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Eric’s never had a lot of kid fans. He fights too much. The kids who want to be brawlers like him, anger in their eyes and on their fists, but he’s not a guy parents want their kids to look up to. It’s fine with him. They all love him around playoff season when he’s cleaning up the ice, but then they go home and talk about what a bad role model he is. Whatever. He never asked to be anyone’s role model.

He doesn’t do autographs or pictures. He can’t play nice with the fans and then go bash heads in. It’s too hard to switch between the two, and it’s just easier to stay mad. He’s got a reputation to uphold. He has to be mean so no one fucks with him. He’s worked hard to carefully craft this reputation, to combat the guys who cough Erica behind him when he walks out of the locker room, and he’s not going to let some snot-nosed kid wreck it all for him.

There’s another reason Eric stays away from kids. Every so often, on the road, Eric goes out and finds himself a random, no-name, one-night stand. That’s not so unusual; half his team does it. But Eric’s random hookups are men, and he knows what people say about guys like him with kids. Best case scenario, they say he’s brainwashing. Worst case? Well. It would be a scandal, and everyone would talk about him being a child molester, and he’s not getting near that shit with a ten-foot pole. Easier to stay away from the lion’s den completely.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to see some bright-eyed kid jeering him, holding a sign that says he sucks. Eric never wanted this reputation. He had dreams of being Gretzky, with the goals and the fan presence, but neither were in the cards for him. He can’t imagine meeting Gretzky and telling him he sucks or laughing when he takes a hard hit from behind. He never wanted people to hate him. This isn’t what he imagined his NHL career would be like.

And then it’s over. Because he was focusing on some stupid kid instead of the ice, because he lost his head and let himself get sentimental. He can’t believe this is happening. He’s flat on his back, looking up at the glaring lights of the rink, with pain exploding through his head and his shoulder and that bad spot in his back, and his last conscious thought is, my life is over.

 

They keep him comfortably medicated at the hospital, and he spends a lot of time sleeping. At one point, he opens his eyes and sees his lawyer sitting in a chair. Eric’s only met the guy two or three times; he noticed the guy’s ass in his slacks one time too many and decided to let his agent handle any legal business. The lawyer—“Call me Sam”, which had felt way too dangerous for Eric—notices Eric’s awake.

“Mr. McNally,” he says. “Sorry to barge in like this.”

Eric forgets he can’t use his left shoulder and tries to push off the bed to sit up. He ends up gasping in pain and practically falling over. A far cry from two days ago when he was dropping guys on the ice.

“Oh, careful,” Sam admonishes, and then he’s right there at Eric’s side. His hands are warm on Eric’s chest and back as he helps him sit up. “You alright?”

“Why do I need a lawyer in the hospital?” Eric asks instead of answering. Sam must be an okay guy, because he kindly ignores the way Eric’s eyes are a bit watery. Sam goes back to his chair.

“Well, uh, we’ve got to figure out some contract stuff. I would’ve waited until you were out of the hospital, but in all honesty, Mr. McNally, your team is trying to screw you.”

Eric blinks. “Eric,” he corrects absently. “What do you mean?”

“Your contract extends for another season. Your contract is guaranteed, and while you’re injured, even if you retire from said injury, you’re entitled to the full amount of your contract. But they’re trying to hit you with a misconduct breach in your contract and not pay you.”

Eric has to absorb that for a minute. “Why?” He asks. He’s going to blame the medication for how shaky his voice sounds. “What do they think I did?” He’s pretty sure they can’t do that just from finding out he’s—like that. That would be discrimination or something, wouldn’t it? They can’t do that. And they couldn’t have found out. He’s careful.

Sam shakes his head and looks down at his notes. “Unsportsmanlike conduct, on and off the ice.”

Eric feels like he just got hit all over again. “Wh…” He can’t even form a sentence.

“Don’t worry,” Sam says quickly. “It’s a scare tactic. They’re hoping you’ll agree to settle quietly and not make a lot of headlines. The settlement will undoubtedly include almost none of the money you’re guaranteed. I’m not going to let that happen.”

“Unsportsmanlike conduct,” Eric repeats numbly. Sure, he’s a bit of an ass sometimes, but he’s far from the worst guy out there. He never takes cheap hits. He’s never even been suspended.

“It’s the only thing they could use without you getting arrested or being on drugs,” Sam says. “I mean, you’re not on drugs, right?” He says it jokingly but Eric can’t laugh. Eric feels like he can’t breathe. He swallows hard.

“I’m not—I’ve never even gotten an unsportsmanlike conduct in a game,” he says quietly. “Why are they doing this to me?”

“It’s just about money,” Sam says. He looks sympathetic and it’s making Eric feel worse. “We could talk to your agent about a PR push. You know, getting vocal fans on your side so the team gets bad press and backs off.”

“That won’t work,” Eric mutters. He can’t look at Sam now. “I’m not an autograph guy. I don’t take pictures with people. I’m a tough guy. They send me out there to fight, not make friends.”

“Oh.” Sam doesn’t say anything for a moment and the room gets awkward. Eric can’t believe this is happening. He’s given everything for his shot in the league, and this is what he’s getting for it. He’s bled for his team over and over, and they’re ready to drag him through the mud for cap space. “Well…” Sam pauses again. “Is the unsportsmanlike conduct claim worse to you than losing money?”

“Yes,” Eric says.

Sam’s looking at him thoughtfully now. His eyes are such a dark blue the pupils almost disappear. His lips look soft and Eric’s willing to bet there’s not a callus anywhere on his body. “Okay,” Sam says slowly. “Let me do some research and make some calls. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Sure,” Eric says. He doesn’t know what a guy in a starched suit can do about any of this, but then again, the suits are the ones who make all these decisions anyway. Sam’s gathering his things to leave when a nurse pokes her head in.

“Mr. McNally, you get to go home tomorrow,” she says brightly. “Who should I put down is taking you home?”

“What?” Eric asks. “I don’t know, whichever cab driver is parked closest.”

“Oh,” she says. “Um. Okay. No friends or family?”

Eric keeps his eyes trained on the white sheets over his legs. Joan has a little kid at home; she’s too busy to help. Friends? He doesn’t really have friends. “My team’s on the road,” he explains weakly. Not that anyone on his team would be happy about picking him up, anyway, but at least his captain would feel responsible.

“Okay,” the nurse says, one word dripping with so much pity Eric wants to die. This is humiliating enough without her feeling sorry for him, not to mention the hot semi-stranger in the corner politely pretending not to listen.

“You can put me down,” Sam cuts in suddenly. Eric looks up at him.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I know that. But I can do it.” Sam raises his eyebrows. “Can’t get paid if a cab driver drops you in a ditch somewhere.”

Eric blinks, then he huffs a laugh as he realizes Sam’s cracking a joke. “Wow. Okay. Thanks.”

It’s a little awkward again, but not terrible. It’s nice, Eric thinks. All those jokes about lawyers being soul-suckers may very well be true, but Sam doesn’t seem to fit the mold. And, Eric reflects as Sam walks out and Eric watches his ass again, not just in the personality department.

 

“This is where you live?” Sam asks in disbelief. He cringes after he says it. “Uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to…” He trails off as he helps Eric out of the car. “It’s just not what I expected.”

Eric lives in a one-bedroom apartment two blocks from the practice rink. A lot of his teammates get big houses or luxury condos, but it’s not like Eric has anyone to invite over. It’s not even gated.

“I’m not home much,” Eric says. “Though…I guess I will be now.”

Sam hovers while Eric gets up the stairs. He’s on the third floor and the elevator’s broken. “That’s a code violation,” Sam murmurs, mostly to himself. Eric laughs a little.

“Are you just always a lawyer? You never turn it off?”

Sam shrugs, but he’s smiling. That smile is dangerous for Eric. “I do some work in disability rights, too,” he explains.

“Your law firm does sports contracts and disability rights?” Eric asks.

“That’s pro bono stuff,” Sam says. “On my own.”

“Oh, so you’re a good person. Giving back to the community and all that.” Eric unlocks the door. He’s a little embarrassed by the state of his living room. And the smell. He must’ve left something in the fridge. And he’s just noticing for the first time since moving in almost eight years ago that he has no decorations anywhere in the living room.

“I don’t know,” Sam says. He’s starting to look embarrassed. “Just looking for some good karma, I guess.”

Eric lets it drop. “Well, thanks,” he says dismissively. Sam just looks at him for a minute.

“Oh,” he says. “You’re good?”

“I’ll be fine,” Eric promises.

Sam nods. “Sure, sure. Okay. Well, I’ll be in touch about the contract stuff.”

“Thanks,” Eric repeats. This time, he doesn’t watch Sam walk away. He needs to be smarter about this. He is not going to have sex with his lawyer.

 

“They want to resolve this without going into arbitration,” Sam tells him on the phone a few days later. “Mostly because they know an arbiter won’t be on their side.”

“Okay,” Eric says. He’s not totally sure what any of this means, but Sam obviously does.

“Normally I’d say no,” Sam goes on. “I’d refuse to settle and take it to arbitration. There’s no way they’ll win this, in all honesty, and they know that. But if we take it to arbitration, it’s going to get more public. And more people will find out about their claim of unsportsmanlike conduct.”

“Right,” Eric says, biting his lip. He can only imagine what Don Cherry would have to say. He’s always hated Eric. The feeling’s pretty mutual.

“So we can waive your no-movement clause and you’ll get traded and put on someone else’s injured reserve for the last season of your contract in exchange for the team retracting any claims of misconduct, or we can push through.”

“So I wouldn’t retire as a Leaf,” Eric says, stomach churning. He was born and raised in Toronto. He’s never wanted to play anywhere else.

“Not technically,” Sam agrees. “But you won’t play for any other teams, and I don’t think most people would classify you as on the new team, really.”

Eric sighs. “All because some stupid kid distracted me.”

There’s a beat of silence. “I’m sorry?” Sam finally asks.

“When I got hit. This kid was banging on the glass with a sign telling me I suck. I got distracted and didn’t notice Olsen coming for me.”

Silence again. “You’re blaming the breakdown of your multi-million dollar contract on a child instead of your team’s front office?”

Eric laughs a little. “Not the contract. But if I hadn’t gotten hurt, none of this would be happening. If the kid hadn’t distracted me…” Eric sighs again. “No. It’s my own fault. I was a jackass.”

“Oh,” Sam says.

“He wanted an autograph before practice and I wouldn’t give him one.” Eric has no idea why he’s telling Sam this. He doesn’t even know Sam. Must be the drugs he’s still on. They make everything feel slow and blurry. He hates them.

“Because you’re not an autograph guy,” Sam remembers. Eric should not feel so excited that his lawyer remembered something he said. The guy’s whole job is to remember things Eric said.

“Maybe they’re right,” Eric says softly. He feels choked up. Concussions can make people emotional—he remembers learning that in a Player’s Association workshop. Maybe that’s what’s happening right now. “Not very sportsmanlike to ignore fans.”

Sam takes his time answering. “Look, Eric,” he finally says, and why does Eric’s name sound so good in his voice? “I don’t watch a lot of hockey. I know enough to negotiate contracts and that’s it. But I do know guys have done a lot worse than not sign an autograph for a fan, and they never got hit with a misconduct breach of contract, okay? What they’re trying to do to you isn’t fair.”

“Alright,” Eric says. He doesn’t know how else to respond.

“And on a less professional note,” Sam goes on, voice a little gentler this time. “I think the fact that you’re worried about it says good things about your level of sportsmanship. I know it tells me a lot about you, anyway. Good things.”

That makes Eric feel better. This guy doesn’t know anything about Eric except his contract details, but still. Eric can tell Sam’s a good guy, working for free to help people with disabilities and all that. He gave Eric a ride home in the blink of an eye. It feels good to make a guy like that think he’s okay.

“Thanks,” Eric manages to say. Then he adds, “Wait, you don’t watch hockey?”

Sam laughs. “More of a baseball guy.”

Eric groans. “Baseball? Really? Their games last forever and nothing happens.”

“Baseball is very cerebral,” Sam says serenely. “Some people just can’t handle that much thinking.”

“Wow,” Eric laughs. “God. Cut me some slack. I have a concussion.”

“And my MLB clients get me birthday presents,” Sam adds. “Not trying to point fingers, but none of my NHL clients have done that.”

“Am I your only NHL client?” Eric guesses.

“You might be.”

Eric laughs harder than he has in weeks. And he doesn’t know where Sam lives, but it’s not hard to find out where his office is and, on a whim, place an order to be delivered there. His heart shouldn’t be pounding the way it is. It’s the continuation of a joke. He would pull this kind of thing with anyone, even if they didn’t have beautiful eyes. Really.

The settlement meeting with the front office happens to be the same day Eric’s present arrives. As soon as Sam sees him, he shakes his head.

