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Losing the finals in game six—at home—was bad enough, James thought dully as he forced himself across the ice, but the handshake line might actually kill him. He steeled himself; most of the new players wouldn't be so bad, but the others? His friends? The few he still (secretly) thought of as his family?

He honestly didn't know if he could do this. But . . . since he knew he had to, he figured he should get it over with. “Like this isn't the shittiest thing in a whole fucking year of shitty things,” he said to himself.

So. Fucking handshakes. Congratulations—except not to Hornqvist, because James would never be that much of an adult. And then. . . .

“Congratulations, G.”

Geno ignored his hand and pulled him into one of his bear hugs; it felt so fucking familiar—how many cellies had they had together? Then Geno muttered something that James didn't quite catch—it couldn't have been what it sounded like—and James darted in for another brief hug.

The next one was a lot easier. 'Cause it wasn't like he and Tommy hadn't talked to each other at least once a week since he'd been traded to the Preds. And even though the two of them didn't have the weight of years—and the bond of lineys with good chemistry like him and G had—the hug felt just as nice. And at least with Tommy he could be completely honest.

“Congratulations. This fucking sucks,” he muttered.

“Thanks, Nealer. And you're fucking right. And not in a fun way neither.”

James almost mustered a smile.

And then . . .

“Nealer.” No hesitation, no awkwardness. Sid just . . . enveloped him. Of all the guys James had ever played with, Sid had changed the most. Which was all kinds of fucked up, because he also hadn't changed at all.

“Don't say anything,” Sid said in his ear. “Just . . . don't.”

Okay. James managed a nod. But he saw the looks he was getting from the guys waiting, so he managed a chirp.

“You still can't manage a decent playoff beard, Sid.”

Sid laughed. And slapped his shoulder—which somehow turned into a squeeze halfway through that James could feel even through his gear.

James headed towards the tunnel, wondering how long it would be until he could cry. Or felt something other than a gaping emptiness inside him.

**********

The general mood in the locker room was, if anything, worse than James's own. Everybody's emotions were shuttered tightly—although a couple of the guys were letting their anger speak for them in every jerking motion as they stripped off their gear; even Josi—consciously? Unconsciously? James couldn't tell—skirted around them as he made his captain's rounds. Some of the veterans wore an air of . . . what? Fatalism, maybe, and one of the two recent call-ups was trying his best not to cry; James had absolutely zero desire to see what the other one was doing. Wearily, he headed for the showers; fuck, he felt older than death.

He almost ignored his phone when it chirped at him, but figured he could maybe use the distraction. And then he couldn't decide if he was surprised or not to see the text was from Andrew.

I'm outside and would like to see you. But I understand completely if you'd rather not.

James shook his head. Only Ace; if he didn't like the guy so much, he'd wonder what planet he was from.

C u in 5.

He finished dressing, pocketed his phone, and after exchanging a couple of mutters, booked it out of the fucking wake.

**********

“James.”

James let himself relax into Andrew's hug.

“You played well. I'm sorry things didn't work out.”

Raising his head, James studied his face. “Yeah? Better not let your husband hear you say that.”

Andrew shrugged. “He knows. If you'd won . . . well, perhaps I wouldn't say it in front of him, but I'd tell you I was happy for you. Because it would be the truth.” The corner of his mouth quirked up. “I told him that I would greatly appreciate it if he'd only play against teams on which I didn't have any friends, but unfortunately, that's not possible.”

James felt like rolling his eyes. “Like you don't have friends on every team at this point.”

“Honestly, I don't. But even if I did: you're one of my oldest hockey friends, James. And one of the dearest. I'm happy for Sidney, of course—but that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to feel for you when you lose.”

This time, James initiated the hug. Or a kind of desperate grapple. Which he held for probably too long. Hearing the door behind him open, though, he stiffened slightly, and turning, led Andrew away a little.

Andrew's eyes went from him to the locker room door. And then back. And then he moved, positioning himself so he was facing away from the door.

“I hope I'm not intruding.”

“You're not; don't be stupid, Ace.”

Andrew looked unconvinced, but he didn't pursue it. “Well, I should go anyway, I suppose. But I did want to see you and say hello.”

“I'm real glad you did. Thanks.” James swallowed. “I mean that.” He hesitated—and then told himself, 'What the fuck; you're already miserable.'

“So . . . how's Simon?”

The question seemed to pulse in the air between them for a second or two.

“He's in good health. The last time I saw him he was . . . well, let's say a little down.”

If he hadn't been paying attention, he might have missed the way Andrew's lips twitched; he wondered what that meant. Before he could think of a way to ask, though, the locker room door opened and the second call-up walked by them without a word. Which was probably a good thing, because when James's eyes went back to Andrew, there was no mistaking the look of disdain on his face; guess Tommy'd been talking.

Andrew opened his mouth—and then shook his head. “I'm not going to waste my breath.” Which was probably just as well, since it wouldn't change anything.

“Before I go, James: Sidney's throwing me a birthday party next month. It's supposed to be a surprise, so naturally, everybody is warning me about it.”

Despite his mood, James managed a genuine laugh. “Yeah, I know. I got the invite.”

“I do hope you can make it.”

James wasn't making any promises. “I'll try.”

“Well, good.” After studying him for a moment, Andrew leaned in for another hug. “Take care of yourself, James.”

“Nobody else will.” The words slipped out before he could stop them. “Fuck,” he muttered. After a few seconds, he looked up and met Andrew's eyes. Before either of them could say anything—not that James knew what would come out of his mouth this time—there was another bang of the door behind them. Andrew turned away while James exchanged a terse “Later,” with Forsberg.

“One last thing,” Andrew said, reaching into his pocket. “I was asked to give you this. I hope to see you soon, James.” He handed James a folded piece of paper, patted him on the shoulder, and walked away without another word.

James stared after him for a second, then without giving himself time to think—or hope—he opened the note.

Does my key still work?

James stared at those five words for a few seconds. Then he almost ripped his pocket open snatching out his phone.

YES!!

He waited, barely able to contain the rising swarm of emotion.

Then I'll see you soon.

James practically ran (well, he limped as fast as he could) to his car.

**********

He was trying to find the right key when his front door opened. The two men stared at each other for a few seconds; James had no idea what his face looked like, but—on the outside, at least—Simon looked completely calm. Or maybe removed. But James had learned to look beneath the surface, and he could tell that Si was acting.

James walked through the door, slammed it, and launched himself at Simon. He'd probably never hugged anybody as tight as he did just then, and to hell with his aching wrist; he wanted to fucking absorb Si into himself.

And Simon? Simon was doing it right back.

For a minute, James let it all go. The loss. The fucking stress. The turmoil. The pain. Nothing outside of his arms existed. He breathed in deeply—the same slightly musky scent that he'd fucking missed so much—and was shocked to find himself on the edge of tears.

“You asshole,” he muttered, trying to stave them off. “Like I'd change the locks on you.”

His voice a little huskier than usual, Simon tightened his grip briefly, saying, “You know how I feel about taking things for granted.”

“Do I fucking ever.” James took a deep breath. “Si, I'm so fucking glad to see you.” Simon opened his mouth but James barreled on. “And I know we have to talk about all that shit that went down. But . . . later, okay? Right now, I need you.”

Simon cocked his head. “You do?”

James nodded. “I so fucking do.” He swallowed. “I need you to fuck me up. Take me out of my head. Make me forget tonight. I am . . . so fucking tired, Si. Tired of all the shit. Tired of losing. First you, and then. . . .”

Simon interrupted him. “James. You didn't lose me. I told you I needed time to think. I told you that. And I told you I wasn't breaking things off.”

Making a half-hearted gesture that could have meant anything, James said, “I know. You said that, I mean. But I didn't know that needing time to think meant we couldn't talk some.” He drew in a ragged breath. “I . . . I've been so empty. And now . . . now you're here, and. . . .” He paused for a second, and then went with the truth. “And I could maybe use you to make things better. But. . . .”

His voice trailed off.

“But?”

