If he had to rate himself as a wedding date, Niall would go with a solid twelve out of ten. He has no qualms about being the first one on the dance floor (after the happy couple, of course), always checks off the best entree on the invitation, navigates the cocktail hour spread like a professional, and never crosses the line between most-fun-guy-at-the-party tipsy and puking-on-the-memory-table drunk. Extravagant or intimate; elegant or rustic; a wedding is Niall Horan’s bitch.
And he genuinely loves them too. Niall doesn’t need to know the betrothed to enjoy the loving camaraderie, the pomp and ceremony, or, least of all, the open bar. He’s even considered going pro. Which is why he isn’t that surprised when Shawn texts him a picture of Teddy and Emily’s wedding invitation, followed by a wanna come?!
It’s been a few months since they’ve properly hung out in person, with Shawn away on a tour that has him playing to sold out arenas all over the world. They text every so often, but Niall mostly keeps up with his friend via all his team’s carefully curated Instagram posts from the road – Shawn beaming out at the crowd, chilling with his crew backstage, handing out hugs to fans waiting breathlessly outside the venue. Niall double taps each one, motivated by a surge of pride for how far Shawn has come since he’s known him, while still retaining that easy, Canadian goodness that he was raised with, plus a twinge of sadness with an origin Niall can’t quite identify.
He’s used to being away from the people he loves, is the thing. Maintaining relationships via texts, DMs, and FaceTimes is part of the life he’s chosen to lead. It’s been that way since he left for boot camp. And in accordance with that old saying, distance does make Niall’s heart grow fonder. Never again will he take for granted the times that he’s physically with his friends and family.
Still, there’s a piece of him that’s surprised every time Shawn shoots him a random thought in the middle of the night – which is probably the crack of dawn wherever he is; his dedication to hitting the gym clearly paying off in sleeveless tops he insists on wearing on stage.
Niall knows what it’s like to be young and on top of the world. The list of potential distractions is infinite. And no one should expect you to know exactly who you are right away.
Lord knows he learned a few things about himself along the way.
Usually a text from Shawn has Niall chuckling under his breath or shaking his head fondly.
This tree is insane!, followed by a shot of an ancient, enormous redwood he found in Oregon.
I’m with your people , followed by a selfie of a grinning Shawn holding up a Guinness in a Dublin pub.
But this one is different. Plopping down onto his couch cushions, Niall reads over the text on the invitation again.
Teddy is Shawn’s closest friend and collaborator, an artist whose celestial qualities are only matched by her practical nature, especially when it comes to making music. Teddy knows how to write a hit – hell, she was responsible for a few of One Direction’s best – but in Shawn’s life, she’s much more than that. He’s told Niall many times that he owes his success to her, not just her strengths in the studio but for her emotional intelligence; the ability to listen, really listen, to Shawn’s personal stories and then interpret them into pure poetry. Poetry that gets Grammy nominations and charts for months on Billboard, has fans screaming those lyrics back to him at gigs because they get it, and because they feel the same.
Teddy is family. Shawn is inviting Niall to a family wedding.
His fingers hover over his touchscreen as he debates his response, the Golf Channel commentators chatting away on his TV fading into droning background noise.
Niall’s accepted plenty of invitations from Shawn without even thinking about it, including a backstage pass for the Los Angeles show of his choice, just a few weeks ago. He hadn’t had much time to catch up, but Niall’s heart grew a size or two as he watched Shawn’s eyes light up when he strolled into the green room and saw him there, bypassing Niall’s offered fist and pulling him in for a hug with his giant pancake hands.
“I’m so happy to see you, man.”
Something about this one has Niall paralyzed, though. He doesn’t have to check his calendar for mid-September to know that he’s free. The rest of the year is just about writing and recording his next album, so appearances are at a minimum. Shawn will be great company, as he always is, and Niall knows he likes Teddy too, from the few times they’ve met. He’d normally jump at the chance to crash (with permission) a destination wedding, showing a whole new crop of people why he’s the best plus one in the business. So why does he feel like making up an excuse?
The idea of letting Shawn down makes him queasy, however. So he buys some time instead.
you sure you don’t want to bring a DATE-date?
Three dots immediately show up in the bottom left corner of the window. Niall pads to the kitchen in socked feet to get a water while he waits for Shawn’s response.
uh, like WHO? i’ve been on tour forever, living like a monk.
and you LOVE weddings!
come on, i really don’t want to bring some random that’ll be in all the pictures. you know teddy and she really likes you. it’ll be a blast, i promise.
He’s just looking at words on a screen, but Niall can picture Shawn’s big, brown puppy dog eyes, his full, pink lips arranging themselves into a pout. He chugs most of a glass of water, then slams it down onto his counter a little harder than necessary.
gotta check on a couple things, he lies. Then he goes into his recently used contacts, taps a number, and puts the call on speaker.
“Neil, to what do I owe the pleasure?” A pleasantly familiar raspy voice comes across the line.
“Louis, help me. Are you busy?”
“Just woke up, mate. What’s going on?”
“Aw, did you two finally do something about it?” Louis interrupts. “It’s about bloody time.”
“About what?” Niall sputters.
“The sexual tension, obviously.”
“There’s no sexual tension,” Niall offers weakly.
“No, you’re right, that’s the wrong term for it,” Louis acquiesces. “He’s arse-over-tits in love with you, how about that?”
“You barely know him.”
“Don’t have to. I have the internet and I have eyes and I have you.”
Overwhelmed, Niall makes his way back to his living room and flops dramatically onto the couch.
“He has a crush, okay? It’s not a big deal, it happens.”
“Mmmhmm,” Louis hums, skeptically. What a dick.
“He wants me to go to a wedding with him.”
Louis gasps happily. Niall wishes they were in the same room so he could throw something at him.
“That’s a date.”
“Sounds suspiciously like one, yes.”
“So? What’s wrong with that? He’s gorgeous.”
“He’s also a baby, and a megastar.”
“And you’re some grizzled nobody?”
“No, I mean…his thing with me, it’s gonna pass.”
“And you know this how?”
“So I’m older, and maybe he looks up to me. But it’s like having a crush on your first teacher. You get over it.”
“My first teacher was a 70-year-old woman with halitosis who didn’t believe in nap time.”
“My point is that he’s going to realize pretty soon that he can have anybody, if he hasn’t already. This is a fleeting thing, trust me.”
“There’s no minimum age requirement for meeting the love of your life, Niall. Look who you’re talking to.”
Niall sits up so quickly that his head spins. “Nobody said anything about the love of anybody’s life, Jesus. We’re talking about one not-date date.”
“Then what’s the big fucking deal?,” Louis says, his exasperation palpable, even as it pings off several cell towers.
“I don’t think he’s thought this through, Lou. The fans are already talking about us. It’d be a big deal, if this got out.”
“Since when do you give a shit about any of that? You’re a man of mystery as far as the press is concerned.”
Niall had figured out that he was bi – or was ready to admit it – about a year after the band was put together. He’s never tried to hide it, nor does he think it’s anybody’s business who he has in his bed. He’s yet to have a long-term relationship with a man, which is probably why, though he’s constantly with men on Instagram, the media doesn’t assume that he’s fucking any of them.
He’s not ashamed though, and anytime he’s asked directly, he’ll own his sexuality proudly. It’s just never really come up.
“I don’t, not for me,” he explains. “But Shawn...he’s still in that place, you know.”
“I know,” Louis says, darkly.
“Yeah,” Niall answers softly, hoping his friend can feel his empathy through the phone. “I don’t think he’s really had time to decide on a plan for the long term.”
“You know what I think, Ni?” Louis says after a long pause.
“I think you’re scared.”
“Damn right I am, if Sha–”
“No,” Louis says firmly and patiently. “You’re scared for yourself. And you’re making up all these excuses why it’s bad for Shawn for you to say yes to something that he clearly wants you to do. He’s a grown man, shouldn’t he be responsible for his own choices?”
Niall opens his mouth to argue but can’t find a solid retort.
“You got your heart broken, I know. But you got through it, and even better, you used it. You can’t just shut yourself off because you’re afraid it’s going to happen again.”
Niall sighs into the phone. Brutal truth. It’s why, out of all the boys, he called Louis.
“No, I can’t.”
“So go, okay? Have a great time. Let that big, strong man twirl you around the dance floor. Give him a thrill. Get one for yourself.”
Niall won’t let it get that far; he can’t. But it’s a nice picture. Even though Louis can’t see it, a smile spreads across his face for the first time since the text arrived.
“And if it all ends badly,” Louis says offhandedly. “At least you’ll get another album out of it.”
They say their goodbyes, Niall promising Louis to keep him apprised of all things Shawn Mendes. (There won’t be much, if Niall can keep to his plan.) Then he re-opens his text window and sends his response before he can think the better of it.
sounds fun, shawny. i’m in.
Shawn’s reply has more exclamation points than a tween’s journal entry, and Niall’s fondness knows no bounds. Shawn will book everything, he says. All Niall has to do is get himself to Toronto.
Get himself to Toronto and try to get a grip.
“Fucking shite airport, fuck,” Niall grumbles, pulling his roller bag through the terminal, trying to divine the location of the ground transportation exit, since the Great White North apparently doesn’t believe in adequate signage. His phone buzzes and he wrestles with his garment bag to dig it out of his jacket pocket. His rage subsides infinitesimally reading Shawn’s eager greeting. His nerves...that’s another story.
