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Give Up the Ghost (Stop the Haunting Baby)

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Trades happen. It’s hockey, and the team fucked up last year. So it’s not a total surprise, but if anyone tells you that they knew it would be them--that they expect it to be them--then they’re liars. Sure, some things have to change, but you never think it’s going to be you. James always thought he would be a Penguin for a life, like Geno or Sid. So he feels the sharp dig of knowing that he didn’t do enough to stay with the team--to win it all with his team when they counted on him.

It sucks.

He knows the media is all alight about the trade. They love to brand it a surprise, like someone wronged him to get revenge on their short exit in the playoffs. But it wasn’t really like that--he almost wishes it was. Locker room clear out had everyone nervous, but management made it clear: something had to give.

And it did.

James got the call three days before the deadline.

“Listen, James, there is a lot of movement and I think they’re going to trade you,” his agent says, neutral over the phone.

“Okay, sure. Thanks for the heads up.”

Because what the fuck else was he supposed to say? Please no, this is my home. This is where I’ve made a life. Jesus. Get outta here.

Instead, he doesn’t say a word, just attends all the wedding functions and smiles at his friends like they’re still his teammates.

<3<3<3

James isn’t superstitious. (Hockey players have problems keeping their hair. This is a fact, not some crazy thing he does to keep his game straight. He can and will continue to do crazy things in order to keep his hair.) But James loves home. Whitby was the best home he will ever have and it was the hardest thing to leave his family, even when he knew it was what was best for him and his hockey. Dallas never really felt like home. The guys were great--that’s almost never the problem because that’s hockey. But Texas was hot all the time and James never felt like he had his skates underneath him.

The trade in the middle of the season was brutal (and it showed in his game), but Pittsburgh became home like Dallas never did. Maybe it was the brutal winters or the Penguins themselves. James can’t pinpoint what made Pittsburgh, with its fuck awful traffic and its crazy fans, a home he thought he could build for a long time. But when he gets the call, all he can think about is how he’ll miss his empty house the most. The neighborhood was quiet, big and wealthy in a way that meant he could have his privacy but also meant he got Paulie just across the street. He thinks about stepping over snow piles because Mr. Davidson next door is a passive aggressive asshole who snow blows everything at the end of James’ drive because James doesn’t have the time to shovel his driveway. Who does? Mr. Davidson, that’s who. And he remembers how much it would make Paulie laugh, James pissy and indignant when a snowy mix of icemelt and dirty sludge stained his pant leg on the way over for breakfast.

He thinks about Paulie’s laugh, now so far away, and he thinks that the trade to Nashville stings like having home ripped right out from underneath him, just when he thought he could honestly get it right this time.

It’s June and he’s the first big trade during the frenzy. He didn’t tell anyone that he knew or that he’d already worked out the details, just sat in his hotel room after Niskanen’s wedding and watched it happen because he had no control over this.

Unlike Whitby, which will always be home, that moment felt like he’d never get Pittsburgh back.

Geno is the first to text him, which is amazing since he has honestly no idea what time it is in Russia, but it must be brutal.

lazy (((((

will be miss!

James doesn’t know if he means that G will miss him or that James will miss Geno, miss this city and this team, just Paulie alone, and everything he thought he would have for at least six years, but he’s right. So James just texts back, yeah. i will and that’s enough for now.

<3<3<3

He gets texts and calls from a lot of the guys from the Pens, less from the guys he saw at the wedding. The NHL is a lot more like highschool than anyone will admit from a professional athlete’s point of view. With junior hockey being what it is--kids moving cities and billeting to get the best chance--everyone knows everyone just a little bit. Six degrees of separation or whatever the hell that saying is. It’s true. So James gets texts from a lot of people, Stammer and DZ are relentless and Scary Gary is already pulling up game tape so that James’ body will be “Predator ready”. A few guys he knows on the Preds give him some texts but it’s nothing extensive. Probably because they know he hates them right now. He won’t at training camp--hell, he doesn’t truly hate them now, it just feels like he does. They’re not the Penguins, and it will take a minute for him to feel like he’s not playing for the opposite team.

Paulie doesn’t text him. Not that texting is Paulie’s thing but he knows that it’s James’. Paulie doesn’t call either, and James wants to think it’s because their friendship was one of convenience, that thinking about Paul fucking Martin when he got news of the possible trade was just a fluke.

But James burns bright with shame and keeps silent on his own end. Which he knows, god he knows even when he’s doing it that this is the problem.

The problem is that James knew, and he kept quiet about the trade, about… everything, and Paulie is still sitting in Minnesota wondering why he found out through twitter and not James.

That’s the problem, and Paulie is most likely madder than hell in his own Paulie sort of way, and James doesn’t say a fucking word. He sits in his Toronto apartment and thinks he might go home early, post-pone Scary Gary for a bit and take a trip to the cabin maybe. He chooses silence in June and wonders how long he’s unintentionally chosen it before--for the last three years he’d been with the Penguins--because he was too afraid he’d lose it all.

It’s fucked. It’s all gone anyway and so James lets it stay that way.

<3<3<3

James does the interviews and he doesn’t even lie. Nashville will be a brand new start, and that’s never a bad thing. He answers his texts. he lets Gary do whatever he wants to him, and even though Stammer keeps making these weird faces at him, it’s not the end of the world.

“I feel like we should take you out and get you wasted,” DZ says over FaceTime. “You know, like a break up.”

James rolls his eyes. “I didn’t break up with anyone.”

“Dude, Pittsburgh broke up with you and started fucking some dude who’s nickname is horny. This is like every college experience I never had.”

Well, when he puts it like that…

“First of all, fuck you and second of all, yeah alright.”

He gets drunk, makes out with three people--only one of which is a little funny looking, massive ears and big glasses and definitely a dude--but it feels good not to worry about anything and let Stammer feed him drinks until his legs feel like there was a bagskate involved. Thankfully, he ends up alone back at his own apartment watching a nature documentary and not in a ditch or on the cover of Deadspin.

He thinks about calling Paulie because he suddenly needs to know why Paulie’s couch is so much more comfortable than his own. But he stops himself because he wants to save his one drunken call to Paulie for something really important. Instead, he drinks two bottles of Gatorade, texts his mom, and wonders if Paulie is keeping his beard.

He can always just get a new couch.

<3<3<3

Dan gets let go in July and James feels just a tad vindicated. He liked Dan, hell likes him, but it feels good to know he isn’t the only person being roasted for their play. He texts Sid (sorry about dan. we’ll all be penguins for life, complete with penguin emoji because he knows it will make Sid laugh). Everything about a team rehaul, management included, says ‘Sidney Crosby minor and almost unrecognizable breakdown’ and then sends Geno a similar text. He leaves the penguin emoji out.

He’s peeling an orange on his balcony when he gets a text back from G.

no distractions. u call paulie yet???????

bad lazy. shit gay.

Basically undecipherable as usual. Regardless, they sort of sting, because Geno is in Russia and he can still seem to pin James unfairly well.

You’re a dick.

All he gets back are knife emojis artfully arranged in the shape of a cat. Unbelievable.

Besides, he’s never really thought about it before. Whether or not he predominantly liked dudes wasn’t some sort of crisis of conscious or anything so he kind of figured he was good to go. He knows that at least one of the Captain talks Sid had with him was probably about being gay, but he hadn’t figured it out at the time and was more focused on how cool it was that Sidney was giving him any kind of talk. Looking back, it was definitely Sid’s way of reaching out--which was essentially five ways he could improve his backhand and an oddly constructed compliment about his hair.

He doesn’t know when he started thinking about Paulie’s house as home, with his shoes neatly stacked in the entryway or the thrill he got when he ran up the stairs to see Paulie already at the stove, beanie low on his forehead, cooking something delicious in threadbare sweats that made James blush a little too hard while asking to pass the ketchup. It just happened while he wasn’t looking. He isn’t sure wanting to build a home with Paulie makes him gay. He isn’t sure what it means at all really.

Right now, it only makes him a sore fucking loser.

<3<3<3

Radio silence continues and James sucks it all up with a smile. He googles “moving like an adult” and takes the advice of a few blogs and articles. He flies to Pittsburgh and goes through everything he has, throwing out some stuff that he never liked or used anyway, before having moving people come pack his shit up for him and move it to Nashville. One site had said that if he wasn’t going to do it right, then he might as well just pay for someone to do it right. So he listens for once and by the time he gets to Nashville, he’s got a duffle, a suitcase, and a hockey bag coming off the belt in arrivals, and a storage facility holding his stuff until he decides on a place.

He doesn’t think about the sweatshirt, stretched out in the collar and frayed at the cuffs, that’s stuffed at the bottom of his bag. James didn’t have the balls to even put it in storage, let alone throw it away so he resigns himself to at least more manly and dignified pining over Paulie and the mess of feelings hard up in his chest.

The chip on his shoulder is a little bigger than he thought it would be. He’s trying, but he knows his heart isn’t in it. Logically, he knows he can’t have a season like he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh. He needs to have a solid start that involves as many assists as goals, his defensive game needs to be stepped up and his skating is already faster. He’s spent a lot of time on the ice this summer, more than he ever has before, and James is sure that even Gary is afraid he’s having an emotional breakdown because he’s been following his diet to every scathing, tasteless letter.

