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Can't Stop (If You Don't Start)

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1.
It’s the beginning of December and the lockout still isn’t over. Their most recent meeting is in New York, which is a fucking pain, the drive from Canada is a nightmare. James has basically been back in Whitby since summer – there hasn’t been much of a reason to head back to Pittsburgh, though if he’s honest, that’s not the only reason he’s still up there.

He straightens his tie and fixes his hair, mostly for lack of anything better to do; next to him, Stammer is shifting from side to side, looking attentively at the front where Fehr is reading another prepared statement on the upcoming meeting with the owners. For a very long moment, James regrets that he can’t remember how to sleep with his eyes open – he used to be able to do it in high school, he’s pretty sure – and then his phone buzzes in his pocket, bringing him back to the press conference. At the front of the group, he can just see Sid squaring his shoulders as Fehr finishes. He tries to school his own face into an expression that’s serious-yet-sympathetic. He’s pretty sure he actually just looks bored.

He follows the rest of the players into the room they’ve been using for pre-press meetings, catching up Sid.

“Think it’ll help?” he asks, mostly just to get Sid’s reaction – sure enough, Sid rolls his eyes, and James can’t help grinning. If there’s been any advantages of the lockout – and there really haven’t – it’s been that he’s had a chance to get to know Sid better. Between the concussion and the mess that was the first playoff round last season, he hadn’t really spent much time with Sid off the ice. It has been kind of surprising to discover Sid’s snarkiness, his impressive grasp of math and contract negotiation (James still isn’t entirely sure about half the terms that get bandied about), but also his slightly off-beat sense of humor. Geno and the others had told him Sid wasn’t as uptight as he sometimes seemed, but still.

(There is one other possible advantage – it’s made it easier to avoid dealing with the incident after the playoffs. The lockout has given him time to get over it, given him space, made it easier to avoid talking about it. Unfortunately, that also means he’s had time to think about it.)

“We can hope,” Sid says, his voice deadpan. “But at this point, I’d settle for anything that gets me out of commuting to New York.” Beside him, Stammer stifles a laugh.

“Hey, I’m supposed to be in sunny Tampa. At least you get the Pittsburgh weather up here,” Stammer says. Sid grins sympathetically at him, and breaks off to go dissect the press conference with Fehr.

“Seriously, though,” Steven says to James. “It’s still high sixties in Tampa.” James rolls his eyes.

“You were in Tampa two weeks ago,” he reminds him. “You came back because Florida’s lame as fuck without hockey.”

“Most of the team’s gone,” Steven says, shrugging. “It’s still warmer than here, though. I’m starting to worry I might lose my tan.”

“I’m starting to worry that Crosby might actually punch Bettman in the face,” John says, coming over from where he’s been chatting to DZ.

“I feel like that’d probably finish the lockout,” James says distractedly, suddenly remembering the buzz from earlier. He pulls out his phone, but as he does, Fehr calls for attention. He slides it back in his pocket.

Fehr is saying more of the same-old – they are making progress, everyone needs to stay on message, they have to keep the sympathy of the public, blah blah blah. Even Sid and Toews, masters of the professional face, look bored. Well, Toews actually looks like he’s trying to burn a hole in the wall with his eyes, one of which seems to be twitching a little. James wonders idly whether he‘s developed some sort of lockout related tick. He doesn’t feel far away from developing one himself.

*
By the time the meeting lets out, James’ phone has buzzed two more times and he has a burning desire to never hear about the CBA ever again. It’s stupid and childish, he knows, but it feels like they keep going to the same meetings and saying the same fucking things and he’s so bored.

“Bar?” Stammer asks, as John, James and him head to their cars. It’s not late – there’s no reason they couldn’t make happy hour in Toronto. James grunts; he’s not really in the mood, but equally, sitting at his parents’ and glaring at the walls isn’t appealing either. He loves them, of course he does, but living there is wearing on them all. His mom’s starting to complain about him being underfoot.

“Just gonna catch Sid before he heads out,” he says. “Meet you at the usual place?”

“Mm,” John says, “maybe we should try somewhere new. We need some change at least.”

“Text me?” James says, heading off to find Sid. He’s chatting to someone on his phone, frowning, hanging back from the rest of the group. He smiles at James when James approaches, though.

“Yeah, I’ll speak to you later, Flower,” he says, hanging up. “Okay Nealsy?”

“Yeah, yeah,” James says. “How about you?”

“Well, the face-to-face is a good start, but I don’t know – too many false starts, you know?” Sid says, rubbing his neck.

“You sure you’re okay?” James asks. Normally after meetings, Sid is either determinedly cheerful or sarcastic; today he just seems – done. James can’t blame him.

“Yeah,” Sid sighs. “I’m heading back to Pittsburgh for a few days, though. Work on the house, see Flower and Duper.” James carefully keeps his expression neutral at the mention of Pittsburgh.

“Hey, with the lockout, you might actually finish it,” James says to cover his awkwardness, pleased when Sid grins and punches him on the shoulder.

“Fuck you, Nealer,” he says. “Toronto group practicing tomorrow?”

“If I’m not hungover,” James says and Sid frowns.

“Just because there’s a lockout –“ he says and James laughs.

“Yes, Captain, I’ll be there,” he says. “You back up any time soon? You know there’s always room for more at the rink.”

Sid grimaces. “Not sure I’m going up unless I need to, but thanks. You should come down to Pittsburgh, you know, the guys’d love to see you and it’d be good to keep the lines together.” He frowns and adds, “Except Geno, of course.” James doesn’t ask about Sid’s chances of getting to Russia – there had been one kind of terrible night in November where Sid had got drunk and spent an hour whining about insurance premiums. James feels bad for him, but also doesn’t particularly want a repeat. He prefers to be doing the drunk whining.

“Yeah, maybe. Probably not till after Christmas, now,” James says, deliberately non-committal. “Any more meetings lined up?”

“Should be a week or two before we have another big one. Maybe more if the face-to-face doesn’t work,” Sid says, checking his phone. He looks back up at James. “No need to hang around if you don’t want to.” James shrugs.

“Nowhere else I need to be,” he says. “Enjoy Pittsburgh, though. Say hi to the team.”

“Yeah,” Sid says, grinning. “I will.”

*
On the way to the bar – the same as usual, which James should have expected – he finally checks his phone. There’s a text from his mom, asking if he’ll be back for dinner, which makes him feel like he’s back in high school; an email from Geno which is mostly bragging about how well he’s doing in Russia – James frowns, thinking that at some point, he’s going to have to write Geno an email taking him down a peg or two. Can’t have him forgetting that he’s best when he’s on James’ line, after all. The last one’s a text from Paulie, which – it’s been a while and James feels strangely lightheaded as he opens it. It just says, ‘Missing Pitt. Think you can get Stockholm syndrome for a city?’

James lets his head fall back against the cab seat and takes a deep breath. Outside, it’s raining and James feels irrationally pleased about that. He sits up properly and texts back: ‘Loser’. Then, after a moment, he sends another text saying: ‘Me 2 tho, miss team, miss hockey’, before he can think better of it. The cab is pulling up at the bar when he looks up again, and he puts his phone away.

*
He wakes up late the day after and checks his phone on the off chance that the lockout has ended while he was sleeping off the beer. It hasn’t. There is a text from Paulie – it just says ‘Fix the lockout, we can go home.’ James doesn’t know what to say back – everything he types feels awkward and weird.

As he’s thinking about it, he gets a text from Matt Duchene confirming training times, which mostly makes James groan and wonder if he can get away with skipping. Probably not – Duchene will tell Sid, and Sid will – well, he’ll whine at James. Or bitch him out in the group email. He stretches and gets out of bed.

“Looking rough again,” his mom says when he gets into the kitchen.

“Steven’s fault,” he says, even though he knows his mom won’t buy it. She loves Steven, particularly since he drove down to help Michael move into his new place in Orlando. But she doesn’t argue, just hums disagreement and passes him a mug of coffee. It’s milder than Paulie usually makes it, milder than the instant he makes for himself. It’s a stupid thought, and he doesn’t say anything out loud, reaching for the cereal instead.

“Training today?” his mom asks, and he shrugs, then – when she gives him an unimpressed looked – adds, “Yes, afternoon skate. Duchene’s organising.”

“You don’t seem too excited,” she says, sitting down across from him, taking a sip of her own coffee.

“It’ll be good,” he says – and it will, he’s not keeping as well to his diet as he should be, and he’s less fit than he was after getting back from Gary’s, so he needs the training. But – “It just seems a little pointless.”

“It’ll end,” she says confidently, smiling him. “Even Bettman can’t be a jackass forever.” James laughs, looking up at his mom.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I think there’s a pretty good chance he could be.”

“Eventually someone will bend, and you’ll be back in Pittsburgh,” she says. “In the meantime, either less moping around or you talk to someone about whatever’s pissing you off. You’re a grown man.” She squeezes his hand and mock glares and yeah, that doesn’t exactly make him feel like a grown-up, but she’s right. He knows she is.

“Not even thirty yet,” he says, though, mostly for the sake of argument. She laughs at him.

*
Practice usually helps, but not today; he’s not connecting with the puck properly, always half a second late on his plays, like he can’t read the ice anymore. It is probably the beer, maybe his bad mood, but it’s still frustrating, making him sloppy on his shots and unbalanced when he tries any of the more complicated moves. He keeps looking over, expecting to see Geno or Kuni, instead of Stammer or Duchene.

John corners him afterwards, as they’re getting changed. “You all right, Neal?” he asks, quietly so that they’re not overheard. He must seem really off. Fuck.

“Yeah, just – playing badly,” he says. “Frustrating, you know? I mean, if I’m gonna kick your ass when the season finally starts, I need to start improving.”

It’s a terrible chirp, and John clearly decides to ignore it. “Hmm,” he says, not sounding convinced. He looks hard at James for a long minute, until James rolls his eyes and shoves at him.

“Seriously, asshole, I’m fine,” he says. John shoves back and it degenerates into a minor wrestling bout, which at least feels normal. Eventually, John gets the upper hand, twisting James’ arm up his back.

“Kick my ass, eh?” he says, as James struggles to loosen his arm.

“Fuck you, on the ice,” he shoots back. “This is probably a game misconduct.” John laughs and lets James go.

“The way you played today, you couldn’t kick the Sabres’ ass,” John says, getting off the bench, and James squawks in protest, throwing his sweaty tee-shirt at him.

*
When he gets back home, he emails Geno – mostly chirping, he doesn’t think his life is interesting enough to take up too much space. He’s not tearing up the KHL, after all.

There’s a team email from Duper as well, filled with pictures of his kids, all of whom are adorable and have the same evil glint in their eyes that Duper has. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s knows Carol-Lyne, and knows that she’s pretty badass, James would worry for her sanity. There’s also a message from Flower – it includes a picture of his attempt at cooking for Vero, which is a prime chirping opportunity.

He shows the latter to his mom as he helps her prepare dinner. She laughs – it is something of a disaster – and he takes the opportunity to point out that this is further proof that hockey players, as a species, cannot cook, and therefore he is not a failed adult for not being able to. It’s an on-going argument of theirs.

“Paulie can cook,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Maybe you should get him to teach you.” James busies himself with chopping up the onions, making a non-committal noise. “How is he, anyway?”

“All right,” James says – his contributions to the group email have been short, but he seems happy enough. James assumes he would have called if something terrible had happened. He thinks about the text today – which he still hasn’t replied to – and frowns. “Busy at the university, I think. Lots of hockey.”

“Good, good,” his mom says, and when he looks up, she’s smiling at him, eyes kind. He takes a deep breath – he recognises that look. It’s a combination of concerned and bracing, and he used to get it right before another talk about his grades and his responsibilities outside hockey. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, and he nods, trying to project interested rather than faintly panicked. “Maybe you should get out of town for a few days. I mean, the association can run without you, right? And you seem cooped up, I worry.”

James exhales. Yeah, okay, that’s not what he expected, but he can see her point. However – “Not Pittsburgh,” he says. He hopes she doesn’t ask why. He doesn’t really have an answer that doesn’t involve explaining the incident and probably getting a lecture.

“You want to borrow the cottage?” she asks. He looks at her for a long moment.

“I’m not that bad, am I?” he asks, because the cottage is nice and all, but it’s also quite isolated. She looks up and smiles at him.

“No, honey,” she says. “I was just thinking, it’s a nice distance away from everything. You could invite Steven or someone, if you wanted. Teammate, maybe.” And yeah, he’s back to feeling like a teenager – he used to beg to be allowed to borrow the cottage for parties. This would have been amazing for sixteen year old him.

“Dad won’t mind?” he asks, mostly because he doesn’t actually know how to respond. “What if he wants to go golfing?”

His mom gives him another look. “In December? You’ll be fine. Anyway, he suggested it last night. I think he thinks it’ll buy him a few weeks of Becky and Nicky not begging for it.”

*

The more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense – Sid did say that there weren’t any meetings coming up. And there are kayaks and fishing poles at the cottage – if he brings up an X-Box, his laptop, he’s sorted. Maybe he can finally catch up on Friday Night Lights – Duper was raving about it last season. Plus, jogging up there will make a change from the usual lake view – maybe he’ll feel more motivated to actually work out.

He thinks about it while half watching an episode of Murdoch Mysteries with his dad. Even without concentrating, he can tell it’s pretty terrible. His dad is on his second beer and glaring at the TV – James is still nursing his first, aware of having drunk a little too much in the past couple of weeks.

“Any closer to a deal?” his dad asks during the commercials.

