The first time James meets Paulie he literally runs into him in the hallway. He's late for class, just woken up, with a pop tart shoved hastily into his mouth for breakfast, and his clothes are sort of only half on, shoes unlaced. He makes a muffled noise of apology before he looks up and actually sees Paulie, who's wearing glasses and looking bemused, and then James chokes a little and sprays crumbs all over Paulie, who steps back in alarm. James takes the remnants of the pop tart out of his mouth and says, "Shit, sorry, that's gross, I'm really sorry, just kinda in a hurry, you know? Slept in, so now I'm late for class, and-- hi. I'm James."
"Um," says Paulie. "I'm Paul? Forget it, it's fine."
He makes to keep walking and James half-shouts, "Are you going to class?" at him.
Paul looks down at his bag, the extra books in his arms, then back at James, and says, "Yes?"
"Awesome," says James stupidly. "Uh. What course are you taking?"
Paul says "Education," kind of slow and suspicious, like he's not sure why James wants to know, and James nods, wants to hang around and ask a million questions and not really let this guy out of his sight, but he glances at his watch and says, "Shit, fuck, I'm so late, I can't lose anymore attendance points," and also, "Nice to meet you, Paul! Sorry!" and rushes off, cursing everything.
James looks up Paulie's course online later in his and Geno's apartment, maybe jotting down what classes he thinks Paulie has when and where, feeling vaguely creepy but also determined to see Paulie again, with his hair and his glasses and his face.
Geno comes up behind him to peer over his shoulder and says, "You change courses, Lazy?" And leaning closer to read the words on screen more carefully, "Bad idea, don't think they let children teach children."
James says, "Fuck you, I could teach if I wanted to," which makes Geno burst out laughing.
He laughs a lot longer than is appropriate or warranted, because he's an asshole, and then says, sobering and wiping his eyes, "But serious, why you look up course?"
James flushes a little and says, "None of your business," which is a dead giveaway, and Geno just nods wisely, smirking a little, and says, "Ah, have crush. Is cute, Lazy!"
The first time James waits outside Paulie's lecture with an extra coffee, Paul just blinks at him when James holds it out, until James says, "Uh, we met in the hall the other day?"
"I remember," says Paulie. "James?"
"That's right!" says James brightly. "And you're Paul. I got you coffee."
"Uh," says Paulie. "Thanks?" He finally takes the coffee, and twists the lid off to peer inside.
"It's a latte," says James. "I don't know what you usually get, but I figured everyone likes lattes, right? I have extra sugar, and also cream, if you want it."
"I don't," says Paulie. He smirks slightly. "And I usually get a cappuccino."
James waves a hand. "Same difference," he says, grinning.
Paulie squints at him. "Are you being serious?"
"Are you?" says James.
Paulie sighs. "A latte is one third coffee, two thirds milk, no foam," he says. "A cappuccino is one third coffee, one third milk, and one third foam. It also has chocolate."
"You work part time as a barista or something?" says James.
"No," says Paulie. "I just know stuff." He takes a sip of his coffee with another smirk.
"You're kind of an asshole," says James appreciatively.
"You brought it up," says Paulie, shrugging. "You also brought me coffee. I'm still not sure why."
"You seemed cool," says James, falling into step beside Paulie as he starts to walk.
"You do this a lot then?" says Paulie. "Bring coffee to random strangers you meet in hallways?"
"Nope," says James. "You're special."
"I'm flattered," says Paulie dryly.
He lets James follow him all the way to one of the courtyards though, so James doesn't think he's too annoyed. He doesn't even say anything, although he does raise an eyebrow, when he settles himself on the grass and James sits down close by him. They don't talk, while Paulie eats his lunch and reads a textbook with his glasses slipping down his nose and his mouth pursed in concentration, James fucking around on his phone to distract from how he wants to bombard Paulie with questions and dumb conversation. Paulie still hasn't told him to fuck off, and James doesn't want to push it, so he stays quiet with great effort, sneaking glances at Paulie every few seconds and biting back a really warm, dumb grin.
The next time James sees Paulie is when he runs into him again, literally, in the same hallway.
It's a week after the first time, and James is rushing to that same class, fresh from oversleeping.
It's pathetic, but it's pretty much his routine at this point.
Paulie rolls his eyes and says, "Late again?"
James says, "I can't help it, I never wake up on time! Mornings suck, and eight am lectures are dumb, and I can't figure out the timer on our coffee machine."
Paulie stares at him for a minute and then says, "Give me your phone."
James hands it over without question or hesitation and says, "Are you putting your number in?" sounding stupidly hopeful.
Paulie says, "No, I'm setting your alarm. You do know your phone can do that, right?"
James mumbles, "Shut up," and Paulie just smirks and hands the phone back.
It takes James an embarrassingly long time to figure out that Paulie also programmed in his number along with setting the alarm. He maybe spends a few days feeling a bit morose and eating junk food on the couch while he pines after Paulie, because that was like, a golden fucking opportunity for Paulie to give James his number, so maybe he doesn't actually want to talk to James anymore, maybe he was setting James' alarm so James would wake up on time and get to class like a normal person and not run into stupidly attractive smirky dudes in the corridor. And then he eventually notices the new contact in his phone under 'Martin, Paul,' and spares a moment to lament what an idiot he is before he messages Paulie.
It's Sunday afternoon, so he says, hey it's james what r u up to?
Paul replies, you know phones have autocorrect and full keyboards now, you don't actually have to use text speak.
It makes James laugh, and he replies, uh huh sure what r u doin paulie
Paulie replies, studying.
James says, boring wanna hang?
It takes a little longer for Paul to reply this time, and James watches his phone with his lip between his teeth, but eventually Paulie says, fine, meet me outside the library in 20.
They wind up getting coffee at one of the campus cafés. Paulie very pointedly orders a cappuccino, and then sits across from James at one of the tables and patiently answers the questions James throws at him. He finds out that Paul is from Minnesota and he works part time at the college library and he's majoring in early childhood education, because he's bemused but pleased that kids seem to instantly like him. James gets it completely; he'd been the same, Paulie hadn't even had to open his mouth, just beamed his-- his Paulie-ness at James, and James was gone. He also finds out that Paulie played hockey in high school; even, as Paul tells him with a charmingly modest duck of his head, that he was awarded Mr. Hockey, which basically cements Paulie as the Greatest Person Ever, in James' opinion.
"That's so awesome!" he says. "I play hockey. I'm on the team. Why aren't you on the team?"
Paulie shrugs and says, "If I was on the team I wouldn't have time for anything besides classes and studying, if that, and I don't want my grades to drop. Plus I had a bad run with injuries right before I left for college. Didn't seem like the best idea."
James frowns and says, "But you can still play, right?"
"Of course I can still play," says Paulie, laughing.
"You should join us for pickup sometime," says James, making pleading eyes.
Paulie chuckles. "I'll think about it," he says.
Because James maybe has a copy of Paulie's schedule, as best he could make it out from what he found online and also what Paulie's told him, he knows Paulie has a lecture on Tuesday, just past two weeks since they first met, that finishes around eleven am.
James doesn't have any classes til late afternoon, and an early morning shift at the bakery that finishes just as Paulie's class is letting out. He sneaks one of the chocolate croissants from the display while Sid is busy making eyes at Geno in the kitchen, and heads out to meet Paulie.
"Is this going to be a thing?" says Paulie when he spots James.
"What?" says James, blinking innocently.
Paulie rolls his eyes. "Stalking out my classes."
"I'm not stalking," says James. "I'm being considerate. Here." He shoves the croissant at Paulie.
Paulie blinks. "Uh," he says. "Thanks? You don't have to keep buying me stuff, you know."
"I didn't," says James. "I mean, I would, but uh. I work at a bakery, so." He shrugs.
"Yeah?" says Paulie. He looks at the croissant again, then at James, and then he smiles. "Well, thanks, I guess. I appreciate it. Most stalkers aren't this considerate."
"I'm not a stalker, fuck you," says James. Paulie is smirking at him. "I just-- should I stop?"
Paulie bumps his shoulder as they start walking. "It's okay," he says. "You seem harmless."
James elbows him. "Besides," he says. "You gave me your number first." He grins triumphantly.
"I did," agrees Paulie.
James glances at him, but Paulie doesn't say anything else, looking placidly ahead.
"Does your bakery do coffee?" asks Paulie after a moment.
James blinks and says, "Yeah?"
Paulie says, "So how come you haven't figured out the timer on your own coffee machine?"
James ducks his head and mumbles, "Uh, I'm not allowed to operate the coffee machine."