Being a freak about his nutrition keeps him distracted from the whole Paulie bit (which admittedly is definitely becoming a thing), that his mother keeps trying to get involved in by sending him passive aggressive texts about joining PFLAG or the weather. And when she’s really feeling motherly, she wants to talk about whether or not James should buy a house in the Twin Cities because “the winters are so nice, James”. Don’t even get him started on his siblings. Whoever introduced them to Vine needs to be shot. Becca is the worst--she takes after their mother for sure and her chirps, malicious prodding and relentless nagging, always hit a little too close. She’s his favorite.

He’s got hotel reservations close to the practice rink and not that far from Bridgestone. It’s pretty standard, but he did manage to get a deal renting by the week. Except, when he gets to baggage claim, someone’s trying to steal his hockey gear right out of the “Oversized Luggage” desk.

“Hey--”

It’s not some punk, or well, not the punk that James expected to be trying to filch his sticks.

“Dicky?”

“Jimmy, are you always this slow? Did you sit in the back of the plane or what the fuck?”

Rich Clune looks like Nashville suits him. James knows he’s only been with the Preds for a little over a year but Dicky is tan, sober, and smiling like he’s about the world’s biggest asshole just because he can.

“Shut up, what the hell are you doing here?”

Dicky shoulders James’ bag. “What, you thought you could come play on my team and stay in a fucking hotel room? What kind of a guy do you think I am, Jimmy?”

“I hate that nickname,” James says, smiling. “I already booked myself a room for a week.”

“Cancel it. And also, I don’t give two shits. You’ll be called whatever I want to call you,” Dicky says. “Get the rest of your bags and let’s get moving before we hit traffic.”

That’s how he ends up calling the hotel and taking the hit because apparently he’s living with Dicky Clune.

The drive to Dicky’s is not bad. The neighborhood looks nice and the house is fairly awesome. It’s warm and a little sticky in Nashville and so the air conditioning of Dicky’s house is a relief. The conversation in the car is fairly standard--too much chirping for any normal people but generally easy. Like he said, it’s never the guys in the room that make the trades hard. They’re the easy part.

When they get inside, Dicky goes to the kitchen and pulls out two water bottles and chucks one at James. He barely catches it, has to drop the handle of his duffle to get it cleanly, but when he looks up, Dicky is looking at him calmly over the island.

“I only have one rule and it’s a pretty strict one,” Dicky says, calm but firm. “I’m bullying you into staying here but we both know living in a hotel blows, so do me a favor and just accept it.”

James shrugs. “What’s the rule?”

“You can’t store alcohol of any kind in the house. I mean, I don’t care if you drink it here but it can’t stay here. I’ve been sober long enough to know my hard limits, and I can’t have it in the house. Don’t hide it in your room or whatever--just, drink it with dinner or fuck, throw a rager but everything goes down the drain before you leave or go to sleep. Is that clear?”

“Rich, I know this is important man. I don’t have to drink at all,” James says. Alcohol isn’t even in his nutrition plan… not even a little bit. “It’s your house.”

Dicky smiles and shakes his head. “If I needed you to not drink, I’d tell you. Like I said, I’m in a really great place right now and I know what I need. I need it not to stick around when I may or may not be in a vulnerable spot, eh?”

“Yeah man, whatever. Rights to amend that one rule whenever.”

Dicky chucks his empty water bottle at James head. “When did you get to be so grown up, Jimmy?”

“Fuck off, I’m great,” James says, but if it’s a little tight Dicky doesn’t notice, just shows him to a few guest rooms for him to pick from. James nabs the one with the French doors that lead out to the backyard. It doesn’t have an attached bathroom, but it’s just across the hall so if Dicky steals all of the towels, James only has to run naked across the hall.

It’s a really fucking nice house.

There’s a reclaimed chest at the end of the bed in his new room, well worn and smooth to the touch--like it’s weathered hundreds of years in weight, many decisions sat and shouldered through. James loves it but he knows he hasn’t always had that kind of taste. He used to obsess over sleek, modern furnishings but now his tastes have mellowed.

It’s a chest that Paulie would love.

“You good, Jimmy?”

Dicky is standing at the doorway, face clear and his eyes warm. He was always great but he looks settled into his own skin. They hadn’t kept in too much contact but Dicky was always a solid rock. It was hard to imagine, back when James was in Dallas, that Dicky used to spend his whole life partying and not giving a shit about anything. But James knows the story just like everyone else, Dicky woke up in LA and hated hockey more than anything, just not as much as he hated himself. It’s hard to reconcile that man to the Dicky that James has always known.

Either way, James can’t fucking lie to Dicky. That’s like lying to his mom.

“I’m not really sure,” James says, running his hands along the warm wood of the chest. “But I’ll figure it out. I’m not as dumb as I seem.”

Dicky laughs, full bodied and smiles wide. “Yeah alright. Well stay as long as you want before you get your shit together,” he says before he turns and walks down the hall, presumably to let James unpack.

“We’re working out at 3!” Dicky yells from somewhere else in the house. “No travel excuses, it’s barely a timezone, ya asshole.”

<3<3<3

Nashville is unfairly amazing and it makes James’ temperamental mood more outlandish by the day. The weather is beautiful, everyone he meets is nice and beautiful, the Predators are a high class organization--which comes with being the home of Barry Trotz he assumes, even though he’s gone now, and living with Dicky is surprisingly good. There is a parade of people in and out of Dicky’s house. Some of them are hockey players or related to hockey in some degree, which is sort of awesome that Dicky is the kind of guy who hangs out with trainers and equipment staff in his spare time. James doesn’t have that easy way about him, never has, and it was always a point of contention when he was in Pittsburgh--dragging down the locker room when he was in a foul mood, awkward and bleeding emotions everywhere. Dicky is effortless cool, interested in everyone’s everything, and forms friendships like they’re second to breathing.

It’s nice not to be the center of attention and not to be alone with his thoughts all the time. (Paulie hasn’t texted him but James has come close, texts drafted but never sent because he has no idea what to say to someone who you might have been in love with for years and James just never noticed. Where the hell does he even start?) They don’t go out much but when they do no one recognizes them for hockey players. Dicky gets noticed a lot for his charity shit and for being a nice, hulking dude. It’s incredibly different walking around anonymously. But for the most part, they stay in and cook or train. It’s all rather civilized compared to James’ empty house and bare fridge he used to have back in the Burgh.

They also spend a lot of time at home because Dicky is some sort of masterchef wannabe, whose one true goal is to find delicious ways to appease James’ nutritionist.

James had sighed one day, looking at Dicky’s food and said, “I wish I could eat that” and didn’t even notice the gleam in Dicky’s eye when he demanded James’ nutritionist’s number. Now it seems like everything that comes out of Dicky’s kitchen is both delicious and strictly in James’ diet. He has absolutely no idea how that works but he’s stopped asking if it’s in his plan for fear of Dicky going on a righteous rant about how enjoying food is an important part of any athlete's mental game.

He’s not really allowed to help very much, even though Dicky is cooking three nights a week--more if they don’t have anything else going on. Dicky lets him chop stuff, once he learns the difference between a rough chop, a dice and a mince. Sometimes certain shit stumps him, but Dicky is good with chirping him only 80% of the time.

It’s September, preseason is in full swing when James is chopping some onions and has to sit down because he misses Paulie so fiercely, that he thinks he might actually cry. He has no idea where Dicky went but he comes back to James trying not to wipe his eyes again, which results in him really crying because there is onion searing his retinas, which is good because he thinks he’s actually crying about Paulie.

“Are you crying?”

“There’s onion in my eyeball,” James sniffles out, while Dicky flutters into motion. He takes the knife out of James’ hand and opens the window so that the nice warm breeze is blowing into James’ watering eyes.

A few moments pass, James valiantly trying to control his breathing, until Dicky says, “Are you having a breakdown? Because you’ve been good, Jimmy. The locker room likes you and you’re scoring goals. You’re gonna be great here.”

James just breathes. Finally, he wipes his nose with a paper towel and shakes his head. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, Dicky. Sorry.”

Dicky crosses his arms, biceps bulging a little and he pops his hip out like Becca does right before she’s about to go after him something solid. James goes back to chopping onions for chilli.

“Jimmy, come on. You’re still living with me instead of trying to find a place, and you’re crying into my onions,” Dicky says, moving to the stove behind James. He’s not staring at him anymore, which is good because James is miles away. He really hopes he doesn’t chop off his finger. He’s fairly sure he won’t be able to score 40 goals while readjusting to life with only five fingers.

“I got this,” he says again. “I mean, I don’t but I’m working on it. It’s nothing life threatening.”

If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s life affirming because this sucks right now but maybe that means he’s getting somewhere. Even if turkey chili makes him cry and Dicky shoots him little looks when he thinks James isn’t paying attention.