“Nope,” he says, frowning. His dad makes an irritated sound, turning to glare at the TV again.

“Couldn’t you at least have ended it before baseball finished?” he asks eventually, and James is surprised into laughing.

“Hey, at least this way you don’t have to suffer through the Leafs getting their asses handed to them for quite as long,” he says, still laughing a little. “Keep the conflicted feelings down.” It’s a running family joke that his dad’s just waiting for him to get traded to the Leafs so he can cheer for James without guilt.

“Conflicted feelings are better than nothing to watch,” his dad says, but he’s grinning a little. There’s a comfortable pause, as Murdoch explains who the killer is, and then his dad says, “You decided on the cottage?”

“Mm,” James says, hesitating slightly.

“No rush,” his dad says. “Becky was saying you might want to head back down to Pittsburgh for a bit.”

James watches the TV for a long minute, wondering where she got that idea from. “Nah,” he says, because why the fuck not, he should go to the cottage. “I’ll probably head up to in a couple of days.”

*
Later that night, he emails Sid, just to check that he really isn’t needed for a couple of weeks – although, really, all he does at these meetings is stand in the back and add to the numbers and try not to yawn too obviously in front of Fehr. He gets a reply pretty quickly confirming that he’s good to go, with a note to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself in the wilderness. He stares at it for a few minutes, trying to guess whether it’s a joke or not. He thinks it might be.

Afterwards, he sends out a group email, just updating the team on his escape plan, as well as adding to the existing thread of Duper-focused chirps. When he shuts off his laptop and settles in for the night, he finds he’s actually smiling a little to himself. Getting out is clearly the right idea, he thinks as he drifts off.

The next morning, he has emails from Flower, Duper, Cookie and Geno which are all variations on a theme of ‘Don’t accidentally die in the woods’. Geno’s email actually says, ‘Don’t get eaten by moose.’ He’s beginning to think that his teammates think he’s entirely useless off the rink, which really is only slightly true – he has basic life skills, and he’s been to the cottage enough times that he’s fairly confident he won’t drown in the lake. And there aren’t any moose.

The lockout still hasn’t ended by the time he gets out the shower, so he starts packing. Might as well get moving.

He drives up to the cottage later that afternoon, making good time. He stops and grabs a salad from McDonald’s on the way; as he’s eating, he checks his phone. There’s another couple of emails from the guys – mostly piling on, including one from Paulie, telling him to stay away from poison ivy. There’s a text from his mom as well, asking him to let them know when he makes the cottage.

The changing scenery calms him as he drives; he’s got radio on low and traffic thins out after the meal. By the time he gets to the cottage, it’s been at least three hours since he last thought about the lockout – or indeed, the incident. That feels like a win.

2.
The first day in the cottage is good – his mom packed groceries for him, so he has coffee and cereal, eats his breakfast out on the porch. It’s too cold, really, but he wraps up in two comforters and a fleece. The porch gets sun in the morning, and he feels far away from everything as he sits there, looking at the woods behind the cottage. It’s kind of nice, actually, the kind of thing Becky’s always talking about doing, reading and staying out in the woods. Not much chance of this kind of thing at his house in Pittsburgh, though Paulie has a quite nice garden and they sit out there occasionally in the summer.

Before he can dwell too much on that, he gets up and goes running – and yeah, it’s much nicer running a new route. The air’s fresh up here, and the woods are pretty beautiful even at this time of year. It’s enough that he pushes himself to run an extra fifteen minutes – Gary’d be proud, or as close to proud as he ever gets, which admittedly isn’t very close at all.

After that, he sorts salad for lunch, noodling around on his tablet. He gets bored soon enough and spends the rest of the afternoon watching Friday Night Lights. Annoyingly, Duper turns out to be right – it’s kind of amazing, even if James doesn’t really like football (he went to a Steelers game once with Geno and almost fell asleep; he’s much more into baseball). He texts Duper to let him know and gets an indignant text back about how he should trust Duper’s judgement more often.

At eight-ish, he thinks about making a fire in the fireplace – he’s seen his parents do it, seen Michael do it, it should be possible, and the cottage is cold. But on the off chance that it’s not as easy as it looks, he thinks maybe he should have a trial run during the day, when the emergency response time might be shorter.

He falls asleep early, without even checking to see whether the lockout’s over.

*
The second day is much the same – he tries a different running route, his legs aching slightly from the extra work out the day before, attempts to make a fire once he’s out of the shower and fails, so spends a couple of hours watching YouTube videos of how to start a fire. He finally gets it working about midday and settles down with his dad’s stir fry, reheated, and watches another six or seven episodes of Friday Night Lights. He checks his phone periodically – lockout is still happening, apparently, but no meetings are being called. He doesn’t dwell on it, turning back to the show.

*
It’s the third day at the cottage when he starts to get bored; the cottage is lovely, the running routes still nice, but fishing’s boring as fuck when you’re on your own, it looks like snow, and he’s out of Friday Night Lights’ episodes by four pm. He orders season two and three off Amazon, gets them express delivered, but that still doesn’t leave him with much to do right now, so he drives into town to get beer.

He’s three beers down, eating chips which are definitely not on his diet, and watching an old Pens-Caps game from before he was on the team on his tablet when he decides fuck it, and calls Paulie.

“James?” Paulie says when he picks up, and James actually forgets to answer for a moment which is dumb – but it has been a while and it’s like he didn’t actually realise how much he’s missed Paulie.

“Hey Paulie,” he says and is kind of proud of how not-drunk he sounds.

“So you haven’t been eaten by moose, then,” Paulie says, deadpan, but James thinks he hears a hint of fondness in his voice. Or maybe that’s the beer, who knows. “Good to know. How’s the wilderness?”

“Boring,” James says quickly. “So boring. I’m out of DVDs.” Paulie laughs – he has a great laugh kind of quiet and deep and James finds himself grinning into the phone. “Seriously, though. What is the point of nature? I mean, it’s pretty and good for running in, but what else is there?”

“I don’t know, man, you were raving about fishing in your email,” Paulie says. “Not biting?”

“Fishing is boring,” James says conclusively, and Paulie huffs a little. He clarifies: “It’s boring when you’re alone. And I mean, what if I catch a fish? I don’t even know how to prepare it.”

“I thought it was a family cottage?” Paulie asks. “You must have been up there before, right?”

“Yeah, but not on my own,” James says, aware he sounds vaguely petulant. “Plus, I mean, my parents and my sister were way more into the wilderness thing. Me and my brothers used to just play street hockey or soccer or, you know.”

“If you used to play soccer, how are you so bad at two-touch?” Paulie asks. James rolls his eyes, then realises Paulie can’t see him.

“Messing about with my brothers when I was ten doesn’t count as playing soccer,” he says, which only causes Paulie to laugh at him again. He thinks maybe he should feel insulted. “Whatever,” he says, “how’s Minnesota?”

“It’s all right,” Paulie says, but he doesn’t sound entirely convincing, James thinks. “Getting to play a bit, spend some time with the up-and-comers. Could be worse. Could be in a cabin in Canada.”

“Fuck you,” James says. “The cottage is awesome,” And then, without thinking, he says, “You should come up, I’ll show you.”

There’s a long pause on the line, long enough for James to regret asking. It’s a terrible idea, definitely not conducive to project not-thinking-about-the-incident and anyway, he should probably head back to Toronto, get some more practice in, but instead he looks at the ceiling and waits for Paulie’s answer. He’s opening his mouth to say forget it, to make it a joke, when Paulie says, “All right, if you’re serious.” James closes his mouth and sits up. His head spins a little; he definitely shouldn’t have any more beer.

“Yeah, of course,” he says. There’s another pause on the line. He thinks he can almost hear Paulie breathing, which is weird.

“You run out of food?” Paulie asks suspiciously, and James squawks a protest.

“I can take care of myself,” he mock-snaps.

Paulie snorts. “So there’s somewhere close enough that delivers?”

James considers for a moment making a joke about uninviting him, but bites down on it. “Come up, I’ll show you how wrong, how very wrong you are,” he says instead.

“Yeah, yeah,” Paulie says, and then: “If you send me the address, I can head up on Tuesday? Would that work?”

“Yeah, whenever,” James says, “not like I’ve got a lot on. University don’t need you?” Paulie laughs.

“Pretty sure they’re just keeping us here out of pity,” he says. “Do you need me to bring anything? Comforters, that sort of thing?”

“We have linens, it’s a family cottage,” James says, feeling a little affronted. Then he has a flash of inspiration: “Could you bring some X-Box games? I’ve left mine at my parents.”

“But you brought the X-Box? James, man,” Paulie says, and he’s laughing again, and James can’t even be pissed that he’s being mocked. Fuck. “Right, don’t know what I’ve got lying around, but I can check in with my nephews. Skates?”

“Yeah, definitely,” James says quickly. “There’s a rink in town.” He settles back down on the couch, looking out the window. It’s pretty dark out there, and the woods look kind of creepy. He decides not to think about that; instead, he focuses on the fact that Paulie’s coming up, which – he looks out of the window again, and realises there’s been a longish-silence on the line.

“You call to invite me up?” Paulie says eventually, and his voice sounds – quieter? Maybe? Or possibly James is imagining things. He rubs his eyes.

“Been a while since we’ve talked,” he says, and his voice comes out quiet too. “I mean, I’ve been busy with the players’ association stuff and I know you’ve been busy –“

“No, it’s been a while,” Paulie interrupts. James breathes in, trying to read Paulie’s tone. This whole conversation’s been kind of weird, kind of – intense, maybe. Whatever, it’s dumb, because James has moved on and Paulie doesn’t remember, they’re fine, and it’s mostly the beer clouding James’ judgement right now.

“But now you’re coming up,” he says, and tries not to make it sound like a question. “And I’ll kick your ass at Call of Duty, it’ll be like normal.”

“I feel like you’re confusing me with someone who gives a shit about that,” Paulie says, and James grins; this is familiar, this is normal.

*
He sends off the address the next morning, gets a text back from Paulie asking if it’s okay for him to come up on Monday, rather than Tuesday – which is tomorrow, which is fine, and James texts back immediately to tell him to come up whenever works.

He spends the day tidying the cottage – including an attempt at vacuuming he’s not convinced is entirely successful, but the floors look better, so whatever – until, at five pm, he freaks out that there isn’t going to be enough food in the house and calls Geno. It’s not until he hears the dead tone that he remembers that Geno’s in Russia, and that it’s probably the middle of the night there. Also, he’s called Geno’s Pittsburgh number. Fuck.

For a long moment, he considers calling Duper, but Duper doesn’t know about the incident and would probably just chirp him for panicking about seeing someone who he still, for all intents and purposes, lives with. Plus, how difficult can grocery shopping be? He still has the basics his mom sent with him, there’s stuff in the freezer. He’ll just buy some fresh fruit, juice maybe, eggs definitely, toast and beer, and it’ll look like he knows what he’s doing.

It’s not until he’s in the supermarket that it occurs to him that Paulie knows full well that he’s useless in the kitchen, that he never has anything in the fridge unless his parents have been down. It’s not like he can cook most of what he’s buying anyway.

He buys the stuff, since he’s in town, picking up beer from the store across the lot, and drives back to the cottage. Once he’s put the groceries away, he looks around the kitchen critically, trying to spot any messes or dust he might have missed earlier, but he quickly gets annoyed with himself, reminding himself that Paulie won’t care. He grabs a beer and a bag of Doritos, and settles on the couch, flicking on the TV; he spends the rest of the evening watching Comedy Central until he’s so tired he can barely keep his eyes open.

*

He runs in the morning before Paulie arrives, has lunch and then goes running again. He can’t stop thinking about what it’s going to be like, whether Paulie’s pissed, whether it’s going to be awkward, whether – he runs faster, until all he can think about is the ache of his legs.

Paulie arrives shortly after James gets back from his run, so he’s got wet hair and his t-shirt is sticking to him where he didn’t fully dry himself, and James is pretty sure he looks a mess. Paulie looks at him for a long moment when he opens the door and James’ heart sort of stops – he doesn’t know what to do or say. Then Paulie grins and James grins back, moving to hug Paulie without thinking about it. Paulie hugs him back for a moment, and then pushes him away.

“Your hair is dripping on me, ugh,” he says, and James shakes his head, just to be a dick. Paulie punches him in the side. “Fuck you Nealer, stop being an asshole and come help get my stuff out the car.”

“Bossy, bossy,” James says, but he slips a pair of trainers on and follows Paul outside – where it is fucking freezing and overcast still – grabbing a couple of grocery bags from the trunk. One of them clinks promisingly. He grins at Paulie. “Beer?”

“Didn’t know whether you could get the good stuff up in this wilderness,” Paulie says, following James into the cottage.

They put the grocery bags down in the kitchen, and then James shows Paulie the rest of the cottage. “Pick a bedroom, there’s three I’m not in,” he says, and Paulie looks at him.

“Such generosity,” he says, but he’s still grinning a little, looking into the nearest bedroom. James watches him for a long moment – he hasn’t lost much bulk, as far as James can tell through the fleece he’s wearing. He’s cut his hair recently, and the facial hair is new, but he looks – he looks like Paulie, he looks good, and James swallows.

“Find a bedroom, they’re all pretty much the same,” he repeats, heading towards the kitchen, not looking at Paul. “Do you want something to drink, eat?”

Paul follows him into the kitchen and chirps him about not being able to fully handle the coffee machine – particularly irritating since he used it just that morning, but something about Paulie watching him is throwing him off. Eventually, he’s elbowed out of the way, and Paulie makes coffee for them both.

