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Bending with the Road

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James has set the alarm for six am, but they fall into bed late; James gets handsy, kissing Paul, greedy and wet, twisting his his hands into Paul's hair, and rubbing up against Paul as he licks into his mouth. Paul’s not going to say no to that.

James is impossible to wake at six, reluctant to shift at seven and finally manages to get out of bed at eight thirty. He stumbles into the kitchen, hair askew and eyes barely open, groaning out something about coffee in Paul’s general vicinity.

“Thought the plan was breakfast on the road?” Paul says. James thumps his head onto the counter.

“Fine,” he says, dragging himself back up off the chair he’d fallen into.

They manage to get on the road at ten with minimum fuss – James insisted on packing the night before, so it’s just grabbing stuff from the fridge and then heading out. James is significantly more awake once he’s showered and his hair is fixed. He insists that they go to Paul’s favorite breakfast place, even though it’s north and therefore out of the way. “French toast is on the schedule,” James says, reversing the car out of the drive way.

They don’t speak much through breakfast. Paul has French toast and perfect coffee, and watches as James inhales his pancakes and spends most of breakfast looking over the map and talking through the trip. James is very dedicated the schedule.

“Booked a hotel in Charlotte,” James says as they’re getting into the car. “Should take us about seven hours to get there if the traffic’s not too bad.” He glances up to meet Paul’s eyes and grins a little. “Unless we get distracted along the way.”

Paul rolls his eyes. “Or you get us lost,” he says. Really, though, he’s kind of impressed; attention to detail doesn’t come easy to James. Paul’s almost kind of touched, but he squashes that feeling down and settles in. Any residual fondness fades pretty fast when James flips over to his favorite top forty station with two of the most obnoxious DJs Paul’s ever heard, anyway.

*

They end up arguing about the radio until they hit the city limits. Paul doesn’t really mind James’ radio choice – it’s irritating, but well known, familiar idiot radio hosts making the usual stupid comments. But they always argue about the radio, and Paul doesn’t want James thinking he’s letting him off easy. He’s actually kind of surprised that James doesn’t have a road trip playlist.

“The radio is more authentic,” James says seriously, managing to keep a straight face for almost ten seconds of Paul staring at him incredulously. “I just – I have a backup playlist. I just like the radio, you know?” Paul manages not to roll his eyes too hard. I’m the driver,” James says, smacking Paul’s hand away from the dial.

Paul punches him in the thigh, hard enough to make James wince. “I will withhold snacks,” he says, gesturing towards the bag between his feet. James shrugs.

“Still full from breakfast,” he says. “Hey, could you check Google maps for the next turn?”

Paul rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t argue. James has five different maps printed out, “In case the GPS is wrong,” he’d explained when Paul had questioned him on it the night before.

“I still don’t understand how you’ve been so organized about this,” he says, checking the map against the GPS. “GPS is right, by the way.” He looks down at the pile of papers, printed out directions and maps, Google, Trip Advisor and Yahoo and one place he doesn’t recognize. James has on occasion gotten lost driving down from Whitby, so Paul guesses he can see why James might be worried, but it still seems uncharacteristic.

“Don’t be jealous of my planning skills,” James says and Paul laughs outright. “Hey!” James sounds affronted, but when Paul looks at him, he’s grinning too.

They make it out of Pittsburgh without too much trouble, radio still solidly on James’ choice of station. As they hit the I-79, though, it starts to fade. James flips through a few channels, lingering on one – pop music, too much fucking Katy Perry for Paul’s taste and he blames even recognizing it on James – until the announcer says, “And the Pens camp will be starting up soon.” James doesn’t even look at Paul, he just flips the channel.

They end up on a jazz channel. “Really?” Paul asks. He didn’t even know Pittsburgh had a jazz channel. James shrugs.

“Can’t have you withholding snacks,” he says. “You want to open the dried mango?”

“Is jazz really an improvement?” Paul wonders out loud, but he leans down and grabs the mangoes.

*

The planned roadside attraction (“Roadside attractions are key to road trips,” James claims) turns out to be a coal museum in West Virginia. “It’ll be fun,” James says and then looks at the building, the educational plaques outside, the cartoon coal pointing them towards the entrance. “Probably,” he says. “Educational?”

Paul gives him an unimpressed look, but he does want to stretch his legs and if nothing else, the museum will have a rest room. James insists on getting a guide book (“It’s about getting the whole experience!”) and Paul is left to contemplate when James got this ridiculous. It’s possible he goes a little crazy every off season, Paul doesn’t really know.

They start off taking a ride through an old coal mine, which, Paul has to admit, is pretty cool. There are seven other people along with them, two families with school aged children. Paul gets a weird look from one of the dads, probably wondering what the fuck two fully grown men are doing at a coal museum. Paul gives him a half nod, trying to convey ‘search me’ without saying anything. The man still looks pretty weirded out. Paul goes back to listening to the guide explain about the use of ponies in the mine, answering the kids’ questions eagerly and with a lot of gestures.

“Not too bad,” he tells James as they head into the museum itself. “If the hockey thing doesn’t work out, you might have a backup career as a trip planner.”

“Ha ha,” James says, but he looks kind of pleased.

That lasts until they get into the actual museum which – it’s not boring, exactly, but Paul isn’t a museum guy at the best of times, and coal is hardly the most fascinating topic. James must agree, because it doesn’t take long before he starts approaching every display case with an exclamation of false excitement. “Oh look!” he says, glancing at a case. “More coal!” Paul kind of agrees, but it was James’ idea to come here, so Paul makes a big deal out of reading every plaque and info poster.

James lasts about ten minutes before he starts poking at Paul. “C’mon, I know you’re bored. We can just leave, you know.”

“Oh no, this is part of the real road trip experience,” Paul says, making his eyes wide and grinning when James pouts. He goes to look at the next plaque and manages to catch James’ hand before he can assault Paul’s ribs. James tugs ineffectually, but Paul doesn’t think he’s actually trying to get loose.

Instead, James twists his hand inside Paul’s, spreading his fingers and getting them palm to palm, so they’re holding hands. Paul freezes for a moment, and then he turns to look at James. James is looking exasperated.

“Let’s go,” he says, squeezing Paul’s hand and Paul stops pretending to be even remotely interested in the display. He lets James tug him out of the museum, feeling kind of awkward about their linked hands. They don’t do this – he can’t think of an instance of them holding hands outside of bed – and they’re in West Virginia. Though at least that means they are unlikely to get recognized.

James doesn’t seem to think there’s anything weird about holding hands, though. He keeps hold of Paul till they get to the car. “You wanna drive, Paulie?” he asks, letting go. Paul rubs his wrist absently.

“Yeah, sure,” he says and then, glancing up to find James watching him, he smiles. “I mean, if you think I can stick to the schedule.”

James grins back, shrugging. “Guess we’ll have to find out,” he says. “Lunch?”

*

Nothing on the menu at the greasy roadside diner James picks for lunch would pass Roberts’ dietary requirements. When Paul points this out, James rolls his eyes. “That’s the point, Paulie,” he says. “I’m on holiday, right?”