“It wouldn't be fucking fair. So I need you to, fuck, I don't know: help me get rid of all of it. Take me away. No,” he corrected himself, “take me to a better place. You know, in my head.”

Simon studied him. After a minute, he nodded. “You've been using that brain of yours, James. Good.” Then his mouth twisted. “And you're not the only one,” he muttered. Then he reached up and ran his hand over James' cheek. “Okay. I'll help you out. But we will talk.”

“I know. And I promise. But not . . . not yet. Okay?”

In the few seconds of silence, James had time to wonder if he was making a mistake: Simon being willing to talk about the two of them was a fucking rare event. But right now, he just couldn't.

“Fine.” Simon stepped away. “Go take a shower. I know, I know, you already showered at the rink. But do it again. Here. Knowing I'm waiting for you. To give you what you need.” He cocked his head again. “That is what you said you wanted, isn't it?” He waited for James to nod. “And you trust me to do exactly that?”

“I don't trust anybody more than you, Si.” He wasn't speaking loudly, but the utter honesty—and truth—of his words seemed to echo in the hallway.

Simon opened his mouth . . . hesitated, and then shrugged. Reaching out again, he ran his fingers through James' hair. “That's going to be one hell of a talk,” he sighed. Then he closed his fingers and tugged. “Go clean up.”

**********

All the time he was in the shower, James' brain spun, trying to make sense of what he was feeling. The emptiness of defeat. The bitterness of losing. The isolation he felt at times that, more and more lately, seemed to well up and almost overwhelm him. Now, though, there was a bright spot: Simon waiting for him. As he dried his hair roughly with a towel, he found himself wondering what Simon would do to him. Do for him, yeah: but maybe there wasn't much difference between the two. He swiped the towel cursorily once or twice over his torso, then dropping it on the floor, walked back into the bedroom.

The lights were dim—good—and Simon straightened up from where he was leaning against the big dresser—the lowboy, Hannah had called it when she'd helped him . . . them . . . pick it out. There were things on the top of it he couldn't make out, but he could clearly see the coil of silk rope in the exact center of the bottom of the bed.

James . . . hungered.

He cleared his throat. “How do you want me?”

“Honestly? Six ways from Sunday.”

Involuntarily, James cackled—and felt something small inside him loosen up. He grinned, and when it was returned with one of Simon's own, that thing inside of him shifted again.

“On your back,” Simon nodded towards the bed, “with your arms above your head.”

Once he was arranged, Simon went and adjusted the lights, moving the lamp on the nightstand a couple of times. He stepped back and studied his work, and then nodded.

“Good enough.”

He walked to the bottom of the bed, picked up the rope, and ran his fingers over it. James tracked the movements, his heartbeat picking up.

“I thought about using this,” Simon remarked, “trussing you up so you were practically immobile. So the only way you could move is if I let you.”

James licked his lips. “That works for me.”

A smirk. “I know. But,” he casually tossed the rope onto the floor, “no. You might want that, James, but it's not what you need. You need something else. You might think you don't want any control—don't want to be . . . oh, responsible, maybe—but you need to be. So.” He walked up to the other end of the bed. “I want you to get yourself comfortable and then hold on to two of the spindles.” He patted the headboard.

Doing as he was told, (“And you fucking behave,” he told his wrist silently), James squirmed a little until Simon adjusted the pillows.

“Okay. I'm good.”

“Are you?” Simon asked dryly. “I guess we'll see.”

Another cackle. Another change in his gut. Honestly slipped out. “I fucking missed you, Si.”

Simon's eyes met his. Eventually, he opened his mouth. “And I missed you.” His fingers went to the top of his shirt. “You've really fucked me up, James,” he sighed. The first button slipped out. “Let's see if I can return the favor.”

**********

James drank in the sight of Simon's body—the slender but firmly muscled chest, the dark rose of his nipples, the smattering of hair that in this light was almost undetectable against his dark skin, the much fuller bush around his cock, that was already more than half hard and jutting towards him; his own dick responded almost instinctively.

Simon pulled off his socks, and leaving his clothes on the floor (James had to swallow when he realized that; it was a clear sign of how . . . invested Si was), he crossed to the bed and straddled James. Their dicks were close, but not touching; James did a couple of Kegels, hoping to achieve contact; as if he could read his mind (which, Si probably could), Si shifted back an inch or so, grinning at the failed attempt.

“None of that. Yet.”

He sat there, surveying James, and then, after a moment, lifted his left hand and traced a pattern across James chest. Then the hand moved to James' cheek, which he stroked, softly, tenderly.

“You asked me to give you what you need, correct?”

Swallowing again, James nodded. Then, remembering, he used his words.

“Yeah.”

A nod of . . . approval? Acknowledgment? Both?

“Tell me what you think you need.”

“I need,” James had to clear his throat, “the pain to go away. It's bad pain, Si. I need some good pain instead.”

Simon's hand stilled, and he seemed to study James, his eyes deep and almost unreadable. Then he nodded, raked his fingers through James' hair and gave it a tug. Not hard, but not gentle either.

“Here's how this is going to go, James. I'm going to do my best to take away the bad pain. You will lie there, holding onto the posts. Just like you are right now. If you need to change position, if you get uncomfortable, or get a cramp, you tell me and we'll switch it up a little.” He gave James a stern look. “Don't think I haven't noticed you've been favoring one wrist.”

James gave him his best innocent look—which hadn't worked since he'd stopped wearing diapers, but it was all he had. Simon, predictably, rolled his eyes, but . . . kind of unpredictably, moved on. “Other than that, though: you keep your hands where they are. Your job is to accept. Just lie there and accept. You don't try to escape. You don't try to evade. You lie there and accept. Okay?”

James had to clear his throat again. “Okay.”

“If you need me to slow down, you tell me. If you need me to stop, you tell me. You can say 'yellow' or 'red' if you want. If I check in with you, you tell me how you're doing. 'Green' is good. 'Yellow' means you need a minute. 'Red' means we stop. If I ask you a direct question, you answer me. But otherwise, limit yourself to letting me know how you're doing. All right?”

James nodded. And then he blurted out, “Can I say your name?”

Again with the eyes. But after a few seconds, Simon smiled. In a way that James didn't really recognize.

“Sure.”

James felt his own smile—a real one—form, just for a second.

“Thanks.”

Da nada, querido.”

James shivered. Simon didn't say much in Spanish, but when he did . . . it was usually fucking memorable.

“You ready?”

James wet his lips. “Yeah. Work me over, Si.”

“Oh, I will. That's a promise.”

Another shiver. And then Simon leaned over and fucking took James' mouth. Maybe it lasted five seconds, maybe five minutes: James had no idea. But Simon took and took and took, and every emotion James had in him ratcheted up . . . and then receded, diminished somehow by the intensity of the kiss. Almost overwhelmed, James snapped his eyes shut.

“Oh no,” Simon said, his voice low and . . . fucking implacable. “You open those eyes of yours, James. And keep them on mine.”

James obeyed, but he had to blink a few times before he could.

Simon ran his fingers up and down James' chest.

“So,” he said, almost conversationally. “You lost.”

James nodded. And then arched his back as Simon's fingernail scraped against his nipple.

“Words, James. You have to answer my questions.”

The pain had already fled; James wanted it back.

“That wasn't no question, Si.”

Simon's eyes narrowed, but then he laughed. Low and husky; James wet his lips again.

“I guess it wasn't.” His fingers flicked both of James' nipples. “Are you going to sass me, James?”

Simon liked it when he was honest. “Probably.”

His back arched again as Simon pinched both of his nipples. Hard. It felt like they were in a vise; God, he needed this.

“Why?”

“'Cause I want you to hurt me.”

Simon leaned over and brushed James' lips with his own. “Why?”

“'Cause I need it.”

Another quicksilver kiss.

“Do you?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

James opened his mouth—and then groaned as Simon attacked his nipples again.

“Think about your answer, Diego.”

The pain in his tits crashed into the wave of pleasure that rose from his gut when he heard the name. Simon's private name for him, one that nobody else had ever used. His dick jerked up once, again; he could feel it starting to leak. He opened his mouth again and let loose.

