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Louis is tired. He’s been tired for nearly five months, since his wife sat him down and told him she was leaving. He’d never thought divorce would be such an exhausting process. Then again, he’d never thought much of divorce at all, not in the context of his own life. He hadn’t known how badly things had gotten. He’d been blissfully unaware, making the transition even harder.

They’d met soon after One Direction ended, a little over a decade ago. The marriage had lasted nine years, just short of their ten year anniversary, long enough that he’s forgotten how to lead a single life. It’s still a bit bizarre, going to bed alone, waking up alone, the emptiness of the house.

The silence tears him apart.

His son is seven now and that’s the part of it that’s the hardest to bear. He’d been too young himself when his father left to remember much about it and when his mum and dad split, he was old enough that the situation was different. With James being old enough to understand what’s happening, but young enough to be massively affected by everything, it’s been tough. They’ve been as careful as possible with it, making sure he doesn’t see them being anything but friendly towards each other.

Louis only gets to see him every other weekend and it kills him, the stretches of time between visits, but he knows it’s for the best. They can’t be passing him back and forth all the time, especially when Vivian had decided to move back to Birmingham to be near her family. He needs a stable life, maybe more than he needs to see Louis on a daily basis.

Louis still calls him, though. Every day. He’d never want his son to think he wasn’t wanted.

-

It’s Friday afternoon when he gets a text from Liam, inviting him over for a barbecue the following day. Louis twists his lips, thinking about it as he reads the text. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see the lads, but the last time was so awkward. It had been just a few weeks after the divorce and arriving alone while his coupled-up friends frowned sadly at him had been horrible. He’s not used to being the single one of the group. That had always been Niall’s job. Or Harry’s.

But Harry has fucked off to the states again, always back and forth and back again. It’s Georgia this time, Louis thinks. He’s not sure, honestly; the lad always seems to be moving around, never comfortable enough anywhere to stay long. And Niall went and surprised them all a couple of years ago when he got married to a lovely man called Jack. He came out in true Niall fashion; he didn’t. He showed up with a ring on his finger and a man’s arm around his waist and just shrugged when everyone was shocked. Only Niall could have ever pulled that off.

He finally sighs and texts Liam back, saying he’ll be there, then makes a note to stop at a shop beforehand to pick up some goodies for the kids. If he can bribe them into liking him most, maybe he can avoid the pity stares and just play with them instead.

-

When he pulls up to Liam’s house, he spots Zayn’s car immediately and can’t help but smile. It’s been many years, but Louis still hates thinking about that period of time after Zayn left the band when they didn’t get on so well. It had taken years and, honestly, it’s still not what it was. Zayn had missed the last couple of years of band life, leaving him on the outs of the group. He’s still one of them, though, so when he shows up to gatherings, Louis is glad for it.

Grabbing a bag of toys and a case of beer from the boot of his car, he heads to the front door with a determined smile on his face. He knows they all know what a toll the divorce has taken on him, but he’s not going to let it show. He wants to get through one afternoon without inspiring those pitying looks.

“Hey, mate,” Liam greets brightly when he opens the door. “Come in before Robin hears you. He got out yesterday, took an hour to get him back inside.”

Louis squeezes in before the German Shepherd can bolt past him and holds out the case of beer for Liam to take. “I come bearing gifts,” he says, then holds up the bag when Liam has taken the beer. “And some for the kids, as well.”

Liam narrows his eyes playfully. “Better not be anything noisy. That last one you got Lucy nearly killed us. Soph had to take out the batteries while she was sleeping and pretend it stopped working.”

Louis grins, pleased to hear it. He had, of course, bought it specifically because it was the most obnoxious thing he could find. “Nothing noisy,” he says, peering into the bag. “Just some cigarettes, whiskey, and fireworks. They’re all good, yeah?”

Liam doesn’t even bother asking what’s actually in the bag, pushing Louis toward the back patio instead with a laugh. Before he can get outside, Louis sees a flash of child running toward him down the hallway, then stopping in her tracks when she sees Louis.

“Uncle Louis!” she screeches, throwing herself at him.

Louis laughs, crouching down to get a good hug in. It’s a bit unnerving how little he actually needs to crouch to get to her level. She’s just a year older than James but she’s got several inches on him.

“Hello, Joyous one,” he says, pulling out of the hug. “Now, I’ve brought you some gifts, but can I trust you to share them with your sister?”

Joy’s eyes go big and bright as she nods, fingers twitching at her sides. Louis chuckles, then hands over the bag. “Alright, go find her and make sure you split it up nice and evenly. If I hear arguing, I’ll be forced to take it back and play with it myself.”

She practically vibrates with excitement which is funny to Louis; it’s not like she doesn’t have rich parents who buy her anything she wants.

“Oh, and the blocks are for Geoff, obviously,” he adds before she can run off. “Make sure he gets them for me?”

“Okay!” she says with one last bright grin before she’s running back out toward the patio. Louis laughs to himself, ignores the ache in his chest that reminds him that James isn’t there, and walks ahead, following in Joy’s trail.

As soon as he steps outside, he’s greeted by a chorus of voices cheering his arrival. He makes his way around, saying hello to Sophia first, then a few people that Louis knows through the couple. At the end is Zayn, standing near the grill with his wife, Sana.

“Hey, bro,” Louis says, leaning in for a hug. He smiles into Zayn’s shoulder, closing his eyes for just a moment before pulling away from it. Turning to Sana, he gives her a hug as well. “Nice to see you two. Been too long.”

“Yeah, things have been a bit mad,” Zayn answers, smiling.

As they catch up, Zayn and Sana recounting the horrors of buying a new house a bit further outside the city, Louis smiles and listens and tries to keep the conversation away from his own life as much as possible. He’s mostly successful, dodging a few questions, but when there’s a break, Louis suddenly looks around the patio and out over the garden where the kids are playing, realising what’s missing.

“Hey, where’s Niall?”

“Not here yet,” Zayn answers, shrugging. “Said he’d be by, though.”

Louis frowns, pulling his phone from his pocket just in case there’s an ‘I’ve been in a horrible car crash’ message, but the only thing there is a photo from Harry, sent to all of them. It’s his face, mostly covered with a hat and a pair of sunglasses, his hand blurred in a waving motion. The caption reads: Miss you all. Love from Augusta. Louis rolls his eyes at his phone and texts back: get your hippie arse back here someday.

Before he can ask Zayn if he knows what the fuck Harry’s doing in Augusta, as if on cue, Niall steps out onto the patio with Liam right behind him, carrying a tray of uncooked meat.

“Lads!” Niall says, walking straight to them and giving Zayn a hug, then Louis. He’s got a beer in his hand and Louis takes a moment to admire that Niall apparently prioritised beer over his friends, then immediately wishes he’d done the same.

Louis can spot the little differences in all of his former bandmates, how they’ve all changed since they were living on top of each other for years straight. They’ve all grown up so much, even Harry, but Louis can still look at Niall and see the boy he got put into a band with when they were teenagers. He’s changed, of course, maybe more than any of them, but the changes have been more natural with him. Even when he showed up married to a man, it had somehow only taken a few minutes for Louis to adjust.

It’s his attitude, Louis knows. He plays everything off so casually and he always has. He could announce that he’s joining the circus and he’d probably do it in a way that would have Louis saying, huh, okay, I guess that makes sense.

“Where’s Jack? Is he not coming?” Liam asks, opening up the grill next to them.

Niall takes a sip from his beer and shakes his head. “Nah, we’ve split up,” he says, as normally as if he was explaining that rain was on the way.

“You- what? When?” Liam splutters, turning away from the grill, his brow knit with concern.

Louis’ stomach churns uncomfortably. He knows how badly it sucks to be in Niall’s position; he is in Niall’s position.

“Few weeks now,” he answers with a shrug. “It’s alright. Amicable and all that.”

Before Liam can go on, probably gushing about how sorry he is to hear that, how much he liked Jack, Louis steps forward and throws his arm around the lad’s neck. “Be a mate and show me where you got that beer, would you?”

Niall goes easily, leaving Liam huffing out a displeased noise behind them as they walk into the house. Louis’ not concerned about Liam right now, though. Liam has a wonderful wife and three gorgeous children and he’s about the happiest bugger Louis’ ever seen. He can wait.

“Thanks for that,” Niall says when they round the corner into the kitchen, opening the fridge to get another bottle of beer. Handing it over, he gives Louis a small smile. “My mum’s been in hysterics. I don’t need my friends freaking out, too.”

Louis frowns and finally notices the faint pale line around his finger where his ring used to be. Louis’ got a matching one, but his is starting to fade from exposure. “You’re really good, yeah?” Louis asks as he takes the lid off his beer and tips it against his lips.

Niall actually pauses for a moment, scrubbing the toe of his shoe against the tiled floor. “Yeah. I mean, it sucks. But I’m alright.”

Louis wishes he could tell him that it gets better, that it’ll stop sucking soon. He doesn’t know that, though, because his divorce is too fresh. It still sucks and, while most of that is because of his son, part of it is just being single again. It’s wanting to tell Vivian things that happen to him throughout the day, then remembering that he can’t. It’s all of it, really, so he has no words of comfort for Niall right now.

“Well, since we’re apparently the only single ones,” Louis says, bumping his elbow against Niall’s, “we’d better stick together, yeah?”

When Niall grins, Louis thinks he could be twenty years old again, standing on stage in front of tens of thousands of people. Instead, it’s just for Louis.

-

When they go back out, Liam doesn’t bring it up again, but Louis sees all of the looks, the same ones he got himself just four months ago. There’s nothing he can do about it, though, so he entertains Niall as well as he can, throwing bits of salad at his face across the table and inviting him to come play with the kids.

Geoff is walking, but still wobbly on his feet, so Niall sticks close to him as Louis kicks a football around with the girls. He’s as dedicated to making them future football stars as he is with his own son. James and Joy had even been on the same team for a while before James had moved away. Lucy’s got potential, though, even at six.

“Not as fast as you used to be, Tommo,” Niall shouts as Louis runs after the ball that had gotten by him. Looking back, he sees Niall holding Geoff now, giving him a series of high-fives as the baby giggles excitedly.

“At least my sport of choice requires some athleticism,” Louis retorts, kicking the ball back toward the girls. “Can’t drink beer while playing football.”

“Could if you really wanted to,” Niall answers without taking his eyes off Geoff.

Louis rolls his eyes and walks past Niall, ruffling his hair in passing before he’s off again, chasing down the ball when Lucy kicks it toward him.

They keep playing until Sophia comes out and informs the kids that they’ll either have to put on sunscreen or get out of the sun. Louis’ exhausted from running, though, so he announces that football practice is over and flops down in a chair on the patio. Some people have left and others have made their way inside, leaving Liam, Zayn, Niall, and Louis alone outside. Looking around, he feels a bit of nostalgia. It’s almost how it was back then, when Niall and Liam would come onto Bus 1, only Harry missing.

“God, we’re old,” Liam says, dropping down into the seat next to Louis once he’s corralled the kids inside.

“Worst fears being realised,” Louis agrees, still winded from the workout. He takes a sip of a new beer and the cold of it feels good on his dry throat.

They talk for a while, even get Harry on speakerphone for a few minutes to make a proper reunion out of it. Once the sun starts to disappear behind the trees, though, Louis knows it’s time to leave Liam to his family thing. Standing up, his back cracks softly and he stretches it out, arms high above his head.

“Reckon we’d better be off,” he announces.

Liam acts like he doesn’t want them to go, but Louis knows. He’s got the kids to tend to and he’s got Sophia; he doesn’t need his former bandmates hanging around all night. So they all make their way through the house, stopping to thank Sophia where she’s been chatting with Sana, Geoff playing on the carpet at their feet.

“Say goodbye to the girls for me?” Louis asks as he pulls Sophia into a hug.

