"So," Steven says, kicking his feet up onto James's coffee table, "why didn't you tell me you and Martin were dating?"
James chokes on his Gatorade and nearly spits it out over his sofa. Only the knowledge of how much it would cost to get it cleaned makes him force himself to swallow and cough out, "What?"
"It's okay," Steven says, patting his back in a way that's clearly meant to be comforting, "no one cares. DZ's cool with it, Gary's cool with it, hell, I think everyone on your team has been trying to respect your privacy, but dude, we're friends."
"What are you talking about?" James says, trying to shove him off. "Where did you hear that?"
Steven frowns and says, "My mom told me. Says she heard it from your mom."
James stares at him for a long, terrible moment. "Excuse me for a sec," he says finally, and he grabs his phone off the cushion next to him before high-tailing it into his bedroom.
His mom doesn't pick up, so he leaves a voicemail saying, "Hey, Mom, call me back as soon as you get this," and very valiantly doesn't yell, What the hell did you tell Mrs. Stamkos?
Then he texts Paul, 911 have you had any weird conversations lately, and goes back out to talk to Steven.
"Sorry," Steven says when James comes out. "I shouldn't have just blurted it out like that. I was going to lead up to it, make it less awkward, but I don't know if that's possible, really."
"What exactly did my mom tell you?" James asks, sitting back down on the couch. He folds his hands in his lap, then feels weird about that and shoves them in his sweatshirt pocket.
"She said you were kind of sensitive about it, and that you didn't like to talk about it." Steven looks around James's living room. "Kind of explains this place, though."
James bristles. "What about this place?"
"Have you looked at your house?" Steven asks. "You barely had running water last time I was here."
"I've always had running water, asshole," James snaps. "And Paul is not my boyfriend."
"Yeah, sure," says Steven, rolling his eyes. "That's why you moved in across the street from him and that's why you're always in his house and that's why you –"
"Can we talk about something else?" James asks desperately. "Please?"
"Okay," Steven says. "If you don't want to talk about it, fine. But if you ever do – you know how to reach me."
"Yeah, yeah," James mutters. "Let's play Halo or something."
Once Steven has finally left, yawning and saying he'll call a cab back to his hotel, James dives for his phone again and calls his mother again as he heads to bed. "Answer me, Mom," he hisses at his phone, and then he nearly falls off his bed when she actually does.
"Ma!" James collapses backwards onto his pillow and stares at the ceiling. "Did you tell Mrs. Stamkos that Paul and I are dating?"
"Oh, honey," his mom says, sounding guilty. "I know you were hoping to tell people on your own, but she was asking about you and I wasn't going to lie."
"What do you mean?" asks James, clutching at his phone. "I never told you I'm dating Paul."
"I know! But honestly, dear," she says, tone turning reproachful, "if you wanted to keep a secret, you could try not talking about him all the time."
"I do not talk about him all the time," James protests.
"You do," she says. "It's fine! We're all happy for you, eh?"
"We?" James asks, dread settling in his stomach.
"Your brother, your father, you know," she says. "The family. I'm sorry I told Mrs. Stamkos, but I figured you were such good friends with Steven --"
"I am not dating Paul, Mom!" James nearly yells.
For a moment, his mother is ominously silent. "James," she says quietly, "I'm sorry."
"I wouldn't have told her if I'd known you'd broken up," she continues, and James bangs his head against his headboard.
James stews for most of the night and is still cranky the next morning when he stomps through the snow to Paul's house. He lets himself in and finds Paul already up and making eggs, two cups of coffee sitting at the kitchen bar. James drops onto one of the bar stools and says, "My mom thinks we're dating."
Paul pauses for a moment and looks back over his shoulder. "Really?"
James nods and pulls his mug towards him, rubbing his hand over the chip from where he had dropped it two weeks ago. "She told Stammer's mom."
"Wow." Paul turns back to the stove. "What did you say?"
"I told her we weren't dating and she thought I meant that we had broken up," James says. He picks up his mug and sips at it; a pinch of sugar and enough milk to turn it caramel colored, just the way he liked. "I didn't manage to clear up the situation, so just so you know, you're officially Public Enemy Number One in the Neal household."
"Thanks for that," Paul says dryly. He jerks his head towards the cabinets. "Do you mind grabbing a couple plates?"
"Sure." James gets up, grabs two of the casual dining plate as well as a couple forks. "Do we have toast?"
"No, but if you want, go and pop in a couple slices."
James makes four pieces of toast, two for each of them while Paul finishes the eggs to go along with the bacon, and the two of them sit at the bar in comfortable silence as they eat. James is thinking that his toast is pretty dry when Paul gets up, grabs a container of butter from the fridge, and gives it to him, and James gapes at it for nearly thirty seconds before blurting out, "Oh my god, we are dating."
Paul stares at him. "What?"
"Butter!" James says, voice strangled. He points at the container incoherently. "You – butter!"
"You always want butter on your toast," Paul says blankly.
"Exactly!" James says. "You know that I always want butter."
"Eat your damn breakfast, James," Paul says, looking down at his plate. His ears are a little redder than usual.
"All right, hands up," James says as soon as he walks into the dressing room for practice. "How many of you think Paul and I are dating?"
"Oh, here we go," Paul mutters, rolling his eyes. He claps James on the shoulder and heads for his stall, shaking his head.
