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Your Thin Disguise

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by mistfarer

Contrary to what James – and by extension, everyone on the team – thinks, Paul is not a natural born morning person. In high school, he had to drag himself out of bed to go to training before class, and in college, he takes the precaution of two alarm clocks even though his roommate wants to kill him for it. It isn't until his sophomore year when he begins dating Geoff, who is incurably chipper even at six in the morning, that he makes the effort to rise early with any real feeling.

"I told you," Geoff says smugly after Paul has dragged himself out of his cozy bed at some godawful hour one Saturday to sit on a park bench overlooking the river. Geoff looks particularly handsome in the early morning light, the sunlight catching on his dark hair and pulling out the shades of color hidden within. "It's beautiful out, isn't it?"

"It really is." Paul drapes his arm around Geoff's shoulder and tugs him closer. "Thanks."

Geoff kisses his cheek and hands him a thermos of his home-brewed coffee. When Paul moves to Jersey a few years later, he spends several weeks trying to get the exact recipe of Geoff's coffee right, searching for the right brand by memory of the label, before stumbling across it on a trip home. He promptly buys seven bags and ships them back to his apartment.

After Geoff, Paul finds himself rising early out of habit and jogging along the river as the sun rose, at least when the weather isn't awful. He carries the habit with him out east, and though Jersey isn't quite as stunning as Minnesota (at least in his opinion), the streets are peaceful when they're still mostly empty. His boyfriend in Jersey thinks he's nuts, although he appreciates the coffee Paul makes when he returns home from his restaurant – just in time to see Paul leave for practice.

"One day we'll have enough time for a full breakfast," Luke promises, kissing Paul apologetically.

"One day," Paul agrees.

That's probably the real reason they break up, but Luke sleeping with someone else also might have something to do with it.

He tells himself Luke isn't the reason he takes Pittsburgh's offer over New Jersey's, but everyone else, including his sister, sees right through him, and it's hard to deny it when he spends every day of his last five months in Jersey hating the sight of their house, wanting to tear down the photos of them he never managed to take down.

Despite his protests, Sarah helps him find a place and even offers to take him clubbing, laughing when he makes a face.

"I'm too old to go clubbing," he tells her, passing the hammer.

She taps a nail into the wall and shakes her head. "You're going to be too old for anything soon enough."

"Good," Paul says. "I'll be a crotchety old bachelor."

"You basically already are," Sarah says disapprovingly. "I heard you yell at those kids to get off your lawn."

"I have to keep it a certain height!" Paul protests. "I signed an agreement with the homeowners' association!"

"Whatever," Sarah says. "I'm just saying, you're not disgusting and you're loaded, you should try to find someone while you've still got your youth."

"I appreciate your concern, Sarah, but Luke was it for me." Paul sits down on the edge of his – new – bed, stroking his hands over the silky smooth sheets Sarah had picked out for him. "He was the best I'll ever do."

His voice cracks despite himself, and he squeezes the edge of his mattress in annoyance. He has practiced this, has stared himself in the mirror and said, "I'm fine," over and over until even he nearly believed it.

"Paul," she murmurs, squeezing his knee. "You'll meet someone a hundred times better than that cheating scumbag."

"I won't," Paul says with conviction. "I loved him, Sarah."

"I know you did, sweetheart." Sarah rises to her feet and offers him a hand. "We need to get you drunk."

"We haven't finished putting the nightstand together." Paul lets her help him up and makes a vague gesture towards the toolbox.

"You're rich now. Hire someone." Sarah marches towards his suitcase, which he still hasn't unpacked, and opens it up. "Do you have anything sexy?"

"It'll take more than a shirt to get me there," says Paul wryly.

"Don't be so down on yourself," Sarah says. "I'm sure I can get you at least halfway there." She winks. Paul groans and allows her to drag him to the bathroom.

Despite Sarah's best efforts, Paul remains single, mostly of his own volition. There are times when he arrives home to an empty, cold bed and echoing silence and can't stand the sight of it. Luke used to rub his shoulders when he came back from games or trips, if he was home, while Geoff's method of comfort usually boiled down to kicking out his roommate and putting a sock on the door. Now, Paulie takes a long, hot bath, occasionally goes out with whoever of the guys is around, and pretends to check out girls with them before finding a guy who looks willing.

Sidney is the only one who figures it out, takes one look at Paul's fixed smile while Max is saying something about one of the girls at the bar, and leans in to murmur, "I'll cover you if you want to find a bar that's more your speed."

Paul nearly loses his grip on his beer bottle. "What?"

Sidney shrugs. "Or the guy in the plaid shirt in the corner has been eyeing you up."

Paul turns to look and sees, yes, there is a guy with a plaid shirt and a day's worth of stubble watching him from the corner of the bar. "You think so?"

"I'll distract them," Sidney says grimly, and he leans over to tap Max's shoulder. "I think the girl in the blue top is kind of cute," he says, eyes widening innocently. "You think you can help me?"

Max whoops and leans over to punch Flower in the shoulder. "Dude, Sid is going for it!"

"Oh my god," Flower says. "Does anyone have a video camera?"

Sidney winks over his shoulder at Paul before letting them pull him up to straighten his collar and hair. Paul takes the opportunity presented by their distraction to head to the corner and say, "Hi."

The guy smiles slowly, flashing even white teeth. "Hey there."

"I'm Paul," he says. "Wanna get out of here?"

Like every morning after a hook up, Paul is the first to wake up. He gets all the way through scrambling the eggs before Eddie wanders into the kitchen wearing his plaid shirt over his briefs, scratching at the beard burn on his collarbone.

"You cook too?" Eddie asks in disbelief, sitting on one of the stools and accepting the plate and mug Paul passes over. "How are you single?"

"Hockey player," Paul says, as if that's an answer. The look Eddie gives him makes it clear he doesn't buy it either. "How do you like your bacon?"

"As crispy as possible." Eddie sips at his coffee and says, "This is great."

"Have as much as you like." Paul drinks his own coffee and glances at his watch. "I have to go soon."

"All right," says Eddie. "I can get out of here."

"Don't worry about it. Just don't steal anything." Paul passes over some bacon before taking the stool two over from Eddie.

"Aww fuck," Eddie moans around a strip of bacon. "I'd marry you for this bacon, I'm not even kidding. Marry me, now."

"I'm flattered, but I'm not the marrying type," Paul says. He smiles, to take the sting out of it, and Eddie sighs.

"I kind of figured," he says.

Still, when Paul gets back from his morning jog, he finds a post-it with Eddie's name and number scrawled across it, with the note, If you change your mind about being the marrying kind. Paul smiles and, after a bit of internal debate, tucks the note away so Sarah can laugh at it.

He drives into practice in a better mood than he's been in ages, humming along to the radio and tapping his hands against the steering wheel. He smiles at Sidney when he passes him in the hall and says, "Thanks for last night."

Sidney smirks at him. "Enjoy yourself?"

"I did." Paul jostles him lightly. "What about you, stud?"

"The less said the better." Sidney glances around, then leans in and murmurs, "There's a reason I don't take the guys along with me when I'm trying to meet someone."

"They're awful wingmen?" Paul guesses.

"The worst," Sidney agrees. "They mean well, but they aren't much use." He giggles and slaps Paul on the back. "See you out there."

Paul shakes his head and says, "See you, Sid."

Sidney occasionally helps Paul get away to do his thing after that, but then he's sidelined with his concussion and retreats from the world. Paul mostly stops going out, doubling down on his own training to try to keep up and make up for the holes in their line-up. He gives up most of his early morning routine, and nearly abandons it entirely until James Neal and Matt Niskanen fly in from Dallas. Paul is in the kitchen area of Southpointe with Jordan when they arrive, and he knows he should be more interested in Niskanen, who he could end up playing with, but he can't help staring at Neal, who has the fluffiest hair he's ever seen and bright, eager eyes.

"Hey," Neal says, catching his stare. "I'm James." He holds out his hand. "Paul Martin, right?"

"Yeah," Paul says, and he shakes James's hand. "Nice to meet you."

"You too," James says. He smiles, bright and guileless, and Paul thinks, Oh.

 

Love at first sight is for suckers, or so Paul always believed. Eyes meeting across a crowded room, or seeing your true love turn the corner ahead of you was the stuff of nonsense romance movies and childhood dreams. It took Paul the span of a party to decide he liked Geoff, and it took three dates before he really started to like Luke – which may have been one of the other reasons they failed, come to think of it.

And it isn't that Paul instantly falls in love with James – he's seen him before in any event, albeit on the ice – but he finds himself unable to stay away, gravitating towards James during team dinners and in the dressing room. Maybe it's the way James laughs, head tilting back, neck long and tempting, or the way he ineptly chirps Duper and yells at Geno as soon as he gets over being star struck, and Paul is always watching even when he means not to.

It's a bit of a problem.

Luckily, James doesn't seem to notice, always flashing that same clueless smile when he looks up to see Paul standing near him. It's worse because James is unfailingly friendly towards him, always greeting him and sitting near him and asking him about his family, about his life, about – everything. Paul tries to discourage it, but he can't quite make himself tell James no.

"Hey," James says when he catches Paul looking at him on the plane, pitching his voice louder to be heard over the plane noise. "What's up?"

Paul stares at him, heart beating double-time in his chest and blurts out the only thing he can think to say. "Are you still living in that hotel?"

"So far," James says. He's leaning on the armrest of his seat, half in the aisle, mouth turned up in that dumb puppy smile. "Why?"

"I, uh." Paul is going to jump off the plane. "I have a spare room. If you want."

"What? Really?" James lights up, smile turning bright as sunshine. "You're serious?"

"Yeah," Paul says, shrugging. "I'm not using it."

"Okay," says James. "Yeah! I mean, I want to see the place first, but dude, anything's better than living in a hotel."

Paul nods and turns away. He scrubs his hands along the fabric of his jeans, exhaling a shaky breath.

The day James is set to come over to visit, Paul spends nearly two hours running around, carefully hiding photos of him and Geoff or him and Luke, putting out pictures of Sarah and his parents instead, and trying to make the place look inviting. He puts on a pot of coffee to distract himself before James arrives, his hands remarkably steady as he pours the grounds over the filter.

James is ten minutes late, not entirely surprisingly, and the first thing he does upon stepping foot in Paul's house is inhale deeply. "Aw shit," he says. "That coffee smells amazing."

