For the first week that James is in Pittsburgh, he lives in a hotel with Niskie, the two of them carpooling in a rented car to Southpointe for practice. It's not awful – the team is putting them up for the time being, which is nice – but James is about ready to murder Niskie for hurrying him when he's in the bathroom doing his hair and for his godawful snores in the dead of night.
He's griping about it to no one in particular, Geno laughing as he puts on his gear, Kuni just shaking his head, and Niskie flipping him off from across the dressing room, when Paul looks up and says, "I have a guest room."
James blinks at him in surprise. He hasn't really talked to Paul that much aside from casual stuff, but he seems pretty chill. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, if you're willing to pay rent, you can stay." Paul finishes strapping his legs and sits up straight. "You wanna come by after practice, check it out?"
"Sure," James says, starting to grin. "Thanks, man."
"No problem." Paul gives him a little wry smile and gets up.
"What the fuck am I supposed to do, then?" Niskie demands.
"Sucks to suck," James says, grinning at him.
So after practice, James piles into Paulie's car and goes with him to his house. It's on a quiet street, charmingly suburban, and his apartment is remarkably clean and tidy. James is impressed.
"It's nice," he says, looking around the kitchen.
"Don't you want to see your room?" Paulie asks, raising his eyebrows, and James laughs and nods.
He pokes around while Paulie bangs around in the kitchen doing god knows what. The bathroom is big, with two sinks and a roomy bath/shower. There's definitely enough counter space for James's hair products, which is the most important part.
From the kitchen comes the sound of something sizzling on the stove. James's ears perk up. He's been making the most of the hotel's complimentary breakfast, but it's just not the same as homemade food. He quickly peeks into the bedrooms – Paul's is neat, with a large bed and a stack of books along with a pair of glasses on the nightstand, the other one empty save for a couple of boxes. There's an old sweatshirt from U Michigan on one of them.
"Did someone used to live in the other room?" James asks, coming back out to the kitchen.
Paul looks up and says, "No one important." He holds out a plate of bacon and eggs. "Late breakfast?"
"Thanks," James says, and he settles in to eat, perched at Paulie's kitchen bar.
James moves in the next time they have a couple days off, not that he has much to move in. The real complicated part is getting new furniture to fill Paul's empty room, and James ends up sleeping on the couch for a few days until his bed is delivered. He's usually woken in the morning by Paul coming in and making coffee, muttering under his breath like a grumpy old man with his glasses half-falling down his nose.
James's furniture comes obscenely early one morning, and Paul makes them omelets while they watch the deliverymen come in. James had paid extra for them to assemble the bed for him, so they eat breakfast to the sound of drills. Paulie has been quick to learn James's preferences and has taken to buying specific ingredients just for him, like the cheese Paul insists is disgustingly processed and the bell peppers Paul hates. James is running out of ways to thank him already.
"I'll do the dishes," he says when he finishes eating, since it's the least he can do, and he rinses off their plates while Paulie putters around, doing whatever it is he does when he's bored.
The deliverymen come out a few minutes later, dusting off their hands. "All set, Mr. Neal," the taller one says, and James roots around in his pockets for the money he'd set aside for a tip.
"Thanks," he says, handing them the bills. "Have a good day."
Of course, James doesn't have sheets yet, but he does have a mattress and a bed finally, and he takes the opportunity to faceplant into it, body protesting the early hour. He turns his head to the side after a moment so his nose isn't squished into the mattress and his eyes catch on the U Michigan sweatshirt, now sitting on his nightstand.
James has never managed to get an answer out of Paul about who lived in the room before him or who the sweatshirt belonged to, so he sits up and reaches for it to see if he can figure anything out. He's read a couple Hardy Boy novels, he can do this.
Except there isn't much to the sweatshirt – it's blue and definitely not Paul's because there's no way he would be caught dead wearing Michigan gear, not with his insistent Minnesotan pride. It's worn and soft, the cuffs fraying, and when James checks the label, it's been mostly worn away.
"Hey," James says, getting up and going to the door his room. "Paulie."
"Yeah?" Paul looks around corner and sees the sweatshirt. "Oh."
"Right." James shakes it. "What is this?"
"Nothing." Paul holds out his hand. "I'll throw it out."
James lets Paul take it from him and pretends he doesn't see Paul lift it to his nose and inhale deeply.