Nothing about their communication had changed since Niall agreed to come to the wedding, and with Shawn’s tour taking him all over the eastern US and Canada the past couple of months, they haven’t seen each other either. It’s left Niall feeling unsure and on his guard, unable to anticipate whether the air between them would be different this time.
Teddy and Emily were too unconventional to tie the knot in the city proper, Niall should have known. They picked a rustic venue almost an hour outside of Toronto – better chances of spotting a unicorn or something – which made the whole event seem more intimate and terrifying. True, he’d had Shawn over to his house a few times, but Niall was in control in his own space, and anyway, those visits never lasted longer than the award show or game they were watching. He’d seen to that, making up early morning meetings or phone calls, telling himself it was all so Shawn “wouldn’t get the wrong idea.”
This weekend would be the longest time they’d been in each other’s presence. Not alone, but alone. And Niall wouldn’t even have the comfort of home field advantage.
With sunglasses, a hat, and a hoodie pulled over it, Niall moves through the airport relatively undetected. But he only makes it to the pickup area with the help of a sweet, discreet fan. There’s no way he can decline her polite request for a selfie, though it’ll place him as soon as she posts it and start fans speculating about what he’s doing in town. Shawn hadn’t asked him to keep the trip quiet, he reminds himself. Niall won’t patronize him by being overprotective; that’s a promise he’s holding himself to.
Still, he’s relieved when the fan happily climbs into her ride before Shawn pulls up, Niall waving at her one last time as she drives out of sight. Shawn had insisted that he pick Niall up from the airport so they could get on their way to Caledon right away and check into the hotel before welcome drinks. ( road trip!!!, he texted, with four car emojis. Niall refused to be endeared.)
But he chuckles to himself when a matte black Ford Mustang GT pulls into the arrivals area, out-classing every other vehicle in the vicinity. At least Shawn had the good sense to opt for the tinted windows, Niall thinks, if he were going to drive this ostentatious thing around, just as Shawn rolls down the passenger side window and shouts, “You made it!” At least ten heads turn their way, so Niall tosses his bags into the popped trunk and hustles into the car as speedily as he can.
“You’re not exactly subtle, you know that?” Niall says, once he’s safely inside.
“Good to see you too,” Shawn grins at Niall, his straight, white teeth gleaming.
“Hi, Shawny.” Niall reaches over and ruffles his hair, which seems safer than touching any part of his body. Possibly because he’s clad in tight, classic blue jeans and a worn t-shirt with the sleeves fully cut off. Considering that classifying his feelings for young Bruce Springsteen was a key part of Niall’s coming out, this is a problem.
“Flight okay?” Shawn asks. He eases back out into traffic, crossing his right hand over his left on the steering wheel. Out of the corner of his eye, Niall watches the lightbulb tattoo on Shawn’s tricep stretch out in front of him and notes a hint of the soft-looking armpit hair just underneath. He turns his attention abruptly to the sleek dashboard and swivels the air conditioning vents he can reach so that the blasts hit him directly. His weather app told him that Toronto was a good twenty degrees cooler than it was in LA today. Someone tell that to his treacherous body temperature.
This is Shawn, Niall reminds himself. The kid who got lost so many times backstage at the AMAs that they had to assign a PA just to get him around. A best-selling artist who still has his mom come over to do his laundry. Once, he admitted that he wished he’d written the “1-877-Kars-4-Kids” jingle, because it has “such a sick hook.”
“We made it on time. Can’t complain.”
Shawn’s lip curls up when he glances quickly over and Niall’s gaze settles momentarily on that tiny scar on his cheek, a “flaw” that only improves the whole picture.
Life comes at you faster than a Ford Mustang GT on an open road, and so do the late stages of puberty.
Once they’re out and away from the airport, Shawn takes the Ray-Bans hanging from the neck of his obscenely thin t-shirt and slides them onto his face. Niall fishes his own from his leather carry-on and dons them like armor.
“Teddy and Emily got so lucky with this weekend,” Shawn gushes, gesturing with one hand to the blue cloudless sky above them. “The reception’s inside, but the ceremony’s outside, so it was a little bit risky. Though I guess they could have moved the whole thing into the barn if they had to. They keep saying they don’t care, that the wedding doesn’t matter as much as getting married, but I don’t know.” He smiles at Niall again. “I think everybody wants theirs to be perfect.”
“Then all you really need is good food, a great band, and the drinks. All the drinks,” Niall shrugs. “The key ingredients of a world-class wedding. Everything else is just...filler.”
“Come on, what about vows, huh? First dance song? The cake?”
“First of all, nobody ever eats the cake,” Niall argues, relaxed enough to pull his foot up onto the seat underneath him. “It comes out too late. And everybody cries at the vows, even if you can’t string two sentences together. Doesn’t matter. Same thing with the dance, and I’ve seen some criminal fuckin’ choices. Of all the songs to pick for your debut as a married couple, why would anyone in their right mind go with ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’?”
“No,” Shawn gasps, scandalized.
“I’ve seen it happen. All eight minutes of it. Fuckin’ horrifying.”
Shawn meets his gaze and raises an eyebrow. “Niall Horan, are you getting cynical about weddings?”
As if. He’ll own his grumpy old man persona in all other areas, but some things are sacred.
“Complete opposite, actually. Those things you mentioned, they’re all important to the couple, to their families. But as far as the party goes, they’re irrelevant. Totally irrelevant.”
“And you’re here for the party,” Shawn teases.
“Indeed. And because you, ‘Prince of Pop–’” Niall reaches over to shove Shawn’s shoulder lightly, so as not to send them careening into the semi truck in the next lane. “–evidently couldn’t score a real date. I took pity on ya.”
Then he looks out his window and chuckles, expecting to get shit back. When the shit doesn’t arrive as expected, he glances back at Shawn, who has his lips pressed together, eyes focused on the road.
“We should get there by four,” Shawn says finally, recovering his smile. “That’s plenty of time to check in and relax a little bit before the welcome thing.”
“Cool. Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool.” Niall’s stomach twists, so he turns his attention back to the outside world, passing by in green and grey streaks. “So, world traveler – how’s it feel to be home?”
“Man, it’s a relief. I love it out there and my fans, they’re just amazing. So giving, so present. The energy I get back from them, it’s insane. But it takes a lot out of me, you know?”
Niall hums in understanding.
“I guess the whole world knows that now, right?” Shawn punctuates his rhetorical question with a rueful laugh.
“It means a lot to people that you talk about that stuff,” Niall says, looking at his friend again. His monumentally brave friend.
“That makes it easier, knowing I could be helping somebody else be more open,” Shawn muses after a beat. “To get over myself, I guess.”
“You should be proud of that. Seriously,” Niall says with feeling, because he means it. “Especially as a guy, there’s so much bullshit around mental health and anxiety. You’re a huge star, a sex god.” Shawn lifts that eyebrow again, but Niall soldiers on. “And if you struggle with it too, then they don’t have to feel ashamed.”
“Thanks, man, I really appreciate that.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I didn’t even ask, are you hungry? Thirsty? We can stop.”
Niall lovingly palms his belly with two hands. “I can always eat.”
“Next rest stop shouldn’t be far.”
Fortunately, they find a Tim Hortons with a drive-thru window. Either one of them could separately make it into a rest stop and back unbothered, but together, they don’t have a prayer. And while stopping for a few selfies isn’t the end of the world, Niall selfishly isn’t keen to burst the nice, cozy bubble they’ve got going.
After several minutes, they’re back on the road with two large coffees and a box of TimBits to share. The sugar and caffeine rush lightens the mood, and Niall spends the rest of the drive quizzing Shawn on who he hates – or even mildly dislikes – of the expected wedding guests. Failing there, he tries to uncover whether Shawn’s ever hated anyone at all. The results are inconclusive.
They pull into the parking lot of the Millcroft Inn just after four, and the sight of the old vine-covered stone hotel and its grounds makes Niall want to walk back out to the picturesque, tree-lined road that brought them there and hitch a ride.
It’s idyllic. Romantic, even. Well what had he expected?
City weddings are easy. They put you up in a Marriott or a Hilton, where the floors either smell like chlorine or stale air. Everything’s uniform and functional, even if it’s meant to be “luxurious,” and the lucky couple is guaranteed to have the only room that inspires doing anything with the bed other than collapsing onto it and scrolling endlessly through the 29 available TV channels. Niall has been in every un-sexy hotel in the continental United States and many other countries too. This, is not one of them.
Ignoring his impulse to flee, Niall gets out of the car and helps Shawn retrieve their bags from the trunk. Before they can take a step with them, two bellmen are there with a luggage cart and big, uncomplicated country smiles. Niall hands them his garment bag to hang, then tilts his head, trying to make out the soft, persistent background noise.
“Is there a waterfall here?”
“Yep,” Shawn beams, running a hand through his curls. “In the back. There are hot spring pools too, I think.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the bellmen says. “Open year round. Very popular with couples.”
Niall is going to kill Louis. Slowly.
Shawn bats away Niall’s hand when he tries to give the desk clerk a credit card for his room.
“I told you: book your flights, and I’ll take care of the rest. You’re my guest, dude. It’s the least I can do.”
Niall shakes his head and puts his American Express back into his wallet. “You know that’s for incidentals too, right?”
Shawn looks up from signing the paperwork. “So?”
“Soooo, love a minibar, me. It’s those tiny bottles. Make me feel like a fancy giant.”
