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“The thing is,” James says very earnestly to the ceiling, “is that he’s a very good hockey player, he just doesn’t put up the points.”

Steven blinks at James, lying on his couch, then looks up at the ceiling. It’s no help. He replays the last ten minutes of conversation. They’ve run through gossip about people back home, chatted about their family, chirped each other about cup chances and degenerated into whining about the lack of Tim Horton’s south of the border. None of those seem related to James’ statement.

“Do you think maybe you missed a step, there?” Steven asks.

“I mean, it’s not just that I don’t want him to be traded,” James says, apparently ignoring him. “I think it would be bad for the team.” He nods decisively at the ceiling. Steven tries to work past the alcohol fogging his brain, but he is still failing at coming up with any logical link to previous conversations. God, they should not have drunk this much. He tries to think about who on the Pens is up for trade, but honestly, he can barely remember trade rumours on the Bolts.

“Who are you talking about?” he eventually asks, slapping at James’ thigh from his seat on the floor.

Paulie,” James says, indignantly. And now that James has said it, Steven feels dumb for not figuring it out immediately, because of course James is talking about Paul. He’s super weird about the guy, beyond what can be explained by breakfast on tap. Steven’s decided not to look too deeply into that, but he can be a bro and go there if James needs him. But James doesn’t seem like he’s going to elaborate. Instead, he’s staring morosely at the ceiling again, like it’s going to stop any trades. Steven rolls his eyes.

“Does he have a no trade clause?” he asks, because one of them has to be practical about this, and James’ hair looks too depressed for it to be him. Sure enough, James looks down at him, blinking slowly.

“I don’t – know?” James says. Steven rolls his eyes and gets up to retrieve his iPad.

And that is how he ends up looking at Paul Martin’s CapGeek page at one in the morning, while James sighs tragically next to him. Next time he’s in Ontario, he’s timing it so John’s here as well. If he has to deal with feelings, he wants back up.

“Right, so he’s got a no movement clause and a limited NTC,” Steven says, “so I think you’re okay.”

“The fans are giving him a really rough time, though,” James says plaintively. “What if he wants to go somewhere else?”

Steven doesn’t know if it’s because the alcohol is wearing off, or because it’s suddenly working properly, but he actually feels sorry for James. He puts his around James and lets James lean against him.

“Hey, why would he? I thought you were the best team in the league,” he says, referring back to their earlier conversation.

“Fuck you, of course we are,” James says. “And that’ll keep him there, right, he’ll want to stay a Pen.”

“Uh-huh,” Steven agrees, patting James’ shoulder. And then, because he wants to be helpful, he adds, “But maybe you could make him see how awesome Pittsburgh is? Give him more reasons to stay.”

Steven fully expects James to forget their conversation – they both had too much to drink that night, Jesus, and he wasn’t kidding about having John there next time, he thinks maybe they need a supervisor or at least someone else to drink some of their beer. But no, he is friends with ridiculous people, and so James calls him on a Tuesday when he’s back in Tampa.

“How, though?” James says. Steven leans his forehead against his fridge door and considers hanging up on him. But he thinks about James’ tragic face when they were drinking, and he exhales.

“No idea,” he says. “What do you like about Pittsburgh?”

“Hockey,” James says immediately. “The team. Paulie, of course, and Geno, and playing on the team with –“

“I get it, I get it,” Steven says, cutting him off. “What else is there?” There’s a long pause, which Steven takes as a tacit win for his Tampa-is-superior-to-Pittsburgh theory.

“I guess the Steelers are good? Pennsylvania has decent beer…”

“Fuck, James, just remind him that he’s important to the team and that, you know, they appreciate his hockey even if the fans don’t.”

“Right,” James says, slowly, then, “No, yeah, I can do that. That’s doable.” Steven nods: he’s pretty good with ideas sometimes.