“I can’t believe you have a bobblehead,” is the first thing he says. Eric laughs.

“I was making up for not getting you a present,” he defends himself. “Had to be something good.”

“Oh, well, you definitely hit the mark there,” Sam says, rolling his eyes. He’s grinning. Eric has to look away. This is trouble.

Luckily, the settlement meeting brings him down hard. He’s always been on good terms with his GM, and now the guy won’t even make eye contact with him. It’s hard to hear them stack charges of selfish play, hard hits, and refusal to attend team charity events. Eric wouldn’t consider himself a bad guy, generally, but they’re making him sound pretty awful. And the worst part is all of it’s true. They might be punishing him overly harshly for it, but every incident they bring up is something that happened. Something Eric did.

“Okay,” Sam says when they’re finally done listing Eric’s asshole traits. “We’re not denying any of that. But we all know this is not the level of unsportsmanlike conduct that leads to canceling contracts. You have a defenseman who was arrested for rape last year and you didn’t terminate him.”

“Sexual assault,” the team lawyer corrects quickly. “And those charges were dropped.”

“And what about your center who made public homophobic social media posts?” Sam presses. Eric swallows hard, looking at the table. He and Brewer have never been friends. Brewer goes pretty hard on the Erica business.

“He went to sensitivity training.”

“Mr. McNally has never been fined or suspended even once in his career. You have to drop the unsportsmanlike conduct if you want him to waive the no-movement clause.”

And then it’s settled. Eric’s going to retire as a fucking Canuck and the team gets a wide-eyed rookie in his place who costs half as much.

“I hope you’ll treat him better than you’ve treated Mr. McNally,” Sam says bitingly in closing. The team lawyer rolls his eyes, but Eric sees the GM flinch a little. Good. At least he won’t actually have to move to Vancouver. Eric yanks at his tie the second they’re out the door. He hates ties, and he already feels like he’s choking from that whole meeting.

“Let me buy you a beer,” Sam says, clapping Eric gently on his good shoulder. “That was brutal.”

They end up in some dive bar, the only place Eric saw where he didn’t think he’d be recognized. He doesn’t want to deal with anyone whispering, “That’s Eric McNally” today.

“They sure made me feel like an asshole,” Eric says, peeling at the label on his bottle.

“That was by design,” Sam says. He makes a little face every time he takes a drink of his beer. Eric’s probably not supposed to notice it. “They knew going in they were going to drop the unsportsmanlike conduct bullshit, but they had to get their cheap shots in first.”

“Well, thanks for defending my honor,” Eric jokes. Mostly jokes, anyway. He actually is kind of touched, even though he knows it’s ridiculous. That’s Sam’s whole job.

Sam shakes his head. “I got a little unprofessional at the end. But they were really hammering you. And it’s a ridiculous double standard. Sexual assault and slurs are fine, but God forbid you try to have any kind of life outside of your hockey team.”

“Those guys score goals,” Eric explains bitterly. “I’ve gotten a few good goals, but I’m mostly a grinder and a fighter and not even a fan favorite. I’m not a guy they’ll risk their necks for.”

“Well, that’s their loss,” Sam says softly. Eric looks up at him quickly. Sam meets his gaze steadily. Eric can feel himself flushing and he looks away.

 

Eric’s going to have to go to physical therapy eventually, but he has to heal from surgery first. It’s a nightmare. His stitches itch, his shoulder hurts every moment of every day, and he’s bored. He’s never had this much free time on his hands in his entire life. He’s always had somewhere to be, some practice or game to run to, shots to take against the garage door. He can’t even go skate without hockey because it jostles his shoulder. He watches a lot of TV, but he can’t make himself watch any Leafs games just yet. It hurts too much.

He’s supposed to go for walks. Walks. He’s a professional athlete reduced to stiffly making his way around the block.

“Was,” he mutters to himself. He’s not a professional athlete anymore.

He only goes in the direction opposite of the practice rink. He can’t run into anyone from the team. There’s no way he’ll make it through an interaction with any of them right now. It’s been almost two weeks and not one of them have called him or checked to see how he’s doing. That stings. He’s wandering around, trying to walk without moving his shoulder, when he sees Sam. Sam’s at a coffee shop, sitting outside even though it’s March. Eric doesn’t know what to do. He flounders for a second.

The settlement meeting and the ensuing charged moment at the bar happened almost a week ago, and Eric hasn’t heard from Sam. But he hasn’t reached out to Sam. But is he supposed to reach out to Sam? Sam’s his lawyer. And Eric could’ve been imagining the whole thing anyway. Eric’s going to turn around and go home.

“Oh, hey, Eric,” Sam calls. He sounds happy to see Eric. Eric should turn around and run home. Except he can’t run, so he walks over to Sam instead.

“Hi,” Eric says.

“You want to sit down?” Sam asks.

As soon as Eric does, he realizes his shoulder is throbbing. He breathes out sharply as he sits. “I have to go on walks,” he tells Sam, trying to cover for his labored breathing. “I’ve never moved so slow in my life.”

Sam laughs, but he looks sympathetic. “You’re not enjoying being lazy?”

Eric makes a face. “I’ve never been very good at sitting still for long.” His shoulder hurts so badly he can’t breathe. He’s starting to sweat.

“You want some coffee?” Sam offers.

“Uh.” Eric swipes at his forehead. “Um.” He’s going to throw up.

“Are you okay?” Sam asks. He does a double-take. “Oh, boy, you look really pale.”

“I don’t feel so good,” Eric admits. Well, here’s a way to get a guy’s attention.

“Okay,” Sam says. He stands up and helps Eric up. “Let me get you home. You only live a few blocks from here, right?”

“It’s okay,” Eric tries feebly. “I can—”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Sam interrupts. “Come on, tough guy.”

It’s kind of a blur from there. Sam gets him home and situated on the couch. He disappears somewhere and Eric thinks, disappointedly, he must’ve left, until he reappears with a glass of water and Eric’s pain pills.

“I don’t like them,” Eric protests.

“Do you like passing out from pain?” Sam counters. Eric takes the pills. The water helps a little, too. “When was the last time you ate?” Sam asks. “Your kitchen looks empty.”

“I don’t cook much,” Eric says.

“I can tell.”

Sam disappears again and Eric focuses on not whimpering. He is a large, strong man who was, until a few weeks ago, notorious for fighting. He is not going to whimper. Not with an audience, anyway.

“All I could find was eggs,” Sam says apologetically, holding a spatula in one hand and a plate in the other. His tie is thrown over his shoulder. It should not be as endearing as it is.

“That’s pretty much all I cook,” Eric tells him. The pills are kicking in enough that he can think again. “Um, thanks.” He can hear Sam moving around in the kitchen while he eats. It takes Eric a second to realize Sam’s cleaning. “You don’t have to do that,” he protests, cheeks burning. He has a stack of dirty dishes in the sink he’s been too tired or apathetic or in pain to deal with. Sam doesn’t answer. Eric wants to dig a hole in the floor and bury himself. This is so humiliating.

Sam comes back and sits beside him on the couch. He’s a respectable distance away. Eric wishes he were closer. Eric wishes he were farther. He can feel himself starting to like Sam and that can only lead to disaster.

“You’re not doing a very good job of taking care of yourself,” Sam says bluntly.

“Who cares?” Eric says. He’s pouting. It’s a bad habit he has. “Doesn’t matter if I waste away. I can’t play hockey anymore.”

“Oh, right,” Sam says sarcastically. “There’s nothing more to life than hockey.”

“There isn’t,” Eric confesses quietly. “Not my life.”

Sam looks at him. “So find something.”

There’s that feeling again, the same from the night at the bar. Sam’s looking him right in the eye and something’s there between them. Eric’s gotten pretty good at reading the secret signals guys send out. He couldn’t afford to get it wrong. He’s at least 90% sure Sam is on the same page. He sets the plate on the coffee table and bites his lip while he decides, but when he looks back at Sam he knows that decision was made a long time ago. He leans forward and kisses Sam.

Sam kisses him back. And Eric was right—his lips are soft. He’s also a really great kisser. He runs a hand through Eric’s hair and Eric presses closer. Eric’s good hand goes to Sam’s belt and Sam stops him.

“I can’t do that while I’m your lawyer,” he says. He’s breathing hard and Eric’s brain is foggy with want.

“You’re fired,” Eric says, leaning in to kiss him again.

“Okay,” Sam murmurs into Eric’s mouth. But after a second, he pulls back again. “No, wait. There’s paperwork I have to do to not be your lawyer anymore.”

Eric groans. “Are you serious?”

“I…” Sam’s fingers are still tangled up in Eric’s hair and his eyes are out of focus. “It’s unethical.”

Eric kisses his way down Sam’s jawline and his neck until he hits the collar of his shirt. He wishes the damn thing weren’t buttoned all the way to the top. “But I fired you.”

“That is a good point,” Sam says weakly as Eric goes back up to bite at his earlobe. “But, um. Your shoulder isn’t—you can’t…”

Eric cuts him off with a kiss. “It’ll just hurt, it’s fine.”

That does not have the effect he was hoping for. Sam pulls away for real this time. “No way,” he says firmly. “I’m not going to let you hurt yourself.”

Eric exhales loudly. “Kinda hurting me now,” he points out, gesturing toward his lap.

Sam huffs, smiling a little despite himself, but he shakes his head. “Do you even have your stitches out?”

Eric rolls his eyes. “No,” he admits.

Sam’s hand in Eric’s hair loosens, but he doesn’t take it away completely. It’s…gentle, Eric realizes. That’s not how this usually goes for him. He usually goes for quick and dirty, a lot of times in filthy bathrooms. He’s never had a guy stroke his hair like that. It’s making him feel weird. Emotional or something.

“When do your stiches come out?” Sam asks quietly.

“Thursday.”

“Okay,” Sam says. “Want to have dinner with me Thursday night?”

“Like a date?” It slips out before Eric can stop it. He’s never actually been on a date with a man before. He took plenty of girls out during juniors, when he was a teenager and everyone was watching each other like hawks to see how everyone else was acting and he thought if he just found the right girl all those other feelings would go away, but never a man. Going on dates feels too…real. Really…well, gay.

“Yeah, a date.” Sam raises his eyebrows. “Oh.” He sighs. “This is where you say you don’t date guys, thanks but no thanks, I’m not actually gay, et cetera et cetera, right?”

Eric swallows. That’s a pretty good rundown of the situation. Sam’s already pulling away, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. He mutters something about athletes under his breath and fixes his tie. He’s going to leave. He’s going to leave and Eric will probably never see him again.

“Yes,” Eric blurts, almost desperately. “Thursday night.”

Sam pauses. “Really?”

“Yes. Please. Thank you.” He closes his mouth with a snap before any other pleasantries can fall out of it. Sam smiles at him and Eric has to swallow hard again.

“Great,” he says. “Give me a call on Thursday after you see the doctor.”

Eric is so screwed.

 

“Give it at least another week before you start physio,” the doctor tells him. “But you’re looking good. Mobility issues should be limited. You’ll probably always have some pain, especially if you get hit or do a lot of upper body exercise, but you can have a normal daily life.”

That’s probably supposed to be reassuring, but telling a former professional athlete he can be normal is anything but. Eric knew the break was career-ending, but a little part of him was hoping for some kind of miraculous recovery. It’s not happening. He’s really going to have to live without playing hockey.

He wallows for a little bit before he calls Sam. He’s not even sure he feels like seeing him tonight. And a date? What was Eric thinking, agreeing to that? He calls Sam with every intention of canceling.

“Hi,” Sam answers, and it sounds like he’s smiling. Eric gets butterflies.

“Hi. Um. I got my stitches out.”

“That’s great. What did the doctor say?” Sam asks. He sounds like he actually really cares.

“I can have a normal daily life.” Eric didn’t mean to sound so bitter.

“Ah.” Sam pauses. “Well. You expected this, right?”

“Yeah,” Eric says. He doesn’t want to talk about this. “So. Tonight?” So much for canceling. He’s a weak man.

“Tonight, yes.” Sam lowers his voice a little. “I thought you could come to my place and I’ll cook.”

Eric holds in a sigh of relief. He had no idea how he was going to handle a date in public. He usually has to wear sunglasses in public to avoid being noticed. That’s kind of douchey for a date, but there’s no way he could handle being recognized while on a date with a man.

“That sounds great,” he says. Then something else clicks in his head. “Oh. Your—your place. Your house. Like, where you live. And. Um. Sleep. In a bed.”

“I own a bed, yes,” Sam says, sounding amused. “I was thinking we might get some use out of it if you’re up for it.”

“I am,” Eric says quickly. “Yes. I am.”

Sam laughs at him. “Great. See you tonight.”

 

“I’m a little surprised you wanted to stay in,” Eric admits while they’re eating. “When you thought I wasn’t going to say yes you said…some things.”