The next day, Shea asks him if he wants to take the ‘A’ on a permanent basis. It’s after a win and James is dressed, waiting around for some of the guys to get done with press. They’ve been talking about going out since they have a late flight out tomorrow and no skate for two days. There are a bunch of call ups and it’s been an easy two games after the first loss. They’re going to Columbus next, but for now, it’s just wins for both squads today and it feels good. Especially with Hutton’s shoot out win. Either way, Shea startles him.

He’s just a big dude.

“This something you want on the regular,” Shea says, pointing to James’ chest. The ‘A’ isn’t there now, it’s just his suit but James knows what he’s talking about.

“Do you want to know if I can handle it?”

Shea shakes his head. “I know you can handle it, Nealer. I need to know if you want it, because there are plenty of guys who can handle leadership here and a lot of them want it. I’m asking you if it’s something you want. That’s all.”

Taking an ‘A’ means building a life here because he’s going to stay. It means that the Predators feel like he fits enough on the ice and in the locker room that they want him to know he could lead here. That he could win. That he should start looking at those house pamphlets Dicky’s realtor brought by two weeks ago.

“I’d be honored,” is what James finally settles on. Shea shakes his hand and smirks a little, jerking his head toward Dicky, who is definitely eavesdropping on their conversation. Jesus, imagine the shitstorm of dad levels of concern if he had said no.

“Dicky making you brush up on your vocab to live with him? Harsh.” James is squawking and defending his “really fucking big brain, okay” before it all sort of devolves into a wrestling fight and reminds him that family is everywhere, and he can be anyone’s little brother if he tries hard enough.

They happily celebrate the wins (and James’ status as official Alternate) in a bar that’s fairly mellow and sloppy with drunk, happy hockey players. It’s funny to watch all the call ups and baby hockey players get drunk off a few beers and strike out with the most amazingly beautiful women in this town. Even Dicky is having a good time. James’ notices that he can have bad days, when he plays with his AA milestone chip a little too much. (James doesn’t know if anyone else notices. James only knows because he was doing laundry one day and Dicky chucked his sweats at him, telling him to throw them in the wash. James found it in the pocket and when he went to give it back, Dicky was in his underwear and the conversation sort of derailed from any seriousness because James sits on that couch.) But today is a good day, he’s drinking mineral water and chirping Pirri so hard he’s turning all shades of purple, which is saying something since the kid is all swagger.

It’s getting later and James is drunker than he should be. It’s about this time that he takes himself back to Dicky’s, because he’s thinking about how this feels good but it would be so much better if Paulie was around. Because Paulie’s always got his hand on James’ thigh to ground him to the bar and he’s always talking low and slow in James’ ear so that James can know all of Paulie’s drunken stories. Also, Paulie always orders him the best drinks and everytime James tries to order gin without him, he ends up puking in the bushes of a random restaurant or, notably, Mario Lemieux’s swimming pool.

There’s a girl on his lap. She’s more beautiful than any woman he’s ever met and James’ is fairly sure she’s a lawyer. That’s so hot.

Which is why he’s super confused when she bites down on his earlobe and says, “Let’s get out of here.”

And his response is, “I can’t.”

She pulls back and slow blinks at him with huge brown eyes that wow, she really is way out of his league. Even if his hair was on point tonight. (It was. So on point.)

“You ‘can’t’ usually means you want to but you’re married. Oh fuck, are you married?” She looks genuinely concerned, like it’s her fault and it’s definitely not. It’s Paulie’s, of course and his stupid soft couch and the way he always has perfectly fluffy eggs and snooty coffee that tastes delicious with a splash of French Vanilla creamer that he always buys just for James even when he takes his with a little bit of sugar and nothing else.

“I’m not--it’s not you,” James rushes out. “It’s Paul. You know, I just can’t without Paul.”

Emma (he swears that’s her name) digs her hand into his bicep and says, “You’re gay? What is wrong with you!” She hisses that last part out and when he opens his mouth to defend himself, she slaps her perfectly manicured hand over it.

“Aren’t you some famous hockey player? You can’t be telling strangers you’re gay in a bar. What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t they put you idiots through media training?”

She’s shaking her head, taking a drink from her long island and she looks so pretty. So James moves her hand and says, “You’re so fucking pretty but I’m not gay,” he says, finally getting back on track after losing his train of thought. “I’m just… Paul-sexual.”

“I think the word you’re looking for is bi-sexual but okay,” she finishes her drink and then gets off his lap. He’s not proud of the grabby hands he makes when she loses contact but hey, he’s drunk and she really is beautiful. Why isn’t he going home with her again?

“Well, you’re kind of a dick, so I hope Paul can handle that,” Emma says, adjusting her dress and walking back to the bar.

James isn’t sure what just happened but he knows that he needs to find Dicky and go home before he a) tells anymore strangers he’s gay for Paulie, b) drinks any more or c) cries in a messy, drunken repeat of the Onion Incident.

“Time to go home, buddy,” Dicky says from right next to him because he’s a ninja. Or simply just sober.

“Yeah. I really wish I could,” is what James says and then they’re in the car being taken home, which is thankfully really close and Dicky stole a glass of water from the bar. He’ll probably even return it because he’s a nice guy like that.

“I wanna be a nice guy,” James says, when they’re getting out of the car and finding their way up the front steps of Dicky’s house. “You’re such a nice guy, Dicky.”

“Yeah well, you’re a nutsack,” Dicky says and then James is sitting on the floor by his bed instead of in it because he tripped over his shoes.

“Oh that fucking chest,” because it’s right there, staring him in the face--a solid reminder that Paul Martin is soft and warm and smart for a defenceman and really sexy and James is a doofus.

“You’re right, you are doofus so go the fuck to sleep,” Dicky says, but he’s not mad. James likes that about him. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow, when you’re hanging really hard. I’ll withhold juice.”

The cruelty of that sentence inspires James to stop looking at the stupid chest of feelings and climb into bed. Thankfully, sleep takes him before he has the energy to grab his phone and call Paulie. He can’t let his first conversation with Paulie since the trade to be about the injustice of juice withholding.

<3<3<3

James’ hangover the next day is pretty brutal. He thinks it’s because he started sharing Emma’s long islands and he’s just not accustomed to that much booze anymore. He hasn’t really been drinking since he got to Nashville. When the guys go out, he tags along but he usually leaves with Dicky instead of sticking around. The result is that his alcohol tolerance has taken a dive and he’s fairly sure he spent some time talking to that wooden chest at the end of his bed last night.

“These eggs are shit,” James says.

Dicky looks super offended. “Excuse me, dickhead!”

“No, it’s just, that’s the problem. That’s why I didn’t go home with that girl last night or why I can’t seem to look for a house or why I wish I could go home but I can’t. Because no matter what I do, your eggs--literally everyone else’s eggs will never be as good as Paulie’s.”

It feels strangely freeing to say it outloud to another person he actually knows.

Dicky blinks. “Paul… Martin?”

James nods but Dicky still looks floored and confused. James doesn’t really want to elaborate so he just squeezes more ketchup on his eggs and eyes the liter of juice that Dicky is holding hostage until James spills his feelings all over the table like a messy, homesick rookie. Fuck. That’s exactly what he is.

“I never told him,” James mutters, aggressively cutting his sausage link. “I didn’t tell him I was getting traded or that I sort of loved him alot.”

“And?”

James glares. “And it sucks. Because I didn’t really figure it out until I was here, playing house with you and wishing that I was building a home with Paulie.”

“I can’t tell if I’m supposed to be offended by this but I’m too distracted by the fact that you went from totally straight to wanting to move in with a dude and you didn’t even realize it until it had already happened. Is there something in the fucking water in Pittsburgh that makes you leak your brain out your ears?”

James is five hundred percent done talking about his feelings.

“Can I have my juice now?”

Dicky slides the juice across the table. “No wonder you’re a hot mess. How the hell do you hide all this from Martin?”

James shoves all the eggs in his mouth at once to buy himself some time here but Dicky picks up on it immediately. “You haven’t talked to him? It’s been four months!”

“Dicky, I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, bud, you better figure it out,” Dicky says, “because you can’t live here forever. And there are only so many women in Nashville that will take your drunken rambling to the grave. So you better figure your shit out.”

“I’m fucking trying, alright,” but it comes out so petulant that James shuts up for the rest of breakfast and Dicky takes pity on him and lets him nap on the couch, watching some history documentary that Paulie would absolutely hate because the re-enactment actors suck.

They don’t talk about Paulie all day long, letting James simmer in his hangover, but it bothers James how Dicky had called him Martin--like Dicky didn’t know Paulie enough to call him by his first name. It’s something that sticks with him.

<3<3<3

The first game of the season is electric. It’s cliche and sort of silly considering James has been calmly and quietly throwing a fit about the press branding Nashville a “fresh start”. But it really does feel insanely refreshing. Also because they fucking win. James really does love winning and he’ll be the first to admit that he wasn’t sure how much winning would be done in Nashville.

He likes to be proven wrong though.

But they do win. The rookie does well, and Shea is as solid as ever, It’s just the Senators, who still look like they don’t have their skates quite together yet, but playing in Pittsburgh just taught him how no one should underestimate any team, no matter who is on your team.