It makes Paulie laugh, sudden and bright, all creased-up eyes and bitten lips, and James is just stupidly happy, a) because Paulie has a really, really great laugh that he should definitely use more often, and b) because Paulie actually remembered some dumb thing James said and he's so used to his friends ignoring him most of the time. Not because they're shitty friends or anything, but just because James talks a lot of shit. It's-- it's really nice.
Paulie inspects the croissant James brought for him closely and says, "So you don't know how to use your phone for important things like waking up in time for class, you eat pop tarts for breakfast, you're bad enough with a coffee machine that you've been banned by actual industry professionals, and I've never seen you with so much as a notebook. What course are you taking? And also, how are you still alive and functioning?" He grins.
James is so charmed, it isn't even funny.
He doesn't know what it is about Paulie; it's not like all his friends don't chirp him constantly for being a human disaster. Maybe the way Paulie actually sounds curious, possibly even a little concerned, under all the layers of teasing. He did set James' alarm for him that one time. None of James' friends have done that. Geno just lets him sleep in and then laughs like an asshole when James is scrambling for the door, fresh out of bed and no early morning classes to get to.
He doesn't actually mind; James is an adult and responsible for himself, and friends are supposed to give you shit when you fall short. Which in James' case is basically all the time. Geno's a great friend when it really counts, and it'd be weird if he started fussing over James all the time like he does with Sid, since James' traumatised ears can attest to the fact that those two are fucking like rabbits. So he definitely likes the maybe-significance of Paulie's approach.
James ducks his head. "I'm doing sports management," he says. "And pop tarts are a legit breakfast, okay."
"They're really not, James," says Paul.
"Yeah, well." James shrugs. "Last time I made toast I almost set the place on fire, so I'm not allowed to use the kitchen without supervision, and my roommate is never up that early. It's better for everyone, really."
"Oh my God," says Paulie.
"I'm a very charming salesperson?" says James. "And I'm awesome at hockey. Also I have great hair."
"Essential life skills," says Paul dryly, but his eyes are creased like they do when he smiles, and he makes an appreciative noise when he bites into the croissant. James is totally taking credit for that; Geno can fuck right off. He gets enough disturbingly pornographic noises out of Sid with his baked goods, anyway. James wants Paulie's noises for himself.
The first time Paulie comes to the bakery is the following Friday, and he grins at James before turning his attention to the display case for a minute, contemplating.
"What's a Sidney Crosby cookie?" he says eventually.
James snorts, and Sid, who's working the coffee machine, goes bright red and says, "Oh my God." Then he turns his head away, still blushing, and shouts, "Geno, did you change the sign again?" over his shoulder.
Geno sticks his head through the kitchen door, tongue poking out the corner of his mouth, and says, "No, Lazy change."
"Liar," says James.
"Geno." Sid sighs. "No one's going to buy them."
"See who Sidney Crosby is, buy more," says Geno firmly. "Nice Canadian face, nice Canadian cookie."
Sid ducks his head, rolling his eyes and looking disgustingly enamoured.
"Change it back," he says to James after a moment, turning back to the coffee machine. His cheeks are still tinged pink and he's biting his lip to hold back a dumb sappy smile.
"Are they any good?" says Paul to James while he swaps the Sidney Crosby Cookies )))) sign for the Nutmeg Maple Butter Cookies one.
"Delicious," says James, sighing. "It's kinda gross."
"Hey!" says Sid.
"I hear you, Lazy!" shouts Geno from the kitchen. "Too rude, no leftover donut for you!"
James makes a long-suffering face at Paulie, and is rewarded when Paulie laughs quietly, pushing his glasses up his nose and pointing to one of the Danishes. "I'll take that one."
"Done," says James. "To go, or you gonna hang around?"
"If I get a coffee, will you promise not to make it?" says Paulie, smirking.
"I told you, I'm banned," says James, rolling his eyes. "Sid makes great coffee though."
Sid throws him a pleased little grin.
"Maybe one donut, if keep being nice to Sid," calls Geno.
"Stop being a douche, you know you're gonna feed me, 'cause if you don't I'll just go buy stuff from that bakery two streets over," says James, putting Paulie's Danish on a plate.
Geno emerges from the kitchen and points at James sternly. "No enemy donuts," he says.
"Okay," says James, grinning smugly. "Gimme." He makes grabby hands.
Geno glares at him, but he disappears into the kitchen to re-emerge with a chocolate iced donut for James, pushing it into his hands and muttering something about terrible friends.
James ignores him and goes to spend his break with Paulie.
Paulie stares at James as he makes quick work of his donut, twisting his coffee between his hands and looking halfway between horrified and amused.
"What?" says James, swallowing.
Paulie shakes his head. "Do you eat anything that isn't packed full of sugar?"
"You're eating a Danish," James points out.
"I also eat three decent meals a day, Nealer," says Paulie, rolling his eyes.
"I eat!" says James.
"Pop tarts and donuts?" Paulie raises an eyebrow.
"Geno makes dinner sometimes," says James. "He lets me do the salad."
Paul laughs, shaking his head. "The thought of you living alone someday is kind of terrifying."
"Hey," says James. "Salads!"
"Uh huh," says Paulie.
"Anyway, what're you saying, you think I'm gonna end up alone?" James pouts.
"I hope not," says Paulie. "You might not actually survive it."
James rolls his eyes. "Sid and Geno had an argument about it once," he says. "Sid thinks I'd live off baked goods and takeout and get fat. Geno thinks I'd give up on feeding myself and starve."
"What do you think?" says Paulie, tilting his head.
"I think I'd manage if I had to," says James, shrugging. "I'm not that bad. I can do, like, pasta and shit. Or maybe I'd just grill all my food. I can cook a mean grill."
Paulie hums. "Well, that's a relief," he says. "Maybe keep a fire extinguisher handy."
"Duh," says James. "I'm not actually suicidal."
Paulie grins at him, and it's so fond already James has to duck his head, feeling warm all over.
"Lazy!" says Geno, appearing behind the counter when James returns from his break. Paulie is hoisting his bag onto his shoulder, just about to leave. "Invite friend for dinner. No pickup game tonight, should get to know."
"Oh my God, Mom, no way," says James. "He probably has shit to do, and you're just going to embarrass the hell out of me. No fucking way. Nuh uh."
Geno looks at him for a moment, then shouts, "Lazy friend!"
"Uh." Paulie turns. "Are you talking to me?"
"Yes," says Geno, beaming. "You free tonight?"
"I-- yeah?" says Paulie slowly.
"Good," says Geno. "Come for dinner? Sid come too, we get takeout, watch movie."
"Oh," says Paulie. He glances at James. "I can-- you don't mind?"
"Of course not," says James. He might as well jump in now, fuck Geno very much.
Paulie grins at him. "Okay then," he says. "Text me the address?"
"Sure," says James a little weakly as Paulie exits.
"So, Lazy friend," says Geno as they settle in with their takeout. Geno and Sid are twisted into a recliner, because they're gross, and James has the couch with Paulie.
"It's Paul," says Paulie, laughing.
"Paul," echoes Geno. "You learn to be teacher?"
"I-- yeah," says Paulie. "How did-- did James tell you?"
"He mention," says Geno sagely. James hates him so much.
"Do you play hockey?" says Sid.
"Did James tell you that too?" Paulie shoots James an amused glance.
"No, he asks everyone that," says James, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, Sid, he plays."
"Cool," says Sid. "What position?"
"Defence," says Paul.
"You're a D-man?" says James, frowning at him.
Paulie raises an eyebrow. "That a problem?" he says.
"No," mumbles James, not meeting his eyes. "Would've been cool to play on a line with you, is all."
Paul laughs. "Guess you'll just have to settle for someone holding up the fort while you do all your fancy sharp-shooter shit up front, huh?" He shakes his head mock-sadly. "Forwards."
"Hey!" say Sid and Geno as one.
"Does that mean you're gonna play with us?" James grins slowly.
Paul kicks his calf lightly.
"You should," says Sid. "Flower's been complaining about not having any decent D-men."
"Flower always complain," says Geno. "In French, even though no one understand him. Maybe just like sound of own voice. Or maybe learn too much bossy from Sid."
"I'm not bossy," says Sid defensively. "You're bossy. And I understand French. So does Duper. And Tanger. Maybe he's secretly complaining to us about you. You know, being bossy."
Geno rolls his eyes. "Sid most bossy," he says firmly.
"I'm not-- "
"Sid also best," says Geno.
Sid shuts his mouth and flushes bright red, not meeting anyone's eyes.
James groans. "Enough, Jesus, can we watch the fucking movie already?"
He breathes out once the opening credits start, and grins in the dark room when he hears Paulie laughing under his breath, when Paulie nudges his calf again, friendly and warm.