There are definite perks to living with Paul. He's pretty anal retentive, so the house is always clean and they're never late to practice. He genuinely enjoys cooking and is good at it, and seems to like watching James eat his food. He has a truly impressive movie collection, although James personally thinks there aren't enough action films, and a nice TV. It's a good situation.
The one big downside is that Paul has this face that James calls his judgy face.
"See, that!" he exclaims, pointing. Geno snorts and grins at them. "Look, he's making it now."
Paul seemingly tries to wrench his face into a different expression, but it quickly returns to the thin-lipped face of disapproval James is so familiar with. "Nealer."
"I'm just saying, it's impossible to pick up when you make that face at me every time I bring someone home," James says. "It makes me feel like I should be apologizing and then proposing."
"Paulie like serious relationship," Geno says sagely. Paul hits him hard in the shoulder. Geno makes an offended face. "What? Is true!"
"Shut up," Paulie growls, angrier than usual, and he skates out onto the ice looking like a thundercloud. James turns to stare at Geno.
"What was that about?" James asks.
"If Paulie not tell you, I can't." Geno shrugs. "Stupid."
James doesn't bother asking if Geno means him or Paulie.
James is curious, though, and he doesn't know how to not poke at things he's curious about, so he hints at Paul, asks about past girlfriends, takes him out and tries to figure out who he's checking out, until eventually Paul snaps, five drinks in, and says, "If I promise to tell you in the morning, will you shut the fuck up about it?"
"No promises," James says. "But yeah."
Paul rolls his eyes and stalks off to the bathroom. James leans back in his seat and glances over to Tanger, who is flirting with a gorgeous redhead, to where Max is holding court with some people he probably just met, like he does. There's a girl at the bar looking his way, and when they meet eyes, she smiles.
In the morning, he offers Anna breakfast, but she shakes her head as she picks up her purse. "Sweet of you to offer, but I'd like to get home," she says. She pecks his forehead, pats his cheek, and sails out the door, way too chipper for the time. James considers going back to sleep, but he can smell coffee and Paul's always been an early riser.
Anna has stopped at the counter and is talking to Paul, smiling and cheerful. Something about Minnesota, he gathers as he makes a beeline for the mugs. Paul hands him the creamer, with the same disapproving look as always, and hands him a plate.
"So by breakfast, you meant your roommate would make me breakfast," Anna says, arching her eyebrows. James flushes. "Thanks for the coffee, Paul. How should I get the mug back to you?"
Paul waves his hand. "Keep it."
Anna raises the travel mug in a salute and leaves. James frowns at Paul, who shrugs.
"She asked if she could have some." He shoves James towards the counter. "She seemed nice."
"She is," James says agreeably. He drinks his coffee while accepting the breakfast potatoes Paul is piling on his plate. "You promised me something."
Paul makes a face. He's wearing his glasses, and James doesn't know what it is, but he's always liked the way Paul's face looks in those glasses. He looks distinguished, but weirdly younger too. "I hoped you wouldn't remember that."
James raises his eyebrows. "I'm assuming this has something to do with that sweatshirt I know you haven't thrown out." He'd seen it when he went into Paul's room looking for extra condoms one night when Paul was out.
Paul stirs his own mug of coffee without looking at James. "It does." He takes a sip and finally meets James's eyes. "You have to understand, I don't tell a lot of people about this."
"Okay," James says. "But Geno?"
"Geno met him once," Paul says, and it takes James a moment to realize what's different about that sentence.
"Him?" James asks quietly.
"His name was Wesley," Paul says. "Don't even start," he adds when James opens his mouth to comment on the name. "I dated him for – god, for six years."
"Oh." James stares at his plate. "When did you –"
"Last October," Paul says. "He hated Pittsburgh." He says it lightly, but the twist to his mouth tells another tale. "Your room used to be his office."
James gets to his feet and circles around the counter to awkwardly wrap his arms around Paul's shoulders. Paul stays stiff for a moment; then he goes limp suddenly and grabs a hold of James's sweatshirt.
"He sounds like an asshole," James says, trying to remember how he consoles his sister when she breaks up with a boyfriend.
"He wasn't, just at the end." Paul gently shrugs James off him. "Anyway. I don't like to talk about it."
"I'm sorry," says James. Paul smiles at him faintly.
"Thanks," he says. "Now eat."
