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...Jackson, a fourth-round pick out of Nebraska in this year's draft, will get his first minute of play much sooner than expected, in tonight's late game...

On the morning of his twenty-third birthday, Sean suddenly had the sense that he knew how the rest of his life would play out.

He was Sean Jackson, and Sean Jackson was finally a starting quarterback in the National Football League. (And even if commentators kept saying it like that for another fifty years, something about using all the words would still sound like his mother yelling his full name when she caught him feeding peanut butter to the dog.) He had a good arm, and he saw the field well, and he was quick enough on his feet to stay out of trouble. He was never going to be Dan Marino, but if he played smart he could probably keep up well enough with Collins or Plummer for a solid few years, make a life out of it.

It was so eerily close to what he'd dreamed as a 7-year-old in his first Pop Warner uniform, when football had been all he could imagine wanting. He found himself giving weight to superstitions that he'd always mocked, and giving brainless answers about 110% percent effort and playing one down at a time. He kept his St. Sebastian medal on under his pads even though he wasn't any more Catholic than he was Buddhist, and he kept his head down whenever he could.

He'd play out his contract, and work hard to earn the next one, and after he retired, he could coach, or maybe get a gig as a commentator or a public speaker, and he could pretend to be straight for the rest of his life, no problem.

They won. 28-10.

(Whenever he retold the story of his first NFL game, he'd say “of course,” after that, with a slightly self-deprecating smile, and it never failed to hit the right note with his audience. Of course at the time, he'd been terrified that he'd throw ten interceptions, or take a bad hit and be out for the season, if not end his career. It would be a long time before he was as confident in the longevity of his career as his agent seemed to be.)

After the game, Coach said, “Good job, stay out of trouble, see you on Tuesday,” and then most of his O-line piled into cars and took him out for drinks at a bar that was about a hundred times flashier than anything Lincoln'd had to offer. He promised himself he'd stick to beer, and slowly. And he had, even when the guy he'd almost crashed into on the way to the restroom had sent over a bottle of champagne – and his phone number - just before last call.

Jesus, he'd thought, and he'd grabbed the napkin before anyone could see that there was a name on it. He hoped.

It went through the wash in the pocket of his pants a week or two later, and he never noticed its absence.

Jackson, with his intense focus on the field, has developed a reputation as a bit of a loner according to sources within the locker room. That contrasts sharply with the easy demeanor that the public is coming to expect from his presence at post-game press conferences...

"You've never had to grow up," his mother said. "When are you going to give me a daughter-in-law and some grandchildren?" she said. "A good woman would settle you down."

"I'm busy, Mom," he replied, his responses to her becoming as rote as the ones he gave to the reporters. "I just haven't met the one yet."

And she'd pat his cheek if they were in the same room, or sigh in concern over the phone if they weren't. "Your father worries," she'd say, and then, "He's so proud of you."

In some ways, going pro made it easier to stay single. When you're in college, saying that you don't fuck groupies because you don't want to end up with a paternity suit, that just makes you sound like an asshole. In the NFL, well, maybe it still made him sound like an asshole, but he was an asshole with a contractually-obligated income. There were still plenty of women who were willing to go out with him, to see and be seen and get dropped off with a kiss and an excuse about an early workout the next morning.

If he wasn't in any danger of settling down, it seemed like everyone else he knew was hustling to make up for it. In the first few years after he went pro, he turned into everyone's favorite wedding guest, usher, and groomsman. It was like he was the must-have wedding favor of the season, every year. He got pretty good at avoiding catching the garter – saying that he had no hand-eye coordination always got a laugh, and kept his dates from getting too starry-eyed about the whole thing.

Christmastime weddings were probably his favorite, even if they were a travel nightmare for everyone involved. The intricacies of wedding planning definitely escaped him, but Christmas greenery reminded him so strongly of home and happiness that he couldn't help but feel it was a good omen for a marriage. It felt special, and that alone made it more appealing than the hundredth set of vows made at sunset on the beach.

Sometimes he found himself standing idly at the back of the church, spending more time staring at the garlands and ribbons decorating the sanctuary than paying attention to the guests filing in from the parking lot.

