ended up really liking it, dunno. Guess I’m a Raiders fan, now.”

“Well, we do like those,” Shawn grins. “Only need to get you in a jersey now, eh?”

For a moment, Niall pictures himself wearing Shawn’s jersey, too big on him and MENDES written on it for the world to see, and there’s no way his blush isn’t visible now anymore.

“Heh,” he makes dumbly, and wants the ground to swallow him up whole again.

“Mendes,” someone calls from behind Shawn, saving Niall. “We don’t pay you to chat, do your bloody work!”

“Sorry,” Shawn calls over his shoulder, and when he turns back to Niall his cheeks are flushed the loveliest shade of pink in the dim pub light. “Sounds like I better get back to work. What did you want again?”

“Oh, yeah,” Niall says. “Um, five pints, please.”

Shawn gets him his drinks and Niall pays, tips him generously, says, “Good luck at the game on Sunday.”

“Thanks! You coming again?”

Niall pretends to think about it. “Yeah, alright.”

“Cool, see you then, bro!”

He looks so pleased and Niall’s heart jumps a little. “See ya, mate.”

Back at their table, he has to repeat everything he and Shawn said to his friends, and even though they embarrass him and force him to do things he’s scared of, he really quite loves them and their support and enthusiasm.

When they leave much later, Shawn’s still behind the bar, and when Niall waves at him, he waves back.

~

By Saturday evening, Niall is so nervous for the game; for seeing Shawn again; that he decides to ask someone along as moral support. He doesn’t want to ask Louis, or even Liam and Harry, because they’d surely embarrass him one way or another. Zayn texts him that one weekend spent watching ice hockey is more than enough for this year and Maren says she and Ryan have the whole day planned out already, sorry, babe . Niall doesn’t feel like involving any of his other friends in this, so he asks Hailee. She’s more likely to laugh at him than embarrass him, and he can deal with that. Julia will make sure she’s not being too loud, probably, so Niall will be fine with them.

When he messages Hailee, though, she immediately agrees to come, because Julia is busy all Sunday. Niall groans and wonders if he’s just managed to invite the female version of Louis to come along with him.

Hailee’s excited to be there again, she skips ahead into the Ice Centre and gets them two seats in the first row. 

“Do you think he’ll just smile at you again?” she asks once they’ve sat down. “Or say something now that he knows your name and all?”

Niall shrugs, no less nervous. He’s not even sure what he’d prefer. If Shawn talks to him - what’s he gonna say?

He lets Hailee distract him as much as possible while they wait for the game to start, and when the teams finally skate out onto the ice, Niall’s heart starts racing. He spots Shawn immediately, skating casually with his helmet still under his arm, one curl of his hair falling onto his forehead, and suddenly he’s sure that he wants - needs -  Shawn to come up and talk to him. The closer, the better.

Shawn looks around until his eyes settle on Niall and he grins, lifting a hand in hello. Niall waves back awkwardly while Hailee excitedly bounces in her seat next to him.

On the ice, Shawn says something to his teammate and skates over to them. Niall sits on his hands to keep himself from biting his fingernails.

“You came,” Shawn calls from a few metres away and then reaches the banister between the rink and the seats, grinning at Niall.

“‘Course,” Niall says, helplessly grinning back. “Promised, didn’t I? Besides, I do come here every weekend.”

“I know,” Shawn says, then seems to notice Hailee for the first time. “Oh, hi! You’ve been here before too, right?”

“Yeah,” Hailee smiles. “Not as much as Niall, though, you must have a good memory for faces. I’m Hailee.”

“Fellow North American, I see,” Shawn says.

“Niall sure likes his North Americans,” Hailee winks, and Niall flushes bright red when he sees that Shawn’s smile falters a little. Maybe that was a step too far and they’ve made him uncomfortable now. He might very well just have been friendly to Niall because he’s a supporter of his team, without any other intentions. Niall’s not sure he’s even been flirty at all, it’s probably only wishful thinking.

“Good luck,” he blurts out in an effort to change the topic, and it works insofar that Shawn smiles at him again.

“Thanks,” he says, then jabs his thumb over his shoulder at his team. “Better head back there. Thanks for coming!”

And before Niall can think of anything to say, he’s elegantly turned on the spot and skated back to the other players.

“It’s adorable how tongue tied you get around him,” Hailee tells him as soon as Shawn is out of earshot and Niall groans, hides behind his hands for a moment. “How’d you even manage to hold a conversation with him at that bar?”

“Dunno,” Niall mumbles. “Think it was the adrenaline, or something.”

Hailee laughs and kisses his cheek. “Adorable.”

“At least I’m a source of amusement for you,” Niall whines, and Hailee just pats his arm and ignores his embarrassment. 

~

The next weekend, Niall goes to the game alone again, mainly because he doesn’t need anyone else to embarrass him more than he already does himself. 

But Shawn doesn’t talk to him, doesn’t even really smile, just nods at him from across the rink when he first skates out and then proceeds to ignore him for the rest of the game. 

And it’s not like Niall expected Shawn to talk to him at every game, it’s not like he owes him that or anything, but he’s still...disappointed. 

~

“You have to make him talk to you again,” Louis says. 

Maren agrees, leaning over Louis on the couch to look at Niall. “Take initiative!”

It’s one of the very rare occasions where Niall has all his best friends around him at the same time. He invited Maren and Hailee (who brought Julia) over after the ice hockey game because he felt like they’d be able to comfort and distract him at the same time, Louis’ there obviously because they live together and he decided to invite the rest of the boys just because he can.

Or something, Niall didn’t actually ask him why he called them up. Maybe he looked so miserable coming home that Louis decided he needed all the help he could get. 

“It feels weird,” he protests now, “Like, lying in wait for him or something.”

“Well it’s either that or you stop going to his games,” Louis says, and it sounds like an order.

“Oh, come on,” Niall whines.

“No,” Louis says. “Or do you want me to tell Willie about all this?”

“No!” Niall exclaims, shocked. “Don’t tell Willie.” 

Willie is Niall’s cousin who he used to live with because they moved to London at the same time, Niall for uni and Willie for work, until Willie moved out to live with his girlfriend. He’s possibly Niall’s favourite person and definitely the one who knows him best. He is the one person who always knows how to bring Niall back down to earth, keeps him from making too big of a mess and takes absolutely no bullshit from him. If Niall’s honest, Willie is kind of the mother figure he has in London.

So no, he can’t have Louis tell Willie about this situation, because he’d probably make fun of him first and then become all earnest and try to force him to do something and/or hold this over him forever, which wouldn’t be fun either. 

“Well then, what’ll it be? No more games?”

Niall sighs. “Alright, I’ll talk to him, then.”

Maren cheers, which attracts everyone else’s attention, and once Louis’ gleefully told everyone that Niall will finally talk to his crush (the word makes Niall shudder) after the next game, Niall knows there’s no getting out of this.

“D’you want us to come with?” Harry asks excitedly, but Niall shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “I have to do that on my own.” Mostly, he doesn’t want any witnesses when he embarrasses himself in front of Shawn, which he’s sure he will. 

~

He has to gather all his courage (pathetic) at the next game to wave Shawn over, but at least it works, as Shawn crosses the ice towards him, albeit with a confused expression on his face.

“Hey,” he says once he’s got a hand on the bannister in front of Niall. “Alright?”

“Yeah,” Niall says, then takes a deep breath and says very quickly, “Look, you can say no if this is weird but would you maybe want to hang out sometime?”

Shawn looks confused again, and very surprised. “Hang out?”

“Christ,” Niall mutters, then speaks up again, “Only if you want, of course. Like, have a pint or something.”

“Okay,” Shawn says on a surprised laugh. “Sure, why not?”

“Yeah?” Niall asks, trying to hide at least part of his relief and excitement.

“Sure. Hang around after the game maybe so we can exchange numbers or something?”

“Cool,” Niall says, very uncool. “I will. And good luck!”

Shawn gives him a cute little salute and skates back to his team. Niall takes out his phone, thinking he’ll text his friends that he fucking did it!!! but then decides against it again. His hands are still shaking and he’s not entirely sure he didn’t just invite Shawn on a very laddy beer even though he had a week to prepare for asking him out. Just two lads having a pint.

Oh well. He can still make the date part more obvious later, or if it turns out Shawn’s not into him like that at all, it’ll be easier to brush it off as a matey thing. Everything has its upsides. 

For the duration of the match, Niall’s distracted and nervous, cheers when the people around him cheer and watches how Shawn’s cheeks quickly flush pink again, but he wouldn’t be able to talk about details of the game if anyone asked.

He waits in his seat afterwards while everyone else leaves, sitting on his hands again both because it’s cold inside the Ice Centre and because he has to stop himself from biting his fingernails.

When Shawn finally comes back, he’s wearing (very tight) black jeans, boots and a light pink hoodie. He’s clearly freshly showered, face flushed and hair soft from blow-drying, and Niall’s mouth goes dry. 

“Hey,” he says, smiling as he sits down next to Niall. “Sorry you had to wait out here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Niall says and tries to pull his hands out from underneath his thighs as inconspicuously as possible. “So you want my number, then?”

Shawn grins and pulls his phone from his pocket, unlocking it and handing it to Niall. 

Niall types in his name and number (wishes desperately he had enough game to save himself as something flirty and/or suggestive), then texts himself an ice hockey stick emoji before handing Shawn his phone back.

“Thanks,” he says, and Shawn nods.

“Yeah, sure. Haven’t made too many friends outside of my team here yet, so this is great. Just text me when and where, eh?”

“‘Course,” Niall says, and he’s not disappointed Shawn said “friends”. He’s not . He expected this. (It still stings a little.) “Is there ever a time where you’re, like, a little less busy with hockey? Like what evenings can I forget right away because of training or whatever?”

“We have team practice Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Shawn explains. “I go to the gym every day but I’m obviously a little more flexible there. So, anytime that’s not Tuesday, Thursday, or the evening before a game.”

“Right,” Niall makes. “I’ll keep that in mind then.”

They look at each other for a few moments and Niall can feel his ears getting hot. Shawn clears his throat.

“Okay, cool,” he says. “See you soon, then?”

“Yeah,” Niall agrees. “For sure.Thanks. For...you know, not running away screaming or something.”

Shawn laughs. “Should I be scared, then? Are you a crazy stalker fan in the end?”

Niall laughs too. “Swear ‘m not. Though that’s probably something one of those would say. So I’m afraid you’re just gonna have to trust me.”

Shawn gives him a crooked grin. “Guess I’ll have to.”

He slaps his hands down on his thighs - successfully drawing Niall’s attention there because they’re quite nice thighs - and pushes himself up.

“Better get going, then,” he says, and Niall stands up too.

“Are you leaving this way or headed back to the lockers?”

“The lockers. Still got my stuff there,” Shawn explains. “Bye, then?”