“Because we lost! I fucked up on the ice. I fucked up with you! Half the team treats me like shit 'cause I'm bi. I'm alone, and either I can't feel or I feel too fucking much, and what I feel is cold and fucking empty!” He was shouting by the end, and could feel tears threatening, but it was too soon for those, they weren't even the good kind, so he squeezed his eyes shut for a second, trying to banish them.

Simon was tracing a pattern on his chest, waiting. He surprised James by saying, “Thank you for being honest. For telling me what you're feeling.”

It wasn't a question, so James didn't say anything, but he jerked his head a little in acknowledgment. And refixed his hands on the spindles. Simon's eyes tracked the movement, and then returned to his face.

“You say you fucked up on the ice. Tell me how.”

“I wasn't good enough!”

This time, Si's fingers were like pincers; James couldn't repress his yelp.

“That is not an acceptable answer, James. I need specifics. And if you're going to go on and on about that one dropped pass in the second game, then save your breath.” Simon dropped down and lay prone on top of him, their faces mere inches from each other. “I know you know this, but you were not the only person on the ice during these games. You do not shoulder the responsibility for the entire team.”

James gave in to the rising surge in him. “Yellow!”

Simon's eyes widened, but he instantly started to withdraw.

“No. Stay.”

After a moment, Simon sank back down. “Talk to me, James.”

His breath ragged, James gathered himself. “I said that 'cause it wasn't a question, what you said. I know, okay? Blah fucking blah, team, team, team. I know!” He gulped in some air. “And you know what? I was doing great—the team was doing great. We made it into the playoffs! Fuck, hardly anybody expected us to advance past the first round. Against the first seed? The fucking Hawks?” He snorted. “But somehow, we made it to the finals. I mean, of course it was hard. We're all hurt. We're all fucking wiped. But we made it. And we were so close.” He felt his breath catch. “And the whole time? The whole postseason? It felt . . . different. 'Cause of my mistake. My great big fuck up. Which wasn't even anything I did! Somebody found out about me. And things fucking changed, okay? There was a distance. I felt . . . set apart. Fuck, I was set apart. Maybe not so much on the ice, but in the room? Fuck!” He squeezed his eyes shut again. “It fucking sucked.” His voice lowered. “I fucking hate feeling alone.”

He could have added something but he didn't. Instead, he opened his eyes again. “And now you're here, and I'm not alone, and I want to fucking forget all that fucking shit. I . . . I need to feel anchored. So for the love of Christ, would you please hurt me?”

Simon's face had one of his many masks on. “Why would I do that? You haven't broken any rules. You called for a time-out, and you're still in position.”

James startled a little, realizing.

Simon nodded slightly in acknowledgment. Then his face changed; he dropped the mask, and for the first time that James could remember, he looked . . . uncertain. He took a deep breath.

“You want to feel anchored? And you think you need pain to do that?”

“Yes.” Then, “And yes.”

Another breath; his jaw firmed. “All right, James. A slight change in plans. This may be right or this may be wrong. But remember: there are many different kinds of pain.”

James had only a second to wonder what that meant when Simon shifted position. He lay almost fully prone on top of James, propped up on his elbows, their faces only an inch or so apart; from chest to crotch, their skin pressed together.

Simon arched his neck, and not taking his eyes away from James', dropped a kiss on his lips. It was light, but in some way James couldn't define, wasn't tentative. It was also . . . tender.

“There's a picture of you on my desk.”

James felt his eyes go wide.

Simon kissed him again. “You didn't know that, did you?”

James shook his head, before remembering he needed to follow the rules. “No.” He hesitated. “Can I ask you a question?”

Dark eyes intent, Simon nodded. “Go ahead.”

“Is that something new? I mean, I've been to your office.”

Simon's lips curved; “You have. And no, it's not new. You haven't seen it, because when I knew you were coming, I hid it.”

James felt . . . something inside; he didn't know what it was.

“Want to know what picture it is?”

Clearing his throat, James said, “Yeah.”

“It's from the time I came to Pittsburgh for the Christmas skate. Jen sent it to me.” He shifted a little, and nuzzled James' ear. “You're laughing in it; I think I had just fallen down. Again.”

James couldn't help the chuckle he made. “I remember you falling down. A lot.” He half-expected a pinch or something in retaliation; Simon obliged him with a nip of his earlobe. Fighting a smile, he cleared his throat again. “I didn't know there was a picture.”

“There was. Is. It's been on my desk since the day I got it.” He stretched even more and kissed James' temple. “I bet you want to know why I hid it.”

Did he? “Yeah.”

“Because,” and his lips ghosted over James' brows, “I couldn't let you know I did something so . . . sentimental.” His voice lowered on the final word, but his tone held none of the derision James almost expected; if anything, his voice trembled a little. “Because that's not me. That's not in Simon Mendez' playbook.” A darting kiss between the eyes. “I could barely admit it to myself. In fact, for a very, very long time, I didn't.” He kissed James' lips then, once, twice. “'It's just a picture,' I told myself.” Another kiss. “'Only that, and nothing more.'” He shifted, resting his cheek against James. “A picture,” and his voice became even softer, “that I took with me every single time I traveled.”

There was a prickling behind James' eyes. “Really?” he managed.

A nod. “Really.”

James had to blink, several times. Simon lifted his head and placed a tiny kiss on the outer corners of each of James' eyes. “I have three copies of it. One for work,” he drew his tongue down, “one for travel,” he kissed the end of James' nose, “and one . . . one,” he breathed, “in my bedroom.”

James swore he could almost feel his heart start beating faster, and he could definitely feel his eyebrows shoot up. Simon's lips curved, just a little. “I almost wasn't going to tell you that.”

“Why. . . ?” James stopped, wet his lips, and tried again. “Why did you?” It wasn't what he'd been going to ask, but it seemed . . . important.

“Because,” Simon scooted down an inch or so, “having spent the last couple of months learning to be honest with myself,” a lingering kiss, “I decided the time had come to be honest with you too.” Another kiss. “The real you, not your picture.” He laughed softly, huskily. “You're not ready to hear some of the things I told it.”

“Yeah?” Simon was feeling helpless against the rising tide of . . . could that be happiness?

Simon nodded. Another kiss, this one seemingly warmer somehow. Then Simon let his muscles relax, and their bodies pressed even closer.

“Oh, Diego, Diego,” he sighed; “you have no idea what you've done to me.”

Another kiss, then another. Using the tip of his tongue, Simon traced a path around James' lips.

“You're the first thing I think of when I wake up. The last thing I think of before I sleep. There hasn't been a day since we met that I haven't thought of you; since the last time we were together, there probably hasn't been an hour.”

James almost couldn't believe what he was hearing; he also didn't know if it could possibly be as good as it sounded. His voice cracked a little as he asked, “Really?”

“Really.” Simon nodded his head once or twice. Leaned in for a nuzzle. And then pulled back, his eyes intent on James' own. He sighed, just a little.

“You've changed me, Diego. You got through my defenses. And I'm tired of fighting it.” He paused, cocked his head. “I'm done fighting it. I'm not the same man I used to be. The man I was when we met.” He paused to swallow. “Do you want to know who I am now?”

“God, yes!” The words flew out of James' mouth.

A second passed, then another. And another. Simon seemed to gather himself. And then he smiled.

“I'm the man who loves you.”

**********

The words seemed to hang in the air. James opened his mouth . . . and nothing came out. He shook his head, took a deep breath, and tried again.

“Seriously?”

A beat. Then Simon started to laugh. A full belly laugh. “You're going with that? 'Seriously?'”

James shook his head again; he felt a little bit like a dog who'd just climbed out of a pond.

“No . . . I mean, yeah . . . but . . . oh fuck, Si: when you've been wishing for something for . . . uh, for a while, and you get it when you, you know, really weren't expecting it, and, uh, tonight of all nights. . . .” A thought came into his head—an unwelcome thought—and he blurted out, “You're not just saying that to make me feel better?”

Simon shifted his balance, reached up, and twisted James' nose. Hard.

“Ouch!”

“Don't be an idiot. Do you really think I'd do that?”