Paul finds himself biting back a snarky comment about how being stuck in a car for two days with James is not his idea of a holiday, instead wondering whether the burgers here are going to be edible and what might be part of a West Virginia lunch platter. He ends up going for the burger, unsurprised when James goes for fried chicken and sweet potato fries. It’s James’ particular weakness; there’s a place in Pittsburgh that Paul is convinced recognizes James’ voice at this point from how often he orders from them. Or possibly they just recognize Paul’s number; he only orders from there when James is over.

“So what’s next on the schedule, Nealer? Straight on ‘till Charlotte?” Paul asks, trying to surreptitiously wipe down the table. James shrugs, watching him.

“I don’t know, man, could do – get in to the motel, maybe go for drinks or whatever.”

“I am not driving with a hangover tomorrow,” Paul warns and then adds, “and neither are you.” James ducks his head and laughs.

“Of course not, just a few. Or we could stop off at one of the parks. There’s a couple of print outs in the pack,” James says as their drinks arrive. Paul feels skeptical about the look of his ice tea, but it’s actually pretty damn good. He sips and tries to think of a decent chirp, but he can’t. It’s sort of worrying; their conversations seemed off even before they started driving down. It’s nothing specific, just James being a little too eager, and him failing to find chirps or comebacks which would normally be easy.

He shakes his head. James glances at him. “The heat getting to you?” he says, knocking Paul’s ankle with his foot. “We’re only half way there. Going to be a problem if your sensitive Minnesotan system is already struggling.”

“Sensitive Minnesotan system?” Paul repeats incredulously. James smirks at him and Paul rolls his eyes. “Like your hair could cope with the humidity.” James’ hand gets halfway to his hair before he realizes.

“Ha ha,” he says, kicking at Paul’s ankle. “So what do you think?”

“About?” Paul says.

“Parks, Paulie,” James sing-songs, “I feel like you’re not entering into the spirit of the road trip.”

Paul gives him his most deadpan look. This has been a recurring theme of the planning; James seems to think that because Paul went to university, he’s an expert on road trips. Paul has pointed out several times now that the only road trips he’s been on have been hockey related. Considering that those mostly involved crappy buses, broken down toilets and dicks being drawn on everyone but the goalie, Paul’s in no rush to replicate them. James doesn’t seem to be cowed by his disdain, however; he just grins and pushes a couple of print outs about nature reserves over to Paul.

Fortunately, their food comes before Paul has to pretend he has anything intelligent to say about parks. It smells amazing and James makes the ridiculous face he always makes when he’s hungry and about to eat something good. He manages to hold off long enough to take a picture of it.

“You put that on Instagram, Geno’s going to chirp you forever,” Paul says. James grins.

“Yeah, but it’s better than the coal museum,” he says. He and Geno are having some sort of Instagram-off this summer, trying to one-up each other’s photos. Paul doesn’t pretend to understand.

Instead he digs in. The food tastes every bit as good as it smells, fatty and loaded with cheese and ketchup. They eat mostly in silence, apart from James’ occasional happy noises, and Paul’s halfway through his burger before he really notices that James hasn’t moved his foot, still pressing against Paul’s ankle.

*

The drive after lunch is pretty quiet – James protests half-heartedly when Paul flips the radio onto NPR after they accidentally listen to ten seconds of some sort of country station, but he’s clearly too full and too lazy to do anything about it.

After about twenty minutes of occasional mumbling, it becomes clear that James is kind of nodding off. “You can nap,” Paul says. “I promise to wake you if I see any super exciting parks.”

“Or giant whatevers,” James says, yawning. Paul nods solemnly, but he can’t help the twitch of his lips.

“Any giant whatevers or world’s greatest who-fucking-knows, I’ll wake you up,” he says as James reclines the passenger seat and closes his eyes. He half expects James to chirp him or bitch, but when he looks over, James is already asleep.

The quiet, interrupted only by the low rumble of NPR, is pretty soothing. The highway isn’t empty, but it’s not overly busy. It runs through a pretty wooded area, and it’s actually kinda nice to look at. It doesn’t look like Pennsylvania, or Minnesota, or Jersey – it’s rockier somehow, the woods look strange, a little hardier.

Paul’s struck by the thought that he’s never really seen that much of the US, despite how much he travels for hockey. It’s mostly airports and cities and rinks; he’s never had much chance to really watch it like this, turning from the familiar trees of his yard, his street, the tall grey buildings of Pittsburgh, the cities and landscapes of Pennsylvania to the jagged rocks and hills which surround the road. Even the buildings here look different.

He thinks about Tampa, all palm trees and water everywhere and sun all the time, glistening off their tall, mirror blank buildings. Not a bad place for a holiday, really. He glances over at James and turns up the radio a little, not enough to wake him, but enough that he can hear Talk of the Nation more clearly. The sky is rapidly darkening, which seems like a valid reason to just keep driving on past at least two exits for parks.

The rain wakes James up, blinking and confused as he always is after a nap. “Ugh,” he says, rubbing his eyes, and Paul laughs, mostly just because it’s familiar. James half-heartedly swats his shoulder. “Coffee break?” he asks.

“Is it on the schedule?” Paul says with a straight face. This time, when James swats him, it actually kind of hurts.

*

The rain isn’t letting up and they’re stuck in a traffic jam, crawling along, when James says, “What made you go with Tampa?” Paul almost drops the chocolate bar he’s eating, grateful that he isn’t driving. They haven’t really talked about Paul’s signing. He wonders vaguely whether this conversation was also on the schedule. “I mean,” James says, glancing at him, “you got offers from other teams, right?”

“Mostly Western Conference,” Paul says, nodding. He looks out the passenger side window. An occasional rumble of thunder can be heard in the distance. “I don’t know, man. Tampa are good, I know their style of play.” He breathes in through his nose. “I kind of wanted to stay in the East, you know? The teams are pretty familiar. And I couldn’t really see myself in Calgary.”

James huffs a small laugh. “Yeah, no, I don’t think you’d be much help there.” He taps his fingers against the steering wheel. “Surprised that the Devils didn’t try and get you back.”

“With their cap space issues?” Paul says, glancing briefly at James. James seems fine, although he’s drumming his fingers on the wheel impatiently. There’s no sign of traffic letting up. “And I didn’t exactly light it up on the ice while I was there.”

“Seen your stats,” James says, and even out of the corner of his eye, Paul can tell that James is giving him a significant look.

“Well, relative to what I did in Pittsburgh, I was better,” he allows. “But yeah. Tampa was the best offer. Plus, you know, sun and palm trees, who could resist?”

“You bitch when the temperature gets above seventy,” James says, grinning a little. “Your house is always freezing in summer.” Paul ignores the way James pauses after ‘is’, like he isn’t sure about the tense.

“Pretty sure no one forced you to hang out there,” Paul says, exhaling slowly, smiling slightly to show it’s a joke.

“Whatever,” James says, like he always does. “Do you think the rain’s slowing?”

Paul looks out of the window, feeling relieved and a little disappointed at the change of subject. He kind of wants to roll his eyes at himself. “Nope.”

“Next stop, Charlotte,” James says decisively.

*

“That motel is clearly a murder site,” Paul says. “Possibly an on-going one.”

“It’s quaint?” James tries, but he can’t disguise his horror either. The motel in front of them is old, rust evident on the bars of the staircases, paint peeling off the wood. The curtains are marked by spots that Paul might be imagining look like blood, and most of them are falling down. The neon of the sign is half out. Paul is almost certain this is how Psycho began. “Look, it might not be so bad inside –“

“Uh-huh,” Paul says and from the look on James’ face, he sounds as disbelieving as he feels. He suspects that, apart from probably being popular with murderers, this is the kind of place that hires rooms on an hourly basis. “Pretty sure it’s going to be worse. I am too damn old to be sleeping in stained sheets.”