Niall laughs, a little awkwardly. He’s not sure what to do with his hands, and neither seems Shawn, who stuffs his into his hoodie pocket. “Yeah, bye, mate.”

He lifts his hand halfway in a wave and turns around, looks over his shoulder once more to watch Shawn retreat.

This part is so much easier with girls. It’s not easy per se, not for Niall who’s got very little game and lots of nerves, but at least you can hug a girl goodbye even if you’ve only known her for an hour. Maybe linger a little bit to let her know you’re interested. Boys, though, often get weird when you do that. He wishes he could’ve hugged Shawn.

~

By the time he gets home, Niall has a text from Shawn, right below the emoji he sent himself. Can’t wait to hang out! , it says, followed by the two little beers clinking. It makes Niall’s entire day.

~

Louis is ecstatic when Niall comes home and tells him about the progress he made. 

“He’ll figure out it’s a date soon enough,” he insists, “or you’ll have to tell him. But this is good, Nialler! Huge step forward!”

“Thanks,” Niall mumbles. He’s still not as sure as his friends all seem to be that this is a mutual thing. He’d do better not getting his hopes up, for all he knows he could scare Shawn away the moment he insinuates their pints could be meant to be a date.

Louis spills his news to the group chat and by Monday, Maren and Hailee have been filled in too, so he keeps receiving well-meaning tips and topics he should definitely bring up around Shawn, and none of it helps calm his nerves.

It takes him until Wednesday to finally text Shawn and suggest having a pint on Friday at a pub he knows that’s not too far from the university Shawn goes to, but far enough for it not to be overrun with students.

Yes!! Shawn texts back. 8pm? Might have to have dinner there too

We can do dinner , Niall suggests, hoping against all hope that Shawn thinks dinner makes it more date-like, too.

Shawn sends him a heart-eyes emoji and the thumbs up, which doesn’t do much to quell his stupid hopes. But who knows, maybe that’s just how Shawn texts all his friends. Niall wouldn’t know, seeing as he doesn’t actually know anything about Shawn except where he plays ice hockey and where he goes to uni. 

They don’t text over the next two days, Niall doesn’t know how to initiate a conversation and is a bad texter in general, and Shawn doesn’t make an effort either. Instead, Niall spends his time making lists of topics to talk about and googling the pub they’re going to so he can figure out ahead of time what they serve that qualifies as date food. Requirements: Tastes good, and looks good while eating (which means, neither burgers nor spaghetti qualify, too messy).

All of this is cause for the jitters he gets on Friday afternoon after work, hours before he’s supposed to meet Shawn. He’s 25, his heart should not be beating this fast, should it?

He has a little breakdown in front of his wardrobe trying to pick out something to wear, then again over whether or not to shave after he gets out of the shower.

Leave it!! Hailee answers his desperate text to their group chat, and Maren adds, it’s sexy ;-) .

What if it makes me look too old .

The fact that Shawn’s probably a fair bit younger than him has been worrying Niall a little bit, if he’s honest. He can’t be older than 23, realistically, though Niall’s having trouble estimating his exact age. He has the suspicion that Shawn’s build makes him look older than he is.

Niall. He’s not that much younger than u and have u ever met someone who’s not into your scruff at least a little bit?

That makes him laugh and he sends a few kissy faces before getting back to getting ready. He goes for a casual look, just a jumper and jeans, but puts on his nice navy winter coat on top because he knows he looks good in it. Boots and a navy scarf, and Niall figures he’s ready to go. 

Louis catches him at the door, a second before he’s finished tying his laces, and whistles.

“Looking sharp, Horan.”

Niall shrugs. “Nothing special.”

Louis rolls his eyes at him. “Keep telling yourself that. Anyway, have fun, don’t do anything I wouldn’t and all that.”

“Yeah, yeah, Tommo,” Niall says. “As if that would mean anything’s off the table.”

Louis just wriggles his eyebrows and pushes him out the door.

~

When Niall gets to the pub he’s chosen, Shawn isn’t there yet. So he picks a table and sits down with a good view of the door, sitting on his hands again in order to stop himself from biting his nails. Unfortunately, this means he can’t keep himself busy with his phone or something, so he just sits there staring at the door, stomach in knots. 

Shawn arrives ten minutes late, looking frazzled and flushed as he bursts through the door and running a hand through his hair while looking around, trying to spot Niall.

Niall uses the moment to look his fill, because Shawn looks good . He’s in almost all black, black boots, black skinny jeans, and a black V-neck t-shirt. He’s paired his outfit with a denim sherpa trucker jacket which looks better on him than Niall’s seen on anyone else.

Niall pulls his hands free and lifts one of them in a half-wave to make Shawn aware of him, and he gets a blinding smile in return, as Shawn runs a hand through his hair again and makes his way over. 

“Hey,” Shawn calls out, and Niall stands up to greet him with a half hug, half handshake that could’ve been more awkward, but not possibly more platonic. 

“Hi,” he says, and sits back down while Shawn peels out of his denim jacket. The movement pulls the collar of his V-neck down further, and Niall’s mouth goes dry.

“Sorry I’m late,” Shawn says, sitting down too. “Came here straight from the gym.”

Niall shrugs. “Only just got here too, ‘s fine.”

“Cool,” Shawn says, smiling. He does that a lot, smiling. Niall likes it. 

“So you really go to the gym every day?” Niall asks.

Shawn shrugs sheepishly. “Yeah. No one makes me, but it helps, you know? And I like it.”

“And you still manage to get your hair to look like that when you’ve just come from the gym?”

Shawn laughs. “Have to thank my dad for the good hair, actually. Us Mendes men never really need to do much with it.”

“Lucky you,” Niall says with a crooked grin. “Took me years to figure out how to make my hair look soft yet stay where I want it to. And a lot of product.”
“Well, you’ve figured it out now,” Shawn grins back, then blushes dusty pink across his cheek bones. Niall perks up. Maybe this isn’t as hopeless as he thought.

“Barely,” he says, then adds, “should we order?”

They both get a pint and chips, which are excellent here as Niall knows. 

“So,” Niall starts. “You’re Canadian, yeah?”

Shawn nods. “Born and bred.”

“So what made you come here?”

“Well, my mum’s English, actually,” Shawn explains, “and my dad is Portuguese. Wanted to get to know my heritage, I guess. And then London because of ice hockey, to be honest. I picked a uni where I could study what I wanted and play and live in a cool area. What about you? You’re clearly not from London either.”

Niall laughs. “Nah, ‘bout as Irish as they come. But I’m from a small town and when I finished school I just wanted out, you know? Dublin still felt too close, so I picked London, and then ended up staying.”

“How long since you graduated, then?”

“Two years,” Niall says. “‘m 25.”

“Oh, really?” Shawn looks surprised. “I’m 20.”

Niall’s heart drops. Five years younger than him? The last thing he wants to do is take advantage of someone so young. “Really? I thought you were older.”

“I get that a lot, ever since I started working out,” Shawn says with a rueful grin. “Anyway, that doesn’t matter, right? Doesn’t change the fact we get along well. Or well, I think we- You don’t hate spending time with me, do you?”

Niall laughs almost involuntarily. “No I don’t, Shawn.”

Shawn runs his fingers through his hair and grins. “Good.” He fidgets with the cutlery on the table in front of him for a second, then looks up at Niall and back down again. “Sorry, I just get...nervous.”

Niall looks at his eyelashes, long and dark and casting shadows onto Shawn’s face when he looks down like this, and feels a tenderness rise in him that’s thoroughly unwelcome right now. A boy who gets nervous easily, there’s no way he can make a move without feeling like a creepy predator now.

“Don’t be,” he says softly. “It’s just me. I got you.”

When Shawn looks up to smile at him with that same lovely pink flush as earlier on his cheeks, Niall knows that he can’t walk away either. He’s gonna be whatever Shawn needs him to be, even if it’s just a friend. 

They stay at their little table in the corner of the pub for hours, just talking, and it gets easier with every word. Yeah, Shawn’s very attractive, but he’s also funny and smart and sweet, and Niall thinks he could get used to this. 

Eventually, though, Shawn lets out a yawn (covering his mouth with his hand, very polite too) and says, “I know I’m like the opposite of what a uni student should be, but I do have a game to play on Sunday.”

Niall laughs. “Tired?”

Shawn nods, then says softly, “Not of you, though. Are you coming to the game on Sunday?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Niall promises. “Maybe I can convince some of my friends again. Or are they too embarrassing?”

“No, they seemed fun,” Shawn hurriedly assures him, but he doesn’t quite meet Niall’s eye. “You don’t have to make them come, though. Like...not if they don’t want to, you know?”

Niall grins. “We’ll see, then.”

They part outside of the pub, with an actual hug this time.

“I really had fun tonight,” Shawn says, and Niall smiles back at him.

“Me too. We can do it again soon, if you want.”

“Yeah, definitely.” It’s hard to imagine Shawn without a smile at this point, and Niall helplessly smiles back so they just stand there for a moment smiling at each other before Niall clears his throat and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

“Right,” he says, and Shawn runs a nervous hand through his hair. “See you at the game, then?”

“Yeah,” Shawn smiles. “See you then, Niall.”

Niall thinks about the way his name sounded coming from Shawn’s mouth for too long for someone who intends to be just friends.

~

“You’re an idiot,” Louis informs him over a late breakfast the next morning. “Who cares if he’s 20? He’s an adult, and he clearly fancies you. Nothing predatory there.”

“You don’t even know if he fancies me,” Niall protests. “You weren’t there.”

“You said he got nervous around you, and that he said he didn’t get tired of you. That alone tells me everything I need to know.”

Niall waves him off and concentrates on his cereal. What does Louis even know.

~

On Sunday, Niall goes to Shawn’s game alone. Selfishly, he hasn’t asked any of his friends to come along, he’d rather be left alone with this whole situation instead of having to listen to their lectures and advice. All of which is meant well, obviously, he just doesn’t need it right now.

When the teams skate out, Shawn beams and waves at him before crossing the ice towards Niall’s seat. Niall gets up and leans against the bannister to greet him with a big smile of his own. 

“Are you busy this week?” is the first thing Shawn says. 

“No,” Niall says, caught by surprise, then adds, “Well, I’m working Monday to Friday, so depends what time of day we’re talking.”

“I was just thinking, maybe we could hang out one night, if you want? Maybe watch a movie? Or something?”

He looks so hopeful and so nervous it takes everything in Niall not to do something stupid like kiss him to show him just how much he’d like to “hang out”. Instead, he just grins and says, “Sure, yeah. Don’t really have any plans yet so just text me whenever you’re free.”

Shawn runs a hand through his (gorgeous) hair and says, cheeks and tips of his ears tinted pink, “Cool, yeah. Will do.”

Behind them, someone blows a whistle and over Shawn’s shoulder, Niall can see someone who must be Shawn’s coach gesturing angrily in their direction.