The locker room is amazing. There is a special high when there is no place for doubt yet. Perhaps winning the Stanley Cup is like that--not a single space for anything but joy. James wouldn’t know. But he does know this.

Which is why he’s a little tipsy on euphoria, waiting for Dicky to get done shooting the shit with Milton (gate security at Bridgestone), when he opens up his phone and sees that there is a text.

From Paulie.

Who hates texting and probably hates James and oh god, what if it says something horrific? Or what if it’s a prank from Duper or Flower? Well, probably not them. The French Canadian contingent spend half their time protecting Sid and his feelings and the other half pranking. They probably have known about James’ feelings long before James even recognized his crush on Paulie. Knowing Tanger, he probably told Duper and Flower about it after seeing it in his freaky crystal ball and they huddled together, uncannily beautiful and French being French and annoying and in touch with their feelings.

Anyway, the text from Paulie.

lookin good Real Deal

That’s flirting right? It’s not Predator maroon and gold looks good on you, send dick pics or I love you madly and forgive all your many shortcomings but it’s still contact.

He has no idea what to send back but kind of panics because it’s been a while since Paulie sent something and James needs to send him something now. He settles on a row of eyeless, Geno smilies and a short, could be better. He hopes the “with you” is heavily implied. He can’t tell and he doesn’t want to dwell because it’s just a small olive branch and he definitely does not want to fuck this up by being too crazy right off the bat. Becca always said he needed to slowly show his douchey hand to potential girlfriends, as to not scare them off. Maybe this works in reverse too? He needs to slowly show his sudden, commitment to loving Paulie forever instead of getting PAULIE AND NEALER FOREVER tattooed on his forehead.

Or flooding Paulie with texts.

He’s a disaster. Dicky makes sure to tell him that when he comes back from all the backslapping he’s doing with Milton and sees James’ goofy looking face staring intently at his phone.

Paulie doesn’t text him back that night. Or that week even. But James feels like it’s a good enough start considering.

<3<3<3

The joy of Paulie texting him is short lived. It takes three different days of house hunting to really put “James Has Issues” into perspective. After the third blow out fight about hardwood floors and lot size with Dicky, the second almost hysterical crying event over whether or not James wants a character home to remodel or new construction, and a temperamental moment in practice that got them all bag skated, it’s time to face the music.

“I’m going to the grocery store,” Dicky says, coming into James’ bedroom. There are housing development brochures scattered around him but he knows that they’re not what he wants. He wants a house exactly like the stupid chest at the foot of his bed and he knows a little bit about what he wants inside that house--beyond gray kitchen cabinets and butcher block countertops. He wants Paulie.

He just needs to make something, anything, happen other than lying on his bed and occasionally hitting his feet against that stupid feelings chest.

“I said, I’m going to the grocery store,” Dicky repeats himself. James throws a dirty sock at him.

“Ugh, you disgusting creature. I’m telling you this so that you can take it upon yourself to do something about the miserable state you are in.”

James scoffs. “Like what, Dicky? What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Call him! Oh for the love of fuck, just call him! It is not that difficult to do,” Dicky says, meanly. “Pick up your phone and call Martin. Tell him that you’re driving me crazy and if you don’t get over yourself, you will be homeless in more than just the heartsick, metaphorical sense and more in the real, live under a bridge sense if you continue to be a bag of dicks.”

James blinks at the ceiling and picks up his cell phone.

“Like I said, I’m going to grocery store.”

Dicky leaves.

When James presses ‘call’, it only rings twice because Paulie picks up.

“This isn’t working,” is the first thing that James says when Paulie answers with a terse hello. “Not talking isn’t working for me. Being without you isn’t working for me. Hell, I’m not working without you.”

“Hello to you too, James.”

“Don’t call me that,” he says because he’s spiteful and that hurts.

“It’s been months.”

Even pissy and stagnant over the phone, Paulie sounds amazing. Why James didn’t just do this sooner is beyond him. Hell, even if he needed this time to get his shit together--it seems like he’s wasted so much time when it comes to Paulie. He doesn’t know where to begin.

“I’m trying so hard to be here,” James starts because the brochures from Dicky’s realtor are mocking him. There is even a picture with a dog and a white picket fence and a big red door. Paulie loves contrasting door colors.

“You’re playing well.”

“Fuck hockey, Paulie. I mean, I’m trying hard to start a life here and I can’t because I can’t do anything of this without thinking about you. This was supposed to be some stupid fresh start but I can’t do that. I can’t start--”

“Are you looking for an apology?” And that’s pissed Paulie. Wow. Okay, not what James was going for.

“Paulie, I can’t buy a house without you. I can’t even cook dinner or watch TV or have sex with perfectly amazing strangers without thinking that everything would be better with you,” he sorts of spits it out and it’s not attractive or wooing at all but it’s like word vomit now. Feelings spewing everywhere because James is barely functioning here. He can admit that. Without Dicky, he’d be dead or on waivers or something equally as tragic, like jail.

If his hair barely survives hockey then he’s pretty sure it couldn’t survive hard time.

“I’ve been trying to buy a house here in Nashville, because it’s great here and the team is better than I could have imagined but I’m still hung up on you and how I don’t even want a house if you’re not ever gonna be in it--in a romantic, I love you sort of way. I don’t know what a fucking home is without you and I know it’s messed up and we haven’t talked and I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about the trade but I just--Paul, I can’t. Not without you and it’s fucked and maybe you don’t want me anymore. That’s fine. But I think I had to tell you because I’m messed up about this. About you. About us.”

It’s not a bad pause. But it is long and James can practically see Paulie’s face, soft and thoughtful or a little red, mouth pursed and angry. Fuck, probably a combination of the two.

“Oh fuck. I hadn’t even considered that I had this all wrong,” James says because he can’t shut his mouth and also, he hadn’t--until just now--considered the possibility that Paulie didn’t like dudes, didn’t want James like James desperately and dramatically wants him or maybe Paulie has a girlfriend. His beard is looking so amazing right now. Also, it would be James’ luck only to finally come around when Paulie’s long gone. “What if you’re not even into dudes? What if you’re into guys but definitely not into me and I just read a little too much into the way you look at me when you’re wearing glasses. Holy shit. Paulie--”

“Would you shut the fuck up for five seconds,” is what Paulie says and it’s not kind. There is a sharpness to his voice that makes James’ jaw click shut and his shoulders slump. The sort of leadership guys like Paulie have is like this, quiet and constant but just a hint of a push in their voice changes everything. That and James is really sensitive to all things Paulie right now.

“You can’t open your mouth or pick up your phone for four months but now that you do, you’re all over the place,” Paul continues. “Just, what the hell, Jamie? Jesus.”

James takes a deep breath. In all of this, it’s telling that hearing Paul call him ‘Jamie’ makes his chest spasm a little. No one calls him that and that had been his first clue, back when he was still living with Paulie, that whatever he felt for Paul wasn’t just buddies. But he hadn’t stopped Paulie from calling him that, nor had he addressed any of the feelings associated with the way Paul’s lips had curved around the name. Even in anger, it was guaranteed to make James smile.

This wasn’t really different.

“I will apologize all day long for not telling you that I had all these scarily intense feelings for you,” James says, because listening to Paulie’s breathing over the line makes him sentimental. “But if I’m being honest with you? I’m not gonna apologize for having them. So if you’re not into me or dudes or whatever, then that’s fine. But if there is any chance, I’m asking for it. I’m so fucking fucked over you.”

“Jamie--”

“No, you gotta let me finish cause I have no idea if I will ever be adult enough to say any of this ever again. Paulie--I’ve been so stupid. Maybe there is some excuse considering you’re perfectly you, always together and solid and so damn warm--and I thought living in an empty house for years was completely acceptable and not a total cover up for wanting any excuse to spend all my time with you. Maybe there is some truth to it being a bit of a gay freak out. I don’t really know, but I have figured out over the last months that it’s taken me a lot longer to get my shit together than it took for me to be in love with you.”

James laughs, because his eyes are a little wet and oh god, what if he’s a crier now? What if all this turmoil and inner conflict has seriously done some damage and now all he’ll do is cry and--cry during sex. He’ll be the dude that cries during sex and like, really good burgers.

“I don’t know when I got so gone on you. Hell, Paulie, maybe I’ve actually always been in love with you--which sounds kind of creepy. Sorry I was living in your house and unknowingly lusting over you. But when I got traded, the only fucking thing I was thinking about was how much I was going to miss you… how much I missed you already and it wasn’t even done yet. And that’s crazy because I just got traded and you were the only thing on my mind,” James says the last bit and sighs, trying not to sniffle over the phone. He’s trying to campaign for marriage and dogs and so much sex that his dick breaks off--he can’t let Paulie know he’s a crier until after he’s already shackled to him for life.

“James Neal, you are the stupidest son of a bitch I’ve ever met.”

God, even the way Paulie curses is so midwestern. “Yeah? Like, in an endearing way?”

“Jamie, are you crying?”