James opens his mouth as if he’s going to protest, but then he shrugs. “You’re thirty-three, you’re hardly ancient.”

“Missing the point,” Paul says. “Get Google up on your phone, idiot. We’re finding somewhere else.”

“I’ve pre-paid,” James whines, even as he gets his phone out. Paul smacks him upside the head.

“I’ll pay, just find somewhere that has, like, a respectable name.”

James ends up paying – “this is my road trip,” he says when Paul protests and whatever, if James is going to be weird about it, it’s a nice gesture – and they head to the Best Western a few miles outside the city. It has a pool and a decent bar and everything smells clean –standard hotel bleach and lightly perfumed recycled air – when they get in.

“Not a lot of personality,” James says and Paul can’t help laughing. James is one of the few guys Paul knows who actually quite likes their road hotels, mostly for the convenience and room service, but still.

“I didn’t realize you were so picky about your accommodation,” Paul says. “I’m sure if we ask, they’ll put in mood lighting and maybe some quilted pillows.”

“Ha, ha, this from a guy with six different comforters and matching sheets,” James shoots back, dragging their bags behind him as they trail up to their room. Paul rolls his eyes. “By the way, I grabbed the plaid one when I was down. In case you were wondering.” He doesn’t look behind him, but Paul is pretty sure just from looking at his back that James is smug. He unlocks the hotel room, pushing inside and dumping the bags.

Paul follows him in. It’s not like Paul wasn’t aware that James has a thing for that comforter; it’s the one he goes for whenever he’s at Paul’s house. Before they started fooling around, it was in the guest room, James’ old room; Paul never really used it that much. It’s still weird to think of it in James’ stupid, empty house.

He walks into James and starts back. James looks at him for a moment and then ducks his head. “If you want it back, I can –“

“No,” Paul says, cutting him off. He smiles, leaning forward a little to nudge at James with his shoulder. “Don’t be an idiot, it’s basically yours any way.” James rubs the back of his neck with his free hand, but he smiles at Paul, slow and cautious. It’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time and Paul ignores the warmth spreading at the pit of his stomach. He’s gotten pretty good at that. “Come on, move, Nealer, I’m hungry,” he says, pushing past James to put away his bag.

“Reservation isn’t until eight, got about an hour,” James says and yeah, Paul should have expected that. Still –

“I thought we were running late,” Paul says, turning around. James smirks at him, moving into Paul’s space. His hands settle on Paul’s hips, solid and comfortable, thumbs working under Paul’s t-shirt and Paul should have expected this too. “You scheduled in sex?” he says anyway, trying to keep a straight face, even as his gaze drops to James’ slightly parted mouth. James shrugs, his smile faltering a little. He can chirp James later, Paul figures, leaning up to kiss him, running his hands up James’ arms, and getting them into James’ hair. It’s good, familiar. Paul follows easily as James walks him backwards towards the bed.

*

Paul wakes with a start at two am, not entirely sure why. He can’t remember what he was dreaming, but his entire body is tense and he feels anxious. It’s depressingly familiar from the beginning of the off season: the twist of anxiety at the bottom of his stomach, the itch at the back of his mind.

After they lost, he used to lie awake at night, thinking over what he could have done: if there was one bad turnover, one missed pass, one slightly off shot on goal that he could have fixed, that could have kept them in the running. It’s not like Paul doesn’t know that it’s not on him alone – it’s on James, Geno and Sid, on Brooksie and Tanger and all of them for not getting to overtime, for not scoring the goal that could have kept them from losing Game Six and exiting in the second round. But when he can’t sleep, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t his missed opportunity to hit Zetterberg, to block Datsyuk’s shot that knocked them out. It’s hard to remember that the playoffs weren’t the reason that Pittsburgh didn’t offer him another contract.

He twists a little in the bed, careful not to disturb James, curled up on his side, facing away from Paul. James is usually a heavy sleeper, so he doesn’t really have anything to worry about, but still. He tries to settle his breathing, find something boring to focus on. The first thing that comes to mind is the coal museum, which at least makes him smile.

They’ve got another eight or so hours until they get to Tampa. Paul’s not sure whether the schedule has them taking one or two days to get there. He has booked a room in the hotel that management recommended from tomorrow, but the extra day won’t matter. More pressingly, he has an appointment with a realtor in three days. He can’t help sighing, rubbing his eyes.

Moving has been more difficult this time. It’s stupid – Paul knew by his first NHL season that he was going to be the kind of player who got traded or sent to free agency, and moved between teams. He’s solid, but he’s not exceptional. It wasn’t a secret before playoffs that there were doubts about the Pens at D. But still, this is somehow tougher than leaving Newark was.

“You have more stuff,” his mom told him, when he’d called her. “And moving in your thirties is always tougher. You want to be settled, most people your age are starting families, have a home.”

She’s not wrong. She’s not entirely right either. Paul’s a hockey player, moving comes with game and that doesn’t stop – not once you’ve settled, not once you have kids. And he’s never been sure those kind of roots are for him, anyway. James had made a throw away joke about finding new bars in Tampa at dinner; it was pretty funny at the time, but now it sticks in Paul’s mind. He knows Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh is where he came closest to a Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh’s where he has favorite bars and restaurants in a way he never did in Jersey. It’s where he was when his sister announced her pregnancy, where he played some of the worst hockey he’s ever played and got through it.

Paul turns onto his back, stares up at the ceiling, and lets himself think about his house, his slightly worn blue couch with a weird stain from his last birthday – he’s almost certain that it was from Flower’s ‘punch’ mix – his kitchen where he knows where everything is, the patio that Brooks bitches about whenever he’s over for beer. His bedroom, and the familiar rugs in his hall, a gift from an ex-boyfriend in Newark, given when his contract was up.

He’ll have that in Tampa, he reminds himself, not for the first time. His stuff is being packed up next week, it’ll be down in two. Tampa’s a good team – they’re good people too, he’s vaguely familiar with Stamkos through James, knows Bishop from national tournaments and Sid offered to get him St Louis’ number, said he was pretty cool. They’ve shown this year that they can compete, made it to Round Two as well. He’s going to be fine.

Something hits him in the shin; Paul starts.

“Stop thinking,” James mumbles, kicking him again even as he turns over to throw an arm over Paul’s ribs. He presses his forehead to Paul’s shoulder. “Keeping me awake.”

“Sorry,” Paul says quietly. James nuzzles his shoulder, which should feel weird. It’s distressingly comforting.

“Sex was supposed to make you tired,” James says, voice still blurry with sleep, but with a hint of whine coming out. Paul is almost surprised to find himself grinning.

“Trying, okay? Go back to sleep, James,” he says, stroking his hand lightly over James’ arm. It’s an odd position. They don’t cuddle, as a rule – James gets too hot, and Paul feels claustrophobic after too long. But he’s not trying to sleep, doesn’t expect to get back to sleep, and James’ steady breathing is kind of nice, something to focus on where it ghosts over the hair on Paul’s arm. He’ll miss this too, Paul thinks.