“Of course,” she answers, smiling. Her eyes are a bit puffy from lack of sleep, but she pulls it off well, always looks so happy. “Bring James by sometime when you have him. Joy misses him.”

The reminder still hurts, but he covers it up, nodding his agreement. When they all walk out, Louis says goodbye to Zayn and Sana, telling them how great it was to see them, how they shouldn’t be strangers, and then they’re off, leaving Louis and Niall standing between their cars. Niall doesn’t make a move to get into his own car right away, so Louis leans back against his own, kicking his legs out in front of him.

“So, did he move out or did you?”

Niall mimics him, leaning against his car, facing Louis. “He did. Said his mate was gonna take him in.”

Louis wants to ask what happened, what fell apart, but he knows he can’t right now. He and Niall haven’t been as close as they used to be lately; none of them have. They’ve all got families and lives of their own and it’s hard to make time. He can’t just ask personal shit like that when Niall hadn’t even told them that he’d split from his husband.

He sighs instead, giving Niall a small smile. “Well, the silence at mine has been driving me mad, so if you ever want to stop by or go out for a pint or whatever,” he says, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Yeah?” Niall asks, something like hope in his tone. “Okay, yeah, that’d be good.”

Louis grins and pushes himself away from the car, stepping into Niall’s space. The hug is different with him, longer and more important than the rest of the hugs he’s given out tonight. Tipping his mouth toward Niall’s ear, he whispers, “Who needs ‘em, right? We’ve got each other.”

Niall’s only response is a tight squeeze around Louis’ waist, his face pressed into Louis’ shoulder.

They stay just like that for a couple of minutes, holding onto each other before they finally pull away from it, going their separate ways. As Louis drives off, he feels like a massive prick for being a little bit glad that this has happened.

-

It’s just two days later that Niall rings him, asking if he wants to grab dinner. Louis only works part-time as a producer, which had been great when it allowed him to pick his son up from school and be home much more often than most dads. Now, though, he spends way too much time on his sofa, watching telly and playing games on his phone. So when he hears from Niall, he perks up, happy for the distraction.

He’s got other mates, of course, but they’re all married or idiots or in bloody America. None of them are Niall, anyway. There’s no one he’d rather spend an evening with.

They meet at the restaurant and laugh their way through the meal, as well as enough drinks to get Louis buzzed, happy and warm. Once they’re finished, it seems silly to end the night there, so Louis insists Niall come back to his for more drinking and video games. It feels spectacularly like they’re twenty-one again, fucking around between shows.

“This is good,” Niall says, slumped back into the plush cushions of Louis’ sofa. He’s got a beer in hand and a lazy smile spread across his lips.

Louis looks at him for a moment, wondering how much Niall hides from them. He wonders how bad the split was, really, if Niall’s just not telling the whole story. He’d kept the fact that he’s gay hidden so long that Louis thinks maybe there’s more to him than he’s letting on. Suddenly, Louis feels desperate to uncover it, to dig in and figure him out.

“When did you realise you were gay?” he asks, point blank, hoping it’s not the wrong thing.

Niall’s gaze lifts, dragging over to Louis’, but he doesn’t seem put off by the question. Curious, maybe, but not irritated. “Like, know for sure? Or just suspect?”

Louis shrugs. “Either. Both.”

“Suspected before I ever met you,” he answers, his thumb rubbing against the lip of his beer bottle where it’s resting against his hip. “Didn’t know for sure until after the band split, I suppose.”

Louis nearly winces because that’s such a long time to spend in limbo, thinking but not knowing. He covers it up, though, not wanting to do the pity thing. “When did you know for sure? Like, what changed?”

Niall’s eyes slip away from Louis’ face then, lowering to the floor and growing distant. “Met Jack,” he says, and there would usually be a classic Niall shrug there, but he doesn’t do it this time, doesn’t pretend it’s not a big deal. “It was the first time I was ever properly with anyone. Like, sexually and- and more, you know.”

Louis frowns to himself, the dates not adding up in his mind. “I thought you were only together for a year before you got married?”

“Nah,” Niall says, shaking his head. “Well, sort of. We met right after the band finished, dated for a bit, but then we broke up. When we saw each other again, a few years later, it was better. We were both more ready for it, I think. So that’s when we started up again for real.”

Louis bites down on his lip, wanting to keep Niall talking. It’s good, this. It almost feels like they’re getting closer than they ever were, certainly closer than they have been over the past decade.

Fuck, it’s mad to think of it like that. He can’t believe so much time has passed; in this moment, it feels like just yesterday.

“I can’t believe I never knew this stuff,” Louis mumbles, resting his head against the back of the sofa, his body turned sideways toward Niall. “Why’d you keep so much to yourself?”

Niall is still for a moment before he lifts his beer to his lips, tipping it back. When he pulls it away, he finally turns his head, looking at Louis. “Honestly, you all had your own things going on. It was mad, you know? When we were all together, it was insane. I didn’t want to add any more insanity.”

“What about after though?”

Niall shakes his head, a little smile playing at his lips. “After, we all went our separate ways, remember? It was ages before we finally started hanging out again at all. And by then you and Liam were married, he had a baby on the way, Zayn was doing his own thing. Harry was gone. It just never felt like the right time to unload all of it. Didn’t even feel necessary, you know?”

Louis frowns again because he wants to be the friend that Niall tells things to. He’s angry with himself for never having been that for him. “Well, it’s necessary now,” he says decisively, looking straight into Niall’s eyes. “I want all of your secrets. No holding back.”

Niall laughs, the sound bright in contrast to the heaviness of the conversation. It makes Louis smile, just hearing it.

“All of my secrets, eh?”

Louis nods, his expression serious. “Every one.”

Niall sighs, looking at the ceiling, and his cheeks seem to flush pink in an instant. “Remember the guy on the sound crew? Alex?”

Lifting an eyebrow, Louis says, “yeah,” drawing the word out in a question.

Niall’s lips curve into a smile and he turns toward Louis, mischief in his eyes. “Want to hear about the first time I sucked a dick then?”

Louis practically jumps from the sofa, sitting bolt upright with a loud gasp. Niall curls in on himself, laughing, and Louis begs him for more information: date, time, and location. As Niall tells him about it, about how messy it was, how badly he gagged, how good it felt to have someone’s hand in his hair, a raspy voice telling him how well he was doing, Louis feels a bit shit again. He could’ve heard about this ages ago if he’d been less absorbed in his own mess back then.

It feels like he’s wasted years not knowing, but now that he’s finally getting closer to Niall, there’s a sense of excitement in it. He feels giddy with optimism, more than ready to learn all of the details that he’s missed along the way.

-

It happens as easily as anything, the two of them finding places in each other’s lives again. Almost immediately, they’re spending most nights together, and some days as well. Louis has always liked being around Niall, but it’s different now. It feels like something just for them, the way Louis and Liam had been when the band split or the way Louis and Zayn had been before that, Louis and Harry before that. It’s finally Louis and Niall’s turn, but it’s better even than it had been with the other lads because they’re older and their lives aren’t as mad and it feels like an actual choice they're making.

And they’ve both just ended their marriages, a key component that seems to draw them closer to each other than anyone else.

“Christ, I can’t keep up with you anymore,” Louis says, walking into his kitchen late one night after spending the evening in a pub with Niall buying round after round. He grabs two waters from the fridge and passes one to Niall before sucking down half of his own in one go.

“It’s in my bones,” Niall says, grinning, then takes a small sip of his water. He’s tipsy, for sure, but nothing like Louis, who can barely keep himself upright. “Oh, come on, then, I’ll get you into bed.”

“What kind of boy do you think I am?” Louis asks, pretending to be scandalised.

Niall rolls his eyes, half-dragging him toward the bedroom. “No kind of boy at all, Tommo. You’re an old man now.”

Louis thinks of several different retorts to that, but he lets it go, flopping down on the bed sideways, his feet hanging off the edge. “Shoes,” he says, frowning, eyes already closed.

He can’t see it, but he can feel Niall pulling off his shoes and socks and he smiles to himself. He feels good. He likes Niall being around so much.

“Feels like old times,” Niall murmurs, softer now. “How many nights do you reckon I took care of you when you were pissed?”

Louis hums to himself, thinking. “Million? Billion?”

Niall’s laugh is low and quiet as he finishes his work, then scoops Louis’ legs up with his arm, moving him until he’s lying the right way, head finding the pillows. Only then does Louis crack his eyes open, scooting to the side.

“Come here,” he slurs, patting the bed next to him.

“Nah, it’s alright. Sofa’s fine by me.”

“Niall,” Louis says, as firmly as he possibly can in his state. “Get down here and give this sad, old, drunk man a cuddle, would you?”

There’s a long pause and Louis doesn’t realise his eyes are closed again until he thinks about opening them to see what’s taking so long. Finally, the bed moves next to him and Niall crawls in carefully, sliding under the covers.

Louis smiles to himself, curling into his mate’s space, pressing into his side. He remembers being a teenager, being overwhelmed and scared and excited all at once, and he’d crawl into Niall’s bunk and lie with him just like this. He’s not a teenager anymore, but it feels just as good now. It feels better, even.

A hand comes to rest on Louis’ back, warm and steady, and then it starts to move, sliding up and down Louis’ spine. He melts into it, lets the touch relax him from head to toe, until he’s drifting at the edge of sleep, more content than he’s been in ages.

“Feels good,” he says, the words quiet and muffled against Niall’s shoulder.

Niall’s hand glides down, fingers swirling in slow circles through Louis’ t-shirt, and he says, “Good,” just as softly.

Only a second later, Louis feels lips pressing a chaste kiss to his forehead, through his fringe. He smiles to himself, drunk and happy and comfortable, and lifts his head, finding Niall’s lips with his own. He kisses him just as chastely as Niall had kissed his forehead, just a soft peck before he drops his head onto his mate’s shoulder again and falls asleep.

-

“Why do we never come here?” Louis asks, stepping into Niall’s house a few days later. It’s a nice house, clean and organised and comfortable. Louis does his best to keep his own place neat for when his son comes over, but it always feels a little cold to him. It has ever since they moved out.

“Yours is more conveniently located,” Niall says, shrugging. “Not much out here except a Morrison’s and a Pizza Express.”

Louis ignores him, looking around. “Well, I like it here. Can’t drink tonight anyway, I’m going to pick up James in the morning.”

“Aww,” Niall says softly and, when Louis looks, he’s got a sad sort of smile on his face. “I miss him. Haven’t seen him in a long while.”

“Like to keep him to myself when I get to be with him,” Louis says, looking away. “But maybe we could do something sometime. Sophia said Joy misses him, too, so we could have a thing at Liam’s sometime.”

Niall steps closer and pinches Louis’ side. “Only if you want.”

Louis meets his gaze then and he sees patience in Niall’s. They haven’t discussed the kiss, but Louis doesn’t feel like there’s any point. It wasn’t anything, really, not anything that has to be talked over. But somehow it wasn’t nothing, either.

“I do want,” he says, leaning into Niall’s shoulder for a second. “Remind me where the bathroom is?”

Niall points the way and Louis walks down the hall, turning into a bright bathroom, properly decorated in light, warm tones. Louis finds himself wondering if Niall decorated it or if Jack did, wonders how many of the cosy aspects of the house are left behind by the other man. It can’t have been all of them, he’s sure. Niall’s got that air about him, warm and comfortable. Or maybe that’s just Louis’ perspective.

He still finds himself wondering what exactly happened between them. He’d liked Jack a lot, from what he knew of him. They weren’t by any means close, but they’d met more than a few times. Thinking back, Louis wonders if what he liked most about the man was the way he made Niall smile. Maybe that’s all that really mattered to Louis; maybe he wouldn’t like him at all now.