“No! Unless my sudden vulnerability makes you want to long distance date me,” James says because he can hear Paulie smiling and that’s got to be something. “I can promise you a state of clinginess yet unexplored, so much phone sex that leads to so much actual sex that we may have to quit our jobs due to being attached at the dick and, you know, I wanna build a home with you in a forever sort of way.”

“You never do anything in steps.”

James shrugs. “In my defence, I did take steps. I just had no idea I was taking steps until I was full scale levels of crazy for you.”

“Jamie--”

“Now would be a good time to turn me down gently, Paulie. Because you haven’t yet and that’s giving me hope over here,” he says it softly and as tenderly as he can. “If I was projecting or whatever, that’s cool. Just tell me, and we can pretend I never cried my suddenly gay feelings all over you. Go back to being buddies, who occasionally have dinner when my team beats your team several times a year.”

“Don’t get cocky just because you all had a good start,” is what Paulie counters with but--

“Paulie--”

“Can’t I think about it?”

“Think about what, Paul?” Now James really does sound like an angry teenager. “What is there to think about? Whether you love me? Because come on, even I would be able to give you a straight answer when it’s all laid out for me. Don’t be a dick.”

“Jesus, Jamie. Go fuck yourself, okay? I know where I stand with you. I’ve always known that we could be something amazing. I’m not the one who spent years pretending what I had with someone was nothing,” he says. Paulie doesn’t sound angry. He sounds so tired and maybe a little scared. James has never heard him scared--not after injuries, not when they thought Paulie was getting traded. It’s a little shitty that James makes him feel like that.

“Sorry,” because what else is there to say. “I know I sucked but I’m trying now. For whatever it’s worth.”

It’s met with a heavy sigh and James can just see him, blue eyes so bright and maybe a little flushed, like after a good skate or a shitty call on the ice. Maybe he looks like he does after a long flight, hair fluffy from sleeping in awkward positions and soft, when he runs his hands over the bridge of his nose and makes his glasses go crooked.

“I don’t need to think about how I feel about you, Jamie. That will never change. No matter what happens or all the idiot shit you do, I will probably always love you. So you don’t have to try and apologize for falling in love with someone who loves you right back.”

“But?”

“But fuck, this would have been hard enough when you were here,” Paulie says, solid and calm as ever. “But you live in Nashville now and it’s complicated.”

Admittedly, James hadn’t thought that far ahead. He just knew that he couldn’t have a home with Paulie unless he actually let Paulie know what he was feeling. The logistics of the situation never occurred to him.

“I hear the Baby Penguins are looking for a good winger?” It’s a stupid joke but Paulie giggles a little hysterically and James feels better. He misses that.

“I do need some time to think,” Paulie settles on. “I was well on my way to knowing that this was never going to happen between us and you’ve really fucked up my timeline for getting over you.”

“Good,” James interjects, a little breathless. “That’s really good of me.”

Over the phone, Paulie laughs. “Dammit, Jamie.”

They sit on the phone for a bit. James can hear the TV in the backroom over the line. It’s usually always HGTV, a root that James has slowly come to blame as the beginning of his inception into domestic yearning for Paulie. But it could also be a nature documentary. Paulie finds them soothing.

“Can I text you? And call you? While you’re, you know, thinking?”

“I would like that.”

It’s not exactly ‘marry me now so we can have a home with dogs and kids and food and amazingly acrobatic sex’ but it’s something.

“Good, um, me too.”

Paulie hangs up without saying goodbye but James can tell he’s smiling.

<3<3<3

James isn’t an idiot enough to think that him talking to Paulie makes their team win, but that’s pretty much exactly what happens. They get a least a point in their first three games before going on the road. James now splits his time between dicking around at practice, torturing Dicky, and texting or calling Paulie.

“Must be that Martin magic,” Dicky says after a shootout loss to Calgary but a point nonetheless. James does not blush and anyone who says otherwise is a filthy fucking liar who lies.

Dicky doesn’t talk to him about Paulie too much, and James keeps any emotional freak out he may or may not be having occasionally on the DL. Not that Dicky wouldn’t be cool, because James is starting to think Dicky will always be cool. It’s just that he owes Dicky a lot, for everything about Nashville feeling less frightening and more familiar. Dicky put up with him when he was a sorry sack of shit, so he doesn’t need to see James’ not-so-stoic lovesickness evolve. He saves all that for the frantic texts he sends Becca when she’s sleeping because she responds back with insults and too many emoticons that he doesn’t feel too bad. She’ll definitely blackmail him but it seems to be worth it.

The team has a two day break before they head north for a back to back and after bribing Dicky with his favorite kale protein shake from this stupid place halfway into Kentucky, he agrees to come house hunting.

“Do we think talking to Martin is going to make this less dramatic?”

James ignores him.

“Because let me tell you something, I’m not sure I’m up for another twenty rounds with you over anything but your shitty backcheck,” Dicky continues because James is pretty sure he could hold an entire conversation by himself. Sometimes, it’s like James never left the French Canadian contingent. He shudders to imagine what sort of mayhem they could get up to if they were ever introduced to Dicky.

“This will be better,” James insists, the GPS directing them to turn left. “No more new builds.”

They see a Tudor, four Craftsmans and a barn conversion before Dicky begs for reprieve. James relents but only because they’re all blurring together and all he can think about is the renovation needed to the pink bathroom in one, how Paulie said he really liked the original hardwood in the Tudor, and didn’t he think mature trees were nice?

mature trees will give me ideas paulie.

Which is true. When he thinks of mature trees, it reminds him of his house growing up in Whitby. It makes him curious as to what Paulie’s home was like and if Leah will like him and if they had huge, mature trees that Paulie begged for a tree house, even though he probably didn’t have time to do anything more than play hockey.

It’s odd that you can make mature trees sound sexual.

He let’s Paulie think that, smirking to himself as Dicky loudly complains about James’ face (apparently, it’s “pathetic” and “mooning”) because he thinks telling Paulie they need good trees for their kids to climb and shade for their swing sets is a little psychotic. It doesn’t stop him from adding mature trees to the list of must haves though.

He lets Dicky cook them a super fancy dinner, even goes to the grocery store to help with prep and lets Dicky bully him at the meat counter and the cereal aisle. It worries him that the cashier doesn’t even think twice about the headlock Dicky has him in while they’re checking out and fighting about yuppie environmentalism (aka Dicky’s reusable bags made out of recycled paper or some shit). James is pretty sure he wins the argument when he calls Dicky an “Andrew Ference Dicksuck Wannabe” because Dicky pulls back, scandalized and says, “Fuck you. I’m way hotter.”

It’s a good night all in all. He doesn’t really think about Paulie, let’s his phone hang out in his bedroom on silent. To be honest, it’s nice not to be tortured for once and just enjoy what he has now, Dicky and his awesome team and their promising start.

“Hey, Dicky?”

It’s edging closer to eleven and they both need to get some sleep before their flight out tomorrow to Winnipeg.

“Yeah, Jimmy?”

Dicky is still sprawled out on the couch. The TV is off and he’s gathering their cups off the table. He looks good.

“Thanks,” James says and he hopes that it all comes out. He’s pretty sure he’s used up all his capability of having emotional conversations for the next ten years at least. So he hopes his sheer gratitude is conveyed as he stands in Dicky’s hallway, after months of being royally fucked up in the head and Dicky just being rock solid and the best friend he honestly needed--it’s just a lot.

He’s kind of sad he didn’t know Dicky back when he was all messed up. He would have liked to been there for him. Been the kind of guy Dicky’s been to him.

On the sofa, Dicky’s smiling. He doesn’t even look like that much of a douche.

“You’re welcome, Jimmy. Anytime.”

James laughs his way back to his room because he sincerely hopes he never has to go through any of this shit again.

Actually, that’s the point he’s trying to make.

<3<3<3

They shut out the Jets and it feels beyond baller. James pulls away from the guys a little bit afterwards, ditches them after one bar when Dicky heads back to the hotel and meets up with a few people. It’s not like the nights he’s had in Toronto but it’s good to catch up.

Marc is a tailor he met through Geno and he smiles at James over the cigarette he’s having. They’re at some fancy bar that would normally make James feel a little uncomfortable without the comfort zone of their team but it’s still early, so James wanders out to watch Marc smoke his menthols and mock him as much as possible.

“I hear from Geno that you got things straightened out with your boy?”

James doesn’t panic but it’s sort of a near thing. Marc is a tailor, not a hockey player, there is nothing to stop him--no code of silence that followed him through all the places he’s played through the years--nothing to make sure he keeps James’ secret.

“It’s good, yes? He is a good man,” Marc is saying, oblivious to James’ panic or ignoring it in favor of his smoke.

A woman comes up to bum a cigarette off Marc and James has time to look away. Funnily enough, he hadn’t thought about what it would be like when people knew about Paulie and him. Nashville can be such a bubble sometimes in that hockey players are nobodies--just another group of rich people, simply not the interesting kind. But James has no designs on being the first out player in the NHL. He wonders if Paulie thinks about these things. He wonders what the fuck he was thinking, assuming he could just go about building his life with Paulie, kids and dogs and houses and pretend that no one put up a fuss.