"You want a cup?" Paul asks. "It's just brewed."

"Yes, please." James follows him to the kitchen, humming under his breath. Paul lets him choose his own mug – predictably, he goes for the most brightly colored of them all, the one Sarah bought for Paul because it had a vaguely surly-looking penguin on it – before pouring the coffee for him. James blows on it, lips curving into an obscene o, before lifting the mug to his lips.

"This is amazing coffee," James says after the first sip. "I don't even need to see the room, I'll move in tomorrow if you promise to make me coffee like this."

Paul hides his smile behind his own mug, a dull blue-gray one with a thin white stripe along the top. "What if the room is the size of a closet?"

"I'll wrestle you for your bed," James says cheerfully.

Paul's hand tightens on his mug. "Don't be ridiculous."

"Okay, we could share, I guess," James says, turning away to poke around in Paul's cupboards. Paul is grateful for that, not liking how his face heats in embarrassment and desire. "But it isn't a closet, is it?"

"No," says Paul. "Come on, I'll show you."

It isn't a huge place, but James wants to poke through all of Paul's DVDs, examine his small bookshelf and laugh over the old college books – "Just because I'm educated and you're not," Paul says, knocking lightly at James's shoulder – and test out his couch. He wiggles around for a meditative minute, thumping the cushions and rolling his hips back, before pronouncing it, "Fine, I guess."

"What do you want from a couch?" Paul asks disbelievingly. "A massager?"

"That would be cool," James agrees. "Okay, what else you got for me?"

Paul rolls his eyes and leads James to the bathroom, which is probably Paul's favorite part of the place after the kitchen. The tile in the shower is a particularly soothing shade of blue, and Sarah had picked towels to match. When the bathroom is filled with steam from the shower, it feels a bit like being underwater, especially with how quiet the house can get.

"Room for two," James says, eying the shower. "Nice. Ever have anyone in there?"

It's a clear opening to get it out there, for Paul to let James know about him, but he doesn't take it. "I don't date that much," says Paul. "Now your bedroom is to the right."

It's a little smaller that Paul's, but the room has two large windows that let in plenty of sunlight during the day and overlooks Paul's small but tidy yard. James walks around meditatively, looking at the queen bed and the small desk in the corner. He sets his mug down on the nightstand and goes to stand at the windowsill. The sunlight catches brightly on his profile, tracing his straight nose and long lashes in white light.

Paul sucks in a dry breath and swallows hard before saying, "What do you think?"

James turns, smiling. "I'll take it."

 

Somehow, James talks Geno and Chris into helping him move his stuff. Even though there isn't a whole lot of it, Geno bitches the whole way, half in English, half in Russian. James chirps right back, asking if Geno is too weak or just too lazy to help without complaining.

"How do you put up with this on the ice?" Paul asks Chris in disbelief.

"It's a struggle," he says wryly. "But, you know, I have kids."

James dumps the box he's carrying on the floor next to the kitchen island. "We're not kids," he complains.

"Old married couple, then," says Chris.

Geno laughs and punches James in the shoulder. "I hope I get wife prettier than Nealsy."

"Ha, you never could," James sniffs. "Not with that face."

"Fuck you, Nealsy," Geno says, and they start bickering again as James shoves Geno down the hall to his bedroom.

"That's who you're living with," Chris says. "Sure about this?"

"Not at all," Paul admits. He takes one of the boxes from Chris. "Do you want coffee or something? Did James promise you anything?"

"Beer," says Chris. "But seeing as it's ten in the morning, I'll take coffee."

"Done." Paul puts the box down and slips behind the kitchen island to get a cup out of the cabinet. James's voice echoes down the hall, raised in squawky protest at something Geno is doing, and Chris and Paul exchange amused glances. Paul tops off Chris's mug and pours himself a cup as well. James has a remarkable amount of belongings considering he has been living out of a hotel, though admittedly most of them seem to be toiletries. Certainly none of it is kitchenware. Paul isn't actually sure that James has ever cooked for himself.

Paul is about halfway through his coffee when James and Geno tumble out of the bedroom, rumpled and laughing hysterically, James a high counterpoint to Geno's bass rumble. Geno hooks his arm around James's neck and drags him to the kitchen.

"Coffee?" he says hopefully. James makes big eyes at Paul too, sticking out his lower lip for good measure.

"Don't go spilling it everywhere," Paul says, but he hands over the neon penguin mug he now thinks of as James's and a pale cream one. Mismatched mugs were always a pet peeve of Luke's, something no doubt absorbed from years of working in restaurants, but the odd collection of dishware has suited Paul nicely.

Geno flops down on Paul's sofa, holding his coffee very steady, and says, "Not bad place, Paulie. Price go down because of Nealsy, though."

"Hey, fuck you," says James. "I'm not that big a slob."

"You gonna get your hair gel everywhere," Geno says cheerfully. "Smell like Axe."

"I don't use Axe," mutters James. He bumps his shoulder against Paul's. "Help me out here."

"I haven't seen all your fancy hair stuff yet," says Paul, smiling slightly at him.

James tilts his head to the side, grinning back, but doesn't come back with one of his faux-clever responses. Paul's face heats. "What?"

"Nothing," James says, and he circles around to poke around in Paul's fridge. "We need to go grocery shopping. There's nothing to eat in here."

"Sorry," says Paul dryly. "I'll do better."

"Well, we'll just have to go out for lunch," says James, closing the fridge. "My treat."

"Gonna buy the biggest steak," Geno calls, and James flips him off.

Chris and Geno split after lunch and a movie, leaving James and Paul to drive home together. James slumps against the passenger window, face smoothed out in a picture of serenity. He turns a little to look at Paul, his eyes mere slits, and says, "Have I thanked you yet?"

"For what?" Paul asks.

"For letting me move in with you." James reaches out and knocks his knuckles against Paul's shoulder. "It's really cool of you."

Paul shrugs. "It's no big deal."

"That's not true," says James. "I'm awful to live with, just so you know."

Paul snorts. "Shouldn't you have told me this before I let you move in?"

"Then you wouldn't have let me!" protests James. "I'm just telling you what my last – what the last person who lived with me said."

Paul glances at him to see James staring firmly out the window. He clenches his teeth and takes the next left a little harder than necessary. The unasked question stretches out, waiting for Paul to crack and voice it, and instead of giving in, Paul reaches out and switches on his stereo to drown out the silence.

They pull up back to the house without speaking a word to each other. James is flushed, mouth set in an angry line, and he slams his way out of the car. Paul sighs and stays in his seat until James has gone inside the house.

He knows an opening for coming out when he hears one – he's done it with people he isn't sure of, letting them ask or draw their own conclusions rather than confirming it himself. He also knows a disaster in the making. Paul drums his fingers on the wheel, staring blankly at the now-lit window where he can see James's shadowy form moving around.

Sarah picks up on the second ring, exhaling loudly. "Hey buddy, what's up?"

"How are you?" he asks, unbuckling his seatbelt and leaning back. "Everything good?"

"Paul," she says. "We talked, like, two days ago. You know how I am."

"Something could have happened between then and now," protests Paul.

"Go do whatever you're avoiding," Sarah says, and she hangs up on him. Paul sighs and pockets his phone before pulling into the garage. He grabs two beers from the fridge next to the door and heads inside.

James is standing at the fridge, squinting at its contents. Paul nudges his shoulder and holds out a bottle as a peace offering. For a moment, he isn't sure James is going to take it. Then James huffs out angrily and snatches it.

"Do we have anything to eat?" James asks, popping the top off. He chugs half in one go, sets the bottle on the counter, and raises his eyebrows, smile starting to come back. "Aside from kwin-oh-ah?"

"Quinoa," corrects Paul.

"Shit, that's how you spell quinoa?" James asks, flabbergasted.

Paul rolls his eyes, trying not to laugh and failing. "Yeah. I'll make something. Go – do whatever it is you do."

"I want to watch," James says. "Might learn something, you know?"

Paul gently nudges him away from the fridge and says, "As long as you don't get in my way."

James circles around to perch on one of the stools at the counter, taking his beer with him. "It isn't that I don't like quinoa, I'm just not in the mood," he explains. "I did man things today. I moved –"

"Boxes of hair products," Paul says dryly.

"Yes," James agrees. He leans forward onto his elbows, tilting his head curiously. "Where did you learn to cook?"

Paul doesn't answer for a moment, instead turning away under the pretext of looking through the fridge. The answer is the same as it is to so many questions about Paul's life: Luke. Their fifth date had been Luke pressed up against Paul's back, hand covering his as he showed him how to sauté onions. He smelled like his restaurant, thyme and butter and lavender.

"A friend of mine in Jersey was a chef," Paul says, reaching into the vegetable crisper to pull out some asparagus. "Anything you're allergic to?"

"Nope," James says. "Whip me up something special, chef boy."

Paul flips him off.

It's weird having James watching him and asking nosy questions as Paul washes and trims the asparagus, wanting to know all about what he's doing and why. He steals a spear off the baking tray when Paul pulls it out of the oven fifteen minutes later, swearing when he burns his fingers and mouth.

"Serves you right," Paul says mildly. "Stop trying to steal pieces before it's done."

"Yes, Mom," James mutters, sucking at his fingers in a way that Paul really doesn't want to see. He looks firmly away and sets to making them salmon, rinsing his hands off before taking out a knife to debone it. He takes his time, carefully sliding the knife through the soft flesh, and waits until he hears James move away to look up again.

They eat their first meal together as roommates around the dining table. James makes appreciative noises the whole time, talking with his mouth full about how great it all is. Paul stops thanking him after the first few compliments, unsure of what he should say in response. James volunteers to do the dishes after they're finished eating by grabbing the plates and taking them to the sink before Paul can protest.

Paul curls up on the couch with a book while James cleans, but doesn't absorb more than a few words of it, too distracted by the sounds of another person in his house. He hasn't lived with someone in more than a year – not actually a whole lot of time in the grand scheme of things, considering that before that he had lived with other people nearly constantly for ten years. For the most part he's liked living alone, but he had forgotten how much space another person can take up just by existing.

"Hey," James says, flinging himself down next to Paul. "I didn't know how full you like your dishwasher to be, so I just stuck them in there and didn't run it."

"That's fine." Paul pushes up his glasses and frowns thoughtfully. "We should probably work up a communal shopping list."

"Or we could just go together," James says. He pokes Paul's foot, and then rests his hand over the arch. "Are you ticklish?"