The Penguins are down for a game in January, and there’s enough time afterwards that James and Steven can catch a drink. They deliberately don’t talk about the game – not a bad loss, but still – but they manage to get a pretty good conversation going about mutual friends, chirping John in his absence and talking about James’ family.

Eventually, though, there’s a lull in the conversation and Steven says, “So, Paul played well tonight,” because he has to get his kicks somewhere.

James doesn’t pick up on that fact that he’s being chirped, though – Steven needs to learn to be less subtle – he just kind of grins and says, “Yeah, he did,” in a pleased voice.

Steven should really leave this alone, but, well, he had to deal with sad drunken feelings, so he says, “How’s operation no-trade going?”

“Don’t name it,” James groans, which is rich, Steven thinks. Like he’s being sensible about this.

“Not a success, then?” he asks, grinning as he takes another swig of beer.

“I tried to see if Tanger could maybe, I don’t know, give him some sort of D-man talk,” James says. “But he just stared at me. Geno said I should talk to Sid, but you know. Concussion.”

“Talk to him about wanting Paul to stay?” Steven asks, incredulously. Like all good Canadian players, he thinks Crosby is amazing, but he probably wouldn’t be his first choice of people to go to with his feelings.

“No,” James says, like Steven’s the one being an idiot. “To get him to talk about how important Paulie is to the team.”

“Right,” Steven says and doesn’t even try to hide his laugh.

“Fuck off,” James says, but he’s laughing a little too.

Organisation is important to Steven, as is keeping up with friends and family, so he has a series of alerts set up, so he can track birthdays and anniversaries, and – when it’s relevant – news stories. He has one set up for everyone on the ’09 Canada team, and checks them occasionally, mostly when they’re on the bus because Martin is only scintillating conversation for so long (that’s a lie; Martin’s great. He’s also a bus-sleeper).

They’re on a bus to Miami for an evening game against the Panthers when he sees the article and laughs hard enough to wake Marty, sitting next to him. Marty doesn’t ask, though, just punches him and turns over, which is probably for the best. Steven likes James too much to make fun of him publicly. Most of the time, anyway.

They win over the Panthers and Steven gets two goals, so he’s in a pretty good mood, and it carries him through to the next day, when he calls James. James, on the other hand, sounds mildly grumpy when he picks up.

“So,” Steven says, after they’ve covered the usual small talk. “Not your girlfriend, eh?”

“Fuck,” James swears, “Not you too. How do you even know about that?”

“Alerts, Nealer,” Steven says, grinning through the phone. “Your mother probably read it too, you know.”

“Fuck,” James says again. “I was trying to – I don’t know.”

“Part of operation no-trade?” Steven says, but he tries to sound less gleeful.

“We’re not naming it,” James says. “And no, I mean, I didn’t plan to say it. I was just having a conversation, and the journalist asked.” Steven tries not to sigh; he should have known that James hadn’t planned that, James is too fucking earnest. “Anyway, you can save your jokes, I think Duper has made every married joke in the world. And Flower’s done most of the stick handling ones.” Steven winces sympathetically.

“Rough, man,” he says and James makes a noise he decides is appreciative. “How’d Paul take it?”

“He seemed flattered, I think?” James says. “I mean, he’s pretty bored with the jokes too, but he’d let me know if it pissed him off. I apologised, but he kind of laughed at me. And he paid for dinner, so.”

“Does he seem more or less likely to go, then?” Steven asks, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge and settling down with his iPad.

“Don’t know,” James says. He sounds – sad, and Steven gets that feeling again, like he should be helping more than he is. He thinks it’s probably the spirit of his mom.

“Hey,” he says, trying for sincere. “It was a nice article, you know.” James doesn’t say anything for a long moment, so Steven adds, “Have you actually asked him whether he’s thinking about going?”

“No,” James says. “I mean, he has all these meetings with Dan and Ray, and I check in, but I don’t want to pressure him. You know Paulie,” – Steven doesn’t actually, has only met him off ice twice – “he doesn’t really talk about it. Just keeps his head down and gets on with it.” James sounds fond, Steven thinks helplessly.