He walks out smelling his hands, where the scent of cedar lingers on his skin from the soap. Hearing noise from the kitchen, he heads there, finding Niall working at the large island in the middle. There are a bunch of tomatoes, onions, and peppers strewn across the counter and Niall appears to be sharpening a knife.

“What’s all this?” Louis asks, hopping up onto an adjacent worktop. It’s not as easy as it used to be, but he’s still got a bit of dexterity about him.

“Salsa,” Niall answers, setting to work on chopping one of the peppers. “I’ve tweaked it over the years, but it’s perfect now. Trust me, you’ll like it.”

“I’m sure I will,” Louis says, watching Niall work. His knife skills are impressive, almost like a proper chef. “Remember that restaurant we went to in – fuck, where was it? Texas? Somewhere down there. And Harry tried the hot salsa and cried.”

Niall laughs loudly, pausing his chopping. It had been a hilarious moment, watching Harry confidently scoop some of the salsa into his mouth, then watching his face fall, his lip quiver. Louis had laughed for an hour straight about it.

“There were tears dripping down his chin,” Niall recalls through his laughter. “I think I still have a picture somewhere.”

He goes back to chopping as his laughter dies down and Louis settles back, silent as he continues to watch. It doesn’t take long before Niall is squeezing half a lime over the mixture and stirring it up, then presenting the bowl to Louis, along with a bag of tortilla chips. Louis takes a tortilla chip, scooping some of the fresh salsa onto it, and shoves it into his mouth.

It’s amazing, of course. He’s not surprised.

“Fucking ace, mate,” he says around his mouthful before swallowing it down. “All this good cooking, you’d make a great–”

He stops himself just in time and yet not at all in time because it’s obvious where he was going with that sentence. He knows it and Niall knows it, shifting awkwardly in front of him.

“Fuck, sorry,” he says, his face heating up from his mistake. “I didn’t mean–”

“No, it’s fine,” Niall interrupts quietly. “I mean, I think I did, anyway.”

Louis stares down at his friend, at his small smile tinged with sadness, the way his shoulders slump, just a little. He puts the salsa and tortilla chips aside, then reaches out to grab Niall’s shirt, pulling him closer. When he’s between Louis’ legs, glancing up at him, Louis swallows hard.

Quietly, he says, “I know you did, Nialler. You made an amazing husband.”

Niall pauses for a second, like he’s not sure whether or not to agree, but in the end he nods, small and jerky. “You did, too, you know.”

Louis isn’t sure that it’s true, but he thinks he did okay, at least. He doesn’t think he was the worst husband in the world.

Instead of answering, he tips his head forward, resting his forehead against Niall’s. His thumb glides over the back of Niall’s neck, sweeping back and forth, and he smiles when he smells the faint hint of cedar mixed with Niall’s skin. The scent threatens to draw him closer, but he stays still, letting himself enjoy it for the moment.

-

Later that night, after half a day at Niall’s, Louis sighs, looking at the clock. He doesn’t need to leave until nine the next morning to meet his ex and pick up his son, but he knows he should get back home soon. It’s just that he likes it at Niall’s. He likes being with Niall.

The years since the band broke up had put distance between them, enough that Louis had forgotten how easy it is to be with the lad. He’s more easygoing than just about anyone Louis’ ever known, even today. But he cares passionately about things, too, and Louis loves getting to see that side of him.

“I should probably go,” he says, frowning even as he says it.

“Oh,” Niall says, looking over at him from the other side of the sofa. There’s a downward pull to his lips, his brow furrowed just a bit. “Yeah?”

“Don’t really want to,” he answers, shrugging. “But I’ve got to get a good night’s sleep.”

Niall doesn’t look pleased and, for some reason, that makes Louis feel warm somewhere in the pit of his stomach. “Right. Well, okay. We can hang out next week, though?”

“Of course,” Louis says, reaching out without thinking. His hand falls to Niall’s knee, resting just above the bend of it, and he squeezes, making no move to get up. He doesn’t miss the way Niall scrapes his teeth over his bottom lip, eyes darting down to Louis’ hand for just a second.

Louis doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, why that makes his chest tighten, and his fingers squeeze again, dragging over Niall’s jeans. He doesn’t understand it because it’s Niall. Louis has known him all of his adult life, has considered him something like a brother for most of that.  But the swooping feeling in his stomach now doesn’t feel brotherly at all.

“I should go now,” Louis says again, pulling his hand away from Niall’s knee. His cheeks are on fire now and, looking at Niall, he sees that the other lad’s face is pink as well.

“Yeah,” Niall says, looking away. “Yeah, alright.”

Louis pauses, needs to say something else to keep that sadness out of Niall’s eyes. “Hey. Monday, okay? I’ll come over Monday? We’ll play footie in the garden. I’ll kick your ass, it’ll be great.”

A hesitant smile blooms on Niall’s lips then and Louis grins, deciding to leave it there. “Good, then,” he says, standing up. He ruffles Niall’s hair, just a touch too gently, then straightens up. “I’ll see you Monday.”

With that, he leaves. In the car, his cheeks still feel hot and the swooping feeling is still present in his stomach, and he tries to push it all out of his mind for the time being. He’s got a weekend with his son ahead and no amount of strange new feelings will keep his attention away from that.

-

The weekend goes off without a hitch. He takes James to the Science Museum and they go to Giraffe for dinner, James’ favourite. They play football in the park and watch films and Louis tries not to think about the fact that it’s only two days and then he’s gone again for almost two weeks. He succeeds for the most part, except when James falls asleep next to him on the sofa halfway through Tangled, slumped against Louis’ side. He has a little cry then, just a small one, before he carries the boy to bed.

He manages not to think about Niall much, just a few flashes of it in his mind, his hand on Niall’s knee, their foreheads pressed together, the quick press of lips in his bed. On Monday, though, he’s itching to spend time with him again. They haven’t really gone more than a couple of days without seeing each other in weeks, since Liam’s barbecue.

When Niall opens the door early Monday evening, Louis feels that swooping feeling again, but he shakes it off, walking inside.

“Hey, how was the weekend?” Niall asks, closing the door behind them.

“Amazing, as always,” Louis answers with a grin. “We went to the Science Museum. I reckon he’s a future rocket scientist. Or brain surgeon. If, you know, the football career doesn’t pan out.”

“Maybe he’ll be a famous pop star like his dad,” Niall adds.

Louis’ nose wrinkles. “Christ, no. I won’t let him.”

Niall laughs brightly at that, hands stuffed into the pockets of his hoodie. “Alright, scientist or football star it is,” he concedes. “Speaking of, you ready to kick my ass? Cut the grass and everything.”

Louis smiles, more than ready to kick the ball around a bit, get some exercise and fresh air. And, if he happens to beat Niall in the process, then that’s just a perk.

-

They don’t really keep score, but they don’t need to. Louis has never stopped practicing over the years, even if it’s just him kicking the ball around alone in his garden. Niall, on the other hand, doesn’t play much at all. He golfs every week, but Louis is the first to point out that golf isn’t really a sport, more of a hobby.

“Jesus,” Niall says, his accent thick over the word. He’s breathing hard and Louis is, too, but Louis doesn’t look like he’s about to fall over.

“Too much for ya, Nialler?” Louis asks, dribbling the ball back toward him.

Niall wipes at his forehead to keep the sweat from his eyes, but it leaves his fringe poking up weirdly in front. With a small chuckle, Louis steps closer, kicking the ball aside, and he reaches up to fix it. Only when his fingers are in Niall’s hair does he think of how close it’s brought them, how he can feel Niall’s laboured breathing against his wrist.

“Weak,” he says, shaking his head, but he doesn’t pull his hand away. It drifts down, his palm smoothing over Niall’s hair until he’s cupping his neck, only his fingertips buried in the short hairs at the bottom.

Looking into Niall’s eyes this close, he can see the small wrinkles around them, a lifetime of smiles aging him in the very best way.

Louis smiles, thinks for a second about backing away, but he doesn’t much see the point. Niall’s not backing away, after all, and if there’s a reason they shouldn’t do this, it’s him. Louis knows that he himself has moved on enough from his marriage to handle this. If Niall has, too, then he doesn’t see a reason to stop.

“Lou,” Niall breathes out over a heavy exhale, his chest still rising and falling rapidly.

Louis is still smiling when he leans in, touching his lips to Niall’s. It’s not like the last one, not just momentary. Louis holds onto this one, pressing into it and letting Niall breathe around his lips. He gets close enough to taste him, the salty sweat on his upper lip, the sweetness of his mouth.

When Niall’s hands slip around his waist, palms against his sides, then his back, Louis smiles, breaking the rhythm of the kiss. He doesn’t pull away from it, nudging his nose against Niall’s cheek as he smiles against his lips, but then it hits him. He realises that it’s Niall he’s kissing, Niall who used to fart in his face, then fall over laughing. It’s Niall, his friend for more years than he cares to count. The thought makes him laugh, his body vibrating as he finally pulls away, ducking his head.

He’s just kissed Niall. If you’d told him 18 years ago, or a month ago, that he’d be standing in Niall’s back garden kissing him, he would have laughed until he cried.

“Something funny?” Niall asks, a forced casualness in his tone, like he’s masking some insecurity.

Louis bites down on his lip, trying to tamp down his giggles, and lifts his head, looking into Niall’s eyes. His hand is still on his neck, so he brings the other one up, clasping them together to make sure he doesn’t run off.

“It’s a bit mad, isn’t it?” he asks, eyebrows lifting. “Us? Kissing?”

“It is mad,” Niall agrees. His hands at Louis’ waist are still careful, unmoving. “Is it mad to you because I’m a bloke?”

Louis opens his mouth to say no, of course not, but he stops to think for a moment because, while that’s not the most bizarre part of this, he supposes that’s in there, too. “It’s mad because it’s you,” he says, looking into Niall’s eyes, his laughter gone now. “And, yeah, you’re a bloke and it’s been many years since I kissed a bloke, but it’s been many years since I kissed anyone but Viv, you know? It’s mad for all of those reasons, but mostly because it’s you and I’ve known you half of my life and it’s never been like this with us. It’s mad because, why now?”

He hopes he hasn’t said the wrong thing, but it’s the main thought running through his mind. Why, after so many years, is he just now starting to look at Niall like this, like someone he wants to kiss and hold and spend his nights with? It seems to him like the potential should have been there all along, like he should have noticed it before now.

“Maybe it just wasn’t the right time?” Niall asks, his hands finally moving, holding Louis’ waist tighter and pulling him in.

Louis presses his lips together, curious. “Is it the right time now?” he asks, his voice quiet. They’re too close to speak louder than a whisper anyway. “We’re both just divorced, after all. Are you sure it’s the right time?”

Niall sighs out, his breath soft against Louis’ chin. “Maybe it’s the right time as far as us finding comfort in each other. I mean, tell me if it’s different for you, but I don’t think we have to rush into anything. Maybe we just need to, like, enjoy each other? Like this?”

That idea sends a wave of relief through Louis because he’s honestly not sure how ready he is to jump right into another relationship and he’s not sure that Niall is, either. But letting themselves have this, whatever it is, feels important. Like Niall had said, it’s about comfort, and Louis is the most comfortable with Niall.

“I like that,” he whispers, smiling, then closes the distance between their mouths, kissing him gently. “So this is still okay?”

Niall mutters something in reply, but the words get trapped between them when Niall pushes further into the kiss. Louis figures it doesn’t matter; the answer is in the press of their lips anyway.

-

The best part about kissing Niall is arguably the seamlessness of it, how Louis can crack a joke into Niall’s lips and send the lad into a fit of laughter, how easy it is to fall back into it. It makes him feel happier than he has in a long time, stretched out in Niall’s bed, alternating between laughing and kissing and talking. It’s all fucking great with Niall, every last second of it.