“Well, no, but. . . .” There was a burgeoning sense of lightness coursing through him. “I mean, it's just . . . you really love me?”

“I do.” Simon leaned back down and gave him a quick kiss. “Despite,” he added dryly, “my best efforts to the contrary.”

James cackled; that was pure Simon. “Yeah, I bet.” There was no way he could stop the smile that threatened to split his face in two. “Fuck, Si! I . . . I'm just . . . I can't . . . can I use my hands?”

“Knock yourself out.” Simon was smiling now too.

James reached up and put his arms around Simon. And then, using the elbow on his good arm for leverage, he reversed their positions and fused their lips together. He broke the kiss long enough to say, “I fucking love you too, you know.”

“I . . . I'm glad to hear that.” He swallowed. “I was afraid . . . that maybe you'd changed your mind.”

“Nah,” James said. Then, unable to resist, he said, “Despite my best efforts, uh, to the contrary.”

Simon smiled, lifted his hand and ran his fingers through James' hair.

“Good.”

Another kiss. Then: “Say it again, Si.”

“I love you.”

“You love me.”

“I do.”

“And I love you.”

“I'm glad. Really glad.”

They plundered each others' mouths. Finally, James broke the contact.

“Can we please make it official? And, you know, fuck?”

This time, Simon's laugh seemed to transform him; he seemed . . . younger. Carefree. “We can do both of those things.”

“Hot damn!”

**********

Of course, Simon being Simon, they actually didn't get to fuck right away. First, Simon informed him, there was the matter of his punishment.

“What'd I do?”

“You broke a rule. You spoke up when I hadn't asked you a question.”

“Yeah?” James could tell the sternness was all an act, so he slid into his best shit-eating grin. “What's that gonna cost me?”

“Oh, I don't know.” Simon pretended to think. “Perhaps I'll deep-throat you a while. 'Til you come. And then fuck you before you have time to recover. And keep fucking you until you come again.”

“This is supposed to be a punishment?”

“I'm improvising. Besides, like I told you before: there are many different kinds of pain.” A flash of a grin before he scooted down; James' dick needed only one full stroke before it was—once again—fully hard. Simon squeezed it once or twice before cocking an eyebrow.

“Do I need to worry about where this has been?”

James shook his head. “Nope. You know me better than that: I suit up for everything that's not oral. And. . . .” He decided to be honest. “I haven't exactly been in the mood. You know, since. . . .” He made a gesture.

“Since I called a time out?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Simon gave him a look. “You know, we are going to talk about that. But . . . later.” And with that, he swallowed James down.

James' eyes rolled back in his head. Holy fuck, Si was good at that. So James told him so. And then shivered as Simon's tongue lapped at the top of his sac. With the head of his dick still down Si's throat.

“Oh, Jesus!”

The tongue disappeared—he could feel it against the bottom of his dick—and then Si fucking swallowed. James practically convulsed, and his legs splayed open wider. Never one to miss an opportunity, Simon latched onto his balls. A tug, then another. Without letting his attention sway from his cocksucking, Simon nudged his balls downward in their sac, wrapped his palm around them, and started exerting pressure.

“Oh fuck. Yeah! Fuck!”

The pressure increased; James started panting.

“That feels so fucking good . . . give me more, Si. I can take it. I fucking love it! Oh, fuck!”

The grip got tighter and tighter, edging towards—but not arriving at—the threshold of what he could take. His balls tried to rise again—and were thwarted. Simon switched to long, wet, sloppy inhalations, his lips so hot, so tight, James wouldn't have been surprised if they were leaving bruises.

Everything was building up and up and up; James started babbling—all coherency gone. He wanted this to last forever; he wanted to shoot so he could get fucked. His legs tensed; his toes starting curling; the electric feeling at the base of his spine grew stronger.

Then he felt a finger, somehow slick with lube, circle his hole. He thrust his hips up eagerly—which not only encouraged the finger to penetrate him, but also lodged his cock deep down Si's throat again.

Finger, balls, cock, throat. Press, jab, pull, squeeze. On and on and on. James was whimpering—past thought, all sensation. The tingling had turned into a searing brightness: molten power.

And then Si swallowed again.

Keening, James exploded. Every jet—every drop—burned. He writhed against the fury; he was melting down, dissolving. He was gone, he was finished, he was done.

No, he wasn't done. Nowhere near done.

He just needed a minute.

**********

There was light slivering through the edges of the blinds when James opened his eyes.

Wait. Light?

He snapped his head around, and breathed a sigh of relief: Simon was still there. He squinted at the bedside table; it was early, but not that much. Chances were that Si would wake up soon; he never really slept in. Trying not to be abrupt, James shifted position, rolling onto his side to get more comfortable—and also to edge a little closer to . . . what? His lover? Even though it was literally true now, he made a face. His boyfriend? His partner? Those were better, but. . . . He inched even closer.

To Simon. Yeah, Simon. That worked for him.

He couldn't have wiped the smile off his face if he tried. So instead, he closed his eyes; even the inside of his eyelids were smiling.

When he opened his eyes again, it was to find Simon's face inches from his own.

“Hey,” he said muzzily.

“Morning, Diego. Sleep well?”

“Uh, yeah.” He yawned. Widely.

“Why don't you go back to sleep?”

“Nah.” James gave his head a little shake, to clear it. And yawned again. He cleared his throat, and tried to make his voice sound sexy. “Maybe we can nap later.”

Simon's lips curved. “Maybe we can.”

James pushed himself up on his elbows, leaned over, and gave Simon a kiss. Which was returned. James pressed a little closer, and noticed that they were definitely both on the same page. And then he remembered.

“Oh, fuck! Si, I'm so sorry.”

“For?”

He swallowed. “For falling asleep.”

“It was more like passing out, Diego.”

“Yeah, well,” James grinned, a little sheepishly. “What can I tell you? Somebody sucked all the energy out of me.” He pressed his morning wood up against Simon's. “I didn't mean to leave you hanging.”

“I know you didn't. And what makes you think you did?” This time, Simon initiated the kiss.

“'Cause you wouldn't want me to miss any fun,” James said definitely. “Although,” he stopped for a second, picturing something in his head, “you know, actually, the thought of you fucking my ass when I'm out? That sounds kind of hot.” He cackled as Simon rolled his eyes.

“I'm not into necrophilia, James.”

“I don't even know what that is, but it sounds gross.” He leaned in to nuzzle. “Waking up to find you've fucked me—that you fucking took me—now, that's . . . yeah, I'm gonna stick with hot.” He tried to imagine it. “I mean, to feel your load sliding out of my hole, and realizing . . . ?”

“Not to burst your bubble or anything, but . . . hello, condoms?”

James pouted. “Do you have to be so fucking literal?”

Simon opened his mouth—to say yes, James would have bet—but instead, he hesitated, and then smiled crookedly. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spoil your little fantasy. But . . . at the risk of being even more of a buzzkill: playing with power dynamics is fun. Obviously. But there has to be explicit consent; otherwise . . . well, let's just say that I'm genetically opposed to the idea.”

“Huh?”

Simon gave half a shrug. “I'm half black, half mestizo—to use my grandmother's term. Historically, my people didn't get to consent to a whole lot.”

James floundered, trying to think of how he could respond to that. Fortunately, Simon had more to say.

“Moving on: or . . . well. Look. If that's really something you'd like, maybe we can figure out a way to make it happen. But . . . not now. Probably not anytime soon. But . . . maybe. Okay?”

“Sure. I mean, yeah, of course that's okay.” He grinned. “It's not like there's not stuff we can't do in the meantime.”

“That's true.” The expression on his face changed into something almost . . . predatory. “I suggest you go use the can. What I have in mind is going to take a while.”

James felt the promise in those words skitter down his spine. He threw back the sheet, but before he clambered out of the bed, he looked Simon straight in the eyes.

“I'm really fucking happy you came back, Si. I . . . I can't tell you how glad I am you're here.”

Simon rested one hand on James' cheek. “I'm glad you're glad. And I am too. Glad my key still works—and all that that implies. But one thing you should know, Diego?”