"Please don't," Paul says, pulling his foot away. James pouts at him.

Paul closes his book decisively and stands. "I'm going to bed," he says. "I'll wake you up in the morning if your alarm doesn't."

"Okay," James says hesitantly, staring at him. "You all right?"

"I'm fine, just tired." Paul scoots away from James, with his stupidly earnest smile and tempting warmth, determined to go to sleep and forget about what a colossal mistake this whole experiment really is. "You should sleep too. We have practice in the morning."

James rolls his eyes. "Are you going to nag me the entire time we live together?"

"It isn't nagging," Paul says. "It's just a fact."

"A nagging fact." James stretches out and catches the hem of Paul's sweatshirt. "Come on, stay a while."

"James," sighs Paul, reaching down to pull James's fingers away. Instead of letting go, James twists his hand around to grab Paul's fingertips. His skin is still a little damp and cool from washing the dishes, and surprisingly soft for a hockey player. Paul figures there's probably some moisturizer in the depths of James's boxes of toiletries, which would explain that, but doesn't explain why he doesn't immediately shove James off.

James smiles up at him, wide and too friendly. "Paulie."

Paul stares down at their hands. He slowly tugs away and says, "I'm going to bed."

In the morning, Paul makes coffee and eggs and bacon before practice, which they eat in the kitchen together, silent save for the scraping of forks against their plates. James, once again, does the dishes, and then volunteers to drive them to Southpointe.

It's remarkably easy to settle into a routine. James isn't as regular in his habits as, say, Sidney, but he's easy enough to predict. He needs coffee in the morning, he much prefers cleaning to cooking, though he's terrible at vacuuming, and he likes to be taken care of. Paul doesn't particularly want to be James's keeper, but he ends up cooking for him and picking up after him anyway, mostly because the one time he lets James cook, he ends up with a ruined pan and a shrieking smoke alarm.

"Sorry," James says as Paul stands on a chair to fan the smoke away from the detector. "I don't know what happened."

"Just – go open the windows," Paul says, kicking at James's ribs lightly as he passes.

They order out for food instead, going off James's diet plan, which he complains nonstop about until he bites into an eggroll and moans rapturously. Paul laughs at his expression, and James flips him off before swallowing and saying, "Okay, you're an asshole, but it's nice."

"What is?" Paul asks, opening a container of noodles.

"You smiling." James pokes him with a chopstick. "Why are you so miserable all the time?"

"I'm not," Paul says, startled.

"You never smile," James says. "And it isn't like, like Tanger, you know, where he kind of smirks a lot. You just seem sad."

"I'm not," Paul insists. He holds out the container to forestall any more verbal prodding. "Here, eat some."

James narrows his eyes, but takes the container and scoops out an obscene amount onto his plate without saying anything more. Paul looks down at his own plate and pushes his fried rice around a bit.

"I'm not sad," he says after a moment.

"Okay," says James. "Just grumpy, then?"

"No," says Paul, scowling at him. James pokes him again with a chopstick. "Cut it out."

"Stop being grumpy," says James, grinning at him. "Come on, smile!"

Paul bares his teeth at him.

James shakes his head. "Close enough," he decides, and he bends back over his plate.

James seems to forget about the conversation, but it bothers Paul for several days after, right up until they're out with some of the team at a bar. Paul decides, watching the rest of the team flirt with some of the girls at the next table, that it must have something to do with not hooking up since James moved in. He isn't Max – he doesn't feel the compulsion to have a new person in his bed every week – yet he's also aware that he tends to be more cheerful after sex. Knowing he's wanted is a boost of self-confidence that can't really be found elsewhere

Because Sidney isn't with them, Paul doesn't have someone to help distract the guys while he finds someone who might be interested in him. Instead, he volunteers to get their drinks for the first few rounds and ends up talking to the bartender, a tall, heavily tattooed young man – Paul thinks he might be the same age as James – with a wry smile and blunt, very large hands.

"You really should make your friends do the work," the bartender says on the third round, sliding across the pint glasses. "Not that I object."

"This way is more fun," Paul says, half-smiling at him.

"Come back after you deliver those drinks," the bartender says. He winks, a little clumsily, and Paul nods before going to hand over the beers. Max cheers, picking up his and raising it in salute, and James scoots over so he can sit, but Paul shakes his head.

"I'll see you at home," he tells James, and he returns to the bar after smoothing his hands over his hair reflexively.

"I'm Paul, by the way," he says when the bartender gets a free moment.

The bartender smiles, displaying a nearly perfect smile, just a slight gap between his front teeth that should remind Paul unpleasantly of Ovechkin, yet somehow doesn't bother him. "Cal."

"Short for something?"

"Calhoun," says Cal, rolling his eyes. "I have very Irish parents."

Paul smirks and says, "Well, Calhoun, how about a drink?"

"I'm still working," Cal says. "I'd get in trouble."

"What about after?" Paul suggests.

Cal smiles wider. "I might know a place," he says. "Stick around, I get off in a half hour."

Paul hangs out at the bar, catching snatches of conversation with Cal when he isn't busy making drinks, and nursing a beer. Every now and then he sees James looking over at him, brow furrowed curiously, but he doesn't make eye contact and he doesn't acknowledge him. The last thing he wants is for James to think he can come over and start talking to him.

And yet – just as Cal says, "I'm gonna go punch out, meet you out front in five?" James makes his way to the bar and settles himself on the stool next to Paul.

"Paulie," James says. "What's up? Don't want to hang out with us?"

"Not tonight," Paul says tightly, glancing at Cal, who is looking at James curiously. "I told you, I'll see you at home."

"Um," says Cal.

"My roommate," Paul says, seeing no way around it. "I'll meet you out front, right?"

Cal purses his lips – it looks quite attractive on him – but nods. "I'll see you." He glances back at James, who is full on scowling now, then slips out from behind the bar and heads into the door to the right labeled Employees Only.

"So," says James, leaning his elbow on the bar. His face keeps wavering between that scowl and a smug half-smile.

"No one on the team knows except Sid," Paul says sharply, turning to glare at him. "And I'd appreciate it if it stayed that way."

"I wasn't going to tell anyone," James says, raising his hands. "Just – I thought we were friends."

"We are friends," Paul says. "It isn't personal. I just don't like talking about – about that kind of thing."

"But we live together," protests James. "Didn't you think it would come up?"

"No," Paul says. "I didn't."

He starts to get up, only to be stopped by James grabbing his shirtsleeve. "Um," James says when Paul turns to stare. "I, uh. Me too. I mean, kind of. I date both. But yeah. So you know."

"I don't care," Paul says, and he tugs his sleeve out of James's hand before making his way towards the door.

Cal is waiting outside, wearing a battered leather jacket over his thin t-shirt. "I guess your place is out of the question?"

"Yeah," Paul says. "Is that all right?"

"No problem," Cal says. "My car's this way." He jerks his head over his shoulder. As they walk together, not touching, Cal ventures hesitantly, "Roommate?"

"And nothing else," Paul says firmly. "I swear." He reaches the car first and leans against it. "I'm all yours."

Cal smiles slowly, that funny little gap revealing itself again, and opens the door. "Sounds perfect."

 

Paul returns home the next morning to find James already up and in the kitchen, poking fruitlessly at the coffee machine. James doesn't look up at the sound of Paul coming in, just moves aside so Paul can do it for him. He's dressed only in his boxers and a t-shirt that's slightly too big for him, his hair even more of a mess than usual, and as Paul punches the buttons on the coffee maker, he has to fight the urge to lean into the warmth of James's body. He hadn't had a morning after with Cal, just kissed him goodbye and left, and it would be too easy to take the companionship he craves from James.

"Did you have fun?" James asks, rather acidly, reaching up for one of the mugs. He curls his fingers around the dull gray ceramic and stares firmly at the fridge instead of looking at Paul.

"None of your business," says Paul. "Do you want breakfast?"

James opens his mouth, then closes it. "Yes," he says grumpily after a moment of sullen glaring. "Why don't you ever want to talk about this stuff?"

"Why do you want to?" he demands, turning on James. "What do you want me to say?"

"Something!" James says. "Anything!"

"Fine. It was great. He sucked my cock and then I fucked him," Paul says. "Happy?"

James glares at him. "Delighted."

"Good. Now fuck off, I need to cook." Paul waits for him to leave the kitchen, then slumps onto the counter and swears into his hands.

James is standoffish and rude for the rest of the week, not offering Paul rides to the rink or the airport, or giving him any sort of greeting in the morning. Paul doesn't bother offering any apologies; he has no interest in James's forgiveness anyway. It's easier to ignore him when James is ignoring him back.

"You and Nealsy fight?" Geno asks when James very obviously snubs Paul during practice. "I thought you were old married couple."

"Old married couples fight," Duper says, glancing up.

"Man, Nealer wishes he could be married to Paulie," says Max. "Paul cooks, cleans – he's educated. He's way too good for him!"

"Fuck you," growls James, shoving his feet into his shoes.

Paul tunes them out as they start arguing, mostly cheerfully. He knows they don't mean anything by it, but he doesn't want to hear their arguments for or against their hypothetical marriage. He's been through it all in his head before.

They have a game on Saturday, which they win, and Paul goes home alone, having discovered that a one night stand had absolutely no effect on his desire to push James up against a wall and kiss the breath out of him. He goes to sleep early, exhausted from the game, and wakes a little after one a.m. to the sound of something thumping against the wall. Paul stares up at the ceiling, trying to work out what he's hearing, and then –

"Fuck," comes James's voice, awfully close to Paul's door, and Paul pushes up on his elbows. "Shit, fuck –"

"Shh," comes a deeper voice. "What about your roommate?"

"Fuck my roommate," James says, vicious.

Paul gets up and pushes the door open. James is pressed up against the wall, his shirt half-off, mouth bitten red. A man with closely cropped hair who is a bit slimmer than James is kneeling on the floor, his hands on James's belt.

"Paul," James says.

"It's Fred," the man on the floor says.

"No, not you." James pushes Fred off him and glares at Paul. "What?"

"Could you move this to your bedroom?" asks Paul.

"It's none of your business," James says snidely.

"It's in my house," points out Paul.

"Should I go?" Fred asks, looking between them.

"No," James says. "Stay. You have earphones, Paul. Use them."