*

“The thing no one tells you is how fucking dull the South is,” James says authoritatively as they hit the South Carolina state line. “I mean, there are a couple of, like, old houses and shit, but nothing else interesting.” He pauses for a moment. “Unless you want to look at old houses?”

Paul just looks at him, and James tilts his head and smiles a little bashfully. “Yeah, all right,” he says. “Keep driving until we get hungry?”

“Sure,” Paul agrees easily. He’s oddly disappointed at the lack of sights today, though. It’s almost enough to make him ask about parks.

They drive in quiet for a while, the only noise in the car the sound of James’ road trip playlist. Apparently a desire for authenticity hadn’t been able to stand up to the endless country channels that the radio threw at them.

“Did you see the pictures from Suttsy’s wedding?” James asks suddenly.

“No?” Paul says. Suttsy got married a couple of weeks ago – it was the first time Paul had seen a lot of the guys since he’d gone to free agency. It had been a good night.

“Turned out good,” James says. “They’re in the group email, checked this morning. There’s a great one of Duper looking like he’s about to fall asleep at the bar.”

“I’m pretty sure he was,” Paul says, grinning. Suttsy had cordoned them off in one corner of the room, seating the team more-or-less together. Paul assumes he had done it as a damage limitation measure. Mostly it had meant that they’d all gotten pretty tipsy, gone stupid with it, and had managed to limit the amount of times Bort and Beau tried to hit on the bridesmaids. At one point, Sid had tried to say something about playoffs. Kuni had thrown half a piece of wedding cake at him.

James is looking at him like he knows what Paul’s thinking about. “There’s a picture of Sid with cake on his shirt too,” he says and Paul lets out a snort of laughter. “It’s great, Sid looks baffled.”

“You have to give Kuni credit for his aim,” Paul says, “I thought for sure it was going to hit Tanger.” James laughs outright.

“Oh man,” he says, “pretty sure we’d still be looking for Kuni’s body parts.”

“Could have been worse,” Paul says, “could have hit Catherine or Vero. No one would have gotten out alive.”

“I don’t know,” James says, “pretty sure I can out run Flower.”

“It’s not Flower you’d have to worry about. I don’t think I can out run Vero, even in heels,” Paul says. Flower is goalie-crazy, but he’s a pushover for Vero. Paul finds her terrifying for that reason alone, leaving aside the fact that she’s always perfectly turned out and the kind of nice that suggests that if you take advantage, she’ll hurt you. Catherine is the same. Together, they’re pretty intimidating.

“We could hide under the tables,” James says, considering. “Let the madness happen and come out when it’d blown over.”

“Not very brave,” Paul says. James takes one hand off the wheel to tap Paul’s thigh.

“We’d get out, though.” James looks pretty pleased with this idea. He leaves his hand on Paul’s thigh, just resting. Paul has a brief, weird urge to hold it. He shakes his head.

“How’d Suttsy look?” he asks.

“Deliriously happy and kind of dorky,” James says, which is an accurate description of how Suttsy had looked on the day too. “Think being all settled and old suits him.” Suttsy’s always been kind of settled, stable and boring in the way the rookies and James and Geno aren’t. Being married would suit him. “There’s a pretty good one of you, too,” James adds.

“Yeah?” Paul says, smiling a little. “Didn’t look too out of place?”

“You looked hot and you know it,” James says. The look he shoots Paul is a little heated, makes arousal spark in Paul’s stomach at the memory: James had gotten his hands on him as soon as they got back from the wedding, pressing him up against his front door and kissing him filthy and drunk-sloppy before dropping to his knees. It was a pretty memorable night all around. Paul bites his lip at the memory, but smiles back at James, leaning back into his seat.

A full Johnny Cash song passes – Paul’s not entirely sure who introduced James to Johnny Cash, but he’s grateful – and then James says, “You see any of the guys before heading out?”

“Yeah,” Paul says, rolling his shoulders back. “Duper, Brooks and Sid took me out for a drink after the deal was signed with Tampa. Lots of jokes about sun burn.”

“Yeah?” James says. He taps his fingers against Paul’s thigh.

“It was –“ Paul grins a little. “You know Duper. They were pretty terrible jokes. Sid gave me some advice for fitting in on the Bolts’ lines.” It had been a fun couple of hours, really, the only weird moment coming at the end, when Sid had looked at him with wide sincere, slightly drunk eyes, and said, “It would have been nice to win a Cup with you.” Paul tries not to think about that, even though it was a nice thing to say.

“Well, Duper’s jokes will only be worse when you’re back in town for games,” James says. Paul shakes his head in mock horror, trying not to think about it.

“I’d say that was impossible, but –“

“It’s Duper.” James finishes, laughing. He squeezes Paul’s thigh slightly.

*

The weather in Georgia is foul – over 100 degrees and sticky with humidity, even as close as they are to the coast. There’s no breeze and it takes no time at all before Paul can feel his shirt sticking to his back. He sighs and stretches out. That at least feels good – they’ve been driving for over three hours and the car is big, but it’s not that big.

He glances back at James, leaning against the car and talking on his phone. He’s wearing his sunglasses, the ones which make him look like a tool, and slouching in a way that shouldn’t be attractive, but Paul’s struck by the impulse to take the sunglasses off him and kiss him, up against the car at a gas station god knows where. No one would recognize them.

Paul settles for peeling his t-shirt off his back and walking towards the shop. It’s nice and cool inside, and they sell chilled drinks. Paul feels immediately better about Georgia as a state.

“It always this hot?” he asks the girl on the till. She looks just barely twenty-one, wearing a backwards cap over messy brown hair, and a loose summer dress. She looks him up and down and smirks.

“You on holiday?” she asks as she scans his Gatorades and adds it to the gas charge.

“Moving,” he says. She glances out the window at the car, clearly skeptical. “My stuff’s coming later.” He’s not sure why he feels the need to explain, but she nods.

“This time of year, it’s always this warm,” she says, handing him his change. “It’ll cool down in October.” She smiles mischievously. “Probably not as cold as you’re used to, Yankee.” He grins back at her ruefully.

“I figured.”

“Making friends?” James asks as Paul hands him the blue Gatorade. He nods towards the station shop. Paul shrugs.

“Getting to know the area,” he says. James shoots him a look over his sunglasses.

“Pretty sure we’ve still got a couple of hours to go before we’re even in Florida. This is hardly ‘the area’.” James makes quote marks with his hands. It looks ridiculous, since he’s still holding the Gatorade and Paul tells him that. James sticks his tongue out, and gets in the car.

Paul sighs gratefully as the air con hits him. “Gonna wilt,” James sing-songs. “Too delicate for this heat.”

“Last time I checked, Whitby isn’t exactly tropical,” Paul says, even though it’s hardly a comeback. “Anyway, I am reliably informed it gets cooler in October.” James laughs at him. Paul ignores him, opting to just enjoy the cool of the air in the car until James is done. “How’s Becky?” he asks eventually.

“Also worried about you dying from heat exposure,” James says, sounding far too pleased with himself. Paul takes his eyes off the road to glare, but James looks unapologetic. “She says hi, and wants to know if you’re thinking about getting a house on the beach.”

“No,” Paul says, but he can’t help smiling a little. He’s only met Becky two or three times, but they’ve spoken on the phone occasionally, usually when Becky was trying to chase down James. He likes her; he gets the impression she’s like a younger and more together version of James in a lot of ways.