Sam nods. “I don’t date guys who are in denial about being gay.”

“So…?” Eric raises his eyebrows.

“In the closet doesn’t mean in denial.” Sam sips his wine. He doesn’t make a face. It’s the opposite of how Eric feels—he hates wine. He doesn’t tell Sam that, though. That probably makes him fit whatever stereotypes Sam has in his head of athletes. “I get why you’re not out. Professional sports aren’t the most inclusive environment, and hockey seems like one of the worst of them. They still haven’t even fined anyone for slurs and other sports have.”

“Yeah,” Eric says quietly, looking down at his plate.

“That can’t have been easy,” Sam murmurs. “Hearing all that all the time.”

“They used to call me Erica,” Eric admits. He’s never told anyone that. He didn’t have to tell other players, and he’s never wanted to talk about it.

Sam scoffs. “How original. Mine was always Samantha in school.”

Eric actually laughs. He’s never laughed at the Erica thing. But Sam gets it. He gets how on one hand, it’s ridiculous, and on the other, it hurts.

“It’s not like any of them knew,” Eric says. “But every time they called me Erica I’d get a little worried.”

Sam nods. “So you had to be the guy who goes out and fights.”

Eric shrugs. “Some of it’s that. Some of it’s that I don’t have the skills to be a top-100 player and I needed something to make me valuable. And some of it’s that I just like beating those guys’ faces in sometimes.”

He’s a little afraid Sam will think that’s wrong, but Sam cracks up laughing. “I bet it’s great stress relief.”

Eric laughs and ducks his head. If this is dating, it doesn’t seem so bad. Sam’s apartment is nice, almost comically so in contrast to Eric’s. It’s not huge or anything, but it’s decorated nicely. There’s art on the walls that looks like he probably had to pay a lot for it. Eric doesn’t know anything about art and couldn’t tell anyone why one painting is better than another, but he gets the feeling Sam can.

“So,” Sam says when they’re done eating. “I’m not your lawyer anymore.”

Eric licks his lips. He’s glad they’re still sitting, because his legs feel a little weak. This is ridiculous. Sam is not the first man he’s slept with, not by a long shot. “You’re not my lawyer anymore?”

“Paperwork’s done. You had me on retainer, so even without an open contract I was still technically your lawyer.”

“And now you’re not.”

“I’m not,” Sam agrees.

“Great,” Eric says breathlessly. Sam grins and comes closer. He kisses Eric and runs his fingers through Eric’s hair again and Eric’s heart is pounding.

Eric has sex with his lawyer.

Well, no. He has sex with his ex-lawyer. With Sam. And it’s incredible. Sam’s careful with Eric’s shoulder, but not so much Eric feels self-conscious about it. And Eric…stays. He sleeps in Sam’s bed. He’s never done that before. He’s never stayed over.

He wakes up when Sam’s alarm goes off. And Sam just gets up. He doesn’t hit snooze or groan or stay in bed or anything. He turns off the alarm and sits up.

“Sorry,” he whispers. “I have to go to work.”

“Okay,” Eric says. He gets out of bed and starts putting his clothes back on. He can’t meet Sam’s eyes. He doesn’t know what happens now.

“Do you want breakfast?” Sam asks. “I usually just eat cereal, but I can make you something if you want.”

“Uh…no,” Eric says, caught off-guard. “Cereal’s fine.”

He sits beside Sam at Sam’s little kitchen table and they drink coffee and eat cereal. Eric feels like he’s in the Twilight Zone, like he stepped into someone else’s life. He’s never stayed over with a hookup, and he’s certainly never had breakfast the next morning with one.

“Did you bring any of those pain meds with you?” Sam asks.

“No,” Eric admits. “I really don’t like them. And the doctor said my pain should be easing up now anyway.”

“But is it?” Sam presses. He rolls his eyes when Eric bites his lip. He doesn’t want to lie and say yes, but he doesn’t want to admit it’s getting hard to concentrate on anything but the pain. Sam gets up and grabs a bottle of Advil from the cabinet. “Take.”

Everything is so surreal. Sam kisses Eric before they leave the apartment and then Sam goes off to work and Eric goes home. He kept meaning to ask Sam what happens next, but he could never work up the nerve to do it. This would normally be the part where Eric loses the hookup’s number, if he ever even got it in the first place. But he doesn’t want to lose Sam’s number. He thinks about Sam all day, while he cleans his apartment and makes his first physical therapy appointment and goes for a walk.

He likes Sam. He wants to see him again.

Eric slaps his hand over his forehead. He is so, so screwed.

 

“Come on, McNally, two more,” his physical therapist, Terry, urges. Eric’s sweating more than he’s ever sweated off the ice and he feels like a weakling. His shoulder’s on fire.

“It hurts,” he gasps.

“I know it does,” Terry says. “Do it anyway.”

Eric’s familiar enough with that mentality. He just thought that kind of thing was frowned upon by medical professionals.

“Good,” Terry praises when he finishes. “You’re getting stronger every day.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Eric complains. “I still can’t raise my arm over my head.”

“It’s only been a month,” Terry reminds him with a chuckle. “That was a bad break. You’re lucky you’re even where you are now.”

That doesn’t make Eric feel any better. He goes to the locker room and changes. He doesn’t shower here. It’s kind of a relief to just use his own shower these days instead of various locker rooms across North America.

Or Sam’s shower. He’s been using Sam’s a lot, too. It’s something he tries not to think about too much or he’ll start freaking out. He’s seen Sam almost every day for the last month. He and Sam…might be dating. For real dating. Eric doesn’t really know, and he’s sure as hell not going to ask Sam.

And then he walks out of the locker room, and there’s the man himself. Eric’s first reaction is to smile, but then he notices all the other people in the waiting room. He schools his face.

“Hi,” he says, standing a good two feet away from Sam. Sam raises his eyebrows but doesn’t comment on that, because Sam is a good person.

“Hey. Just thought I’d see if you wanted to get coffee. I was supposed to have arbitration this afternoon but it got pushed back.”

Eric glances at the man sitting closest to them. The guy seems pretty absorbed in his Highlights for Children magazine.

“Yeah,” Eric says. He leads the way to the door. “Oh, wait,” he remembers at the blast of fresh air. “I’m really gross right now.”

Sam laughs. “As opposed to what?”

Eric rolls his eyes, but his smile’s starting to come back, no matter how hard he fights it. “Nice. Really, though, I think I might smell.” He tries to take a surreptitious whiff of himself.

“It’s okay,” Sam says, voice low. “We can get the coffee to go.”

And there’s Eric, in Sam’s shower again. It’s a great shower; it’s just the man who comes with it that complicates things. It doesn’t complicate things in the shower, because Sam doesn’t leave much room for other things in Eric’s brain while that’s going on, but then Eric’s sitting in the kitchen wearing clothes he left here at Sam’s house and wondering what the hell his life’s turned into.

“What is this?” He blurts out as Sam hands him a muffin. “Not this, this is a muffin, I know that, but I mean what is…us. We? Are we, are we some kind of—you know, dating, and is that different than seeing each other and which one is this? Or is it neither? I don’t mind, you know, whatever you want is fine, I guess, well, maybe, I might not agree with everything, but I just need to know—”

“Take a breath,” Sam suggests calmly. Eric does. Sam looks like he’s trying not to laugh at Eric. That’s probably not a bad thing. “Are you asking me if we’re in a relationship?”

Eric gulps in another breath. “I…think so.” He’s never done this before. He doesn’t have to tell Sam that; it’s probably painfully obvious.

Sam doesn’t say anything for a minute and Eric’s heart drops. Maybe Sam doesn’t want to see him anymore. Eric doesn’t know how he’ll handle that. He’s gotten used to seeing Sam. He likes seeing Sam. Sam’s a nice thing to see. But Eric’s almost as terrified of the opposite. Sam does want to keep seeing him. Sam wants them to be in a relationship. Sam wants Eric to go around holding his hand and kissing him in the street and other things Eric can’t do.

“What do you think we are?” Sam finally asks. It seems a little rude to turn it back around on Eric when he was the one who asked first. Eric doesn’t think it’s really fair, but he probably can’t say that to Sam.

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “I’ve never—I’ve never done this before.”

“I know,” Sam says, not unkindly. “You’ve told me that a lot.”

“Sorry,” Eric mumbles. Sam pushes his hand into Eric’s hair. It calms Eric down. It didn’t take long for Sam to figure that out.

“I get it,” Sam promises. “What do you want this to be?”

Eric gulps. That’s another thing he doesn’t know. He’s terrified of this, of keeping this up, of taking this further. The more attached he gets, the harder it’ll be to keep it secret. But he’s already pretty attached. He considers what would happen if he said he wants this to be nothing, just casual hookups. Sam would not go for that, Eric can tell. Sam’s not a guy who wastes time. So he would say no, and Eric would leave, and Eric wouldn’t see Sam again. No more midday coffee breaks, no Sam showing up with dinner when Eric’s doing his shoulder exercises and forgets it’s time to eat because he’s not used to so much unscheduled time. No more kissing. No more Sam stroking his hair. No more Sam.

“A relationship,” he says. He doesn’t know how to do that, really. He has no idea what being in a relationship entails. But he’s not ready to deal with a no Sam life. Sam smiles and pulls Eric’s face closer to kiss him.

“Good,” Sam says. “That’s what I want.”

And just like that, Eric has…a boyfriend.

 

The Leafs make the playoffs. Eric watches the game they win to clinch their spot from a table in a sports bar. Everyone around him is cheering and screaming and he looks down at the table numbly. The rookie who took his spot scored the game winning goal.

“Eric,” Sam says softly. The bar’s too noisy for Eric to even hear him, but he’s memorized the shape of his name in Sam’s mouth. Eric grabs his coat and leaves. The night air slaps him in the face and he takes deep, gulping breaths. His throat hurts from holding back a scream.

“Eric,” Sam says behind him. He puts his hand on Eric’s shoulder. Eric glances back into the bar, where all those people who love hockey and the Leafs are celebrating, people who might recognize him and notice Sam touching him, and he shrugs Sam off. He heads for his car. Sam doesn’t follow.

 

He stops going to physio. There’s no point. There’s no point in working hard to live just a normal life. There’s no point pushing himself when he’s never going to really need his shoulder again. He can already do everything he needs to do in his new, normal life. He’s even started going for runs instead of walks.

He hasn’t touched ice since the hit.

He ignores a call from the physical therapist’s office and ignores a call from his sister and lies in his room with the lights off and the shades drawn. He curls into a ball and buries his head under his pillow. The Leafs made the playoffs. They did it without him, like him getting injured and being gone don’t even register to anyone. He’ll never go to the playoffs again. He’ll never fight for a playoffs spot again. He’ll never skate out on home ice in front of a screaming crowd, he’ll never get that rush at looking at the freshly painted Leafs logo on the ice, he’ll never get his chance at a Cup. He’ll never play hockey again.

 

Someone’s pounding on his door. Eric’s going to ignore it, but they won’t stop. It goes on for what feels like hours. Finally, he gets pissed enough to climb out of bed. He flings the door open and there’s Sam. Sam pushes past him without a word, without waiting for an invitation. Eric closes the door and opens his mouth but Sam speaks first.

“No.” Eric blinks, taken aback, and Sam doesn’t even stop to acknowledge his confusion. “Eric, you don’t get to do this. You said you wanted a relationship. And I get that it’s new for you, and you’ve got ten miles of issues and I understand that. But you don’t get to disappear on me because something went wrong.”

“Sam,” Eric tries.

“Four days, Eric. I haven’t heard from you in four days! You don’t get to date me for two months and then disappear for four days. I was giving you space, because I know this sucks for you. I know it’s hard for you to see them play without you. And I’m sorry. I wish I could make that better. But how can I do anything when you won’t even answer my calls?”

Eric can’t believe it’s been four days. He wasn’t keeping track. How could four days have passed without him even realizing?

“Sam,” he repeats.

“And if you want end this with me, that’s one thing, but now you’re skipping physio and doctor’s appointments?”

“How did you—” Eric tries to ask.

“I went by to try to see you and they said you haven’t been showing up. I’m sorry, Eric. I’m so sorry you can’t play anymore. I know that’s changed your whole life and it’s hard for me to even wrap my head around what it means for you. But what are you going to do? You’re just going to hide and give up?”

“I don’t—”

“I’m not done,” Sam says sharply. “I know hockey’s been your world for your entire life. And now that’s gone, and it must be so terrifying. But your life’s not over, Eric.”

“Oh, great,” Eric finally breaks in angrily. “My life’s not over? What do I have, Sam? What am I supposed to do? Go get a job in an office somewhere with no windows? Listen to some boss tell me what to do and make me feel like an idiot all the time because I didn’t…I didn’t staple the pages right or what the fuck ever? Go skate at the mall during Christmas with everyone else? What life is that?”

