It's one of Paul's good days.
It's easy to tell. He's developed a system, one that his doctors probably wouldn't approve of, but one that works for him. He leaves his curtains open – his windows face east, towards the rising sun – and if he feels the old familiar pain in his eyes, a stab in the back of his head, he'll close the curtains and go back to sleep. He almost never has bad days now. It's taken a while to get here. He tries not to think about the time he's lost to pain and dizziness and vomiting, tries to focus instead on how this is a good day and that means he can go to the beach.
Paul has always been good at his routines, and though he hasn't been playing for a few years, he still has them. On days like this, when the sun is shining cool but bright, Paul takes his car down to the beach, his board strapped to the top, and eats breakfast at one of the restaurants on PCH while the early morning joggers and the teenagers walking their dogs and the mothers with their strollers pass by. He takes his board to the beach after putting on his wetsuit in the washroom of the restaurant – he hates beach restrooms, with their damp, sandy floors and horrible metal toilets – and catches the early morning waves.
Today, though, he opens his front door to find Teemu sitting on his stoop, a cup of coffee in his hand and a pair of shades that, on a younger man, would seem incredibly ostentatious. Instead they give him a sense of mischief, of evading age. They say I am not ashamed to be gaudy.
"Hey," says Teemu, turning that unchanging smile up at him, and as always, Paul feels blessed just by standing in its path. "Bruce told me to take today off. I feel like an old man."
"You are an old man," Paul says. "Do you need help up?"
"I am still able to stand," Teemu says, dignified, and he rises to his feet without using his hands for leverage, as if to prove how able he still is. "How are you?"
"I'm fine." Paul turns, knowing Teemu will follow him in whether he's invited to or not. "I was going to go surfing."
"May I come along?" Teemu asks, and Paul dearly wants to say no – it's not routine, it's an aberration, it's wrong – but. It's Teemu.
The first time Paul met Teemu, met him properly, he was twenty-one and drawn to Teemu like a doomed satellite, pulled in to his orbit and left trailing after him like a tragic puppy. He didn't realize how obvious he was about his fascination until Jack Ferreira had said, "So you liked him, eh?" and traded for him two weeks later.
Teemu was – still is – generous with his affections and his smiles, even compared to other hockey players who aren't as guarded as Paul always has been. He was always careful when he was younger to keep his emotions buttoned in, just like his parents taught him to. Don't burden other people with your problems. There's no need for them to know every moment of your life. But Teemu shared himself thoughtlessly, freely telling Paul about his family, his love of Winnipeg, how he liked fast cars. Paul didn't understand it, but was instantly enamoured of Teemu's seemingly boundless energy and easy kindness.
Even now, Paul finds himself following Teemu, still looking up to him helplessly even in his own house. Teemu sweeps through it with casual familiarity, sits himself at Paul's kitchen table, and helps himself to a cookie that Michiko had baked last time she had come by. He looks, Paul thinks, impossibly beautiful in the sunlight streaming in through the high-arching windows. He has aged gracefully, the already lovely lines of his face maturing into something steady and worn with years of smiling.
"Paul?" Teemu is looking at him, one of those smiles lurking at the corners of his mouth. "Are you okay?"
"Yes." Paul looks around. "I was going to get breakfast."
"Okay." Teemu eats the rest of his cookie. "Do you have trunks I can borrow?"
"I want to go swimming." Teemu beams, and Paul smiles automatically in response. "I have not been to the beach in a while."
"All right," says Paul. "Want to come look at what I have?"
Teemu follows him up the stairs, commenting on the changes in the house ("You have pictures now!" he says, tapping the corner of one wooden frame and, "You repainted the hallway.") and crowds in close once they're inside Paul's bedroom, forgetting the concept of personal space as usual. His breath is warm and coffee-scented against Paul's cheek as he leans in, chest to back.
"You probably want the speedos, right?" Paul asks, glancing over his shoulder. Teemu wrinkles his nose and smiles.
Paul opens his drawer and lets Teemu go through his collection of swimsuits. He's often glad Teemu has come to love California as much as he does, come to love the beach and the water and the hundreds of sushi restaurants. Teemu never said anything about it once he came to Anaheim – he wasn't that kind of person – but Paul heard about how he reacted to the trade, how he walked out devastated, without saying a word to his teammates. He used to feel guilty about that, until he accepted that it wasn't his fault Jack made the trade. He might have been the inspiration, but he wasn't the sole cause.