“That’s what I said,” James says, “I told her you hate sun, summer and anything to do with the sea. She says Florida’s wasted on you.” Paul shrugs. He can’t really argue with that.

“I like golf,” he offers, however. “Florida’s supposed to be good for golf.”

“And I’m sure you’ll be great in 90 degree weather.”

Paul groans. James isn’t wrong.

“Maybe you should come up to Whitby during the summer,” James says then. “There’s a pretty nice course near where I live, and the weather rarely goes above eighty.” There’s a pause and then he adds, “Or you’re welcome in Pittsburgh, of course. See if you can beat me even once.”

“One shot,” Paul says, because he’s not sure what else to say. “I was one stroke above you, it was barely a win.”

James grins at him and his eyes are strangely warm. “Yeah, well,” he says. “Don’t you want to try to actually beat me?” Paul rolls his eyes.

“Whatever, Nealer,” he says. “Aren’t there any parks coming up?”

“Just for that,” James says, getting his phone out, “I am going to find one. Lots of sun and some really fascinating trees. Look forward to it.”

Paul considers hitting his head against the steering wheel.

*

“So,” James says, as he merges onto the I-301. It’s the first thing he’s said for a while; Paul’s been napping, to the pleasant enough background noise of James’ road trip playlist, on its fifth or sixth rotation. He was sleeping when they crossed the state line into Florida. He feels vaguely put out about that.

Stretching, he looks at James. James is gripping the wheel, staring straight ahead. “Yes?” he prompts, getting a little nervous. They get onto the 301 without any problems, at what is for James an entirely reasonable speed.

“We shouldn’t break up,” James says. He says it fast, but the words are clear enough.

Paul’s first instinct is to say ‘we’re not dating’. It’s true – they’ve been fooling around for about a year, but it started off as a drunken hook up, convenient. It had been easy to fall into the habit of sleeping together; they spent so much time together anyway, it made things easier. Simpler. But he looks over at James, who is still staring out of the front windscreen like the road has made a bad penalty call, and Paul’s not an idiot. He’s not even in that much denial about his own feelings.

“What are you saying?” he says then, because that seems a place to start. James bites his lip and doesn’t say anything at all for a long moment. It’s hard to watch him, and Paul clenches his hands, tries to ignore how tense he feels, like all the anxiety surrounding playoffs and the move have settled between his shoulder blades, suddenly overwhelming. He swallows and says, “I mean – what do you want, James?”

James says, “What I just said. I don’t want us to break up – or, I don’t know.” He rolls his shoulders back, hands flexing on the wheel. Paul hesitates for a moment and then reaches out a hand, resting it lightly on James’ knee. James looks at him briefly, searching, and then he smiles. It’s not a huge smile or anything, but it’s there. Paul feels the knot of tension in his shoulder ease a little.

“Find somewhere to stop,” Paul says. “You probably shouldn’t be driving for this conversation.”

“Yeah,” James says, “Yeah, all right.” Paul squeezes his knee and looks out of the window, trying to get his own thoughts in order.

*

It takes about twenty minutes to get to the next exit. It’s awkward; James stares resolutely straight ahead and Paul feels suddenly restless, shifting in his seat and checking his phone. But it doesn’t feel bad, Paul doesn’t think. More expectant.

They make it off the interstate without any incidents and James finds a truck stop. The parking lot is large enough that they can find a shaded corner not too close to the diner and gas station.

“So,” he says, as James pulls the break. James ducks his head and then turns to look at him.

“Hey,” he says and Paul can feel the corner of his mouth curl up.

“Hey,” Paul says back.

“I had – I had a plan,” James says, rubbing the back of his neck. “I was going to – I was going to say something yesterday. At the restaurant. But then I thought – you know, we still had so far to go, it could have been awkward.” He pauses for a moment, glancing away. “I guess it could still be awkward.”

“Don’t an idiot, Nealer,” Paul says, because that’s the easiest thing to do, familiar ground. James glares at him, but there’s no heat behind it.

“Not an idiot,” he says, “I am trying to be mature about this.”

“That what this is?” Paul asks, schooling his face into an unimpressed expression. James lets out a short bark of laughter. Paul grins and nudges him with his shoulder, and the way James smiles at him makes his stomach clench.

“Yeah,” James says, getting serious again. “I guess – I didn’t expect them not to re-sign you. And I know that’s dumb, but I – I had an idea of what it’d be like, you know? We’d play hockey together and the sex would keep happening, we’d hang out and everything would stay the same, except maybe there’d be more making out outside your bedroom. I wanted that. I still want that.”

Paul thinks about it for a moment. The progression is kind of obvious once he lets himself see it: what started as drunken fooling around had quickly become sober hooking up and these past couple of months, he hasn’t even been looking when they go out, because he has what he wants at home. It’s easy to see how that could have kept going: their displays of affection moving from the bedroom to the rest of the house, kissing James as he passed him coffee just because he could, not trying to initiate anything; James settling back into his house like he’d never left; James lounging around with his feet tucked under Paul’s thigh on his couch on their rare off-days. It leaves him blinking and a little breathless with how much he wants it, now that he’s thinking about it.

“Hey,” James says, shifting around until he faces Paul properly, hand coming to rest on the back of Paul’s neck. “You all right, Paulie?”

“I’m fine, Jimmy,” he says, looking up to meet James’ eyes and trying to get his breathing under control. “I just – I wish I weren’t moving to Florida.” It’s weird to say out loud. He’s never said it so baldly before, but it’s true, for all that he thinks the Lightning are good, and that he’s pleased that a team wants him.

James doesn’t say anything, just rubs his thumb across Paul’s nape and bites his lip, waiting. James has been honest and open with him. It’s only fair that he returns the favor. “I haven’t thought about the future.” James’ face falls and Paul adds, “I always thought I might not get re-signed. It seemed inevitable if we didn’t manage the run.” He closes his eyes briefly. “I didn’t want to get too attached to the idea of staying in Pittsburgh. Or with you, particularly when I didn’t even know what you wanted from me.”

“If you weren’t going, though –“ James says and he looks stupidly young as he moves closer, until Paul can almost feel his breath on his face. Paul nods and James’ face does a complicated thing before settling on a small smile. “So I’m saying. If you want. We could try the long distance thing, it’s not like –“

“James,” Paul cuts him off. “You’re a good friend, probably my best friend, and I don’t want to lose that. Long distance is hard as fuck, particularly with the season and training in the summer.”

“So? I’m saying I want to try,” James says, stubborn. “There are direct flights and we have the money to spend. Fuck, I don’t even care if you sleep around during the season. I’m just – I want to be the one that you, you know, that you see in the off season, that you make time for. I want you to Skype me and text me chirps and judge my taste in films or whatever. I want to think about, like, making out with you in your new Tampa house and fucking you up in my apartment in Whitby.”

Paul doesn’t know what to say, swallowing around a sudden tightness in his throat. Instead, he leans forward and kisses James, gets his hands on James’ shoulder and drags him close, trying to convey how fucked up and confused, and suddenly, stupidly happy he feels. He doesn’t know if James gets it, but he kisses back enthusiastically, hands on Paul’s face keeping him in the kiss, as if Paul wants to go anywhere.