“Right,” he says. “Well, the interview probably hasn’t hurt. And I mean, you guys are doing well, Crosby’s back, you’re putting up points. Maybe Shero’s not thinking about trades at all.”

“Maybe,” James says thoughtfully. “Hey, I’m gaining on you.”

“Fuck off, you are not,” Steven says indignantly, and their conversation quickly spirals into a chirping session after that.

The thing is Steven isn’t actually sure whether James is weird about Paul or whether he’s weird about Paul. He knows that James is into guys – they’d gotten drunk after Worlds and James had had a lot of thoughts about Swedes, which, well, Steven couldn’t entirely blame him, even if he’d preferred the Swedish girls – so it is possible that it’s the latter, but on the other hand hockey friendships are a hive of weirdness. Steven has so far proved immune (apart from the PK thing, and they’re on separate teams, so it isn’t Richie and Carts’ levels of weird or anything), but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get it. It’s the team thing. Still. He’s beginning to think he might need to discuss this with John, or possibly even James’ mother.

They don’t talk about it for a while, and then the Bolts have an afternoon game against Philly with a two-day layover before they play the Caps, so Steven gets down to Pittsburgh. James has an evening game, but they meet up at the rink afterwards, James all grins after a good win.

“Bar?” Steven says, clapping him on the shoulder.

“I was thinking beers at home, actually,” James says and yeah, Steven’s all right with that. Easier access to couches if he needs to crash for the night.

Except when James says home, what he apparently means is Paul’s house. Steven’s too confused to even chirp him about that, because. Well, because shit. They pick up beer on the way over from the rink, drop Steven’s overnight back in James’ house, which looks suspiciously unchanged from when he first moved in, and then walk over to Paul’s house.

Paul’s house looks a lot more lived in, even though it’s tidy – Steven’s almost certain some of the shoes lying around in the foyer are James’, and he doesn’t even blink when James claims part of the couch as his spot. The point is, Steven’s kind of glad he gets to lounge here instead of James’ colder house. Plus Paul has popcorn and raisins, both of which are on his diet, so that’s awesome. Paul himself is friendly, like Steven remembers him being, but a little shy, or maybe just quiet.

“Congratulations on the goals,” he says when they’ve settled in the living room, ESPN droning in the background. Steven grins.

“Thanks, man,” he says. “Gotta keep ahead of the Pens’ forwards.” Paul laughs a little and bumps James’ shoulder.

“Think you need to pick up your game,” he says.

James rolls his eyes. “He will not shut up about it,” he says and Steven scoffs, because that’s not true, except maybe a little. James looks at him and then grins suddenly.

“Hey Paulie, did I tell you about Gary’s golf tournament last summer?” he says and Steven sits bolt upright.

“No, fuck you,” he says, but James is laughing outright now.

“So, Stammer gets to the nine hole,” he’s saying, and Steven considers tackling him, but he has beer.

Two hours later, they’ve run through a stupid amount of anecdotes about Gary’s camp and Worlds, ranging from embarrassing to the kind of ludicrous that has Steven clutching his stomach laughing. Paul does beer runs to the kitchen, and mostly listens and laughs, but Steven does learn that he has a talent for incredibly dry one-liners and has a pretty good line in unimpressed faces.

He also learns that Paul is kind of easy for James. It’s not like Paul’s making eyes at him or anything, but he touches James easily, often, small pushes and nudges which James returns, smiling a little. Halfway through a story about a particularly lame prank Geno and James tried to pull on Dupuis, Steven looks up from laughing and Paul’s watching James, who’s obliviously talking about Dupuis’ payback; the expression on his face is amused and fond and a little exasperated. It reminds Steven a little of how Heather looks at Martin sometimes. James turns to get Paul to confirm something – “They were literally everywhere, I was still finding them in my clothes weeks later,” – and when their eyes meet, he just pauses for a moment, smiling back at Paul. Steven kind of wants to laugh at them. And it’s not like it’s definitely something, but it is a lot, even for hockey bro levels of weird.