“Go nuts,” Shawn laughs, taking their keys and two welcome bags from the unobtrusively starstruck woman at the desk. He hands one of each to Niall.
“All the info you need is in there too,” she says, tossing her hair a bit. “Including the shuttle pickup for tomorrow.”
They thank her and then make their way to a small elevator alcove, a bellman trailing behind with their bags. Niall could dig into the minibar right now, as soon as the door shuts behind him. Lord knows there’s an edge that could be taken off. On the other hand, that edge is keeping him cautious and in control, unmoved by this honeymoon fairytale of a hotel, the six inches of height Shawn has on him, and how easy (when Niall himself isn’t a nervous mess, anyway) he is to be with.
The tiny bottles can stay in the minibar, where they can’t do any damage.
Their rooms are right next to each other, of course, at the ends of two hallways that meet in a corner. In one stage of his panicking, Niall dreamed up a scenario where there was some sort of unsolvable reservation error and they’d be forced to share. When his lawless brain imagines sliding into sheets next to Shawn, his hands become clammy and his heartbeat turns erratic. Only he doesn’t know what he fears more: something actually happening or nothing transpiring at all.
He unlocks his own door with the key card Shawn gave him and points out his suitcase and garment bag to the bellman, who follows behind, hanging up the latter in his closet. Niall tips him, grateful that he remembered to take out some Canadian cash at the airport. He follows the bellman back to the door and pokes his head out to see Shawn in roughly the same position, just to his left.
“Head down at six?” Shawn asks, gripping the door frame with his fingers on either side and leaning out into the hallway. “You could probably take a nap if you wanted.”
“Sounds good. Yeah, I might,” Niall answers, avoiding looking directly at the places where Shawn’s loose tank is floating away from his body. “See ya in a bit.”
Shawn gives him a close-lipped smile, then falls back into his room and disappears. Niall shuts his own door and locks it, letting his hand linger on the latch and fighting the sudden urge to swear out loud. The place is beautiful but old, and who knows how well the sound travels.
He toes off his slip-on sneakers after a few moments then lowers himself to the bed, pushing his back up against the headboard.
It didn’t take long for Niall to work out that Shawn had a little bit of a thing for him. Those big, wholesome features keep no secrets. And Niall was flattered – is flattered. But it’s never been anything to take seriously, considering how quickly life moves in their business and how many other things and people Shawn is going to find and fall in love with. Not that he’s in love with Niall, Louis is just dramatic and bored.
Keeping him at an arm’s length has been easy enough at home with their other friends around. Niall enjoys Shawn’s company, no matter what they’re doing. He wouldn’t spend time with him otherwise.
People would send him things, though, while Shawn was away on tour. Fans are fascinated by their friendship for some reason, so they like to ask Shawn about it in his meet and greet Q&As. Is Niall your favorite member of One Direction? When are you and Niall going to collaborate? Is Niall your best friend? Niall has found himself watching those videos and gifs over and over again, searching for something undefined. Was it – whatever it was – really there, or was he just being swayed by all the comments underneath?
He gets so soft!!! omg
Niall is supposed to be the mature one here. He learned the hard way, but he knows how to protect his heart, and he’ll protect Shawn’s for him too if he has to. They have a good thing going – a solid friendship that both of them need. And Niall wouldn’t trade it for a one-time hookup, even if he’s let his mind drift there – and stay for a while – once or twice.
He hears the shower turn on next door and knows this was a mistake. He fumbles for the remote and turns on the TV, a blond woman reciting the spa’s weekly specials drowning out the sound of running water. But the image can’t overtake the one that springs unbidden into Niall’s imagination, of Shawn peeling off his shirt and jeans and standing in the steam of the bathroom with just a pair of Calvin Klein briefs clinging to the v-muscle cutting through his lower abs. (Niall will never buy that brand again. It’s his futile protest against the way that photoshoot knocked the breath right out of him.)
That his cheeks begin to warm is bad enough, but that the warmth starts to spread down to his groin, Niall can’t abide.
He scrubs his hands roughly over his face and then pages through the channels. Mariska Hargitay’s face appears like a beacon, and he tries to settle into an SVU rerun, figuring that there’s no better anti-aphrodisiac than Ice-T asking painfully obvious questions about this week’s heinous crime. It works; Niall gets sucked into the case, as he does every time without fail.
If his mind wanders to Shawn’s preparations next door, well, that’s only during the commercials.
He’s doing a final check of the slight swoop of his styled hair when there’s a knock at the door. Niall quickly looks himself up and down in the full-length mirror outside the bathroom, hoping that the outfit he chose isn’t out of place among the rest of the guests. His purple Paul Smith trousers have a little more flair than the rest of his closet, he had reasoned while he was packing. Assuming that Teddy and Emily’s event would be a little more...let’s just say whimsical than most weddings, they made sense. A small voice in the back of his head hisses that they’re also the trousers that make his arse look the best, and that Niall knows this very well.
His heart slams against his chest as he opens the door, which is ridiculous; he just spent an hour and a half with Shawn in a car, talking shite and listening to girl bands.
They should have just made plans to meet downstairs in the restaurant. Maybe that would have felt a little less date-like, a little poorer in the sense of anticipation. Or maybe this is just how it is with them now. Maybe it’s not Shawn’s crush that’s the problem.
Everything gets worse a split second later, when he sees Shawn standing in the hallway in tight black trousers and a satin, collarless, dusty pink shirt that makes his skin glow, his dark brown curls professionally tousled.
“You look great,” Niall blurts out before he can stop himself, then bites back on a wince. That’s not something bros say to other bros.
But he stops feeling guilty when Shawn lights up like a lightbulb and sincerely thanks him.
“You do too. These were sick with the black,” Shawn says, gesturing to Niall’s polo shirt, “but I like them even better with the white.”
“Thanks,” Niall mutters, then turns around and unnecessarily checks the security of the self-locking door, just to hide his blush at this casual confirmation that Shawn saw him on James’s show with Julia and paid enough attention to remember what he wore. Is that something else bros do? Niall can’t remember right now, so blurred is that line.
The excitement of the night is coming off of Shawn in waves as they travel the hallway to get to the elevator. And Niall gets it. Life on the road is really lonely, even if you can’t ever get a second to yourself.
“Have you heard from her? From Teddy? How’s she feeling?”
Shawn presses the “down” button. “I texted her to let her know we got here, and all I got back was like, every heart emoji.” He laughs. “I think she’s so happy and overwhelmed that there are literally no words.”
It makes Niall take inventory of himself, to remember if he’s ever been at that stage – and not about an album or a show, but a person.
Maybe. Maybe once.
The desire to ask Shawn the same question burns in his throat, but the elevator dings and that’s that.
Niall rubs his hands together and exhales as the doors slide closed.
“Hold up, are you nervous about this?” Shawn asks, trying to make eye contact.
“No. Shut up.”
“You’re supposed to be my rock, man,” Shawn chuckles goodnaturedly. “Anxiety is my thing.”
“Shut up. I’m fine. I just...haven’t really been that social over the last couple of months. I might be a little rusty.”
“Well hey, no pressure,” Shawn says, sarcasm falling away. “Honestly. It’s chill. Just let me know if you need anything, okay?”
“I’m good,” Niall tries for a convincing smile. “I’ll be good. Just point me to the bacon-wrapped dates and I can take it from there.”
Shawn pats him on the back as they arrive on the lobby floor, the quiet of their ride opening up to a din of conversation and soft music. He leaves his hand there, just over Niall’s shoulder blade, guiding him off the elevator with gentle pressure. If he feels Niall’s muscles tense underneath him, he doesn’t mention it.
It seems like everyone in the inn’s lobby is there for the wedding, greeting one another and congregating in small groups. Shawn knows at least a third of them, and he moves through the crowd with an ease Niall currently envies, kissing cheeks and shaking hands like the only honest politician in the world. He never takes more than two steps away from Niall though, and at one point, Niall imagines that he feels Shawn catch his elbow between his thumb and index finger to keep him close.
He tries to do his own part, smiling and nodding, outstretching his own hand whenever Shawn introduces him to someone. Despite the chill outside, sweat drips down the small of his back and Niall is glad that he decided not to wear a jacket.
A few stiffly smiling staffers try futilely to herd everyone into the hotel lounge where the event is actually happening. When they finally make it through the doors, Niall abandons his very fragile commitment to staying sober and swiftly swipes a glass of red wine from a waiter’s tray, taking a gulp when Shawn’s back is turned to say hello to one of his and Teddy’s frequent writing partners. He grabs one for Shawn too, tucking away the small, grateful smile he gets in return.
At the end of the bar, he sees the happy couple, lovely and ethereal in floaty pastel dresses and flower crowns. Teddy and Emily are obviously the center of attention, being pulled into conversations both together and separately. But they never let go of one another’s hand.
It doesn’t look like a gesture of desperation or fear, though. They anchor each other. And Niall has always prided himself on being practical and self-sufficient but he has to take another long pull of his wine to quell the pang of romanticism that suddenly overtakes him.
That’s what he wants, in the end. He wants to have somebody to put first, always.
Just then, Shawn taps his wrist with his finger and leans in close to be heard. “C’mon. Let’s go say hi.”
Despite his size, he gingerly breaks through the crowd, then strides over to the brides, Niall following close behind.
“Baby!” Teddy exclaims when she sees her friend, extending her free hand to pull Shawn in for a tight hug.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Shawn murmurs. “You too, Em,” he adds before kissing Emily on the cheek.