James doesn't mean to fall asleep, but he blinks awake a couple hours later with something warm and soft and solid under his cheek. It's Paulie, he realises after a blurry, confused moment, and Paulie's got his arm thrown over James' shoulders so he's settled more comfortably, sunk back into the couch with James' weight keeping him anchored, his legs sprawled easily. James is stupidly comfortable, and he really, really likes the way Paulie is just letting him take up a whole bunch of his personal space. He doesn't want to move at all, but it'd definitely be creepy if he didn't and then Paulie noticed he was awake, so he stretches and yawns, checking surreptitiously to make sure he hasn't drooled on Paulie.
He hasn't, thank God, and Paulie lets his arm slide from James' shoulders, smiling.
"Hey," he says. "You fall asleep on all your houseguests?"
"Only the really comfortable ones," says James, grinning.
Paulie rolls his eyes.
"Where's Geno and Sid?" says James, taking in the conspicuously empty room.
"Left before the movie finished," says Paulie. "I didn't want to ask."
"Smart," says James. "You should've woken me, man."
"It's fine," says Paulie. "Figured you needed the sleep."
"Yeah," says James, yawning again. "Got a game in the morning."
"I should probably head home anyway," says Paulie. "Thanks for having me over."
"Anytime," says James. "Seriously. Hey, you busy tomorrow night?"
"No," says Paulie. "Why?"
"We're gonna crash a party, you should totally come," says James, with his best winning grin.
Paulie hums. "Crashing?" he says. "Is it gonna end with me getting arrested? Or having to bail you out of jail?"
"Hey," says James. "I wouldn't make you bail me out. That's totally Geno's responsibility, since those kinda things are always his fault. Um. Not that I've ever been arrested."
"Uh huh," says Paulie, smirking.
"Anyway, no one's going to jail." James rolls his eyes. "No cops, I promise. We know the guys, kinda. Been to their parties before. It'll be fun, come on. You can come and try to keep me in line, and I'll try to get you wasted, and we'll see who wins."
"I'm pretty sure I can tell you who's gonna win right now," says Paulie.
"Paulie," says James, kicking him. "Please?"
"Fine." Paulie sighs, but the corners of his mouth are turned upwards.
"Awesome," says James. "I'll text you, yeah?"
"Sure," says Paulie. He stands, stretching. James eyes the pale strip of bare skin where his shirt rides up, clenching his hands so he doesn't reach out. "I'll see you. Good luck with the game."
"Thanks," says James, walking him to the door and beaming stupidly.
"Lazy!" calls Geno, marching into James' room on Saturday evening with a bare chest and a t-shirt in each hand. "Which shirt better?"
James groans and drags his gaze away from the pile of clothes on his own bed. "Are you fucking serious?" he says. "You have a boyfriend, and for some reason he doesn't care about your hideous shirts, probably because his fashion sense is worse than yours. Go away."
"Sid fashion fine," says Geno, frowning.
"Uh huh," says James distractedly, but he spares a second for an eye-roll, because seriously.
"Lazy," whines Geno. "Say which shirt, then can get dressed. Have time to help me when trying to date Sid. Have time now to help Sid find jeans for ass. We not friends anymore?"
"Yeah, well," says James, snorting, "You tried to wear that fucking Eurotrash shirt on your first date, come on. And Sid looked so sad about his ass. I'm not heartless." He snickers.
"So be friend now," says Geno.
"We're not friends," says James. "Go away."
Geno tuts. "Paulie like already, doesn't matter what you wear."
James turns to look at him properly. "Of course it matters, have you seen him?"
Geno just holds up his two shirts, because he's the worst.
"Fine," groans James, pointing to the one on the left. "That one. Now go away."
"Really?" Geno raises a skeptical eyebrow.
James folds his arms and glares.
"Okay, okay, I trust," says Geno, smirking and tugging the shirt on. "Hurry up, Lazy, we late for Paulie."
"I hate you so much," says James.
Paulie meets them outside the frat house. He's wearing a plain black t-shirt and dark jeans, and he looks so good that James actually pulls up short, staring.
Geno has to nudge him forward, smirking at James knowingly. He stumbles towards Paulie, taking in the t-shirt, tight around his shoulders and chest-- Paulie has really broad shoulders, wow-- and looser around the waist, perfect for gripping or slipping a hand under. His jeans hug muscled-looking thighs, and the dark fabrics set off his hair and his skin, and just. Shit.
"Um," says James stupidly. "Hi."
"Hi," says Paulie. His eyes flick up to James' backwards cap, and then he smirks and adds, "Is this how you always look on weekends, or are you just dressing the part?"
"Fuck you," says James, laughing and thinking ridiculously how much he just likes Paulie.
He bumps Paulie's shoulder as they all head into the house, where the party is in full swing.
"You want a drink?" he says.
"Sure," says Paulie.
James nods and makes a beeline for the kitchen.
He's barely back and taken a mouthful of his beer before Geno throws one of his dumb long arms around his shoulders and shouts, "Lazy, shots!"
James groans. "We haven't been here five minutes, Geno."
Geno pouts at him. "Lazy," he says. "Sid lame, won't do shots. Be good friend."
"Pretty sure friends aren't supposed to peer pressure friends into shots," says James.
Paulie leans towards him with his cup pressed to his bottom lip and a smirk peeking over the rim. "You don't have to pretend to be responsible for my sake," he says.
"Maybe too weak for shots?" adds Geno.
"Okay, fuck you all," says James. "Fine, shots."
Shots were probably a bad idea. James isn't sure exactly how long it's been, but he's pretty sure it's not long enough to warrant how floaty he feels. His first beer is gone, as are his second and third, and now he's drinking some kind of vaguely fruity, mostly lethal punch.
Paulie's drinking the same, frowning every time he takes a sip, even though he keeps taking sips, like he's just registering his disapproval for like, the universe or something.
James thinks it's pretty hilarious.
They're sitting on a step on the back porch, watching a bunch of frat dudes attempting keg stands. Although to be honest, James is more interested in the way they're sitting close enough that Paulie's thigh is pressed against his, warm and solid.
"Hey," he says, nudging his elbow into Paulie's side. Paulie's so warm, slightly sweat-damp and alcohol-flushed, and it seems like a really good idea to just leave his arm there, elbow nestled into the curve of Paulie's hip. "Hey, you good? Had enough drinks? You're not sober, right?" He squints at Paulie. He's pretty sure he's done an okay job of keeping Paulie's drinks coming.
"I'm good," says Paulie, laughing softly.
"Awesome," says James. He grins brightly at Paulie, and then huffs when someone digs a foot into the small of his back. He twists his neck, peering up at Geno.
"Hey, G," he says.
"Lazy, you still here!" says Geno. "Usually disappear with someone early, no?"
He grins like the total shit he is, and James glares at him. "Geno," he whines. "Don't make me look bad in front of Paulie, he'll judge me."
Paulie snorts. "I'm not judging you," he says.
"Really?" says James skeptically.
Paulie tilts his head. "Well, okay," he says. "But mainly because you've done less shots than Geno but you're still way more drunk, and also you have face paint on."
James pouts. "Okay, first, he's Russian, and second, face paint is cool. I look good, right?"
"I-- " Paulie stops, looking genuinely pained.
"Oh, go away," says James. "You want another drink?"
"Sure," says Paulie, laughing.
James sways to his feet, points at Paulie and says, "Don't move."
Paulie holds up his hands. "Don't worry, I won't be responsible for you getting lost."
"No big words when I'm wasted." James makes a face and goes to find some drinks.
Geno ambushes him in the kitchen, which is kind of weird, since James didn't even notice him disappearing again in the first place. He shoves a hat onto James' head-- one of those dumb Pirates parrot hats, Christ-- presses a sloppy kiss to James' cheek and says, "Sorry, I'm not mean to make look bad for Paulie. All okay?" He looks at James earnestly.
"It's fine, we're good," says James, laughing and shoving him. "Go find Sid, you giant dork."
Geno nods. "Okay, yes," he says. "Should find before get drink without me. Might try to do kegstand again. Sid don't even like kegstand, think dumb."
"Your boyfriend is an over-competitive weirdo," says James.
"I know," says Geno, looking impossibly fond. God, it's so gross. James escapes before Geno can tell him more about how great Sid is. He hears it enough through his bedroom wall.
"Hey," says James, settling in close next to Paulie again. He passes over the drink.
Paulie takes it, then stares at James, eyebrows raised. "Uh, James-- "
"Shh," says James, batting a hand at him. "Geno was apologising, I have to wear it."
"Is that supposed to make sense?" says Paulie.
James waves his hand. "We went to a Pirates game once, I don't know. I think Geno liked the hats more than the baseball. He's super into football though. You like it? The hat, I mean."
"I miss the other hat," says Paulie, grinning.
"Me too," says James wistfully.