“So, tell me about the association meetings,” he says, pressing buttons. The coffee maker hisses to life, and James deliberately does not glare at it.

“Not much to say,” he says, leaning against the kitchen counter, trying not to seem too excited, or worse – nervous. Paulie’s clearly not been thinking about the incident – might not even remember it, and he doesn’t seem pissed about James leaving early, so there’s no reason for him to be awkward. “There’s still a lockout, but we are hopeful, optimistic and confident that the NHL will see sense, compromise and save at least part of the season.” He’s quoting Fehr almost word-for-word on that, and he knows Paulie can tell from the way he’s grinning.

“It’s going that well, huh?” he says. James grins back, shrugging.

“Boring as fuck, mostly,” he says.

“I don’t know,” Paulie says, getting out mugs, as James finds the milk in the fridge. “All of you guys up there, must have felt a little bit like camp.” James looks at him, wondering if Paulie was looking for him in the NHLPA pictures. He passes Paulie the milk.

“You know, you don’t realise how boring hockey players are off the ice until there’s a lockout,” he says, smirking a little. Paulie mock-hip checks him, warm and solid against James’ side, and then the coffee maker beeps to indicate that it’s done, and he’s moving away.

“You youngster, you barely even remember the last lockout,” Paulie says, fixing the coffee up.

“Tell me more, oh wise old man,” James chirps, and ducks out of the way of Paul’s arm. He takes the cup of coffee, and drinks – it’s too hot, but exactly as strong as he likes it.

*

It starts snowing late afternoon, coming down heavy, which nixes any potential plans to go fishing – probably a good thing, James thinks. Instead he heats up leftover pizza while Paulie talks about the University of Minnesota team – he seems pretty impressed with the women’s team in particular, thinks they have a chance to go far in the current season. He sounds fond of the players he names, about the places he describes hanging around, getting to see his nieces on a regular basis, and James thinks about the way Paul sounds talking to his mom on the phone – it’s a similar kind of quiet affection.

“You thinking about asking for a transfer to the Wild?” he asks, and immediately bites his lip – it’s a dumb question, particularly considering what went down last season. He looks sideways at Paulie, who looks at him for a long moment.

“Nah, the college team is good,” he says eventually. “Fuck the Wild, they’re useless.” James breathes out and grins down into his food. He knows Paul had asked to stay in Pittsburgh, but still, that feeling from last season, the niggling worry about where Paulie wanted to be, that hasn’t quite faded. And he could see asking for a transfer to be closer to your family. “Anyway, how could I find anywhere that’d replace beautiful Pittsburgh?” Paulue says, breaking into his thoughts.

“Said you missed it the other day,” James says, rolling his shoulders.

“Well, that’s a sign of madness,” Paulie says.

“I don’t know,” James says, thinking about the drive to Consol. “It’s got a lot going for it. Sid’s back down there now.” He takes a sip of Gatorade. “Skate tomorrow, if the roads are clear?” he asks and Paulie nods. “You been training?” It’s mostly a joke – he knows Paul wouldn’t stay off the ice, knows he had a pretty crazy training schedule over the summer and is unlikely to have abandoned it.

It gets the response he wants, though – Paulie narrows his eyes and says, “I will check you into the boards so hard.”

James’ stomach clenches a little, but he grins and says, “Gotta catch me first.”

It comes out a little – weird, though, almost flirty, and there’s a pause before Paulie says, “Shouldn’t be a problem,” which is a terrible chirp, but James laughs anyway, ducking his head and not meeting Paulie’s eyes.

They spend the evening eating fruit – Paul apparently is keeping to his diet – and watching shitty made-for-TV movies on one of the cable channels that James doesn’t really recognise. They talk over most of it; James talks about training with the other Toronto-bound players, which mostly ends up with them arguing about who’s going to hardest to beat if the lockout ever ends, and Paul catches him up on the goings-on in the AHL and NCAA, since James doesn’t really follow it anymore. It’s nice, James realizes, a lot like being back in Pittsburgh on an off-day.

Except they don’t do this much anymore, stay home – the past couple of months before the playoffs, they were mostly out with the guys, or grabbing breakfast before games, and since the lockout, well. They spoke after Paulie’s meeting with Ray, spoke when the lockout came into effect, but since then, it’s mostly been texts and group emails. It’s weird to realize that he’s missed this.

He wonders if he can use that as an excuse if Paulie ever asks him about the incident.

*

The next morning, he’s unsurprised to find that about a foot of snow has settled outside. Paulie’s already in the kitchen making breakfast. He’s found the eggs and must have brought turkey bacon up with him, because James doesn’t remember buying it. There’s a mug ready for him when he gets into the kitchen, and he’s still too tired to deal with the surge of affection that rushes through him seeing it. Paul’s wearing a toque and a t-shirt, and he looks comfortable, moving around James’ family’s kitchen. James coughs.

“Can I help?” he asks.

“Nope,” Paul says, far too awake for this early in the morning. “Think of it as a thank you for inviting me up.”

“Not necessary,” James says. “You’re keeping me from any fishing related accidents.” It doesn’t get the laugh he’s expecting; instead, Paulie just kind of smiles at him, like he knows that isn’t why James asked him up. James drinks his coffee, and lets Paulie get on with his cooking. It’s quiet for a long while; James watches Paulie cook, waking up as the caffeine and the smell of food hit.

*

It’s an old rink, with rickety boards and worn down plastic seats around it, but the ice is smooth and Paul seems to find it kind of charming. James is just happy to be back on the ice – he didn’t think he’d missed it; it’s only been a couple of days. But once he’s got his skates on and heads out on the ice, it’s like some of the tension he hadn’t known he’d been carrying around in his shoulders eases. He skates two, three circuits of the rink, just getting settled onto the ice. When he looks up, Paul’s watching him, smiling.

“Thought you were going to prove that you hadn’t been slacking?” James calls out, his face flushing. Paulie starts a little, but then he grins and his game face comes on.

“Gonna regret that,” he says, skating out to the middle of the rink.

There are a couple of other skaters around, but it’s pretty empty – it’s a week day and it’s snowing. There’s enough space that they can get their sticks out and mess about passing the puck to each other – it’s a little weird, they don’t share shifts all that often, but James has watched Paul often enough to know his tricks, to read his moves, and he thinks they do pretty well.

“Take it away?” James calls out, skating a little distance away. Paulie smirks and gives chase. They’re not too fast, careful to keep on their section of the ice, and James is kind of aware of the lack of pads, but it still descends into a bit of a scuffle, Paulie hip-checking him to get the puck, and then, when James manages to steal it back with a quite sweet stick move, he crowds James into the boards. Paul isn’t big, but he’s effective, and he boxes James in efficiently, not even hitting him, but distracting him, and then Paul has the puck again, pushing away and skating off. James is breathing harder than he really should be in a pick up game, but he can’t help smiling as he chases after Paulie.

In the end, they spend about two hours on the ice, and both of them are pretty gross as they drive home, but James feels happy, adrenaline buzzing pleasantly under his skin. He even lets Paulie use the shower first while he checks emails and the status of lockout (on-going, but then he supposes that someone would have called if it had ended). There’s an email from Geno which says: ‘Paulie staying with you? You talk? ))’ James frowns and sends back ‘Going well so far, no fishing tho’ and hopes that Geno will get what he means. It is going well – it’s easy and comfortable, and it’s entirely possible that James has spent four months freaking out and avoiding Paulie over nothing.

“Bathroom’s free,” Paulie calls, and James looks up to see him towelling his hair, barefoot in jeans and a worn t-shirt. He swallows.

It’s going well, he tells himself, and gets up.

*

When James wakes up the next morning, they’re snowed in. It had started snowing last night, when they’d been eating dinner, but it seemed to have died down by the time James headed to bed.

“Must have started up again during the night,” he says when he pads into the kitchen. Paulie gives him a dry look, and James rolls his eyes at him.

“Good thing we’re stocked up for food,” Paulie says, passing James toast and yogurt.

“No eggs?” James says, grinning.

“No chance of any exercise today, Nealsy,” Paulie tells him. “Just be happy I’m allowing you carbs at all.”

“Not my nutritionist,” James says, tucking into his toast. “Are you gonna keep me from drinking as well?” He kind of freezes up after he’s said it – drinking was what caused the incident, and he really doesn’t know how much Paulie remembers – but Paulie just shrugs.

“Fuck if I know what else we’re going to do,” Paulie says and, well. He’s not wrong, exactly.

*

They end up spending most of the day lounging around the living room, James on his tablet playing Tetris (“Fuck you, it’s hard,” he says when Paulie chirps him. “Anyway, it’s been a long lockout.”), while Paulie reads on the couch. He’s wearing his glasses, and chewing his lip, as he does when he’s focusing, and James doesn’t know if it’s the incident or the long separation, but he loses three games in a row because he keeps glancing over at Paul. Eventually, he has to get up and fetch a Gatorade from the kitchen just to get a chance to get it the fuck together.

When he gets back, he checks TSN and NHL.com – lockout’s still happening, no progress or major changes. There are a couple of things in the group email, but nothing too exciting. Geno’s emailed the group to ask how things are going, and James writes him a quick reply, letting him know they’re snowed in, but they have food. He doesn’t mention the alcohol.

About five minutes later, he gets an email from Duper chirping him about his inability to even have a holiday without it ending in crisis, Flower sending links to disaster movies about being snowed in, and then two minutes after that, an email from Sid asking if they’d be able to get out if the lockout were to end. He grins – his team is a group of losers.

“Tell Duper we’ve got beer and firewood, we’ll be fine,” Paulie says. James looks over to see him reading his phone, but he looks up and grins at James. “Can’t believe I miss these assholes,” he adds.

“I know,” James says, shaking his head.

*
That evening, they eat dinner on the couch and end up watching Band of Brothers on Netflix – Paulie’s choice, not James’, though he gets into it. He wonders if Sid’s seen it – it’s his kind of thing. They don’t sit that close, but James can’t get comfortable, moving his feet up onto the couch, setting them back down, curling them under his legs, which is just awkward, until finally, Paulie says, “Stop fidgeting,” and tucks James’ feet under his thighs.

It’s – it’s really nice, both the position, and being close to Paulie, and he’s not even doing anything, but James has to look away, squashing down the urge to lean forward and kiss him. It’d be easy – he knows exactly how easy – but fuck, look how it turned out last time.

He stares at the TV until he actually starts getting into the episode again – it really is a good show, he has to give Paulie credit for that – but he’s still stupidly aware of the movement of Paulie’s thigh, how warm his feet are. It’s weird, and awkward, but it’s ridiculously nice at the same time. He can’t quite stop from looking over at Paul every once in a while, and he’s pretty sure he looks ridiculously fond. Paulie doesn’t seem to notice, steadily staring at the TV.

*
The snow’s not gone the next day. James wakes up from a half-remembered dream, which seemed to feature Paulie’s throat and his hands, and James is half-hard and irritated at his entire life. There’s too much snow to go for a run, which is all he really wants to do. Instead, he drags himself into the kitchen, takes the mug of coffee from Paul wordlessly, and jabs at his phone, looking up the weather report and deliberately not watching Paul. The report says more snow to come.

It’s probably too early to go back to bed, he thinks.

*
The incident really wasn’t a big deal. It clearly wasn’t – Paulie’s forgotten about it or decided to ignore it, so James can do the same. Except, well. He was drunk, but not drunk enough that the whole stupid thread of events isn’t remarkably clear in his mind. They’d gotten drunk a couple of days after the mess that was the first playoff round. James had been hovering around Paul’s house most of the day, trying not to ask about Paul’s upcoming meeting with Ray. He’d been sure that Paulie wanted to stay, almost sure anyway, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be a supportive friend.

The thing is, he can’t remember what lead up to it; he can remember getting drunk on Paulie’s couch, can vaguely remember feeling frustrated and sad, leftover tension from the playoffs as well as worry about the meeting, but it’s all blurry, up to the point where he’s leaning forward, saying, “You should stay,” and kissing Paulie. That’s clear – Paulie’s mouth soft under his, stubble against the corner of his mouth – but so is Paulie pushing him away, saying, “So drunk, James.” James can’t remember what his face looked like, though – was he pissed? Drunk? Confused?

The next day, James had packed up for Whitby, and apart from a phone call after Paul’s meeting with Ray, another before Paulie headed back to Minnesota, they hadn’t really spoken. That wasn’t entirely unusual; he isn’t that good at talking on the phone, so their off-season conversation usually happen over text or at occasional meet-ups in Pittsburgh between seeing family and training camp.

It has been different this time, though, and not just because the lockout had dragged on – it feels a lot like the whole thing with Tim on the Whalers, which had fucked up his entire season.

And it’s so fucking stupid, James knows it is, because it’s not even a new thing. James has liked Paulie, has wanted Paulie, for what feels since the first morning he woke up in Paulie’s house and walked into Paulie’s kitchen to find him making coffee and humming to himself. But he was dealing with it, he had it under control, occasional drunken whining at Geno and even more occasional angsting at Stammer aside, and now – the lockout hasn’t actually helped him forget, and having Paulie around all the time now…

It’s not actually making anything worse, because Paulie’s great and James is happier when he’s around Paul, particularly now when he doesn’t have the team around most days, but at the same time, he keeps looking at Paulie and he wants. Wants to run his hand up Paulie’s arms, want to put his lips at the edge of Paulie’s jaw while Paulie cooks breakfast, wants to curl up with his head on Paulie’s shoulder while they watch shitty TV and it’s sappy and dumb and frustrating as fuck. He’s hooked up a couple of times in Toronto, so it’s not even sexual frustration, it’s just – it is what it is.