“So, what exactly is your experience with guys?” Niall asks a few days later, when they’re in his bed. His fingers are tracing over Louis’ ribs, down over his stomach, and Louis grins, closing his eyes.

“You know what it is. Told you ages ago.”

Niall hums, his fingers sliding back up Louis’ side. “Just wasn’t sure if you had anything to add.”

Louis shakes his head slowly, sighing as the light touch moves over his chest, leaving a trail of tingles in its wake. “Nope, that’s it. Snogged a bloke when I was seventeen. Gave another bloke a handjob when I was eighteen, got a handjob in return.”

“So, are you bisexual?” Niall asks softly.

Louis has never really thought of it in those terms. He’s fancied a few blokes over his life, but he’s only ever fallen in love with women. He’s not sure what that means, where it puts him on the spectrum, but he knows that if Niall’s fingers trailed lower, touched him, he would welcome it. To him, that’s all that matters: who he’s with right now, in this moment.

“Dunno. Suppose so, maybe,” Louis answers. He doesn’t open his eyes as he lifts a hand and circles his fingers around Niall’s wrist, pulling it up over his chest. He holds Niall’s hand there for a second before pulling it up further, kissing his knuckles. “I’m attracted to you.

When he finally opens his eyes, Niall is staring at his lips, not quite smiling, but content. His gaze lifts until it meets Louis’ and they both smile then, small and private, before Niall dips down and kisses him again.

It still feels mad, in a way, but it’s the kind of madness that Louis likes.

-

“Fuck,” Louis mumbles, back against his bed with Niall on top of him. His legs are spread, bracketing Niall’s hips, and he can feel where Niall is hard against him, through far too many clothes.

“Is this rushing?” Niall asks, his voice husky as he mouths at Louis’ neck.

Louis’ eyes roll back at the barely-there scrape of teeth, the wet of his mouth against his skin. He pulls Niall back up, fingers tight in his hair, and smashes their lips together again. It’s been heading this way for a couple of weeks, their kisses growing heavier, hotter. Louis is up for it, completely, but he does spare a thought for how much they have to lose with this.

“No,” he answers anyway, pulling away from the kiss for a moment. “No, been fucking waiting for this.”

Niall grins, kisses Louis again, and his hips surge forward, making Louis’ head spin. He has no idea how they lasted this long considering how much time they’ve been spending together. They’ve gotten close, once or twice, but one of them always backs off before it gets too heated. They’re not backing off now, though, and Louis is so fucking relieved.

“Can I suck you?” Niall asks. His breath is heavy between them and Louis shudders, wanting it so much.  

His answer is a whispered, “Yeah,” his voice cracking so it barely sounds like a word at all. Niall seems to get the message, though, and soon he’s tearing himself away from Louis’ lips like it hurts to do so, crawling further down. Louis watches him settle between his legs, amazed by the view.

It’s incredible how much life they’ve lived since the band, since long nights on the tour bus and standing on stages across the world. Looking down at Niall brings him back to that a bit, makes him feel young and excited again. He hadn’t realised that maybe he’d been wanting that feeling back, just a sliver of it. Now, with Niall pulling his jeans down and getting his cock out, he feels the rush of a thrill that he hasn’t felt in some years.

It’s different to any other time he’s gotten a blowjob because now, as Niall’s hand wraps around him, mouth so close, Louis knows that this is something he wants to do for Niall, too. He’s thought about it before, abstractly, but now it’s all so definite; it’s within reach.

“Tell me about it,” Louis murmurs, chest shaking as Niall tilts his cock down, presses his lips to the head. “You like it, yeah?”

“Sucking dick?” Niall asks. When Louis nods, he answers, “Yeah, love it.”

Louis just manages to choke down a gasp when Niall puts his mouth on him properly, sucking him down in a long, slow motion. His eyes are closed like he’s savouring it and Louis loses his mind for a second when he starts bobbing, still so slowly.

“Why d’you like it? What’s it like?” His voice shakes, but he doesn’t look away when Niall’s eyes open, glancing up.

He sucks Louis for another minute, lips loose and tongue licking at him, before he slips off, lips wet. “Dunno. I like making someone feel good,” he answers, smearing his lips down the shaft, murmuring against him. “You, for instance. Really wanna make you feel good.”

Louis bites down on his bottom lip, watching as Niall takes him in again, his lips pulled tighter this time. He watches and he feels his skin buzz sharply, hot all over. Niall looks unbelievably good like this, sucking at Louis’ cock like it’s all he wants to do. Like he’d do it forever, if Louis would only ask.

“Does feel good, Ni,” he rasps out, reaching down to rest his hand on Niall’s head. His blurred thoughts turn to Niall telling him about giving his first blowjob, how he’d said he liked when the guy held onto his hair. Curious to see if that still holds true, he tangles his fingers into the soft brown locks, gripping just enough to make him feel it.

The reaction he gets is Niall’s gaze suddenly on him again, searing into him as he sucks harder, his mouth leaving Louis’ cock wet and messy. Louis lets out a small moan, a fresh wave of heat rolling over him, and he struggles to keep the eye contact.

“You look so,” he starts, but his thoughts are enough of a mess that he doesn’t even know how he was planning to end the sentence. Niall hums low around him, and Louis has to give it up, throwing his head back and squeezing his eyes shut. “Christ, hot. You’re fucking hot,” he pants, not sure if that was what he had meant to say, but knowing that it works anyway; it’s true.

At that, Niall muffles a puff of laughter around his cock, an unexpected sound, and Louis shakes his head, heat pooling in his stomach. “Don’t fucking laugh now,” he squeezes out, fingers tightening in Niall’s hair. When he looks down again, Niall is still watching him.

Replacing his mouth with his hand, spit slicking the way as he strokes him, Niall pops off. “You close?”

Niall’s hand is different than his mouth, more focused on getting him off that just feeling good, and Louis has a hard time formulating a response with Niall wanking him so insistently. He manages to get out, “Yeah,” mouth parted as it builds.

“Good,” Niall says, licking his tongue out over the slit. “Come in my mouth.”

And then he’s back on, mouth sucking at just the head as his hand works Louis over, bringing him to the edge so quickly that Louis can barely breathe through it. He tips over it only a moment later, coming with an embarrassing whimper. His eyes are glued shut so he can’t see it, but he can feel Niall sucking it out of him, holding it on his tongue.

By the time he’s aware of much more than the electric feeling coursing through him and then finally fading away to a nice, pleasant buzz, Niall is climbing up next to him with a smile on his face.

“That went well, yeah?” he asks.

Louis laughs. He’s tired and he feels better than he has in a long time and he laughs, sprawled uselessly across the bed. “Quite well,” he replies, leaning into it when Niall curls up against his side. Louis knows he’s still hard when he feels it against his hip. “I’ll return the favour in a mo, promise.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Niall murmurs back. “I can take care of it or you can give me a hand, whatever.”

Louis frowns then, turning to look at him. “You don’t want me to blow you?”

“Christ,” Niall answers, and his arousal is still evident in the dark of his eyes. “’Course I do. Just not now. Don’t want you to be all floppy and tired when you do it. I want it to be good for you.”

“Well, just give me a little rest here-”

Niall shakes his head, interrupting. “Can’t really wait that long.” He presses his hips forward, the hard line of his cock against the side of Louis’ hip. “Next time, yeah? We’ll take it nice and slow.”

He doesn’t want to cave, but Niall has a point. As much as he doesn’t want his first time sucking a dick to be bad for him, he also doesn’t want his first time sucking Niall to be bad for Niall. So he agrees, flipping onto his side as Niall gets his cock out.

He kisses him through it, dropping his hand to touch lightly as Niall does all the work. It’s hot all the same, even though Niall is wanking himself; Louis still feels the shudders when he thumbs at the slit, still hears his name in Niall’s breath. And when he comes, Louis still feels the wet on his hand.

“Next time,” he says after they’ve cleaned up, settling into bed. “Next time, I’m gonna make it good for you.”

When Niall answers, already half-asleep, Louis buries his smile into the pillow. “Always do.”

-

In the morning, Louis wakes when Niall gets out of bed and goes into the bathroom. He gropes out for his phone and blinks his eyes open to check the time. It’s just past eight, late enough that he doesn’t have an excuse to try to fall back to sleep. Flicking through his notifications, he sees that he’s missed an entire conversation in the group chat from the previous night.

Harry: Coming back to London for a while. Whose sofa is free??

Zayn: Don’t you have your own house? aha xx

Harry: It’s always so empty. :(

Liam: my house is the opposite of empty i cant take in another

Liam: but we should have a thing!! when do you get in?

Harry: Couple of days. Free this weekend?

Liam: sat is with sophia’s fam. sun works??

Zayn: Works for me, Sana’s busy

Harry: Sunday is good for me. Niall, Louis?

Liam: really where are they

Zayn: Probably worried Harry will want to kip on their sofas haha

Harry: :((((

Harry: Rude.

Louis laughs to himself, reading through the texts. They span a couple of hours of the night before, all sent while he and Niall were snogging and then getting each other off. In a way, Zayn is right. A month ago, Louis probably would have welcomed Harry sleeping on his sofa, but now he can’t have that. He’d have to spend each night at Niall’s, but that would probably only result in Harry going to Niall’s after being left alone for too long.

I can do Sunday, Louis types, half-asleep, but no sofa for you Harold.

He hits send and, almost at the exact same moment, a text from Niall pops up on the screen, reading, Sunday is good!

“Niall!” he groans loudly, but it turns into a hoarse laugh as he looks at the screen. If the lads are paying any attention at all, they’ll notice how fishy that is, the two of them not replying all night, then replying at the same time in the morning. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They could be together, hanging out as mates, and not making each other come.

“What?” Niall asks, walking back into the bedroom. His eyes are still a little puffy from sleep and he’s only wearing a pair of white pants, his body on display.

Louis takes a moment to look him over, noting how his legs are still fairly spindly, but the rest of him has filled out some over the past several years. His stomach is softer, swelling just a bit, and his chest is heavy with soft, light brown hair. He’s a proper man now, but there are so many traces of the old Niall that every inch of him is familiar.

“Should I turn around, give you the full view?” Niall asks, amused.

Louis snaps his gaze back up to Niall’s face and rolls his eyes. “Shut up. Come here,” he says, trying to glare, but failing magnificently. “Or, no, go make tea. Tea is more important.”

“Choosing tea over a kiss,” Niall mutters like he’s disappointed, but his eyes are sparkling too much for it to be believable. He turns and walks out of the room, mumbling something that sounds like, “Why do I put up with you?”

Once he’s brushed his teeth and had a wee, Louis walks into the kitchen where Niall is just getting the kettle on. He pulls him away from the stove, turning him around, and kisses him once on the lips, then all over his face, smacking his lips with each one. Niall makes disgusted noise, half-heartedly trying to pull away, but only when Louis has kissed every inch of his face does he lean back, grinning.

“There. Lots of kisses for you.”

Niall shakes his head over a smile and pulls Louis in again, into a hug this time. Louis relaxes against him, arms circling his waist, and thinks that this is starting to feel like something very real.

The thought scares him almost as much as it excites him.

-

On Sunday, Louis is, for once, not with Niall. Niall has been visiting family for a couple of days and it shouldn’t feel hard to be away from him for such a short amount of time, but it does. It is. So, when he shows up at Liam’s that afternoon, he’s more excited to see Niall than he is Harry.

“Hey, mate,” Liam greets at the door, tugging Louis into a hug. “Everyone’s out back. We’ve got the kids entertained upstairs so keep your voice down until you get out there. If the girls hear your voice, they’ll be down in a second.”

Louis gestures like he’s zipping his lips shut and heads toward the back. As soon as he steps outside, he sees Niall sitting on the wicker sofa to his left and he grins. But Harry is around him in a second, hugging him tightly like he’s just come back from war. Louis can’t help but laugh, hugging the lad in return.