“It’s my life,” Sam points out caustically. “Nice to know I bore you so much.”

Eric grabs at his hair, frustrated. “I don’t care what anyone else does! I can’t do that. I had everything I wanted. I was living my dream. And now I have nothing.”

“Everything you wanted,” Sam repeats flatly. “No friends, no family, and you were so scared anyone would see you even looking at a man that you were completely shut down. You didn’t even have fans, Eric. You let a complete stranger take you home from the hospital because there was no one else. Your own team didn’t care about you. Remind me again what you had?”

Eric rears back like Sam slapped him. Objectively, Sam is not wrong. But hearing Sam throw it all in his face does not feel good, especially when Eric’s already down. It’s just another reminder that he has nothing left. Because even if he didn’t have fans or friends and couldn’t date, he had hockey. That was all he needed.

“Thanks for reminding me,” Eric says quietly. “Nobody needs me. Now not even my team does.” He turns around and starts walking to his bedroom.

“And what about me?” Sam asks from behind him. “Does it mean anything if I need you?”

Eric stops. He has a lump in his throat and he can’t turn around because if he looks at Sam right now he might fucking cry. “What?”

“I need you, Eric. I’m here. Don’t I matter in your boring normal life?”

Eric takes a shaky breath. He turns around slowly. Sam’s got his jaw set, but his eyes look shiny the way Eric’s sure his do.

“I know you don’t get hockey anymore,” Sam says softly. “But you wouldn’t have gotten me while you were playing. Doesn’t that count for anything?” His voice breaks and Eric wants to punch himself in the teeth for ever making Sam feel like he doesn’t matter.

“Yeah,” Eric admits, because it does. It counts for a whole fucking lot. He’s out of words, though, so he steps closer to Sam and reaches a hand out tentatively to touch Sam’s face. Sam closes his eyes. “Yeah,” Eric repeats. “It matters.”

Sam grabs a fistful of Eric’s dirty shirt and pulls him closer. Eric buries his face in Sam’s neck. He’s all buttoned up, just like always, and Eric’s probably getting his shirt dirty because he apparently hasn’t showered in four days. He probably looks as bad as he feels, not to mention how he smells. Sam doesn’t seem to mind. He slips his hands into Eric’s filthy hair and kisses him, unbrushed teeth be damned.

“Sorry,” Eric chokes out. “I didn’t know it was four days.”

“It’s okay,” Sam whispers.

“It’s not fair,” Eric says. He says it barely louder than a breath, right in Sam’s ear. “They dropped me like nothing and they get the playoffs.”

“I know,” Sam says, squeezing him tighter.

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Eric confesses. He’s almost crying now. “I barely got through high school. I don’t know what to do.”

“Okay,” Sam says, running a hand up and down Eric’s back. “Eric, we’ll figure it out.”

Sam gets him into the shower, and then he makes him eat, and finally they get into Eric’s bed. Sam’s never slept at Eric’s. They hardly spend any time in Eric’s small, blank apartment. Eric’s having a hard time meeting Sam’s eyes after that little breakdown, but Sam seems undeterred. He slides into bed behind Eric and wraps an arm around Eric’s waist. Eric lets himself relax into the warmth of Sam’s body, and he closes his eyes and sleeps.

 

“Okay,” Sam says, sitting on the floor with his sleeves rolled up, leaning against the back of the couch with the kung pao chicken beside him. “The most obvious option is coaching.”

Eric, who is up on the couch hoarding the beef with broccoli and will not share unless Sam specifically calls him on it, makes a face. “I don’t think so.”

“Really?” Sam asks. “Why not?”

Eric blows out a breath. “Maybe later,” he says. “But right now it feels too close. Being on the bench and I can’t go on the ice? That’ll kill me.”

Sam nods thoughtfully. “Okay.” He puts an X on his list next to coach. He has an entire list of possible careers for Eric, all written in his neat, even handwriting. Eric never thought much about psychology or handwriting or anything, but he definitely believes Sam’s handwriting reveals a lot about his personality. Everything about Sam is clean and under control. That night a few weeks ago when he showed up at Eric’s apartment with his little speech was the most out of control Eric’s ever seen him in three months, and he was not out of control by any definition Eric knows.

Eric’s handwriting is all but illegible. He doesn’t write much, all truth told, and it shows.

“Sports journalist,” Sam says next.

“I can’t write,” Eric says. “Don’t you need a degree for that?”

“For a newspaper, probably,” Eric admits. “But you could be an analyst on TV.”

“Hm.” Eric shrugs. Talking about hockey and getting paid for it doesn’t sound so bad. “Maybe.”

“Alright, our first maybe.” Sam puts a check next to sports journalism.

“It’s only the second suggestion,” Eric points out with a laugh.

“I’m being positive,” Sam says primly. “And for the record, I don’t mind if you eat all the beef with broccoli, but if so, you’re not getting any kung pao chicken.”

“Not any?” Eric wheedles. “Not even one little bite?”

“Nope.”

“I can see you’re a ferocious negotiator,” Eric says. “Fine, switch.”

They trade cartons and Sam goes back to the list. “Um, this one is mostly a joke. Motivational speaker.”

“Ehhhh,” Eric imitates a buzzer. Sam has told him more than once he hates when Eric does that. He looks at Eric sideways but doesn’t comment because he’s on a list-making high. Eric can’t believe he likes someone who gets a high from making a list. And he likes him a lot.

“I’m not sure how you’re going to feel about this one,” Sam says slowly. “But you could go back to school.”

“No,” Eric says immediately. “I’m awful at school and I was always miserable.”

“You don’t want to try?” Sam presses. “Audit a class, maybe, and just see if anything’s changed?”

“You think my decade and a half of getting knocked in the head is going to make school easier?” Eric asks skeptically.

Sam purses his lips. “Fine, I’ll cross it off the list, but I think you’re unnecessarily pigeonholing yourself and limiting your options.”

“Sam.”

Sam holds up his hands in defeat. “I’m done.” He sighs. “I mean, I’m actually done. I don’t have any other ideas.”

“You used an entire piece of paper for four things?” Eric asks incredulously. “You told me you had a list.”

“This is a list,” Sam defends himself. “There’s no length requirement for a list.”

Eric’s stomach churns. “So aside from being a professional hockey player, I have four options. And one was a joke.”

Sam abandons the beef with broccoli and his list to join Eric on the couch. “I don’t mean to make you feel bad,” he starts. “But without a degree…” He shrugs. “Short of menial labor, yeah, I don’t know what else there is.”

Eric covers his face with his hands. “Great,” he says, muffled.

“You know you don’t need to do anything else,” Sam points out. “I mean, assuming you don’t start spending outrageously, you have more than enough money to live on for the rest of your life.” He squeezes Eric’s leg. “I know you don’t handle excessive downtime very well, but maybe you should start. Pick up a new hobby. Start golfing.”

Eric drops his hands. “That’s an insult to a hockey player.”

“Golf?” Sam asks, mystified.

“Yes. That’s what you do in the off-season, so telling a hockey player to play golf is implying they’re out of the playoffs.”

Sam huffs and rolls his eyes. “Well, okay, sorry I don’t know the intricacies of your sports subculture.”

“Maybe you should go ask your baseball clients.”

Sam laughs out loud. “I can’t believe you’re still hung up on that.”

“Samuel, do you like your MLB guys better than me?”

“Right now or in general?” Sam jokes.

“Hey.”

Sam rolls his eyes, but he leans close and kisses Eric. “I have never done that to an MLB client,” he murmurs.

“Good,” Eric says, nudging his nose along Sam’s. “I wouldn’t want to mess up my shoulder kicking some lazy baseball ass.”

“Oh, God,” Sam groans playfully. “Is this going to happen now? Some guy at a bar tries hitting on me and you’re going to fight him?”

“Yeah,” Eric says, but then they both fall silent. Eric wouldn’t do that, because that would give him away. Eric would watch from across the room as someone tried to take his boyfriend home, because it would be safer for his secret than intervening. They both know it without saying it.

Sam clears his throat and bends down to pick up the discarded food. “Want any more?”

 

The Leafs don’t make it out of the first round. Eric’s torn. On the one hand, he feels bitterly happy. Watching the teammates who jeered at him and never gave him a call after he wound up in the hospital get booed off the ice makes him feel incredibly vindicated. But on the other hand, that’s his team. He sees at least three plays he could’ve made a difference in if he’d been there. He could’ve changed things. He could’ve helped.

“Do you watch the rest of the playoffs if you’re not in them?” Sam asks curiously.

“Yeah, always,” Eric says. “Gotta see who wins.”

“But doesn’t it make you mad that it’s not you?”

Eric shrugs. “Maybe if it’s a team we lost to in the first round or something, but by the finals, not as much. It’s hockey.” He doesn’t understand how this is even a question. How could he not watch?

Sam sighs long-sufferingly. “Okay.”

Eric snorts. “You don’t have to watch with me.”

“But this is what you’re going to be doing for the next few weeks, huh?” Sam asks. “All you’re going to be doing?”

“Well…” Eric huffs. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” Sam says, slight dismay in his voice. “Who do I root for?”

“Who do you like?” Eric counters.

Sam gives him a look. “I like you,” he says. “I’ve never cared about any other hockey player in the history of hockey.”

Eric laughs out loud. “That’s a little dramatic.”

“It’s the truth.”

Eric might be blushing a little. It’s been over three months, but he still feels butterflies whenever Sam says stuff like that. He knows he should say the same kind of stuff back, but it’s still hard.

“Okay, so…” Eric tilts his head. “You’re not from Toronto, right?”

“Ottawa,” Sam confirms.

“No, no, no way,” Eric says. “You can’t be a Sens fan.”

“Okay,” Sam says. “What else can we use to decide?”

“You went to university in…?”

“Here. Toronto.”

“Yeah.” Eric sighs. “Well, I guess there’s no one else but the Leafs.”

“I don’t like the Leafs,” Sam says stubbornly. “Not after what they did to you.”

That gets Eric blushing again. “Well,” he says. “We can at least pick someone for these playoffs. Let’s see who we’ve got.”

Sam hooks his chin over Eric’s shoulder to see the computer screen, and Eric knows he doesn’t have a lot of experience here, but he thinks this might be more than an average relationship.

 

Sam’s being weird. He keeps looking at Eric across the table and opening his mouth, then closing it and looking back down at his food. It’s putting Eric on edge.

“What?” Eric finally asks. “What’s going on?”

“Well.” Sam swallows. He takes another drink of his wine. They have a drink truce now. Sam gets his wine, and Eric gets beer, and neither judges the other for his choice. “I have a…” He scratches his nose. “I think asking this is a bad idea, but I’m going to ask anyway.”

“Okay,” Eric says apprehensively. If Sam thinks something’s a bad idea, it probably is.

“My firm is, um, having a party,” Sam finally cuts to the chase. He won’t look at Eric. “And I was going to ask if you wanted to come.” His voice gets quieter and quieter toward the end of the sentence until he’s almost inaudible.

Eric sighs. “Sam.”

“No, I know,” Sam cuts him off. “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” Eric says. He really is.

“Yeah.”

Sam gets up from the table and starts scrubbing a plate that was already clean. Eric watches the tight muscles in his back. They’ve talked, a little, about their past relationships—Sam’s past relationships, since Eric’s never had anything longer than two nights. Sam hasn’t dated anyone closeted since college. Eric hates making him go back to the hiding and sneaking around, but he can’t help it. He’s a professional athlete. He can’t be gay.

Was, his brain supplies. He’s not a professional athlete anymore.

He’s not a professional athlete anymore.

“Maybe…” Eric starts. He falters, but he sees Sam tense.

“Maybe?” Sam asks without turning around.

“I…” Eric’s not sure he can say any words. Sam turns around, but he stays across the room, by the sink. He crosses his arms.

“Eric?”

“I’m not a hockey player anymore,” Eric says in a small voice.

Sam finally comes back to the table. He stands by Eric’s chair. “What are you saying?”

“I don’t know.”

Sam sits down heavily. “Are you saying you’re…ready to be out?”

“No,” Eric says quickly. He looks over at Sam. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” Sam says. It doesn’t sound okay, judging by the tone of his voice, but Eric doesn’t call him on it. “I understand.”

Silence falls between them.

“What if I, um. What if I came with you but we didn’t…would we have to even tell people?”

Sam’s smile isn’t a happy thing. “This is my friend, Eric.”

“Sorry,” Eric repeats.

“People would probably guess anyway,” Sam points out. “Not everyone knows I’m gay, but a few people do.”

Eric exhales loudly. “But they wouldn’t know.”

Sam just looks at him for a minute. “No,” he says quietly. “They wouldn’t.”

“Okay,” Eric says, just as quietly. “I…okay.”