Paulie laughs at him again, but it's pretty fond, even in James' drunken opinion, and he lets himself lean into Paulie, even though the step they're sharing is more than wide enough.
Paulie doesn't mention it though, just shifts his arm into a more comfortable position and says, "So how'd your game go today?"
"Oh!" says James, beaming. "We won! Geno scored a sick winner on my assist, it was awesome. And I won a bet because no one dropped the gloves on me this time."
"Yeah?" says Paulie, smiling. "That's great, James."
"You should come watch us sometime," says James. "You should come play with us sometime. How come you haven't yet?" He wrinkles his nose, frowning.
Paulie snorts. "Because you keep saying I should come play, but you've never actually given me a time or a place," he says.
"Oh," says James. "Yeah, shit. Okay. I'll do that. Remind me to do that, okay?"
"Okay, Nealer," says Paulie, rolling his eyes.
"Really wanna see you play," mumbles James. "Hockey is awesome, and you're awesome, so like, if you put those two together, it's gotta be pretty fucking great, right?"
Paulie shifts, and when James blinks and glances over he's already watching James.
"What?" he says.
"Nothing." Paulie shakes his head. "You're pretty drunk, huh?"
"Little bit," says James. "Not bad though. Not like, sick drunk. Or blackout drunk. Those are the worst. This is good. You're good, right? Are you drunk?"
"You already asked me that," says Paulie amusedly.
"Did I?" says James. "I don't remember. Answer again." He elbows Paulie.
"You're a moron," says Paulie, laughing. "And I'm kinda buzzed. It's good. I'm good."
"Good," says James.
The party starts winding down around four am; there are more people passed out than still dancing, anyway. James himself is half asleep on Paulie's shoulder. They've moved inside to one of the couches, and the combination of cushions and Paulie is so comfortable, James basically never wants to move. Paulie hums though, and James twists his neck with great effort to look up at Paulie's face. The effort is totally worth it; Paulie looks soft and sleepy and touchable, eyes half closed and hair mussed. Gorgeous. "Wassup?" mumbles James, yawning.
Paulie slants a smile down at him. "I should probably get home," he says. "You too, Nealer. Bed."
"Mmm," says James. "Bed." Although bed would be much nicer if Paulie were in it with him. He's glad he's sobered up enough not to say that though. Creepy drunken innuendos are probably not the way to be making a move on Paulie. He deserves better than that.
Paulie laughs. "Where's Geno and Sid?"
"Dunno," says James, sitting up and scrubbing a hand over his face. "Geno!" he shouts.
"Da?" says Geno, sticking his head out of the kitchen.
"You guys ready to go?" says James.
"Da," says Geno again, nodding. "I get Sid. Finding snacks."
"Cool." James stands, stumbling a little. Paulie steadies him with a warm hand on his back.
"You guys okay to get home?" he says.
"Yeah," says James. "We live close. Are you? I can walk you, if you want."
Paulie shakes his head amusedly. "Wouldn't want to risk you getting lost on your way back," he says. "I'm good."
James bites his lip. "Text me when you get home?"
"Okay, Nealer," says Paulie indulgently, nudging him towards the door.
Geno and Sid meet them on the front porch. Sid is slumped against Geno's side, mostly asleep.
"Like baby," says Geno fondly. "Feed him, now bedtime."
"Shut up," mumbles Sid, muffled into Geno's shoulder.
James blinks at the rumpled curve of Sid tucked against Geno; the ill-fitting jeans held up by a belt, which James can see because Geno's hand is rucking up his shirt.
"Wow," he says. "That's awful. We really need to go shopping for your ass, Sid."
Paulie chokes on a surprised laugh. "What?" he says.
"Oh," says James. "Well, shopping for jeans that will fit his ass. You know."
"Right," says Paulie slowly.
"Lazy good with clothes," supplies Geno, beaming.
"I grew out of my last pair," says Sid sadly. "They were so nice."
Geno makes a noise of agreement, hand stealing inappropriately low on Sid's back. "Work out too much," he says. "Spend all spare time in gym, no time for me."
"Working out is important," mumbles Sid. He tilts his head up to look at Geno. "So are you though." He bats clumsily at Geno's face, smiling dopily, then drops his head again.
Geno grins and says, "Can't complain with result." He gropes Sid's ass, like they don't all know exactly what he's talking about. Sid makes a noise that James never wants to hear again.
"Wow," he says. "Okay, I'm sorry I brought it up."
Paulie is laughing silently, shaking his head.
"Anyway," says James loudly, turning to Paulie. "You sure? You can crash at ours, if you want."
"I'm sure," says Paulie. "I've got a paper to write tomorrow, gotta start as early as I can."
"Okay." James nods. "I'll see you soon, yeah?"
"I'm sure you will," says Paulie, smirking.
James rolls his eyes and pulls Paulie into a hug, letting himself tuck his head into the warm crevice of Paulie's neck and shoulder for a moment, breathing in the smell of detergent and aftershave, just the right amount of sweat. Paulie hugs him back, arms solid around James' waist, and smiles at him when he lets go. "I had fun," he says. "Thanks."
James beams at him, and all the way home.
James spends most of Sunday asleep, when he's not eating, the exhaustion of Saturday's game and the party caught up to him. He should probably force himself awake and do some homework, but then he'll definitely sleep in and miss his eight am lecture on Monday and if he has to pick one or the other, he's gonna go with the option that justifies sleeping away most of the day.
Besides, Paulie will probably find out if he misses the lecture, and then he'll be disappointed, and James doesn't want to disappoint Paulie.
It means he's awake with time to spare on Monday, thanks also to Paulie's alarm. He's just finishing up doing his hair when his phone beeps, and he checks it to see a message from Paulie. hey, if you're awake and dressed come over, he says.
??? okay, replies James, because it's not like he's going to say no whatever Paulie wants.
I'm making breakfast, says Paulie.
SWEET on my way, sends James, grinning hugely and scrambling for his stuff.
Paulie sends, seriously you better be dressed. If you're in pyjamas I'm not letting you in.
James snorts fondly and tucks his phone into his pocket.
"Hey," he says, grinning, when Paulie opens his door. "Shit, it smells good."
"Omelettes," says Paulie, holding the door wide to let James in.
James bites his lip as he settles on a stool at the kitchen counter, looking around interestedly. It's a small kitchen, typical student apartment-size, tidy in a way that's still well-used. There are cookbooks on a shelf, and mixing bowls in different sizes stacked alongside. He has salt and pepper shakers. "Wow," says James. "Thanks, man, that's-- you didn't have to. I appreciate it."
Paulie shrugs. "I was making one for myself anyway," he says. He passes James a plate and a fork, then nudges a cup of coffee towards him too. "Figured you could use one too. Early class."
"Hell yeah," says James with his mouth full of cheesy eggy heaven. There might be onions too, and definitely peppers. He can't remember the last time he had a proper homemade breakfast. He swallows and adds, "Holy shit, this is delicious. You can cook."
"This is what real breakfast tastes like, Nealer," says Paulie, smirking, a touch smug.
James might be a little bit in love.
"Yeah," he says. "Okay, it's pretty fucking great."
He stops himself from adding you're pretty fucking great, but only just.
"So," says Paulie, leaning back on the opposite counter and starting on his own food, mouth settled in a content grin, "You're from Canada, right?"
"Uh huh," says James, muffled around his eggs. He swallows and adds, "Whitby."
"You miss it?" says Paul.
James tilts his head. "Yeah," he says after a moment. "My family, mostly."
"How many of you?"
"Five kids," says James, grinning.
"Wow," says Paulie.
"Why, you an only child?" says James.
"I have a sister," says Paulie, setting his empty plate in the sink and picking up his coffee.
"Me too," says James. "And three brothers."
"Are they like you at all?" says Paulie. "Your poor mom."
"Hey!" says James.
Paulie grins at him over the rim of his mug. James rolls his eyes.
"So your family's all back in Canada?" says Paulie. "You're the oldest?"
"Yeah." James nods. "Sucks sometimes, but I do okay."
"Yeah, you do," says Paulie easily, and James ducks his head, smiling down at his coffee.
The rest of the week is a whirlwind of shifts at the bakery and classes and practices and frantically trying to finish a couple of papers, with hardly any time to see Paulie in between. James is exhausted by the time the weekend hits, only then he has a game on Saturday. He forgets how tired he is as soon as he hits the ice, like always, and it's a great game, not the least because they come through with a win, and James with three points of his own. From there it devolves into celebratory food with the guys, which turns into celebratory drinks, and by the time he crosses into their apartment in the early hours of Sunday morning he is gone. He passes the fuck out as soon as his head hits the pillow, and the rest of the day is a total wash.
He wakes up early on Monday, again, thanks to Paulie's alarm, again, with time to do his hair and have a decent breakfast and not have to choose between the two.