Once he’s extricated himself from Harry’s long arms, he hugs Zayn as well, then immediately goes to claim the spot next to Niall. They haven’t talked about their thing, whether or not it’s a secret, but Louis figures that, since they haven’t discussed it, it probably is. It’s easier that way, not having to try to explain what’s happening between them. It’s complicated enough to put words to, even though it feels easier than anything.

“How was the family?” he asks when he gets seated, turned a bit toward Niall.

“Good, all good,” Niall answers, giving him a smile.

Liam walks out balancing three bowls then, carefully setting them on the table. “Soph made the hummus, but I made everything else, so try to like mine better.”

They dig into the snacks, the conversation turning to Harry and his few months in Georgia, and Louis sits back, pushing his thigh into Niall’s as he listens.

-

“I’m gonna grab a beer, want one?” Niall asks quietly, once Harry’s finished telling a story about an encounter with a coyote.

Louis smiles and answers, “Yeah, mate, thanks.”

When he returns with two beers, lids already removed, Louis takes his and tries to tamp down his smile when Niall sits down even closer than before.

“No, I’m fine, Niall,” Zayn says, holding up his empty bottle. “I’ll get my own, thanks.”

Louis grins, using the moment to slip his arm around Niall’s shoulder and hugging him close. “Niall’s always liked me best, Zayn. Time to get used to it.”

As Zayn gets up and Harry asks Liam about the kids, Louis leaves his arm where it is, glad for Niall’s weight against his side. Boldly, he grazes his knuckles over Niall’s skin just below where his t-shirt sleeve cuts off. They’re not paying attention anyway, and Niall seems okay with it, dropping his hand onto Louis’ thigh to squeeze it once.

It’s not until the conversation turns to them that anyone notices anything at all. When Liam turns to ask him about James, he stops, looking he and Niall over curiously. “What’s up with you two?”

Without shifting his expression at all, Louis answers, “What do you mean?”

Liam gestures at them with a floppy hand. “You’re all cuddly. And quiet, both of you.”

“And that text thing was weird,” Zayn adds softly. “Answering at the same time that morning.”

Louis laughs, shaking his head to himself. They sound like detectives, much like some of their fans back in the day. “Maybe we’re psychic.”

“Maybe you’re fucking,” Harry says without missing a beat.

Everyone goes silent then and Louis knows that it might give something away, but he turns his head, looking at Niall to try to see what he’s thinking. He’s looking down, though, picking at the label on his beer bottle.

“Maybe if we were,” Louis says carefully, “we wouldn’t much want to talk about it. There’s always that possibility."

He manages to get the topic away from them somehow, although he can feel their curious glances. Louis doesn’t have a problem talking about it, he doesn’t, but if Niall is uncomfortable, Louis will do what he can to avoid it. It’s been a mad few months for Niall, even more so than Louis. His divorce hadn’t even been finalised until a week or so before their first kiss. It’s a lot to deal with, Louis is sure, and he doesn’t want to put any extra pressure on him.

He pulls his arm away from the lad’s shoulders, just to be safe, but it feels strange not to be touching him.

The next time Niall goes in to grab a beer, Louis follows, ignoring the glances of his former bandmates. In the kitchen, he pulls Niall into a hug, breathing him in. “Sorry if I gave us away,” he mutters.

Niall sighs against his shoulder, then pulls away, looking into Louis’ eyes. “I don’t mind if you don’t. I mean, it’s just the guys.”

Louis studies him, wants to be sure that he’s sure. It’s not really a big deal, except that it’s a sort of validation that this thing between them really is something real. Louis is still scared, still jaded from giving himself to someone and being walked out on. Losing Niall is not an option, it can’t be.

He tips forward, pressing a long-overdue kiss to Niall’s lips. “They’re going to ask so many questions that we don’t have answers to,” he says as he pulls away from Niall’s lips, still close enough that their noses bump together.

Niall is quiet, but his hand is smoothing over Louis’ back, so Louis enjoys the moment. When Niall finally speaks up, his voice is softer, almost whispered. “I did always like you best,” he says, his lips brushing the corner of Louis’ mouth. “Not sure if you were joking about that, but you were always my favourite. I always wished I could be yours, just once.”

Louis feels sad again, thinking about all of the lost time that he spent not getting as close to Niall as possible. It’s true, in a way. They were all close back then, all of them, but Louis always thought of Niall as Harry’s, in a way. And things were complicated with Harry then, so Louis maintained some distance, sticking close to Liam, and Zayn, when he was around.

It’s not that there was ever anything wrong with Niall; Louis had just been a creature of habit.

“You’re my favourite now,” he says, squeezing Niall’s waist. “Far and away. Absolute landslide.”

Niall’s face tucks into his neck and Louis can feel the smile against his skin, something that makes his chest go tight.

Christ, it really is real with them.

When they make it back outside, the stares are so obvious that Louis has to laugh as he sits down. He slides his arm around Niall’s shoulder again, staring be damned. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. They can ask questions all they want. He’ll answer what he can and shrug off what he can’t.

His thumb rubs gently over Niall’s arm, tucking up under his sleeve, and Louis meets Harry’s eyes across the small sitting area. Harry smiles like he doesn’t need any questions answered, like he already understands perfectly, and Louis shares the smile, glad to have him back for a bit.

-

Louis hadn’t even asked when they’d left Liam’s, just crowded Niall against his car and said, “Back to yours,” kissing him once before turning toward his own car.

They’d gotten a couple of vague questions, but the lads had seemed to understand to leave it be and Louis is grateful for that. It’s all this odd mix of old and new, sturdy and fragile. He knows enough to be careful with it, though, just in case.

At Niall’s he drags him straight to bed, pushing him back on it. He’s determined and more than fucking ready, and when he climbs over him, Niall doesn’t even double check. It must be spelled out in Louis’ eyes, too evident to be questionable. So, he tugs at Niall’s shirt, kisses down his chest, and slides his mouth over the soft denim of Niall’s jeans.

“Fucking hell, Lou,” Niall gasps, watching as Louis presses his open mouth to him through the material.

He understands it as he peels off the rest of Niall’s clothes, what he’d said about wanting to make Louis feel good. Louis feels a rush of it, wanting so much to make this good for Niall, to make him fall apart. He’s not entirely confident in his skills, but he’s going to give it his very best shot because Niall deserves it. He deserves the best fucking blowjob in history.

It’s a bit awkward, but Louis has thought about it so much lately that he’s prepared for it. Niall tastes salty, already a bit wet at the head when Louis gets his mouth around him. It’s sort of similar to the taste of a woman, definitely in the same category, but not quite the same. Not better or worse, really, but Louis quickly adjusts, slurping at Niall’s cock with a satisfied hum.

The way Niall comes apart for him is the best part. He’s noisier than Louis had expected, so much louder than he’s been with Louis’ hand on him. It’s appreciated anyway, since Louis doesn’t have a clear enough view to judge how well he’s doing from Niall’s facial expression.

“Oh god,” he breathes out shakily, hips twitching. “God, your mouth is- fuck, that’s good.”

Louis has to fight not to smile, keeping his teeth covered, and he surges back down, taking Niall as deep as he can. It pulls another long groan from him, trembling fingers coming to rest on Louis’ wrist.

The coming part is much different than what Louis is used to. He has to fight not to gag as Niall shoots right at his throat and he lets too much spill out from the corners of his lips, but he gets it under control enough to suck him through it, swallowing what hasn’t spilled. His lips are numb and his chin is wet when he sits up, letting Niall go soft.

Niall laughs, reaching up to swipe at the mess on Louis’ face, and Louis lies down next to him, grinning. “I’ll need more practice,” he says with a sigh. “Hope you’re ready for that.”

Niall curls into him, face pressed into his shoulder, and answers, “Any fucking time.”

-

It’s not until a couple of weeks later that their happy little bubble bursts.

They’re cooking dinner at Niall’s, Louis’ phone playing a random mix of upbeat songs from the counter next to them. There’s as much kissing as cooking, honestly, and a fair bit of dancing as well. It’s been so good with them, navigating easily through the beginnings of what’s starting to look like a real relationship.

Niall had casually called Louis his boyfriend to a shop assistant at Boots. Louis had cried to Niall one night when his son had felt too far away and he’d panicked about what if something were to happen to him. And Niall had said all the right things, talking about when his own parents divorced and how the distance never made him love his mum any less.

It feels good with them, like maybe they’ll luck out and it will all be this easy.

But then the front door is opening and Louis looks up, curious as to who has Niall’s key. And he sees Niall’s ex-husband walking into the kitchen. He’s a little wobbly on his feet, like he might have been drinking, and Louis tenses up, not sure what to expect. He hadn’t expected him showing up in the first place, so god only knows what else is coming.

“Oh,” Jack says, stopping when he sees Louis. “Hey, Louis. Sorry, didn’t know you’d be here.”

Louis keeps his expression straight even though there’s a sour feeling curling in his stomach. “Yeah, same to you, honestly.”

Niall is silent next to him, staring at the man in the doorway, and Louis can’t tell what he’s thinking. Jack’s quite a bit bigger than Louis, but he’d fight him if he had to.

“Hey, Niall,” Jack says, his voice soft. He seems to have already forgotten that Louis is there. “I was hoping we could talk.” He crosses the kitchen and touches Niall’s arm and Louis is very glad that he’s not still holding a knife.

He expects Niall to push him away. He’s not expecting Niall to hesitate, look down at his arm before gently pulling it out of Jack’s grasp. And he’s definitely, definitely not expecting Niall to turn to Louis and say, “Could we get a raincheck?”

Louis is stunned that he’s being kicked out, so stunned that he gapes at him for a long moment before grabbing his phone, still playing music, and walks out without saying a word. He’s fuming as he gets into his car and drives away, mostly at Niall, but at himself, too, for thinking that they could do this and it could be easy. They’d jumped into it too quickly; of fucking course Niall isn’t over it yet.

Louis had just been hoping that it was the marriage that Niall was still getting over, not the man.

-

He’s halfway home when he realises that he doesn’t want to go home, not when it’s so empty. So he turns, heading toward the only person whose life he probably won’t be completely unsettling with his arrival. It takes fifteen minutes to get there and, when he does, he punches in the well-memorised code at the gate. By the time he pulls up to the house, Harry is standing on his porch, barefoot.

“This is a surprise,” he says when Louis gets out of his car and stalks up the paved path.

Louis nods, still angry but deflating now, and says, “You’re not busy, are you?”

Harry seems to sense that something is wrong, his head tilted to the side and concern in his eyes. “Free all day,” he says, waving Louis inside.

Louis takes a seat on the sofa in the living room. He understands why Harry doesn’t like coming back here; the house doesn’t feel like him at all, too fancy and stark white to suit him. It’s nothing like Niall’s place, so comfortable and lived-in.

Niall’s place, where Niall is currently talking to his ex-husband, and god knows what else.

“I need alcohol,” he decides.

Standing off to the side, Harry says, “I’ve got wine and whiskey.”

“Whiskey.” It feels like a whiskey sort of moment. He needs to brood.

When Harry’s brought him a drink, and a bottle of water for himself, he sits down next to Louis silently. He doesn’t ask, which is both a relief and entirely unnerving, and Louis doesn’t even know what to say. Is it so bad that Niall wants to talk to his ex-husband? Is it so bad that he asked Louis to leave?

The part that leaves him miserable is that he doesn’t even really know what happened with the two of them. Maybe there are lingering feelings that Niall needs to work through. Louis can’t fault him for that, but he can be pissed off that he kept it from him when they were so clearly starting to become something more than even Louis had expected.

"Do you know what happened with Niall and Jack?” he finally asks, turning to Harry.