Besides, it had all worked out, hadn't it? Maybe not as well as it could have, as well as it was supposed to, but Teemu got his cup even if Paul hadn't.
("You should have won," Teemu said when Paul called to congratulate him. "It was supposed to be us. Both of us.")
"These," Teemu says decisively, picking out a dark purple pair. "Your suits are boring."
"What do you want, polka dots? I'm sorry."
"Good." Teemu squeezes his hip lightly. "I'm going to change in the bathroom."
Paul nods and, once Teemu disappears inside, touches his fingers to his skin, fitting them over where Teemu's hand had rested. He breathes in slowly, eyes closing. The air still smells of Teemu, that indefinable scent that never fails to send Paul back to his youth, when barest touch from him would wipe all other thoughts from Paul's head. It was dangerous to indulge himself in pining for something he never, back then at least, could identify as definitively lust or jealousy. It's less dangerous now, of course; he has less to lose. But there's no use in regrets or pointless longing. He decided that a long time ago.
They drive to the beach in companionable silence, Teemu drinking the last of his coffee and looking out the window. Paul is jumpy, pumping the accelerator harder than he means to at each light, the car lurching forward and nearly rear-ending the Buick in front of him. Teemu glances over, eyebrows raised.
"Shut up," Paul says.
"I didn't say nothing." Teemu smirks, cheeks creasing, and Paul checks the road for hazards before flipping him off in reply.
Teemu has come surfing with Paul before, but he's not that good at it and he prefers driving at high speed down the Five to the more meditative solitude of surfing. Paul, for his part, likes the silence out on the ocean, the steady rise and fall of the water beneath him as he waits for the perfect wave. It's a bit like hockey: a steady sense of anticipation followed by a few moments of thrilling ecstasy.
He has never told anyone that, especially the therapist he still sees once a month. He's pretty sure Teemu has guessed, because he almost never talks about hockey when he's around Paul, unless Paul brings it up first. He hopes he isn't as obvious to everyone else. Losing hockey is easily one of the worst things that's ever happened to him, and if people knew that, really understood how Paul's life changed when the doctor told him he would never be able to play again –
"Paul," Teemu says quietly, touching his wrist, and Paul looks up to see that the light is green.
"Sorry," he mutters, accelerating through the intersection. "Zoned out for a second."
"Are you feeling okay?" asks Teemu. "You seem –" He pauses, waves his hand. "Distracted."
"I'm fine," says Paul.
He finds a parking spot near the sand and slides out to feed change into the meter while Teemu collects the towels from the trunk. There are already a few people out on the water, some of whom Paul recognizes by their posture and the color of their boards. He takes down his own board and slips off his flip-flops before walking with Teemu down towards the water's edge. The sand is warm, not hot yet, and pleasantly soft against his bare feet.
Paul hesitates once Teemu has spread out the beach towels. "Should I –"
"Go," says Teemu. He strips off his shirt, and Paul looks away automatically. "I want to nap."
"Okay." Paul glances furtively at Teemu. He's tan as ever, gloriously exposed. It's unfair that he only seems to grow more beautiful with every passing year, the brightness of his soul shining out ever more clearly, like his imperfections are being worn away to reveal his true self. "You'll be okay?"
"I'm fine, Paul." Teemu smiles up at him. "Go."
Paul pulls his wetsuit on over his trunks and takes to the water, shoulders loosening as soon as he makes it out far enough that the water is above his hips. It's promising to be a beautiful day, cloudless and warm, the kind of day where Paul lingers at the beach to soak in the sunlight, even though it throws the rest of his day off schedule. He's learning, slowly, to make time for the small pleasures of life.
It occurs to him, as he sits on his board waiting for the next wave, that Teemu usually calls before he visits. Teemu has always pushed Paul, but he's also always known exactly where the line is and is careful not to disturb Paul's peace of mind. He knows Paul likes to know when people are going to visit. And Teemu can be infuriating, impossible, insistent – but he's never inconsiderate.
What brought him to Paul's doorstep today? Paul looks back over his shoulder, but can't see Teemu, not that he would find any answers there anyway. Teemu will tell him if he feels like it. Paul is incapable of demanding answers of him, even when he wants to.
He surfs until the water grows too crowded to continue, and then he paddles back to shore. When he arrives back at his towel, a trail of damp sand in his wake, Teemu sits up and beams at him.