James moves out of Paul's the following year, coming to Pittsburgh a couple weeks early to get everything finalized. He lucks out; one of the houses across the street is recently vacated and he buys it even though there's no guarantee he's staying with the Pens.
"Are you kidding me?" Paul asks when he visits for the first time. "I can see into your living room from my house."
"Sick of me?" James teases, flopping down in his couch. He doesn't have much furniture yet, which had led his mother to despair when she saw his place on Skype. "I thought we were friends."
"I'm glad you won't be using the bathroom for an hour every morning," Paul says dryly.
"I can still come over for breakfast though, right?" James asks.
Paul smiles, fond and warm, and says, "Always."
And James mostly forgets about that until nearly two months later when he's eating breakfast at Paul's and Paul is giving him that same fond look and he thinks, This fits.
The thought gives him pause. James has dated before, but never to the point of cohabitation. Paulie obviously has – still carries some baggage about it even though he pretends he doesn't – and James has wondered before whether some of Paul's more nurturing qualities had developed after being together with the same person for six years. James puts up with chirps from the guys calling him Paul's arm candy, teasing him for having a loving wife to make him dinner and breakfast, but he never really thought about how close they really are.
It's a frightening thought. James has been attracted to guys before, usually in passing, but he generally likes women, has only ever dated women with any seriousness. Yet he realizes, as Paul passes him a mug of coffee, this goes beyond even the weirdly codependent friendships he's had before. He desperately wants to erase the lingering lines of unhappiness from Paul's face, to track down this Wesley in Jersey and beat the shit out of him.
"You okay?" Paul asks, forehead furrowed in worry.
"Yeah," James says, and he swallows a gulp of coffee. "I'm fine."
It's a shitty year for Paulie, and James tries hard to sympathize, but he's flying high on Geno's line, him and Kunitz and Geno making magic out there, Geno snapping in goals like he's personally trying to make up for Sid's absence. Only Stammer being, well, Stammer keep Geno from claiming the Richard, but Geno gets the Art Ross by a mile and James knows if he could vote, hell, if the team could vote, Geno would get everyone's first place for MVP.
And then there's Paul.
Paul doesn't let his frustration show much, but James can sense it burning slow and steady beneath his skin, in the way he slams the drawers in the kitchen a little harder than usual. James is set, locked up in Pittsburgh, and Paul – Paul's on the block, they all know it, and James can't imagine what Pittsburgh would be like without him. Pittsburgh is home now, but more than that, Paul is home. Paul is what James thinks of first when he thinks about going home, Paul and his creepy ginger mustache and his glasses and his wry humor.
He goes over to Paul's the morning before his meeting with Shero, having put off going home just for this, though he badly wants to escape Pittsburgh and the toxic mess that was their aborted playoff run. Paul is jittery, spilling coffee when he tries to pour a mug for James, and swearing when he gets it on his hands. James gets up and stops him by taking the pot from him.
"Hey," James says, nudging Paul's foot with his own. "It'll be okay."
"Don't be stupid," Paul snaps. James flinches, and Paul relents immediately. "I'm sorry, just – James, you know this could be it."
"It won't be," James says, sure. He believes in Paul, and he knows Paul can do this. "It can't be."
Paul rolls his eyes and picks up a plate. "You're an idiot."
"I want you to stay," James says. He doesn't want to examine why, and he definitely doesn't want Paul asking why, so he changes the subject quickly. "You need anything for your hand?"
James waits around the apartment after Paul leaves for his meeting. He tries playing video games, but his heart isn't in it. He eventually gives up trying to distract himself and just waits, legs bouncing up and down.
Paul returns about an hour and a half after he'd left, shoulders slumped and seeming indescribably older. James leaps to his feet, reaching out instinctively. Paulie doesn't shrug him away, lets James guide him to the couch. He doesn't say anything, though, just curls in on himself.
"Paulie?" James ventures after a minute. "What happened? Are you getting traded?"
Paul shakes his head mutely. "I'm staying," he says eventually. "He asked me if I wanted to leave – and I said no."
James lets out a sigh of relief and lunges forward to hug Paul. Paul startles back, but returns the embrace after a brief hesitation. "Good."
"You were really worried, weren't you?" Paul sounds amazed by the realization, and James pulls back to stare at him.
"Of course I was," he says. "You're my best friend."