Harry frowns like he’s thinking and Louis suddenly remembers why Harry always used to drive him mad. Everything is a snail’s pace with Harry, always has been. “Not specifically,” he answers once he’s given it a good think. “He just said they grew apart or something. Didn’t go into much detail.”

Louis sighs, crumpling against the back of the sofa. He takes a long drink from his glass of whiskey and thinks of Niall’s expression when Jack had walked in. He’d been frozen, almost in shock. Something had to have happened beyond growing apart.

“You two having problems?” Harry asks, interrupting Louis’ thoughts.

He shakes his head, then shrugs. “I don’t know. Fuck, I don’t even know what we are.” Taking another drink, he cringes at the strength of it, but it’s exactly what he needs. “Or, were, maybe? Fuck, I don’t know.”

He feels ridiculous jumping straight to that possibility but Niall is not the only one who’s been through a divorce. Louis doesn’t know if he’s strong enough to handle it if something’s going on at Niall’s. He doesn’t know what he’s strong enough to handle, full stop. The past few months have been such a roller coaster, intense highs and devastating lows.

“I know you don’t always come to me with these things,” Harry says quietly next to him. “You never do, actually, not since we were teenagers. But you can.”

Louis looks up and he feels so close to crying that it’s ridiculous. He’s so fucking tired of losing people and he’s terrified that Niall will be next.

“You can talk to me about anything, you know. Wherever I am in the world, even if it’s four in the morning, I’m there for you.”

Louis’ lip quivers and he tries so hard to stop it, but it’s no use. He thinks about his son and his ex-wife and Niall. He thinks about Harry always being gone and Liam busy with the family and Zayn always just out of reach somehow. A tear leaks from his eye and he scrubs it away, but Harry doesn’t miss it.

“Oh, Lou, c’mere,” he says, brow knitted with worry.

Louis lets himself be pulled into Harry’s arms and he cries, thinking about the last time he’d done this, how it had been Niall’s arms around him.

As much as he loves Harry, Niall’s had felt nicer.

-

He drinks too much to drive home and ends up sleeping in one of Harry’s spare rooms. He’d feel bad about it if he wasn’t positive that Harry is thrilled to have company to fuss over. Louis even gets a foot massage before bed; it feels so much like it had before the schism that had developed between them. Even though that had only lasted a couple of years, it’s never been like it was before that. Now, though, they feel closer to it than ever.

Louis still wishes it was Niall. He wasn’t exaggerating when he said that Niall is his favourite by a landslide.

In the morning, there’s a full breakfast waiting for him in the kitchen and he really shouldn’t have expected anything less. As they eat, Louis asks Harry about his last girlfriend to keep the conversation away from his own problems. He’d never gotten to meet the last one, anyway, or the one before that, so it’s nice to hear about.

He finally leaves after Harry makes him lunch, too, and Louis hugs him for ages, grateful that Harry had been so willing to take him in and be so kind even when they’ve not been the closest in a long time. It feels good, though, like maybe Louis actually will give him a call when he’s fuck knows where, just to chat.

When he gets home, he can’t ignore the message on his phone from Niall any longer. It had come after Louis had fallen asleep and, when he woke up and saw it, he swiped it away before reading it. He hadn’t been awake enough to deal with it then and the longer he’d put it off, the scarier it had felt. Now he bites the bullet, though, opening the message as he stands just inside his front door.

I’m so sorry about tonight. Need to talk to you asap. Should explain some things.

It’s not the worst of the possibilities that had been running through his mind, but it’s far from the best, too. Of course he wants things explained, but the tone of Niall’s message makes it sound like they’re big things, maybe bad ones. The anticipation has Louis’ stomach in knots and he knows it won’t get better if he puts off replying.

No work today, he types, gnawing at his lip. Come over whenever.

He thinks about adding more, but he’s not sure what to say, especially via text, so he sends it off as is. Dropping his phone on the table next to his sofa, he heads toward the bathroom for a nice, long shower.

-

He’s barely dressed, hair still wet, when the doorbell goes. It’s Niall, standing on his doorstep with slumped shoulders, looking anxious.

“Hey. Hi.”

Louis steps aside wordlessly, letting Niall in. He’s not sure what to say until Niall says his peace. Mostly he’s hoping that he’s made this into a bigger deal in his head than it really is.

“I’m so sorry I asked you to leave last night, Lou,” Niall says as soon as the door has clicked shut.

“You said that already,” Louis replies, even though it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. “Said you had more to say, though, so get on with it.”

Niall looks around him, standing awkwardly in the hall, then gesture toward the living room. “Can we sit?”

Louis shrugs and leads the way into the house, settling himself onto the sofa. His hair is dripping droplets of cold water onto his neck, making him shiver. Niall sits, too, turned sideways with one leg bent on top of the seat cushion. He’s closer than he has to be and Louis is glad for that little sign, but he’s not going to make any assumptions.

“There’s something I didn’t really tell you about what happened with me and Jack,” he says, eyes cast down between them. “I mean, it was mostly what I said. We drifted apart, nothing really major.” He takes a deep breath and lifts his gaze and Louis’ own breath cuts off, holds in his chest. “But when he left, he didn’t really tell me. He texted me after he’d gone. That’s how I found out I was getting divorced, with a text.”

Louis releases his breath all at once, his face falling. Too many things go through his mind at once: first, that he wishes he’d punched Jack in the face when he saw him the night before; second, that it’s such a massive detail Niall had left out; and, third, that he needs to know what that means.

“I knew it was ending, I could tell. I just figured, you know, we’d talk about it. I wasn’t expecting him to just be gone one day.”

Louis opens his mouth, but he doesn’t know what to say. The friend in him wants to pull Niall into a hug and berate him for not telling him sooner, but the other part, the boyfriend-type part, can’t do that quite yet. Luckily, Niall goes on before he has to figure out what to say.

“I talked to him once on the phone after, but I hadn’t seen him since before he left. That’s why, when he showed up, I was . . .” He stops mid-sentence, shakes his head, and Louis can’t stop himself from reaching out, touching his leg. He can’t ignore the friend part of him completely.

“Are you still in love with him?” he asks, his voice thick, knowing that he has to know; he can’t avoid it.

Niall gaze snaps to him and Louis knows before he answers what it will be. “No,” he says, sincerity evident in the word. “No, Jesus, I’m not. I never would have- with you, I never would have if I was.”

Louis takes a deep breath, nodding, but he knows that’s not the only hurdle. “Did anything happen after I left?”

Niall’s face scrunches sadly, his hand reaching for Louis until they’re each touching each other’s legs, sharing a gesture of comfort. “We talked a lot,” he says, squeezing Louis’ leg. “He told me why he did it and apologised.” He hesitates for a moment, then continues, saying, “I told him about you.”

“Oh?” Louis asks, surprised. “How’d that go?”

Niall smiles, finally, and answers, “Oh, god, horrible. He was convinced we’d been fucking all along or at least that we had a long time ago and just started up again as soon as he was out of the picture.”

Louis can’t help but smile because, honestly, fuck him. “If only he knew we haven’t actually fucked at all,” he says, tracing his thumb over Niall’s knee. Before he can start on that train of thought, though, he redirects the conversation. “So, is that it? You just talked?”

Niall hesitates, looks torn for a moment, and Louis tries to prepare himself for whatever Niall might say. It’s hard, though, too fucking hard when he thinks about the possibilities. “Mostly,” Niall finally says, fidgety. “I should be honest with you though. He wanted more, tried to kiss me a couple of times. He was a little drunk.”

Tried, Louis repeats in his head, focusing on that so he doesn’t overreact. He tried, he tried. “Just tried?” Louis asks, to be sure. The image of Jack trying to kiss him makes him see red as it is. Imagining Niall letting him, even for a moment, is a bit too much.

“Christ, of course,” Niall answers. “I wanted- I wanted to talk to him, to clear things up, but I didn’t want that. I wouldn’t, Lou.”

Louis nods, relieved. He can live with that, then. He still might have to give Jack a nice, strong punch if he ever sees him again, but he can’t fault Niall for it, not at all. “So, where does that leave things then? How do you feel?”

Niall takes a moment, looking at him, before he scoots closer, tangling his legs with Louis’. “I feel better,” he says quietly. “I meant what I said though. I never would have started this with you if I still had feelings for him. Maybe I should have waited longer before starting something new, but it’s you, you know? I knew it would be okay with you.”

Louis’ chest feels warm all of a sudden, his cheeks pinking up. “We just have to be careful with each other. It’s still- it’s a lot, fast. I don’t fancy breaking your heart and I don’t fancy you breaking mine.”

Niall smiles, tipping forward to bump his forehead against Louis’. “I can be careful,” he says, then closes the distance between their mouths, kissing him softly.

Louis kisses back, enjoying the feeling of not panicking anymore, but he pulls away soon enough to say, “I’m still mad at you for chucking me out last night.”

A cringe flashes over Niall’s face, his fingertips sliding over Louis’ jaw. “Yeah, I know. I really am sorry. I just panicked.”

It’s understandable, at least, now that Louis knows the whole story. But he’s not one to let things go that quickly. “Make it up to me,” he whispers, capturing his lips once more.

Niall is more than happy to do so, scrambling to the floor between Louis’ legs. He gives him a spectacular blowjob right there and, after, Louis still feels a bit raw from the whole thing, but it’s better. Niall is here, anyway, and he’s not leaving; that’s the most important thing.

-

“James will be here this weekend,” Louis says a few weeks later as he drives, Niall sat next to him. Harry had given them a list of restaurants to try when he’d been over to Niall’s for the evening the previous week. They’d mostly nodded and smiled because Harry’s restaurant preferences are so different from Louis’ and Niall’s, but this one had actually sounded good.

“Okay, well, I should be free Monday if you want to come over,” Niall says, scrolling through something on his phone.

Louis takes a turn toward the city, then drops his hand onto Niall’s thigh, giving it a squeeze. “What about Sunday? Lunch?”

He’s not looking, but he can tell Niall has frozen, staring at him. Niall doesn’t really do wide-eyed, but he has a particular expression reserved for moments like these. When Louis takes a quick peek over at him, he’s not surprised to see it settled over his face.

“You mean, just the three of us?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, rubbing Niall’s thigh. “It’s not like you haven’t met him, you know. He loves you.”

“He loves me as fun Uncle Niall who he sees a few times a year,” Niall points out, anxiety in his tone. “It’s different now. Plus, I haven’t seen him in months!”

Louis lifts his eyebrows, eyes on the road. “Well, it’s past-due then, isn’t it?” When Niall doesn’t reply, Louis sighs and, seeing a shop up ahead, he flips on his turn signal. Once he’s pulled into the small carpark and shut off the car, he turns fully to Niall. “If you don’t want to, that’s okay. But things with us are good and you know he’s the most important part of my life, so I want you to know him. I want him to know you as more than fun Uncle Niall who he sees a few times a year.”

Niall takes a shaky breath, eyes locked onto Louis. “Of course I want to. You know I- I just don’t want to fuck it up, you know?”

Louis smiles and leans across the space between their seats, pressing a kiss to Niall’s lips. “Like I said, he loves you. Just be yourself and he’ll be ecstatic.”

They kiss again because they’re parked behind a random shop and why the fuck not. But when Louis starts up the car again, he hesitates, glancing over at Niall. “Maybe less swearing around him, though.”

Niall groans loudly at that and Louis laughs, pulling the car out onto the road.

-

Louis is glad he’d decided on Sunday to bring James over to Niall’s. When he picks him up on Saturday, he’s too wrapped up in hearing about what he’s been doing in school and who he’s making friends with to want to disrupt it. At least by Sunday, they’re getting a little bit stir-crazy, so it’s the perfect time to head out.

Niall is clearly nervous, but James gives him a big hug without being prompted, so Louis thinks they’re off to a pretty good start. He even made James’ favourite meal, with a little tip from Louis, chicken pot pie. As they sit down at the table, Louis feels good about this, having his son and Niall with him at the same time.