A deep voice in his ear said “Excuse me,” and just for a moment, the last thing Sean wanted to do was move out of the way. When he recovered, the couple waiting for his attention were bundled up in pea coats and knits hats like they were worried that the snow was going to follow them inside. Cute, but maybe a little too sure of their own appeal, with their matching flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes and curly hair peeking out.

Sean held in a sigh. A nice timely reminder of why he'd been happy to leave New England Christmases behind. “Bride or groom?”

The guy gave him the least subtle once-over ever before answering, “That depends... hey, ow!” He broke off as his apparent date hit him with her purse. “Bride, if it matters. I didn't know people still did that.”

Sean shrugged as he handed them their programs. “I don't know, actually, but some of the relatives volunteered the information, so we had to make the call on the fly.”

“Way to think on your feet,” he said, and Sean pointed to the left side of aisle. “Thanks, man.”

Sean was already turning away as he spoke, called back to his surroundings and role he was supposed to be playing.

Less than 48 hours after the end of their regular season, rumors are swirling that Sean Jackson's one-year contract will not be renewed, even as they prepare for a Wildcard showing in the playoffs next weekend. Sources within the organization cite persistent tension in the clubhouse for the change at QB.

Boom, if I'm a quarterback in the NFL, I've got to be looking at this team and wondering about the management when something like this slips before the season is even decided. I wouldn't want to go into that environment...

Sean was manfully resisting the urge to drown his irritation in Jules's open bar, but mostly because the people he was trying to avoid were more likely to trap him into a conversation at the bar than they were were to bother him at his table. He'd gotten more than a few double-takes at the church, but no one had been willing to break the atmosphere of the impending ceremony to pepper him with questions.

It took longer than he expected for someone's husband to catch him off guard and corner him. The guy who managed it – flushed with exertion or booze or excitement – thankfully didn't seem inclined to offer his armchair quarterback recap of the whole season. Unfortunately, he made up for his lack of a thesis with drunken enthusiasm. "You took them to the fuckin' playoffs man!" This was accompanied by a misjudged shot to the arm that made Sean glad he hadn't yet picked up the two glasses of wine waiting for him. "You don't change horses, y'know, in the...uh. Halfway!"

"Midstream." The new voice came from behind Sean's left shoulder, and Sean didn't at all mind turning his back on the drunk to see who'd untangled his cliche. Artfully tousled hair, face tanned but not weathered, sleeves of his pale green dress shirt rolled up – quality cotton above what looked like wool slacks. Probably not part of the bride's overwhelmingly midwestern family, but not any friend of the groom's that Sean recognized either.

"You don't change horses midstream," the guy said, looking just past Sean to the man still leaning heavily against the bar. "But I've always thought that you really don't ever want to ford the river to begin with, unless you're trying to drown." He raised two fingers and smiled easily at the bartender, and Sean took a step to the side without picking up the drinks he'd been sent for. "Bourbon, neat.

"But then,” he continued, “if you don't bite it fording the river, you're probably going to die of dysentery, or cholera, so you might as well. It's your funeral," he said with a wink. He picked up the bourbon with his left hand - no ring, tanned and possibly manicured - and held out his right to Sean. "Holden Wilson," he said. "I saw you at the, uh,” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the church. “Good season, this year. Tough break."

“Oh, c'mon, I wouldn't say I've been watching you.” Holden's laugh lit up a spark in Sean's chest, and he couldn't help chuckling as well. Not that he needed to avoid laughing, but he'd spent too many years on guard against becoming too friendly too fast to let go of it entirely. “Why do you have to make it sound creepy? I've just got a good head for, you know, stats. I read the papers on the plane, watch a lot of ESPN in the middle of the night. I just don't usually have time to watch the games anymore.”

“Well, you missed some good ones this season, even if I do have to say so myself. Just, fuck, I give them the best regular season they've had in eight years, and then suddenly I'm like a leper because we didn't make it past the Colts in the division?”

“But you don't want to talk about it.”

Sean caught himself and laughed. “Sorry, Sorry. I really don't. It's just hard to keep my mind off of it once someone brings it up, y'know?”

Holden leaned forward, conspiratory and still with the teasing smile that had been on his face all evening “I understand. I'm lucky that I don't face that sort of criticism. Not to my face.” His smile turned the tiniest bit rueful, but it was gone again in a flash. “Not from people who realize who they're talking to, anyway.