“We should find somewhere to stay tonight,” Paul says when he can make himself break the kiss. He leans his forehead against James’ and tries not to think about anything except how good it feels to be this close, how much he wants to kiss James again without needing to stop, get his hands on him properly.

James exhales and when Paul meets his gaze, he looks kind of stunned. “Yeah? It’s only another three hours or so.”

“It’s almost five,” Paul says, fingers stroking down the hair at James’ nape. “Fuck the schedule, Jimmy.” James looks at him for a moment, and some of Paul’s urgency must show on his face, because James’ breathing hitches and he licks his bottom lip.

“Yeah,” he says, “yeah all right.”

*

The look on the receptionist’s face as Paul puts down his card for their room makes it clear that, for all that James is keeping a careful distance and they’re trying not to look at each other too much, it’s obvious why they’re at the motel. She looks torn between wanting to roll her eyes and laughing at them. Her “Enjoy your stay,” has exactly the wrong emphasis.

It adds to the tension Paul’s feeling, fingers itching to touch James even as part of him wants to – leave, not deal with these feelings. The need to touch is winning, though, a bubbling happiness at the pit of his stomach.

The room is fine; it’s small, but clearly clean. Paul looks it over anyway, energy thrumming beneath his skin. James hovers by the door. When Paul looks up from the bedside table – he’s not even sure what’s on it – James’ mouth is downturned, his hands in his pockets. He looks awkward and Paul breathes in, wills himself to stop feeling tense.

“Hey,” he says and takes a step towards James. James looks up at him and quirks up the corner of his mouth.

“Hey,” he says back.

“This feels weird,” Paul says, mostly because he needs to acknowledge that at least. James looks at him for a long moment and then he laughs, smiling wide.

“Don’t be a dumbass,” he says, moving forward. “How long have we been doing this? And this was your idea.” He gets close enough that he’d be able to reach out for Paul if he wanted to.

“Yeah,” Paul allows, and moves in, gets his hands on James’ hips, pulling him close. He’d resisted touching James in the car, resisted in the lift up to the room. He moves them under James’ threadbare t-shirt, James’ skin warm to the touch. “It’s a little different, though,” he says, by way of explanation. When he looks up at James, James’ eyes are lidded and he’s smirking.

“Yeah?” he says, “You need me to be careful?” His voice has gone a little deeper already, and Paul looks at him, meets his eyes straight on.

“No,” he says and then they’re kissing. James licks straight into his mouth, kissing him hot and filthy, hands in Paul’s slightly too long summer hair, keeping him in place. Paul groans into it, hands on James’ lower back, urging him closer. It’s like being back in the car – overwhelmed by a need to get close, get his hands on James, make it feel more solid and real, this relationship thing.

They move backwards slowly, but eventually Paul can feel the bed against the back of his legs. James protests when Paul breaks the kiss, but he gets the hint, stripping out of his t-shirt and getting out of his shorts, shucking them down his legs.

Paul strips quickly and efficiently, pushing James onto the bed and moving over him. “Still got a sock on,” James says, smiling up at Paul, his hair a mess and his mouth red.

“So inefficient,” Paul tells him, leaning down to mouth at James’ jaw, moving down to his throat and nipping lightly. James makes a bitten off gasping noise, his hips pushing up, and he’s not entirely hard, but he is getting there fast. Paul’s own arousal rolls through him, James’ familiar feel and sound and smell every-fucking-where, and he sucks a little too hard at James’ throat. It gets him a moan and James’ hands grabbing at the back of his head, hips moving again.

Paul moves a hand down to James’ hip, pressing him into the bed as he kisses up James’ throat, back to his mouth, biting at James’ bottom lip and swallowing his gasp. James writhes against his hand and Paul wants so many things: wants to fuck James fast and hard, wants to finger him for hours, drawing it out. Wants James on his knees, wants to wrap himself around James and hold him while Paul jerks him off slow, leaving James gasping against his throat.

He has to break the kiss and take a deep breath, another spike of arousal rushing through him. This is James. This is something he gets to have – this is something he gets to keep at least for a little longer. He looks at James for a long moment, taking in his dark eyes and slightly parted lips, shiny with their spit.

“What do you want?” James asks, and then, because he knows Paul too fucking well, he smiles, filthy and slow, and says, “This is only round one, we can fit in something else later.”

Paul raises an eyebrow. “Yeah?” he says, trying for dry, but probably only succeeding in sounding fond and turned on and hopelessly weak for James.

James doesn’t comment though, only leans up on his elbows and kisses Paul, slow and almost reassuring. “Let me suck you,” he says against Paul’s lips. “Let me suck you and then you can jerk me off, yeah?” It’s all Paul can do to nod.

There’s no teasing once Paul’s on his back, and James has settled between his legs. James gets his mouth on Paul’s dick, takes him in without any warning, like he’s desperate, his urgency a match for Paul’s own, and it’s all Paul can do not to thrust up in James’ mouth.

James doesn’t really like that, though, and Paul keeps his hips down, lets James set his own pace, hand twisting around the base of his dick. He gets up on his elbows, watching James lick at the head, looking up to meet Paul’s eyes before moving down to suck in earnest, and Paul can’t imagine ever not wanting to watch James like this, arousal and affection and something bordering on urgency surging through him. He strokes James’ cheek, a thumb against the corner of James’ mouth, stretched around Paul’s dick. James makes a choked noise, somewhere between a whine and a hum and it feels incredible, James’ hand working at exactly the right pace, familiar and filthy, wet from James’ spit. He keeps sucking, steady and practiced, tongue rubbing at Paul’s dick nearly perfectly.

Paul drops back onto the pillows, groaning James’ name, his orgasm building from the base of his spine and rolling forward even as he’s saying, “Jimmy, fuck, so good,” James’ cheek hot and damp against his hand. And then he’s coming, James swallowing around him until it’s almost too much, too sensitive. Paul pushes him away, breathing in through his nose, eyes still closed.

James moves slowly up to lie next to Paul, resting his hand on Paul’s hip. “See?” he says, kissing Paul’s shoulder. “not weird.” His voice is kind of fucked, as usual, and he looks smug. Paul turns to kiss him, aftershocks fading slowly.

“Pretty fucking amazing,” he tells James, gratified when James’ smile softens.

“Yeah? Good enough to keep around?” James asks, and it’s clearly sort of a joke. Paul kisses him again.

“Yeah,” he says, and smiles. “I’d like to keep you around for a while.” They lie there for a moment, staring dorkily at each other. Paul feels almost sleepy with how content he feels.

“If you’re keeping me,” James says then, his smile turning into a smirk again, “maybe you’d better hold up your end of the bargain.”

Paul laughs. “You think so?” he says, tugging at James’ arm until he’s straddling Paul, running a hand up his back, into his hair. He looks up at James and grins. “I guess I should.”

*

Paul doesn’t mean to fall asleep – he’s hungry for one thing – but he must doze off because the ring of James’ phone shocks him awake.

“Ugh,” James says eloquently, shifting away from Paul to grab his phone. “Yeah? Oh, hey Stammer.” Paul leans over, brushing a kiss against James’ shoulder mostly because he can and pads into the bathroom. It’s small, but clean enough, and the shower feels pretty fucking good, even if it also wakes him up and reminds him of how hungry he still is. Paul’s not entirely sure where they are, but there has to be a steak house relatively close by.