“Think you have a game to play, mate,” he says a little guiltily, and Shawn throws a startled look back to his waiting team. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” Shawn grins breathlessly and with an elegant turn, skates away.

~

“You know what,” Maren says, “Niall, I love you but you have to either make a move or stop hanging out with him. I don’t think you’re doing either of you a favor by dragging this out if you know you don’t just want to be friends.”

“It’s just a movie,” Niall protests. “He’s too young for me anyway.”

“No, he’s not,” Hailee says, rolling her eyes. “He’s old enough to know what he wants anyway. So stop using that as an excuse, as if it stops you from feeling the way you do anyway.”

Niall groans. “Can you let me keep lying to myself at least until after this...whatever it is we’re doing this week?”

Hailee laughs and pats his arm while Maren buries her face in her hands.

“On one condition:” Hailee says. “You come to Winter Wonderland with me this weekend.”

“Oh Christ, is it time already again?”

“Opens this Thursday,” Hailee says cheerfully. “And Julia has begged off this year, she doesn’t like the noise and crowds, so I’m looking for someone to go with.”

Niall sighs deeply. “I thought the one night I’m spending there or at Winterville with the lads is enough for a year. But if you insist…”

“I do!”

Niall shakes his head with a laugh. “Fine. I’ll go with you.”

“Don’t even bother asking me to come along,” Maren says when Niall and Hailee both turn towards her. “There’s no way I’m going there on the first weekend, forget it.”

Hailee shrugs. “Guess it’s just you and me, then, Horan.”

~

First, though, it’s just Niall and Shawn. Niall knew this when he agreed to watch a film with Shawn at his place, but he didn’t really stop to consider what that means until he’s stood in front of a building that’s clearly student housing on Wednesday evening. He’s brought Chinese take out like they agreed, and no beer because Shawn has to watch his alcohol intake if he ever wants to become a professional athlete. 

Standing there waiting to be let in, Niall realises that Shawn probably won’t own a couch and that he’s going to spend the evening in Shawn’s room, which suddenly feels more intimate than he can handle. But he agreed to it, so now he’ll have to deal with it.

Shawn comes downstairs to open the door and greets him with a smile and a hug that somehow manage to immediately relax Niall. 

“Brought the food,” he says, lifting the bag in his hand.

“Great, I’m starving,” Shawn grins, then gestures him inside. “Come on in,  it’s too cold to be standing outside.”

They take the elevator up to the fourth floor and Shawn leads them through a door to a bleak corridor with no windows but seven doors leading to what Niall assumes are the separate rooms, three on each side of the hallway and one on the opposite end. 

“I share a kitchen with five other people,” Shawn explains, heading towards the door on the far end of the hall. “We’ll just get everything we need from there and then go to my room, okay?”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Niall says. “I remember the drill from my friends who used to live in student halls like this.”

“You didn’t?” Shawn asks curiously, pushing open the door to the kitchen. It’s messier than Niall feels comfortable with, but very typical for student flats. His own flat would probably still look like this if he left Louis alone for long enough, actually.

“Nah,” Niall says. “Lived with my cousin who moved here for work at the same time. I actually still live in the same flat, only now with my friend Louis.”

“So we’re definitely doing this at your place next time,” Shawn laughs as he pulls out plates and glasses from the cupboards. “Sounds much nicer than mine.”

“Well, I do have a living room. And only share my kitchen with one other person.”

“You’re already winning in all categories,” Shawn grins. “I’m almost embarrassed now to show you my tiny room.”

“Eh,” Niall makes, “you’re good. I know what to expect and it’s not like I live in luxury.”

Shawn’s room does look almost exactly like the ones Niall knows from his friends, little en-suite on the left, behind that the bed, the wardrobe and desk on the right side, just about enough space to comfortably sit on a chair in between the bed and the desk. 

He’s decorated it with a couple of hockey posters, lots of photos stuck to the wall above the desk and a guitar leaning against the side of it.

“You play?” Niall asks.

“Yeah. I don’t have as much time for it as I’d like to, but I do.”

“Me too,” Niall grins. It’s nice finding things they have in common. “Taught myself when I was 12 and I still love it.”

“You taught yourself?” Shawn sounds impressed. “Maybe you can play me something sometime.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

They end up putting on “Moneyball” on Netflix while eating, but after he’s finished, Niall admits “I really don’t get baseball. Think it’s the most boring sport there is, to be honest.”

“When you say you don’t get it-”

“I know the rules,” Niall says, “I just can’t get into it, y’know? I like most sports and I’ll give them all a go, but baseball isn’t for me somehow.”

“So we’re definitely watching the wrong movie.”

“No, it’s fine,” Niall laughs. “Just don’t really like the game it’s about.”

“Well, I can’t blame you,” Shawn says with a shrug. “Ice hockey is the only sport I’m really into.”

“Yeah?” Niall asks. “I only recently got into it. But my main sports are usually footie and golf.”

“Golf? Isn’t that something only rich old people play?”

Niall rolls his eyes good naturedly. “That’s the stereotype, yeah. But it’s just a really good game to get out of your head and spend a day outside. I love it, it calms me down.”

“Hm,” Shawn makes. “Could use something like that, not gonna lie.”

“If you want I’ll take you one day,” Niall offers without thinking about it. “It’s too cold outside now, but I know a good indoor driving range.”

“None of those words mean anything to me,” Shawn says with a grin, “but sure.”

“Sick,” Niall says, trying not to seem too eager. Taking someone to play golf is one of his favourite date ideas, and the thought of Shawn on the driving range with him makes his stomach flutter in the best way, no matter how hard he’s trying to reign it in. 

They leave the movie on, but neither of them pays much attention to it at all. Weirdly enough, it’s not uncomfortable sitting on Shawn’s bed together. Niall doesn’t feel like it’s forced, or like he has to control his feelings. Instead, it feels almost natural to be sitting here next to each other, just talking. 

After the film is over, Niall doesn’t stay very long. He’s got work, Shawn’s got class, it’s the sensible thing. 

“Let’s do this again soon,” he says at the door. “Still want to hear you play guitar.”

“And I you,” Shawn says. “Plus, you’ve made me kinda curious about that golf thing.”

“A successful night,” Niall grins. 

“I’ll see you at the game this weekend, right?” Shawn asks. “Sunday?”

“‘Course,” Niall promises. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Okay, cool.” Shawn hugs him and Niall presses close for a moment before he lets go. Shawn gives great hugs. 

~

On Friday evening, Niall meets up with Hailee to go to Winter Wonderland like he promised. 

“Have you made a decision about Shawn?” she asks while they’re on the tube there, and Niall groans. 

“Come on, Hails, can we talk about something else?”

“We can after you’ve answered my question. Tell me about your decision and I promise, no more Shawn talk tonight.”

Niall sighs. “Alright. Thing is, I’d rather make a move than stop hanging out with him. I just...we had such a good time on Wednesday, Hailee. I like him a lot.”

“Okay, that’s great, Ni! I’m really happy for you.”

“I might still fuck it all up,” Niall shrugs. “I’m not sure at all he’s interested in me beyond friendship.”

“You gotta try, though,” Hailee says. “I can tell you’re head over heels already and that really doesn’t happen very often. Go for it, I think you have a better chance than you think.”

“I wish I was as confident in that as you are,” Niall laughs wrily. 

Hailee just pats his arm, then keeps her promise and changes the topic to a story about her brother, who’s a race car driver back in California.

Maren really was onto something when she said she wasn’t gonna go to Winter Wonderland on the first weekend, because it’s so crowded that Niall kind of wants to turn right back around. But he promised Hailee, and her eyes are quite literally sparkling as she looks around, so he doesn’t have the heart.

For a while, they stroll across the Christmas market, but there’s so many people that it’s hard to even really see what they’re selling in each stall, so they head on over to the Bavarian Village. 

“This is where you go with your friends every year, right?” Hailee asks as they enter a big tent. There are loads of tables, people standing on benches, loud live music and lots of beer. “Looks a lot like Oktoberfest.”

“Well, I’ve never been to the original,” Niall shrugs, “But I imagine this is what it’s like. It’s fun with enough beer.”

Hailee laughs. “Not very Christmassy, though. Mind if we go somewhere else?”

“Sure, I’ll get plenty of this soon enough,” Niall says with a good-natured eyeroll and follows her outside again.

They get some mulled wine and look at the attractions, trying to decide which ride could be most fun for both of them. Eventually, they pick a classic rollercoaster, mostly because the queue isn’t too long compared to most other rides. While they wait for their turn, Hailee nudges Niall’s side lightly with her elbow.

“Hey, surprise,” she says, “For after this - I pre-booked us an hour on the ice rink.”

“Nooo,” Niall groans. “You know I can’t ice skate! And now, it’ll only make me think of Shawn. Why am I even friends with you?”

“Because I’m a great friend,” Hailee grins as she climbs into the little car after him. “And you love me.”

“Right now I love you a little less than usually.”

“Oh, shut up and give it a try!” Her last word turns into a scream as the rollercoaster cart plummets from its highest point. The wind is freezing in their faces but Niall and Hailee yell excitedly at every loop, and exit at the end with pink cheeks and noses.

“Alright, that was fun,” Niall admits. “But ice skating? Really?”

“Yes, really,” Hailee insists, so Niall follows her. He’s never gonna promise her anything ever again.

Apparently you have to book ahead at the ice rink, especially in the evenings, which Niall didn’t even know - unfortunately, Hailee did. She presents their ticket, they pick up skates in their sizes, lock their shoes and bags in the provided lockers, and all too soon, Niall’s wobbling on the ice on thin skates. Hailee is much better at this than he is, but she’s nice enough not to laugh (at least not too much), and even holds his hand so he feels a little bit safer. It’s pretty crowded on the rink so she can’t go fast anyway, she tells him, and sticks with him, slowly skating in circles. Eventually, Niall starts feeling a little more comfortable and they even pass by a few even slower skaters. As long as he holds Hailee’s hand - the moment he lets go, he starts wobbling again.

And then, from the corner of his eye, Niall spots someone by the side of the rink. He turns his head too quickly and loses his balance, stumbling into Hailee who only barely manages to keep them both mostly upright.

“What happened?” she asks anxiously, and Niall straightens up to look around again.

“I thought I saw Shawn,” he mumbles, and Hailee grips his hand again.

“Well, you said this might make you think of him, right?” she says softly. “It was probably just someone tall with good hair.”

“Yeah, probably,” Niall agrees reluctantly. She’s probably right, even though he was so sure for a moment.

Their time slot is over after an hour, and after they’ve changed back into their normal shoes and handed in the skates, Hailee hooks her arm through his.

“Thanks for doing this with me, pal,” she says with a smile. “You’re being a really good sport tonight.”

“A promise is a promise,” Niall says, then grins at her. “And it is kind of fun.”

She laughs and leans in to kiss his cheek. When Niall looks up, he suddenly looks right at Shawn.

