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fighting for the air in your lungs

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Jeff kind of hates his new place. Not at first, but after a few days the silences and white walls start to sink into the places where Nuge and Jonesy, even Jamie, used to be. Three days in he goes out to get lunch and doesn't come back until nearly midnight, late enough that simply stripping to his boxers and falling into bed is totally acceptable.

By the time camp starts up a week later he's taken to spending as much time away from the apartment as possible.

"You could decorate?" Ladi says on the second day of camp and Jeff just shrugs. He's thought about it, but it seems like a lot of effort for a place he can't stand.

"Dude," Jonesy says later that day. "When's the party?" He's grinning and Jeff knows not to trust that smile by now. But Jonesy says, "Man, you have to have a housewarming," and won't let it go when Jeff just shrugs at him too.

The next day after practice Jeff is sacked, legs shakey with effort and arms sore from practicing shots from the point. He doesn't have it in him to stop Jonesy from following him home. Jonesy and Nuge, who gives him a sheepish smile and a shrug of his own.

"Whoa," Jonesy says when he unlocks the door. It's a lot of white to take in at once, Jeff knows.

"Holy shit, dude," Jonesy says and Nuge cuts him off with an elbow to the ribs. Jeff gives him a tired smile, ignoring how apparently the twist he gets in his stomach whenever Nuge is around hasn't gone away.

He hasn't felt anything since camp started, but then he's mostly been stuck on defensive drills and just generally on the opposite side of the ice from Nuge.

Nuge says now, "It's nice, man. Big."

It is big, one of the things he'd liked when he first looked at it last season. Spacious and open and it's looking a whole lot better with Nuge leaning against one of the counters in the kitchen. Jeff even manages a real smile when Nuge leans against him for a second, saying, "I love this kitchen."

Jonesy snorts and they both straighten, Nuge rolling his eyes fondly.

"You're a douche," he says, and elbows Jonesy again. Jonesy just makes a face at him and Jeff's feeling a little better about the place. He's not thinking past now, though; he's not thinking about what happens when they leave.

A minute later, Jonesy says, "Man, you haven't even set up the games." He's shaking his head, real disappointment lined in his face.

"You really shouldn't live alone, Petey. It's obviously bad for you," Jonesy goes on and that's when Nuge starts pushing him toward the door.

"I think it's past Jonesy's bedtime," Nuge says. Jonesy brightens a second before nodding. He detours out of Nuge's path and pulls Jeff in for a long hug, yawning against the side of Jeff's head. Jeff's laughing when he pushes Jonesy away, but it fades when Nuge sneaks in next, hugging him tight.

"Take a nap, Petey," Nuge says and how is it that he's the smartest out of the three of them? "I'll text you later."

Nuge texts him later and then when Jeff can't find anything to eat in his kitchen they meet at one of the pickup places they used to hit up last season. Jeff gets there first and doesn't even think about ordering for the both of them.

"You should have a housewarming," Nuge says when they've finished eating. "He's not going to forget."

Jeff tries to imagine Jonesy letting anything go, can't. He might as well give in now without a fight. "Yeah, okay," he says, and then, "But you're helping."

The smile Nuge gives him is wide and pleased.

They have a day off a couple days later and Nuge shows up at his door before Jeff's even had a chance to shower, much less escape.

"Shower later," Nuge tells him. "We're going shopping."

Jeff follows Nuge through three home decorating stores and somewhere around hour two of Home Depot he starts wishing they did have practice.

"No more," Jeff says at the checkout. Nuge grins at him and shrugs. He says, "Okay, but Jonesy's already sent out invites for Saturday."

Jeff groans and they go to one more store before stopping for food and then heading back to the apartment.

"I hate you," Jeff groans a few hours later. They've hung pictures, built a bookshelf, and painted the bathroom. Jeff's not even sure why they painted the bathroom, but Nuge had said it needed it and Jeff is pretty awful at saying no to him.

It's not until late, nearly dinner time, that Jeff realizes how settled he's felt all day. They've finally finished painting and when he goes to change his shirt, stripping out of his paint-stained one and into a one of his team shirts, Jeff feels right, grounded.