Paul stares at him and can see, very suddenly, just how young James really is. He's twenty-three, the same age Paul was when he met Luke. It's been seven years since then, but Paul can still remember how desperate for Luke's attention he was, how he'd made up excuses to see him. He hated that feeling of desperate longing, has worked hard to avoid it since. He isn't even sure that you can fall in love at thirty the same way you can at twenty-three, and that's the real root of the problem here. James wouldn't be Paul's first love, but Paul is almost certain he would be James's.

"Good night, James," Paul says, and he retreats into his bedroom. He does as James suggests and pulls out his headphones to drown out the sound of James's loud, almost certainly exaggerated moans.

 

When the season ends, they all go their separate ways. Paul accepts Sidney and Jordy's offer to go with them and Max to Cannes, but spends the whole time vaguely miserable. He can't even enjoy Sidney's wingman help, too bothered by the remembrance of the way James said goodbye, his eyes downcast and his voice toneless.

Paul spends the summer at home in Minnesota, training and doing his best to ignore Sarah, who has always been able to read him far too well. She comes over nearly every day, apparently with the sole intention of harassing him about his love life. He doesn't tell her much, and he avoids so much as mentioning James by name. Naturally, this gets her curiosity going more than anything else.

"You never talk about him," she says. "You live with him, and he's on your team, and you still just say, 'My roommate.' I'm not stupid."

"I never said you were," Paul says, handing her a plate for dinner. "I just don't want to talk about him."

"Why?"

"Because, Sarah. There's no point." Paul slams down the serving spoon into the bowl of green bean a little harder than necessary. "He thinks he can make something happen between us if he keeps trying and I'm never going to let anything happen between us."

"Why not?"

"For fuck's sake, Sarah." Paul starts cutting the chicken with more force than is strictly needed. "For the aforementioned reasons? He's my roommate and my teammate. You don't shit where you eat."

"But you like him," Sarah says. "Don't you?"

"It's a moot point." Paul hands her a fork. "Serve yourself."

She lets the topic go as they settle onto his couch to watch her box set of The Wire, changing tacks to say, "I do have a friend who's recently single and looking to settle down."

"Is he willing to move to Pittsburgh?" Paul asks sourly.

"Maybe, if he had sufficient reason." Sarah nudges his shoulder. "Want me to introduce you?"

"No," Paul says. "I'm fine alone, Sarah, I really am."

"You keep saying that," Sarah says. "It's why I don't believe you."

"Please leave it," Paul says hopelessly.

To his surprise, Sarah complies. She does, however, give him a quick hug around the shoulders first.

Paul returns to Pittsburgh feeling just about ready to face another season of hockey and James. He spends some time getting his house livable again before training camp starts, buying food and cleaning up the place. He is in the middle of vacuuming the whole place when James returns home. He looks good, a bit bulkier, a little tanner, and it's distracting enough that it takes Paul a moment to notice that James isn't carrying any luggage.

Once he's sure he has Paul's attention, James drops his keys on the coffee table and says, "I'm moving out."

 

James doesn't go far – doesn't even go past the end of their block – but he goes. Paul doesn't bother arguing with him about it, just helps James box up his things. They don't talk much, aside from discussing what would go in which box, and Paul sees him off with little ceremony. Just before he leaves for the last time, James opens his mouth, then shakes his head and turns his back on Paul without saying goodbye.

It's strange, living alone again. Paul had gotten used to the sound of another person puttering around the house, to not eating alone, to the quiet murmur of James on the phone with his family. His first morning without James, he makes a pot of coffee that's far too much for one person and ends up dumping the remainder down the drain. He leaves the bright neon penguin mug out on the counter where he had put it and goes to the gym alone.

Hockey used to come to Paul as easy as breathing. It was a constant in his life, an escape from a wretched day of school or an argument with his boyfriend. But Paul has always felt just a half-step behind in Pittsburgh, both on and off the ice. He isn't the only one who notices it, either. Dan takes him aside a few times to talk about his place, about his job as a defenseman, and Paul takes it in but still can't make it work. He goes home from practices and games frustrated and angry and self-hating, furious at himself.

He returns from a particularly awful road trip and drops his bags in the hall before turning and punching the wall. "Fuck," he says, and he punches it again for good measure. His hand hurts, but then so does most of his body. He's ready to drink a beer and pass out when he remembers to grab his mail.

One of the envelopes is addressed to James, and Paul tosses it into the pile with the rest of it before glancing through the rest. Most of it is junk, but one elegantly addressed envelope catches Paul's eye. He slides his finger under the flap and wiggles it open before sliding out a stock card with silver script.

He gets as far as Luke Tremaine and Rafael Silva cordially invite you before he has to look away, his hands shaking. His heartbeat pounds in his ears as he tries to calculate how long it's been – not as long as he and Luke had been together, certainly – and has to dig his nails into his palm to distract himself from the memory of Luke saying, "You were just never here," his eyes wide with false apology.

He sets the invitation down on his front table to look at later and grabs a beer from the fridge. After a moment's thought, he grabs two more, and retreats to the bedroom.

Paul is still feeling shitty – both from the hangover and from the misery of their road trip – when he comes to practice the next day. James arrives a few minutes after him, looking annoyingly well rested and happy, chirping Duper cheerfully as he passes, flicking his towel at Geno.

"Hey," Paul finds himself saying when James sits down. James looks up, eyebrows quirked expectantly, smile only fading slightly when he registers who's talking to him. "You – I have some of your mail."

"Oh," James says, face falling. "I'll come pick it up, I guess. After practice all right with you?"

Paul shrugs. "Okay," he says.

"Okay," James echoes softly. He smiles faintly, the first smile he has intentionally directed at Paul in ages, and Paul involuntarily smiles back.

James walks across the street to Paul's after they arrive home from practice. He stands awkwardly in the front room, hands shoved in his pockets as if he's Sidney or something, while Paul flutters uselessly around the kitchen.

"You want coffee?" he asks after James refuses water and beer.

"Yeah, okay," James says.

Paul unclenches his hands, releases a long breath, and sets about making coffee. Even amidst the awkwardness they've created for themselves, this part is familiar, and it gives him an excuse not to look at James. "Your mail is in the pile on the table," he calls. "Just grab your stuff."

"Okay, thanks." There are some rustling paper sounds while Paul puts the coffee filter in. "Wow, I forgot to change a lot of things, didn't I?"

"Yep," Paul says dryly. "Should have thought of that."

"Yeah, probably." It's silent for a moment as James presumably reads through his mail. Then, "What's this?"

Paul turns and sees the wedding invitation in James's hand. "It's an invitation."

"To what?"

"You can read," Paul says, looking back at the coffeemaker. He punches the start button. "Why don't you try that?"

A moment later, James turns him by the shoulder, brows drawn together in a tremendous glower. "Is this the guy?" James asks, brandishing the invitation like a weapon. "Is this the guy that fucked you up so beyond repair that you can't even pretend to want a normal fucking relationship?"

"Me turning you down doesn't mean I'm incapable of a relationship, you self-centered –"

"You're such a goddamn asshole," James snaps, hitting Paul in the chest. "You never tell me anything¸ you just tell me to mind my own business. I don't even know your favorite color because you have to be so fucking mysterious all the time. And what's worse is that I know you know that I'm in love with you. And don't pretend you're not interested, I've seen you looking at me."

"You don't love me," says Paul. "Or you won't always. What's the point?"

"Just because this asshole stopped loving you doesn't mean I will," James says. "Are you so colossally fucked up that you can't imagine that?"

"You're twenty-three –"

"Oh, shut up," James growls. "Blah blah blah, you're so much more fucking mature than I am. Yeah right, you repressed Minnesotan fucking –"

Paul shoves him up against the opposite counter, hands braced on his hips, and kisses the last word from his lips. James drops the envelope on Paul's bare foot and reaches up to fist his hands in Paul's hair just a bit too tightly. He kisses desperately, arching up into Paul's body, clinging like he's lost at sea, and Paul knows the feeling, because he's drowning in the taste of James's lips and the smell of his stupid hair products and his weird, vaguely floral soap. He has spent so much time very firmly not thinking about what it might be like that every movement of James against him is a revelation. Paul wants to bury himself in the warmth of James's body and never come out.

He pushes back at James until he slides up onto the counter, spreading his knees for Paul so easily. Paul leans up between them as the kiss slows, loses some of its immediacy, as James hooks his leg around the back of Paul's thigh, urging him in languidly.

Paul pulls away so he can see what he's doing as he tries to pull up James's shirt, but James just drags him back in for another kiss, using his grip on Paul's hair to turn his head as he pleases. In retaliation, Paul rucks up James's shirt, fingers tracing patterns into James's skin, and smiles when James shudders pleasantly.

"Is this what you want from me?" Paul asks as he trails his mouth across James's jaw. "You want me to fuck you right here?"

"Yes," James gasps, turning his head. "Every morning since I moved here."

"You don't live here anymore," Paul reminds him, reaching down to unbutton James's jeans.

"You act like I – like I'm diseased," James says, finally releasing his death grip on Paul's hair to start working at his clothes too. "And you never fucking talk to me."

"Do you want to talk now?" Paul asks, making James tilt up his hips so he can get his jeans down.

"Fuck no," James says. "Are you joking?"

"Then stop complaining." James's abs quiver under Paul's hands, and when Paul chances a look up at James's face, he's biting his lip and staring at him even more wide-eyed than usual. "You okay?"

"Do you have –" James makes a motion with his hand.

"In the bathroom," says Paul. "You want –?"

"Go," James says, pushing at him, and Paul goes. When he returns, James is leaning against the counter, his shirt is draped over the kettle and his jeans pooled on the floor. He's palming lazily at his dick through his briefs, cheeks flushed.

"Are you always this impatient?" Paul asks, tossing the condom packet and the tube of lubricant onto the counter before going to work on his own clothes. James reaches out to drag him in by the belt loops and kisses him before pulling Paul's shirt off.

"I've been waiting since February for you to get your head out of your ass," James says. "That's a long time."

"Eight months is not a long time," he tells James, rolling his eyes. James kisses the corner of Paul's mouth, and then carefully takes Paul's glasses off before nuzzling along Paul's hairline. "James –"

"You can see without them, right?" James asks. He rubs his thumbs underneath Paul's ears, gentle circular motions that send a shiver down Paul's spine. "I want to see your eyes, is all."

"You like weird things," Paul says.