Sam searches his face. He’s starting to smile. “Eric, are you sure?”

“No,” Eric admits. “But…” He shrugs. It’s been almost five months. He doesn’t want Sam to go to a party alone.

Sam kisses him. So that’s not so bad.

Eric changes his mind at least four times a day for the rest of the week. Sam keeps telling him, “You don’t have to come.” But the look on his face says he really, really wants Eric to come. Eric wakes up in a cold sweat the morning of the party. It’s ridiculous, he reflects as he shaves. He’s just going to a party. He’s been to a million parties in his life.

He’s never been to a party with a guy he’s dating.

He changes his mind again when he’s standing in the closet to get dressed. In the closet. Apt. Then he shakes his head at himself. People won’t know just by looking at him. And this is obviously important to Sam. If Sam needs him to go to a dumb office party, Eric can do it. He’s stared down guys twice his size on the ice, guys who screamed faggot in his face and shoved him into the boards. No one at Sam’s firm could possibly do worse than that.

Sam calls him twenty minutes later. “Hey,” he says cautiously. “So…?”

“I’m in my car,” Eric says.

“In your car…where?”

Eric huffs. “In Manitoba,” he says sarcastically. “I’m on my way.”

“To come here?” Sam checks. Eric might be offended if he didn’t absolutely deserve Sam’s skepticism.

“I’ll see you in fifteen minutes,” Eric says. When he pulls into Sam’s office building, he almost turns around. People are going to know. They’re going to see him with Sam and they’ll know.

No, he reminds himself. They’ll suspect. They won’t know. And haven’t people always suspected? He wasn’t the only guy in the NHL to get called by a woman’s name, but some of those Ericas tossed his way seemed pretty pointed. Some of the guys in juniors definitely suspected. And he knows his dad always suspected. So some strangers might suspect. What’s the big deal?

But what if someone recognizes him? What if someone puts two and two together and realizes Eric McNally is gay? What if—

Tapping on his window makes him jump three feet. Sam’s standing by his car. Eric opens the door.

“Jesus, you gave me a heart attack.”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “Coming?” He keeps his voice steady and even, not a hint about his feelings, but Eric can see it in his eyes. He doesn’t expect Eric to come in. He’s expecting Eric to let him down. Eric takes a deep breath and gets out of the car. Sam doesn’t touch him, because they agreed on that, but the smile on his face is worth Eric’s trembling hands.

“I’ve never been to an office party,” Eric realizes out loud. In the privacy of the elevator, Sam squeezes his shoulder.

“It’s fine,” he promises. “It’s just boring small talk and vegetable platters.”

“Small talk?” Eric asks desperately. “I only know how to talk about hockey.”

“That’s not true,” Sam says. “We talk about plenty of things.”

“But that’s you,” Eric says. “Unless it’s an office full of you, I don’t know how to talk to them.” He laughs a little. “I wish it was an office full of you.”

“As far as personality, it’s pretty homogenous.” Sam shrugs. “Boring sports lawyers.”

Eric rubs Sam’s back. “I don’t think you’re boring.”

“Thank you,” Sam says. The elevator dings and he raises his eyebrows. “Ready?”

Eric takes a deep breath. “I wish I had my stick.”

Sam laughs at him while they get out of the elevator. A few people close to the door greet Sam and look curiously at Eric. “Hey, guys,” Sam says. “You remember my big NHL client, Eric? Here he is.”

“Wow,” one guy says, holding out a hand. Eric’s not really used to greeting people with handshakes. They don’t really do that in hockey except when they’re in trouble. But he shakes the guy’s hand and puts on his press smile. He doesn’t use it often. If, for some reason, he gets pegged for intermission interviews or pressers after the game, he doesn’t have to smile.

“We heard about what happened,” the guy says, gesturing to Eric’s shoulder. Eric swallows. “That’s a shame. How’re you feeling?”

“I’m, um.” Eric licks his lips. “Good. Yeah, I’m good. I’m in physio. Getting stronger every day,” he parrots Terry, because he figures that’s more appropriate small talk than I fucking hate every minute of rehabbing it.

“Good,” the guy says. “Getting back on the ice next season?”

“Oh,” Sam says from behind Eric.

“Uh, no,” Eric says. “No, I’m.” He shakes his head and tries to smile. “I can’t play anymore.”

“Oh, gosh,” the guy says. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” Eric says, because there’s not really anything else to say.

He follows Sam home after the party. He’s glad they didn’t drive together, because he’s kind of falling apart. He hasn’t been around that many people at once in months. On the one hand, it was kind of nice. There’s a part of Eric that likes being the center of attention. Maybe, if he really were just a normal guy, his career would’ve been different. He could’ve been a class clown, a fan favorite, not the best guy on the ice but the goofy goon everyone loves. He would’ve loved that. But he had to protect himself, so he had to round his shoulders and keep his head down, and now a bigger part of him hates the attention. He doesn’t want people to focus on him, because he doesn’t think he can keep a lid on all this under too much scrutiny. Especially around Sam’s coworkers—Eric was the odd man out, the guy they didn’t know who didn’t fit in. He had people surreptitiously glancing at him all night.

He knows there are at least four people who figured them out. He saw their sly smiles. He’s sweating just thinking of it. He can’t think about it. He’s going to throw up if he does. Every day since his first NHL game, he’s wondered if it’s the day the news breaks. He’s always bracing himself to open the paper and see a picture of him with the news. And now it’s way more likely.

“Eric?” Sam asks. They’ve been home for twenty minutes and Eric hasn’t said a word.

“I…” Eric lets out a shaky breath. “Do you think they’re going to tell people?”

“Who’s going to tell people what?” Sam asks distractedly, undoing his tie. Eric doesn’t have to say anything before Sam catches up. “Oh. Right. No, Eric, of course not. They’re all lawyers. They know better than to do something like that. We could hit them with a defamation suit.” He makes a face. “Of course, that would be admitting that being called gay would ruin your reputation, but.” He sighs. “That’s the world we live in.”

“Okay,” Eric says. He rolls out his neck and Sam comes over to rub his shoulders.

“No one’s going to say anything,” Sam promises. He sounds resigned. He pats Eric on the back and goes back to the dresser, a bitter note in his voice when he adds, “Your secret’s safe.”

 

“You are officially rehabilitated,” Terry says, clapping. “Remember to keep doing the stretches and no checking, but you are cleared for all activities besides professional athletics.”

“Thanks, Terry,” Eric says, shaking his hand. Surprisingly, he actually means it. This whole ordeal could’ve been a lot worse, but Terry seemed to understand Eric didn’t need pity or reliving his highlights.

“No offense,” Terry says, and Eric tenses up for a second. “I don’t want to see you here again.”

Eric laughs. “Right back at you.”

He actually feels pretty good as he leaves, a little spring in his step. He lets himself into Sam’s apartment with the key Sam gave him. He has a key to Sam’s apartment. Sam has one to his, too, but he rarely uses it. He says Eric’s apartment makes him sad. He’s not even really joking.

“Why?” Eric hears Sam say. He exhales sharply and Eric sees he’s on the phone. “That isn’t—Billy, no.” He growls frustratedly. Eric’s never heard that tone in his voice. “Because you can’t—Billy!” He hangs up the phone and yells.

“Whoa,” Eric says. “What was that?”

Sam’s pacing. His hair’s all messed up from the way he’s yanking at it. “My brother,” Sam says, voice barely constrained, “is an asshole.”

“Oh,” Eric says. He’s pretty sure he’s not allowed to agree with that. It’s one thing to complain about your sibling, but someone else agreeing is off limits. Plus, he didn’t even know Sam had a brother until this very moment. Seven months and they’ve never talked about family.

“He’s living with this woman and her son, which cannot be a good thing for a child, believe me, and now he needs me to come out there and, and, and watch him play house and meet his pretend family.”

“That doesn’t seem bad,” Eric ventures. That’s the kind of thing TV siblings do.

“Oh, on its face it’s fine,” Sam agrees, aggravated into talking like a lawyer at home. “But I have to go this weekend, of course. They’re leaving the goddamn country, so I’m supposed to just drop everything and go right away.”

“So when are you leaving?” Eric asks.

Sam sighs again. “Tomorrow morning.” He laughs. “How’d you know I was doing it?”

Eric leads him to the couch to sit down. “Well, for one thing, I know you,” Eric says. “You’re loyal. And I have a sister, so.”

“You do?” Sam asks, surprised. “Oh my God, I don’t know anything about your family.”

Eric laughs. “I know, I realized that when you were ranting about your brother.”

“He’s an asshole,” Sam reiterates.

“Okay.” He’s still not going to agree with that just yet. He’s never seen Sam so wound up, so it’s incredibly likely, but still. “How long are you staying?”

“I’m not staying longer than a day,” Sam says. “If I do, I’ll kill him.”

“He’s that bad?” Eric asks. He and Joan get along fine. They’ve never been close; she’s a few years older, and he was always too busy with hockey for them to spend much time together.

“Billy is a loser,” Sam says. “He never takes responsibility for anything, he thinks everybody owes him whatever he wants, and he’s never cared about anything or anyone except himself.” He pauses. “The only good thing I can say about him is he never cared I was gay.”

“He knows?” Eric asks. Joan has no clue about him.

“Yeah, he’s known for years,” Sam admits. “He actually…” He laughs a little. “When I was fifteen, he was twelve, and he used to follow me around sometimes. He saw me getting my first kiss behind our trash cans. I told him he couldn’t tell Mom and Dad and he said, who’s Mom and Dad like some wise guy.”

“So he’s not actually that bad,” Eric says. There’s a hint of fondness in Sam’s voice. Sam shakes his head and the fondness disappears.

“No, he is. The thing is, he’s exactly the same as he was then. And what’s cute on a twelve-year-old isn’t so great on a thirty-year-old. And like I said, he only cares about himself. He didn’t care that I was gay because it doesn’t affect him at all.”

Eric nods. “My sister doesn’t know. Joan. She doesn’t know.”

Sam gives him a look. “I’m shocked.”

Eric rolls his eyes. “We’re not very close.”

“Where does she live?”

Eric winces, embarrassed. “Here.”

Sam blinks. “We’ve been dating for seven months and you’ve never even mentioned the fact that you have a sister who lives in town.”

“I know,” Eric sighs. “Like I said. We’re not close.”

“You don’t get along?” Sam asks.

“We don’t get along but we don’t not get along.” Eric makes a face. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it does,” Sam assures him. “You’re neutral.”

“We’re very neutral.” He shrugs. “It’s my fault. All I’ve ever cared about is hockey.” He grins ruefully. “Joan could probably say all the same stuff about me you were saying about Billy.”

Sam smiles at him, shaking his head. “No. You can be an asshole sometimes, but at least you’re a lovable asshole.”

Eric’s heart spasms for a second at the word lovable. He swallows hard and makes himself laugh. “My goal in life,” he jokes.

When Sam leaves for Ottawa, Eric goes back to his apartment. It seems even sadder than it used to since he’s been spending so much time at Sam’s. He has a whole drawer in Sam’s dresser. It makes him panic a little if he thinks about it too hard. But it’s been seven months, and no one’s said anything. He hasn’t seen any of Sam’s coworkers since that party, but he hasn’t ended up in the papers, so Sam must’ve been right about them.

He’s at loose ends. He goes for a run and does his shoulder exercises, but then he has nothing else to do. No appointments, no afternoon skate, nothing. For a second, he considers grabbing his skates and hitting a public rink, but he shrinks back from the idea immediately. People still recognize him on the street. And at a rink? There’s no way he’d go unnoticed. He can’t handle people’s sympathetic smiles, the almost bloodthirsty way they want details of the hit and the four broken pieces of his shoulder. And he honestly doesn’t think he can handle skating without hockey. It puts a pit in his stomach.

Eric slumps on the couch, defeated. It’s easy not to think about hockey when he’s with Sam. He doesn’t consider everything he’s missing, everything he’s lost, because Sam keeps him distracted. It even helped when he was doing physio—he was doing something, working toward a goal. And now…now he has nothing. Again. His apartment is silent. He turns on the TV and flips aimlessly through channels.

“—think the Leafs could’ve gone further last season with McNally out on the ice?” One of Eric’s least favorite talking heads is saying. Eric pauses, holding his breath.

The other guy shrugs. “Hard to say,” he points out. “On the one hand, McNally was never a huge scoring presence, and he spent more time in the box than in the defensive zone.” Eric rolls his eyes. “On the other hand, we know he was a solid clutch player. And some of those big hits the Flyers got in wouldn’t have been as big if they’d been afraid McNally was going to make them answer for them.”

“True. But a guy who trips his own center to strip the puck is always a liability.” That happened one time and it was an accident. Mostly.

“Still, you hate to see a guy go out like that.”