He looks up from his phone to see Paulie watching him, sipping at his coffee. He looks – concerned, maybe, face soft and mouth parted and James wants to kiss him so fucking much, and it’s not new, it’s not different, it’s just like an injury which keeps flaring up again and again, and he can’t stop pressing the goddamn thing.

And he can’t even go on the ice and get the frustration out. Somehow this is all Gary Bettman’s fault.

*
It stops snowing about midday, at which point James is seriously considering running laps around the living room just to get some of the tension out. Paulie’s been quiet all morning, but James can’t tell if something’s wrong, or Paulie’s reacting to him being off, or if he’s just really engrossed in the mystery novel he’s reading.

“Gonna shovel some snow,” he says, eventually, after Fruit Ninja gets too repetitive.

Paul looks at him, considering. James doesn’t meet his eyes. “You want help?” Paul asks, after a moment.

“No,” James says. “I, uh, you know.”

“I’m happy to?” Paulie offers, standing up. James shakes his head, willing Paulie to understand. “It’s not a big –“

“I need time alone,” he says and it comes out almost snappish. For a brief moment, Paulie looks pissed, but then he meets James’ eyes and the tension leaves him. “Sorry,” James says.

“Hey, no problem. I’ll make lunch,” Paul says. He sounds kind of off still, but the corner of his mouth quirks up in half a smile, and James smiles back, feeling a little calmer.

It’s a habit from his first season with the Pens, when he was so worried all the time about not being good enough, about getting traded again, about not finding the back of the net. He’d go running, wear himself out, and when he finally got back to Paul’s house, dinner would be ready – or at least ordered. It wasn’t like being taken care of, exactly. More like maybe Paul trusted him to do what he had to do to keep himself calm. James remembers coming back from one of those runs to find Paul eating chicken and reading, and thinking for the first time, I want to stay, for reasons that had nothing to do with hockey and everything to do with the people, with Paul.

The snow is less tightly packed than he expected, and less deep – four feet, if he’s guessing, too deep to run, but he should be able to get at least some of the driveway clear, so they can get out, maybe go skating again. Or in case the lockout ends.

He grins to himself and gets stuck in.

It’s gone three when he’s satisfied that most of the drive way is usable. His back and shoulders ache, but it’s a good ache, the kind that promises a good night’s sleep.

Paul’s made turkey bacon and wholemeal club sandwiches with spinach instead of lettuce. It’s his favorite, James knows. Cookie sometimes teases Paul about being a food snob, which isn’t true, but James’ mom wasn’t wrong when she identified Paulie as a good cook – it’s between him and Letang on the team, James thinks, eating his sandwich at the counter.

Once he’s finished eating, he showers, lets the heat of the water soothe his shoulders and clear his head. When he finally gets out, he’s feeling almost level and calm. He pads into the living room, where Paulie is talking to someone – someone from home probably, given the slight shift in his accent. James settles on the floor, checking his phone. He has a text from Geno, asking for more details on the living with Paul situation, and an email from Sid outlining the newest CBA suggestions from the NHLPA. He’s too tired to deal with either, leaning back against the couch and resting his head against the seat.

He wakes up to Paul stroking his hair – it’s so soft that for a moment, he’s not even sure what’s happening. The TV is on low, and when James opens his eyes, it’s dark. For a long moment, he doesn’t move, just enjoying the way Paul’s basically petting him, like maybe he’s not even aware what he’s doing, and it feels – nice. Too fucking nice, and then Paul shifts and stops.

“You awake?” Paul asks quietly, shifting away.

“Yeah,” James says, just as quietly. He looks up and meets Paul’s eyes. Paul looks back for a moment and then looks away, biting his lip. “Fell asleep,” James adds, because he has to do something.

“Dinner?” Paul asks. James sighs and stretches.

“Mmm, you making?” Paul laughs, though he sounds a little strained, and cuffs the back of his head.

“Come on, James, you’re helping,” he says.

“I shovelled snow!” James protests, even as he’s getting up.

“Uh-huh,” Paul says. “And I made lunch. You’re on chopping duty.”

*

The next day, he finally looks up the time difference between Ontario and Magnitogorsk. Geno sent him an email about it when he first headed back, and he’s asked Sid about it a couple of times, but he’s not sure he’s up for the chirping Sid’d give him if he called for the information again.

It turns out it’s late there already, so he texts Geno’s Russian number and asks him to get onto Skype. He’s fooling around on the internet, trying to make sense of the email the NHLPA has sent him on make-whole, when Geno finally turns up on Skype.

“Hey Lazy,” Geno says and James grins at the computer.

“Fuck you, Geno,” he says back – it’s a comforting familiar exchange, and it’s good to know that this, at least, remains the same, even across a truly ludicrous amount of time zones. “How’s Russia?”

“I not snowed in,” Geno says, “so better than Canada, yes?”

“Don’t think the entirety of Canada is snowed in,” James says slowly.

“Got hockey,” Geno says and James groans.

“Fuck off,” he says. “You also don’t have twenty-thousand meetings. Have you read the details on make whole?”

“Too complicated,” Geno says dismissively. “Trust Sid will fix things right. He try to explain, but – best leave to captain.” Geno grins and James shrugs – he can’t really argue with that. “So, where’s Paulie?”

“Uh,” James says and he’s not sure why he’s thrown – one of the reasons he called Geno was to talk about this – but he swallows and says, “On the phone to the university. Think they want him back.”

“Ah,” Geno says, and the line crackles, so James can’t tell his tone. “Good, yes? Not weird, being in cabin?”

“Cottage,” James corrects. He thinks about it for a moment, but really – “It hasn’t been weird,” he says. “It’s like – I don’t know, I don’t know if he remembers or cares.”

“Not notice you disappearing?” And yeah okay, but he’d been due to go back up that week anyway, it wasn’t like Paulie knew it was linked.

“Hasn’t mentioned it,” is all he says to Geno. Geno snorts. “Just – it’s nice, you know. Having him here. Everyone’s all spread out and fucked up because of the lockout, and it’s nice to at least feel a little like back in Pittsburgh.”

“Missing team reason for wanting to fuck Paulie?” Geno says bluntly and James can feel his cheeks go warm.

“Shut up,” he says, groaning. “It’s not – it’s not like that, that’s not even what I said. Ugh, Geno, you’re supposed to be helping.” And now the asshole is laughing at him. James isn’t entirely sure what he thought he was going to get out of this. “I just – I keep thinking about it, you know? Not – that, necessarily,” and he probably should have known that that would only make Geno laugh harder, “But just – you know. I want – I don’t know, I want what we’ve got, only you know.”

“With fucking?” Geno says, still laughing as James goes even redder.
“Not helping,” James repeats sullenly.

“I am helping,” Geno says placidly. “You don’t talk to Paulie, I can’t help, so make fun. Maybe encourage you talk to him or get over.”

“What do you even know?” James says petulantly, rubbing his face. “You’re in Russia.”

“Got hockey, brain still working, everything make more sense in Russia,” Geno says easily and James starts a little.

“You are coming back, right?” he asks – stupidly, because Geno has a contract and a life in Pittsburgh and if nothing else it’d be a pain to ship Jeffrey back to Russia. Also, the bitch fit Sid would pitch would be epic.

“Sort issues with Paulie, fix lockout, and then yes,” Geno says and the asshole is laughing again. James wonders why he misses him.

“Not sure those things are linked.”

“Could be,” Geno says as if that makes any sense. “Maybe you talk to Paulie, become boring married couple, fix lockout.”

James rolls his eyes, but he does feel kind of better. Geno’s a freak, but it’s still nice to actually talk about it. “Whatever, Geno,” he says eventually. “Tell me about Russian hockey.”

*

Geno’s not wrong, is the thing. James is fully aware that the adult thing to do would be to man up and talk to Paul. The worst that can really happen is that Paul shoots him down, which has technically already happened. It’s been a combination of things keeping him from doing it, stupid things like not wanting to be awkward, not wanting to freak Paul out, not wanting to lose their friendship – that, and the awareness that he’s need to be on the ice with Paul, needs to not fuck up the team dynamics. He still remembers playing in Plymouth with Tim after James had tried to push their thing beyond occasionally fooling around. It had been a mess and fucked him out of a season, and he can’t do that to this team, won’t do that.

Which probably means that now is the best time for it – the lockout doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon, which means plenty of time for hiding out and drinking in Toronto.

Except he doesn’t want to go back to his parents, not really, not when the alternative is hanging around the cottage with Paulie and he’s so far fucking gone, it’s ridiculous. Somewhere, he’s pretty sure Geno is laughing at him without even knowing why.

*

It’s snowing a-fucking-gain, undoing most of his work from yesterday, so they spend the day inside. James suggests Friday Nights Lights. Paul agrees easily enough.

“Geno all right?” he asks when James is putting the DVD in.

“He’s got hockey, the fucker,” James replies, but he’s grinning. “Yeah, he’s pretty good. How’s the university?”

“Gonna have to head back in few days,” Paul says, frowning. James’ stomach clenches and he looks away from Paulie. “If I can get out, of course. And if the lockout doesn’t end.”

“Sid’s heading back to New York, Geno said,” James says, settling in on the couch. “Must mean discussions are starting up again.” He looks over at Paul, who’s still frowning. “Hey,” he says and Paul looks at him. “Gary Bettman can’t be an asshole forever, right? We’ll still have part of a season.”

Paul snorts. “Pretty sure he can,” he says and James laughs – it’s nice to know he’s not the only one who sees a problem with that argument.

“Yeah, well, eventually the owners are going to want to earn money again,” he amends – it’s a borrowed argument from Stammer, but it’s the best one he’s heard. “We’ll get part of a season and we’ll tear it up.”

Paulie doesn’t look comforted, even though he half-nods at James’ point. It hits him suddenly why Paul’s worried and mentally kicks himself for not thinking about it before, for being so caught up in his own mess. “You’ll kick ass,” he adds and then, before he can think about it, he says, “You made the right decision. Shero knows that already, he has faith in you, we all do.” He manages not to add ‘I do’, but he’s blushing, feels awkward. Paul ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, a move James recognises – Paulie’s really bad at taking compliments.

“Thanks,” he says eventually. “Not really worth worrying about, not until we’ve got a season.” James nudges him with his shoulder.

“We’re going to.” He hopes he sounds convincing. He wants it to be true. That’s got to count for something.

“Yeah, yeah,” Paul says, but he looks at James and smiles a little.

And fuck, James doesn’t want him to go back to Minnesota, wants hockey back, doesn’t even know what he wants, so he just smiles back. The moment sort of stretches and then he looks down and says, “Right, well, until then, let’s just watch some TV, yeah?” Paulie laughs, sounding a little strained, but he hits play on the remote and the theme tune starts up.

*

Dinner is reheated chicken stew brought up from Whitby, and Paulie cracks out the good beer. James takes the opportunity to chirp him about being able to find fancy European imports even in the backwater that is Minnesota. When Paulie just rolls his eyes, he switches to mocking him for his beer snobbery.

“I’m sure I can find you a Molson or something,” Paul says, smirking.

“You like me too much to subject me to that,” James says. He’s pretty sure that is true, but Paul looks like he’s considering it, so James gulps down some before Paul decides to take it back.

“Slow down, idiot,” Paulie says, knocking his hand against James’ wrist. “Apparently, I do like you too much.” James stills – that sounds like, could almost be flirting, and he wonders if he’s misheard. But Paulie’s drinking his own beer, not meeting James’ eye and he thinks maybe, just maybe, Paulie’s gone a little pink.

Or possibly being snowed in is making him have audio hallucinations. James is pretty sure those are a thing.

Cabin fever from being snowed in would also explain why, even though they both get through two (maybe three, in James’ case) beers at dinner, Paulie cracks open another two before they head to the living room. It is definitely not on the recommended diet, which James would point out, except for the fact that more beer sounds like a great idea. He’s not a light-weight, but he is feeling a little woozy when they settle down on the couch again – European beer has a higher alcohol content, he seems to remember that – and kind of hyper-aware of Paulie next to him, lolling back into the couch as the start of another episode of Friday Night Lights plays. He tries not to think about it, even as he’s moving a little closer – he’s being subtle, he’s pretty sure – their knees knocking, and he takes another pull on his beer. Paulie seems engrossed in the episode. James lets himself relax, leaning into Paulie a little, and then turns his attention to the show.

Between that episode and the next, he goes to get another couple of beers for them both, pleasantly warm and hazy, and he doesn’t even think about settling down up against Paulie, their sides pressed entirely against each other.

They’re half-way through the episode before it really registers to James how close they are; like a switch flips in his head, and suddenly all he can think about is the warmth of Paul’s thigh against him, the slight space between their hips, and how easy it would be to move his hand just a little until it would be resting on Paul’s thigh, so easy to slide it up, fuck, just to touch. And yeah, he’s definitely had too much beer, but he takes another long drink from the bottle, and just – sits there, wanting, for a moment. Then the moment breaks, like he can breathe again.

Fucking Geno, always being fucking right, he thinks, finishing the beer. Credits are coming on, and Paulie’s moving, like he’s going to get up and change the DVD, and fuck, he should do it now, while he’s drunk, while he’s feeling brave, while he knows what he wants to say, so he grabs Paulie’s wrist, keeps him in the couch. Paulie’s looking at him, pink from the beer, but still with that sceptical look on his face that James knows so well, the one that says that Paulie’s not judging him yet, but he’s gearing up for it, and James leans forward and kisses him.