Paul goes to get more popcorn – Steven definitely sees the appeal, he thinks tipsily – ruffling James’ hair as he goes out.

Shit, Steven thinks again. “You hate when people ruffle your hair,” he says. James turns to blink at him.

“Hm?” he says. Steven rolls his eyes.

“Have you tried just asking him to stay?” he asks, abandoning the hair thing.

“What?” James says, sitting upright and glancing towards the door. “Shut up.”

“Are you saying it’s not like that?” Steven asks, because – well, he’s curious. “’Cause I think he’d stay.”

It’s probably the wrong thing to say; James looks suddenly upset and he says, “Shut the fuck up, Steven, it’s not like that.” Steven feels a little like he has whiplash. He’s hardly ever known James to snap.

“For you or for –“ he starts to say, because he can’t leave this alone apparently, but the door opens and he cuts himself off. Paul comes in and looks from James to him and back.

“You all right?” he asks, settling back down next to James. He touches James’ back, and James leans into him, relaxing a little. Steven’s going to have to stage an intervention. This is ridiculous.

“Just discussing the Flyers,” he says, a little late, but Paul just laughs.

“Fuck the Flyers,” he says. James laughs, and the awkward moment passes as they devolve into trash talking.

He doesn’t speak to James during the road trip – he has other things to focus on, such as keeping ahead of James in goals, he and Marty are on fire. Plus, they play the Isles, and he gets to hang out with John which is good fun and involves no clandestine revelations of feelings, although Steven does get shot down kind of impressively by a very cute Islanders fan.

James seemed all right when they said goodbye the morning after, their conversation either forgotten or pushed aside. Still, Steven thinks about it. He makes a mental note to call Mrs. Neal when he gets back to Tampa – not just about that, James’ mom is great and occasionally sends him care packages – just to, you know. Keep an eye on the situation.

It turns out to he doesn’t need to, because James calls him the day after he gets back home. There’s not small talk – James goes straight into, “So maybe it is like that.”

“And hello to you too,” Steven says. “What?”

“Me and Paulie,” James says. He sounds a little panicky, but not like, activate-the-phone-tree panicky. Steven takes a deep breath and settles down on the couch.

“You talked?” Steven asks.

“What? No!” James says. “I meant. It’s like that for me. I hadn’t realised. Or, I don’t know, maybe I didn’t want to.”

“Seriously?” Steven asks, because he can’t help it. He needs to get more emotionally aware friends, he really does. When James doesn’t answer, he says, “So what finally tipped you off?”

There’s a long pause and then James says, “I was thinking about how to make sure Paulie wouldn’t get traded.” There’s another long pause and Steven opens his mouth to ask for details when James says all in a rush, “And I ended up googling gay marriage in Pennsylvania, and it’s acknowledged in Pittsburgh, so I was thinking, you know, maybe he’d be less likely to want a trade if he was legally bound to me and – shit, Steven, I want that. Like, for the rest of my life want that.”

And okay, that’s a lot of feelings, Steven totally gets why James is shaken, but what he says is, “How would that work? How would you get him to marry you without asking?”

“Seriously?” James asks incredulously, which Steven will allow is fair enough. “Uhm, get him drunk probably, what part of this sounds like I thought it through?”

“Dude, none of operation no-trade has been thought through,” Steven says and then, before James can tell him again that the operation doesn’t have a name, he says, “He knows, right? That you’re into guys?”

“I think so,” James says. “I mean, it’s not like I’m subtle. Geno knows, so I’d be surprised if Paulie doesn’t.”

“Right,” Steven says. “And is Paul dating anyone right now?”