This time, there’s no doubt it’s him, and there’s no doubt he’s seen them. He’s still looking at them when Niall spots him, cheeks flushed that lovely shade of pink that’s already familiar to Niall, and he goes even redder when their eyes lock.

Almost automatically, Niall raises his hand in a wave. At his side, Hailee follows his gaze and lets out a muffled squeak, starts pushing him forward, towards Shawn. 

Shawn looks almost uncomfortable, Niall worries, but he heads towards them as well until they meet in the middle.

“Hey,” he says a little awkwardly, and Niall echoes the greeting.

“This is Hailee, I don’t know if you remember her…?”

“From the game, yeah,” Shawn says, smiling at Hailee. “I remember. The American girlfriend.”

“Oh, I’m not Niall’s girlfriend, though,” Hailee rushes to explain. “But it’s nice you remembered I’m American.”

Shawn looks very confused, eyes flitting down to their arms that, as Niall only notices now, are still linked. “You’re not?”

“No,” she laughs. “I’m gay as hell, I swear.”

“Me too,” Niall blurts out, then coughs awkwardly. “Or, uh. Bi, actually.”

Hailee is laughing at him from his side and Shawn grins too, crookedly. He’s blushing for real now, and Niall thinks it’s so cute that he nearly forgets to be embarrassed.

“Cool,” he says. “We’re a whole group of gays, then.”

It’s just about the best news he’s ever had, and Niall tries not to look too pleased while he watches Shawn and Hailee high five dorkily. Obviously, he could’ve done that a lot smoother, but at least now he knows, and Shawn knows. It’s a step further, at least.

“I saw you out on the ice there,” Shawn says, and he’s still blushing, even as he changes the topic. “Looked like Hailee was doing all the work.”

He winks at Niall, who tries to look offended even though he’s embarrassingly charmed by the wink. “We can’t all be professional ice skaters!” 

“Clearly,” Shawn jokes and says to Hailee, “You looked amazing though, do you skate a lot?”

“Not that much,” Hailee shrugs. “I learned it as a kid and now I try to go every winter, but my girlfriend isn’t a big fan. Which is why I made Niall come with me this time. But thanks! That means a lot, coming from you.”

“Who are you here with?” Niall asks, because Shawn hasn’t looked at him in too long already.

“Some people from uni,” Shawn answers. “Speaking of, I should probably get back there or I'll never find them again.”

“Yeah,” Niall says, trying not to sound too disappointed. “See you soon, though?”

“Please,” Shawn says and gives him a smile so big it seems to warm Niall from the inside. “Text me?”

Niall nods, giddy, and Shawn turns to Hailee who says, “It was nice seeing you again.”

“You too,” Shawn says, then gives a cute little wave and turns around.

“Was it just me,” Hailee says, “Or was he much more genuinely nice to me once he found out we weren’t dating?”

“Did you think so?” Niall asks.

“I’m not revising my opinion, that’s for sure,” Hailee shrugs. “You so have a chance with him.”

~

It’s definitely a date, the next time they hang out. They don’t say so, explicitly, but Shawn brings a bottle of wine to Niall’s flat, and Niall has lit a fucking candle, so yeah, it’s a date. He’s only lucky he’s managed to kick Louis out for the night. The last thing he needs is one of his friends spying on him while he plans on wooing Shawn with every trick in the book. Candle? Check. Michael Bublé (Canadian AND romantic) crooning softly in the background? Check. Indirect lighting? Check. Niall bought wine too, but he’s glad Shawn brought some along himself, he doesn’t want to come off as some creep who gets Shawn drunk to seduce him. 

“Hey,” Shawn says, standing nervously on Niall’s doorstep, the bag with his bottle of wine clutched in one hand.

“Hi,” Niall says, and it comes out sounding softer than he intended.

Shawn leans in, then, quickly, and kisses Niall’s cheek before he flushes bright red and hands Niall the bag in his hand. “I hope you like wine, I...brought some.”

“Thank you, I do like wine,” Niall says, stepping back to let Shawn come inside and hoping that he’s not blushing, too. What is it about this boy that makes him feel 20 and awkward again too?

Shawn takes off his shoes and follows Niall inside, looking around curiously.

“Oh, this is so much nicer than halls,” he says, glancing from the kitchen to their living room, the big couch that takes up half the space.

Niall lifts up the bottle of wine in his hand, already halfway in the kitchen to fetch wine glasses. “You okay to drink tonight, then?”

“A glass or two will be fine,” Shawn shrugs. “I just have to look out more than other students do, it’s not totally banned.”

“Must be hard, sometimes.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Shawn shrugs. “It’s okay, though. I still go to parties with my friends, so.”

Niall sets the wine glasses down on the couch table and asks Shawn, “What about crisps? Got any regulations that forbid you to have those?”

“What, like a healthy diet?” Shawn says, and he’s joking, but Niall knows that they have very different lives when it comes to nutrition and sports. Still, he gets the crisps out and tells Shawn to take a seat if he wants.

Shawn’s standing by the photo wall when Niall comes back from the kitchen, looking at the pictures him and Louis have been putting up there for what’s been years by now. Some are really old, many are very embarrassing, so Niall quickly steps up to him and says, “Please don’t judge me by these.”

Shawn laughs. “They’re not that bad. You clearly have great friends and you all have loads of fun together.”

Niall grins at him sideways. “That’s a nice way of saying that we got shitfaced a lot back at uni.”

“Eh,” Shawn makes, “like regular students, then.”

“Alright, maybe,” Niall says, gently steering him towards the couch to avoid Shawn finding the really old pictures of Niall, the ones where he still has his braces and bleached his hair a terrible shade of blond. Maybe he can see those later, once he’s already too into Niall to be scared off by that kind of thing. Niall really hopes they get to that point.

They don’t put on a movie this time, just sit on the couch, facing each other, and talk. Niall has so many questions he wants answered; about Shawn’s family, his life back in Canada, his life right now, his hopes and dreams - though he holds back on that last point, it might be a bit too early for that as well. He learns more about Canada, its history and politics than he expected from an evening with Shawn, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Nothing better than finding out someone handsome and nice is smart and informed as well. 

Eventually, though, Shawn points over to the corner of the room behind Niall, who turns around and realises he’s pointing at the guitar leaning there.

“Didn’t you promise me something the other night?” Shawn asks with a grin and Niall grins back. Shawn’s grown progressively more confident throughout the evening, and it’s been great to watch.

“Tell you what,” he says. “I’ll play something if you play me something afterwards.”

Shawn nods. “Deal.”

Niall stretches to reach for the guitar and pulls it towards him. “Any suggestions?” he asks Shawn.

“You pick,” Shawn says, so Niall plays a few chords and starts singing, pitching his voice much lower than usual.

“Tell me something, girl,” he sings, “are you happy in this modern world?”

Shawn laughs, which was Niall’s goal, and says, “That’s a great Bradley Cooper. Can you do Lady Gaga, too?”

Niall laughs. “I’m alright at impressions, but I’m not that good.”

A little more seriously, he starts playing the chords to Dancing in the Dark . Classic Bruce Springsteen, always a good choice. He keeps his voice low, sings the first verse and chorus, and then stops to look up at Shawn. Shawn’s watching him so intently Niall can’t help but blush, and then Shawn’s blushing too and looking away. 

“You’re really good, Niall,” he says. “Like, really. I can’t live up to that.”

“Bullshit,” Niall says gently, pushing his guitar closer to Shawn. “I’m sure you sound great.”

Hesitantly, Shawn takes it from him and plucks a few strings. He looks up at Niall through his lashes, a lock of hair falls onto his forehead, and Niall feels like he’s transported to one of his teenage wet dreams. A pretty boy playing guitar and looking at him like that is everything he dreamed of back then. If he wasn’t dreaming about Kate Upton, that is, thanks to the poster of her he had right above his head like almost every boy his age did. Funny that, once he figured himself out, his type turned out to be dark-haired, dark-eyed people, regardless of gender. Still, the guitar playing thing hasn’t stopped.

Shawn breaks eye contact to look down at the guitar, but Niall still can’t look away. Shawn’s almost too handsome to be real, here, in this light, in Niall’s flat. And when he starts plucking the strings and quietly singing the words to Ed Sheeran’s A-Team with the voice of an angel, Niall briefly considers that he’s somehow ended up in heaven. 

He stares at Shawn throughout the whole song, mesmerised. Shawn doesn’t look up once, focuses on his fingers on the strings, which Niall thinks is fair enough - Shawn’s got lovely fingers and he can’t help looking at them a fair bit too. 

When the song finishes, Niall starts clapping and then stops, embarrassed. Shawn looks pleased though, pink flush on his cheeks.

“That was beautiful,” Niall blurts out, then bites his tongue. He’s really laying it on thick tonight, and it’s a bit embarrassing. He doesn’t want to come off as desperate, even though he kind of is, if he’s honest. He can’t be the one to take action here, doesn’t want to pressure Shawn into anything - but if Shawn were to try anything, he’d be up for it, no question.

Shawn just blushes some more (he does that a lot, Niall thinks) and mumbles, “Thank you,” before putting the guitar down.

“You’re clearly a man of many talents,” Niall says. “Ice hockey, guitar, singing...what else can you do?”

“I play piano too,” Shawn says. “But not very well.”

“That’s basically what you said about the guitar as well,” Niall shrugs. “So clearly I have to assume you play the piano well enough to earn money with it.”

“I don’t make money with any of those things!” Shawn protests. 

“Just saying I think you could,” Niall says with a grin.

“What about you, then?” Shawn asks. “You’ve got a real job but you could make it in music too, I think, and apparently you’re a world class golfer too?”

“Not world class at all,” Niall laughs. “I’m alright, I play off 9.”

“I have literally no idea what that means.”

Niall laughs. “You should definitely come out to play with me some time, I’ll explain it to you then.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Shawn agrees. “But isn’t it too cold now?”

“Oh, yeah, way too cold now. But we could go to the driving range first, hit some balls so you can get a feel for it. Only if you want, of course.”

“Thought I made that clear already,” Shawn grins. “I want.”

It takes all of Niall’s self control not to lean in and kiss him.

~

When Shawn leaves, it’s late already, and his eyes look tired, whole body soft. Their hug goodbye by Niall’s door lingers until Niall pulls away reluctantly. 

“Thanks for tonight, get home safe, yeah? Text me when you get there,” he says, and Shawn nods.

“Thank you, too. See you at the game next weekend, then?”

“‘Course,” Niall promises. “And then the driving range the next day.”

“Can’t wait,” Shawn says, then bounds down the stairs after one last smile and wave.

Niall goes back inside and closes the door behind himself, unable to wipe the smile off his face. He takes their empty wine glasses to the kitchen and starts washing them, puts them on the rack to dry, and he’s still smiling. He’s beginning to feel a little stupid for it, it’s not like anything really happened tonight but he just...he likes Shawn so much it’s driving him a little mad. His little crush might have started off as a purely physical thing after having seen Shawn play ice hockey, but over the past few weeks, getting to know him better and better, it’s evolved into something entirely different. It’s frightening, really, but the butterflies in Niall’s stomach feel so nice most of the time that he can’t bring himself to care all that much.