"Well, I like you," James agrees. "Now, come on, fuck me already."

Paul is more than willing to oblige him in that. James isn't interested in much preparation, just wants it hard and fast. Paul bites his lip hard when he pushes inside James, probably leaving sensitive spots in the flesh of James's hips from his grip, and drops his head when he's fully seated inside. James's hands flex on the counter, slowly, and then he breathes out and pushes himself up.

"Okay," he says, and Paul swallows hard. "Paulie –"

Paul pulls almost all the way out and thrusts back in, the slow drag ripping a groan from James's throat. Emboldened, Paul finds a pace that draws the most gorgeous sounds from James's mouth, and he hooks his chin over James's shoulder to watch his lips form them. James's eyes flutter open and he stares vaguely at him before reaching back to grab at Paul's head, trying to drag him in for a contorted kiss.

"Fuck, Paulie," James gasps into his mouth. "Oh, fuck –"

Paul manages to capture James's lips and kiss him, which is almost a welcome distraction from how his body is shaking, how he feels hot and cold all over, tense and relaxed and so overwhelmed that he's glad James can't see his face. Distantly, the coffee maker beeps, but Paul forgets it almost immediately as James collapses forward onto his forearms, panting harshly, his head hanging down to rest against the counter. Paul picks up the pace, pushing up onto his toes for a different angle. His arms are trembling, not from exertion, but from the effort it takes not to let go.

"Paulie," James chokes out, "Paulie, please, it's too much, I need –"

Paul swallows a gasp and stops, shaking. "James?"

"Pull out," James says, and Paulie does as he's told, stepping back as James turns around. There are faint pressure marks on his forehead, his arms, his stomach, and his cock is hard and leaking, twitching slightly. "Come back here."

When Paul steps back into range, James twines his left arm around Paul's neck and kisses him firmly before pulling the condom off him and wrapping his hand around Paul's dick. Paul gets with the program quickly and starts jerking James off, slowly at first until he whines in protest. James's own hand slows when Paul speeds up, seeming to forget what he's doing. Paul kisses the side of James's jaw, his neck, and uses his other hand to stroke James's still slick opening just as he twists his hand, and James tenses and comes, exclamation muffled into the meat of Paul's shoulder.

Paul strokes him through it, holding James as he shudders, and finally lets go when James lifts his head. "All right?"

"I," James says, blinking owlishly at him. "You."

He moves his hand, as if just remembering, and Paul nods before moving James's hand away and pushing his dick between James's come-spattered thighs. James moans as the head of Paul's dick rubs at him, his eyes sliding closed, and Paul links his hand with James's before thrusting into the stick warmth of James's thighs, some of the lube from earlier slicking way. He comes just a moment later, a gasp falling from his mouth, and he draws back as he drips come down James's legs.

"Fuck," James says, looking down between them. He drags a finger through the mess on his thigh contemplatively, then wipes it off on Paul's chest. Paul makes a face and bites James's lower lip in retaliation, which backfires when James moans and pushes up into it.

They are on their way to a potential second round, mouths buzzing from kisses, when the coffee maker beeps to remind them that it's done. Paul starts laughing into James's kiss and can't stop, even when James steps back to stare at him.

He only stops when James traces his fingers down his cheek, halting at the upturned corner of Paul's lips. His smile starts to fade as James stares at him, and he's about to ask what's wrong when James suddenly beams and says, "I'd like that coffee now."

They drink coffee in their underwear, sitting on Paul's bed and watching the TV Paul has set up on the dresser. James has his ankle hooked over Paul's, and he rubs his toes over the bone in time to the music of one of the ads as he sips his coffee. He's using the vivid penguin mug again, and it's almost like nothing has changed, except for the whole mostly naked thing.

"My favorite color is blue," Paul says as the commercial changes into an episode of How I Met Your Mother. James looks over at him, mug frozen halfway to his mouth. "But not just blue blue, it's – in the morning during winter, the Mississippi by the college would be this really beautiful blue gray." He shrugs and takes a long draw of his coffee. "I don't know what you would call it, but that's my favorite color."

"Okay," James says after a moment, and he scoots in closer to rest his head on Paul's shoulder while Barney does something with a false mustache onscreen.

James stays for dinner, which he "helps" with mostly by getting in the way and trying to kiss Paul while Paul is doing things like cutting vegetables and taking meat out of the oven, and he stays the night, and he just...doesn't leave. He goes home for some of his clothes and toiletries, but more often than not he's at Paul's, to the point where it becomes a joke amongst the team that if you're looking for James, just look for Paul.

"I'm not sure James has running water," Craig says. "Does he just shower at your place, Paul?"

Frequently, Paul thinks as he glances over at James. "Yeah, I guess."

"You're way too nice," Craig says, shaking his head.

"Pushover Paul," quips Duper, winking to show he's kidding. Paul shrugs and bends down under the pretext of adjusting his laces.

"My house isn't that bad," James says on their way to the airport afterwards. He, as usual, has claimed the window seat and tried to stretch out his gangly limbs as much as he can. "I mean, I didn't die there."

"I don't know how," Paul says. "I've seen you try to cook."

"Premade meals," James mutters, and he hits Paul when he laughs. "Shut up."

Paul just smiles at him, some of the tightness he has been carrying around in his chest for months – maybe years – unwinding just a little. James glances across the aisle to where Sidney is talking with Flower, then quickly grabs Paul's hand in his and hides their linked hands between their legs.

"Fuck," Paul mutters. He wants nothing more than to kiss James, and one look at James's face, naked longing writ clearly across it, tells him James feels the same. James squeezes his hand, biting his lower lip, and closes his eyes.

Travel is hard, being so close but unable to find excuses to spend time together without cluing their road roommates in on the situation. Paul gets the impression James would be fine with telling people, but Paul wants to keep their relationship to themselves for as long as possible, to put off the day when someone will tell them how stupid and irresponsible they're being. This thing with James is the only thing Paul has going for him now, the only thing that makes Paul smile anymore.

Still, he probably should have told his family before they came to surprise him for Thanksgiving.

James answers the door, because everything has to go wrong somehow, and he's wearing one of Paul's Minnesota t-shirts, worn and ragged at the hems, and a pair of briefs that are only probably his. Paul, who is in the kitchen, hears Sarah's familiar startled yelp, and nearly drops the mug he's holding.

"What the fuck?" he demands, circling around so he can see the front door. Sarah is standing on the doorstep, a deep blue scarf around her neck and the handle of a suitcase in her hand. Behind her are their parents, looking similarly thunderstruck. "Oh, shit."

"Paul," his mom says, "language."

"Hi," James breaks in. "I'm James."

 

"We thought we'd surprise you for the holiday," Sarah explains sheepishly after they all hug hello. She sheds her winter clothes onto the couch while their parents make themselves at home in the guest bedroom. "I didn't know about, um. James."

She gives him a significant look that he studiously ignores, falling back on nearly thirty years of practice. She sighs and pinches him, hard, just above his elbow.

Paul swears and shoves her off. "What?"

"James," she says, pinching him again. "You never said a word."

"There's nothing to say," Paul mutters, scooting away from her.

"He's wearing your clothes." Sarah looks over to where James is (badly) pretending to watch television. "I thought he moved out."

"He did," Paul says.

"Really." Sarah arches her eyebrows. "You know Mom and Dad are going to insist on him coming to Thanksgiving."

Paul groans and goes to make coffee for lack of anything better to do. "I know."

"Just – be prepared. I'll let you lie to me, but Dad's nosy as hell." Sarah kisses his cheek and slaps his back. "I know you have a game tonight, so I'll leave you two alone, but don't think you're getting out of telling me about this."

"There's nothing to talk about," Paul says to the coffee maker. He tilts his head against his cabinets. When he licks his lips, he tastes the remnants of James's toothpaste.

"Okay," Sarah says quietly. She squeezes his shoulder and leaves. Paul stands at the counter while the coffee brews, panic stewing in the back of his mind.

They lose their game to the Blues in overtime, Paul performing badly enough that he doesn't play full minutes. Sidney takes three penalties in his second game back and is clearly unhappy after, downcast during his postgame. James, who had briefly been happy thanks to his goal in the third, loses his spark quickly and sits quietly in his stall while Sidney talks to some of the team, trying to be intent though Paul personally thinks the mustache attempt undercuts his seriousness.

When he gets to Paul, his expression grows pitying, and Paul rips the tape off his legs with more force than needed. "Paul," Sidney says. "You need to relax a little."

"I know," Paul says quietly.

Sidney sighs. "I know you know. But –" He hesitates, then shakes his head. "Stop letting things get into your head."

Paul forces himself not to glance over at James. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Sid."

Sidney smiles tightly. "We all made mistakes tonight."

Paul hears, But don't make them again.

The last thing he wants to do is go home and talk to his family, but he can't kick them out and it would be worse to go to James's house to avoid them. His mom seems to sense his mood and just kisses his head before going to bed, and his dad claps him bracingly on the shoulder. Sarah, of course, has never been one to pander to Paul's moods.

"Help me with the dishes," she says, bullying him into the kitchen. He goes despite his reservations and lets her hand him the plates after she rinses them.

She doesn't say anything for a good five minutes, focused very intently on scrubbing away whatever she and their parents had eaten for dinner. Once Paul has relaxed, shoulders loosening from the miserable tension he carries around after losses, she pounces.

"I thought dating someone would be an improvement," she says idly, rinsing off the last dish. "For you, I mean."

He eyes her warily. "Yes?"

"But –" Sarah squeezes his hip with a damp hand. "You seem just as much of a miserable fuck as before."

"Thanks," Paul says wryly, twisting away from her.

"Paul –"

"There's more to my life than who I'm fucking, all right? Can we not talk about James for one conversation? Just once?"

"Fine." Sarah slams the cupboard open a little harder than usual. "What do you want to talk about? Why you look like ass out on the ice?"

"Fuck you," he snaps.

"Okay, then what?" Sarah turns and crosses her arms. "Look, I know we don't talk about things, not in depth, but you don't talk about anything."

Paul stares at his wall. "Sarah –"

"Whatever," she says shortly. "Don't talk. I'll get it out of James tomorrow."

She disappears into the bathroom, leaving Paul alone in the kitchen. He squeezes his eyes shut, flexing his hands, then goes into his bedroom to sleep away the memories of the game.