The Preds play in Chicago, so James leaves Marc and the guys at the bar and goes straight to the airport to meet the team. He’s not freaking out or anything but he leaves everybody for the solitude in the back of the plane and let’s Dicky pat his head on his way to the bathroom mid-flight.

When they land, it’s a struggle for James to wake up enough to deplane. When they’re waiting to get everyone’s shit together to haul ass to the hotel, he finally checks his messages on his phone. He’s been giving Paulie some space, which translates into passive aggressively emailing him housing listings and when he’s really feeling vengeful about this “thinking” period, silly articles on how to keep sex interesting. Most of the articles are from Cosmo but he has a few juicier ones that he forwards from Tanger because he wants to have the satisfaction of imagining Paulie turning red whenever Tanger makes a sex joke. (All the damn time. Seriously. All the damn time. And hardly ever in French.)

Paulie has mostly been ignoring him, which is fine. But when James thumbs through his messages, there are a few from Paulie.

Five bedrooms? Jamie, what in the fuck do you need five bedrooms for?

You couldn’t even manage the guest rooms here in the Burgh.

Seriously. Five bedrooms? THIS ONE HAS SIX.

It’s enough to get him fully awake and smiling. He has a brief moment of pause, thinking about the panic when Marc asked him about Paulie. It’s stupid really. But he thinks about it now, scrolling through Paulie’s objections to more than three decent sized bedrooms and takes a deep breath.

it’s up to you, babe. James types out diligently, smiling to himself as Dicky tackles a sleepy Forsberg into Hutton and Rinne’s seats near the front of the plane and barely controlled chaos erupts. Goalies are so weird but grumpy, sleep-deprived ones are like mean golden retriever puppies.

He feels a bit brave, his team around him and Paulie at his fingertips. So he types, but i think we might need a few more bedrooms this time around with a heart and a baby emoji to make sure Paulie get’s the point. Fuck it. It’s not like James can predict the future, but he knows what he went through this summer--thinking that he’d never find his way back to Paulie and he knows he never wants to do that again. If that means more people like Marc knowing about him and Paulie, then James will suck it up. Paulie doesn’t deserve to be treated like a secret nor should he be flaunted like a prize. They’ll just… fuck it up as they go.

If Paulie is done thinking, then why can’t James be too?

<3<3<3

On October 25th, the Preds get shut-out by Pittsburgh. It’s an ugly 3 goal loss and no one feels good. James spends a little more time than he usually does talking to guys in the locker room and trying to keep everyone level headed. He’s not good at it--not like Dicky, but he’s getting better and he’s super awesome at telling dad jokes when it gets too tense. It’s something that he will never forget from the Penguins room, the power of the dad joke is strong.

He tries to disguise the pep in his step when he leaves but Shea is rolling his eyes with Dicky so he knows he probably doesn’t do the best of jobs. It’s just that getting beat by Pittsburgh means that Paulie is in Nashville and not states away doing Paulie things without James.

James doesn’t lurk around the visitor’s locker room so much as… yeah, he lurks a little. But as much as it would be nice to see everyone, he doesn’t want to get caught up with Flower or Bort and end up spending his whole night talking to them when he could be doing something insanely awesome like holding Paulie’s hand or seeing if beard burn is really a thing. So he lurks and waits until Paulie saunters out, looking really tall and unfairly good looking in the fluorescent hallway. It’s a testament to Paul’s patience that he doesn’t even look surprised when James swoops in and ambushes him when Duper gets distracted by some angry sounding French back in the locker room.

“I don’t know who you are,” Paulie says, eyes dancing behind his glasses. “But my boyfriend doesn’t like me to hang out in dark equipment rooms with men with silly hair.”

“My hair is awesome tonight! I even washed it,” James says, pulling Paulie just a little bit closer. He’s kind of in awe right now because Paulie is here, in Nashville, and James can touch him. He runs his fingers over the broad expanse of Paulie’s shoulders and enjoys the flex of strength there.

“Wow, Nealer, that’s impressive.”

“Shut up, don’t ruin this for me,” James says, smoothing down Paulie’s lapels. “I’m having a moment.”

“With my suit?” But Paulie’s mouth is pulling into that soft smile that used to make James feel like he could do anything as long as Paul kept looking at him like that. It’s got the same kind of effect right now.

“Can we skip to the kissing part of this reunion?” James says it flippantly but it’s kind of a big deal. He’s never kissed Paulie before and it’s one thing to know he wants to argue over antique furniture with this guy for the rest of his life and it’s another to actually… live it.

“Sure babe,” and James doesn’t even have time to complain about it because Paulie’s kissing him. He tastes like the toothpaste he uses in the shower after the game. James always thought brushing teeth in the shower was super weird but it makes him giggle into the soft press of Paulie’s lips now. It only takes a few passes before it heats, James groaning into the subtle command and lazy dedication that Paulie applies to kissing. It’s like he has all the time in the world to just stand here and kiss James because there isn’t any doubt there. It’s a sure thing.

God, James feels like a sure thing.

When Paulie pulls away to kiss bearded, wet kisses down James neck, he can’t help but buck his hips up into Paulie’s hands. They’re nice hands and also, James is super hard.

“I can’t believe you’re this turned on by house hunting,” Paulie says, low and warm against James’ ear.

“Oh sure, it’s the house hunting that’s getting to me right now.”

But then Paulie is cupping his dick through his pants and they could be talking about renegotiating his contract to Siberia and he’d still be leaking dick, weak kneed, and a little desperately bucking into the firm grope of Paulie’s hands.

“Next thing you know, you’ll be turned on by doing my laundry,” Paul says, sly and secret like he doesn’t already know that James definitely wants to fuck in every room of his new house, including the laundry thank you very much. “James Neal, domestic goddess.”

“Oh my god, shut up.”

They do make out, groping and being shades of ridiculous James doesn’t remember being since junior, but eventually it’s getting late and he knows he should be worried about being locked into Bridgestone, but he’s distracted. Paulie’s got him though, because he pulls away slightly, kissing James on the corner of his mouth and stays close.

“Come on, Jamie,” soft and sweet and fuck, he loves it when Paulie calls him that. “Why don’t you take me home?”

“I don’t know,” James replies. “Maybe you’re still thinking.”

It’s not meant to be serious but Paulie just looks at him and James gets lost there. It’s pretty obvious that James is in this for the long haul and he knows that Paulie’s been making lists. Paulie is a list sort of man. He hopes these lists have shifted from “Pros vs Cons” to “Things We Need To Do Before I Put A Ring On It” and “Names James Will Try To Impart On Our Children That I Will Protest”.

James lets Paulie look, doesn’t dare look away until Paulie shakes his head and pulls away just slightly. James doesn’t know he still latching onto Paulie’s lapels until Paulie carefully unwraps his fingers and brings them to his mouth. Paulie kisses his knuckles, scraping his beard all over James’ hands in the process.

“I think I’ve had time enough,” is what Paulie settles on and that’s enough of a confession for James to get them out of Bridgestone immediately, even if he can’t help manhandling Paulie in half a dozen public places before they get to James’.

They absolutely fuck in Dicky’s house, and James will probably take heat for it until they’re both playing in beer leagues, older than dirt and rhapsodizing over days when they were younger and their hip didn’t give out so much or something. They’re not quiet--or well, James’ isn’t quiet. In his defence, he never has been very silent in bed. Paulie seems to take a secret kind of joy in wringing as much noise out of him as possible, which makes him blush when he thinks of Dicky on the other side of the house listening to him fall apart under Paulie’s careful attention.

Paulie is all quiet gasps and whispered curses that seem to rock James to his core. He listens to Paulie pant into his shoulder and whisper his name into the curve of his neck until James is unravelling. He lets Paulie press and press against him until they make an absolute mess of each other. It feels a bit like a dream. Paulie smiles, glasses smudged from where they’ve pressed against James’ skin because he didn’t put his contacts in and he wanted to see James in clear focus, had said so even. He grins, sweet and slow, as he drags his fingers through the mess between them and squeezes James’ hip so hard he knows he’ll have bruises there tomorrow.

“Alright there Jamie?” Paulie says and if it was supposed to be teasing, it doesn’t come out that way. Maybe it’s the post-sex look Paulie’s got going on or the fact that James just came his brains out--but Paulie just sounds fond and incredibly sexy.

So James just pulls him down for a kiss instead of answering him and if this is all a dream, he hopes he never wakes up.

The next morning, Paulie runs his hot hands all over James skin and there are earnest kisses that deserve sloppy, enthusiastic blowjobs, so he doesn’t have a ton of time to be sorry about all the truly spectacular sex he’s having in Dicky’s house. He doesn’t even complain a little bit when Paulie tugs on his hair mid cocksucking, which is just further proof that Paulie will be the ruin of him.

Breakfast is a family affair. Paulie quiet but content making eggs and hashbrowns, letting Dicky slice up avocadoes and talk about the merits of double ovens and if James really is cool enough for concrete countertops and other boring, old people stuff that makes Paulie hum into his coffee cup and make eye-contact across the island with James that has the unfortunate side effect of giving him a hell of a boner. James sits, takes it all in and only gets into a wrestling match with Dicky once to defend his honor. Paulie steals his coffee and saunters away, letting them hash it out while he goes to shower.