He waits until Shawn has texted him he’s home (with a kissy face that makes Niall’s smile return with full force), texts him back “goodnight, sleep well” (adding the kissy face emoji too, after deleting and retyping it at least five times), then gets ready for bed. Louis hasn’t come back yet - probably lucky, he’d definitely have his piece to say about the expression on Niall’s face.

~

The week at work is hard, very busy, and all Niall wants after work every day is dinner and his couch. Louis’ nice about it and even makes them dinner one night, something that occurs so rarely Niall thinks he’s imagining it for a moment. 

“What, I can’t spoil my best friend without him thinking he’s making it up?” Louis complains. “Maybe I should leave it.”

“Noo, Lou,” Niall says, doing his best to look pitiable. “I’m so hungry I thought I was hallucinating.”

Louis snorts and rolls his eyes but turns to take two plates from the cupboard. “Sure, Nialler.”

“But really,” Niall says and starts setting the table, “this is just what I needed today. Thanks.”

“You haven’t even tried it yet,” Louis appeases, but he’s hiding his pleased grin.

Louis listens to Niall complain about work for a few minutes, then tells Niall the latest news about all of his siblings - something Niall’s always interested in because he’s watched these kids grow up and feels very protective over them after all the shit they’ve been through. 

Eventually, though, he gets to the topic he’s probably been wanting to get to all evening: Shawn.

“So how was that date with your hot ice hockey player?”

“He’s not mine,” Niall mumbles, then shrugs and tries very hard to tamp down on his smile. “It was nice.”

“Niall Horan,” Louis exclaims, scandalised. “Did you sleep with him without telling me about it?”

“What?” Niall asks. “No! Where’d you get that from? We haven’t even kissed.”

“You looked so pleased, I just assumed something special must’ve happened.”

“We just had a really nice evening,” Niall says. “He played me something on the guitar.”

“And you sat through that without climbing him like a tree? I’m picturing a young Bruce Springsteen situation here and I know how you usually feel about that . I feel like I don’t even know you right now.”

Niall laughs. “It was hard, trust me. But I’m letting him call the shots.”

Louis sighs. “You’re such a gentleman, Niall. Does he know you’ve appointed him that role?”

“Well I haven’t, like, told him outright.”

“And you think that’s gonna work?” Louis asks sceptically. 

“Why wouldn’t it? I think I’m sending all the necessary signals.”

“It just seems like he’s a pretty shy lad,” Louis says. “From what you’ve told me and from what I’ve seen myself.”

Niall thinks of Shawn’s excessive blushing and the nervous way he handles himself, but brushes Louis’ concerns away. “Just let me handle this, yeah? I wanna do it at his pace.”

Louis puts his hands up in defence. “No meddling, promise.”

“No more than you’ve already done, you mean.”

“Are you complaining? Without us you’d probably still be staring at Shawn from afar with sheep’s eyes.”

There’s not much Niall can say against that but he tries anyway: “I would’ve gotten there eventually.”

“Maybe,” Louis says dubiously. “But aren’t you glad we sped it along?”

“A little,” Niall admits, and Louis grins at him with sharp teeth.

“Just don’t leave all the work to the poor boy. You’ll never get anywhere.”

~

Liam comes with him to the game that weekend, says he really liked watching ice hockey the last time and it’s not even really about Shawn or anything, so Niall lets him. It’s not that he wants to keep his friends away from Shawn or anything, he’s just scared of their meddling, unintentional or intentional. The last thing he wants is for Shawn to feel pressured in any way, and he worries his friends might be less sensitive to that.

Liam is on his best behaviour though, he doesn’t even mention Shawn the whole way to the game, mostly tells Niall about this new collection they’re working on at his job, which he’s new at and still very excited about. Liam’s not the one of his friends Niall would’ve necessarily expected to go into fashion, but seeing him this excited about his work makes Niall very happy.

“So what’s new with you, then?” Liam asks eventually. “Feel like I’ve been talking the whole time, sorry about that.”

“No, I like hearing about this stuff,” Niall says. “Some of it doesn’t make sense to me but I’m happy you’re happy, mate.”

“Aw,” Liam makes and ruffles Niall’s hair, even though he tries to duck out of the way. He’s styled it in a way that’s supposed to make it look like it’s not styled, but in reality it’s taken him a long time. “That’s sweet, but don’t deflect. What’s going on with you?”

“Not much,” Niall shrugs. “Got a lot to do at work right now, and then you know how I spend my weekends.”

“Yeah,” Liam says and grins at him knowingly. “With Shawn, mainly.”

“That’s not true,” Niall protests. “I spend plenty of time with you and the lads, or my American girls.”

“So what’s going on with you two, then? You don’t tell us anything.”

“Because there’s nothing to tell,” Niall says. “We’re friends. Who’ve maybe been on a date or two, though we haven’t called it that. But nothing’s happened, and it won’t unless he initiates it.”

“So you’re really sticking to this thing, hm?”

“100 %,” Niall says. “I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s so weird. I’m just trying to avoid making him uncomfortable.”

“Alright, alright,” Liam says. “I think it’s nice you’re being so considerate. No meddling from me, promise.”

Niall can feel Liam’s eyes on him while the teams skate onto the ice later, but he can’t keep his face from lighting up when Shawn’s eyes find him in the ranks and he beams at him.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Niall tells Liam, who just laughs.

“It’s almost embarrassing how gone you are for that kid.”

“Shut up,” Niall says half-heartedly, because there isn’t much he can say to defend himself. It’s true, he’s pretty gone for Shawn already.

After the game, Shawn skates over to them like he usually does. 

“Hey,” he says to Liam, friendly as always. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, offering his hand. “Liam. It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too!” Shawn turns to Niall next, and his smile goes softer. “Hey, Niall.”

“Hi.” Niall smiles back at him until he can hear Liam stifle his laugh next to him, so he clears his throat, embarrassed. “Good game, Shawny.”

“Thanks,” Shawn grins. “I’m glad you came.”

“Dunno what we’d have to do to keep Niall from coming to one of your games,” Liam says, and Niall elbows him furtively. That’s awfully close to meddling. 

Shawn’s blushing, so Niall says, “We’re well on our way to turning you into an ice hockey fan too, Li, so don’t act like I’m the only one.”

“Well, you can come back anytime you’d like, too,” Shawn says. “We don’t have many fans as faithful as Niall.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Liam grins and takes a preemptive step away from Niall’s elbow. “It really is a cool game, though.”

“I think so too,” Shawn says, running a hand through his damp hair. Niall licks his lips almost involuntarily. “Anyway, I should probably hit the showers. It was nice meeting you, Liam. Niall, I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah!” Niall says, trying to seem as if his thoughts haven’t just strayed to Shawn and showers. 

“Text me?” Shawn looks so lovely in his blue jersey, helmet under one arm and sweet smile on his face, that it seems almost too long to have to wait until tomorrow to see him again. 

“I will,” he promises. “See you tomorrow!”

As soon as he’s skated out of earshot, Liam lets out a low whistle. 

“Wow, mate,” he says. “It’s even worse seeing you both interact.”

“Oh fuck off,” Niall mumbles, but Liam just shakes his head. 

“You must be blind if you don’t think he likes you just as much as you like him.”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Niall says, because he doesn’t. They’ll never understand that it doesn’t matter how sure Niall is that the feelings are mutual - and he’s getting pretty sure - he’ll still move at Shawn’s pace. 

And thankfully, Liam’s the kind of friend who listens and leaves it at that. 

~

Zayn’s on their couch when Niall gets home. That isn’t an unusual occurrence at all, only that Louis is nowhere to be seen. 

“Hiya, mate,” Niall says, surprised, and Zayn looks up from his phone with a smile. “What’re you doing here?”

“Chillin’,” Zayn shrugs. “Got here twenty minutes before Louis left and didn’t feel like going all the way back home so Louis said you wouldn’t mind if I waited until you got home.”

“‘Course not,” Niall says, taking off his boots and putting his jacket up on the rack by the door. “We haven’t hung out just the two of us in too long, you can stay as long as you want. I was just surprised. Tea?”

“Please,” Zayn says and follows him to the kitchen. 

“Where’d Louis go? Eleanor?”

“‘Course,” Zayn says with a grin. “I wonder how long until you’ll have to look for a new roommate.”

“I just hope he gives me enough notice and they don’t just decide to elope one day,” Niall laughs.

“Nah, mate. Think Eleanor wants, like, a real pretty wedding and you know Louis would give her anything.”

“True,” Niall nods pensively. “Has he said anything to you though? About moving out? Or proposing?”

“Nothing concrete, just the same way he always talks about her.”

“Yeah, I have no illusions it isn’t gonna happen one day, and probably sooner rather than later,” Niall says, handing Zayn a mug. “Just wanna make sure I start advertising early enough.”

“How was the game?” Zayn asks, apropos of nothing - unless he somehow got to Shawn from the topic of Niall having to look for a new flatmate, which Niall honestly wouldn’t put past him. All of his friends have developed an unhealthy obsession with his relationship with Shawn. Which isn’t even a relationship!

“It was good,” he says. “The Raiders won.”

“And…?”

“And what?”

“Oh come on, Nialler! It’s like pulling teeth from you, you know what I’m asking.”

“Says you!” Niall protests. “You never tell us anything either. And you’re all way too curious about this, I don’t get it.”

“We care about you,” Zayn says. “And we all think this guy would make you happy, so we’re rooting for you.”

Niall is touched against his own will. “That’s sweet,” he admits. “And I’m taking him to the driving range tomorrow, so maybe…”

“Nothing says romantic quite like hitting a few golf balls,” Zayn teases, but then he adds, “Really, I hope this all works out the way you want it to.”

“Thanks, Z,” Niall says. “But enough of me, what’s going on with you? How’s work? Any new art projects you’re working on? Music? I feel like we haven’t talked in ages.”

“Work is boring but ’m doing this spray painting project I’m really excited about,” Zayn says. “I’ll, like, chew your ear off about it if you’ll let me talk about it, just as a warning. Louis’ already made me swear not to talk about it to him for more than 10 minutes a day.”

Niall laughs. “Go on, then.”

~

Niall’s texted Shawn the time he’ll pick him up at and to wear comfortable shoes, and he’s at his dorm on time, nervous.

Shawn meets him downstairs and Niall notes that he’s wearing trainers instead of his usual boots. 

“Hiya,” Niall says. “Sorry to have to pick you up this early, but we’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us.”

“That’s okay,” Shawn smiles. “Didn’t have any other plans.”

“I brought you coffee,” Niall tells him. “It’s in my cousin’s car, I borrowed it to save us the ride on public transport.”