"Is this a serious question?" Duper asks, eyebrows raised.
"Yes," James says just as Paul says, "Absolutely not."
"Ignore him." James waves his hand at Paul dismissively. "Hands up, right now."
Slowly, the hands of everyone in the dressing room, even Beau, go up. James groans and flings himself into his stall.
"Nealsy, you are not dating Paul?" Geno asks, brow creased in concern. "But you always together."
"We are not always together, we don't even play the same position!" James says, which he realizes is a pretty weak argument the moment it leaves his mouth.
"All right," Duper says, rolling his eyes as everyone starts sniggering. "I think when Geno meant to ask is why aren't you dating?"
"Yes, that," Geno says, pointing at him.
"Because – we're just friends!" James exclaims.
Sidney snorts from where he's lacing up his skates. "Obviously. I eat breakfast at TK's every morning because we're friends. Oh wait."
"I'd let you eat breakfast at my place," Beau tells Sidney very earnestly.
"Is that a euphemism now?" Cookie asks, and fortunately for James, that completely derails the entire room into discussing unusual euphemisms. James tries to catch Paul's eye across the room, but Paul doesn't look up once.
"So," Geno says as they're watching Sidney's line do some drills, "you not dating Paulie."
"No," James says.
"I thought you date him for years now," Geno says thoughtfully. "Since you sleep on his couch."
"Really?" James frowns and leans on his stick. "What made you think that?"
Geno shrugs. "Don't know. Always seem happy with him. Move 'across the street' but nothing in house but bed?" Geno actually makes air quotes with his glove. "Everyone think it code for living with Paul."
"Oh." James watches Paul across the ice. "I didn't know that."
"Because you stupid," Geno says cheerfully. "Paul make you breakfast every morning. Marry him, or he find someone else. Not everyone stupid like you."
And logically, logically James shouldn't care if Paul finds someone else. In fact, he should be happy about it. Paul deserves to be happy. He deserves to have someone who loves him and will appreciate his eggs and how he gets mad at messes and cleans in rage fits and how his Minnesota accent comes in stronger when he's talking to his mom and oh god, James loves all of those things about Paul.
"Geno," James says, "do you think you can date someone without realizing it?"
Geno rolls his eyes and skates away from him.
James eventually decides you can't, but that does raise the question of what, exactly, he and Paul have been doing for the past – is it two? – years. He stews over it for the rest of practice, thinking about how he and Paul spent both Canadian and American Thanksgivings together the year before, arguing over turkeys and stuffing and cranberry sauce, and how Neal has gone over to Paul's nearly every morning since he had moved out.
So it's a little weird. But James knows a lot of hockey players who have formed weird symbiotic relationships with their friends; he's going to use that as an excuse if anyone asks why he never realized before.
He had caught a ride with Paul to the rink because his car is freezing in the morning and Paul has heated seats, which at the time had seemed normal and now just feels really awkward. They sit in total silence until James reaches out and turns on the radio, just to drown out the newfound tension between them. Paul, who would normally object, doesn't even so much as twitch.
"I'm sorry," James blurts out halfway through a Demi Lovato song. "I think I made things awkward and I didn't mean to."
Paul shakes his head in exasperation. "Do you ever think before you speak?"
"Sometimes," James mutters. He's only partially lying.
"I just don't know why you had to bring the team into it," Paul says, taking the turn onto their street a little harder than necessary.
"I wanted to know if they thought we were dating," James says. "I mean, my mom did."
"Well congratulations!" Paul snaps. "Now they all know we're not dating, because you've made that abundantly clear."
"Get the fuck out of my car," Paul says, screeching to a stop in front of James's house.
"Why are you so fucking mad?" demands James. "It's true, we aren't dating!"
"Would it be so bad if we were?" Paul turns to glare at him. "You were pretty eager to tell everyone we aren't. I'm not an awful option."
"You're a great option!" says James.
"Okay, so what the fuck was that about?" Paul demands.
"I just – oh, shut up, will you?" James lets out a huffy breath and crosses his arms. "We aren't dating. But. What if we are? Were? Do."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Paul sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"You know how I take my coffee," James says bluntly. "I spend more mornings in your house than I do in mine. You've cleaned me up when I've vomited everywhere. I buy your groceries."
"You bought me groceries once," Paul says.
"What I'm saying is," James continues, ignoring him, "is that we could be dating."
"Sure," says Paul, "and the Panthers could win the Cup."
"Shut up, you're not taking me seriously!" James punches Paul in the shoulder. "Let's date. We can date, right?"
Paul stares at him. "You're serious."
"Yes." James shrugs. "We can try it."
Paul drops his head onto the steering wheel. "You're such an idiot, James."
"Is that a no?"
"No," Paul says reluctantly. "It's a, I really like you and I don't want to fuck this up so I'm trying to avoid saying yes."
"Good," James says, grinning. "Date, you, me, next Saturday."
"Go home, James," Paul says, but he's smiling a little too. James instinctively leans over and pecks him on the mouth, a little weirded out (but also weirdly turned-on) by the prickle of Paul's mustache against his upper lip.
"You should know I don't put out until at least the third course," he says, smirking, and Paul rolls his eyes before shoving at his shoulder.
"Get out of my car," he says, and James hops out of the car to head into his house, whistling the rest of the Demi Lovato song as he goes.