“What?”

“Part of me never left.”

**********

“Jesus Christ,” James moaned weakly, “I don't think I can walk. Like, ever again.”

“Wimp,” Simon told him, tying off the condom and dropping it on the floor.

“No, seriously: I think you broke me.”

“You have only yourself to blame.” Simon flopped down on his back.

“Me? I wasn't the one jack-hammering my ass.”

“No, but you were the one who kept yelling, 'Harder! Harder! Make me feel it!'”

James tried to suppress his snickers. “That was the adrenaline talking, not me.”

“Uh huh.” Simon seemed unconvinced. He nudged James with his elbow. “Be careful what you wish for, Diego.”

James gathered his strength and rolled over on top of Simon. “I don't wish for a lot,” he said seriously. “But I wished . . . I'd been wishing, I mean . . . to have you back. And now you're here. And I'm really fucking happy about that.” He stole a kiss. “To be honest, Si: the only thing that would make this better is if the Preds had won last night.”

“High praise,” Simon said, not at all sarcastically. “How're you doing about that, James?”

He took a minute to think about it. “Okay, I guess. I mean, I'm bummed. We were so close. But . . . well, what is, is. You know? There's always next season. And having you back? For sure, it makes things better.”

“I'm glad to hear that. But. . . .”

Before Simon could say any more, James' stomach growled. Insistently.

“Can't say I'm glad to hear that,” Simon drawled. He shoved at James's chest. “Get off me. Is there any food in this house? Any food that's safe to eat?”

“There should be. I know there's eggs.”

“Good enough.”

*********

After inhaling his plate of heuvos rancheros—and half of Simon's—James leaned back in his chair. “Thanks, Si; that was great. I think maybe I'll live.” He belched.

“The next time that comes up, I'll vote for it,” Simon said dryly. “And you're welcome. I'll admit I was surprised you had tortillas.”

James shrugged. Feeling a little bashful, he admitted, “I kind of got in the habit of buying them.” He took another swallow of coffee; when he chanced another look at Si, he found him smiling. Not the patient smile. Not the professional smile. But a genuine, pleased smile.

James couldn't help but smile back.

“So,” Simon said, draining his own mug, “what's on your agenda for today?”

“I need to go clean out my stall.” He made a face. “I should check my phone; there might be a meeting, too. A debriefing, yeah?” He looked around: probably his phone was in the bedroom. It could wait, he decided. “But after that? Probably nothing.” He snorted. “The only good thing about losing is that media doesn't really want to talk to you. Well, they do, but it usually goes pretty fast. And I wouldn't be at the top of the list anyway.” He scratched his face. “Oh, and I should lose the beard.”

“Definitely. And you should shave too.”

“Huh?” When he saw Simon trying not to laugh, he figured it out. “Hey, come on! She wasn't a beard; she was just a friend.”

“I'm teasing. What is it with you hockey players and blondes?”

“Believe it or not, that's something we actually talk about.”

“Then spare me the details.” Despite his tone, Simon was still smiling. “I'm glad she's a friend. Is it likely to go further than that?”

James shook his head. “Nah. Not feeling it.” He hesitated. “We should talk about . . . stuff like that, yeah?” Would Simon retreat?

“We should. But after you get back. Let's not start a,” he made air quotes, “'meaningful conversation' when we know we have a time limit.”

“Okay.” James pushed his chair back. Halfway out of the seat, he stopped. “Do you have one? A time limit, I mean. When do you have to go back to Boston?”

There was a slight pause. “It's flexible,” Simon said finally. “We'll talk about that too.”

“Okay,” James said again. He finished standing. “You want to wash my back?”

“I live to serve.” Simon rose to his feet. “One thing, though.”

“What?”

“Don't drop the soap unless you mean it.”

**********

The visit to the arena went better than James had anticipated. Cleaning out his stall was a familiar ritual, at least—although he'd never had to do it in exactly these circumstances, since the last time he'd made it to the finals, he'd been on the winning team. And even his encounters with the other guys weren't bad; things were . . . more or less relaxed. And more or less friendly; as he walked back to his car, James found himself wondering how much of the bad stuff he'd felt had actually been about him, and how much was due to playoff stress. In his current optimistic mood—Simon was waiting for him—he'd give the edge to the second possibility. Even though he knew that it wasn't true. But playoff stress was a real thing. “We'll see what things are like next season,” he told himself. Then he found himself shaking his head. Optimism; who'd have thought it?

He started his car, but didn't put it into gear right away. Instead, he closed his eyes and willed himself to enter offseason mode.

He was pretty successful, because the thoughts he had driving home were definitely not hockey-centric.

“Si?” he called out, swatting the door closed.

“Up here.”

James started to take the steps two at a time, but after the first pair, was forcibly reminded about how much his legs hurt him. Maybe I can talk Si into a rubdown, he thought to himself as his reached the second floor. He glanced in his bedroom—cleaned but empty—and the open door to the bathroom showed no occupants either. He heard a step, turned, and saw Si leaving one of the guest rooms. With a tape measure.

“How did things go?”

“Pretty good, actually.” He yanked Simon towards him and squeezed. And wasn't surprised when he got jabbed in the side. He broke away, laughing. “What have you been up to? Besides cleaning?”

“Changing the sheets isn't cleaning; it's ensuring I stay sane. And not much.”

“No?” James nodded towards the tape. “What's up with that?”

“Wondering if you had enough room for a sling.”

James wasn't prepared for the wave of heat that flashed through him. Man, oh man; he could just . . . imagine.

“Uh, do I?” Talk about boner city.

Si's eyes crinkled. “Probably. But not in that room; the ceiling wouldn't take it.” He slapped James' ass. “This beauty needs post and beam construction, not plaster.”

“I'll find a contractor.”

Simon laughed.

“No, seriously. Roman did a remodel this winter; it turned out great. Or I could ask Han for some names.” Simon's face did something . . . complicated: surprise and . . . could that be pleasure?

“How is Hannah?”

“Uh, last time we talked, she was good.”

“When was that?”

James mentally shook his head so he'd be able to think. “End of the regular season? No, after the first round. The Hawks folded so fast, we had some time off.”

Simon nodded a little absently, his eyes fixed on something only he could see. Then he gave one of his shrugs.

“Just so you know, James: Hannah is on the list of things I think we need to talk about.”

“Uh . . . okay. But . . . I don't know how much more there is to say 'bout her. We're friends, Si, but no more than that.”

“Oh.” Now there was . . . disappointment? “Well . . . all right, let's table that for now. But we should. Anyway: when do you want to have our . . . powwow?”

James had to laugh. “You know, Si, I mostly don't think you and Andrew have much in common, but every time you say one of those kinda Indian . . . sorry, native American words, I can hear the two of you pretending you don't want to spit.”

Simon grinned. “I'm much more likely to actually do it, though.” When James had finished cackling, Simon got serious. “And I would only do it if the words were used offensively. Or bastardized in some way. Powwow isn't from my tradition—it's Algonquin—but it's actually the right word to use. Remind me later and I'll tell you why. For now, though, just know that any distaste you're picking up on is much more for the fact that I am, apparently, committed to having a conversation about my feelings.” He rolled his eyes. “Not exactly in my comfort zone, you know?”

James pulled him in and hugged him. “Me neither. But . . . you did a fucking wonderful job of it last night.”

“Gee, thanks.” Despite his tone, there was a twinkle in his eye. “And don't forget: you have to talk about your feelings too.”

“Aw,” James whined. Then he snickered as Simon bopped him on the head. “Yeah, okay. And we should do it soon. But . . . my legs are fucking killing me. Can we ice them first? And maybe you'll help me stretch 'em?”

“Have I ever refused to stretch you, Diego?”

“Not even when I didn't want you to.”

**********

“Oh Jesus,” James moaned. That feels so fucking good.”

“You do realize I'm not trained in this.”

“Yeah, but you're strong. And not afraid to dig in.”

“That's a matter of opinion, Diego. It's certainly not true of my personal life—at least, not until now.” He slapped James' ass. “Roll over.”