“That sounds good, thanks,” Shawn says, and follows him to where he parked.

It’s a cold but sunny day, so Niall puts his sunglasses on for driving and he doesn’t think he’s imagining the glances Shawn keeps stealing. He gives Shawn control over the music and navigates them through London’s Sunday morning traffic confidently. 

“So how does this work?” Shawn asks eventually. “Like, I’m still not really sure what a driving range even is. Is it an inside golf course?”

“No, it’s basically the place where you practice golf without playing a game,” Niall explains. “You get a bay - the driving range where we’re going has covered ones in a building so you can go all year round - that’s open to a green, and then you basically try to hit balls as best as you can. They have target greens and distance boards and all this shit that you won’t care about in the beginning. I booked us a bay and all we’ll do is teach you how to hit a ball. And if you still want to afterwards, we can go to a proper golf course after it warms up and play an actual game.”

“How many of those bays are there?”

“Oh, 20 or so? Not sure, to be honest.”

“Will people be watching me?”

Niall looks at Shawn from the side, he seems nervous. “No, Shawny,” he says reassuringly. “I don’t think anyone will care that you’re still learning. You might not even be the only one there today. And even if you are, they’ll all be too focused on their own play to worry about you.”

Shawn turns and smiles at him thankfully. “Alright then, let’s do this.”

Niall grins. “Let’s do this!”

The driving range is busy, as it usually is on a Sunday and especially in the winter, but Niall already booked their bay last weekend, so they don’t have to wait to get their spot. Shawn’s looking around anxiously so Niall grips his arm and squeezes it reassuringly. “Don’t worry so much, babe,” he says, the pet name just slipping out. Shawn throws him a startled look and Niall blushes, stammers an explanation: “Sorry, Zayn uses babe so freely with all his friends, it just kinda seeped into my vocabulary.”

“Oh,” Shawn mumbles. “No worries.”

Awkwardly, Niall leads them to their bay, his golf bag slung over his shoulder. He wishes he wasn’t so nervous and awkward around Shawn sometimes, it’s really not making any of this easier. He worries he’s discouraging Shawn sometimes, which isn’t his aim at all either, but it’s difficult finding the right measure for his affection when he’s this into the guy. How do other people do it? Niall’s never had good game.

“Okay, ready?” he says, setting down the golf clubs. “This is our bay for the next two hours.”

“As ready as I’ll ever be, eh?” Shawn grins crookedly and Niall laughs.

“Want me to show you first?”

“Yeah, please.”

So Niall picks a club, places the ball on the tee and makes a little show of getting in position, shifting from foot to foot and wriggling his hips. He knows his arse looks good in golf pants, he’s seen pictures and has a mirror, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t use all the weapons he has. It’s a good shot, thankfully, though he’s not sure Shawn would be able to tell the difference either way.

“Just like that,” he says, and turns back around to Shawn. “Wanna try?”

“Okay.” Shawn takes a hesitant step towards him.

Niall hands him a club. “Reckon I’ll pick these out for you, yeah? We’ll get to the part about which equipment to use when later.”

“Fine with me,” Shawn says. “I don’t even know how to stand, or how to hold the...club?”

“Yeah,” Niall laughs. “It’s called a golf club, not like a hockey stick.”

“I knew that,” Shawn says. “Just wasn’t sure if you had a different name for it over here.”

“Nah, you’re good,” Niall reassures him. “Alright, so place your hands here, and here - good. Feet apart, a little more, yes, that’s it. Now - can I show you?”

Shawn nods and Niall places his hands on his hips, moves them in position, then his arms. Shawn is tense, so Niall lets go sooner than he would like to.

“Now,” he says, standing next to Shawn instead and mirroring his pose. “You swing. You need to relax your hips, bend your knees a little more, and twist your body with it. The hardest part will probably be hitting the ball at first, so we’re practising without it, a couple of times, yeah? I want you to get the swing right first.”

“Okay,” Shawn nods, a concentrated look on his face. It’s cute.

Niall steps out of the way, says, “Go.”

Shawn swings, and hits the ground hard with the club. 

“Oh,” he says, “Oh, no.”

Niall pats his back. “It’s alright, that’s happened to the best of us. Just adjust your swing, and try again.”

Niall doesn’t hit many balls at all in their allotted two hours at the driving range, mostly just helps Shawn improve his game. He’s atrocious, but in a very charming way, and he never once seems bored. That’s more than Niall can say about anyone else he’s tried to get into golf, and he tells Shawn as much.

“Well, you’re a good teacher,” Shawn smiles as they head back to the car. “It’s only that I’m a terrible student.”

“You’ll get there, eventually. It all takes practice.”

“Well, can I take you out to lunch as a thank you for the lesson? I’m starving.”

“Yeah, sure. There’s a KFC just around the corner.”

“Perfect, we can share a bucket if you want,” Shawn suggests.

In bed, much later that day, Niall thinks that this really was the perfect date.

Too bad they never called it that.

~

On Monday over dinner, Louis suggests they have a party the next Friday.

“Not a huge rager,” he says, “but let’s invite all our friends, play some good music and have some drinks. It’s been too long since we all hung out together.”

“Sure,” Niall agrees. “Just the lads or everyone everyone?”

“Your American girls, my footie lads. I’ll bring Eleanor and you have to invite Shawn.”

“So you can pester him again?”

“No, so he figures out he’s important enough to you to be invited to this kind of thing and you two can finally get it together.”

Niall grins. “So you’re learning.”

Louis shrugs. “I’ve accepted that you can’t be convinced to make a move, so now I gotta make sure he does. We’re all rooting for you, you know that, right?”

“I know, Harry texts me about it every day,” Niall says, but he’s smiling. “Thank you, though. I really appreciate it.”

~

Their flat is a decent size, but with 20 people in it, it gets pretty crowded. They’ve set up the bar and snacks in the kitchen and Liam is manning the music in the living room, and the guests have spread out around the two rooms, lounging on the couch, a few chairs and the floor. Harry’s brought his beanbag chair (Niall doesn’t ask how he managed to transport it on the tube, he’s not sure he wants to know) and has taken residence in the middle of the living room. He’s somehow managed to get Zayn of all people to bring him snacks and a drink, Niall notices, impressed. 

Shawn arrives a little later, after his session at the gym. His hair is still damp when he pulls off his beanie at the door, giving Niall a hug.

“Hey, thanks for coming,” Niall says, keeping it casual. He was a little scared Shawn wouldn’t show, worried he wouldn’t like being around this many people, most of which he doesn’t know.

“Thanks for inviting me,” Shawn says, smiling down at Niall. They’re standing very close, and Shawn’s so tall-

“Shawn!” Hailee almost pushes Niall out of the way to give Shawn a hug. “Hi, it’s so good to see you again! This is Julia, my girlfriend.”

Shawn shakes Julias hand politely, and then the two girls lead him further into the flat and away from Niall. It’s okay, though, he’s glad Shawn’s making friends other than him. He’ll talk to him later.

Niall bounces around the flat, from person to person, chats, laughs, drinks, occasionally lets himself be roped into a karaoke performance. All the while, he keeps an eye on Shawn. Not creepily, just to make sure he’s having fun and not feeling lonely. They haven’t had time to talk much yet tonight, but Shawn seems alright.

After Hailee and Julia, Zayn takes him under his wing for a while, then Harry seems to tell him a long-winded story, Eleanor and Louis corner him by the bar, then he talks to Liam for a while. He laughs a lot, and Niall always turns to look when he hears his laughter ring out.

All night though, Shawn seems to empty his drinks a little quicker than Niall’s used to, and he doesn’t stop after his second pint like he usually does. 

“You alright, Shawn? Having fun?” Niall asks carefully after he finally manages to catch him alone. 

“Yeah, your friends are great,” Shawn grins. His cheeks are flushed and his eyelids seem a little heavier than usual. “Everyone’s been really nice.”

“I’m glad you like them.” Niall hesitates. “Not that it’s my business, but don’t you usually have to watch your alcohol intake?”

Shawn shrugs. “It’ll be okay if I make an exception.”

“Any reason why you’re making that exception tonight? You know you don’t...have to prove anything to my friends, or whatever, yeah?”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Shawn says. “Don’t worry.”

He turns away and leaves Niall standing there, feeling oddly rejected.

“He’s a sweet one,” Zayn says, sidling up to him. He smells like weed so Niall assumes he and Louis snuck outside to their tiny balcony to smoke. 

“Yeah,” Niall says thoughtfully, then gives Zayn a smile. “Thanks for talking to him.”

Instead of an answer, Zayn turns and wraps his arm around Niall’s middle, tucks his face into the crook of his neck.

Niall laughs but hugs him back, used to Zayn being especially touchy when he’s high.

“I think you would be really good together, babe,” Zayn says quietly. Niall just hugs him a little tighter and nods, cheek brushing the top of Zayn’s head.

It’s late by the time he catches Shawn alone next, and most people have left already. Niall’s just hugged Maren and Ryan goodbye at the door and sees Shawn sitting on the couch by himself, looking a little lost.

“Hey,” he says, sitting down next to Shawn, who looks up, startled.

“Oh, hey,” he says back. He’s clearly drunk, which Niall reckons isn’t surprising at all considering he barely drinks anything usually. It makes him feel bad, though, like maybe he should’ve watched out for him more.

“How’re you feeling?” he asks quietly. 

Shawn shrugs, elbows on his knees and head hanging low. “Little dizzy. Confused.”

“Why confused?” Niall wants to know.

Shawn looks up at him, brow furrowed. “You don’t...have someone, do you?” he asks. “I mean, I sort of assumed you didn’t after you and Hailee told me you weren’t dating, and maybe I shouldn’t have, but-“

“I don’t,” Niall interrupts. “What gave you the idea I did?”

Shawn takes a deep breath, avoiding Niall’s eyes even as he sits up a little straighter. “Just trying to figure out what it is we’re doing. You come to every game, we keep hanging out, we have a great time, sometimes you say these really flirty things. We’ve been on so many dates, or at least they’ve felt like dates, and then we keep having these moments that I can’t be making up, but you never follow it up with anything so now I’m just confused and I can’t take it anymore, can you please just let me down easy if you’re not in-”

“Shawn, Shawn, stop,” Niall interrupts him again, heart beating fast. He can’t believe this is the way it’s finally happening, nothing like the way he imagined it. “You’re getting this all wrong. It’s not that I’m not interested, not at all. God, if you knew- but you’re drunk, so can we please have this conversation tomorrow, after you’ve sobered up?”

“No, why?” Shawn protests. “I can still listen.”

“Look,” Niall says, turning his whole body towards Shawn. “I want you to be fully there when we talk about this, yeah? Please, I promise I’ll explain everything tomorrow.”

“I don’t wanna go home,” Shawn says, and he sounds a little whiny now.