Except of course, because this is James' life, and it can't go smoothly even when he's doing everything right, it turns out the cereal box is empty and they're out of milk.
James groans loudly into the fridge. He knows exactly who's to blame: Sid for the cereal and Geno for the milk, because Sid is a liar who insists he doesn't have a ridiculous and utterly obvious weakness for sweets that extends to James' Lucky Charms, and Geno is gross and rude and drinks all the milk straight from the carton, which is something even James' doesn't do.
He thinks for a moment, then pulls his head out of the fridge and texts Paulie.
hey, he says, you home?
yeah why? Paulie replies. James mentally adds the accompanying suspicious look.
James doesn't respond, just books it to Paulie's place. He's only a five minute walk from James and Geno's apartment, less if James sprints, all of them sticking close to campus.
"Feed me?" he says as soon as Paulie answers the door, eyebrows already raised. James widens his eyes and tries his most winning smile, although he's pretty sure it still comes out sounding more pathetic than anything else, damn it.
Paulie rolls his eyes. "This wasn't supposed to be a thing, Nealer," he says. "I was just demonstrating that breakfast is better when it's not pop tarts."
"But," says James, "Sid finished all the cereal and Geno finished all the milk and you know I'm not allowed to make toast, Paulie, please?"
Paulie heaves a hugely put-upon sigh, but he says, "Fine, come on, you ridiculous human being."
James beams at him as they head into the kitchen, which he's aware is becoming his default expression around Paulie, but he's also pretty powerless to stop it. This time Paulie feeds him perfectly seasoned, fluffy scrambled eggs and sourdough toast, and promises to stop by the bakery during James' closing shift as he ushers James out the door to his dumb lecture.
His day starts and ends with Paulie though, and it's a pretty great day.
After his classes on Wednesday afternoon James slinks into the library, feeling distinctly out of place, like he's trespassing somewhere he doesn't quite belong. He's more an online research kind of guy; he can count the number of times he's used the library in his college career on one hand. This definitely wasn't his idea, but he needs to find some book or other for one of his papers. He's got the title written down on a scrap of paper from his professor, clutched in his hand, and so here he is, because he'd feel kind of shitty turning up for the next class and having to lie about it, or turning in his paper without any mention of the book.
He tries to hurry, because it's Wednesday, and on Wednesdays he likes to go home and pretend he doesn't have coursework, hole up on the couch with takeout and TV and chirp Geno absently from time to time. He has hockey practice Tuesdays and Thursdays, closing shift at the bakery on Mondays, and most Fridays the guys get together for an easy game of pickup and then dinner at a nearby diner. Wednesdays are his one weeknight of blissful nothingness.
He looks around him and sighs when he realises he's ended up in the Baroque Art section.
He doesn't even know what the fuck that is, fuck everything. He backtracks, and then pulls up short when he catches sight of a familiar head bent over a study table. He's probably more pleased than would be considered normal that he's actually run into Paulie totally by accident for once. He grins, shoving the scrap of paper into his pocket dismissively, and stalks over to Paulie's table, dropping heavily into the seat opposite him.
Paulie looks up and blinks across at him, pushing his glasses up his nose.
"Hey," he says. "Didn't take you for the library type, Nealer." He smirks.
"Shut up," says James. "I use the library."
It makes Paulie laugh, which always makes James smile, and he kicks Paulie's ankle under the table and says, "Come hang with me."
Paulie considers him, then says, "Is this another weird stalking thing?"
"No!" says James. "I use the library, okay, fuck you, excuse me for wanting to say hey."
"Saying hi is not the same as dragging me away to hang. I have work to do, James."
"Come on," wheedles James. "Don't act like you're not way ahead of your homework schedule. What about your me schedule?"
"I don't have a you schedule," says Paulie dryly. "You just keep turning up."
"Right," says James. "And it's always awesome, and I turned up now, so like, logically you have to come hang with me."
"Logically, huh?" says Paulie, looking amused, but he starts closing his books, and James pumps a victorious fist as Paulie stands and starts leading them towards the exit.
"You're not charming, Nealer," adds Paulie as they leave the library.
"Bullshit," says James, smiling smugly. "If I wasn't you'd still be studying."
"No," says Paulie, "I'd just be trying to study while you annoyed me and also made everyone else in the library want to kill you. It's called altruism, James."
"No, it's called you liking me more than books," says James.
Paulie hums and says, "I dunno, books have this thing where they can't talk back, and also don't barge into my apartment demanding breakfast. It's pretty nice."
"That's a lie, books are totally dumb," says James. "Maybe not all books," he amends when Paulie makes a horrified face, "But they're definitely not as awesome as me."
Paulie rolls his eyes. "Your modesty is also really attractive," he says flatly.
James doesn't realise until he's undressing for bed and the scrap of paper crinkles in his pocket that he totally forgot to get the book he was at the library for in the first place.
He has to stumble in again at a stupidly early hour the next morning, still not really awake and hating everything, and Paulie is working a shift at the front desk, of course he is.
He starts laughing as soon as he sees James, and James groans.
"Oh my God," he says, slumping across the desk. "Paulie, help me."
Paulie huffs another quieter laugh, soft and fond, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Sure thing, James," he says, smirking a little. "What can I do for you today?"
James scowls and shoves the crumpled piece of paper with the book title on it at Paulie.
"I tried to find it yesterday," he explains, "But then I got lost and ended up in the art books, and then I saw you, and then I, uh. Forgot to actually find the book?"
Paulie stares at him for a very long moment. "James," he says eventually, mouth twitching.
"Don't even," says James, pointing at him and making a pathetic face. "I had to get up early to come here before classes, and then I have an afternoon shift at the bakery, and then I have practice, and also I have to find time to write the paper this book is for, Paulie, I don't have time to get lost in all your dumb stacks, please tell me you know where to find the fucking book."
"Of course I know where to find it," says Paulie. "Relax, you moron, and sit down. I'll go get it."
"You're my favourite," says James sincerely.
Paulie rolls his eyes as he goes.
When he checks it out for James he hands him two books instead of just the one he came in for, and James blinks at the copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, then up at Paulie.
Paulie's mouth twitches, and he shrugs. "Came up in one of my classes the other day," he says. "Reminded me a lot of you, for some reason."
James opens his mouth and tries to come up with something appropriately annoyed, or even a glare, but Paulie's eyes are bright and amused, a smile threatening the corners of his mouth, those creases James likes so much about his eyes, and he-- he'd been thinking about James outside of a situation where James is actually in his presence, and that's-- that makes James feel warm and happy all over. There's no room for anything else, even if being annoyed at Paulie wasn't a laughably impossible concept to begin with.
"Well," he says, grinning a little and ducking his head, "See, I'm at least as awesome as books."
Paulie rolls his eyes, but he says, "Maybe. You're as entertaining, I'll give you that."
James reaches across the counter to poke his arm before he leaves, but he pulls up short outside the library, running his hand over the cover of the stupid kids' book and biting his lip, cheeks warm.
James calls Paulie later that same day, while he's on break at the bakery, and says, "Hey, was gonna ask you this morning but I totally forgot-- "
"I bet you have entire friendships based on this concept, right?" Paulie cuts across.
"Huh?" says James.
"Like, you get to know people just because it takes you weeks to finish a conversation you could've had all at once, if you'd just remember everything you had to say."
"Fuck you," says James, laughing in surprise. "Besides, that's not a bad thing."
"I guess not." Paulie hums. "Kinda cute, actually. What were you gonna ask?"
"I-- huh?" says James stupidly. Paulie called him cute. "Oh, right, I was gonna tell you about pickup hockey tomorrow night, if you're not busy. We usually start pretty early anyway, if you do have plans later, and then just grab food at a diner after, so you can-- "
"Sounds good, James," Paulie cuts across. "I finish work at five, is that cool?"
"Totally," says James. "I'll text you the time and place, yeah?"
"Sure," says Paulie.
Paulie meets them at the rink on Friday. James introduces him to the guys, trying valiantly to school a disturbingly proud expression, like-- like Paulie is his to show off, or something.
From the smirks everyone keeps shooting him over Paulie's head, he guesses he's not entirely successful. The guys throw curious questions at Paulie while they gear up, stuff James already knows, and he watches them getting to know each other with a warm feeling in his chest. He likes this, wants Paulie to get along with his friends, wants his friends to be impressed with Paulie. Everyone should be impressed with Paulie, he's awesome.
He also really likes that he found Paulie first, that Paulie's here now because of James, not any of the others, and that if Paulie keeps coming to play pickup with them he'll probably wind up pretty good friends with everyone else, but it won't be the same as what James has with him.
It's ridiculous and worryingly possessive of him, but well, it's not like he doesn't realise he's into Paulie, that he wants more from Paulie than just regular friendship.