It’s not exactly what he planned to do. He misses Paulie’s mouth a little, has to twist his body to align them properly, but then Paulie’s hand is on his jaw and there’s a brief moment when they’re kissing, he can feel Paulie’s lips fall apart just a little, can feel him kissing back and it’s – it’s –

It’s really fucking good, so of course Paulie’s pulling away. James is pretty sure the whining noise was him, and he opens his eyes and looks at Paulie.

“You have too much beer already?” Paul says. He seems to be trying to grin, but mostly he looks kind of stunned.

“No,” he says, “hey no, it’s just – I thought, the lockout, I just – I missed you, miss Pittsburgh, and it’d be easy, I won’t let it fuck us up –“ and James has no idea what he’s even trying to say. Paul’s looking at him like he’s speaking in Russian or something.

“You kissed me because of the lockout?” he asks, but he doesn’t sound – he doesn’t sound angry, or freaked out. His eyes drop to James’ mouth.

James says, “Yes, sort of,” before he can think about it.

Paul looks at him for a long minute and then he says, “Fuck, okay,” and leans forward. He’s kissing James and fuck – Paul kisses with intent, hands tugging slightly at James’ hair, getting him where Paulie wants him. And James is easy, so easy for Paul, because he’s half-hard just from that, letting Paulie press him into the couch and kiss him, hot and determined.

He distantly hears the theme music on the DVD reset more than once while they make out, his hands flat on Paul’s warm, smooth back, but James has no real idea of how long they’re kissing, too busy licking into Paulie’s mouth, rocking against him.

Eventually, though, Paulie breaks away, and James has to groan at the way he looks, panting slightly, mouth red and eyes dark and fuck, he looks like he does after a good game, James is never going to get over this, never going to be able to forget this.

“Bed,” Paul breathes. “We’re doing this properly, come on.”

James isn’t going to argue.

*

They end up in Paulie’s bedroom – probably a good thing, James thinks distractedly, the bed’s much tidier. Paulie pushes him onto the bed, crawling up over him, and shit, Paulie’s a little shorter than him, a little skinnier, but when he wraps his hands around James’ wrists and pins him down, it feels like – it feels like he couldn’t get away, even if he wanted to, and the thought makes James whine, tipping his head back and circling his hips off the bed, pressing into Paul.

Paul tightens his hands a little around James’ wrists and dips his head, presses a kiss to the underside of James’ jaw, mouthing down James’ throat, and James bites his lip, tries not to moan too loudly. He feels dizzy; he keeps trying to clear his head, but all he can think about is Paulie – Paulie’s hands around his wrist, Paulie’s body warm and solid on top of him. He groans as Paulie’s teeth graze the juncture between his throat and shoulder, tries to thrust up against him, but there’s too many clothes, not enough friction.

And if he only gets this once, he wants to touch.

“Paulie,” he says, and he’d be embarrassed about how high his voice sounds, except Paulie moves up, looks at him, and his eyes are dark and hot on James’ face. “Paulie,” he says again, and it comes out even more breathy.

“Yeah,” Paulie says nonsensically, leaning down to kiss him, and James gets distracted by the heat of his mouth, the way Paulie fits their mouths together and just licks into him, like – like he doesn’t want to be anywhere else and James recognises how ridiculous he’s being. This – this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but fuck, at least he gets this.

“Clothes,” he pants, breaking away from Paulie’s mouth. Paulie makes an indignant huffing noise, which – it’s not even sexy, but it’s so fucking Paul, and James tilts his head, kisses him again briefly, except – “No, seriously, fewer clothes,” he says against Paulie’s mouth.

Paul laughs quietly. “So impatient, Nealsy.” James can feel a blush starting, but Paul lets go of his wrists and sits up, moves off him. James sits up, shucks out of his fleece, tee-shirt and sweats. He manages to get a little tangled, his hands clumsy with beer and arousal. Paul finally leans over and tugs his tee-shirt off and then they’re kissing again, Paulie’s skin hot under his hands. They’re close enough now that James can feel how hard Paulie is, can thrust up into him, groaning a little at how good it feels, even through their boxers.

Paulie’s got one hand in his hair, not pulling, just cupping James’ head, pushing him into Paul like he needs any encouragement. His other hand is on James’ bare hip, his thumb rubbing circles – it’s weirdly arousing and weirdly soothing at the same time, and James slides his hands up Paul’s back, presses him closer as he thrusts up.

“James,” Paulie groans, hips pressing down and it sends heat rolling through James, making him clutch a little at Paulie’s shoulder, leaning forward to lick at his throat. Paulie tastes salty and clean, smells like him, and he moans when James sucks lightly.

James loses track of time, mouthing at Paulie’s throat, one hand clutching his thigh as James circles his hips into him, sending waves of arousal through him, Paulie warm and moving above him and he kind of wants to just stay here.

“Fuck, James,” Paulie says eventually, stroking his hand through James’ hair and tugging slightly, making James move up to look at him. James swallows – Paulie’s lower lip is red from where he’s been biting it, he’s flushed and James did that. It makes him want – makes him want to say all kinds of stupid shit. He kisses Paulie instead, biting at that bottom lip, feeling the bristle of Paulie’s beard against his mouth, and fuck, even that’s hot.

“James,” Paul says against his mouth and James makes a reluctant noise. Paul laughs, low and scratchy, puffs of air against James’ mouth. “Tell me what you want,” he says, moving back.

James blinks at him for a long moment. “Uh,” he says, because he can’t actually think of anything to say, except ‘You’, which is – too much. “I don’t care – Paulie, just –“ Paul strokes a hand up his chest, brushing over his nipples and James gasps. Paulie takes the hint, circles the right one lightly with his finger while he looks expectantly at James and James can’t.

And clearly Paulie gets him, even here, because he kisses James briefly and says, “Tell me if –“ He doesn’t finish the sentence, but James nods, because seriously, he’s not going to say no to Paulie, can’t imagine anything Paulie could do that he wouldn’t want.

Paulie pushes him down onto the bed, leans up to kiss him again before shifting on the bed, moving down James’ body, stroking briefly over his nipples before replacing his hands with his mouth, and James arches his back into Paul’s touch, the just right side of painful bites that leave him trying not to whine. From the way Paul’s smirking when he looks up, James is pretty sure he fails.

There’s a slightly clumsy moment when James’ feet get tangled in his boxers, but then Paul wraps a hand around James’ dick and he stops worrying about the sounds he’s making, letting his head fall back as he thrusts up into Paul’s hand. It’s dry, and Paul’s grip is too loose. It still feels amazing.

Paul strokes him once, twice and leans down to lick the head. He doesn’t tease, moving his lips around the head and moving down. James clenches his hands in sheets and has to focus for a long moment just on not moving his hips. Paul sucks in a slow, steady rhythm, hands coming up to hold James’ hips and James leans up on his elbows, watches as Paulie takes him in, his thumb rubbing circles on James’ hip, his mouth so hot and wet and good. He can’t look away, can’t quite believe that this is even happening, that Paulie’s here, that he’s blowing him, and the way he looks – James shudders, arousal spiking and making him want to thrust, but Paulie’s holding him down, making him stick to Paulie’s rhythm.

He drops back onto the bed, his eyes closed as he arches, trying to get closer, pressing into Paulie’s strong, calloused hands, into his lovely fucking mouth, getting lost in the feelings, in the running thought that this is happening, this is Paulie, and he can’t stop sighing, biting his lip, muffling Paulie’s name. It’s a little slower than he’d like, and normally he likes his partners to use their hands as well, but he’s not going to say that, not when he’s already so fucking close, not when this might be the only chance he gets at this.

Too soon, he can feel his orgasm building, pooling at his spine. He wants to last, wants to draw this out, but Paulie’s mouth, his hands, and he groans, grinds out, “Paulie, Paulie,” in lieu of a more coherent warning. Paulie just loosens his grip on James’ hips, lets him thrust into his mouth properly, and fuck, James can’t, he can’t stop, one hand moving down to tug at Paulie’s hair, pull him off, but Paulie doesn’t move, doesn’t take the hint, and then James is coming, one hand cradling Paulie’s head as Paulie’s swallows around him. Paulie licks him through it, pulling off while James is still shuddering a little from the aftershocks. He keeps his hands on James’ hips, though, even as he moves up James’ to press a kiss to his cheek.

James moves his head without opening his eyes, searching for Paulie’s mouth. Paulie tastes like him, tastes like sex, and it’s – it’s really fucking hot, even though it shouldn’t be. James finds himself getting lost in the kiss, the languid press of Paulie’s mouth against his, the way he tastes when James licks into him. He forgets for a moment that Paulie’s hasn’t come yet, until he sort of lazily circles his hips and Paulie shivers above him. He does it again, pressing his thigh up more sharply to give Paulie something to grind against and is rewarded by Paulie making this incredible low sound, not quite a moan.

It shakes him out of his post-orgasm stupor, and he slides one hand around the back of Paulie’s neck, pulling him into another kiss. He tries to get Paulie’s briefs off with the other, succeeds in getting them half way down his thighs before Paul breaks the kiss to get them off properly. When they’ve settled back, James tugging Paul into another kiss, he rests one hand on Paulie’s lower back, encouraging him to ride his thigh, Paulie’s dick leaving wet stripes on his skin. Paulie’s panting into his mouth already, but his hips circle steadily, and fuck, James wishes he could get hard again already. He bites Paulie’s lower lip, soothes any sting away with his tongue. Paulie makes another muted noise and his hips stutter.

“Fuck, Paulie,” James breathes, pulling back a little way to look at him – mouth red and used, eyes shut as he circles his hips and James has to bite his own lip at the sight and feel of him like this, Paulie coming undone. “Do you – is this -?” James isn’t even sure what he’s asking, but Paulie opens his eyes and nods, mouth parted and James is so fucking gone, circling his hips up as Paul circles down and pulling him back in, kissing him breathless and slipping a hand in between them. Paul’s dick is hot and thick in his hand, slippery with pre-come, and when James strokes him, works his thumb against the head, Paulie groans into James’ mouth. It doesn’t take long at all for Paul’s thrusts to become erratic, and he drops his head to James’ shoulder, breath hot against James’ throat as he thrusts once, twice and comes, groaning and spilling over both of them.

James strokes Paul’s neck as his breathing evens, cradling his head against James’ shoulder. He’s gross, sticky with come and sweaty, but right now, he just wants to stay like this, Paulie naked and on top of him, blissed out from his orgasm. He presses his lips to Paulie’s shoulder and doesn’t say anything.

It doesn’t feel like long at all before Paulie’s shifting away. James makes a half-hearted attempt to keep him still, and gets laughed at as Paul avoids his hands and moves away, brushing a kiss against James’ cheek as he moves up and off him. James leans back against the headboard of the bed, opening his eyes slowly. Paul’s already up and off the bed, hunting around for something. James wonders if he’s supposed to leave, or whether Paulie’s drunk or tired enough to let him stay the night.

Paul doesn’t say anything, just pads to the en-suite and returns with a flannel. He throws it at James. It hits him in the face.

“Hey!” James says, sitting up properly.

“Clean up or get out,” Paulie says, pulling his boxers on and getting back into bed. He settles down close, though, pressing a kiss to James’ shoulder and smiling sort of dopily, so James figures that that’s invitation enough to stay, or at least a sign that Paulie won’t wake up in the middle of the night and kick him out. He wipes himself down, throws the flannel vaguely in the direction of the bathroom – he can clean tomorrow, probably – and settles down, curling into Paul.

*

The first time James wakes up, it’s because Paul’s climbing over him. He opens his eyes briefly, waving a hand out in protest, half asleep and not really sure what he’s trying to do. Paul evades it easily. “Go back to sleep, James,” he says and well, there’s no real reason to get up, so James does.

The next time he wakes up, it takes a moment for him to remember why he isn’t in his room. And then he remembers and shit. He slept with Paulie. He slept with Paulie…and it’s possible they didn’t actually talk and Geno is going to either die laughing about this or come back from Russia solely to slap him upside the head.

Before that, though, he’s going to have to get out of bed and deal with this. He stares at the ceiling and wonders if the roads will have been cleared. With his luck, probably not. And fuck, he can’t really do another five months of barely speaking.

He manages to get back to his room without seeing Paulie and takes his time showering and dressing. Last night keeps running through his head, and he can’t stop wondering why the fuck Paulie let him, why Paulie went along with it – loneliness? Ease of access? He wants to think Paulie’s in as deep as him, but hell. He’d thought that with Tim, and then he’d tried to push him into dating, into an actual relationship, and it had blown up in his face, got him nothing but Tim avoiding him off-ice. James exhales and leans his forehead against the tiles for a moment. He’s dated since then, had sensible relationships and fuck buddies and it hasn’t always ended in tears. They weren’t team though – weren’t hockey. He takes a deep breath. He’s being an idiot.

Getting out of the shower, he catches sight of himself in the mirror; his mouth is slightly red and scraped from where Paul’s beard has rubbed against his lips. He presses a finger to the redness, watching in the mirror. It’s sort of confusingly arousing, and he moves on to dealing with his hair instead. At least that takes most of his concentration.

There comes a point where hanging in his room begins to be hiding in his room. James is pretty sure he’s already passed it. He steels himself and heads to the kitchen. James is better at his life that he’s ever been, he’s a fucking adult and he can do this. He takes a deep breath and tries to smile as he enters the kitchen.

The kitchen is near-spotless, certainly much cleaner than it was last night, and James has a brief second of wondering how long Paulie’s been awake. Paulie’s standing at the coffee machine, fiddling with the buttons. He looks up when James comes in, and his smile looks no more normal that James imagines his own does. There’s a reddish mark on his throat, though, which James is almost certain is his fault and all he really wants to do is press his mouth to it and maybe drag Paulie back to bed which – it’s not a plan, certainly. He swallows, rubs a hand over his eyes.