"Nuge," he yells when he comes out of his bedroom and Nuge isn't in the bathroom.

"Out here," Nuge calls back and Jeff's fingers are itching a little, like his skin is suddenly stretched too tightly over his bones.

He catches up to Nuge in the kitchen where he's washing out the paint brushes.

"Your bathroom sink is tiny," Nuge says and Jeff's not sure what he's doing when he puts a hand against Nuge's hip, nudging him around until they're facing each other.

"Petey," Nuge says, half of a question. He's squinting up at Jeff when Jeff leans in and kisses him, one hand at his hip and the other cupped around Nuge's cheek. There's a second or two of shock and then Nuge is kissing him back, tentatively. It's good and Jeff shuffles in closer. Nuge shifts against him and the hand at his hip is suddenly pressed up against bare skin.

Jeff deepens the kiss and Nuge lets him, kissing him back for all of three seconds before he's pushing Jeff away. Jeff tries to follow him, but Nuge gets a hand between them and Jeff backs off.

"Nuge," he says and Nuge just shakes his head. Jeff says, "Ryan, hey," and Nuge's skin goes pink at his cheeks, down his neck.

"Sorry," Nuge says, and he sounds a little frantic. "Sorry, I'll-- I have to go."

Nuge pushes past him and Jeff considers following. He doesn't, just braces his hands against the counter, and listens to the sounds of Nuge leaving.

Jeff goes to bed early that night, unable to bear being alone in his stupid apartment. There's less white, but everywhere Jeff looks Nuge is there. The pictures he picked out at Target and all of that yellow in the bathroom. Jeff pulls a pillow over his face and tries to forget the red of Nuge's mouth and the way he'd responded to the kiss at first.

Practice the next day is awful. Jeff's running on so little sleep that he keeps making stupid little mistakes, stupid shit that makes Kreuger blow his whistle over and over. By the time the final whistle blows, Jeff's so frustrated he wants to break his stick and his backup too, just for good measure. He feels like shit and he played like shit and it feels like the end of Worlds all over again.

Jonesy's in his stall when Jeff gets back to the room after his shower and Jeff doesn't want to do this, not now and not ever.

Jonesy doesn't say anything while Jeff gets dressed, barely even moves when he's in Jeff's way, and it's not until Jeff is shouldering his bag that he says, "Lunch, you're buying."

"You want to talk about it?" Jonesy says, finally, at the very end of lunch. He's spent nearly an hour telling Jeff about hunting over the summer and the party on Saturday and how he's pretty sure Nuge is giving Jamie cooking lessons when he's not around.

"No," Jeff says. It might be the first word he's said the whole meal. Jonesy just grins at him and says, "Too bad."

Jeff shrugs, says, "There's nothing to talk about."

Jonesy snorts and Jeff really doesn't like this. He knows he played like shit, knows how awful he was today, and he really, really doesn't need Jonesy to rub it in.

"Okay," Jonesy says, and Jeff knows that it's stupid to get his hopes up. Especially when Jonesy says, "Then you can tell me why Nuge looked like someone kicked his puppy when he came home last night."

Jeff can feel himself shut down. Hear it when he says, "Why would I know?"

"Dude." The disappointment in Jonesy's voice nearly breaks him.

"You ready?" Jeff says a minute later, cracking through the silence that's settled over them. Jonesy just nods and Jeff signs the credit card slip, slides his card back into his wallet. The Blue/White game is the next day and then the party and as he's climbing into his truck, Jeff wishes he could lay down and sleep until all of it is over.

He plays better the next day, strong in morning skate and even better in the exhibition game. It helps that Jonesy's on the other team and Jeff spends at least a few shifts taking his anger out on him.

Jonesy doesn't seem to mind, just grins up at him after Jeff levels him near the sideboards.

Jeff feeds Nuge for a goal late in the second and there's a moment where nothing's happened, just Nuge grinning at him from around Hallsy. He gets his own goal just before the third is over and this time everything's changed. Nuge is the first one to him and the look on his face is too serious for their 5-2 victory.