“You don’t have to,” Niall offers. “You can stay here tonight. I’ll sleep on the couch and you can have my bed, alright?”

Shawn nods, and then he yawns. He looks cute and sleepy and drunk, and everything in Niall softens.

“Wait here,” he says, and goes to fetch Shawn a glass of water.

He makes him drink it all, then lays a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Now let’s get you to bed, yeah?”

He helps Shawn up and has to steady him a little on their way to the bathroom, where he finds Shawn an unused toothbrush and then a t-shirt to sleep in (which he thinks is Harry’s because neither he nor Louis own any shirts that would fit Shawn). He has to help him unbutton his shirt, which would be sexy in almost any other situation, but kind of just feels tender in this moment. While Shawn tugs on the borrowed t-shirt and takes off his jeans to crawl into Niall’s bed, Niall gets him another glass of water to leave on his nightstand, as well as a towel in case he wants to take a shower in the morning. When he gets back, Shawn’s got his face buried in Niall’s pillow, a smile on his face, and is already fast asleep. 

Softly, Niall traces his face from his temple down to his jaw with his fingertips, then he turns out the light and closes the door quietly behind himself. 

In the living room, Zayn, Harry, Liam, Louis and Eleanor are the only ones left, waiting for him on the couch.

“How is he?” Liam asks.

“A little drunk but mostly tired, I think,” Niall says and sits down in their only armchair. “I told him I would sleep on the couch.”

“Did you talk?” Harry wants to know.

“A little,” Niall says, biting his lip to tamp down on his smile. He hasn’t really had time to think about what Shawn said yet. “But I need him to be sober for the real talk.”

“That’s very considerate of you, Niall,” Eleanor says. She’s perched on Louis’ lap and smiling at him. “I know the lads think it’s overly careful but I think it’s very sweet how you treat him.”

“I’m just saying this all could’ve gone a lot faster if he’d ever said anything,” Louis says with a shrug.

“But you’ll tell him tomorrow?” Liam asks.

“Yeah,” Niall nods. “I think I owe him an explanation. Apparently he did think I wasn’t interested, so…”

Louis makes an “I told you so” face, but anything he might’ve wanted to say is interrupted by Harry, who jumps up from the couch and drapes himself over Niall on the armchair.

“Oh, Niall, it’s finally happening! And so romantic!”

“Nothing’s even happened yet, Harry,” Louis groans, and Niall laughs from under Harry.

“Thanks, Haz,” he says, pulling an arm free to pat Harry’s back. “Maybe you can stop texting me every day, then.”

“Nah, it’ll only spur him on,” Zayn pipes up, and Niall meets his eyes over Harry’s shoulder. “Happy for you, Nialler.”

“Let’s wait until they’ve actually talked, maybe?” Liam suggests, and Niall nods.

“Yeah, who knows how he’ll feel sober.”

“The same,” they all chorus, and Niall hides his laughter in Harry’s shoulder.

“We’ll see.”

“You can have my bed, by the way,” Louis offers. “We’ll sleep at El’s so you have the flat to yourselves tomorrow.”

Zayn waggles his eyebrows at him and Niall blushes bright red, mumbles out a, “Thank you.”

Harry finally gets off him and pats his burning cheek, “Be safe and all, love you!”

They all get up and say their goodnights, leaving Niall to feel equally restless and exhausted by himself.

He cleans up a little, though miraculously, the others already seem to have done quite a bit, drinks some water and gets ready for bed. And even though his mind won’t stop racing and his heart still randomly picks up speed every now and then, and despite the fact he’s not sleeping in his own bed, he’s asleep within minutes.

~

Everything is still quiet when Niall wakes up, so he takes a shower and brushes his teeth before he gets started on breakfast. 

He makes coffee, toasts some bread and rummages through their fridge and pantry for any other breakfast foods he can find before setting the table. He’s nervous, hasn’t really figured out what he’s gonna say to Shawn, so he wants the first impression to be a good one.

Distantly, he can hear the shower turning on, and a few minutes later, Shawn pads into the kitchen on socked feet. He’s wearing the t-shirt Niall gave him to sleep in, wet hair still dripping down in his shoulders, and his jeans from last night.

“Morning,” he says shyly, stopping when he sees Niall sit at the table.

“Morning,” Niall echoes and stands up, offering Shawn a cup of coffee he gratefully accepts. “Sleep alright?”

“Great, thanks,” Shawn says, and he’s blushing again. “Your bed’s very comfortable.”

They sit down at the table a little awkwardly, and Niall is quiet while Shawn sips his coffee.

“God, I really made an ass of myself, didn’t I?” Shawn groans after a few minutes, breaking the silence.

“No, don’t worry,” Niall says. “I’ve done much worse when I was drunk.” 

“I shouldn’t have drunk that much but I felt like I needed some liquid courage to say what I wanted to say.”

Slowly, Niall puts down his coffee and drags his chair around the corner of the table, closer to Shawn. “Do you...remember everything you said? And what I said?”

Shawn blushes. “Yeah, I wasn’t that drunk, promise. Sorry if I freaked you out.”

“You didn’t,” Niall reassures him. “I just...it wasn’t exactly how I planned for things to happen.”

“What did you plan, then?” Shawn asks quietly.

“Well,” Niall fiddles with his mug. “I didn’t have a concrete plan, really, but I sort of imagined us out on a date somewhere, and then you would take my hand…” He stops, embarrassed. He doesn’t need to share all the scenarios he dreamed up. “All that sappy shit, to be honest.”

Shawn smiles a small smile. “So why didn’t you ever take my hand?”

Niall shrugs, still running his fingers along the rim of his mug. “Well, I sort of...after I found out how old you were I sort of promised myself to make sure I wouldn’t take advantage of you. So I figured I would let you call the shots.”

Shawn stares at him. “Are you serious? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Dunno,” Niall mumbles, shrugging again. “I’m not the best when it comes to talking about my feelings.”

“And I’m way too fucking shy to make the first move,” Shawn says. “Especially when it comes to you.”

“Why me?”

“Because…,” Shawn hesitates. “Because you’re you. You’re confident and popular and funny and sweet and handsome and I just...can’t believe someone like you would ever like someone like me.”

“You don’t see yourself very clearly, do you?” Niall smiles softly. “I’ve been completely fucking mad about you since I saw you at that first game I went to. Why do you think I kept returning? Couldn’t believe my luck when it turned out I wasn’t just physically attracted to you.”

Shawn’s face is flushed again, and his eyes are wide, so is his smile. “Do you even care about ice hockey?” he teases.

“Not as much as I care about you,” Niall admits, and Shawn blushes even more. “So what happens now?”

“Well,” Shawn starts, “If you want, I could make your dream come true and hold your hand.”

Niall laughs, throwing his head back, but then he reaches across the space between them, palm open. “I’d love that.”

Shawn reaches out his own hand and places it in Niall’s, carefully. Niall closes his fingers around Shawn’s and smiles, squeezing tightly. 

“Okay,” Shawn says, and his face is lit up with a smile too. “We can do this more often. Now - do we retroactively categorise all the times we hung out as dates or do we start from scratch?”

“Whatever you want,” Niall says. “We could always have a real first date either way, the first one we actually call it that.”
“I’m just asking because I don’t usually kiss people before the first date, but...I really, really want to kiss you. Have been for so damn long.”

Niall feels immediately lightheaded, but Shawn’s hand in his keeps him anchored. “Fuck, me too.”

Shawn’s smile has dimmed a little, but his eyes have moved down to Niall’s lips very obviously. “Go on, then.”

The angle is slightly awkward with the corner of the table between them but Niall doesn’t need further encouragement to finally bridge the distance between them. Shawn sighs when their lips meet and Niall presses closer even. Shawn tastes like coffee and Niall’s toothpaste when he opens up for Niall’s tongue, gasping beautifully. Their hands are still interlocked on the table, Niall’s free hand resting on Shawn’s knee. Shawn reaches up with his second hand and places it against the back of Niall’s head, pushing into the hair there. 

Niall lets out an involuntary moan when Shawn pulls on his hair and Shawn makes an urgent sound, their knees knocking when he tries to move closer. Niall tugs on his t-shirt sharply, everything in him wanting Shawn closer, and Shawn follows, scrambles over until he can get a knee on the chair between Niall’s legs. He’s closer now alright, not quite in Niall’s lap but as close as if he was, towering over Niall. He nudges his nose against Niall’s, smiling, and Niall chases his mouth, hand trailing up Shawn’s back under his t-shirt. 

He can feel the muscles there, shifting when Shawn does. He wants to see them, get his hands, mouth, on every part of Shawn’s skin. 

“Wait,” he says, and Shawn pulls back, a worried frown creasing his forehead. Niall touches the creases softly, smiles at Shawn. “D’you wanna move to the couch? Be a bit more comfortable.” 

“Oh, yeah,” Shawn says with a laugh, slowly untangling himself from Niall and stretching his knee. “I didn’t really notice before but that chair isn’t super comfortable on the knees.”

Niall stands up too, grinning. “I reckon it’s not made to be kneed on anyway.”

Shawn reaches out and pulls Niall in by his waist. “Smartass,” he says, and then they’re back at it again. 

Shawn ends up with his back pressed against the counter and Niall against him, both hands under his t-shirt now. He really has the kind of body Niall never thought was actually achievable, all smooth and well-defined. He still wants to see it, badly, but it also makes him the slightest bit apprehensive about taking off his own shirt. He’s never been particularly self-conscious about his body (at least since he left his teens and started growing into his body), but he knows that compared to Shawn, he probably has what people would call a “dad bod”, and he’s a little worried about what Shawn will think. During ice hockey practice, he’s likely only around people who look like him, so will he find Niall attractive at all?

Niall tries to bury that thought as deeply as possible. 

“So how about that couch?” Shawn mumbles, his breath hot on Niall’s neck. 

Niall shivers and Shawn hums, pleased, starts kissing his neck in a way that makes every thought fly straight out of Niall’s head. 

“Mhm,” he makes, cocks his head to give Shawn better access, “Couch. Now.”

Shawn laughs against his throat but straightens up, pushes Niall a few inches away. 

“Haven’t gotten very far yet,” he says. 

“It’s cause you’re so distracting,” Niall says, and Shawn smiles sharply. 

“Only because I can’t keep my hands off you,” he reaches for the waistband of Niall’s shorts as if to prove his words. “Got loads of catching up to do.”

“Catching up on what?” Niall wants to know. 

Shawn blushes, but he meets Niall’s gaze straight on. “On what I’ve been wanting to do all this time.”

“Oh,” Niall says. He’s really coming to enjoy this development, this newfound confidence of Shawn’s. “Well. Me too, so we’re on the same page there.”

He reaches for Shawn’s hand and leads him to the couch in his living room. Neither of them lets go when they sit down, and Shawn starts playing with Niall’s fingers thoughtfully. 

“So you saw me at the first game you went to?”