He just has to figure out how to let Paulie know without freaking him out, and also whether Paulie would be interested in the same thing, whether things like making breakfast for James and randomly lending him books and calling him cute means he wants James too.
James is hopeful, because he's never had a regular friend who did those kinds of things, but he's also never met anyone like Paulie, period. He has to be sure, so he doesn't fuck this up.
"Nealer!" James blinks when one of Flower's gloves hits him in the face.
"Huh?" says James stupidly.
"We're just trying to figure out how you convinced this guy to come," says Flower.
"Yeah, punching above your weight a little, huh?" says Tanger, smirking. "He's all normal."
"Is that supposed to be a compliment?" says Paulie, laughing.
"It is when we're comparing you to Nealer," says Tanger.
"He's okay," says Paulie, shrugging and grinning at James.
"James," says Tanger, mock-horrified, "Have you been lying to him?"
"Oh, fuck off," says James, throwing Flower's glove at him, hard.
Tanger widens his eyes and advances on James, brandishing the glove.
"Okay," says Sid loudly, "Guys, enough, James is a loser, we get it. Tanger, give Flower his glove back, let's go play." He puts his hands on his hips, frowning at James.
"What!" says James. "They started it. Assholes," he directs at Tanger and Flower.
Tanger just grins sweetly, passing the glove over to Flower.
"Whatever," says Sid dismissively. "Let's go."
Geno coughs something that sounds like, "Bossy," as he follows Sid.
Sid tries and mostly fails to glare at him over his shoulder.
"You're a loser," mutters James.
He hears Paulie laughing quietly behind him, and well. He can probably handle everyone thinking he's a loser, because Paulie doesn't seem to, at least not in quite the same way, and it's nice.
More than nice, whatever.
James can't quite get it together on the ice. He's going to get chirped like hell for it, he knows, but he's too distracted, too busy trying to watch Paulie's every move rather than make any of his own. He doesn't think he can be blamed; he's never seen Paulie play, after all, and Paulie is good, not that James thought he wouldn't be, but it's something else actually seeing it. James is super into how solid and confident and comfortable he is on the ice, how easily he slots into place, how determined he looks even in just a dumb pickup game.
The unconscious, satisfied little grin he lets slip whenever he steals the puck off a forward play is super hot, too. James actually stumbles and misses a pass from Paulie entirely when he looks up and catches it, curling at the corners of his mouth, offsetting his strong hands and broad shoulders. Paulie rolls his eyes and Flower yells at him, and he doesn't even care.
"Hey," says Paulie, skating up to him during a time out.
His cheeks are damp and flushed under his visor, his lips a little pink from how he purses them when he plays. James feels too hot under all his layers of gear.
"Hey," says James, ducking his head and grinning through his lashes. "Having fun?"
"Yeah," says Paulie. "Sid's pretty awesome. You never said."
James opens his mouth and narrows his eyes.
Paulie laughs, nudging him. "Score before we finish and I might compliment you, too. I thought you said you were a forward?"
"Shut up," says James. "Maybe I'm saving the moves for the real game tomorrow."
Paulie makes a mock sad face. "Nothing in the tank to impress me?"
James flushes, glad he has exertion as an excuse. "I'll see what I can do," he mumbles.
"Lazy!" shouts Geno, skating past with a shit eating grin. "Only reason we friends is because good wingman." He points at James. "Pick up game or no more donuts."
"Screw you, you love me," says James.
"No, love Sid," says Geno, smirking. "Good hockey and good sex. We don't have sex, Lazy, only thing we have is hockey. Why you take away from me now?" He sticks his lip out.
"You are not allowed to guilt me when you're being that gross." James makes a face.
Geno just laughs, skating off.
"I hate him," says James to Paulie.
"He has a point," says Paulie, grinning.
"I hate you too," says James, shoving his helmet back on.
He manages to lift his game before they call it a night though. Geno slots him a few beautiful passes, which James figures is his way of apologising for being gross, and he pays him back with a few assists of his own, makes an effort to latch onto Paulie's moves up from defence, and it's fun and exhilarating and easy, everything falling into place, all the best things about hockey.
James nudges in next to Paulie in the locker room after, flushed and beaming, just glad he could share that with him. He was totally right, nevermind how drunk he was at the time: hockey and Paulie are two of his favourite things individually, and together they're amazing.
"Thanks for coming," he says, stripping off his under armour.
"Thanks for asking," says Paulie, smiling at him.
"Anytime," says James. "Seriously. Hey, you coming to dinner?"
"I can't," says Paulie regretfully. "I'm doing dinner and drinks with some people from my course."
"Oh," says James, telling himself firmly not to be upset, because that's petty even for him, and of course Paulie has other friends, he's Paulie. "That's cool. Have fun, yeah? And-- and come play with us again? It was, uh-- it was really fun. Like, awesome."
"Yeah, it was," says Paulie, smiling. His cheeks are still a little flushed from the heat of exertion and the sting of the cold inside the rink. He's so beautiful, it's really unfair.
They walk to the parking lot in companionable silence, and Paulie presses a hand to the small of James' back as they go to part ways. "Thanks, Nealer," he says. "I'll see you, okay? Good luck with the game tomorrow." He smiles at James again, soft and a little bit devastating.
"Thanks," says James, ducking his head and smiling back. "I'll see you soon."
James spends the weekend thinking about Paulie, and how he gave James a copy of a book just because it reminded him of James, which no one has ever done for James before, and how he personally went and unearthed James' book from the library even though that isn't part of his job description, and how he came and played hockey with James and his friends and everyone loved him and he was so great at it. He also thinks about how Paulie has a bunch of other friends that James doesn't know, who are probably smarter and nicer and more competent than James, and just-- he doesn't know, he likes Paulie a whole lot, basically. He likes him so much, and he wants Paulie to know he appreciates how awesome he is, even-- or especially-- the little things. He wants to prove that he's just as worth being friends with as anyone else, maybe moreso, because he wants Paulie's everything, all of it, and he may be kind of dumb and inconsiderate and incompetent, but he's sure he could love Paulie better than anyone else, if he had the chance. Because he hopes that maybe he's the only person Paulie gives personalised copies of kids' books to and makes breakfast for and plays hockey with, and that it might mean something important, might mean that James gets him in a way that's special, or vice versa.
He doesn't impose on Paulie for breakfast again on Monday, even though he really wants to, but that'd be defeating the purpose of his whole sort-of plan. Instead he waits until Monday evening to stop by Paulie's place unannounced, kicking the floor while he waits for Paulie to answer.
"I am not making you dinner," says Paulie immediately.
"Duh," says James. "I brought takeout." He holds up the bags, and Paulie looks at him suspiciously for a moment before he sighs and holds the door open.
"I don't know what you like, so I got a bunch of stuff," says James, dropping the bags on the kitchen counter. Paulie follows him and starts pulling out plates automatically.
"You want a list?" he says. "I like Thai, pizza and burgers. I'm not a fan of ribs or deep fried stuff. I also like nice quiet nights by myself, having time to get my papers done, being able to buy eggs without factoring in terrible cooks with ridiculous hockey player appetites-- "
"Oh, shut up," says James, punching his arm lightly.
Paulie smirks at him and says, "Thanks for the food, Nealer."
James ducks his head and mumbles, "Yeah, well, thanks for breakfast and shit, you know?"
"You're welcome," says Paulie. "I mean, you know, you are a charming salesperson. And you're a pretty great hockey player. And I guess your hair isn't too terrible."
"Fuck you," says James, laughing to cover up how he really just wants to kiss Paulie on the mouth.
James is just finishing up his Tuesday morning shift at the bakery, sliding the last of the newest batch of pastries into the display case, when Sid hipchecks him and says, "Uh, Nealer?"
James glances up at him guiltily. He maybe has a donut stuffed into his mouth.
Sid rolls his eyes and gestures out into the shop, then turns his back dismissively.
James straightens, taking the donut out of his mouth, which he's glad he did, because Paulie is standing just inside the door, two cups of coffee in hand, grinning.
"Hi," says James stupidly.
"Hey," says Paulie. "You finishing up?"
"Yeah," says James. He tugs his apron off and grabs his bag from under the counter, stepping out towards Paulie. "What-- what're you doing here?"
Paulie shrugs. "I brought you coffee," he says. "Only fair, right?"
He passes one of the drinks over with another smile.
"I don't know if it's as good as Sid's," adds Paulie.
"I don't care, it's awesome," says James immediately. "Thanks, man."
"Anytime," says Paulie easily. "I, uh, I don't have much time, I gotta get to a class-- "
"Didn't you just finish a lecture?" says James.