“It can't be all bad though, right? I can't even imagine what that's like, doing something you've dreamed about forever. I played hockey when I was a kid, but my mom made me quit once I started losing my baby teeth.” He grinned, maybe to show off that he still had all his teeth. “I can't say I blame her, but I missed it for a long time. Now, dunno, rock climbing, running. Nothing special there, its just something to do. Sometimes I hit the batting cages, easier on the hands for stress relief than the heavy bag used to be.” He looked down at his hands, stretched them out before briefly closing them into fists and making an aborted jab. “I shake hands with people a lot of people who think they're important,” he said. “Don't want to seem like a brute.”

Sean gestured to Holden's appearance as casually as he could manage. “You look like you're doing okay now. For a brute.”

“I get by. People don't talk about it much. Almost makes it worse. It's a little bit like being Bill Gates must have been in the 1990s, when everyone knew what Windows was, but that's about it. No one knew what he looked like.”

“No one knew what anyone looked like, before the internet.”

“True enough.” Holden said. He raised his glass in a toast. “To anonymity, and living however the hell you want.”

This isn't his first time at the rodeo, and I, for one, am starting to think there's something to the rumors of him being distant from his teammates. With the frequency that he's been thrown over for kids fresh out of the draft, he's never had the opportunity to develop into a franchise quarterback.

“So far, Jackson's handled the situation with the kind of class we've come to expect from him. Jackson clearly wants to play, and this year, he's demonstrated both his dedication and his ability to produce a winning season despite a string of minor injuries that kept him at less than 100%. The only question is whether yet another team in the NFL is willing to take a chance on an aging warrior with this kind of potential baggage instead of training up new talent.

“'M pretty sure I was supposed to be consoling you,” Holden slurred. “Think I've been had.”

Sean traded the urge to laugh for a deep breath of fresh-for-LA air after the atmosphere of the club. “I think you're confusing consoling and celebrating again.”

“Mm, yup. Fine.” Holden paused, closing his eyes and concentrating on breathing at one with the world or whatever fad he'd been sold on that week. “Good time, though. You,” Holden said, with the sincerity of the very drunk, “are the best wingman I've ever had.”

Sean kept one eye out for the valet to return with his car, and one hand on Holden's shoulder so he'd know if he was going to have another unexpected run-in with gravity. “Because I flirt but I never take the girl you want?”

Holden shot him a ridiculous grin and a big thumbs up. “Yup. Catch more flies with honey, honey. Girls just wanna have fun.”

“I try.”

“Yes! You're a trier.” Holden turned to face him and very narrowly missed stepping off the edge of the curb. “Never let me sleep with them either.”

Sean pushed him gently back until he was leaning against a bench. “You, my friend, have a very odd definition of wingman.”

“I get lonely, but it never lasts," Holden mumbled. "Better not to. Wingman," he concluded, with a very solid pat on the arm.

Holden's brain was still firing on at least one cylinder, because when they got back to Sean's house, it occurred to him that Sean had just driven them home, and there was something wrong with that picture.

“No," Sean said. "You said you were going to take me out and get me drunk. I never agreed.”

Holden just hrmphed and tried to make a bee-line for the guest bed that Sean had known well enough to put sheets out on before he left, but he needed to let go of Sean to do it. Once he sorted that out, it was more or less smooth sailing across the carpet, and Sean was free to stock him up on water and advil.

Holden was still talking, more or less to himself, when Sean got back. “Devious. Sneaky.”

“Yeah, yeah, your life is so hard,” Sean laughed. "You bring it all on yourself, man."

“Not enough hard in my life, 's my problem,” Holden mumbled, face mashed into the spare pillow. “Too gay for the man I want, not gay enough for the men I can get.”

"Coaches coach. They'll do what they have to do. Jackson's a smart guy, he can learn the system, and if I'm Sean Jackson, what have I been doing for the past month? I've been working out, and I've been watching tape on any team who's weak at QB."