“Yeah,” Niall admits. “Like I said, you were the main reason I kept coming back. Thought you were well fit.”

Shawn gives a laugh at that. “I noticed you in the crowd too, you know? None of my teammates seemed to know you but you kept coming back.”

“You talked to your teammates about me?”

“Thought you were well fit too, didn’t I?” Shawn shrugs cheerfully and Niall laughs at how un-Canadian he sounds in that moment. “And if I hadn’t always gotten so nervous around you, I’d have asked you out a lot earlier.”

“I got real shy too, in case you didn’t notice,” Niall says. “And then there’s the thing…”

“...of how you thought you’d take advantage of me just ‘cause I’m a little younger than you?”

“Well, it happens all the time, and it’s creepy!” Niall defends himself, but he’s having trouble phrasing his arguments because Shawn is busy climbing into his lap, long limbs and all. 

“Not when it’s mutual and both parties are consenting adults,” Shawn argues. “And there’s no power imbalance here either, is there?”

“Alright,” Niall says, sliding his hands up Shawn’s thighs and wishing again there were fewer clothes between them. “Feel a little overpowered now, to be honest, but I’m more than fine with that.”

“Remembering that for future reference,” Shawn mutters, his lips catching on Niall’s and making him shiver. 

“By the way,” Niall says, and regrets it the second Shawn pulls away enough for him to speak, “my friends were trying to speed things up, that’s why they sometimes acted a bit off.”

Shawn laughs. “That explains a lot, actually. If we’re exposing all sorts of truths here - I was super jealous of Hailee until we talked at Winter Wonderland.” and presses his lips to Niall’s with renewed vigor.

Niall kisses him back just as desperately and manages to get one hand up the back of Shawn’s shirt again. He pushes the fabric out of the way impatiently and Shawn mumbles “off” against his lips.

Shawn’s shirt goes easily but they struggle with Niall‘s a little bit because he’s pressed against the backrest of the couch and there’s little room to manoeuvre. 

He feels self-conscious again once it’s off and tries to sit up a little straighter so there won’t be any belly rolls.

“What are you doing?” Shawn murmurs and runs a hand down Niall’s chest.

“Nothing,” Niall lies and tilts his head up to get another kiss and distract Shawn.

It doesn’t work. Shawn frowns down at him. “Are you not comfortable?”

“No, I am,” Niall says, then sighs deeply, because how is he supposed to lie when Shawn looks at him like that ? “Alright, this is embarrassing. I guess...I guess I’m a bit worried you’ll think I’m not fit enough or something. I don’t have abs like you.”

“And you think I care?” Shawn sounds so incredulous that Niall can’t help but blush.

“You don’t?”

“Niall,” Shawn says, cupping Niall’s face with both of his massive hands. “You are the most beautiful man I’ve ever laid eyes on. I don’t know how to explain how attracted to you I am, how hot I think you are. But I am, I do. And I hope you know, too. Besides: you’ve got those fucking arms , so who are you to talk?”

What else is there for Niall to do except stretch up and kiss him? He’ll probably compare himself to Shawn a few more times, but he’s actually quite happy with himself, and if Shawn likes him the way he is, that worry is gone too. They can get right back to where they stopped.

~

That evening, when Niall first looks at his phone again, Louis has texted him asking to let him know when it’s safe to return to the flat again. Grinning, he reads it to Shawn, who hides his sheepish smile in Niall’s pillow.

“So they all know, huh?”

“About my feelings and that I was planning on telling you, yeah,” Niall says. “The rest is just an assumption so far. Do you mind?”

“No,” Shawn shakes his head and slings an arm around Niall’s waist. “I don’t wanna keep secrets from your friends. I like them, and I wanna hang out with you and them and kiss you in front of them when I want to. If that’s okay, of course.”

“The kissing or the hanging out with my friends?” Niall grins.

“Both?”

“Both sounds good,” Niall agrees. “And they like you too, so of course they’ll want to hang out with you. You still worry too much.”

“Get used to it,” Shawn says, and even his smile seems a bit worried still.

“Oh, I plan to.” Niall turns on his side and kisses Shawn’s cheek, his jaw, down his neck. “You’re stuck with me now.”

“Good.”

 

Chapter Text

“This is such an American high school movie cliche,” Niall groans, and hopes he manages to hide the excitement he still feels despite it. Wearing Shawn’s jersey to a game gives him exactly the same thrill now as it did the first time he imagined it, years ago, long before they were even together.

“It’s romantic, shut up,” Maren says. She’s got Hayes on her hip, pulling on her hair, and Niall still can’t really believe he has this many friends who have kids. Even Zayn and Gigi’s daughter is almost a year old already. It makes him realise he is in fact 28 years old, more so than all the weddings he’s been invited to over the past few years.

“Do you think it’ll spoil it?” Harry asks worriedly. “Like, will he figure out what’s gonna happen too early?”

Niall shrugs with a smile. “Maybe. But it’s not like this is gonna be a surprise anyway. It was basically a done deal after the first two months of lockdown last year. We’re on the same page here.”

Maren nods. “That’s what it’s all about anyway.”

“I smuggled in the skates,” Hailee announces from behind Niall. “Do you regret not letting me practice with you yet?”

Niall huffs. “It’ll be fine. I don’t have to skate far.”

“We’ll all have our cameras trained on you anyway,” Louis says cheerfully, “So no pressure or anything.”

Niall isn’t sure anymore if bringing all their friends along to this was such a good idea.

The teams skate out onto the rink and Niall sees Shawn’s eyes widen when he spots the big group around Niall, but then he just shakes his head fondly and waves at them. When Niall blows him a kiss, he pretends to catch it and presses the hand with the kiss to his heart. Niall is so in love with him it aches sometimes.

“You’d think they’d have moved past that sickeningly cute stage by now,” Liam murmurs behind Niall and Zayn whispers back:

“Good thing they haven’t, considering.”

The game is a relatively regular one, but the audience is in a great mood anyway - it’s been this way at pretty much every live event Niall’s been to since they’re possible again. People are just happy to be out and to be allowed to go to events after a very long drought. 

Shortly before the end, Niall takes the skates Hailee offers him and makes his way towards the opening in the banister around the rink carefully. He’s spoken to Shawn’s coach and the ref to give them a head’s up, and apparently the one security guard in this place knows too, because he only winks when Niall approaches.

He sits down on the stairs to change out of his shoes and into the skates, and stays there until the match is over so he’s hidden from view. The players usually stay on the ice for a few minutes, and he’s sure Shawn is already on his way over to their friends and has noticed that Niall isn’t with them. He waits a few minutes anyway and gives people some time to leave or at least head towards the exit. He’s not doing this here because he wants a big audience, after all.

When he stands up and wobbles a little, the security guy laughs at him. “Good luck, mate.”

“Thanks,” Niall says, but he knows he’ll only need luck for the stretch of ice between him and Shawn. Everything else, he’s sure about. 

Unfortunately, Niall hasn’t magically gotten better at ice skating, so he holds onto the barrier for a few moments while he finds his footing. He was right, Shawn is standing at the edge of the rink and chatting to their friends. He’s taken his helmet off and looks as radiant as ever, so Niall pushes off the barrier and out onto the ice, if only to get closer to him. 

Very carefully, he skates across the ice, slowly and a little wobbly, and sees his friends looking at him more and more obviously. Maren’s already taken out her phone and seems to be recording his slow approach.

Shawn turns around with a confused frown, probably wondering what everyone is looking at, that turns into an equal parts delighted and worried look when he spots Niall. Elegantly, he turns around and hurries towards Niall.

“Babe, what are you doing? You’re gonna fall!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Niall grins, but he takes Shawn’s offered hands gratefully. “Hi.”

Shawn smiles. “Hey. What are you-?”

Niall gets down on one knee.

The noise from the people left at the ice rink immediately takes on a different quality, but Niall doesn’t pay them any mind, he only sees Shawn’s face. He doesn’t look surprised, just very excited - exactly like Niall expected.

“Now?” Shawn asks, and there’s a giddy laugh in his voice that Niall feels bubbling up in his chest too.

“It was the closest I could get to the three year anniversary of the first time I saw you play,” he explains.

Shawn’s smile goes soft. “You old sap. And in my jersey too!”

“I figured I should do something special, since we’ve both known where this is going for ages anyway.”

“And where’s that?” Shawn whispers. His eyes are shining and Niall kisses the knuckles of his hand that he’s still holding.

“Us. Forever.”

Shawn squeezes his hands harder. “Exactly.”

“Isn’t the one on one knee supposed to do all the talking? And the asking, especially?” Niall asks teasingly, and Shawn throws his head back with a laugh before he looks at him again. Niall’s glad he’s already on his knees, because that look still makes his knees weak, sometimes.

“Ask me, then.”

Niall takes a deep breath. “I know you’re still so young, and if any of our future kids want to make this kind of decision at 23, I’ll absolutely tell them to think twice, but I also know that you and I feel the same way about this. Three years and two days ago we didn’t even know the other existed. And last year, we spent months locked in our flat together, just the two of us, and even though we kind of went stir crazy, we never got sick of each other. I would take that - not being allowed to see anyone else - over a world without you in it any day. You’re my world, and I love you so much. I don’t ever wanna be without you.” He lets go of Shawn’s hands and takes the small velvet box he’s been hiding in his sock drawer for weeks from his pocket, opening it to reveal the simple silver band inside. “So Shawn, will you marry me?”

“Yeah,” Shawn says without hesitation, nodding, “yes, of course!”

He holds out his hand for Niall to put the ring on his finger and cheers rise up around them. Neither of them really notices. Shawn captures Niall’s face between his hands and kisses him, whispers against his lips, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“I love you too,” Niall whispers back, holding on to Shawn’s wrists and stroking the warm skin on the inside of it with his thumbs. “Will you help me stand up so I don’t fall in front of all those phones recording us?”

Shawn laughs, pressing their foreheads together. “You are my favourite human ever,” he tells Niall earnestly, and then pulls him up and into his arms in one swift move.

Niall wraps his arms around Shawn’s neck, both to keep his balance and because he wants to be closer still, while Shawn pulls him in by the waist.

“I’m marrying you just for your strength and your balance on ice, I hope you know that,” Niall whispers into Shawn’s neck, who presses his grin into his shoulder. “You’re my favourite human too, though, in case that wasn’t clear.”

“Pretty clear,” Shawn grins and kisses him again. 

Niall lets himself get lost in it for a few moments, wants to keep their little bubble from bursting for as long as possible, but eventually, they both pull back.

“Ready to face the world?” Niall asks, meaning mainly their friends, but also Shawn’s team that’s still on the ice with them, and the rest of the audience that was left when Niall skated onto the ice. They’re still applauding, for some reason.

Shawn takes his hand. The feeling of the cool metal on his ring finger against Niall’s skin gives him thrill like no other, and he can’t wait to wear a matching ring. “With you? Always.”