“Hey,” Paulie says, still mostly facing the coffee machine.

“Hey,” James says back because he’s not sure what else to say. “Any coffee?” It comes out odd and harsh, but Paulie just hands him a mug. It’s a little cold, but James gulps it down anyway.

“There’s cereal for breakfast,” Paulie says. It’s clearly just a way of filling silence, and clearly a cue for James to actually say something, but he takes another sip of his coffee, avoiding Paulie’s gaze and that’s when his phone rings, loud and obnoxious in the awkward silence of the kitchen. He grimaces at Paul, but picks up, trying not to feel too relieved.

It’s Sid. He wants to know if James can get out, if he can get to New York – apparently there’s a vote coming up in two days and it could be big. Sid sounds unhappy and a little manic. He explains about the disclaimer of interest, how it’s a last ditch attempt, and he doesn’t sound pleased about it exactly, but – “Fuck, Nealer, I don’t know what else we’re going to do. At least this might scare them.”

James isn’t entirely sure what that means, but Sid thinks it’s important and Sid isn’t wrong about hockey, not usually. He tries to stay focused on what Sid is saying, about why it’s imperative that at least a quorum turn up at headquarters, but he keeps sliding his eyes over to Paulie, who’s clearly listening as he drinks his coffee, biting his lip. On the one hand, this is a blessing – it’s an excuse to leave, to avoid talking. On the other hand, it doesn’t sound good.

“So, can you get out? Weather forecast says it should have stopped snowing,” Sid’s saying.

“Yeah,” James says, breathing out, and looking over at Paulie again. He makes up his mind. “Yeah, I’ll shovel today and try to head out tomorrow, I’ll definitely by back by the day after. Will that be okay?”

“Good, good,” Sid says, sounding exhausted and sad. James frowns at the phone, but he can’t think of anything to say. “Be back in Pittsburgh before long, hopefully,” he adds. James can’t tell if he believes that.

“Definitely,” he says, though, because he wants it to be true and he thinks maybe Sid needs someone to cheer him up. He wonders if he should text Geno, give him the heads up, maybe bug Flower about talking to the captain.

“I’ll see you on Monday, then,” Sid says. “Say hi to Paulie for me.”

James hangs up. After a moment, he looks at Paulie. “Sid,” he says and Paulie nods. “I need to be back in Toronto and then New York.”

“Now?” Paulie asks, eyebrows going up. “Lockout ending or –?”

“No, Monday,” James says, putting his hands up. “I’ll sort the rest of the drive out today. Apparently we need a quorum for a disclaimer of interest vote. Not entirely sure I understand, but sounds important.” He never thought he’d be grateful for the lockout, but at least this he can talk about like a normal person. There’s a complicated expression on Paul’s face for a moment, and then he’s getting up, preparing a new cup of coffee. He passes it to James. James adds, “Maybe we can sue the league.”

“If it ends the lockout…,” Paulie says. “Sid’s going to send an email out?” James nods.

“Plus, I’m sure Fehr will send stuff. Some of the voting can be done remotely, but they need bodies in New York, so I guess I’m it.” He shrugs. “I should probably get started on the drive way.”

“We should probably talk first,” Paul says, looking up at James. James can’t read his expression at all – he doesn’t look angry, but he doesn’t look happy either. “About last night,” he clarifies, as if James thought he meant about the NHLPA – he doesn’t think that would work, even as a stalling tactic.

“Uh,” he says, stupidly. He takes a sip of coffee and sits down at the kitchen table. “Look, it doesn’t have to –“

“James, shut up,” Paul says and James bites down on a comment about how Paul said he wanted to talk. “What were you – why did you kiss me?”

“I – I missed you, during the lockout,” James says, and even as he says it, he knows its inadequate, but the way Paulie’s looking at him – what if it was a one-off, what if Paulie was lonely, he’s not sure what he’s going to do if it becomes awkward between them and he blurts, “We don’t have to talk about it.”

Paulie makes a frustrated noise. “James, no. This time, we’re talking about it.”

James’ stomach drops. “Wait, what do you mean, this time?” Paul gives him an incredulous look and James says, “You remember? What the fuck, Paul, you didn’t say anything.”

“Neither did you,” Paul points out, sounding snappish. “You didn’t say anything. And you went to Canada. I thought that was a hint that maybe you didn’t want to talk, that maybe you regretted – I thought it was post-playoffs madness.” He stops talking and looks at James. James is still reeling from the fact that Paul remembers, shit, and that he looks frustrated and maybe even sad, like he’d been thinking about that night too, except –

“Hey, you pushed me away,” he says indignantly. “I didn’t want to make things awkward, didn’t want you to have to deal with –“ He kind of wants to say, “with me, with my feelings,” but instead he bites his lip and looks at the table top. There’s a long moment of silence and James tries to get his heartbeat to slow a little.

“You could have stayed,” Paul says, eventually. And yeah, Paul maybe has a right to be angry about that. “I thought – I don’t know, I thought maybe you’d figured out how I felt about you, were trying to get me to stay that way.” James’ eyes snap up. Paulie looks calm enough, but James knows him, and there’s a slight hesitance in the set of his mouth.

James can’t believe Paulie would think that and he reaches out his hand, wraps it around Paulie’s wrist. Paulie looks down and takes a breath. James watches him carefully, heart beating like crazy. “The meeting was coming up and I – I didn’t want it to be complicated. I wanted to be thinking about hockey. And I didn’t want to fuck up our friendship if it wasn’t -”

“I wasn’t – I wasn’t trying to distract you,” James says quietly, rubbing his thumb in a circle against Paulie’s wrist. “And I wasn’t that drunk.”

Paul shrugs, biting his lip. “I just – I wanted the meeting to be about me and the Pens, not about me staying in Pittsburgh.” He looks up, meeting James’ eyes and he looks kind of – worried, maybe, and James swallows and swallows again. “Staying with you,” he says. “If that’s what you want? I don’t want it to be awkward, but I don’t want a casual thing.”

And James can’t not lean over to kiss him then, bumping his knee on the kitchen table kind of painfully. It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s Paulie, and he’s not freaking out, he’s not angry and fuck, he wants James. Paulie kisses him back gently, one hand on the back of his neck.

“So, does that mean you’ve not just picked up a habit of lunging at me when drunk?” Paulie says when they break apart. James huffs indignantly.

“I was trying –“ he says and then stops. “I – when I was on the Whalers, I did something sort of similar. It didn’t really work out and – anyway. I thought maybe – space would make you less likely to freak out or get mad at me.” He takes a deep breath. “You’re team, you know? Team and – and family.”

When he looks up, Paulie’s smiling and the way he looks at James makes James’ breath catch. “Yeah, same goes, James, you know that right?” James nods; he can’t seem to stop smiling. “You’re still kind of dumb, though, you should have stayed,” Paulie adds, but he sounds so fond, James can’t be annoyed.

Instead he says, “Yeah, but you still like me,” grinning just a little. Paulie rolls his eyes.

“God knows why,” he says, “must have hit my head on the ice at some point.”

“Hey!” James says, but he can’t be too angry, not when Paulie’s pulling him close again and kissing him with intent.

3.
The last two days in the cottage pass by too fast.

For one thing, James does actually have to shovel snow, and then he ends up fielding calls from Stammer and DZ about the vote and what it means, and – most importantly – getting drinks before then. He skims the notes about the disclaimer, and then makes Paulie read them, curled up on the sofa together, getting Paul to explain some of the weirder parts of it. James isn’t sure Paulie has any more of an understanding of union laws than he does, to be honest, but he likes the way Paul looks when he’s trying to explain, biting his lip as he thinks about how to word it. The day they head out, Duchene calls to set up a time table for practice – and damn, he’s going to pay for these past couple of days, he’s off his diet and hasn’t been training. He makes a note to call Gary when he gets back. And then Sid calls again to make sure James can get out and to remind him to read over the info pack he’s been sent.

Also, Paulie insists that they clean the house properly, which – James is pretty sure both of them could afford to pay for a cleaning service, but Paulie looks at him and points out that it’s his parents’ cottage and they’re grown men. And that’s pretty stupid, James thinks – he has a cleaning lady at his house, after all – but he gets the feeling that it might be more about impressing James’ parents for Paulie. (Which is still stupid, because his mum already loves Paulie, and his father thinks he’s great, but the thought makes James smile foolishly. And once they’ve finished, Paulie pushes him into the bedroom and jerks him off slow and careful until James is panting into his mouth, sticky with sweat, so it works out okay for him in the end. He throws out those sheets, though – they don’t have time to wash them.)

They head out at midday on the Sunday, because even he’s not stupid enough to try and navigate the back roads after dark when the snow’s just barely cleared. Still, he gets distracted kissing Paulie goodbye, pressing him up against the door. There’s no intent behind it – not that the sex isn’t great, or that there wasn’t too little of it, and at some point, he’s going to reflect on the fact that he could have been having great sex for the entire lockout if he hadn’t run off home – but fuck. He doesn’t want to leave Paulie, doesn’t want to have to make do with phone calls and texts, particularly now when the idea of even part of a season seems precarious.

The only consolation is that Paulie – usually calm and collected, unruffled Paulie – seems to be similarly reluctant to let him go. “I’ll talk to the university,” he says, pulling away from James for a moment to rest their foreheads against each other. “It was never meant to be permanent, and it’d be easier to commute to see you from Pittsburgh. I can be there after Christmas.”

“Fuck Pittsburgh,” James says vehemently, “Come to Whitby, my parents won’t mind.” It strikes him after he’s said it how teenaged that makes him sound – ugh – but Paulie just laughs.

“I’ll look into hotels,” he says. “Might give me a chance to practice with the rest of you as well.” He leans forward and presses another kiss to James’ mouth. “We should go.”

“You could come with me now,” James says, trying for flirty. “Spend Christmas at mine?” Paul gives him a dry look, and then smiles, and damn, James is going to miss him so much. Paulie keeps looking at him with that soft expression in his eyes, not actually pushing him away, and okay, James really does need to leave.

“Call me when you get home, okay?” he says as Paul gets in his car.

“Drive safe,” Paul calls back. “Try not to hit any moose.”

James flips him off, but he’s laughing.

*
Back at his parents, his mother hugs him and tells him he looks a lot better now. “Less mopey,” she says, grinning. “Heard you were snowed in.”

He gives her a confused look – he hasn’t spoken to her since the first night in the cottage. “Steven. I think Sidney might have told him? But I guess you managed to find something to keep you busy.” And he knows she means watching TV or playing on the X-Box, but he can’t help the blush that starts at his throat. When he manages to look at his mother’s face, she’s clearly noticed too.

“Anything you want to tell me?” she says, grinning at him. Even though he’s still blushing, he can’t keep from smiling back.

“Maybe after I get in the house?” he says and she laughs and helps him with his bags.

He ends up talking to both his parents that evening, after dinner; they talk about the lockout, both of his parents expressing dismay about the idea of suing the NHL; that glides into a conversation about how Michael’s doing in Orlando (actually playing hockey, so), and when he and Peter’ll be back for the holidays, and whether James’ grandmother will be able to make it this year, or go to his aunt’s in Ottawa. Somewhere in there, James slips in the fact that Paulie might be up at some point. His mother gives him a sharp look.

“I was under the impression you two were having some issues,” she says and James tries to remember why he ever imagined he’d be able to hide that from her. He is not subtle. “I’m glad you’ve sorted them. You seem happier now.”

There’s really not much to say to that.

*

When he goes in for the vote, the mood’s dark. Sid’s got that tense look around the eyes and Toews looks like he’s planning murder again; Mike Richards drags him off almost as soon as the initial votes have been processed. James hopes they’re getting drunk.

He tries to answer the reporters’ questions politely, but that’s never been his strong suit anyway, tries to look engaged and involved in this whole lockout ending business, but fuck, if he can’t have hockey, he’d at least like to be able to have sex with his boyfriend. (The first time he thinks that, heading to New York in the car with Steven, he can’t keep the grin off his face. Steven notices and knows James well enough to pester him for the reason. James ends up giving him an edited version of what went down in the cottage. Steven doesn’t make fun of him, which is one of the many, many reasons James likes him.).

Over the next couple of days, though, there’s cautious optimism – the NHLPA seems united in the course of action, which is good, Sid assures him. Fehr sends a lot of emails about staying strong and keeping the faith, and James spends a lot of time mocking them on the phone to Paulie, and on the group emails.

Two days after getting back he talks to Geno, who is smug as fuck about it working out. “So now you fix lockout, yes?” he says.

“I think that one’s on Sid,” James says, but he’s grinning a little. Geno beams back.

“No, you tell Bettman can’t keep you from boyfriend, need hockey and work back to keep Paulie happy, problem solved.”

“Pretty sure that would have the opposite effect,” James says dryly. “Anyway, aren’t you tearing up Russia?”

“Yes,” Geno says, sounding hesitant suddenly, which is weird – he usually gets smug or shy about compliments, depending on mood, day and who’s giving them. “Not same, though. Miss linemate, whiney captain and team. Miss Pittsburgh. Even miss stupid reporters.”

“That’s a lie,” James says. “No one misses reporters.” But the fact that Geno misses him leaves him a little warm and flattered.