"Yeah." Paulie ducks his head. "I mean, it's not far or anything, I just thought-- "
"Hey, no, I appreciate it," says James, nudging him. "I mean, you totally didn't have to run over between classes-- "
"I wanted to," says Paulie, shrugging again.
"Oh," says James. He grins down at his coffee. "Want me to walk you to class?"
"Sure," says Paulie, laughing.
James may or may not shuffle into the library again on Wednesday afternoon just in the hope that Paulie sticks to a regular study schedule and is there again.
It's probably getting to the point where James should do something about his ridiculous crush before Paulie catches on to how much of a creep he is and backs right off, but well, he's not gonna do it right this minute, he just wants to hang out with Paulie, so he shoves the tingling rush of nerves and hopefulness aside for a little longer and ducks through the shelves, searching.
Paulie is at the same table as last week. James takes a moment to appreciate his own deductive skills and also Paulie's predictability, then drops into the spare seat with a huff.
Paulie looks up and says, "Nope."
James pouts. "But-- "
"No," says Paulie.
"But I-- "
"Nealer," says Paulie, exasperated. "I'm trying to study."
"But I'm trying to hang out," says James, pouting some more.
Paulie pulls his glasses off and rubs his eyes. "Hang out with someone else," he says.
"But then I wouldn't be hanging out with you!" says James.
"Exactly," says Paulie.
"No," says Paulie. "Nope, no way, I take back everything I ever said about you being charming, go away."
James chews on his lip for a moment, then says, "Can I study with you?"
Paulie stares at him. "Fine," he says eventually. "No talking."
James beams and pulls his books from his bag immediately, spreading them out on the table and worming a pen out of his pocket. Paulie watches, eyes narrowed.
"You were planning on studying all along, weren't you," he says. "What-- was this just you trying to keep up appearances?"
"No?" tries James.
"You," says Paulie, shaking his head incredulously, "Are the worst person I've ever met."
"Shh, I'm trying to study," says James.
Paulie stares at him. "I'm going to kill you once I've finished this paper," he mumbles.
"Uh huh," says James. "Studying, Paulie, God. Stop slacking off, that paper's not gonna write itself."
Paulie kicks him under the table. James just grins and hooks his ankle around Paulie's.
Paulie shakes his head, but he doesn't shake James off.
James actually manages to get some work done, even if Paulie is right there being all distractingly himself. The awesome thing about Paulie though is that he also makes James want to impress him, want to be all better and shit. Part of it, too, is he just-- selfishly, he doesn't want Paulie to think he's too much of a pain in the ass and drop him, or realise he could do better. He wants to be a good friend, so he drags together all his focus and makes some decent headway on his research project. Paulie's calf is still pressed against his, warm and solid, and it's really nice. James would probably be a lot more motivated to get work done if he could study like this all the time. Well, if he didn't crack and just jump Paulie at some point.
He does end up zoning out a little once they hit the two hour mark, chin heavy in his hand and the words in front of him blurring into nonsense, but he can't really be blamed, at that point. Even Paulie seems to have reached his limit, because he pokes James' arm with a pen, making James startle and almost crack his jaw on the table. He catches himself just in time.
"Hey," he says, huffing a laugh. "You ready to go?"
"Fuck yeah," says James, sweeping his books into his bag and yawning.
Paulie bumps his shoulder as they walk out of the library.
"Thanks," he says.
James blinks. "What for?"
Paulie shrugs. "I guess I didn't expect-- you're not as bad a study partner as I would've thought."
"Oh," says James. He feels warm, pleased. "Well, you know. Anytime. Good company."
Paulie smiles at him. "You get some work done?"
"Yeah," says James. "You're not a half bad study partner, either."
"Thanks," says Paulie, laughing. "Hey, you know, you've never really talked much about your course."
"Oh," says James, surprised. "Uh, I guess it's just-- it's not that interesting? It's not all fun and whatever like teaching cute kids. Or well, for most people, I-- "
"But you like it, right?" Paulie cuts across. "You think it's interesting? Or cool, or whatever."
"Well, yeah," says James blankly. "You really think I could stick with something that bored the shit out of me?"
Paulie laughs in acknowledgement and says, "So go on then. Did you like it from the start?"
"Kind of," says James. "Maybe not a hundred percent. I mean, I wasn't sure freshman year, you know? 'Cause some of it was cool but there were all these accounting and econ and statistics classes, and I'm way better at the people shit than the numbers shit. I get that I need to know it though, so I stuck it out. God, I'm kinda glad you didn't know me then, I was a mess-- shut up, yes, worse than now, Geno was this close to murdering me-- but it's better now, like I get to do all the way cooler subjects I wanted to do in the first place, plus it turns out those classes were boring as fuck but actually kinda useful, so." He shrugs and grins, ducking his head.
Paulie nods encouragingly. "What are the cooler subjects?" he says.
"Oh," says James, "I dunno, stuff like media management, that's hell interesting, and all the new social media crap, and promotions and sponsorship stuff, plus we get to pick electives and research projects. I like it, I guess. Kinda had it around me anyway, playing hockey all the time. You would've too, huh? And it's cool, 'cause it goes so well with hockey, you know, and I probably won't wind up playing pro now but this way I can see it from both sides, still be involved or whatever, and I'll still get to play some. It's like-- it just fits."
When he glances up Paulie's already watching him, and James isn't exactly sure why Paulie is looking at him like he's done something really great, like he's said something awesome enough to make Paulie's face do that, soft and pleased and proud, like he's-- like James has done something good enough to impress Paulie. He's glad though, whatever the reason, because it's possibly the most accomplished he's ever felt. It's ridiculous, but James is so gone.
He wants to make Paulie look at him like that all the time.
He thinks about it as he heads home by himself later, Paulie's frustrated face when James interrupted him and his fond face when they talked after all tangled up in his head.
It's just-- James had a great time hanging with Paulie, but he always does, that's a given. Paulie makes him feel hot and stupid and amazing whether he's giving James shit and calling him a moron or looking at him with a smile and saying nice things.
What James doesn't know is how good a time Paulie is having, at least not conclusively. He's avoided thinking too hard about it so far; mostly it's been easy to just project his own feelings over the whole thing without thinking about why, to imagine that Paulie wants to be friends with him too, or even, sometimes, that he wants James back, when maybe that's only true from James' end.
He thinks about how he kind of just took over Paulie's study session, and all the other times he's pretty much forced Paulie to accommodate him, and wonders how much of Paulie's reactions to him are just Paulie tolerating James, maybe being grudgingly amused, and how much are actually him enjoying it, wanting it, for its own sake.
It's probably dumb, because he doesn't think Paulie is the kind of person who just tolerates people, politeness notwithstanding, but he doesn't think politeness extends to the kind of stuff Paulie does for James. He thinks-- okay, hopes-- that maybe even friendship doesn't explain all of it. Still, he's just not sure, because Paulie is just such a nice guy, when it comes down to it, which shouldn't complicate things but does, when you're as into him as James is and haven't screwed up the courage to say it, relying on reading things instead.
Logically he knows it's more than Paulie tolerating James, but it might also be less than everything James feels for him. That's still definitely better, he knows it is, but sometimes, when he wants Paulie the most, it doesn't really feel like it.
God, James is such a moron.
It still eats at him as he heads into the apartment and throws himself despondently onto the couch.
"Lazy!" says Geno, stalking out of the kitchen. "Good, you home."
"Wassup, G?" says James tiredly, squinting a half-assed grin up at him.
Geno frowns, but he says, "Think have party here on weekend. Okay for you?"
"Oh," says James. He shrugs. "Yeah, sure, whatever. Could use some drinks, I guess."
Geno frowns again. "Paulie coming?" he says.
"Yeah, I guess," says James kind of heavily, sighing.
Geno narrows his eyes at him. "Why sad about Paulie? What you do?" he says suspiciously.
"Nothing!" says James, offended for a moment that he thinks it'd be James' fault if they fought or something, until he realises it's pretty much true, and then he's just morose.
It's just-- they haven't fought or anything like that, James can't imagine fighting with Paulie, but now he's thinking about actual specific things like that time he fell asleep on Paulie and Paulie didn't say anything, just smiled at him fondly when he woke up, or the time Paulie made him breakfast because he wanted James to actually eat a proper meal, and then kept feeding him whenever James turned up, even though he didn't have to. The thing at the library with the book. The time just yesterday when he went totally out of his way just to bring James coffee. All those little reactions to James that've seemed like more than just tolerance or amusement or sometimes even friendship, that've been messing with James' head; the reasons it's too easy to project his own hopes onto this, to think that maybe Paulie-- maybe he's into James the way James is into him.