Niall shifts his weight, not sure when he should speak up.
“I can’t believe this is finally happening,” Shawn continues, looking around at the now-crowded lounge.
“Right?!” Emily exclaims. “For months it was like, we were waiting and waiting and waiting, and then all of a sudden it was here and we still had, like fifteen things left on our to-do list.”
“Twenty,” Teddy argues. “I’d say we should’ve run away, but then you–” She pokes Shawn right in the center of his sternum. –”my beautiful bean, wouldn’t have been with us, and that would’ve been tragic.”
“Nah, you can’t get rid of me. I’d have followed you,” Shawn laughs. Without warning, he claps a hand on Niall’s shoulder, lightly gripping with his fingertips. “Teddy, you know Niall.”
“Yes!” she breathes excitedly. Niall takes her offered hand and leans in to kiss her. “It’s been a while, though. You look fantastic. I have to say, I’m loving the brunet.”
“Thanks,” Niall manages, his cheeks warming under Teddy’s sweetly appreciative gaze.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” Emily says, giving Niall a firm, fast handshake that may or may not leave his fingers throbbing.
“You too, thank you for having me. Congratulations.”
“We’ve heard so much about you!” she adds. Niall flicks his gaze over to Teddy long enough to see the corner of her mouth quirk upwards.
He isn’t quite sure what to say to that, so he lets it pass.
“You do – both of you – look lovely.”
“Bet you say that to all the girls,” Teddy faux-preens, tossing her hair back. “Now go. Go have fun. Drink and eat. It’s already paid for, and it was expensive as shit.”
“Okay, but we’ll see you later, right?” Shawn says fondly. He brushes Teddy’s arm as she nods, then turns away back towards the bar. But Teddy grabs Niall’s bicep with her pale pink fingernails before he can leave too.
“Seriously, I was so happy when Shawn told us he was bringing you,” she says, her tone softer. “I just feel like you were meant to be with us this weekend, you know?”
He doesn’t. Niall doesn’t know that at all.
He struggles to mirror her smile.
“Uh, yeah. For sure, I do.”
Teddy pulls her hand back and nods at him, her expression pleased but otherwise inscrutable.
Confused, Niall turns to search the crowd for Shawn. It isn’t hard to spot him, since he towers over 90% of the guests, his ridiculous long neck and broad shoulders visible from the other side of the room. So Niall decides to take the long way back over to him, stopping at the bar to discard his empty wine glass and get a pint. He drinks half of it down right there, heedless of the miniscule elderly woman standing immediately to his right and staring at him.
“Cheers,” he mumbles to her before walking back into the fray.
He tells himself that Shawn doesn’t have the same look on his face when he sees Niall approaching that he did the night that Niall came to his gig. They hadn’t seen each other for months at that point. Tonight, they’ve been separated for a total of about four minutes, and Niall is imagining things.
He’s worked himself up to the point that he can barely function – here, in what’s usually his domain. Shawn isn’t acting out of the ordinary in the least, behaving exactly how you’d expect a best friend of the bride to. He’s being kind – a good host – when he pulls Niall into his conversation with Teddy’s aunt and cousin. It’s just good manners that he brings up Niall’s album every time someone congratulates him on his own Grammy nominations. It would be rude for Shawn to leave Niall’s side, even for a little while, seeing as he doesn’t really know anyone else here.
Niall is overreacting, he decides once his beer is drained.
At that point, he allows himself to settle into the party. The passed appetizers are simple and rustic but good , including the bacon-wrapped dates that he was hoping would be on the menu. Everyone he meets is just on the acceptable side of excessively friendly, Canadians being like the Irish that way. Even the guests who know of him are warm and unassuming, and Niall finds himself getting into some lively conversations about music and the industry with complete strangers who treat him like a normal person but are curious about his experience.
He even lets his guard down enough to enjoy the warm and solidity of Shawn standing there next to him. They fall into an easy partnership, neither ever going to the bar and bringing back just one drink; both keeping their eyes peeled for incoming cater waiters and their wares. They’ve started to tag team stories, as, Niall’s noticed, Shawn likes to talk about things that don’t leave Niall out.
Niall does raise an eyebrow when one ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged woman tells Shawn how “ happy I am for you, dear,” as she walks away. Out of the many reasons to envy the guy, Niall’s not sure which one she’s referring to. But Shawn brushes it off, so he does too.
He meets family members and studio technians and most of Emily’s Schitt’s Creek castmates. (At Dan’s insistence, he texts a selfie of the two of them to Harry and promises to relay the response.) The crowd thins as the older folks head off to bed, but Shawn seems to be in a social place mentally, and shows no desire to leave just yet.
“Come on, ladies,” Emily’s friend Annie pleads to the brides. “One more round. Then we’ll let you get your beauty sleep.”
“Okay, okay,” Emily agrees, after wordlessly checking in with Teddy, who has her arm wrapped around Emily’s waist. “But this has to be the last one, at least for me.”
“Right on,” Annie agrees.
“One more beer?” Shawn asks Niall.
Niall doesn’t have to look at Shawn to know that his cheeks are pink and that one flawless, thick ringlet is falling into his vision, heavy with the humidity in the room. He can hear the tipsiness in the way Shawn’s voice has slowed and mellowed, and, let’s be honest, he can’t sound sober himself. But instead of turning his head, Niall keeps his eyes on Teddy and Emily, exhausted but blissful, whispering together while Annie fetches their final drinks.
“Yeah,” Niall says, distracted by their happiness. “Thanks, ba–”
He clamps his mouth shut and shakes his head to get the stupid wires to fall back into place. His heart starts to rabbit helplessly against his ribcage. He doesn’t dare look at Shawn now.
“Sorry,” he says with a forced chuckle, casting his eyes to the floor. “Just...thanks.”
“No problem,” Shawn says. “Be right back.” Niall tries to read his voice but gets nothing. He’s too mortified to judge.
“Actually,” Niall blurts, finally meeting Shawn’s eyes. “I think I’m gonna go to bed.”
“Yeah, just...the travel. I’m pretty tired. Don’t wanna be a mess tomorrow.”
“Totally,” Shawn agrees sympathetically. “There’s Advil. In the welcome bag. Maybe that’ll help?”
He squints his eyes and searches Niall’s face. Niall can’t take the scrutiny, considering what he’d almost said. Even if Shawn hadn’t heard it, surely he could see it.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m great,” Niall says, already starting to back away, craving the silence and solitude of his room, where he can count how many hours are left in this terrible experiment in peace. “Tell the girls I said good night, will you?”
“Sure, man,” Shawn says, brow furrowing adorably. Niall tears his gaze away from it immediately, and races to the elevator when he sees no one from the party in the lobby.
He hasn’t looked at his phone all night, but he takes it out of his pocket when the doors close. There’s just one text, predictably, from Louis.
are you boyfriends yet??!!
Niall unlocks his screen and types out his reply.
this is fucked. im so fucked.
He has no right to have slept as well as he did.
Niall’s eyes flutter open to the soft glow of early morning sunlight filtering through the room’s white inner curtains, having forgotten to close the outer ones before he finally drifted off. He lies still a moment and scans his body, noting with undue annoyance that there isn’t a twinge in his lower back or his knee, thanks to the tempurpedic mattress. And does he hear…?
Yep, those are birds singing. Right outside his window, it sounds like. And they’re the kind that speak in melodic trills, not grating, awkward squawks. That would spoil this ludicrous hotel’s whole Disney princess vibe.
Obviously, he had lied last night. He wasn’t tired at all when he got back to his room. Niall had plenty of energy to recap most of the day to Louis over text, in long, meandering paragraphs that surely showed his entire hand. Frustratingly, Louis failed to see that anything had gone wrong. Niall was just looking for a little commiseration, for someone to help him reaffirm his efforts to stay in line and keep his distance. Louis, meanwhile, kept offering useless directives like, “Go knock on his door right now, I dare you” and “For fuck’s sake, Niall, let yourself be happy.”
That emotion seems out of his reach right now with the day that lies ahead. That it’ll be beautiful and special he has no doubt. But what he learned last night – or, was reminded of, at least – is that Shawn’s glow only gets brighter in situations like these, surrounded by people operating on good intentions and love. The brand new information is that it makes Niall clingy and adoring, and all evidence points to the problem only getting worse.
His shoulders sag in relief when there’s no text from Shawn asking about the complimentary continental breakfast room the woman at check-in had told them about the previous day. He could use the morning to get it the fuck together so he doesn’t end up giving a repeat performance of last night. So Niall picks up the receiver and presses the Room Service button, then orders a pot of coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast.
It comes to his door in 20 minutes, gorgeously presented.
Niall hates it here.
He passes a few hours alternating between House Hunters and Say Yes to the Dress , which, despite present circumstances, is still comfort viewing. By the third family fight to be diffused by a Kleinfeld’s employee, he’s feeling almost relaxed. Then his phone lights up with a text from Shawn asking Niall how he’s feeling and reminding him that the shuttles start leaving for the venue at one o’clock. Like everything else Shawn does, the message is sweet and thoughtful, but he doesn’t ask what Niall’s up to or suggest hanging out before the wedding, even though Niall got the feeling that he’d wanted to at least check out the springs.
Part of him feels reprieved from being accosted by Shawn in just his swim trunks, but then the panic sets in. All Shawn did was ask him to go watch their mutual friend get married, and now Niall’s embarrassing him in front of everyone here. He’s never felt so transparent. The things he didn’t want to acknowledge are so close to the surface that he’s sure everyone can see them, Shawn the most clearly. But he’s pulled the pin and now he has to jump on the grenade.