 

In the morning, Sarah is all smiles, and Paul is just as polite to her as usual. Their father, who is the lightest sleeper Paul knows, only references the fight he must have overheard by saying vaguely, "Glad to see you're feeling better this morning."

James shows up at nine, bleary-eyed and clearly having forgotten Paul's family is in town. He freezes upon seeing Sarah and Paul's mom doing obscene things to a turkey and says, "I can leave."

"Nonsense," Sarah calls, glancing at Paul. "Stay! We have the parade on if you're interested."

Paul hands James a cup of coffee and shrugs. "Sorry."

"Oh no, this is awesome." James curls fingers around the mug and smiles over the edge. "Free food? I'm always down."

"Mooch," mutters Paul.

They watch the parade together until Paul is summoned to do the side dishes. James, to his surprise, comes to watch.

"I usually see you make, like, normal food," he explains in response to Paul's questioning look. "This is different."

"Not that different," Paul says. He tries to ignore James's presence at his side and manages for a whole two minutes before he snaps. "Look, if you're just going to stand there, could you at least help me out?"

James immediately puts down his mug of coffee. "What can I do?"

So Paul, with James's help, prepares the mashed potatoes and the green beans and the sweet potato casserole and the jello salad, the last of which prompts a very skeptical eyebrow raise.

"This is not salad," James says. "Salad has green stuff."

"The jello is green," says Paul.

"You know what I mean." James tucks his hand into the back pocket of Paul's jeans, squeezing lightly. Paul jumps and glares at him. "What? It's not like they don't know."

"That's not the point," says Paul. "I'm busy."

"Oh, shut up," James says, and he follows it up with a kiss, slow and promising, grinding up against Paul's hip without any sort of urgency.

"Stop," Paul says softly when James pulls back. "My parents are here."

James nips at his bottom lip but steps back. "I know. Maybe later, then."

He pulls Paul back into the living room and curls up into him on the couch as Sarah turns on The Wizard of Oz, a Martin family tradition. James's weight is heavy against Paul's arm until he shifts and lets James nestle against him fully. Sarah, from the armchair, shoots him a look that makes him dearly want to flip her off.

He has never brought anyone home for Thanksgiving, even though he had come out to them at age sixteen and had their support ever since. Sarah had on occasion, the same boyfriend three years running before they broke up and then a different guy a couple years later. Geoff went home to his own family, and so did Luke, given that Paul was usually in the middle of a hockey season. It's – intimate. Like he has already brought James in as part of the family, before they've even known each other a year.

James falls asleep halfway through the movie, head lolling down against Paul's collar, and after a moment's thought, Paul grabs one of the pillows for his lap and tugs James down so he sprawls across the couch. He hadn't put any product in his hair, so it's soft and fluffy against Paul's fingers and before he realizes what he's doing, he's stroking his fingers through it, scratching lightly at James's scalp.

James looks very young in sleep, younger than the twenty-four he just turned. Paul has noticed it before, always with the same vague sense of guilt, but he feels it more acutely now with his family around him and James curled up like a cat on his couch and in his lap. James could do so much better than a shitty defenseman on the decline. He should do better.

"He seems like a sweet boy," says his mother as she gets up to check on the turkey. She rests a lingering hand on Paul's head, gentle as a kiss. "Do you think he wants anything to drink?"

"Probably beer," says Paul without looking away from the screen. "Thanks, Mom."

James wakes up at the sound of the beer bottles clinking on the table. "Oh, thanks!" he says, not bothering to sit up. He presses into Paul's hand. "Mm, that feels nice."

Paul scratches a little harder, digging in at the base of James's skull. "Yeah?"

"Mm hmm." James preens under Paul's touch, practically beaming. Paul really shouldn't be surprised that James blossoms under attention to his hair, but it's oddly gratifying to draw that smile from him anyway. Paul squeezes James's neck, chasing the tension from it, and urges him up.

"Real Minnesotan beer," Paul says, handing him one of the bottles. "If you don't like it, tough."

James snorts and clinks their bottles together. "Happy American Thanksgiving, Paulie."

They eat Thanksgiving lunch a little after two, once the bird is fully cooked and all the sides are finished. Paul's father tells them all about his golf score improvement until his mom smacks him and says, "No one cares, dear." She turns to James instead and, with a devilish gleam in her eye, asks him about his family.

Paul has met bits and pieces of James's family, though he hasn't met all of James's siblings. It's funny to see the way James changes around his brothers, becoming more authoritative and demanding. He's terrible at it, since none of them listen to him, but Paul likes watching him try, face screwed up in annoyance and determination.

It's strange how much more you can learn about a person by seeing them with their family. Geno is mostly the same, a little more petulant like having his mother around turns him into a child. Sidney preens under the attention and spoils his sister when he isn't teasing her. Paul himself feels like he regresses to a teenager, forgets that he's an adult with a well-paying profession and a home far away from Minnesota.

James, naturally, takes full advantage as soon as Paul's family finishes asking him questions. "Tell me about Paul," he says, spooning mashed potatoes onto his plate. "What was he like as a kid?"

"Oh, he had the best hair," sighs Paul's mother. "I wish we'd known you would be here, James, I would have brought photos!"

"Mom," complains Paul.

"Oh, hon, you were just so cute," she says, patting his arm. "Our little Mr. Hockey."

"Mom," Paul groans as James's ears practically prick up.

They miraculously finish eating without completely destroying all of Paul's self-confidence, James eating so much food that Paul is genuinely concerned about getting him to move after, and they all return to the couch to watch football and digest. Paul gets up during one of the commercial breaks to do the dishes and is followed by his father, who waits until the game starts up again to do his version of the Martin interrogation.

"So you and James," he says, and then falls silent, waiting for Paul to fill in the gaps.

"It's nothing serious," Paul says.

"Doesn't seem that way to me," his father says mildly. "Now," he continues as Paul opens his mouth, "I'm not saying that I understand your situation, because I can't. I just hope you know a good thing when it comes to you."

Paul bites his tongue against the instinctual retort that what he and James have is nothing special. His father rarely broaches the subject of relationships with Paul, choosing to leave that thorny issue to his wife and daughter, and Paul is oddly touched that he's trying at all. "Thanks, Dad," he says instead, and his father nods stiffly before wrapping his arm around Paul's shoulders in an awkward hug.

"You'll be fine," his dad says bracingly, utterly sure. Paul wishes he shared his faith. After a moment, his father clears his throat, releases Paul, and asks, "Have you been keeping up with how the Gophers are doing?"

Paul latches onto the change of subject gratefully. Once they finish with the dishes, they rejoin the family to watch the end of the game. The moment Paul sits down, James lays down on him again, groaning about eating too much food. Paul resists mocking him and just strokes his head again, relaxing slightly.

It's only when James stays the night, curling up around Paul like an amorous squid, that Paul realizes he's gotten used to this. That, despite his protestations, his affection for James has not ebbed in the slightest. James has wedged his way under Paul's skin and stayed there, like a splinter that only hurts when you poke at it.

 

James seems to grow with every game, as though a fire was lit underneath him at the beginning of the season, and Geno's right there with him, the two of them carrying the team in Sidney's second absence. He gets a contract extension and a special on NBC and TSN devoted to him. Paul specifically requests that he be in it as little as possible, but since James does come over for breakfast even on the mornings he doesn't sleep over at Paul's, it's hard to explain why he doesn't want to be. So he's in it, for a few seconds at the beginning, awkwardly asking James how the eggs are, like James hasn't explained at great length how he likes his eggs cooked. They ask him for some soundbites after, and he obliges, hoping he doesn't come off too nuts or weird.

James is smart enough to avoid Paul's while the cameras are following him around, but he isn't smart enough not to keep his mouth shut around his family. Paul gets a talk from every family member that's visiting: some are vaguely approving (Mrs. Neal), some are overtly threatening (Mr. Neal), and some are just embarrassing for everyone involved (James's best friend from elementary school, who has a lot of nosy questions).

"Jesus Christ," says James when he walks in on Tommy asking Paul if James used a lot of tongue. "What the hell?"

"I remember that girl you dated in high school saying you used too much tongue," Tommy says defensively. "I was just hoping you'd outgrown that."

"Please tell me you didn't answer that," says James. Paul just gives him a look. "Okay, good. Tommy, I swear to god –"

Paul leaves James's kitchen while James yells at Tommy. He finds Mrs. Neal in James's bedroom, folding his clothes, and he instinctively moves to help her. She smiles at him and separates the shirts into another pile for him. He folds them mechanically, methodically pushing away the voice at the back of his head that reminds him he's done this for James way too often.

"So Paul," Mrs. Neal says eventually, "normally I'd ask how you and Jimmy met, but I guess we already know that one, don't we?" She chuckles. "It's funny; he never talks about you that much but when he does, he always smiles."

"I –" Paul starts, unsure of what to say. Mrs. Neal has already said she thinks he's a good influence on her son, and that she's glad someone keeps him from starving to death, so he isn't sure where this going. "Does he?"

"Oh, yes." Mrs. Neal pats Paul's hand. "And I can tell you care a lot about him."

Paul chokes on the words I don't. He suddenly can't bring himself to lie, not with her warm gaze on him and the smell of James's laundry filling the air. "He's – very special."

Mrs. Neal beams at him. "Sometimes I wish I had taught him more about living on his own, but you know, boys in Canada leave home so early. I'm afraid I ran out of time."

"It's all right," Paul says. "I don't mind."

"But you, you went to college! Tell me a little about that," she prompts, and so Paul haltingly tells her about his studies as they finish folding up James's clothes.

The Neals take Paul out for dinner on their last night in town, insisting that it's their way of repaying him for everything he's done for James. Paul suspects it's really a "get to know the family" dinner but doesn't protest. James grabs his hand under the table halfway through their appetizers and refuses to let go even when Paul kicks him.

James comes home with him, too, his parents smiling at them knowingly as James drags Paul up the front walk. Paul barely has a moment to feel embarrassed before James is dropping to his knees in the front hall.

"James –"

"My parents love you, we haven't had sex in like a week, and shut up," James says without pausing for breath, and Paul stops arguing as James yanks his pants down.

 

Halfway through March, Paul starts having nightmares.

He usually doesn't remember his dreams, but he can recall the first one with startling clarity, the pressure on his face as he clawed uselessly at the water that surrounded him, his ears filled with the pounding of his heart.