His first publicist, Jenny (who'd only gotten the job because she'd been engaged to his freshman year roommate, Rob) had known he was gay, as much as anyone had ever known. Jenny'd told Sean that she could only work for him if she knew all his secrets, and he'd been just naïve enough to believe her. He'd long since forgotten her exact words, because for someone whose job was to speak for him, she didn't exactly have an indelible way of expressing herself, but the meaning was clear: lie your ass off until they stop paying you millions of dollars a year.

She hadn't even been particularly sympathetic about it. He'd thought she was kind of a bitch, actually, though at the time he hadn't realized that a lot of publicists were like that - that their goal was to help him create an image that would sell him to people. It would be years before he realized that there were also publicists who would make it their job to sell the person he actually was.

At the time, the thought of Jenny and Rob getting married had made him a little sick to his stomach, and whether it was because they were going to have the perfect marriage he wasn't allowed, or because she was a raging hose-beast and was going to ruin Rob's life hadn't mattered at the time. Now, he just wished he'd ever talked to someone who had prioritized his life over his career.

Sean didn't hear from Holden for almost a month. It wasn't, strictly speaking, unusual for them, but it hadn't done anything to untangle the knot that had appeared when Holden had called himself a cab before Sean woke up the next morning.

Holden tended to name cities instead of countries when he said where he was going, if he even said he was going somewhere. While that wasn't a problem when it was Tokyo or Chicago or London, he also didn't spend a lot of time in cities that Sean had ever heard of before, and Sean had long since given up on keeping track of Holden's travels. When he did hear from him, it was just a text message: LA thurs.

dinner? he sent back.

late? was the eventual reply. have a thing.

'Thing' had always meant 'date' with Holden, and that had to be a good sign for their friendship, that he was still seeing people and still sort-of-telling Sean about it, that there wasn't going to be this sudden awkward 'thing' between the two of them when Sean had the whole rest of his life to worry about, too.

And then Holden showed up at Sean's door at 5pm on Thursday, and whatever that knot of emotion had been planning on doing, it made a sudden reappearance that felt a little like a heart attack at the look on Holden's face.

“Aren't you missing your date? I thought we said-”

“Yeah, about that. Canceled. Can I?” Holden said, gesturing to the door, and then stepped in when Sean nodded. “And can I have a glass of water or a beer or something? I came straight from the airport, fuckin' dusty out there today.

Sean kept himself busy putting ice and water in a glass as long as he could, and then doubled back to the kitchen to grab two beers after he delivered the water. When he sat down in the chair next to Holden's, Holden stood up and moved to sit on the coffee table so that their knees almost touched.

“So here's the thing," Holden said. "I'm not a good buddy.” He picked up his glass of water, and it might have been to fidget, but he took a neat, brief sip and set it back down almost out of reach. “I'm never in the same city for three days in a row, I don't do movies, or golf, or any of that shit.

"It's fine, man. You didn't have to blow off your date to be a good buddy. We're cool, I promise."

“I don't have to be,” Holden said. “Missing my date. Just, if I'm wrong here, try not to break my face. I really like my face.”

Sean never had trouble reading intent in movement, and Holden always chose efficiency over subtlety when he moved. And there was no way, when he leaned toward Sean and put a hand on his shoulder, that he wasn't moving in for a kiss. But he stopped

“I'm not asking you to marry me, or buy matching dogs or anything, I promise. And maybe you'll get traded to Tampa or something and it'll all go to shit. I just don't want you to lose any more time because you think you can't have this. We can have this. I'd just like to know where you are when I crawl into bed at night.”

And then Holden did lean in the rest of the way to kiss him, and. It was a little weird, but then Holden pulled back and moved his hands up to cradle Sean's head. He had no choice but to look Holden straight in the eye, and when he did, Holden smiled. And when Holden said, "Just trust me, it'll be worth it," Sean decided to believe him, and didn't resist when Holden pulled him up out of his chair.

"I don't know who sold you those chairs," he said, "but they are clearly the chairs of a man who never has fun making out with his dates." Holden turned to look around the room, dismissing the rest of the furniture with equal distaste before pulling Sean into the kitchen and hopping up onto the counter.

"I learned a few things about how to take down a quarterback," he said, before he hooked his heel behind Sean's knee, and Sean found himself suddenly pressed against Holden from the hips up. "Wrap him up." Holden said. "Now just don't forget to breathe through the hit."