"I bought you breakfast," he says, holding out a paper bag. "Since I interrupted you this morning."
"You didn't have to."
"No, but I wanted to." Teemu shakes the bag. "Sit down."
Paul realizes he's dripping water all over his towel and thrusts his board into the sand before twisting to unzip his wetsuit. "What did you get me?"
"Surprise. Here." Teemu gets to his feet and gestures for Paul to turn around. He unzips the wetsuit slowly, pressing his left hand against Paul's shoulder to keep him from moving. He doesn't need to worry; Paul is frozen.
"There you go," Teemu says, stepping away. Paul swallows hard and focuses on taking his wetsuit off. He folds it as best he can, sets it at the edge of his towel, and drops to the sand to investigate Teemu's offering. "You look good."
"Yeah?" Paul opens the bag and pulls out a paper-wrapped sandwich. It's still warm. "Thank you for this."
"You haven't eaten any yet." Teemu sits back down, watching Paul closely. "Try."
Paul rolls his eyes, but unwraps it and takes a bite without examining it. It's a breakfast sandwich, he thinks, egg and bacon and tomato together, and it's perfect just now when his hair is damp from seawater and his back is warm from the sun. Teemu smiles.
"I knew you'd like it," he says. He squeezes Paul's ankle, then leaves his hand there, thumb resting just above the bone.
Paul looks up at Teemu. He's still watching Paul, slight smile still on his face. "Teemu?"
"Finish eating, then we go home." Teemu strokes his skin, gentle, and then pulls his hand away. "Eat."
Paul obeys. Teemu, satisfied, lies down on his towel and closes his eyes. Paul's ankle throbs with the phantom touch.
"I'm done," Paul says when he finishes eating. He presses his fingers to Teemu's shoulder. "Ready?"
"Yes." Teemu blinks his eyes open and sits up. "Let's go."
This time, Teemu fiddles with the car stereo the entire ride back to Paul's house, not looking up. He's nervous, Paul realizes when he pulls into his garage. He's never seen Teemu nervous before.
Teemu disappears into the living room once they're inside the house, leaving Paul to put away his board and hang his wetsuit to dry. Paul stops in the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water – a delaying tactic, he recognizes, but there is something going on with Teemu today and he isn't sure what it is. He wants to be prepared.
Once he has gathered himself, he moves into the living room. Teemu is waiting there, hair gilded by sunlight pouring in through Paul's windows. He stands when Paul enters and says, "Today, Bruce told me not to come to practice."
"You said that," Paul says. "Is there a reason?"
"I'm old," Teemu says simply. "I'm old and this is my last year."
"Is it really?"
Teemu snorts. "I said it was."
"You often say it is." Paul tries to say it without bitterness, but fails miserably. Teemu has that luxury, of saying he's done and then changing his mind later. Paul's choice was made for him by a serious of elbows and a longer series of doctors. "Are you really going to retire?"
"I think so." Teemu looks up, sighs. "I always think I want to leave, but I love it. You know."
"Of course I know. What's your point?"
"Today Bruce told me to 'take it easy'," Teemu says. "And I don't know what that means."
"You've been doing okay today." Paul sits down on the couch as Teemu starts to pace.
"Today," Teemu agrees. "I can't do this every day. How do you?"
"I have to," Paul says. "You at least have people, Teemu."
Teemu hisses dismissively. "They have school, work, their own lives. They can't babysit me."
"Do you really need them to?"
"I might." Teemu looks at Paul. "I am a hockey player."
"So am I," Paul says.
"Always." Paul gestures for Teemu to sit back down. "You find ways to cope. You've always had life outside of hockey, at least. You'll do better than me."
Teemu props his elbow on the back of the couch and rests his head on his hand. "True."
Paul kicks him, smiling. "I know you know this. Why are you worrying?"
"Maybe I'm worried about you." Teemu smiles. "I finally understand."
"How you feel. I think." Teemu grabs Paul's knee with his other hand. "I'm happy you found other things."
Paul covers Teemu's hand with his. "I'm all right, Teemu. And you – you're always fine."
Teemu's smile widens. "Yes?"
"Oh, shut up," Paul says, swatting at him, and he starts to get up. "I'm going to –"
Teemu pulls him down by the leg, still as bratty at forty-three as he was at twenty-five, and says, "No, stay."
"I was going to get a movie or something," protests Paul.