He just has to get through this wedding. That’s it. Then he and Shawn can resume their mostly text friendship and all this static between them will fade out. Or at least quiet down enough so Niall can actually think.
There’s a guilty pit in his stomach when Niall knocks on Shawn’s door at five minutes to one. He’s a coward for faking sick and avoiding him, but in the moment, it was the only recourse he had. It’s validation when Shawn comes into view, wearing a deep blue suit with shiny lapels over a white shirt unbuttoned to the center of his chest. Niall had psyched himself up to be the boisterous, good-time Irishman everyone was expecting, but now his smile feels stretched and rigid as he works too hard not to react to the sight of him.
“Shall we get this party started?” Niall says, his voice sounding off in his own head.
“Let’s do it,” Shawn answers, with a slight but still lopsided grin.
Downstairs, they join the bit of a queue that’s formed in the lobby, waiting for the shuttles that will bring all the guests to the venue and back. Niall exchanges waves and hellos with some of the people he met at bar the night before, saving him from having to make conversation with the man waiting next to him. Shawn is as quiet as he’s been all weekend, but he doesn’t seem upset, so Niall is very willing to chock it up to him preparing for the socially draining day ahead of them.
When the “shuttle” pulls up, Shawn files in ahead of Niall. It’s not one of those plush, passengers vans with USB ports at every leather-covered seat. It’s more of a school bus for children. In fact, it’s exactly that, according to the school district name painted onto the side.
The tension lifts as an amused Niall watches Shawn try to fold himself into a window seat designed for a fifth grader.
“What?” he asks, clearly perturbed. But it only makes Niall laugh harder, the way he has to push his shins against the seat back in front of him, because there isn’t enough space for his freakishly long legs.
“Come on, get out,” Niall laughs, motioning for Shawn to come back out into the aisle.
“Why?” he asks, like it’s fine.
“ Why? Because you’re gonna get your suit all creased and because you look absurd.”
Shawn laughs too as he awkwardly extricates himself from his half-jackknife position and slides back out of the seat.
Niall brushes past him to claim the window seat for himself, then Shawn drops down next to him, angling his body so his legs can stretch out into the aisle.
“‘Course,” Niall answers, looking out the window. “I’m a great date, you know. I don’t need you spreading any rumors otherwise.”
“Never,” Shawn says, and Niall turns his head to find him looking a little more at ease than before.
It’s a quick trip, less than ten minutes, which is why the brides were more than justified going with this throwback mode of transportation. Shawn and Niall spend it going over their mornings so far. There’s not much to tell on Niall’s end; he plays his hiding off as additional rest and recovery to keep his headache at bay. Shawn, of course, hit the breakfast room as soon as it opened and then the gym for an hour. If he’d written a whole new song, too, Niall wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Are you standing up with them?” Niall suddenly thinks to ask, as they pull into a long, winding driveway.
“The girls, are you in the wedding?”
“Not exactly. I think they both have family as witnesses, but they’re not doing the whole best-man-maid-of-honor thing.”
“Too mainstream?” Niall jokes.
Shawn leans his head back against the pleather seat and smiles at the ceiling. What’s he so happy about all the time? Someday, Niall will ask him
“Something like that.”
“So what does ‘not exactly’ mean? Are you doing a reading or something?”
The bus can’t be going more than 15 miles per hour, but the stop is still abrupt. Niall has to brace himself with his hands to keep from face planting into the seat in front of him.
“It’s a surprise,” Shawn says, choosing that moment to pop his sunglasses back on, for effect.
Niall bites his lip when Shawn turns his back to pull himself to standing, certain that he’s not ready for whatever’s coming.
But as he steps off the bus behind him, Niall takes a deep gulp of fresh air and takes in the view. The farm looks like something out of a film, well-manicured and green, with the biggest barn he’s ever seen overlooking all of it. He and the rest of the guests are obviously meant to be walking towards a wide, flat plot of land, ringed on three sides with towering pine trees. Rows and rows of wooden chairs with white cushions line either side of a makeshift aisle, the ceremony area in front is marked only by two potted orchids, one pink and one purple. Two school-aged kids, probably family, wait with stacks of programs in their hands near a beverage station that offers large, glass canisters of iced tea and lemonade.
Shawn and Niall follow the crowd, Niall noting with relief that his grey and white checked suit vibes with the aesthetic, as well as the other guests. He takes a program from one of the children and gives her a wink, then pours himself a mason jar of lemonade and pops in a yellow and white striped straw. He’s about to ask Shawn what he wants, when Shawn touches his arm and says, “I gotta go check something. Be right back, okay?”
Niall nods, then casually tracks his movements as Shawn walks around one side of the setup and over to the musician’s area – like the rest of the space, it’s simple and spare: just a keyboard, an amp, and a microphone. He has a quick conversation with the woman sitting at the keyboard, and Niall’s heart doesn’t know whether to soar or sink. What else would Shawn contribute to Teddy’s special day but the thing that they both love most?
He opens and quickly scans his program, but there are no other clues to be found, just Shawn’s name listed after a reading from The Little Prince. He closes it in a huff, but manages to smooth out his brow when Shawn strides back and tells him that they need to sit on the end so he can easily get out when it’s time for him to sing.
“Let me guess,” Niall tries, poking him in the side with his elbow. “‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’?”
Shawn grins and shakes his head, then pours himself an iced tea.
“‘Endless Love,’” Niall keeps going as they make their way up the side aisle. “‘All You Need Is Love.’ ‘All of Me.’”
“You can quit guessing, because I’m not telling you.”
“It’s ‘Stitches,’ isn’t it?”
They claim their seats and make small talk with their neighbors, Niall whispering more love songs to Shawn as he thinks of them, increasingly sappy ones, each eliciting an exasperated sigh.
Soon, the seats are filled, and Niall watches the photographer and the officiant scurry into place. The keyboardist gets the high sign and starts to play a soft, instrumental version of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” Everyone turns to the back of the aisle to watch Emily and then Teddy, both in soft, floor-length gowns, walked down by their parents, and the stress of the trip, of whatever is happening between him and Shawn, suddenly melts away. Niall’s heart clenches as the brides walk past, even though he only gets glimpses of their faces through all the people in front of him. It’s not just the wet eyes and big smiles that get him – it’s the way the energy of the entire place transforms. Guests around him clutch their hearts and sigh, snapping photos as quickly as they can, knowing that they’ll be lucky if a few turn out.
“Wow,” Shawn breathes, and his awe sends a pleasant shiver down Niall’s spine.
It’s just the kind of ceremony Niall likes too: offbeat and personal, led by one of Emily’s oldest friends, a literature professor or something else impressive and creative. There’s a lot of laughter, even though neither Teddy nor Emily can stop dabbing their eyes with the tissues they have clutched in their hands. It flies by, and Niall’s so caught up in the emotion of it all that he forgets all about Shawn’s performance, until suddenly their knees are no longer lightly touching between their chairs. Niall turns his head to find Shawn already sitting down at the keyboard, pulling the mic down to his face, and looking serious.
A silence settles over the guests, as they all turn to watch Shawn. He ignores everyone else, just lifts his chin to smile at the brides, and the love and generosity in it makes Niall proud to be a part of all of this, to be there with him. Then Shawn looks down at his hands and starts to play – simple, repeated chords that Niall realizes he knows well.
“All along it was a fever,” Shawn sings, eyes closed, lips brushing the mic. “A cold sweat, hot-headed believer.”
Niall shifts in his chair.
“I threw my hands in the air, said, ‘Show me something.’ He said, ‘If you dare, come a little closer.’”
Suddenly, Niall’s jacket is heavy on his shoulders, and his mouth is dry. There’s still lemonade in his glass, but leaning down to get it would mean tearing his eyes away from Shawn, and he’s not sure that’s physically possible right now.
“Round and around and around and around we go. Oh now, tell me now, tell me now, tell me now you know.” In the beat before the chorus, Shawn opens his eyes and they flick over to Niall’s face. Niall freezes, and they hold eye contact for a torturous half a second.
“Not really sure how to feel about it, something in the way you move. Makes me feel like I can't live without you, it takes me all the way. I want you to stay.” He squeezes his eyes shut again and his voice soars to the tops of the trees.
Niall has watched Shawn perform on stage a dozen times. They’ve jammed at his house and he’s sung in his car. Niall’s felt pride, joy, and maybe even a little jealousy – the kid is great, and he’s only human. But it’s never been like this. He’s never been so exposed by it.
It doesn’t make sense, though, why Shawn’s voice and these words are having this effect on him. It’s a song for Teddy and Emily – chosen by them, most likely. Nevertheless, it gets inside Niall, branching out through his veins and reaching those parts of himself that he’s been quieting. It’s excruciating and beautiful, and he doesn’t know whether to feel released or bereft when Shawn stops singing about going around in circles and the song finally ends.
It doesn’t seem appropriate to clap, so no one does. The silence buzzes in Niall’s ears, and he stays stock still as he watches Shawn return to his seat, his trademark grin nowhere to be seen. Shawn says nothing, acknowledges nothing. But then his thigh is against Niall’s – deliberate pressure this time – and Niall shuts his eyes, just for a moment.
The officiant speaks again, and Niall hangs his focus on her for dear life.