“No,” James says, “But that’s not the point –“

“Hey, how come Geno knows?” Steven asks, interrupting, because, well, there’s got to be a story there.

“Focus, Stammer,” James says, but he sounds less panicky than when he first called so: result. “Same way you do, I got a little bit too tipsy and told him.”

“Christ, James,” Steven says, but even to his own ears he sounds fond.

“What, it wasn’t like I was rambling about asses or anything. He was trying to get me to go home with this girl, I explained why that wasn’t going to happen. Sort of,” James says, sounding affronted. “Anyway, he’s cool. I don’t think he’s told anyone.”

“But you used to live with Paulie,” Steven says, and only notices afterwards that he’s used James’ nickname. Fuck’s sake, he needs to be less invested in this soap opera.

“I didn’t bring guys back to Paulie’s, Stammer, don’t be an idiot,” James is saying. “Fuck, I am too young to be dealing with this.”

“You’re twenty-four, James, not seventeen, calm down,” Steven says. “Eller up in Montreal is younger than you and he’s got a kid on the way.” Steven knows this from P.K., who was panicking about it a couple of week back, but that’s not important.

“Yeah, but he’s Danish, maybe they do things differently,” James says. “I can’t believe I want to get married.”

“To a guy you’re not even willing to ask about his trade plans,” Steven says, because really. He’s not equipped for this. And James is being an idiot.

“Fuck,” James says and there’s a thunk on his end which Steven guesses is James’ head hitting something. “Look, I know it’s dumb. It’s just that – if I tell him and everything goes to shit, then I don’t – I won’t be able to hang out at his house, there’ll be no more breakfasts, I won’t be able to crash at his after a bad game, I just –“ And Steven is a good friend, a supportive friend, but fuck, James is dumb. And it might be time to activate the phone tree.

“Hey, James, it’s gonna be all right,” he says, for lack of anything immediately better to say. “Paul’s your friend. He’s not gonna freak out.” He pauses for a moment. “At least, he won’t if you don’t start with the whole marriage thing.” There’s an ominous quiet on the other end, and Steven types the passcode into his iPad, finds Mrs Neal’s email address. This is serious.

“Maybe I should take him to a Steelers’ game,” James says eventually, still sounding vaguely freaked out. Steven actually facepalms.

So he sends an email to Mrs Neal – being appropriately vague, but indicating that now might be the time to talk to her son. He texts John as well, just to give him a heads up in case James decides to weird it up at him and is considering whether he wants to get DZ involved – he’s erring on the side of probably not – when Mrs Neal rings.

“My son seems to be being an idiot,” she says without preamble. “But he’s being vague on the details.”

“What do you think of Paul Martin?” Steven asks, because subtlety will only take them so far.

“As a hockey player or a son-in-law?” she asks. Steven grins – Mrs Neal is the best.

“I didn’t say anything,” he says, “but possibly the latter?”

“He’s a good guy,” she says, “Very polite. Hard to tell he’s American.” Steven laughs. “Seriously, though, Paulie’s lovely and takes good care of James. So what’s wrong?”

“Trade rumours,” Steven says. “Also, it’s possible Paul isn’t your son-in-law as much as he could be?”

“Ah,” Mrs Neal says. “I didn’t want to pry.” She’s quiet for a moment. Steven’s phone buzzes and he flicks it open. It’s John. “So, you’re saying the reason Jimmy was just talking about how beautiful Pittsburgh is in the summer is that he’s panicking?”

“About his feelings,” Steven says, because he might as well get it all out there.

“I figured, Steven, but thank you for clarifying.” She sounds thoughtful. “Have you spoken to Geno?”

“Uh, no,” Steven says. “I don’t know Malkin that well.”

“Ah, that’s too bad. Geno’s a sweet boy. He might be able to talk some sense into Jimmy. Or at least bully him into talking to Paul. And I suppose you won’t be seeing him until camp?”

“Probably not,” Steven says.