It's all the more surprising because it comes on the heels of a blowout win against the Jets where even Paul had an assist and James had a hat trick. It's nearly a month past trade deadline, and Paul is still in Pittsburgh even though he knows there was discussion of trading him. Even Sidney's back, the same quiet but commanding presence he has always been. Everything should be lining up for them, and yet Paul wakes short of breath, anxiety crawling into his chest and settling there.

The first few times, James doesn't wake, just rolls over when Paul gets up to pace, but then he notices the circles under Paul's eyes and asks, "Hey, are you all right?"

"Haven't been sleeping well," Paul mutters, pouring himself another mug of coffee. His hand is still steady, but he feels shaky, his heart fluttering in his throat.

James wraps his arm around Paul's hips and leans against him, a solid, warm presence against his side. "Is it my fault?"

"No." Paul drinks his coffee and closes his eyes. "A lot on my mind, I guess."

After that, James starts waking with Paul and will curl up into him, sleepily combing his fingers through Paul's hair until his breathing steadies out. It's nice, though it doesn't stop the dreams, and it doesn't make Paul any better at hockey. He gets to the point of almost dreading games, not wanting the sharp spike of horror when he realizes he miscalculated, that he misread a play or fucked up a pass or caused a goal. He knows he's over-thinking things, but knowing doesn't mean it's easy to stop.

And then come the playoffs and Philadelphia and everything goes to hell.

 

All Paul wants to do after Game 6 is drink and forget the whole series even happened. But the team has to have their meetings and getaway day and Paul has to see the clean-shaven, downtrodden faces of his teammates as they answer question after question about why they fucked up so colossally. Dan is just as disappointed as they all are, his expression dour when he talks to them about the season.

Paul isn't surprised to get a call from the front office a few days later asking him to come in for a meeting with Ray, Dan, and some of the other coaches. James sits in the living room, watching him with furrowed brows and twitchy hands. The moment Paul hangs up, agreeing to come in the following morning, James gets to his feet.

"Did they say anything?" he asks anxiously.

"They want to see me tomorrow." Paul puts his phone down and rubs his face, exhausted and still achy with regret. "I would guess it's about a trade."

"It can't be."

"We just got blown to pieces by Philly," Paul says sharply. "If you don't think they're going to be making changes – and it makes sense to use me." He looks around his house, wondering how quickly he could pack up the place. He has the money to hire movers, which might be easier than doing it himself.

"Paul?" James says quietly. Paul turns and looks at him. "We both fucked up."

"No," Paul says, shaking his head.

"We did," James insists. "I got suspended. You –"

"It isn't the same," Paul says. "You were an idiot. I was just bad."

"So were a lot of us," protests James.

"I was bad all year," Paul says brutally. "Don't be naive, James. How long do you really think I have left in Pittsburgh?"

"You're not going to get traded!" James says. "You can't be. We need you. I'll tell them we need you –"

"You need me. The team doesn't." Paul rubs his face with his hands. "James, the only way I'm not getting traded is if every single other team says no, which could very well happen –"

"Come on, you're better than – than Horcoff, if he can be captain –"

"James, will you act like a fucking adult for once?" Paul snaps. James's mouth clamps shut. "I'm trying to tell you that this is going to happen. Denying it isn't going to change anything."

"What are you saying?" James ask, voice very quiet.

"I'm saying this –" Paul gestures between them, "—has to end. It shouldn't have happened to begin with."

"What?" James stares at him. "No. No, Paul –"

"You know I'm right," Paul says.

"Fuck you," James says after a moment, damp-voiced. "I'm sorry for being optimistic."

"There's a difference between being optimistic and being in denial." Paul crosses his arms, clenching his jaw so his lip doesn't tremble. "Did you think this could last?"

"I wanted it to," says James. "I love you, Paul, when will you get that?"

"God," Paul sighs. "Sometimes you make me feel so fucking old."

James glares, muscle in his jaw jumping. "You could stand to act a little younger. Take a chance."

"James –"

"Shut up," James says harshly, grabbing Paul's shirt. "Why do you keep doing this?"

It's better if I leave you first catches in Paul's throat. "Because –" He swallows. "It's better this way."

"Yeah," James says. He twists his hand, pulling him a little closer. "You keep believing that." He kisses Paul, surprisingly gently, just a light sucking kiss that leaves Paul breathless. "You can't make me leave until you convince me you mean it."

"I do," Paul says softly, even as he reaches out to James. "I do mean it."

James kisses him again, hand loosening its grip on Paul's shirt. After a minute of needy kissing, Paul backs James up towards the sofa, tipping them over onto the cushions, and lets James's touch chase away the memories of the playoffs and his anxieties about the morning.

As usual, Paul wakes before James and sits in bed watching him sleep while he goes over his options. He's pretty sure his agent has discussed his situation with Ray at some point – he gave him free reign to do so in case anything came up about it – but the number of people in the hockey world who know he's gay can be counted on his fingers. It never really mattered before if people knew or not, because his boyfriends never overlapped with hockey, not until James. Everything about their situation is stupid and irresponsible and Paul isn't sure he cares anymore. If he's going to be leaving Pittsburgh, he's glad he had this first.

He kisses James's temple and climbs out of bed for a shower and breakfast before getting dressed for his meeting. He isn't sure of the dress code, so he errs on the side of formality, pulling out one of his suits and a nice dress shirt. Despite the fact James is still fast asleep, Paul retreats into the bathroom to change.

In college, one of his classes had talked about the concept of a hair shirt, how wearing it would remind you of your sins and be a form of atonement. The last time he had worn this suit, he was sitting in the press box watching the Flyers eliminate his team from the playoffs. He watches his reflection in the mirror as he buttons up the shirt, leaving the top two undone. His face is pale, but set, and when he tries a small smile, it looks halfway convincing.

He arrives ten minutes early and sits outside Ray's office, knee bouncing up and down no matter how he tries to calm it. Just as he is starting to shake out of his skin from nerves, the door opens and Jason, the assistant GM, sticks his head out.

"Hey Paul," he says. "Come on in." He closes the door behind Paul once he's inside, leaving Paul with Ray, Dan, and two of the assistant coaches, Tony and Todd. After shaking hands with everyone and saying good morning, Paul lowers himself into the only available chair and braces himself.

It's worse than he could have imagined; they go over his last two years of work, dwelling on his playoff performance and his inability to pick it up, and it's like having every moment of self doubt over the last two years being played in high def and stereo. He knows why they're discussing it – has been giving it a lot of thought ever since he heard the first rumblings of being traded – but it doesn't make it any easier to hear.

"Do you have anything further to add?" Dan asks once they're finished. He doesn't smile, which is a relief. Paul isn't sure he could accept that right now.

"No," he says. "I don't disagree."

"All right." Ray bends over the legal pad he still uses during meetings, writing something down. He shows it to Dan, who nods, and they both look at Paul for a long moment.

"Do you want to stay?" Ray finally asks, gentle and soft. Conversations with Ray have always reminded Paul of conversations with his father, serious but friendly and sympathetic at heart. Perversely, it makes Paul more anxious than if he shouted. "Because if you want to get a fresh start, we would completely understand."

The idea is appealing; he could go anywhere. He could go back to Minnesota, maybe, or all the way to California or Colorado, somewhere he'd be a completely unknown entity and he could remake himself into the player and person he wants to be. Somewhere he could forget the taste of James's smile in the morning, the warmth of his body in next to him in bed.

But – he loves the glint of fresh sunlight on the water when he drives over the bridge to practice, loves the team from Geno to Sid to Chris to Brooks, loves his house and its multicolored mugs. And there is, of course, James. He could keep James.

"I," Paul starts, and then he stops, swallowing hard. Dan nods at him encouragingly, and Paul realizes, abruptly, that he could finish up his career in Pittsburgh if he wanted. So he takes a breath, rubbing his hands over his knees, and says, "I'd like to stay. I can do better for us. I will."

Ray's expression doesn't change. "All right," he says. "If you're sure."

"I came here for a reason," Paul replies, straightening and clasping his hands together to keep them from shaking. "I came to win the Stanley Cup and I know we can. Come this fall, I will be a different player. You have my word."

After a lengthy, nerve-wracking silence, Dan nods sharply. "Good enough for me," he says, and Ray nods in agreement. "Best of luck this summer, Paul. If you need anything, don't hesitate to call. If it's all right with you, Todd will drop by to help you out this summer and check out how you're doing."

"I'd appreciate that," Paul says, shaking Dan's hand, then Todd's. "Thank you for this chance, all of you."

Ray shakes his hand and finally cracks a smile. "I believe in your determination, Paul. I look forward to seeing what you can accomplish."

"Thank you." Paul feels like he's stuck on a loop, saying it again and again as he shakes Ray and Tony's hands, but he can't think of anything other than how much he wants to get home and tell James what they said.

He is startled to smell food when he enters his house, the sharp tang of bacon and the rich, silky smoothness of butter curling around him as he drops his keys in the bowl by the front door, right next to the set that James had taken back a month into their new – relationship. James's shoes are by the front door, his jacket flung haphazardly onto the floor, evidence of him scattered everywhere. Paul's eyes sting, and he presses the heels of his hands against them as he heads into the kitchen by memory.

James is at the stove, brow furrowed in concentration as he pokes eggs around the pan with a spatula. Paul comes up behind him and wraps his hands around James's waist, tucking his fingers into James's sweatpants as he kisses his jaw. James hums happily and leans back into him, but doesn't take his eyes off the pan.

"Good news?" he asks.

"I think so," Paul says. "I'm staying."

"I told you," James says serenely. "Now sit. Coffee's ready."

Paul kisses him again, catching the corner of his mouth, before grabbing a mug – blue and white striped – for himself. He drinks nearly half a cup in one gulp before making himself another with a little milk and sugar. He sits on one of the breakfast bar stools and watches James finish cooking. There's a lightness to him that he hasn't felt in – in years, and he realizes that this, this is what has come to mean home for him. He doesn't remotely miss Luke, hasn't missed him in months, and when he thinks of home, he thinks James and Pittsburgh.

"Almost done," James calls over his shoulder. His shirt rides up as he reaches for two plates, baring a strip of his pale skin, before he serves out the eggs and bacon.

James sets a plate down in front of Paul, beaming proudly. "I've been watching you," he explains. "I can cook, I just need to know what to do."

"James," Paul says quietly, smiling stupidly at his plate. "This is amazing."

James pokes at Paul's chin until he looks up. "There," he says, rubbing the corner of Paul's mouth. "You're smiling."