James complied, but couldn't resist saying, “I thought we weren't talking about anything serious until after this.”

“Sue me. Is this too hard?”

It kind of was, but it felt so good, James just shook his head.

“Words, James. Or I'll stop.”

“It's right on the edge,” James admitted. “But that's the only way to start the healing.”

“Well, you be sure and tell me if I go too far. I've never seen your legs in such bad shape. Even last time, they weren't like this. And don't get me started on your feet.”

“I still have some of those?”

Simon's snort was more than half amusement. “Barely. The next time you're in Boston, I am dragging you to the spa that Elisabeth uses. They have this treatment they call the foot clinic. . . .”

“I know about that,” James interrupted; “I've been there. The day after Sid's charity game, we all went.”

“You did? How did I not know this?”

“Uh, I don't know? Why would you?”

“Because usually when Sid wants to make something happen, he needs me to make sure it does.”

James chortled—and then yelped. “Okay, that's a little too much right there.”

Simon scowled at him. “Did you pull a groin muscle?”

“No!” But James knew he was no match for that glare, so he added, “I maybe . . . strained things. A little. But the trainers cleared me!”

“Like you didn't lie through your teeth.” Simon shook his head and sighed, “I suppose I should be happy you're admitting you have limits.”

“Hey, I've got real incentive in keeping things in that general area working all right!”

This time, the snort was almost all amusement. To distract him further—or to keep him working on his legs, more likely—James said, “So, what does powwow mean, exactly?”

Good ploy; Simon's eyes got intent—a little bit of what James privately called his 'mad scientist' look. “Well, as I said, it's Algonquin—most likely, from the Narraganset. It comes from the word pawwah—what in my tribe we'd call a shaman. Power structures are different among the peoples, of course. Anyway: when the pawwah speaks, people listen. In certain circumstances, what the pawwah says might traditionally be regarded as . . . oh, I guess we could use the word sacred. So, the colloquial sense of the word isn't inexact: a powwow is an important verbal exchange. A meaningful,” he lifted his hands briefly to make air quotes, “conversation. Which, according to my bosses, was the original connotation of the English word intercourse.”

“You're kidding. Fucking meant talking before it meant fucking?”

“Apparently.” He shifted to the other thigh. “Julia and I were having lunch one day with Daniel and Elisabeth, and Sasha showed up. He was in school that semester, taking a course on . . . God, what was it?” He paused to think. “Restoration drama? Something like that, anyway.” He resumed his work. “He'd just read something or other—some obscure play, I guess—where one of the female characters got into trouble because she was seen talking with a man. Which was, according to the logic of the play, worse than fucking him, because she was supposed to be a prostitute. Or something like that.” Shaking his head, he dug his fingers in deeper; James moaned in appreciation. “So Daniel and Elisabeth went off on this riff about the links between language and sexuality. Which, I have to say, was interesting. As most things they go on about are.” He patted the thigh. “You done?”

“Maybe a little more on my calves?”

Simon shook his head. “Let's not push it. But I'll get you some more ice.”

“Okay. Thanks, Si.”

“Da nada, querido.”

After shifting the ice pack into a better spot, James said, “Hey, I wanted to say I'm sorry for saying Indian before. I know I should say native American.”

Simon waved his hand in dismissal. “You don't have to apologize. I'm not one of those people who gets upset at that term. A lot of people do, and that's their right, but Abuelita—my grandmother, yeah?—taught us to regard that term as a cultural artifact. It existed, so to try to erase it? Didn't make a lot of sense to her. There are other things—like calling someone 'chief,' you know?—that bug me a lot more.” He took a gulp of his iced tea, then grinned. “I have to tell you: it did my heart good to watch all those Hawks uniforms slink off the ice in defeat. Good job, Diego.”

James snickered. Then he realized. . . . “Wait. That sounded like . . . what, you were there?” He watched, fascinated, as Simon squirmed.

Finally, Simon opened his mouth. “Yes.”

“Was that the . . . how many games did you see?”

A sigh. “So help me, if you're a dick about this. . . . Okay, fine. All of them.”

“You're fucking kidding me! How'd you manage that? And for fuck's sake: why didn't you ask me for tickets? That must have cost a fucking fortune!”

“Ask you? Oh, sure, James; that would have a real nice thing for me to do. 'Hello, James? I know I put us on hold, but would you please overlook that and get me tickets to your games?'” He made a derisive noise. “On top of everything else, I'm sure that would have put you in a wonderful mood.”

Without trying to censor himself, James shot back, “Hey, it's not like I was in a great mood to begin with. I would have liked to known you were there. That you were thinking about me, at least.”

Another sigh. “Oh believe me, I was.” He paused. “All right. I'll be completely honest with you. I would have watched the games anyway, but I couldn't stay away. I know what I did was hard on you, James, but it was no picnic for me either. Admitting what I felt for you—even if only to myself at first—was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I told you in bed last night that I'm not the same person I used to be. And that's the truth. You don't change something so fundamental like it's a pair of socks, you know. I had to . . . ease into it. It was a process. Going to your games was, well, a necessary step.” His mouth curved, if only a little. “You could say that it helped verify some of my hypotheses.”

Feeling somewhat mollified, James said, “I guess. Still, I wish you hadn't spent all that money.”

That got him a wide grin. “Who says I did?”

“What, did Daniel buy the tickets?”

“Oh, he would have, I'm sure; in fact, he offered. But then I would have had to put up with even more of his lecturing about getting my head out of my butt, so no thanks. Besides, I do have connections of my own, you know.” He laughed. “You know, it was actually a relief that you ended up playing the Pens in the finals. Sid had no problem getting me tickets, and he was so focused, he didn't even hound me about you. Not too much, anyway. Unlike Tommy,” he added sardonically.

“Yeah?” James actually felt a surge of warmth spreading through him.

“Oh God, yes. You have your champions, Diego: from Daniel all the way down to Eli. The little twerp,” he added, somewhat caustically. “I predict great things for that young man; he knows right where the weak spots are, and he doesn't hesitate to go for them, but he does it all so politely.” He snorted. “And he does get points for being inventive.”

“What'd he do?”

“Oh, he just showed up in the office one day—ostensibly to have lunch with Daniel. And with this completely innocent look on his face, he said that since I wasn't dating you, maybe I'd like to go out with Brad Marchand. Since we have such similar personalities.”

James started howling. More or less patiently, Simon waited for him to subside.

“And then, as if that wasn't enough, he offered me Brad's phone number. 'It's private,' he told me, 'so you wouldn't be able to get it any other way.'” Simon's face was priceless. “I can't remember the last time I felt so insulted!”

When James could finally talk again, he managed to get out, “He's got balls, that kid.”

“That he does.” Simon's scowl relaxed into a very reluctant grin. “Like I said, though, it was effective. Since the very thought of dating Marchand made me want to order a lifetime supply of ball gags.”

“Oh fuck,” James said, wiping the tears out of his eyes, “you're too fucking much, Si.”

“Gee, thanks.” The tone was dry, but James could tell he was smiling inside.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Why'd you come to the games?”

A long sigh. “Couldn't you have worked your way up to that one?”

“Nope.”

Another sigh. “Well, if you must know: I wanted to see you. But I wasn't ready to see you in person. And even if I had been, I didn't think, under the circumstances, that it would be the best time. I didn't want to be a distraction.” He tilted his head, his eyes unfocused. “And also—and you don't have to tell me this is illogical, because I already know that it is—I wanted to support you.”

James thought about that for a minute. He didn't know if it would be a dick move or not, but. . . .

“Can I be honest with you?”

“I'm not going to like this, am I?” Simon said under his breath. “Go ahead.”

“It makes me feel good—real good—to find out you came to the games. . . .” He interrupted himself. “All of them? Even in Anaheim?”

A nod. “I actually had to pay for my tickets to those,” he admitted with half a grin.

Refusing to let himself get distracted—which, okay, wasn't easy at the best of times—James plowed on, “But . . . you know, as good as it makes me feel now, at the time I was feeling pretty shitty. About our 'break,'” he made air quotes, “and not hearing a word from you, so . . . I don't know, couldn't you have, like, texted me or something? Left me a voice mail? Let me know that you, uh, supported me? Were thinking of me?” In his head, he changed that to “missed me.”