“Especially when it’s just a practice.”

“Definitely.”

Eric turns off the TV, sliding further into gloom. Hate to see a guy go out like that. He shouldn’t have gone out at all. It isn’t fair. He throws the remote across the room and it lands with a clatter. Eric throws his arm over his face and tries not to think about anything at all.

Eric can’t sleep. His shoulder is throbbing and his bed feels unfamiliar. It’s weird to hear silence instead of Sam’s steady breathing. He doesn’t snore at all. He’s never had his nose broken. Eric’s had his nose broken so many times he can pop it in and out of place. Sam was not as impressed by that trick as Eric’s teammates used to be.

Sam had decided to stay the night in Ottawa and leave in the morning. “This kid likes Billy,” he’d said wonderingly.

“Well, he’s just a kid,” Eric had pointed out. “They don’t know anything.”

“He is a little…strange,” Sam had added.

“Aren’t all kids?”

So now here Eric is, alone in his bed in his silent apartment with bare walls, unable to sleep because his shoulder aches. He already popped a few Advil, the way he always does before bed, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Sam disapproves of how many painkillers Eric takes—“NSAIDs are hard on your stomach lining”—but he doesn’t seem to understand that Eric spent fifteen years brawling and boarding. That doesn’t come without aches and pains.

This pain in his shoulder is different, though. Twinges and dull aches in his knees and his back are normal; Eric can almost ignore that now. This is a low, constant thrum of pain. He likes sleeping on his side, but he can’t do that because it hurts on his left side and feels weird on his right side without Sam there beside him.

He rolls over to his right side. He’s being a damn girl about this. So he’s sleeping alone. He’s done that every night for over three decades. He remembers the way he’d felt when Sam said he was lovable. His heart had climbed up into his throat, because for a second, he’d thought Sam was going to say…well. That he loved Eric. Love. Eric shivers. It’s one thing to sleep with a man, and it’s one thing to date a man, but to love him? This is getting heavy. Maybe he should take a step back.

But he imagines telling Sam he wants space. He can picture the hurt on Sam’s face and it makes his stomach twist. And this has been one day without Sam and he’s not exactly handling it well. His TV remote is broken. Still. Love? Eric has no experience with that. The strongest love he’s ever felt has been for hockey, and there was some hate mixed in with that sometimes. He doesn’t want to love Sam if it means hating him, too.

He sighs and rolls over again, away from the empty space beside him. He’s not a guy given to a whole lot of introspection. He’s never had to be. No one expects a hockey player to be a philosopher. It’s always been easier not to think too hard about his feelings, because if he thought too hard about them, he’d start to feel them harder, and that was never a good thing. And now he’s thirty-four and doesn’t know how to even begin to figure out if he’s in love. In love. Just the phrase makes him feel ill.

He can’t be in love. That would mean…it would make everything real. The second he’s in love with a man, that’s it. He really is gay. All his protestations, all his careful planning, out the window. There’s no hiding it if he’s in love.

“No,” Eric says out loud. That’s settled. Love is off the table.

 

Sam comes over for lunch when he gets back from Ottawa. He lets himself in and Eric’s heart jumps up. He smiles reflexively as soon as he sees Sam. There’s Sam, and Eric’s smiling. He can’t help it. That’s a bad thing. Someone’s going to notice that.

“I’m gay,” Eric blurts out. Sam blinks and sits beside Eric on the couch.

“Um,” he says. “I noticed that at some point over the last seven months.”

“I’ve never said that out loud,” Eric mumbles, staring at his hands.

“Oh.” Sam puts his arm around Eric’s shoulders. “Wow. Okay. How do you feel?”

Feel. Eric doesn’t know how the fuck he feels. He doesn’t do feelings. He would never in a million years think to ask someone how they feel about anything. He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

Sam nods. “Okay.”

“I don’t—” Eric swallows. “I don’t think about feelings a lot.”

“Yeah,” Sam agrees. “I noticed that over the last seven months, too.”

“This…” Eric gestures toward Sam. “You. I mean, I…” He huffs. “I don’t know how to do this.”

Sam thinks that over for a minute. “I think you’re doing a pretty good job so far.”

“Yeah?”

Sam’s holding back on a smile. “Are you asking me for a progress report?”

Eric bites his lip. Sam thinks this is a funny joke, and Eric feels like he can’t breathe. “This isn’t a joke,” he says quietly. “I’m—you don’t get it. I can’t be—I’ve never been able to be…gay. Not with hockey. It’s always one or the other.”

Sam’s serious now. “Alright,” he says slowly. “But…you don’t have a choice about hockey anymore.”

“Right,” Eric agrees, because that’s what he’s saying. “And I—you know I’m not taking that very well. I think I…” He shakes his head. “I didn’t make a choice with you, either. You were there, and I didn’t know how to be without hockey, and…” He trails off. Sam doesn’t say anything for a minute. He shifts away from Eric.

“Are you saying you started dating me to be a placeholder for hockey?”

“Maybe.” Eric doesn’t know.

“And…what?”

“This isn’t ever what I wanted.”

Sam covers his mouth with his hand for a second. “You think I took advantage of you or something? Let me guess—I made you gay. Is that it?”

“No,” Eric says. “I mean, kind of. I wasn’t really gay before, not gay gay. I—”

“I don’t believe this,” Sam mutters. “Holy shit, Eric. I cannot believe you’re saying this to me. For seven months you just.” He throws his hands up. “What? You just went along with this? You had no choice? This isn’t what you wanted? You kissed me. You wanted it pretty badly.”

“I wanted to sleep with you,” Eric points out. “I didn’t want the rest of it.”

Sam stands up. “Okay, then,” he says, voice shaking. “See ya, pal. Nice knowing you, bud. I should have known. I should have known this was going to happen. You’re an asshole, Eric. You’re…” Sam doesn’t even bother finding another word. He shakes his head and walks out the front door.

 

Eric doesn’t sleep for two days.

 

“Hey,” Eric says on the phone. “Um. It’s me.”

“Eric?” Joan asks, sounding shocked. “Hi.”

“Can I…” He sighs shakily. “Can I come by or something?”

“Yeah.” Now she sounds wary. “Is everything okay?”

“No.” He feels like he’s going to cry. It’s not a feeling he’s very familiar with.

“Okay. Come on over. Do you remember where I live?”

“Yeah,” he murmurs. It’s an embarrassing question to have his own sister ask. He hasn’t been to her house in at least a year. He showers but doesn’t bother shaving before he goes. He knows he looks awful. He feels awful. Joan’s eyes go a little wide when she sees him.

“Eric, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t play hockey anymore,” he says. His chin is shaking dangerously. “I’m…hurt.”

“I saw that on TV,” she says. “I called you.”

He never called her back. He’d been too mad about everything, and then he’d been wrapped up in Sam and forgotten. He swipes the back of his hand across his nose. “I haven’t really been talking to anyone.” Except Sam. But now he hasn’t talked to Sam in a week. Now Sam hates him.

“Okay, come in,” Joan says, ushering him to the living room. Her kid’s on the floor, laying on his stomach playing with cars. “Hank, can you say hi to your uncle Eric?”

The kid looks at him curiously. “Hi.”

Eric nods at him uncomfortably. “Hey.”

Joan sits on the couch and tugs at his arm to make him follow suit. He sniffs. This is embarrassing. He doesn’t cry. But, he decides, if he’s going to cry in front of anyone, his big sister’s probably an okay choice.

“That hit was so bad you can’t play anymore?” She asks, concerned. “Ever?”

“I’m retired,” he says. He starts crying, actually crying the way he hasn’t since he was probably five years old. “I can’t play hockey anymore.”

“Eric,” she sighs. She pulls him over to lean against her. She runs her fingers through his hair and it makes him think of Sam. “Dad always made you think hockey was all you were good for.”

“It is,” Eric says. “I’m not good at anything else.”

“You never tried anything else,” she points out. “He never let you. Remember that year you wanted to go as Sonny for Halloween? Dad had a heart attack.”

“He said Sonny wasn’t manly enough for a hockey player.”

“Dad really didn’t know anything,” Joan says frankly. “He didn’t know how to handle you. He was a better dad for me than for you.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Eric says. He pulls away from her and swipes at his eyes. He’s done crying and now he’s embarrassed.

Joan doesn’t say anything for a minute. “Have you tried making a list of things you’re good at it?”

“Fighting,” Eric says. “Skating. Being selfish.”

Joan raises her eyebrows a little, but she shakes her head. “You could go back to school.”

Eric scoffs. “You and Sam—” He clamps his mouth shut.

“Sam?” Joan repeats, confused. “Who’s Sam?”

“No one,” Eric mutters, voice breaking. Sam is no one to him anymore.

“Eric?” Joan puts her hand on his arm. “Oh, my God. Who’s Sam?”

Eric glances over at the kid playing with cars. He’s probably too young to understand any of this, right? It’s not like he’s going to go around telling people. But don’t kids repeat everything they hear? Eric takes a deep breath. “Hey, Joan?”

“Yeah.”

He hesitates and changes tack. “I dated Sam for seven months.”

“What’s she do?” Joan asks. “A trainer for the team or something?”

Eric’s going to throw up. “He was my lawyer.”

Joan freezes, jaw dropped. Eric springs off the couch and starts heading for the door. “Eric!” Joan yells. “Get back here.”

He comes back meekly, because they may have gone months without talking and they’re both adults, but she’s still his big sister. He wouldn’t put a wedgie past her. He sits down on the couch without looking at her.

“Eric,” she says quietly. “Tell me.”

“I…” He shudders. “I’m gay,” he whispers. “I have been since—well, always, I guess, but I didn’t know until…I mean, I thought. I noticed guys. All through juniors. But I knew I couldn’t—you know. I couldn’t do anything like that if I wanted to get to the league. So I just didn’t. And then I made it and I definitely couldn’t be—I’d never—so sometimes I’d sleep with…” He blows out a breath. “Sam was there after I got hurt. And I…” He shakes his head. “I can’t play hockey anymore,” he says again.

“So you can be gay now,” Joan summarizes.

“No, I’m not.” Eric laughs nervously. “I’m not gay gay. I don’t wear makeup or anything.”

Joan makes a face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know, like the guys on TV who go around—with the dresses and everything.” He shrugs, embarrassed.

“Does Sam wear makeup and dresses?” Joan asks.

“No.”

“But Sam’s gay?” She checks.

“Well, yeah.” Eric huffs. He can tell Joan. For one thing, Joan doesn’t know Sam, and for another, Sam’s never denied it if anyone asked.

“So you don’t have to wear makeup to be gay,” she says pointedly. “What happened? Why aren’t you still dating Sam?”

Eric gulps. “Because I’m an asshole.”

“What’d you do?” Joan asks, believing him immediately. Great. Even his own sister won’t defend him. Not that he deserves it.

“Well, I…” He doesn’t really know how to explain it.

“You freaked out about being gay,” Joan guesses. “And probably said something stupid.”

“A lot of things,” Eric admits softly.

Joan sighs. “I wish you would’ve gone to college,” she says out of nowhere.

“What?”

“Well, you went from Dad and all his…” She gestures vaguely, but Eric gets what she means. “Right to all hockey, all the time, and hockey’s bad at gay.”

Eric snorts. “Yeah.” Hockey is definitely bad at gay.

“But if you’d been able to get away for a little bit, especially at college where everything’s so much more open and accepting, I think it would’ve been good for you.” She sighs again. “Okay. So. Here we are. You’re gay, and I’m guessing right now this heartbreak isn’t only about hockey.”

Eric shakes his head mutely. He can’t say the words out loud, but he misses Sam. It throbs the way his shoulder does—he can’t think about anything else, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

“So.” Joan shrugs. “Fix it.”

“I don’t think I can.” Eric thinks about the look on Sam’s face as he left. Yeah, definitely not.

“Eric.” Joan rubs his shoulder. “You’ve always been a little dramatic, you know that? You freak out and blow things up in your mind to be a bigger deal than they are.”

“Not this,” he says quietly. “This is really bad. I…Joan, I hurt him. So bad.”

“Oh.” She laughs a little, surprised. “Oh, Eric. You love him.”

“I don’t,” he starts. But he stops. Joan puts her hands on her face.

“Eric,” she breathes. “Oh, my God.”

He shrugs, feeling shaky again. “I blew it. Just like I blew hockey. I…” He exhales loudly. “I ruin everything.”

“Remember what I said about you being dramatic?” She teases gently. “Hockey’s not your fault. You got hurt. It happens in a sport where you’re sliding around on ice and slamming into each other. And Jesus, Eric, it’s not like you barely played a season. You got fifteen years of the NHL. That’s not exactly nothing.”

That’s…true. He hasn’t really thought of it that way. He was one of the oldest guys on the team, and he’d been there the longest. Not many guys can say they went that long on the same team.