When he gets out, James is still on the phone, though he’s managed to get his boxers on. Paul is kind of impressed. He clears his throat and James blinks up at him, clearly still a little dazed from their nap, but then he smiles wide and happy. “He’s out, all yours,” he says and hands Paul the phone. “Going to shower,” he adds, heading into the bathroom.

“Hello?” Paul says cautiously.

“Hey,” Stamkos says brightly. “How are you? I’m sorry we haven’t had a chance to talk yet, but you know how summer gets with training and seeing everyone when you’re home. You have a good one?”

“Uh, yes,” Paul says and then shakes himself. “No, it was good, couple of weddings and got to see my nieces, bit of conditioning training, pretty standard.”

“Except for the move, right?” Steven says, but not in a particularly significant way. “Vinny bitched for ages before moving, it was like every conversation was about moving boxes or how much shit he has.” Steven laughs and adds, “Though I’m sure you haven’t been complaining as much, obviously. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that.”

Steven’s a little overwhelmingly friendly, but Paul was pretty much expecting that. It eases something in Paul anyway and he smiles. “Moving is a bitch,” he agrees, “I’m paying my way out of a lot of the hassle, though.”

Steven hums appreciatively. “Makes sense, got the money right?” He pauses for long enough for Paul to make affirmative noise and then continues, “I was actually calling to check in on your progress. Benny and I get to play welcome wagon – oh, Bishop, you know? – and I was thinking of meeting you at the hotel tomorrow, but Nealer suggested that you might need an extra day or so to get down here?” There’s nothing suggestive in Steven’s voice, but Paul blushes anyway. He glares at the door to the bathroom. “No rush, of course,” Steven says obliviously. “We just want to make sure you get a proper welcome. Make sure you know the good bars, that kind of thing.”

It’s really nice of him, actually – Paul’s aware of getting to the age where people assume he’s comfortable moving to new places and settling in without a welcoming committee. “Thanks, Stamkos,” he says, “I appreciate it. Should be down tomorrow, but I’m not sure how late.”

“Day after, gotcha,” Steven says, “And it’s Stammer, man, you’re team now.” There’s another pause and then Steven adds, “You’re welcome to bring James along as well, if he’s still hanging around. Benny’s cool, you know.” This time, there’s no chance Steven isn’t implying something, or rather, making clear that he knows. Paul swallows, hands clenching around the phone. He breathes in and forces himself to relax his hand.

“Haven’t been able to get rid of him so far,” he says, keeping his tone light, and Steven – Stammer – laughs. The door to the bathroom opens, and James comes out, naked and still damp. He grins at Paul, squeezing his shoulder lightly when he passes him on his way to locate his clothes.

“He’s an idiot, but bearable with booze,” Stammer says, “I’ll see you both in a couple of days, then. Safe drive, Paul.”

“Hey, thanks for calling,” Paul says and then adds, “I’m looking forward to getting on the ice.” It’s almost true, too.

“Gonna be a good year,” Stammer promises.

James is dressed by the time Paul’s hung up the phone. “All good?” he asks, smiling hesitantly. Paul gets his fingers in James' belt loops and pulls him in for a quick, friendly kiss. It feels good to be able to do that, new in a way that the sex hadn’t been. James is grinning when Paul pulls away and stays between Paul’s knees, looking down at him. He looks fond, Paul thinks. It’s a bit of a thrill to let himself fully acknowledge that that is what that expression means – fond and a little bit possessive. Paul smiles back at him.

“Food,” Paul says after a beat, letting James go. “C’mon, make yourself useful, find a steakhouse while I try to find my pants.”

*

They’re on the road at what James deems a ‘reasonable hour’, which translates to after ten am. James insists on driving, which would be okay, except he keeps glancing at Paul and not the road. After what feels like the twentieth time he does it, Paul smacks his thigh.

“Stop it,” he says. “I am not going anywhere, you’re freaking me out.”

“Technically not true,” James says, but he looks back at the road. Paul swallows and leaves his hand on James’ thigh.

“Running us off the road won’t help,” Paul says. James snorts. “Anyway, we’ve got a couple of days,” Paul adds; he figures it can’t hurt to remind both of them that arriving at Tampa isn’t actually the end of the trip.

“Well, yeah, but –“ James looks frustrated for a moment, one hand rubbing through his hair. “We have to spend some of that time with Stammer.”

Paul laughs. “You love Stamkos, don’t bitch.” He rubs his thumb against the outside seam of James’ shorts. “He seems to know enough that we could probably duck out early.” He grins at the look that crosses James’ face.

“I’ve said sorry for that,” James says, still grimacing.

“I really don’t mind, James, it’s fine.” James looks over at him, and Paul squeezes his thigh. “Eyes on the road, Nealer.” It is fine, though; it’s actually comforting. Steven knowing makes this new thing seem more real. It’s not that he doesn’t trust James or that James knows what he wants; it’s just – it feels like more of a change than it maybe should.

Paul leans back into his seat, watching the traffic go by; the road is getting busier. He’s aware of James still glancing over, though. If he’s honest, he’s not sure he’d be any better were he driving. As it is, he squeezes James’ leg again, trying to reassure him that this is happening.

James is still frowning, though, and Paul suspects that he’s concentrating on not looking over. “So,” he says, “you plan this whole trip yourself?” James sputters and Paul raises his eyebrows. “Hey, I’m flattered either way, but c’mon.”

“You are such a dick, Paulie,” James says, a hint of whine in his voice, and Paul laughs. “Ugh, Becky helped. And Geno. “

“Geno?” Paul says. He’d been pretty sure about Becky, knowing how close she and James are. Geno was – less expected.

“Not that surprising,” James says. “Geno’s a total closet romantic.” Paul can’t quite keep the grin off his face at that, a weird, warm flutter in his chest.

“Romantic, that’s what you were going for?” he says, voice dry. James doesn’t seem pissed off though; instead, he sort of smirks.

“I swept you off your feet,” James says, deadpan. Paul can’t even chirp that, not really.

“So, the plan was…?” he prompts.

James shrugs. “Get a couple of extra days with you,” he says.

“And Geno’s contribution?” Paul asks, when it’s clear that James isn’t feeling chatty.

“Maps, mostly. A lot of suggestions about places to visit.” James laughs shortly. “He suggested kidnapping you and taking you to Canada.”

“Possibly not a long term solution,” Paul allows.

“That’s what I said,” James says, gesturing with the hand not on the wheel. “I can be sensible sometimes, you know.” Paul snorts. “Hey, fuck you, you weren’t even going to say anything.”

That’s – fair enough, actually. “Yeah,” Paul says, looking out of the window. “I guess I kind of assumed that it was something I couldn’t have. I didn’t want to think about it.”

“And now?” James says, glancing at Paul again.

“It’s probably still a bad idea,” Paul says quietly. “But fuck, I’d regret not trying more.”

“At least you’ve got good instincts,” James says, the side of his mouth turning up. Paul strokes along the edge of James’ shorts, skin cool from the a/c. The movement makes James relax a little, tension going out of his shoulders.

They drive along quietly for a while – palm trees and clear skies all around, they are definitely in Florida. Paul is aware of James’ skin under his fingers, the coarse hair where James’ shorts are riding up a little. He breathes in slowly; the air in the car feels tense, but not uncomfortably so. It still feels weirdly new, but in a good way – casually touching James like this is kind of thrilling.