Teddy and Emily are invited to read their vows, and they’re lovely – all about change and acceptance and self and being loved for exactly who you are. No one gets all the inside jokes, but they laugh affably anyway, including Shawn, and for the first time ever, Niall is contemplating how much he loves the sound of it.
He’s saved again by the exchange of the rings, which is teary and awkward. The girls both scream excitedly when their officiant pronounces them married, and the guests erupt into applause, standing at their seats while the newlyweds beam back at them.
“It really was perfect,” Shawn says, and despite the war going on inside him right now, Niall can’t disagree.
Niall checks his watch on the way into the barn for the reception, refusing to believe that the whole ceremony went on for less than half an hour. It felt like a lifetime, and there’s still a five hour party ahead of him.
Barn , please. It’s more of a ballroom.
He recovers himself enough to congratulate Teddy and Emily in the receiving line, then claims the first cocktail he sees. Someone has pulled Shawn away to say hello, so he takes out his phone and shoots a text to Louis, who’d demanded a pre-wedding selfie earlier and responded with a go get ‘em tiger.
nothing’s gonna happen tommo
It’s more of a reminder to himself than anything. He watches a handsome guy, almost Shawn’s height, with shaggy blond hair and confidence that Niall can sense from across the room, introduce himself to Shawn and shake his hand for a suspiciously long time. The contact lasts four seconds – Niall counts – and his resolve falls back into place.
The event is swankier than he expected – a perfect marriage of ease and class. The drinks are high-end and so’s the cocktail hour spread. As Shawn makes the rounds, speaking to all the friends who missed the welcome drinks, Niall endeavors to try at least one of each available hors d'oeuvre. He’s trying to enjoy some kind of poutine egg roll thing without it splattering all over his suit when Shawn approaches again. With a wry half-smile, Shawn grabs a couple of paper cocktail napkins from the closest bar and hands them over.
“Thanks Shawny,” Niall mumbles with his mouth half full, catching the gravy threatening to drip down his chin.
“No problem. You got it?”
“ That,” Niall points at the tray when he’s finally finished, “is not a finger food.”
“If I could live on a diet of exclusively those, I would do it.”
Shawn laughs at Niall in a way he didn’t use to – when they were newly introduced and Niall knew he held at least some of the power. Then he sips on what looks like a Manhattan, objectively the sexiest drink that there is.
Leave it to Niall not to notice that their power dynamic shifted a long time ago.
“Listen, that song…” he starts.
“You liked it,” Shawn interrupts, his eager self breaking through.
“That was...I don’t even know how to describe it. You should record that, if the girls don’t mind. People will lose their shit, Shawn, the way it suits your voice?”
“Yeah, they gave me a list to pick from, and as soon as I saw ‘Stay,’ I didn’t even really consider anything else. That was it.”
Niall’s forming a sentence, something about Rihanna being a legend, but Shawn’s called away to some other group before he manages to get it out. For his part, Niall gets pulled into a nearby conversation about the SUVs with the best pickup for Canadian winters. He has nothing to contribute, so he turns the fact that Shawn picked the song himself over and over in his mind.
A few minutes later, he’s heading to the bar to get another cocktail when he spots Teddy, kissing the cheeks of a nice-looking couple before they head back into the crowd to resume mingling. She catches Niall’s eye and he drifts over to her, clinking his empty rocks glass against her half-full champagne flute.
“If you ever get tired of songwriting, I think you have a career in wedding planning,” he says, arching an eyebrow.
“Oh honey, I have no intention of ever doing this again,” she laughs. “And we had so much help!”
“Between you and me,” Niall leans in to mock-whisper, “I don’t think you’re gonna have to.”
They both look out into the party to see Emily, doing a twirl for a half-circle of admiring ladies, her loose hair fanning out around her. When she comes to a stop, she spots them and blows a kiss, which Teddy catches with a flourish.
“Thank god, honestly,” Teddy says, looking back at Niall and shaking her head. “I don’t like it out there. Not at all. Don’t get me wrong, she’s my angel, the love of my life. But sometimes what I like best about us is that I feel safe , you know?”
“Was it always like that, though?” Niall asks, before he can wonder if he’s saying too much. “Didn’t you ever, I don’t know, get scared?”
“Darling, I was terrified. I never even asked her on a date, I just made her hang out with me until I got up the courage to kiss her. And even after that, I wasn’t sure! It was like, I like her more than she likes me or I’m reading too much into this or Any day now, she’s gonna say, ‘this was fun!’ and go on with her life. I almost did that myself a few times because I was so sure I was going to get hurt, no matter what she said or how much time we spent together. It was fucking tragic, Niall.”
“So how’d you get past it?”
She shrugs. “Eventually, I learned to actually listen and believe her.”
“Smart,” he grins.
“Meanwhile, Shawn was listening to me ,” Teddy continues. “We had a lot of good talks, that helped too.”
“Yeah, he’s good at that.”
“I know he’s famous and gorgeous and talented and all that, but I still think people underestimate him,” she adds, thoughtfully.
“Oh yeah, how so?”
“He’s an old soul,” she says, tapping Niall’s lapel with her forefinger. “Like you and me.”
Niall isn’t sure how to respond to this, so he doesn’t.
“Go ahead,” Teddy urges kindly. “Didn’t mean to keep you from the bar. Just...show my baby a good time, will you?”
Niall squeezes her hand and nods dumbly, walking backwards to join the waiting guests at the bar. Shawn finds him again – how does he always do that? – once Niall has a fresh drink, and they find their place cards on a long, unfinished wood table at the far side of the room.
“Oh good,” Shawn jokes, holding them up. “We’re together.” Niall groans at the bad joke.
They arrive at table number three to find Dan and Annie already there, plus two more empty chairs where Shawn guesses the officiant and her date will go.
“When are we supposed to eat the salad?” Dan asks, staring down at the mixed greens on his plate like they’ve offended him. “I never know.”
“I don’t think there’s like, a hard and fast rule,” Annie says, taking a roll from the bread basket and then passing it around.
“No, it’s pretty much every man for himself at this point,” Niall says, taking his seat.
“And we don’t have to wait for these people?” Dan gestures to the open space on one side of the table.
“Nope,” Niall says, speaking with all the authority he has an amateur wedding expert.
“Good, because I’m starving,” Dan exhales, then digs in.
“See, if you’d brought a date, you would have had to hide the feral animal that you are deep down inside,” Annie teases.
“And if you’d brought a date, you’d have to pretend that you’re actually nice to me sometimes.”
As tables go, they’ve got a good one. The conversation flows easily, since most of them work in similar industries, albeit in different capacities. The officiant – Margo – and her boyfriend join them just before the salads are cleared, and they all congratulate her on a job well done.
Niall is halfway through a pretty decent prime rib when Teddy and Emily become the topic again, and it seems as though he’s not the only one who has a lot of faith in them.
“I’ve so been in the other situation. Too many times,” Annie says. “Your friend starts dating somebody, and okay, they’re happy. But then they stop showing up for stuff, and all they can talk about is them, and of course, they’ll dump all the bad stuff on you, but if you have anything to say about their relationship and how it’s draining the life out of them, you’re the bad guy.”
“Emily was the complete opposite,” Dan interrupts.
“The complete opposite ,” Annie says, pointing with her fork. “She was more herself, if that makes any sense. It was like somebody changed the bulb or something. I don’t know if even she knew how much she’d been holding back.”
“She was great already, obviously,” Dan rushes to say. “But, I don’t know, she just came alive in such a cool way. Is it weird to be proud? Is that super paternal and gross of me?”
“If she were sitting with us right now, she wouldn’t argue with you,” Margo adds.
“It’s honestly inspiring,” Dan says, utterly genuine. “What’s the point in settling for anything less than the person who brings out your best self? Fuck it.”
“I know I’m not trying to do that,” Shawn contributes, without looking up from his salmon. Niall glances at him out of the corner of his eye.
“You know what I think it is?” Annie muses. “Teddy is her biggest fan. And she always will be.”
“Family and friends, take out your cameras and please welcome Teddy and Emily out onto the floor for their first dance as a married couple.”
Niall drags his chair a bit so he can see the girls walking out into the spot-lit dance floor hand-in-hand as the familiar opening notes of Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” play from the speakers. Shawn glances over his shoulder and then pushes his own chair out and further back, to clear Niall’s view completely. Like anybody would.
Teddy extends her arm and swings Emily in a wide arc, then pulls her in close. Emily laughs and tosses her head back, bringing one arm around Teddy’s shoulder. They sway back and forth, and it’s not polished or professional, but it’s viscerally sweet, their expressions smoothing out from shyness and laughter into small, adoring smiles.
There’s always a moment, Niall has observed, where the couple forget all the sniffles and camera flashes around them and just fall into each other. It’s a rare moment of the day where they’re almost alone together; without fail, you can see them – every single couple – silently realize this.
It might be his favorite part of the whole thing.
There aren’t any family dances after Elvis stops crooning; the DJ just invites “all the couples” onto the dance floor, and the tables empty out until there are only a handful of people still sitting among the half-eaten entrees and wine-stained tablecloths, Niall and Shawn among them. Even Dan and Annie leave them to partner each other.
It’s not the first time Niall’s been in this group, hanging back with whoever else is stag to laugh too hard and take advantage of the empty bars. But it would seem that neither he nor Shawn has much to say at the moment. Shawn keeps his eyes trained on the couples on the floor and taps out the rhythm of “I Won’t Give Up” on the table with his fingers. Niall studies his profile, borderline desperate to know what he’s thinking. Because the longer they sit here alone, the more he’s tempted to do something stupid, like ask Shawn to dance.