“I suppose I could just call Paul,” she says. “But I think Jimmy might never forgive me.”
“Any way you could pretend that you were just calling to check up on James?” Steven asks. He wonders if Army might have Geno’s number. He tries to remember when Army got traded from the Pens; he thinks it was after Geno arrived.

“Hmm,” Mrs Neal says. “I might try talking to Jimmy again first, but desperate times. How did you get involved in this, anyway?”

He ends up telling her the whole story of operation no-trade, and is only slightly put out at how much she laughs at him, up until he tells her about James’ call that morning. That makes her go quiet and soft and say things like, “Oh, Jimmy,” in a way that reminds him of his mom in a weird and very Canadian way. He needs to have his parents down soon.

“Thank you for your help,” she says before she hangs up on him. “You’ve been a very good friend.”

Two days later, he gets a call from Malkin. He almost drops the phone when he hears his voice.

“Stamkos?” Malkin says again and Steven manages to get himself together enough to say, “Malkin?”

“Geno,” Malkin says. “Hello! Mrs Neal say I should call you. Say Nealsy sad. Not good for playoffs.”

Steven frowns; the sting of knowing he won’t make it to playoffs is still kind of sharp. But he can’t quite keep frowning; after all, he’s talking to Evgeni Malkin. This is all kinds of crazy.

Particularly because he’s talking to Evgeni Malkin about James’ love life, shit. “Look, I can’t tell you too much. Just, you know. Maybe you could keep an eye on him?”

“Always keep eye on Nealsy, is good friend,” Malkin – Geno – says. “What wrong? He playing well.” There’s a long pause. “Needs nicer house, but mostly lives with Paulie, so –“

“You know?” Steven asks. He despairs of James, he really does.

“Know that Neal mostly hang out at Paulie’s, yes?” Geno says, but Steven can tell that he’s hedging. He sighs. “This about trade rumours?”

“Yes!” Steven says. “Didn’t Mrs Neal tell you that?”

“She just say she speak to you, you say Nealsy sad. Not long conversation,” Geno says, which is fair enough, Steven supposes. “So, need Nealsy to calm down? Or Paulie to stay?”

“Either,” Steven says. “Probably more the latter. I just – I think James is running out of ideas. He keeps talking about Steelers’ games.” It’s a slight exaggeration, but the point is to get Geno to do some of the thinking here. Steven is out of plans.

“Steelers good,” Geno says, sounding vaguely offended. “I see what I can do, though.”

Steven spends a week feeling like a good friend; he fields a few texts from John, gets an email from Mrs Neal and spends most of his time at the rink, getting ready to head back to Canada for the summer.

He feels like slightly less of one when he gets a text from James, which just says: Vodka hangover NOT solution. Dick. But at least it means that Geno’s doing something.

He watches the playoffs with John in Toronto. Neither of them are expecting the Pens to exit in the first round, but it happens, and Steven maybe fears a little for all of the team’s sanity. Crosby in particular looks heartbroken, but he knows how much James wants the Cup, how he’d thought this might be their year.

Plus now they’re in off-season, he can only imagine that the whole Paul-thing is going to get worse.

So he’s pretty much expecting a call from James, although he’s surprised it takes ten days for him to call. “When are you back up?” is the first thing he asks.

“Uh, couple of weeks? I’ve got a few things to sort out, but shouldn’t be too long,” he says. He sounds all right, Steven thinks. “How’s the weather?”

“Warmer than you’re used to in Pittsburgh,” Steven says grinning. “You doing all right?”

“Yeah,” James says, exhaling.

“We’ll drink until you forget it once you get up,” Steven promises. “John’s already up here, and we’re off diet until camp starts.”

“Gonna make it worse getting back on,” James says, but Steven can hear him grinning. He really would have expected him to be more disappointed, but then, he supposes for the Pens, there’s always next year. Assholes.