The look Simon gave him was . . . a little weird. He didn't look pissed, or defensive; in fact, James didn't even know how to describe it. Except that he didn't think he'd ever seen Si look like that before. And just as Si opened his mouth, James had a flash.

Simon looked ashamed.

“I thought about it,” Simon said. “I wanted to. But I . . . couldn't. I just couldn't, Diego. And I'm sorry. The only defense I have is that this hasn't been easy for me. Which I've already said more than once.” He looked away for a second. And then he sighed, “It was not my best move. And I don't blame you for being pissed. I hope you're not so angry that it's a deal breaker. Daniel told me you'd be well within your rights to tell me to go to hell.”

“Yeah?” James wouldn't deny that he was mad, but hearing that actually made him feel a little better.

Simon nodded. “More than once.” He blew air out between his teeth. “And believe me, that was only one of his arguments.” He drummed his fingers on his thigh. “I asked Sasha what he thought. And he said that it might make things worse if I reached out to you partway through the playoffs. In his experience, anything out of the ordinary can be disruptive, and distractions were the last thing you needed. Granted, and he said this too, you're not Sid.”

“Uh, no.” Andrew had no idea what Sid had been like in the postseason before they'd started dating. No idea at all.

“Anyway: Andrew's take on it was that since I didn't reach out at the beginning, I should wait until the end. Which made a certain amount of sense to me.”

James turned that over in his mind. Finally, he said, “I guess that's fair. Part of me thinks that I would have been so fucking happy to hear from you that I wouldn't have cared, but . . . oh, who the fuck knows, Si.” He shook his head. “You're here now, and that's what important.”

“Well, thanks. I mean that. And before we move on: I'm not going to repeat myself—again—but the only defense I have is that I was afraid. And unsure. Not things I'm used to feeling. In general,” and his mouth quirked, “I'm a pretty confident kind of guy. Not to mention competent. So not knowing what to do kind of threw me.”

James had to laugh. “Yeah. I can see how it would.”

Simon's grin got wider. “As long as I'm baring my soul to you—and I hope you don't get too used to it, because it feels like I'm ripping my own skin off—it's not exactly true to say that I completely cut off contact between us.”

Opening his mouth to object—strenuously—James got diverted by the look on Si's face. “What does that mean?”

“It means,” Simon took a breath, “that I resurrected my old personal Twitter account. The one whose user name is not Simon Mendez. And before every game—and after some of them, too—I used it.” He shrugged slightly. “I knew you wouldn't know it was me, but . . . it made me feel better.” He paused, and then, his mouth curving, he added, “And you know what?”

“What?”

“You even retweeted one thing I sent.” His laugh was genuine, and James' was too.

**********

James excused himself to go take a leak—which he did have to do—but he also wanted a couple of minutes to himself. To process, he guessed. He honestly didn't know how he felt about what he'd learned in the last ten minutes; everything was . . . jumbled. In his head, and in his gut, too. Which he guessed made sense. He remembered a conversation he'd had with Tommy.

 

“What exactly is it that you want, Nealer?”

“I want Simon to walk in the door,” James had whined.

“Yeah? And then what?”

“Make up sex. It's supposed to be awesome.” He supposed he'd had it once or twice, but given the length of his previous “relationships,” it hadn't been all that memorable. Except maybe for the time when the girl had broken up with him again before he'd even gotten the rubber open; as he recalled, the rebound sex—with a really hot bartender—had been fantastic; that guy had had a wang like nobody's business.

“I ain't never had it, so I don't know. But that's not what I meant, exactly. What do you want?”

“I want him back,” James sulked.

“And?”

“And . . . I want him to stay.” He swallowed. “You know?”

There was silence on the phone. And then Tommy's voice, a little softer, said, “Yeah. I know. And I hope that happens, Nealer; I really do. But I got some advice for you, if you want it.”

“Sure.”

“If he does come back, you're gonna have to talk about things. Even if you have to force the issue. You're fucking pissed at him, right? He took off. And I ain't saying he's a total asshole for doing that—he has as much right to do what he needs to do as anybody, yeah?—but you need to let him know what you're feeling. Everything you're feeling. And be up front with what you want. If you're never gonna get it?” A pause. “Then maybe it's better you know that sooner than later.”

Tommy, James reflected as he shook the last drops of piss off his dick, was definitely gonna be a captain one day.

He snagged a couple of beers (like the tortillas, he apparently stocked craft beers these days without even thinking about it) on his way back. “So,” he said conversationally as he plopped down on the couch again and passed over one of the bottles, “I'm kinda mixed up about a couple of things. Can I talk 'em through with you?”

“Sure.” Simon raised his bottle, leaned over, and tipped it against James.

After he swallowed, James began, “I don't exactly know how I feel. About . . . well, look.” He grinned a little. “You, like, kinda stalked me through the postseason.”

Simon's mouth shot open, but then his face changed, from indignation to . . . something else.

“I wouldn't use the work 'stalk,' he said eventually, “but I suppose I can see your point.”

Score one for him.

“And I don't know how I feel about that. I mean, I definitely like the fact that you came. To know that you were supporting me, yeah? And went to all that trouble, not to mention spending all that money. Even if you got comps for some of the games, you still had the plane tickets and all that other shit.” He waved Simon's objection away before he could even get it out. “And I totally get what you said about you needing to work through stuff, and not wanting to stir shit up during the playoffs. Still, though,” he took another gulp, “I can't help but feel that I woulda rather known. I mean, it just seems like that would've made it more about supporting me, and less like . . . shit, I don't know . . . less like you beating up on yourself.” He met Simon's eyes and shrugged.

“If I told you,” Simon said after a lengthy silence, “that it wasn't until you started playing the Ducks that I finally realized that my whole freaking hockey odyssey was some kind of self-imposed penance, would you believe me?”

“'Course I would,” James said without hesitation. And after a second, he added, “So far as I can tell, Si, the only person you lie to is yourself.”

Simon actually flinched. But he didn't say anything.

“Anyway.” James lifted his bottle. “That's all done. It happened, yeah? And it all ended up with you and me, uh, back. Here.” He wagged his bottle between them. “You know, admitting that we love each other. Which, I can't tell you how fucking wonderful that made me feel to hear. And, if you want the whole fucking truth, to say.” He grinned a little. “I kinda lied to myself about that for a long fucking time. Until you, you know, left.” He met Simon's eyes squarely. “Then, I couldn't exactly lie about it anymore.”

Simon said something under his breath; it wasn't in English, so James had no idea what it meant. Then he reached out, yanked James roughly towards him, and gave him a . . . surprisingly sweet kiss.

“It's tough being a man, isn't it,” he remarked as he settled back against the cushions. “Grandmother comments on the extent of our . . . well, let's say density, all the time.” He shook his head. “Last time I was home, Dad told her, 'But just think of how boring life would be if you didn't have us helpless men around.'” He laughed. “I won't repeat what she—and my mother!—said after that.”

“My mom says my brothers and me all have heads like rocks,” James chuckled.

“Well, that's a good thing, given your job,” Simon commented. “But let's face it, Diego: you and I? We're both stubborn as rocks.” He cocked his head. “Which is maybe why,” he said, more slowly, “it took us not being together for a while to get us here.”

James thought about that for a minute. “Could be,” he said finally. “But hey: can we talk about that some? What does it . . . I don't know, mean?”

Simon took another swallow. “I suppose,” he said slowy, “the best way to answer that is, 'Whatever we want it to.' Emphasis on the 'we.'” His eyes darted away for a second. “I'll be honest with you, Diego: this is all uncharted territory for me.”

“Like it's not for me?”

“I know, I know, but . . . well, to be frank, I've put a lot of time and effort over the years into avoiding . . . attachments. You're much more. . . .” His mouth curved. “To put this in hockey terms: you're a forward, and I play defense.”

That really tickled James. But speaking of hockey. . . .