“Now it’s over,” Joan says. “That’s a big deal. You didn’t get to go out on your terms, and that sucks. But Eric.” Joan shakes her head. “This is an opportunity. Do something with it.”

He drops his head to rest against the couch. “I don’t know if I can.”

“Excuse me?” She asks. “Are you trying to say you’re a chicken?”

Honestly? Yes, he is. He always has been. He just hid it by fighting people. Joan makes a little shooing motion.

“Go,” she says. “Come on, right now. Go.”

“Joan.”

“Eric.” She looks him in the eyes. “You can do this. You deserve it. You deserve to be happy, okay?” She’s a little teary-eyed.

“What if I ruined it and he doesn’t want to see me?”

“Well, then you’re sad. And it hurts. But you have to try. Isn’t he worth trying for?”

“Yeah,” Eric admits. He doesn’t have to think it over.

Joan smiles triumphantly. “Okay.”

“Okay,” he echoes. He takes a deep breath. “Alright. I’m going.”

She gives him a little kiss on the cheek. “Good luck. Don’t be such a stranger, alright? I want to meet Sam.”

“Hopefully,” he says, because he has no idea if he’ll ever get to talk to Sam again. She leads him to the door and practically shoves him out.

His hands are shaking as he drives to Sam’s apartment. He can’t believe he’s doing this. This is crazy. It’s safer to just go home and lick his wounds. He still has time to turn around, to make sure no one ever finds out.

Isn’t he worth trying for?

Eric straightens his shoulders and keeps driving. Sam’s worth it. And Eric’s miserable without him. That’s worth something.

He’s frozen outside Sam’s door. He still has his key, but he’s not going to use it. He doesn’t get to just barge in. He gnaws at his lip. This is a bad idea. He can’t do this. But he thinks of going home to his sad apartment without Sam, and he knocks. He’s not going to just submit to a life with no Sam without even trying.

Sam takes a long time to answer. Eric imagines him looking out the peephole and glaring at him. But then he does answer. He’s in the doorway wearing sweats. Sweats. It’s three in the afternoon. Eric’s seen Sam in sweats, obviously, but never this late in the day. Sam’s a get-up-and-go kind of guy.

“Eric.”

“Hi,” Eric says. He waves nervously. That was dumb. “Can I…can we talk?”

Sam just stares at him for a minute. Eric gulps. Sam’s going to say no. Eric starts to feel desperate. How could he have thought it’d be easier to just never see Sam again? His fingers are twitching with the urge to touch Sam. Finally, Sam steps back and opens the door wider. It’s a wordless invitation, and Eric jumps at it. Sam doesn’t even look at him as he crosses the room to sit on the couch. Eric sits down next to him and Sam shifts farther away. Okay, that stings, but Eric deserves it.

“I’m gay,” Eric starts.

“We already went through this,” Sam says flatly.

“Please,” Eric begs. “I…I need to tell you this.” Sam shrugs and Eric figures that’s all the go-ahead he’s going to get. “I’m gay,” he starts over. “And that’s something I’ve known for a long time and avoided because of hockey. Well, I said it was because of hockey, and that’s partially true, but it was mostly…it was me. I was scared. And I—well, I’m still scared. Because I’m still, you know. I’m still me and being me means that I’m…” He licks his lips. “Okay, this isn’t how I meant to say any of this. I’m.” He breathes for a second and curses his awkward rambling. “You didn’t make me gay. You made me…want to be. Well, not want, because I’m still—I’m not good at—you made me not hate it. Because if it means I get you.” Eric pauses again. Maybe he should’ve gone home after all, at least to plan his little speech out. This is a disaster. “I fell apart. Without hockey, I’ve been…drowning. That’s always going to be hard for me. But you—when I had you—I didn’t.” Eric groans, laughing a little but choked up. “Sam, you’ve been the best thing in my life for seven months.”

Sam waits a second. He raises his eyebrows. “Okay. Except you’ve said more than once your life has been awful without hockey. So that’s not exactly a huge compliment.”

Eric scratches at his ear. There’s no way he’s going to come out on top of a verbal exchange with Sam. That’s just never going to happen. He wishes he could show Sam how he feels by shooting for it. That would be a life saver.

“Uh. Yeah. I mean, yeah, I guess that’s how you could see it, except. Well, I…” Eric swallows hard. “I’m in love with you? That’s why I.” He sighs. “That’s why I freaked out. Because loving you means I’m gay. For sure. No way around it. And I panicked, because I’m scared, because—this is everything I’ve avoided my whole life. And if I’m in love with you, and we keep this up, and we keep going, um, well, I feel like it’s going to be impossible to hide. And that’s really…I don’t know how to do that. Because I’ve been not doing that for so long. So I thought it would be easier not to. Not to love you. And not to do this anymore. But it turns out it’s really, really hard to be without you. And I don’t like it at all.”

Sam’s biting his lip. He’s not as closed off, but he looks wary now. “I want to believe you,” he says softly. “But I can’t do this every time we take a step forward. If you’re going to run away every time we hit a new stage in our relationship…” He shakes his head. “No.”

“No, I know,” Eric scrambles to say. “You’re right. And I can’t promise that I won’t be…bad at it. But I can promise I’ll try.”

Sam doesn’t say anything. Eric clears his throat and nods. He has to admit he’s disappointed. He doesn’t watch a lot of romance movies, but he knows the basic concept of a big declaration and being forgiven. Maybe it doesn’t work that way with guys. He stands up to leave. He’s almost to the door when Sam speaks.

“Eric.”

Hope starts to flutter in his stomach. He turns around. “Yeah?”

“You’re in love with me?” Sam’s voice is full of wonder. Eric huffs, smiling, a little embarrassed.

“Uh. Yeah. I didn’t even have to say it and Joan realized.”

“Wait, what?” Sam asks. “You—you told Joan?”

“Oh, yeah.” Eric rubs the back of his neck. “I was…not doing great. And I sort of—uhh…have you ever had a nervous breakdown? Because I might’ve. Done that. On Joan’s couch.”

Sam’s staring at him disbelievingly. “You told Joan about me?”

“Yeah.” Eric hunches his shoulders. “She was pretty surprised.”

Sam shakes his head. “Wow. You really…you told her.”

Eric takes a cautious step back toward Sam. “That matters to you?”

“Eric, that means so much. You came out to your sister.”

“Well, I…” Eric shakes his head. “I wouldn’t say I—just because I told Joan doesn’t mean I’m going to put an ad in the paper or anything, okay, I mean…”

Sam rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to broadcast it to the world. But you told someone. I didn’t have to force it out of you or make an ultimatum or anything. You did that on your own.”

Eric shrugs. “I’m kinda hoping you’ll be around for a while,” he says quietly. “So I figured my sister needs to know.”

Sam stands up and Eric’s heart jumps a bit. “Eric,” Sam murmurs. He puts his hands on Eric’s shoulders and Eric closes his eyes. A week without Sam’s hands touching him felt like a lifetime. “I’m in love with you, too.”

Eric had no idea how incredible it would feel to hear Sam say that. But he’s suddenly giddy. His blood is fizzing, high off the idea of Sam loving him. Sam loves him.

“You are?” Eric checks. Sam’s smiling now, and it’s taking Eric’s breath away. How could he have ever thought he could just walk away from this? Sam nods and Eric surges forward to kiss him. Sam kisses him back enthusiastically, and Eric thinks, this is all I need.

 

“Hey,” Sam says, loosening his tie. “I have a surprise for you.”

“For me?” Eric says. “What did I do to earn a surprise?” He hasn’t gotten a job, that’s for sure. Sam’s finally mostly-convinced him to just take some time off, let the dust settle and not make any hasty decisions. He and Joan are joining forces and have almost convinced Eric to audit a class at the college. He’s starting to seriously consider Sam’s hockey analyst idea, and a class on broadcasting probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. Eric was never exactly known around the league for his media presence or eloquence. But the thought of sitting in a classroom makes him antsy. When he was in school, he spent every minute in the classroom wishing he was outside.

“Who says you have to earn it?” Sam says. “Come on. I’m going to change really quick and then we’ll go. And don’t try to say no. I’m in a bad mood because Billy the asshole broke up with that girl and left the country without her after all.”

Eric’s pretty nervous. He’s still self-conscious about going out in public, especially with Sam. He’s getting recognized less often now that’s almost been a year since he’s played, now that almost an entire season has passed without him and new heroes and villains have emerged on the ice. But people still know who he is, and he still doesn’t know how to navigate that and Sam at the same time. Luckily for him, Sam is patient and understanding and way better than Eric deserves.

Sam parks in a little neighborhood. The houses are nice but not ostentatious and there’s a middle-aged couple gardening in the front lawn of one. The house across from the couple has a for sale sign in front of it. Eric’s stomach climbs up to his throat.

“Sam…”

“Hm?” Sam asks. “Come on, this way.” He grabs a bag from the trunk and leads Eric out of the neighborhood. Eric calms down. Sam was just parking here. No reason to freak out. They walk a few blocks, and Eric’s curiosity picks up with every step.

“Are you going tell me where we’re going?”

“Would that be a surprise?” Sam counters.

“What if I promise to act really surprised?” Eric asks. Sam snorts.

“You are not a good actor. I saw that commercial you did for Nike.”

Eric presses a hand to his heart, mock-offended. “Betrayal.”

Sam snorts and gives Eric a little punch on the shoulder. They’re slowly working out what kind of touches are acceptable in public. It’s trial and error, with the error being Eric having a slight panic attack and Sam getting a little hurt, but they’re working on it.

“Sam.” Eric stops when he realizes what he’s looking at, where they’re heading. It’s an outdoor rink, some little neighborhood thing someone probably made for their kid that ended up turning into a community rink. It’s early evening on a weeknight, so it’s mostly full of little kids playing shinny while dodging toddlers taking their first wobbly strides.

“Come on, Eric,” Sam says softly. “It’s been a year.”

“I don’t know if I can do this.” Eric’s voice is shaking. He wishes Sam hadn’t sprung this on him. Sam sighs a little, pursing his lips.

“Eric, you love hockey,” he says simply. “There’s more hockey in this world than the NHL, you know.”

“It’s not the same,” Eric protests. “To have all that, and now all I can do is skate at a public rink? It’s…”

“It’s different,” Sam agrees. “But you can still play. Just for fun. Just for yourself.”

Eric bites his lip. He has to admit, just the sight of the ice is a little intoxicating. The shouts of the kids, the sound of skates digging in, the smell of the ice—it’s all engrained in him.

“Okay,” he finally says. “I’m guessing you brought my skates?”

“I brought both our skates,” Sam declares.

Eric blinks. “You have skates?”

Sam makes a face. “I am Canadian, you know. I never joined the NHL, but I know how to skate.”

Eric laughs. Nerves are bubbling up in his stomach, but he’s also getting excited. It’s a natural reaction when he’s near ice, adrenaline getting him amped up to play. “Alright then, let’s see what you got.”

He sighs softly when Sam hands him his skates. They feel like old friends he hasn’t seen in a long time, and it’s possible he takes a second to sniff them. He knows that’s probably extremely weird, because they smell awful, but the smell is so familiar, comforting even, that his stomach starts to ache. He laces up on autopilot. He could do this in his sleep. He has, practically, when late nights bled into morning practice.

“Oh,” he breathes when he first steps onto the ice. Sam’s smiling at him, and Eric can’t even feel self-conscious about it right now. He doesn’t care who’s watching or analyzing all this, because Eric’s back on the ice. He takes a stride, and another, and he feels his whole body settle in a way it hasn’t for a year. He takes a few laps, not even trying to rein in the grin on his face. How could he have waited this long to get back on the ice? This is the most natural he’s felt all year.

“Hey,” Sam calls. He’s not the best skater Eric’s ever seen, but he can hold his own alright. He’s holding a stick. Eric’s breath catches. For one thing, seeing Sam on ice with a hockey stick in his hands is, apparently, something of a turn-on for Eric. That’s interesting, though it probably shouldn’t be surprising. But more than that, it’s the fact that Sam’s holding the stick out to Eric. Handing it over. This is hockey. This is the first time Eric’s touched a stick in a year.

He takes it almost reverently. It’s not one of his, since the team supplied those, and the flex isn’t what he’d normally choose and the tape isn’t how he’d tape it. It doesn’t even matter. He feels so much more confident here, in his element, on the ice holding a stick. He dekes with an imaginary puck, heart light.

“Hey, mister!” One of the kids playing pickup calls. “Need a puck?”

The kid sends him a pretty nice stretch pass from all the way down the ice. Eric takes it easily, without even a thought. He skates it back over to the kid, sprinting with it and weaving in and out of kids and parents. The kid’s eyes are wide when Eric reaches him.

“Wow,” he says. “You’re pretty good.”