"I can't watch your sad movies," says Teemu, pouting.
"If this is how you're going to be when you retire," begins Paul, and then Teemu kisses him.
Paul kisses back on instinct, and Teemu's hand tightens on the back of his thigh. Paul braces himself on the cushions behind Teemu, opening his mouth when Teemu nudges his lips apart, and forgets, for a moment, everything else.
Then he comes to his senses and pulls away. "Teemu," he says. "What are you doing?"
Teemu laughs. "I should have kissed you a long time ago," he says, and he lifts his hand to brush his knuckles along Paul's cheek. "You are smiling."
Paul realizes he's right and tries to school his expression back to seriousness. "Teemu."
"I always thought it would be nice," Teemu continues thoughtfully. "You looked like you could use a good kiss."
"And you waited until now?" Paul grates out. "I've wanted –" He stalls, unable to voice the longing that has characterized his friendship with Teemu from day one. The impossibility of it had haunted him when he allowed himself to think of it. He had taken Teemu the only way he could have him – as a friend.
"Were you ready before?" Teemu asks, raising his eyebrows. "If I had kissed you fifteen years ago, what would have happened?"
Paul thinks back to the few relationships he'd had while he was playing. Every time, he ended it when he felt it was beginning to distract him. And not one of them had been one tenth as distracting as Teemu could be with one smile. "I would have told you no."
"And you would have meant it." Teemu strokes the back of Paul's neck, pressing against the tensed muscle. "Yes?"
Paul sighs and rests his forehead against Teemu's. "Why now?"
"I don't know. Today, I woke up and thought, I need to see Paul." Teemu says something under his breath in Finnish, then: "I love you."
He's said it before, always sincerely, always with the same smile, but Paul has never felt the full weight of it until now. Before, Teemu had always said it when flush with victory, when particularly delighted by something Paul had done, and it was nothing more than what Teemu said to others. Now, there's a particular quirk to his smile that Paul has never seen before, a kind of self-aware irony, like he knows that he's said it too many times before for it to be taken seriously now.
"I know," Paul says, and he lets his full weight rest on Teemu's thighs before he tentatively brushes their lips together.
He hopes that's answer enough; he doesn't trust himself to reply more than that. Teemu pulls him in before returning the kiss. They're really too old to be doing this, making out on Paul's couch at eleven in the morning, but Paul thinks they've both earned the chance to make up for lost time. He doesn't believe in regrets – he knows Teemu is right, that if they'd ever tried this when they were younger it might have ruined them – but he does wish, for a moment, that he could have been ready for this earlier. It took him losing hockey to appreciate what the rest of life could offer, and by then he was past the age of youthful mistakes. But maybe, in each other's arms, they can be young men together again.
"Come upstairs," Paul suggests when they part. "You have nowhere to be today."
Teemu chuckles, low and intimate, and squeezes Paul's ass shamelessly. "See? So much more fun than you used to be."
"I see insulting me is your seduction technique, very nice."
"It's working," Teemu says smugly.
"I'm easy," Paul lies. Teemu laughs in his face.
"You are the most difficult person I know." Teemu leverages them off the couch and sets Paul back on his feet. "Worth it, though."
Paul's face heats, and he has to turn away to hide the smile overtaking his face. "Come on."
"Wait," Teemu says, snagging him by the hand. "One more." He kisses Paul thoroughly, deeply, maddeningly passionately, and then releases him. "Okay."
Paul looks at him.
"What? It's a long way to your room," Teemu says, but he's laughing even as he says it, and Paul feels like he's twenty-two again, caught in Teemu's orbit, helpless and fascinated and infatuated all at once.
But he's braver now than he was at twenty-two, at twenty-seven, at thirty-two. He's more relaxed, more willing to take chances. So he takes Teemu's hand and leads him upstairs, into his bedroom, and lets Teemu guide him to the bed, lets himself kiss back and pull Teemu down to him.
"Stay," Paul says when they part for breath.
"As long as you like," Paul says. "Stay."
"Okay," Teemu says, and he presses a kiss to the corner of Paul's mouth before moving his lips down Paul's jaw, his neck. "I'll stay."
And when Paul rises the next morning, early as usual, Teemu is still there, already awake and watching Paul. The sun is slanting in brightly across his face and Teemu's. Paul meets his gaze, and Teemu asks, "How are you feeling?"
"Good," Paul says, and he smiles. It's a good day.