Louis had joked about it and it was always a rational possibility, but Niall hadn’t entertained the idea until this very moment. Even worse, it’s appealing. His defenses have taken a beating, he knows. They won’t hold for much longer. It’s fear that keeps him seated, his back muscles clenched as he leans forward and plants his elbows punishingly into his thighs. He wants to speak, but he decides it’s too late to, and Shawn doesn’t try to break the silence himself.
On every other day, Niall loves this song, but today, it’s three minutes and thirty seconds too long, and the relief that spreads through him when it finally ends is more effective than drink number four.
The DJ picks it up with some Earth, Wind & Fire, and soon Annie and Dan are beckoning them out onto the floor. Niall and Shawn exchange a look, and Shawn’s lips part but nothing comes out. Niall’s list of questions is getting longer by the moment, everything from Who are you waiting for? to Are you gonna hurt me? Then Shawn breaks into a goofy grin and starts to shrug off his jacket. Niall laughs, a shaky exhale, and does the same. They hang them on the backs of their chairs and join the party, Shawn raising his hands over his head and breaking out into a perfect “September” falsetto.
Nothing lifts Niall’s mood like a dance circle, and in less than half a song, he’s back to his 100 percent – okay, maybe 90 percent – wedding self. The DJ is good, rolling from recent dance pop to some classics and back again, focusing on songs that most everyone can sing along to. Shawn is his friend again, a giant, overcooked noodle of a dancer who left his self-consciousness back at the table with his jacket. Things get sweaty quickly – sleeves pushed up and shirt buttons undone. Annie kicks her shoes under the table, and when Emily and Teddy join them, they’ve both pulled their hair up and away from their faces.
When a familiar drumbeat intro kicks in, their entire group screams. Emily grabs Niall by the shirt and pops one more button as his own voice rings out in the room. It’s a good tune, he won’t be modest about it. But he still puts his hand over his face and groans as the circle shout-sings “Slow Hands” at him.
“I can’t believe you’re blushing,” Shawn says suddenly, in his ear. Niall uncovers his eyes to find him close, widespread grin on his face.
“I’m requesting your entire catalog, Mendes,” Niall promises, voice as steady as it can be. “Watch me.”
“Oh, I will.”
But Niall doesn’t go anywhere, because the way Shawn’s studying him right now feels like a dare that he doesn’t want to turn down. Instead, he starts to move, still watching Shawn try to find the beat, rocking his hips side to side and, as usual, using way too much arm.
The thing about a song you’ve sung almost a thousand times is that its meaning will go away from you for a while – it becomes so routine, you’ll forget why you wrote it and what you were thinking when you did. But it all comes screaming back at you in moments when you least expect it, like when your best friend is running a hand down his chest, enthusiastically singing the words you wrote about...well.
Air. Some air would be good.
Niall is about to tell Shawn as much, but then two things happen at the exact same time: that tall, handsome guy from the cocktail hour saunters over to their group and the unmistakably on-the-nose opening of “The Electric Slide” calls the older relatives who’d been sitting out the dancing up until this point.
The guy pays no attention to Niall or the rest of them, just comes directly for Shawn, a smirk on his face that says he’s never been turned down. The growing number of dancers filing into rows pushes them to the edge of the dance floor, and Niall doesn’t take the extra step back that he could, intent on hearing this.
“Should we get that drink?” the guy says, eyes lingering on the exposed triangle of Shawn’s collarbone, probably pretending to admire the medal around his neck. “Seems like a good time.”
This isn’t a date. It was never meant to be a date. It’s all Niall told himself, told Louis, tried to imply to Shawn, over and over and over again, for months. Shawn has every right to go off with this arrogant shithead, who insinuates himself in private dance circles and looks like he’d be a good fuck. It would prove that Niall was right – had been right, all along.
Niall waits for Shawn’s response, hoping that’s it’s not too obvious how desperately he needs to be wrong right now.
“Nah, I’m good, man,” Shawn says, all friendliness. He turns his body to the side so his shoulders are lined up with Niall’s, and they’re facing the guy together. “I’m here with somebody, so...”
“It’s all good,” the guy says, holding his hands up and backing away. “Have a good night, okay?”
Everyone else has already abandoned them to the line dance, so Shawn and Niall stand there still and alone for a few seconds. Maybe Shawn just didn’t like the guy. Maybe he needed an excuse and Niall was a good one.
“Was that...I hope that was okay,” Shawn finally says, tilting his head towards Niall, but not looking at him directly.
Either way, Niall still feels chosen, so he doesn’t much care.
“Come on,” he smiles, tugging on Shawn’s bicep. “We’re missing ‘The Electric Slide.’”
They find a narrow, empty space at the end of a row and get into the groove as best they can, even though they’re so close to a table, Shawn has to take baby steps that make Niall snort-laugh. It’s normal, just the way they’ve always been with each other – touchy and silly and supportive. Niall used to wonder why other people read so much into it; not he’s wondering why he never did.
Before he came here, he thought he was afraid that Shawn would misunderstand or expect things or, worst of all, entice Niall into a one-time thing that he knows now he couldn’t recover from. As he dips low and then back again, Niall resolves to keep Shawn by his side for the rest of the night, whatever that requires and whatever that means.
On the next turn, Shawn hip-checks him. And though Niall couldn’t swear whether it was accidental or on purpose, the spot burns, and the heat races up to his cheeks. Everyone’s flushed and breathing heavily from the dancing, so he’s somewhat safe. Then the “olla, olla, ayes” fade out, and the crowd breaks into exhausted applause.
Niall thinks of the cool night air again and how good it would feel on his skin. He’s about to suggest that they take a break and head outside – maybe talk a little bit about what they’re playing at. But his admittedly fuzzy thoughts are interrupted by the opening notes of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
Solid DJ move, to let everyone get their heart rates back under control.
And god, what a classic tune. It always makes Niall feel the pleasant pang of nostalgia, even though he wasn’t even born yet when it came out.
It sticks him in place for some reason, and he and Shawn watch as the dance floor clears out, until only couples remain.
Shawn turns his head to look at Niall; his eyes search his face. The air crackles between them; he can almost see it. An instinct buried deep down now tells Niall to laugh, to look away, to crack a joke. He doesn’t listen.
“C’mere,” Shawn half-whispers.
His heart pounding at an embarrassing volume, Niall steps directly into Shawn’s personal space and tilts his chin to look up at him. The corner of Shawn’s mouth curves up for a fraction of a second, and then he’s serious again. Cyndi sings about searching and waiting while Shawn snakes his arm around Niall’s waist and pulls him even closer. Niall closes his eyes briefly and swallows, then instinctively brings a hand to Shawn’s shoulder. Their other hands meet each other, elbows bent between their bodies.
“This okay?” Shawn asks, his jaw brushing against Niall’s temple.
It’s more than, but all Niall can manage is a “yeah.”
They start to move in tight, slow circles and Niall has to stifle a sigh over how good it feels. It was one thing to be aware of Shawn’s size and another completely to be pressed against all of him. According to the world, he should want to be big and strong, but he finds that he quite likes it the other way around. He doesn’t deserve to feel small and protected in Shawn’s arms though, not after willingly denying himself for so long.
Intellectually, he knows that people can see them, but he couldn’t be arsed, not when Shawn’s palm is burning hot through Niall’s shirt and his heartbeat is just inches away from Niall’s ear. Before he can talk himself out of it, Niall lays his head right on top of that heartbeat and listens, trying to gauge whether or not it speeds up. Shawn counters by randomly lacing and unlacing their fingers together, stroking the sensitive skin between them. He hums the song softly and the vibration ripples from his chest and into Niall. Niall’s very much in danger of getting hard in his pants, but it would take someone pulling the fire alarm to get him to walk away.
For the first time all weekend, his mind is quiet. Niall isn’t scared. He’s tired of fighting with himself.
He inhales without trying to hide it, breathing in the scent of Shawn’s sweat mingling with his cologne – spicy and expensive. The hand on his lower back starts to move, lightly tracing random patterns, and Niall involuntarily shivers when Shawn’s pinky grazes the top of his waistband.
Niall wants to see his face – to read his expression. But at the same time, he also wants to stay right here in this moment, holding onto him, before another decision has to be made.
He spends the last repeated lines of the chorus memorizing the way Shawn feels and willing the DJ to play another slow song next. Any slow song.
His heart drops when “Uptown Funk” begins. There’s a first time for everything.
Neither of them immediately steps back though. When Niall’s eyes flutter open and he lifts his head, Teddy is the first person he sees. She winks at him, then turns Emily the other way, trying, Niall senses, to give them a little bit of privacy.
Shawn drops his hands to his side and slowly steps back, his gaze traveling from the floor back up to Niall’s face. Niall is surprised to see that his eyes are sad and uncertain, especially when he himself has achieved more clarity in the last four minutes than he’s had for the entirety of their friendship.
The words are on the tip of his tongue. He has to tell Shawn, to wipe that doubt off of his face. He opens his mouth to speak, but then Shawn’s looking away, down at the ground. Niall follows his gaze to find the ring bearer kid, maybe four or so, who’s holding onto Shawn’s hand with tiny fingers and pulling on it with all his might.
Shawn looks back at Niall quickly, then down at the kid again.
“Uncle Shawn, you promised,” the boy whines.