“Let me ask you something, Si. How much of our, uh, time out was because of me being in the NHL?”

“Some,” Simon said without hesitation.

“How much?”

“Not a lot.” He made a face. “And most of that part was really about where you live. Pittsburgh was easier, yeah? As were things here when you were still seeing Hannah.” He paused, and James thought to himself, “Here it comes.”

“I think you should try to work things out with her.”

“No.”

“Diego. . . .”

“No. Just no, Si. Okay?”

A sigh. A pause. And then: “Will you at least tell me—finally –what went wrong? In detail?”

James opened his mouth to say no again—but what came out of his mouth was, “If I do, will you promise to drop it?” Simon opened his mouth but James talked over him. “Even if it doesn't make sense to you?”

“But. . . .”

“It's my reason, Simon. Yeah?”

Simon ran his hand over his scalp. “Oh for . . . okay. All right, fine, Diego.” He got a look on his face: half-exasperated and half . . . well, James was gonna go with fond. “You seldom get this . . . Canadian, so I have to assume you've got a good reason. Let me hear it.”

“Okay.” James wondered if he should maybe rehearse what he was going to say, but then figured out he didn't have to; he'd gone over it more than a few times in his head.

“Look, Si: it wouldn't make a difference what I said to Hannah. We want different things.” No, that wasn't right. “Well, we do, but, like, more important than that is the fact that we're different people. Different types of people,” he corrected himself. “Hannah is poly, yeah?”

He waited until Simon nodded.

“Well, there's no one way to be poly.”

That earned him an eye-roll. “I'd say that's true by definition.”

James flipped him the bird. “Whatever. I don't really know if I'm poly or not. I mean, I for sure don't have a problem with open relationships,” (privately, he wondered if that was still true), “but even if I am, I'm not the same kind of poly as Hannah is.” He could feel himself grinning a little when he added, “For the record, as Andrew likes to say, she doesn't think I'm poly.”

Simon's brow furrowed. “And that's why you broke things off with her?”

And here it was. “I didn't break things off with her.”

Simon looked confused for a second, and then his eyes narrowed. “I thought that's what you said.”

James shook his head. “I said we decided things wasn't gonna work out.” He blew his breath out between his teeth. “Which was . . . well, not exactly a lie, but . . . maybe not the exact truth.” He inhaled. “I mean, once Hannah explained how she saw things, then, yeah, I realized that she was right, and that we—her and me—weren't really, uh, viable. As a, you know, long-term thing. As anything other than friends.”

“And exactly how,” Simon's voice was a little tight, and James had the fleeting thought that it was a fucking good thing that Hannah wasn't anywhere nearby, “did she see things?”

James closed his eyes for a couple of seconds; he'd known that eventually he'd be having this conversation, but that didn't make it any easier.

“There's all kinds of different poly relationships,” he said finally. “Some where everybody lives together, some where a couple of people live together but other people in the relationship don't, and then there are the ones where everybody lives apart. There's no, like, model, or blueprint. No,” he made air quotes, “'societal norms.'” He surprised himself by snickering a little as he said those words, and was gratified by hearing Simon's snort of acknowledgment. “Han is more into the, uh, she called it 'ménage mentality.' And, you know, there's kind of a problem with that, given,” and he gestured towards Simon, “that you don't live here.”

Before he could continue, Simon held up his hand; obediently, James waited, watching things he couldn't really analyze flash over Si's face.

“Would it help,” Simon said eventually, “if I were here more often? Because,” his eyes were doing this weird thing where they'd land on him and then dart away, “I was planning on it.”

James actually felt a little explosion of happiness in his chest. “Really?” And maybe Si could read what James was feeling, because his eyes stayed focused on James' now.

“Yes, really. Certainly more often than before. If,” and he grinned, “you don't mind giving up the idea of a sling and letting me turn that room upstairs into a remote office.”

“Of course I don't mind! Si, that's awesome!” James yanked him into a hug, which Si returned. And ended way too soon.

“So: would that help?” he asked again.

James bit the bullet. “Uh, probably not.”

“Why?”

“Well, above and beyond the poly stuff . . . Han said that there were maybe two reasons why things couldn't last with us. One is that, whether I meant to or not, I was thinking of her as being . . . you know, kind of a stereotype wife and mother. Assigning her that role. Which is,” he paused, “maybe true?” He shook his head. “I don't really know. But more important is the fact that,” he took a deep breath, “she felt that any relationship I had with her would never have the same kind of,” and he'd had to have her explain the words to him, “emotional valence that,” he swallowed, “my relationship with you does.”

Simon's eyes went very, very wide, and James sped up a little, to try and get the rest of it out.

“'Cause Han said it was pretty obvious that, even when it was just the two of us—her and me—that I was missing you. That I felt the lack of you more than I did the fact of her. Which, you know, really wasn't great for her.” Wishing for another beer—or, yeah, something a lot stronger—James clamped his lips shut.

There was a long pause. “Do you think she was right?”

“Well,” James said, squirming a little, “after she laid all this out for me, she asked me the same thing. If I thought she was right. And,” he could feel an honest-to-God blush starting, “you know, I, uh, couldn't really deny it.” Now he was having trouble meeting the other man's eyes.

The silence this time had a very different feel to it. Finally, Simon opened his mouth.

“There's a lot we could say. A lot we should say, maybe. I find myself really, really tempted to draw up an agenda for all the things we should, and probably will need to, talk about. In the future. But right now? I have one question for you.”

“Uh, okay. What?”

Simon reached over, put his fingers on James' chin, and lifted it. Their eyes met, and the air between them seemed to become charged, somehow. Electrified.

“Do you think you have a couple of rounds left in you? Because I can guarantee you, one isn't going to be enough.”

James let out an explosive bray of laughter.

“Yes!”

**********

They were getting ready for bed—well, to go to sleep—when Simon's phone rang. James wasn't surprised that Simon leaned over to check it; it only rang out loud when certain people called, which James thought was pretty nifty. He was a little taken aback when Si darted a quick look in his direction before answering it, and more so when his first words were, “Why aren't you getting drunk?”

James propped himself up on his elbows, not hiding the fact that he was listening.

“Uh huh. Okay, but . . . oh.” He listened, and his face . . . relaxed. “Yeah. I'd say things are good.” A brief silence, then a look of semi-exasperation crossed his face. “Shut up. I'm going to get enough of that from Daniel; I don't need to hear it from you.” He listened some more, and then his expression changed again. Was it surprise? Or something else? James couldn't really tell. “All right; I'll be sure to tell him. And I will. I promise. If you'll let me go, I'll do it right now. Okay. Talk to you soon. And . . . thanks.”

He ended the call and stared at his phone for a second or two, before he tossed it back onto the nightstand, shaking his head a little.

“Who was that?”

Simon got himself comfortable under the covers before he answered.

“Sid.”

“You're kidding.”

“I'm not.”

James knew they talked on the phone some, but right now. . . ? “What did he want?”

“Three guesses.”

“Si.” James wasn't even trying not to whine.

“All right, all right. He wanted to know how things were going. With you and me. He's been . . . worried.”

Before James could really process that, Simon went on, “He also said to give you a hug. From him. Because of last night.”

Well, that was . . . unexpected. “Was he drunk?”

A laugh. “Not really, no.”

“Was that it?”

“Not quite. If you—if we don't show up at Andrew's birthday party, we're dead meat.”

They both laughed. Simon reached over and turned out the light. Each man shifted to get comfortable. A couple of minutes passed, and then James said into the darkness, “Hey, Si?”

“Yeah?”

It wasn't Simon's thing—at all—and it usually wasn't his, but right now, maybe. . . . “You mind if I hold onto you?”

“I don't mind at all, Diego.” The smile came through loud and clear.

It wasn't thirty-five pounds of silver, James thought to himself as they snuggled, but it was still a win. And in one way, it was an even sweeter win than the Cup would have been.

It was something that he'd won by himself.

Or maybe, he thought fuzzily as he spiraled towards sleep, Simon's torso pressed to his own, something he'd won by being himself.

Lots of guys had won the Cup. But only he had won Simon.