Afterwards, he goes to practice, which is pretty good; he’s got his speed back, even if he needs to work on his skill more. Afterwards, John grins at him. “Beginning to look like maybe you could go up against the Sabres at least,” he says, punching James’ shoulder on the way out of the changing room. “Maybe I should take some time out in the wilderness too.” James feels himself go warm, but luckily DZ is there, yelling at them both about drinks and John doesn’t notice.

He thinks about ducking out – but Steven’s there, saying something about light beer and diets, and it has been a few days since he’s gone out, so he tags along. It’s nice, actually, hanging out with camp group and making fun of Robs, talking shit about the Western Conference. It’s not the same as being with Paulie in the cottage, and it’s definitely nothing like being in Pittsburgh with his team, but at least he feels less tense and irritated than he did before.

*
Then the NHL cancels all the games until the 14th of January, and Fehr puts the NHLPA on hiatus over Christmas. Sid calls up and tells him not to panic, that this is part of the procedure. He then repeats all that in the group email and when James talks to Paulie and Geno, he finds that they too have had that call. They don’t think Sid sounded convinced either.

“What if we don’t get a season?” James asks on the phone to Paulie. Paulie makes a neutral noise.

“We practice, be happy we have savings, and gear up for 13-14,” he says eventually and James rolls onto his back and glares at the ceiling. He knows Paulie’s right, but he can’t quite believe it’s even a possibility that the season won’t happen.

“I know,” he says eventually and swallows. “What about, you know –“

“Yeah,” Paulie says quietly, “I know. We’ll get through Christmas and then, hopefully the lockout will be sorted, or I’m booking a hotel room. After that – I don’t know, maybe look into going back to Pittsburgh.”

“You could stay here,” James says, although frankly, going back to Pittsburgh sounds tempting – he misses it. “My parents won’t mind, my mom loves you.” He doesn’t mention that his mother has been casually bringing up how nice it would be to see Paul again about twice a day since he got back from the cottage. No need to scare Paulie off.

“That’s really kind of her,” Paulie says sincerely. There’s a brief pauses and then he says, “It’s just that, you know, there are things I want to do which might be better with thick walls.” His voice has dropped, and James recognises the register, feels arousal prickle through him at the sound of it.

“Fuck,” he says, closing his eyes for a moment and listening to Paulie’s breathing. “Yeah, all right, I’ll pay for the room.”

“Don’t you want to know what things they are first?” Paulie teases, voice still lower, a little raspy. James clenches and unclenches the hand not holding his phone.

“Good point,” he manages, swallowing. “Maybe you should tell me.”

*
Christmas actually does take his mind off things – it’s the first time since basically he started playing in the NHL that he’s able to go cut down the tree with his parents, Nick and Becky; he goes Christmas shopping with a couple of local friends – and it’s nice to talk about something other than the lockout, even if he has to skirt around certain things. On the 23rd, Peter and Michael arrive back up. Peter makes Irish coffee while their parents and Michael decorate the tree, and Becky bugs James for information on Paulie. She rolls her eyes when he tells her to just Google him.

“You know one of the first hits is that article, right?” she says, scrolling on her Blackberry. “I mean, if you Google the two of you.” James glares – he has a pretty good idea which article she means, because he’s never going to live that one down. “Doesn’t tell me much about him, except that he doesn’t pick up hints that well.”

“Hey, fuck you,” James says, feeling defensive on Paulie’s behalf. Becky just grins, leaning over to tickle him with some loose tinsel.

“Just think how much fun having him meet us all again will be,” she sing-songs. James thinks very seriously about just getting in his car and driving to Minnesota. He’s pretty sure Paulie’s mom wouldn’t kick him out on Christmas.

*
Duper calls him on the 24th and he’s treated to a very, very off-key rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” sung by Duper and his kids. “Thinking of taking them on tour if the lockout continues,” Duper tells him very seriously.

There are e-cards from more-or-less everyone in the group email – except from Sid, who doesn’t do cards, but does write an extended email which includes a Christmas greeting, as well as info on the lockout, suggestions for new third and fourth lines, and an idea for a potential Pittsburgh meet-up. He sends out his own e-card, which features penguins in Santa hats. He’s not the only one who’s gone for that motif, which is probably a sign of something.

“Lockout-crazy or a lack of imagination,” Paulie suggests when they speak. James makes an indignant noise.

“A sense of team spirit?” he offers and Paulie laughs.

“We could go with that, sure,” he say, “if it makes you feel better.”

It’s almost midnight, and James is trying to finish wrapping his presents. He’s pretty sure it’s too late to wake his mom and ask her to do it. He’s getting tangled in ribbon when Paulie asks, “What does your family normally do on the 26th?”

“Visit friends for mulled wine and leftovers, usually,” he says, finally managing to get the ribbon to stay on the parcel. “Why?”

“Sounds nice,” Paulie says and James can tell that he means it. He grins into the phone. “It’s just – I might be able to drive up to Whitby on the 26th.”

James manages to drop the scissors he’s holding, swearing when they hit his foot with the handle first, thankfully. “Yes, fuck, definitely, come up,” he says once he’s managed to get himself together.

“You sure?” Paulie’s voice is quiet, low. James pauses for a moment.

“Yeah, of course,” he says, trying to sound as sincere as possible. He’s pretty sure Paulie knows – Paulie has to know – that he wants him up, but Paulie sounds hesitant. “I’ve missed you,” he adds, his own voice quiet as well. He can hear Paulie exhale into the phone.

“You too,” Paulie says. “This whole fucking lockout.” James ducks his head, smiling a little. Paulie sounds so fond.

“At least this is better than before,” he says and wants to slap his hand over his mouth – he doesn’t really want to remind Paulie of the whole not-talking issue.

But Paulie makes a small huffing noise James recognises as a laugh, and says, “No question, Nealsy.” It makes James’ stomach flip in the best way and he grins into the phone.

“Family are excited about getting to meet you,” he says, sitting back on the bed.

“They’ve met me,” Paulie says.

“That’s what I said! But apparently it’s different now.”

There’s a pause on the line and then Paulie says, “Is it too late to ask you to come here?”

He sounds amused, though, so James doesn’t take it to mean anything, just says, “Yep, you’re committed to this now,” and enjoys the warm feeling spreading through him.

*
Christmas passes in a blur of family, food and ludicrous presents, and yeah, it’s possible James has gone a little over the top again this year, from the ribbing he gets from his family.

(“Dude, you should be saving your money,” Becky says. “Hockey may never return and you have no other skills.”

He throws popcorn at her. “I’m sure I can find someone else who wants a satchel and the earrings,” he says, grinning when she hugs them in protest.)

But it’s fun to watch his family open presents, fun to see what they’ve picked out for him – mostly joke presents from his siblings, like fancy kitchenware and pricey food products, but the joke’s on them since James can just pass them on to Paulie and reap the benefits anyway.

“Are you thinking about your boyfriend again?” Peter asks, making a disgusted face. James throws popcorn at him, too.

On the 26th, they visit local friends, and his dad bitches about having to stay sober to drive them home, same as usual. James very consciously doesn’t check his phone every five minutes – there’s no point, Paulie won’t be up until late, and his family are already mocking him for being soft about this.

Still, after they’ve had lunch and gone back home, after he’s napped and helped his mom clean up, he keeps thinking about it, feels impatient and weirdly apprehensive. There’s part of him – irrational and ridiculous, but still there – which thinks maybe it was the cottage and being cut off from everyone else that made it work, made them work, and maybe having Paulie in his parents’ house, hanging around with him and other people will remind Paul that he’s not worth it, or make things awkward, or – James isn’t even sure exactly what he’s worried about.

He gets a text at six to say that Paulie’s hit the border and will be in Whitby in two hours and he breathes deeply, trying to get his stomach to stop squirming, and goes to tell his parents.

“We’ll put food aside,” is all his mother says, but James recognises the expression on her face and tries not to panic. His dad just looks vaguely bemused.

“There’s beer in the fridge,” he says and James smiles gratefully.

He feels about sixteen, waiting for his high school girlfriend to come by to meet his parents, except this is almost worst because although Anna was brilliant and they’re still good friends, he wasn’t attracted to her, and definitely didn’t feel about her the way he feels about Paulie, and fuck – he grabs a beer out of the fridge and settles down to watch the tail-end of The Sound of Music with Becky, definitely not listening out for the door.

“Hey,” Becky says after a while, glancing sidelong at him. “You realise we already like Paul, right? You look kind of like you’re going to puke.”

James manages to smile at her, and then the doorbell goes. His mom gets there before him, and he peers over her as she opens the door. Paulie’s standing there in a too-thin coat for the snowy weather, looking tired and worn from the drive and James is saved from doing anything too embarrassing by his mom tugging Paulie down into a hug.

“We’ve been looking forward to this,” she says, moving back. “Welcome to the house. I’m sure James’ll be happy to help you with your bags.” Paulie stands there looking a little overwhelmed as she walks down the corridor, leaving them alone, and James can’t seem to do anything except look at him, warm and real and in Whitby.

“Uh, hi,” Paulie says, one side of his mouth curling up and James surges forward, wrapping his arms around Paul. He gets hugged back just as hard, tucking his face into the space between Paul’s shoulders and throat.

“Hey,” he says against Paulie’s skin. Paulie squeezes him a little tighter, just for a brief moment. They break apart, and Paulie leans up, brushes a kiss over James’ mouth. James flattens his hands against Paulie’s back, trying to push him closer, but Paulie resists.

“Cold,” he says, “and I don’t want to keep your family waiting.”

They drag his bags in – Paulie’s got a hotel for the 27th, keeps apologising to James’ mom for imposing, apologies that she laughs off.

“Not my room you’re taking up space in,” she says, grinning and James blushes, can see Paulie go pink as well. His family are friendly, though – Michael, Nicky and Paulie fall into an easy conversation about this year’s NCAA and AHL contenders as his mom watches Paul eat, making James get him a beer, and waving off Paulie’s compliments about her cooking.

“The way James talks about your cooking, I’m pretty sure you could make it yourself,” she says and James blushes again at the way that Paulie looks at him, delighted and amused.

*
They head up just after ten, when James’ mom suddenly realises that Paul must be exhausted from the driving and chides them both for staying up. Paul apologises, but James laughs it off, feeling stupidly giddy and content, and not just from the three beers he’s managed to get through.

Upstairs, though, it’s awkward for a long moment – James is suddenly hyperaware of being in his childhood home, in his childhood room, and of Paulie, taking up space in it. He’s not sure what the protocol is. Paulie looks at him, still holding his overnight bag and hovering deliberately away from the bed. James breathes out.

“So, you’re here,” he says, unable to keep the happiness out of his voice, and Paulie smiles.

“Yeah,” he says back. “So this is your bedroom, huh?” He’s grinning a little, like he’s aware of how awkward it is, but he drops his bag on the floor, looking around. James takes two steps across the room and kisses him, pressing his mouth against Paulie’s for a short moment – partly distract Paulie from the fact that he still has an Iowa Stars’ poster up – before Paulie gets his hands on James’ hips, pulling him closer and James didn’t realise how much he missed this. It’s kind of ridiculous, really – he’s had this for such a short time, and he can’t believe how necessary it already feels.

They break apart after what feels like too little time. “You’re probably tired,” James says, because he should be a good host, should be considerate. Paulie frowns at him, but nods. James kisses him again briefly, just because he can, and then lets him use the bathroom first.

They still haven’t quite figured out how to sleep together; James shifts and squirms for a while, trying not to be too obvious. He clearly fails – after a while Paulie kicks him and says, “We don’t have to cuddle, just get comfortable and go the fuck to sleep.” James finds himself grinning in the dark – Paulie sounds grumpy and sleepy, and even that’s fucking endearing. He is stupidly gone.

He rolls away, keeping his foot against Paulie’s calf and settles down. It feels like no time at all before he’s drifting off, listening to Paulie’s slight snores.

*
It’s still dark when he wakes up, just this side of too warm under the covers, and with Paulie pretty effectively spooning him. He’s half hard, but there’s nothing urgent about it. It’s a pretty good way to wake up, all things considered, and he lies there for what feels like a long time, drifting in and out of sleep, and moving back into Paulie’s arms.

He can feel when Paulie wakes up in the way his arms tighten, the sleepy-affectionate kiss against James’ nape, and he moves back against Paulie. Paulie rewards him by pressing slow, soft kisses against his throat and James leans his head into his pillow, trying to give him more access. One of Paulie’s hands rubs slowly at James’ stomach, making his tee-shirt ride up, and James sighs contently, turns a little so he can kiss Paulie, licking lazily into his mouth as Paulie’s fingers find the tender skin of his stomach, his fingertips stroking lightly over the line of hair from James’ navel.

“Can you be quiet?” Paulie whispers against his mouth, and it takes a moment for him to realise what Paulie’s asking, busy pushing against Paulie’s clever hand where it’s ghosting along the line of his sweats.

“Yes,” he says eventually, because, yeah, he’s in his parents’ house, and yeah, that’s weird, but he’s missed this, missed Paulie. He’s not going to say no, and definitely not like this, when he’s still half asleep, everything feeling at once more intense and less pressing. His arousal’s a lazy buzz which flares as Paulie presses his mouth at the juncture of James’ neck and shoulder, sucking lightly as he wraps his hand around James’ dick. James rolls his hips into it, lazy thrusts which match the gentle rhythm Paulie’s set up, the slow drag of his tongue up James’ throat, and James groans as quietly as possible.