“So, give me a date, we’ll get pizza and beer and really make it terrible for ourselves. Couple of weeks, DZ should be up as well.”

“Unless he gets the Cup,” James says. “In which case I vote we shun him.”

“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea,” Steven says, considering. He wants DZ to do well, obviously, thinks the Rangers could possibly go all the way, but that doesn’t mean he wants a front seat to any potential gloating.

“I’m up in Whitby in two weeks,” James says. “Uhm.” There’s a long pause, and Steven’s about to say that he could drive down (Mrs Neal’s chicken is delicious, and Steven knows Michael’s going to Orlando next season, so it’d be nice to catch up), when James says, “Uh, Paulie’s coming up with me.”

What?” Steven says, louder than he intended to. “What the fuck, Neal, you lose your ability to call? When did this – oh god, please don’t tell me you haven’t told him.” Steven likes to think he’s patient, but he will fucking fly to Pittsburgh himself and smack James upside the head. Or at least call Malkin. He can’t have left the country yet, right?

“No, it’s just – we’re just coming off playoffs, you know, a lot’s been going on,” James says, and Steven bites his lip to keep from demanding that James tell him right the fuck now whether he and Paul are a thing. It is possible he’s way too overinvested. “It’s still kind of weird,” James says, his voice sort of breathy and happy. Steven honestly doesn’t even know what to do about him.

“You told him?” he says, just to be on the safe side and because. Well. He wants the story.

“Yeah,” James says. “Well, maybe more like he told me.”

“Are you being deliberately vague or are you actually afraid I’m gonna have some sort of homophobe moment?” Steven asks eventually, when James doesn’t keep going.

“Hey, no,” James says quickly. “I just – I don’t know how much you want to know?”

“Got nothing on at the moment,” Steven says, putting his feet up on his lounger. “Why, long story?”

James actually laughs, and doesn’t chirp back. “No, no,” he says. “After the playoffs – Ray asked if Paul wanted a trade.” Steven sits up a little. That was supposed to the worst case scenario, that was what James had been panicking about it. Figured that was what made him actually do something.

“Yes?” Steven says.

“So he came home and asked me what I thought, and I guess I must have looked pretty terrible.” Steven can’t help snorting; yeah, he knows exactly what face James would have been making. “And Paul asked if I wanted him to stay. And I said something dumb about breakfast -” Steven wishes he were surprised, he really does – “and he was like, ‘No. I mean, I would have stayed for you. If you want me to.’ After that, I mean. We worked it out.”

Steven isn’t entirely ready for how warm James’ voice sounds, or how he can’t keep from smiling himself. “Get in, Paulie,” he says. James makes a choking sound. “This means I was right about just asking him, by the way,” he adds, because yeah. He is kind of awesome at this.

“Don’t be an idiot, he’s staying for the team and for hockey,” James says. Steven snorts again.

“Uh-huh, I’m not saying they don’t help,” he says, “but are you telling me you didn’t collapse into each other’s arms after that conversation?”

“Shut up,” James says, but Steven can hear how happy he sounds and he’s pretty sure James is blushing. “Anyway, mom insisted I bring him up, since apparently someone got her all worried about us.”

“’Cause you were being so sensible about it,” Steven says, but he’s still grinning a little bit. “So can John and I try to get Paul drunk? Maybe give him the whole if-you-hurt-James talk?”

“Fuck you, no,” James says, sounding horrified. “I’m supposed to be giving him the impression that Canada’s a nice place.”

“He’s a hockey player,” Steven says, incredulously. “I think he knows we’re secretly terrible.”

“Whatever,” James says, but he sounds happy again. Fucking hell, Steven thinks. He’s going to be unbearable. “I’ll let you know the exact dates when I know. You spoken to Gary at all?”

After he hangs up, Steven grins and wonders if he should text John immediately or just let James spring it on him once he’s back in Canada.

And if James thinks that he’s not telling Paul about the entire process of operation no-trade, well.