Only Paulie still hasn't said anything, or done something like-- like ducking into James' space after he wakes up on Paulie's shoulder or leaning across the counter at breakfast to kiss him, so maybe it's not like that at all. Maybe Paulie is just a ridiculously great friend. It's been a while now, and there have been so many opportunities, so James feels like this is a legitimate thing to be sad about, because it's not like he hasn't made it abundantly clear that he'd be totally okay with Paulie kissing him. What else is it supposed to mean when you strong-arm yourself into someone's life as insistently as James has with Paulie? He doesn't do that with random dudes he's not pathetically, helplessly into.
He mumbles something along these lines to Geno, who, instead of looking sympathetic, just gives James a searching look and says, "Lazy, you say something to Paulie? Ask on date?"
"Well," says James, "No, but I don't want to freak him out, Paulie is awesome and that would-- and also, I've been practically stealth-dating him this entire time, so if he wants to do it properly he would've mentioned it, right? Like, asking him out wouldn't make it more obvious than it is. He probably just wants to be friends, which is a miracle anyway, not-- whatever."
Geno just stares at him, and then he says, "So dumb, Lazy. Stop talking to me before I catch."
"Fuck you," says James. It's not dumb. It's perfectly reasonable, so Geno can just fuck off back to his stupid perfect relationship where no one is ever sad, and leave James to wallow.
James is already pretty drunk by the time Paulie shows up to the party Saturday night.
Paulie finds him on the couch, and James grins blurrily up at him, patting the space next to him. "Paulie!" he says. "Hi! Hey! You came! Sit down, you-- you got a drink? I'll get you a drink."
Paulie rolls his eyes. "I'll get it," he says. "Stay there, okay?"
"Where would I go?" says James blankly. "You're here now."
Paulie gives him an odd look that James is too drunk to decipher before he disappears.
He comes back with a beer, and when he sits down James leans into him, because he's drunk and a little bit sad and Paulie will probably let him.
"Hey," says Paulie quietly. "You okay? Sorry I couldn't get here earlier."
"'S okay," says James, waving a hand. "I'm okay. You have other friends and stuff. It's cool."
Paulie's brows furrow.
"I'm not being bitchy," says James, looking at him earnestly. "I'm not. It's cool. You're cool."
Paulie's expression smooths out, and he shakes his head, laughing. "Thanks, Nealer."
"Welcome," says James, nodding. "Hey, you wanna do something?"
"Depends what you mean by something," says Paulie.
James hums. "There's beer pong happening in the kitchen. Or we could start a Wii tournament. Or dance! We could dance, there's music and shit." He kicks his legs out.
Paulie laughs, shaking his head. "I'm good for now," he says. "Let's just hang, yeah?"
"Yeah," says James. "Yeah, hanging is cool."
James eventually gets challenged to a game of beer pong and loses miserably, because Sid is a terrible partner when he's drunk, taking so long to line up his shots that Tanger just winds up shouting, "Forfeit!" and dunking one in, and then James has to drink Sid's share while Sid pouts and protests that, "There are no time limits, it's not fair, Tanger, you cheat."
Tanger grins at him sweetly and says, "Gotta lose at something, Sid."
Sid glares and throws the ball at his head.
"Ow!" cries Tanger dramatically. "Geno, G, your boyfriend is a sore loser!"
"I'm not a sore loser, because we didn't lose, because you cheated," says Sid, folding his arms.
"Oh my God," says James, stealing the last cup from his and Sid's side and wandering away to find Paulie. Sid and Tanger are still arguing heatedly. Flower is standing behind Tanger, grinning and nodding his head like he's having the time of his fucking life. James is pretty sure he's agreeing just to wind Sid up. Not that James blames him; baiting Sid is hilarious.
Paulie's on the couch talking to Duper. James slumps against his side.
"Hey," says Paulie, blinking at him. "Did you win?"
"I have no idea," says James. "Sid's fighting about it with Tanger."
Duper rolls his eyes and stands. "Guess I'll go break up the fight, huh?"
"Sure, French Canadians and ping pong balls, it's a real massacre in there," says James.
Duper cuffs him across the back of the head before he wanders off.
James tips back his drink and makes a face. "Is it still beer pong if the stuff in the cups isn't beer?" he says curiously, frowning into his empty cup. It tastes more like vodka than beer.
"Should take a philosophy class, Nealer," says Paulie, smirking.
"Asshole," says James fondly, and drops his head onto Paulie's shoulder.
"Yep, and you still invited me," says Paulie, tugging James' hair lightly.
"'Course I did," mumbles James. He sighs. He feels kinda dizzy. "Hey, Paulie?"
"Yeah," says Paulie.
"Paulie," says James again, "Do you even like me?"
"Of course I like you," says Paulie, frowning down at him. "What the hell, James."
Well, that's something. Still, "But I really like you," says James.
Paulie laughs and says, "Well, thanks, Nealer. I like you too. Friends, right?"
James sighs and frowns and says, "No, you don't get it."
"What don't I get, James?" says Paulie patiently.
James waves his hands. "I like you like-- like I want to make out with you all the time. And-- and touch you and stuff. Like when we're watching movies and I want you to put your arm around me or whatever, but also like-- like I wanna touch your dick, Paulie."
There's a very long silence. "Oh my God," says Paulie eventually.
James sighs again, biting his lip. "But you never-- I don't think you want to, 'cause I'm super obvious but you don't-- but that's okay, I mean, it sucks but it's also okay because I like being your friend, you're a great friend, better than Geno, don't tell him I said that."
Paulie just stares at him for ages and eventually says quietly, "Hey Nealer?"
"Yeah?" whispers James.
"I think you should probably go to bed."
"Oh," says James sadly. "Right, yeah, you're probably right. You're always right."
Paulie smiles a little and says, "Come on," steering James to his bedroom.
That's pretty much all James remembers before he passes out.
When he wakes in the morning he feels like total shit; his head is pounding and there's nausea pooling in his stomach, creeping up his throat. Something else is off, too, it's-- and then he realises there's someone in bed with him, a heavy arm slung across his hips. James panics for a moment before he rolls over and realises it's Paulie, and then all the dumb but also totally true things he said to Paulie last night come rushing back, and he starts panicking all over again.
His movement must wake Paulie, because he stirs and blinks sleepily at James, says, "Hey," with this ridiculous hoarse sleepy voice, and God, James loves him so much, it's not fair.
"Hey," he says. "Um. You're still here."
"Yeah," says Paulie. "And you're a moron. Are we stating the obvious?"
James ducks his head and says, "Well, I guess I'm on a roll, huh."
"James," says Paulie quietly.
James swallows and looks at him. Paulie rolls his eyes. "You're a moron," he says again.
"I know," says James through clenched teeth, trying to glare. He's pretty sure it's not very effective, because Paulie just huffs a laugh.
"James," he says. "I gave you my number after you nearly knocked me on my ass twice, sprayed half chewed up pop tart all over me and then stalked out my classes to bring me coffee."
"I know?" says James slowly.
"Right," says Paulie. "You think I do that for just anyone? You think I do that for people I don't eventually maybe want to date?"
"You," says James stupidly. "You want to date me?"
Paulie groans and drops his head onto the pillow. "Yes," he says. "You're too fucking impatient, I was going to-- "
He's cut off when James surges forward and kisses him, a little off centre and totally messy, but oh God, Paulie wants to date him, James officially doesn't care about anything else, nevermind inconsequential things like imperfect kisses. It's Paulie, and that's perfect enough.
Paulie makes a muffled noise and curves a hand over James' jaw to angle him better, sliding their mouths together properly and kissing him slow and firm, grounding him even as his heartbeat ratchets up in his chest.
"Okay," he says when he pulls back. His lips are red and kiss-slick, his cheeks are flushed and his hair is mussed. He's the best thing James has ever seen. "You wanna go brush your teeth, and then we can try that again?"
James blinks at him, and then bursts out laughing. "You're such an asshole," he says delightedly. "I like you so much."
"Uh huh," says Paulie. His eyes are creased up the way James loves and he's smiling fondly. "I got that. Teeth, Nealer."
"Yeah, yeah," says James, scrambling to get out of bed.
He feels a million times better already; it's amazing what some good news and a bit of awesome kissing does for hangovers. Or maybe it's just Paulie. He's pretty great like that.
James pauses, head tilted, and adds, "Does that just get me makeouts, or can I blow you too?"
Paulie rolls his eyes, but he also flushes all the way under the collar of his shirt. James swallows. He wants to see how far the blush goes, wants to feel it under his hands.
He can, he realises. Fuck, his life is so great.
"Yeah," says James hoarsely. "I think you'd be okay with that."
Paulie throws a pillow at him, but he's grinning, sprawled out in James' bed, all promising hints of bare skin and inviting limbs, the set of his mouth slightly mocking, very fond, and all kissed.
James doesn't think he can be blamed for tackling him into one more kiss before he brushes his teeth.