“Asshole,” Dicky swears, smashing his hand all down James’ face in a gloveless facewash. “Paulie’s eggs suck. Mine are superior, you love-sick dicksmack.”

“Lies, lies!”

Things sort of devolve from there but it’s good to know Paulie doesn’t seem to alter the shift of James and Dicky’s dumb and dumber act.

James even manages to untangle himself and join Paulie in the shower for brain melting handjobs and awkward first-time rimming before they have to meet the realtor for some showings that Paulie didn’t completely write off.

<3<3<3

1.6 million is a lot to spend on a house. But when Paulie sees that it’s won a historical preservation award, James knows that any other house is going to be hard pressed to beat that.

Paulie baulks at the price and nearly throws a fit when he sees that it’s way over market value. But James sees the way Paulie’s already redecorating the 1925 house in his head. The way the sellers have it staged, it’s a bit too clean and glamorous. This is the fourth house on a five house short list and Paulie hasn’t run his hands over the surface of any of the previous places. Here, he rubs his feet together like he’s imagining walking barefoot over the hardwood, sweatpants dragging down at his heels. He runs his lovely hands over original trim and admires the wainscoting in the dining room tactilely. He even likes the period wall paper detail in the powder room, which is hilariously Nicole Curtis of him and James almost trips over his own feet sneaking in a kiss after Paulie says so.

It really is perfect.

“I know you said mature trees were an absolute must,” the realtor is saying and James is trying not to blush. but it’s hard when she’s giving him up so easily. Not that Paulie doesn’t already have his number or anything. “So I think you’ll like what’s out here.”

She opens the french doors off the master to a small patio that opens up to a spacious back yard with huge, thick trees that fan out over a swing set and a detached garage. James doesn’t say “let me have your babies, Paul Martin” but he’s hoping this backyard does.

“Hey, Dayna,” Paulie says, still looking out at the yard. “Can we have a minute?”

Dayna nods. “I’ll just be in the kitchen.”

She doesn’t explicitly say she’s drawing up the paperwork but she’s not dumb. Paulie is still looking out at the barely landscaped yard. It’s a little overgrown but it looks lush even this late in the year. James looks around a little ridiculously before he wraps his arms around Paulie from behind. Paulie’s wearing this cream sweater that is absolutely as soft as it looks. There is a breeze but it’s not nearly cold enough to be wearing something so wintery.

“You can take the boy out of Minnesota, but can you really make him anything more than a Minnesotan?”

Paulie leans back into him.

“Nealer, if you keep hugging me, Dayna’s going to think you’re buying this house for me.”

It’s sly and sarcastic but James pulls them closer together until their flush. Paulie’s hands come up to encircle his wrists and they stand there, listening to the wind blow through the wind.

“Paulie--”

“Hush, I’m enjoying a moment here,” Paulie says and James quiets. He thinks about how awesome it would be if he didn’t have to worry about who would see them. James doesn’t know what that would be like, or if Paulie would get tired of him too quickly that way. James doesn’t understand how anyone could spend this much time with Paulie, knowing they could be touching him and not do that all the time. James used to think holding hands was like wearing three week old game gloves without hand dryers. He thinks he could probably get used to the idea of drinking gin on this porch with Paulie, hands looped together.

As long as there were orgasms involved. Or at least heavily implied.

“Alright.”

“Alright?” James counters, pressing his face into the soft, short hairs at the base of Paulie’s neck.

“Yeah, alright,” Paulie says, squeezing James’ wrists. “But you’re not paying almost two million dollars for it.”

Money-minded, middle-class Paulie shouldn’t be as attractive as he is infuriating, but over the next twelve hours there are just as many messy come stains on their clothing as there are arguments over counter-offers.

Luckily, Dayna is getting a pretty large commission and Dicky keeps snapping pictures with his phone everytime he catches them in a compromising position. (He claims he’s going to sell it to the paps but everyone knows he’s probably going to make them a scrapbook.)

<3<3<3

He wakes up at six am to Dicky creepily standing over his sleeping body. He feels a little gross, covered in dried come and sweat but other than that, he feels good. Paulie has to go back to Pittsburgh tonight, only got away for so long because he solemnly told Johnston that he needed a few days to “attend to some personal matters” which could mean anything when Paulie says it with a straight face and serial killers eyes. Johnston probably thinks Paulie is meeting his out of wedlock child or like, avenging the death of a loved one.

James would put money that the Penguins wouldn’t have let Paulie have a few days off to fuck his former team mate in every position possible before buying a house together.

“Rich!” James sort of whisper screams, suddenly thankful that Paulie is burrowed almost completely under the covers because Dicky is a pervert.

“Get up. Let’s go for a run.”

Considering James definitely ate mac and cheese last night, he deserves this. He says as much to Dicky as they turn the corner around their neighborhood but Dicky laughs and says, “it was gluten free and dairy free” before he takes off in a sprint that has James panting by the end of it.

“Kraft blasphemy,” James curses when they both collapse in the yard. Well, James is collapsed. Dicky is doing these one armed push ups without his shirt on that make him look like a total asshole. “I’m kicking you out of Canada.”

“I’m not the one trying to become an American citizen by marriage.”

It kind of loses it’s bite, seeing as Dicky is about to pass out from his stupid push ups.

James leaves him to go get them both Gatorades, tossing Dicky’s at him from where he’s still lying on the grass grinning like a loon in the throes of his post-workout endorphin high. James wanders back to his bedroom but doesn’t find Paulie. He listens for a second, thinking maybe Paulie is on the phone with Leah but seconds later the shower turns on.

He thinks about knocking, then decides he’s never seen Paulie surprised and naked so he just walks in. Unfortunately, Paulie doesn’t even jump. He squints at him from his place behind the glass door, glasses abandoned in the sink, and wrinkles his nose at James.

“You went running covered in come?”

James grins. “My personal trainer is an absolute psycho. But since I’m here and all...”

The water is scorching hot and James fusses about it until Paul pushes him up against the tile and kisses any complaint right off his tongue. The best part about kissing Paulie is that it’s never the same. James thought their kisses would stay desperate, the stolen time between them shrinking with every minute. But Paulie manages to pack this sort of slow, heat that makes James want to get on his knees and beg but instead keeps him on the edge, letting Paulie kiss him until he’s little more than a writhing mess.

The shower itself is sort of heavenly, even with present company excluded. The glass door opens up to the controls and even when James spreads his arms, he can just barely press his palms to the opposing sides. A rain head hovers above and three square water jets come from both sides. There’s even a little bench below the controls, scattered with James’ shower supplies and a bottle of lube.

“Paul Martin,” James taunts, when Paulie drags his head down to suck a spectacular hickey on the side of James’ neck that definitely won’t be covered by the collar of his shirt or his Under Armour. “Did you trick me into shower sex?”

Paul laughs low and James watches the line of his back, covered with freckles and bruises.

“Took a lot of work,” Paulie says.

James is too distracted to reply. He manages to turn around to turn the rain shower head down, so it doesn’t feel like he’s drowning while trying to make out with Paulie. However, he can’t seem to turn back around because Paulie’s crowded up against him and oh, oh.

They hadn’t gotten around to getting anyone’s dick in anyone else’s ass. Mostly because Paulie fingered him last night and before they could get to the main event, James had come twice (the first time was completely accidental but totally on Paulie’s face). And the resulting blowjob was mostly just Paulie fucking his face before James passed out.

Now though…

“Fuck Paulie, come on,” James says because if Paulie’s waiting for permission, he’s got it. James’ hands immediately go to the tile in front of him, letting his legs fall shoulder width apart as he arches and pressing his ass back into Paulie’s hard cock.

“James.” Whatever Paulie was going to say gets swallowed by James’ moan, because Paulie’s hand are running up and down his thigh, catching him slightly at the knee and pushing until he bends, hitching his foot up onto the bench.

This feels alarmingly planned out.

James can’t be too impressed by Paulie’s devious sexacapde planning because he’s digging his hands into James thigh like he’s massaging him. All the while, his dick is pressed up tight against the small of James’ back like a really filthy promise.

He doesn’t hear the click of the lube bottle or even feel Paulie reach down to grab it, but he must, because when Paulie slides one finger inside, his passage is easy and James seats himself steadily. It pulls a moan out of him that he tries to smother into his forearm but Paulie doesn’t give him any time to adjust, pulling out and finger fucking him fast and loose. He’s also dragging his teeth across James’ shoulders, not quite a bite, but definitely more visceral than a kiss and it’s very consuming.

“Jesusfucking Christ,” James pants out, moaning into the hot steam of the shower. The second finger is just as wide, calloused and huge feeling as the first. James surges to get away from the pressure just as much as he goes chases back after it. He can’t help but arch further into Paulie’s hand, head hanging down to his chest as Paulie pushes back into him. Steam fills his lungs just when Paulie bites down a little too hard on James’ shoulder, crying out. James’ jerk and subsequent shifting almost sends them both tumbling down but also manages to ram Paulie’s fingers into James’ prostate.