The locker room is all noisy chirping for the time it takes them to clean up after the game. Jonesy gets it from Teddy when he tries to call Jeff out for his hits and Hallsy jumps in to defend Nuge against Horc's good-natured teasing. It's good and Jeff can't wait for the season to start for real.

"Party at Petey's," Jonesy yells just before everyone starts to clear out. A cheer goes up and Jeff just rolls his eyes, like there's anything he can do to stop them now. At least Jonesy's bringing the alcohol and most of the other guys will too.

Jeff just has to be there.

There's something close to forty people there by the time Nuge gets to Jeff's place an hour or two after Jonesy, and trailing in after Hallsy and Ebs. Jeff doesn't put any stock in the jealous twist his stomach gives; he's already two beers in and a solid way through his third.

He's maybe feeling a little reckless too.

"Hey, guys," he says, and his stomach is twisting up tighter at the pink flush of Nuge's cheeks and the way he quirks a smile at Jeff. "Beer's in the fridge and there's a cooler out on the patio too. Vodka in the freezer and mixers in the fridge behind the beer."

Hallsy's eyes light up at the sound of vodka and it's Ebs who says, smiling, "Hey, man. Nice place," before they leave him alone with Nuge.

"Hey," Nuge says and the pink in his cheeks is getting darker until Jeff wants to step closer, feel the heat. His smile falters a little and Jeff remembers his cue. He says, "Hey, hi. I'm glad you came."

He's pretty sure he sounds stupid, stupid and drunk, but Nuge's smile deepens again and it doesn't matter.

Neither of them say anything for a long moment and then someone bumps into Jeff from behind and Jeff says, "Come on, beer." It's not until they're in the kitchen that Jeff realizes this might have been a bad idea. But Nuge is looking at him and smiling and he doesn't say anything but thanks when Jeff hands him a beer. He takes a drink and says, "I like what you've done with the place."

He sounds so serious, so much like Jonesy when he's sucking up, that Jeff laughs.

"You should see the bedroom," Jeff says and his fingers are combing through Nuge's before he can really think. Nuge just nods, saying, "You should show me," before following Jeff through the living room.

Jeff's pretty sure one of the guys hollers at them, but all he's thinking about is the warmth of Nuge's hand against his own.

"Oh," Jeff says as the door is clicking shut behind them and Nuge is leaning up to kiss him. It's not much, just the press of his lips against Jeff's, but Jeff's already breathing fast.

"It's not what you think," Nuge says. He's pushing Jeff toward the bed and Jeff can barely think, much less focus on actual words.

"Uh huh," he says and tugs at the belt loops on Nuge's jeans, pulling him closer. Hip to hip, Nuge shudders and kisses him deeper.

Nuge pulls away to breathe and Jeff's mouth drifts lower, to the side of his mouth and then the point of his chin. He hits Nuge's neck and bites gently, enough to make Nuge shake against him and pant a little harder.

"Petey," Nuge says and Jeff makes an inquiring kind of sound at him before moving lower, down into the curve of his shirt. Nuge laughs, a breath of air that makes his chest expand and contract and Jeff bites there too, soft at first and then harder when Nuge's fingers tighten on his skin.

"I just--" Nuge groans a little before going on. "Had to think."

"No thinking," Jeff says, fingers pushing Nuge's shirt up. At his ribs, Jeff stops. He says, "Wait. Say that again."

Nuge sets his beer down and Jeff hadn't even realized he still had it, but he sets it down and then he's cupping Jeff's face with both hands.

"I had to think about this. It seemed really fast. It wasn't, but it seemed like it and I'm sorry for last time."

"Oh," Jeff says and then Nuge is pushing him toward the bed, pushing him until his knees hit and then he's laying back, tugging Nuge with him. And Nuge just climbs right up, straddling his hips and leaning in to kiss him. Jeff kisses him back, taking it deeper when Nuge opens his mouth.

It's a while later when Jeff has a thought unrelated to all of the skin and kissing and touching going on. He pulls away, says, "Wait, what if Jonesy burns my place down?"

"We'll redecorate." Nuge grins down at him and Jeff pulls him back into the kissing.