“James, do you want to tell Niall about your science project?”

James bobs his head, poking his pie crust with a spoon. He always makes sure to decimate it completely before he actually starts eating. “I’m growing flowers in pots,” he says, accidentally flicking a piece of crust halfway across the table. Niall laughs and pushes it back to James, who looks bashful, picking it up and putting it back in his pot pie.

“Yeah? What kind of flowers?” Niall asks.

“Um, like, yellow ones and some purple,” James answers. “Only they’re not flowers yet so I don’t really know.”

Niall laughs again and Louis grins, turning to James. “Tell him about the science part, pal. What are you doing differently with them?”

James seems to remember then, lighting up. “Oh! I’m growing some in the sun and some in the shade to see which grows best.”

Niall can’t find it all that interesting, but he does an amazing job of appearing interested. “Oh, cool! Do you water them every day?”

“Every morning after breakfast,” James answers with a solemn nod. “You have to or they won’t grow.”

Niall hums his interest. “I didn’t know that.”

“Don’t you have plants, Uncle Niall?” James asks, his face all scrunched up.

It makes Niall laugh again, bright and happy. “Only the ones outside, really, but I hire someone to take care of those.”

James turns to Louis then, confused. “What’s ‘hire’?” he asks quietly.

“It’s when you give someone money to do work for you,” Louis informs him.

James seems to think about that, then nods, turning to Niall. “I can take care of your plants if you want. For money.”

They both laugh then even though James doesn’t seem to understand what’s so funny. Louis meets Niall’s eye across the table and as his laughter fade, his smile lingers, full of gratitude and happiness. After a long moment, he finally turns back to James and answers, “That’s a good entrepreneurial spirit, James, but remember you just said you have to water plants every day? Well, you won’t be here every day so I don’t think that will work.”

It’s too much of a metaphor for Louis. The plants need water every day, so they’ll die during the time when James isn’t there. He only thinks about it for a second, then shakes the thoughts away, trying to focus on right here, right now.

“Oh. I guess,” James concedes, then spoons a piece of potato into his mouth.

Louis smiles, even though there’s sadness in it, always is, and ruffles his son’s hair. Under the table, he feels Niall’s hand against his knee, giving it a quick squeeze before the touch is gone. Turning to him, Louis sighs and says, “What if after dinner we head out back and James shows you what a killer striker he is?”

Everyone seems to agree and, as they tuck into their food, Louis mostly succeeds in enjoying the moment.

-

It’s clear at first that Niall is trying to go easy on James, but James is good enough that even as Niall starts actually trying, he’s having a hard time keeping up. Louis can’t help but laugh at how quickly Niall gets winded, stumbling over his feet as James dribbles past him.

Louis wants to kiss Niall, but he can’t. Not yet.

So they play until Niall is wheezing and James gets distracted by a butterfly, kneeling on the grass to watch it. Louis rubs Niall’s back while James’ attention is focused elsewhere, telling him what a good effort it was. Niall just weakly pushes at his shoulder and flops down on the grass himself.

When the time comes to start driving back to meet Vivian, James frowns and kicks at the floor. “I want to stay here,” he says quietly, like he doesn’t want Niall to hear. “We can have a sleepover.”

It takes all of Louis’ energy not to say that he wants that, too, so much. Instead, he kneels in front of James and squeezes his shoulder. “We can do that another time, definitely. But you’ve got school in the morning and I reckon your mum would miss you if you didn’t come back, don’t you?”

James shrugs, scratching at his stomach, then finally says, “I guess so.”

“I know she would,” Louis whispers. “So for now let’s say goodbye to Niall and hopefully next time we can stay longer, okay?”

James finally relents and walks over to Niall, who crouches down to give him a hug. When Louis looks, Niall’s eyes are closed as they hug, then he kisses the side of the boy’s head as he pulls away. “It was so good having you here, bud. You’re welcome anytime, yeah?”

James nods, still a bit sad, and says goodbye, even thanking Niall without being reminded. Louis’ chest pangs as he takes his son’s hand, ready to leave. Turning to Niall, he wants to kiss him again, but he just mouths, “I’ll be back,” instead.

He drives straight back to Niall’s after dropping James off with Vivian and, the moment he’s inside, he’s kissing Niall. His head spins with it, with how much he wants him, how happy he is with him. It’s better than it has any right to be, with both of them recently divorced, but Louis supposes he’s not all that surprised.

It’s Niall, after all. Of course it’s wonderful.

-

Two days later, Louis is reclining on Niall’s sofa, watching Top Gear, when suddenly Niall is dropping into his lap. He’s wet, fresh out of the shower, and he’s got a towel wrapped around his waist. The towel slips as he kneels over Louis’ lap, though, falls from his hips.

“Oh, hello,” Louis says, grinning at the surprise.

Niall smirks, leans down to kiss Louis, and wiggles his hips. Sometimes he really does act just like he did all those years ago, even if they never found themselves in quite this position. At least not with one of them fully naked and dripping wet.

“Hi,” Niall murmurs against his lips, pushing a bit deeper, getting his tongue in Louis’ mouth.

Louis can’t help but hum a pleased little noise, bringing his hands to Niall’s thighs. He pushes the towel to the floor and skims his palms over Niall’s skin, reaching around to squeeze his arse. The kiss alone would be enough to grab his interest, but with so much damp skin to touch, Louis finds his cock perking up, getting fat beneath his trousers.

Keeping one hand light against Niall’s bum, he moves the other forward, fingers finding Niall’s cock; it’s already hard, almost entirely, and Louis smiles into the kiss, curling his fingers around it. He starts to wank him, his grip loose enough that it’s more of a suggestion than anything.

“Want me to suck you, babe?” he asks, pulling away from the kiss to look at him.

Niall doesn’t let him, though, tipping forward to press his face into Louis’ neck. His hips move a little, gently fucking into Louis’ light grip, and Louis has to wonder what’s got him so worked up, what he was thinking about in the shower.

“You could or, like,” Niall answers, his voice quiet and muffled against the side of Louis’ neck. He stops then, though, doesn’t say anything else for a long moment.

“Or what?” He stops moving his hand, but Niall doesn’t stop rolling his hips forward in long, slow thrusts, fucking into it.

He waits patiently for another moment until Niall finally answers, his voice breathy and shuddered. “It’s been ages. I know we’re not rushing, but we’ve been- for ages.”

Louis feels his stomach tighten up, anticipating what Niall’s asking for. He has to look at him, has to see his face, so he nudges his head against Niall’s, saying, “Hey, look at me.”

He does, sits up and looks Louis in the eye, and his cheeks are already red, his pupils already blown wide. Just seeing him like this gets Louis overwhelmed, makes him want to touch him everywhere.

“What do you want?” he asks, rubbing his thumb just under the head of Niall’s cock.

This time Niall doesn’t beat around the bush, doesn’t look away. “Want you to fuck me,” he says, biting at his lip. “Want- want you inside me, Lou.”

If Louis wasn’t hard before, he is now, just hearing Niall saying that, his eyes focused so intensely on Louis’.

Before Louis can say anything, Niall adds, “If you’re ready, I mean. If you want to.”

He’s right, though, it has been ages. Louis can’t actually believe they’ve gone this long without it even coming up, really, but the other stuff has been so incredible that it’s never been a priority for him. He’s always loved a good blowjob as much as a proper fuck and Niall’s mouth is good enough that Louis’ never felt like he’s missing out.

And, if he’s very honest, he’s a bit worried about it, about making it good for Niall. He’s gotten better at sucking him off, adapted quickly, but this is an entirely different thing. He’s done it a handful of times before, with women, but he’s not sure it’s the same.

“I want to,” he says, moves his hands to Niall’s hips to pull him down so he can feel how much he wants it, the press of his hard cock against Niall’s arse. “I just- where’d this come from?” Before Niall had gone into the shower, they’d been watching the news, eating pizza. He figured when this eventually came up, there would be something to set it off, some event.

Niall bites down on his lip again, grinds his wet arse over Louis’ cock, and says, “My hands roamed a bit in the shower. Got a couple of fingers in myself, got so fucking hard thinking about how much better it would feel if it was you.”

Louis’ chest feels tight, his breath caught in his lungs. He slowly slides one hand back, down over Niall’s bum, and after only a moment of hesitation, he trails his fingers between his arse cheeks. Niall shudders, closes his eyes as Louis reaches back, finding his hole slick with lube.

“Fuck,” he chokes out, touches the pad of his middle finger to his rim. “Fuck. Are you already good to go?”

Niall tilts forward, clasping his hands behind Louis’ neck, and pushes back on Louis’ finger. “You can check? If you really want to do this, you could make sure?”

Louis lets his eyelids flutter shut as he traces his finger over Niall’s rim, tentative with his touch. He slides it right over his entrance, pushes softly and feels the give of it, where he could slip right inside. “Bedroom,” he says hoarsely, pulling his hand away. He needs more lube, needs room to really lay Niall out, to take his time with this.

Once they’re in bed, Niall lying in the middle and Louis kneeling naked between his legs, it all feels a bit surreal. He’s glad they’ve waited, taken it so slowly, but now that it’s happening, he feels impatient. Now that he’s thinking about sinking inside Niall, fucking him into the bed, he wants it so much that his head feels fuzzy.

“You have to tell me if it hurts or if I’m doing it wrong,” Louis says, getting his fingers slicked up with lube.

Niall is smiling, legs spread wide. His hand is resting beside his cock, rubbing at his hip like he’s trying not to touch himself. “I’ll tell you,” he promises.

When Louis looks up, he smiles in spite of the moment, reaches up to kiss him as he touches his hole again, lets his finger slip carefully inside. It’s tight inside, soft and warm, but Niall’s muscles are relaxed enough that it goes in easily. There’s no resistance, just smooth walls squeezing him. He gives it a moment before he pushes himself up on one arm, looking down at Niall’s face as he pushes a second finger in, feels the stretch of him.

“How’s it feel?” he asks. He goes slowly, pushing the two fingers in deep until they’re completely buried.

Niall looks down between them, then slides his gaze up until it meets Louis’ and locks there. “Waited so long for this,” he replies, not really answering the question. His eyes answer for him, though, his flushed skin and the way his hand touches Louis’ waist, holding onto him.

“Why didn’t you bring it up earlier then?”

Niall shakes his head, eyelids fluttering as Louis fucks his fingers gently inside of him. “Didn’t think you were ready,” he says, a bit breathlessly. “Didn’t want to ruin this with you. Couldn’t. Couldn’t.

Louis looks at the man below him and thinks to himself, how could anything ruin this? He doesn’t say it out loud because he knows that there are things. They both thought they’d spend the rest of their lives with other people and those relationships ended; there are always things, but Louis can’t imagine that happening with them.

“I’m ready now,” he says instead, keeping his fingers moving, stretching Niall out as much as he can.

Niall nods, lifts his hand to press it to the side of Louis’ neck. “Me too, now,” he answers, bearing down on Louis’ fingers. “Right now, c’mon.”

Louis trusts him to know, so he slips his fingers out, wipes them off, and gets a condom from the table next to them. When he’s got it on and he’s lubed himself up generously, he pushes a pillow under Niall’s back and knees forward, getting close enough to wipe his cock over where Niall is wet and ready to take him. He stops then, taking a moment to stare, to fully grasp that he’s about to have his dick inside Niall.

“Don’t keep me waitin’, Tommo,” Niall says, a smirk on his lips, but his voice is all breath, all need.

Louis looks up, thinks about saying something about how fucking good he looks like this, how badly Louis wants him. But he thinks it’s better to show him, to let him feel it, so he pushes his cock at Niall’s hole, in awe as it squeezes inside.