“Ssh,” Paulie says, nipping at his ear, and James presses back into him as payback, gratified to feel Paulie hard against him, his hips stuttering against James. It feels amazing; James thinks he could drag this out forever, getting lost in Paulie’s hot grip on his dick, Paulie’s body solid and warm behind him, Paulie’s mouth leaving wet trails on his throat, at his nape. There’s sweat pooling on his lower back, his skin prickling where he’s touching Paulie, and he bites his lip and keeps as quiet as he can.

Paulie’s hand tightens as James thrusts a little harder, and then he loosens it again, rubbing his thumb over the head of James’ dick – and fuck, that’s something he remembers from the cottage. That thought, as much as the move itself, makes him shiver with arousal, makes his thrusts a little more urgent. “Been thinking about this,” Paulie says, voice raspy in James’ ear and James’ stomach clenches a little. He turns his head slight, and Paulie twists his wrist in response. Anything James was going to say disappears into a gasp.

“Missed you,” he gets out after a moment, voice barely more than a whisper. “Missed this.” Paulie laughs against his throat, quiet and warm.

He’s hyper-aware of everywhere Paulie is touching him, how close they are, and he reaches one arm back, rubbing aimlessly at Paulie’s hip, his ass, and Paulie makes a small noise, pushing forward a little when James pushes back and – they haven’t fucked yet, but just then James wants it, can’t wait till they actually have time to do it properly, and he has to bite back a groan that threatens to be loud, bite back the impulse to tell Paulie to just - . Instead, he turns his head back, lets Paulie kiss him, licking into his mouth sure and slow and knowing, and that’s it, he rolls his hips once, twice, as Paulie twists his hand down, rubs the head again, and James is coming, panting into Paulie’s mouth.

Paulie strokes him through it and then wipes his hand on James’ tee-shirt as James twists around to kiss him lazily, feeling sleepy and hazy again as he licks into Paulie’s mouth. There’s no intent behind it now, and even as he reaches for Paulie, Paulie’s catching his hand.

“That wasn’t –“ he starts, before kissing James again. It takes a few moments before he pulls away again. “Your parents will be up before long.” James tries to protests, but Paulie just smiles at him and says, “Pretty sure you can make it up to me once we get to the hotel,” and James’ dick twitches half-heartedly at the promise in his voice.

*
It’s after dinner when he gets the message – he and Paulie are out with his brothers and Stammer in a local bar. Stammer is complaining about missing Tampa, while Michael taunts him about heading back down to Orlando in a few days; Paulie’s contributing every once in a while, mostly chirping them both about what a terrible place Florida is. James is leaning back and zoning them all out when the buzz of his phone startles him.

It’s an email from the NHLPA, followed by a text from Sid – apparently the NHL has made a new offer, and Sid thinks it looks good. Admittedly, all James really gets out of it is that they could have games again as soon as the 19th of January, and he looks up at Paulie and grins.

“Looks like we could be going home,” he says. Paulie smiles, but he looks confused and James hands over the phone. “And you might get a chance to work on your tan this year,” he says to Steven, who grins and takes a pull of his beer.

“New offer?” he asks. James nods, sliding his eyes over to Paulie, who’s still reading, squinting slightly because he’s forgotten his glasses. James fights down the fond smile which he can feel forming on his face.

“Sid thinks it looks good,” James says, and he knows he’s failing at not smiling from the way Michael is rolling his eyes. “Could be back in Pittsburgh by January.”

“There’s a few things that still need negotiating,” Paulie says cautiously, handing the phone back to James.

“But Sid’s hopeful?” Steven asks, and he’s grinning too, so maybe James isn’t a complete idiot. This feels – it feels different, it has a date.

“Says it’s closer than we’ve been,” Paulie allows. He squeezes James’ knee briefly, smiling just at him. James grins back and takes another swig of beer.

“Huh,” Michael says, “I was so sure Bettman could have held out at least another couple of months.” He’s grinning, though, and puts his arm up to deflect the punch Steven throws. “God, sensitive,” he says, shoving Stammer and laughing. It’s nice to have a chance to roll his eyes at him for once, so James does. Michael just flips him off.

*
Paulie’s hotel is a non-descript chain hotel – it’s so lifeless that James feels another rush of guilt at letting him take it. There’s a voice in his head that’s pretty insistent that this is not the proper way to treat guests – James is pretty sure it’s his mom’s. He silences it by crowding Paulie up against the hotel room door, hands on Paulie’s hips, thumbs under his sweater and shirt seeking skin, and kissing him, warm and wet and slow.

They kiss for a while – James gets lost in it, the unhurried pleasure of having Paulie like this, with nowhere else to be. It’s sort of like being back in the cottage, he thinks, circling his thumb over Paulie’s hip bone.

Paulie pushes him away a little, manoeuvering him into the room. James goes easily enough, flopping down on the bed, but he’s not surprised when Paulie heads for the fridge and gets out water bottles. He catches the one Paulie throws him easily enough.

“Only had four beers,” he says, frowning a little.

“Not worried about a hangover, but there’s practice tomorrow,” Paulie says and grins when James groans, throwing a hand over his face. “Steven seemed excited.”

“Steven’s a freak,” James says, but he drinks the water. “Steven gets excited about bag skates.”

“No one gets excited about bag skates,” Paulie says, settling down on the bed as well. James shrugs – it’s not entirely true, but Steven deals with them better than anyone else James knows. Which isn’t saying much. “So, the lockout might be ending?” Paulie says after a moment.

“Apparently,” James says. It doesn’t feel real. “I mean, Michael’s right, Bettman might find a way of screwing us, but – it’s gotta give sooner or later, right?”

“Right,” Paulie says and James notices that he’s gone sort of tense, his voice a little tight. “So we’ll be back in Pittsburgh before long.”

James breathes out. “Yeah, hopefully.” He shifts closer to Paul as his stomach flips – he thinks he knows what’s going on. “You worried about it? Us, I mean. In Pittsburgh.”

Paulie exhales, but he leans into James. “It’s – I don’t know. Is it going to be awkward?” James isn’t sure whether he’s supposed to hear, ‘Are you going to freak out again?’ but he does and he breathes deeply, trying not to be annoyed by it. Paulie nudges him with his shoulder.

“No?” James offers. “I mean, if you’re asking whether this was a lockout thing, or – I thought we’d talked about that.”

“No, I just – It’ll be different in Pittsburgh,” Paulie says. “Back with the team and everything. Back to real life, sort of. There’s things we need to think about, like…” He trails off, but James knows what he means. Like telling the team. Like coming out. Like what’s actually going to change about how they behave together and what isn’t, and for a moment, it’s so huge, all of the implications, and then James swallows and looks over at Paulie.

“We’ll make it work,” James says, trying to sound more confident than he feels – a trait that he feels he’s been making too much use of this lockout. “I mean, we’ll talk this time, I can’t – I can’t leave for Canada during the hockey season, you know.” He grins awkwardly, to show it’s a joke. Paulie nudges him a little.

“Not worried about that,” he says. James doesn’t entirely believe him, but he feels slightly calmer.

“So, we deal with it as it comes, yes? And adjust what we need, like playing styles or –“

“Are you about to use hockey as a metaphor for our relationship?” Paulie asks, but he’s laughing a little, so James chalks it up as win in the diffusing-awkward-conversations-column. He turns and kisses Paulie.

“Maybe,” he says, “seems appropriate, right?”

“I don’t know,” Paulie says, still grinning. “Kind of try to keep my personal life free of hits. And penalty calls.” He gives James a significant look.

James squawks. “I’ve gotten better,” he protests, shoving at Paulie with both hands. Paulie flips him easily, pinning his arms and straddling him.

“I suppose you have,” he says, smiling down and James can’t help smiling back.

“Hey,” he says and it comes out dopey and fond. He doesn’t care.

“Hey,” Paulie says back. “So, getting hockey back?”

“Let’s go Pens,” James sing-songs, leaning up to kiss Paulie even as Paulie laughs into his mouth. “It’s going to be a good year, I have a good feeling,” he says when they break apart.

“Feeling sentimental?” Paulie says, rubbing his thumbs against James’ wrists.

“I trust my team,” James says, shimmying a little. He’s rewarded by Paulie biting his lip, rolling his hips fractionally against him. He grins up at Paulie. “Don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Paulie says, but his eyes have dropped to James’ mouth.

James is pretty sure they’re both on the same page though, so he circles his hips up into Paulie’s and says, “So, you said there was a reason for wanting thick walls?” He smiles into Paulie’s kiss.

4. Epilogue
Everything being what it is there isn’t confirmation of agreement until the 7th of January. Paulie stays until the 2nd, which James holds is way too short an amount of time, particularly considering that once Sid gets wind of Paulie being up, he makes Duchene bully him into coming to practice.

Afterwards, they end up going out for drinks with the camp guys and Subban, but even that degenerates into a discussion of playing styles and who looks strong in each conference, which – it doesn’t end in an actual fight, because everyone is still too hopeful, too optimistic about the potential end of the lockout, but the chirping gets pretty intense. At one point, James makes a quip about Lecavalier and he’s pretty sure the only reason he doesn’t get punched is because Subban comes back with beer and distracts Stammer.

His family also insist on having Paulie over for dinner every night he’s there, which is nice and terrifying. Becky keeps looking at them both with wide innocent eyes, and his mom and dad roll out all the embarrassing teen stories which have Paulie covering his mouth to muffle his laughter.

At one point, James comes back from the bathroom to find Paulie and Becky sitting and watching a football game. Becky’s kind of smirking and Paulie’s looking bemused; afterwards, Paulie won’t tell him what Becky said. When James keep pestering him, Paulie pins him to the bed, kissing him until James forgets what he was even asking. On reflection, he’s pretty sure that’s basically cheating.

The lockout does end, though. It feels like everyone on the team calls on the 7th – he talks to Duper, Cookie, Kuni, Flower twice because he got confused and forgot he’d already spoken to James, Geno and Tanger. It’s evening before he even gets a chance to speak to Paulie, and by then he’s so high on the idea of hockey being back that he can barely get any words out. Paulie just laughs like he knows exactly how James feels.

Packing takes longer than he feels it should – he’s tempted to just hire a firm to do it, but his dad frowns and makes noises about “Sensible use of money,” and pension plans, and he may have a slight point. James doesn’t have that much stuff up here anyway, or at least, it doesn’t seem like much once he manages to pile it all in the car. “Try not to beat the Leafs too much,” his dad says by way of goodbye.

“Say hi to the team,” his mom adds, “and take care of Paulie, okay?” James can’t help the flush that starts at his throat, but he can’t help smiling either, hugging them both goodbye.

He slows down heading into Pittsburgh. For all the jokes, it’s – it’s home, and driving into the city, seeing rise around him, he can’t believe he managed to stay away for so long. He can’t stop smiling, slowing down to fully enjoy the view – until he gets aggressively honked at.

He’s one of the first of those who left to make it back to Pittsburgh. Sid comes down from Novia Scotia a day before, and TK’s back as well. Duper has them, Flower and Vero over for dinner that night, arguing that none of them are likely to have food in the house or be able to remember where the grocery store is anymore. James tries to defend himself, but Sid just shrugs, even though if James knows Sid, he’s already ordered in groceries, ready to make perfectly nutritionally balanced meals. Freak.

It’s weird how easy it is to settle back into a rhythm together, chirping and trash-talking other teams and getting into weird arguments about who’s had the hardest lockout and eating way too much food even as Sid makes noises about the nutritionist. Carol-Lyne and Vero sensibly settle at the other end of the table and mostly ignore them.

Paulie comes back home the day after. James spends part of the day sorting Paulie’s house, by which he mostly means making up the bed and getting in beer – he has a key, why would he have a key if he wasn’t supposed to use it? – and part of it playing Call of Duty on the X-Box Paulie only really keeps around for the team, trying not to think too much about Paulie and Pittsburgh and having hockey back.

He doesn’t hear Paulie come in, doesn’t notice until Paulie’s standing in the living room doorway, leaning against the frame and smiling at James. It’s only been a little over a week, hardly any time at all, but James’ stomach flips at the fondness on Paulie’s face.

“You finally made it,” he says stupidly, getting up.

“Yeah,” Paulie says, hugging James, familiar and comfortable. “Finally back.” James grins into his neck and thinks, yes.

*

It’s mid-January and the lockout’s over. James still can’t stop grinning as he skates, looking over to see Geno, Duper and the rest of the Pens on the ice. They’ve got less than a week before their first game, and they’re all rusty as a team, not passing as well as they could be, but no one can quite keep a serious face even when Dan points out their weak spots and tells them how far short they’re still falling. He’s trying to be all business, but even he can’t quite keep a straight face, particularly in the face of Sid’s non-stop beaming.

There’s a quiet moment while Dan runs through a few notes with Flower. James skates over to where Paulie’s re-lacing his skates. “Eat at home tonight?” he says, trying to be subtle, but probably failing to hide his smile. This isn’t new and no one’s looking at them, no one on the team thinks it’s weird. But when Paulie looks up at him and grins a little, it feels different. Not even better, just – different. Good, though, and James can feel his mouth stretch into a broader smile.

“You saying you want me to cook?” Paulie straightens up, nudging James with his shoulder. “Mind on the ice, Nealer.”

“That’s not a no,” James points out, even though he wasn’t really expecting an answer; he has basically been living at Paulie’s since they got back. He likes asking – likes the reminder of how things have changed. Paulie shakes his head, but he’s still smiling.

“I guess you could come by,” he says quietly, meeting James’ eyes, and James feels light-headed, a little giddy, grinning again.

“Nealer, stop talking, need someone to pass puck!” Geno calls from across the ice – he and Kuni are lining up; it looks like they’re practicing line rushes. James nudges Paulie one last time and skates off, moving back into his position on the line.