"I'm happy," Paul says. "My boyfriend just made me breakfast to make me feel better."

James blinks at him, smile slowly growing. "What did you just say?"

"I'm happy?"

"Not that part. What did you call me?" James pushes Paul's stool back from the counter and moves to stand between his thighs. "I thought I heard a certain word."

"My boyfriend," Paul says, smiling back. He curls his fingers in the hem of James's worn sleep shirt – one of Paul's old Minnesota shirts, once again – and pulls him closer. "You."

"Yeah?" James rubs his nose against Paul's. "So we're a thing. It's serious."

"I – might be in love with you," Paul admits.

"Might?"

"I am. I do." Paul lifts his hands to cradle James's face between them. "I love you." He has to look away from James's eyes as he says it, heart pounding a nervous beat against his ribs.

"Paulie," sighs James, and he falls into him, kissing him with increasing urgency until they're in serious danger of unbalancing the stool. Paul can't stop smiling, even though it makes kissing difficult. Eventually, James straightens, chest heaving and mouth shiny and red. "I know."

"You know?"

"I know that you love me." James beams at him. "You would have made me leave a long time ago if you didn't."

"I should make you leave," Paul says. "But –"

"But you love me," James teases. "You loved me so you stayed."

"That's not exactly why –"

"Don't spoil it." James pecks him lightly on the mouth before grabbing the other plate and taking the stool next to Paul. "Tell me it was at least part of your thought process."

"It was," Paul says.

"Good." James kicks Paul's ankle lightly. "It was part of mine."

Paul thinks he's justified in pushing their plates away to kiss James for that.

 

They go their separate ways at the end of the week, Paul back to Minnesota to start training, James to Toronto to train with Scary Gary. Paul nearly misses his flight thanks to James dragging him back into bed for a sloppy blowjob, and he spends it vaguely uncomfortable and wishing he'd had enough time for a shower. He texts James once he lands and is gratified when James immediately texts back with, happy ur safe!! :) :)

They keep in touch over text, James not being a huge email writer, but Paul learns more about James's day-to-day life than he expects anyway, mostly thanks to frequent photos and even more frequent complaints about Gary and Stamkos and Skinner. Paul works with his old trainer from the university, hangs out with old teammates that are in the area, and it's nice to have that familiarity around. Still, he misses James filling up the empty spaces of his apartment, rattling around, making noise. He wakes up in the middle of the night halfway through his first week home, cold and hugging a pillow, and texts James, I miss you.

In the morning, when he's more awake, he adds, You should visit.

"Are you serious?" James asks when he calls later that day. Paul is on his way to Sarah's, who had insisted he come over for dinner. "Because I can probably clear a weekend."

"Yeah?" Paul smiles down at his phone. "I'd like that."

"Let me talk about it with Gary first, but I'll come." James laughs a little and something clatters on the other end. "Trying to make dinner. I'm getting pretty good."

"I'll believe it when I see it." Paul asks him about what he's making and listens to James's less than poetic description of what is basically just spaghetti marinara. James's familiar voice is soothing in its Ontario vowels and slight roughness that comes at the end of a long day of working out. It fills up the negative space where James belongs, and for a moment, if Paul looks straight ahead at the road, he can imagine that James is sitting in the passenger seat beside him, telling him about his day.

He hangs up when he gets to Sarah's place, but she still immediately figures out something's up, because that's the kind of person she is. "You're smiling," she says when he comes in. "What's up?"

"Can't I smile without people reading into it?" Paul demands. "I smile!"

"Not like that you don't." Sarah pats his cheek. "James is good for you."

"It's not –" Paul gives up and smiles, cheeks hurting. "He's going to come for a visit."

"Good." Sarah moves into the kitchen. "Then maybe you can introduce him without pretending that he isn't your boyfriend."

"That would be a start." Paul leans against the wall. "So why am I here?"

"So I can introduce you to my own boyfriend. He'll be here in a few." Sarah chews her lower lip as she watches him. "If I apologize for teasing you about James, will you be nice to him?"

"Depends," says Paul.

"Ugh, brothers," she says affectionately, pecking his cheek.

It turns out Sarah's new boyfriend is smart and unpretentious and follows hockey but roots for the Wild. He expresses some displeasure when he hears Paul will be staying in Pittsburgh, saying, "You know, if you came back up here, you'd get the hero's welcome."

"He has other motives," Sarah says with a sly smile.

And Paul does; it used to be that no place would ever be home as much as Minnesota is. Now, he finds himself comparing Minnesota's lakes and rivers to the waters of Pittsburgh, the muted metropolis to the Twin Cities. He still loves Minnesota, even misses its horrific, occasionally year-long winters and muggy summers, but – he misses James more.

"You love me," James teases over Skype when Paul confesses this, mouth quirked up in his near-constant smile.

"I do," Paul agrees, fond. He starts to reach out, then remembers James isn't there. "And you haven't found someone new?"

"I never will," James says. "If I haven't dumped your pale Minnesotan ass by now –"

"Fine way to talk to your boyfriend," Paul says, laughing.

"It's okay, I still love that pale ass," says James. "And I can't wait to see it in two weeks."

"Two weeks?" Paul asks, sitting up a little straighter. "Seriously?"

"I'll send you a picture of my ticket," James says. "You better meet me at the airport. I only know how to get to bars in Minnesota."

"I'll be there," Paul promises.

He arrives at the airport early and spends a few minutes wondering if he should have made a sign or something. It seems like the romantic thing to do, not that he's ever been any good at gestures like that. There's also always the chance that it'll draw attention to him, which is the last thing he wants. So he tugs his baseball cap down low and hunches his shoulders to wait.

James arrives in a rush of people into baggage claim and breaks out in his wide, doofy grin when he sees Paul. He doesn't wave, but he does nearly knock over a small child as he practically charges towards Paul.

"Paulie," he says, skidding to a stop in front of him. He hesitates, then holds out his hand for an awkward bro hug. Paul clutches at the back of James's shirt and closes his eyes, sucking in a deep breath, inhaling the stale smell of airplane overlaying James's cologne and soap. His chest aches with the desire to kiss him, to drag him in and keep him close and tell him he's not allowed to go back to Whitby.

"Hi," James says when Paul pulls back, still beaming. "I'm happy to see you too."

"I'd take you out, but Sarah wants me to bring you over for dinner." Paul tucks his fingers against James's palm for a moment, then jerks his head. "Come on, it's going to take a while to get there."

They're most of the way to Paul's house, driving down a lot of tree-lined roads in a quiet suburb, when James abruptly points at a shady cul-de-sac and says, "Pull off."

"What?" Paul says, inadvertently jerking on the wheel.

"Pull off," James repeats, reaching over to wrest control from him. "That street looks nice and shady."

Paul isn't sure what James is getting at, but he does as James asks and turns up the road, picking a wide-spreading tree to park under. "James, what are you –"

James unbuckles his seatbelt and leans over, kissing him hard, hands braced on his jaw. Paul hits his seatbelt, and grabs at James, trying to haul him over, but the front seat of a car isn't conducive to much. James is too busy kissing him to help, though he does make a strangled noise of protest around Paul's tongue when he bangs his knee against the gearshift.

"My sister's expecting us," Paul reminds James between kisses even as he slips his hands into James's jeans. "We should go."

"Shut up right now, Paulie," James breathes, kissing his temple, his jaw, the corner of his mouth. "I missed you a lot, okay? And not just your cooking. And your ass."

"Romantic," says Paul, rolling his eyes.

James playfully licks the seam of Paul's lips and starts laughing at Paul's expression. "I love you a lot," he says. "Okay, we can go. I just really wanted to kiss you."

Paul drags him back in, kisses him deeply, gropes his ass to make him moan, and lets him go. "All right," he says, grinning at James huge, betrayed eyes. "Let's go."

Sarah is waiting on his front stoop, a bottle of wine open at her side. She stands up when they pull into the driveway and says, "Thank god you're here, I was afraid someone would drive by and arrest me for public intoxication."

"How much of the wine did you get through?" Paul asks, taking James's duffle out of the car.

"Oh, I don't know." She lifts the bottle and shakes it a little. "About half? You took your sweet time. Don't tell me why, I don't want to know."

"Hey, Sarah," James says cheerfully, coming up the walk and relieving her of the wine bottle before leaning in for a hug and cheek kiss. "Good to see you again."

"Hi, honey," she answers, patting his cheek. "You're way cuter than Paul's previous boyfriends, have I ever told you that?"

"Sarah," groans Paul.

"It's the truth." She holds out her hand, and Paul tosses her the keys. "Now come on, you promised me dinner."

"Make sure she doesn't fall over," Paul tells James before hoisting his bag and taking it to the bedroom upstairs. Downstairs, James and Sarah are talking loudly, though not loudly enough for him to make out the words. He pauses a moment in the doorway to the bedroom, just listening and enjoying the sense of a house newly-made home.

He rejoins them with loose, relaxed shoulders, leaning across the dining table to kiss James, who tastes of wine now, some drops of it still on his lips. Sarah gags dramatically, but when Paul glares at her, she smiles beatifically.

"Keep that up and you're not getting any dinner," says Paul.

"I'm happy for you, I swear." Sarah pats his hand. "Go make us dinner."

Paul shakes his head at her but gets up and goes to the kitchen to take out the marinating chicken and the pre-sliced vegetables and put them in the oven. He brings out some crackers and hummus for Sarah so she has something in her stomach aside from half a bottle of Zinfandel and sits down next to James, tangling their hands together. James glances at him, smiling, but keeps telling Sarah his story about Geno and Kris and the All-Star Game that involves a lot of vodka. Paul has heard the story more than once before; still, he loves the familiar spots of laughter, the lightness of James's voice, and he leans in closer to listen.

Sarah heads home after dinner, leaving much more sober than she had arrived, and the moment she's gone, James drags Paul upstairs, muttering, "I thought she'd never leave."

"Hey," Paul objects as James tries the door to the bathroom.

"I like your sister a lot," James says, closing the door and getting the bedroom door open. "But I'd like to spend some time with you."

"Fair enough." Paul pushes James down onto the bed and kisses him. When he pulls back, James is smiling, rather dazedly. "What do you want?"

"Anything," James says. "You."

And Paul smiles and sinks down into James. "I can do that," he says, and James laughs, bright and happy, filling up the room with sound.