James keens. “Paulie, fuckfuck, there--”

Paulie hums, licking around James’ ear before he asks James, so damn politely, “do you want another or are you ready for me?”

James wishes it sounded cheesy or ridiculous, instead, James’ dick jerks so hard that he’s afraid he’s come all over himself. Luckily, Paulie’s quiet laughter in his ear gives him the strength to elbow Paulie lightly in the stomach.

“Don’t act like your dick is as big as Geno’s,” James says, grinding back on Paulie’s fingers. “Come on, Paulie, fuck me.”

In the back of James’ mind, he knows that they should probably be using condoms or talk about not using condoms or do anything but fuck bareback right now but he’s trying not to swallow his tongue with the way Paulie feels, dick slick and leaking as he thrusts against James’ ass in a mockery of what they should be doing. His brain is basically leaking out of his dick here. He’s pretty such that’s why these conversations happen before sex and not during.

“Paulie, please, fuck,” James says when Paulie’s fingers slip free. He stretches out until his palms are flat on the tile, feeling vulnerable with his leg still propped up on the shower ledge but so greedy with the prospect of getting Paulie’s dick inside of him that he can’t begin to care.

“There you go, Jamie, fuck,” Paul curses, hands smoothing up and down James thighs as he rubs the head of his cock down, slipping between James’ cheeks and bumping at his balls. It’s clumsy but perfect and James cries out when the head finally slips inside. Paulie swears again, pulls out for a few seconds before he slides back in and just keeps going.

All Geno dick jokes aside, Paulie still feels huge when he pushes in full tilt and not stopping until James is panting wetly and his own dick is flagging a little from the sheer fullness. It’s probably their position or the fact that James has only done this twice before, but it certainly feels like Paulie has suddenly grown a whale-sized Geno cock.

“James, Jamie, jesus,” Paulie says, the first true desperation in his voice.

It levels James’ breathing out though, and he can feel himself getting hard again, especially the way Paulie is trying to keep still. He’s rocking a little on his feet, just enough to make James feel it but not enough to freak him out. It’s so damn Paulie that it makes James smile, completely genuinely happy and not sexily at all.

Thank god this freaky shower doesn’t have a mirror in it as well. James’ not sure his goofy smile at getting Paulie’s super considerate dick up his ass is attractive.

“There you go babe,” Paulie says.

And then it’s Paulie pulling back, the delicious slide of him has James rocking up and back on his heels--not sure if he’s chasing the feeling or pulling back to wait for more but it makes Paulie gasp a little when he draws almost all the way out. The head of his cock feels fat and wet as it bobs slowly at James’ entrance before Paulie works himself back in with a thrust that has James making an embarrassing noise that literally echoes in the shower stall.

Whatever teasing fuck Paulie was going for seems to be completely cast aside after that. Paulie’s hand moves from clutching his hip to pushing his shoulder blades down. James’ hands slide down the tile until he’s ass out, pistoning his own hips down onto Paulie’s dick and making a lot more noise than he’s sure he’s completely comfortable with. Paul’s hand is stretched wide on his shoulder anchoring him as he continues to thrust up until James is getting rocked. His cock is bobbing against his abs, the water running everywhere is still hot and James feels like he’s sweating everywhere. Paulie’s got a rhythm going now that has James moaning every time he hits prostate, which is at least every third thrust and fuck, James is going to come here real quick.

Paulie’s pulling James back, seating him over and over until James feels like he’s so loose and well fucked that he might die of pleasure, split open like a whore for Paulie’s dick.

“James, come on,” Paulie says, breathy and just more than a gasp, which has James’ quickly spiraling. It’s so hard to get Paulie out of breath, freaky d-men with their unnatural endurance, but here in this shower, it’s just Paulie and James and it’s so fucking good that even Paulie is unraveling seated deep and fucking up into James’ ass.

Paulie’s thrusts get a little frantic, and when his other hand goes to wrap around James’ hip to fuck him even better--even harder--his thumb grazes James’ dick on the way there and that’s it.

James throws his head back when he comes because it’s like a punch to the fucking gut and thankfully Paulie gets with the program before they fall down. He braces himself and also manages to get a hand around James dick to pump him through it. Because Paulie is some sort of multi-tasking genius, he’s still fucking James, using their weight to leverage his hips into this filthy, prostate-hammering grind that has James calling out Paulie’s name and pulsing so hard he’s pretty sure it’s not the steam in the shower that’s got him light headed.

When James opens his eyes, Paulie’s still got his hand on his dick and James is sporting a half chub. It’s probably all the hot water, but James is a little proud that he’s taking the literal dicking of his life and he’s managed to still have a little left in him. He’s about to make a comment when Paulie moves his hand down to James’ hip and squeezes.

“Yeah, alright babe,” James says as he pushes himself forward so that Paulie can do his own thing.

Which is apparently short, deep thrusts that kind of feel like a flame is licking at James’ back. He groans, reaching down to jerk himself off in those light teasing strokes when Paulie gets back to fucking him hard and fast. He’s saying James’ name over and over, almost high-pitched gasps as he drives himself closer to coming.

“Come on, Paulie.”

Paulie comes on a slow, easy slide out before he thrusts back up and fills James’ up with a slick grind. It makes James curse and hold the base of his dick because it kind of hurts, Paulie pressed hot and tight and still swollen inside of him. He’s glad Paulie came when he did because James feels a little overwhelmed and so loose that he swears he can feel Paulie jerking inside of him. It’s probably just his overactive imagination but still.

Paulie’s making these little groans into James’ shoulder as he chases the last seconds of his orgasm. And it’s so hot that James has to kiss him. Trying to contort himself without losing Paulie’s cock stuffed up inside of him and softening, doesn’t really work. But even though James feels weird and oddly wet and really, really open down there, it’s worth it to kiss Paulie’s panting mouth.

“That was good,” James murmurs around Paulie’s lips. “Wasn’t it?”

Paulie pats his hip. “Don’t go looking for compliments. I was the one doing all the work.”

James squawks. “All the work! That was my ass you were ploughing! I was a very helpful participant seeing as how it was my ass.”

The whole thing devolves into sexual bickering when Paulie shoves James against a water jet and spreads his cheeks, inching his fingers down to finger James’ puffy, used hole. Then the bickering fades out and it becomes wholly sexual. James despairs of the shit he’s going to get from Dicky about his water bill.

Their second trip down rimming lane isn’t quite as awkward as the first but holy fuck is it way hotter when Paulie’s eating his own come out of James’ ass. Barebacking might not have been the smartest split second decision he’s ever made but when James comes again with Paulie’s mouth tacky with come and lube, pressed up to take sipping, sucking kisses against his hole--he regrets nothing. And he is willing to bet Paulie doesn’t either, not when he comes a second time too, the head of his dick surging just inside James, splashing at his entrance as Paulie rocks the head in and out as he comes. It leaks all down his thighs and when James tilts up, he can still feel it inside of him, which is a strange and not all together awesome experience. Worth it though, especially because it seems sloppy, messy sex is exactly what gets Paul sweet enough to hold James hand in the afterglow.

Afterwards, James sits on the bench and watches Paulie wash his hair. He tries to memorize the fade of freckles on his chest or the way he smirks at James when he catches him staring at Paulie’s soft dick.

“We’re getting a bench at the new house,” James says empathically. “One in every shower.”

Paulie smirks but he doesn’t disagree. Instead, he lets James rest his head on his abs while Paulie dutifully follows James’ rigorous instructions for washing his hair.

<3<3<3

He signs the papers that day, before they leave for Edmonton and Paulie goes back to Pittsburgh. Paulie has gotten the seller down to 1.3 million, which is only a hundred grand more than the previous selling price. He wants to feel nervous about the whole deal but Paulie has his glasses on and this purple sweater that pulls across his broad shoulders unfairly in the soft morning light. So James doesn’t feel anxious about any of it. He just signs the papers, kisses Paulie in the realtor’s office and makes sure that he makes a key for Paulie to take with him--just in case.

He also makes Dicky one because that asshole isn’t going anywhere.

Which he really makes a point of when James first comes home to an absolutely empty home in Nashville, nothing from the storage facility has been delivered yet, to find Dicky’s antique chest in his foyer.

James’ probably shouldn’t have given that bastard a key without outlining a few rules.

It’s hard to miss in the middle of the hallway, looking to all the world like it belongs there and wasn’t the source of torment for James while he was wrestling with his Paulie feelings. To be fair, they weren’t just Paulie feelings. James supposes they were mostly growing up feelings but he doesn’t tell anyone that. The chest hasn’t changed but it does look good in the light filtering in from the windows by the door. It’s almost a soft blueish-green, greyed out with light, the old paint peeling and warm from many different refurbishings. It will be a good place to put shoes and coats, since a coat rack is super impractical for someone as lazy as James. Paulie has a ton of jackets that he won’t need in Nashville but that James imagines he’ll bring anyway. They’ll look good draped over the worn chest. Like they belong there.

And they do because James’ house can’t possibly be any sort of home if Paulie doesn’t slot in perfectly, a little worn around the edges, soft with time and certainty, but absolutely, reclaimed.