Paul looks at him, eyes searching for something in James's face. "Okay," he says eventually. "You wanna hang out here today?"
They spend the rest of the day together, not doing much. They play some video games, watch one of Paulie's thoughtful drama movies, and order in dinner. Paul relaxes by increments, tension easing out of his body until he's loose on the couch, casually touching James's leg with his own, his head lolling to the side.
"Hey," James says, kicking him lightly. "Don't fall asleep. I'm not dragging your ass to bed."
Paul grumbles but gets to his feet and lets James guide him towards his bedroom. He's about to go in when he turns and looks at James. "Hey. Thanks."
"Yeah," James says. "No problem."
"You can crash here if you want," Paul says, and his tone is casual, but he won't look at James.
"Paulie," James says. His hands have gone cold; he shoves them into his pockets. "I – I'm really glad you're staying."
Paul smiles at him and goes into his bedroom. James thinks about going back to his house, still mostly empty, and instead grabs blankets and a pillow from the linen closet and goes to curl up on the couch.
James is woken in the morning by the smell of coffee and Paul sitting on his legs. He grumbles as he sits up, but accepts the coffee Paul hands him. Paul looks rumpled, like he's only just woken up, and his hair is going every which way. James sips at his coffee and stares at him, tracing his eyes over the familiar lines of Paul's face. Paulie looks at him after a moment, smiling slightly.
"What?" he asks.
James leans over to set his mug down on the coffee table, does the same with Paul's despite his protests, and then carefully slides his coffee-warmed fingers against Paul's.
"James," Paul says, voice scaling higher than usual. "What are you –"
James kisses him, so lightly it barely counts, then licks his lips and presses in again when Paul doesn't push him away, Paul's mouth opening to him this time. It's not the most pleasant kiss – they both have coffee breath – but it's worth it for the tiny hitches in Paul's breathing and the hesitant hand he presses to James's neck. James has to pull away for air and he rests his forehead against Paul's.
"James," Paul says again. He strokes his hand down Jame's neck to his shoulder. "What are you doing?"
"Something I've wanted to do for a while," James says. "If it's okay with you."
"I'm not telling you to stop, am I?" Paul pushes up into James, kissing him again. James wrenches his legs out from underneath Paul and clambers onto his lap. Paul grunts at the weight, but he takes full advantage of the new position, hands wandering down James's back to his ass.
James is just starting to get hard, pressed against Paul's hip like he is, when his stomach grumbles loudly. He breaks away to laugh and looks down. "Sorry."
"It's breakfast time anyway." Paul pecks his lips and shoves James off. "Go make toast, I'll take care of the rest."
James keeps sneaking in to kiss Paul on the cheek, on the temple, on the mouth when he can, Paul always shoving him off but smiling. "Do you want me to burn your eggs?" he asks when James manages to get a proper kiss out of him.
"Okay, I'll stop," says James. He kisses Paul again, just to fuck with him, and goes to grab the toast.
They eat breakfast holding hands, James eating with his left hand so he doesn't have to let go. He's going back to Toronto soon, and he's not looking forward to leaving Paul, not now that he has him for real. He does the dishes after they finish eating, as usual, and then turns to look at Paul.
"When are you leaving?" Paul asks, seeming to read James's mind as usual.
"Day after tomorrow." James leans back against the sink as Paul comes closer, crowding him in. "Let's make the most of it."
"Agreed," says Paul, and he pulls James down into a searing kiss.
"I can cook, you know," Paul says from the counter, watching as James bangs around the kitchen ineffectually.
"You have a brace on your hand," James says. "You're having surgery. I'm cooking for you."
"It isn't exactly strenuous," Paul protests, even as he smiles.
James leans across the counter to kiss him. "I want you better as soon as possible so you can go make all those dickweeds who hated you last year regret their words."
"Okay," Paul says. "You know the bacon is smoking, right?"
"Fuck!" James turns back to see – a perfectly normal skillet. "Asshole."
"Keep an eye on the stove, I don't want you burning down my house," Paul says.
"We can always just move into mine," James says.
"But all my stuff is here." Paul reaches over to shove James with his good hand. "Pay attention, for god's sake."
"You're distracting," James says, smiling.
"You're an idiot," Paul says fondly.
"I love you too," James calls over his shoulder as he goes to check on the eggs.