“Teddy’s cousin,” he says to Niall with an apologetic shoulder raise. “I said we’d dance.”
Niall struggles to smile and waves them off. “Go on then, what are ya waiting for? It’s fine.”
Shawn runs his hand through his hair and gives Niall a weak smile of his own, then follows the already bounding child out into the middle of the floor, mouthing a “sorry” as he does.
Their waiter mercifully hasn’t cleared their waters, even though the ice is melted down, and Niall downs what’s left of his in one go. It feels like he was knocked out and is just coming back into consciousness, so he looks around the room to orient himself back in time and reality. He spots Dan and Annie chatting animatedly with Emily’s parents near the bar, the girls themselves still on the dance floor. The reception has cleared out a bit, between people who drove themselves and wanted to get back on the road early and people who’ve stepped out onto the patio to enjoy the fresh air.
Niall can see clusters of guests through the barn’s big open door, but he reckons that it wouldn’t be too difficult for the two of them to slip past, with the excuse of looking at the stars or finding something that one of them dropped. Niall could take Shawn’s hand once they’re around the corner and lead him to the back, away from the doors and the road and the attention of all these perfectly nice people he really wishes weren’t here right now.
It wouldn’t be fair, though, he thinks, watching Shawn holding onto Teddy’s cousin’s hands while he balances his feet on top of Shawn’s formerly spotless Ferragamo slip-ons. They have time, and he’d never want Shawn to miss a moment of this.
The kid is deliriously happy, laughing at Shawn’s jokes and encouragements. And when they awkwardly teeter around half a rotation, he sees that Shawn is grinning too. The photographer, sensing a moment, is snapping them from the side. Between flashes, Shawn glances at Niall, and there’s that blaze running up his spine again. Niall doesn’t do anything, just holds the eye contact until Shawn is facing away again, hoping that he understands.
“Emily and Teddy’s guests, it’s been my pleasure keeping your party going tonight. This is going to be our last song–” A chorus of groans rings out. Niall finds Shawn’s eyes again and stands. “–and your hotel shuttle will be waiting outside. Get home safe, and congrats again to our newlyweds!”
The opening wail of “Shout” brings all the remaining guests back onto the dance floor, Niall included. He keeps track of Shawn and heads in his direction, but just as he’s about to reach him, two teenage girls slip next to him into the giant circle that’s forming around the floor. The guests dance in chaotic tandem, nobody quite sure what the plan is but wanting the communal experience anyway. Niall is pulled into the circle by an older woman, about a dozen people in between him and Shawn. But when they catch each other’s eyes again, Niall has to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Shawn’s helpless shrug only sets him off again.
They do it all – a little bit softer now, a little bit louder now, the whole nine. It’s disorganized, and after hours of drinking and eating and dancing, no one’s really at their best. This is what Niall lives for: the tired flails, the drunken laughter, the way everyone manages to look disheveled by the end of the night, no matter how impeccable they were when they arrived.
His newly unchecked want layered on top of it all makes him dizzy, in the best way.
Then it’s over. The lights are up, so people can gather their things and find their way out. The music is replaced by the clinks and clatters of the bussers clearing away all the glasses and silverware that had remained.
Shawn and Niall end up back at the table to retrieve their jackets at the same time. Unfortunately, the rest of their table-mates are there too.
Niall can’t do smalltalk, not right now. So he stays mum, his heart rising into his throat, as he watches Shawn drape his jacket over his arm.
Their quiet goes unnoticed in the din of the surrounding conversations, though both Shawn and Niall recover their voices and faculties enough to thank the brides’ families and congratulate Teddy and Emily one more time.
Niall can’t help it. When he finally steps out into the dark, the chill feels so good that it pulls a soft, appreciative sound from his lips. Next to him, Shawn halts, just for a second. When he starts moving again, he brushes his knuckles across Niall’s, keeping his gaze straight ahead.
The guests file slowly forward to board the school bus, a march that’s testing Niall’s sanity.
They finally reach the door, but Shawn holds out an arm to stop Niall from boarding before him.
“But–” Niall protests, remembering what happened on the way.
“Just...trust me,” Shawn says.
So Shawn pulls himself up the steps first and Niall follows. Admiring what his trousers do for his pert arse does nothing to quiet Niall’s rapidly fraying nerves.
Shawn keeps walking and walking and walking, skipping over empty spot after empty spot, until he gets to the very back of the bus, and the seat that goes all the way across the aisle. He crawls into it and looks at Niall almost pleadingly, as if he were likely to go back up to the front and spend the trip with someone else.
Niall drops into the seat too, keeping a fair distance between them. They sit in silence while the rest of the guests take their seats. There are more spaces than people, and Niall could cry when the doors groan closed and the overhead light snaps off without anyone claiming the seats right in front of them.
It takes a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but at least it’s something to do. Other than that, he’s at a loss, overloaded with all these feelings he thought he could ignore forever and by all the possibilities now in front of him.
He decides to start simply. Niall opens his hand on the seat next to him, palm up. Shawn glances at it, then back at his face, then envelopes it with his own. Niall exhales through his nose and angles his body towards him. There are no street lights on this back country road, so he can barely make out the line of Shawn’s jaw and the broadness of his shoulders.
“I just need to know,” Niall whispers, after a few moments of stillness. “If we do this...what do you want?”
“Everything,” Shawn murmurs. “Anything you’ll give me.”
The desperation and the sureness in his voice start heat pooling in the depths of Niall’s belly. With his heartbeat hammering between his ears, Niall reaches up with his free hand and swipes his thumb over Shawn’s barely parted lips – lips that he realizes he’s imagined trailing down his chest and closing around his cock many times, though he hadn’t wanted to admit who they belonged to.
Shawn closes his hand around Niall’s forearm almost roughly, and for one terrifying second, Niall thinks he’s pushing him off. Then he kisses Niall’s thumb, and Niall swears quietly and yanks it away – only to replace it with his mouth.
The immediate, bruising intensity of it is a jolt to Niall’s system. Shawn kisses like he’s got minutes to live, opening his mouth to Niall right away and tangling their tongues together. Niall grips the back of his neck with one hand, the other settling high on Shawn’s thigh. The trip isn’t long enough to warrant it, but he can’t help wondering what they could discreetly manage back here, without anyone else on the bus being the wiser.
It’s blistering and physical, but Shawn still cradles Niall’s face in his hands as they make out, dispelling any lingering assumptions that this is just a hookup they’ll awkwardly try to move past in the morning. How the hell did it take him so long to realize how fucking lucky he is? The months Niall wasted finding the downside in his hot, sweet best friend wanting him like this are going to haunt him forever.
The temptation to crawl into Shawn’s lap and grind down onto him is real, but Niall settles for tangling a hand in his hair. When Shawn changes the angle of the kiss, he inadvertently pulls it taut, and gasps into Niall’s mouth. Niall swallows it, along with his own groan over all the new possibilities that reaction opens up for next time.
Naturally, he doesn’t feel it when the bus comes to a stop. He and Shawn freeze in such a compromising position when the lights come back on that he has to laugh. Shawn giggles behind his hand, and part of Niall can’t believe he’s the same person who just had his tongue down his throat. But that’s the beauty of it.
While they wait for their turn to leave, Shawn clears his throat and looks pointedly at Niall’s crotch. Niall grins, delirious, and hangs his jacket over his arm so that it’ll cover the tenting of his trousers. He gets a decent preview before Shawn does the same, and all the synapses in his brain light up like a Christmas tree.
They don’t speak as they make their way out of the bus and back onto the hotel driveway. Niall stares at Shawn’s back muscles filling out the back of his shirt, his tiny waist. Now that he’s allowed to look, he needs to get his hands on all of it.
His heart sinks when he sees Annie and Dan waiting for them just inside the hotel doors.
“Room party, bitches,” Annie says, her voice weakened from singing and talking. “307. We’ve got a couple of cases and some wine.”
“And snacks,” Dan adds.
Shawn tilts his head like he’s considering it, and Niall might actually scream. In the back of his mind, he’d always known that ending the night with a furious wank in the shower was an option, but he’d much prefer it have gone the other way.
“I don’t know, guys,” Shawn says diplomatically. “I’m pretty beat.”
“Me too,” Niall blurts.
Dan purses his lips like he’s trying not to smile.
“Okay, well. If you change your minds, you know where to find us.”
“Cool...g’night, guys. Have fun.” Shawn brushes past them and the rest of the stragglers in the lobby and hits the up button on the elevator. Niall turns to give them a wave while they wait, no longer caring how obvious he may seem.
A few other guests end up riding up with them. Niall stands in the back next to an also-silent Shawn, thinking about how right it had felt to kiss him, to make him make noise and then quiet him down. When there’s just one other passenger left, Shawn reaches a hand over and links their pinky fingers. Then they’re alone and the elevator is dinging open again.
Shawn drops Niall’s hand and walks out without a word, and for a second, Niall is glued into place. He snaps back into action before the doors close on him, then lingers a little, watching Shawn unlock his room but making no move to go for his own key.
When the little light flashes green, Shawn looks over his shoulder, eyes hooded and the perfect bow of his lips glistening, and pushes the door open.
He disappears into the darkness, holding it open wide behind him.
Niall glances around the hallway, but there’s no one to stop him and no reason not to give in. He lifts his chin and breathes in deeply, then follows Shawn into the room. The last thing he does before the door shuts behind him is flick on the light, because fuck that.
Louis doesn’t get all the details he demands the next day, but he’ll live.