The GPS informs them that they need to get on the I-75, interrupting Paul’s thoughts.

“Two hours to go,” he says.

“Getting excited?” James asks.

“Pretty excited about getting out of the car,” Paul admits. James grins.

“For sure,” he says. Another minute passes, and Paul moves his hand off James to grab a water bottle. “Geno was the one who said not to trust the GPS,” James says, suddenly.

“Yeah?” Paul says, grinning.

“Yeah,” James say, smiling at Paul. He taps his fingers against the wheel. “He was the one who suggested a non-chain motel, as well. Something about you liking what he called ‘classy things’.”

“Hands on the wheel,” Paul says, rolling his eyes at James’ finger quotes. “And I can’t be that classy, I like you.”

“Very funny, Martin.” James whacks his hip without looking at Paul. “Anyway, my point is that Geno’s to blame for the murder motel.”

“Uh-huh,” Paul says.

“He is,” James says indignantly. “My plans worked out fine.”

“Travel planning genius,” Paul says, meeting James’ sideways glance. He doesn’t bother hiding how fond he feels. James leans back into his seat, smirking obnoxiously.

“Damn straight,” he says.

*

Tampa seems to rise from nowhere as they drive in. It’s exactly like it’s always been out of the window from the team bus on game day: the sun’s beating down, and gleaming off the buildings, the roads are wide and straight and lined by palms trees. Paul clenches his hands on the wheel and breathes in. He’ll settle in quickly enough, once he gets a house and his stuff down. Once hockey starts up.

It’s easy enough to find the hotel, a tall flashy building, the same white-and-glass that most of the city center seems to be made of. It looks nice enough. Paul drives past the entrance and turns at the end of the block. The GPS protests immediately.

“Pretty sure that was the hotel,” James says.

“Yeah, well,” Paul says, glancing out of the side window. “We’re not meeting Stamkos until tomorrow, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” James says, and he reaches his hand out, but doesn’t actually touch Paul. “I kind of want a shower, though. I wanted one an hour ago.”

Paul snorts. “You can’t actually be dirty, you’ve literally just been sitting in a car for three hours.”

“Still, man, artificial air.” Paul doesn’t respond to that. There are signs pointing to the water front. He signals and drives the other direction. The GPS informs him that it’s recalculating the route. “Paulie,” James says, drawing it out to a whine. “C’mon, I need to get out of this fucking car.”

That is fair, Paul knows; it’s not like he wants to stay in the car either, he’s pretty ready to not drive anywhere for at least a week. He breathes in through his nose and glances at the GPS. It’s got the route ready. He signals for the next turn.

When he looks over, James is watching him carefully. “You okay?” he asks softly. This time his hand ends up on Paul’s arm, warm against his skin. James feels steady, his hand solid where it’s wrapped around Paul’s bicep.

“Yeah,” Paul says and he smiles at James. “Just had a moment. Sorry.”

James smiles back and then leans over, kissing Paul’s cheek. It’s a small gesture and cheesy as fuck. Paul feels himself flushing anyway. “Gonna be all right,” James says. “I mean, not Pittsburgh all right –“

“What could compare?” Paul says dryly, as the hotel comes back into view.

“- but I’m sure there’s something appealing about Tampa,” James finishes, ignoring him. “And we’re sorted our shit out, right? So I’ll call you all the time until you’re settled, and then I’ll bug Stammer for gossip.”

Paul laughs at that. “You’re terrible on the phone, you know that.”

“Text you, whatever, I’m sure I can get used to Skype. Geno and I make it work.” Paul pulls up in the drive way of the hotel.

“Something you need to tell me about you and Geno?” Paul asks as the valet approaches. James rolls his eyes and smacks his thigh.

“Get out,” he says with a slight whine in his voice. “Shower, c’mon.”

They manage to get up into the room without too much trouble. It is a really nice hotel; the hotel room is large, with huge windows which give Paul a good view of the city. He’d booked a room with a king sized bed even before he’d realized James would be tagging along. He wonders whether the fact that James did will get back to the Bolts’ management. Rubbing his eyes, he decides he doesn’t care.

He stays at the window while James showers – he can hear him making exaggerated noises of relief through the open door to the bathroom, because James is fucking ridiculous. Paul should probably unpack, but it’s hard to really gather the energy for it. Instead he texts Stamkos to confirm when they’re meeting up tomorrow. He gets back a Sweet! pretty quickly, which makes him grin.

There are a couple of emails he hasn’t seen yet, including the Pens’ group one. There are new messages in there – including the wedding pictures, he’s pretty sure. He hasn’t checked that since before leaving Pittsburgh. Since James came back down from Whitby.

The water cuts out in the bathroom and Paul clicks the email. He scrolls down, past a conversation about training programs for the summer, and past most of the pictures of Suttsy and his wife, Duper and Sid laughing at one of Flower’s jokes, Beau looking bemusedly up at James, looking decidedly drunk. Towards the bottom of the photo series, there’s one of the group of them, probably taken by Vero and taken quite late, if their various glazed gazes are anything to go by. It’s a terrible photo – everyone looks either surprised by the camera or like they haven’t noticed it’s there. Paul can’t help grinning down at it – James is up in one corner, leaning on Paul and flapping a hand in Bort’s direction. He looks dumb, but so does Paul, red faced and blinking at the camera. At least no one’s doing bunny ears, he thinks, and is almost surprised by the sudden emptiness in his stomach, the ache of missing the team already.

He ignores the feeling and scrolls further down, stopping on an email from James. It includes a picture of their lunch on the first day, the park that they stopped at briefly on the second day, and another from the coal museum, of a lump of coal – of course, Paul thinks, but he’s grinning – even a photo of the fucking murder motel which Paul can’t actually remember James taking. The only text is ‘Roadtrip!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’. There are replies from Tanger and Brooksie, both variations on good-to-see-you-haven’t-died. There’s also one from Geno which says: ‘Ur plans terrible. Success? ))))’

His team mates apparently don’t do subtle. But fuck it, he flicks down and types: ‘In Tampa. No casualties. Call that a success?’ Geno can try to fucking decipher that.

James comes up behind him, arms around him. Paul leans into him. “You back to acceptable levels of clean, prissy?” he asks. James bites him on the shoulder, which Paul takes as tacit agreement. They stand there for a moment, leaning against each other, and it feels – it feels comfortable, settled, even if Tampa’s unfamiliarity is still an itch at the back of Paul’s mind, the fact that he doesn’t have a house down here making him a little edgy. He needs to sort that out, and he and James need to have a conversation, actually figure out how it’s going to work during the season.

It can wait, though. For now, he turns his head enough that he can kiss James, slow and through, no hurry or urgency. James kisses back gently, following his lead, arms solid around Paul.

When Paul breaks away, James follows him, brushing a kiss over his jaw. “You okay?” he asks against Paul’s throat.

“Yeah,” Paul says, because it’s true. He tilts his head and lets James nuzzle his neck. “You’re staying down for a few days, right?” James hums affirmatively. “Want to come look at houses with me tomorrow? Find somewhere that you don’t hate.”

James pulls back a little and looks at him. “Yes,” he says, and then he ducks his head, smiling wide. Paul feels something uncurl in his stomach, warm and steady, and he smiles back at James.