Niall is so tight around him that Louis is sure it must hurt, but when he looks up, Niall is nodding, his eyes screwed shut. “Yeah,” he whispers, voice cracking. “God, yeah.”

Louis knows then that he’s okay and he keeps pushing, so slowly that he nearly loses his mind. He rocks in shallowly, little thrusts to open him up, and when he gets completely buried, he stops to take a deep breath, to check on Niall.

“Alright?”

Niall blinks his eyes open and, when they meet Louis’, it hits him instantly. There’s nothing between them in this moment, no barriers at all. Louis feels closer to Niall than ever, with his cock buried inside him, their eyes locked. It takes him by surprise, how intense the feeling is.

“I’m good,” Niall confirms and, again, his voice cracks. “Really good.”

“You look good,” Louis says without thinking, letting the words tumble out of him. “Look so fucking good like this, baby.”

Niall’s eyes roll back, a rush of breath escaping him, and he says, “Christ, Lou,” right as Louis draws his hips back, thrusts in gently.

And then they’re fucking, actually fucking, and Louis feels like he’s on fire with how tight Niall is around him, how hot he is. He dips down and kisses him, loose and messy as he works up a rhythm. Niall is noisy with each exhale, tiny little sounds that Louis swallows up and feels settling deep in his chest.

Within minutes, he feels like he’s going to come, going to ruin it by finishing too quickly, so he’s relieved when he feels Niall sliding an arm between them, touching himself. The noises get longer then, his muscles squeezing down on Louis as he wanks himself.

“Yeah, shit,” he whispers against Niall’s lips, fucking in faster, wanting to get him off.

Niall drops away from the kiss, his head tilting back as he pants, fucking into his fist with each of Louis’ thrusts, his other hand so tight on Louis’ back that his fingernails bite into the skin. Louis barely notices the pain of it, just feels excitement course through him, his blood running hot as Niall falls apart beneath him.

“I’m so close,” Niall says, the words sounding like a plea.

Louis needs to be kissing him, so he presses his mouth to Niall’s neck, his jaw, kissing and biting at his skin. “Go on,” he mutters, right under Niall’s ear.

Niall’s legs wrap around him, hold him tight as his body shudders, goes rigid. Louis wants to watch, wants to see him coming all over himself, but it’s already too much to bear. He closes his eyes, fucks into him heavily, and feels it happen, the way Niall clenches down, muscles fluttering wildly. He feels Niall’s body arch under him, feels the wet between their bodies. He feels the way Niall stops breathing for a long moment as his cock pulses and it’s too much.

Louis’ orgasm shocks him, coming on as Niall is just riding out his own. He lets out an embarrassing whimper, loud against Niall’s neck as his hips stutter. His body curls in on Niall’s, as close as he can get, and he stays inside him, milks the last drop of his orgasm from his body. He’s completely breathless when it starts to subside, leaving him buzzing all over.

“Jesus,” he rasps, dropping his forehead onto Niall’s shoulder.

“M’name’s Niall,” Niall mumbles under him.

Louis lets out one weak puff of laughter, the most he can manage, and he gathers enough energy to carefully pull out of Niall, holding the condom in place. He rolls to the side and does a quick job of cleaning up, tying the condom off and setting it on the table. It’s probably a bit gross, but he can clean it up later. For now, he just wants to curl up against Niall’s side and hold him for a while.

So, he does.

-

The next weekend, Vivian is coming into London and asks Louis if he’ll take James on Saturday while she’s in a meeting. He agrees in an instant, of course, but asks if she has time at some point to talk. He can tell she’s suspicious, maybe even worried, but she says she’ll have some time when she drops James off.

When they show up, Louis gives James a big hug and talks to him for a few minutes before asking him to go play in his room for a little bit.

“Can we visit Niall again?” he asks, eyes wide with excitement.

Louis frowns, shaking his head. “Sorry, pal, it’s just me today. But next weekend we can, I promise.”

James sulks as he walks down the hall and Louis sighs because of course his son likes his boyfriend better than him.

“Okay, so, what did you want to talk to me about?” Vivian asks, fiddling with her long brown hair.

Louis leads her to the sofa and sits down, turning toward her. There’s no use beating around the bush, so he comes straight out with it. “Niall and I have been seeing each other,” he says, but the words don’t sound quite right, so he adds, “We’re together. In a relationship.”

It seems to take a moment for that to sink in with Vivian, her eyes scrunching, then growing wide. Her lips part, a squeaking noise coming out before she finally replies. “You’re- what? Niall? As in- the Niall?”

“That’s the one,” Louis answers with a nod.

He watches her expression change rapidly and he gets lost in it, can’t figure out what she’s thinking at all. It takes a minute, but eventually she speaks again.

“I’m just a little shocked here, sorry. You, uh”– there’s a flash of anger in her eyes, maybe, or irritation –“when did this start?”

“It’s been a few months now. Maybe four? Around there.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, her tone accusing, a bit harsh.

Louis squints at her, confused, and says, “What do you mean, am I sure?”

She seems to study him for another moment before throwing her hands up. “You’ve been friends forever, Louis. You can’t expect me to believe you’re suddenly dating him and there was nothing between you two before.”

Louis shrugs, not sure what to tell her. He can honestly say that, in all their years of knowing each other, it was never anything beyond friendship. Not until recently. “It’s bizarre, I know,” he answers because he knows that it kind of is. “But it’s the truth. It only happened after you and I got divorced. After he got divorced.”

She’s quiet again and it’s clear she doesn’t fully believe him, but he’s not sure it matters. He’s not asking for her approval or anything, so he moves on to what he really wanted to talk to her about.

“Listen, I don’t care if you believe me or not. I wish you trusted me a little more than this after all these years, but whatever.” He shakes his head, twisting his fingers on his lap. “The reason I’m telling you at all is because I’d like James and Niall to spend more time together. The three of us, I mean. I’d like- I’d like your permission to tell James that Niall is my boyfriend, that he’s someone special.”

Just talking about it makes his stomach flutter with nerves, but he’s debated over it for weeks now and, seeing Niall with James the previous weekend had made the decision for him. He wants his son to know that Niall isn’t just fun Uncle Niall who he sees a few times a year. He wants to be able to kiss Niall around him, and hold his hand. He wants, maybe more than anything, for his son to get used to the idea of two men being together. He wants it to feel normal to him, as normal as it feels for Louis.

Vivan thinks for what feels like a lifetime. Louis can hear James in his room, the sound of toys clattering and him talking to himself. He wants to go spend time with him, but he waits, knowing that this is important.

When she finally speaks, it’s softer now, less harsh. “I still don’t know if I believe that there wasn’t anything there at all,” she says slowly, “but- I don’t think you’d even consider talking to James about it if you weren’t serious about Niall now.”

Louis pulls his bottom lip between his teeth, runs his tongue over it a few times. “I wouldn’t,” he confirms, then feels his heart flip in his chest as he says, “He’s here to stay, I think.”

Vivian stares at him for another long moment, and then she nods, looking down. “Okay,” she answers quietly. “Okay, you can tell him then.”

Louis breathes out a sigh of relief, lifting a hand to run it through his hair. “Good. Thank you.”

She laughs weakly, shaking her head, and it’s not happy laughter or amused laughter. When she looks up again, her eyes are wet and he frowns, confused. “What’s wrong?”

She shakes her head again, wiping at her eyes, and smiles through it. “I just wasn’t expecting it. I mean, I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be Niall, but I wasn’t expecting it to be anyone so soon.”

Louis still has enough love left for her to scoot over, pulling her into a hug. He pets her hair, closing his eyes, and says, “I wasn’t either, honestly.” It’s the truth; he’s still shocked that it worked out like this, that he fell for someone so quickly and that the person he fell for is Niall.

It still feels more than a little bit mad sometimes.

“Well, I trust you,” she says, pulling away. Her cheeks are wet and she wipes at them again, sniffling. When she’s managed to get her face mostly dry, she stops and stares into the distance, then turns to Louis. “God, this is so bizarre. Niall?

Louis feels a bit bad for it, but he can’t help the grin that spreads over his lips. “It is a bit bizarre, but”– he lowers his gaze, embarrassed by the way his cheeks heat up –“it is Niall. For me, it’s Niall.”

It’s a big statement, one he hasn’t even told Niall yet. But somehow, Louis thinks that he knows anyway.

-

The conversation goes alright, but he’s not sure James completely understands. It had taken ages to get him used to the fact that his mum and dad were no longer together. He still sometimes asks Louis if his mum can come with them when they go somewhere and he knows he does it with Vivian, too. So trying to explain that he and Niall are now together the way that he had been with James’ mum is a bit complicated.

“But Niall’s a boy,” he says more than once, and Louis figures that’s why he’s doing this in the first place. He knew it would take some adjusting. So he drops the conversation before it gets tedious, wanting to have fun with his son for the day.

The next weekend, they do go to Niall’s and Louis has to remind himself that it’s okay to kiss him, to be open about it. James wrinkles his nose when Louis does kiss Niall just inside the door, but he doesn’t say anything about it then. It’s not until later that he finally mentions it, sitting with Louis on the sofa while Niall is making dinner.

“Do you love Niall like you loved mum?”

Louis turns to him, surprised, and only hesitates for a second before he nods. “Yeah, pal, I think I do.”

“But you’re not married? Because my friend Franco, his parents got divorced and his mum married someone else and his dad married someone else, too, and now he has four parents.” His eyes go wide as he finishes, like he can’t believe someone could have so many parents.

Louis laughs and says, “No, we’re not married.” He pauses, hears Niall clattering around in the kitchen, and he can’t believe he’s about to say what he’s about to say, but he thinks it will simplify things for James. It’ll be easier to understand. “Someday, maybe. I think I’d like that someday. How would you feel about that?”

James glances back toward the kitchen and thinks for a second, lips pursed, then answers, “I think I’d like that someday, too.”

Louis’ smile is so wide that it hurts his face.

-

When Louis gets into Niall’s bed after dropping James off the next night, he’s overwhelmed by the events of the past week. It’s been so much, talking to Vivian and talking to James and saying all these things aloud that he’s been careful not to verbalise up to now. He flops into Niall’s side with a sigh, but he smiles when he feels Niall’s arm wrap around his back, rubbing the skin there.

“Drive went okay?” Niall asks, his voice mumbled against Louis’ shoulder.

“Yeah,” Louis answers, closing his eyes and taking a moment just to breathe, just to smell faint cedar and sweat until his muscles loosen under his skin. “You know what’s so great about being with you?”

“My blowjobs?”

Louis laughs, inwardly rolling his eyes. “Those are pretty nice, yeah, but not what I was going for.”

Niall squeezes him, lifts his head to kiss Louis’ jaw, and asks, “Then what?”

“We’ve been through everything together,” Louis says, voice quiet in the dark. “You don’t just understand the things I’ve been through; you went through them, too. The band, the fame, touring the world, watching it fall apart. Moving on.” He finds Niall’s lips and kisses them once, soft, and goes on. “Getting married, getting divorced. It’s like every important thing that’s happened to me has happened to you, too. Except having a child, of course, but I think you understand that better than a lot of people, anyway.”

Niall hums softly, clearly listening, and Louis curls his hand around Niall’s hip, holding onto him.

“We’ve been through everything together,” he repeats in a whisper, then swallows. “And I want to go through everything with you from here on out, too.”

Niall goes still, breathing against Louis’ lips. He lifts a hand to touch Louis’ jaw, fingertips light on his skin. It’s too dark to see, but Louis can picture his expression clearly, knows just what he looks like right now.

“This better not be a proposal,” he says.

Louis smiles, shakes his head a tiny bit, and leans in to kiss him softly. “This is me telling you that I love you,” he says, and he’s not even scared of it. “And I don’t plan on letting you go.”

Niall doesn’t bother replying. He captures Louis’ lips again, kisses him hard, and that’s all the response Louis needs from him.