Eric laughs out loud, feeling like he could take on the world. “I’ve played for a little while,” he says nonchalantly. “Mind if I join you guys?”

The kid looks back at his friends, who all shrug the way kids do when confronted with an adult. He takes it easy on them, obviously, because he’s never been a kid person but that doesn’t mean he’s some kind of monster. They’re good. He figures they’re probably about thirteen, and he sees a few of them with real potential.

“Any of you guys planning to go into juniors?” He asks.

One of the boys he had his eye on shrugs. “I’d rather play in college,” he says, and for some reason that makes Eric incredibly happy. He glances back toward where Sam was, realizing it has to have been at least an hour. Sam’s off the ice now, watching from the boards. He smiles when he sees Eric looking and waves.

“Thanks for letting me play,” Eric tells the kids. He’s almost choked up. He’ll never be able to explain to these kids what a little game of three-on-three meant to him. He’s home. Somewhere along the line, between playoffs and fights and press interviews and looking over his shoulder every minute, Eric forgot about the best part of hockey. It’s just hockey. It’s not the money or the fans or the Cup. It’s splitting the defense when no one thinks you can, nothing between you and unforgiving ice but your skates and your legs, the sound of a puck bouncing on your stick and the feeling of watching it hit the back of the net.

He skates backward toward the entrance to the ice, watching the kids go back to their game without a care in the world. His nose is running and he’s tired. His legs are going to have to get used to skating again. He can’t believe he let them get unused to it. From age five to age thirty-three, skating was almost more natural than walking.

He hears someone skate fast over to the group of kids and hears a hushed, “Do you guys realize you were playing with Eric McNally?” Instead of making him want to hide, he laughs a little.

Sam’s smile is wide but gentle when he walks over to Eric. “So how was it?” He asks, kind of smug.

Eric shakes his head, laughing as he unlaces his skates. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “You’re right. I needed that.”

“I’m glad,” Sam says softly. “You looked so happy.”

“I am,” Eric says back just as soft. “Thank you.”

Sam shrugs. “Well, you would’ve gotten back out there eventually.”

“Maybe,” Eric agrees, because it’s probably true. “But you got me back out there now.”

He even puts his arm around Sam’s shoulder, just for a second, as they head off back toward the car. Tired as his legs and feet are, Eric has a spring in his step.

“Hey, where’d that stick come from?” Eric asks. “I would’ve noticed you bringing a stick.”

Sam laughs. “They have a few communal sticks out there. I just grabbed one that looked like it’d be long enough.”

“You did a good job,” Eric praises. “Watching the playoffs did you a lot of good.”

Sam snorts and shoves him. “God forbid I become a hockey fan.”

The middle-aged couple is still in their lawn when Eric and Sam get back to the car. The woman waves at them. “Hello there!” She calls. “You boys looking at the house?”

“Oh,” Sam says. He opens his mouth, about to tell her no, but Eric speaks first.

“Yeah,” he calls back. He feels Sam jump a little, startled. “Do you know when the next open house is?”

“Well, that realtor Jessica just went inside,” the woman says. “Let me introduce you.”

“Mildred,” her husband says good-naturedly, rolling his eyes. He looks over at them and cautions, “Don’t let her meddle too much with you.”

Sam laughs a little, awkwardly. He’s looking at Eric like he’s suddenly sprouted a second head. “Thanks.”

“Hi,” she says when she’s close enough not to shout. She wipes her hand on her pants and offers it for a shake. “I’m Mildred. That’s George over there.”

“I’m Sam, and this is Eric,” Sam says, shaking her hand. She takes them up the steps and knocks, then introduces them to Jessica, and before Eric really knows what’s happening, they’re touring the house. He’s watching Sam’s face as they go through every room. He can see the calculations running through Sam’s brain—what he’d do here, what art would go there. His eyes are lighting up more and more with every room they see.

“It’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” Jessica admits, and Eric has to hold back a snort because that’s an understatement. Half the doorways are missing doors and the kitchen countertops look like someone took a hammer to them.

“It’s solid, though,” Sam says, because he’s the kind of guy who knows what kinds of things make a house good even when it looks like Eric’s team threw a kegger in it. “Definitely has great potential with some work and a good contractor.”

“Yes,” Jessica agrees excitedly. “And a real steal at this price.”

“Close to your office,” Eric remarks quietly, looking out the front window with his hands in his pockets. He’s just realized that everyone, from Mildred and her husband to bubbly Jessica the realtor, probably knows what he and Sam are to each other. They have to suspect, at least. Eric doesn’t think it’s very typical for two guys who are just friends to buy a fixer-upper together. Unless they’re business partners, maybe, but they probably missed their chance to introduce that ruse.

“Uh,” Sam sounds surprised. “Yeah, it is.”

“Why don’t I give you a minute to discuss,” Jessica suggests brightly, and then her heels are click-clacking away. Sam comes to stand beside Eric at the window. He doesn’t say anything for a second, but when Eric doesn’t speak, either, Sam looks over at him.

“Are you actually considering this?” He asks quietly.

Eric shrugs. “You like this house.”

“I didn’t park here as some kind of plan to get you inside,” Sam says. “I didn’t even know this house was for sale.”

“I know,” Eric says, though there had been a small part of him wondering about that.

“You’re the one who said we wanted to look at it,” Sam points out.

“I know,” Eric repeats.

“I haven’t even been hinting or—”

“Sam,” Eric cuts him off. “I know.”

“You’re just…” Sam shrugs. “You’re being very quiet.”

“I’m thinking.”

“Okay.” Sam waits for a second. “About what?”

“About living here. With you.” Eric looks across the street at Mildred and George and their petunias. “About how we’d act with the neighbors.”

Sam tenses beside him. “No, Eric, I’m not doing that,” he says quietly. “If we did this, we would have to do it for real. I’m not doing this is my friend, Eric or we’re cousins or any of that. I don’t expect you to be out to everyone, especially not hockey people, but I’m not hiding in my own house.”

Eric nods. “Yeah. I know.”

Sam stares at him. “Okay?” He says helplessly. “So? What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking…” Eric sighs. “I’m thinking it would be really nice to not have my place and your place. And I’m thinking about how happy you were when you were planning out all the ways you’d fix this place up. And I’m thinking about that little rink out there. And I’m thinking about having neighbors who come over and say hi.”

Sam seems to be holding his breath. “Yeah?”

“Uh huh. And I’m thinking about having a normal life with you. In this house.”

Sam starts to reach for Eric and stops himself. “Are you really serious?”

Eric glances over his shoulder, but Jessica’s nowhere to be seen. He puts his hands on Sam’s hips and gives him a little squeeze. “I think we’d be really happy here.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, nodding furiously. “Yes, yeah, we would.”

“Okay then.” Eric smiles at him and takes a step back. “Hey, Jessica?” He calls out. “I think we’re ready to make an offer.”

 

“I got a call from the team lawyer,” Sam says cautiously as they eat dinner two months later. Eric’s stomach drops. “The Leafs’ team lawyer. Since the Canucks didn’t make the playoffs—”

“Big surprise,” Eric mutters.

“Your contract is technically up. And they’re wondering if you’d be open to them giving you a sort of honorary contract for playoffs. So whenever the Leafs are out of the playoffs and you officially retire, you’ll do it as a Leaf.”

Eric rests his chin on his fist. “Why?”

Sam taps his fork against his plate for a second while he thinks of how to phrase his response. Sometimes, when he first gets home from work, he’s still all uptight and lawyerly before he can loosen up. It happens faster now that he’s got remodels to consider and work to do on the house. “I think they feel guilty for what they did.”

“Good.”

Sam nods. “Yeah. I might’ve…” He huffs and runs a hand through his hair, looking embarrassed. “I wasn’t very professional on the phone.”

Eric laughs a little. “What did you do?”

“I called him a horse’s ass.”

That startles a full laugh out of Eric. “You what?”

“He is a horse’s ass. I know you’re still kind of avoiding the news and everything, but Eric, you do have fans. People don’t know details, but some of the more gossip-type sports pages have talked about how it seems like something happened, and even without anything bad happening, people aren’t happy they traded you to ride out your contract. They want you to retire a Leaf.”

Eric clears his throat, feeling choked. “Really?”

“They’ve been bringing signs to home games,” Sam tells him with a little smile.

“They have?” Eric almost doesn’t believe that. He was never one of the most popular players; his jersey never sold as much as the other guys. The most popular he ever got was after that playoff game when he tipped in the game winning goal, and even then, it was short-lived because they only made it to the next round before they lost to the Devils.

Sam taps Eric’s hand. “They want you back.”

“Not to play,” Eric mutters.

“You can’t,” Sam reminds him, voice full of warning. He seems to think Eric’s somehow going to trick a doctor into clearing him for play and get back on the ice. Not that Eric wouldn’t love to do that, but it’s not happening. He’s seen his X-rays. No doctor with a valid medical license is letting him back into the NHL.

“Yeah,” Eric says. “I know.”

“What do you want me to tell them?” Sam asks.

“I thought you couldn’t be my lawyer anymore,” Eric says. “We can’t exactly end things for you to be my lawyer again.” He waves a hand around at the ripped-up kitchen countertops and the new appliances. “This isn’t a take-backs kind of thing.”

“Yeah, sorry, I’m not really looking to break up just for the honor of fixing your symbolic contract,” Sam says dryly. “I can be your lawyer. I couldn’t sleep with you while I was your lawyer, but I can be your lawyer when I’m already sleeping with you.”

“But you don’t have—” Eric starts, startled.

“I don’t have to tell anyone,” Sam assures him, voice neutral the way that means he’s kind of disappointed but not mad enough to say anything. “If this were a litigation, sure, but we’re not even negotiating terms. They’re not going to pay you anything. This is strictly sentimental. You don’t even really need a lawyer for this.”

Eric bites his lip. “What do you think I should do? Not as my lawyer. Just as Sam.”

Sam examines his face. “Well…I think it means more to you than you really let yourself feel to retire a Leaf. You may have blocked it from memory, but you were pretty torn up about it when it all happened and you realized you wouldn’t.”

“I remember.” It still hurts. Not just the part about not getting to be a Leaf, but being called unsportsmanlike really shook him.

“So in that regard, I’d say do it.”

“In that regard,” Eric echoes. “In another regard, you say don’t?”

Sam shrugs. “Those fuckers don’t deserve you after what they pulled.”

Eric laughs, startled. Sam doesn’t swear very often, because somewhere along the line his father convinced him swearing was the sign of a mediocre vocabulary, a point Eric’s probably proven tenfold. Hearing him say fuck is always funny.

“Yeah,” Eric agrees. “But…” But that’s his team, for better or worse. He spent fifteen seasons with them. He’s been a Leafs fan since he was old enough to pick a team.

Sam nods. “Yeah. Thought so. I’ve got the contract in my briefcase. They’ll probably want you to show up for the next home game, wave to the crowd and everything.”

Eric makes a face. “Go to a game and watch from the box? I don’t know if I can do that.”

“You don’t have to. They can’t make you do anything.” Sam says it fiercely, like he’s going to fight anyone who tries, and it makes Eric laugh a little. He’s pretty sure Sam’s never been in a fight in his entire life, except maybe with Billy. But he’s also pretty sure Sam would do it. For him. It’s a wild feeling.

Eric wants to do it, he realizes. It doesn’t mean anything, not really, but it’s still nice. And if he really does have fans, maybe he should do something right by them for once. He sighs. “Yeah. I guess I’ll do it.”

Sam looks at him carefully. He frowns a little. “I thought this would mean more to you.”

“Me too,” Eric admits. “But, uh…” He shrugs. He looks around the kitchen, to the boxes they’re still moving in, the paint samples hanging on different parts of the wall as they decide what colors they like, the phone people are going to use to contact either or both of them, the beginnings of mingling all their things together, his and his. He smiles at Sam. “My life’s pretty good,” he says softly. “The NHL’s not the most important thing in the world.”

“Oh, yeah?” Sam asks, smiling and ducking his head almost shyly. Eric hooks his ankle around Sam’s under the table.

It’s a touch-and-go situation, most days. He still has no idea what he’s going to do in this new normal life, and people still recognize him on the street and make him uncomfortable with their reactions to everything that happened. He’s still afraid someone’s going to leak his relationship with Sam to the press and he’s afraid of everything that would bring with it. He still has days where he wakes up and wants to scream because he can’t play anymore and he’s drifting without the league, without a clear purpose and goals and things to do. But right now, with the sun coming through the windows of their new house and Sam across from him in their kitchen, eating together and making decisions and touching casually, Eric cares a whole lot less about the Leafs and about his contract and about the NHL in general.

“Yeah,” Eric says, pulling Sam forward for a kiss, the kind he gets every morning and every night and every time he just feels like sneaking one. “Yeah, I got everything I need right here.”